The Smouldering Truth
by Anna Foley
I fell into my job because it seemed like the correct move back then. I graduated with honours in Social Science and got the post immediately because Dad knew the right people, but my heart was never in it then. It was just something to pass the time until I could get married and have babies, then stay at home because the husband would earn enough money for both of us. I thought I was on the right track.
“You’ll be fine,” Dan assured me. “You can handle this, you’ve all had the same training and it will do you good to get the field experience.”
I could tell he was wasn’t listening to my protest and he adopted a posture which made us all suddenly quiet.
“Don’t any of the rest of ye get sick now, I mean it,” he said, before locking himself in his office.
I stared at the file on my desk as Joan shuffled over, putting her arm around my shoulder.
“I’ll help you, Shelly, if I can.”
“Cheers Joan. I’ve never done a case like this. Why’d she have to be sick again?”
“Ah now, she didn’t do it on purpose.”
I wasn’t so sure. I had seen Maria struggling since coming back after having her fourth child, I saw her crying as she locked her up her old banger in the mornings. She was always tired and leaving early for one reason or another, someone of them was always being sent home early from someplace.
Later in the afternoon in the privacy of the bathroom, Laura got her chance to gloat.
“So Shelly, you gonna take that new white car down to visit the boggers today?”
“Guess I don’t really have a choice.”
I wanted to push her jealous face into the mirror, the way she applied that lipstick was unnaturally annoying. I finished washing my hands and turned to leave. She called after me.
“Glad he didn’t give me that one, bad enough I’ve to go visit that wan with all the kids up the Northside. I can’t wait til abortions are allowed here. Save us a load of hassle.”
“Yeah,” I answered. I would have found a nicer way to say it, but for once, she was absolutely right.
I called Gerry, the safety of the motorway behind me as I hit a narrow road made almost entirely of pot holes. I needed a distraction from imminently dealing with this teenager and her mess.
“Hello love,” he answered breathlessly.
I tried speaking several times but he kept repeating hello, hello, hello.
“Sorry love, I muted the Bluetooth; again.”
“That’s what I thought,” he said and laughed. “How’s your day going?”
“Shit. I’m in the back arse of nowhere looking for some farm.”
“Oh. What for?”
“New case I got. Maria’s out sick til God knows when and we have to pick up the slack.”
“Shit. That the one with all the kids?”
He suggested a movie and wine night to which I happily agreed and he said he’d pick up a bottle of Shiraz on his way home before we finished up the call.
I wiped cow shit off my stilettos as I waited. That welcome mat had seen better days, just like the woman who appeared from behind the wooden door.
“Come in,” she sighed, wiping her hands on her apron. “Kitchen’s this way.”
The merged scent of baking apple tart and boiling cabbage turned my stomach in the steamy kitchen.
“Sit there at the table. Tea?”
“No thanks, just a glass of water.”
The woman shrugged, then planted a glass of limey water in front of me. A mewling started from behind me. I hadn’t noticed the basket in the corner. She scurried toward it and picked up a soother, jamming it into the baby’s mouth.
“Amy,” she shrieked. “Amy come down!”
After a minute, a pale-faced Amy appeared in the doorway. She wore a baggy grey sweatshirt and her greasy hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Through dark circles under her eyes, she barely looked her sixteen years.
“He’s crying, time for his feed,” hissed her mother.
She eyed me coolly and approached the basket where her son had spat out the soother and squirmed, kicking his legs and screeching.
“Hi Amy, how are you getting on?” I asked.
“Oh,” she said. “Just fucking great.” She picked up the noisy bundle.
“Amy. Stop it.” The farmer’s wife hovered by the cooker, fighting the temptation to take over, the expert mother that she was. Instead, she spoke.
“She’s doing very well, aren’t you Amy? She’s going back to school next week too.”
“Oh really,” I said. “Are you happy about that Amy?”
“Well, it looks like everything is going well with him. He’s doing fine.”
Her mother answered.
“Oh sure, he’s thriving. It’s not always easy mind, but we’re managing.”
She turned then, stirring the cabbage gloop, before catching the pot and flinging the contents into a yellow colander which I suspected was once white. Amy took a full bottle of formula from the fridge and left the room with her son.
“This will be yer the last visit so will it? You’re not the usual girl either?”
“No. Maria’s off sick. I’m taking the case now.”
“Well as you can see we’re grand. Thanks for all your help.”
Her mouth smiled though her eyes did not. I took this as my cue to leave, and grabbed my leather handbag, knocking a hardback from the sideboard as I did; ‘Animal Husbandry; A Complete Guide’.
