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Nothing to Worry About

by P.J. Curtis


    In the fading light Kate barely noticed the grey, monotonous curtains of rain which swept past her cottage window. It was now mid-November and a leaden sky melted its contents almost daily over the surrounding countryside. For a long while she gazed at the rivulets of rainwater which cut intricate designs on the kitchen windowpane, before turning away and moving slowly towards the fireplace. Stabbing a poker through the firegrate at a fire struggling to come alive inside an ancient blackened range, Kate called out,
    “Mother, do you want a cup of…”.
    Her words trailed off to a whisper and she stopped her jabbing at the reluctant sparks. Kate still found it hard to fully accept. Her mother was dead. Dead and buried these seven, eight days now, and she would never hear her voice in this room or see her sit in this room, in that chair, ever again. Kate sat down slowly and gazed at the rugged old green-painted rocking chair at the other side of the fireplace. Feeling a tear rise, she brushed a sleeve across her eye and continued to stare at the vacant chair.
    Suddenly she realised that, apart from the final days when her mother was too ill to leave her bed, she had never seen the chair quite so empty before. Now the old rocker, still draped with her mother’s tartan shawl, seemed to her so desperately abandoned and forlorn; a fleshless, wooden green skeleton alone in the corner of the kitchen. The dying light fell for an instant on a spiderweb in the making attached between one of the rocker skates and the nearby side wall. Kate blinked back a tear, then another, and another. The clock ticked a steady tattoo to her blinking and Kate began to cry. At first the tears came accompanied by slow choked sobs, then came a tidal wave of tears, utterly blinding her and her breast heaved as if under an enormous, invisible weight. The sobbing quickened in pace, registering finally as one long high-pitched wail. Kate heard the cry as if coming from some animal close by her in the room, yet knowing that it came from somewhere inside herself. She suddenly felt scared of the sound. It was like none she had ever heard before, and though she tried to strangle it, still the strange, anguished cry which filled the house and her ears and her head flowed out through her body. When the weight that gripped her heart like a falcon’s talons seemed about to explode throughout her breast, the disembodied crying stopped. It was quiet again, with only her rapid heartbeat louder than the tick of the clock and the wind rapping and pushing at the windows and doors.
   
“They’re gone,” Kate murmured, “they’re gone forever and nothing I do from this day on will bring them back.”
    She shook herself to movement and reached for the kettle on the range top.
    “I was going to make tea anyway,” Kate said.
    Her hand, she noticed, was trembling, and she reached instead for a packet of cigarettes lying on the table. Pulling one from the unopened packet, she lit it and inhaled deeply.
    “Jesus, I’m over fifty and this is the first time I’ve ever smoked in front of my….,” Kate glanced at the rocker, “….in the house.”
    She felt a pang of guilt as she sucked again at the cigarette, half expecting to hear her mother’s voice protesting at her actions.
   
The last year looking after Molly, her mother, had been a great strain. The old woman, though never overly quarrelsome, possessed a will of iron and an independent mind as sharp as a blade.
    “Am’nt I lucky to have you, Katie? I’d be in a home by now only for you, and I’d sooner drown myself down in the well below than be packed away into one of them auld places full of sick auld people,”
    Molly said often, especially whenever Kate was preparing to go out on a Sunday afternoon, the only day of the week she could claim as hers and hers alone.
    “Mother, you ARE old and you ARE sick,” Kate would answer, as much to herself as to her mother.
   
The singing of the kettle brought Kate back to the present, only to have another image crowd her mind. Now she recalled that Sunday, a year ago last May, when she went out with James for the very last time. May was by far Kate’s favourite month of the year. The light and air, the scents and sounds; they all seemed to conspire to create landscape of energy, hope, and life. The scent of the whitethorn was enough to make you tipsy, she always thought. It was on such a May-day Sunday that Kate slipped into her rose-patterned dress and prepared herself to go out. James liked to see her in that dress, and anyway it was her only best dress, her Sunday dress, other than her everyday work clothes. She perused herself in the wardrobe mirror.
    “You’re no beauty, Kate, my girl,” Kate said to the slim, tall figure staring back at her from the cracked mirror, “but your heart is in the right place.”
    Brushing an imaginary something from her blouse sleeve, she added,
    “And sometimes I think it’s the only thing that is.”
    Kate smiled a slow smile. James liked her as God made her, he told her so often, and anyway she had long ago stopped envying other single women their looks and their youth.
   
Kate had been seeing James Flynn for over six years now. Neither of them were in the first flush of youth, and though James had never actually broached the topic, Kate understood that a day would come when they would marry and settle down. There were, however, certain obstacles that barred them from achieving that goal - their respective mothers.
   
