EILEEN FELT THAT SHE SHOULD deliver the news of her brother’s death in person. She knew she would provide no solace when the time came, that her presence would only heighten the reality of Brandon’s absence; yet her mother was nearing seventy. Once she heard, the need for medical attention seemed dangerously possible, and if nothing else Eileen felt a vague responsibility to bear witness to her mother’s grief.
She had always enjoyed traveling by train, from the distant days of her first excursions alone to Dublin, Galway, Cork; neither her own sorrow nor the dread that hung about her could allay a faint pleasure at the prospect of the journey. She was early, and relieved to find her carriage empty. The station was quiet now, past rush hour, with many still curled up at home, recuperating from New Year’s revelry. The winter sun gleamed through the mid-morning frost and made her squint. Occasionally stragglers strode across the platform in scarves and overcoats through little plumes of their own breath, stilted with cold, hurrying through the turnstiles toward the trains or else into one of the coffee shops, eager to thaw. Her own nostrils stung from the air, and settling into a plush red seat, she dug her chin deep within her scarf.
Why had she been informed, rather than their mother? Had her brother listed her as next of kin? She felt she may have underreacted when the policeman finally said what he had come to say, had noted it as she would a portent of bad weather. No tears, yet. Perhaps they would come later. The terrible knowledge she had carried since imbued her with a strange self-importance of which she felt ashamed.
Presently the train bristled with life beneath her and lumbered from the station. The wide windows shed the last vestiges of concrete and wire and pushed through barren fields, marked here and there with lean and leafless trees beneath the sky. Anxiety flushed her veins; she had not slept since receiving the news the previous day. The rocking motion, the faint hum of the engine, and the passage of interminable landscapes in muted shades of gray and mauve all conspired to lull her. She thought of the piano her friends had gathered around at the New Year’s party, the boisterous tunes of “Auld Lang Syne,” “The Fields of Athenry,” and other, more modern songs on request. What had gone through his mind while she sang with carefree hope? She shrank from the thought. Another piano appeared before her, a ramshackle thing of chipped wood and yellowed ivory. That was their old piano, of course—the one their mother had brought into the house for them when they were children. Uncle Fergus won’t be needing it now, she had said, crossing herself. Eileen and her brother beheld it with wonder, pressing down single keys and feeling the faint echo pass through them to subside in the corners of the room.
Money was scarce, so only Brandon would receive lessons, Mother explained, since he was a year younger, his mind less resistant to instruction. In his defense, her brother tried at first to relay what he learned, to teach her as well as a ten-year-old could; but her own efforts were muddled and full of blunders; she could not train her fingers to stretch across the keys, and in the end they abandoned all hope of her learning to play. Instead, she listened as simple scales became melodies, chords turned to harmonies, and slow, uncertain music began, over weeks and months, to fill the house.
One day shortly after Brandon passed his grade-five examination, Father Moonan came round for tea. Mother scoured every inch of the house and dressed them both in their finest clothes: she in her first communion dress, Brandon in a pressed white shirt and navy trousers.
“Now, Eileen,” she said, fingers fluttering across her hair and face in the little mirror above the mantelpiece, “be a grand big sister and watch him.”
Eileen took hold of her brother’s sweating hand, the two of them side by side in the middle of the living room as instructed. Now and then they stole furtive glances at the platter of biscuits arranged on the coffee table. Their mother paced to and fro across the room, muttering inscrutable singsong words beneath her breath. At one point she paused, wheeled on Eileen, and snapped: “Smile, Eileen, for pity’s sake.”
Then she resumed her restless walking, eyes darting between the mirror and the living-room window.
Father Moonan was very tall and thin and seemed stretched even further by his long black cassock. He perched on the edge of his chair—too low for him, sending his splayed knees up above his waist—and they watched in stifled awe as he took three sugars in his tea and ate half the platter of biscuits. They presented themselves to him in turn, prepared for the usual talk. How was school, Eileen? Ready for big-girl school? Father John Newsome is the rector there; he’ll take good care of you. And your prayers, are you saying your prayers each night? How about you, Brandon? That’s good. You both mind your mammy, now.
Then Brandon played a tune on the piano, a well-practiced prelude by Chopin. She found herself hoping for a wrong note, a clumsy key; but he played beautifully, and she flushed with bitter envy as Father Moonan clapped and their mother beamed with pride. When the applause died down, the priest turned to her with an expectant look on his face.
“And you, Eileen? Do you have a special talent to share?”
“No, Father. I’m sorry.”
“She never took to playing,” Mother cut in, “but she manages well in arithmetic, Sister Bernadine tells me.”