“You don’t seem like a girl would be interested in that book anyway,” and she chuckled.
“No,” I said. I didn’t have any animals or a husband, yet.
“Pat’s calving bible that is. We’d a mutant born last week.”
“A calf with two heads. Bad luck, a bad omen. Died an hour after”
When I got home, the house was in darkness. I preheated the oven and turned on the lights upstairs, before hopping into the shower to scrub the smell of cow shit off my skin. When I stepped out, I heard him slam the front door.
“Hello,” he called.
“I’m upstairs, just outta the shower.”
I heard his steps on the stairs and threw on my robe in case he started getting any ideas.
“I got stuck in tunnel traffic. Some accident.”
“Thought so, did you get the wine?”
“No. I came straight home, I was pissed off.”
I left him on the bed, scrolling intently through Sky Sports News on his Iphone. I went to get the wine myself and pick up a pizza from the takeaway on the way back instead of cooking. Gerry had bought that house before we met. I would have preferred to live closer to the city centre and nicer restaurants, but that was just how it worked out. The neighbourhood was safe, and property values there were rising so we could sell and move eventually.
I paid for the pizza using the last of the cash in my purse and picked up two bottles of red in the off-licence. At the counter, my visa card was refused. The lad tried putting it through three times, but it still didn’t work, so I pulled out my own emergency card and used that for the first time in months.
Gerry had the gas fire on when I got back in and threw the pizza and my keys down on the coffee table. He had the crystal glasses out and proceeded to uncork the wine, then let it glug glug glug into both glasses.
“Music to my ears,” I laughed. “Ger, my card didn’t work in the offy.”
“What you mean?”
“The AIB Visa card. Refused three times. Can you check it, I’ve no access online to that?”
“Must have been the machine, I’ll have a look tomorrow. Did you have cash?”
“Yeah,” I lied.
There was some crusty woman on an evening chat show talking about a pagan feast she was hosting at her ‘retreat’, before going off on a rant about lunar cycles. The presenters were nodding, asking inane questions about hippy nonsense. My patience waned.
“Ger, are you interested in this?”
“Hm?” he looked stunned.
“Are you watching this?”
“No no, change over if you want.”
I turned over the channel and stared at some fashion programme almost as foolish as myself.
I awoke in the middle of the night to find Gerry gone from our bed. I snuck out and saw him sitting in the office with his back to me, looking into the laptop. My attempt at stealth failed because he heard me approach and first slammed down the screen, then shoved in the bottom drawer of his desk with his knee and locked it.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing. Couldn’t sleep is all.” He shifted in the chair, not meeting my eye.
In spite of myself I smiled. I decided I would go along with the game. After all, I had waited long enough. Visions of diamond rings, fancy restaurants and white dresses danced in mind, or maybe a surprise trip abroad.
A conference in London for Gerry was the only trip that materialised. The company paid for the entire thing, with business class flights and a five-star hotel for four days. He got five-star luxury, I got teenage mothers.
The case file was almost wrapped up, with most of the paperwork and assessments are done by Maria before her absence. She hadn’t been in for two weeks, and no return date was given on the medical cert either.
In my lunch hour, I found the perfect Valentine’s Day gift online and decided I’d get it couriered to Gerry at work on the day itself. This Moet and Chandon hamper would be ideal for the celebration once he had popped the question. I indulged in more fantasies, having an imaginary crisis over who I would ask to be bridesmaids. I tried completing the transaction but the card came up declined on the screen. I checked the numbers, all correct. I tried again, the same message. I kicked the leg of the desk and grabbed my handbag. I wanted answers from the bank about this.
At the cash desk, the teller looked blankly at the screen and told me I needed to speak to someone in customer services. After another ten minutes of queuing, I finally got to talk to a man who looked like a child in a business suit, playing at working in a bank. He asked me again my query and I explained the trouble with my card. He asked if I had been checking my postal statements and I told him I hadn’t got any. I asked the balance on the Visa card and he informed that it wasn’t technically my account. It was in Gerry’s name and he couldn’t give me any details since I was only a named card user. Back in my office, I unfolded the print-outs he had given me, and what I saw in black and white changed everything.
The hours after that dragged as I tried to make sense of what I had read in the statements, until at three o clock, my phone rang. A colleague at the maternity hospital wanted to let me know that Amy Black had brought the baby in and declared she couldn’t keep him after all. She had done so without her parent’s knowledge, in her own twisted logic returned him where he had come from, to be farmed out someplace, anyplace away from her.
