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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Academy Street

A Novel

Mary Costello




It is evening and the window is open a little. There are voices in the hall, footsteps running up and down the stairs, then along the back corridor towards the kitchen. Now and then Tess hears the crunch of gravel outside, the sound of a bell as a bicycle is laid against the wall. Earlier a car drove up the avenue, into the yard, and horses and traps too, the horses whinnying as they were pulled up. She is sitting on the dining-room floor in her good dress and shoes. The sun is streaming in through the tall windows, the light falling on the floor, the sofa, the marble hearth. She holds her face up to feel its warmth.

For two days people have been coming and going and now there is something near. She wishes everyone would go home and let the house be quiet again. The summer is gone. Every day the leaves fall off the trees and blow down the avenue. She thinks of them blowing into the courtyard, past the coach house, under the stone arch. In the morning she had gone out to the orchard and stood inside the high wall. It was cold then. The pear tree stood alone. She walked under the apple trees. She picked up a rotten yellow apple, and when she smelled it, it reminded her of the apple room and the apples laid out on newspapers on the floor, turning yellow.

She lies back on the rug and looks up at the pictures on the wallpaper. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Her mother told her the story. She picks out the colors-dark green, blue, red-and follows the ivy trailing all over the wallpaper, all around Adam and Eve. They are both naked except for a few leaves. Eve has a frightened look on her face. She has just spotted the serpent. A serpent is a snake, her mother said. The apple tree behind Eve is old and bent, like the ones in the orchard.

She feels something in the room. A whishing sound, and a little breeze rushes past her. She sits up, blinks. A blackbird has flown into the room. It flies around and around and she smiles, amazed, and opens her arms for it to come to her. It perches on the top of the china cabinet and watches her with one eye. Then it takes off again and comes to rest on the wooden pelmet above the curtains. It starts to peck at a spot on the wall. She holds her breath. She listens to the tap-tap of its beak, then a faint tearing sound and a little strip of wallpaper comes away and the bird with the little strip like a twig in its beak rises and circles and flies out the window. She looks after it, astonished.

The door opens and the head of her sister Claire appears. "Is this where you are? Tess! Come on, hurry on!"

Something is about to happen. Her older sisters, Evelyn and Claire, are home from boarding school. She loves Claire almost as much as her mother, or Captain the dog. More than she loves Evelyn, or Maeve, her other sister, or even the baby. Equal to how she loves Mike Connolly, the workman.

The door opens again, and Claire holds out her hand urgently for Tess to come. There are people standing around the hall, waiting. The front door is wide open and outside there are more people. She can hear their feet crunching the gravel and the hum of low talk. She looks around at the faces of her aunts and cousins, her neighbors. Her teacher, Mrs. Snee, is smiling at her. Claire pulls her close-they are standing next to Aunt Maud now-and squeezes her hand and bows her head. Suddenly she is frightened.

A shuffle on the upstairs landing and everyone goes quiet. Men's voices, half whispering but urgent, drift down from above. She thinks there must be a lot of people up there but when she looks up there are only shadows and shoulders beyond the banisters. She sighs. She will soon need to go to the bathroom. She looks down at her new shoes. She got them in Briggs's shop in the town during the school holidays, along with the green dress she is wearing. Her mother got new shoes that day too. And a new blue dress. Her mother bent down to tie her laces and Tess left her hand on her mother's head, on the soft hair.

The stairs sweep up and turn to the right and it is here on the turn, by the stained-glass window, that her uncle's back comes into view. Light is streaming in. Her heart starts to beat fast. She sees the back of a neighbor, Tommy Burns, and her other uncle, struggling. And then she understands. At the exact moment she sees the coffin, she understands. It turns the corner and the sun hits it. The sun flows all over the coffin, turning the wood yellow and red and orange like the window, lighting it up, making it beautiful. The gold handles are shining. It is so beautiful, her heart swells and floods with the light. She closes her eyes. She can feel her mother near. Her mother is reaching out a hand, smiling at her. She can feel the touch of her mother's fingers on her face. Her mother is all hers-her face, her long hair, her mouth, they are all hers. Then someone coughs and she opens her eyes.

