It’s the sixth of December and the downstairs bathroom is the only place in the house not already decorated for Christmas. In here, everything is a shade of yellow. Magnolia walls. Lemon soap dispenser. My moon face in the mirror.
I read the letter again. A few phrases are sharper than others on the creased white paper:
You and me have known each other a long time and you’ll know how sorry I am to have to write this note. I’ve been calling but it’s going straight to voicemail, and I can’t get out to your house while the roads are covered in snow. But I am disturbed by Bronwen’s behaviour towards my daughter Jules, and I want the two of us to sit down and decide what intervention is to be taken. The Revd. Crain knows what’s happened, and has agreed to referee, to make sure all’s fair. Jules was extremely upset last weekend when Bronwen—
I tear up the letter and flush it. Some of the pieces won’t go down so I fish them out and poke them to the bottom of the pedal bin. The letter’s gone, but the words are still burned on the insides of my eyelids, stinging tears into my eyes. My insides billow again, and again. Sails full of wind.
‘Get a grip, Bronwen,’ I tell myself in Dad’s voice. I think of slapping myself across the cheek, but that doesn’t seem like something a Sharkey girl should do. Sharkey girls pull on their coats and their wellies and get on with it.
I go to the hallway, where the smell of roast chicken is thick in the air. Our Jack Russell, Billie, has his nose pressed to the gap below the kitchen door, sniffing with more gusto than any chef.
‘Not for you, Billie,’ I say, and he looks down his snout at me. He’s an old boy – fourteen, only two years younger than me. You’d think he’d know better. Our last conversation ended in me sat out in the tractor shed, catching tears in the palm of my hand, Billie licking them off as I whispered to him about Jules McKinley from French, and the look on her face when I tried to kiss her in the toilets at the Future Farmers of Northern Ireland Social. The same look we’d shared across the pews a half dozen Sundays when Reverend Crain preached on sexy stuff. That look of horror, that I mistook for thrill. Later that same night, I slapped her in the carpark, and told her not to look my way again. The palm of my hand burns anytime I think about it.
The noise in the kitchen is building – a medley of voices.
‘Jeekers oh, these plates are hot! Jenny, give us a hand here,’ Dad bellows to Mum. ‘Quick, quick, they’re hot now, get them out!’
‘Wine or Shloer, Imelda? Jack, wine or Shloer?’
‘Jenny! The plates!’
‘They’ll wait thirty seconds! Wine or Shloer, Catherine? Mickey?’
‘Can I’ve some wine, Mum?’ my sister Bella asks.
‘You cannot. Go give your father a hand with the plates before he has a stroke.’
‘You’re not Gordan Ramsay, Dad, stop shouting.’
‘Don’t be giving me a big portion now,’ says Nana Imelda in a voice like boots on a gravel path. ‘And someone cut up Jack’s, he can’t swallow anymore.’
‘Auch, mammy,’ says Uncle Mickey.
‘Sure there’s nothing wrong with his teeth, mammy,’ Auntie Catherine says.
‘It’s his throat, he’s not fit to swallow.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with his swallowing, it’s just his voice.’
‘Just cut his up into pieces, there, would you?’
‘Wine or Shloer?’
‘Them plates are ready, get them on the table. Go, go!’ There’s a loud clatter of plates against countertop.
‘Calm down, Dad! I’m going!
I nudge Billie out of the way and sidle in with a look of apology. ‘I’m here, I’m here.’
‘Where’ve you been hiding?’ Nana Imelda asks, beckoning me to the seat beside her. Seven strawberry-blonde Sharkeys, and one box-dye-brunette Bella, settle around the table to eat.
It is easier to put the letter out of my mind when I have taken my seat. Sunday lunch is well known territory. The windows next to the table command the best view in the house, looking out across the rolling fields to where our Friesian heifers live, milling around in the shadow of a rust-red milking shed. Parked closer to the house is old Johnny Deere, with his snow plough attached at the ready and the mud of his last excursion still packed into the ridges of his wheels. Dad makes a point of driving Bella and I to school in Johnny Deere once a year, even though he knows the other kids will call us culchies, because in this house we take pride in who and what we are.
Before we eat, Dad calls us to prayer. He’s man of the house and head of the family now since Granda’s laryngectomy. No one told Granda that he shouldn’t sit at the top of the table anymore – it just happened. Maybe Dad took the seat out from under him, like in musical chairs. We fold our hands in our laps and close our eyes.
‘Thank you, Father, for the gifts we are about to receive. The gifts of food and of family…’
And thank you, dear God, for letting me find the McKinley’s letter on the doormat first.
