Maggie has to squint, running, the mica embedded pavement blinding in the sun. Her arms, legs, face burn. The one time to not be late…
She stops outside to compose herself, stands in the shade of the pine tree by the curb, looks up at the house.
The garden gate and front door are freshly painted, the lawn recently mowed. Maggie can see the shine off the front door brass even from there.
It’s only standing there, in shadow, eyes closed, that she realises she’s actually still making up her mind.
She could turn back, ring on the way home, say she was sorry, family emergency, make another appointment. But she only got this appointment when a girl dropped out and if she cancels it, who knows when she’ll get another one? Or if she’ll even get another one?
Taking tissues from her bag she wipes the sweat from her face, hands. After brushing her hair, resettling her bag on her shoulder, she walks up the footpath, rings the bell.
Mrs. McCarthy is tall, white bobbed hair, no makeup. Her face is pale, unlined, her eyes clear. She’s wearing grey trousers and a yellow cardigan, white blouse, black brogues. She looks like the auntie you only see at Christmas, the one who’s lived on her own too long.
Unconsciously, Maggie glances down. Heavily wrinkled, liver spotted, Mrs. McCarthy’s hands are the only part of her body that betray how old she is. But they’re steady, the fingers supple, the unvarnished nails carefully trimmed.
They can do the job.
“I’m really sorry, Mrs. McCarthy,” Maggie says, deciding she’s better apologising pre-emptively, “I missed my bus, so I had to wait for the-”
“Why didn’t you get a taxi?” Mrs. McCarthy says. She sounds baffled, but her gaze is armour piercing, and she pointedly doesn’t stand aside to let Maggie in the house.
“I only had enough for the bus,” Maggie says. Unless I took out of your money. Her plan was to not only be the perfect patient but to befriend Mrs. McCarthy, make Mrs. McCarthy like her, want to do her very best for her. She’s managed to blow that, before even turning up.
“I have another appointment today,” Mrs. McCarthy says.
“What am I supposed to tell her?”
Maggie bows her head. The step’s been scrubbed that morning, too.
“Maybe I’ll get lucky,” Mrs. McCarthy says, resting against the door frame, “Maybe she’ll be late as well.”
They have to walk single file down the hall, Mrs. McCarthy stopping at the foot of the stairs, folding her arms across her chest as she turns to face Maggie. There’s a door to her left – living room. Drawing room, if she’s Protestant. Behind her, in the gloom at the end of the hall, is another door – kitchen.
Where they’re going.
“How many monthlies have you missed?” Mrs. McCarthy says.
“Just the one, Mrs. McCarthy,” Maggie says, trying to smile, as if one is not so bad. Her cheeks still feel hot. The atmosphere in the half dark hall is close, like they’ve stepped inside a cave.
Mrs. McCarthy frowns. “Have you done a test?” she says.
“You’re sure you’re…?”
“How old are you,” Mrs. McCarthy says.
“Eighteen,” Maggie lies. She hopes the heat is enough of an excuse, not to be wearing makeup.
“Eighteen,” Mrs. McCarthy says, not even bothering to be subtle about the up and down she gives Maggie: new white pumps, blue cotton shorts, blue top. “You look younger.”
“Everyone says that,” Maggie says. Another smile. “I stay out of the sun.” She’s surprised she can get the words out; her heart’s in her throat.
Mrs. McCarthy looks at Maggie’s arms, legs, already pinking.
Not knowing what else to do, Maggie takes the money out of her bag, offers it. Mrs. McCarthy ignores her, keeps right on standing there, arms folded, eyes, chin down. A wall.
Maggie keeps her arm outstretched, the notes dry between forefinger and thumb. She tries to make eye contact. She knows she shouldn’t but she can feel herself start to nod, in encouragement.
Mrs. McCarthy taps her right foot, then her left. Then the right again.
She’s enjoying herself.
Even taking the money she relishes the moment, counting slowly, licking the pad of her thumb every few notes.
When she’s finished she half turns, looks upstairs.
“Bathroom’s top of the stairs, on the left,” Mrs. McCarthy says. “When you’re finished, come back down and through the door at the end of the hall, there.”
“I don’t need to go, Mrs. McCarthy,” Maggie says. “Thanks very much for asking.” She can’t stop smiling. No point trying to make friends now, but having planned it this way, she doesn’t know how else she should be.
“Make sure,” Mrs. McCarthy says, the seam of steel running through her voice making Maggie stand even straighter, which she wouldn’t have thought possible until it happens.
Maggie stretches her legs, sitting on the pull chain toilet. Black seat, lid, white bowl, it looks like something out of an industrial school. Her feet touch the edge of the claw foot bath. The smell of aerosol air freshener is so thick it chokes in her throat.
If she hadn’t paid already she’d creep downstairs now and out, walk the Bull Wall until school was over, safe to go home. Find another way.
She won’t find another £250 though, almost emptied the post office account her Dad opened when she was born, paid into whenever he had a few bob. Only two quid odd left in there now.
