Dinosaurs on Other Planets, a short story by Danielle McLaughlin
A difficult daughter returns home with a son and lover in tow, testing the tense equilibrium of her parents’ strained marriage
Danielle McLaughlin: “A poem I wrote when I was 12 appeared in a school magazine. Despite this promising start, my next publication didn’t happen until 2009, when The Irish Times accepted a nonfiction article about au pairs
From the ditch behind the house, Kate could see her husband up at the old forestry hut, where mottled scrubland gave way to dense lines of trees. “Colman!” she called, but he didn’t hear. She watched him swing the axe in a clean arc and thought that from this distance he could be any age. Lately, she’d found herself wondering what he’d been like as a very young man, a man of twenty. She hadn’t known him then. He had already turned forty when they met.
It was early April, the fields and ditches coming green again after winter. Grass verges crept outward, thickening the arteries of narrow lanes. “There’s nothing wrong,” she shouted when she was still some yards off. He was in his shirtsleeves, his coat discarded on the grass beside him. “Emer rang from London. She’s coming home.”
He put down the axe. “Home for a visit, or home for good?” He had dismantled the front of the hut and one of the side walls. On the floor inside, if floor was the word, she saw empty beer cans, blankets, a ball of blackened tinfoil.
“Just for a few days. A friend from college has an exhibition. I wasn’t given much detail. You know Emer.”
“Yes,” he said, and frowned. “When is she arriving?”
“Tomorrow evening, and she’s bringing Oisín.”
“Tomorrow? And she’s only after ringing now?”
“It’ll be good to have them stay. Oisín has started school since we last saw him.”
She waited to see if he might mention the room, but he picked up the axe, as if impatient to get back to work.
“What will we do if the Forestry Service come round?” she said.
“They haven’t come round this past year. They don’t come round when we ring about the drinking or the fires.” He swung the axe at a timber beam supporting what was left of the roof. There was a loud splintering but the beam stood firm, and he drew back the axe, prepared to strike again.
She turned and walked toward the house. The Dennehys, their nearest neighbours, had earlier that week sown maize, and a crow hung from a pole, strung up by a piece of twine. It lifted in the wind as she walked past, coming to rest again a few feet from the ground, above the height of foxes. When they first moved here, she hadn’t understood that the crows were real, shot specially for the purpose, and had asked a discomfited Mrs Dennehy what cloth she sewed them from.
After supper, she took the duvet cover with the blue Teddy bears from the hot press and spread it out on the kitchen table. There were matching pillowcases and a yellow pajama holder in the shape of a rabbit. Colman was on the other side of the kitchen, making a mug of Bovril. “What do you think?” she said.
“You couldn’t possibly see from that distance,” she said.
“It’s the same one as before, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes,” she said. “But it’s a while since they visited. I’m wondering, is it a bit babyish?”
“You’re not going to find another between now and tomorrow,” he said, and she felt the flutter in her eyelid start up, the one that usually preceded a headache. She had hoped the sight of the duvet cover might prompt an offer to move his stuff, or at least the suggestion that she could move it, but he just drank his Bovril and rinsed the mug, setting it upside down on the draining board. “Good night,” he said, and went upstairs.
Next morning, she started with his suits. She waited until he’d gone outside, then carried them from John’s old room to their bedroom, across the landing. The wardrobe there had once held everything, but now when she pushed her coats and dresses along the rail they resisted, swung back at her, jostling and shouldering, as if they’d been breeding and fattening this past year. For an hour she went back and forth between the rooms with clothes, shoes, books. The winter before last, Colman had brought the lathe in from the shed and set it up in their son’s old bedroom. It had been a gift from the staff at the Co-op on his retirement as manager. He would turn wood late into the night, and often, when she put her head around the door in the morning, she would find him, still in his clothes, asleep on John’s old single bed. There began then the gradual migration of his belongings. He appeared to have lost interest in the lathe – he no longer presented her with lamps or bowls – but for the better part of a year he had not slept in their bedroom at all.
Colman had allowed junk to accumulate – magazines, spent batteries, a cracked mug on the windowsill. She got a sack and went around the room, picking things up. The lathe and wood-turning tools – chisels, gouges, knives – were on a desk in the corner, and she packed them away in a box. She put aside Colman’s pyjamas and dressed the bed with fresh linen, the blue Teddy bears jolly on the duvet, the rabbit propped on a chair alongside. Standing back to admire it, she noticed Colman in the doorway. He had his hands on his hips and was staring at the sack.
