Peering through the dusty venetian blinds in the end terrace, Maggie watched James and Sarah skip down the street in the rain. She waited patiently for the children to turn and wave at her from the bottom of the hill, as usual, a shadow of a smile crossed her pale face.
‘Why haven’t you walked them down to school? It’s not as if you’re doing anything else,’ Cliff said, his eyes fixed on the eggs congealing on his plate.
‘You know why,’ she said, not turning around. ‘There’s nothing to stop you doing it.’
‘Who’s the only one earning anything here?’ He rolled his fried bread in the last of the egg yolk and stuffed it into his mouth. ‘That’s woman’s work, seeing to the wee ones. It looks odd, those two crossing that road on their own. Especially after Sarah’s been sick.’
‘I wish I could take them, but I can’t. Stop getting at me.’
Maggie opened a gap in the blinds with one hand so the children could see her acknowledge their wave. Afterwards, she wiped the dust from her hand on her apron and went over to the table to re-fill Cliff’s mug from the old enamel teapot. She hovered by his chair until he had finished eating.
‘Cliff, can you call in to the doctors on your way home? My tablets are done.’
‘For all the good they’re doing you, I don’t know why you bother.’
‘And we could do with a couple of other things as well,’ Maggie added. She reached for a scrap of paper, scribbled on it and thrust it at him.
‘It’s Friday, you know. I’ll not be back ‘til late.’ He jabbed in his mouth with his fork, trying to nab the last shards of bacon fat impaled on the nicotine-stained teeth.
‘Please, Cliff, if you want the children to get fed, we need spuds and bacon.’
He paused for a moment, withdrawing the fork and Maggie watched him suck in his fleshy cheeks, the mottled skin flushing in anger. As he breathed out, he plunged his fork down into the table, the thump of his fist echoing around the room.
‘If you want to eat, you need to get back earning. My job’s likely to go soon enough.’ He grabbed the note, tucking it into his breast pocket without reading it and pushed his chair back so forcibly that it clattered against the ripped linoleum. Maggie cupped her hands about her ears, as if the noise was causing her pain.
‘I told you already! I can’t go out. I can’t think straight with these voices,’ she said.
‘Your voices seem to speak every time there’s a job to be done. I’m sick of them and you. Get yourself sorted or I’ll sort them for you—’
His threat hanging in the air, he left the dirty plate on the table and went out, slamming the door behind him. Maggie eyed the fresh dents on the table, then closed her eyes, gripping the back of the chair. The voices were drumming inside her head, hammering out their message repeatedly. She left the dirty dishes on the table, their stained, malevolent faces leering at her and went back to the window to watch Cliff stride down the street towards the factory. It was three months now since she’d started hearing the voices and, despite Cliff ridiculing her and sending her to the doctor for ‘nutter’ pills, the voices had become something like companions, coming and going but not outstaying their welcome, until these last few days.
She went out to the scullery and reached up to the shelf above the washing machine where Cliff kept his tools in a worn leather satchel. She strung it over her shoulder, lifted a hammer and went upstairs where the windows overlooked a row of narrow, sun-starved courtyards. Then, starting with her own bedroom window, she hammered the long nails into the sides of the sill. By the third window she had a pattern going, three nails either side and the sill was fastened. She had been a strong and energetic girl once. It was the years with Cliff that had worn her down, turned her into someone no longer recognisable, even to her own family.
The voices kept at her until the job was done. It was late afternoon when she simmered the last of the vegetables and scrag end to make a stew. She filled the coal scuttle from the bunker in the yard and lit the fire At five o’clock the back door swung open and Cliff stood, empty handed, in the doorway.
‘Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m back so early?’
‘I –I just presumed you’d gotten us those things—’
‘Well, you’re wrong,’ he said. ‘The factory’s closing. Over a hundred of us out, tonight.’
He ran his hand over his stubble and stood watching her filling the basin in the sink with water.
‘So what you think that means?’
She opened her mouth, a pulse beating faster in her ears.
‘I’ll tell you, shall I?’ he said, advancing towards her. Her hands reached out to grasp the work surface. He spread an arm on either side of hers until he was breathing against her cheek, the sour stench of the local alehouse filling her nostrils. She could feel him pressing hard against her and she wanted to gag.
‘It means you’re going to have to go back to the shop. It means you can’t hide no longer from the world. It means I don’t want to see your shit-scared face every time I walk in the door.’
‘It’s not my fault, Cliff. I sense things that you don’t. I hear things that you can’t—’
‘And what are the voices telling you now, Maggie?’ HIs hand slid under her jumper, reaching up to her breasts.
‘It’s getting closer now, Cliff. The voices are talking all the time—’
‘What’s getting closer?’
She whispered so softly he had to tilt his head to hear.
He dropped his hand and pushed her away so that she stumbled against the cooker.
‘For Christ’s sake, Maggie, we’re all going to die sometime,’ he said. ‘What about the children? Are they doomed too?’ He listened for a second and frowned in the silence. ‘Where are they?’
‘Still down in Aileen’s—’
‘Still? What have you been doing all day?’ He looked at the greasy plates piled by the sink. ‘You haven’t even washed the breakfast things? What the hell have you been doing?’ His voice started to rise.
‘I—I didn’t realise the time.’
Cliff shook his head . ‘I can’t go on like this, Maggie. You know the whole village is talking about you. Saying that you’re an unfit mother. Never mind a wife.’
‘That’s why I wanted my pills—’
‘It’s no wonder the men wanted to buy me a beer tonight. Some of them are away home to a bit of comfort and a warm bed. What do I get? A basket case, crazy as a bag of ferrets.’
