An extract from The Lives of Women, by Christine Dwyer Hickey
How do you tell the story of yourself as you were more than 30 years ago? How do you know what you were like then? The workings of your troubled mind and heart – how do you begin to resolve all that?
“Her name is my name. I know she’s supposed to be me. But no matter how many times I pick up the photograph and no matter how long I stare into that bleak, adolescent face – all I can see is a stranger”
HAD I NOT GONE searching for the number of some dead roofer called Fenton and found the attic room in need of an airing, I may not have heard a thing. Or had it been summer and the trees in the back yard stuffed with leaves, I’d hardly have even noticed. It’s years since I’ve ventured that far into the cul- de-sac anyhow, and since my return I’m rarely out on the road – not without the hard shell of a car around me. And so, unless one of the neighbours managed to nab me at the gate, say on bin day, or just as I was taking the dog back in from his walk, or unless Fat Carmel got wind of things and started fishing for scraps to add to her pot, weeks may well have passed before the news finally wound its way to me. By then, who knows – this business with my father could well have been over, and I could have gone back to New York. By the time my next visit came around – if it ever came around – the house backing on to ours would no longer matter.
The rooms would be scrubbed clean of all the old stains, the dust and damp of the vacant years cleared away. While this new family – the now owners – would have had time to peel off the skins of paper and carpet and paint, and to smear all the rooms with its own ethological scent. And I wouldn’t have to keep thinking about something that happened more than thirty years ago, and the old ghosts would not now be whimpering at the far side of my back wall.
As it stands, I did open the attic window into the gaudy light of a winter sun, and the view over the bare trees and across the back lawns could not have been clearer. And so that’s how I know, and can’t pretend not to know, that the Shillman house has been sold; that the Shillman house can finally be called something else.
The patio doors have been pinned back, the side entrance gate removed. The upstairs windows, stripped bare of curtains, are wide-open gills sucking on air. From the interior some sort of a machine is screeching. And men in overalls are coming and going, turning the house inside out, streeling its guts all over the lawn.
All day I’ve been returning to the window – even the dog is beginning to wonder, shadowing me upstairs to the landing then cowering at the bottom of the spiral stairwell that leads to the attic room. ‘What are you doing up there?’ his whine seems to say. ‘What the hell are you doing?’
I’m drinking my mid-morning coffee while two men do a Laurel and Hardy routine down the patio steps, the Shillmans’ grey leather sofa like a dead hippo between them.
I’m back with my lunchtime sandwich, watching a young hay-haired man, stretched out on the same sofa, spouting cigarette smoke overhead like he’s some sort of fountain.
I’m licking the yoghurt off the back of my spoon as, one by one, a whole family of mattresses is flung against the back garage wall and the bones of old beds, cots and bunk frames are stacked up alongside them.
More than once I return to the young man on the sofa and wonder when young men started looking this good.
By twilight I’m polishing the dust off my father’s old binoculars.
I see it all now: the four-sided bookcase they had shipped from India; the pony-skin rug that used to hang on the dining-room wall. The contents of the Shillman kitchen, the contents of the Shillman living room, always referred to as a lounge.
I am struck by the amount of belongings: boxes and boxes of belongings, many of which have already been emptied, contents arranged into heaps on the lawn. Books, toys, coats, boots, riding helmets. Shoes. Tennis rackets. Skateboards. Schoolbags. More coats. It’s as if the Shillmans closed the door behind them with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Hay-head slips into view then, soft mouth and strong hands filling the lens. I watch as he hoists Mr Shillman’s golf bag onto his shoulder, then picks his way around the boxes and piles to the end of the boundary wall. He lifts the bag and lowers it into the gap between the Shillman house and the Caudwells’. (Jesus – that gap! I’d forgotten all about it). And I watch, again, the innocent, easy- hipped saunter of him as he makes his way back up the garden path and disappears into the side entrance around to the front of the house.
By now the bare windows on the Shillmans’ house are stark yellow squares on an inky dusk. Other houses around show a flimsier light through curtains and blinds. Everything braced against darkness: pegs clenched on clothes lines, garbage bins backed to the wall, witchy long fingers clawing out from emaciated trees. The rusty old swing in the Jacksons’ garden is sturdy as a hangman’s gallows. In the Caudwells’, a rolled up patio umbrella has turned into a hooded monk.
