It was embarrassing at first, when they didn’t know each other. The postwoman would say hello and Miriam’d say I’m grand even though she didn’t ask – the conversational equivalent of fumbling a handshake. Miriam either snatched the letters from her or she wouldn’t get a proper grip of them and they’d fall down the back of the radiator and scatter over the tiles of the kitchen floor. They found their own rhythm with time. She said hello first, Miriam said goodbye last. She handled the bottoms of the envelopes with their shiny plastic windows facing upwards and Miriam took them by their heads.
The woman walked with her chest out and shoulder blades folded into her spine like an upright deck chair. It was hard to put an age on her. She had a woolly head of auburn hair, the front of which she straightened into a misbehaving fringe. The rest of it sprouted out of the green peaked cap she squashed onto her head. Later, she would tell Miriam it was a nightmare to wash. She cried out of frustration when she sat down in the shower to brush it out, once a week.
Miriam missed her when she was out sick for a week. Her replacement was a miserable drip of a teenager who mooched around the end of the driveway. When he didn’t see a post box, he put the envelopes under a stone on the pillar. On the morning she was back, she pulled up to the window but didn’t get out of the car. Her head was slumped over the steering wheel. Miriam went outside and tapped on the glass. The woman jumped as if she caught her doing something and rolled down the window.
“I’m grand,” she said, shoving the tears away with fists. Miriam was too embarrassed to look her in the eye so she took her by the arm and led her inside. She pulled out a chair at the kitchen table. The woman sat down on it like a child after scraping her knee.
“My mother died last Tuesday. We didn’t get on.” She clucked her tongue. “She wasn’t even young, she was eighty-five.”
Miriam crouched down on her hunkers and waited until the woman could see her through her tears.
“She was your Mammy,” she said firmly.
“Hmm . . . I’m a stupid woman.”
“If you were, I wouldn’t let you into the house,” Miriam said. “I’d pass the tissues through the window and that would be the height of it.”
She laughed then, shooting more snot down her nose. Miriam handed her another tissue. “You’re very good,” she said.
“Tea or coffee?”
“Tea please. No milk, two sugars.”
Miriam made a charade out of brewing the tea to allow the silence to settle. An elegant twirl of copper fell from the teapot into their china cups. They both clinked their spoons when they stirred their sugar. It reminded Miriam of the little bell tinkling during the consecration at Mass.
“So you milk the cows yourself?” the woman asked.
“They’re stuck with me, I’m afraid. I have a brother in London, but he never took to the farm.”
“It’s not for everyone,” she said. “Your Dad was lucky to have you.”
It came as a surprise when Frank Doyle left the farm to his daughter. Most people thought he would have given it to the son, although even Miriam would admit she was more of a man than Martin ever was. When their mother died of cancer at the age of sixty-five, his way of coping with her death was to go around announcing he was gay to every Tom, Dick or Harry who’d have him. It wasn’t the homosexuality that came as a surprise but the exhibitionism that went with it. He was always the quiet one helping around the house, making tea for his father and sister when they came in from the yard. There wasn’t a peep out of him until the mother died, and all of a sudden he was flouncing around limp-wristed and theatrical, forming a whole new personality around his own private affairs.
Things might have worked out differently if it wasn’t for the marriage referendum. Martin played a big role in the Yes campaign in the local parish. He spent his days baking vegan brownies for activists and furiously knitting multicoloured scarves. The Yes people came around to the house to interrogate his father. They sat him down at his own kitchen table with a camera-phone propped up by the bible. Frank was too uncomfortable to ask them to leave so he answered their questions, serving them tea from a pot wearing one of Martin’s rainbow tea-cosies. After the video was posted online, Martin moved out. He stayed with friends until the referendum was passed. Then he left for England with a suitcase of notions.
The postwoman introduced herself as Julie. Before she left, Miriam gave her a slip of her pink carnations to plant in her garden. She made a fuss out of potting it for her, stuffing peat into a cracked terracotta pot and wrapping it in a Tesco bag. She bundled it into the postwoman’s arms like it was a baby in a body bag.
“Thank you,” Julie said. The plastic bunny ears lolloped to one side and she peaked in on her new plant sleeping.
