January’s winning short story
You watch. You hover. Ciara pushes the fork evenly into pastry cut tight to the edge of a dinner plate, lifts it, stabs lines of neat holes across a landscape of covered apples, lemon juice and sugar. She turns her soft freckled face to you for approval, and you smile. Good woman, you say, your heart sore in your chest with love.
The kitchen is solid with happy aromas of baking ham and cooling fairy cakes, the serving hatch to the dining room open so the pair of you can wiggle and wail to Blondie on repeat. You laugh and tickle her when the needle bumps a groove. Sean and Fintan are playing next door with Betty’s boys, a reciprocal arrangement that works well, most of the time. Five-year-old twins are exhausting and you are grateful to have time alone with your daughter, prepare properly for her First Holy Communion tomorrow.
Paddy arrives in. A force, a presence. The man is huge, tall and wide, washed hair falling in fair strands on his square-set head. He has steady features, honest, and Ciara is lit at the sight of him. Daddy, she shouts, jumping up, all limbs, and he catches her gently in his large hands that smell of comfort, of pine.
Howarya doin’, Princess Pea, are you all set for the big day? The pair radiate with pure pleasure. A carpenter, he has a secret project on the go at the moment, making a set of shelves for her room, a surprise, and maybe most seven-year-olds wouldn’t be bothered about such a thing, but he knows she will be delighted. Somewhere to put her books and toys, extra space in the tiny box room, her girly domain.
He smiles at you and you smile back. You still find it hard to believe your luck. This lovely man. The terrifying thought that chance led him to the dance hall that night, that but for a random moment when he saw you, gathered courage to ask you to dance, you might have missed all this.
He picks up a freshly iced bun, swallows it almost whole, and you swat him playfully. You know he’s not comfortable at the thought of a house party. It’s not his thing, but his mother, Nancy, is insisting on a family get-together and the alternative is taking them to a hotel for lunch, the cost of that prohibitive. Paddy has five siblings, all with families of their own bar John, the youngest. And then there’s the stragglers, the ones who turn up for the rituals. Nancy is all over it. Don’t forget to invite Uncle Arthur, she said. He won’t show but he’ll send her a fiver. And sure enough, this morning a card and the fiver arrived.
Nancy lives half a mile up the road, her children all within a three-mile radius, and she keeps tabs on them like a Queen Bee running a complex hive. Paddy is the second youngest, a favourite because of his gentle nature, and she has always had her doubts about you. Watches you. The scrutiny in itself exhausting. Ah, such a special day, Moira. Do you remember yours? Did you have a party?
Always, questions like this: with an edge, designed to delve and pick at something. Catch you out. You remember your communion all right. Ham sandwiches with crusts cut off, Victoria sponge, apple tarts, like the ones you made today with Ciara. A houseful. But this is not a story you own, for many reasons, so you tell her. Well, it was a quiet affair, Nancy, owing to mammy having died the previous winter. She can smell an inconsistency on you like a ferret, this woman has caught you several times in half-lies.
Paddy goes to the pub. You pack the boys off to bed, fall into the embrace of your armchair, the television. Ciara kneels beside you and you roll her hair around pink sponges, click rigid plastic into place, drag on your cigarette between curling.
Gay Byrne and his guests are off on a tangent about the papal visit last September. You didn’t go. Paddy had a job on and you weren’t going to drag twin boys on a bus. You regret it. All of Ciara’s friends were there and they’re holding it over her, telling her they’ve received a special blessing for the communion, a passport that she can’t obtain now. Her tears were raw and real and it has taken weeks of distraction to assuage them.
You didn’t think she was listening to the airwave conversation, her head half stuck in her book, but you fancy a shadow on her face, suggest a cup of tea and a fairy cake, get up and switch the channel. Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dance as you sip sugar in unison. It’s late for her to stay up, but she’s great company, you’re lonely, and sure where’s the harm. You give her a quick hug, inhale the warm child scent of her, are overwhelmed by all the reasons why she is so precious to you.
The next morning the house is a maelstrom of crank and angst. The boys are tearing around, knocking into furniture, threatening to pull the good cloth off the dining room table, annihilate your china. You throw them out, warn them not to go far, be back for half-nine. You’re in the church for half-ten. You’ve the day mapped out in tasks and minutes. Ciara is tired, fidgety, a stray sprig of hair from a ringlet driving you mad to look at, taunting you, evidence that you are a bad mother, can’t even get that right.
Nancy isn’t helping. Sitting regal with a pot of tea, a cup and saucer stolen from your good set, she takes up all the air in the kitchen with studied observations. Another new dress, Moira? You could open a shop with them, she laughs, and you fight an urge to tell her to go fuck herself.
You won’t. You can’t. Even if you could, something about the way the skin bags over her cheekbones in pouches, the stung rawness of it, reminds you of Sister Paul. The minute you noticed it you were done for, equated them, assumed their knowledge of you shared, felt a weight of shame envelop you.
