“No, Sarah! I mean: no, thanks. Thanks for everything, but I’ll have to go home sometime; it may as well be today.” Sarah blinks in surprise at her sister-in-law’s uncharacteristic display of assertiveness.
“I understand,” she says, after a brief hesitation, “I’ll go home and pack your things. I’ll bring an overnight bag and meet you back here in about an hour; OK?”
“No! I…I mean, thanks… but… ” Suddenly aware that the exchange was attracting some unwanted attention, Lil bends to Sarah’s eye-level and lowers her voice to a whisper. “It’s like this, Sarah: the sooner I face the house alone; the better for us all. I’ll call to you tomorrow and collect my stuff.” Yes, Lil thinks, her eyes sweeping the thirty-or-so sympathisers who’d assembled at the hotel for the post-burial refreshments. Finish your teas and coffees; your wines and brandies; your sandwiches and canapés; your pastries and eulogies, and feck off home. Anyway, where were you when I needed support; where were you all those years when I had to cope on my own? Thoughtfully, she refreshes her tea cup and again surveys the room. How little they actually know about her; but, then again, she wouldn’t claim to be very familiar with their circumstances. Yes, she knows their names; she knows their husbands and wives, their partners, their children, their lovers and their children. Some she knows socially or from work, others are his family and friends, a few are neighbours. But what do I know of your lives – other than the successes of your children and grandchildren? Are you really as content as you seem? Surely, there must be some swans among you: serene on the surface, but paddling furiously underwater to simply stay afloat.
The gathering begins to fracture and scatter. Initially in twos and threes, in a draining of cups and glasses, in a buttoning of coats and the rustle and rattle of handbags and keys; in parting words, fleeting hugs and exaggerated air kisses. Anything, they say, don’t be alone; just lift the phone. The flow of offers continues for several minutes; some offer a lift home: which she gracefully declines, thinking: can they not differentiate between alone and lonely? She does, however, concede that his sister-in-law had been right: it is too soon to go back to the house she’d shared with him after his aunt’s death, but the thought of spending another night with Sarah is an even more daunting proposition. After waving off the final stragglers, she returns to the foyer and, with renewed resolve, approaches the reception desk. Once she has reserved a room for the night, she braces herself against the chill of the March afternoon and mentally compiles her shopping list. She signs up for a basic mobile device at the nearest phone shop, she then goes to her favourite charity shop where she purchases a few items of less formal clothing, and she then pops to a pharmacy to add a few luxury items to the basic array of cosmetics in her funeral handbag.
In her hotel room, she starts to runs a bath and then briefly stretches out in the luxury of the extra-large double bed. “Make the most of it, Lil,” she reminds herself aloud, recalling the receptionist’s words when she’d checked in. “Tonight is fine, but we’re fully booked from tomorrow – for a wedding.” “Yes, Lil,” she mutters, “make the most of tonight; you’ll have no choice but to face the music tomorrow. Now, let’s see…” She burrows in the bag from the charity shop and then nods her satisfaction as she lays her selected items on the bed. She had been confident from the outset that the ensemble would work. Unlike her late mother, she has always had a discerning eye. Her theory had been a taboo subject throughout childhood, but she has always believed that it is a trait inherited from her father. Idly, she wonders what her present circle would say if they knew the truth of her parentage.
It hadn’t been easy being referred to as Lady Mac, the fatherless child of Lordeen’s Daughter. “Little Lordeen” had been the derogatory nickname of her grandfather, Ned McGrath, but McGrath had been Ned’s mother’s family name, while his father was said to have been the younger son of Lord Harrold, local landowner and master of Brook House, where fourteen-year-old Mary McGrath had gained employment as a kitchen maid shortly before the beginning of The Great War. The younger Harrold never returned from that war, leaving Mary McGrath a legacy that would see her shunned by Catholic and Protestant, by ally and enemy, and by landlord and landless alike. “An ounce of breeding…” Lil scoffs, studying her posed image in the full-length mirror. Yes, hers is a face that would not look out of place in an eighteenth century painting on a Victorian drawing room wall. “I just need an embroidery hoop and a spaniel,” she giggles girlishly, and hitches up her full-length Lincoln green gown before easing her buttocks on to the folded candlewick bedspread on the end of the bed. “From country estate to council estate,” she sighs as she toes off her black funeral shoes, eases her feet into her ‘new’ low-heeled beige sandals, and then exhales loudly with relief. “Oh yes,” she sighs, beginning to undress, “only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.”
What do they know about her, anyway? To them, she was Lil: the wife Larry Conway brought back from London all those years ago. Lil Conway: Larry’s wife – widow – none of them had ever heard of Lillie White, not to mention Lordeen’s Daughter… Although few had ever addressed her as Lordeen’s Daughter, she had been all too aware of how her former neighbours had referred to her. She had led Larry to believe that she had never known her biological parents, that she had grown up in a succession of dysfunctional foster homes, none of which she had any desire to revisit. “Anyway, Larry,” she mutters, removing her wedding ring, “it was none of your business then, and you certainly needn’t worry about it now!”
