Jumping the Moon

The house had felt empty when she’d got in from school. She could maybe risk a slidey on the lino: the sheen was bright as water. Satchel off, she zoomed along in her socks. Brilliant.

‘Are you eleven or seven?’ she mimicked her mother, putting her hands on her hips. Why should everything stop at eleven? Her mother’s crazy response – Because you’re a young lady now, or should be.

If being a young lady meant no more tree-climbing, and having wadding that smelt of the butcher’s shop between your legs then no thanks; they could keep it.

The lino was warm from the sun and she lay on its pink roses. To her left was the engagement rug that you weren’t supposed to stand on. She couldn’t imagine her father pushing the hook through the tiny loops with his brown-stained fingers. He’d surely forget himself and spit on it, or worse, blow his nose with his fingers and smear them over it.

She gagged at the thought, but touched the tops of the red bits which told the date: 1,9,5,0. Her fingers felt sticky as if there was jam on the rug, a chunky raspberry. She sat up and looked at the rest of the mat; there were small lumps like meat, and puddles of blood leading up to the bathroom.

The door was half-open, and her mother was sitting on the toilet, breathing heavily, her face white and her hand on her stomach. Sheila wondered what smelt so funny; it had to be something scary. As she opened her mouth to ask what was wrong, her mother hissed at her, her arm pushing out at the door: ‘Out, this instant. Mind your business.’

She headed for the embankment but the clamber up it became a nightmare, full of stumbles, as if she’d turned into a cissie who couldn’t climb to save her life.

At the top was a figure hunched beside the wall, and she groaned at seeing it was an adult. It was Keith’s mother, a tall blonde woman who everyone said looked like a film star. She couldn’t remember which one but thought it might be Marilyn Monroe. But she was dead now, wasn’t she? Mrs McKinley’s face looked tragic and she cried out on seeing Sheila.

‘You haven’t seen Keith, have you, Sheila? I thought he might’ve been here. His daddy’s had an accident.’

She felt like a leaf carried in the wind as she ran down to the bus station behind the harbour. Keith was sitting behind the wheel of a single-decker and asking the driver if he could take it round the yard. The man laughed.

‘Be more than my job’s worth, son. Ye’re far too young anyhow. Now I’ve a bus to take out, and here’s yer wee girlfriend come to take ye home.’

‘She’s not my girlfriend,’ he said, all red-faced, but pleased looking.

She went towards him, awkwardly. ‘Keith, I’ve to tell you your daddy’s had an accident, and you’ve to go straight home immediately.’

He looked at her, as if she was tricking him. Then he shook his head, threw open the half-door and ran past her.

She shouted ‘Sorry’ at his back as he disappeared around the corner.

On the way back to the embankment, she thought of how happy he’d looked when she’d walked towards him.

She’d cried for days when her mother said she had to stop seeing him, with her now growing into a woman. She supposed she was lucky to have Deirdre now, even though she only wanted to talk about boys and clothes and stuff like that.

The climb back up the embankment was easy this time, and she settled down to wait in the den. She gripped the bunched up pleats escaping from the sides of her knickers and pushed them back under. Frigging gym-frocks! Why hadn’t she waited to put on her denim jeans? Mind you, they could have been in the wash. Her mother’s voice rang out in her head – Those are filthy, Sheila. Give you germs, those would. It was murder having a mother obsessed with being clean. Still, it was better than one gone looney with religion, like Deirdre’s mother.

She and Deirdre often traded horror stories about their families. It was very reassuring; Deirdre’s stories were always the pits, usually about her mother – I was pure mortified; didn’t know where to look. You wouldn’t believe it, would you?

Sheila could, she’d been there. Deirdre swore she’d never live it down – I mean to say whose mother goes round the nuns’ graveyard doing the Stations of the Cross, on her knees?

Mrs Heaney had hauled herself up from the ground like a drunkard when the class came round the corner. Sheila couldn’t bear to look at her face and watched the grass and stones showering down from her wrinkled nylons.

No, that was definitely more humiliating than anything her own mother had done. Wasn’t it? Sheila looked at the blade of grass she was sucking and bent it under her knickers wiping it back and forward against the new curls of hair. She could do that for hours it felt so good.

The grass under her legs began to shudder into a slow-moving rumble. It must be the coal wagons. There were twenty of them this time, dark-grey mounds like a funeral procession. Her father said that the passenger trains were finished there, that the people preferred the buses. He said that they’d stopped the trains in Lurgan one day and that it took twelve double-deckers to get the people off. He sounded proud about it. It was a horrible thought. A bus couldn’t take you far enough away, could it?

mccawp01pic2.jpg Where in hell was Deirdre? The coal train had long gone, and she waited for the whistle of the 4.55 to Belfast. The carriages always went by in a blur but there was usually somebody looking straight out at her. ‘Some day that’ll be me,’ she cried out loud.

