As the light weakened, Mr McCourt pulled open the velour drapes and lit the vanilla-scented candle. He had just said goodbye to his youngest daughter, and watched as she crossed the road to catch the airport bus. His children had been coming and going for a long time, perhaps twenty years, but he’d never gotten used to it, and ‘goodbye’ had become increasingly difficult.
‘We’re thinking of buying the white bungalow,’ he had heard her say throughout the four days; he knew she hadn’t even arranged to view it.
‘You’ll not be able to settle in if you leave it too long.’
‘It’s my town isn’t it?’ she had replied.
He watched her stand stiffly by her black trolley, her long red hair jetting out of a high ponytail. She did not look across at him standing behind the flame in the otherwise dark room. He must, he thought, be visible behind the nets in the dusky evening. Nor had she so much as glanced at the white bungalow. She reminded him of his wife with that hair and her petite frame, but something tight and of the city clung inelegantly to her. He had not fully believed her work-attributed reasons for rushing back to London.
He thought that maybe he’d talked too much during the days he’d spent with her; he thought of what his son, Francie, had said: don’t try too hard with her, don’t take time off for her. As far as he knew she hadn’t even been near Crowe Street.
He had taken time off for her. Almost in anticipation of her visit, he had recently brought in two new girls to help Bridie, his chief baker. Bridie had come home after thirty years with big plans for her own shop, only to have her husband run off with a girl half her age after their first month home. (He had felt sorry for her; she was often sour-faced but good with the women.) It had been his hope, until recently, that Francie or one of his daughters would run the shop with him. It had happened at Daly’s and Duffner’s; siblings working together in their respective shops, both families exuding a soft and enviable pride. Once he had Francie with him for a whole summer; the girls came sporadically during holidays but that had been the extent of their working together as a family.
The bus was late. Perhaps she would cross to the house and stay another night. They could listen to the Lena Martell records, or to Geraldine O’Grady, and he could tell her the stories about the farm, stories about the Channonrock families and O’Hara and his own scrapes at the border in ’69. He hadn’t told any of them the stories in years, he thought. Nor had they asked for them. Further evidence, if he needed it, that they’d all managed to sever themselves from their past. The realisation had come as quite a shock to him, about five years ago.
In London, his wife had dragged the girls to Irish dancing on the other side of the city in Finsbury Park. He had taken all four of them to Irish language, flute and recitation classes at the Irish Centre in Quex Road in Kilburn, twice a week. They had done so in anticipation of returning, building a home and business back in the town; and he didn’t want his children to forget and grow up English. (The South London accent was enough for him; had he had any say they would have been trained to adopt his own sharp Monaghan spurt.) It had taken much longer than planned to save in London, and by the time he’d brought them back, the so-called ‘Irishness’ they’d been inculcated with stood out as artificial; an outmoded thing in the prospering town.
‘Irish culture is alive and well and living in Birmingham,’ he would to say to Bridie, who knew exactly what he meant.
He watched his daughter haul on a cigarette. Of all of them it was she he worried about most. She drank too much, he thought. He wondered, as she stood in the road, looking to see if the bus was coming over the Dublin Street hill, if she’d ever forgiven him.
The Mother and Daughter Wards (as he called them) passed the window and looked in. He jumped back because he didn’t want Margaret Ward to see him. She would think it peculiar, the lights off as he stood there looking out from behind a lit candle. He found her stern but also striking with her black-black bouffant hair and kohl-lined eyes, and he felt a little afraid at the thought of explaining himself to her. If she had caught sight of him she would probe him for sure. All the same, she was gracious, and uniquely considerate, too, in that she had had a memorial mass said for his wife in The Friary every year at Christmas on the anniversary of her death. But take-me-take-my-mother was written all over Margaret and he wasn’t ready for that level of commitment. He moved to the side of the window and momentarily took his eyes off his daughter, now fretfully pacing, to watch Margaret Ward’s pencil-skirted rump sway with maturity and confidence as she walked her mother into their own house, three doors up.
‘Why don’t you sell up, Mr McCourt? That’s what you should do. Travel while you still have the time,’ Margaret had said when he told her about his children’s lack of interest in the business.
‘Don’t you think the town’d miss me, Margaret? Wouldn’t they miss my buns?’
‘They would, I suppose. I’d miss your Tipsys. Mother would miss your Chesters, that’s a fact.’
