It was a blow for Anne when Mickey died, I’ll grant you that. She was in town on a Saturday afternoon choosing hall wallpaper and he was at home watching the television. So the last thing he saw was probably horse-racing. She came into the living-room with four different samples and got him lying dead on the floor. Underneath him lay the Radio Times. For a while Anne was on nerve pills, got headaches, cried every time somebody even said Mickey’s name. But she came round. Women do. Now she’s out at painting classes and the Vincent de Paul Society and there’s even talk about learning Japanese. I don’t think she misses him at all, except when something goes wrong, like the boiler stops working or a door handle won’t turn. Then she rings me. If I can fix it, I do; if I can’t, I arrange for somebody to come and look at it.
She prefers when it’s me does the work, I think. Clucks about saying thanks and do I need a wrench and only for me she’d be lost. Afterwards we go into the living room and I sit in the chair Mickey fell out of when he died, and she brings in tea and wheaten biscuit half-coated with chocolate, and sometimes three or four Kitkats in their red wrappers. The tea is always too weak. We sit and chat about the new priest and whether she needs her glasses changed and how polite the wee girl working in the dry-cleaner’s is. You couldn’t get a civiler chat. And yet, when I sneak a look at her face as she stares out the window or nibbles like a mouse on the corner of a biscuit, I feel a twinge of dislike for her. Unfair, because in some ways she was every bit as much a victim as me, all those years ago. When I’m feeling a bit out of sorts or tired, I blame our mother. Into myself, that is, not out loud to Anne. If our mother had been there that day, there’d have been no trouble.
Normally she was there on Pancake Tuesday, standing at the kitchen table, everything ready for us. We’d have raced each other the length of our lane – Anne is four years older than me, so she always won. Panting, we’d toss our bags in the space between the chest of drawers and the wall, then flop into our place at the kitchen table.
Our mother didn’t make pancakes the perfect flat shape you get in shops nowadays. They’d bulge more at one side than the other, and their edges would taper into a crisp brown wafer, sometimes even a black lacy edge. But unloaded on our plates, crusted with sugar and limp with butter, they seemed perfect. Immediately we would start forking them into our mouths, sucking air to cool them as we gobbled. At the cooker our mother went on pouring and scooping, smearing with butter and coating in sugar. For fifteen minutes she kept ferrying fresh helpings, until our mouths hung open and we had difficulty breathing.
The best part was, all this gorging happened the day before Lent. And Lent for us meant sacrifice. Sugarless tea that tasted like paraffin. Slices of bread without jam that scratched the roof of your mouth. No sweets. Visits to the Blessed Sacrament, so boring you felt like whimpering. And a mortification I didn’t let on about: in the toilet, for forty days and nights, I sat with the seat up, not down. Pain and deprivation at every turn, deliberately inflicted, to make the soul behave itself. So when we tumbled into bed on Pancake Tuesday, we were literally swollen with righteousness. Tonight had been the feast, tomorrow would be the famine.
But that was before this particular Pancake Tuesday. I was ten and Anne was fourteen, and when we came panting in the door, instead of being at the cooker where she should have been, our mother was in the hall with her coat and hat on. She was slipping down the road, she said, to see Mrs Davey. Wouldn’t be two ticks. Mrs Davey was sick with something that kept making her thinner, and word had come earlier in the day that she’d taken a wee turn for the worse.
“She might be in need of her floor swept, or them two wee boys need their dinner” our mother said, picking up her handbag.
We didn’t like the Davey boys who were only in Third Class and whose noses ran.
“What about our pancakes?” I asked, my voice wobbly with self-pity.
Our mother looked in the hall mirror and touched a wisp of hair into place at the back of her head. It was all right, she said, the mix was made. If she wasn’t back by half-four, Anne could pour it carefully from the bowl into the frying-pan and put the pan on the cooker. The instructions were written on the lid of a shoe box. But our dinners were in the oven and we were to eat them first.
