Summer fiction: Awkward Timing by Mary Hosty

A young girl’s illness at the end of summer puts a strain on an already stressed family

Most likely it comes out of the air. Like the clammy onslaught of a sudden tropical storm.

The fretful mother has spent rare conscious moments these past days in prayerful panic. It’s her natural comfort zone. Though I’m a notoriously shiny, buzzy child with a careless zest for life, she is convinced by various pious, invisible, and unspecified auguries that I’m frail enough to croak at any moment.

Yet this morning, even she has failed to clock that my eyeballs are already the colour of rotten egg yolk. My skin has slackened and goose-bumped like boiled old chicken gizzards. Perhaps the auguries are taking a well-earned rest. A sick day for overworked harbingers.

We are due to set off at two o’clock in a hired car, allowing us plenty of time to catch the half past three train that will chug chug out of Connacht, across the great midland plains, and right into the heart of Dublin, returning my sister and I to the Preparatory Foundation of Heavenly Peace, Unencumbered Learning, and Fine Education. The father has been busy since first light. By eleven o’clock he has mended a faulty washing machine, visited solicitor, bank manager and zealous barber. He has settled grocer’s bill, butcher’s bill and draper’s bill. He has collected four pairs of mended shoes from the cobbler. He now sits rigid as a steel girder in the cramped kitchen, wearing an expertly patched and not altogether invisibly repaired brown suit. He pores over a stack of repeat reminders for payment of bills and a handful of receipts. These make up the crumbling embers of his construction business. He writes letters to debtors in tall longhand on carbon copy paper, Parker pen scraping resolutely across the page. All the while, he issues ominous warnings of impending plumbing catastrophes in this the grandmother’s Mayo home. He has berated my sister for the shortness of her skirt and the insolence of her fringe. My library card is filed away for safe keeping until the next holiday.


I spend the morning clambering through the semi-rotting beams of a long abandoned stable. I’m with Bell, my sister. Older by three years, she can spontaneously un-spark the joy in any situation. But as the baby sister, I can’t be picky. Her two friends in the Preparatory Foundation of Unencumbered Learning and Fine Education are Fay Larkin of Greystones and Rosa Silvina McCabe of Mexico City. These two angels are the only people to bring any shred of real joy into Bell’s life. They abide in sprawling mansions that exist chiefly to be coveted by Bell, elegant residences that are not daily theatres of war, or wellsprings of looming plumbing cataclysms.

If I were ever to lie in the actual throes of death, rattling along to a speedy end, Bell would pluck at her hair and produce an unrefusable invitation of incalculable distinction to the sprawling hacienda of Rosa Silvina. She pronounces the latter name with marvellous authenticity as Drojhha Thilveenya.

My paternal grandmother is stern and sleek, elegant as a tiny column of obsidian in her widows’ weeds. A polished trajectile of worldly savvy. She has neatly divided sixteen offspring into three categories of e’er-do-wells and ne’er-do-wells and doing-well-enoughs. Her preoccupations with these and the many joys that await in the eternal home, leave little time today for sick child spotting.

A gaunt, chain-smoking woman comes to the house daily. She croons tuneless thirties songs cranking up the volume whenever there’s a skirmish or if all out strife threatens. I like a nice cup of tea in the morning. . . she trills, cigarette ever dangling from a doggedly impassive lip.

Upstairs in the smallest bedroom, my suitcase is neatly packed and double fastened with leather strap for extra security. A freshly dry-cleaned coat in its crinkly paper cover is slung across the counterpane. Re-heeled and just-polished plain shoes await duty like squat footmen.

From our vantage point perched on the rotten rafters of an outhouse, and through the half open kitchen window, I can hear grandmother at prayers, a sort of extended mumbly-chant, punctuated by rattling beads. Mother is in her room, resting with the auguries. Father is on the phone to another debtor. Dog chases a rat into the undergrowth. Cat watches from her perch on the worn down workshop steps. A workman is lazily sweeping up sawdust in the vast and soon to be abandoned workshop.

‘I wonder,’ says Bell tugging at a lock of wavy blond hair, ‘If Rojhha Thilveenya has brought me back the turquoise and real silver necklace from Mehicko? She did promise faithfully.’

