All Stories, General Fiction

White Face by Shona Woods

‘I need a lift you see.’

My voice strains to be heard outside Mike’s house. There’s a hot stink of ale chasing him out the door, a cigarette resting along his ear, and a slapped cheek look about his face. He looks down from his considerable height, bolstered by the chunky doorstep. He is a statue on his plinth and I’m a beggar with a crutch.

‘What’s that Margaret? A lift? You’re wanting me to lift you up into the house?’

‘No’, I say. ‘I mean a lift in the car.’

‘Right I get you.’ He rubs a hand tightly through his hair, stirring up pockets of oxygen underneath.

‘Sorry, it’s the racket of them in there. Carol’s friends are over’, he says with a roll of the eyes. ‘Into town is it Margaret?’

‘That’s right. To the bus stop if you can?’

‘No. I can’t right now to be honest with you. See I’ve had the three or so pints,’ he says. ‘Would you try Berenice up the road?’

I should have told him Jack is ill, that I need to get back to the hospital. Maybe then he’d have figured out a way to help me. It’s difficult to admit all this to a neighbour, when I’m listening too. I leave Mike’s and head up Plunket Road. I keep to the verge on sharp bends, and sidestep feral hedgerows skirting the fields. I unnerve magpies as I heel pothole ice to scraps.

By the time I get to Berenice’s, dusk has scaled up and sipped me in. Shrub lights sparkle like stars, against a backdrop of the real thing. I push the doorbell and the living room light goes dim. No one’s home, or no one’s available for whatever I’ve come wanting. That’s that. If only I had the means tucked in my purse, or if my daughter would take care of me, or if I had a friend.

My porch light welcomes me home. In the door it’s just as cold. Kit is asleep on the sofa. Shut the kitchen window to keep him in, give him a choice and he’ll soon be gone. He sleeps soundly and I sit beside him. Psshh psshh psshh. Scratch his head with stubby nails. ‘No one will help me fella. I only have you now.’  I hadn’t thought up this ending. I’m crying and he’s stiffening up at the guttural scrape of it; he shifts his chin over to comfort my knee. Jack’s thoughts are drifting around, without me there to pull them down.

Who can I turn to? A few Christmas cards are still pitched like tents on the mantelpiece. We’ve less of them this year, like the knocks on our door. Signed off with one name instead of two and messages are cut to the bone. There’s no name there to be confiding in, I wouldn’t even tell them about my hip. In the morning I’ll walk to Fr. Walsh and ask him for help, though I’m not a pew filler and he’ll surely hold this against me with his buttonhole eyes.

I cradle a cup of tea for warmth and swaddle the blanket around me good and tense.  I sit opposite my friend the television. Leave it on for the company and hope to fall asleep later. A talk show host interviews a young actress. I like being the interviewee so I slip into her place.  Muttering claptrap here beats lying in bed alone.

In the morning, I sit down to toast and tea. Kit inhales himself out the window, eager to get out and explore. The morning starts afresh for him, full of exploit and wonder. At the bathroom mirror, I stand affronted. Best to start off plain, there’s less to lose. All I notice is the hair strung from a worn out scalp, and wrinkles that are determined little networkers. I pull the lid off that face powder again and I brush it from my forehead down to my jaws. It’s not thick enough still, and not hiding enough. I’m getting whiter and peculiar, but looking different will do.

Last week’s snow is clearing but secret slips remain, so I take my time along the lane. Crutch ticks steadily by my side, and now and again we pause to stop time and ease the pressure on my hip. There’s little break up of overgrown hedgerows and brambles, tentacles taking swipes. Cold weather scuffs a throat, but I’ve come this far and can’t be doubling back for water.

Heron closets a leg, watching for a stab of breakfast. Oystercatchers mince up the shoreline for mussels. When I reach the bridge, it’ll be an open walk to the village but I need a break before then. I rest my elbows against the low wall, to see the curling mullet tucked in their nook before they’ll make a break for the bay.

A car closing in scuppers it. Go on to fuck and leave me be. Like Heron I fix my feet to the weeds. I’m reaching for my hood, but I’m weak. Like Heron, I’ve the blot of black pulled over the white of my face. The car passes with a pair of young necks in a twist at the rear. And Berenice makes her break for the village, driving further away from me, to where she wants to be.

At the parochial house, Sheila the housekeeper answers the door. Her eyelids are pegged open to see me there, her old classmate, on the doorstep. She’ll have to speak to me now, a thought about as attractive to her as a visit from the bone peeler.

‘Can I have a word with the priest?’ I’ve forgotten the name of said priest.

‘You mean Fr Walsh?’

Yes. ‘Yes please’

‘And what exactly is it that you need him for?’

‘To talk to him’, I say. ‘To ask his advice on a matter of a personal nature.’ ‘He’s..would you not have called, Margaret? Do you not know it’s a Sunday morning?’

Short as she is, she hasn’t lost the knack for looking down.

‘Well sure come in and wait anyway I suppose. If it’s urgent like.’

‘It’s urgent’, I confirm and haul myself in.

Sorry I’m here unannounced. Sorry I’m on my uppers.

Sheila leads me into the visitors’ room, a fusty box. She’s got the eagle eye on me now that I’m within reach, and the moment squirms and sputters on.

‘I’ll see if he’s available for you.’ She makes a turn for the stairs. They murmur to each other about me over my head.

‘Fr Walsh will be with you shortly, if you don’t mind waiting a little longer?’ Sheila says.

‘I don’t’, I say.

Her tone is softer, as if she’s been reminded of goodwill since she’s been gone.

Fr Walsh says that he will collect me from my house after 12 o’ clock mass, and then drive me to the bus stop in Carrollstown.

‘There aren’t many buses on today though are there? Sure, I might even drive you into the city itself. Why not?’ he says.

‘Really? Are you sure?’ I say, as though I’ve been handed a wad of cash.

‘Well I have been invited to a meal, but between us’, he taps his elephantine nose, ‘I have been looking for a good excuse to excuse myself!’

He laughs.

‘Sure I can come into the ward with you and the three of us can pray to our Lord together.’

Short term pain.

‘Thank you thank you!’ I say. I can see by the nod of the head and the suck of the lips he’s feeling good about himself. ‘I appreciate this more than you’ll ever know’, I say. ‘I didn’t think I’d make it there at all.’ My words are slobbering out of me, too open. He was looking for less, and the eyes are starting to pinch with the patience drying out of them.

‘Well of course I do have plenty to be getting on with this morning’, he says, and he’s shepherding me like a lost soul out to the hallway. I almost plow into Sheila who’s on all fours the other side of the door, dusting off the golden pages. She’s done with it now and hems her back to the wall as we pass her out to the porch.

‘Will you be alright getting home’, he asks, only now seeming to notice Crutch.

‘I’m grand. I like walking.’

‘Right so. I’ll see you around one thirty.’

I step down and the slide of a bolt shuts me out.

This time my journey is sweeter. Gulls cheer me on in aerial squeals. Heron pins me with binocular eyes, wanting the scoop. ‘He said yes’, I say. ‘Not now, later! I’m going home to wait. I should pack a bag anyway.’  Heron shakes it out and drops wings. ‘Sure I’ll let you go’, I say. He’s full and at ease in the here and now, until that familiar scraping starts up again inside.


Shona Woods

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