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This is the normal now

A short story by Jan Carson


A short story by Jan Carson

A short story by Jan Carson

Getty Images/iStockphoto

A short story by Jan Carson

On the morning after your wedding William teaches you how to make a proper fry. He looms over you at the hob, the staleness of his sleep breath souring the whole kitchen. He stands too close: pushing his belly into the small of your back, putting his hands on your wrists as you turn the bacon. Now you are his wife he is allowed to stand this close. It doesn't mean you have to like it.

You are still wearing your honeymoon knickers: cheap things bought from Primark with a matching bra that's already coming loose on the straps. The lace itches your thighs every time you move. You're not sure William's even noticed your knickers but the girls in work told you they were necessary; also the waxing, the shaving and plucking. Tomorrow you'll go back to regular pants. You'll keep the fancy ones at the back of the drawer though. Just in case. You never know. You're still young; so much younger than your new husband.

You shuffle your weight from one hip to the other, trying to resurrect the bed heat. You don't mind the dampness here: the rain in sheets and fine, shivering clouds. At home you had rain once or twice a season. You went running through it with your face turned up. Rain is always a kind of relief. But you will never quite settle with the cold in this place. You wear layers - shirts over vests over sweaters and cardigans - still the cold sneaks up your sleeves like a sly ghost. Skin prickles. Hair lifts. Bones throb dully.

William has hauled you out of bed at six for this.

"Here," he says, pressing the spatula into your hand, "this is your job now."

The lard spits up your arms, leaving a constellation of tiny burn marks like newly-formed freckles. You do not flinch or draw your hands back. It's not like he is hitting you. He's only wanting his eggs done a certain way. This is understandable in a man. At home they are the same with paella.

You sit opposite each other at the table, yesterday's paper like an island opening up between you. You try to read the farming section upside down. Black and white cows are kicking their heels in the air, doing the backstroke from one side of the page to the other. You can't read upside down. You can't read that well the right way up either, but your speaking English isn't bad. This is why William has picked you over all the other girls. This is why he has looked past Analyn, though her face is prettier than yours, and Maleah, who has almost perfect breasts. You know this because he tells you every time you go out together in public.

"What are happening in the world?" you ask. You want to remind him that he has made the right choice. You are the best of all the girls at speaking English.

"What is happening in the world?" William replies and never bothers to tell you.

The way he eats - slopping up burst egg, ketchup and bacon grease with a wedge of soda - turns your stomach. It's not seven yet. Not even close. Too early for this. You try to picture him as an old one in the Home: supping porridge from a plastic spoon, slabbering all down his pyjamas. "You can do this," you tell yourself. "You can even do it with a smile." You manage a slice of dry toast and black tea. You have to force every mouthful down. It lumps in your throat like heartburn. You do the dishes without being told. This is the normal now, every morning for the rest of your life. William never says this. You just know.

After breakfast he shows you how to bring the cows in and where the sheep feed's kept. "Them's for you," he says, pointing out a pair of bog-green wellies standing guard by the back doorstep. When you tip them up to slip your feet inside you find a ball of socks bunched in the toe. You wonder who's been here before you. The boots are too small to be a man's and you know, from talking to Irene, that there haven't been children on the farm for years. You don't ask. There might be a dead wife and what would you do with the thought of her hanging over you every time you went to bed?

Later that day it is lunchtime. You are in the kitchen eating tinned soup with bread.

"Your mum liked her tomato soup," you say. You picture Irene smiling her big baby smile, all gums and gappy teeth.

"Don't talk about my mother," he says.

This is the end of the story which was you working in the Home.

It is also the end of the story which was seeing William on his every-other-day visits, and the way he bought you petrol station flowers and said, "would you think about it, Sweetheart? Not right now, not 'til after Mammy's gone. I'd be good to you, so I would."

You can hardly even remember the end of the story which was you leaving Valenzuela and arriving on this wet little island, but you know that one came first, long before the farm and the nursing home.

You watch William take his soup straight from the saucepan. He is set in his bachelor ways. The Matron warned you about this. "Be careful Maganda," she said. "William's an old man. He's just looking for someone to help with the farm. You could do much better." But you knew you couldn't. You knew you had to say yes because William wasn't a bad man, only old and a bit odd about the face, and there was no-one waiting for you back home, not even a sister.

William's spoon tins the bottom of the saucepan as he goes after the last dregs. There is an orange line like slipped lipstick circling the edge of his lips. You know it'll still be there this evening, crusting in the corners of his mouth, and you will have to kiss him anyway. This is not the worst thing he could ask of you. He hasn't hit you yet. Or even raised his voice.