He was pacing the tiny floor, there was nowhere for her to go.
‘Tomorrow you can ring that boss of yours and tell him you’ll be back on Monday. You can work eight to two and pick up the kids. He can’t say no.’
‘But you know what the doctor said.’
‘That doctor’s a sissy. Hands like a queen. Never done a proper days work in his life.’
‘And he said you need to cut down on the booze—’
He was across the linoleum to her in two steps. The crack across her face was like a shot. He stood quivering beside her, his florid jowls reddening to a beetroot shade.
‘Don’t you dare tell me what I can and can’t do, you whore!’
She started to sob and turned away from him towards the window. James and Sarah were coming up the street, Sarah falling behind and then running to keep up with her big brother. The front latch banged, the rise and fall of the kids’ voices in the hall. They faltered when they came into the kitchen and saw Cliff and his angry red face. His thin lips curled as he walked towards Sarah.
‘Dad’s going to be here when you come home from school, for a while. Isn’t that good, darling?’ Cliff said in a softer tone, reaching out to touch his daughter’s cheek. She shrank back and pressed against James, who was watching warily, his hands clenching and unclenching. Cliff turned away and reached into the back of a cupboard, lifting out a couple of beer tins and brought them over to his armchair by the smouldering fire.
‘I’m not going back out there, Cliff,’ Maggie said, drawing her thin cardigan tightly around her chest. She sat at the table with the children whilst they ate their stew in silence.
‘You’ve no choice, Maggie.’
He stretched out his legs, finished the beer and opened the second can. He threw a couple of sticks onto the coals but they were still damp after the spring rain and the fire fizzled, sending a smoky trail across the room. Sarah began to cough.
‘Does nothing in this bloody house work?’ Cliff swung his leg across the fraying mat and kicked the grate, knocking over the open can at his feet.
‘Christ, woman, get me another beer,’ he ordered.
Maggie gave a reassuring nod to the children and went over to the cupboard, rummaging amongst the empty tins.
‘There’s none left,’ she said.
‘You’re bloody useless, you are,’ Cliff shouted. He got up and went out to the scullery. Maggie knelt by the grate and reset the fire, finding some small, dry logs and balancing them carefully on the coals before reaching for the poker to stoke the coals.
‘Maggie, what the hell’s this?’ Cliff’s heavy tread pounded across the floor until he was beside her. He held up a cardboard box and poured out packet after packet of unopened pill strips onto the mat.
‘You lying bitch, no wonder you’re still hearing those voices.’
James and Sarah had stopped eating and were staring at them, mouths open. Maggie paused, the poker raised and squeezed her eyes shut.
‘Stop, please Cliff, you’re making them worse. It’s coming—’
‘That’s it,’ Cliff said. ‘I’ve had enough of this nonsense. You’re going outside! Now!’
He pulled her roughly to her feet and she dropped the hot poker on the mat. He dragged her out to the front hall.
“Face your demons, Maggie, they’re all in your head.’
Sarah started crying, loud sobs against the crackle of the wood taking hold in the grate. James jumped up and grabbed his father’s arm.
‘Leave Mum alone! I hate you.’
Cliff pushed his son roughly away and he fell on the mat. James grabbed the poker and ran back out into the hall, holding it aloft with both hands.
‘I told you to leave her alone,’ he said, edging towards his father.
Cliff let go of Maggie for a second to pull the curtain back from the front door and undo the lock.
‘No, James, no,’ Maggie shouted. She reached out to grab James and pulled the poker from him, swinging it around towards Cliff. Just before the orange glow of its tip connected with Cliff’s face, he tugged the curtain in front of him like a shield. The poker sliced through the material, an inch from his ear, and the heat surged through the light cotton fabric.
‘You’re going to pay for that,’ he shouted.
Maggie had turned back into the living room, lifted Sarah from her seat and out onto the stairs. She pushed James up behind his sister.
‘Both of you, go to my room and stay there until I come,’ she said, watching the flame glide along the flimsy curtain.
Cliff grabbed Maggie, dragging her backwards towards the living room, her arm dangling, still holding the poker.
‘Put the flames out, Cliff, please, put them out,’ she begged, her eyes stinging from the acrid fumes.
‘Not until we’ve burned the demons out of you,’ he said.
He dragged her across the mat towards the fireplace. She could hear the children’s footsteps overhead and the creak of her bed as they climbed into it. They would curl up together and wait for her, as they had done so many times before. She mustered all her strength and hoisted the poker high enough to force the still hot tip into Cliff’s side. A scream, then he staggered, tripping on the stash of tablets and fell backwards against the fireplace. His head hit the stone hearth and he crumpled onto the mat.
The voices were coming louder again, commanding her. All was silent in the house. In the swirling grey haze, she went through to the kitchen and locked the back door, drawing the bolt firmly into place. She closed the venetians against the black night and, from above, heard Sarah calling for her and James’ steady voice in response. The flames were licking at the hall table by the bottom of the stairs. She paused, mesmerized, the voices briefly calmed by the heat. Then they picked up again and she climbed over the banister and went up the stairs to the children’s room.
With four young children, I work in the health service in Northern Ireland and have used my hospital experience in some of my short stories and in my first novel A Year In The life Of Maggie Sweeney. I am currently working on my second novel’. I have been writing from an early age, receiving my first personalised rejection letter from Penguin when I was eight! In 2013, I completed my MA in Creative Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre at the Queen’s University of Belfast, under the tutelage of Ian Sansom (now Professor Sansom at The University of Warwick).