Katie waited for her brother to come home. Neither the chicken roasting in the oven, the potatoes steaming, nor the vegetables boiling needed her attention until they were done. Her reflection rose up in the darkening window over the kitchen sink; she didn’t like how nervous she looked so she went to sit at the dining table. She flipped through an old magazine, the pages cracking between pictures of sunny resorts and a ten-page spread of a celebrity wedding. The smiling couple shared the task of cutting the cake. She knew their faces but not their names. There was something aggravating in their joy, the pose too clean and easily photographed.
In just a little while Conor would be standing in this kitchen. She’d run to him, hug him without any sense of embarrassment at her emotion. When Conor was here she could not imagine life without him, but when he was gone she hardly thought of him because she missed him too much.
Canned cheers came from the living room where her father was watching the Laois-Tipperary match. ‘How’s the match going?’ she called.
‘Desperate,’ he responded.
‘A big warm welcome, now.’ She tried to keep her voice bright so he would not know that she was anxious.
‘A big warm welcome, I said. For your prodigal son.’
‘A welcome for my what?’
But there came a low rumbling from the front of the house. It cut off abruptly and the metallic clap of car doors opening and closing followed. Katie stood and went to the hob where the colander was emitting puffs of smoky heat. She wanted to be doing something, running a knife through a potato to check it or some other little thing. But she stopped – this was silly of her, as fake as the D-list newlyweds in her magazine.
She stood dumbly by the fridge. She heard the front door open and Pat clear his throat. He said something to Conor that might have been here we are or there we go. Footsteps as someone came down the hall – the moment she had been waiting for. Conor’s homecoming, the weeks of settling in as he re-accustomed himself to home, as he learned not to miss the excitement of travelling the world. Her moment to run to him with a big welcoming smile.
Then Conor, thinner than she remembered, appeared in the door from the hallway, looking unsure as if he couldn’t remember how he got there.
‘Hi,’ said Katie.
‘Hello.’ Conor slipped his backpack off his shoulders and let it drop to the floor. It didn’t look like it had much in it.
All Katie’s anticipation had vanished the moment he appeared. The moment to make a big show passed. ‘How are you feeling?’
He shrugged, tried to smile. ‘Fine. Dad inside?’
‘Yes, he’s watching the match.’
‘Right.’ Conor walked past her and went into the living room.
‘That’s not your only bag, is it?’ He didn’t appear to hear her.
Next, Pat came in and put a dark grey duffel bag down on the floor next to the backpack. ‘Hi love,’ he said. ‘The traveller returns.’
‘You made good time.’
Katie had asked Pat to collect Conor from the airport. She didn’t like driving in the dark or trust her father to make the journey. Pat and Conor probably didn’t have much to talk about but her brother must have slept most of the way. Pat was 33, which made him three years older than Katie and almost ten years older than Conor. But now that Conor was back they would have time to get to know each other properly.
In the living room, Conor and their father greeted each other, first in jubilance then in muttered conversation. Sharing news, describing journeys. Katie felt a little apart from it all and was glad to call them to dinner when the food was ready. They sat at the table and took their usual places as if through ancestral memory. Katie sat at the head of the table where their mother used to sit.
After a few bites, Conor put his fork down.
‘I’m sure you’re used to more exotic things,’ said Katie. ‘In’- she stopped short. She couldn’t remember the name of the country he had been living in.
‘I’m just tired,’ he said. ‘It hit me all of a sudden.’
‘Go on to bed. No need to stand on ceremony here.’
He went upstairs to his old bedroom.
‘Great to have him back,’ said her father. ‘Great to see him.’
Katie hadn’t seen him this happy in a long time.
‘No suitcase,’ said Pat. ‘Just those two bags.’
‘Strange to bring nothing with him at all.’ But her father spoke with a smile, as though he enjoyed having a son he found a little odd.