He looks up at you between every spoonful. His eyes big as cue balls. You smile at him, your teeth full of half-digested dough. He tries to smile back but the shape his mouth makes is a kind of wince. He has the look of a man who doesn't trust his own good luck.

For the first few weeks of marriage you will wake to the weight of his arm, reaching across the bed, checking you have not vanished in the night.

You make a mug of milky tea and set it firmly in front of him. You are only one year in this place but you already know about making tea. The way it is a comfort and a religion; a sort of truce between two people drinking.

"Your name's not a real name in this country," he says. "People'll know you're foreign when you say you're called Maganda."

You look at your face upside down in the soupspoon: black hair, coming down in sheets and high-pinched cheekbones. You are the colour which comes out of a bottle in this country.

"You're right," you say. "My name will have people knowing I am foreigner."

Now you are Megan. Megan is a name they can easily say round here. In church on Sundays the old ladies say, "Good morning, Megan." Their mouths smile at you, though saying your name is like sucking something bitter for them: a lemon or a Wasabi pea. Later, you hear that every other church wife is called Mrs. You feel like a small girl overlooked in gym class. His sister calls you Megan. You are Auntie Megan to all her grub-faced children. Even the half-wit boy who helps with the cows calls you Megan. He says it wrong to rhyme with vegan and sometimes you do not register him, yelling across the yard. You stand in the bathroom at night, watching yourself circle the toothbrush round your teeth, trying to see a Megan reflected in the mirror.

You are no longer Maganda or that other angular name no one says right here. Dimasalang. You are Megan Blair now. It feels like all your teeth have fallen out at once. Or some other gradual loss, suddenly escalated.

This is the beginning of another story.

Nothing is the same as the last chapter, except you and your black-eyed face, William who is still here, but less smiling, and the girls from the Home who sometimes phone when he's out in the fields, to ask, "would you not come dancing with us on Friday night? Just like old times".

"No," you say, "I can't."

"William would not allow this."

"I have the milking to do, and his breakfast to make."

Then, one afternoon, when you have made William's stew too watery and he hasn't shouted but has brought his spoon down sharply, in a manner which infers he might soon shout or raise a hitting fist, you say, "Okay. I'll come dancing", because if you don't the air inside you will be so loud there won't be room enough for breath.

When William comes in from the fields, you say, "The Matron called while you were out. It's an emergency. Everyone has the flu all at once. She needs me for the night shift."

It is remarkably easy to lie. Easier still in your second tongue where every word is already a kind of evasion.

At first he says no. He doesn't want you back in that place, working. Not now you are his wife and everybody knows.

So, you say, "Just this once, Love. It is a very real emergency. Remember how good the Matron was to your mother. Especially at the end."

His eyes blush when you mention Irene dying. You hope he will cry. This would be like a door opening between you. He doesn't cry. He turns away from you and says, "Don't be making a habit of this." Then you let him put his hands all over you, up against the scullery door with the smell of cow s*** rising off his jumper. He doesn't ask if you like this, or even permit it. He doesn't stop when you gag on the smell of him. He doesn't look at you directly. You don't look at him either. The vomit comes up your throat as far as your nose and stops. You keep your eye on the kitchen clock and think, two more hours of him. Then a whole night off.

You wear your church dress for going out. It's the only decent one you have. You pull a pair of tracksuit bottoms over it so he won't see. The skirt bundles round your backside like an old one's nappy. You wear a baggy sweater, big enough to disguise the bulge. It smells of him. There isn't anything in the house which doesn't. You put a lipstick in your pocket. It's the only make-up you own. William says make-up's for whores. You keep it hidden at the back of the drawer with your honeymoon knickers and your not-getting-pregnant tablets and a picture of your parents before they died.

He doesn't offer you a lift. There are the cows to be getting in, the football on the telly. You are glad of this. You don't know what you'd say to him outside the Home. You'd have to go inside and wait 'til he left; lying with your whole body, not just your mouth. You're used to doing this but tonight's different.

"I will go on bicycle," you say. "It is okay. There is a handlebar light for the dark."

"Grand so," he says, "be back sharpish. Them cows won't milk themselves."

"There's chocolate biscuits in the tin," you say as you leave. He doesn't try to kiss you or even say goodbye. This puts a hole of a feeling in you, like an unanswered question. Maybe you want him to kiss you goodbye. Maybe you don't. You wonder if you are growing attached to William in the customary way. You can't discuss this with the girls. You might, with a sister, but you've never had one of those.

You cycle down the lane, fitting your tyres to the tractor ruts. You turn left towards town, hugging the hedge so you won't be clipped by cars swinging round the country bends. You cycle for five minutes before you start looking for a field. You want to be well away before you commit to the evening ahead. This is a matter of taking one thing off and putting another thing on. Not just clothes; a whole way of being.

