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She reached the turn into their road and stopped, taking a steadying breath. Two minutes. Just drop off the box and go. Her early morning shift at the supermarket had just ended, legs aching from hours of standing and a stinging behind her eyes from the glare of the fluorescent lights. She should be retired but she couldn’t afford it. This morning she saw the china in her cabinet before work and made her decision. She borrowed it a long time ago, from Attracta Keegan for a dinner party. After Attracta died she never gave it back. Now, after all these years, she’d return it to Attracta’s children. She wrapped each saucer and cup and plate individually in old newspaper.
Joyce turned right down the snaking country road. The china clinked with each turn, the road running parallel at some points to the train track just on the other side of the hedge. Finally, the Keegan house came into view. A two-storey with white walls and a heavy black roof. A dozen or so cars lined both sides of the road. Joyce braked, perturbed. A clutch of colourful balloons floated above the gatepost like a beacon, or a warning. Not too late to turn back, return to her lonely house with microwave dinner boxes piling up on the kitchen counter. No, she would see this through. She raked the straggles of grey hair away from her forehead and smoothed down the creases in the black skirt and branded green blouse of her work uniform.
15 years at least, the last time she was here. Maybe she’d brought over a stew for the kids to reheat, or come to clean up a bit and make sure they had clean clothes. Their father went to the drink when their mother died. Joyce couldn’t bear to see her friend’s children go neglected.
She killed the engine and got out of the car. Outside, the sounds of adults talking and children screaming gleefully. The sun beat down. Exhausted, she felt like she was walking into a dream. She rang the doorbell. Inside, a tinny chime. No one answered. She touched her fingers to the handle and it yielded. The door opened as if by itself. Inside, things had been altered, the walls painted pale rose and adorned with new paintings and prints. New wooden floors. New stairs of silver and glass. This was Catriona’s house now and she must have wanted to overwrite its sad history. All quiet, just the sounds of the party from the back garden. No one knew Joyce was here, old irrelevant Joyce Carey. Like a ghost from the past she was. And a ghost can get away with anything.
She started up the stairs and reached the landing. Another set of stairs led to the attic room that used to be Cormac and Catriona’s playroom. The room with the little window overlooking the garden. Joyce used to love that room. Before going up, she looked into Cormac’s old room. He was only twelve when Attracta died and Joyce’s heart burst for him. There had always been something a bit distant and wounded about Catriona, fifteen when it happened. By the looks of it, this was still a boy’s bedroom, Catriona’s son’s room. A green-eyed cartoon character in superhero garb grinned up at her from the bedspread. She retreated, and went up again to the attic room.
First, the heat hit her, the stuffy air like a physical presence. A leather sofa on one side of the room, and on the other a desk and chair. An office, or the beginnings of one. The room had that distracted air Joyce associated with Catriona. That girl’s mind was always elsewhere, making plans. It had been Cormac she loved. Joyce could hear the party more clearly here. A couple dozen people, maybe. A housewarming. Catriona had just moved back from Canada with her husband and son to take up her big new job. Joyce heard about it yesterday at work and decided to bring the china back.
She used to love this room, back when she helped keep the grieving children fed. The picture window cast a circle of sunlight on the floor. Joyce went to it. Below, the party proceeded. It looked like all the Keegans were here. One of those rare occasions: it wasn’t, to Joyce’s thinking, a very close-knit family. But who was she to judge, she who had no family?
Cormac and Catriona must have been sitting outside her field of vision, but the other adults looked familiar somehow, made up of the same bits, the same sandy-brown hair and long noses.
A long white table had been laid out with sandwiches, cocktail sausages, things like that. A little girl, about seven, ducked under it, the gleaming tablecloth closing behind her like a stage curtain. An older boy followed, clumsy, too big for this game. The girl reappeared at the other end of the table, startling the adults who laughed drunkenly. Then the boy too, the table rocked as he hit his head, cans of beer and Coke falling to the ground. The adults looked irate. He held his head and walked away out of frame.
Joyce watched the girl watch the boy walk away. Her face red from running, shocked the game had ended so abruptly. Yes, thought Joyce with distant pleasure. That’s how it will be. He’ll get bored of you soon. He’ll cast you aside and it will be like he never knew you at all. This is how it goes.
The girl looked up and saw Joyce.
Who stepped back in sudden fear. Then doubted herself. She was too high up, surely, for the girl to see, and the glare against the window would obscure her view. Joyce waited, stomach clenched, for someone to charge upstairs, for anger and reprimands. But minutes passed and no one did. Joyce looked out the window again and saw the girl reaching towards a pyramid of sandwiches. Relief: she had not been seen.
