Settling, a short story by Jan Carson
12 Stories of Christmas - Day 11: From The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Woman Writers from the North of Ireland
Jan Carson, one of the writers featured in The Glass Shore
Matt is in the kitchen deciding which cupboard will be saucepans and which is tall enough to hold the cereal boxes.
I am in the bedroom unpacking our clothes. Our bedroom is the emptiest it will ever be. We haven’t built the bed yet. It’s in pieces, leaning against the walls so it looks like there are ladders leading from our apartment to the one above. Last night we slept on bath towels with rolled-up jumpers instead of pillows. When we woke Matt had cable knit patterns pressed into his cheek. I closed my eyes, ran my fingers over his face and read him like Braille. ‘This is the beginning,’ I read and he said, ‘Amen to that,’ turning the other cheek, which was similarly indented. It would have been the perfect moment to make love, but we hadn’t the curtains up yet and the neighbours could see right into our room from their kitchen.
This afternoon our furniture arrived. My father loaned a van off Uncle Graham and drove it over on the Larne-Cairnryan ferry. All the way down in one go and straight back up for the last boat home. We didn’t ask him to do this. He insisted. My father likes to play the martyr.
‘It’s a wild, long run by yourself,’ I said. ‘Would you not like Matt for the company?’
‘I’ll be grand myself,’ he replied. ‘I’ll take half an hour in the Gretna Services.’ This was his way of saying, ‘I wouldn’t stop you leaving, but I’ll be misery itself if you do.’
For weeks he’d been running a kind of sales pitch every time we mentioned moving. He wanted us to stay put. He couldn’t bear the thought of grandchildren he would hardly ever see. He’d read in the paper that Belfast was one of the best cities in Europe now, maybe even the world.
‘For what exactly?’ Matt asked every time he said this, and Dad couldn’t remember but he thought it was either young people or restaurants.
‘No offence, Mr Campbell,’ said Matt, ‘but Belfast’s shite. We’ll never get anywhere here. If you’re at all serious about your career, you’ve to move to London.’
‘There’s nothing for us in Belfast,’ I added. This was not entirely true. It was also cruel. But Matt demanded solidarity on the important issues such as politics and moving to the Mainland, and the way he’d taken to wearing a suit jacket, casually, with jeans.
‘Right,’ said Dad, ‘on your own heads be it.’ This was the thing he always said when a line had been drawn and there was no talking round it. Round he came with heavy-duty bin-liners and packing boxes, booked the van to Scotland and loaded it up himself. He’d have carted our sofas to Russia if it meant getting shot of us quicker.
I wanted to say, ‘It’s not you I’m done with, Dad. It’s this place.’ But I knew he couldn’t tell the difference.
Early this afternoon, he pulled up outside our apartment and sat on the horn till we came down. ‘Mweeeeep, mweeeeep, mweeeep’ it went, like a labouring cow. People in other apartments peaked their blinds to glare. It was a muggy day. My father had stripped down to his vest: lardy winter skin lining his sunburn just above the elbow like the two halves of a Drumstick lolly. He’d been in the van for hours - windows up, blowers stirring stale heat - and smelt ripe. We did not touch. His arms were full of bedside cabinet, then bookcase, bed and dining room table. When empty they were already reaching for the next load. They had no interest in holding me.
Though he’s a man of almost seventy, my father sweated everything out of the van himself, piling our furniture up on the pavement so passers-by could see all our belongings, even our toilet brush and the box marked ‘underwear’.
‘Did you get a good eyeful?’ he called after anyone who slowed to stare. His voice was vinegar sharp on the vowels, butter on the consonants. I’d already begun to tune the old tongue out and balked at the sound of him, as if catching my own voice on the answering machine. How odd he looked here in London with the joggers slamming by and the possibility of Japanese food just half a block away. More real and also less than he was in Belfast. Older. He would not stop for dinner. He took a cup of tea standing up, a round of toast with jam, and was back on the road before three.