The men are almost at the bottom of the stairs and the coffin is tilted, heavy. She is afraid it will fall. Her father and her older brother, Denis, get behind it now, lifting, helping. She looks down, presses her toes against the soles of her shoes to keep her feet still. She wants to run up the last few steps and open the coffin and bring her mother out. She looks at the handles again, and at the little crosses on the top. She tries to count them. There is a big gold cross on the lid. Last night, when her cousin Kathleen took her up to bed, they passed her mother's room. The shutters were closed and candles were lit. There were people standing and sitting and leaning against the walls, neighbors, relations, all saying the Rosary. She dipped her head to see past the crowd. She could not see her mother. Just the dark wood of the wardrobe and the washstand. And the mirror covered with a black cloth. And leaning up against the wall, against the pink roses of the wallpaper, the wooden lid with the gold cross, and the light of the candles dancing on it. They put the lid on over her mother. She looks up at Claire, about to speak, but Claire says "Shh," and tightens her grip on Tess's hand. A silence falls on the hall. She turns and sees the big brass gong that she and Maeve play with sometimes by the wall. She wants to reach for the beater and hit the gong hard.

The coffin is crawling towards the front door. Then the men leave it down on two chairs and rest for a minute. When they pick it up again, everyone walks behind it and it passes through the open door, into the sun. On the gravel there is a black hearse and a thousand faces looking at them. The men bring the coffin to the back of the hearse and shove it in through the open door, like into a mouth. Maeve starts to cry and Claire goes to her.

Tess turns and sees Mike Connolly at the edge of the yard, with Captain the dog at his feet. He is holding his cap in his hand. She thinks he is crying. Everyone is crying, but she is not. She looks up and sees the blackbird on the laurel tree, eyeing her. You robber, she wants to shout, you tore my mother's wallpaper, and now she's dead. She looks past the white railings that run around the lawn, over the sloping fields and the quarry, far off to a clump of trees. Then the hearse door is shut and she gets a jolt. She looks around. She does not know what to do. The evening sun is blinding her. It is shining on everything, too bright, on the laurel tree and the lawn and the white railings, on the hearse and the gravel and the blackbird.

The hearse pulls away and people start walking behind it. Her uncle's car follows and then the horses and traps, and the neighbors, wheeling bicycles. Claire is beside her again, leaning into her face. "You've to go into the house, Tess. You and Maeve, ye're to stay at home with Kathleen."

Her cousin Kathleen takes her hand, leads herself and Maeve around to the side of the house, down the steps into the small yard. Before they reach the back door, Tess breaks away and runs back across the gravel, the lawn, off into the fields. On a small hill she stands and watches the hearse moving up the avenue, turning onto the main road. It moves along the stone wall that circles her father's land, the crowd and the horses and traps walking after it. Sometimes the trees or the wall block her view. But she watches, and waits, until the black roof of the hearse comes into view again, flashing in the sun. It slows and turns left onto Chapel Road, and the people follow, like dark shapes. Then they begin to disappear.

She stands still, watching until the last shape fades and she is alone. She is gone. Her mother is gone. She feels a little sick, dizzy from the huge sky above. She feels the ground falling away from under her-the grass and the field and the hill are all sliding away, until she is left high and dry on the top of a bare hill. Like the Blessed Virgin in the picture in the church when she is taken up into Heaven from the top of a mountain. Maybe she, Tess, is being taken up into Heaven this very minute. She can hardly breathe. She turns her face towards the low sun and closes her eyes and waits. Please. She waits for her mother's face to appear, a hand to reach out. She leans her whole body upwards, desperate for the sun to touch her, the wind to raise her, the sky to open, Heaven to pull her in.

When she opens her eyes she is still in her father's field, and there, a few feet away, are cattle, five or six, staring at her with big faces and sad eyes. The ground is under her feet again, the grass is green, nothing has changed. She looks around, frightened, ashamed. She starts running back towards the house. She runs into the yard, searches the barn, the coach house, the stables. She sticks her head into the dark musty potato house and calls out, "Mike, Mike, are you there?" and waits and listens. Everywhere is silent. Soon it will be dark. She hears the sound of a motor in the distance. A car is coming down the avenue. She stands and waits for it to appear in the yard. Her heart is pounding. It is the hearse, she thinks, returning. With her mother sitting up in the front seat, smiling, and the coffin behind open, empty-a terrible mistake put right. They had come to the wrong house. They had come for the wrong woman-it was old Mrs. Geraghty back in the village they should have taken.

