“Amazon” by Susan Lanigan

Although we rarely discuss what happened between Maura Devaney and Lucy Keane, something has changed at our book group meetings. We are hesitant when we greet each other; there’s a feeling of mistrust so heavy I can almost bite into it. An hour might go by where we have the usual arguments about character X and her possible motivations for keeping the secret of Y’s illegitimacy, until a pause will gust in like an unwelcome draught and one us will put her book of the week down on her knee, gaze into space and murmur without any obvious sequitur, “Still, it’s an awful pity things ended up the way they did.”

“A pity indeed,” another will nod, until assent ripples across the room. Further elaboration is not needed. The whole thing is really too sad. And not a little tacky.

“It was terrible hard on Maura,” Carmel said to me once, after we’d broken for tea and biscuits. She pitched her voice low, which is to say almost inaudible, since her habitual tone was sepulchral enough, being the whisper she had adopted from many years’ work as a cleaner for the Daughters of Charity. Her years with the nuns had taught Carmel to well and truly keep her voice down.

“Not easy for Lucy either. The whole thing was very -” but I never got to finish my sentence because at the mere mention of Lucy, Carmel made a little moue and stalked off, leaving a half-finished mug of tea on the kitchen counter for me to pour into the sink. I couldn’t find it in my heart to blame her; the whole thing has divided us all, quite badly, I fear. I try to stay impartial, but I only manage to alienate everyone when trying to be fair, so these days I keep my counsel on the matter. It’s for the best.

Maura and Lucy were both founder members of our group, in their late fifties, as were the rest of us at the time. Lucy had recently retired from her job as a drama and elocution teacher in the nearby secondary school; Maura was a housewife active on the local Missions Board. They didn’t know each other directly but Brendan, our token male, knew both of them and rang them up when the idea for setting up a book group came upon him one night on the computer. I say that Brendan set it up but in truth it was Maura, with her flair for organising things, who found the upstairs rooms overlooking the patio above the bijou restaurant in Monkstown (and the discount on coffee and cakes from the same restaurant), while Lucy was able to mobilise her contacts and gather the forces. Brendan merely had the original idea, though both Maura and Lucy were ready to give him credit for the whole enterprise. At any rate, their collective energy made our book group the longest-running and most successful in South County Dublin.

We met every Thursday afternoon. During that time there was little variation on the routine: first we would attempt some conversation about the book, which usually elicited the admission that one had “forgotten” to read it or was “too busy”, then we broke for delicious, moist squares of carrot cake with walnuts, all washed down with coffee kept warm in huge plastic filter jugs so that we could smell it all through the discussion. Arguably this was real purpose of the meeting all along, unwilling as we would have been to admit it. Nowadays there’s nothing like that; just a rush to get out of the building when we’re finished. Without Maura, there’s nobody to care for the details and nobody really wants to linger. A real pity, but anyway.

Sometimes after we’d had our coffee, Brendan, egged on by the rest of us, would urge Lucy to read out a section of the book we were reading. Lucy, like Joyce’s Maria, would always oblige after a little coaxing, her voice like a muscle flexing itself, echoing against the curves of the ceiling that followed the arc of the roof: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Things had gone wrong in the Oblonsky household…” We always listened, taken out of ourselves. Well, except Maura, who would go and clear up the cups or something, but that was her way.

This went on peacefully for five years. Nobody quarrelled, there were no affairs or rivalry and nobody broke the unwritten rule by reading too much of the confounded book. It could have gone on indefinitely. But then two years ago people started noticing how Lucy’s weight was dropping. She was getting thinner around the face and elsewhere. We all congratulated her, of course, though there was precious little on her to begin with – for a woman in middle age she was quite slight. I couldn’t help noticing that she took these comments oddly, merely nodding her head and changing the subject with a wave of her hand. She was a drama teacher even when she wasn’t working, a great one for the gestures – but it wasn’t like her to be abrupt.

Maura, too, was suspicious and confided in me. “Something’s not right,” she said in a sidelong, grim whisper as we trooped down the stairs and out into the south Dublin sun. “Lucy shouldn’t be losing weight like that. She looks very drawn.” Maura emphasised the word drawn with a nod of her head, her chin sinking down into her neck. She was a big woman, Maura, with sallow complexion and a slightly sour smell where the creases of her skin rubbed against each other. This was offset by the smell of starch and glycerine soap that always clung to her person; Maura was a very clean woman. She couldn’t have been more different from Lucy – not that Lucy wasn’t clean, don’t get me wrong, but she was more likely to be…well…perfumey. I suppose they both had their own way of doing things.

Once Maura mentioned Lucy’s appearance, we all began to see she was right. Lucy didn’t seem herself. Once when we were discussing – what was it? – a load of Nigerians, anyway – oh yes, Things Fall Apart, that’s what it was called – she started a sentence and I swear to God, she nodded off in the middle. We kept saying “Are you all right, Lucy? Lucy?” until Phyl gave her a poke in the side and she let out a big snore and woke up. It took us all aback. But Maura wasn’t surprised. “I’ve seen it before. It’s the cancer.”