“Ah, arithmetic,” Father Moonan said, nodding gravely.
“Eileen, would you be a good girl and fetch more biscuits for Father?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t,” he protested with a chuckle, “but I will,” and they both laughed. Eileen joined in the laughter, but her mother thrust the tray toward her and steered her away.
When she returned—the tray piled high with digestives and custard creams—Brandon was in their mother’s lap.
“And how is he doing in catechism?” Mother asked, as she poured Father Moonan more tea. He leaned forward and touched her wrist.
“Let me tell you, Mrs. McCarthy,” he said emphatically, “the boy is a star. I always know I can count on him when the room dries up. Such wonderful understanding of the sacraments. We all know the past few years have been a trial on your own, but you’ve risen to the challenge, praise God.”
She lapped it all up, eyes growing wide with each word, leaning further toward the priest in delight and grasping his hand in both of hers.
“Father!” she beamed.
“Oh,” he said drily, encouraged by her smile, “that boy may be called to priesthood yet.”
After he left—she and Brandon waving and smiling from the window with aching cheeks—their mother waited until he was out of sight before closing the door. She stood there for a moment, quite still, her head bowed. Her palms both lay flat upon the door, and she began to tremble in the shadow of the hallway. Eileen felt a pang of terror, but abruptly their mother turned and, scooping Brandon up in her arms, began to cover his face with little kisses.
“Oh, my darling boy!” she sang. “My little star!”
The door to the carriage slid open and roused Eileen from her half-sleep. Blinking, she saw the ticket inspector, a portly man with a thick moustache, lumbering down the aisle toward her.
At once the purpose of the trip, tenuously buried throughout her reverie, crashed in upon her; the weight of duty smothered her mind and filled it again with gnawing dread. Through the window lay endless dour fields as before, though above them now the sky was the color of iron; occasionally a spray of wayward droplets traced its way across the window. The ticket inspector observed her bleariness with a sheepish grin that annoyed her, and she suffered his attempts at polite conversation, his breath smelling faintly of peanuts. What brought her to Athy, business or pleasure? Family? Ay, that’s neither. Ha! Here’s hoping she had a grand New Year?
She avoided his questions by deflecting them back at him with feigned interest. As he spoke, mainly of his boy, she watched his fingertips play upon a pale band of skin around the ring finger of his left hand. It seemed absurd that her grief could be concealed beneath such banal conversation. She watched the corners of his moustache twitch; the fingertips brushed their way across the little pale band. An unexpected pity began to move her.
“He’s due to play on Tuesday,” he babbled, “first reserve, and he’d surely play, but they’re talking of postponing the match for better weather. It’s a crying shame, the lad’s worked so hard. Still, we can hope for a miracle.” Then: “Why now, what is it, love? Is it something I said?”
He laid a heavy hand on her shoulder in genuine concern, but she drew away. Hot, stinging tears blurred her vision.
“It’s not you,” she mumbled thickly. “I’ve had some bad news. I’m sorry. Just leave me, please.”
Sorry, she had said; she repeated it, again and again, as he backed out of the compartment and gently closed the door. She could not articulate herself well enough to spare his feelings, but the late advent of her stymied tears strangled her. In solitude they burst their bounds, trailing down her cheeks; at last she plunged her face into her hands, wracked with sobs in the empty carriage.
One November evening when she was seventeen, a memorial service was held in town for Sean Maguire. A keen wind licked at their faces as they walked the half mile to the service, and their sore noses and watery eyes persisted as they stood, sat, and knelt in the frigid church. Even their mother, pious as she was, departed with unusual haste, and the three of them hurried home with some relief.
They did not speak to each other as they journeyed back, nor was the silence broken once inside the darkened house. None wanted to be the first to dispel with idle chatter the reverent feeling that followed them from the ceremony. Their mother busied herself with the kettle while Brandon spread out on the hearth, lazily stoking the black lacquered fireplace. Eileen settled into a chair, staring at the embers beginning to smolder in the kindling. She kicked off her low black heels and pulled her feet beneath her, coaxing feeling back into her toes through her tights.
Their mother emerged from the kitchen and paused for a moment in the doorway, blowing across the top of a steaming mug. “Thank you both,” she said, “for being there this evening.”
“Hush, Ma,” Brandon said from the floor, sprawled next to the fire with his eyes closed. Long shadows danced and flickered across the walls.
“Oh, he and your father were thick as thieves,” she went on, lowering herself into a chair on the other side of the coffee table. “You should have seen him at our wedding. Our own entertainer. My sides ached from laughing all through the honeymoon.”
