The Wrong Man
Of the two friends, Moire was the wistful one. She was thin with pale skin. There were often rings under her dark eyes and a slouch to her shoulders that made her look weak and disinterested. She didn’t talk much to anyone other than Ester.
Moire liked to read. Ester wasn’t interested in books. She sat her final exams for school without bothering to do much work. The results wouldn’t have made any difference to her in any case. Her family couldn’t afford to send her to college. Plans had been made for her to go to London. It was her mother’s idea. Ester hadn’t been willing to take away her excitement in writing letters to daughters of friends to secure a room. Nor did Ester want to imagine her life at home where she’d probably work in a shop and have to help her mother with her three younger brothers. Like her mother, Ester was wide shouldered, but she had her father’s sandy colored hair. She liked to cut it herself, so her bangs were often crooked.
Both girls lived on the Donegal road outside Sligo town. Moire’s family, the Hardings, had been landowners. Their estate had decreased in size with every generation until Moire’s father was left with the large house and a couple of acres he used for horses. Most of his time was spent in his law office in Sligo town. Ester’s small bungalow was a half mile away. The girls had known each other since they were three years of age. Ester’s mother used to clean the Harding’s house twice a week. After her third child, she stopped working, but Ester would often be seen walking the road that on clear days held the shadow of Benbulben Mountain.
“Mammy got me a room with Janice Geraghty and a girl from Galway,” Ester told Moire in their seventeenth year. The flat was in Finsbury Park. Ester said she didn’t liked the sound of the place, Finsbury sounded rough and foreign.
Moire told her, “It’ll be okay. I’m going with you.”
They were sitting on the bed in Moire’s room, cross-legged and facing each other. Moire’s hair fell like a black curtain over her face. Dust mites rose in front of the uncovered window. No matter how bright the day, inside the house was dark with shadows settling into corners. The rooms were permeated with an ancient kind of quiet that Ester associated with grief.
“Will you be allowed?” Ester asked. She was afraid to hope, the thought of London alone had scared her. Moire said she had finished school and was going no matter what her father said. Mr. Harding was a broad man with dull grey eyes. Whenever he was home, he moved around the house in a dazed slow motion. Ester thought he’d hardly notice his daughter was gone, never mind try to stop her. He had tended towards moroseness since his first wife drowned. To see into her coffin, Ester had to get on her tiptoes. But she’d done it so there would be no secrets between her and her best friend. If Ester didn’t look, she’d always wonder what knowledge was inside Moire’s head and feel the breach from not knowing. Ester didn’t figure the gap would be there regardless. A space existed in Moire where a mother had once been.
Two years after her mother drowned, Moire’s father re-married. His new wife didn’t seem to like the house. She stayed mostly in the kitchen where the large window looked out on the laneway and the Donegal road. She was a thin woman with short greying hair and a prominent chin. She was more ready to smile than Mr. Harding’s first wife, but as reticent with words. Whenever Ester saw her, she was at the sink or sitting in the armchair by the kitchen stove. She’d been married before. A husband was lost some way or other and she was left with a boy, who took to the Harding horses straight away and within a few years was the sole charge.
Eight years older than the girls, Bernard was blond and tall, with beautiful blue eyes. Not long ago, Ester had been in the habit of writing his name diagonal to hers, and drawing an arrow between them. Moire caught her once, and the hurt in her voice surprised Ester.
She said, “You can’t like him.”
“You don’t own him,” Ester said.
Ester had felt the possessiveness in Moire’s silent retreat, and in the mood that hung over her for the rest of that day.
The day they spoke about England, after Ester had screamed with delight and hugged her friend, she’d gazed teasingly at Moire and said, “What about Bernard?”
And Moire looked at her for a long time before asking her to stop.
They took the boat to London. Moire would have afforded to fly, but not Ester with her younger brothers and her father working in the docks. Janice Geraghty’s mother said that Moire could sleep on the couch in the sitting room, and they’d still split the rent four ways. But Moire spent most nights giggling with Ester in her room. They were too excited to be troubled with the cramped space, filled with the wardrobe, a chest of drawers, and a bed just wide enough for the girls to sleep side by side.
Ester started work in the stationary shop within a few days. An accountancy firm in Islington employed Moire. Thanks to Bernard, she’d gotten an A in accountancy for her leaving certificate. He’d made up for Mr. Harding’s lack of interest in education by taking her under his wing and helping her with her school work. Later when she had surpassed him, he got her father to pay for private tuition. She had gotten A’s in every subject except home economics.
