This is the winning entry in the Merriman Short Story Competition, announced last night at the opening event of Ennis Book Club Festival. The competition is the result of a gift from Maeve Binchy to Merriman Summer School, which she and her husband, Gordon, attended regularly for many years. Binchy had written a story, A Week in Summer, that was set partly in Co Clare, at the school, and decided to donate the proceeds from the sale of a recording of her reading of that story to Cumann Merriman. The competition was run by Cumann Merriman in conjunction with Ennis Book Club Festival and Clare County Library.
The first time she touched me, her hand was soft and surprisingly cold for July. She had arrived unannounced on the doorstep, playing with a string of pearls at her throat, her fingers moving in silent petition from bead to bead. Behind her, beyond the ragged garden with its buckled railings, evening traffic edged along the North Circular Road.
“May I come in?” she said.
She stepped over a pile of junk mail in the hall and we made our way up three flights of stairs. She wore a cream wool suit and, though she was well over 40, her breasts sat suspiciously high and pert under a blue silk blouse. The bedsit was at the top of the house, a small, sloping room beneath the eaves. Ed’s amps and wires lay in a tangle on the floor. The bed was unmade, and a collection of bras and knickers lay drying on a chair.
Without saying a word, she lifted my T-shirt and placed a smooth, manicured hand flat against my stomach. A monstrosity of a ring blazed on her middle finger. I shut my eyes as her hand moved over my skin. I smelled the damp from the drying clothes, heard the rise and fall of a siren on the road below.
She took her hand away, sighed and shook her head. “I suppose it’s too soon.”
Then she was on her knees, rolling down the waistband of my tracksuit bottoms. “May I?” she said, but already her ear was low on my belly and I could feel the warm tickle of her breath. Her red curls fell forward and I saw the tiny scar on her scalp where the skin had been opened like a purse, drawn tight and fastened again.
“It’s only 12 weeks,” I said.
She got up then, brushing dirt from her skirt. “Of course,” she said, “silly me,” and she chucked me under the chin, as if I were three instead of 23. “I hope you don’t mind me dropping in like this.”
She had her head to one side like a robin, watching me. “I meant to ring first, but you know how it is . . .”
“That’s all right,” I said. On the doorstep, she had been as bright as the rain-darkened terrace was grey. In the squalor of the bedsit, she was almost luminous. The gold buttons on her jacket seemed to harvest what light was in the room and wrap it around her. I stood there in my tracksuit, my hair unwashed, and wondered how I was going to get rid of her.
She went over to where three-day-old cereal bowls sat hardening in the sink. “I wonder if I might trouble you for a glass of water.”
I filled a glass, careful not to spatter her. She drank in delicate sips, her eyes wandering around the room, taking in the peeling wallpaper, the circles of damp on the ceiling.
“So,” she said. “Still taking the folic acid?”
“And the fish-oil supplements?”
“Good,” she said. “There’s a lot of brain development in week 12.” We stood looking at each other, the only sound the muffled crackle of a radio from the flat below.
“Actually,” I said, “I was on my way out to pick up a takeaway.”
“Oh. I thought we discussed this.”
Shit, I thought, Ed’s going to kill me. “The takeaway’s for Ed,” I said. “I’ve got a salad in the fridge.” It occurred to me that she might ask to see the fridge, but already she was moving towards the door.
“Well, I won’t keep you,” she said. I flinched as she placed a hand on my arm, but by the end of summer those hands would have become as familiar to me as my own.
Ed and I were in bed with a six-pack of cider, eating from foil cartons. He took his wet hair from its ponytail, let it hang in grey waves about his shoulders.
“You think you know someone,” he said. He paused to suck clean a barbecued rib. “You think you know them and then they throw you a fucking curveball.”
“Tommy’s never had your commitment,” I said. “Tommy’s always been a part-timer.”
“I know, doll, but seriously, a wedding band?” Ed cracked open another can. He had arrived home in foul humour, drenched from the cycle across town.
I pressed closer to him. “So what did you tell him?”
“I said, ‘Tommy, man, I haven’t come this far to end up in a wedding band.’ ” He bent to kiss my hair. “Know what he said then?”