Conor’s tiredness seemed to cast a pall of sleep over them all. After dinner, the uneaten scraps went into the bin. Katie and Pat cleared the table in wordless tandem and he loaded the dishwasher. Katie thought of Conor’s rootlessness. It must be easier to leave a country if you had nothing tying you down. The idea unsettled her, of belonging nowhere. Now that he was back, he could stop living out of a bag.
Katie surprised Pat by nudging him towards the door.
‘Are you giving me my marching orders?’ he asked.
They didn’t officially live together but Pat often stayed here rather than returning to his lonesome flat in Monasterevin. They were between stages in their relationship, in an unmapped territory where they could not take each other for granted.
‘No,’ she said, hoping she had not upset him. ‘It’s just— The first night—’
‘I get it.’ He smiled. ‘Family.’
A relief that he was so easy about things. ‘Have a nice time at work tomorrow.’
‘Try and stop me.’ A joke – Pat liked what he did. Katie and Pat worked for the same construction company, she in the office and he on the site. It was 2006 and construction was booming all over Ireland. They made good money. They’d met there and got together as if it was the most natural thing in the world. She’d taken the week off for Conor.
They kissed goodnight. After he left, she remembered. She’d meant to ask if Conor could get a job on the site. Something to tide him over while he settled in. Oh well. It could wait.
She and her father rose early. They had coffee and toast in the same room but separately engaged in reading different papers. She had a sense that the day would only begin when Conor came down. Her father got tired of waiting and went out for his walk, one of his hours-long odysseys around the environs of Portlaoise town. Katie would often be going around town doing her errands and run into people she knew who’d say, ‘I saw your Dad the other day, walking down by the square.’ Or the church, the County Council, wherever.
Katie didn’t have anything to do. She sat in front of the television. She didn’t normally watch TV during the day. Onscreen, five women in varying shades of brunette sat around a curved table and talked about the bride whose pictures Katie had been looking at just the day before. She’d walked herself down the aisle. One panellist emphasised the importance of tradition, and another responded that we were living in modern times and people could do what they liked. Katie’s mind wandered, she must have dozed off because suddenly Conor stood over her, his hair messy and eyes red, evidently still pulling himself up from the depths of sleep.
‘Good afternoon,’ she said. ‘It’s nearly one o’clock.’
‘Already? I must have been tired.’ He sat on the other couch, and a new tear opened in his jeans, just over his knee. He put his fingertip to the pale exposed skin. His runners, too, were worn out and full of holes.
Katie said in disapproval, ‘You can’t be wearing that. Go on and change.’
‘This is all I have.’
‘Let’s go into town and get some new things.’
‘Oh, come on. But eat something first.’
‘I don’t like eating right after waking up.’
‘We’ll get something in town then.’
To this he agreed. He took out his phone. ‘Might meet up with Dan and a few of the lads later. If they’re around.’
‘All the more reason to make yourself presentable.’
They drove into town. First they looked in Penneys and then a newly opened store full of racks of crisply folded jeans, a chemical tang in the air.
Conor pulled a grey denim pair from the rack. ‘Right. These are my size.’
‘Try them on.’
‘They’re the same size as the ones I have on me.’
‘And they’re hanging off you. You must have lost weight. Go try them on.’
Katie leafed through racks of checked shirts while Conor went to the changing rooms. Green shirts, blue, yellow, red. She knew she shouldn’t mother him the way she did but that’s what happened when their ages were so different.
He returned. ‘In your infinite wisdom, these ones are too big.’ He found the next size down.
‘Get two. And we need shoes.’
Katie found a pair of white runners with jet-black stripes. ‘These look comfy.’
Conor picked out a heavy pair of brown shoes with thick soles, laces like ropes, a pair made to repair mud and dirt and rain.
‘What do you need big shoes like that for?’
Katie didn’t like the clunky shoes but Conor insisted. She paid and they went to a café, sitting by a huge wall of glass that overlooked a busy road, under a high ceiling of open metal rafters. They got food and coffee.
‘Excited to be back?’ asked Katie.
‘No strong opinions.’