I tumble through the rotting rafters, intent on escaping the interminable necklace saga.

‘What’s worrying,’ Bell calls after me, ‘Is that Fay also asked for the same necklace and what if Rojhha Thilveenya were to give Fay the nicer necklace? Because Fay can be a bit sly that way. Sweet as pie just to get one up, then dropping you like a stale gingernut! After all it is I who is Rojhha Thilveenya’s best friend.’

‘Who am!’ I correct. ‘It is I who AM Rosa’s friend.’

I land hard on a mound of builder’s sand, swallow the last of a chewy toffee and laugh gleefully up at the sister. She glares. Life without an audience is one of Bell’s greatest tortures.

‘I really don’t know who I’ll give this old turquoise ring to,’ she shouts down, twisting it on her finger. ‘It must be a true and deserving friend,’ she says. ‘Non-judgemental!’ She adds hoping I will ask what it means.

I’m about to say give the ring to Mrs Moore who delights in a nice bauble. But suddenly I need the bathroom. I clamber down from the sandy pile on all fours, grit clinging to my toffee-sticky palms, and I stagger to my feet. Bell’s voice seems suddenly muffled and fading and the world darkens. I stumble across the weed infested yard, half trip on a slimy moss-encrusted plank and barely avoid cutting the pad of my thumb on a rusty can lid. I take time to hide the can lid because my mother is convinced that any food from a tin is poisoned with great care and individual attention by none other than the devil himself, who is, let’s face it, in league with the Communists. And all those other atheists.

I make it inside and down the long narrow corridor to the toilet and I’m there just in time.

My scrawny body is wracked by a succession of violent purgings. On and on it goes until at last I’m a truly empty vessel. And I make no noise. I muster up just enough strength to pull hard on the ancient cistern chain. The father’s plumbing workings are calibrated with such ingenious precision, that the chain must be yanked sharply, swiftly and purposefully all at once, otherwise it will not clang bounteously enough to signal the very necessary strong whoosh of replacement water into the cistern.

Water gurgles in halting belches along pipes and upwards, and for one fleeting moment I’m seized with panic about the long foretold plumbing catastrophe. Then the world tilts like I’m a capsized boat, pitching and heaving and breaking up in the storm. An ailing serpent hisses crabbily in my ear. The air crackles like grandmother’s dusty radiogram. I’m blind. There is no air for me to breathe. I feel along the mouldy wall, past the dusty worm eaten wolf’s head on the wall, past the storeroom where my sister insists that a dead man lives in his coffin with a lot of other slithery slimy things. I’ve peeped in once and seen old fishing tackle and ancient fisherman garments. But who knows?

There is scarcely an hour now until we set off to catch the train back to the Heavenly Foundation. After that, the father is due at an aunt’s house on the east coast to complete a restoration job. The aunt is married to grandmother’s pride and joy, Harry, an e’er-do-well uncle, so successful that he is frequently away on important stockbroking business. It is said he buys bespoke suits on Saville Row. Handmade shirts with double cuffs have been whispered about.

At the end of the corridor, I collide with Bell. Even though I can’t see, I know it’s her because she’s wearing the perfume that smells of tree resin and Mexican marigolds and evokes the scent of old Aztec holy days.

‘I’m feeling sick.’

She pokes at me.

‘No really. I mean properly ill. I can’t see. I’m all funny hissing and dizziness.’

‘You’re just foxing. To get out of going back.’

I slump against the wall.

‘Please get someone Bell. Just don’t get mum,’ I slide onto the lino floor. ‘Not dad either.’

‘Who then?’

‘Mrs Moore,’ I rasp.

Splayed against the storeroom door where the dead man with his slithery creatures may or may not dwell, I’m hardly conscious as one by one the others arrive, forming a queue to evaluate my suspiciously sudden affliction. Each casts a cool eye on the sprawling mess at their feet.

Mrs Moore hums about a cup of tea.

‘Did you take your tonic this morning child?’ my tiny grandmother says, lifting my chin with a well-tended index finger. I’m the last of about twenty grandchildren and she’s seen it all by now.