Laying back in the luxury of her scented hotel bath, she has to admit that Lillie White, the name her teachers had lumbered her with after her mother had married Ned White – a widower with three teenage sons – was little improvement on Lordeen’s Daughter. None of the mourners could have known that on her sixteenth birthday, with her Intermediate Certificate stashed in her suitcase, Lil had ended her eight-year tenure in the White household and decamped to her mother’s sister in London. With a wistful smile, she recalls how bright the future had shone when Lillian (call me Lil) McGrath first introduced herself to her new world with her actual birth name.
Within a week of her arrival in London, Lil was already on the lookout for a new beginning. While undecided as to whether her aunt’s husband or his sons presented the greatest danger to her virtue, she knew she had to escape, and she had to escape soon. On the first week of December, three weeks after her arrival in London, Lil was accepted into the residential nursing school of a north London hospital. Four years later, as a fully qualified nurse, she met builder’s labourer Larry Conway in the A&E department of that very hospital, in the early hours of a frosty Sunday morning. After a five month courtship, Lil, already ten weeks pregnant, became Mrs Conway on the sixth day of the following June. The wedding was a quiet affair and after the civil ceremony, a score-or-so of his and her work colleagues adjourned to his local pub for refreshments. The newlyweds’ first home was a tiny attic flat off Kilburn Highroad, where Lil endured a difficult pregnancy before being driven to hospital in her thirtieth week by the proprietor of the ground floor grocery – the only person to respond to her repeated cries for help.
She wipes her face with a soft white towel, aware that she has shed tears for the first time since Larry’s death. But she is not weeping for Larry: no, she is weeping for her stillborn son, and for the ensuing hysterectomy which had rendered her forever barren. She had wept back then also, and she had wept for Larry: initially for the pain she’d believed he was sharing, and then for the infrequence of his visits during the six week stay in hospital, and later again for his lack of empathy on her return to the flat. The excellent care and companionship of her hospital colleagues had done little to cheer Lil during those weeks; rather, their repeated queries about her returning to work had been a source of further pain. That was when she’d told Larry she was leaving London – leaving England, in fact – that she wanted to return to Ireland. She hadn’t meant a word of it. All she had really wanted to do was leave was Larry; she’d had no desire whatever to return to the country of her shameful birth and painful adolescence. It was just plain bad luck that Larry had learnt, that very week, of a vacancy with the Urban Council in his home town, a job he had desired ever before his move to London. It was the perfect solution for everybody, he’d said, following a phonecall to Tess – his favourite aunt and godmother, whose husband Jack was council foreman. Before Lil could think up a plausible escape route, Larry had bought a second-hand van, loaded his tools and their belongings, and was driving towards the ferry port at Fishguard.
Lil’s train of thought is interrupted by a sudden shiver. She wonders at her surprise at how much the bath water has cooled. Taking a deep breath, she pulls the plug and pushes herself erect as the escaping water swirls to an eddy at the point where her feet had been. Carefully, she scissors her legs over the side of the bath and then twiddles her wet toes in the deep pile of the bathmat. Towelling her hair dry, she catches a glimpse of herself in the bathroom mirror, and gasps. “God, have they buried the wrong Conway? I’m as pale as a snowman’s ghost.” Once dry, she slips into a complimentary fluffy white bathrobe and returns to the bedroom. Thirty minutes later, satisfied with her hair and face makeover, she dons the ensemble she had earlier chosen and after a final squirt of cologne, enters the corridor.
Have I left it too late? She wonders, eyeing the busy dining room. Gosh, she thinks, her right palm clamped over her lips; did I say that out loud? I must remember I’m not alone. She hovers uncertainly at the entrance for several moments until a young woman attired in a long navy gown approaches and asks if she is a resident. Once Lil produces her room key, she is asked to wait at the bar counter until a table becomes available. Maybe I should just go home, she muses, viewing the melee of vociferous young men vying for the bartenders’ attention. Finally she spots a vacant stool beside an immaculately attired mature woman at the end of the bar. You can do this, she tells herself; today is the first day of the rest of your life.
“Excuse me, please; is this seat available?” She leans across the high stool to catch the woman’s eye.
“Please sit,” returning her phone to her handbag, the woman smiles graciously. “I was dreading what might fetch up beside me.” The woman’s relief is palpable.
“I’m just waiting for a table…” Lil shrugs apologetically.
“Are you dining alone? I’m not being nosey, but my friend has just texted; she won’t be joining me. You would be most welcome…”
“That’s very kind of you, but…” She breaks off at the arrival of a uniformed youth.
“Excuse me, ladies; table for two? Follow me, please…”
“Shall we?” The woman motions for Lil to follow in the waiter’s wake. Deciding to take the invitation at face value, Lil nods her thanks and complies.
They both choose the steamed salmon special from the menu. The woman orders a bottle of chardonnay and then introduces herself.
“I’m Dorothy Harrold, by the way; Dot to my friends, I…”
“Lillian…sorry, Lil… Lil Conway; pleased to meet you…” Lil offers her hand, gasping as though the last gasp of breath is sucked from her lungs. Dorothy is saying something about a wedding. Ignoring the ache in her chest, Lil struggles to rein in her racing thoughts. “Sorry; did you say wedding?” She finally manages.