It was quiet and gloomy in the kitchen on our own. Anne sat at the top of the table, reading a woman’s magazine. From time to time she’d glance at her plate and spear a bit of stew. Duck her head to bring her mouth nearer the fork. Then she’d go on reading, cheeks bulging and lips barely closed as she chewed. The pendulum clock that my father oiled every first Sunday of the month, using a feather and a bottle of paraffin, made its slow tick that was more a cluck. Outside the window, drops of rain had begun to darken the orange roof of the hay-shed.
I used the back of my fork to mash my potato, then patted it flat and eased it sideways to mop up an estuary of gravy. I’d manage the sweets all right – everybody would be off them, at least for the first week. And chewing my food thirty times every mouthful was just a matter of counting. You could manage having no hot-water bottle if you rubbed your feet together under the bedclothes. All that stuff would be simple. No, the hard part about Lent was going to be not watching Anne dress herself.
The thing was, I slept in an inner bedroom – to get to it you had to go through Anne’s bedroom. My room was small and had a picture of Our Lady with her eyes cast down so she looked half-asleep, and a withered blessed palm stuck in the corner of its frame. It was a nice room – below it was the back yard, and beyond that the front field and the rabbit holes along by the hedge leading down to the river. Some mornings when I had nothing to do, I’d lean my elbows on the window and stare out until my eyes felt glazed. Other times I groped under the bed and got out one of the comics stored there, or an Enid Blyton book. But the thing I like doing best was lying back in bed on a Saturday morning, looking through the half-open door and watching while Anne took off her nightdress and one by one put on her clothes.
Her legs were easily the best part. Especially when she had adjusted her navy blue knickers and pulled her black stockings into place. The part of her legs between garters and knickers oozed out over the tops of the stockings, and how anything could be so round and white and plump was beyond belief. The fact that they were on show for such a short time in a way made it better – no matter how much I told myself to be ready now, my eyes would barely have adjusted to the sight when the vision would be gone. She’d have wriggled into her skirt, joined some sort of hook things at the side and smoothed the front and back with the flat of her hands before I had time to swallow.
My eyes, if she ever glanced towards me, would be shut. Or at least that’s how they would seem to her. In fact I could see perfectly through the bars of my lashes. If she called into me, which she sometimes did, I’d groan faintly, like a man buried under a mountain of sleep. When her dressing was complete and she’d headed downstairs, an emptiness would fill my heart. It was like when the hobby horses stopped at Bundoran and you had to get off – a brief whirl of music and colour, then life fell back into its drab, black-and-white state again. Except that the hobby horses were once a year, during the summer, and Anne’s legs were once a week, all year round. That was a consoling thought.
Only now, in a fit of heroism, I’d gone and given the legs up for Lent. Not because they were wrong but simply because they were enjoyable, like sugar in your tea. I’d have to listen for the sound of the bed creaking as she got out of it. No matter what rustling I heard, and until her footsteps sounded going downstairs, I would keep my eyes on the page. The thing was, did I have the will-power? The Famous Five and Korky the Kat could be exciting to read about, but they didn’t hold a candle to Anne’s two goose-bumped legs.
Now, in the kitchen on Pancake Tuesday, I put my knife and fork together in the middle of my empty plate and wondered if God would consider an altered package. Say, an extra rosary every Saturday instead, or sleeping without a pillow? The possibilities of a new Lenten deal that would leave Anne’s legs alone were beginning to form in my mind. But before they had time to develop, the owner of the legs wiped her mouth with her hand, said cabbage should be fed to pigs, not humans, and began to make the pancakes.
As she cooked she talked to me over her shoulder, and her mood seemed to improve. She spoke of school, and of a girl called Fidelma Taggart, who smelt. When the nun wanted to punish a girl, she’d put her sitting beside Fidelma. She spoke of a mechanic who worked in Charlton’s garage and who stared at her from underneath cars as she walked home. “His eyes devour me” she said. She spoke of countries she had studied in geography where they strangled baby girls, and other countries where men had up to fifty wives. “Once a month the man gets all his wives together in one room. For social purposes”.