‘Text me when you get in,’ I said. But he never did.
I told the caretaker that my father was the removals man. I said, ‘That’s what all the old folk are like back home: genuine characters.’ I said this sort of laughing, but in a low-down voice so Dad wouldn’t hear. Afterwards, I felt ashamed. I had a hot shower. The dirt came off in layers but the guilt persisted. I almost told Matt what a bitch I was, what a heartless cow. But then we got a Chinese in and I forgot to be ashamed because I was hungry and there were so many things to put away, so much to be getting on with.
‘Where are the saucepans?’ Matt shouts from the kitchen. I pretend not to hear. I have purposefully left our saucepans in Belfast. The non-stick was peeling off, leaving coal flakes in the rice. I have also abandoned the chopping boards, mugs and everyday glasses, which had gone hoar-white from the dishwasher. I want nothing broken, chipped or peeling here, only shiny new belongings. This is not Belfast. It is ok to want good things here. Tomorrow, I will say, ‘It looks as if we’ve left a couple of boxes behind. We’ll have to make an emergency run to Ikea.’ I might even blame my father for our lost kitchenware. It is easy to imagine him finding our chipped juice glasses and keeping them. ‘They’re grand, so they are,’ he’d say, training himself to drink from the unchipped edge.
Matt has moved on to the crockery. At the far end of the hall I can hear the distant chink of side plates stacking. Meanwhile, in the bedroom, I am making a mountain of our clothes. I have upended all our boxes and suitcases, forming one rainbow heap. Socks swim through sweaters; pants and dresses tangle themselves around black work tights; bra hooks sink their teeth into cardigans, leaving long, looped plucks in the wool. I stand knee deep in the muddle of it, shoeless because I haven’t unpacked my slippers yet. It is like Primark on a Saturday afternoon. I could easily lie down and sleep.
‘Do you want the left or the right side of the wardrobe?’ I shout into the kitchen.
‘Right,’ replies Matt. ‘Just for handiness sake.’
This makes sense. He always sleeps on the right side of our bed. He prefers the right side of everything: sofa, pavement, car (which he insists upon driving though I’m the one with the no-accidents license). I decide to hang his clothes on the left. Nothing should be the same in London. London is meant to be a beginning rather than a next chapter. Everything should be different here. I wish we could afford a new bed and big city haircuts, a sofa which isn’t puckered around the shape of us sitting down. I’d like a whole wardrobe full of someone else’s clothes.
I go rooting through the jumble and pull out Matt’s blue sweater. It still smells of our old flat in Belfast. This can be fixed with washing. I slip it on a hanger and hold it up to the window so the last, frail fingers of sunlight go prickling through the fabric. In this moment it is more beautiful than a sweater should be. One-handed, I carry it across the bedroom and slide the wardrobe door open. My grandmother is in the wardrobe, sitting on a deckchair. I think she is reading the Belfast Telegraph. It is hard to tell in the dark.
I am very surprised to find my grandmother in our wardrobe. I had been expecting emptiness, maybe some coat hangers left by the previous occupants. I am particularly surprised because my grandmother is dead. Even if she wasn’t she would not be in London on account of her pains and an ill-defined fear of the other sort which, in her latter days, covered everyone who didn’t live on the Beersbridge Road.
I am so surprised I make a noise like a stood-upon dog and close the door immediately. My own face comes howling out of the wardrobe’s mirror. Here is my mouth, hung open like a trout’s. Here are my eyes, bruise-stained from too much first-night champagne. Here is my white face, hanging like a ghost. I haunt myself, and the shock of this makes me step back sharply, clawing my heel on a suitcase. For a moment there is no pain off it. Then my whole foot begins to scream. I don’t look down. I’m afraid there may be blood. Matt will be furious if I’ve got it on our clothes. We don’t have a washing machine yet, and he has a horror of launderettes. He doesn’t want anyone seeing the stains we make.