The girls loved London, but grew to hate the underground with its screeching noises and dizzying array of lines. It was easier to walk everywhere. They saw the sights and grew stiff outside Buckingham Palace while mimicking the statue-like guards. At Trafalgar Square, they watched pigeons eating from a man’s hand and imagined the lives of the people they saw. Ester was never great at the stories. “They’re on their honeymoon,” she might say of a young couple. While Moire would watch them for a minute before telling Ester that no, they were having an affair. They’d come to London for a weekend, leaving a partner in Dublin and in Germany, but they’d been careless. He’d phoned for the hotel at home, and his wife had seen the number on the bill. His lover had confided in a close friend about the trip. Unfortunately, the friend was in love with the cuckold husband and told him everything. But he didn’t fall into her arms, he jumped on a plane. Right now as they were walking hand in hand, their spouses were entering their hotel. Maybe they’d meet and fall in love, but maybe they’d sit in separate corners of the room.
“Cuckold, spouses,” Ester said, surprised with the words, which seemed too adult, or part of a reality they were not supposed to have reached yet.
In the evenings, they listened to the radio and danced around the dark shabby couch and mismatched armchairs. There were boys sometimes, neighbors or friends of their flatmates. Ester tended to fumble around the boy’s questions. While Moire preferred to twirl around the room than be caught up in conversation. It was on one of those nights, when Moire had rebuffed a boy and escaped to their bedroom, that Ester first heard Ron’s name.
“He’s kind and interested,” Moire said of her boss.
“And,” Ester said.
Moire laughed and said, “And nothing.”
Later, Ester realized the word “interested” should have made her sit up and question Moire until the truth came out.
As the days shortened, Moire started working late and wouldn’t get home until after ten. There were times when she stayed with co-workers because she missed the last bus. Ester heard names like Sharon or Emily and imagined English girls with singing voices and curled hair. She never conceived of an affair.
Before three months, she came home to Moire packing her bags. She was sure Moire was going home because letters had come from Bernard. The envelopes with his name and address on the back had made Moire go into their shared room and quietly close the door. Ester had imagined they were filled with entreaties for her return. Bernard hadn’t wanted her to go. Moire told Ester this, and Ester had noticed a new quietness in him. But she couldn’t say she pitied Bernard. He was someone who had rarely spoken to Ester. An unknown, he would have been revered more easily. There was never any sign of those letters afterwards. Ester had glanced through Moire’s drawers and found nothing. Once she noticed some scraps of paper in the bin, torn so small, they looked as if they had been nibbled by a mouse.
“Why didn’t you tell me you’re going home?” Ester said.
Moire said, “I’m not. I’m moving in with Ron.”
The shock winded Ester. The wardrobe doors were open and revealed unused hangers. Drawers had been pulled out, and looked desolate. The clothes in Moire’s suitcase were neatly folded. She had taken her time. Ester wondered if Ron had let her leave work early, if she had hoped to be gone before Ester came back, but then in the midst of packing Moire had started not to care.
Finally, Ester managed to say, “You can’t.”
“I can and I am,” Moire told her.
“Please don’t go. You’re making a mistake,” Ester said.
Moire zipped her suitcase. She said it was her life, and she didn’t expect Ester to understand.
The indifference in her voice was worse than anything. It left no room for argument. Ester felt as if she were disappearing in the room. Moire lifted the bank notes that were lying on the bed.
“This is my part of the rent,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to know I moved.”
Ester said she wasn’t surprised. What Moire was doing was beyond stupid. How could she move in with a man she hardly knew? She thought London was good for Moire, but obviously it had made her crazy.
Moire said she was not crazy, at least not anymore. Ester had no idea what Moire meant by that. Ester was on the verge of crying while Moire remained calm and certain. For a while there was silence.
“At least tell me where you're going,” Ester said.
Moire said, “I’ll come see you Sunday.”
On Sunday, Ester met Moire at the door of her flat. In a long grey dress, and her hair tied back, Moire looked a lot older than Ester felt. Ester’s eyes were red from lack of sleep. For the first few nights alone, she’d cried in her bed.
She said, “I’m not going to have lunch and pretend everything’s okay. I want to meet him, and I want to see where you live. Otherwise, the next letter that comes from your home will be sent back unopened.”
“No,” Moire said, “I can’t have you there yet. I need to settle. In a little while, you can come for dinner, but not now.”
She said, “Please Ester, you have to understand.”
Ester was closing the door, and a pale hand came out to block it. “Okay, okay,” Moire said.
The following week Ester took the bus to Woodgreen. Moire’s directions told her to take the first left. Gladstone Street was quiet. She was led past red bricked houses. Some trees had been planted in gardens. There was a park somewhere around there. Moire said if Ester passed it, she’d gone too far. A woman in a grey coat pushed a pram past without looking at her. On a distant street, a car started and a horn sounded. Ester tried to remember what Moire told her about Ron. She’d said he was a qualified accountant. He’d studied somewhere South of London and moved up here ten years ago. “Ten,” Ester had repeated. “What age is he?”