“I haven’t thrown anything out,” she said.
“Why can’t the child sleep in the other room?” He went over to the sack, dipped a hand in, and took out a battery.
“Emer’s room? Because Emer will be sleeping there.”
“Can’t he sleep there, too?”
She watched him drop the battery back into the sack and root around, a look of expectancy on his face, like a boy playing lucky dip. He brought out the cracked mug, polished it on his trousers, and then, to her exasperation, put it back on the windowsill.
“He’s six,” she said. “He’s not a baby any more. I want things to be special. We see so little of him.” It was true, she thought, it was not a lie. And then, because he was staring at her, she said, “And I don’t want Emer asking about . . . ” She paused, spread her arms wide to encompass the room. “About this.” For a moment he looked as if he were going to challenge her. It would be like him, she thought, to decide to have this conversation today, today of all days, when he wouldn’t have it all year. But he picked up his pyjamas and a pair of shoes she had missed beneath the bed and, saying nothing, headed across the landing. Later, she found his pyjamas folded neatly on the pillow on his side of the bed, where he always used to keep them.
Colman was on the phone in the hall when the car pulled up in front of the house. Kate hurried out and was surprised to see a man in the driver’s seat. Emer was in the passenger seat, her hair blacker and shorter than Kate remembered. “Hi, Mam,” she said, getting out and kissing her mother. She wore a red tunic, the bodice laced up with ribbon like a folk costume, and black trousers tucked into red boots. She opened the back door of the car and the child jumped out. He was small for six, pale and sandy-haired. “Say hi to your granny,” Emer said, and she pushed him forward.
Kate felt tears coming, and she hugged the child close and shut her eyes so as not to confuse him. “Goodness,” she said, stepping back to get a better look, “you’re getting more and more like your Uncle John.” The boy stared at her blankly. She ruffled his hair. “You wouldn’t remember him,” she said. “He lives in Japan now. You were very small when you met him, just a baby.”
The driver’s door opened and the man got out. He was slight and sallow-skinned, in a navy sports jacket and round, dark-rimmed glasses. One foot dragged a little as he came round the side of the car, ploughing a shallow furrow in the gravel. Kate had been harbouring a hope that he was the driver, that any moment Emer would take out her purse and pay him, but he put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder and she watched Emer turn her head to nuzzle his fingers. He was not quite twice Emer’s age, but he was close – late forties, she guessed. Kate waited for Emer to make the introductions, but she had turned her attention to Oisín, who was struggling with the zip of his hoodie. “Pavel,” the man said, and, stepping forward, he shook her hand. Then he opened the boot and took out two suitcases.
“I’ll give you a hand with those,” Colman said, appearing at the front door. He wrested both cases from Pavel and carried them into the house, striding halfway down the hall before coming to a halt. He put the suitcases down beside the telephone table and stood with his hands in his pockets. The others stopped, too, forming a tentative circle at the bottom of the stairs.
“Oisín,” Emer said, “say hello to your grandad. He’s going to take you hunting in the forest.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “Bears?” he said.
“No bears,” Colman said, “but we might get a fox or two.”
Pavel shuffled his feet on the carpet. “Oh, Daddy,” Emer said, as if she’d just remembered, “this is Pavel.” Pavel held out a hand, and Colman delayed for a second before taking it. “Pleased to meet you,” he said, and he lifted the cases again. “I’ll show you to your rooms.”
Kate remained in the hall and watched them climb the stairs, Colman in front, the others following behind. Pavel was new, she thought; the child was shy with him, sticking close to his mother, one hand clutching her tunic. Colman set a suitcase down outside Emer’s old bedroom. He pushed open the door, and from the foot of the stairs Kate watched her daughter and grandson disappear into the garish, cluttered room, its walls hung with canvases Emer had painted during her goth phase. Colman carried the other suitcase to John’s old room. “And this is your room,” she heard him say to Pavel as she went into the kitchen to make tea.
“How long is he on the scene?” Colman said when he came back downstairs.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “I don’t know any more than you do.”
He sat at the table, drumming his fingers on the oilcloth. “What class of a name is Pavel, anyway?” he said. “Is it Eastern European or what? Is it Lithuanian? What is it?”
She debated taking out the china, but, deciding it was old-fashioned, went for the pottery mugs instead. “I expect we’ll hear later,” she said, arranging biscuits on a plate.
