The Woman in the Green Coat - a Christmas short story by Rachael English
The first time Marian noticed the woman, she was walking down Main Street. Actually, it was the woman's coat that caught her eye. A deep holly green, it had an expensive swish that marked its owner out as a stranger. No one in Templemorris owned a coat like that and, even if they did, they'd keep it for weddings and funerals.
Marian tried to picture herself wearing the green coat. She imagined waking up on Christmas morning to find that Eddie and the two boys had parcelled it up and left it beneath the tree. But no, she decided: she'd have to be thinner, glossier, more confident. She'd have to be a different person.
Lately, she'd spent a lot of time trying on other people's lives. Maybe that's what everyone did at 45.
In the winter light, the town looked even more down at heel than usual, vacant shops scarring the street like broken teeth. Give it another hour, and the watery sun would sink below the horizon. Then the first of the party-goers would appear, kids with red faces and skew-whiff antlers. Marian laughed when they claimed to be doing the 12 Pubs of Christmas. "Sure there aren't 12 pubs left," she'd point out.
After a glance at her watch, she decided to risk the post office. Marian taught English in St Ursula's Community School, the same school she'd attended. As much as she valued her job, she didn't cherish all of her students equally. Her next class was with the dreaded second years, as unruly a bunch as she'd ever taught. She should have been back in the staff room, preparing for them. Instead, she'd nipped out to post her cards. She'd also collected Eddie's best suit from the cleaners, ordered the turkey and picked up a few groceries for her mother. It was one of those days when she felt like a living to-do list. One of those days when Eddie was fond of telling her not to get stressed.
"I'll get stressed if I want," she said to the man beside her in the queue. He pretended not to hear.
As Marian left the post office, she spotted the woman again. This time she was outside Noleen's Nails talking to George Daly, the solicitor. What, Marian wondered, had brought her to Templemorris? Was she setting up a business? Had she been left money in a will? Or might she be having an affair with one of the town's small pool of desirable men?
Tempting as it was to ramble over and say hello to George, Marian's curiosity would have to remain unquenched. The second years were waiting. Five minutes without a teacher and they might go completely feral.
The bungalow where she had grown up was on a narrow strip of road three miles outside the town. By the time she arrived, it was dark.
Her mother was at the kitchen table, a stack of unwritten cards in front of her.
"Mam, you don't have to do those," said Marian. "Nobody would mind if-"
Joyce shushed her with a look.
"Maybe I can give you a hand, then?"
"I'm grand, thanks," her mam replied, the slight hesitation in her voice suggesting she was far from grand.
This would be the first Christmas in almost 50 years that Joyce had written just one name at the bottom of her cards. Her husband had died in February. A tall man with a capacity to see the good in everything, Paddy Griffin had been able to convey more with a nod and a gesture than most could say with a thousand words.
Joyce was equally understated. One of those women who slipped through life demanding little attention, she was also deceptively tough.
The rest of the family was due to arrive on Christmas Eve. Marian's elder brother, Senan, was making the journey from Toronto. Cathal was travelling from San Diego while Dan, the baby, was coming from Brussels. Marian was in charge of Christmas dinner. Including her own gang and her brothers' wives and children, she'd be catering for 17.
Christmas would also give them an opportunity to discuss the future. Senan was keen to sell the bungalow. As he saw it, Joyce ought to move in with her only daughter. "Before you know it," he'd said to Marian, "your own boys will be off to college and you'll have acres of room." Marian wasn't sure that this was what either she or their mother wanted. Then again, maybe she was just being selfish.
Her mother's voice broke her thoughts.
"I asked if you wanted a cup of tea."
"Sorry," repeated Marian, removing a sliced pan, a packet of digestives and a tub of spread from her cloth bag. "My brain's full of nonsense. It's that time of year, you know? I'll pop on the kettle and, while I'm at it, I can put these away."
"Thanks, love." Her mam gave a weak smile. "I'd better get started on my cards."
The following day she saw the woman again, this time in Costelloe's café. Marian was with two colleagues, having a pre-Christmas gossip. The woman was staring into her cappuccino as if it held the secrets of the universe. Her green coat was draped around the chair. Her ash-blonde hair was clipped back at the neck, and she wore the sort of no-make-up make-up that normal women, like Marian, were never able to master. She didn't look like someone who'd be expected to cook turkey and ham for 17.
Marian's colleagues were dissecting a young teacher.
"The eyelashes on her," said one. "I don't want to sound cruel, but she's crossed the line from glamorous to Daisy the cow."
"I was looking at them this morning," said the other. "They're so long you could hang tinsel from them. What do you think, Mar?"
"Who's the woman over by the door, do you know?"
Her colleague squinted. "I'm afraid I don't. I saw her yesterday coming out of the library. I noticed her because... well, there's something different about her, isn't there?"