It occurs to me, then, that I may not be the only one looking down from a window, that the Shillman house is visible from at least four other houses – or at least it used to be when I was the local babysitter. The thoughts of sharing this moment with one of the old neighbours: Anne Jackson or Bill Tansey or – God forbid – Miriam Caudwell.
I move from the window, lay the binoculars down, my wrists aching from the old-fashioned weight of them.
I know I should leave well enough alone: go back downstairs, do what I am supposed to do, which is to feed and medicate both father and dog. From the landing, a long drop of leftover rain flops tiredly into the bucket, reminding me the reason I came up here in the first place: to find the number of a roofer my father is convinced is still alive – a man I recall as already quite old when I was a child. All afternoon he’s been patiently waiting, hand by the phone, to make his first call in weeks. I could, at least, make an effort.
I stand rubbing my wrists for another while then step back up to the window. Not a sound nor a movement indoors or out. There is only the stir of old turf club badges as I lift the binoculars back up to my face.
Whatever I see now reminds me of something: an occasion, a moment, a feeling. Rachel’s old-fashioned boarding school trunk. Michael’s orange Colnago racer. Danny’s yellow tricycle. There’s the hats Mr Shillman brought back from Texas. The Russian can-delabra he once told Agatha a story about and made her cry.
There’s the black rag-rug that their ‘girl from the country’ made, and the glass cocktail cabinet with the crack up the middle. Mrs Shillman’s desk where she wrote her letters; and the painting Serena gave to her, and later regretted, one afternoon of heavy drinking.
I see the green roll of an army sleeping bag and my heart begins to tighten. I see Karl’s haversack and my blood turns cold.
Next day I take the dog walking on what was once Arlows’ land – the last place I should be, considering the night I’ve just put in: scattergun dreams and rooms filled with lost faces. A dozen jittery trips to the bathroom in between. I was late up and late bringing breakfast to my father. He didn’t complain – he never would; at times I think he’d as soon have me starve him to death.
Over the years Arlows’ place has been sold off in parcels and patches, ‘so houses like yours could crawl like reptiles all over my land’, as Maggie Arlow, rosy with gin, once said to me.
On a few acres of land the Arlows had probably forgotten they even owned, Mr Jackson built our little estate more than fifty years ago, holding one house back for himself – two rows of good-sized no-nonsense family homes with a cul-de-sac looping off the middle - and for a long time it was the only housing estate around here.
All that is left of the Arlows now, their house and its grounds, orchard and stableyard, is the rear view they once enjoyed over the valley and the random stone wall to the front. The wrought-iron gates have been removed but the pillars remain and now serve as an entrance to the final development to be built around here, maybe fifteen years ago, or at some stage, anyhow, during my long absence. And if Maggie thought our reptiles were bad, I don’t know what she’d make of these dormer bungalows with their Tudor notions, plonked all over what was once her driveway and front lawns.
The valley itself, now a council-owned park, is still good and rough around the edges. Pathways and cycle tracks are etched into the slopes. Where the paddocks once were, there are mown grass patches. A proper car park sits near the entrance along with a map indicating where the wildlife can be found. At the squat stone bridge where the river splits, the ruins of Hoxtons’ house still stand, not looking any worse for wear than it did when I was a child. Over a ditch in a nearby field, there is a tree railed in by four brass bed-ends: here lies the shrine to the dead tinker-man.
Fat Carmel has her own take on the wildlife down here and fre-quently sings it for me in that sugary Welsh accent of hers whenever I drop by her shop to pick up my father’s newspaper. Campfires are her speciality – Rizla papers and scraps of tin foil mean the fire has been made by junkies. Broken glass and burnt beer cans indicate the ordinary everyday drunks. She tells me all this as if I couldn’t have figured it out for myself.
To listen to her, you’d think she was down here every night of the week with her torch, instead of sitting alone in her flat above the shop, munching unsold cakes and sausage rolls for dinner.
It could be a blow-in’s interest, of course – she has, after all, only lived here for ten years – or it could be a simple need to belong, but Carmel seems to have this need to be at the centre of things, even from a distance, and even in retrospect: the who-lives-where-for-how-long-and-who-with of it all. She will find out about the Shillman house and much more besides – of that, I am certain.
