Hennessy New Irish Writing: The Lodger
In this month’s winning story in the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition, by Natalie Ryan, a mother is surprised by an unlikely object of affection
That first night she locked her bedroom door and the door to the children’s room, placing the key on the blanket box should she need it in a hurry. The boy was okay, he slept through most nights, but the girl was prone to bad dreams. People said it was her age, that she’d grow out of it. They all slept better at the weekend when James was home. She pulled the sheets up to her chest, then got out of bed to tuck them tighter, making the space as small as possible. She lay on her stomach, then her back and finally settled on her side with a pillow between her legs, which was how she woke up the next morning.
Behind the headboard she could hear him through the bathroom wall in the shower. There was only a few inches between her and the stranger, this man who’d appeared on her doorstep the day before and was now living in their house. The water stopped and the metal towel ring clacked against the wall. Down the hall, her son sang to himself. He woke most mornings babbling happily for the first few minutes before calling for her. She slipped on her dressing gown, fastening the belt tight and tied her hair back. The toilet flushed. The familiar squeak of a hand wiping fog off the bathroom mirror.
She turned the handle to the children’s room only to realise that she’d forgotten the key.
“Mama. Mama. Mama.” Patrick’s voice escalated with each call.
“Mummy, why’s the door locked?” Anna called, turning the handle on the other side.
“Shh. Shush will you. I’ll be back in a second.” She darted into her bedroom for the key before rushing back down the hall. The man came out of the bathroom just as she was turning the lock. He wore the same suit as the day before only the shirt underneath was white where yesterday it had been blue.
“Good morning, Mrs Buckley.” He glanced at the lock as he half-smiled, the key burning in her hand, its heat travelling from her arm to chest, neck and cheeks.
“Good morning,” she said as Anna thrust herself into her arms, “and please, it’s Eleanor,” she called as an afterthought, the kitchen door closing softly behind him.
“Mama, Mama. Up. Up.” Patrick squawked from his cot.
“Mummy, why’s that man here?” Anna whispered into her ear as she cuddled the two of them on the rocking chair, passing time so that they might have breakfast alone.
“He’s here to help pay our mortgage.” She kissed the top of her daughter’s head, smelling the sweet smell of her unwashed hair, rocking them back and forth until she heard the latch slip on the front door.
Better at faces
“Sorry to bother you,” he said, holding out a scrap of paper. “Do you know a Mrs Fleming in the estate? I’m told she takes lodgers.” He was perhaps five years older than James, it was hard to tell as the curve in his spine seemed to age him. She’d never met anyone young with a hunchback before. She knew one of her parent’s neighbours, the priest in James’s home parish and the lady at the cash register in Quinnsworth – they were all much older.
“Sorry,” she said, taking the paper to have a closer look. “I’m better at faces than names.” He had such kind attentiveness in his eyes that it seemed rude to leave the chain on, and so she closed the door over for a moment to unlatch and open it fully. She’d been jittery since James started the new job in Athlone, leaving them Sunday nights to go to his digs and back late Friday afternoons. It was better, they decided, to see how it worked out for a few months before selling the house and uprooting the children. The man stepped back, picking up his briefcase.
“Don’t worry, there’s probably a sign in her window. I’ll have a walkabout.”
“Wait,” she said, “I do know her actually. She’s about four rows down on the left. Yellow car in the driveway.”
“Great,” he said. “Thank you.” As he walked away it occurred to her that she had a room to spare, that the few pounds every month would get them through a tight spot, the very tight spot that had James ashen faced with worry the last weekend he was home.
“If you don’t have any luck, come back to me,” she heard herself saying. An hour later he came back saying Mrs Fleming’s was full. And that was that.
“He’s a hunchback,” she blurted, after telling him where William worked and where he was from. Since she was a child she’d been told she was beautiful. Even after birthing two children she knew herself to be beautiful.
“You won’t run away with him so, will you?” James laughed down the phone, his tone relaxing as he talked about the new boss and his burly landlady. The guilt pinched her then, and she was paranoid that William could hear them even though it was unlikely, if not impossible. There was silence after a while, nothing but their breaths until James spoke again. “Once you don’t mind having him, love. I mean, it’s a great relief. I’ll stay late Sunday night and check him out, but once you’re happy that he’s okay . . .’
“I am,” she said, quickly and without thinking. She didn’t lock her door that night, or any of the nights that followed.
“Mind it’s hot.” She ran towards William with a folded tea towel as he reached for the dinner plate in the oven.
“You can say that again.” William shook his hand, blowing on his fingers. She found it amusing that a grown man would think blowing his fingers might help. “Smells delicious.”
“Here,” she ran the cold water and without thinking, took his wrist and pulled him over to the sink like he was one of her children. It was only as she grabbed the tea towel off her shoulder to dry his fingers that she became aware of what she’d done, and that although he’d been living in her house from Monday to Thursday for a month now, they’d never touched before, not even to shake hands. He sat down at the single place setting, his fork quietly tremoring against the plate. She put on the kettle to make hot water bottles for the children, staring out the window until it started to whistle.
