We bump into Da in the hallway. His black curly hair is slicked back into an Elvis quiff. He squeezes past us in and pats my head as he passes. The smell of his aftershave lingers like smoke rings in his wake. The white bib of his shirt set against his black leather jacket reminds me of a penguin.
‘Mind how you go now Titch.’
‘Where are you going Da?’
‘I’m off to see a man about a dog.’
‘What sort of dog?’ The front door shuts, throwing my question back at me.
‘Come on, Jacinta, don’t dawdle,’ my big brother Michael says.
I crane my neck so far back to look up the steep stairs that I almost topple backwards. Michael is behind me in the queue, I feel his hands pushing into my back. I start to climb the stairs, but with short legs and high steps, my knees are greeting my nose at each step and I struggle to keep up with my brothers and sisters. I’m so low down that I begin to know the carpet intimately, it’s musty green colour with the dirty white mesh showing through in patches that remind me of Ma’s embroidery cloth. Gold stair rods keep the carpet in place at the nook of each tread. The yellowing crepe soles of my sister’s shoes rise to salute me each time I put a foot on the next step. I feel dizzy. Suddenly a loose stair rod flies out of place and I’m thrown flat on my face. The carpet scratches my skin and an angry looking burn flames on my knee. I’m so shocked that I can’t cry. The breath has gone out of me. Strong hands lift me airborne. There’s a different view from here; lemon painted walls flit past and I make a grab for the wooden bannister, but it slips from my grasp. I’m plonked down on the next landing.
‘Try again Titch.’
‘Carry her up Michael, she’s a baby!’ Eleanor, my sister, shouts down from her standpoint on the next flight of stairs. Michael slides the stair rod back into place.
My face feels hot as I breathe deeply and throw myself at the next flight of stairs, determined to chase her up the stairs on my hands and knees, ignoring the sting of the burn. A few slips and slides and I’m there on the next landing. I hear laughter behind me.
‘I can see next week’s washing from here.’
‘How much for that doggie on the stairs!’
‘I didn’t know a dog followed us home.’
Triumphantly I reach the next landing and scream back down to the gaggle of geese below.
‘I’m home first, so who’s the baby now?’
I grab the brass doorknob, turn it and fling the door wide open. A strong lavender smell fills my nostrils, and I’m shocked to see five, no, six elderly ladies drinking tea from dainty flowery cups. Their little fingers point to heaven as they tip the cups to sip the tea. They all wear spectacles and pastel coloured cardigans. I can’t stop staring; they look like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Sunlight streams in through the windows and highlights their pale wrinkly skin. One has purple hair. Purple! The most unused colour in my packet of crayons. Their eyes are big and fish-like behind the lenses of their spectacles. The action of lifting their cups is frozen as if I’m looking at a photograph.
‘Helloooo, and who might you be?’ The purple haired lady asks me.
Michael slips into the room in front of me, the palm of his hand on my chest pushing me behind him. I stare, afraid to blink, should I miss something.
‘Excuse us ladies, I apologize for the intrusion. It’s my little sister, she gets over excited. We’re very sorry to disturb you.’ He backs out of the room and shuts the door.
‘What do you think you’re doing? You’ll have us kicked out of the guesthouse!’ He shakes me hard. My eyes start filling up.
‘The old ladies d-didn’t mind!’ I bite my lip to stop it pouting. ‘Y-you’re just a bossy-boots!’
‘Mind your mouth!’ Michael thwacks me on my back.
‘Ow! That hurt!’ I kick his shins hard. Before he can react, the door creeps open, the babble of conversation sneaks out through the crack.
‘Is everything alright dear?’ a tiny bird-like old lady asks.
‘M-my b-brother…’ a sweaty hand is clamped over my mouth and I’m whisked away out of view. I stick my tongue out and wiggle it around the hand, it tastes salty and dirty.
‘Yuck, ugh, she’s licking my hand,’ Eleanor mutters under her breath and clamps her hand on harder.
‘Yes, we’re fine thanks.’ Michael replies.
‘Well, if you’re sure. Would your little sister like a biscuit?’ She offers Michael a flowery plate with Custard Creams and Bourbons. I slither out from Eleanor’s grip and take a Custard Cream off the plate.
‘There, there, dear, take another one.’
‘Thank you.’ I mumble, take another biscuit and attempt a smile.
‘Goodbye dear,’ and she’s gone, back to the tea party.
The door is shut. My moment of glory is short lived, I feel a clip on my ear and before I know it, I’m dragged the rest of the way up the stairs. I run into the room to Ma and cling to her middle.
‘What’s all this about?’ Ma says quietly.
‘Ma, Michael shook me so hard my eyeballs nearly fell out!’
I did NOT.’ Michael glares at me.
‘Come on now, don’t be telling tales. Go to your room and do some drawing; there’s a good girl. Michael, run after your Da with his darts, he forgot them.’