No, she’s stuck with this sadistic bitch, trying to make her feel even more guilty -impossible. She didn’t look down, that was her mistake. Liam fumbled with the condom, whenever they did it. She’d look away partly because she didn’t want to see his…, afraid she’d be put off, but mainly so he’d know she was annoyed, get his shit together.
Once he had it on, though, finally, she should have looked, made sure it was on properly. When they were doing it, it didn’t feel any different, but Liam had jumped up after, run to the toilet to flush the condom like his arse was on fire. She hadn’t said anything then, either, knew he would only say, again, Well, we should have gone to my house.
The kitchen’s airy, polished tiled floor glowing gold in the sun, picture windows looking out to sea. There’s a long rectangular table in the centre of the room, large sink and stainless steel draining board against the windowed wall.
Mrs. McCarthy turns from the windows when she hears Maggie come in.
“I made you late,” Mrs. McCarthy says.
Maggie goes to stand at the table, holds her hands behind her back. Is she talking about periods again? “How do you mean, Mrs. McCarthy?” No…what was it? Monthlies?
“When you rang,” Mrs. McCarthy says. She holds her hands behind her back, still at the windows. “I said, Don’t come in your school uniform. That’s why you missed your bus.
“It made sense, though,” Maggie says, her instinct still to defend, not attack. “You never know who you might see.”
Mrs. McCarthy comes to the table.
“Sorry for snapping,” she says. She sounds…not ashamed, more, embarrassed, can’t meet Maggie’s eye. “It’s just…You don’t want to be rushing, doing this.”
“Absolutely,” Maggie says.
Mrs. McCarthy puts her hands flat on the table, as if inviting Maggie to climb up. “Just undress from the waist down,” she says. “But keep your shoes on. This floor’s colder than it looks.”
Maggie takes off her shorts and knickers, puts them in her bag, places the bag on the floor under the table.
“Lie down for me,” Mrs. McCarthy says, pulling the blinds three quarters down. “On your back, please. Knees bent.”
The table’s warm. Maggie watches Mrs. McCarthy get on her hunkers at the draining board, take something out from under the sink.
It’s a length of thin rubber tubing the colour of blackcurrants. Maggie looks at it again as Mrs. McCarthy approaches, says Purple, in her head, but she can’t stop seeing the blackcurrant bush out the back at home, in the corner against the wall.
“Now,” Mrs. McCarthy says, “I know it’s easier said than done, but try and relax for me. I need to put some of this tube, inside. It won’t hurt, but it might feel a little uncomfortable. Ok?”
“No problem, Mrs. McCarthy,” Maggie says.
Mrs. McCarthy goes to insert the tubing.
“Hang on,” she says, seeing Maggie squirming at the head of the table, “We can do better than that.” Maggie starts to apologise but Mrs. McCarthy’s gone, into the living room, comes back with two cushions. She puts one under Maggie’s lower back, the other supporting her neck and head. “How’s that?”
“Much better, Mrs. McCarthy,” Maggie says. “Thanks a million.” They’re not in it together now, exactly, but she feels so much better than she did upstairs.
When the tube goes in Maggie winces, but it’s fear, not pain.
“How’s that?” Mrs. McCarthy says, after no more than ten seconds, Maggie counting Mississippis in her head.
“Grand,” Maggie says.
Six inches of tube is inside her. The rest lies on the table, then crosses the gap between table and draining board, the other end lying next to an old fashioned stovetop kettle which is, from the way Mrs. McCarthy gingerly lifts it, full.
Mrs. McCarthy goes under the sink once more, comes up with a clear plastic funnel, the stem of which fits inside the free end of the rubber tubing with a satisfying klop. She reaches for the kettle again, stops, turns back to Maggie.
“Still ok?” she says.
“I’m fine, Mrs. McCarthy,” Maggie says. The way she keeps saying Mrs. McCarthy is like DaddyDaddyDaddy when she was small, wanted something she wasn’t getting. Usually sweets.
“I’m going to start pouring now,” Mrs. McCarthy says. “The solution’s only lukewarm, so it won’t hurt, but when it’s all in, you’ll probably feel like you need the toilet. You have to hold on. Alright?”
“Go ahead,” Maggie says.
Mrs. McCarthy holds the funnel as high above her head as it’ll go, so the liquid drains through the tube on a slope.
Maggie can only see the solution while it’s in the funnel, and with the sun still bright, and Maggie lying down, she only gets glimpses. It looks like seaweed soup, all different shades of green swirling into, out of each other. It smells like disinfectant.
Every time she imagined this moment she imagined an immediate burning, tearing, inside, but it just feels like she’s wetting herself. Perversely she almost feels disappointed.
Pouring from the kettle Mrs. McCarthy’s eyes never leave the point where the funnel and tubing meet. Her hand holding the tubing and funnel never moves. She pours slowly, the funnel never getting more than half full. Nothing drips down the sides.
Maggie feels herself relax, just a little. She can close her eyes, at least, concentrate on her breathing. The sun that peeps in feels warm on her thighs. The skin on the back of her legs is starting to stick to the table’s polished veneer, but she doesn’t dare move.