‘This is it, Margaret. I couldn’t sell up even if I wanted to because I know there’s no one makes as great cakes as The Home Bakery. And until there is, I feel I just can’t sell.’ He had no intention of selling the shop and, at this stage of his life, had little interest in travelling beyond the town.
He checked his watch. The bus was now twenty minutes late. He thought he caught sight of his daughter looking over at him through the window. He waved but she didn’t wave back. He saw then that the birdseed she’d scattered on the bird-table had attracted a host of peach-breasted chaffinches, bullfinches, some siskins and a pair of collared doves, but the family of robins would not come down from the juniper tree. He had known this would happen. He only ever laid stale breadcrumbs but, as she’d bought the seed especially, he kept quiet about it. The male at the front played sentinel as the brood waited in the nest making ticking sounds. They’re cute enough, he said to himself. The robins would swoop down for stale bread because it was of little interest to the bigger birds that pecked at it as a last resort, preferring the berries, worms, gifts of other gardens. He liked to think that it was their closeness and joviality as a brood that impaired their ability to attack and mark territory. They were his favourites, and he made a mental note to go out and put down breadcrumbs once the bus had come and gone.
They had not always had such a variety of birds. When they first bought the house there had not even been a proper garden, just scrubland out the back, concrete at the front. He and Francie had rolled out a new lawn over the dug-up concrete. They had planted flowers, shrubs and a laurel hedge, and sowed a small area with vegetables.
After the garden, he’d put almost all of his time into the business, missing much of his children’s growing-up. Somehow he thought they would understand his occasional moodiness, his silences, as the consequences of running a demanding, successful bakery. He would start at four in the morning with the breads. By six he would be ready to blend icing. He would then pour the icing into various spacklings and place these in the fridge. Black icing was required for the lettering; lemon, pink, blue, green and gold were used for the buns and birthday cakes; navy for the children’s cakes – and this had to be prepared slowly as it was made from a delicate combination of black and red Wilton colouring. Sometimes he’d watch his over-heating hands ruin his handiwork and he’d have to plunge them into ice water. Then he would bake pastry: choux for the eclairs, flaky for the cream slices, short-crust for pies, tarts, followed by the mixes for the Madeiras, angel-food cake, gingerbread, lemon cake and various puddings. His creams consisted of mock, whipped, clotted, butter-starch and Chantilly, and an hour before the shop was due to open he made the pink and white meringues. His schedule was relentless, and though he experienced occasional surges of pride and satisfaction from his efforts, it was, in the main, a long, hard graft. That his children had never appreciated this punishing schedule was plain now. He had nonetheless been surprised to learn of their peculiar resentment towards him; they seemed to think he’d given too much time to the business during the difficult years after their mother’s death.
The candle flickered, crackled on a fallen hair. He thought of the bomb. Planted in the blue Hillman Hunter outside Kay’s Tavern in 1975, the year he lost everything. In 1975 he had handpicked all ingredients and supplies himself, baking the stock out the back and serving alone in the then staff-less shop. He bought some breads in from McCann’s and McElroy’s but mostly made his own: soda farls, brown sodas, white sodas, yeast browns and whites, and once a week a black rye with walnut and caraway seed. It was Mr McCourt’s fervent belief that had he not been alone in the shop on the day of the bomb his premises would have been spared.
His thoughts drifted off to the unearthly light that had hung over Crowe Street that Christmas afternoon as he watched The Home Bakery melt to the ground like warm lemon icing.
‘We’re lucky the town hall didn’t go too,’ Jack Daly had said. ‘Blew the doors clean off. Bits of them oak doors flying like leaves, so they were, Mr McCourt.’
‘It’s a horrible thing,’ he had replied, ‘horrible for someone to do that to people.’
‘That’s their response to Sunningdale* you know. You of all people, McCourt, should be doing something about that now.’
Daly’s unsubtle call to arms still haunted him. What he had done at the border in ’69 had been admired, but any man might have done that; the bombing of Kay’s was different, for it signalled the escalation of a dirty and protracted war.
Mr McCourt recalled that it had been a strange, overcast day from the outset. He remembered the full moon that had hung ominously by the outermost tip of Cooley, as if it possessed some significant bearing on the awful proceedings below. For many, the day had become a blur; for McCourt, a detailed recording he could replay with exactitude.
He had tried hard to save the shop. Over here, over here, he had screamed to the firemen, indicating the fire raging in his kitchens and all along the outer wall. He had watched them carry out two bodies, and over twenty injured from Kay’s. They had looked shattered: Joe and Jaxy. He knew them both, and he had never seen either of them look so bloodless and horrified. We have you Mr McCourt. You’re next, they assured him. He remembered the flames finding fresh force in the pub, just as the Town Hall foyer exploded. He recalled the eerie smell of gas and the realisation then that he would probably lose the bakery.
