Confessions

Fiction
L.M. Brown


Photo Credit: Dwayne/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Nollaig Sheehy sat two seats from the front pew with her coat fastened. Her hands were folded on her knees. The priest’s late start didn’t concern her. He was probably called out to an ailing parishioner. A few children were restless. She heard the whimpers and the hushing noises of mothers. But mostly the congregation waited with nothing more than the occasional whisper and shuffle. Nollaig was thinking of the roast beef she would cook for herself and Margaret when the priest appeared red-cheeked and breathless in his white linen vestment.

Father Kineally, a tall, skinny priest, with a thick head of silver hair and big nose, grasped the side of the pulpit and leaned forward to tell the congregation that a terrible thing had happened.

“Nick Moody was grievously hurt,” the priest said.

“He was bludgeoned and found behind the Dun Maeve pub,” he said.

Nollaig thought he was looking directly at her. She was convinced she’d misheard him and it wasn’t Nick Moody’s name he’d spoken, but her daughter’s, Margaret Sheehy, who had been working in the Dun Maeve last night.

Father Kineally was speaking about community helping each other in this time of need and Nollaig was thinking of her daughter standing by the back door of the pub. No matter the weather she liked to stand there so she could hear the rush of the river beside her.

“The first thing I do when everyone leaves,” she’d said before, “Is go out and breathe that fresh air.”

Nollaig realized she was standing. Her head was light. She could feel the attention move onto her and the worry that had risen from her movement. Many present must have realized that Margaret had been working last night. There was a collective intake of breath. Neighbor’s knees tilted sideways. Nollaig stumbled onto the aisle.

The priest’s voice followed her out of the church, but she heard nothing of the words. Last night’s rain had brought out the dark hues of the countryside. The road was quiet. Nollaig weaved through the cars parked in front of the church. Somewhere close a dog was barking and she imagined Margaret hurt or still hiding in the pub. Her breathing felt trapped inside her head. She ran, then walked, then ran again.

It took three efforts to get her key in the latch. Nollaig didn’t bother taking it out. In her hurry, she left the front door open. Her daughter’s room was at the front of the bungalow. Nollaig opened the door to darkness and a scent of unwashed clothes. Her daughters form was huddled under the covers in bed. Nollaig turned on the light to reveal her daughter’s dark hair and pale skin.

“Hey!” Margaret said, “Turn the light off.”

Nollaig couldn’t move. Her daughter was rising from the bed and Nollaig was looking at the wet clothes that had been thrown on the floor.

“Mammy what is it?” Margaret said.

For a moment Nollaig couldn’t speak.

“Mammy,” Margaret urged and the worry in her voice pulled Nollaig back.

She told her, “Nick Moody was hurt last night”.

“What do you mean ‘hurt,’ what happened?” Margaret said.

Nollaig was shaking her head. She said she didn’t know. She said she’d run home as soon as she heard because she was so worried. “You get up, I’ll put the kettle on,” she said.

Nollaig was standing by her kitchen window when she saw the police car.

*

Across from Margaret was a female detective with short blonde hair and thoughtful navy eyes. She was slim with wrists that looked small enough to break with touch. She had introduced herself as Hennessy. Her partner sat beside her. McMahon was his name. He had broad shoulders and pale green eyes over a small nose and thin mouth. There was some grey in his hair, though his face was young.

In her pajamas, Margaret looked like a large child beside them.

“I didn’t go out the back. I was going to,” Margaret said, “But the rain sounded awful.” She paused and shook her head. “I left the bin bag by the back door.”

Nollaig felt numb, as if she was watching this scene from afar. It was too much to think of her daughter standing at that back door, her hand on the handle, the absurdity of it all. McMahon asked if Nick Moody left with anyone.

“No,” Margaret said, “He left alone just after one a.m.”

The last customer was gone twenty minutes later. Margaret finished cleaning and went out the front. Nick’s car was parked across the road, but it was too dark to see if he was inside and too far for her to investigate. She had gotten soaked running to her mother’s car. She’d driven because the forecast warned of rain and she didn’t like walking alone at that hour anyway, no matter how short the journey. She saw no one on her way home.

“Did anything unusual happen last night, any arguments?” Hennessy asked.

Nollaig had to fight the urge to run to her daughter and tell her not to say anything more. The seconds of silence pulled at her and made the swish of the washing machine sound oppressive. She had not looked at her daughter’s clothes before she put them into the machine. They swirled in suds, one pair of pants, a black shirt, and socks.

