Seven for a secret, never to be told
Short story by Jennifer O’Sullivan (nee Nolan)
One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
Four for a boy
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret, never to be told
The bedroom was cold when I entered it. My father was sitting up in the bed smoking and on the pillow next to him was a mass of curly, red hair. I pushed the door open further to see if my dog Shadow was hiding under the bed. The old door creaked and Aisling sat up, clasping the sheets around her naked body. My dad looked up and banged his cigarette hard on the ashtray. I ran back downstairs, dropping my heavy school bag in the hall. My dad was close behind me and caught me by the sleeve as I reached the kitchen.
“How come you’re home early?”
“Training was cancelled for under 8s.” I looked at the black hairs sprouting from his big toes. He bent down to me and clung to my arm tightly as if he thought I might disappear.
“This has to be kept a secret Seán, OK? Do you understand me? Mum can’t know about Aisling being in Daddy’s bed.”
“Are we going to visit Mum today?”
He shook his head as he held my chin up with his smoky fingers “Can you keep this our secret Seán?”
“Is Aisling babysitting me now?”
“Have you seen Shadow?
“No.” He stood up and stretched his back. He mumbled something about starting to make the dinner and left me standing in the kitchen.
Soon afterwards, Aisling came downstairs. Her eyes were red and she was sniffing.
“What’s wrong Aisling?”
“Nothing Seán, I have to go now.”
She wouldn’t look at me as she swung the front door behind her. I had never seen Aisling crying before. She was my favourite babysitter because she always brought a DVD and sweets in her ‘Mary Poppins’ bag. Every time she babysat she would pull something crazy and fun from her handbag like a kite or a water pistol or one time she brought a real live hamster that she was minding for her friend. Before mum went into hospital, Aisling used to mind me every Friday night when my parents went out for dinner. Aisling usually came around to pick up her money at the weekend and she would play ‘polio’ or ‘tip the can’ with me and the twins from next door. Sometimes dad would collect her from her school on the days that he collected me and we would all go to McDonalds. She looked different in her uniform, like a grown-up, but then she would stick chips up her nose and look like my funny babysitter again. I looked out the window at her now. Two girls from second class were playing with a skipping rope on the road and the twins were kicking a football. Aisling was walking really fast and didn’t see the ball going over the goal post. It whacked the side of her arm but she didn’t seem to notice. One of the twins shouted at her. She didn’t turn around. I watched her red curls swishing on the back of her summer dress until she turned the corner and was gone.
Upstairs Dad was changing the bed clothes on his bed. I had never seen him doing that before.
“That’s inside out”
“I know Seán, I’m fixing it.”
“Why was Aisling crying?”
Dad’s face got really red and he looked cross.
“I don’t want her name mentioned in this house again! Is that understood?”
“Stop yelling.” I cried and ran into my bedroom.
I lay on my bed and took a photo of my mother from my bedside locker. There were sun freckles on her shoulder and she was laughing at the camera. I smelled the photograph but it wasn’t her smell. Coconut was her smell. Sometimes my teacher wore coconut sun cream and I would think of my mother. I knew it was up to me to find Shadow but I just felt so tired. I didn’t know why Aisling was crying or why dad was angry. I really wanted to talk to my mum and see if she was OK. I didn’t mind if I never had a brother or sister; I just wanted her home. I looked out of my bedroom window at the evergreens in our back garden. Magpie chicks were sticking out their heads calling for food. Sometimes they tilted their faces to look down at the bigger magpies searching for worms in the long grass. They chattered all the time even during the night but I didn’t mind. It was the first time magpies had nested in our garden. My dad said they weren’t nice birds because they stole the sparrows’ eggs but I liked them. I got under the duvet and closed my eyes. I dreamt of Aisling, in her school uniform playing football with Shadow. Then I dreamt of my mother singing while cradling a baby. When I got closer I realised that the baby had a beak and black eyes. I tried to warn my mum but she didn’t know who I was.
When I woke, I could hear the sound of plates and cutlery going into the dishwasher. I followed the smell of fried turnip and found my dad in the kitchen with a plate full of bacon, sausages, liver and turnip for my supper.
“Good Evening Sleepy Head.” He said and came over to set the table where I sat.
“Is Shadow home?”
The sky had turned a navy blue and I could see a half moon above the evergreens. Shadow had never stayed away overnight before.
“‘Afraid not but don’t be worrying about him. Sit down there and eat up before it goes cold, careful now the plate’s hot.”
The radiator in the kitchen was smothered in steaming wet clothes.
“Mum doesn’t put the clothes on them.”
Dad was bending putting a tablet into the dishwasher. He looked through his legs at me and grinned.
“Well she’s not here now.”
“When will she be back?” I whispered cautiously.
“When the baby is born Seán, I told you a hundred times. It’ll probably be this week but right now she’s not well enough to see us OK?”