‘She’s foxing,’ Bell interjects quickly, ever vigilant of attention swerving away from her.

‘All the same mam,’ Mrs Moore says, ‘and there’s no denying it, her eyeballs have taken on the colour of rotten egg yolk.’

My father watches intently from the shadows. I’m suddenly convinced that indeed I’ve triggered his long foretold and apocalyptic plumbing catastrophe.

At least Bell has not alerted my mother, who would enter the fray brandishing that everlasting caddy of frenzied dismay she always carries with her, unfurling it at will, like an inverted and doom-laden Mary Poppins umbrella.

Mrs Moore steps forward and appraises me.

‘Do you think she’s ate a thing that did it? Kids! They’ll try anything. I often seen a child eat a snail.’

‘What do you know about children?’ my grandmother, progenitress of sixteen, says with a caustic stare. ‘Yourself and Mister Moore couldn’t manage one between you.’

Mrs Moore stops humming and drags on the untipped Sweet Afton. It glows in the dim corridor and her impassive lower lip trembles. A neat tube of ash falls, lands and slides down my nose.

At last I see the flickering gleam of fatherhood ignite in my father’s eye.

‘Gangway!’ he says, scooping me up and carrying me down the narrow corridor to the good parlour. Good being a loose term. Bell never tires of telling us that Rojhha Thilveenya’s personal maid (who in turn has a personal maid of her own), has a finer parlour in the attic of their sprawling Mexico home than the grandmother’s meandering street house. Bell has seen actual photos of the actual parlour. It’s got rugs, a sofa and a TV.

He sets me down in the lumpy armchair and pulls a rug over me. A doctor is summoned and soon arrives, bringing with him a pet fox. Bell joyfully chases the fox round the good parlour while I retch and sink into deep nausea.

The doctor examines, then summons my father into the far corner beyond the broken piano. He hisses a diagnosis. My father whispers back with rising urgency as ramifications are considered. He hurries out to the hall, makes a phonecall and quickly returns.

‘They refuse take her. Can’t be done. It’s highly contagious.’

‘Is Katie going to die?’ Bell asks, keen to exploit dramatic possibility. ‘Shouldn’t we call the undertaker? Katie’s quite small. They will need to make a special coffin. Do you think I might have Katie’s communion medal? Oh and that mother of pearl pendant she won in a handwriting competition. She won’t be needing it. I know it will be quite sad, but just remember this. You’ll still always have me and let’s face it I’m much better at tennis.’

‘Stop talking, Isabella,’ my father says. ‘Katie is not going to die. She has Yellow Jaundice. Nothing more. She will be very sick for a few weeks and then she will be as right as rain.’

Bell raises a disbelieving eyebrow and scowls her disappointment.

‘There is a very slight chance,’ he says in placating tones, ‘that Katie’s liver might be damaged, bringing the flimsiest possibility of death.’ Awestruck, she glances at my chicken gizzard face and allows herself a self-satisfied smile. One up on Fay Larkin at last.

Grandmother recognises the seriousness of the situation instantly and explains that she is in fact now too old to mind sick children and that Mrs Moore is also far too busy keeping house. A nursing home is mentioned. Calmness returns to the parlour.

Saddened by the sudden dip in melodramatic potential, Bell tugs on the foxes tail and he snaps at her.

‘You can pick up rabies awful easy from a fox,’ Mrs Moore remarks.

Soon the driver of the hired car will knock at the front door.

Our mother, who has finally stirred from her bed, now makes grand maternal entrance. Tall. Beautiful, magnificent with dazzling green eyes and wavy auburn hair. With some effort, she holds an upright position in the doorway by clasping both sides of the doorframe with her hands.

‘The child is dying. Get that fox out. What sort of doctor brings a dirty flea-ridden thing into a sick house?’

She brushes everyone aside and ploughs towards me. A walking tabernacle of relentless maternal love and unswerving devotion. I shut my eyes and cringe into the farthest reaches of the chair as her trembling hand presses on my forehead.