“He’s in a better place, now,” Eileen offered. At that, her mother’s face darkened; she drew her mug before her and sipped at it pensively.
“Don’t start that now, Allie,” Brandon muttered.
“After Cara passed, it was a struggle for him,” their mother continued, as if to herself. “He was so lonely in that house of his. We all did what we could. Naturally, he adored the two of you.”
“I’m sure the prayers at the service brought him comfort,” Eileen said.
Her brother snorted in derision.
“Brandon!” their mother cried.
“It was a service, Ma, not a Mass, and an unofficial one at that. There’s good reason for it. The church will never permit funeral masses for such people.”
“How about you just keep it to yourself?” Eileen snapped. But their mother waved her hand in resignation.
“Leave your brother, now. We know he’s right. It just doesn’t bear thinking about.”
“I believe God is merciful,” she protested. “None of us can put ourselves in Sean’s shoes, and I pray we’ll never have to.”
“Leave off, Allie,” Brandon said. “Suicide is a mortal sin.”
Their mother seemed far away, gazing into the corner of the room. Eileen grasped for the right words but could not find them. Watching her brother as he lay before the fire, smirking—for it was a smirk, wasn’t it? There it was, at her expense, pulling at the corners of his mouth—she found herself suddenly filled with a desire to wound.
“You think he’s a saint, Mam,” she said slowly, her voice thick with venom. “You dream he’ll end up a bishop, or a cardinal even. Don’t you? Monsignor Brandon McCarthy. But that’ll never happen.” She paused. “He likes the flesh too much, you see.”
Their mother turned, peering over the rim of her teacup. Brandon opened his eyes.
“Oh,” she went on, “he’s a real pharisee, that one. Quick to pass judgment and full of hypocrisy.”
“You watch yourself, Allie,” Brandon warned; but she continued, gaining momentum.
“Why,” she said with mock surprise, “they don’t call the old shed behind the cafeteria McCarthy’s joinery for nothing. Origen had the right idea. Our little priest here will only take the vow of celibacy once he’s slept with every scatty sow in County Kildare.”
“You shut your mouth!” Brandon roared; but their mother had already begun to rise, trembling.
“How dare you?” she whispered; then, shrieking, “Get out! Go on, you little scut! Speaking such filth of your brother—on this day! Get out!”
She lunged toward Eileen, spilling the remains of her tea to steam on the rug, and Eileen fled the room, tights slipping on the smooth wooden stairs. For a long while she lay beneath her sheets in the darkness, listening to the sounds of Brandon consoling their mother below.
Over the following days she became aware that none of her efforts could dispel the miasma of suspicion and mistrust that hung about her in the house. Her mother beheld her with thinly veiled disdain when she entered the kitchen for breakfast or bade her family goodnight. The habitual requests for Eileen’s help—advice on clothing, or assistance with the evening meal—promptly ceased, as did the presence of her mother’s fingers in her hair during the evenings while Brandon played. Eileen’s heart broke to wonder whether this new coldness was simply a naked display of feelings long harbored. She began to scour past memories for proof of her mother’s unlove, and she came to eschew the house, wandering alone up the sloping grass opposite their avenue and into the grove of trees that loomed above. There, in self-imposed exile between canted trunks of silver birch and along the dribbling stream, she stamped in gloom and boredom; often she returned to sounds of hushed conversation, stifled in her presence.
One afternoon as she sat huddled on the bank of the stream, she was startled by the sounds of another figure making its way through the bushes. She turned and saw Brandon approaching, still in his school blazer and wielding a thin branch, which he whipped this way and that to sever errant stems.
Neither acknowledged the other’s presence. Eileen stared into the flowing water, enduring the intrusion, while Brandon squatted on the bank and began rummaging about in the stream with his stick.
She waited for him to speak. Now and then it seemed as though he might—he would take a deep breath, open his mouth, incline his head toward her—but each time he let the air out in a long sigh, rocking on his heels and squinting off into the undergrowth. She could sense he had come to make amends; the sight of his cheeks and ears flushed red began to move her.
Yet at the very moment she herself might have said something, memories of his antagonism rose in protest before her. She heard him lecturing her in the kitchen and playing the piano for guests at the house. She saw him kissing Marion Donoghue at last year’s feis—the same girl who stole her shoes and made her miss the dance. Each remembered sneer, every smirk, all the supercilious assertions with which he had ever rendered her mute, now bore witness against him and hardened her heart, piece by piece; any sympathy she might have felt gave way to scorn at his sheepish and clumsy attempt to reconcile.
“Allie…” he began.
“Don’t,” she snapped. “Just don’t.”