I open one of my eyes a slit and see Bella pop a shred of chicken into her mouth. I kick her shin under the table, and she flicks me a quick middle finger before gobbling up a disk of carrot.
‘Amen,’ Dad says.
‘Amen,’ we all repeat.
‘Gravy, da? Made it myself, from the carcass. No Bisto in this house.’ Dad tilts a boat of watery brown stuff towards Granda Jack, who declines and swallows down his dry chicken with a mute wheeze. Dad continues: ‘Dig in, folks. Only had a couple hours to knock this all together. Me and Bronwen were up at five this morning in the sheds. Weren’t we Bronwen? Freezing, wasn’t it?’
‘Aye. We were foundered.’
‘Knuckles split with the cold.’
‘But the cows won’t milk themselves.’
‘You’re right there.’
‘Yous two wouldn’t know what to do without yourselves if they could,’ Mum says. Dad beams at me, and I am filled with warm, crackling light.
‘Here, we Skyping Joey at all?’ Uncle Mickey asks. It is the first time that anyone has mentioned that the older Sharkey sibling set is incomplete. We’ve got Dad, Catherine, and Mickey, but no one’s set out a chair for Baby Joe. Dad cuts his chicken with unnecessary force, and the sound of metal on ceramic sets my back teeth on edge. There is a pause and I pray to God, to the angels, to whoever might be listening, that no one takes Mickey’s bait and continues the conversation.
‘Where is Joey these days?’ Mum asks. I focus on my roast potatoes.
‘Over in Manchester. Got a job in an art gallery,’ Mickey says.
‘Never known a real day’s work in his life,’ Dad says.
‘Living the bachelor lifestyle to the fullest, no doubt. Making plenty of fabulous friends.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ Dad asks, knowing full well what he means.
(‘Oh no,’ I say.)
(‘Here we go,’ says Bella.)
‘I’m just saying.’
‘Nothing, I’m just saying!’
‘Well, what are you saying?’
‘Just, I know what sort of carry on he’s up to over there.’
‘How do you know?’
‘‘Cause I be talking to him. I’ve nothing against him, it’s 2009. Doesn’t bother me in the slightest.’ I feel a tingle of hope at these words and try to imagine the same sentiments coming out of Dad’s mouth, the McKinley’s letter in his hand.
Him saying: doesn’t bother me!
And me saying: nothing to be bothered about, Daddy, I’m not like Joe.
‘What are we talking about?’ Nana Imelda asks, and Dad skewers each of us with a warning glance.
‘Nothing, mammy,’ Dad says.
‘Did he tell you about the new roommate?’ Uncle Mickey asks.
Catherine says, ‘Enough now, Mick,’ but Dad sits up a little straighter.
‘What about a new roommate?’
‘Mick, enough of that.’
‘Wee English fella that he met on M and M.’
‘MSN,’ Bella corrects, low enough that Dad doesn’t hear.
‘Isn’t it mad that you can just meet people on the internet now, and within a matter of weeks—’
‘He’s living with someone he met on the internet? On the internet?’ Dad asks.
‘That’s normal now, Dad,’ Bella says.
‘You can look up cattle prices and all on there as well,’ I say.
‘I hope yous two girls don’t be talking to people on the internet,’ Dad warns.
‘Of course they do, Andy,’ Mum says. ‘Everything’s done on the internet now.’
‘We don’t have the internet in our house,’ Nana Imelda says. ‘And I doubt we ever will. I can’t be dealing with all that carry on at my age.’
‘But, of course, if you’re into all that…’ Mickey waves his hands a little, just shy of mincing, ‘I mean if that’s your thing, you probably need to go on the Internet to find your roommates.’
Dad is a dog caught between two smells, muzzle pulling one way then another. Which is worse: his baby brother on the internet, or his daughters?
‘I’m unplugging the damn thing tomorrow,’ Dad says.
‘Auch, Dad, don’t be stupid,’ says Bella.
‘Daddy, please,’ I say.
‘I mean it!’
‘Oh, Andy, calm down,’ Catherine says in her School Headmistress voice. ‘The kids these days live their lives online.’
‘Cathy’s right,’ Mickey says. ‘You needn’t be worrying yourself about the scams and paedophiles—’
‘Uncle Mickey, no.’
‘—and viruses and the like, because you’ve got two smart wee cuddies here, who know how to handle themselves.’
Mickey raises his wine glass to us and winks.
Dad’s face is white. ‘I’m unplugging it right now.’ He marches out of the room to a chorus of groans. Bella makes to stand but Mum sets a hand on her arm and says, ‘Just leave him, darling. I doubt he knows where the router is.’