“I planted my rose bush after Daddy passed away,” Miriam explained. “All they need is a bit of pruning every now and then.” That was a lie. Miriam cared for her plants as though they were lying in a hospice bed. It tickled her heart to see the roses wake up from their comma, their throats blowing the petals out of their buds. They survived the winter last year. She took a photo of them in full bloom, their pink petals frozen in the snow.
Julie didn’t talk about her mother after that. Miriam didn’t invite her in for tea again, but she fussed over getting the place ready in time for the postwoman calling. She began cleaning her kitchen the way some women apply make-up. She would fix the red-and-white checkered tablecloth, drape fresh yellow dishcloths over the tap in the sink and replace the flowers on the windowsill with a new bouquet of daisies and primroses from the garden. She didn’t have time to make brown bread after milking, so she emptied a packet of ready-mix into a pair of greased tins and stuck them in the oven, burying the evidence deep in the recycling bin. Julie didn’t need to know it wasn’t from scratch. What mattered was the smell of baking wafting through the open window, warm and welcoming.
They began having long chats at the window, leaning their elbows on opposite sides of the windowsill. Julie loved to talk about travelling. It hurt Miriam’s head trying to imagine all the places Julie had been on a map – Cambodia, Japan, Turkey, Iran – when she said she’d been to Timbuktu Miriam laughed because she thought she was joking. How far around the world could you get on a postwoman’s wage? Miriam had never been on a plane but she was too embarrassed to tell Julie, so she found herself saying things like, “I prefer European cities. New York and London wouldn’t be for me now, but the likes of Rome, Budapest, even Amsterdam . . . They have a kind of understated charm.”
“You’re right. That’s exactly it,” Julie beamed.
There was no going back after that. She couldn’t turn around and say that she hadn’t been outside of Ireland, that it wouldn’t be an option with the farm anyway. She could never leave the cows with anyone else. She was afraid if she left them, even for a day, they’d be taken away from her.
Miriam invented a travelling partner on a whim in case Julie thought she was her only friend. She panicked and used Caroline Kavanagh, a fellow minister of the Eucharist at Mass who – thankfully – was on a different postal route. Miriam’s Caroline was a lecturer of sociology in Maynooth University, a blonde, statuesque woman, not wholly unlike Caroline Kavanagh but with softer features and a better nose.
“We’re going to Prague in January,” Miriam said before she could stop herself.
“Oh my God,” Julie moaned. “I’m so jealous. Prague is gorgeous. Have you been before?”
“No,” she said, truthfully.
Julie’s face smoothened into a smile. “I’m really excited for you.”
Miriam started to get the jitters before her trip to Prague.
“Do you need me to water the flowers?” Julie asked.
“Ah no, Michael will do it.” Michael was the imaginary fella covering the milking for her. They arranged that Julie would leave the window unlocked so she could deliver the post while Miriam was away.
The day before Miriam was meant to be leaving, Julie reached in through the window and squeezed her shoulders together. “Give my regards to the Child of Prague,” she winked. “I’m convinced he’s a baby transvestite by the get-up of him.”
“The poor crather.”
“Safe travels love.”
“Think of me when you’re standing underneath the Astronomical Clock.”
“I will do.” Miriam shut the window before Julie made another reference she didn’t understand.
She took it easy for the week, not only because she was keeping a low profile. Every morning, as soon as she heard the wheels of the van crunching the gravel on the way back down the driveway, she would go to the window and stroke the fresh, cold envelopes stacked on the window ledge in neat piles. The way they were arranged in bundles made it feel like Christmas. She saw Caroline Kavanagh walking the road and ducked her head in case she reported her to Julie. The whole situation was ridiculous but Miriam couldn’t help it. It felt like she was being watched as she went about her day. For dinner, she baked her potatoes instead of boiling them because the sight of the two spuds bobbing around the pot and bumping into each other was too depressing to watch. Baking them was a more subdued affair. She took them out of their incubators and unwrapped the tinfoil to find tough, tanned skin and fluffy insides that she ate with melted cheese and rashers in her father’s chair in front of the television.