When she said this, we shook our heads and pooh-poohed the idea, shocked, until weeks later Lucy finally told us herself. Maura was the first to speak up.

“Breast, isn’t it? I can always tell.”
“Well, not that I want to bore you all,” Lucy blushed, “but yes, in fact, it is.”
“Oh Lucy,” Maura whispered, putting her hand on her arm. And with that, no more needed to be said.

*

Of course there was surgery and all the rest of it. Maura organised the flowers and card and delivered them to the hospital herself. “Lucy’s husband will need help with the meals,“ she instructed us, getting us all into a rota of frying up our leftovers to make a huge vat of chicken stock that would simmer on the Aga in the basement of her home in Alma Road for days on end. She ran a Bake Sale and we all chipped in, even Phyl whose madeira was the wrong shape and sagged in the middle. (I saw Maura scraping it into the bin later when nobody was supposed to be looking. She turned around at me, gave me a piercing glance and put a finger to her lips.)

Every now and then Maura’s husband, Niall, would slip in. He was a doctor, though he no longer saw patients regularly, a balding man who carried himself in a way that suggested he had been very handsome in his youth. He tried to help us girls, but Maura playfully swatted him away. “Will you ever get out of the way and let the women get on with it. Go on out of that with your paper and snifter of brandy.” He always complied, with a little wink at the rest of us. I couldn’t help notice he had a nice cut of a double-breasted suit. In all the times I saw him, he never wore casual clothes.

The week after the chicken stock, instead of dissecting The Corrections as recommended by Oprah, we spent a half hour listening to Maura talk about family and team effort. “We have to be there for Lucy. Cancer is no joke. Lucy will be suffering now. And even though we don’t discuss it, it can come back. It often does.”

“Not for Lucy,” Brendan interjected, somewhat uneasily.

“For Lucy, for anyone,” Maura repeated, her eyes closed as she swayed from side to side as if she were in a trance. “I knew a girl, many years younger than Lucy, her whole life ahead of her. And they found a lump. She was breastfeeding and the baby wouldn’t suck there. They operated but it was already in the lymph nodes. Spreading. Rotting. She was rotten with it, in her liver and her lungs too. Sure we all know people who have it like that.”

Carmel cleared her throat. “Yes, I know someone who had the cancer. It was down there.”

“It’s always worse down there,” Maura nodded. “You know there was someone who had terrible discharge? It was so foul you could smell it on the DART – I’m sorry to say.” Her voice dropped. “She’s passed now, let us have a moment of respect.” She wriggled on the chair for a moment before settling again; soon the air filled with the smell of digested corned beef. She crossed herself and closed her eyes. “A moment of respect,” she murmured again as the fan near the ceiling droned gently and Brendan wiped his brow. It was the hottest day of the year.

“And the other girl…”Maura murmured. “Exact same thing as Lucy. And dead within six months. And the fluid in her lungs she brought up, the fluid -”

There was a crash on the floor, the shattering of delph on treated timber. “Sorry,” Marie stuttered, “so clumsy.” The tea spilled over the varnished floorboards and made little rivulets in the gaps between them.

“Ah here,” Maura tutted, crossing the room in a flash to wipe it up. Marie just stood there, interlocking and cracking her fingers. Poor Marie, with her spinster glasses and twinset, bending over Maura as the other woman cleaned up the mess on her hands and knees! Marie looked useless but then, as Phyl once uncharitably noted, she always looked useless.

“Well,” Maura concluded, after returning to her chair and sitting down with a decisive creak, “just as I said. We all have to do our bit.”

*

When Lucy’s surgery was done, Maura made inquiries; Niall knew someone who knew someone. The word was that it went well, though of course as Maura pointed out, well was hardly the right word when Lucy’d had it cut off. Then chemotherapy, weeks and weeks of it. Maura managed to source a wig for Lucy. “This will compliment her colouring,” she said, showing it around the group. Marie looked up from the knitting she had brought with her, full of dropped stitches and holes. “Oh yes, very nice,” she bleated, her glasses misting up. We all nodded agreement. Maura assured us she would be delivering it to Lucy in person that evening. Brendan wondered if Lucy would be in a fit state for visitors but Maura just laughed.

“Whisht with that nonsense. There’s nothing about the cancer I haven’t seen. I’ve nursed my mother my aunt through it, Lord have mercy on them. There’s nothing Lucy need be embarrassed about.”

Maura didn’t elaborate on her visit, but we presumed all had gone well. Then the next week, in the middle of a debate on the merits of Purple Hibiscus – another load of Nigerians, what was it with them? – Lucy unexpectedly turned up. We all jerked our heads round like a flurry of flamingos. She was wearing a red scarf tied around her head, the end of it dangling down like a long braid. No wig. Maura said nothing during the meeting at all, just folded her lips across in a long straight line. Until Carmel got up to open the window and Maura said in a harsh, strangled tone, “Oh will Lucy not be cold?”