With the detailed images of that day, came also its hellish sounds. He recalled the bells in St Patrick’s rumbling dissonantly as thin cracks wired the plaster in the shop wall right in front of him. Within seconds of the first blast, large wedges of two-by-fours, complete with flames, nails, melting turquoise paint, had crashed through the pastry display and onto the marble counter, catching the thick pile of wrapping tissue. He had even tried to quench the fire with his own shop coat. Open tins of oil, lined up in a row against the kitchen wall, caught the flames with a heavy fizz, and the entry to the ovens area collapsed outright. He had used the small fire extinguisher he’d bought off the travelling salesmen, but it had been no good. The emission dry and wispy.
He seemed to be in a daze as he stared out at the street’s glowering aftermath. Beneath the platform of the foremost engine, a red barrel had been rolling up and down a long stray plank. The barrel made a relentless, rhythmic din as it massaged the half-burnt length of wood. The rattle fixed in his ear, gave a rhythm to his thoughts: look at that barrel, like a sea-saw rattling, will it ever roll loose. Over and over, like some macabre rhyme. Beside the barrel oozed puddles of petrol with rainbow-coloured rims. Loose pieces of corrugated sheeting were strewn across the dark, wet streets, and occasionally gusts of wind would clatter them against the sides of fire engines. He recalled that water had dripped from eaves, even though it hadn’t rained.
Nor would he ever forget the pervasive smell: wet smoked timber and ash mixed with the distinctly bitter smell of gelignite. He had smelled that combination before, and it was, he thought, by far the world’s bitterest smell.
He recalled the devastation that had quickly collected around him: the pavements had turned pure charcoal. By the door of the shop lay the remainder of a white leatherette car seat. Two brown, soot-stained platform boots lay abreast by the drain. He remembered wondering how on earth two matching boots had come to be so conveniently together. A woman’s black, feathered hat and one black glove lay in a pool of bubble-topped grey water, swirling in a pothole. Ahead, gardai were walking around the remains of the blue Hillman Hunter, taking notes and sealing the area off with yellow plastic tape. And then the bizarre sight of a man who had wandered out of the Town Hall with a blown-off hand, having to be taken to hospital in the back of a truck with a big blue sign for Elliott’s, The Fishmongers stencilled on the side.
But, he recalled, the rattling barrel had continued to draw him that day; its hypnotic sound, its eye-catching shade – the colour of his wife’s hair.
The doorbell rang. He had not even heard the clack of the garden gate. He quickly looked across to see if his daughter was gone. Twenty-five minutes had passed, and still no bus. He watched the jet of smoke rise into the cold air from her pursed mouth. She sat on her trolley, held her coat in tightly with one arm, as if her stomach ached. A man tried to speak to her, but she remained almost rudely mute. She had always been his least talkative daughter. The rest of them usually drove him mad with their chatter. He went to the door. It was Bridie. He was surprised to see her.
‘I left the shop early, Mr McCourt,’ Bridie said, quietly.
‘Do you want me to go in to the girls?’
‘No, not at all. It’s near closing now. Anyway, you’re off and that’s it. We do need cornstarch though.’
‘I’ll see to it.’
‘Grand. I just wanted to come up and ask if I could have the day off Monday.’
Something was wrong. Bridie was an attractive woman: pale as milled flour, but because of her persistently poor self-esteem, she did not radiate the beauty that was evidently hers. She wore no make-up, never seemed to get her wiry grey hair coloured or styled, and habitually wore thick beige nylons with small eyeholes stopped from cobwebbing entire legs by layers of clear nail varnish. One time he had noted a glittery blue by her right calf. He had laughed at the cosmetic tricks of his daughters, and knew that repairing nylons had long gone out with the ark. Still, he found her injured politeness magnetic.
‘Is that alright, Mr McCourt?’
‘Monday? Yes, of course. Take it off, Bridie. I’ll take over. That’s if I haven’t forgotten what to do.’
‘Ah now. You’re too modest.’
‘Planning a heavy weekend then, Bridie?’ he joked, ushering her into the front room.
‘No,’ she said quietly, ‘it’s my divorce.’
His face reddened and he turned to the window. In the more energised atmosphere of the bakery he would have been quicker off the mark and able to respond to Bridie’s frankness. But at home, this evening, his guard was down, and he couldn’t think of anything to say. He stared into the darkening street.
