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19/01/2015

A House

Catherine Conroy

Following the death of her mother, a young woman seeks out a new home.

I bought the house eight years ago when I thought I was going mad. My mother had died, and I was fine initially. I was grand for about a year, to be honest. I remember my boss asking me how I was coping and I said, “I feel sort of invincible. The worst thing has happened to me and I can still get up out of bed.” But then I began to feel sick on the bus to work in the mornings and, thinking I was going to vomit into the laps of old ladies with tartan trollies, I’d stare at my shoes and breathe deeply. A lot of the advice on the internet was about breathing. When that didn’t work, I’d have to get off at any old stop. I started walking everywhere, but often, like an old film, it felt like I was standing still while the background was moving. Breathe, I’d say to myself. In a restaurant with friends, I’d be very quiet and when I finally thought to speak, the words sounded like they’d been flung in the air and had fallen with a clatter on the table. I’d look at the faces around me for reaction, then turn to my closest friend and whisper, “Did that sound okay? Did that sound strange?”

I took sudden exits off motorways. I took Xanax before I went to the pub. I spent my weekends in bookshops, for the silence of them, but also to look for assurance in the pages that this had happened to others. I watched the world for a message from my mother. I felt it was the least she could do. But there were no watercolour dreams, no white feather drifting slowly down, no strange bird perched at an opportune moment. I went to sleep at night clutching her old holy medal, and woke up with the deep sweaty imprint of it on my palm.

I went to a doctor and told her I was on the way to the mental hospital. She took out her prescription pad and said, “Truly mad people don’t know they’re going mad. This is just grief, and long overdue.” She sent me to a therapist. I took anti-depressants.

Then I got the idea into my head that the real problem was a lack of refuge. I’d grown up in a house that was always warm and softly lit. There were the usual strains and shouting, but it was a safe place. We were an intact family with a shaggy dog. But after Mam’s long painful illness, with the morphine and the commode, and then the long rowdy wake, there was a terrible silence in the rooms and I stopped going back to visit. And now I felt like I had nowhere to go. The flats I rented around Dublin had no permanence to them. I decided I would buy a house. The banks were flinging money at us at the time. I’d build myself a fort.

It was a Saturday in the summer when I first went to view it. I walked the length of the horseshoe-shaped road, to the far end where the house stood. The nature of the road changed as I walked, starting out with well-minded houses with gardens full of pink roses and chrysanthemums, quaint little gates and railings at the steps. Towards the middle of the hoop, there were ‘Beware of the Dog’ signs, bad paint jobs, the occasional daub of graffiti on a garage door. Everything looked a bit battered and grey. But as I came to the last leg of the road, the houses spruced themselves up again and as I reached No. 286, the day brightened and the sky was blue and, beyond the football pitch at the bottom of the road, you could see the purple mountains framed by the white goal posts. Many a house and owner must be brought together by the good fortune of a sunny day. It was a two-storey house at the end of a terrace, newly-built on a corner plot. There were mature plants in the small front garden, a broken ‘For Sale’ sign, a tall palm tree in the corner. The driveway was paved with red brick and covered in the crunch of fallen fronds.

I moved in before I had any furniture and I spent the first night on my own in a sleeping bag in the corner of the sitting room, like a squatter. Without curtains or carpets, every noise echoed. I walked around with a small camera and showed myself the empty rooms. The blinds were pulled down and there were no lampshades, only bare bulbs giving out dim light. I sat on the wooden floor that still had some spring and still hadn’t settled, and I filmed myself. “This is your new home,” I said into the camera, the way a mother might talk to a newborn.

Things were good for a while. A house is a very distracting thing and you can build and build upon it. When I was a kid, Mam was always decorating. By the time she had done every room in our home, the first room would be outdated, and it would need paint now instead of wallpaper, wooden floors instead of carpets; endless rearranging. I took some of Mam’s old stuff now, things I thought Dad might not appreciate: an old Roberts radio, a small antique chair she’d upholstered, china cups she’d found in bric-a-brac shops. I put them with my new things. I bought a beautiful big bed, a dark wood dressing table with an age-speckled mirror, an old trunk with shipping stickers. In my new bedroom, the curtains and blinds were white and kept out little light, so the mornings were undeniable. It was like sleeping in a tent. On Sunday afternoons, I would walk around garden centres in a state of grace, fondling the pansies.