You pick a field which doesn't belong to him. There are no animals in this field. Not even a horse. It is a potato field, lined like corrugated card. You leave your bike by the gate and, slipping behind the hedge, remove your jumper and your tracksuit bottoms. You bundle everything up, tying the arms of the sweater around themselves. Like a hug. You've brought a carrier bag for your clothes. Just in case it rains. You shove the bundle deep into the hedge so no bit of plastic shows. You take your wedding ring off and tuck it into the pocket of your tracksuit bottoms. You don't know why you do this but you feel lighter the instant it leaves your finger. Like you are alone for the first time in months. Not touching anyone. Not being touched.

You make a note of the field. The brownness. The greenness. The gate with its third bar drooping like a palsied arm. I will remember this field, you think. But you won't.

You cycle into town. Five brisk miles with your Sunday skirts feathering round your ankles. You chain your bike to the library gate. The girls are leaning against the Supervalu window, waiting for you in red, black and yellow dresses like the stripes on a German flag but ordered wrong.

"Maganda," they cry. Not Megan. They circle you up in their skinny arms and hold and hold and keep holding until you are near choking on the burnt sugar stench of Angel perfume. You could cry. But you don't.

You have drinks together in the pub: bottled drinks the colour of boiled sweets. You cannot hold your drink. It makes you slip away from yourself as if you are in need of pinning down. You take two drinks and spend the rest of the night sipping cordial through a cocktail straw. You dance. With the girls. You wouldn't dare to dance with another man. It's not like William would ever hear. The locals can't tell the difference between any of you. You're not even wearing a ring. But still. You don't. It wouldn't be right. You dance and laugh and, on the way home, get chips from the chip van.

"I miss this," you say to the chip man but your accent has slipped with the drink and he doesn't understand. He nods anyway, smiles and squirts red sauce over your chips. You smile back even though you only take salt on chips. You know he's trying to be kind.

You sleep on Analyn's sofa - sleep like a dead one - waking at six to brush your teeth with a damp finger before sneaking away. You cycle home with the handlebar light switched on, its blond beam sweeping the dark roads like an angel sword. After four miles you begin looking for the field. You remember its brownness. Its greenness. The third bar slipping drunkenly off its gate. It is dark now. All the fields are dark. Their brownness is black and their greenness is also black. You haven't a Hell's hope of telling one gate from the other.

You cannot find your field. Your field is lost. Also your tracksuit bottoms. Your jumper. Your wedding ring. You begin to panic. What will William say when you land home in your Sunday dress? There are no lies for this. Nothing you can do with words. For a moment you think about cycling back into town, to the girls, and the Home, and the old ones disappearing in their BHS nighties. But you aren't daft. You know he'll come after you. Even if he doesn't you don't belong there anymore. That chapter's closed.

You cycle up the lane, past the chicken coop and the cows already grouped by the milking gate. It's just gone six and you note, with some relief, that the kitchen light isn't on, the bedroom window, similarly blank. He isn't up yet. He might never know. You slip into the house and find an old boiler suit, wrestling it on over your dress, shoving one side of the skirt down each leg. You hear William waking heavily above you. You cannot panic.

You start into his fry: lifting the bacon and sausages from the fridge, forcing the lard around the pan 'til it is liquid spit. You are cracking eggs when he comes up behind you. He places his hands on your wrists as you flick grease over their dead-eyed yolks.

"Fire an extra egg on," he says. Your whole body braces itself for the moment when he will notice your ringless finger. When he will shout or hit or force it up against the hot frying pan. But he doesn't. He just sits down at the table and reaches for yesterday's paper.

"Tea?" you ask.

"Aye," he says, his eyes never leaving the paper. You could be any old one doing his breakfast. You could cry. But you don't. There's the dishes to be done and afterwards, the cows. This is the normal now. It could be so much worse.

Her Other Language: Northern Irish Women Writers Address Domestic Violence and Abuse, edited by Ruth Carr and Natasha Cuddington, is published by Arlen House. The book, which has been funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Allstate, features more than 90 contributors including Lucy Caldwell, Bernie McGill and Medbh McGuckian. It is (normally) available from No Alibis and online from www.whiterow.net for £10 plus p&p


Northern Ireland author Jan Carson's latest novel The Fire Starters won the EU Ireland Prize for Literature. Her other books include Malcolm Orange Disappears, Children's Children and Postcard Stories. Born in Ballymena, Jan lives in east Belfast, where she also runs arts events for the elderly

Belfast Telegraph