Margaret said no, nothing strange happened.

“Are you sure,” Hennessy asked.

Margaret had a habit of biting her lip when concentrating. As a child she used to chew her hair. After a while, she said, “Yes, I’m sure, nothing happened.”

A glance out the kitchen window showed the day had turned darker. Clouds skimmed the sky. Nollaig wanted to be on the other side of the glass, far away from here. The room was stuffy and hot. Hennessy asked who Nick was with last night.

Margaret said, “His wife, Joan, but she didn’t stay long.”

She said she couldn’t imagine how she was now. A silence reigned after this and Nollaig wondered if her daughter was waiting for news, if she expected the police to lean forward and tell her something of the wife, how she greeted them at the door with a tired face and collapsed when she heard of her husband’s murder.

Hennessy had glanced at her partner with the mention of the wife’s name. Nollaig was sure they had been the bearers of bad news; the two had stood at Joan’s door. Maybe Hennessy had held her up.

Hennessy said, “Who else was there?”

Margaret rolled a list of names including their next-door neighbor Finn.

McMahon scribbled the names down. Nollaig wondered what the guards would learn about Margaret. They would probably talk to their neighbor Finn, since he was in the pub. She could imagine them at his kitchen table, huddled as they were now. It was possible Finn would remember spending time with Margaret when they were children. Margaret was never happy in his company. There were one or two instances where Nollaig found Finn crying.

What would the two detectives think when they learnt that Margaret had no friends and a sketchy employment record?

For three months she’d worked in a clothes shop in Sligo town. The manager, a forty-ish, well-kept woman with blonde hair and judicious eye had agreed to take Margaret on part-time. Within the first week, Margaret had come home telling Nollaig that she had dressed the window and had been asked to order the clothes for next week. Nollaig had sat at the kitchen table, listening with a sinking sensation in her gut. Days before Margaret had stopped going to work, their dinners were eaten quietly. Margaret had stopped grabbing her mother’s arm and saying. “Wait till I tell you.” Nollaig had been foolish enough to feel relieved with the end of the lies. She should have known her daughter had had her fun and was getting bored. It had happened with the courses in hairdressing and computers she’d started with a flourish, then let fizzle out. Still it had been a shock when wrapped in her duvet and with her pillow over her head; Margaret had announced she wasn’t going into the shop. By the time the owner of the pub asked if Margaret wanted to work a few shifts, she had been unemployed six months.

Nollaig hadn’t heard the last questions asked. The voices rose and fell and she wondered if the detectives were aware of washing machine. Nollaig couldn’t remember if she’d poured detergent in before turning the machine on. The police had gotten out of the car by then and were walking towards the house. Margaret had stalled in the hall when she saw them. She’d looked frightened.

“It’ll be okay,” Nollaig had told her.

A scrape of the chair brought Nollaig’s attention back to the table. McMahon and Hennessy were standing.

“Let us know if you think of anything else?” Hennessy said and Nollaig noticed the white card that had been placed on the table as she walked them out.

“It’s a shock,” McMahon said to Nollaig, and she realized how pale she must look, how shaken and disheveled. She had lost the power of speech.

“I know,” she wanted to say, but there was nothing in her mouth.

From the door she watched them drive away. When she went back to the kitchen, her daughter turned to look at her.

Margaret’s eyes were red but focused. “Isn’t it terrible, Mammy?” she said.

Nollaig couldn’t answer. Her tongue felt too heavy in her mouth. She didn’t know how she was standing.

*

The house was narrow and painted a light pink color. There was one window to the right of the front door with wooden blinds. It looked innocent, tucked between two nondescript buildings, a few yards from the train station Margaret had to walk to every morning. She’d passed the house seventeen times before she noticed the bronze plaque and she paused to look at the letters, elegant and bold, rising from the color of soil. The words surprised her, but not as much as they might have eight months ago when she’d imagined the seediest thing she’d ever have to contend with were the roaming eyes of the drunks she served at the local pub and how they’d call her over with a quick movement of their head. She’d have to lean forward to hear their order, feel their beer-sodden breath on her cheek. Through the side window, she saw there was nothing innocent about that room with the armchairs hidden behind the door, so the men waiting would have the benefit of seeing the ladies enter from behind. But there was nothing innocent about Margaret either. That’s why she left home and flew to the other side of the world. She could have gone to the States. She had relatives there, but she wanted to go where no one knew her, where she could start from scratch and build herself up into someone different. Her eyes met the reflection in the sun-shattered window. Dark hair, heavy-boned, big-eyed, loose of shoulder. She moved on.

