Men and Women (2)
My parents don't kiss. In all my life, back as far as I remember, I have never seen them touch. Once I took a friend upstairs to show her the house.
'This is Mammy's room, and this is Daddy's,' I said.
'Your parents don't sleep in the same bed?' she said in amazement. That was when I suspected our family wasn't normal.
The hall's main lights are switched on, and nothing is the same. People are red-faced and sweaty; everything's back the way it is in everyday life. The bandleader calls for quiet, and says the raffle is about to take place. He holds out the box of tickets to the blonde that Seamus was smiling at. 'Dig deep,' he says. 'First prize is a bottle of whiskey.'
She takes her time, enjoying the attention.
'Come on,' he says. 'Christ, girl, it's not a million pounds we're offering!'
She hands him the ticket.
'It's a - what colour would ye say that is? It's a pink ticket, number seven two five and 3X429H. I'll give ye that again.'
It's not mine, but it's close. I don't want the whiskey anyway; I'd rather have the box of Afternoon Tea biscuits that's the next prize. There's a general searching in pockets and handbags. He calls out the numbers a few times and is just going to get the blonde to pick another ticket, when Mammy rises from her seat. Head held high, she walks in a straight line across the floor. A space opens in the crowd; people step to one side to let her pass. I have never seen her do this. Usually she's too shy, gives me the tickets and I run up and collect the prize.
'Do ye like a drop of whiskey, do ye, missus?' the bandleader asks, reading her ticket. 'Sure, it'd keep you warm on a night like tonight. No woman needs a man, if she has a drop of whiskey. Isn't that right? Seven two five, that's the one.'
My mother is standing there in her beautiful clothes and it's all wrong. She doesn't belong up there.
'Let's see,' he says. 'Sorry, missus, the rest of the number's wrong. The husband may keep you warm again tonight.'
My mother turns and walks proudly back, with everybody knowing she thought she'd won. And suddenly she is no longer walking, but running, running in the bright white light towards the door, her hair flowing out like a horse's tail behind her.
Out in the car park it's been snowing, but the ground is wet and shiny in the headlights of the cars that are leaving. Moonlight shines down on the earth. Ma, Seamus, and I sit in the car, shaking with cold, waiting for Da. We can't turn on the engine to heat the car because Da has the keys. My feet are as cold as stones. A cloud of steam rises from the window of the chip van. All around us, people are leaving, waving, calling out 'Goodnight!' and 'Happy New Year!' They're buying their chips and driving off.
The chip van has closed down and the car park is empty when Da comes out. He gets into the driver's seat, starts the engine and we're off.
'That wasn't a bad band,' he says.
Mammy says nothing.
'I said, there was a bit of life in that band.' Louder this time.
Still Mammy says nothing.
Da begins to sing 'Far Away in Australia'. He always sings when he's angry. The lights of the village are behind us now. These roads are dark. Da stops singing before the end of the song.
'Did you see any nice girls in the hall, Seamus?'
'Nothing I'd be mad about.'
'That blonde was a nice little thing.'
I think about the market, with all the men looking at the sheep and cattle. I think about Sarah Combs and how she always smells of grassy perfume when we go to her house.
We have driven up the road through the wood. Da stops the car. He is waiting for Mammy to get out and open the gates.
Mammy doesn't move.
'Have you got a pain?' he says to her.
She looks straight ahead.
'Can't you open your door or what?' he asks.
'Open it yourself.'
He reaches over her and opens her door, but she bangs it shut.
'Get out there and open that gate!' he shouts at me.
Something tells me I shouldn't move.
'Seamus!' he shouts. 'Seamus!'
None of us moves.
'Christ!' he says.
I am afraid. Outside, one corner of my THIS WAY SANTA sign has come loose; the sign is hanging from the gate.
Da turns to my mother, his voice filled with hate.
And you walking up there in your best clothes in front of all the neighbours, thinking you won first prize in the raffle.' He laughs unpleasantly and opens his door. 'Running like a fool out of the hall.'
He gets out and there's anger in his walk. He sings, 'Far Away in Australia!' He is reaching up to open the gate, when the wind blows off his hat. The gate opens. He bends to pick up his hat, but the wind blows it further away. He takes another few steps, but again it is blown just a little too far for him to catch it. I think of Santa Claus using the same wrapping paper as us, and suddenly I understand. There is only one obvious explanation.
My father is getting smaller. The car is rolling, slipping backwards. No handbrake, and I'm not out there, putting the stone in position. And that's when Mammy gets behind the wheel. She moves into my father's seat, the driver's seat, and puts her foot on the brake. We stop going backwards.
And then Mammy starts to drive. There's a funny noise in the engine for a moment, then she gets it right, and we're moving. Mammy is taking us forward, past the Santa sign, past my father, who has stopped singing, through the open gate. She drives us through the snow-covered woods. When I look back, my father is standing there watching our taillights. The snow is falling on him, on his bare head, on the hat that he is holding in his hands.
- THE END -