With Matchsticks not Money by Deirdre McClay

Maire turned her key in the lock, and stood alone in the hallway. Through the stained glass panes, the light changed the colour on her coat, and the room had that familiar smell of wood polish over roses. Everything was as usual, from her Grandma’s vase (an heirloom it was said) to her Dad’s overcoat still hanging from the hall stand. To the right, was the door of his veterinary surgery.

Dropping her rucksack, Maire headed to that door; it was locked, but the rattle of her arrival drew her Mum from the kitchen. Kitty smiled as she approached, drying her hands on a tea towel.

"Ach, Maire. How was your flight? Sure Martin could’ve collected you at the airport."

“I’m fine Mum, don’t fuss." Maire approached and kissed her, but Kitty stiffened.

“Alright … " she muttered. “But look at you, you’ve put on a little weight, dear.What have you been at over there? And, you’re tired looking."

“It’s nothing, just the journey over, Mum." Maire took off her coat and hung it beside her Dad’s. One year on and it still held a faint whiff of cigarette.

“I’m making the dinner, dear. Come on into the kitchen and have some tea. I’ve made scones the way you like them." And Kitty turned away.

The kitchen was damp from the cooking. Kitty had been busying herself, and the table was set with all the best fare.

“The weather’s been fine here. Is it the same in Glasgow?" she said, getting to the tea.

“Yes," Maire replied sitting down. “But tell us, how are you?"

“Ach, I manage, but you know yourself, it’s lonely. Orla visits with the wee ones… Martin tries too, but he’s busy at work," and she moved to the sink where she’d left off peeling the potatoes.

Maire watched her put on the rubber gloves before lifting the peeler. She noticed her mother’s hands, nails clipped short and unpolished. It wasn’t like Kitty, she was brusque and dapper, and looked after her hands. Maire could never be bothered with her own. She’d work with them bare, even out on calls with her Dad. “What will we do with you - the changling?" Kitty would say. Now, the same woman dawdled over peeling the potatoes.

“Let me help you there, Mum. Looks like you’ ve been on your feet all morning."

“No dear," Kitty answered, “sure you know I like them peeled just right."

Maire felt a surge of anger; she’ d been wound up the whole journey over, thinking and waiting. Her mother still had that tongue on her. Foot and mouth disease, her Dad’s joke, the only form of it he’ d ever had to treat. But he treated it by ignoring it.

“Why don’t you go upstairs and change for dinner? The others will be here soon," continued Kitty. “Sure you must have something nicer than that in your rucksack."
That was it. Maire was away

“No. I’m going out for a walk -- it’ll clear my head," and she left the kitchen.
God, how she missed her Dad, for he knew how to handle her Mum. And he’d have a proper welcome for the prodigal daughter: a hug at least. Or, had he hogged the welcome for so long that her Mum had forgotten how?

“What’s wrong?" Kitty called after her, but Maire ignored her. She was already heading out the front door, through the rose garden, spilling petals.

Later, Maire stopped to sit on a wall. She craved a smoke but it wasn’t worth the hassle she’ d get from Kitty over the smell. The sunshine filled her face, and she closed her eyes taking deep breaths trying to dispel her anger. It was like she’d never been away. How could she hide from it for a year, and then come back home just to pick up where she’ d left off? Her Dad would’ ve known what to do. To think she spent all last summer on call with him, and now this, the lack of him. But their final call together, that had been some handling with the auld boy, eighty if he was a day, and a mad calf. Sick? It wasn’t too sick to scramble clean out of the crush at the sight of a syringe. A wild black thing with the horns still on, never handled much, and a full grown calf at that. They’ d only made it mad. It raced round the cattle shed as they cleared to the edges, the auld boy retreating to a cubicle. Then it was on the auld boy, at him with the head and he was done for.

