The dust took months to settle. Every time I polished the furniture, it was covered again within a couple of hours, like salt sprinkled on an icy path.
Bill had taken a sledgehammer to the brown-tiled surround in the living room and built in a York stone fireplace. We kept the old mirror, a wedding present from Bill’s mother, and hung it on the chimney breast. You know that saying she’s not herself? That’s how it was when I looked in that mirror, wondering who the woman was that stared back through the dust.
I started to go into the baby’s room whilst Bill was at work. I’d stand at the end of the cot, threading my fingers through the holes of the blanket that my friend Maura had crocheted. Bill found me in there early one evening when I should have been making the dinner. I’d lost track of time, shaking out the folded nappies, refolding them, ironing the smocks, dusting the tins of talc, bottles of baby lotion, tubs of zinc and castor oil, all with the seals unbroken. ‘It’s time we put a stop to this,’ he said, and he ripped the cot apart with big, angry moves, like when he’d knocked out the fireplace, and he made a bonfire in the garden. I stood on the back step and watched the flames, lighting the next cigarette as soon as I’d finished the one before, leaning against the doorframe until my shoulder went numb.
The next morning’s post brought two items: a letter from home, and a parcel wrapped in brown paper with the required number of stamps and sufficient coarse string to hold it together. Nonetheless, it had been delayed by several weeks. Inside, a yellowing christening gown last worn by my brother Sean, and a note in my mother’s careful handwriting: Sorry I can’t be there. God bless. I lifted the gown by the shoulders, shook it softly, cradled it across my arms, and draped it over the back of the kitchen chair. I lit a ciggy before tackling the letter, postmarked a few days before. It was from Sean. He made brief mention of my ‘troubles’ before moving on to the latest news on Mother’s state of health. I ground my cigarette into the curved edge of the ashtray, then lifted the christening gown from the back of chair, replacing it in the brown paper in the same folds that it arrived in, closing the flaps of the parcel, knotting the string. I carried it upstairs, lifted the suitcase from the top of the wardrobe, and laid the parcel in the bottom of the case, burying it beneath the clothes and shoes as I packed.
The night before I left for Ireland, Bill heaved away on top of me as if I wasn’t there, his head buried in my shoulder. And I lay still as he cried afterwards, big shuddering sobs on my useless chest, where the child should have been nursing.
Bill saw me as far as the ticket barrier at Euston. ‘I don’t know when I’ll be back,’ I said, picking a stray thread from the lapel of his jacket. ‘You know how it is. A dying woman takes as long as she takes.’
He smiled; wrinkles puckered at the corners of his eyes. I wanted to raise my fingers to them, smooth them away. ‘You’ll be back when you’re ready,’ he said, and squeezed my hand before passing me the suitcase. I watched his broad shoulders as he turned, leaving well before the train was due to pull out.
The ship, The Hibernian, was more fit for carrying cattle than people. There weren’t enough seats for everyone in second-class, whole families exposed to the elements with only wooden benches to perch on, children balanced on bags and cases on the deck amid the pools of vomit. I hugged the rails, skulking round the edge of the ship, moving on if anyone had a mind to smile or speak to me. I could feel a rise and fall in the pit of my belly. I placed one foot on the lower rail, and climbed up to the second; the wind blew so hard it felt like my teeth would be shaken out from the roots. I leaned over and spewed a thin gruel of tea with lumps of the egg and cress sandwiches I’d eaten on the train. I reached into my handbag for a hankie to wipe my mouth. That’s when I saw her, a small child, three or four years of age, picking her way around sleeping, stretched-out legs. She toddled around like a drunk, swinging this way and that. She was no bigger than Brendan, Maura’s boy.