James was an only son and, like Kate, lived alone with his aging mother in the neighbouring parish, and she, like Kate’s mother, required constant attention. She made it known to James that as long as she was alive there was going to be no ‘young missy,’ as she put it, going to move in and run the Flynn household. And so James, and likewise Kate, were sentenced to wait; for exactly what, neither dared to speak aloud.
   
Kate once confided in an old school friend.
    “There’s nothing to worry about, Katie,” her friend, Nancy, told her, “the old bat can’t live forever. It’ll all work out in the end, you’ll see.”
    Well, perhaps it would, Kate thought, but when? Time was not on her side, and Kate chilled at the thought that her future happiness depended on James’ mother’s death. And then there was the problem of Kate’s own mother … she banished the dark thought and accepted the reality of her relationship with James.
   
Later, on her way to meet with James at their usual meeting place, Kate felt a growing unease, a premonition of something dark and shadowy that was about to invade her happiness. She breathed in the May aromas and tried to banish the shadow from her mind. Still the unease lingered. James was not the most talkative of men at the best of times, but these last few Sundays, he seemed detached and had hardly uttered a dozen words to her.
   
“Perhaps he’ll out with it today, whatever it is that’s bothering his head,” Kate said into the wind as she leaned on the cycle pedals and pushed on towards her Sunday rendezvous.
   
James was already waiting at the crossroads, and now as Kate approached, the uneasy feeling again swept down on her mind. In the six years they had met here at this crossroads, James had never been on time.
   
“I didn’t expect you so early,” James greeted her in his usual, shy, awkward way.
    They did not kiss, they did not hug, they did not touch.
    “I’m always here at this time.”
    Kate slipped into the passenger seat beside him.
    “How are you, James?”
    “Oh, fine. I...I have to go to Galway Hospital on Tuesday……for some check-ups…..tests….nothing serious… nothing to worry about the doctor says…. I’ll only be gone a few days… the neighbour, Mrs. Carroll, will look after the mother.”
    James looked straight ahead as he spoke, and Kate could not help but notice his knuckles whitening as his hands gripped the steering wheel.
    “You were at the doctor? You never mentioned it.”
    Kate tried to disguise the nervousness in her voice. He looked paler, thinner than before, but James Flynn, as everyone in both parishes knew, was as healthy as a horse and had never been sick a day in his life. Whatever it was that had dogged him these last few months would be sorted out for once and for all next Tuesday in the Galway Hospital.
   
There was no talk of illness or hospitals for the rest of their time together that afternoon. As they parted, James, sensing her unease, drew her to him fiercely, kissed her, and just as fiercely drew back from her.
    “Don’t worry, Kate,” James said softly, “there’s nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.”
   
Kate only saw James once again in the Galway Hospital Cancer Ward, a week before he died. She could not bring herself to face the ordeal of his funeral. Who would be there who would understand? Who could really understand her pain or her grief or her gut-wrenching sense of loss? She went instead that day to their favourite spot by the river and later battled with the overwhelming shame at her failure at not flinging herself into the swollen floodwaters.
   
At home, life went on as normal. If her mother noticed anything wrong, she never enquired of Kate, and so daily life ticked by with tides and full moons and Saint’s days and Sundays. The Sundays were the worst. Kate locked herself in her bedroom to weep and struggle with the unabating waves of loss and pain. Then there was a new pain - that of regret, which seemed to overwhelm the others.
   
When her mother died, Kate was shocked at just how calmly she reacted and behaved throughout Molly’s wake and burial. The pain she had suffered this last year eased, if anything, and she handled the whole affair with quiet calm and dignity.
   
Now, looking around the kitchen through red-rimmed eyes, Kate noticed how much larger everything seemed. The dresser, the cups and plates, the old stuffed horsehair sofa by the wall, Molly’s old rocker. It was as she remembered it as a small girl, and yet it was like seeing it all for the first time. She went to the cupboard where Molly kept her only two bottles of alcoholic drink; one bottle of brandy and one bottle of port. Kate found the brandy bottle, uncorked it, and poured a large helping into a cup. She corked the bottle and replaced it in the cupboard. She moved slowly towards the rocking chair and stood for a long while staring down at it. Finally, she turned and gently eased herself onto its seat.
    “It smells of mother,” Kate thought. It was not as uncomfortable as she had imagined it might be. She pushed the rocker into creaking action and raised her cup to the fireplace.
    “Good luck, Katie,” Kate said aloud, easing the chair back and forth, “good luck. There’s nothing to worry about, girl. Nothing at all to worry about.”

________

Taken from ‘This is where we came in’ (1992), pages 58-61.



P.J. Curtis
 

Road of Souls