The Weekend Read
The Cure for Too Much Feeling
By Bernie McGill
10th May 2018
With Rita it had begun gently, a slight quiver in the hand, acid in her stomach, a tight sense of weariness in the afternoons when she had finished an early shift at work. She made an appointment to see the doctor and described the symptoms to him. He tested her heart, her blood pressure, cholesterol levels, good and bad, made enquiries as to the efficiency of her digestive system, suggested that, maybe, she should consider taking a break. He mentioned a food diary. ‘You may have developed an allergy,’ he said. ‘It sometimes happens in later life.’ So she took time off her job at the mini-mart and booked a coach trip to Connemara where it rained non-stop for three days and her symptoms grew worse. The people on the bus were full of grief. Every time one of them sat down beside her to tell of the loss of a spouse or a dog or of a winning Lottery ticket, she experienced a twinge of pain in her chest, a sensation like a growing knot at the back of her throat. At the Twelve Pins, where a widow confessed that she had never liked her husband of more than forty years, Rita felt the sweat gather between her shoulder blades, the skin on her upper arms begin to rise and tingle, and had to ask to be let out of the coach for a breath of air. Bit by bit, she began to believe that her growing trouble was not related to the consumption of dairy or gluten or (God forbid) potatoes, but was a newly developed susceptibility to other people’s misery. She had never experienced any bother like this before. She suspected there was no antidote. She ate a cooked breakfast in the hotel every morning and returned to Belfast several pounds heavier. From then on, she resolved to avoid people and their stories of woe as much as she was able.
There was no husband to trouble the surface of Rita’s life. She’d had a child once, a girl, but she’d given her up almost immediately. She was very small and wrinkled with startling black hair that stuck out from the side of her head like a crow’s wing, and she cried, Rita remembered, for no reason at all. The child was the consequence of a rainy evening in the back of a white Mark 111 Ford Cortina in 1976 when her after-school shift at the chippy had ended and the owner (Mr Percy, red-bearded, married with three young boys) had eyed the laddered knee of her black uniform tights and said it was a shocking bad night to be walking home. He had a four-door saloon with synchromesh gearbox and double wishbone suspension, four more inches of extra interior width on the earlier model, the Mark 11. She remembered very clearly the walnut-trimmed dashboard, the bucket seats, his freckled fingers on her leg, working the threads of her laddered tights apart into a hole big enough to slide his hand and then his arm through, round the back of her thigh, up inside her underwear. She didn’t remember agreeing to anything, but she hadn’t wanted to appear ungrateful. It was raining very hard by then. She got beard rash all the way down her neck and had had to stuff her ruined tights and knickers in the Doric, for fear her mother would see them, but her mother figured it out herself when the waistband on Rita’s school skirt had had to be let out a second time. She was sent away to an aunt in Belfast where such matters were more easily explained. After they took the baby away, she got a job in the ciggie factory where her aunt worked, with a good bonus and free packs of fags and what if she did stink of tobacco most of the time? The money smelled only of money. She stayed away from men because the episode in the Cortina had been surprising, messy and, to be honest, a little painful, and she didn’t want any more babies to trouble her. Her aunt had been glad of the company; her uncle was away at sea. They had to move house when work started on the motorway; the whole street was being demolished, but she doesn’t know if her aunt ever gave her uncle their new address because Rita never laid eyes on him and then the aunt smoked herself into an early grave and there was Rita with a job and a house and what more could you want? She got a good payout when the factory closed, took a few shifts in the mini-mart to get her out of the house.
She couldn’t work out what had caused the change. Up until the age of fifty-six she’d been as immune to other people’s troubles as was everyone else around her. It was a kind of creeping sickness. She was too embarrassed to go back to the doctor and tell him what she now knew, so she adopted strategies for survival. In the days and weeks after the Connemara trip, Rita learned how to carry herself careful. Open fires were to be avoided, she found; they drew stories out of people, and pubs were bad too, of course, for alcohol is a known tongue-loosener, and as for a pub with an open fire, forget about it, her stomach would never stick it. Rita had an open fire in her little yellow-bricked terraced house, but she put a pillow up the chimney and had an electric bar fitted. It was much cleaner without the soot. She didn’t have to miss out on a drink: the mini-mart had started doing gin and tonic, ready-mixed in those handy cans that you could keep in the fridge and pop open when the mood took you and the tonic never went flat and the can was always cold.
