The clock said 8.15. Hannah sank back into her pillow. She had woken several times in the night from bad dreams, good dreams, dreams that left her anxious and wanting to wake up. What was the worst one? Florrie Stephenson calling her the spawn of the devil, throwing groceries at her in the supermarket car park and ramming her with her trolley . . .
Hannah pushed back the bedclothes and her feet found her slippers. She moved about as quietly as possible. Beryl was very tired. She had worked seven days on the trot before driving to Drumcadden after finishing work in the hotel at noon. She wouldn’t wake her if she could help it.
She would go to church. Anything was better than this vacuum . . . Why should she stay away from church on Christmas Day just to convenience him?
After taking several deep breaths to ease the fear in her chest, she scribbled a note for Beryl then drank some orange juice. Why had she drunk so much wine last night? Checking her image in the bathroom mirror she thought she looked tired and drawn but makeup would cover up most of it.
She put on her red coat over her jeans and a black jumper. He wouldn’t be able to miss her in the church . . .
So much for a white Christmas! Outside the air was cold and damp.
There were at least twenty cars parked on either side of the laneway that led down to Rathbrandon parish church.
She said hello to other parishioners as she walked down to the gate. Instinctively she looked toward the Stephenson graves that she had found when she first came to Drumcadden.
She swallowed hard – Abe Stephenson and his wife were putting holly wreaths on them.
“At least he remembers his dead,” she said to herself, walking straight into the church and accepting the hymnal and prayer book handed to her by the churchwarden.
Where would she sit? Towards the back?
Roy Kemp was already in a seat further up. Where was Leo? She doubted if he went very often. Vera looked away after glancing down at her. Roy smiled when he looked round.
Now she saw Abe Stephenson and Florrie walk up the aisle, Florrie heading for the organ. He walked up to their pew on the left side of the church without looking round.
“Stephensons have probably sat in that same seat for generations. Maybe even owned it,” she said to herself.
Did Florrie look paler than usual? Maybe she was just cold . . .
“To begin our service of worship on this Christmas Day, we will sing our first hymn . . . The holly and the ivy . . .”
There was a clatter as everyone got to their feet.
They were singing the final verse when Hannah felt someone stand into the pew beside her. Rough hands flicked through a hymn book. Hannah’s nostrils twitched. What was the smell? Cow dung? Sheep shit? She could see a spatter on the back of the man’s hands. God – could whoever he was not wash himself before coming to church?
She glanced sideways as the hymn ended and she sat down. It was Leo Kemp. He winked at her. His wink repulsed her. Why did he have to sit beside her? With only about sixty people in the church there was lots of room elsewhere.
She could see Vera Kemp turn and scan the congregation to see who the newcomer was. She didn’t look best pleased.
“Almighty God . . .from whom no secrets are hidden . . .”
Hannah tried to concentrate on the words. What was her father thinking as the clergyman read those words? How could he pretend to be a pillar of the parish when all the time he was denying his own flesh and blood?
Her heart began to pound when the clergyman summoned them to the altar for communion. Draw near with faith.
Abe and Florrie Stephenson were among the first to receive, being at the top of the church.
She watched them from her seat, looking dignified, reverential. It shocked her that she was impressed by the look of him – physically he was still handsome. Bearing, that’s what he had.
When it came to the turn of those in the seats near her, she stood up to go up for communion. Leo, beside her, stood up too, standing back to let her and the two other people in the pew walk up ahead of him. At least he had some manners. She didn’t look sideways as she approached the altar.
The wine tasted like paint stripper. Where did they get the stuff?
Receive the body and blood of Christ . . .
Getting up from the communion rails, she turned to walk back down the aisle looking straight ahead.
Was he looking at her? She felt scared again. No, if he was, so be it . . . She had as much right to be here as he had, didn’t she?
The next hymn was the collection one. She heard Florrie fumble over a few notes, but she got over it.
Christmas must be difficult for her at the best of times . . . Today she seemed pale and distracted as she sat at the organ.
The rector was full of good cheer as he shook hands with each member of the congregation as they left the church.
“Hannah – I thought I could hear a good voice. A very happy Christmas.”
“The same to you.”
Leo was behind her as she stepped out of the church.
“I didn’t know you dug with this foot . . .”
“Well, life is full of surprises.”
It was a couple that had been carol singers – the Malones – greeting her. Hannah tried to make small talk with them, keeping one eye on the door at the same time.
Leo had stood to one side and was now lighting up a cigarette.
Eventually Florrie Stephenson emerged from the doorway, carrying her music bag. He was following behind, talking to another parishioner as he walked.
Hannah stood on the gravel near the door.
He looked straight past her.
