Aoibheann McCann is a widely published writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She features regularly on the Irish literary scene, both as a performer and an MC. She was raised in Inishowen, Co Donegal and currently lives in Galway with her husband, daughter and two dogs. www.aoibheannmccann.net.
An Áit Eile is proud to present Aoibheann’s short story ‘The Writing on the Wall’ below.
For the first time since the posters appeared, Laura had woken excited to go to school. She had written a poem and Miss O’Connor said she might enter it into The Donegal Democrat poetry competition. Miss O’Connor had taught in London for twenty years, and now lived alone in a large house surrounded by high yellow Leylandii trees just outside town. Laura had written the poem about watching the other children play from her vantage point under the big rusty oil tank, where she sat alone now at break times.
The poem was about how the short break finally came and went, and the other children lined up to the sound of the hand-rung bell, having been dragged away from their elastics, or their skipping or their ball and wall games or their rounders or their Red Rover. Since Monday they had all turned from Laura when she tried to join in.
The second verse was about maths, times-tables repeated out loud in a chant, forty voices saying the same things over and over, and then how the long break came and went. The third verse was about how, when the final bell rang, Laura walked home alone after school to her house that was exactly half-way between the town and the village. She did not put in that the neighbourhood kids called her a snob for going to the town school and that Susan’s sisters called her a redneck for living in the country.
Laura used to sit with Susan on the big rock, and Susan would share her white bread and gooseberry jam sandwiches with her. They had been best friends since Junior Infants. On that first day, Laura had sat beside Rebecca and stared as a yellow puddle splashed onto the floor. The rest of their classmates were busy grabbing for the best of the stubby fat crayons from the empty sweet tubs, pushing and straining to make them mark the sheets of colouring-in and crumpling the thin grey paper with the effort. Mrs. Henry, their teacher, hadn’t noticed either, she was too overwhelmed by the new Junior Infants, snot bubbling at the top of their noses, all struggling to find excuses to come to her desk and paw at her. Laura had felt Susan’s elbow nudge her. They giggled together at the pee and Rebecca’s face had reddened, her tears adding to the pool on the floor. Susan had a sister in every class in the school, and one by one they had waved through the wire-reinforced glass that walled the classroom unto the corridor. Susan had put her arm around Laura as if to include her under their protection. Susan had pointed at the puddle on the floor and her sisters had laughed at Rebecca too.
Susan’s father’s posters were yellow and had a baby on them and a big YES. Susan’s mother was the unofficial head of the legion of Mary. Laura’s father worked at the SIPTU office in Letterkenny. He didn’t go to mass. Susan had said this was why she didn’t want to play with Laura anymore, and that no one else could. Laura had said that he went to mass in the village church but Susan said she was a liar. Susan said that in England they put hoovers inside women and sucked out their babies and threw them in a big bin. That Laura’s mother must have done this too because why else did she only have one child? Susan sat beside Rebecca now, on the desk behind Laura. Susan coughed or giggled every time Laura spoke.
Her Dad sighed when Laura asked him about the posters. He had a stack in the shed. They were blue and they said ‘This amendment could kill women’, but she hadn’t seen any of them up on the telegraph poles. She heard him tell her mother that they were being taken down as fast as he put them up. Laura didn’t know what an am-end-ment was or why it would kill women. He didn’t go to mass in the village or anywhere, though Laura’s mother did. Laura’s mother was from the village, and Laura’s granny had a Sacred Heart with a red flickering light. Laura’s dad never visited her granny. Her granny said she was praying for him.
Laura didn’t even know if her father would come to her communion. Now they were in First Class Sister Paul came in every day after lunch to prepare them for the ceremony. Sister Paul wore a black habit, her red face framed by a starched band of white, and her puffed-up sausage legs were encased in flesh tights. She had a big blue book, and talked to them about the Saints and the martyrs and the virgins. She said the martyrs had been burned on bonfires or lanced with spears or banished from their villages. Laura imagined them all, in their holy communion finery, being chased out of town, rocks whizzing past as they ran into a thorny desert. They always ended up in thorny deserts. Laura put her hand up and asked Sister Paul what a virgin was. Sister Paul’s face reddened with anger. She told the class that a virgin was a good woman who knew what was best for her, a woman who didn’t have any children, who didn’t talk to boys and who obeyed the word of God. Laura wondered if Sister Paul was angry with her because now her only friend was her cousin Matthew. Susan and Rebecca had giggled more than usual.