The sky went dark and a voice giggled from behind her. ‘What’ll be you? Jump over the moon? Pass the qualie?’

Deirdre had clamped her hands, smelling of bubble-gum, over Sheila’s eyes and was pulling her back into the grass. Sheila let herself go limp and stared at the sky. ‘See that cloud there? Looks like a baby’s nappy. See, it’s leaking.’

Deirdre wasn’t listening; her mouth looked funny, as if she had lipstick on. She was banging the side of a transistor radio, and swearing: ‘It’s not working, the stupid thing. How long does a battery last?’

‘I thought you were only getting that if you passed?’

She had asked her parents for a new bike, one with a cross-bar, like Keith’s, if she passed the 11-plus exam. Her mother said she could have one with a basket, but it didn’t matter, she’d find a way to lose the basket.

Deirdre had the back of the radio open and was poking at it with a hair-grip. ‘She said I was going to pass anyway, with me having Saint Philomena’s relic in with me, so I could have it now on account of Armstrong’s closing-down sale.’

Deirdre had been allowed to take the piece of the martyr’s cloak into the examination with her. Sheila had seen it on the desk beside her Arithmetic paper. She’d had nothing to bring in, not even a rabbit’s foot, which didn’t seem fair.

Suddenly there was the sound of Cliff Richard bursting out of the buttercups. Deirdre sang along with him, swinging her shiny black hair from side to side. It looked almost as beautiful as Morticia’s from The Addams Family.

‘We’re all going on a summer holiday, no more working for a week or two. We’re all going . . .’

Sheila spat into the white elderflower bush. ‘I hate Cliff Richard. Turn the dial. What about Elvis Presley? He’s best.’

Deirdre held the radio high out of Sheila’s reach. ‘Are you definitely going to boarding school then, if you pass?’

Sheila nodded. She’d picked two far away from home and one of them was beside the sea. Maybe they’d teach her to sail and play hockey. It would make up for wearing a daft straw hat when it was warm.

Deirdre twiddled the knobs. ‘What if you don’t pass, or your dad says you can’t go to boarding school? My mum says we can’t afford the new car you’ve got to have for when the parents visit. Sheila felt the air go out of her as if her heart had stopped. She looked down at the track; the train was definitely late. Did her parents know about the new car business? The answer to Deirdre’s question curled around her mind like smoke. It was simple really – I’ll kill myself, if I don’t pass. She felt a pain in her tummy, as if she was suddenly starving.

‘Got any sweeties, Deirdre? I’ll need to go home now.’

Deirdre chummed her as far as the top of her path, and sighed. ‘I wish I lived in a prefab.’

‘I hate it. Everybody fights all the time, and our roof nearly blew off in February.’

‘At least you’ve got a bath. All we’ve got is a crummy sink.’

She was surprised to see the black bus hat lying on the kitchen table for he was supposed to be on the late shift. The back door was lying open and she could see him burning something in the back garden. He saw her and signalled to her to come over to him, his caterpillar brows furling down at her.

‘Look at the state of your clothes, girl. Your mother would kill you if she saw you like that. Get yourself washed.’

She looked down the length of herself and moved back towards the door. ‘Where’s mammy, daddy?’

He came marching towards her, thrusting out a bucket:

‘Here, take this back into the bathroom with you. Your mother’s had a wee accident . . .’

She didn’t hear much of the rest of his words, just that her mother would be all right and was getting fixed up in the hospital. She wasn’t to worry or annoy him with questions, but stay good, get changed, and he’d boil eggs for their tea.

The evening light fell on something glistening on the engagement rug, but the red lumps had gone. He must have washed them away.

She looked into her parent’s bedroom and saw the brown suitcase was missing from the top of the wardrobe. Her mother’s rosary-beads lay on the pillow and she knelt beside the bed, fixing her eyes on the blue robed virgin until the tears began to harden in the corners of her eyes.

Back in the kitchen, her face washed and wearing the pleated fawn skirt her mother loved to see on her, she ate the toast and egg. Her father munched his, saying nothing.

mccawp01pic5.jpg Her father’s voice shouted ‘Time for school,’ and it was morning. She skipped washing herself when she saw the clothes in the bath covered with dried brown stuff. There was no sign of her father in the kitchen but he’d left porridge on the stove.

School passed like a vague dream.

On the way home from school, Mrs McKinley popped her head out of her door.

‘I was waiting for you to go past, Sheila. I heard about your poor mother, and I also wanted to thank you for finding Keith for me yesterday. In the end it was nothing much, thank God, just a bad sprain. But poor you, hearing two lots of bad news yesterday.’