Matt is a very private person. He still locks the bathroom door against me, even when brushing his teeth. London will be a deep breath for him. He has been craving anonymity since his first day in school. Anonymity is something that doesn’t exist in East Belfast. The houses are simply too close together, the walls too thin. Matt is determined that we won’t get to know our London neighbours. He doesn’t want to make new friends or host dinner parties using our Jamie Oliver recipe book. He hopes to order all our groceries online so we don’t even have to encounter shopping people. There will be less people in our life now; three or four would be ample, Matt says. There is no room in this plan for a dead grandmother, even if she stays inside the wardrobe.
I open the door, slower this time, hoping Nana will be gone. But she is still inside, the newspaper spread across her lap like a well-pressed tablecloth. She is holding her glasses in front of her face, humming ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ as she moves the lenses slowly across the page.
‘Nana,’ I say very quietly so Matt won’t hear and come into the bedroom. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Just reading the paper, Pet,’ she says. ‘Seeing who’s died this week. Your man that used to do my decorating is gone. Cancer. Only forty-two, with three wee ones left behind.’ She holds the obituary page up for me. I pretend to read, drifting my eyes quickly from left to right, but in the thin light of the wardrobe the print is nothing more than dots and indistinguishable scratches.
‘Oh, dear,’ I say. ‘The same fella done our living room.’
Now the shock of her has settled, I’m not sure how I should be different around my grandmother. Surely we can’t be the same since one of us is dead? But it’s too late for hysterics. The time to scream is when you first see a ghost, not five minutes later when the pair of you are already passing the chat back and forth like winter flu. I can picture us going on like this for hours; setting the East to right over tea and thick slices of toasted Veda. Give my grandmother a good meaty subject and she can go for hours, like Paisley himself, no pulpit required. Not that I’d mind. There are things I had been meaning to ask before she died. Generic old-folk questions like, ‘Do you remember the Blitz?’ and, ‘How did you meet Granda?’ and other things I’m actually interested in, such as ‘Uncle Stevie: proper gay or just a wee bit affected?’ If given the chance I’d definitely ask what Nana said to my ma the night before she ran off with the bread man.
‘I know you thought I was sleeping,’ I would say. ‘But I could hear the noise of youse laying into her all the way through the ceiling. My dad swearing and my ma guldering back. The dog going ballistic in the kitchen and you screaming like a bloody banshee. Mostly you, Nana. You’ve a voice on you that would lift paint when you’re angry. What did you say to make her leave?’
Then I’d wait a few seconds, folding my arms defensively across my chest, letting my grandmother think I was pissed at her, before I said, ‘Sure, weren’t we all better off without my ma? She was a right headcase.’
Then we would laugh like donkeys. My grandmother throwing her head back, allowing the laugh to come out of her nose and her mouth, her eyes and belly, as if her whole body was farting laughter and she couldn’t hold it in.
Nana’s dead, I remind myself; she might not be up for the banter anymore. I bring all the funeral details back: the up-from-the-country cousins in their interview suits, the salad cream sandwiches and fruit loaf spread with Flora margarine, the white lilies that sat on her coffin and left powdery orange stains like little flames licking across the living room wallpaper. Matt in the corner, his face so straight that it looked like he’d ironed it along with his shirt. Me, crying - bawling my eyes out - though we’re not the sort of family who do tears at funerals. Particularly old folk’s funerals, which are not as sad as children’s, or sudden deaths such as car accidents and stabbings. I couldn’t help crying. I was ruined with the grief. There had always been a closeness between my grandmother and me, something like coming across your own face, reflected in a window. Then she’d died and it was gone overnight. Now, here it is back - the feeling of being on-your-own-easy with another person - and I can’t bear the thought of losing it again.
I lean into the wardrobe and place a hand on Nana’s shoulder. I brace myself, expecting to slip right through her, but she is surprisingly solid: warm and spongey beneath several layers of knitwear.