‘I know it’s not as much fun as, as… But there’s no place like home.’
She laughed – her brother and his displays of cynicism, of not caring. She told him things that had happened locally during his absence. One of her friend’s uncles who’d emigrated to America in the 80s had moved back the previous year. ‘It’s not like years ago,’ she said. ‘Back then people had to leave but now people can stay and actually make a life here. I forgot to say – you can probably get a job with us. I meant to talk to Pat but forgot.’
Conor looked up from his food in something like wonderment. ‘Maybe.’
They started the drive home. Katie asked the question she’d been wanting to ask.
‘I thought we could go to Mam’s grave. Bring her some flowers?’
Conor had been leaning his elbow against the groove of the car window, head in hand and eyes closed. Dozing, despite the rocking motion of the vehicle. He roused. ‘Right now?’
‘If you want to.’
She kept her eyes on the road. Wanting to ask why, why he might not want to see their mother. She took her usual right turn before the hospital. A stooped, pallid man walked along the path there, and she wondered if he was a patient, venturing further than he should.
‘There’s Dad,’ said Conor.
With a jolt Katie realised he was right. Their father appeared older in the grey daylight than he did in the warm light of home; it highlighted his thinness and lack of colour. Katie dreaded him aging. He would need someone to take care of him, it would all fall to her.
She slowed the car and rolled the window down. ‘Want a lift?’
‘No, love.’ He smiled, a smile just like Conor’s.
Conor hopped out of the car in a swift movement, saying, ‘I’ll walk with you!’
‘Alright,’ said Katie in pained jest. ‘Leave me on my own then.’
Neither responded. They waved as they walked away.
As Katie continued her drive, she approached the turn that would take her towards the graveyard. Her hand hovered over the indicator for a moment. She continued home instead and brought Conor’s bags inside, then made tea and watched it go cold. She’d somehow imagined that every moment of Conor’s first days back would be spent in her company. The clouds parted to let some light through. The light reached through the endless space to stretch across the kitchen table like a cat. Katie could have put out a hand to feel that distant warmth but did not. Hours of anxious boredom followed. She lay on the couch, watched television and waited for something to happen.
Conor and their father returned eventually, chatting happily as they came in the front door. They’d probably been talking nonstop all the while – about what? Katie didn’t know what her father would find to talk about for so long, he gave her only single sentences at a time like he was counting out change. But Conor had always been the little favourite, hadn’t he?
The favourite came into the living room.
‘Good walk?’ she asked, sitting up.
‘Yeah. It woke me up.’
‘Talk to me.’ She beckoned him over. ‘Let’s have a proper chat.’
‘We were just talking earlier. Anyway, I’m meeting the lads. My stuff upstairs?’
‘No, it’s just inside the kitchen door, there.’
‘Thanks!’ He darted away. The bags crinkled loudly as he grabbed them and he bounded upstairs. After a little while, a red car pulled up outside and honked. Then Conor ran back down, looked in to say a perfunctory goodbye, sticking out his leg to show that he was wearing his new things, and left. ‘Don’t wait up!’
The pattern repeated itself the next day, and the next. Conor stayed out late and woke late. He would give her a list of names every day, the ever-loosening circles of acquaintances he wanted to spend time with more than her. She tried not to be hurt by it, but he did it so casually. She looked forward more and more to going back to work. The girls in the office were probably flat out without her. She’d started out at the construction company as a sort of receptionist but taken on more responsibilities over the five or six years of her tenure – not a high-flying career but the ordinary satisfactions of knowing you do your job well. She even found herself getting impatient with Pat, who came around every evening, usually a couple hours after Conor left.
One of those evenings, Katie’s father had gone to a dinner organised by Active Retirement, so she and Pat concluded that it was a takeaway night. She dispatched Pat to get it. He came back looking pleased with himself, brandishing a bottle of wine.
‘You know I don’t like red wine,’ Katie said.
‘Oh?’ He looked at the label as though he could not clearly see that the wine was red. ‘Sure I’ll run out and get a white one, will I?’