Sheila heard herself saying, without meaning to: ‘Three, three bits of bad news.’ She went on to explain. For some reason Mrs McKinley didn’t seem too upset about the trains going off but she asked Sheila in for a drink.

mccawp01pic4.jpg The tea came in a fluted cup with a saucer, the kind her mother kept locked in the china cabinet, and she felt tears prickling at the corner of her eyes. Brown eyes smiled at her and reached over to pat her hand.

Keith’s smiling face stared out at her from a black frame on the sideboard, and his mother picked it up, blowing dust off it.

‘The times you and Keith used to spend up in the woods, Sheila; the pair of you pretending you were cowboys. We never see you at all these days, eh?’

Sheila couldn’t think what to say, and began to blush. Her hostess coughed delicately and bent down to the floor to pick up the plate of foil-covered biscuits. A cardigan and spotted blouse sagged open at the front, showing a horde of freckles galloping over the tops of her breasts. Sheila felt rooted to the spot, and pulled her eyes away from the spacious chest. A buzzing shot through her head and her jaw fell open, forcing a crumb down the wrong way. She began to cough, spraying a mouthful of biscuit over her lap. Mrs McKinley looked up, concerned. ‘Are you all right, Sheila? Will I pat your back?’

She bent low over her, making little thumping actions on her back. Sheila’s heart felt as if it was going to stop and she forced her gaze onto the mahogany sideboard, concentrating on the thick dust around the sides of the photos and ornaments. Her mother’s voice swam round her – Would you look at the dusting that one’s done! For she’s never lifted a one of them ornaments but dusted round them. That’s a lazy housewife, that one.

Suddenly she felt better and she shifted her head around, slyly, looking for the chocolate boxes and trashy novels that Mrs McKinley was supposed to devour all day, but there were none to be seen.

She said she’d have to go home and Mrs McKinley waved her goodbye. A bus passed her with a roar and she knew without looking that her father was driving. The day, six months ago, when he’d passed his driver’s test had been a great day for them all. He’d shouted out that ‘even the bigoted Unionist bastards’ couldn’t find a reason to fail him this time, and ‘they can’t make a child out of me any more’, and other things like that until her mother stopped smiling and said the neighbours could hear him. He’d thrown off his conductor’s ticket machine and treated them to fish and chips in Giovani’s, with a huge Knickerbocker Glory to follow. At Sunday Mass she’d heard her mother say to Father Coyle, ‘He’ll maybe not be so tense now.’ The priest had noticed her and had lowered his voice, but the words, ‘doctor’ and ‘nerves’ echoed in the air of the sacristy.

It was long after teatime when he came back, flinging his hat on the table and the greasy leather belt on the hook beside the fireplace. He shook the teapot to see if there was any left and slumped down on the chair, nodding to her to sit near him.

‘I’m going up to see your mammy tonight, Sheila. She won’t be home for a couple of weeks but I’ll take you on Wednesday afternoon. All right now? And mind, she’ll have to take it easy when she’s back so she’ll be depending on you. Right?’

She wanted to ask him what was wrong with her mother but knew somehow that the answer wouldn’t help her. There was one thing she had to ask though.

‘But I’ll still be going to the boarding school if I pass, won’t I, daddy?’

He scratched his hair upwards so it stood up like stooks of corn and didn’t look at her when he answered.

‘Now, your mammy would only miss you if you went far away. And you’re to be a good girl now and help her around the house without being asked. So that’s it.’

She locked herself into the toilet, sticking her fingers tight into her ears, and mouthing ‘I hate you, I hate you’ into the faded green door. The calls of ‘ Get out of there now, or you’ll be smacked’ came from another planet and meant nothing to her. A slamming of the back door loosened her hands and she curled herself into the circle of the seat, draping her face with the toilet roll. When she woke up it was dark and her tongue felt as thick and salty as a side of boiled ham. She slid the lock back and shuffled to the kitchen.

His hateful hat was still there on the table beside the bus keys. She felt the weight of them in the palm of her hand, long and silvery like miniature swords. Why did he leave them for her?

mccawp01pic3.jpg The bus yard was empty with no light in the small office. His bus stood there: No.7, the plastic folding door closed. She could, she could, if she dared. All she had to do was take those few steps and who would ever know? It was as if it had been expecting her, pointing her to the concealed button and the doors opening out like an accordion. Her long legs over the half door into the cab and she was there in the leather seat, the steering wheel big as a cartwheel in her hands and the silver key in the ignition. Her father’s voice hummed in the cab – Double declutch is what a bus needs, you must engage the clutch twice. The engine began to chug and she was standing upright on the clutch, then the accelerator, clutch again, then grinding down on the knob of the gear stick. She could see the bonnet, big as a car, nudge forward into the night and it seemed to her that she was carrying a whole world with her to the back of the yard and beyond.

© Patricia McCaw