“What does that matter?” Moire said, and Ester told her that if it didn’t matter so much she should be able to tell her.
“You have to give him a chance,” Moire said, “I love him.”
But Ester couldn’t believe that, she saw it as a kind of need. Moire would fix on something and hold onto it, like a dog with a bone, not out of love or affection but because of the uncertainty in her, the doubt that must have existed from losing a mother and the knowledge that one minute a person is there and then they are gone. For a while, she’d followed Bernard around too and refused to leave the house for days on end. Ester had caught her staring out the window waiting for him to come in from the horses with a kind of drawn want on her face. Ester wasn’t sure when that ended, or if it did, but she was positive Bernard didn’t take advantage of her dreaminess, not like Ron.
The house was a narrow red brick with a black rail fence and small gate. The tiny square garden had a tree starting to grow and some yellow and red flowers around the edges. Moire opened the door in a long green skirt and grey sweater. She was barefoot and smiling. She looked happy to see Ester, as if her desertion hadn’t happened, and Ester hadn’t had to blackmail her into telling her where she lived.
She pulled Ester in through the hall. The walls were covered with patterned paper, the flowers looked like velvet. On a different day, Ester might have wanted to touch the soft wine-colored material, but today there was more irritation than wonder. She imagined her friend being brought here when she first met Ron, and it made Ester uncomfortable.
Music was playing in the sitting room. The carpet was thick beige. Moire was taking Ester’s jacket and asking if she found the house alright. Ester said yes fine, but kept the fright of the train station to herself. She pictured Moire laughing if she heard it and saying something, silly you, you worry about everything.
The fire was on in the living room. Ron was standing in front of the armchair that had been pulled to the fireplace. The room’s main color was brown, dark for the couch and two armchairs, paler for the walls. There was a smell of cigarette smoke and stuffiness to the air. Ron was an inch or two taller than Moire. His slumped shoulders gave him a shy look, though his face was open and smiling. He held Ester’s gaze with a certainty that annoyed her. His hair was black, side parted and longer than was usual, though it was growing thin. His eyes were a lighter brown than Moire’s, and seemed kind, but Ester didn’t trust the narrow line of his lips.
His hand was moist. “Moire told me a lot about you,” he said.
“Sit down,” Moire said.
“Yes, yes,” Ron said, gesturing to the couch behind her. Ester obliged. He seemed relieved to take his place on the armchair. Moire sat on the floor by his feet. For a while there was silence. Ester had expected tea at least.
“Isn’t the music lovely?” Moire finally said. “It’s Miles Davis. Have you heard of him?”
Before Ester could answer, Moire started talking about a breakthrough in fusion he’d made. Ester didn’t know what fusion was, though apparently it had something to do with Latin, which Ron corrected Moire on.
“Latin American countries, not Latin countries,” he’d said at some point, and Moire glanced at him and said, “Of course, that’s what I meant.”
All the time she spoke, Ron was smiling at Ester, as if to say, look what I’ve done and Moire’s regurgitation of facts was anything other than that. To Ester, the music sounded disorganized. There was no singer. She waited patiently for that. When Moire closed her eyes, Ester had a ferocious urge to pull Moire up from the floor and run out the door with her. She couldn’t imagine Moire arguing. Instead, she’d hit the fresh air and wake up, she’d ask, “What happened. Who was I back there?”
But Ester couldn’t move. The music stopped. Moire asked if anyone wanted tea. Ron jumped up and said he’d get it. Ester had the impression that he didn’t want to be alone with her.
The kitchen was at the back of the living room. The doorway revealed a linoleum floor and two legs of a kitchen table. Once Ron had gone, the quietness was interrupted by a slamming press door and Ester asking, “What are you doing?”
She had slipped off the couch and was on the floor by her friend. “He’s old enough to be your father.”
“If he had me at fourteen,” Moire said.
“I’m worried for you,” Ester said, “You’re not yourself.”
“That’s because I’m happy,” Moire told her.
“So you weren’t happy before this?” Ester said.
Moire leaned back on the chair. She seemed tired now. Without Ron beside her, she had become withdrawn. It frightened Ester. She reached for Moire’s hand and asked her to come with her. Ester said everything would be alright; no one needs to know anything. People make mistakes all the time. She chatted about them going back to Ireland or maybe trying someplace different in England. She’d heard Birmingham was fun. Anywhere was better than Woodgreen. She talked without thinking of the quiet that issued from the kitchen or the disbelief on Moire’s face.
“I think you should go,” Ron’s voice shocked her. She turned to him holding a tray with a teapot, cups, and a sugar bowl. When she’d think back on this scene, she’d view Moire’s stricken face as the result of helplessness. Ester never wondered what she didn’t know. Ron had a hold on Moire; Ester had no doubt about that. Yet that day in the house and in the weeks that followed, she never considered why Moire had started to cling to him, or that sharing a secret was the glue that kept them together.