Tiredness washed over her. She fell into the leather sofa. A picture stood on the desk. Cormac and Catriona at one of her graduations, her PhD maybe. Once, Cormac was considered the smart one. Then Catriona got 600 points in her Leaving, surprising all the people who expected less of her and escaping across the Atlantic. Now she was back for some fancy job and Cormac was the one who wasn’t doing anything special. Joyce felt her eyes drooping. Rest a while, then go.
She woke in confusion. A cold sensation across her body, a breeze from the window which was now open. Still there were sounds from the people below, but more subdued as the evening had worn on.
Outside the office door, voices. Two people, arguing in whispers. Joyce felt herself to be in a dream. This surely, could not be happening. Someone had put a glass of water by the sofa. She touched it, feeling the cold damp glass, the leather cracking beneath her as she moved.
Alerted by the crack of the leather or some other instinct, a man entered the room. A scattering of grey in his sandy hair, a hint of young wrinkles around his eyes – but she would know Cormac anywhere. She felt herself smile. He looked down at her with an unreadable expression.
‘I didn’t know if I should wake you.’ His voice slurred, he was a bit drunk. ‘I left you a glass of water.’
‘Yes,’ Joyce managed. ‘Thank you.’
‘Mrs. Carey, I’- he clasped his hands together and puffed. He used to do that when he was nervous or put out. ‘My daughter said she saw a lady in the attic. I thought she was just making stuff up.’
Catriona entered. Sober. Ready. A grown woman used to being listened to and respected. She sat on the office chair and folded her arms. ‘Well?’
Joyce sat up. She didn’t feel the need to apologise. She had gone far beyond apologies, into some other territory of wrongness. To see them again like this, so surreal, so not what she had intended. ‘The china. I want to give it to you.’
‘China?’ asked Cormac.
‘Your mother’s. I borrowed it years ago. You should have it.’
‘I don’t see any china,’ said Catriona. Joyce knew how she sounded, like a dotty old woman. That is probably exactly what they thought she was.
‘In my car. I forgot to even bring it inside.’ Joyce shivered as she spoke, and Cormac went to close the window.
Catriona stood with an angry sigh. ‘I don’t know what your game is showing up like this.’
‘Don’t,’ said Cormac. Joyce felt relieved, as if he was on her side now.
Catriona met her brother’s eye. ‘If she’s not gone in ten minutes, I’m calling the guards.’ And then she was gone, an apparition, a mirage glimpsed only once before it disappears.
Cormac turned to Joyce and tried to smile. ‘Sorry.’ He paused. ‘But why am I the one apologising?’
Joyce reached for the water and took a sip. It cleared her head a little. ‘I… I don’t know what came over me today. I really did just come to give you back your mother’s things.’ At least Cormac had said her name. At least he remembered her.
‘Is there someone I can call?’
‘No. No, there isn’t.’ She stood, staggering a little. She looked around for her bag, but of course, she didn’t bring it inside.
‘Okay,’ he half-whispered. ‘Okay.’
He led her downstairs, taking each step slowly as if he wanted to delay her departure. He opened the front door just a crack, not letting Joyce, now eager to be gone, get out. He seemed to be thinking.
‘It’s so strange. Seeing you again. It’s like I’m talking to a ghost. I remember what you did for us, back then, when Mam died. You were her friend, weren’t you? It all seems like forever ago. I don’t like being in this house. Too many memories.’
‘Catriona did it up nice.’
He scoffed. ‘She’s changing everything. She wants to forget.’
‘Sometimes it’s better to forget. How’s your father?’
‘He’s okay. He was sick last year but he’s better now. He’s in the garden.’ Cormac opened the door fully. ‘I can’t drive you, I’ve had a few drinks.’
‘That’s grand, I have my car.’ Outside, the fresh air felt like freedom. She was glad to get away from here.
But Cormac seemed to want her to stay. ‘Maybe you could come by someday?’
‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ said Joyce.
‘Maybe not… I wish I could do something for you.’
‘You don’t have to do anything, pet. Give your Dad my regards.’ She walked away without looking back, feeling his eyes on her as she walked to her car. When she turned back to wave a last goodbye, he was gone, the door closed for good. Yes, today Joyce had been possessed by some ghost of the past, both the haunted one and the one doing the haunting. Whatever had happened here was for the best. She could forget about it all.
She was nearly home before she heard the china clink in the back seat. After all that! She never gave it back to them. But Cormac and Catriona had new lives now, and new objects to fill up those lives. They didn’t need these plates, cups, saucers, so delicate and fine, wrapped in sheets of The Leinster Express.
A new idea occurred to her. She took a detour by the St. Vincent de Paul in Portarlington and it was as simple as that. A few days later, she walked by and glanced at the window display, at all the unwanted things. Among them sat the china, the blue floral against the white. It no longer seemed important. Forgotten artifacts, the last relics rescued from a house fit for haunting.