Margaret had been staying in a hostel up the road and living out of her suitcase since she’d arrived in the country. For the last months at home, while she’d waited for her visa to come through, she’d hardly left her bedroom. Days were slept away, and nights were spent watching movies on the small portable TV she’d bought when her mother’s silent existence started to get on her nerves.

After Nick Moody’s death, little could be said about her behavior or her need to stay safe inside. She’d ignored calls from her peers who lived close by. They’d phoned because their parents said they should. Margaret needed some support, a shoulder to lean on. She knew the calls had been their parents’ idea because they’d stopped there, no one bothered to come to her front door. Margaret had imagined the neighbors shaking heads and whispering that it must have been shocking to realize what had happened only a few feet away. They would have thought about Margaret alone and vulnerable in the pub; a few might have imagined what would have happened if she’d stepped out the back like she normally did.

“No wonder she hasn’t come back,” they would have said. “It’s a shock.”

Whenever she’d ventured out of the house, the pity in their eyes made her go cold. There was no curiosity about her being the only one in the pub when it happened—Margaret Sheehy, the big quiet girl with the pretty brown eyes.

If it had been Louise, they’d have wondered why he was there in the first place. They would have looked at Louise’s slim figure and blonde hair and come up with a different answer.

But it wasn’t Louise, who liked to flirt behind the counter. It was Margaret, who on her first night tending bar couldn’t talk. Their questions were smiled at and left unanswered until the customers gave up.

The hostel was quiet. Just after two p.m. Margaret’s shift in the café finished at noon. Margaret used to hate this time of day. Now she got through listless afternoons by napping. She could sleep until five if her roommate, an English girl who spent most of her time on the roof smoking, didn’t come in to rummage around her rucksack. Then Margaret would walk around the city for hours. She went all the way to Bondi once. She’d lost weight since she got here, but could do nothing about those big thigh bones.

Her hostel room smelt of sweat and beer, the English girl’s input, and grease, which was Margaret’s. The café she worked in was a busy fast food place and suited her perfectly. From the moment she entered at 6 a.m. she was kept busy, preparing food, serving customers, and cleaning their mess. The owners didn’t keep her a minute past needing her. She got her lunch when she finished and ate on the high counter by the window.

The air was hot and muggy, but this never bothered Margaret. Nights, she tossed and turned with flashes of skin and blood. The feel of cold stone against her palm would wake her more than once, and she’d jump breathless from the bed, expecting to see the bloodied rock before her as if it was possible that it had been unearthed from the bottom of the river and could find her oceans away.

The afternoon sun, though hot and intrusive, kept the dreams back, and let her drift to sleep unhindered. Only not today, because today she couldn’t stop thinking of the bronze sign and the women behind it, and this made her think of the parish priest at home. Hidden behind the red curtain with his face made up of tiny squares from the screen that divided him and his confessors, the quiet grey-haired man became someone different every Saturday evening. He was the voice of power. His stutter disappeared as with a flattened hand he made the figure of the cross and gave penance. He never looked you in the eye so Margaret believed he couldn’t help feeling a little ashamed by the sins he was made to hear.

One Our Father and three Hail Marys was his usual. How much would he have given her?

Her knees would have been raw by the end of it, even if he understood, even if he knew she had no choice, because that’s the way she would have told it. She’d lied too many times to stop now.

The police had come to Margaret’s house to interview her a second time. They’d apologized for making her think of that night but they needed to make sure she hadn’t seen anyone linger. She’d started crying and one of them, a young red-cheeked man with watery eyes, let slip that the violence against Nick had been shocking. When she looked at him wide-eyed, he’d apologized for upsetting her and dropped his gaze.

She’d heard the rumors about an affair, though it was hard to imagine how they’d reached her behind the closed door of her bedroom. She might have heard the whisperings the day she gave her notice in the pub. No doubt the moment she entered, people started talking, as if all they needed was a bit of a push to get going. Margaret knew the wife had been more angry than hurt. With her two young children asleep upstairs, and the bruise on her cheek a faded yellow, she’d told police it was probably some jealous husband. Everyone had known the deceased to wait in the dark for someone else’s wife.

Still no one thought that he might have waited for Margaret. Maybe that’s why she decided to leave, because at home she was so easy to overlook. When she applied for the visa and booked the ticket, she thought she was saying goodbye to the notion that she was the type of woman nothing ever happened to. This idea seemed to follow her though and each time Margaret passed the building with its bronze plaque, the deceit of its pink childlike exterior pulled at her, and made her want to expose what lay underneath.