Still, it was a loss to find that she was no longer able to nibble at tragedy the way that she had done before, couldn’t say, ‘Isn’t it shocking about that poor woman the other morning, black ice on the road early?’ and then set it aside and get on. She couldn’t hear, ‘They’re sitting up with Dan Reilly,’ and nod and go about her business. She was laid low by other people’s misery, it sapped her energy, brought her out in a rash. She couldn’t sit down to enjoy the news. Even a second onscreen of Syria or Gaza or a Greek island beach would have her clutching at her stomach with cramps. She was near-crippled by the look in the children’s dark eyes, the sorrow of it seeping into her. She began to avoid local radio in the mornings when it was all phone-ins and shouting to outdo each other’s hurt, and if she listened sometimes in the afternoons to the anniversary and birthday requests, she was always careful to switch off at five minutes to the hour, before the bulletins came on. She tuned in to Classical FM, though she had to be careful around a violin solo. Once she found herself a few bars in to Beethoven’s Funeral March before she realised what it was. She just made it to the dial in time. A-flat was not a good chord for her. She didn’t read newspapers or true-life magazines. She was untroubled by the vagaries of the Internet. She would occasionally flick through the mail-order catalogues and imagine the lives of the cardigan-ed, white-toothed people there. She averted her eyes from the head-scarfed woman who sold the homeless magazine outside the bank in town. She stopped her ears at bus stops, scissored through every charity appeal that dropped through her door, but despite her careful efforts, every once in a while something would seep through. A chance remark overheard, a hand on her arm at the till in the mini-mart, a glance in the window of the TV shop where the largest screens were tuned to twenty-four-hour news, and then it could take several episodes of stock-piled Val Doonican shows to restore her to herself. She had been managing fairly well until the day there came a knock on the door and Rita’s chest began to tighten even before she opened it.
It was the girl, of course, although she was no longer a girl: forty years old she would have been by then. Rita had always known it was a possibility that she might turn up. That same lick of black hair; something in her thin lips of the set of her own mother’s mouth; she knew her straight away. She asked her in and gave her tea and told her she didn’t know who the father was, which was only half a lie, since she had never heard Mr Percy’s first name. It showed her in a bad light, she knew, but it seemed kinder that way. Supposing that he was still alive, supposing that the girl managed to locate him, Rita didn’t reckon that Mr or Mrs Percy or their by-now middle-aged sons would want anything to do with either one of them. So the girl – the woman – whose name was Anna (a neat name, easily remembered, only two letters, back-to-back) went away again.
On Sundays Rita took a bus to the south side of the city, where she was unlikely to meet anyone she knew or anyone who knew her, and where she could walk in peace in the green areas without anyone passing remarks. She was coming through Botanic Gardens one day in January, the cold biting at her cheeks, when a sudden shower of sleety rain drove her up the incline to shelter under the grey bulk of the Museum. She’d never been inside, but it was draughty under the concrete canopy that hung like a lip over the entrance, and the rain bouncing off the steps and down through the dripping trees and off the head of the statue of Kelvin by the park gates was lowering her mood. And, she remembered, it was free to go in.
She found herself in a large open space, the ceiling more than fifty feet up, concrete and glass and steel on all sides. She decided to take a ride in the lift, to act like someone who’d intended to make the visit. On the fourth floor, she stood for a while at the glass balustrade, looking down through the dizzying atrium to the ground floor below, at the purple shirts of the museum staff, at a woman seated in a lime green anorak, leaflets fanned like palm fronds on the glass-topped table beside her. She watched as people crossed the foyer, shaking umbrellas, checking signs for floor descriptions, finding their way. The walls and ceiling were a blinding white. Moments later, the lift pinged to a halt to her left, and a group emerged: three women, half a dozen small children. One of them, a boy of two or three, fell back, dragging his mother by the hand, shouting to her that he wanted to go back in the lift, but she walked on and as he dropped to the floor, his cries began to echo and bounce off the walls until the space was filled with a hundred children crying. Rita gripped the balustrade, its bevelled edge marked with dozens of small fingerprints, and forced herself to stand there, with the light bouncing off the glass, and the cries ringing round her. Then the mother picked the child up and balanced him on her hip and carried him through the heavy wooden door to the adjoining gallery that closed solidly behind them.