But it is not the hearse that drives into the yard. It is Miss Tannian, the poultry instructress. She steps out of her car in a green tweed costume and patent shoes. And auburn hair, like Tess's mother's. The sky is pink and as she comes towards Tess the last of the sun lights her up from behind. She is speaking to Tess, saying, I am sorry, I am so sorry. Tess runs away from her, off along the edge of the yard, under the arch towards the orchard. The big iron gates are open and she runs in and stands in the shadows. The apple trees are dark, their low crooked branches like old women's skirts. Her eyes dart all over the place, along the four high walls. And then she sees him, Mike Connolly, sitting on an old stump at the far end, his head down, Captain beside him. As soon as she sees him the tears come. She runs and falls at his feet and begins to sob.

* * *

It is dark when the others come home. Her aunt Maud and Maud's husband, Frank, and the aunts and cousins from Dublin crowd into the kitchen. The Tilley lamps are lit. There are all kinds of nice things on the pantry shelves, cakes and buns and biscuits. Mrs. Glynn, who took the baby over to her house, is here. She helps Tess's sisters serve tea and sandwiches to all the guests, and whiskey to the men. Her father sits quietly in the armchair. Her brother Denis has his head down. Tess wants to climb up on his lap like she used to when she was four. They are talking about the baby, Oliver. Aunt Maud says she will take him.

"It'll be for the best," she says.

Her father says nothing.

"It'll only be for a year or two," Aunt Maud says. "And sure ye'll be over and back, and Kathleen can bring him back every Sunday to play with the girls." She looks around the table. "That's settled, so. And isn't it what she wanted herself?"

"It is," her father says at last. "It's what she wanted, all right."

* * *

She goes up to the front hall and drags a stool over to open the door. It is dark outside. She sits on the step and folds her arms. She can make out the laurel tree on the lawn. She remembers when she and Maeve came home from school every day, her mother sitting under the shiny laurel tree with a blanket around her knees, sewing, and Oliver beside her in his cradle. Sometimes her head was down, sleeping. Oliver wasn't long born and he was sleeping too. Tess would run to them and look in over the top of his cradle and smell his baby smell. Her mother's long hair was tied back. Then she would get a fit of coughing and her hair would come loose. Once there was blood in her hankie. When she was in bed, sick, her hair was let down. They took Tess up to her mother's room last week and her mother was sitting up in her white nightdress. They lifted her onto the high bed and her mother kissed her forehead. But then, when Tess started to stroke her mother's hair and lie against her, Evelyn said, Come on, down with you now, madam, and she took her away.

Tess has not had her tea. She wonders who will make their teas now. She likes a boiled egg and currant bread with butter. She likes when her mother stands beside her father at the table and pours him a cup of steaming tea from the teapot. Sometimes, he puts out his hand and touches her mother's bottom and she and her sisters pretend not to see. Her mother is in her coffin in the chapel tonight. God will probably drop down His Golden Chute soon-any minute now-when He is ready to take her mother up into Heaven. That is how she, Tess, and her brothers and sisters arrived on earth. Her mother told her that whenever she and Tess's father wanted a new baby, she went to the chapel and there she prayed, and God, hearing her prayer, dropped down His Golden Chute and popped in a baby and down the chute the baby flew, fat and happy and gurgling, into her mother's waiting arms.