“Run," her Dad screamed. And he lifted a fence post. Then he clattered the beast clean over the head. Three times it took before it was off again. Maire cleared to an adjoining shed. There was a gate between the two, and she was safe. Instead, she listened to the commotion next door, terrified for her Dad. And next thing it cleaned the gate, straight through it in one blind charge, her Dad after it with the fence post.

“Climb the wall." he cried. And there was no-where else to go. So she ran to the shed wall and clambered on top. She stood with her back to the iron cladding watching him chase the thing from the shed. It ran full tilt into some machinery on the floor before disappearing into the cubicle house and out the door.

“Don’t think that calf’s too sick," said her Dad on leaving. “Best say nothing to your Mum, if you know what I mean."

Maire welcomed the memory; it calmed her. So, she stood up and walked home. Sure enough, Orla’s car was parked outside, and Maire wondered if her absence had embarrassed Kitty. Would she have called her odd, raising her eyebrows in that way she did? Maire closed the front door, and Orla came.

“Maire, Mum said you’d gone to stretch your legs." They hugged. It was strange to be welcomed in her own home.

“How’s Glasgow, and college? Come in… tell all."

They huddled together like they did for secret news, Orla with her arm around Maire’s shoulders, drawing her in. The children buzzed in: Laura all smiles and curls, and David, lanky and fidgety.

“Ah, look at you two - aren’t you just great? I would hardly know you. Well, who wants their present first?"

“Me," they shouted together, all raised hands and tippy toes. Maire hugged them and then pulled two crumpled presents from her rucksack. The noise drew Kitty to the hallway. “Ah, your back, dear, and you’ve seen the children. Aren’t they getting big? David will soon outgrow his auld grandma - he can beat me at gin-rummy now, you know." And she reached out, cupping her grandson’s head, pulling him to her.

“Did you have a pleasant walk? Dinner’s ready, never mind your change of clothes."

The table should’ve creaked under all the food. She’d made enough for twenty. Maire observed as Kitty served the feast; she insisted on doing it all herself, even carving the lamb which had always been her Dad’s job. Maire never understood these conventions: odd household tasks reserved for him. That was the nature of middle-aged marriage, she supposed, lives measured in daily habits - all the more difficult now that he was dead. Maire’s routine hadn’t been touched in the same way. But, it had grounded today when that plane landed her back home. She carried her own bags and took an Ulsterbus to the house. An old lady gave her a tissue when Maire cried beside her on the coach.

After dinner Kitty asked Maire and Orla to tidy up while she took the children into the living room. Maire volunteered to wash.

“So how’ve you been over there, really." enquired Orla, drying the crystal with care. “Tell all. How’s this new man of yours? Are you bringing him over soon?"

“Huh, Mum wouldn’t approve. He’s studying philosophy. I might as well land home married cos there’ll be a row about it anyway," she clattered at the dishes, eyes fixed on the sink.

“Ach, Maire! Mum’s not that bad."

“Isn’t she? I can wash the dishes after her, but I still can’t peel potatoes right."

“What’s got into you?" said Orla, turning to face her. “You’re worse than ever, wound far too tight. For God’s sake, she’s lost her husband, and sure you’re still her baby… maybe she can’t cope with you off doing things for yourself."

Maire turned from the sink. “Well, there might be something in that. She’s nicer to you. No wonder you defend her."

"What? You’re the one she talks about non stop. And since you told her you were coming to visit, well, I never hear the end of it. Sometimes I wonder if she’s selling the bloody house just to get you home."

“Don’t be ridiculous," said Maire, getting back to the dishes.

“It’s not ridiculous. She misses you, but she tells everyone how clever you are. Over in Scotland studying veterinary, so busy studying you don’t get home."

“Huh, she tells everyone except me."

“Well, maybe if you came home more often she might get the chance. Look at the effort she’s made for you. She’ d let the house and garden go, but now she’s them perfect again. She’s at those roses steady."

Maire stopped washing. “Oh… I didn’t know. Everything looked the same."
“Well, it’s not, Maire. She needs you."