"Something mysterious," said Marian, raising her voice in order to be heard over the hiss and thump of the coffee machine.
"I wouldn't go that far. She's probably just visiting family."
"I suppose, but why's she in here on her own?"
"If it's bothering you, you should go and ask her."
"Ah no," said Marian, "I wouldn't want to be nosy."
By the time of her third sighting, the woman was a near constant in Marian's thoughts. No doubt, she had a sophisticated name, like Iseult or Eva. She probably kept her shoes in boxes with Polaroids on the front and had never bought Penneys knickers or a moisturiser from Dealz.
Marian was at the door of the butcher's when she saw Iseult/Eva getting into a dark car with Dublin number plates. She skulked behind a life-sized Rudolph and watched her drive away. "Stop it," she said to herself, "you're being ridiculous." Here she was, getting caught up in a silly fantasy, when there were far more important matters on her plate. Like whether the turkey would be big enough. Or how to feed Cathal's eldest girl who'd announced that she was a vegan. Or what to say when Senan suggested selling the family home.
After dinner, she decided to call over to her mother.
"I won't be long," she said to Eddie who was asleep in front of the quiz channel.
The night was a cold one, the sky splashed with stars, the fields sprinkled with winter glitter. Turning the corner, she was surprised to see a dark car with a Dublin registration parked in the driveway.
"Hi, Mam," she called, as she let herself in, "is everything okay?"
The woman and her mother were side by side on the brown sofa. The green coat was thrown over an armchair. Neither needed to explain. Marian looked from one pair of blue eyes to the other.
And she knew.
She should, of course, have spotted the resemblance. Or perhaps, in some way, she had. Perhaps that explained why she'd found the woman so fascinating.
It turned out that her name wasn't Iseult or Eva. Her name was Linda. Linda O'Donnell. She was 52 and, following the break-up of her marriage, she had resolved to trace her birth mother.
Marian rummaged for something appropriate to say. Questions crashed through her head. Not only did she not know Linda, it occurred to her that she didn't know her mother. Besides, she thought, weren't there rules about these things? Weren't agencies and social workers supposed to be involved?
While she struggled, her mam rubbed one thumb against the other. Linda examined the lining of her jacket. You could have heard a piece of dust drop.
Finally, as if reading Marian's thoughts, Linda spoke. "I know I should have done this by the book, but it takes so long, and I didn't want to be given the runaround. Once I'd found Joyce's name and where she was from, I couldn't help myself. I had to try and trace her."
"I saw you. In the town, I mean. You were in the café and-"
"I was making enquiries. I couldn't risk turning up at the wrong door." Her voice was soft, with a slight Dublin twang around the edges.
Joyce cleared her throat. "I assume you're wondering about your father," she said to Marian. "I told Paddy, and he was very good. 'If you want to find her, you should,' he said to me. But I'd signed a form promising not to interfere with the adoption and, to be honest with you, I was scared. In the home, we were told to get on with our lives and to be grateful we'd been given a second chance."
Marian stood up and shovelled coal on to the fire. "You could have told the rest of us," she said, immediately regretting how sharp the words sounded.
"Oh, love, I can see that now, but it never felt like the right time. And, then, the years went by, and I thought I'd left it too late. I never expected to see Linda again." A tear slid down her left cheek. "And here she is."
"I'm sorry," said Linda. "If this is too difficult, I can come back another day."
"No, please stay," Marian heard herself say. She got to her feet again. "I'll make a pot of tea." What she didn't say was that she needed five minutes on her own. She needed to detangle her brain.
She sent a text to Eddie: Might be a bit late.
When she returned, Linda was showing their mother some old photographs. She had one son who was working his way around Australia. He wouldn't be home for Christmas.
In fits and starts, Marian's mother told her story. She had become pregnant at 18 after a brief relationship with a local man. He responded to the news by moving to London. Her parents sent her to the mother and baby home in Carrigbrack where she was instructed to wear a stiff blue uniform, work in the fields and reflect on her sins. One dank Tuesday, her baby was taken away. Joyce had to spend another six months in the home to pay for the cost of her stay.
While she spoke, a gallery of images went through Marian's head. She thought of all the reports she'd seen on the news, the black and white shots of austere convents and dormitories filled with cots. It had never occurred to her that what she viewed as history was part of her mother's life.
By the time they'd finished talking, the fire had gone out and the old clock in the hall was striking four.
Eddie was awake when she got home.
"Is Joyce all right?" he said.
Marian spooned into him for warmth. "Mam's grand. Oh, and by the way, there'll be 18 of us for Christmas dinner."
* Rachael English is a presenter on RTÉ Radio 1's 'Morning Ireland'. Her latest novel, 'The Night of the Party', is out now. Photo by Tony Gavin
* Illustrations by Annie West