‘No. I don’t want a drink anyway. How would you drive home tonight?’
There’d been a sense that he might stay, as they had hard-to-come-by privacy tonight. But instead Katie found herself alone again without being quite sure how she got there. And she’d forgotten, again, to ask about the job. Katie woke up when she heard a key scratching in the lock, the door creaking open and clicking shut.
Conor’s footsteps hadn’t changed, at least. His first step on the stairs clattered. An answering creak came from the floorboard on the landing, all grating on Katie’s nerves. She got out of bed and went to the landing. Conor seemed to be having a hard time on the stairs, his eyes out of focus. She couldn’t remember what she wanted to say.
‘Did I wake you up?’ He sounded less drunk than he looked.
‘Yes. You could take your shoes off. You’ll wake up the whole house.’
‘Sorry…’ he turned away and carefully sat on the stairs, fumbling with his laces. Katie resisted the impulse to go and take them off herself, just to speed the process along. Watching him struggle to do something so simple, she almost felt like she’d stumbled on a private moment, something not meant for her to see.
‘How’s Dan?’ asked Katie, awkwardly, simply for something to fill the night silence.
‘He couldn’t come. Haven’t seen him yet.’
‘I’m sure you will.’
Conor eventually pulled his shoes off and finished his climb of the stairs. He met her eye. ‘I hate it here,’ he said.
‘Our house?’ He’d startled her.
He nodded. ‘How do you stand it?’
‘It’s not that bad.’
‘The same shit, the same people, the same—’
‘You’re only saying that. You’ll settle in. Go to bed.’
He shuffled off and Katie went back to bed. Soon his snores rang out. She stayed awake a while longer, in confusion.
The next day was her last day off. All she had to do was get through the weekend. Monday seemed like a place of refuge. Katie cleaned the house a little, before Conor came into the living room to say goodbye.
‘Out again? Don’t you have anything else you want to do besides drink?’ She didn’t wait for an answer. ‘If you have time to spare, why don’t we go to Mammy today?’
‘What do you mean go to her? She’s not there.’
‘She is there, it’s her grave.’
‘I know. But she’s not there.’ He went, mumbling about being thirsty.
He left her in a tumult. How could he say things like that? Of course, he had only been a child when she died. Katie had been a teenager. Possibly he did not remember their mother that well, not the way she did. She followed him into the kitchen. He had filled a glass up at the sink and drank while looking out the window.
‘Did you mean what you said last night?’ she asked. ‘About hating it here?’
He turned, confused. ‘Did I say that?’
‘Yes, you said you hated Portlaoise – the same old shit, you said.’
He laughed. ‘Do you have paracetamol?’
‘Yes, in that press there.’ She pointed.
He found the tablets and took two of them. ‘Well, it is the same old shit, isn’t it?’
She sat at the table, pinching the tablecloth between her fingers, for something to do with her hands, feeling its oily texture, tracing the flower pattern. ‘It’s home, though. Nowhere else in the world can be as good as your home.’
‘I guess. But I’m still looking forward to getting away again. Did I tell you? I’m going to Vietnam next. I heard it’s cheap there.’
At first, the meaning of his words did not register. Katie looked outside, through the patio doors, through the clear glass at the white sky. Vietnam?
‘You’re not staying?’
‘Did you think I was?’
Then she understood and saw how foolish she’d been, to have really believed that Conor was moving back for good. Moving back to Ireland had never crossed his mind. On the outside, she was the picture of calm, but on the inside her heart broke a little.
‘Well,’ she said, her voice normal, ‘that’ll be an adventure for you.’
He gulped down the last of the water. ‘Big world out there. Don’t you have anything you want to do, like in your life?’
‘I don’t know.’ His question confronted her. She’d never had any grand ambitions but she liked her job and her life and that seemed like enough. ‘Have a family.’
‘Hm. Pat’s nice. Where’s Dad? Gone walking again, I guess.’