And then she began to tell me about Pancake Tuesday in America. The people there didn’t call it Pancake Tuesday at all, they called it Mardy Grass. That was because the weather in America is so hot, people go out and sit on the grass every chance they get, and Mardy is an American word for Tuesday. And on the Mardy Grass day they didn’t eat pancakes in the hot American weather, they’d burn the mouth off you. Instead they ate big juicy pears and oranges and bananas that were brought round in baskets by lovely-looking girls, and big black men with really white teeth would stand on chairs and play trumpets. They did too, it was in the magazine she read one time. And the girls – you should see the girls, she said with a little sideways smile at me. The Mardy Grass girls had nothing on them but wee short skirts up to here – the edge of her hand pressed against her thigh – and they served cream meringues and they kissed the men on the mouth, so bits of cream stuck to their moustaches, especially the Negro men, who had curly black moustaches and laughed with their mouths open when they were kissed.
The eating and drinking and music and kissing went on all Pancake Tuesday day and all Pancake Tuesday night. Non-stop. I asked how they managed to go to the lav.
“This magazine was written in England” she said sternly. “They’re not going to start talking about going to the lav”. Some of the men, she went on, fell asleep and woke up with sunstroke, and had to have bags of ice held to their forehead for at least six hours by one of the girls. And then at sundown – just about now, she said, waving her hand towards the steady drizzle that had developed outside our window -with the mosquitoes making their melodious call, all the people would get up from the grass and form four lines. Each person would put their hands on the waist of the person in front, and the four big lines would twist and sing their way to the town hall in New Orleans, kicking their legs out sideways in time to the beat. And there the girl with the shortest skirt and the shiniest hair would be crowned Mardy Grass queen, and she’d sit for five minutes on the knee of every man there, and sometimes a black man would get so excited he’d play his trumpet until he burst a blood vessel in his neck and fell off the chair and had to be taken to hospital.
When she told me all this Anne kept poking at the pan with a fork, leaning forward occasionally with her eyes closed to sniff. She looked as if she knew what she was doing, but in fact she was making a muck of things. Maybe she hadn’t the pan properly greased, or she cooked the pancakes for too long. Whatever it was, the mixture she brought to the table looked like blackish scrambled eggs.
“It’s clustered now, but wait ‘til you see when it settles” she said, shaking a lump onto my plate.
It lay there in a heap, glistening. When I prodded it with a fork, a little bit slid down the heap. The portion on her own plate, I noticed, was smaller than mine.
“Mmmm!” she said, nibbling on a tiny mouthful.
I loaded my fork as heavy as I could and swallowed. The black and brown mess slid down, but left an ashy taste on the roof of my mouth. After two glasses of water from the scullery tap the taste was still there.
“Mmmm” said Anne, licking her fingers and looking with half-closed eyes at the ceiling. “Not quite perfect yet”.
With the last batch, she decided our mistake so far had been that we (she kept saying ‘we’, although she hadn’t allowed me near the cooker), we hadn’t flipped the pancakes into the air enough, the way Lord Snooty and Keyhole Kate did in the comics. It was the air passing under the pancakes, she explained, that made them nice and fluffy.
Standing with the heavy pan between her bent knees, a drying-cloth wrapped round the hot handle, she swung it violently up to head height and pulled it quickly back down again. Hard work: you had to watch you didn’t spill and the pan weighed a ton. After three tries she was gasping, but the mixture was still in the pan. It clung there, like a parachute in a field of treacle. Then suddenly on the fifth go, which she swore was going to be the last, the pancake gave a flop, left the pan and landed on the hotplate of the cooker. Or at least half of it did – the other half, showing a jagged tear, stayed put in the pan. Immediately the air was thick with smoke and hissing.