“Dan,” I barged into his office, waving the file. “Can I’ve a word?”
“So long as it’s a good one.”
I slammed the file down in front of his gaping face.
“She brought the baby to St. Mary’s. Wants it adopted after all.”
“Ah fuck. When did this happen? More bloody work for us now.”
“This morning, he’s already gone to foster.”
He stared at me blankly.
“Can I leave early, I’ve a headache.”
“Fine. Update that first.”
I found the desk key in a box at the back of his wardrobe. As it clicked open, some naïve piece of me believed I would still find the black velvet box with my white diamond inside. But there was only more paper truth, spilling secrets from open envelopes. Three credit cards, two credit union loans and an application for another was my surprise. Reams of statements showing Paddy Power and Online Poker Transactions were my announcements. Letters outlining mortgage arrears lurked at the bottom.
I threw everything I owned in black bin liners, the car boot would barely close. I put on my seatbelt and drove, pulling up at the beach car park in the dark of the evening and watching the tide rise, spraying the windscreen, blurring my vision. My wedding, my house, my children; all those dreams lost. A waxing moon hung over the grey horizon, almost full.
I took two weeks off work. It was my mother’s decision, she took over while I fell apart in my childhood bedroom. I licked my wounds. Our life together ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. I grieved for the relationship I had wasted five years on and then one day, I was grateful.
Six weeks after that, he called me; drunk. He admitted in his own words that our savings were gone, the money we had put away each month for our future went on the horses. He assured me that he would pay me back, and I did not contradict, because he was weak enough to believe his own lies, and I doubted he could ever change.
Meanwhile, Maria had returned to work and was the only one to talk (to my face) about my troubles. I imagined the gossip flying through the shared toilets like faecal bacteria. Case files waited on my desk. A memo said Amy Black had gone to stay with her aunt. Her mother refused to let her back into the farmhouse without the baby. Maria said the girl made a series of bad choices. I wasn’t sure if they were ever hers to make.
In April, I began looking for a place of my own to rent. My parents had been great, but I needed my own space. Finding a place to rent on the south side of Cork city was hopeless. The rents were extortionate and the half decent places were given to “professional couples” within an hour of becoming available. I relented when the estate agent suggested I view a bungalow in East Cork, within my price range, and recently refurbished.
The stretch had just taken hold of the evenings, and I drove the half hour from work to view what turned out to be a cottage, in the middle of nowhere. The agent hadn’t arrived, so I got out to have a look. I shimmied in behind a whitethorn to peer in the window. I saw an open fireplace at one end, a new kitchen on the opposite and a grey couch interposed between. I moved along to the gable end of the back garden. It was large but overgrown, with dandelions waving from an uneven grass sea. A dark shape caught my eye and the biggest black cat I’d ever seen sauntered across the path where I stood. Hearing the car pull up on the gravel out front, I dashed back to meet the agent.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
“You haven’t even seen it yet!”
“I’ve seen enough. When can I move in?”
She checked the clipboard in her hand. “May.”
I moved in on May Day, dragging my bin bag procession with me. I opened windows and swept floors and in the pasture, next door, black and white cattle lowed their welcomes. I threw reminders in the fireplace as I unpacked, and burned them at the end of the day.
It was bittersweet. A knot tugged in my chest thinking about the empty plans made and lost just as quickly. I did not allow the moment to consume me, catching my image in the glass pane of painting. Behind my reflection lay a golden landscape, haystacks dotted on a hillside in a late summer haze. It was not to my usual taste, but I kept it on the wall as a comfort, finding myself drawn to it at those quiet moments in the evening when the sound of silence descended and the moon peered through the window.
The commute to work became almost enjoyable. I no longer rushed home. Soon the black cat, (I had named him Mr. Big) and I were on friendly terms. He sat on the couch with me as I watched TV or read though I accepted he didn’t really care if I was there or not. Work continued as before, new cases came and went, and most saw me stay within the safe confines of the south side of the city, with few home visits charged to me since Maria took on more of that work than ever. She admitted to me that she’d had her tubes tied but got an infection, that’s why she had been out. She said she’d go through it all again to make sure she never had any more babies.
That Summer was a hot one and in late June, fire brigades were out in force on the outskirts of the city for Bonfire night. The car radio told me they were called to a rough area near the link road, and I caught a glimpse on my way home. Three units battled a blaze started with piles of mattresses, tyres and furniture. I pictured these once valued props of life now so cruelly disregarded. The madness of Midsummer flames and white heat eventually dies out, but the charred embers and layers of ash remain for all to see.