“Why have you got that lump in your back?” Anna stood at the door in her pyjamas, toothbrush slack in her hand as it dripped minty droplets on the tiled floor.
“It’s okay.” William put a hand over his full mouth as he finished chewing. She made to shoo Anna from the kitchen, but her daughter ran to the empty chair beside William, who patted it by way of an invitation. Surprised by Anna’s outburst, she was more jolted at the realisation that she had stopped noticing his disfigurement. She had completely forgotten.
“She’s only a baby,” he said, blowing on a forkful of mash, “it’s refreshingly honest. Better than all the badly concealed staring people do.”
“I’m not a baby,” Anna said. “I’m a big girl.”
“You’re right,” he said, laughing. “You are a big girl.” It was the first time Eleanor had seen him really laugh, his eyes shrinking, open mouth lifting his cheeks. It was like seeing him unmasked.
“What is the lump?” Anna said again, reaching out to pat his back.
“Okay, that’s enough. Say goodnight.” Eleanor lifted Anna, the hot water bottle scorching the underside of her arm as she carried it, not stopping until she reached the children’s room. After reading stories and putting them to bed, she looked into the living room where William sat watching the news.
“Sorry about that.”
“Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Only if you’re having one yourself.” His briefcase lay beside the chair, his jacket off as he sat with paperwork on his knee. “And, Eleanor . . .”
“Yes?” She stopped, a foot in each room.
“You don’t have to sit there in the evenings if you don’t want to. It’s warmer in here.” He reddened and studied one of his pages. “I mean, suit yourself.”
She brought her knitting with her to the front room and they sat in silence listening to the weather forecast – rain and more rain – her needles clacking, and the rustling papers of his accounts.
Some nights she joined him in the front room, others she went to her bedroom to talk to James, write letters, or do Pilates. She learnt more about William; that he went home to his parents’ farm in Limerick every weekend to help his brother, that he was 32, that since childhood he suffered with kyphosis and so it was he who his parents sent to Roscrea to educate rather than his fully-able brother. He paid her every Monday, as James paid his landlady and although James’s accommodation was superior, with a separate dining room and four other lodgers, the amounts cancelled each other out.
“William’s home! William’s home!” Anna ran to the door in the evenings, followed by a tottering Patrick who sometimes said “Dada” much to Eleanor’s embarrassment. The first time Anna reached out for a hug William stiffened, his arms dangling at his side, but after that he patted her fondly on the head. That was as far it went, he respected his place. Eleanor often had to remind even herself that he was just a lodger, a temporary guest in their world.
On the evening of Anna’s birthday he came home with a stuffed giraffe and a card that said ‘To Anna, with best wishes on your birthday, your friend, William’.
“What time is cake?” Anna asked after William had eaten his dinner.
“I told you, sweetheart. We’re having cake at the weekend, with Daddy.”
“That’s not fair. William won’t get any cake. Can you not stay this weekend?” Anna waggled the giraffe’s neck to make it seem that the animal was asking.
“My goodness!” William said in surprise, pretend-mopping his brow with his napkin. “I never knew giraffes could talk.”
Eleanor pulled out some queen cakes she’d made earlier, and bunching them into a quartet on a fancy plate, she put a candle in each for the four years of Anna’s life. William’s oval eyes caught hers and held them for a moment in the slender flames before a quick puff of breath left them all sitting in the dusky kitchen light.
“My contract is coming to an end with this client anyway,” he shook his head at her apology, fiddling with the clasp of his briefcase.
“There’s no rush, I mean, we haven’t set a date yet.” She stood with her back to him, wringing the tea-towel over the sink, the last drops of moisture weeping into the steel basin.
“No, no,” he said, finally managing the combination lock. The clasp popped and he rustled around before pulling out the envelope he gave her every week. “It’s okay, really. I’ll be gone by Friday.”
On her knees pruning the rose bed in the front garden, she saw Mrs Fleming stopped at the gate.
“I see you’re selling.” Mrs Fleming pointed to the red sign the auctioneer had staked into the ground. “I’ll be selling myself soon the way the things are going.”
“Are you not full with lodgers?” Eleanor took off her glove to pull her hair back from her eyes. She picked up the secateurs and squeezed them in her hand before fastening the catch.
“Haven’t been full this last year.” Mrs Fleming rolled her eyes and raised her shopping bag, “and the way some of them go through food it wouldn’t be worth your while anyway.” She continued down the footpath, leaning towards the heavy pull of her groceries. Eleanor held a blossom to her nose, inhaling the faint traces of its former sweetness. She plucked its petals, in bunches, and cast them into the air. They landed soft on her face, like butterflies.
Natalie Ryan has an MFA in creative writing from UCD and won the Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award at Listowel in 2011. Her fiction has been broadcast on RTÉ radio, published online with Headstuff.org, and was included in All Over Ireland, a Faber & Faber anthology of Irish short stories edited by Deirdre Madden. She has just finished her first novel.