“Holy hanging Jesus!” Anne yelled, dropping the pan and blowing at the smoky mess on the hotplate. Useless. From what we could see through the smoke, what had been brown and black had turned completely black. Face red, eyes darting, she shouted for me to lift the bloody pan off the floor, did I want the house burnt to a cinder? I tried to lift it, but the handle was roasting and I let it fall to the floor again, splashing what was left in it over the kitchen tiles and our legs. It felt like getting stung by a nettle.
I’ll have to tell this next bit carefully, because it’s hard to explain. I was bending down to retrieve the pan when for no reason everything became blurred. It was like being coshed from behind by a burglar in one of the Bulldog Drummond books. What had really happened was, my eyes had filled with tears. No warning. One minute, no thought of crying. Next minute, both eyes brimming. I suppose a lot of things caused those tears – the hot pan handle, the smoke, the taste of burnt pancake in my mouth. But the main reason for my tears and the snot that had now begun to stuff my nose up was the feeling that I was a prisoner. A prisoner of this gloomy kitchen, a prisoner of the rain outside, a prisoner of my promise about Anne’s legs.
Why did there have to be a Lent, full of Stations of the Cross and statues muffled in purple? How could my sister be so good at bossing and so bad at cooking pancakes? And why above all had God decided that my life was to be lived in this draughty, shadowy country instead of in America, where I could have danced in the sunshine, my hands on the waist of the person in front? I thought again of those black men from the Mardy Grass blowing their trumpets and cradling girls on their knees, none of them knowing or caring that I existed, and the resentment exploded.
“You’re a big bossy hairy Mary!” I screamed, straightening up. The snots were tickling my upper lip and through the tears Anne had spears of light coming out from all over her. “Talk, talk, talk – think you were a bloody parrot. Only a parrot would cook better pancakes than this, this cat’s pish!” And I kicked the pan across the floor, where it collided with the bottom of the dresser. Then I pulled my sleeve across my upper lip and faced her, hands on hips.
There was a moment of silence after the echo of the pan had died away. She stared from the mess on the cooker to the pan in the corner to me. Her eyebrows pulled together, separated only by a V of anger. Then she came after me, her nails in the scrabbing position and her clenched teeth showing.
It took her a good while to catch me. As she stalked me she used the time to say some things she’d been meaning to say to me, she said, for ages now, only she hadn’t thought I was worth wasting her breath on. She still thought that, in a way, but she’d tell me in any case. I was, she explained, a snottery, two-faced wee shite. Smiling and sucking up to people, showing them my First Communion photograph with my hair slicked down, butter wouldn’t melt, would it? Ha, that was a laugh. For what was I underneath? A whitened speckled cur. A treacherous whining wee white speckled cur that’d try to bite people when their backs were turned. For two pins, she said, when our mother got home, she’d tell her The Truth about me.
“Tell her what?” I asked, my voice wobbling. “I did nothing”.
When I said that, Anne stopped chasing, raised both hands in the air and gave a yelp of laughter. “Listen to it!” she said, as if appealing to an invisible audience. “Would you just listen to the dirty wee, filthy wee hypocrite!” Then she lunged at me across the table. Was it nothing, she said, that a girl couldn’t pull on a pair of stockings but a slimy wee Peep-Tom was squinting at her through a door? That was nothing, was it? Her own brother! She’d thought of turning her back as she got dressed, only that would have made me worse. WOULDN’T IT?
The third time round the kitchen table she managed to hook a finger on to the neck of my pullover, but when I kept on running it stretched and began to tear and she had to let go. One sure thing, she shouted after me, from now on that bedroom door would be shut. I could groan ‘til I took a fit, but I’d get no more open door. She’d get a bar put on it, too, to be on the safe side. If anybody asked she’d tell them. ‘My brother’s not right in the head’ she’d say. Other girls’ brothers respected them, minded their business, kept their eyes to themselves. But not Mr Peep-Tom. Not Mr Sex Maniac. Gleeking round corners like a lighthouse, morning to night, morning to night. Mad to see if he could see something he hadn’t seen before. Well, for my information, when a girl reached fourteen she had a right to some privacy, some respect. Then she got a grip of my hair and pulled me to the ground. Her breath came in hots pants on my face and her nostrils looked a lot bigger than usual.