“After supper it’s straight to bed. OK? If you get up early you can ask the twins to help you look for Shadow on the road.”
I stalled in the kitchen for as long as I could, sipping my orange juice slowly. There was still no sign of Shadow. If my mum was home she would’ve let me stay up late. It wasn’t even a school night. I looked at dad and his forehead had millions of tiny lines on it so I knew he was thinking really hard about something. It wasn’t a good time to complain so I went up to bed and read my Secret Seven stories.
The following day I woke up to the morning sun streaming through a crack in the curtains. I dressed myself in blue shorts and a t-shirt, brushed my teeth and brought a banana out to the back garden. Dad hadn’t cut the grass since mum left and the long, sharp blades pricked the sides of my feet through my sandals. Shadow hadn’t come home. Even though I wasn’t allowed to go to the beach until I was eight, I knew today was an exception. I walked down past the school gates and into Skerries harbour. There were people shopping at the market stalls and old men fishing. When I got to the beach I called Shadow but he didn’t appear. I took off my sandals and walked in the sand. The waves had cleaned the beach overnight and washed all the dog poo away so I knew I wouldn’t step in any. I hoped that the tide hadn’t taken Shadow too. After calling out his name again and again, I tried to whistle through my fingers. I spotted an old lady sitting on the rocks with her poodle.
“Excuse me. Have you seen a dog with long black hair and floppy ears around here? You see I’ve lost my dog.”
The old lady had a pointy chin and her grey hair was pulled back in a tight bun. I could barely see her little green eyes because it looked like someone had pushed them into her face.
“No. Sorry son.” She reminded me of my granny; the type of lady that might like a long chat so I quickly thanked her and fled.
My throat was starting to hurt and I felt too hot. I headed back towards the harbour in silence. I stopped at a broken wall to put my sandals on and that’s when I spotted Shadow over at the fishmonger’s stall. I called his name but he hesitated, looking up at the fishmonger with his tongue hanging out. I walked towards my road clicking my tongue and clapping my hands loudly. This time he followed. I patted his warm head and promised him a treat. My dad was still asleep when I got home so I gave Shadow the leftover liver from the night before. He drank lots of water and laid down next to me under a cherry blossom tree in the garden. He rested his heavy skull across my thigh and closed his eyes. There was sand on his black nose and his warm breath was wet against my knee. I bent down to kiss his head and he let out a long sigh.
That evening my mother came back from hospital and brought me a new baby sister, Roisin. I lay under the kitchen table with Shadow and watched her cook in her slippers. Her heels were hard and yellow. When she came close to set the table I gently touched the skin and it felt like rubber.
“Grown-ups don’t have tickles Seán.”
My dad came in to eat and I could hear him drumming his fingers on the wooden table. They didn’t talk even though Roisin had already woken up. That night I heard them shouting downstairs. My mum smashed a glass on the tiles in the kitchen and I could hear her crying. Shadow howled from his kennel because he didn’t like the lights on at night time.
When I got home from school the following day, there was a dead magpie in the back garden. There was a greasy mark on the kitchen window where he had crashed. I knelt down to pick the bird up with both hands. He was still warm. The breeze parted his soft feathers exposing the dimpled skin. I studied his beady eyes but they didn’t move at all. The magpie had a tuft of hay in his half-open claw. I held the bird until his body went cold, then I dug a hole beside the cherry blossom tree. When I was just finished burying him my mum came out of the house.
“What are you doing Seán?” She put her sunglasses on and left Roisin’s travel cot in the shade.
“I buried a dead bird.”
She was looking at her mobile phone.
“Oh, that’s sad. Now I wanted to ask you something Seán. Are you listening?”
“Did Daddy have any friends over when I was in hospital?” Her voice was trembling so
I knew something was wrong.
“Are you sure Seán, none at all?”
I stayed silent and shook my head.
“Did Aisling come to babysit at all when I was gone?”
“No.” I felt her scrutinising me but I couldn’t see her eyes; only the reflection of my lying face in her sunglasses.
She turned away from me but I could see a tear drop dribbling down the side of her nose.
That was the evening that we went on our trip; just me, my mum and baby Roisin. I was excited about going to uncle Pat’s house in Wexford. Before we left, my mum let me talk to him on her phone and he promised to take me fishing and to bring me horse riding. I could ride his new pony Pepper if I was brave enough he said. I asked if my dad and Shadow could come too but Pat said that dogs weren’t allowed on trains and that my dad had too much work to do at home. We boarded the 5 O’clock train and I squeezed in beside the window. I held Roisin’s tiny, fat feet between my hands to warm them and played ‘this little piggy’ with her toes. My mum was wearing her old mood ring again. It was blue so that meant she was happy. When the train whistle blew I pressed my face up against the window. In the distance I could see the harbour and past that, the roof of our home.