In Eternal

Mary stands by the window, her fingers making cat’s cradles in the air. It is a winter afternoon, and the light is pale. It rimes the floral-patterned bedlinen, the hem of her long camel coat. There are water spots on the mirror. She would like to give the place a good going-over, to scrub the dust from the skirting boards and brush the cobwebs from the light fixture. Not that the room is dirty⁠—not really. Only cheap. Only a little grubby at the edges.

The hotel is a nondescript new-build on the outskirts of the city, near to the train station. Mary walked quickly through the lobby when she arrived, fearing questions, but the girl behind the reception desk didn’t even look up from the magazine she was reading. Perhaps this sort of thing is common here.

The man Mary has come here to meet is in the en-suite bathroom. She can hear running water through the walls. Making himself ready. Her pulse chatters in her throat, rapid as a baby bird’s. She should take her coat off, she thinks. It seems like the thing to do. But every time her hands move to her lapels they flutter away again, coming back to rest in a spot just above her navel. Her stomach turns, the lurching of it somehow not unpleasant.

Under her coat she is wearing a dress of green rayon, the one with the rosette at the collar, and underneath a plain slip that is fraying at the seams. Below that she has on a peach-coloured brassiere and knickers of a similar colour, the closest thing she has to a matching set. Her nylons are new, purchased that morning with money she took from Bridget’s piggy bank. Mary hopes their perfect sheen will distract him; from the weight of her breasts, the soft flesh of her thighs, the lightning tracery of stretch marks across her hips and belly. He has already told her that she is beautiful, but she fears he will shrink from the fullness of her.

The pipes give a sudden, high shriek as a tap is turned off. Three heartbeats of silence pass, and then the door to the en-suite bathroom opens. The man Mary is here to see is not particularly handsome. His hair is thinning at the crown, and there are dark spots on the backs of his hands. But he smiles when he sees her, a broad and honest smile that deepens the creases around his eyes, and after years of not being seen at all, that is more than enough. Where and how they met is immaterial. She is here now. Mary removes her long camel coat, folds it over her right arm, and lays it neatly on the chair by the window.

The coat had been John’s gift to her a week after she first stepped foot on English soil. Her good tweed overcoat, inherited from her mother, was ruined on the crossing from Dublin to Liverpool. A summer squall had bruised the sky not long after the ferry came out of port, and the vessel was bobbing queasily on the choppy water. Christopher had picked that inauspicious moment to make himself known, two weeks ahead of schedule. Mary’s waters broke as she was clinging to the guardrail on the ferry’s top deck and were sluiced away by the rain within moments.

A woman called Agnes, a navvy’s widow from Kildare, acted as midwife. She’d six children of her own and knew the workings of it. It was her who folded up the tweed overcoat and propped it, businesslike, under Mary’s hips, to be spoiled beyond salvation in a rush of amniotic fluid. Mary’s screams, she was told later, had the lads in the engine room crossing themselves. Later she would hardly remember screaming at all. Only Agnes placing the squirming, wailing infant in her arms, his body red and wet as a skinned rabbit, and the way she couldn’t keep herself from laughing. She called him Christopher, the name she and John had agreed when he left to work the beet harvest. One of the crewmen opened a bottle of sherry to wet the baby’s head. By the time the ferry came into port an hour later, Christopher was asleep at Mary’s breast, and the sky was so cloudless you’d never know it had rained at all.

Her fourth child will be born in a hospital room, a modern phenomenon that her mother would never have approved of. Mary will be brought in on the advice of her doctor because of the high levels of protein in her urine, and she will be grateful for it. It will not feel right, somehow, to birth this child at home, in the same bed where Declan and Bridget filled their tiny lungs for the first time. Mrs McKee will mind the children when Mary is admitted, albeit reluctantly. She will have heard the backyard gossip, same as everyone else. Mary will not require Mrs McKee’s approval. All Mrs McKee needs to do is keep the children fed until Mary returns home and to keep her cat’s arse of a mouth closed while they’re in earshot.

It will be a difficult birth. There will be moments where Mary will be certain that she will die in that room, with its bare lightbulb and walls so white it hurts to look at them. She will tell the doctor that she needs her rites, and he will pretend not to hear her. The maternity unit will have opened its doors for the first time less than a month before. It will smell like paint and antiseptic. Mary will be sick into a metal dish that a nurse will hold beneath her chin, again and again until there is nothing to bring up but bile.

When it is over, the midwife will ask Mary if she wants to hold the child, and Mary will say no. She will ask if Mary’s husband should be notified, and the answer will be the same. By then she will not have a husband to notify.

Nineteen did not seem young when they were married. All of Mary’s elder cousins were wed at that age or younger, as were her parents and their parents before them. Mary would likely have married earlier if her father hadn’t died so young and so inconveniently. He was survived by his wife, only thirty-three herself, and five children. Mary was the eldest at sixteen. Her father had been a railway signalman, and the family lived in a cottage that rattled when the trains passed. Mary’s mother took over her late husband’s work when he died, still needing his wages to put food on the table.

