“The Shawl” by Gabriel Fulcher

The eldest boy comes across the shawl high in the rafters. He never meant to, he was looking for a bird’s nest. Standing at the top of the ladder he holds it up for the other children to see.

“What is it?” they ask.

“It looks like it’s made of gold,” he says.

A woman appears in the broad of the doorway. The hanging light makes a shadow of her. It runs out into the dark of the yard. The boy has never seen his mother look so small.

“Where did you get it?” she says, tilting her head to one side.

He climbs down and holds the shawl out to her, even though she has not asked for it. It flows across the instep of his arms, the pelt of some fine creature. His mother treads forward, soft as ceremony, with arms outstretched and face fallen into a wondrous smile.

“It was up there.” The boy turns to the rafters.

She does not look up. Instead she takes the shawl and presses the old silk to her skin.

At once the boy knows that it will bring no good. He sees the change take place in her. He looks to the other children but their eyes are on the ground. Some realisation has become her.

“Go and get washed up for your dinner,” she waves them away, “and don’t be telling your father what you found here. You don’t want him finding out that you’ve been rooting around his barn do you?”

“No Ma’am.”

They turn together, as if they were the one, and march out the door, the eldest with a hand on a shoulder of each of the younger two. From across the yard he turns and looks back. His mother is cross legged on the floor stroking dust from the shawl in her lap. Gold light pours from the broad open doorway into the growing sea of night. Her mind has retreated to the occasion of the shawl, the affection of a stranger in the private corner of a public place. The Johnston’s for drinks on Christmas Eve. A silken night, a spring in her step, nothing more.

But she had not long become Mrs Parfry. It was when he raised a hand to her for the first time. No, not raised, threatened to raise. Something other than anger. It was the promise of anger; and the fear of it. A controlled silence beneath the sharp sound of roast lamb cut on fine china. Hot, public shame streaking across her brow. Mr & Mrs Paul Parfry, how polite they had learned to become as a couple. Dinner parties and Christmas Eve at the Johnston’s.

*

A furious rain against the bedroom window wakes him before the day has broken. With an outstretched arm he feels what he has long known: the bed has turned cold beside him.

He looks towards the doorway, to the faint scent of face cream and dull perfume that is leading to the staircase. A light has been left on down below. The glow of it reaches into the bedroom like a long leaning doorway. It is the opposite of a shadow.

He pads barefoot to the window, black as night, so that the more he tries to see out the more he sees of himself. The car is gone from the driveway; his car, not hers. Red tail-lights brighten as they pass through the wrought iron gateway. They turn into the night and the gateway closes by itself.

He picks up the lamp from the floor, sets it on the bedside, and stands before the broken mirror. Parched flowers lie in a pool of stagnant water on the dresser, their stems still arranged in the overturned vase. He chooses to do nothing at first. He knows that time must pass before suspicion becomes reality; before the facts come to light. It is the time when truths are not told, even to oneself.

A bald patch at the crown of his head appears for the first time. He turns himself sideways in the mirror, then backwards, and considers the loss.  Youth has receded without notice, passing itself quietly by the wayside. Once the ghastly realisation of it has gone, he tells himself out loud that he does not care. When it comes to what people might think he has never cared.

Downstairs the kitchen has been tidied and his place has been set for breakfast. One side plate, one butter knife, an egg cup, one tea cup, a glass of orange juice, a teaspoon, salt, pepper, the kettle filled with warm water and one egg waiting to be boiled. In the waste bin shards of broken crockery lie on top of last night’s dinner. The place setting across from him is empty and has been wiped clean.

He lifts the latch of the door and scurries across the yard, careful not to turn a brisk walk into a run. Inside the barn he pulls on a light string that is dangling in the dark. At the top of the ladder he fumbles among the rafters and the bird shit until he can be sure the shawl is gone. He wipes his hands clean, one against the other, and hangs his head in the resignation of it.

A canopy of grey crows is gathering in the tree tops outside. The children will be woken early from their sleep. Chilly overcoats will have to be pulled over warm pyjamas. He will go and find her, somewhere at the end of his tether. He will go and bring her back to him again.

