Sable, a new short story by Eoin McNamee
12 Stories of Christmas, day 11: A new short story by the author of The Blue Trilogy
Author Eoin McNamee.
It was the funeral she would have wished on herself, sparsely attended, dim-lit figures adrift in cold side-chapels. Her brother came up behind her in the graveyard.
“You never said you were coming back,” he said. “Of all things. Nora’s funeral.”
“Long time since I had to report in.”
“The old witch.”
“I haven’t seen her for twenty-five years. She kept something that belonged to me.”
“That’s the reason you’re here. You never do anything except for a reason.” She nodded. She had always been that way. She was faithless to herself and she was faithless to others.
“The mother said you’d never have children.”
“She said you only had time for yourself.”
“She was right about most things.”
“So what does Nora have belonging to you?”
“I’m going to go down to the west end. I need to go to her shop.”
“You’d want to be careful. That whole street is condemned long since. Them buildings were put up on pure mud. It’s no place for you down there.”
“They’re saying she’s in the right spot now. Six feet under.”
You’re in the right spot, she thought, you look like you already died. You look like a morgue photograph of yourself.
“You know what they said about Nora?” Michael said.
“I know what they said about her.” It was a family trait to be knowing, to leave things hanging in the air.
She left Michael in the graveyard. She had no need of accusers. She had grown to be the evidence against herself. He looked old and broken and she knew what had happened to him. The wind here carried everything away, unremembered storms swept all consolation before them. Sooner or later you ran out of shelter.
She passed the Lido on the foreshore. The pool had been drained and there was tidal debris washed up against the outlet pipes. The diving platform rusted and tilted to one side. Through the empty windows she saw cracked tiles and broken stalls. Holidaymakers used to go to the car park beside the pool and sit in their cars facing the sea and the mountains across the lough. Then a boy had gone missing. She had seen the boy’s mother in the back of a car in the corner of the car park night after night, her head bowed. There had been a chain of torches on the lower slopes of the mountains and you could hear men calling through the night, their voices coming back across the water.
Lillian had booked into the Liverpool hotel on the seafront. The car radio had said there was a storm coming. She rang the bell and stood in the glassed-in porch, the window putty loose, the glass shivered in the east wind, the salt-whitened panes. She felt as if she was standing in a tabernacle, solitary, revered.
There were elderly women playing bridge at a table in the foyer. They wore twinsets and their white hair was stiff with airborne static from the coming storm and they looked as though they had been given avian form, tiny and flightless. The owner gave her the key to her room.
“Bit of bad weather coming,” he said.
“Talking about giving the storm a name.”
“They do that with the worst ones.”
“Used to be they gave them women’s names. The way women would be. The way you’d never know what they might do one minute to the next.”
There had always been something feral about the men in the town. You always expected something underhand, glancing touches, an unwanted hand.
She could hear the women behind her, their voices rustling, collusive.
Before dark, she left the hotel and walked into the west end. Windows were shuttered. Alleys blocked with skewed hoardings. Gable walls leant outward. You expected to see marshlight seeping up through the pavements, wavering blue flame on the empty streets.
Nora had worn hats decorated with feathers and flowers, and fur stoles around her neck with the paws and heads intact. It was said in the school bathroom that the women of the town went to her when there was something that needed to be dealt with. That there was a room with a bath upstairs. That there were pessaries and coiled tubing. They whispered in school about what happened to the errant, the hollow-eyed girls who left mid-term, and now Lillian was about to find out for herself.
The sign outside said Nora Fashions, picked out in gilt. Lillian remembered frocks in the window, skirts hanging from racks in the doorway. Bolts of dress material, fabrics in gardenia and lily. Lillian could not have gone in. She had come to take a look. She had joined a guild of the blamed and she owed it to herself to view all outcomes.
“Yes?” Nora said. She wore a burgundy velvet hat with artificial lilies stitched low on the crown. A fur stole hung about her neck. Her face was gaunt, caved. Lillian tried not to look at the stole. The little paws, the little pinched weasel faces. They were sneaks, blood-drinkers. They stole fledglings from the nest.
“They said you could do something.”
“Do something about what?” Nora said. Lillian touched her stomach.
“You don’t want to believe everything you hear about me. Nor half of it. Whose is it?”
Lillian shrugged. The boys of the town were like weather. You got into cars with them. They left you handled, sore, standing outside in the rain as they drove away. There would be laddered tights, nail varnish chipped against interior surfaces, you’re always marked, the imprint of plastic seat covers on your skin, underwear balled in your handbag.
“Come back to me this evening after six.”
She had waited outside the shop in the dark that night for an hour before Nora returned, something spectral about the way she had come down the street, something of desolate encounters half-remembered, of love renounced. Nora reached into the letterbox and took out a Yale key on a string. She opened the door.
“I been standing in the cold,” Lillian said, “I need to pee.”
“Come upstairs.” Nora climbed the stairs ahead of her. There were dresses in cellophane dry-cleaning wrappers hanging from the bannisters, bales of taffeta and lining material on the small landing. She pointed to the bathroom door.
The porcelain bath was iron-stained, verdigris on the chrome fittings. Lillian looked at the cupboard. She thought of corrosive salts, cruelly shaped instruments. There was rubber tubing on a hook on the back of the bathroom door. There would be biting pain. There would be blood.
When she came out of the bathroom Nora was in a bedroom at the end of the corridor. Lillian could see a bed with a lace counterpane. There were roses on the wallpaper. Nora beckoned to her.
“They done a scan.” Lillian put the envelope from the hospital on the counterpane. She waited to be brought back into the bathroom. Nora knelt and took a tin out from under the bed. She took a small package from it and handed it to her.
