Authors: Christina McKenna
PRAISE FOR CHRISTINA M
THE MISREMEMBERED MAN
Her portrait of rural life is amusing and affectionate, wittily and amusingly detached.
Known chiefly as a painter . . . McKenna proves in this, her first novel, to be equally adept at word portraits.
The Washington Times
I love how McKenna combines seemingly effortless comedy with literary truth. She doesn’t pull any punches. I literally laughed out loud at several points.
Outstanding . . . one of the best novels I have ever read. I did not want it to end. She has a wonderful ear for dialogue and a talent for observing awkward social situations and unspoken intimacies.
THE DISENCHANTED WIDOW
I’ve been racking my brain to pounce on at least one minor flaw in . . . Christina McKenna’s riveting account of a new widow and her nine-year-old son fleeing the IRA in 1980s Belfast, and all in vain. So I have no recourse but to succumb to the pleasures of her prose.
The Free Lance-Star
There are at least two ways to read this story. One is as an Irish prose version of an Italian opera buffa—a tragicomic tale with emphasis on the bumbling comic. The other is as a satire, along the lines . . . of Henry Fielding’s classic novel
This is the second book I have read from Christina McKenna and I LOVED IT. What characters and plot! Story so well told, I couldn’t put it down! I can’t wait for the next one . . .
Her characters have such depth, you feel you know them intimately. This is a gem—a literary page-turner.
ALSO BY CHRISTINA M
My Mother Wore a Yellow Dress
The Dark Sacrament
Ireland’s Haunted Women
The Misremembered Man
The Disenchanted Widow
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Christina McKenna
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by David M. Kiely
Cover photograph by Michael McKenna
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014952404
For my sisters:
God is a concept by which we measure our pain.
uby Clare sat in a velour recliner in the kitchen of Oaktree Farmhouse, knitting a tea cozy. A cupcake tea cozy.
Knitting steadied her. It was her therapy. Her meditation. Although Ruby didn’t know those labels, she knew the feeling. And she needed to hang onto that feeling more than ever these days; these grief-stricken days with her dear father gone. At his eternal rest these seven months, under a plaster angel and globe of plastic tulips in St. Timothy’s churchyard on the outskirts of Tailorstown. A mere twenty-minute walk from where his daughter sat.
His now fatherless daughter, Ruby Vivian Clare—thirty-three years of hope and dreams and fear and woe packed into a size 16 frock, sunk deep in the old chair—was only vaguely aware of the June sun steady at the window, open just a crack. Of the alder leaves kissing the glass, of the hens’ clucking, a cow mooing, and birds twittering in the big ash.
Ruby had knitted more tea cozies than were teapots to cover in these past months of mourning. But no matter; she’d a lot of time on her hands and needed to use it fruitfully. For, like milk left standing too long, idle moments could surely mass together, curdle, and grow sour. Stagnation could haul you down depression’s road, with only indolence and self-pity for company along the way. And such a situation must be avoided at all costs. No, moping and feeling sorry for yourself were to be kept well at bay in Mrs. Clare’s home. Emotions were dangerous. They pointed to a sensitive nature, or “a weakness” in mother-speak. Weeping could only mean you were “bad with your nerves.”
The knitting, filling the hours and filling the house, stood as testimony to Ruby’s stoppered grief; tears of purl-one-plain-one for her departed father, stitched out in tea cozies, cushion covers, throws, and chair backs, were safer than displays of dramatic despair.
She glanced at her watch. Two minutes past two. Maybe she’d have the tea cozy completed before her mother awoke from her nap with the chiming of the big grandfather clock in the hallway.
That was about an hour away—a whole hour of calm.
So she sat there, the tea cozy taking shape as her fingers flew, enjoying the quiet of that lazy afternoon. An afternoon as yet unsullied by the mother’s demands.
She’d been driven indoors by her father’s death. Those hands, so toughened from years of labor—milking cows, hauling buckets, shaking fodder free from bales, pulling calves from grateful wombs—were now softening against their natural bent, under
a frivolity of household chores her mother deemed necessary to keep her from a breakdown.
“I don’t want you getting bad with your nerves ’cos your father’s not here no more. You’ll stay in the house and keep yourself occupied. There’s plenty for you to do. Knitting and baking got me through my mother’s death. Got me through many a death, truth be told. And it’ll get you through, too. And if you don’t stop that blubbering you’ll have to go to Derry
. . .
. . .
like your uncle Cecil and your aunt Marjorie and
. . .”
Mention of “Derry” had struck fear into the hearts of all three Clare children when they were growing up. For they knew that by “Derry” the mother didn’t mean a shopping trip under the bright lights of that metropolis. No, for Mrs. Clare the name was code for a formidable mental institution: St. Ita’s, on the outskirts of the city. And, no, Ruby had no wish to pass through its somber doors like Uncle Cecil, Aunt Marjorie, or the succession of relatives on her mother’s side who, whether for good or ill, had all done stretches there.
Ruby’s childhood was pockmarked by visiting hours within its soulless, sick-green walls. She carried memories of a hollow-eyed Marjorie sitting wordless in a tub chair, staring forlornly at the floor. And the alcoholic Cecil shaking and chain-smoking his way through the trauma of yet another bout of post-Christmas blues, which, with relentless regularity, would bring each year of his to a close.
As a teenager, Ruby herself had come close to being incarcerated.
Barely out of high school, with two C passes in Religious Knowledge and Cookery, career choices narrowed to the convent or the kitchen, and Mrs. Clare had promptly packed her off to a waitressing job in Donegal to “take her out of herself.”