“I’m sorry…. I could see today how she’s slowed up."

“Well, Martin and I didn’t want to annoy you about it all over the phone, but.."

“Now girls - can anyone join in?" It was Martin; he hugged Maire.

“Oh, you’ve grown in the year, Sis."

“What… you mean outwards?" laughed Maire.

“Huh, that’s just typical," said Orla. “You have a laugh with him."

“What did I miss?" grinned Martin, “I thought you two were thick as thieves. Now, what about this boy of yours? When’s he coming over?"

“Boy? What age do you think he is? Anyway, I’ m not bringing him near here, you’d frighten him just for the craic."

“Oh, so it’s serious then... sure isn’t it my job to slag off the boyfriends?"

“What’s that?" interrupted Kitty.

“Ach, you know… reminiscing and all that," replied Martin.

“Well, when you’re finished here come on into the living room. The children want a game of cards."

When they’d cleared up, they went into the living room. The children were seated either side of Kitty at the table. She’ d already dealt a hand, so they took their places. Gin rummy was David’s favourite and he liked to win. Maire watched her Mum, how she huddled to the hands of the children, helping them along. They giggled and nudged each other like three old pals sharing secrets. Laura was younger and needed more help, but Kitty leaned in offering advice, touching her hands in encouragement. Maire looked about the room. The walls were cluttered with framed photographs of all sizes and events: portraits of the grandchildren, wedding and graduation shots. Maire wondered where her own graduation photograph would hang, and who would sit in her Dad’s spot? Would the new owners tend the roses?

“How come you never taught us to play cards, Mum?" teased Martin.

“I don’t know," replied Kitty, “I suppose there never was enough time."

“Oh but she taught me," responded Maire. “Maybe the youngest has some fringe benefits." Then, David noticed Maire staring. “Aunt Maire, did you know that Grandma is the best gin-rummy player in Belfast?" he asked. “She can play poker too and she’s going to teach me… with matchsticks, not money," he added.

Maire smiled at him. “Good boy, David," she said, “you listen to your Grandma."

By eight o’clock the whole family had left, and Maire was tempted to go to bed. She was about to retire, when her Mum came into the living room with two glasses of wine. Kitty handed one to Maire and settled herself on the sofa opposite.

“I thought we might talk, if you’re not too tired," Kitty said. “I like a glass at night now, it helps me sleep," she continued, nodding towards the glass. “Hope you don’t mind?"

Kitty rarely drank, Maire thought, and so she was surprised at her candour.

“I need your help with clearing the surgery, dear. The whole house needs to be done, but the surgery worries me. I don’t know what to do with the stuff … whether it’s useful to anybody, you know."

“So you want me to go through it for you?" asked Maire.

“Well, yes. It’s just, I thought you might want your Dad’s stuff, now that you’ re qualifying. You know, his clients ask after you, and there’s still only a locum in place. The practice could be yours if you want … I could help you find a new premises."

“Oh right," said Maire, shifting in her seat. “To be honest, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing yet. Might be small animals you know….by the way, I tried the surgery door earlier… it was locked."

“Yes," replied Kitty. “I don’t go in there anymore."

The next morning Maire unlocked the surgery door. It was all still the same, the little waiting room with six hard chairs and last year’s magazines on an old coffee table. She walked through to the surgery area. The place was full of equipment and medicine. Kitty came to the door with two mugs of tea.

“Doesn’t the new vet ever use this place?" asked Maire, setting her mug on the operating table.

“No," replied Kitty, “it’s different now. I didn’t want people in day and night - I’ve done with all that."

Maire lifted a stethoscope from the table. “This is all I want, Mum, a wee reminder. I’ll help you box the rest. The new vet could at least use what medicine is in date… and the rest, well I’ m sorry, I can’t carry it all with me."

“Sure, I could keep it for you in the new house… for when you come back," said Kitty.
“You are coming back to me after graduation, aren’t you?"

But Maire had already turned and left the room.


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