When Mrs. McCarthy decides Maggie’s full she removes the tube as gently as she inserted it, has Maggie lay back, legs flat. She puts a hand on Maggie’s forehead, takes it away. She checks Maggie’s pulse. She holds Maggie’s arm like that a long time. Maggie keeps breathing deeply, eyes closed.
After maybe half an hour Mrs. McCarthy helps Maggie dress, starts walking her through the house. She links Maggie’s arm, first, then puts her arm round Maggie’s shoulders when Maggie stumbles going upstairs. Maggie feels like her legs have gone to sleep; no matter how hard she stamps her feet, the feeling won’t come back.
“Have you come far?” Mrs. McCarthy says. They’re in a bedroom, embossed silver wallpaper, deep pile wool carpet for Maggie to feel she’s sinking into and indeed, through.
There’s a double bed, deep depression on the side nearest the window.
“No,” Maggie says. Her tongue feels like it’s wadded in cotton wool. “I go to-”
“Do you know your way home?” Mrs. McCarthy says.
“Yes,” Maggie says. “I used to go down Bull Island. With my Dad.”
“That’s a nice spot,” Mrs. McCarthy says, helping Maggie out of the room. As they turn away, Maggie sees the streaming sun on the bedspread, the pink tulip design seeming to wilt in the heat.
“It seemed so far away when I was a kid,” Maggie says, putting out her hand for the banister a little too quickly. She thinks if she didn’t have Mrs. McCarthy holding her on the other side she might faint. “Only ten minutes on the bus now.”
Mrs. McCarthy walks Maggie out the back garden. The smell of cut grass is bracing, like somebody’s shoved a XXX mint under Maggie’s nose. The lawn’s bordered on three sides by flowerbeds of asters, roses, daffodils. There’s a low stone wall at the end of the garden, then sloping beach and, maybe fifty metres from where they’re standing, Maggie having to lean against Mrs. McCarthy to keep upright, the sea.
“It’s beautiful here,” Maggie says. No longer nauseous, she’s still weak, has no sense of time passing.
“It is,” Mrs. McCarthy says. She looks at Maggie, wondering if Maggie means that exact spot, or just the place in general.
“I’ve lived in this house all my life,” she says. She shakes her head, whether in sadness or surprise, Maggie can’t tell.
“There’s not a night I haven’t slept in that bed upstairs.”
“Not many can say that,” Maggie says.
“There’s not,” Mrs. McCarthy says, looking out to sea. “Not many would want to.”
Back in the kitchen, and despite Maggie’s refusal, Mrs. McCarthy starts making tea. She uses a different kettle, Maggie is relieved to note, beige vinyl, looks a relic from 1973, or thereabouts.
Maggie, at Mrs. McCarthy’s direction, gets a dinner plate, dry on the draining board, empties a packet of Jacobs Fig Rolls onto it. The smoky smell of the figs makes her stomach
clench all over again.
They sit in the living room on facing sofas wrapped in plastic, more floral designs. Maggie’s afraid to move, for fear the plastic will make it sound like a fart.
“Now,” Mrs. McCarthy says, putting down her cup, then Maggie’s, when she sees Maggie’s hand won’t stop shaking enough for Maggie to manage it, “Maybe tomorrow, but more likely the next day, you’ll feel a loosening, inside, like when you’re coming on your monthly. You’ll have to go to the toilet.
When you do, there’ll be a discharge.” As if to reassure Maggie this is perfectly normal teatime conversation she picks up her cup and saucer again, reaches for a biscuit.
Maggie hesitates, her hands against her knees, before asking the only question she can ask.
“That’s it?” she says.
Mrs. McCarthy makes sure to finish her biscuit first. “That’s it.”
“You’ll be sore,” Mrs. McCarthy says, rearranging the biscuits on the plate but maintaining eye contact, “For a while, but you’ll be fine after that. Good as new.” Maggie wants to know how long a while is, exactly, but can’t think of a way to ask without sounding both rude, and a slut, like all she cares about is when she can have sex again.
Not in this lifetime, she swears to herself. In the hall at the front door, Maggie can see through the stained glass the sun’s eased a little, but the air’s still stifling.
“I’ve a saying for this house,” Mrs. McCarthy says, her hand poised on the latch. “‘What we see here, what we do here, what we say here, stays here.'”
Maggie nods. She’s sure she’ll wake up with a crick in her neck tomorrow, all the agreeing she’s been doing.
“I understand,” she says.
When Maggie walks out the house and stumbles they both know it’s the shock of the daylight more than anything else, but Mrs. McCarthy takes Maggie’s arm to steady her, and Maggie lets her.
“Easy, Maggie,” Mrs. McCarthy says.
The bus stop’s only up the road. Maggie looks at the houses, exactly like Mrs. McCarthy’s, starts to get angry, at herself. She’d always imagined living by the sea someday.
Keith Brady is a 42 year old freelance writer born and living in Dublin, Ireland.