“What’s in it?” Lillian thought of powders, of the agonies foretold, bent double on the bathroom floor with cramps.
“An address and money.”
“The clinic is free. The money’s for bus fare and you’ll need a night in a bed and breakfast after.”
“I’ll give you back the money.”
“You won’t. You’re not the type. If you were an animal you’d be one of these hanging round my neck. Take my advice. When you get out of the town keep going. There’s too many like you round here. It gets hard to tell you apart.”
Lillian touched the fur stole around Nora’s neck.
“What is it? What animal?”
“Fox.” Lillian ran her hand down to the fox’s head. She thought she could feel the skull underneath the fur. The profane little face. What thoughts of wildness and of blood?
“Sable is the finest fur of all. Mink.” Nora said. Lillian had heard of mink.
“Why don’t you wear sable then?”
Lillian reached for the hospital envelope on the bed. Nora put her hand over hers.
As she left the shop, Lillian smelt perfume. It smelt of lost end-of-summer dances, of fading music, of ruined girls weeping bitterly on cold terraces.
Nora’s shop had been closed for many years. The gilding on the sign had flaked. The front door was dented and gouged. Michael had told her of the decline. Nora had gone to a home and then a hospital. Lillian found the string in the letterbox and took out the Yale key. She opened the door. The shop stormlit through the dust-glazed fanlight above the door. A rack of satinette nightdresses shifted in the draught from the door then settled again. There were nylon demi-slips thrown over rails. Behind the counter a row of panelled girdles on hangers.
She walked to the door connecting the shop and house through an alley of water-stained frocks. She saw herself in the hallway pierglass, pale-faced in the vagrant dark. She climbed the stairs. Rain had entered the house and the walls were damp, streaked green and shone with a fungal effervescence, light coming from a corner of broken slates and from a buckled skylight.
The landing had been weakened by dry rot and had fallen inwards, carried down by the weight of baled fabrics. She looked at the ground floor. There were fragments of cloth mixed in with the broken joists and rotten planking, decayed material and cheesecloth.
One joist remained intact in the middle and she used it to step across the gap. The first of the night’s wind rattled the slates above her head, old hollow spouting rung against the roofplate, the tolled instrumentation of loss gone by and loss to come.
She passed under a rooflight and heard the wind again. She thought she could hear voices in it. Nora had asked her if she had told her mother she was pregnant? No, she said, though she might know. That was the shadowy tradecraft of mothers, how they trailed you on the darkening streets of your promise. Knowing from the start that you would betray yourself.
She reached the corridor return and saw Nora’s room in front of her. The floor shifted beneath her feet. Michael had been right. She had no call being here. Nora’s room was in an attached annex, the walls subsided so that it had canted to the right, carrying the room away from the wall and expanding the planked gaps, cold filamented lights from outside penetrating the room, thread-like. She stepped across the gap. The double doors of the wardrobe had fallen outward, exposing the interior. Nora’s hats were on hooks at the back of the wardrobe, a row of them across the top of the wardrobe , peacock and rooster feathers half-eaten and manged, night’s pale emblems. The fur stoles were on a hanger beside the hats, the bodies knotted, the clawed feet interlocked, the little faces fierce and illicit, a blood rosette of them.
She crossed the slanted floor and knelt at the bed. The roses on the wallpaper were sunfaded, almost colourless now. She reached underneath and brought out the biscuit tin. She emptied the tin onto the bed. There were old bills in the tin, birth certificates, photographs that disintegrated as they fell, a smell of gone-off chemicals, the images barely visible, men in lounge suits and women in A-line skirts, their faces time-violated, sombre.
From the emulsified fragments on the bedspread she picked out a brown envelope. She took the scan out of the envelope and held it up, the small figure in it seen clearly as though the blanched roses held it in their own unwholesome light. The small unnamed carapace, formed from the darkness around it, gathered and held, fiercely willed.
She put the scan into her handbag. The floor of the annex flexed as the wind blew against it. She stepped over the collapsed flooring and went downstairs. It was almost dark in the shop. The rack of satinette nightdresses moved with her passing, moved and rustled. She ran her fingers over a rack of tights in cellophane, the packeted nylon crackling in the shop gloom. She imagined herself followed from the shop, night-gauds in decayed frocks, pale and animate in the derelict streets. She held the scan close and ran through the darkening town.
In her room she undressed and stood in the shower crying about promises she had made and forgotten. Love that she had begun and not finished. There were laws of possession and letting go. She had not attended to any of them.
She wrapped a towel around her and sat at the dressing table. She held the scan up against the light. The image in negative, spindly, unbroken, de-sexed. She wondered what it was thinking of with closed eyes that seemed grown shut, the deep unseeing.
She took her phone from her handbag and rang Michael.
“Do you remember the boy got lost on the mountain. The mother used to sit in the car in the Lido car park when they searched. Did they ever find him?”
“I don’t remember if he was found or not. Word was he wasn’t lost anyway. He was took by some man she was with. Wouldn’t be the first was took around here.”
She put the phone down. She went to the window and looked out over the roofs of the west end towards the mountain, clouds gathered at the summits. Perhaps if the woman had waited long enough the boy would have come back, if anything could come back from those colours, the blue-black cosmos, anvil clouds massed.
She touched her stomach. The inside of her felt infinite, like a great constellated vault of night in which the stars were going out one by one.
Gales would soon move down through the valleys and across the lough. Named storms. The night would be rent with voices, wind hags. She would go to the Lido and she would wait with the unforgiven mothers and the little foxes would walk in their shadow, boneless, musked. They would wear sable and they would wait for the earth’s taken children.
Eoin McNamee’s latest novel is The Vogue