Tess takes off her shoes, looks up at the black sky, begins to hum. She is not sure if the Golden Chute actually takes people back up into Heaven. That is a guess. She wonders if her mother is on her way, now, this minute, moving through the dark sky, in and out among the cold stars. She grows a little afraid. She looks down at her hands. She picks at the old burn mark on her thumb. She bites off a bit of skin and chews it. She remembers the day she got the burn. Oliver wasn't even born and she had not started school. She went out with her mother to feed the hens. Chuck, chuck, chuck, they called out. They went into the duckhouse and the henhouse to gather the eggs. Her mother had a bucket and Tess had a small tin can. Tess wanted to be just like her mother. When her mother put the eggs in her bucket that day, Tess wanted eggs in her tin can too. She started to cry, but then her mother said, Look, look, and she picked up three lovely shiny stones from the yard and put them into Tess's can and rattled them around. Then her mother ran off inside, in case the bread got burnt. Tess ran after her, but she saw another lovely pebble shining up at her from the ground and she stopped and put it in her tin can and raced in through the small yard, calling out to her mother about her new pebble. At the back door she tripped and tumbled down the steps into the kitchen, and then, half running, she fell sideways into the open fire. Her mother cried out and let the griddle pan fall and ran and lifted Tess and swung her across the kitchen into the big white sink. Later, telling Tess's father what had happened, her mother began to cry. Her two little hands were burnt, she told him, wiping her eyes. Tess tried to show him the pebbles but her hands were all bandaged up.

* * *

Everyone dresses in black the next morning and goes to the funeral. Tess and Maeve stay behind with Mike Connolly. The dining-room table is set with the good china and cutlery. There's a leg of mutton cooked and left aside in the kitchen. Mrs. Glynn comes with warm brown bread. She takes off her coat and puts eggs on to boil. She tells Maeve to mash up cold potatoes with a fork. When the plates are ready, Tess and Maeve carry them up to the dining room. Mrs. Glynn puts on her coat and says if she hurries she'll make the burial. Tess's heart jumps. Mrs. Glynn takes Maeve with her, but Tess is too young to go to the graveyard. "Your poor mother," she says. Before they leave Tess asks about Oliver. When is Oliver coming home? Mrs. Glynn says they can come and see him tomorrow. He'll be going to live with Aunt Maud after that.

When they are gone the house is quiet. The smell of the mutton makes her feel sick. She listens to the clock ticking. Everything is changing. No one puts the wireless on anymore. She hears water dripping inside the pipes high up on the wall. Upstairs the floorboards are creaking. She starts to grow afraid. She is sure there is someone up there. She thinks her mother will come down the stairs and into the kitchen. She runs out into the small yard and as she turns the corner onto the lawn she crashes into Mike Connolly. "Ah, a leanbh, slow down, slow down."

"I think Momma is coming down the stairs, Mike, I think she's back. I heard her steps."

"Come on in now out of that, and make me some tea. My belly's above in my back. D'you know how many cows I milked this morning, do you? Before you even turned over for your second sleep, Missy!"

He throws two sods of turf on the fire, and hangs the kettle on the crane. The clock is quieter now. Outside, the crows are cawing. Mike is standing, looking into the fire, and she does the same. When the flames are big and red and the kettle is singing, he makes a pot of tea. He cuts the bread and says, "Will we make a bit of toast?" She smiles. He knows-like her mother knows-that toast is her favorite, favorite thing in the world. He sticks a cut of bread on a fork and leans in and holds it before the flames. She leans in too. Their faces grow pink and warm as the bread turns brown. He toasts three or four cuts and neither of them says a word. But she is happy. She is happy. They sit together at the big table and he butters her toast and spreads jam on it and her mouth waters. He pours two cups of tea and gives her a wink. "Eat up now," he says. And then, just as he is about to take a bite, he turns his head and sees something and a change comes over him. She follows his look to her mother's apron hanging on a nail at the end of the dresser. It is floury around the belly from all the times her mother leaned against the table, kneading the bread. "Eat up, Mike," she says quickly. "Your toast is getting cold."

* * *

They have all come back, the priest too, and they are sitting at the long table up in the dining room. Tess keeps an eye on the small china milk jugs, and when they are empty she runs all the way back to the kitchen and refills them. She moves along the table offering buns and shop cake from a plate. Her hair is tied back neatly. She stands straight, smiling politely when she is praised. The priest asks her how old she is. Seven, she tells him. He says she's a great girl and that she's the image of her mother and in that second her heart nearly bursts with happiness. She looks across the room, up at the spot above the window where the bird tore the wallpaper. She wants to run and find her mother and tell her what the priest just said.

Her father sits at one end of the table, the priest at the other.

"May the Lord have mercy on her soul," the priest says. "What age was she, Michael?"