“I just wondered if you are part of my nephew’s wedding party. You may be a cousin I haven’t yet met; or are you on the bride’s side?”
“Oh, you are here for that wedding. No, no, I’m just staying overnight; I…I’ve given myself a little birthday treat…” Lil takes a couple of deep breaths as the waiter appears with Dorothy’s wine.
“Happy birthday,” Dot smiles, pouring wine into Lil’s glass.
“Gosh, I rarely drink alcohol, but… perhaps just a little… thanks.”
“A birthday and a wedding: what wonderful reasons to celebrate. I’ve never had a wedding; are you married?” Dot’s eyes stray to the indentation on Lil’s bare ring finger.
“I’m widowed,” Lil’s words have neither emphasis nor emotion.
“Oh, I am sorry, I…”
“Don’t be; it’s OK… Here’s to single ladies.” Lil says, raising her glass.
“To single ladies,” Dot echoes, as the waiter serves their meals. “Cheers!”
Much to Lil’s relief, except for Dot’s occasional comments on her food, and little flurries of exchanges with fellow wedding guests, the meal is in comparative silence. When Dot divides the last of the wine between them, Lil instantly requests a second bottle from a hovering waiter. Although Dot remains silent during this process, her eyes follow Lil’s every move. Lil assumes pouring duties and, buoyed by newfound confidence, decides to broach the question which has been dominating her thoughts throughout the meal.
“Thanks to you, Dot, I am really enjoying the evening. Surrounded by your wonderful family, I almost feel like part of the aristocracy.” Her words bring something approaching a snigger from Dot.
“Ah yes, my wonderful family… I am almost as much an outsider here as you. Yes, Trevor – the groom – is my nephew, and we are both direct descendants of the legendary WW1 hero, Major Charles Harrold, 1874-1965, a lifespan he shared with Winston Churchill – there was a younger brother, Edward, who died in the war. The Major had two sons – of whom we know – Will, who succeeded to the family estate, and George: my father, Trevor’s grandfather, and Will’s twin – the spare – who by centuries of tradition, and fifteen minutes of breathing, was forced to survive in the real world. Yes, I’m sure I’ve got cousins in this very room – and many other places – of whom I am not aware… Old sins cast long shadows…” She takes a long swallow from her glass and then shrugs dismissively.
“So, there are many of The Major’s descendants here, right now?” Lil has to concentrate hard to keep her eyes focussed on Dot rather than surveying the room.
“Yes, family protocol dictates that invitations to all such family events should span three generations. I envy you who have normal lives. Have you always lived here?”
“No, we moved here from London a few years after we married. We didn’t have a family.”
“And what of your late husband; was he a local man?” Dot pauses to refresh their glasses.
“Yes, born and bred.” Somewhat miffed at Dot’s line of questioning, Lil decides against volunteering any further details. “And what line of business are you in?” It’s not as if Lil has any interest in Dot’s career; she has already garnered more than enough information to occupy her thoughts for the immediate future.
“Oh, I’m a music teacher; here is my card. Yes, I did study at the Royal Academy in London, and had dreams of touring the world, but I’ve spent the greater part of my life trying to teach piano and violin to disinterested Dublin children. I’ve just had the most wonderful idea; why don’t you accompany me to the wedding tomorrow, as my plus-one?”
Taken totally by surprise at the suggestion, Lil is forced to play a card she would much prefer to have kept in her hand.
“That is so kind but I simply can’t accept. You see, I buried my husband just today.”
“Gosh, Lil; I am so sorry. I had assumed…” Dot returns her half-raised glass to the table, her face a mask of apology.
“Don’t be sorry, it’s just that small-town people love to talk. Anyway, I think it’s time for me to catch up on some lost sleep. Thank you so much for a very pleasant evening.”
“Not at all; you are most welcome. You are grieving, of course, and in shock. I…”
“It was a shock, yes, but only that his heart gave out while he was actually working. Larry was foreman with the local council, but for most of our married life he was more concerned with female tenants than maintenance. So, here’s to Larry!” Once they have agreed on how to split the bill, Lil retires to her room and quickly slips into a deep dreamless sleep.
After an early breakfast in an almost deserted dining room, Lil asks the receptionist to call her a cab and then checks out of the hotel. Twenty minutes later, she pushes her hall door shut and then leans back against it. “You have him back now, Tess,” she shouts to the silent house. “You and Jack have him all to yourselves again.” After a long thoughtful coffee, she raises her voice again. “Mind the house, Tess; I’m going out, and I may be some time.” She fishes her new phone and Dot’s card from her handbag.
From Listowel, Ireland, Neil Brosnan’s short stories have appeared in magazines, print anthologies, and in electronic format in Ireland, Britain, Europe and the USA. A winner of The Bryan MacMahon, The Maurice Walsh (three times), and Ireland’s Own (twice) short story awards, he has published two short story collections: ‘Fresh Water & other stories’ (Original Writing, 2010) and ‘Neap Tide& other stories’ (New Binary Press, 2013).