‘Warm fire you have going there, Mr McCourt. Would you not close the curtains and put on the light and settle up to that? It’s dark now, you know.’
‘I’m watching my wee girl, Bridie. Till her bus comes for the airport.’
‘Righto,’ she said, gazing towards the window. ‘Maybe I’ll bring you a pie then, later. Would you like a pie, Mr McCourt?’
‘No. I’m not hungry at all.’
‘I’ll go so.’ He let Bridie out of the house. He was sorry to see her leave, but glad that he could carry on by the window in peace.
The dark clouds were staggered in short strips across the horizon. His daughter remained perched on her trolley, her bus now almost forty minutes late. He considered going to the door and calling out for a cross-traffic conversation, but then thought this would embarrass her.
Theirs was an emotional, fragile bond. She was five when his wife had died. He had not managed to be both parents to any of his children, least of all to her. He had behaved badly. When the others had left for England and America, she and he had been left at home together, and there had been much drama. He had not known how to raise a child by himself. Francie and the girls did what they could to help (as the bakery was being reestablished) before leaving for work and lives elsewhere.
During her teenage years, he had switched tack, resorting to plain-talking force, and once had woken her up for school by pouring a bucket of cold water over her while she slept. He knew now that it was just one of his many cruel and unforgivable explosions of anger in the house; that he should have asked for help with his morose, introverted daughter. He’d not had much trouble with the others (apart from a brief episode with Francie), but she had left him exasperated. When she was fourteen she had suddenly become a vegan and began to object vehemently to his use of gelatin in the shop. He learned later that the protest came as a result of her membership of the Baha’i Faith, which she had clandestinely joined. There had been no end to her rebellion.
In her late twenties they had begun a slow truce. There was much left unsaid about the years he might have been more percipient, had he not been in such a prolonged mourning himself.
His eye fell on the mossed-over marble seat in the corner of the garden: the love seat. At least, that was what he and his wife had secretly called it. Engraved somewhere were their initials, and ‘1975’, the year they had come home. He and his wife had behaved like kids in private, and he was often stunned to think that within the family there had been two of him. That the children did not know the man his wife had married amazed him, but that was how it was: one man, necessarily split. And when she died, it seemed that the man she had married went too. The dead take big bites out of you, he thought, so you’ll never forget. Every day he had hoped the bombing of the town would receive a thorough investigation; there had been a few gestures, some well-meaning attempts to get to the bottom of it, but little had come of them.
His thoughts went back to Crowe Street. He remembered he’d been staring into the smoky, stinking streets for ages, stunned, unable to find his legs, or, after the mesmerising motions of the barrel, a modicum of voice. Understanding had come slow and hard: she had been waiting in Kay’s Tavern, his red-haired wife, and they had been due to meet there at four. He remembered hoping she was as late as she usually was for him, or that she’d got caught up in O’Neils, Christmas shopping; he remembered he’d had a bad feeling. He recalled the wintry gust battering the red barrel down Market Street. It was then he’d looked up to see Jaxy and Joe walk slowly towards him, their peaked yellow hats held low.
The bus pulled in with a jolt. He watched his daughter stamp out her cigarette then press down the creases in her coat. She lugged up the bar of her trolley, wheeled it into the queue. As the long line of late and frustrated voyagers mounted the bus, he watched her quickly slip from the queue, pull a pen and scrap of paper from her bag, look towards the white bungalow and jot down the details from the FOR SALE sign. She mounted the bus and jostled into a window seat at the front. He watched her turn and peer out of the window towards him. He could see her nervous face light up as she caught sight of him behind the flame. She waved and kissed the window with her gloved hand as the bus drove off. He waved back and watched till the diesel trail cleared. He felt the breach that had been between them close a little. After pulling the curtains, he put on the lights and blew out the candle. Vanilla filled the room as he went towards the kitchen to make breadcrumbs.
* Sunningdale Agreement (signed 1973, collapsed May, 1974)
From The Scattering published by Seren in February 2013. Jaki McCarrick is a playwright, poet and short-story writer living in Dundalk. She studied at Trinity College, Dublin and Middlesex University, gaining distinction and first-class honours. She has won many awards for her work, including the Wasafiri Prize for new writing for her story 'The Visit' which also appears in the 2012 Anthology of Best British Short Stories (Salt), and her plays have been performed in London, Belfast, Galway, Philadelphia and New York.