Each day Mary’s mother would walk the hundred or so yards to the signal box, where she pulled the levers that operated the points, logged each train in the register book, and smoked Woodbine after Woodbine as she waited for the red flash of the tail lamps. As her mother had replaced her father, so Mary replaced her mother in turn. The domestic tasks fell to her, as did the raising of her younger siblings. While the other girls in the village were going to dances, she was chopping carrots for the pot; was clearing ashes from the grate; was pulling laundry through the mangle. Her pale, slender hands grew cracked and calloused. Her brothers and sisters, who doubted her authority, became half-feral. None of this means to imply it was a bad life. There was always food on the table, and they loved each other in their way. Still, Mary often thought of the other, the elsewhere. Every time a train thundered past, she pictured the place it might be going, imagining herself a passenger.

There was a narrow, pitted road running near the house, and one morning three young men arrived to lay new tarmac. This was the rarest of things⁠— an unfamiliar sight. All morning Mary’s siblings watched as the men shovelled and smoothed the steaming black substance, laughing at each other’s jokes with their cigarettes tucked behind their ears. At midday Mary came out to fetch the children inside for lunch. It was only by accident that she caught the eye of one of the men. He was the tallest and youngest of the three⁠—no more than a boy, really⁠—and he grinned to look at her.

“Morning,” he called. “Lovely day, isn’t it?”

At a loss for what else to do, Mary only scowled at him before ushering her siblings inside. She heard the laughter of the other two men as she closed the door. It made her cheeks burn with heat, and her gut tightened with something she hadn’t a name for.

Later that afternoon Teresa, Mary’s youngest sister, skipped into the kitchen. There was a long, striped feather tucked into the end of Teresa’s plait, its auburn colour a perfect match for her hair. Mary was dressing a rabbit for supper, tugging the snarl of intestines from its belly with two hooked fingers.

“That man wants a cup of tea,” Teresa said, tipping up onto the balls of her feet.

Mary shoved the pile of viscera aside. “What man?”

“The tall one. He said to ask you to make it for him.”

“Did he now?”

“He did.”

“Tell him he can make his own feckin’ tea.”

Teresa wandered outside again. Mary finished gutting the rabbit and tucked its carcass inside the pot, where it would stew with the last of the onions. She washed the blood from her hands and cleaned the table with a wet rag. She was considering what to do next when there was a knock at the cottage door.

Mary answered it. The tall young man was standing on the front step. He was still grinning, a crooked expression that made him appear warm and sly all at once. His eyes were slate-coloured and clever.

“I’ve been told I’m to make my own tea,” he said. “Would you be kind enough to show me to the kettle?”

Mary folded her arms across her chest. “If you think I’m letting you inside this house, you’re sorely mistaken.”

“Right,” he said, his smile growing wider. “I suppose you’d better make me a cup yourself, then.”

His name was John Mooney, he was twenty-one years old, and he had grown up only a dozen miles from the signal box. His family were tenant farmers near Clodagh, raising sheep. John’s two elder brothers had followed their father into the work. John wanted⁠—as he liked to say⁠—a larger life.

They were married that September. It will be March, some years later, when he tells her he is filing for divorce. Mary will not be able to credit what she’s hearing. When she had told him what she did, confessing once the swell of her stomach grew too round to hide, she did not expect forgiveness⁠—but she did not expect this, either.

The children will be asleep. Mary and John will be in the kitchen, conducting their argument in a pantomime of whispers. His face will be flat and still as he sets the papers on the table. She will stare at them for a long moment, too shocked to respond, before bursting into panicked tears. You can’t, you can’t, you can’t. But they are in England now, have been here almost seven years, and he can, he can, he can.

What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They can’t do this, she’ll say; He won’t allow it. Mary will look at her husband, and there will be something in his eyes she has never seen there before: contempt. A year earlier he barely looked at her at all. She will wonder if this is her punishment. For not being content with her lot. For wanting too much of him, too much of life.

“Don’t talk to me like this is my fault,” he will say, viciously quiet. “This is your doing. If you hadn’t⁠⁠—” He will stop, raise his hand, then think better of it. When his arm falls back to his side, his eyes will be wet with tears. “Why, Mary? Why?”

She will not know how to answer him. It will not be that she had no reasons, nor that they have ceased to matter. But her actions were born of something she cannot constrain in words, too instinctive to articulate in any way he will understand. She may as well try to explain how her lungs know how to breathe. It was, is, will be a part of her. For a fleeting moment she will name it sin and will dismiss that notion just as swiftly. She will remember warmth against her back on a winter afternoon, the solid weight of another’s arm around her waist. How they had watched a moth ricochet off the lightbulb, laughed at the slapstick way it flew, with determination, directly back to the glass each time. Despite all that she knows of sin, she will not believe that this was the form her devil took.