“She shouldn’t have landed him in on top of us like this, with no warning.”
“No,” Kate said, “she shouldn’t have.”
She found the plastic beaker she’d bought for Oisín’s last visit two Christmases ago. It was decorated with puffy-chested robins and snowflakes. She polished it with a tea towel and put it on the table. “Every time I see Oisín,” she said, “he reminds me of John. Even when he was a baby in his pram he looked like John. I must get down the photo album and show Emer.”
Colman wasn’t listening. “Are we supposed to ask about the other fellow at all now?” he said. “Or are we supposed to say nothing?”
Her eyelid was fluttering so fiercely she had to press her palm flat against her eye in an effort to still it. “If you mean Oisín’s father,” she said, “don’t mention him, unless Emer mentions him first.” She took her hand away from her face and saw her grandson standing in the doorway. “Oisín!” she said, and she went over, laid a hand on his soft, fine hair. “Come and have a biscuit.” She offered the plate and watched him survey the contents, his fingers hovering above the biscuits but not quite touching. He finally selected a chocolate one shaped like a star. He took a small, careful bite and chewed slowly, eyeing her the way he had eyed the biscuits, making an assessment. She smiled. “Why don’t you sit here and tell us all about the airplane.” She pulled out two chairs, one for the child, one for herself, but the boy went around to the other side of the table and sat next to Colman.
He had finished the biscuit, and Colman pushed the plate closer to him. “Have another,” he said. The boy chose again, more quickly this time. “Tell me,” Colman said, “where’s Pavel from?”
“What does he do?”
The boy shrugged, took another bite of biscuit.
“Colman,” Kate said sharply, “would you see if there’s some lemonade in the fridge?”
He looked at her, a look both guilty and defiant, but got up without saying anything and fetched the lemonade.
They heard footsteps on the stairs, and laughter, and Emer came into the kitchen with Pavel in tow. Opening the fridge, she took out a litre of milk and drank straight from the carton. She wiped her mouth with her hand and put the milk back. Pavel nodded to Kate and Colman – an easy, relaxed nod – but didn’t join them at the table. Instead, he went over to a window. “They’re like gods, aren’t they?” he said, pointing to the three wind turbines rotating slowly on the mountain. “I feel I should take them a few dead chickens, kill a goat or something.”
“Those things have caused no end of trouble,” Kate said. “Our neighbours say they can’t sleep at night with the noise of the blades.”
“Perhaps not enough goats?” he said.
She smiled and was about to offer him tea, but Emer linked his arm. “We’re going to the pub,” she said. “Just for the one. We won’t be long.” She blew Oisín a kiss. “Be good for your granny and grandad.”
The boy sat quietly at the table, working his way through the biscuits. “We could see if there are cartoons on television,” Kate said. “Would you like that?”
Colman glared at her as if she had suggested sending the child down a mine. “Television will rot his brain,” he said. He leaned in to the boy. “Tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t you and I go hunt those foxes?”
The boy was already climbing down off his chair, the biscuits and lemonade forgotten. “What will we do with the foxes when we catch them?” he asked.
“We’ll worry about that when it happens,” Colman said. He turned to Kate. “You didn’t want to come, did you?”
“No,” she said, “it’s OK. I’d better make a start on dinner.” She walked with them to the back porch, watched them go down the garden and scale the ditch at the end. The boy’s hair snagged as he squeezed beneath the barbed wire, and she knew that if she went to the ditch now she would find silky white strands left behind, like the locks of wool left by lambs. Dropping into the field on the other side, they made their way across the scrub, through grass and briars and wild saplings, Colman in front, the boy behind, almost running to keep up. The grass was in the first rush of spring growth. Come summer, it would be higher, higher than the boy’s head and blonder, as it turned, unharvested, to hay.
They reached the pile of timber that used to be the hut, and Colman stopped, bent to take something from the ground. He held it in the air with one hand, gesticulating with the other, then gave it to the boy. Goodness knows what he was showing the child, she thought, what rubbish they were picking up. Whatever the thing was, she saw the boy discard it in the grass, and then they went onward, getting smaller and smaller, until they disappeared into the forest.
