Friday, July 31, 2009

Holograms and half-truths

It took me a long time to absorb what Clementine had said.
‘You mean . . . she lied to us?’ I whispered finally.
‘Not exactly,’ Clementine said, looking deeply uncomfortable.
‘What do you mean not exactly?’ I bit out.'All those years we came down here, she never said a word.'
‘She just . . didn’t tell you everything . .’ Clementine said faintly.
‘But she told you,’ I said bitterly.
‘Sometimes it’s easier to tell stuff like that to people outside of your family,’ Clementine said, and I knew she was referring to herself.
Something deep inside me shifted.
‘She should have told us,’ I barked angrily.
‘Why? It wouldn’t have changed anything. Besides, she always said she was happier for you to see her the way you did,’ Clementine said.

I looked around the room, at the framed photo of Aunt Dee, dressed up as ‘an oriental lady’, manning the cake stall at the 1974 Field Day, at the picture on the mantelpiece of her with Fr John, the two of them grinning into the camera as though they’d just shared a joke. The picture shifted and re-arranged itself like a hologram, Aunt Dee's smiling face growing younger and more defined, Fr John disappearing altogether to be replaced by a faceless dark-haired man whose heart shrank and shrank in his chest until there was just a singed black hole.

I thought of my mother, of her faith in Dee, of the summers I’d spent down here, the three of us sitting in the garden, my mother and Aunt Dee topping and tailing beans while I played some crazy made up game that only an only child could play.
‘We never really knew her at all,’ I whispered.
Clementine was silent.
‘What happened to the child?’ I said finally, ‘to the baby?’
Clementine stared deeply into her empty glass.
‘It died,’ she whispered shakily.
‘Oh,’ I sighed, and the world suddenly seemed impossibly sad.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Clementine comes clean

A strange energy has gripped the house.

I don’t know if it’s Clementine, or her turnip stew or curried bean casserole, but even the garden has exploded. The runner beans are sprouting bright crimson flowers and rocketing skywards. The peas are sporting delicate heads of white blossom, and the cabbages are plump and firm as footballs.

It was while we were scrubbing potatoes yesterday evening that Clementine opened up about Aunt Dee. We’d just finished watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s (over a tumbler or two of gin fizz) and were discussing the concept of elegance.
‘It’s to do with carriage,’ Clementine said.
‘I would have thought it was more to do with clothes,’ I ventured.
‘No.’ She shook her head and dropped a potato into the pot. Plop! ‘It’s carriage. That’s it. That’s the secret to elegance.’
For someone who seems so unassertive, you can be surprisingly bloody definite, I thought.
‘What about someone like . . Jane Russell?’ I said. ‘Do you think she was elegant?’
Clementine’s hands froze, mid scrub.
‘Jane Russell?’ she murmured faintly
I’ve suspected for some time she knows more about Aunt Dee’s secret other life than she’s letting on. Now I was almost sure of it.
‘Yes. As a matter of fact I found a card from her, with a personal message to Dee,’ I said, watching her carefully. Clementine’s face went a funny red colour, almost the same tone as her lipstick, and I noticed with guilty horror that her hands had started to shake.
‘Clementine?’ I whispered. ‘Are you alright?
‘I just . . need to sit down for a moment,’ Clementine muttered, sliding onto a kitchen chair. I fetched her a glass of water and sat down across from her. She took a sip and a spot of colour came slowly back into her cheeks
‘Tell me the truth,’ I pleaded. ‘What are you trying to keep from me about my Aunt?’
Clementine stared darkly at me. Her head scarf had slipped sideways, making her look lopsided and off balance.
‘Alright,’ she whispered finally. ‘I suppose it may as well be tonight.’

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Carnage

I was just about to take my first sip of morning coffee when Clementine burst in, white faced, from the back garden.
‘Carnage,’ she gasped darkly. ‘Utter carnage.’
‘What?’ I mumbled, lowering my coffee cup. ‘What do you mean?’
‘The French beans . . the broadbeans . .. courgettes . . .. red cabbages. . . ’
I yanked on my boots and dashed outside.
The French beans were lying wanly on their sides. The courgette plants were battered and bruised and the broadbeans huddled urgently together for support. The only things unaffected were the turnips. Damn those turnips, I thought bitterly, the prospect of night after night of Clementine’s curried turnip stew flashing before my eyes.
Seized by a desperate need to do something I scurried from bed to bed, banking up soil round the bases of beans, propping stones around courgette plants, coaxing broadbeans into drunken uprightness, even as I was doing so, knowing it was no good. Clementine watched me silently.
To my embarrassment I started to cry.
‘Life is cruel,’ she said finally.
‘I’m sorry,’ I muttered damply, ‘I know that should help, but somehow hearing it doesn’t make me feel any better.’
‘Alright,’ Clementine said. ‘What about . . . . breakfast at the Lakeside Hotel?’
Ten minutes later we were sitting at a rickety white-clothed table eating toast from a tarnished silver toast rack, Clementine sipping mint tea while I drank an entire pot of freshly brewed coffee.
On the way back home I drove very fast and talked and talked and talked. I talked about poetry, I talked about novels, I talked about my ex-husband, I talked about work, I talked about the oddly attractive garda (who we happened to pass on the road) and I talked about the cruelty of nature and how difficult it is to see something you have nurtured from a tiny seed be destroyed in one foul windy night.
‘Exactly how much coffee did you drink back there?’ Clementine asked faintly as I sprang from the car.
‘Not that much,’ I said, feeling suddenly anxious and defensive. What was she trying to imply? That I had a problem with addictive substances? Then I realised it was the coffee talking. ‘Maybe a little too much,’ I admitted.
When we went round the back of the house to survey the damage again, Clementine was surprisingly upbeat.
‘It’s not as bad as it looks,’ she said finally.
I surveyed the battered vegetables, my coffee high sliding away.
‘You could have fooled me,’ I murmured flatly.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Kidney bean and green chilli hotpot

D├│mhnall hasn’t visited since Clementine moved in. Clementine says he’s been acting strangely ever since she took the owner of Blackjacks to task for supplying plastic bags free of charge to customers. He’s also told her he refuses to call her Clementine anymore.
‘But it’s your name,’ I murmured, slipping a congealed hunk of kidney bean and green chilli hotpot into the waiting napkin on my lap.
‘He says Clementine’s a ridiculous name,’ Clementine said sadly, prodding at her dinner half-heartedly.
‘But that’s not your fault. Your parents are to blame for that. . . . And anyway, it isn’t a ridiculous name’ I added hurriedly. ‘It’s very . . distinctive. And colourful.’
Clementine’s face brightened.
‘That’s exactly why I picked it,’ she smiled.
‘You picked it?’
Clementine nodded shyly.
‘Wow,’ I said finally. All my life I’ve hated my name. But I’ve never had the courage to walk away from it. ‘That was brave.’
‘Thanks,’ Clementine faintly. ‘I’m just sorry my husband and son don’t think so.’
I smothered a burp.
‘I think we might need some more water,’ I murmured, sliding the napkin deftly into my pocket, grabbing the water jug and heading towards the sink.
I noisily rinsed out the jug and slipped the sodden napkin into the bin. When I got back to the table my plate was magically full again.
‘You just seemed to like it so much,’ Clementine beamed.