She didn’t, couldn’t, answer. He looked at her. ‘Alright,’ he said, and left the room. He’d always be doing that – leaving her. For the rest of their lives.
The false roses had seen better times. The yellow lettering that detailed her mother’s name, birth and death still leapt from the glassy-black stone as clearly as ever. Katie had been surprised to find the graveyard empty. Unusual for a Sunday morning.
‘Sorry I haven’t come by in such a long time,’ said Katie. She knelt and replaced the faded, worn roses with fresh ones in a new flowerpot. It had been maybe a few weeks since her last visit. She used to come regularly, always alone. Until one day she had arrived at the gate and caught a glimpse of her father making his way through the rows of dead to his wife. Since then she had always announced her intentions to visit as she had this morning. She wouldn’t have wanted to intrude. The grave looked brighter when she finished, a small satisfying thing out of so many dissatisfying days.
‘Conor’s home,’ she said. ‘Just for a visit, though. I thought he was moving back for good but I was wrong. I’m wrong about a lot of things.’
She stifled a yawn. She hadn’t been sleeping well since Conor had come home. Last night had been no different.
‘He’s going to Vietnam next. I don’t think he knows anyone there.’ The hard ground hurt her knees. She shifted position. ‘I wouldn’t want to think he’s lonely,’ she said. ‘Like me.’
This was a painful thought. As a girl she’d loved Conor with an intensity bordering on desperation, clinging to him like she’d drown if she let go. She’d always been a lonesome sort of person, secretly hoping that it made her a nicer person in some ways, kinder. She wouldn’t want to think that Conor shared her loneliness.
‘You know I can’t even remember why I thought he was staying for good. That’s the funny thing. Where’d I get that idea? I didn’t talk about it with Dad, you know how he never wants to talk about anything. I—’
She sensed a presence behind her, stopped abruptly and turned. Yes, her instinct proved correct. A woman stood a few feet away from her. The woman could have been anywhere from thirty to fifty and wore a bright yellow raincoat. Embarrassed at first – how much had the woman overheard? – Katie felt a flash of anger.
‘Sorry for interrupting you,’ said the woman. She had a Scottish accent.
‘Yes, I see I have an audience.’
‘I sincerely apologise, I really do. I’m looking for someone. My great aunt. I don’t know where she’s buried.’
‘I don’t know you and I don’t your great aunt so I can’t help.’
The woman seemed surprised by Katie’s vehemence. She mumbled another apology and scurried away. Katie’s heart thumped and protested. She picked up the old flowers and made her way to her car. How humiliating, to be intruded on, caught in the act of talking to a dead woman like a fool. She looked back to see where the woman had gone too. Her yellow raincoat stood out like a beacon; she was searching erratically, checking each grave in what looked almost like panic. Maybe the woman was upset, Katie had been wrong to get angry like that. She turned and followed that bright beacon to its source.
She found the woman kneeling by an old gravestone, it could have been one of the oldest in the whole graveyard. Time and the weather had faded the lettering, making it unreadable, and it was starting to rain again, streaking the grey stone black. So she’d found her great aunt, but they had surely never met. Katie now felt that she was the intruder on some secret quest, and it was the woman’s turn to look up at her.
‘Coming to finish me off?’
‘Actually,’ said Katie, ‘I wanted to say sorry.’
‘You don’t sound very apologetic.’
Katie had to breathe deep to calm herself. ‘I am sorry. You just surprised me before.’
‘Listen, I have had a very long trip to get here. You’ve already been rude to me once.’
‘You snuck up on me like that, it—’ Katie stopped, she saw that the woman had taken against her. ‘Alright, I’m not going to apologise.’ She started to walk away, then with a cruel thrill turned and pointed to the gravestone and said, ‘She’d be ashamed of you.’
The woman shouted something after her as she hastened away, angry and incoherent words. She got to her car and drove home, relieved to have gotten away and simmering with anger. By the time she was opening her front door she’d thought of all sorts of clever digs, brilliantly sharp phrases that would have cut the other woman deeply, that would let Katie come out on top instead of being mired in this hot guilt, this high flight of energy with nowhere to go.