I’m in the bedroom stewing on what I’ve done wrong. I sit on the bed and pull cotton threads out of the pink candlewick bedspread. They feel soft on my skin as I rub them between my fingers. I look out of the window. There is no sea view. A patch of cloud-filled sky hovers above. The room looks onto another guesthouse and I can see down into the room directly across the small yard. A red-haired woman checks her face in her powder compact. I pull my small navy-blue cardboard box out from under the double bed that I share with Eleanor. I take out my wax crayons and paper. I sniff the crayons; I love their candle-wax smell and their greasy feel. I make sure that Arthur, my teddy bear, is sat on the bed and press him against the wall to watch me draw.
Outside seagulls squawk loudly. Each squawk is carried on the wind and multiplied until it seems like there are many birds. I look out of the window and expect to see hundreds, but I can only see four gulls. One is sitting on a scrappy nest on top of a broken chimney pot. I look down again, into the room. I see a man wearing a white shirt come into the room. I can’t see his face. His hair is dark and curly like Da’s. He pulls the woman to him. The woman’s red nail polished fingernails spread across his shoulders.
I place my scrap paper on the windowsill so that I can scribble and still see outside. I start to draw the purple haired lady, but I have to push hard on the purple wax crayon to make it work as I have never used it before. I push so hard that the crayon slips and the crayon rubs hard against the wallpaper. The squawking starts again, and I glance up and see a gull return to the nest with a small fish and pass it to the one sitting on the nest. I lick my thumb and rub at the crayon mark. It becomes a dark smudge like I’ve rubbed a piece of coal on it. I’m done for. I look across the yard to the room once more. The curtains are closed now, but it’s not bedtime yet.
I can’t hear any noise from the other rooms. Strange. I ease the door open a smidgen to see. Ma is sitting in the armchair knitting. I sneak out carefully but then I hear Michael stomping up the stairs. I quickly sneak into the room next door. It smells of a mixture of Da’s sweaty socks and Ma’s cologne. Muffled through the door I hear Ma talking to Michael.
‘Did you catch him Michael?’
‘No, he was gone already.’
‘Did you not go in the pub to find him?’
‘Yes, but he wasn’t there.’
‘The Robin Hood?’
‘Maybe he went to another one. He said they were anti-Irish in the Robin Hood.’
I’m curious to see the view from the window in this room. I can see a side view of the seagull’s nest. Two fluffy grey chicks bob up and down in the nest. They remind me of the balls of wool that jump up and down when Ma is knitting school jumpers. Knit one, purl two, knit one purl two. I look over to the room across the yard. The curtains are open now. The red-haired woman is wearing a green kimono that floats around her as she moves across the room. She reminds me of a tree swaying in the wind. The man appears in the window, he turns and looks up. The purple crayon drops from my hand to the floor and breaks.
‘Jacinta!’ Michael’s voice makes me jump.
‘What are you doing in Ma’s room?’
He has Da’s pack of darts in his hand.
‘D-a-a. D-a-a,’ I can’t get the words out.
‘Get out of here now. Come on now move!’ He pushes me.
‘What are you on about?’
‘I saw Da.’
‘Yeah, you saw him leave.’
‘No, in that room,’ I point to the room on the other side of the yard.
‘You’re imagining things now.’
‘I did see him too!’
My bottom lip begins to tremble. Michael stands beside me to look out of the window into the room across the yard.
‘I-I-I did see him!’
‘Don’t tell lies Jacinta.’
‘I’ll run down there now and prove it!’
I make for the door, but he grabs my arm.
‘You’re not going anywhere.’
‘What’s all the racket about?’ Ma shouts from the living room.
Michael puts his hand over my mouth and raises his finger at me.
‘Nothing Ma, we’re just messing,’ he shouts and then whispers to me,
‘You keep that little trap shut now you hear me? Don’t you go upsetting Ma with silly stories right?’
I don’t answer. He shakes me by my shoulders hard.
‘Right.’ But I know Da was there in that room.
‘You wait here and keep quiet.’
Before I can answer, he’s out of the door and bounding down the stairs. I don’t understand, I don’t invent stories, I tell the truth.
‘Michael!’ Ma shouts after him, but he’s gone.
‘Jacinta! What are you up to?’
I take a few deep breaths, wipe my eyes with my sleeves and go into the living room.
‘What are you doing in there? You know you’re not supposed to go in our room.’ She sees the crumpled drawing in my hand. ‘What’s that?’
‘It-t’s a picture of the purple lady.’ I sniff loudly and swallow.
‘Use a handkerchief,’ she takes a handkerchief from her sleeve and gives it to me. The smell of menthol makes my eyes water even more.
I blow my nose loudly and give her the wet handkerchief back. She places it on the table.
‘Yes, the one we saw downstairs.’ I hold up the picture for her to see.
‘Lovely,’ Ma pulls the strand of grey wool up sharply and shakes it out to make the wool loosen from its ball. I think of the baby seagulls.