She planned on spending her evenings reading a guidebook of Prague, but it felt like being back in school not wanting to do homework. Instead, she found a box set of nature documentaries that Martin got his father for Christmas years ago, still wrapped in cellophane. An old VCR player was underneath the telly collecting dust. She plugged it in and slid one of the tapes into its mouth. It worked like a dream.
A matriarchy of elephants stomped across the screen. They had come across the corpse of a family member. Their trunks curled around the remains, hugging the bones. “Female elephants stick together,” David Attenborough whispered, sending a tingle from the back of her ear down to her shoulder. “The males are loners, but the women have a strong bond. The group they form together is called a memory.” Miriam ate her baked potato dinner and tried to imagine what it must feel like to be part of a memory.
She ventured as far as the charity shop in town to buy a gift for Julie. She wasn’t sure what she was after. She figured if all else failed she’d go to the Eurosaver and buy her a giant Toblerone. The shop smelled of lost things. Two ladies in their seventies sat on stools behind the counter. They exchanged hellos and the women went back to their chit-chat. Miriam passed by the drooped shoulders of unwanted clothes on hangers, and made her way over to the clutter of ornaments and crockery in the corner – dust-collectors, her father used to call them. She thought she might find a candle stand or vase that looked vaguely European. Her eyes scanned the selection of broken incense sticks, a pair of scruffy communion shoes and the skeleton of a typewriter. It took her a while to recognize the doll in the red cape and crown. He looked like a baby barrister in his white curly wig, staring out at the world with jaded eyes as though unimpressed with what he saw.
The women sized him up at the till.
“Are you going to bury him in the garden?” one asked.
“If you bury him in the garden he’s meant to bring good weather,” said the other.
“I don’t think I could put the poor gossin’ in the ground,” Miriam said. The women laughed and she relaxed. “I’m actually getting one for a friend, as a joke like. She finds religious iconography creepy.”
It was only then that she copped the golden crosses they were wearing on necklaces winking out at her between the collars of their silk blouses.
“Would you like us to gift-wrap it?” one of them asked, forcing a smile.
“You look rested,” Julie said, when Monday finally came around.
“I need another holiday,” Miriam said. She was up all night cramming facts about Prague into her head.
“How was the weather?”
“Freezing,” she said. She checked the weather app. There was a cloud over Prague with a caption that read, A possibility of snow. “It didn’t snow though.”
“That’s a pity. It would have been very picturesque in the snow,” Julie said.
“It was still beautiful,” she replied, somewhat defensive of her weather choice. She handed the parcel out the window.
“Ah Jesus, there was no need,” Julie said.
“I couldn’t leave it behind.” She watched her unravel the Child of Prague out of the gold tissue the nuns had swaddled it in.
Julie let out a cackle. “It is truly terrifying.”
There was a pause in the conversation. Both of them smiled at each other thinking about what to say next. Miriam desperately wanted to tell her about her encounter with the nuns.
“It’s my birthday on Saturday,” Julie said. “I’m having a get-together in the house. Nothing fancy, but you’re very welcome to come.”
Miriam was thrown, having only prepared for a conversation about the Charles Bridge and views from the castle.
“Ah Jesus,” she breathed out. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
She milked early on Saturday to have time to scrub up as best as she could. She tipped half a bottle of lavender Radox into a hot bath. It was meant to be relaxing, but sent her into a fit of sneezing. After towelling off, she slathered her body in moisturiser and ran up and down the hall in the nip to make it dry in faster. She stood in front of the mirror contemplating her only outfit choice: a long cotton dress with a cardigan that covered her tummy rolls, tights and scuffed shoes with a slight heel. Each layer of black clothing was at a different stage of fading, so they clashed with each other. She picked a bit of fluff off the back of her cardigan and smoothed out the creases in the dress. Her head was wrecked with nerves but she clung to the thought of seeing Julie to keep her from getting dizzy.
She felt herself shrinking as she drove into the estate where Julie lived. The houses were too perfect to be real. It looked like a model village constructed by a very serious gentleman with a monocle and a magnifying glass who could pick up her car at any moment and place her wherever he imagined her to fit in the scene. Cars were scattered outside one of the semi-detached houses, and there were pink and white balloons at the end of the gate. She didn’t know why she presumed Julie lived alone. She never mentioned any housemates.