An hour later, her husband and grandson returned, clattering into the kitchen. Oisín’s shoes and the hems of his trousers were covered in mud. He was carrying something, cradling it to his chest, and when she went to help him off with his shoes she saw that it was an animal skull. Colman went out to the utility room and rummaged around in the cupboards, knocking over pans and brushes, banging doors. “What are you looking for?” she said. The boy remained in the kitchen, stroking the skull as if it were a kitten. It was yellowy-white and long-nosed, with a broad forehead.
Colman returned with a plastic bucket and a five-gallon drum of bleach. He took the skull from the boy and placed it in the bucket, poured the bleach on top until it reached the rim. “Now,” he said, “that’ll clean up nicely. Leave it a couple of days and you’ll see how white it is.”
“Look,” Oisín said, grabbing Kate’s hand and dragging her over. “We found a dinosaur skull.”
“A sheep, more likely,” his grandfather said. “A sheep that got caught in wire. The dinosaurs were killed by a meteorite millions of years ago.”
Kate peered into the bucket. Little black things, flies or maggots, had already detached themselves from the skull and were floating loose. There was green around the eye sockets, and veins of mud grained deep in the bone.
“What’s a meteorite?” the boy asked.
The front door opened, and they heard Emer and Pavel coming down the hall. “The child doesn’t know what a meteorite is,” Colman said when they entered the kitchen.
Emer rolled her eyes at her mother. She sniffed and wrinkled her nose. “It smells like a hospital in here,” she said.
Pavel dropped to his haunches beside the bucket. “What’s this?” he said.
“It’s a dinosaur skull,” Oisín said.
“So it is,” Pavel said.
Kate waited for her husband to contradict him, but Colman had settled into an armchair in the corner, holding a newspaper, chest height, in front of him. She looked down at the top of Pavel’s head, noticed how his hair had the faintest suggestion of a curl, how a tuft went its own way at the back. The scent of his shampoo was sharp and sweet and spiced, like an orange pomander. She looked away, out to the garden, and saw that the afternoon was fading. “I’m going to get some herbs,” she said, “before it’s too dark,” and, taking scissors and a basket, she went outside. She cut parsley first, then thyme. Inside the house, someone switched on the lights. She watched figures move about the kitchen, a series of family tableaux framed by the floral-curtained windows: now Colman and Oisín, now Oisín and Emer, sometimes Emer and Pavel. Every so often, she heard a burst of laughter.
Back inside, she found Colman, Oisín, and Pavel gathered around a box on the table, an old cardboard Tayto box from beneath the stairs. Overhead, water rattled through the house’s antiquated pipes: the sound of Emer running a bath. From the box, Colman took some dusty school reports, a metal truck with its front wheels missing, a tin of toy soldiers. “Aha!” he said. “I knew we kept it.” He lifted out a long cylinder of paper and tapped it playfully against the top of Oisín’s head. “I’m going to show you what a meteorite looks like,” he said.
Kate watched as Colman unfurled the paper and laid it flat on the table. It curled back into itself, and he reached for a couple of books from a nearby shelf, positioning them at top and bottom to hold it in place. It was a poster, four feet long and two feet wide. “This here,” Colman said, “is the asteroid belt.” He traced a circular pattern in the middle of the poster, and when he took away his hand his fingertips were gray with dust.
Pavel moved aside to allow Kate a better view. She peered over her husband’s shoulder into a dazzling galaxy of stars and moons and dust. It was dizzying: the unimaginable expanses of space and time, the vast, spinning universe. We are there, she thought, if only we could see ourselves. We are there, and so is John in Japan. The poster was wrinkled and torn at the edges but otherwise intact. She looked at the planets, pictured them spinning and turning for all those years beneath the stairs, their moons in quiet orbit.
“This is our man,” Colman said, pointing to the top left-hand corner. “This is the fellow that did for the dinosaurs.”
The boy, on tiptoe, touched a finger to the thing Colman had indicated, a flaming ball of rock trailing dust and comets. “Did it only hit planet Earth?”
“Yes,” his grandfather said. “Wasn’t that enough?”
“So there could still be dinosaurs on other planets?”
“No,” Colman said, at exactly the same time that Pavel said, “Very likely.”
The boy turned to Pavel. “Really?”
“I don’t see why not,” Pavel said. “There are millions of other galaxies and billions of other planets. I bet there’s lots of other dinosaurs. Maybe lots of other people, too.”
“Like aliens?” the boy said.
“Yes, aliens, if you want to call them that,” Pavel said, “although they might be very like us.”