The convent could wait. She needed “to mix more.” First time away from home, and sharing a dorm with six young women—slim, quick girls, flitting about like finches in brightly colored clothes and dainty shoes—had made Ruby all too painfully aware of her shortcomings. Ruby, the country bumpkin, in her bulky gray pinafore, self-made using a
pattern, feet jammed into a pair of low-heeled castoffs from a maiden aunt. An outfit certainly appropriate for that first, pietistic career choice, if the grounding in hospitality didn’t work out.
She was a figure of fun to those giddy roommates. She knew that. Could sense it in their smirking faces, the eyes that slid away guiltily from her hopeful smiles when she tried to connect. Slow Ruby, last at everything: in the classroom, on the sports field, on the dancehall floor. Not that her roommates ever gave her the chance to accompany them to dances
. . .
They’d stay out late and alight in the small hours, perching on the edge of their bunk beds, giggling behind painted fingernails and discussing boys till dawn broke.
Sleep-deprived Ruby, out of her depth completely, stumbling into work, forgetting orders, dropping plates, tripping over a toddler and going headlong into the dessert trolley. And the last straw: scalding a woman’s bosom when handing over a cup of tea. “I’ll have you up for this, you clumsy lump!” The woman jumping up, screeching at the sight of her crimson cleavage and saturated top.
She lasted a week. Mr. Ryan, the manager, calling her mother. Ruby in tears in his office. “Come here, Mrs. Clare, and take yer daughtur home. She’s a bloody liability, so she is.”
Ruby’s grip tightened on the needles. The frantic
slowed. Mr. Ryan’s red face. Fist flexed for combat. She shut her eyes tight. When she opened them again, she was riding home in her father’s Hillman Imp. The memory of that journey: painful, but safer. Yes, a whole lot safer than Mr. Ryan’s office.
Her mother’s berating voice reaching down the years: “What are you
? Couldn’t stick at a good job for a week. Mr. Ryan moved mountains to get you into The Talk of the Town. So many young ones queuing up for that job, but he was doing me a favor, being a third cousin of your father’s half brother, Jamesy, on his daddy’s side. Now look what you’ve done. What am I going to tell the neighbors? I told everybody you were going away for the summer.”
Her daddy’s big hands gripping the steering wheel. Capless, in his Sunday suit and it not even Sunday. Hair Brylcreemed into a shiny skullcap. Fixing it a bother to him on a weekday, but needing to look respectable for this unexpected trip. Having to leave th
hayfield in midafternoon to make the two-hour journey to
onegal. Oh, the trouble she’d caused! But he never blamed Ruby for that.
“Och, leave Ruby alone,” he protested. “She doesn’t need to be goin’ out tae a job. She can help me on the farm. She’s good with the animals, so she is. Aren’t you, daughtur?”
Ruby nodding through her tears, affirming his kindly look in the rearview mirror.
What would she have done without him? What would she do
“I’d try her in the convent, but she’s too fat.” The mother, not listening, rattling on like a Gatling gun. Never listening. No thought ever left unspoken. No insult ever left unaired. Her wrath filling the car like mustard gas. “Gluttony, the second deadly sin. Father Cardy said as much. Nuns lead lives of fasting and abstinence. That’s why they’re so thin. They live on Christ’s wafer and the Holy Ghost.” She turned back to the sobbing Ruby. Powdered face rigid with scorn. Discount earrings shivering in the coppery light. “So, if you want Father Cardy to consider you for the Oblate Missions of Mary, you’ll have to go on a diet first.”
Now the fatherless Ruby, sitting in the old chair in Oaktree Farmhouse, allowed tears to blur the last few rows of the tea cozy.
She left off knitting and fumbled a tissue from her apron pocket. Dabbed her eyes. Checked the clock. A quarter to three. She got up quickly and went into the pantry. The mirror above the sink threw back a comely reflection, even though the eyes were puffy. She splashed some water on her face, released the band that held her ponytail in place, letting her amber hair—her best feature—fall loosely about her shoulders; all the better to hide behind.
Fearing the convent, and to thwart her mother, the teenage Ruby had remained plump. Father kept his promise and Ruby joined him on the farm. For fourteen years she’d worked the land, but his sudden death had changed everything. The dairy farm with
her beloved herd of Friesians had died along with him. Mother was having none of it. No amount of pleading would turn her.
“I’ll carry it on, Mammy. It’s what Daddy would of wanted. Please, Mammy. I know nothing else but the farm. I know nothing else but milking the cows and feeding them and helping with the calving. Please, Mammy.”
“No, you will
It’s my farm now and I’ll do what I want.
And no daughter of mine’s going to stand on a Fair Day in Tailorstown, haggling over
the price of a heifer. That’s men’s work. You’d be a laughing stock.”
. . .
” Ruby in tears. “I’ll—I’ll—”
. The herd’s going and let that be the end of it. There’s plenty for you to do around the house. I need peace in my life, now that your father’s gone. God knows how long I’ve left myself. My heart’s not good. Dr. Brewster said so. Even going up them stairs has me puffed. What if I dropped dead like your father? What then?”
So the herd was sold off, the land rented out, Ruby’s muddy Wellington boots retired behind the pantry door. Ruby the housemaid still dragged herself from the old divan at 7:00 a.m., though. But now, in place of a boiler suit and boots, she pulled on a shapeless dress, stuck her feet into size 8 slippers, before galumphing down the stairs.
Apron on, fire on, kettle on. All in that order. Her mother’s needs always coming first. Everybody else’s needs always coming first.
Ruby returned to the old chair, calmer now, and took up the knitting once more.
But, within seconds, she was stuffing the unfinished tea cozy into her sewing bag. The pearl-button decorations would keep for next time. A stirring overhead meant that Mother was already on her way. A whole five minutes before the chiming of the clock at 3:00 p.m.
Ruby got up hurriedly and shoved the kettle back on the stove.
Time to make the tea.
Time to set her troubled thoughts aside and set the table instead.