‘Funeral’s on Tuesday, to Roselawn,’ she reads, making a noise with her tongue that is both shock and sympathy. ‘Tchup, Tchup. Tchup. Would you credit that? I’d have put good money on him being Protestant. He did such a nice job with my tiles.’
Later, I will wonder why I am not, in the moment, afraid. I am only surprised and full of the sort of gladness associated with finding a long-lost item beneath your bed or in a coat pocket. I will decide that ghosts of your own family are too familiar to be frightening. I’ve heard people say they are capable of cleaning up their own child’s shit while other children’s turns them. I wouldn’t know. We don’t have any children, and Matt says there’s no room for them in this apartment. But the principles are similar. I’d be hysterical if I found anyone else’s dead grandmother in my wardrobe. But I know this version of Nana too well to be afraid. She is wearing the red cardigan I bought her for Christmas last year, habitual white Kleenex clouding out of the cuff. It is impossible to be afraid of a thing that came from BHS in the 20% off sale. My dead grandmother is just a collection of similarly familiar details: furry carpet slippers, moley eyes and my grandfather’s watch circling her wrist like an over-sized bangle.
‘I thought I’d never see you again, Nana,’ I say, hunkering down beside her so our faces are almost touching. I can smell the stale end of a recently-sucked Polo mint souring on her breath. ‘I never got the chance to tell you how much I love you.’
‘Catch yourself on,’ she snaps.
My family does not do sentimentality.
‘No, honestly, Nana. You’ve no idea how glad I am to have you back.’
‘Well, I’ve no plans for leaving any time soon. You’ll be plagued with me.’
My grandmother doesn’t seem to realise that she’s dead or that she’s currently sitting in a wardrobe in Hackney. I won’t be telling her. How would I? I can’t think of any words beyond ‘sorry’, and afterwards she might leave. I climb into the wardrobe beside her. It’s a big one and could easily fit four people, maybe even a table. I kiss her twice on each cheek. Her skin is like leaves or petals pressed inside a book. She pats me on the back, as if comforting a child. The smell of loose tea and gingernut biscuits is thick on her. I have not, until now, missed home or thought I ever would. The bridge of my nose smarts, as if it has been struck. This is the feeling of tears beginning to form. This is the moment I start to split in two.
‘Put the kettle on, love,’ my grandmother says. ‘I’m parched.’
She has always known when to turn a conversation round. All of a sudden I have the driest thirst for tea.
‘I’ll be back in a wee minute,’ I say. ‘You stay where you are, Nana. Finish the obituaries.’
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ she says and winks. Or perhaps I just imagine this in the dark.
I close the door behind me, lean my ear against the wardrobe and try to hear her breathing or shuffling the newspaper. I can hear nothing but London louding outside the window. Everything is louder here. Everything is quick and straight and sure of its own skin. It is not a place for grandmothers or any other truths unseen. With the door closed and the sound of her silent I can’t even recall her face, but my arms remember the exact shape of her absence and how heavy it is to hold.
In the kitchen, Matt has quit stacking plates. He is now lining the cutlery drawer with knives and forks. His back is turned against me, but I can tell he is smiling. He is happy here in our open-plan kitchen. He is not missing Belfast at all. He is imagining the rest of his life in London, only going home for Christmas, eventually whittling this down to every other Christmas and the bigger family weddings. I can tell this from the cut of his shoulders and the way he is handling the teaspoons: quickly, smoothly, confidently, like a person who knows exactly what he will do next.
‘Where’s the teapot?’ I ask.
‘I left it in Belfast,’ Matt says, turning so I can see how he has already developed a new, London smile. Teeth. Gums. Tight lines like a ventriloquist’s dummy, descending from either corner of his mouth.
‘What? Why did you do that?’
‘We don’t need a teapot. You’re the only one who drinks that kind of tea. Just dunk a bag in the mug.’
‘It doesn’t taste the same.’
‘Bullshit. It tastes exactly the same if you leave it in for a few minutes.’
