Monday, 11 July 2016

The Wake | A Short Story

The plot and all characters are completely fictional

The delph clattered harshly in the kitchen as I was making my way through the hall. I spotted the fine China that was “only taken out for the visitors” in the hands of people I knew well and others who were complete strangers. Before I said anything to anyone, I could already feel an exhaustive lull in the house, something that demanded immediate attention. It was hard to know where it was coming from in a situation like this. People had spilled into the corridors as the rooms could not hold everyone. The hedges had managed to be trimmed and the lawn mowed in quick fashion earlier on in the day, I had noticed as I had entered. Sophie tugged at my dress, her eyes widened at the sight of so many people in the house.
“Why is everybody dressed in black, Mammy?” she asked.
I sighed, patted her strawberry locks that she got from me and gave her the excuse I had been handed down with, “You’ll understand when you’re a big girl,” I assured her, “Go and find your cousins and play in one of the bedrooms. Be careful not to make too much noise, I’ll check up on you shortly”. With that, she clutched her teddy and skipped down to the bottom of the hall to find her comrades. Her innocent attitude to death was heart-breaking to see, but when children are oblivious to tragedy, us adults are in a better position to cope ourselves.

I found my mother in the kitchen, fussing and fretting over the guests in her usual style. She attended to everyone in quick fashion. I started to make my way towards her through the commotion to tell her to slow down. New cream, plain wallpaper replaced the brown covering we had for years, a tragic coincidence. Despite her short and sturdy build, I could tell she was beginning to fatigue. For someone that who only after losing a sister, she was not giving herself a chance to get to grips with it all.

Freshly baked bread, scones and sandwiches were laid out with the tea. Sunny-Joe from up the road was nodding by the stove and keeping a sod on the fire. My aunts and uncles from all over had collected in the same room, keeping fierce conversation with people they pretended to like. I felt a bit at odds with this sea of neighbours, I was the “Young Wan that had hiked up to the Big Smoke as soon as she got the chance”. Admittedly, I had not been visiting home in Belmullet as much as I would have liked. When Sophie had come along it became more of a chore. After I got married, I simply set up my life elsewhere.

“You’re working yourself into the ground, Mother, go down and have a rest”.
I thought my mind was playing tricks with me; it looked like she had gained an extra few wrinkles and grey hairs between her bottled-dyed auburn mane since I had seen her the day before. She chewed her lip, looking unconvinced at me, and wavered her hand around the empty air, “I know but sure look, Róisín, it’s only today. Who will look after this gang?”
I took a gentle hold of her arms and tried to calm her down in a way she used to with me, “There are plenty of hands on deck. You need to give yourself a chance, you are still in shock,” I said.
She looked as though she had said too much as soon as she agreed with me, “If only you knew the half of it,” she sighed, “I’ll have forty winks and see how I am”.

I took the nearest tray to my right and juggled it through the hall to bring it into the sitting room. I laid it down and offered everyone something to eat and drink. I was eager to get out as soon as I could but Sissy, Sunny Joe’s wife and her posy had cornered me. After we lamented about how long it was since we had seen each other last, we agreed that Aunt Margaret had “gone awful quick altogether, at the drop of a hat almost”. I soon realised that my small-talking skills had weakened in times gone by. I had become so accustomed to discussions on traffic, mortgage rates at my job in the bank and child-minding costs – it was challenging to readjust to cattle prices, the Hopper turf and death itself.

After I had spoken to a handful of familiar faces, I finally made my way over to her. Margaret looked as though she had simply fallen asleep after an evening reading by the fire, her usual night-time ritual. Her silver hair permed around her heart-shaped face. I had a very similar bone structure to her. It was always commented to me that I was the “fierce cuttin’ imager of her”. She was only sixty-eight, but “a young sixty-eight by all accounts” according to our neighbours who knew her. She held a set of familiar-looking rosary beads in her small hands. I honed my eyes in closer and noticed they were in fact my own set I had used to make my Holy Communion. I usually found wake-houses an incredibly awkward scenario to find myself in, embarrassed almost to be close to the person who had died. Although on this occasion, I felt an instinctive urge to pull a chair closer to Margaret and keep her company. When she would come on her holidays from England, her visits happened to co-inside with the winter flu or whatever cold was going around. Many nights she had spent staying up late with me to cool my forehead or fill up a hot water bottle. Aside from that she was the Fun Aunt by all accounts; I thought it was only right to stay beside her.

I sat back in the armchair beside her and gave myself a moment to have a look around. Through the north-facing window, darkness painted the sky as the clouds bid farewell to another day lived. November’s moon teased its appearance on the left hand side of the shore line and caused a stir of “you’d miss the stretch in the evenings” comments from all corners of the room. Pictures of Margaret had been hung around the cream walls. There were from her infant and teenage years, and more images of her in her mid-twenties and upwards. In each one she was on her own, with friends or her siblings. No husband, no children, no significant events could be picked out. There was a gap, I noticed, between these two phases of her life witnessed by the walls. 