                                                                           *

   She rolls to a stop and pulls the handbrake. It clicks into place, one click at a time, each one an afterthought coming to rest on her mind. The engine is left to run. She looks through one window and then the other. There is water on three sides, all sides but one, so that dry land is visible only through her rear view mirror. Pellets of frozen rain give voice to the hollow rooftop, and then they run in streaks down the glass. It is only through the dreariness of the day that she sees things so clearly.

She wipes both eyes with the back of her hand but her tears are long gone. She has prepared well. A flask of fresh water lies idle on the passenger seat. It will make no difference now. She licks her dried lips and allows her pallet to parch at the thought ahead of her.

Of course one choice leads to another, and so each time there is one less thing to choose. Then only one choice remains: to sit alone on the harbour wall, looking out to sea with the engine still running. But did she ever really choose this? Did she ever really choose anything? No matter, she will take her choices with her, each one to drown in the cold undertow of the one that came before it.

She has not eaten much, but then she seldom did. It is something to do with the food not agreeing with her. It does not nourish her. Small mouthfuls of breakfast were pushed patiently around her plate. Then the kitchen was tidied over like always, and the last of the starched bed linen folded away.

She catches sight of herself in the mirror. The grey suit is unexceptional. It is the colour of deep water on a dreary day. Slip-on shoes, black, with a low heel. A light dusting of makeup barely masks her defeated pallor, and a neat, unremarkable tone of lipstick is simply the colour of every other day; every other day for seven long years. She takes off her spectacles and gently lays them down. She has become the face of a porcelain doll: perfect but for its lack of expression.

And so there is nothing noticeable about this day, she has been careful of that; except perhaps the recent flaking of white skin in the creases of her eyes and at the soft instep of her nose. She wipes it away and rubs it gently between the tips of her fingers. It shines like the skin of a pearl, a beauty that has been shed in the daily stress of dry land.

The note, of course – she reaches for her pocket. If there is something she would change it would be the beginning: the golden shawl that was so easily taken away. If there are things that she would not change then there are three: one is a girl and two are boys. She will somehow take them with her. She folds the note into a small square and clutches it in a fitful fright.

But how will they ever know?

They will know.

A sudden movement makes itself known in her rear view mirror. Another car, her car, winds down the ramp and onto the harbour wall. It comes to a stop behind her with its windscreen wipers waving. She locks down the doors, one door at a time, and snatches at her own windscreen wipers. The sea appears in front of her as a sudden rearrangement of the sky; a single moment of reckless clarity. The Skellig rocks line up on the horizon. An ocean crashes at their feet and her mouth waters with the freedom of it.

“Open the door Mona!” her husband raps on the window.

Mona. She does not recognise her own name.

He grasps at the door handle but she has prepared well. His eyes fall upon the shawl resting on her lap and his expression slackens; he stops his pleading and releases the door. She does not know him, she never did. She knows only the sea now.

There is one final glance in her rear view mirror. He has brought them with him, side by side by side across the back seat in overcoats and warm pyjamas. They have grown so that their shoulders are now touching each other. The eldest boy is in the middle with one arm around each of the younger ones. She is glad of that.

But did she ever really choose this?

Mona winds down the window, only enough to push the note through. She does not look up at him. The note falls to the wet ground. He bends to pick it up but there will be no time for him to read it.

“I’ll come back for them,” she says.

But her words appear only as the movements of her mouth. He can neither hear nor understand beneath the wind and the rain and the glass that stands between them. Her window fogs with one last breath.

She does not dare to look back anymore. Instead she straightens the collar of her jacket and gathers the shawl about her. The handbrake is released in a single motion, a motion more deliberate than any other in all her life. He will stand still for a long while afterwards, she thinks, no matter the weather, not knowing what to do.

It is not long before she feels the weightlessness of her freedom. Her mouth waters with it. Mona kicks off her shoes and clutches the shawl to her senses. At last it will be hers to give once more.

 

Biographical Note:

A lifelong fan of film and the novel, Gabriel has been writing fiction for over seven years. He has completed one novel and a selection of short stories. His short story ‘The Shawl’ was chosen as a winner of the Lonely Voice Short Story Competition at the Irish Writer’s Centre, as well as being shortlisted for the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Short Story Competition 2011. Gabriel is currently working on his second novel and has just begun the MFA programme in creative writing at UCD.

Gabriel is a former professional rugby player who now coaches at Belvedere College in Dublin. He is happily married with one daughter.

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