‘I want a teapot,’ I say.
Then I am crying all over our yet-to-be sorted Tupperware because I don’t just want a teapot. I also want to see people I recognise in Tesco’s, and I want iced fingers for a Friday treat and my sister, three streets over, with her badly behaved children. I want drizzle in the summer and shops that don’t open till lunch on the Sabbath, old men who say ‘mornin’’ when you pass them with their dogs, dry humour, proper drinking pubs and bloody James Nesbitt, every single time you turn the television on. I want home. But I also want to be here in London, where the future is.
‘You’re just tired,’ says Matt, setting the teaspoons down so he can hold me. ‘It’s a big change, but you’re going to love London. Everything will be easier here. Just give it a chance.’
He lifts my hand to his face, traces my finger across his cheek and says, ‘This is the beginning’, like we are two people in a romantic movie.
‘Amen to that,’ I say, because he expects me to.
Inside I am thinking, the cableknit marks have faded away, the moment has passed, yet here we are playing it out like last night’s reheated leftovers.
I use my mobile to go on the Easyjet website, looking up flights back to Belfast two weekends from now, and then two weekends after this, all the way through to Christmas. I do this in the wardrobe with the door closed because Matt will not understand. He is not like me. He is already rooting here, planning his Monday morning commute. I am not like him. I can’t be only looking forwards. This is a form of weakness and I am ashamed.
My grandmother watches me from the corner of the wardrobe. ‘Are you doing the computer on your mobile?’ she asks.
‘Aye, Nana,’ I say. ‘I’m just looking up something here. I’ll make you another cup of tea in a minute.’
‘Them things’ll give you finger cancer,’ she says. ‘There was a programme on the telly about it last week, and microwaves are just as bad, only it’s cancer in your stomach you’ll get off them. I wouldn’t have either in my house for fear they’d kill me.’
‘You’re probably right, Nana,’ I say, and, sitting in the wardrobe with the door closed, I honestly believe that she is.
Later in the evening, I am leaning against our kitchen island watching Matt nuke last night’s noodles in the microwave, and I find myself saying, ‘Nana, used to say microwaves could give you stomach cancer.’
‘Your nana was hilarious,’ Matt replies. ‘Remember the way she used to lift the disposable cutlery in Marksy’s to save on washing up.’
‘And the day she forced those poor Mormons to come in for a fry.’
We laugh at my grandmother like she is the elderly character on a television sitcom. We laugh and drink one whole bottle of wine. Half-cut, I can pretend that she isn’t here with us, dozing in the wardrobe. I can laugh like I don’t even know her. We open a second bottle of wine and laugh about home. Cruelly. Fondly. With an enormous sense of relief. The place lends itself to mockery. So we mock. It is easy to do this in London. Belfast is three hundred miles behind us now. For all we know, it might be gone.
Tonight we will sleep on the sofas: Matt on one, and I on the other, because our bed is still in bits against the wall. Matt will fall asleep first, exhausted from carting our furniture up six flights of stairs. I will struggle to sleep through the sirens screaming below our balcony and the people next door who play Fifa all night with the volume turned up. Round about 2pm I will hear the sound of my grandmother’s hearing aid singing like struck glass as it dies. I will get up from my sofa and go to her in the wardrobe. She will be reading the People’s Friend or knitting. She will be on the phone with her sister in Lisburn or possibly even praying with words learnt years ago in Sunday School. She will be just as I remember her, even the wet click of her dentures slipping in and out when she laughs. I will curl myself around her gnarly ankles and use her slippers for a pillow, angling my cheek against the fluffy parts. I will make an anchor of my grandmother and hold on.
In the morning she may be gone or we may drink tea together and say it does not taste the same without a teapot.
Either way, I will be splitting in two.
Jan Carson’s latest work is Children’s Children (Liberties). The Glass Shore is published by New Island Press and launched in Hodges Figgis, Dawson Street, Dublin, this evening, October 5th, at 6pm