Colman lifted the books from the edges of the poster, and it rolled back into itself with a slap of dust. He handed it to Oisín, then returned the rest of the things to the box, closed the cardboard flaps. “O.K., sonny,” he said, “let’s put this back under the stairs,” and the boy followed him out of the kitchen, the poster tucked under his arm like a musket.
After dinner that evening, Kate refused all offers of help. She sent everyone to the sitting room to play cards while she took the dishes to the sink. Three red lights shone down from the wind turbines on the mountain, a warning to aircraft. She filled the sink with soapy water and watched the bubbles form psychedelic honeycombs, millions and millions of tiny domes glittering on the dirty plates.
That night, their first sharing a bed in almost a year, Colman undressed in front of her as if she weren’t there. He matter-of-factly removed his shirt and trousers, folded them on a chair, and put on his pyjamas. She found herself appraising his body as she might a stranger’s. Here, without the backdrop of forest and mountain, without the axe in his hand, she saw that he was old, saw the way the muscles of his legs had wasted and the gray of his chest hair. But she was not repulsed by any of these things; she simply noted them. She got her nightdress from under her pillow and began to unbutton her blouse. On the third button, she found that she could go no further and went out to the bathroom to undress there. Her figure had not entirely deserted her. Her breasts when she cupped them were shrunken, but she was slim, and her legs, which she’d always been proud of, were still shapely. Thus far, age had not delivered its estrangement of skin from bone: her thighs and stomach were firm, with none of the sagginess, the falling away, that sometimes happened. She had not suffered the collapse that befell other women, rendering them unrecognisable as the girls they had been in their youth, though perhaps that was yet to come, for she was only fifty-two.
When she returned to the bedroom, Colman was in bed reading the newspaper. She peeled back the duvet on her side and got into bed. He glanced in her direction but continued to read. She read a few pages of a novel but couldn’t concentrate.
“I thought I might take the boy fishing tomorrow,” he said.
She put down her book. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” she said. “He’s had a busy day today. I was thinking of driving to town, taking him to the cinema.”
“He can go to the cinema in London.”
“We’ll see tomorrow,” she said, and took up her book again.
Colman put away the newspaper and switched off the lamp on his side. He settled his head on the pillow but immediately sat up again, plumping the pillow, turning it over, until he had it to his liking. She switched off her lamp, lay there in the dark, careful where she placed her legs, her arms, readjusting to the space available to her. A door opened and closed, she heard footsteps on the landing, then another door, opening, closing. After a while she heard small, muffled noises, then a repetitive thudding, a headboard against a wall. The sound would be heard, too, in Emer’s old bedroom, where the boy was now alone. She thought of him waking in the night among those peculiar paintings, dozens of ravens with elongated necks, strange hybrid creatures, half bird, half human. She imagined specks of paint coming loose, falling on the boy in a black ash as he slept. Colman was curled away from her, facing the wall. She looked at him as the thudding grew louder. He was quiet, so quiet she could barely discern the sound of his breathing, and she knew that he was awake, for throughout their marriage he had always been a noisy sleeper.
As soon as she reached the bottom of the stairs the next morning, she knew she was not the first up. It was as if someone had cut through the air before her, had broken the invisible membrane that formed during the night. From the utility room she heard the boy’s high, excited babble. He was in his pyjamas, crouched beside the bucket of bleach, and beside him, in jeans and a shirt, his hair still wet from the shower, was Pavel. Oisín pointed at the bucket. In the pool of an eye socket something was floating, something small and white and chubby.
Kate bent to take a look. Her arm brushed against Pavel’s shoulder, but he did not move away or shift position, and they remained like that, barely touching, staring into the bucket. A film of tiny insects and bits of vegetation lay upon the surface. The white thing was a maggot, its ridged belly bloated. Oisín looked from Pavel to Kate. “Can I have it for a pet?” he said.
“No!” they said in unison, and Kate laughed. She felt her face redden, and she straightened up, took a step back from the bucket. Pavel stood up, too, ran a hand through his wet hair. The boy continued to watch the maggot, mesmerized. He was so close that his breath created ripples, his fringe flopping forward over his face and almost trailing in the bleach. “OK,” Kate said. “That’s enough,” and, taking him by the elbow, she lifted him gently to his feet.
“Can I take the skull out?” he asked.