‘Dying. See?’ She glares at my father. ‘I’ll be surprised if the poor leanbh lasts the night. Has anyone even bothered to call the priest? The undertaker? Bell come away. He’ll bite you and give you the Rabies and then I’ll be childless.’

She asks grandmother where the family plot is.

‘Dear God and all the holy angels, why would you cast this torment upon me?’

There is no mention of the torment he has cast upon me.

Mrs Moore finally ushers her out of the room. An uneasy quiet returns.

A couple of hours later I’m on the train with Bell and my father, all sat alone together in a private carriage. We are eastbound for the leafy Dublin Suburbs. I’m stretched out with a blanket draped over me. Every so often he gives me cool water from a flask. Bell fantasises that we have the private carriage because we are rich like Rosa Silvina. I’m too sick to argue the point.

It is a strange feeling to arrive at the gates of the Earthly Educational Paradise, and not to be disgorged and deposited at the grim pile with all decent haste. While I languish on the back seat, aunt draws to a halt at the grand entrance and Bell springs out like an amphetamine raddled kangaroo.

‘There’s Fay now,’ she says and with hurried goodbyes she struts off. I watch her catch up with Fay and then quickly snub her. In the distance Rosa Silvina stands waiting, like Ruth, far from home amid the alien corn of Chapelizod. I pity her the loneliness and the relentless embrace of Bell’s friendship.

Aunt is a country doctor and runs a surgery from home. Still under renovation, the rambling house is not yet fully re-roofed. Walls are propped up with temporary steel girders. All is clad in scaffolding and ancient patched and flapping tarpaulin. The front door is two sheets of overlapping tent canvas. Old floorboards have been lifted out and my father now picks his way carefully along dusty joists, like a tightrope walker. I’m a slack and unwieldy bundle in his arms but he manages to balance ok. Sitting in the hallway are a haggard young woman with several clinging children, and an elderly man dressed in suit, tie, brogues and hat.

Aunt steps past her patients, peers into my face, pulls down my lower eyelids.

‘Scleral icterus. Open! Tongue out! Say aaaahhhh! Yes. Inflamed pharynx. Too much bilirubin. Jaundice. Most unfortunate. Undeniably awkward timing may I say. You will have to put Katie in the upstairs drawing room,’ aunt tells my father. ‘I’ve got patients and then Mister Prentiss and friends are due at two.’

‘Mister Prentiss?’

‘It’s his shooting day.’ Even she, a woman of cool temperament, verges on anxiety. ‘They come every year. He’s the top heart man. Could shoot anywhere but loves it here. Plenty of pheasant now,’ she says waving out the front door distractedly towards the woodland area. Food and refreshments have been arranged. I will be fine in the upstairs drawing room, which has been fully re-roofed she stresses. While renovations are going on, all the good furniture of the house has been rounded up and stored there. But somehow amid the chaos, space has been made for a bed. Someone has placed a neat pile of suitably educational books and toys on an upturned tea chest, for when I feel better.

I shuffle about the room, cower amongst a shadowy jumble of scowling mahogany wardrobes, and glowering chests of drawers and fat legged tables, all casting ugly shapes onto the walls. A throng of unwieldy lamp and coat stands huddle in one corner like lanky outcasts. Close by, a high marble fireplace is crammed with china vases and urns. Stacks of dusty paintings lean against the walls. A large box of tarnished plated cutlery and a smaller box of the real silver stuff are stacked next to an ancient television. There are tea chests full of books, including one with the words FIRST EDITIONS scrawled thickly in black paint, another labelled BANNED BOOKS. I flop onto the narrow bed.

‘Whatever is the matter Katie?’

I hesitate, not wanting to mention ghosts and witches and dead men from the nearby graveyard. I don’t like to look silly.

He stares at me. I’m mostly a biddable and sensible child. Bell would have turned this entire episode into a five act tragedy with endless follow up episodes. Bell would pick a fight with a frog.

There is a quick flurry as wardrobe doors are flung open, their insides bared. Chests of drawers whisked out and I’m encouraged to rummage for hidden monsters. Behind the curtains. Under the bed. Up the chimney. I watch intently as the three tall casement windows are fastened. A lamp with a particularly sinister shadow is removed. He drags and shoves two hulking old wardrobes and a mirrored oak sideboard up against a side wall, so I’ve a clear view of the door.