Her father stops eating. "Nineteen hundred and four, she was born. She was forty last March. That's when she started to complain. Just after the child was born."

He looks around them all, then at the priest. "I met a nun once in a church in Galway," he says. "She was back from America. D'you know what she told me? She said that a man's soul weighs the same as a snipe. Some scientist over there weighed people just before they died, TB patients she said, and then he weighed them again just after they died, beds and all. And weren't they lighter?... Imagine that ... The soul was gone, she said."

Aunt Maud blows her nose into her handkerchief. Evelyn goes around the table with the teapot, then whispers something to Aunt Maud.

"She told Evelyn where to get the linen tablecloth to put on the table for the meal," Aunt Maud says. "Isn't that right, Evelyn?"

Evelyn nods and sniffs. "She did. Only a few days ago. She told me which drawer it was in."

Tess is watching her father. He takes a drink of tea and swallows. All the time he is looking down. She can see the bones in his face moving under his skin.

"She was a fine woman," the priest says. "A fine woman."

"She even told us which dress to lay her out in-her new blue dress," Evelyn says.

Tess's heart nearly stops. She understands what that means; her mother is lying in her coffin in her new blue dress. The one she got in Briggs's that day that Tess got her dress, the one she is wearing now. Carefully, she leaves the cake plate up on the sideboard and walks out of the dining room on shaky legs. She climbs the stairs. The sun is flooding in through the stained-glass window, like yesterday. She hurries past, to the upstairs landing and down along the corridor to her parents' room. The door is closed. She stands for a moment, then turns the handle and walks in. It is dark. The drapes have not been opened. There is a bad smell, like when a mouse dies under the floorboards. She runs and drags open the drapes on one of the windows. The mirror is still covered with the black cloth. On the dressing table there is a photograph of her father and mother on their wedding day. She looks at it. Her father might get a new wife now. She might get a new mother. There is another photograph of her mother in a nurse's uniform when she was young and working in a hospital down in Cork. She opens the top drawer, lifts out a red cloth box, checks her mother's brooches, her locket, her hat pins. Nothing is missing. She opens the wardrobe door and gets a terrible fright. For a second she thinks there are people in funeral clothes standing inside the wardrobe. She pushes at the coats and the dresses but there are too many and she is too small and they fall back in her way again. She pulls and drags on the hems of the dresses and skirts, bringing them towards the light. She is almost crying. There is no blue dress. Her mother is wearing it in the coffin. Then she remembers that her mother is no longer in the chapel. She is down in the ground now. Or up in Heaven.

* * *

In the dark she is counting sheep, like Claire told her to do. It is no good, she cannot sleep. She starts to count all the days since she was born, but it is too hard. She tries to remember every single day, every single minute with her mother. Suddenly, there is a loud bang. She sits up, terrified. She hears dogs barking in the distance. Maeve does not stir in her bed across the room. Then everything is silent again. She listens out for sounds in the house. A big bright moon is shining into the room, making everything white, even the floorboards. Mellow the moonlight. When the woman comes on the wireless singing this song, her mother sings along. There's a form at the casement, a form of her true love. And he whispered with face bent, I'm waiting for you love. Tess meant to ask her mother what a casement was, and a form. Her mother said there is a man in the moon and Tess kneels up on her bed now and looks out the window, turning her head this way and that, trying to make out his face.

In the morning before it is fully bright she wakes up. She listens out for Oliver. And then she remembers and a sick feeling comes over her. Early each morning last summer the little birds used to sing, huddled together under the roof above her window. Now they are all gone; their wings and tiny hearts are grown up. She closes her eyes, tries to go back to sleep. The house is so quiet she thinks everyone might be gone and she is the only one left. She pulls the blankets up to her chin to keep out the cold.

She sits up, looks across at Maeve sleeping. She gets out of bed and runs over to the big window, hardly feeling the floor under her. The sky is gray and low, everything still asleep. She looks out across the lawn, then far off over the fields. Her father is coming over a hill, in his long coat, with a gun on his shoulder. He is carrying dead rabbits. He comes nearer and nearer. She has never seen him like this, so lonely.

Copyright © 2014 by Mary Costello