Miriam slammed the car door. Heavy beats of loud music and laughter landed inside her head. She took a deep breath and exhaled the words, “Cop on.” Her kitten heels scraped the pavement. She wished she hadn’t worn them. The door was yellow and had a circular window with frosted glass that looked like snow. She rang the bell and waited.
A little red-haired girl opened the door and mangled her legs into a curtsey. “May I take your coat?” she offered, before squinting at Miriam’s outfit. “Or cardigan thingy?”
“No thank you,” Miriam smiled. The girl looked so disappointed that she wanted to go back to the car to search for a coat to give her. A woman stood behind the girl, supervising her manners. She had huge, brown cow-like eyes. A fan of lashes perched on each of her eyelids. Miriam stared at her for a moment too long.
Julie came sliding down the wooden floor of the hall, wearing a smile too big for her face.
“Miriam, you made it.” She reached across to kiss her cheek, placing a hand on her shoulder. A piece of her hair tickled Miriam’s neck. When they pulled away, Julie put her arm around the cow-eyed woman’s waist. “This is my wife, Martha.”
“I’ve heard so much about you,” Martha said.
Julie crouched down and put her hands on the little girl’s hips. “And this is our daughter, Ellie.”
Ellie pointed at up Miriam. “You’re work!”
Miriam stared back at her while Julie and Martha laughed.
“Whenever Ellie asks me where I’m going in the morning, I say I’m going to my friend Miriam’s house,” Julie explained. “It’s only recently she’s copped that going to yours means going to work.”
“I didn’t know,” Miriam said.
“How was your trip to Prague?” Martha asked.
Martha laughed. “We’re going skiing next week.”
“Stop,” Julie elbowed her.
“It was birthday surprise,” Julie said.
“That’ll be nice. The snow was gorgeous in Prague.”
“In Prague?” Julie said. “But I thought you said it didn’t snow.”
“It didn’t,” she said too quickly, “but I could feel it in the air – the possibility of snow.”
Julie chuckled into the awkward silence. “The possibility of snow. You’re a gas woman Miriam.”
She led her into the kitchen where the buffet was laid out. A woman in a waistcoat stood behind the dazzling silver trays, ladling a swamp of chicken curry onto the plates of guests who had formed an admiring queue.
“Please don’t be shy,” Julie said, finally looking at her properly. “I’m so glad you came.” She put her hand on her shoulder and left to greet the new arrivals who had usurped Miriam’s position at the door.
“Would you like a beverage?” Ellie was tugging at her sleeve. Miriam smiled and shook her head. The little girl saw that she was going to be boring and left her alone.
She waited in line for food she knew she wasn’t going to eat. There were enough people there for her to slip out ten minutes later, unseen.
She tried to make sense of it on the drive home. It was the first time she had seen Julie wear jewellery. A plain gold band, the type a man would wear, hugged her finger. Did her wife know about all those mornings she spent handing Miriam post with her naked fingers?
“Stupid, stupid woman,” she whispered, one hand on the steering wheel, the other punching the tears from her face.
She went out to check on a cow as soon as she got home. Part of her wanted to make sure they hadn’t left while she was gone. The metal handle of the gate was the kind of freezing that burned to touch. The clang of it opening tinkled through the silence. Long grass whispered against her shoes. A calf had been born. The cow and her baby heard Miriam before they saw her slipping out of the black sleeve of night onto the ground in front of them like a magic trick.
"Come on," she said, hoisting the newborn onto unsteady legs. The separation was casual. When she was younger she used to force them into saying a final farewell, pushing the mother towards her baby like a little girl playing with her dolls. No matter what she did, they would have no memory of each other. The calf wobbled away from its mother to its cage in the shed. Miriam went to bed and dreamed about her father.
Louise Nealon is a writer from Co Kildare. In 2017, she won the Seán Ó Faoláin International Short Story Competition and was the recipient of the Francis Ledwidge Creative Writing Award. She has been published in The Irish Times, Southword and The Open Ear