‘Will you be all right now?’ he says.

I nod. ‘What does undeniably awkward timing may I say mean?’ I kick off my shoes, open the suitcase and retrieve the freshly laundered pyjamas.

‘Nothing. It means nothing. Except that we all want you to get well soon. That’s all. Now get some rest.’

I’m tired and shivering and it’s not easy to work out what’s real or just delirium. I wake sometimes to hear shooting and shouting coming from beyond the woodland, and the soft thump of dead birds tumbling into the tall marshy grasses. Later the jovial voices of men happy to have brought down their feathered prey. The sound of rattling bottles and clinking glasses, the yelping of dogs, the clatter of plates and the slow, steady hum of growing drunkenness.

Someone brings soup on a tray. I push it aside. Later the sounds of car boots and doors slamming, goodbyes and thank-yous.

‘Our great pleasure,’ I hear the aunt coo. She doesn’t often coo.

‘Give my best to Harry won’t you,’ a man says.

‘I will. He’s due home from London any day now.’

Cars screech off into the twilight and the big old house is quiet.

In my more conscious moments over the coming days, I’m aware of the clank and clang and flap and hammer and heavy footfall of building work. Most mornings it starts up before seven. Some of the scaffolding runs past the drawing room window and I can sometimes watch the work from the narrow bed.

My father will rap on the window. ‘You all right in there Katie?’ he’ll say with a grin. Always happiest at his work.

‘Yes thanks.’

‘Have you eaten your breakfast?’

‘Not hungry.’

‘Eat up. You need to get your strength back. I’ll bring ice cream later.’

I think about strength. He can lift anything. Join anything together. Split anything. I think if Einstein came and asked my father to split the atom, he’d give it a damn good try. Strength is not something I associate with myself. I can’t even pull a lavatory chain properly. Does he think I ought to build up muscles so that I too can be a hauler of cement blocks and a fixer of joints? An accomplished puller of chains?

Aunt is busy with patients. In spite of general building chaos, they continue to arrive. The surgery is directly below the drawing room and sometimes I hear snatches of her clipped medical voice.

‘Now now Mrs O’Reilly! You mustn’t let the boy drink petrol. . . Mister Cullen, You most certainly do not have a cancer of the rectum.’

A partially supervised letter arrives from Bell.

Dear Katie

It is my dearest hope that you are feeling better and that soon you will be well enough to rejoin us. We have been immensely busy with rehearsals for the school opera which runs in less than two weeks. Costumes arrived yesterday and though I mustn’t boast, my peasant dress with red dirndl skirt and white puff sleeve blouse is most appealing. I get to sing in all the big choruses but as the tallest and most accomplished of the peasant girls I also have three lines in Act two. ‘Ho there!’ and ‘Look yonder! For the sun is setting!’ and ‘Vienna is that way sir!’

In Science we are studying the life cycle of the frog and the composition of the atom.

Well dearest Katie, that is all the news for now.

I remain your fond sister


PS – Can you believe that absuloot cow Fay Larkin!! Only went behind my back and got the most beautiful turkwise and silver necklace from Rosa Silvina. She’s going round and showing it off and saying it was speshully made for her and cost hundreds of silver Mexican paysos. I got a bracelet with three measerly stones that don’t even shine properly. Toetally disgusted. I’ve written a note to Rosa Silvina saying I’m not even talking to her. No way is Sly Larkin going to get away with this.

It seems that three weeks or even more have now passed since my collapse. I’m well enough to sit on the window seat in the upstairs drawing room and since there is nothing much else to do, I watch the men at work. Hair and faces whitened with building dust, they scurry around, up and down, deft as ballet dancers in heavy cement-caked boots. They talk in indecipherable mutters. Often a curse or two. The work is rough and some evenings at the table I notice my father’s finger has split open or a nail is half hanging off.

Aunt Catherine examines these injuries over shepherd’s pie or a roast chicken. Occasionally she makes a dash to the surgery and returns with cotton wool and iodine.