When I was a kid, I practically lived in Arlows’ valley. But since my return at the end of August, it’s been an occasional spur-of- the-moment visit. Not because of the obvious dangers - junkies and drinkers at their little campfires don’t bother me in the least. People do walk their dogs - you might even see the occasional morning jogger. But the unspoken rule of the neighbourhood is: come mid-afternoon, leave the park to those who belong in the shadows.
Even my father – a man of few words that grow fewer each day – has been moved to open his cake-hole on the subject.
‘Don’t go down there, it’s dangerous,’ was about the extent of this once-off warning. I didn’t like to ask if he meant dangerous in general, or dangerous for me.
For me the only danger down here is memory.
I remember the way blackberry picking left the tips of my fingers flayed, and sitting in the grass trying to work out which was the blackberry’s blood, which was my own. I remember pinkeen fishing, the twist and turn of the net in water that was green and luscious with river dirt. And the shock of that cold-rotating slap after slap on my face when rolling down a hill packed with snow. And later, of course, much, much later, the spot where we used to stash the flagons of cider in the afternoon before returning that evening to drink them.
I remember the drunken paddling in the river. The boys daring each other to climb up and dive off the rusty old cattle bridge, and the bruise under Karl Donegan’s ribs that was shaped like a map of Australia. I remember the smell of horse shit on the air when I lay in the long grass beside him. Patty’s American voice in the dark. The tight glow of a cigarette tip; the loose red bud of a joint and the slight crackle as it took light and began to burn. The trees growing dense with menace at nightfall. And most of all, I remember the night before they sent me away, hunkering behind the wall of Hoxtons’ bridge, as I looked up at dozens of flashlights wobbling all over the bowl of the valley, and thinking, I’m drowning now, I’m at the bottom of the ocean; in a moment I’ll be dead, and here is the last thing that I’ll ever see: this shoal of electric jellyfish floating over my head.
I come down here to try to cure or maybe kill something, in a hair of a dog sort of a way, but all I ever do is remember. Days of brooding then follow. Brooding on the past, on the horror of being young: on all the stupidity and ignorance and misplaced loyalty that goes with the territory. Then I start with the thinking. I think about what it was like to be living here at that time. I think about Karl and Paul, about Patty and Serena. About Jonathan. I think about all the others. About my mother and the other mothers. About my father and the other fathers and non-fathers alike. About the unimportance of children and the importance of men. I think about the lives of women.
And so that’s why I tend to avoid it, not because my father thinks it’s dangerous or because Carmel’s junkies are going to skin me up and smoke me. I avoid it because I never come away from here feeling any less than sick in heart, stomach and of course mind. And yet, every once in a while, this is exactly where I find myself.
I whistle for the dog, whistle again, then turn on the pathway leading down to the stone bridge. I pass last night’s campfires and a few medallions of melted green plastic from the bins the kids have stolen and burned out to get stoned on the fumes. I see the rags of small plastic bags caught on the hedgerows, bearing supermarket logos of what Carmel calls ‘those German baaaastard dives, intent on killing our youth with their mind-twisting, liver- corroding, cheap liquor’.
And I see, lying naked on the grass, two large bars of chocolate bought solely for their heroin-friendly foil which, unless I am very much mistaken, have come from her ‘bargain basket’ of out-ofdate, or very nearly out-of-date, sweets.
I look back up to see the dog appear on the crest of the hill, blond and black and frisky-looking, and then kick the chocolate away in case he is tempted.
I whistle again. And he comes in a canter down the hill, for that moment or two joyful and so much younger than his years.
He arrives to heel, an old dog again, half-blind and utterly exhausted, then he folds himself down on the ground and looks at me sideways, as if ashamed of his own frailty. And I find myself wondering which I will be left with in the end, the dog or my father, then try not to think which one I’d prefer.
When the dog has recovered, we continue downwards, taking our time, him cocking his leg every few seconds along the way, me trying to keep my thoughts vague and away from the reach of the past. On a ditch, a pair of knickers, slight and tangerine coloured, lie like a delicate and wounded bloom. And on the far side of the trees, I can hear the river breathing. A few seconds later there is a sound of rowers returning upriver, back towards the city: the coxman’s call, long and short, long and short. Nearer and louder. Come on boys - let’s push. Now let’s puuuushhhh.