A cluster of relatives collected in the sitting room. My uncle Harry made himself comfortable on the settee beside his brother, John and sister, Bernadette. Harry was becoming more and more American-ised every time I saw him. He was the most animated character and largest of life in more ways than one out of the five of them. He applauded his American regime as much as he could with whoever would listen. Eager for some source of entertainment, I tuned my ears to their conversation to their hushed tones across the room.
Bernadette took in a deep breath and scanned the room, “There’s a good turn-out anyway.”
“Oh Lord God, you couldn’t disagree with that,” Harry agreed with her, “Pity though at the same time for her, she kept a lot to herself for the majority of her life.”
“Aye,” John nodded, “and no children either to recount her nature for the funeral-“
Bernadette hushed her voice, thinking not a soul in the world could hear, “Well, it is that way and it isn’t. That’s not entirely true.”
Harry almost jumped in his seat like a Jack-in-the Box, “Now Bernadette, you know jusht as well as I do, we promised we ruled that kind of talk out altogether when it all happened.”
“You’re right there” she said as she studied her hands, but I knew she was not letting it slide that easily. She continued in a croaked, anxious whisper; “Do you think Róisín will ever know?”
“The girl is getting on grand the way she is,” John cooed to her, “She has a good pay in her back-pocket with the bank, married, and a little girl at her an’ all – the works. What would it be worth to disrupt all of that, ha? Who would we be doing the favour? What about Mary, the woman who reared her? We would be causing more harm than good, no point causing destruction in our wake.”
Bernadette let out a sigh, “Look it, sure I know all that. Can you think of anything more tragic, to be sitting beside a woman overboard, thinking she was an Aunt, when all along she was your mother? I would not be able to rest in my own grave knowing Róisín was in the dark, and I reckon Margaret would be the same.”

Before time had managed to stop, it brought itself to an unbearable drone. Everything I knew, everything I had believed in, everything I heard, everything in my life was presented to me on a plate that was shattered into mere atoms, completely dispersed. The cream walls, photos of my supposed mother felt like they were going to swallow me up into their frames. The lush, brown carpet under my feet had never felt as cold as it did then. Every face I could see wore the label liar, liar, liar. 

Have you ever had to worry about the credibility of your own identity? 

I darted up from my seat. Bernadette caught my eye, and she knew what I knew. We were now both equal with our knowledge on a family’s best-kept secret. Her jaw opened and closed, but no words came out. Harry’s usual flamboyant facade was brought right down to the most subdued nature, whereas John simply buried his head in his hands. Disgusted, I fled the room, not able to look at the people I was supposed to call my flesh and blood. For all I knew, they could be ordinary neighbours to me at this stage. 


Six months later and I was into my usual corporate routine. One particular Friday evening, on my commute home on the DART, I was surrounded by a throng of families. Being part of a unit was something I always thought I had, whereas it was really all make-believe. The rain splintered on the window to my right, piercing through my thoughts, making them unavoidable.

I did not go to the funeral, how could I? Being lied to for the best part of thirty years or more was not something I could willingly accept and move on from in a hurry. I received a letter from Mary the week after I left, but up until that Friday afternoon I did not have the courage to open it. I took it from my red leather hand-bag, flipped open the envelope and began reading. I could tell she was nervous when she wrote it; her handwriting appeared more shaky than usual:

Dearest Róisín,
I knew that there would come a day that this would all happen. I know you are hurting, and that breaks my heart more than you would ever know. I wanted to tell you sooner, years ago even – but you have done so well for yourself and I could not bear to hinder your happiness. Margaret never wanted you to know, that is as true as day. All we did was try to abide by her wishes.

Margaret had you when she was eighteen years of age. Your father was in the army at the time, and sadly I cannot tell you where he is or what happened to him. Your mother had no choice; she was snookered from day one in the situation. Our parents flew her over to England, so she could go through her pregnancy out of the neighbours’ eyes. When you arrived, I went over and brought you home. It almost destroyed her to be apart from you, but she also knew it was the best thing at the time. The only orders she left were to look after you and love you like you were our own, and to name you Róisín, her middle name was Rose.

I will tell you everything you need to know if that is your wish. All that I would ask is that you do not let this drive us away from each other. We both know now how that has already happened with Margaret, we are still family, and you are still my daughter.

You are more than welcome to come home when you feel ready, I’ll understand if you need time.

With love,


A half an hour after reading the letter I am in Heuston Station purchasing a train ticket to bring me to Mayo. I found a quiet seat at the back where I could let the tears flood the letter and smudge the ink to form an outline of two figures holding hands, almost. 

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  1. I really enjoyed reading this! X you are such s talented writer

    Catherine X