Father Sheehan was not so given over to talk of sin as some others were. Later John would tell her tales of his own priest, a dark-eyed bastard who loved to talk of nothing so much as damnation. But Father Sheehan was a gentle sort, an older man who had been at their parish for as long as anyone could remember. When she was a child Mary used to stare at his hands, marvelling at them each time she took the Eucharist. His skin was translucent as vellum, every vein and capillary traced out like rivers on a map, their shade as blue. They would tremble as he pinched the host between his thumb and forefinger, clawing slightly when Mary removed it from his grip.

She got it into her head, somehow, that each time Father Sheehan handed out the body of Christ a little of his own went with it. It seemed to explain why there was so little left of him; why, with each passing year, he shrank while she grew taller. Mary felt it a solemn thing, this transference of matter. She prepared herself for the day when she would take the last of him, the day when he would finally disappear completely while she became whole.

When Mary told her parents of this theory, one morning on the walk to Sunday Mass, they almost choked themselves laughing. After that she knew better than to speak of it again and in time grew out of her childish imaginings. Still, there was a part of it that never quite left her. A feeling, almost a certainty, that an equilibrium must be maintained between her and the world around her⁠—that she could not grow without another shrinking; that each taking must somehow be redressed.

It was a belief that time did little to assuage. There were a few years, at the beginning, when all felt in balance. She could not say when it started, that slow erosion. Parts of her coming away with the sliding of a ring onto her finger, slithering out with a wet mass of afterbirth. Drifting off into the atmosphere each time John’s eyes slid across her like furniture. Desiccated by sleepless nights, thin purses, moments when she failed to recognise her own reflection. There were days when she felt whittled away to almost nothing.

There will be days, later, when an excess of notice will make her feel just the same. When a thin-lipped smile on the street or a stage whisper in the covered market will pare away her very substance. Christopher will be old enough to hate her by then, and sometimes he does. On the weekends when John can be bothered, he will arrive, unannounced, to take the children somewhere⁠, the pictures or the funfair⁠, and they will always be delighted to see him. He will have married Barbara by then, against the wishes of his family, who will not be able to decide whether to hate her or Mary more. Sometimes, when Mary is alone in the house⁠—he, at least, allowed her to keep that⁠—she will think about turning the dial on the gas oven and sticking her head inside it, kneeling as though in prayer. These are silly, self-indulgent notions, and they will never last for long.

One day she will announce to the children that she is taking them to the beach. They will look at her as if she has gone mad⁠—it is September, and cloudy⁠—but it is a school day, and unsurprisingly they will not protest. Mary will make beef paste sandwiches and wrap them in brown paper, placing them carefully in her bag with half a dozen red apples. They will take the train through an unchanging landscape of broad, flat fields. Bridget will complain that she’s hungry. Declan will want to know why they’re not going to the good beach where Daddy took them in the summer. Christopher will stare out of the window and not speak at all.

Several hours later Mary will be sitting alone on a bench facing the sea. The tide will be out, and between her and the water will lie half a mile of pebble beach. The children will be playing in the rockpools, having already eaten their picnic lunch. Mary will watch them as they navigate carefully around the rocks, the arches of their bare feet curving to grip slick stone. Their hair, her own shade of auburn, will be whipped into tangles by the wind that rolls in off the sea.

She will watch Bridget and Declan crouch low over a rockpool. Declan will prod something towards his sister, who will scream, high and delighted, her slender body twisting away from the offending object as she drops back onto all fours. Declan will continue to investigate, his brow set and serious. Standing nearby, keeping vigil, Christopher will be flying a kite, purchased himself with the pocket money he saves each Sunday. White, bird-shaped, it will catch the updrafts of air and soar in wild, arcing movements, shuddering when it reaches the end of its tether. Christopher will hold it steady, the string wrapped so tightly around his hand that it cuts into the skin. Tall for his age, resting uncomfortably in his own body. On the verge of manhood and far too soon.

Mary will shiver as she watches them, pulling her long camel coat close around her shoulders. She will think about the ways they expand who she is, spreading the edges of her like ink on damp paper. There will be days when her thoughts are less charitable, of course, as she is sure theirs often are towards her⁠⁠—but just then she will be content. Secure in the knowledge that if she has hollowed herself out for them, for the children playing in the rockpool and the young man with the kite, then it was a thing worth doing. She will think, too, of her other daughter⁠—though she will not allow herself to do this for long⁠—and will wonder where she is, the fourth star in this constellation she has made. She will be five years old by then. Mary will hope that the girl holds a piece of her, wherever she is. Even if she never knows what it is she carries.

It is a winter afternoon, and gooseflesh prickles Mary’s arms. She moves to rub some warmth into her skin, and he lays his hands atop her own. When he cradles her elbows in his palms something inside her gives way, and she leans in to rest her forehead against his breastbone. She never understood it before, when people spoke of hunger⁠—as though another person was a meal you could consume. She understands it now. Understands how you can draw sustenance from another’s body, how you can feed on the closeness of them. She cannot say how long she has been starving. Only that it is long enough to make up her mind.

Her long camel coat lies folded on the chair by the window. Mary tilts her chin upwards. She chooses.