Pavel shrugged and glanced at Kate. He seemed downcast this morning, she thought, quieter in himself. She looked at the skull and at the debris that had floated free of it, and something about it, the emptiness, the lifelessness, repulsed her, and suddenly she couldn’t bear the idea of the boy’s small hands touching it. “No,” she said, “it’s not ready yet. Maybe tomorrow.”
Emer didn’t appear for breakfast, and when finally she arrived downstairs it was clear that there had been a row. She made a mug of coffee and, draping one of her father’s coats around her shoulders, went outside to drink it. She paced up and down past the kitchen window, her phone to her ear, talking loudly. When she came back in, she called from the hall, “Get your coat, Oisín. We’re going in the car.”
Oisín and Pavel were at the table, playing with the contents of the Tayto box. The two-wheeled truck and the soldiers had been commandeered for a war effort. “I thought Oisín was staying with us,” Kate said.
Emer shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “He’s coming with me.”
“I’ll drive you,” Pavel said quietly, getting up from the table.
“No, thank you, I can manage.”
“You’re not used to that car,” he said. “I don’t have to meet your friends. I can drop you off, collect you later.”
“I’d rather walk,” Emer said.
Colman was in his armchair. He had a screwdriver and was taking apart a broken toaster, setting the pieces out on the floor. “Listen to her,” he said, to no one in particular. “The great walker.” He put down the screwdriver, sighed, and stood up. “We’ll go in my car,” he said. He nodded to Oisín – “Come on, sonny” – and without saying more he left the kitchen. The boy abandoned his game and trotted down the hall after his grandfather. Already he had adopted Colman’s walk, a comically exaggerated stride, his hands stuck deep in his pockets. Emer gave her mother a perfunctory kiss and followed them.
After they left, Pavel excused himself, saying he had work to do. “I’m afraid I’m poor company,” he said. He went upstairs, and Kate busied herself with everyday jobs, though she didn’t vacuum, in case it might disturb him. She wondered what he did for a living and imagined him first as an architect, then as an engineer of some sort. She put on her gardening gloves and took the waste outside for composting. The garden was a mess. Winter had left behind broken branches, pinecones, and other storm wreckage: the forest’s creeping advance. She remembered how years ago a man had come selling aerial photographs door to door. He had shown her a photo of their house and, next to it, the forest. She had been astonished to see that, from the air, the forest was a perfect rectangle, all sharp angles and clean lines. Raising the lid of the compost bin, she tipped in the waste. There used to be a bench on the patch of concrete where the bin now stood. In the early years, when the children were at school and Colman at work, she’d often been seized by a need to leave the house and would put on a coat and sit in the garden, reading, as the wind deposited pine needles and bits of twig in her lap. The Dennehys, she knew, had thought her behaviour odd, and Mrs Dennehy, meaning well, had once mentioned the matter to Colman.
Noon passed, and the day edged into early afternoon. She listened for the sound of Pavel moving about the room overhead, but everything was quiet. Eventually, she went upstairs to see if he would like some lunch. She knocked and heard the creak of bed springs, then footsteps crossing the floor. When he opened the door, she saw papers spread across the bed, black-and-white street-scapes with sections hatched in blue ink, and thought, Yes, an architect after all. “You could have used the dining-room table,” she said. “I didn’t think.”
“It’s fine,” he said. “I can work anywhere. I’m finished now anyway.”
She had intended to ask if she could bring him up a sandwich, but instead heard herself say, “I’m going for a walk, if you’d like to join me.”
“I’d love to,” he said.
She put on her boots and found a pair for him in the shed. They didn’t climb the ditch but went through the gate and took an old forestry path that skirted the scrub. Passing the pyre of timber that was once the hut, he said, “I saw your husband chopping firewood this morning. He’s remarkably fit for a man of his age.”
“Yes,” she said, “he was always strong.”
“You must have been very young when you married.”
“I was twenty-three,” she said. “Hardly a child bride, but young by today’s reckoning, I suppose.”
They arrived at an opening into the forest. A sign forbidding guns and fires was nailed to a tree, half the letters missing. He hesitated, and she walked on ahead, down a grassy path littered with pine needles. She slowed to allow him to catch up, and they walked side by side, their boots sinking into the ground, soft from recent rain. They stopped at a sack of household waste – nappies, eggshells, foil cartons spilling over the forest floor. “Who would do such a thing?” Pavel said.