A sign beyond the lift indicated an exhibition of portraits in the direction opposite to the one in which the crying child had been taken. Rita liked to look at pictures of people; there weren’t many places where you could study faces safely. Even in a café or at the bus stop, people sometimes caught you staring, took it as an invitation to speak.
She made her way to the gallery, but the portraits were not at all what she had been expecting. They were modern for a start. She had imagined pearls and ruffs and silks but these were all hoodies and scowls and tattoos and, God preserve us, an entirely naked woman, straight browed, navel-pierced, gazing out, the delta of her shorn pubic hair precisely at Rita’s eye-level. What were they thinking, hanging that up on a Sunday for anyone to see? Rita coloured and turned her eyes away, walked quickly past, putting safe distance between her and the unabashed woman, stopped to slow her heart in front of a painting of a man in a red V-neck sweater in a blue wall-papered room.
They were so lifelike, some of them; you couldn’t tell they were paintings at all, even up close they looked like enlarged photographs, there was hardly any sign of marks, but ‘oil on canvas’ it read on the wall panel, or ‘oil on linen’ or ‘on gesso’ or ‘on board’, so they were paintings, all of them, she checked every one as she passed. She felt a little hoodwinked by this. She thought it was a bit of a cheat. Where were the brush strokes, the thickened slabs of paint, the penciled marks, the rubbings out? She wanted, she realised, honest artifice, evidence of work. It was only in the blades of grass in the background, or in the leaves or the petals or occasionally, in the eyes, in the way the white oil of reflected light hit the liquid black of the iris that you could tell that this was a worked thing. ‘Because the eye is a giveaway,’ she said to herself, and then realised she’d spoken aloud. When she looked around, the museum attendant showed no sign of having heard her.
She had completed a circuit of the room and was nearing the exit when she noticed a painting she had missed on her way in, in her hurry past the naked gazing woman. This one, entitled Washing Mother’s Hair, presented two figures, both side-on, inclined towards each other, their faces in profile, oblivious to the onlooker. The scene was viewed as if through the frame of an open bathroom door, an elderly woman seated on the edge of the bath, her head bowed over the sink; another woman, younger but not young, facing her, pouring water from a white plastic mixing jug over the other woman’s head. The hair was plastered to the old lady’s scalp, the bones of her neck and of her small skull showing through under pink skin. A yellow towel lay over her shoulders, over the white of the full slip she was wearing, the skin on her upper arms crinkled as tissue paper, the veins on her legs and on her slippered feet, raised and wormed and blue. With one hand, she had gathered the corners of the towel under her chin like a shawl; the other hand gripped the wash hand basin, like she feared she was in danger of falling. Her daughter’s dark hair was tied in a low knot at the nape of her neck from where it sprang, curly, down her back. The girl looked weary, her back bent in an uncomfortable position, stretching to reach over her mother’s bowed head to rinse the water from her hair. There was something about the composition that held Rita, something ritual in the scene, in the triangulation of the two figures over the bathroom sink, their physical closeness in the cramped room, the daughter’s right hand, pouring water, her left hand outstretched, like a benediction, something easy between the two of them that said, ‘We know who we are to one another and this is what we do.’ It seemed to Rita that if she could stand there for long enough, if they would let her stay, if the purple-shirted attendant would put out the lights and lock up the gallery and go home and leave her there, that she might witness a quiet miracle. The girl might squeeze the last drop of water out of her mother’s damp hair and set the jug down on the deep-tiled window sill, beside the toothbrush and the shampoo bottle and the aloe vera plant that was growing there out of a used margarine tub; she might lift the yellow towel and twist it round her mother’s head, and slide an arm under the old woman’s elbow to ease her up and steady her, might turn her round to face the bathroom door, and walk her straight out of the picture frame, past Rita, and up a darkened hallway to a cushioned chair by a crackling fire where the old woman’s hair would dry and settle into soft white curls. And it seemed to Rita that she would then be privy to the sort of act of casual intimacy that passes unannounced in homes everywhere where people are tired or hurting or weak and still going about the everyday business of caring for one another and of being loved. But Rita didn’t stay. She turned on her heel away from the painting and walked out the gallery door, down the four flights of stairs to the ground floor, past the milling people with their spattered raincoats and their dripping umbrellas, and out of the museum into her careful life and the still falling rain.
First published in The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland, edited by Sinéad Gleeson (New Island Books, Dublin) in 2016