Six days after reading the plaque, she couldn’t sleep. The English girl had moved out and Margaret was surprised by her loneliness. She dressed in a long black skirt and T-shirt, and went to the small shop tucked in front of the train station to buy a pencil and writing pad. She looked through the newspapers and jotted down the name of one.

The front door to the parlor was opened by slim blonde woman dressed in a pink business suit. She looked like a doll with her shiny complexion and small wrists and ankles. Her hair fell thick on her shoulders and her narrow eyes moved up and down Margaret in a way that made her feel naked. She wasn’t entirely sure if she disliked the sensation.

“I’d like to interview the girls for an article,” Margaret said.

“Really?” the blonde answered.

Margaret tried to say yes. The name of the paper she’d picked was on her tongue but she couldn’t let it fall. There was something about the woman that suggested she saw right through Margaret. The woman looked amused, though there was a hard glimmer in her eyes that made that amusement less personal.

“You can talk to Taylor. Are you thinking of trying it?”

Margaret wasn’t sure what the woman meant, but she nodded and stepped inside. The walls were painted a color between pink and red, a warm color that made Margaret feel claustrophobic. The floor had a brown carpet. A smell of perfume was stronger at the foot of the stairs than anywhere else and made Margaret think of ghosts, or parts of the spirits of girls lingering at the spot. Her gaze slipped quickly away from the stairs that fell into the hall, as if it was something perverse. She watched the gentle sway of the woman’s hips as she led her to a small cluttered room at the back of the house. The room resembled a living room with the couch and two chairs. Clothes were strung over the back of the couch and a bag of makeup was on the coffee table, its contents spilled outward. The window to the left of the door looked out to a concrete yard, and a red-haired girl dressed in a short shirt and vest top sat below the beams of sunlight reaching over her head. She could have been any age from fifteen to twenty-three. She had small compact body that exuded energy.

“This is Taylor,” the blonde said. She looked at Margaret in the appraising way she’d seen men look at Louise. “Sorry I didn’t get your name.”

“Margaret.”

“Is that your real name?”

Margaret nodded.

The woman smiled. “Yeah I thought so.”

She said Taylor would tell her everything she needed to know. Taylor was too small, too young, too full of her life, so Margaret listened and wouldn’t have said anything about herself even if she got the chance. There was too much dirt to spill. Besides once Taylor started talking there was no stopping her. Margaret was awed by the rapid movement of her thin painted lips as she talked about moving from Queensland with her father after spending years in the wrong company. She’d started young. At the tender age of fourteen she had sex in the back of a car and was paid with crumpled bills. Taylor’s father tried to keep her on the straight and narrow, but there were too many windows to watch and too many people waiting on corners. Finally he packed up and moved across the sprawling country, putting the desert between his daughter and the people she’d met.

Taylor worked in a laundromat for a couple of weeks, and a café for three days but she couldn’t stand the idea of putting in so many hours for measly pay when in Queensland she made a few hundred in a day. When she paused, Margaret thought the small parting of her lips looked like a full stop.

It was early afternoon. There was only one other girl, who was busy in one of the rooms upstairs. After a half an hour and most of Taylor’s life story, the doorbell signaled the end of their conversation. Margaret had to wait until the man was brought upstairs before she could leave. Walking back through that narrow corridor, she felt too much like the priest, seeing only the patterns people wanted her to see and showing nothing of herself.

“Can I come tomorrow?” she asked, and the blonde shrugged.

“You could try it out, see if you like it.”

She smiled with Margaret’s surprise. “Girls will get fed up talking. You’ll have to make up your mind soon.”

Margaret nodded.

“And you’ll have to think of a better name.”

The next day, Margaret was led into the small courtyard that was surrounded by high stone walls and made the sky appear close enough to touch. A young woman in a short black dress with thin shoulder straps was sitting at the only table. Her legs were stretched before her and her high heels were slipping off her naked feet. A cigarette burned in the full ashtray beside her. The blonde woman introduced the woman as Sam.

“And this is Margaret—she wants to ask you a few questions.”