“He said, ‘Ed, we’re too old for this business.’ ”
“Youre not too old,” I said. “Look at Dylan.”
Ed put his arms around me. “Nobody tells Axl Rose he’s too old.”
“Tommy can go to hell,” I said. “Bass players are 10 a penny.”
Ed pushed me back on the pillows. “Thanks, doll,” he said. “What would I do without you?”
He kissed me and I opened my mouth to him, my tongue chasing the taste of his last cigarette. Boys my own age were useless compared to Ed. He pulled up my T-shirt and ran a hand over my stomach.
“She was here today,” I said.
It was Frank, the drummer, who introduced us to Clara. His girlfriend, Agnieszka, was a cleaner at the Brookes Fertility Clinic, where Clara had been seeing a specialist for years. She had approached Agnieszka first, but Frank said they wanted to try for a baby of their own.
We met Clara and her partner, James, in the car park of the Heuston Hotel. “Leave the talking to me,” Ed said. As we climbed into the back of the silver Mercedes, Clara turned and smiled from the passenger seat, her hair swept up in a tortoiseshell clip. Ed was impressed, I could tell.
James was late 60s, loud, sweaty, over-weight. When it was time to discuss money, he produced a single typewritten sheet. If I’d had to actually do it with James, that would have been the deal breaker. Instead, he called round one evening with a plastic container and a syringe. It worked first time.
“Good girl!” he said, the night I took the pregnancy test, and he slapped me on the back as if I were a racehorse led into the winner’s enclosure. “Of course, you’ve got youth on your side. It makes all the difference.” Clara had gone to stand by the window then, tugging at her necklace and staring out at the darkness that threw back only her own reflection.
Ed was by the same window now, looking out on a back yard littered with the carcasses of abandoned bicycles. “No one’s blaming you, doll. You’ve just got to keep your eye on the ball.”
“But what difference does it make?” I asked again.
“She’s supposed to ring first; that’s the arrangement.”
“So she didn’t ring. Big deal.”
“She was checking up on you today,” Ed said, “and look what she found.” He spread his arms wide to encompass the chaos of the bedsit.
“What?” I said. “So the baby’s going to be, like, deformed or something because I didn’t pick my knickers off the floor?”
Ed took my face in his hands. “We need this money, doll. Don’t mess it up, okay?”
My belly grew taut as a drum, skin stretched tight over tributaries of blue veins. My breasts swelled and dark mysterious circles appeared around my nipples. Clara began to call more often. Sometimes she rang and sometimes she didn’t, but the cheques arrived each month and Ed stopped worrying.
When the baby started to kick, Clara called almost every day. She brought ginger biscuits and bunches of dark cherries from the market. She threw out my shampoo with its litany of chemicals and replaced it with an organic one that smelled of coconut. “You can’t be too careful,” she said. “Some things get in through the skin.” She would ask me to unbutton my shirt so she could rest her head on my stomach. Then she would start her whispering. “Can’t wait to meet you,” she would say. “It’s a beautiful world out here.”
Sometimes my belly would be still as an underground lake. When that happened, Clara would grow fretful. “Poke it,” I would say, “it won’t do any harm”, but she would refuse. Then a limb would shoot out, a strange, alien contortion, and we would fall back, laughing, on the pillows, her hair mingling with my hair, both of us smelling of coconut.
Other days, she would be weepy and neurotic, though I was the one with all the hormones. On those days, she needed to be consoled like a small child.
“Do you believe in God?” she asked one afternoon in October as we lay on the bed, listening to rain beating against the window.
“Sure,” I said. It was easy to believe stuff for Clara.
“Sometimes,” she said, “I think that I’m being punished, punished for things that happened a long time ago. Things that nobody knows about, not even James. Is that why I can’t have a baby?”
There was a sadness in her face I had not seen before. “But you’ve got a baby,” I said, bringing her hand to my stomach. And she smiled and was happy again.
One morning in early December, Clara was walking around the bedsit, picking up clothes, rinsing mugs in the sink. I was under the blankets, snuffling with a cold. Clara had forbidden paracetamol and instead had mixed up honey and lemon in boiling water. She brought Ed’s frostbitten socks in off the window ledge, put them to air by the heater.