Florrie was pale but friendly.
“Happy Christmas, Hannah.”
“And to you.”
Abe had moved away to talk to Leo. Hannah felt hurt but what was she expecting – that just because it was Christmas Day he would throw his arms around her and shout “This is my beloved daughter!” at the top of his voice. Dream on . . .
Florrie seemed uneasy as she stopped to speak to her.
“Hannah, you know the day of your mother’s burial – did many locals go?”
“Not that I know of. No one made themselves known to me if there was. Why do you ask?”
“No reason, really. I was just thinking that it’s sad more didn’t go, really, but I suppose with her being out of the area so long . . .”
“Yes. Are you ok?”
“Yes, thank you. Don’t mind me. I ramble on sometimes. I hope you have a good Christmas.”
“You too. Fingers crossed there won’t be any rodents around . . .”
“Sorry . . .?”
Hannah explained about the rats infesting the place and how she’d had to get rid of them.
“It’s as if someone wants me out,” she said. “But sure, they’re gone now and there’s no point on dwelling on it.”
Florrie looked shocked and even more uneasy now.
“That’s dreadful. Yes, I hope that’s an end of it. No one should endure that type of harassment.”
Hannah saw Abe pass by, still deep in conversation with another man.
“Hannah – wait up!”
It was Leo Kemp, running, his left hand holding his coat closed as he ran.
Hannah glanced up the lane at Abe, who was looking back at Leo and getting into the Mercedes, his face like thunder.
Florrie said a quick goodbye before Leo reached them.
“Happy Christmas, Hannah – excuse me . . .”
“Your uncle doesn’t look very happy about you talking to me,” she said when Leo reached them.
“He’s all right. He’s only jealous he’s not young enough to be chatting up women anymore himself.”
“Is that what you’re doing?”
“Maybe. God loves a trier, like they say.”
Hannah watched the Mercedes roar up the laneway.
“Sorry about the smell of sheep. I went to look at them before I left the yard and one was having trouble yeaning, so I got delayed.”
Hannah felt sorry for the ewe.
“Actually I wanted to ask you to a party – New Year’s Eve. Few beers, bit of craic . . . at my place – the bungalow.”
“I didn’t think you were the party organizing type.”
“There’s always a first time. So – how are you fixed?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to see what Beryl’s plans are.”
“Bring her along. The more the merrier, as they say. Nine o’clock.”
Hannah opened her car door, waving at Roy as she did so.
“Is Roy going?”
“I suppose. That right, brother – New Year’s Eve, the piss-up?”
“I’ll see,” Hannah said as she started the engine.
It was 10.45 a.m. by the time she got back to the cottage. Beryl was at the door looking anxious.
“You put the turkey on – great! It smells good.”
“You never woke me . . .”
“You needed a rest. I just thought I’d go on my own – to church.”
Her friend looked concerned.
“Was he there?”
Hannah stood in front of the cooker to heat up, glad to be back in the security of the cottage.
“He blanked me the whole time,” she said quietly, trying to keep her voice steady. “Florrie spoke though. She seemed a bit out of sorts. She asked me if there were any locals at Mam’s funeral. Why would she ask that?”
“Maybe she suspects him of going . . .”
“You think? God, I’d love to get inside her head – and his for that matter. Stop looking at me like that . . .”
“Yes you are! Like I’m losing it or something . . .”
“You’re sailing so close to the wind . . .”
“So what? Isn’t it about time something happened?” Hannah poured herself a glass of wine from the fridge. “And please – just stop gawking at me – you’re not my mother.”
“Whatever you say . . .”
“Anyway – guess what – we’ve been invited to a party.”
Beryl looked shocked when Hannah told her where it was.
“You’re not going, surely?”
“Why shouldn’t I? It’s a free country. You’re asked too. You never know – it mightn’t be so bad.”
“Hannah . . .”
“Why shouldn’t we go? It’s rude to turn down an invitation. Besides, Roy is going – we can talk to him. You see – now you’re interested!”
“I am not! What if everyone’s there? What are you going to do – play happy families?”
“I doubt he’ll have old fogies there – not by the way he was talking . . .”
Beryl stood up to clear the table.
“Can we just stop talking about all this? It’s freaking me out. Let’s just get Christmas Day over first. The others should be here any minute. I’m going to get dressed.”
Beryl shoved a piece of paper towards her. It was a cooking schedule.
“And I’m not doing all the cooking on my own . . .” she said, looking at Hannah’s glass.
God, did she have to be such a holy Joe?
“I’m stuffed,” Noel said as he plonked himself down on the sofa.
Rita was too.
“That was some dinner – cheers Beryl!”