The blonde woman retreated with sharp clicks of her high heels. Sam took a cigarette from her pack and lit it. With the pull of her cigarette, her cheeks were drawn in to make her look skeletal. Smoke rose above her rouged cheeks and heavily painted eyelids. Her brown lipstick was thick and smudged. Margaret imagined this carelessness might have been sexy to some of the men who came. It hinted at a kind of risquéness. But to Margaret it made her look as if she had been playing dress up and the game had gone on too long, the borders and boundaries erasing themselves so the girl hadn’t known when to stop, and that was why the woman ended up in this courtyard, in the middle of a city, waiting for a doorbell to ring.

Margaret told her she was interviewing all the girls for an article. The masseuse smiled. Margaret expected her to ask about the paper she worked for, like Taylor had done. The excitement in her brown eyes had dimmed with The Herald as if she had hoped for better. Sam’s lack of curiosity made Margaret feel transparent. A line of sweat tickled her upper lip, and she resisted the urge to wipe it. The gesture would have reminded her of how Nick Moody had wiped the white foam of Guinness from his lips, a hint of aggression that she hadn’t thought of until it was too late.

“So, what do you want?” the woman asked her. Her thumb and pointer fingers had thick silver rings. Her distant and humorless gaze pulled at the nerves in Margaret’s stomach.

“I talked to Taylor yesterday,” she said.

Sam was looking at Margaret as if nothing about her visitor might interest her, as if she knew everything there was to know because she was big-boned and plain.

“Yeah…”

“Yes.” Margaret’s mouth had gone dry. The belief that she could be honest with these women dissolved at her feet and made her want to cry.

“What did she tell you?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Margaret mumbled. She went towards the empty chair and tried to ignore the muscles of Sam’s calves. She imagined Taylor and Sam had talked about her. They would have laughed at the thought of the frumpy girl working here or having to see her dressed in skimpy clothes.

Sam’s fringe came down over one eye. The rest of her hair was cropped short around her head. She leaned forward. “Taylor lied to you. Her dad didn’t bring her to Sydney.”

Margaret remembered the red hair lying loose around Taylor’s neck, her vest top clinging to her flat boy-like breasts, her short bare legs. She remembered the glint in her brown eyes and the smile of self-ridicule.

“Taylor followed her pimp. He says he loves her but wasn’t happy with the deduction in funds when she started to go straight. He brought her here.”

Sam looked Margaret over, smiling at her dress with long sleeves and the lack of naked skin.

“Taylor thought you’d follow your dad before a lover. She’s used to pleasing people.”

Margaret couldn’t answer. Her nerves had flattened and hardened inside her and made her so angry at this young woman with the smooth skin and self-assurance. Sam knew what it was like to pretend, and yet she looked at Margaret and came up with the same conclusion as those fools on the other side of the world.

Sam tipped her ash into the ashtray and Margaret felt the same irritation as she did when she opened the back door of the pub and realized he had been waiting for her. She hadn’t been scared which surprised her. Instead there as a kind of relief in having something she could fight against. Sam took a long drag from her cigarette and Margaret remembered him stepping from the shadows and the sound of the river hitting against the wall behind them. He’d smelt of beer and sweat. She’d hit him with the first thing that had come to hand.

“I didn’t have to kill him.”

Sam stiffened.

“He was lying on the ground, and I dropped the rock on his face. Then I finished cleaning the bar as if nothing happened. I drove home and went to bed and didn’t even think of him.”

The air had grown still and heavy, as if the world had stopped to finally take notice of a big girl with pretty eyes. “I would follow a lover,” she told Sam, “I wouldn’t let him tell me what to do though.”

Sam’s lips had parted and her eyes were soft with fright. Margaret thought again that Sam looked like a child caught in the middle of dress up. The clock ticked in the other room and there was a distant sound of traffic. A cloud skimmed by unnoticed. Margaret was in no rush to leave. The woman sitting before her had dropped her gaze. She said nothing, but Margaret heard her apology in the silence. It would have sounded something like his, a pleading tone in the voice. The bell rang and still Margaret didn’t move. She waited for the blonde woman to stand at the door.

“I’m done here,” Margaret said and the woman looked at Sam who had deflated in her seat. Then she looked at Margaret as if she had no idea what she was.

pencil

L.M. Brown is the author of the novel Debris, and the linked short story collections Treading the Uneven Road and Were We Awake. Her novel Hinterland is forthcoming 2020. Her stories have been nominated for the Puschcart Prize and have been published in over a dozen magazines such as Eclectica, The Chiron Review, Fiction Southeast, Litro and more. She has three daughters and they live near her husband’s hometown in Massachusetts but L.M. grew up in Ireland. Email: lornawbrown[at]gmail.com