And that’s where our mother found us – on the kitchen floor – when she came back at ten past five. Anne had her knee in my stomach and a fistful of my hair in her right hand; I had her wee finger bent back as far as I could and were both moaning and near tears. When we heard our mother open the front door, we tried to scramble to our feet, but she was already reaching for the rod that my father kept propped behind the picture of the Sacred Heart.
She didn’t actually use it, just waved it about for a while and shouted. But there was no question of pancakes that night. Anne sidled over and put on her woman-to-woman voice and said it had all been my fault, she’d been trying to restrain me, but our mother wouldn’t listen. Our mother said she’d always known we were bad articles, but she’d never imagined anything like this. Jumping on each other like roaring lions the minute she stepped out of the house! And if anything, Anne was worse than me, for she was a big lump of fourteen that should have known better. And she was a girl. When she was a girl, our mother said for probably the fifteenth time, she used to creep about the house like a mouse, and didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘bold’. Then we got a slice of bread and raspberry jam each, and a mug of tea, and were sent straight up to bed.
Anne had meant what she said to me. That night, and on Ash Wednesday morning, and every morning after that, her bedroom door was closed tight. It took her a while to get it to close, as the door hadn’t been shut in ages and was slightly bent. Now, from where I lay on my bed, I couldn’t see a thing. Except for the smallest chink where the door had warped. If I stood on the iron rail at the bottom of my bed with my face against the wood of the door, my nose squashed against the hinge, I could still see her. Only then, the cold morning air began to make me sneeze and I had to dive under the covers and hold a fistful of sheet against my mouth to smother the sound.
Two weeks later Mrs Davey died, and the following Pancake Tuesday – a year later – my mother had the pancakes going on the cooker as usual. Only instead of running, Anne walked in the lane after school with an amused look on her face. And when our mother put a plateful from the cooker in front of her, she sniffed and said no thanks, she knew what pancakes did to a girl’s complexion. No, she explained, what she wanted, if that was all right, was to go to the pictures with Maeve Mulryan – a last visit before Lent? Astonishingly, without even an argument, she was told she could. An hour later, our mother pulled on her old coat and went to the henhouse to collect eggs. Anne, meanwhile went out the lane smiling with two-and-six in her fist.
Swollen clouds were gathering above the hay shed. Alone, I chewed my way through the two platefuls of pancakes. Each pancake was a further layer of depression on my heart. Anne had escaped, I was still here. Maybe in fifty years’ time I’d still be here in this room, with its shadowy corners and slow-ticking clock and nothing to look at only rain on a roof. How much nicer if after He made me, God had dropped me down in America, to let me live my life in the sunny, short-skirted world of the Mardy Grass.
Last week I said something and after I’d said it I wished I hadn’t. The cistern in Anne’s toilet hadn’t been working properly. So she phoned me and it only took me quarter of an hour to fix it. When I called her in to see it flush, you’d think I’d given her a thousand pounds.
“Thanks be to God” she kept repeating. She’d had nightmares, she said, about the toilet backing up and the whole place a mess, all of the rooms. Then she’d wake up and be afraid to go to sleep in case it really happened.
She’d put the loaded tray down on the little table and was stirring the teapot to get it a bit stronger when I asked if she remembered the day we burnt the pancakes. She stopped with the teaspoon in mid-air. Pancakes? When we were small, I said. When Mrs Davey was sick and we made them ourselves. Anne puckered her lips, narrowed her eyes behind the glasses, went on stirring. No, she said, pancakes was one thing she’d never been able to make. Even when she was small. She paused, took a hanky with an embroidered edge from her apron pocket and blew her nose. And these days, with poor Mickey gone, she tried not to think about the past. Too morbid. “Today, not yesterday” she said to me, holding over a plate of Kitkats. “Have another one of these”.
So I did.