‘Yous’ll be meeting your husbands on the internet, I expect,’ says Mickey with another wink. Jules McKinley’s face flashes into my mind. Eyes closed, lips soft around her cigarette. Yes, maybe I will, Mickey. Maybe I will, I think. Please Jesus, there’s hope for me yet.
When dinner is finished, we all cram into the living room to watch Coronation Street. Dad gets the armchair and the TV remote. Bella has disappeared up to her room without drawing a comment – a seamless vanishing act. I have been relegated to a cushion on the floor due to lack of space and sit with my head leaning back against the windowsill. Billie rolls himself into a hairy ball at my knee and lets me stroke one of his silky black ears.
‘I’m sure you can’t see from that angle, Bronwen,’ Nana Imelda says. ‘Come squeeze up here between me and your Granda, there’s plenty of room.’
‘Naw, thank you Nana,’ I say, and Dad shushes me as Gail Platt comes on screen. Then the sound of the doorbell goes rattling through the house like a box of loose screws.
‘For goodness— Who’s that?’ Dad snaps. I twist around to look out the window and a cannonball of dread sinks into my stomach. The Reverend Crain is standing on our doorstep, his dog collar poking up above a stripey orange jumper.
‘It’s for me! I’ll get it!’ I shout. I clamber to my feet and Billie leaps up with me, yapping and barking louder than the doorbell.
‘Shut that rat-dog up!’ Dad yells as I nudge Billie back into the living room and close the door.
My guts are in knots. I unlock the front door and greet the Reverend with my best Sunday smile. I like Reverend Crain. He’s youngish – maybe in his thirties, with thick black curls and neat, round-tipped nails that never had any dirt under them. Obviously never spent a day in the cow sheds, Dad would say, but I like how clean and crisp he looks in his robes at the pulpit. He’s standing a little back from our front door with a devastating smile on his face, like he’s got good news but, oh boy, he’s got bad news.
I already know that Harry McKinley has told the Reverend everything, but I haven’t yet considered what it actually means for him to know. I skim back through a hundred Sunday sermons, and a common refrain comes to mind. What state will your soul be in when it reaches the gates of Heaven? I always picture mine with mud on her boots, smelling of hawthorn and warm milk. Now I have a trace of cigarette smoke and cherry cola lip gloss.
I’ve read my Bible. I’ve written essays in Religious Studies about what God thinks of girls kissing girls. I brace myself for a biblical scolding.
‘Good afternoon, Bronwen,’ he says.
‘Good afternoon, Reverend Crain.’ I step out and close over the door behind me. Please God, make Coronation Street good enough to keep them quiet in there.
‘I’m sorry to disturb you on a Sunday.’
‘That’s no bother.’
‘Are your parents in?’
There is a pause. The Reverend’s eyes slip sideways to the small fleet of Sharkey motors parked in the driveway.
‘Is that not your father’s Jeep?’
‘Aye, it is, but he’s out seeing to the cows right now.’
‘What about your mother?’
‘It looks like you have company.’
‘Just some family, you know. All hands on deck when it comes to cows, Reverend. You wanna see how they get when you don’t milk them. Quare restless, stamping their feet and all—’
‘Did your parents receive the letter about you and Jules McKinley? The kiss and all that?’
The kiss and all that. I’ve never felt words with such sharp burrs. I want to pick them off my skin and crush them underfoot. I have a split second to decide if I can lie to a man of God in a knitted jumper.
‘Yes, sir, they did.’
‘They discussed it with you?’
‘Aye, we had a good oul chat about it.’
He fixes me with the withering look he gives at the end of his sermons. His hands fold over a ghost Bible.
‘Then you’ll understand why I need to speak to your parents directly.’
‘Well you see, Reverend, the thing is, they don’t really mind about all that… stuff.’
‘They don’t mind?’
‘I’m not… that way. But if I was, they’d think nothing of it.’
‘Is that so?’
‘We’ve got an uncle that way. He meets his friends on the Internet.’
‘Very modern, right enough. So, you see, there’s no reason to be interrupting them now. Dad doesn’t like to leave a job half done.’
‘Perhaps I could wait for them to finish?’
‘Oh, they’ll not be done for hours yet.’
The Reverend sighs and looks up to the sky a moment, like someone’s going to leap down and help him. When he speaks again, his voice is low. ‘I’m not here to chastise you, Bronwen. You’re young. Young people experiment. And the times, they are a-changing, to quote the man himself. I told Harry McKinley that letter was unnecessary – that’s why I’m here on my own. We can sit down together and figure this out.’