All the local kids hung around on my corner and sat on my wall. They were aged around ten or twelve – it’s hard to know. Night after night, their football would wallop against the side of the house and the side of my car. I would wrap my dressing gown tight around me and go out and say, “Lads, come on, go easy will you.” It would stop briefly. Then they would light little fires in the bushes out the front that wouldn’t really take, but would smoulder enough to carry a smell into the house and make me rush out. It was a rare night when there was nothing happening, and even in the silence I’d get up and check anyway in case there was some stealth operation at play. There was a mix of girls and boys initially. The girls were easily bought off. I had a bag of old makeup I was throwing out that I gave to them and they went away. But the boys were less partial to bribery. I tried sweets, I tried chattiness, I tried to be a bit cool. I once even managed to get them to paint over their own graffiti on my garden gate. I supervised them, handing out paintbrushes, and more boys came and asked could they join in too. One wee fella got to his painstaking work with a tiny eyeshadow brush I found for him at the back of a drawer. There I was in the middle of them, the Great White Hope.

But then the windows. They smashed the little one on the landing first, and that one would go again and again. Then I came home from a week away and a huge terracotta pot from the garden had been hurled through the large front window so that the living room was full of broken glass and soil and cold air. I sat down on the sofa for a moment and looked at the mess, stunned by the insistence of the outside world. The neighbours said they saw nothing. When I called the guards to talk about it, they’d tell me about the families around there in varying states of despair; kids who had been to court, been assigned liaison officers at nine years old. What could I say? I was sorry, but I only wanted a bit of peace. The guards would sometimes patrol the road, but I heard them joke with the boys, reprimand them like indulgent parents.

One boy called Shotgun kept tagging the gable end of my house, huge black lettering, nothing particularly artistic. Each night on my way home from work, my bus passed a grotto near the entrance to the estate. The blue and white of Virgin Mary was washed off and she stood there grey, hands clasped, eyes heavenward. “Give me a fuckin’ break tonight Mary, will ya?” I’d think to myself. Then I’d come round the corner and see Shotgun’s big mad scrawl. I kept a tub of paint under the kitchen sink, and late at night when all the kids had been swept away from the corners, I’d go out in my old tracksuit bottoms and, by the orange glow of the street light, I’d paint the wall white again.

The night I decided to leave, I was lying on the sofa in my pyjamas and there was a loud banging on the window. I froze and put the telly on mute. I ran up the stairs to the landing to look out the window there where no one would see me, and in the dark I could make out a boy walking along the high wall at the side of the house. With a small jump, he got on to the flat roof of the kitchen and started stomping on it. I went back downstairs and stood in my nice white kitchen looking at the ceiling. There was another set of feet, and then a storm of them. I called the guards but I knew that by the time they’d arrive, the boys would have legged it through the back gardens in the estate, ducking under the football jerseys and the sheets on the clothes lines. Suddenly, there was silence and then the doorbell rang. I went to the door and opened it. Shotgun was standing there, only up to my shoulder in height. He was acting the mick for some other fellas who were crouched behind the wall laughing. He said, “I’m here for the party” and he made to come in and tried to dart around me into the warm house. I got him by the shoulders and gave him an almighty shove and he tripped back and fell down off the step. His hands went back to the ground either side of him to take the fall. His wrists bent back with the weight. And the two of us stayed like that. Me, standing in the frame of the front door, the house lit behind me, the beige carpet dirty now on the stairs, waiting for him to move, shocked at myself. Him, lying there in the driveway. He got up slowly and grabbed at his wrist, curling his fingers around it, wriggling it in his other hand. He looked at me with the fury that comes to cover up pain.

 

You fucking whale, he said, you crazy bitch. Fuck off back to where you came from.

 

And then lots of little boys stood up from behind the white garden wall to look at us, the shadows of them with their hoods up round their heads, the strings pulled tight so that only their eyes and noses could be seen. Shotgun pulled up his own hood with his good hand and disappeared into the middle of them, still shouting. I went in and waited for a while, sitting on the arm of the sofa, for a visit from a furious father, or a scrappy mother, or the guards. But no one came.

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