‘Why didn’t you go out with the girls to get an ice cream?’
‘They didn’t ask me.’
‘Jacinta you’re a big girl now, you have to speak up for yourself. Come here, give me your arm.’
Ma lifts up the knitting needles and the long rectangle of grey knitting and holds it on top of my shoulder, stretching it out towards my wrist. It feels scratchy on my arms.
‘You’ve grown a fair bit since last year. I’ll add another four inches on to that sleeve so you can fold it back over your wrist and make it last while next year.’
I let my arm drop to my side.
‘Go back now and finish that drawing for me.’
I go back to my room and start to draw a dog on a lead for the purple lady.
A short while later, the door bursts open, and Eleanor and Mary come in. Little streams of ice cream dribble down their wrists from their cornets.
‘You’ve got a white moustache!’ Eleanor giggles.
Mary wipes her mouth with the back of her hand and then wipes it on Eleanor’s arm.
‘Yuck! Get off me!’ Eleanor slaps Mary’s arm.
‘Girls, girls! Mind the carpet now with that ice cream.’
‘Eat it quickly before it drips everywhere.’
‘Can I have a lick?’ I ask Eleanor.
‘Here, take it.’
Eleanor hands me the cornet. I think I have hold of it, but I drop it and a dollop of ice cream sits on top of the carpet, like a snowman melting under the sun. I try to pick it up again but it’s like a fish out of water, trying to get back into the sea.
‘Holy Mary, mother of God. Would you look at the state of it!’ Ma picks up Da’s Racing Pink and scrapes the ice cream off the carpet onto the newspaper. Like a magician, she takes another handkerchief from the endless supply of up her sleeve and rubs at the carpet until the traces of white are gone.
’I-I’m s-sorry Ma.’
‘Here Eleanor, take this down to the dustbin outside.’ Ma hands the messy bunched up newspaper.
’You have to learn to be less clumsy Jacinta.’
‘Can I go with Eleanor please?’\ ‘Yes, be off with you,’ Ma sighs.
Feeling guilty, I follow Eleanor down the steps and hold on to the banister as I go. The dustbins are out of sight at the back of the guesthouse. There’s an awful smell of rotting vegetables around them. I hold my nose and lift up the metal lid for Eleanor to throw the wet newspaper in. I look up to the windows on the other side of the yard.
‘I saw Da up there.’
‘Don’t be daft.’
Eleanor throws the newspaper inside before replacing the lid.
‘I did so too.’
‘He was talking to a woman about a dog.’
‘Away with you.’
‘Woof, woof. Grrrr. Woof, woof.’ Eleanor laughs.
I look back and see Michael and Da walking towards the house.
‘Look Eleanor, we’ll ask him now. You’ll see.’ I run towards them but Eleanor stops to tie her shoelaces.
Da’s tie hangs halfway out of his pocket and his hair looks wet. Michael looks a little flushed. All that running up and downstairs I imagine. He has Da’s pack of darts in his hand.
‘Where’s the dog Da?’ I put my hand in his and feel the rough calluses on his palm.
‘The dog you were talking to the red-haired woman about?’
‘The woman with the green kimono.’
Michael casts me a look to kill. Da yanks his hand away from mine and pushes the front door open, holding it open for us to walk into the house. He clears his throat and coughs.
‘Sure, she’d sold it already.’
‘Aw, I was so looking forward to getting a dog.’
‘But you were gone a long time Da.’
Da slams the front door. We squash together inside the hallway. No-one moves.
‘She doesn’t look like the sort of person who would have a dog,’ I stare at Da. He looks away.
‘Would you ever give up on the dog story Jacinta?’ Michael whispers in my ear and elbows me.
‘A dog would put his dirty paws on her green kimono.’
Da and Michael look at each other; their eyes squinted and their mouths small and shut.
‘Get up those stairs now and less of your chat,’ Da says.
He waves his hand towards the stairs and slaps my bum as he says,
‘Don’t you dare go mentioning any of this to your Ma now.’
My heart’s beating too quickly. Something’s wrong.
‘Do you hear me?’ Da thwacks the top of my head.
‘Ouch!’ I start to wail, all the time clutching at Michael’s legs
Michael gently caresses the back of my head as I bury my face into him.
‘Are you alright there Michael?’ Da says.
‘Leave the child alone.’ Michael’s voice sounds deeper than usual. He scoops me up and carries me upstairs.
‘Don’t you use that tone with me! And remember the dog secret.’ Da growls after us, ‘Or you’ll get a good hiding!’
My tears are making Michael’s shirt damp.
‘Don’t worry Titch, I’ll keep us safe,’ Michael whispers into my hair as he climbs faster and faster.
The bobbing motion of going up the steps is comforting. Through blurry eyes, I look down over Michael’s shoulder. I gasp. Da is removing his belt.∎