“Oh no,” Lucy said, startled. “I’m grand, thanks.”
“No,” Maura repeated, “you’ll be cold. Not having proper covering on your head.”
“But – ”
Then Maura stood up. “I want a word with you, Lucy. Come on out.”

They went outside and we all sat silent.

“What’s the matter with Maura?” another woman, Deirdre, asked.
“Well, you know,” Carmel whispered. “The wig. She made a great effort.”
“But if Lucy doesn’t want it?”
“Still. You don’t just act like that when someone’s made an effort.”

We waited, hearing only Maura’s voice through the wall, occasionally raised and harsh. They came back into the room, both looking grim. None of us asked. We cared for them both and it wasn’t our affair anyway.
*
Things began to change after that. For a start, Lucy began to alter her dress style. She’d always dressed a little young for her age, but now she was wearing boots that went up to her arse and little skirts that hardly covered it, as well as a skin-tight black leather jacket zipped up to the collar. Even my husband noticed when he came to collect me one afternoon after we’d romped through Suite Francaise.
“Nice outfit,” he remarked laconically. “Suits her, with the spiky hair.”
Lucy’s hair had grown back after the chemo, but instead of being her usual dye mixture it was pure white. She looked like a biker chick who’d put peroxide in. Maura never said a word to her now. We knew she disapproved – and the more she pursed her thick lips so they looked like a huge bruise on her face, the shorter Lucy’s skirts would become, the tighter the tops. It only heightened the chagrin that alone among us, Lucy could get away with it.
But when she turned up to a meeting at Maura’s house wearing a skirt that had a very obvious chunky zip at the back, reaching right from the waist down to the hem, we knew she had gone too far. Carmel tutted; Brendan drooled. The rest of us adopted various degrees of discomposure.
“Lucy,” I whispered to her during break, “do you not thing you might be overdoing it a bit? With that skirt?”
And then she turned around and said something that gobsmacked me.
“What the fuck do I care? I’ve just had cancer.”
Niall came downstairs with a pot of tea, saw Lucy and put it on the table with a thud.
“Lucy,” he said, “you look fantastic. I’m glad you’re doing better.”
“Thank you,” Lucy said, all coy now.
“Well,” Niall said, looking at his wife, “I’ll pop back upstairs.”
“You do that,” Maura hissed, “you do that.”
We were startled at her vehemence, not to mention the rage in her dark eyes, but Niall appeared not to notice. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence before we all left without saying goodbye.
*
Then there was that final afternoon. Poor Maura.
I heard it from someone who heard it from her. It was a Sunday and she was coming back from twelve o’clock Mass. She had put a chicken in the oven at ten o’clock for Sunday dinner and Niall was supposed to have taken it out but she went into the kitchen and the oven was still on. She turned it off immediately but the meat was still spoiled. She was about to find Niall and give him a piece of her mind when she heard the noises.
A low, masculine groan, followed by a series of high-pitched, feminine gasps: oh – oh – oh – oh – oh! Coming from upstairs, snaking around the house like the smell of the meat. Maura was up the stairs like lightning, her clatter making a noise that echoed around the house, yet the voices did not subside into silence. The door to her bedroom lay open.
And there was Lucy Keane, naked as the day she was born, her pubes as white as her hair, head thrown back, hipbones poking forward – and that one remaining tit bouncing up and down as she thrust herself down onto Niall’s you-know-what and reared back up again. Her mastectomy scar, shiny and livid, glistened bright red as the sun caught it through the window. Her mouth twisted: she was approaching orgasm.
For a moment, Maura was speechless. Then she said:
“You unnatural Amazon.”
Lucy stopped, looking Maura straight in the eye. And so I’m told – the look was strange. Not angry, or triumphant. Just a look of bemused compassion, as if Maura had turned up at the wrong bus station and was lost.
Maura was trembling now. “I hope you rot. I hope it takes you. Amazon bitch.”
They never spoke again.
*
Carmel had been right all along: it was terribly hard on Maura. When the divorce went through, she kept the house on Alma Road but got no maintenance. Harsh on a woman who had never worked. Carmel told us the strain had made Maura ill. We heard of tests, positive for the liver. Tch tch, we said, before changing the subject, out of respect. After all, if things go wrong in the Oblonsky household, whose business it is other than the Oblonskys’ themselves?
Lucy, last I heard, was in remission.

Biographical Note:
Susan Lanigan is a writer and sometime programmer. Twice shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award (2005 and 2009) and winner of the 2009 Dublin One City One Book Award, she has had short fiction and poetry published in a variety of magazines. She runs writers’ workshops in short fiction at www.joyofwriting.net.

Susan currently lives by the sea in Bray, County Wicklow.

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3 Comments

  1. very good, I enjoyed this.

    Reply
  2. Thanks, SDaedalus!

    Reply
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