I don’t know what to say to that. It’s like he’s holding open a door, saying come inside, little soul, it’s safe in here. But going through the door is as good as admitting: yes, I did kiss Jules McKinley, and yes, I meant to do it, and yes, I enjoyed the four seconds before she pushed me away. And if I’m admitting all that, do I need to tell him about the times I’ve looked at Gillian Donaghue’s lacy bra in the changing room after hockey practice? All the things I made Bella’s Barbie dolls do? That I sneak online at night to watch Willow and Tara hold hands in old episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
The door opens behind me. ‘Bronwen?’ I swivel to see Bella lurking with a tumbler full of red wine. ‘All okay?’
‘Fine, thanks. Go back inside!’
‘Is that Isabel I hear?’ Reverend Crain says. ‘Sorry to disturb you all on a Sunday.’
‘Is this because we weren’t at Church this morning, Reverend?’ Bella asks, pushing past me. ‘Because I really wanted to, but Mum—’
‘Nothing like that, no. Is your Mum or Dad in?’
‘Out with the cows!’ I cry.
Bella looks at me sideways, but she’s not one to turn down a ruse. She crosses her arms and says: ‘Aye, sorry Reverend but they’re out with the cows and not to be disturbed.’
Then there is a swell of opera music as Mum comes out of the living room to the sound of the Go Compare ad. ‘You’re missing Corrie, girls.’ She spots the Reverend, and her face goes pale. ‘Oh, hello there Reverend. This is a nice surprise. We wanted to get to your service this morning, but Bella here—’
‘That’s not why I’m here Jenny,’ the Reverend says, raising a hand to stop her. ‘I just wanted a wee chat with you and Andrew.’
‘Well, I wish you’d rung ahead. We’ve Andy’s side of the family over today.’
‘It’s quite important, I’m afraid.’
Dad’s voice booms out: ‘Jenny! It’s back on!’
‘What’s this all about?’ Mum asks, looking between Bella and the glass of wine in her hands.
‘It’s about Bronwen,’ Reverend says.
‘Jenny! You’re missing it!’
‘Pause it, Andy!’ Mum yells over her shoulder. She takes the wine out of Bella’s hands. ‘Go show him how to pause it.’
Bella skulks off leaving me, Mum, and the Reverend in the privacy of the front step. My insides are cramping, tight with panic as the Reverend starts: ‘It’s a delicate matter, Jenny.’
Mum listens without speaking. I want to stop time, but it’s like watching the tide come in around a car parked on the beach. There’s nothing can be done. I think about running. I could dodge right past the Reverend and gun it to the cow sheds. I’d freeze my feet off in the snow, but it would be warm in there. I could sleep between two hay bales, get the cows into the milking parlour in the morning. Check them for mastitis, disinfect their udders. Have them nice and ready for Dad to attach the milking cups.
When the Reverend has finished his explanation, Mum turns and looks at me in a way I haven’t seen before. Like I’ve just arrived on her doorstep, shiny,
alien and nameless. ‘Well, I don’t know what to say to that,’ she mumbles with the weight of fifty lectures, a hundred screaming matches. ‘Bronwen, get your father.’
She steps aside so that the Reverend can come through, but they barely make it to the bottom of the staircase before Mum whimpers an apology and rushes to the little bathroom under the stairs. Reverend Crain gives me a soft, patient smile. ‘Maybe you’d better get your father, Bronwen.’
‘Go on now.’
I have no choice but to fetch him. He is annoyed to have to leave his armchair, and greets the Reverend with a stiff, ‘How about ye, John? I know it’s the Lord’s Day and all, but—’
Then he hears the high-pitched crying coming from under the stairs. ‘Is that Isabel?’ he asks.
‘That’s Jenny,’ the Reverend says. ‘Perhaps you’d better check if she’s alright.’
Dad shifts from one foot to the other. ‘Bronwen, go see about your mother.’
I don’t know what to say.
‘Go on, Bronwen,’ Dad repeats.
The Reverend places a hand on my shoulder. ‘Maybe you could get Jenny while Bronwen and I—’
‘Everything alright?’ Auntie Catherine pokes her head around the door, and I want to curl up into myself. ‘Is that Jenny crying?’
‘Everything’s fine, Cathy, go and sit down,’ Dad says.
‘I’ll check in on her.’
‘She’s fine, Cathy, go back inside.’
‘I’m going to check on her.’ Auntie Catherine slips past us and lets herself into the little bathroom with Mum.
‘What’s this all about?’ Dad asks. ‘Is it Isabel? What did she do now? Isabel, get down here!’
Bella’s voice pierces down from the upstairs landing. ‘What? I did nothing! What’s he saying? I did nothing!’
‘It’s not about Isabel,’ the Reverend says. ‘Let’s the three of us go into the kitchen.’