“A local, most likely,” she said. “They come here at night, when they know they won’t be seen.” Pavel tried to gather the rubbish back into the bag, a hopelessly ineffective gesture, like a surgeon attempting to heap intestines back into a ruptured abdomen. When he stood up, his hands were covered in dirt and pine needles. She took a handkerchief from her coat pocket and handed it to him.
“Does it happen a lot?” he asked.
“Only close to the entrance,” she said. “People are lazy.” He had finished with the handkerchief and seemed unsure what to do with it. “I don’t want it back,” she said, and, grinning, he put it in his own pocket.
It was quieter the farther in they went, fewer birds, the occasional rustle of an unseen animal in the undergrowth. He talked about London and about his work. She talked about how they’d moved from the city when Colman got the job at the Co-op, the years when the children were young, John in Japan. She noticed his limp becoming more pronounced and slowed her pace.
“Thanks for going to such trouble with the room,” he said.
“It was no trouble.”
“I was touched by it,” he said, “especially the bear duvet and the rabbit.”
She glanced at him and saw that he was teasing. She laughed.
“She didn’t tell you I was coming, did she?” he said.
“No, but it doesn’t matter.”
“I’m sorry it caused awkwardness,” he said. “I know your husband is annoyed.”
“He’s annoyed with Emer,” she said, “not with you. Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”
They had arrived at a fallen tree, and, sensing that he was tiring, she sat on the trunk, and he sat beside her. “How long have you known Emer?” she said.
“Not very long.”
She tilted her head back and looked up. Here there was no sky, but there was light, and as it travelled down through the trees it seemed to absorb hues of yellow and green. A colony of toadstools, brown puffballs, sprouted from the grass by her feet. Pavel nudged them with his boot. They released a cloud of pungent spores, and, fascinated, he bent and prodded them with his finger until they released more. He got out his phone and took a photograph.
“I’ve seen Oisín three times in the last four years,” she said. “Emer will take him back to London tomorrow, and I can’t bear it.”
He put the phone away and, reaching out, took her hand. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t understand why Emer would live anywhere else when she could live here. But then I guess I don’t understand Emer.”
“I’m a stranger to him,” she said. “I’m his grandmother and I’m a stranger. He’ll grow up not knowing who I am.”
“He already knows who you are. He’ll remember.”
“He’ll remember that bloody skull in the bucket,” she said bitterly.
Very softly, he began to stroke her palm with his thumb. His touch was gentle but inquiring, as if there were something about her that might reveal itself through the skin. She pulled her hand away and got up. Standing with her back to him, she pointed to a dark corridor of trees that ran perpendicular to the main path. “That’s a shortcut,” she said. “It leads down to the road.”
This route was less used, tangled and overgrown, obstructed here and there by trees that leaned in a slant across the path, not quite fallen, resting against other trees. Ferns grew tall and curling, and the moss was inches thick on the tree trunks. In the quiet, she imagined she could hear the spines of leaves snapping as her boots pressed them into the mud. The path brought them to an exit by the main road, and they walked back to the house in silence, arriving just as Colman’s car pulled into the driveway.
They were all back: Colman, Emer, Oisín. Emer’s mood had changed. Now she was full of the frenetic energy that often seized her. She opened the drawers of the cabinet in the sitting room and spread the contents all over the carpet, searching for a catalogue from an old college exhibition. Oisín had a new toy truck that his grandfather had bought him. It was almost identical to the truck from beneath the stairs, except that this one had all its wheels. He sat on the kitchen floor and drove it back and forth over the tiles, making revving noises. Colman was subdued. He made a pot of tea, not his usual kind but the lemon-and-ginger that Kate liked, and they sat together at the table. “How did you get on with Captain Kirk?” he said.
“Fine,” she said.
Emer came in from the sitting room, having found what she was looking for. She poured tea from the pot and stood gazing out the window as she drank it. Pavel was at the end of the garden, taking photographs of the wind turbines. “Know what they remind me of?” Emer said. “Those bumblebees John used to catch in jars. He’d put one end of a stick through their bellies and the other end in the ground, and we’d watch their wings going like crazy.”
“Emer!” Kate said. “They were always dead when he did that.”
Emer turned from the window, gave a sharp little laugh. “I forgot,” she said. “St John, the Chosen One.” She emptied what was left of her tea down the sink. “Trust me,” she said. “The bees were alive. Or at least they were when he started.”
Oisín got up from the floor and went over to his mother, the new truck in his hand. “If I don’t take my laser gun, can I take this instead?” he said.
