Maureen was seeking redemption.
Not for herself. You don’t just kill someone and get forgiven; they’d hang you for a lot less. No, she was seeking redemption like a pig sniffs for truffles: rooting it out, turning it over, mad for the taste of it, resigned to giving it up.
Robbie O'Donovan, said her conscience. Poor craitur. Had a name once, and a body, before you offered both to the worms. How easy it was to kill someone, really, much easier than it had any right to be. One day they're occupying space in a living city and the next they're six feet under – or wherever it was Jimmy stowed his leftovers – and out of sight, out of mind. Because no one came looking for Robbie O'Donovan. No guards, no wives, no mammies. Poor craitur.
He inhabited the old brothel with her now, out of harm’s way and anyone else’s eye line. He watched her from the stairs. He waited to one side of the kitchen table while she ate, avoiding the spot of his ebbing. He stood at the end of the bed, right at the middle of the footboard, staring down at her when she couldn’t sleep.
‘Is it any wonder I can’t with you here?’ she used to say to him.
He didn’t reply. His mouth wasn’t made for it. His face shifted with her guesswork and never settled long enough to answer back. Sometimes he had blue eyes and luminescent white skin. Sometimes he had thin lips and hollow cheeks. Sometimes he smiled, or formed a wide O in belated horror. He never had teeth.
The cape of sticky crimson spread over his right shoulder and weighted his faded black jumper so it clung to him, exactly as it had in his final moments.
She sought redemption in him first. She lay awake at night and explained herself to him, first her actions, then her history, in case it would provide background against which he could shape his acceptance. But his mouth wouldn’t stay put to confirm it. She told him again, fleshing it out where she thought he might want it. His sometime-face refused to engage.
‘Will I tell you a story, Robbie O’Donovan?’
His blue eyes smeared across his sockets and onto his cheeks. Black substitutes flowed into position.
'When I was eighteen I met a man. He was twenty-four and from out Cobh direction, he wore a beard and beads; you wouldn't know the type, Robbie O'Donovan, because it was long before your time, but he was a catch and all the girls said so. His name was Dominic Looney, so it's a good job I didn't marry him. I was a skinny minnie – I used to wear pants up to my ears with bottoms on them wide enough to sweep the streets, and I had a head of hair on me like a mushroom cloud, so between the trousers and the fluffy ceann I don't know how he saw enough of me to want what he thought was on offer. But there you go: you fellas are strange. He thought I was a lasher and I didn't deny him the chance to keep telling me. So we were doing a line. We'd go out to Crosshaven for the dances and he'd get me drunk on shandy, which will tell you, Robbie O'Donovan, how small I was back then.
‘We didn’t go out for that long but it must have looked fairly serious because there was an assumption amongst the girls I worked with that we’d get married. And we pretended to be married enough times; we went for weekends away and told the Mary-Anns in the B&Bs that we were Mr and Mrs Looney and only married a year. And you can imagine what went on after that, can’t you? Not that it’d do you any good imagining it now; I don’t cut the figure I used to.
'Of course, it's different nowadays, but back then being a trollop was full of occupational hazards. No doubt the Mary-Anns would have called it my own fault and gloated at my situation – and that's what they used to call it then, Robbie O'Donovan; a situation, or a problem, oh, something vague and fateful. What are we going to do about Maureen's problem? Well, the first thing I did was arrange a shotgun wedding in my head. I was to wear a floating cream dress, and he'd have his beard and a suit, and we'd be in a house of our own before my belly escaped from bondage and made a whore and a charlatan out of the pair of us.
‘But that wasn’t to be, for as soon as Dom Looney got wind of it he was out the gap, flapping like a chicken trying to outrun a fox.
‘So what do you think happened then, Robbie O’Donovan?’
The apparition’s face flickered.
‘Then I was sent away. For the neighbours’ benefit I was gone away to work, but really I was being watched as I grew and grew and grew and the faces around me got longer and longer and longer. And then when I had the baby my mother – God rest her
soul and say hello to her if you see her – fell head over heels for him and so it was decided that I give him up in atonement so that my mother and father could raise him in the stable and proper home that had given rise to the likes of me.
‘So you tell me this, Robbie O’Donovan, when your face stops fading in and out and your mouth fixes in whatever shape your parents gave it: why was I asked to redeem myself for something my mother ended up coveting? Hmm? And if I’ve done all my redeeming, forty bleddy years of it, why in God’s name do you think I should be seeking redemption for you?’
Lacking the necessary equipment to answer, the ghost of Robbie O’Donovan said nothing.