I imagine the determined young profiles grimacing with each jagged movement and the muscles of their arms puffing up to the task. Bare legs splayed with first hair, folding and unfolding from the knee. Skin damp with winter sweat. I feel a vague pity then that I don’t quite understand: maybe for the girl who wore the tangerine underwear and whatever disappointment she may have felt after the event. Or maybe for the middle-aged woman who is standing here in my shoes.
A long blade of sound swishes by. I close my eyes to look at it. And there is the boat, honed and completely mastered, as it cuts up river, like a tailor’s scissors cuts through a bolt of new cloth.
We come to the ditch at the tinker’s shrine and I decide to cross over and take a proper look at it. Clipping the lead onto the collar, heaving the poor dog over and up, we both stand there and stare in, one of us panting slightly more than the other.
It is obviously an ongoing work of art, this shrine: some trinkets are weather-beaten, others appear to be recent additions. Blue is the colour – all shades of blue. From a high, thick branch, a huge set of wooden rosary beads hangs, and from lesser branches, other more delicate sets dangle like Christmas tree decorations. Along with pieces of threaded glass and wind-chimes, they tinkle and whisper. Blue and white ribbons are spiralled around the bedposts. Inside the rails, in the centre of the plot, there is a small statue of a piebald pony and, behind it, a framed photograph of the dead man. He has a look about him of Burt Reynolds in his heyday. I’m guessing he either died here or was injured here and later died. I guess, too, that this shrine is dedicated to his spirit and that his body lies in another place - a plot in a formal cemetery or in an urn on a shelf in a tinker’s caravan. The small carved cross stuck into the earth gives the year but, for some reason, not the month of his death. Long after I left anyhow. Long before I came back.
Whoever he was, and however he died, great lengths have been taken to ensure that he is never lonely. Plastic see-through Holy Marys filled to the chin with holy water are posted around the tree. Little toy angels guard his picture. In a blue heart-shaped frame, a small girl, a daughter - or by now, more likely, a granddaughter - is frilled to the brim in a white first holy communion dress. A glass jar, etched into the clay, is stuffed with what appear to be small folded notes which I take to be messages for Burt. In another jam jar, a single tight-headed rose reminds me: November has arrived, month of the dead.
I am moved by the love that’s expressed at this shrine and continues to be expressed, fourteen years after the tinker has died. And I am moved, too, by the lack of shame in his death. Even a death that may well have been by murder, or as a result of some sort of violence anyhow, deserves to be both cherished and mourned.
Apart from two weddings in upstate New York, I haven’t stepped inside a church since I left here and, if I can help it, never will. Nor can I say I believe in, or even approve of, prayer. But I say a prayer here for Karl. I say a prayer for Rachel. I even say one for Paul and Jonathan. And Agatha, of course – I say a special prayer for her.
In my half-sleep, I sometimes see myself walking. A long, narrow path that veers into the distance. The ground is uneven, gnarled by the reaches of old tree roots and ancient worn-down stones. On one side of me, a high grey wall shawled with ivy. On the other, a stand of oak trees.
I stop and turn to look back along the considerable way I’ve already come. There’s a figure in the distance that has also stopped to turn and look at me. She is young, but not a child.
Or again, just as I’m about to doze off – on a crowded city street at rush hour: hundreds of faces coming towards me, each, in its own way, distinctive. Yet only one stands out. There is something about her, a certain expression – what it is, I couldn’t say.
I have this overwhelming need to understand her anyhow; to know who she is or why she is here. To know her story. To forgive it, even, if that’s what it should come to.
But how do you tell the story of yourself as you were more than thirty years ago? How do you know what you were like then? The workings of your troubled mind and heart – how do you begin to resolve all that?
I have looked at a photograph – the only photograph I could find in all the rooms of my parents’ house. She has the same eyes as mine. The same blood and bones. Her name is my name. I know she’s supposed to be me. But no matter how many times I pick up the photograph and no matter how long I stare into that bleak, adolescent face – all I can see is a stranger.
The Livesof Women is published by Atlantic