‘That looks nasty,’ she says one evening, coolly eyeing a deep cut on his index finger. ‘Let me see to it.’

‘No it’s nothing at all. Don’t bother with it,’ he tells her. ‘It will only burst open again tomorrow. Let it toughen out.’

‘Fine then shall we let your finger turn septic?’ She winks across at me. ‘It’s quite interesting watching the gangrene spread, seeing a hand actually rotting away on the end of your wrist. The good news is a rotten hand is very easy to chop off. What do you think Katie?’

I’m wary, not certain if she likes me or not. Confusion ties up my tongue. Still I see the grisly hand catastrophe unfold before my eyes, and the greeny black creeping gangrene. I imagine his putrefying hand beneath the descending blade. The sharp cutting blow. The smell of the warm blood gushing forth.

‘You should do as Aunt Catherine says,’ I stammer out at last. I’m close to tears. ‘Why must you be so careless? It’s really irresponsible don’t you think?’ I’ve a battery of fine words just like irresponsible carefully learned in the Heavenly Foundation.

He and aunt exchange glances which I can’t read. He makes a submissive nod and pushes out his hand for further medical attention.

‘It will need stitches and rest from use. And foreman duties only for the next few days.’

Next morning I wake with a new sense of purpose. Once breakfast has been speedily dispatched, I set myself up on the window seat to monitor the situation. He is careful for a while but then spirit levelling and measuring is required and he’s off up the scaffolding. He’s half way there when I rap on the window pane. I manage to raise the lower sash.

‘You’re not supposed to do that,’ I remind him and the other men laugh and say caught redhanded boss and the lass will make a good foreman. He laughs too and tries to pass it off as a joke.

‘Gangrene! Remember?’ I call out to him. I make a gesture with hand and wrist. ‘Chop chop!’

He scowls, curses under his breath and slides down.

Aunt has cooked chops for dinner. I think it may be her idea of a joke.

‘You don’t speak to your father like that in front of the men,’ he says, struggling to cut the meat with his injured hand.

‘Aunt said you were not to use the hand.’

He stares at me. Up to now he’s had me down as the gentle child who doesn’t tread on anyone’s toes.

‘It’s time for you to go back to school.’

‘Fine. Yes that’s fine,’ I say.

Aunt adjusts her horn-rimmed glasses, leans over and tugs at my lower eyelids. ‘Right as rain!’ she says with some relief like I’m a urine sample, or a balanced account sheet.

I know I’m utterly powerless to influence the outcome of this discussion. I shrug. It’s always best to be unflappable, I’ve read somewhere.

‘I can’t wait to see Bell in the operetta,’ I say. ‘And Sister Justina is helping me to apply for the big scholarship.’

The meat on the chop will not yield to the knife in his bandaged hand. He’s clearly in pain. He raises the chop to his mouth with the other hand. He glances apologetically at Aunt Catherine. She smirks and he smiles back teasingly as his teeth bite into the juicy meat.

We eat our bowls of apple sponge and custard in silence.

Two days later I’m standing in the hall, floorboards now restored and replaced. Everywhere smelling of fresh turpentine and varnish. My suitcase is neatly packed and doubly fastened with the leather strap. I’ve polished my shoes yet again.

He appears from the surgery, all dressed up in that old brown suit, crisp shirt and tie. That battered trilby.

‘I was thinking,’ he says. ‘Maybe you should stay a few days more. It might be no harm to rest up here a bit longer. Get your strength back properly Katie. Start on a new tonic first. We could take a trip into town. I’ll treat you to lunch and a new frock. What do you think?’

‘I’m fine,’ I say. ‘I’ve stripped the bed and left the room tidy. The books and toys are in a box by the window. Say thanks to Aunt Catherine for me won’t you.’

I watch him lift the suitcase. It contains all that is necessary for life in the coming months. This time though I’ve added a first edition of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls and from the Banned Books box a work called The Bell Jar. It has a cover I like. A tiny act of mutiny.

I follow him out to aunt’s car and watch him load my suitcase into the car boot. I sit ladylike into the passenger seat.

‘Best get on the road,’ I say. ‘You’ll want to avoid coming back through the rush hour traffic.’