She found Conor in the kitchen, drinking coffee.
‘You’re up early,’ she said.
‘Are you alright?’
‘Fine. Never better.’
‘Are you doing anything today?’ He smiled, as if building up to something.
‘No, what would I be doing?’
He took a square of card out of his pocket and handed it to her, looking delighted with himself. She read it. Gold lettering invited her to Afternoon Tea at a hotel just outside of town, a nice one she’d never been to as it was too expensive for ordinary occasions.
‘Just us,’ he said.
She didn’t know what to say. Their booking was for a few hours away, and while they waited they had the best conversation they’d had since he arrived. He told her about the funny things that happened to him abroad, cultural misunderstandings, strange people encountered in hostels. She told him whatever work gossip she could remember, but her life seemed less interesting than his. He was out there in the world alone free in a way she was not.
They went to the hotel and a well-dressed waiter greeted them. From their table by the window they could see the river.
‘It’s nice here,’ said Conor.
Katie said that it was.
He hesitated, as if there was something else he wanted to say. ‘Sorry about… about Mam. It’s not that I didn’t want to go see her.’
‘It’s fine, really. I went this morning.’
‘Alone? Now I really feel bad.’
‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘Thanks. Let’s stay in tonight, watch a movie or something.’
‘I’d like that.’
They finished the tea, small cakes and bite-sized sandwiches they’d been provided with, both were still hungry. Katie wondered how she’d ever been mad at him. He really was her best friend. So she didn’t mind when he got a text message from the Dan, the old friend he’d been trying to get hold of. Dan wanted to know if Conor was coming out tonight.
‘I’ll tell him no.’
‘Go, you wanted to see him. I don’t mind.’
When evening came and Conor left to go get drunk with his friends, Katie faced her bereft evening alone. Why didn’t Conor want to stay with her, insist on it? Even Pat had not yet made an appearance. The house rang in silence. She located her phone in the kitchen and asked Pat, all innocence, if he was coming over. He did.
‘I had kind of a funny experience today,’ she told him. They’d had dinner, and Pat had made motions to leave but she stopped him with a puzzled look as if she could not understand why he would think he needed to go. They were lying in bed together in the semi-dark with only one lamp switched on. She wanted to tell him about the rude woman at the graveyard but when she tried to form phrases the story fell apart. It made Katie look bad and she would have to confess to her habit of speaking to her mother’s grave. How childish, how like her. To want to turn back the clock, go back to being a whole family, go back to having a mother above the ground.
Impossible things that would never happen.
She said nothing.
Instead, Pat said, ‘I don’t think I’ve seen your brother for longer than five minutes since I went to get him at the airport.’
‘I thought you’d be able to get to know each other better. But I suppose not.’ She added, ‘You know I actually thought he was moving back for good.’
‘Oh, he’s not?’
‘You thought so too?’ So she hadn’t been the only one who had misunderstood.
‘I wasn’t sure to be honest.’
‘He didn’t really say either way, did he?’
Katie’s feelings never found a resting place. Just earlier she’d been suffused with tenderness for her brother, now she could almost look forward to him being gone. A sequence of cars and planes would bear him away from her and she could go back to her normal life. But she would have to be different. She would have to stop letting other people – Conor, her father, strangers, even Pat – hurt her so much. She would have to be less open. She would have to harden.
She slept until a car pulled up outside. The sound, like a hand on her shoulder, pulled her back into wakefulness. Men’s voices, a distant and drunken babble. Then someone approaching the house, keys in the door and a crack like a bone as Conor closed it behind him. He came to the foot of the stairs, clunking steps in his heavy shoes.
Katie waited for him to come upstairs but got nothing but a long silence. Then she heard the creak of a bed as he climbed into it. Somehow, he’d reached his room in those soundless moments. How had he done it so silently?
Of course. He’d taken off his shoes.
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