“Just as well Noel is driving back,” Rita said. “This wine is great, Hannah.”
“She should know,” Beryl said.
“Come on, cheer up – tis the season to be jolly or to stuff the turkey’s hole with holly or something like that . . .”
Noel was looking at her, a bit amazed.
“Whatever happened to holy Hannah? You’ll have to be careful or you’ll set us a bad example. Nanna used to hold you up as a model of good behaviour. If we did something wrong she’d say, ‘What would Hannah say if she knew how you were behaving?’ You were Little Miss Perfect.”
Hannah dropped a plate that she was attempting to dry.
“I should buy a dishwasher,” she said, staggering as she tried to pick up the pieces. “Bloody ridiculous drying up all these dishes. Life’s too short.”
“Sit down before you break something else. The rest of us will finish up.”
Hannah felt the tea cloth being taken out of her hands by Beryl.
Rita had asked about the progress with her father over dinner. Everyone from Royle was interested in what was happening to her. Noel had never known his parents or anything about himself. Rita had tried to find her mother, but it had not gone well.
“So what do you do if he keeps denying you?” Noel asked.
Hannah held up her glass.
“Expose him for the liar he is.”
“Hannah . . .”
Beryl was at it again.
“Hannah what? Come on, Hannah what? I can do what I like and say how I feel, can’t I? If I want to call my own father a liar, I can. I could call him worse.”
“You’re angry . . .” Rita said.
“Bloody right I’m angry . . .”
“Maybe you should calm down a bit . . .”
“Oh great, it’s three against one now, is it? Go on, Noel, tell us what you think.”
“I’m saying nothing.”
“About right. Not one of you here can point a finger at anyone. You’re all as bitter as hell in your own way, you just cover it up most of the time, that’s all. Yeah, well, I’m tired of covering it up. At least I have some target for my anger – it’s more than the lot of you have.”
“Hannah . . .”
“Why shouldn’t we be bitter? I’m sick of all this ‘keep your head down and let it go and move on’ shite. Let them all off the hook – is that what you want to do – the parents who bonked away good-o then threw the lot of us nuisance babies into homes!”
“You don’t mean that – you can’t wish you were never born,” Rita was saying. “We’re all part of God’s plan.”
“My eye! We’re the result of human beings’ mistakes – dirty secrets, the lot of us. We were hated when we were in our mother’s wombs because we were tragedies and inconveniences. Fear of shame – that’s why we were shut away – to keep the fornicators looking like saints.”
“Now you’re being crude!”
“Oh dear – have I offended Beryly Weryley’s sensibilities? Aw!”
Her friend was standing up now, her face redder than she’d ever seen it.
“Would you be pursuing him as much if he was an on-the-dole- alcoholic living in a kip – answer me that? You’ve been eyeing up what he has from the minute you first heard about him, so have a good look at your own motives!”
Hannah threw her glass hard against the cupboard.
“I’m his daughter and I’m entitled to what I’m entitled to, and don’t you dare say anything else!”
Hannah could see her friends all staring at her. Now she felt light-headed.
“This is some Christmas . . .” she could hear Rita say.
Hannah felt more anger surge through her.
“Well, I’m sorry! Speak a few home truths around here and you get criticized, is that it? Home truths. I’ve a good mind to give someone a few home truths . . . and he’s only up the road . . .”
Hannah grabbed the car keys from the windowsill, but Beryl was now wrenching them out of her hand.
“You can’t drive! For God’s sake!”
Hannah heard the shouts of the others as they tried to pull her back from the door. Beryl was trying to take the keys out of her hand.
“I’m going to tell him what I think of him – you hear? Do you know he infested this place with rats just to get rid of me? That he says it’s my mother’s word against his that I’m his daughter and that I’m to crawl back in under whatever rock I came from – my own father – saying that to me!”
She felt Beryl and Noel now guide her back to the sofa.
“Black coffee – now!”
“Just put her to bed. She’d be better just sleeping it off.”
Hannah felt weak now and ready to bawl.
Beryl and Rita were helping her upstairs.
“I’m sorry, I’ve messed up the day for you. I’m a feckin’ eejit . . .”
She was vaguely aware of being plonked down on her bed and a duvet being thrown over her. Someone was pulling off her boots.
“I’m like a cowboy in a Western – yahoo! Too much firewater – that’s what the Indians called wine, you know – or was it whiskey . . . ?”
Beryl and Rita were rolling her over on her side and tucking in the duvet.
“Go to sleep!”
“Hark the herald angel sing . . .”
“Ssh! Just go to sleep!”
“ Ok, right. . . whatever you say . . . you’re all a shower of bossy boots . . .”