Dusk was gathering. She rose and left him alone on the bank in the dwindling autumn daylight.
When the train finally pulled into Athy, Eileen’s eyes were red and sore, and her cheeks were streaked with smudged rivulets from the tears. The weeping had persisted for half an hour, her body physically heaving in her seat as though excreting a poison, until nothing remained but emptiness and the taste of salt on her lips.
Her legs remembered the route better than she. Leaving the station, she found herself peeling off the main road along a back path that led into a grove of trees and edging around a tiny, rusted gate that hung from a single hinge. The well-worn path was flanked by soggy ferns and mustard-colored gorse that wicked at her thighs as she passed. A thin mist of drizzle shrouded the arms of the trees; clean, cold air filled her lungs with every breath.
On the far side of the thicket she came to a long crescent of overgrown grass sloping down to a residential avenue. There she descended in mounting dread, past the sign that read Woodland Verge in faded black lettering and across the road to number seven. A few magpies rooted about in the front lawn, heedless of her approach; the grass itself was neat and tidy, at least, the flowers in the little window box tall and dripping from the rain. As she knocked on the door she beheld herself with faint surprise, as though she were on the other side of the road, watching from a distance.
A small gray shape materialized through the frosted glass; the door swung open, and there stood her mother, eyes widening in surprise.
She had changed little in the four years since Eileen had last seen her. Her hair, so often arrayed in beautiful ringlets on a Sunday morning, was close-cropped and the color of gunmetal; new liver spots speckled her face and hands. But her mother’s bearing still retained the same wiry strength that had so impressed her as a child. The same quickness was there in the limbs, and the old shrewdness glittered in the narrow green eyes. She wore a floral apron and rubber gloves over a pinkish cardigan.
“Eileen!” her mother gaped. “What—why, you gave me no notice.”
“Hello, Mam,” she said. The sight of her mother, interrupted in the course of her everyday chores, conjured a wave of soul-sickness that strangled her. A glimmer of irritation passed across her mother’s features.
“Well, you’re here. I’m glad to see you. You gave me no notice, is all. Come in, dear.”
Eileen stepped into the narrow hallway. The house, too, had changed little. The tattered chairs were still clustered about the coffee table before the fireplace. In the corner of the room the display case retained its hoard of music medals, religious icons, and china listless with disuse. Arrayed above the mantelpiece were several photographs. She spied herself in graduation dress on the steps of Trinity Chapel; another frame held a picture of Brandon seated at a lustrous black piano in a tailcoat, white dress shirt, and bow tie. She wandered across and took it in her hands, studying the flowing dark locks that hung in strands about his face.
“That was his first solo at the Conservatoire,” her mother said at her elbow. “He missed you there. We both did.”
She put the picture back. Between the frames of her and her brother stood pictures of a little girl, barely a toddler, grinning gap-toothed between happy red cheeks.
As she turned, Eileen caught a glimpse of naked suspicion in her mother’s face. It was better to get it out now, to be done with it. The thought of her duty caused her heart to pound in her ears and eyes and throat—yet still she delayed. Instead, she settled into the chair she used to favor as a girl and heard herself say, “Marion’s well, then? And the little one?”
“Ay, they’re as well as can be. Marion has herself a job now, evenings and weekends, and I take Grace off the Donoghues’ hands when I can.”
“Does he provide them with anything?”
“Your brother? Provide them with what? The money I scrounge to send him every month?” She gave a forced laugh. “I don’t see your purse opening for them, fat as I know it is.”
Eileen rubbed her eyes wearily with the heels of her hands.
“Besides,” her mother went on, unprompted, “marriage would never have been a good idea for the two of them. Marion is a lovely girl, make no mistake, but you know your brother has his commitments. The Conservatoire, his tour next year. And if he hasn’t taken the sacrament of marriage, he’s still free in the church for—well, for other things.”
Eileen looked her mother in the face and read at once in the pleading of her eyes a strained and famished hope, a hope indulged and clung to obstinately in spite of all that seemed to prove it idle fancy over the years; yet she observed that for the first time her mother dared not mention the priesthood outright. She could sense, like the feeling before you sneeze or loosen your bowels, that the awful immensity of her task was finally upon her, and she began to tremble. Her mother’s eyes softened.
“Come, now,” she said. “Why are you really here, girl?”
Eileen reached out and took her mother’s hand. “Sit down, Mam,” she told her gently. “Just sit down here beside me a minute.”
Joshua Hoft is a writer based in the United Kingdom. His writing has appeared in Bandit Fiction and The Independent, and he is working on his first novel.