“Yes, yes,” Emer said. “Now go see if you can find my lighter in the sitting room, will you?” She made shooing gestures with her hand.
The child stopped where he was, considering the truck. “Or maybe I’ll take the gun and I won’t take my Lego,” he said. “They probably have loads of Lego in Australia.”
“Australia?” Kate said. She looked across the table at Colman, but he was staring into his cup, swirling dregs of tea around the bottom.
Emer sighed. “Sorry, Mam,” she said. “I was going to tell you. It’s not for ages anyway, not until summer.”
In bed that night she began to cry. Colman switched on a lamp and rolled onto his side to face her. “You know what that girl’s like,” he said. “She’s never lasted at anything yet. Australia will be no different.”
“But how do you know?” she said, when she could manage to get the words out. “Maybe they’ll stay there forever.”
She buried her face in his shoulder. The smell of him, the feel of him, the way her body slotted around his, was as she remembered. She climbed onto him so that they lay length to length, and, opening the buttons of his pyjamas, she rested her head on the wiry hair of his chest. He patted her back awkwardly through her nightdress as she continued to cry. She kissed him, on his mouth, on his neck, and, undoing the remainder of the buttons, she stroked his stomach. He didn’t respond, but neither did he object, and she slid her hand lower, under the waistband of his pyjama bottoms. He stopped patting her back. Taking her gently by the wrist, he removed her hand and placed it by her side. Then he eased himself out from under her and turned away toward the wall.
Her nightdress had slid up around her belly, and she tugged it down over her knees. She edged back across the mattress and lay very still, staring at the ceiling. The house was quiet, with none of the sounds of the previous night. She could hear Colman fumbling at his pyjamas, and when she glanced sideways she saw that he was doing up his buttons. He switched off the lamp, and after a while she heard snoring.
She knew that she should try to sleep, too, but couldn’t. Tomorrow, they would return to London: Oisín, Emer, and Pavel. Come summer, her daughter and grandson would leave for Australia. Pavel, she assumed, would not. She thought of Oisín sleeping, and pictured him waking early the next morning, sneaking down to the bucket at first light to get the skull. Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she went downstairs in her bare feet.
A lamp on the telephone table, one of Colman’s wooden lamps with a red shade, threw a rose-colored light over the hall. The door of the sitting room was partly open, and she thought she heard something stirring. She went to the door and, in the light filtering in from the hall, saw a shape on the sofa. It was Pavel, banished she presumed by Emer, with a rug over him and using one of the cushions as a pillow.
He sat up and reached for his glasses on the coffee table. He appeared confused, as if he’d just woken, but she noticed how his expression changed when he realized it was her. “Kate,” he said, and she was conscious, even in the semi-darkness, of his eyes moving over the thin cotton of her nightdress. He had stripped to his underclothes, and she saw that his body, like her own, was no longer in its prime but was strong yet, young enough still. She remained in the doorway. He said nothing more, and she understood that he was waiting, allowing her to decide. After a moment, she turned and walked down the hall to the kitchen.
In the utility room, she put on a pair of rubber gloves and, dipping her hand into the bucket, lifted out the skull. It dripped bleach onto the floor, and she got a towel and dried it off, wiping the rims of the eye sockets, the crevices of the jaws. She sat it on top of the washing machine and looked at it, and it returned her gaze with empty, cavernous eyes. Not bothering with a coat, she slipped her feet into Colman’s Wellingtons and carried the bucket of bleach outside.
It was cold, hinting at late frost, and she shivered in her nightdress. In the field behind the house, the pile of newly chopped wood appeared almost white in the moonlight, and moonlight glinted on the galvanized roof of the Dennehys’ shed and silvered the tops of the trees in the forest. There were stars, millions of them, the familiar constellations she had known since childhood. She tipped the bucket over, spilling the bleach onto the ground. For a second it lay upon the surface, then it gradually seeped away until only a flotsam of dead insects speckled the stones.
Danielle McLaughlin’s debut short story collection, Dinosaurs on Other Planets, is published by Stinging Fly.
“A poem I wrote when I was 12 appeared in a school magazine,” Danielle reveals. “Despite this promising start, my next publication didn’t happen until 2009, when The Irish Times accepted a nonfiction article about au pairs.” Read it here.
Next: On Monday, Danielle explores how another of her stories evolved beyond recognition through various drafts.