You’re only half way through the sandwiches, cutting crusts, even triangles, actions mechanical and honed for speed under Nancy’s watchful eye, when you hear a motorcycle outside. Paddy greets John, welcomes him happily, even though it’s not gone nine and a distraction like John is all you need. He enters the kitchen all swagger and leather, plonks his helmet on the table, knocking a plate of clingfilmed cakes.
You feel your chest grow tight. Wiping your hands on your apron you look down and notice a stain on a pink fold of the pussycat bow that made this dress so perfect. Butter. You feel the tears form quickly, breathe them back. See John watching you. He has Nancy’s features but better set. Handsome. He has an eye for you, always has, but in a sly way. Ah, your lovely dress, he says. And Nancy turns. I told you it was a bad idea to dress yourself first, Moira, she says. Sure isn’t it just as well our Paddy’s bought you a dozen other dresses.
You flee to your room. File through dresses that weren’t the perfect dress for today, fight the feeling you are about to implode. You hear a shuffle behind you. Paddy, which one of these do you think? you ask, but it’s John standing in the doorway. The green one, he says, matches your eyes. He is lit from behind in a way that is unnerving, dust motes spilling around the side of his neat dark hair, casting an odd half-light over his features. You shiver, an involuntary reset, pull a blue dress from the wardrobe, move to ask him to leave, close the door.
Met a girl you were in school with there in Cork, he says, his voice thick in a way that makes you think of solidifying honey. Sorry, John, I need to get dressed, you say, reaching out a hand that doesn’t feel as if it is attached to your body any more, has agency of its own as it reaches for the door handle. Eithne Burke, do you remember her? She says she remembers you all right.
Your brain seizes, starts to categorise frantically, memories and connections. Eithne, you say, your voice sounding steady, an effort pulled from your core. Eithne Burke, red-headed young wan with a wonky eye? you say, and the sentence somehow comes out with a lilt at the tip, playful. You push it: Looks like an itinerant wan? And he holds your eye steady for a long minute. Then he laughs. You’re some woman, Moira. How did my poor eejit of a brother end up with a girl like you at all?
You’re rattled. You change into the dress, chivvy Ciara into hers. Pick at the lace. Smooth the satin underskirt over her narrow hips, the small curve of her bum. You sewed it yourself. It took weeks. Nights sitting up over your Singer sewing machine when all other jobs were done, painstaking needlework, small seed pearls plucked from your wedding dress and sewn down the front. Skills the nuns taught you.
Taught in those years you fight to forget. Years Eithne Burke must know all about. Must have told John about. Your head is a blackened grid: green lines of your life mapped out into so-and-so knows so-and-so, who-knew-this, who-knew-that. He knows. He must do. They must all know.
When you kneel in church you pray for forgiveness. You pray so fervently not to be found out. And you don’t know if it’s God or the Devil who can protect you now, but you’d do a deal with either.
All through the day you watch your daughter. This beautiful unsullied little girl, unaware of her mother’s sin. The ghost sister who foreshadows her, almost ten years older. The child they wouldn’t let you keep. Tore out of your arms, your hands, your fingers cracked with eczema, tortured with detergent, weeping, scratching that dream child’s perfect skin. You can’t bear to think where she is now. Yet you think about her all the time. Wonder if she has your eyes still, like Ciara does. Imagine them together.
And as you’re watching, you realise you’re being watched. John has been watching you all day. A twist in him that is pure Nancy, a cruel slide eye. A cunning. Your body is taut with the effort of movement. The effort of normal. Making small talk with aunties and neighbours and chiding wayward children and filling kettles and pots and jugs and passing sandwiches and telling kind Paddy you’re grand. When you’re not.
The record has been on and off the turntable so much it’s scratched. Sunday Girl strains an extra beat, and Ciara is wild within it, drunk on sugar, swinging her hips, flirting with John. Her handsome uncle. Flirting and climbing and he’s loving it, swinging her around, lifting her high, letting her drop. His huge calloused hand cupping her little arse. Banging into tables and chairs. The house too small for it. The house suddenly tiny. Airless.
Your voice. Cracked and strange. Pleading for them to stop. His eyes. Taunting yours. Your body. Shivering fear and rage in the wrong dress. Taking you across the room.
Your arms. Taking her from his. Pulling her roughly. In front of them all. Knowing what you’re doing. Helpless to stop. Your hand. Flying high and wide. Coming down. Hard. Again and again. On the bare tops of her thighs, as she struggles and cries. Tries to get away from you. You. A wild eyed stranger, screaming now: Have you no shame in you at all, Ciara Connolly!
Sharon Guard is a student on the MA creative writing programme at the University of Limerick. She writes mostly short stories and is working on a novel. She was the winner of the Molly Keane Creative Writing Award 2020 and her work has been listed in other competitions.
New Irish Writing, edited by Ciaran Carty and appearing in the Irish Independent on the last Saturday of each month, is open to writers who are Irish or resident in Ireland. Stories submitted should not exceed 2,000 words. Up to four poems may be submitted. There is no entry fee. Writers whose work is selected will receive €120 for fiction and €60 for poetry. You can email your entry, preferably as a Word document, to email@example.com. Please include your name, address and contact number, as well as a brief biographical paragraph. Only writers who have yet to publish their first book can be considered.