Laura’s new favourite part of the day was when Miss O’Connor took them to the general purpose room, with its high windows and yellow and blue checkered floor. They’d lie down on the rubber foam mats that they’d take from the pile under the stairs on the way. Miss O’Connor recited each part of the body slowly, and commanded them to relax as the draughts blew over them. Head, neck, chest, arms, belly, legs, all of which, Miss. O’Connor said, were feeling heavier and heavier, as her voice dropped deeper and deeper. For half an hour every day there was no whispering and no giggling. Laura used to love art the most, especially when they got to use paint and glue from big squeezy bottles. They’d wear old t-shirts that were kept in the bottom of the cupboard in the corner. The girls from Sixth Class would come and help but now that meant one of Susan’s sisters hissing at Laura. They called her a snob; Susan had been to her birthday party, and had seen the five-bedroom house with two sitting rooms that her parents had moved back from Dublin to build.
Laura took out her older reader when they came back from the general purpose room. The others took out their Peter and Jane books and read along with Miss O’Connor.
‘Peter and Jane go to the shop.’
‘Peter and Jane play with Spot.’
There were two sentences per page this year, alongside the brightly coloured, photo-like drawings of the brother and sister, who had a dog who was allowed inside, a mother who always smiled and made big apple pies, and a father who never swore or drank.
Laura had read the entire adventures of The Famous Five by the time she had reached the end of Senior Infants; all twenty two times that Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the Dog had foiled smugglers and had had picnics and had taken boats by themselves to strange islands out on the bay in Cornwall, where their Aunt Fanny lived. Mrs. Henry was oblivious, and for the first two years of school Laura had chanted along with her classmates. Miss O’Connor had given her a different reader; it was printed in London and had extracts from books that Laura wanted to read. Miss. O’Connor had suggested Laura write poetry for homework.
After lunch, Sister Paul told them about Herod, who had wanted to kill all babies so he would make sure he killed Jesus. Laura put up her hand and asked Sister Paul what an amendment was. Sister Paul’s face went redder and redder as if it would burst. The children laughed nervously. Sr. Paul banged on the blackboard with the glantóir and rose a cloud of white chalk dust to keep them quiet. Susan leaned forward and hissed, ‘Laura’s father is Herod.’ Rebecca giggled nervously.
Laura turned and lunged at Susan with her nails; Susan jumped back, and her blonde pageboy banged off the wall. The classroom stopped, then Sr. Paul marched towards them and grabbed Laura by the arm and marched her to the door.
Laura sat outside the classroom on the low bench that stretched across the length of the corridor from one side to the other. The smell of pee came from the toilets; a lone duffle coat lay abandoned on the floor of the cloakroom, trampled with chalk footprints. Mrs. Regan, who taught Third and Fourth Class, glared out at her. She was stern with white hair, and had ten kids who went to the village school. Matthew said you didn’t want to get into a fight with Mrs. Regan’s children; he said Laura was lucky to go to school in town. Laura waited until the bell rang and the class trooped past in pairs, led by Susan, arms linked with Rebecca.
Susan hissed as she passed, ‘Laura Herod.’
Laura didn’t hear the words Miss. O’Connor spoke as she stood above her, but she knew there would be no more special reader, no more poetry, no Donegal Democrat poetry trophies. Laura sat until the only sound was that of the cleaner buffing the floor. Then she rose up and went into the classroom to get her school bag. Through the venetian blinds, she saw that two of Susan’s sisters were sitting on the low front wall. Laura walked around the side of the school through the convent gate to avoid them. She walked quickly, not looking behind her until she got to the derelict house at the edge of town. She stopped to pet the pony who loomed over the half door whilst holding her breath; it nudged her roughly, and she took the bruised apple out from the bottom of her bag and gave it to him. There was a yellow poster boarding up each window.
Laura told her mother she felt sick the next day, but her mother just took her temperature and told her to get up. Her father dropped her off at school on his way to work; she was always the first one there. As she walked up the drive, she could see the black writing on the red brick wall. Someone had written on the outside of the general purpose room in black marker. It looked like a poem. Laura went up close to look. The first line said ‘Sister Paul is a PERVERT’. Laura didn’t know what that word meant. She reached up to trace the word and the black marked her index finger. She didn’t hear Mr. McLaughlin arrive in his Ford Cortina. He marched up behind her and grabbed her arm, then swooped to pick up the huge black marker that lay on the ground beside the wall.
Laura stood in the corridor outside Mr. McLaughlin’s office with her hands behind her back until they went numb. She imagined her father getting the message from the blonde receptionist lady and driving back the bog roads towards the school. She stood between her parents while her father shouted, he said this was vic-tim-is-ation, that’d he’d get a lawyer. Laura’s mother just sighed and gripped his arm, as if to hold him down. Laura’s father said they were sending Laura to the village school, that they should have done that in the first place.
Susan’s sister Geraldine was ringing the big brass bell for first break when they came out of the office. Laura felt her mother’s hand on her neck. Her father strode in front of them down the drive, to the locked gate and through the grey turnstile to the Ford Cortina. Behind them, the children spilled out onto the tarmac. The thud of balls, the click of ropes and the rhythm of skipping chants rose up into the sky.