“I suppose I remind you of your mother,” she said, picking knobbles of wool from one of my cardigans.
“Not unless you’re an ex-con with a methadone habit,” I said. I saw immediately that I had shocked her. She stopped her fussing about and sat on the edge of the bed. She looked at me as if seeing me properly for the first time, her eyes not on my belly but on my face. “Relax,” I said, “it’s not hereditary” – but she didn’t laugh.
“I’m sorry,”she said. “I never knew. I thought . . . Well, I guess I didn’t think.” She seemed to be casting about for something to say. “Was it very hard?” she said eventually, “growing up in a family like that?”
I shrugged. “My mother did her best. She just wasn’t cut out to be a mother. Some people aren’t.”
Clara was sitting up straighter. “And me?” she said. “What about me? Am I cut out to be a mother?”
“You?” I said. “Are you crazy? You’ll be a great mother. Why wouldn’t you be?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I mean, how does anyone know?” Her fingers were fluttering about her throat, even though for once she wore no necklace. “James will be at work all day. How am I going to look after a baby?”
“We’ll do it together,” I said. “I’ll come over and help you.” I realised then that I had no idea where Clara and James lived, that it had never been mentioned.
Clara had gone very still. Her hands dropped to her lap and she clasped them together so tightly her knuckles grew white. She stood up, smoothed down her skirt. “I’d better get going,” she said. “James is expecting me.”
The following afternoon I returned from the dole office to see a silver Mercedes straddling the pavement outside our building. Ed’s bike was at the bottom of the stairs. The door of one of the ground-floor flats had been left open, filling the hall with the smell of chips frying. All day the baby had lain low and heavy in my stomach, straining and kicking, and I felt it pummel the small of my back as I climbed the stairs. As I got closer to the top of the house, I could hear voices. First Ed’s voice, then that of another man.
In the bedsit, Clara and James were sitting side by side on the sofa. Ed was standing in front of them, fidgeting with his ponytail.
“What’s up?” I said.
Ed took me by the shoulders and pulled me into the centre of the room. “Help me out here, doll.”
I stared at him blankly.
“These people” – Ed nodded at Clara and James – “think that you’re getting a bit . . . I don’t know . . .”
“Attached,” Clara said.
“Attached to the baby,” James said.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“See?” Ed said. “What did I tell you?”
He let his hands drop from my shoulders and, crossing the room, sat down on the bed. “Fatherhood isn’t my gig,” he said. “Know what I’m saying?” He was quiet for a moment before continuing. “I had a child before,” he said. “A boy. Things didn’t work out.”
I had never heard Ed mention a child. I wondered it if was true or if it was something he had invented for James’s benefit.
Ed ran a hand through his ponytail. “What I’m trying to tell you,” he said to James, “is that you’ve nothing to worry about. You’ll get that baby if I have to put it in your arms myself.”
“Just so we’re all clear,” James said, “there is to be no contact of any nature once the baby is handed over.”
“You have my word,” Ed said.
They stood up and shook hands then, Ed and James, and started towards the door. Clara got up without meeting my eye and followed them. I lagged behind as they made their way down the stairs, the men in front, all camaraderie now, Clara close behind, her high heels ringing out on every step.
On the first-floor landing, I slipped into the bathroom and slid the bolt across. The others were already down at the front door. I heard Clara laugh at something Ed said, but there was a tremor in her laugh, and I knew her fingers would be on the necklace around her throat, fluttering and tugging.
I sat on the edge of the bath and listened. My belly hung round and heavy as a moon, no hint on its tranquil exterior of the life that lay beneath. I heard the front door open and close and a car start up outside. Then the sound of Ed’s feet returning on the stairs. The footsteps paused for a moment on the landing before continuing on up.
Suddenly my stomach broke into great rolling waves and the baby kicked with such intensity that I thought, this time, some tiny limb must surely rupture the surface. “Hey,” I whispered, “can’t wait to meet you.” And I slipped a hand beneath my T-shirt, moved it in slow, gentle circles over my skin, until my stomach quietened again.