‘Us three?’ Dad looks at me with confused and fearful eyes.
Auntie Catherine leaves the little bathroom. She keeps her head dipped, eyes on the cream carpet. The crying continues at her back.
‘Cathy?’ Dad asks. But Catherine slips into the living room without a word.
‘Come on, now,’ the Reverend says with some firmness in his voice.
‘So sorry, but I think I’m going to be sick,’ I say. Then I bolt up the stairs, two at a time and lock myself in the bathroom.
No one follows me. The minutes pass and I assume that the Reverend is breaking the news to Dad. I close the lid on the toilet and sit down. The bathroom is above the living room, and the muted mumble of conversation presses upwards. I can’t make out the words, but the themes are clear. They’re getting the sanitized who and what of it all.
It all finishes with a single, clear, ‘oh’. I can’t tell who said it. It’s silent a while and then there are the noises of coats and handbags being gathered, empty mugs transported to the side table.
‘But what do you mean?’ Nana Imelda’s voice floats up from the hallway. ‘Like Joey how?’
‘Shush now mammy,’ Auntie Catherine says.
‘Well, I’ve no problem with it, personally,’ Mickey declares. ‘A little… surprised. Aye, a wee bit surprised, I must say.’
‘Is Bronwen moving to Manchester as well?’ Nana asks.
‘Never mind, mammy, we’re going.’
The front door closes behind them for another week. There is a soft knock on the door. ‘Bronwen?’ Bella says. ‘You okay?’
‘Let me in and we’ll talk.’
‘There’s nothing to talk about.’
‘Okay, but let me in anyway.’
‘Just go away.’
‘It’s okay to be upset. I think that Reverend’s got some cheek coming here and—’
‘Bella, would you just fuck off!’
‘Jesus, I’m just trying to be nice!’ She stomps off down the hall and slams her bedroom door closed.
My phone bleeps to tell me that it’s time to feed the chickens. Tomorrow morning I have to be up at five to help Dad steer the heifers into the shed before I get ready for school. I have double French before lunch. I have hockey practice after school. It’ll all roll on and on – same shapes, new colour. I want to cry, but Sharkey girls don’t cry.
For me, it’s five weeks of soft hands and dry socks.
The first week is the worst. The house is silent. Dad figures out where the router is, and I spend my evenings listening to Bella moan about the data charges on her phone. I throw out all my makeup, and the dress I wore to the Young Farmers’ Social.
Two weeks in, Mum sits on the edge of my bed and strokes her fingers across my forehead without a word. We start talking again the next day, like nothing has happened.
Three weeks in, I dance with Toby Cartwright at the School Christmas Disco. Jules catches me looking at her across the French room the next day, and blocks me on MSN that night. I have not apologised for the slap, but it weighs on my mind.
Week four is Christmas. We have lunch at Nana’s house, where she sits at the head of the table and sets the tone. There is no talk of Uncle Joey. Bella gifts me a Buffy t-shirt that night, when no one is looking, and I collapse into tears the second she leaves the room.
On a Tuesday, five weeks after the McKinley letter, I wake up to a sudden burst of yellow light. ‘I’ve had enough!’ Bella grabs the end of my duvet and whips it onto the floor. ‘Enough! It’s your turn! It’s long past your turn!’
She leaves the lights on and the door wide open.
She has a point. I doubt that, when Bella volunteered to take on my Dad-facing chores, she thought it would go on for this long. ‘The cows were asking after you,’ she says each morning when she comes into the kitchen with fresh mud on her wellies. There’s less humour in her voice each time.
I’m getting tired of sleeping in. It’s twenty to six already. At first, I thought staying out of the sheds for a while would be the right thing to do, but Bella’s a rotten farmer. I can hear the loud drone of the cows in the distance, mourning their routine. I haul myself out of bed for them and pull my waterproofs over my flannel pyjamas. I don’t know what I’ll say to Jules when I see her next, but I know that today I will get my chores done.
I’ve practiced this, turned it over in my mind a hundred times. I will go to the sheds. I’ll say hi Dad, as if nothing’s changed, and he’ll not respond. But that’s alright. I’ll get the trolley and the bag of feed, and work left to right, filling the metal trough. I will do this every day until he sees that I am the same as before. We’ll go to Church. We’ll have Sunday dinners again.
Outside it is pitch black and freezing. Rain is falling in hard, icy darts. I follow the lane that runs from the house to the sheds, finding potholes and stones with a torch. The lights around the sheds are on. Dad must be inside. The call of the cows fights against the hammer of rain on the shed roof. I realise that when I say hello, he might not hear me, but I’ll say it anyway.
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