He said, “Moire is happy here. You need to accept that.”
Ester’s face had reddened. She hadn’t wanted him to know how she felt. Moire had pulled her hand away in the middle of her tirade, though Ester had thought nothing of it until now. She rose and mumbled an apology. Moire stood too.
“Maybe it’s best if you go,” Moire said. Ester followed her to the door and was surprised she was not crying. With her coat on, she asked if she could see Moire again.
Moire told her, “Ron’s a good man. He won’t stop you from coming. But you mustn’t talk like that ever again. Once we will forgive, but not twice.”
When Ester had reached the gate, Moire called her and said, “If any letters come, can you bring them to me?”
Ester said yes. She didn’t want to think this was the reason Ron allowed her to visit, but she couldn’t help it.
There weren’t many letters. One came every two or three weeks, but the effect of their arrival was terrible on Ester. With the envelope in her hand, she felt as if Moire had died. The person the letter was intended for no longer existed.
Ester never saw Moire anywhere but Lymington Avenue. Ron was always there, maybe not in the living room but in the kitchen cooking and making a racket, or upstairs where it seemed he would walk across the floor every now and again to remind Ester of his presence, so she wouldn’t say anything again. There was an air of nervousness to Moire that Ester had always assumed was caused by Ron.
Whenever she brought a letter, Moire would take it and put it on the mantel. Ester imagined they remained unopened, and this brought as much anger as sadness.
Once, Moire’s father wrote. On the back of the envelope, he’d written Malcolm Harding. Ester had stared at the name, trying to reconcile it with the image of the large silent man. She had always known him as Mister. “Hey, Mister Harding,” she’d say as she came and went from the house. She couldn’t imagine what he would have said. To her, the letter was cause for excitement, a key to Moire’s father. It was possible too that whatever it held was a cure to the problem, that after so long living in his own world, he’d come back to help his daughter. Whatever was written on those pages would wake Moire up.
Ron answered the door that day. He said hello in a genial way and stepped back to let her in. The television was on. Moire was sitting on the couch with her legs curled up.
“Look,” Ester said, brandishing the envelope, “Your dad wrote.”
Moire took the letter and put it on the mantel.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” Ester said. Ron was standing at the living room door. His forehead was creased with worry.
“Maybe later,” Moire said.
Ester managed not to cry until she was walking to the bus stop.
The next letter came weeks later. Ester thought of making the journey to Moire, only to see the letter put on the mantel. She had started to think all the messages from home were thrown into the fire when she left the house. Ron would have come in from the kitchen or down the stairs the moment the front door closed behind her. He would lift them up from the place he must have instructed Moire to put them. Without looking at her or giving her a moment to change her mind, he would have thrown the letters into the flames.
Ester opened the envelope. There was no steaming or carefulness, no need to cover her tracks. She would not continue her futile journey and be part of their ritual.
You must have received Malcolm’s letter and all the others too. I’ve stopped waiting to hear from you but how could you not write to your father. He’s not well, and now he’s hardly eating from worry. Every day he waits for the post man to come. We haven’t heard a word from you since you left, only for Ester’s mom, we’d think you were dead. Is that what you want?
He didn’t sign his name or plead with her to write, which led Ester to think that he had done so before. His missives had started with "Please write, Love Bernard," then "Why aren’t you writing -Bernard," and finally "We haven’t heard from you since you left."
Ester told Moire her father was sick. She said she had heard the news from her mother, which wasn’t a complete lie. Her parents had no phone at home, but their neighbors did. She rang them to ask if her mother could be brought over and if it was true that Mr. Harding wasn’t well. The neighbor said yes she’d get her mother and to ring back in ten minutes, and yes Mr. Harding had had been in Sligo hospital for a few days.
Moire had cried in that muddy colored living room, but Ester didn’t think it was for Mr. Harding. She was sure it was because of Moire’s helplessness. There was nothing she could do in that house. As far as Ester knew, she never left it.
“I’m not going back,” Moire said.
“Will you write to him?” Ester asked.
Moire shook her head, “I can’t.”
A door slammed in the kitchen.
“Didn’t you know he was in hospital?” Ester’s mother had said, “Didn’t he get in touch?”
Ester told her that Moire would not open her letters. She was changing and becoming distant. Ester had cried on the phone, and her mother asked her if she wanted to come home. Her mother said, “London’s not for everyone.”
“No, I can’t leave her now,” Ester said.
“She’ll be alright,” her mother said. “She can get someone else to share the room and she has those other girls for company.”
Ester hadn’t planned to tell her mother the truth, but she couldn’t lie.
It was possible Bernard would have come regardless; it was very likely the worry they suffered in Ireland had started to keep the residents from sleep. Ester could imagine Mr. Harding wandering around in a helpless state, his great bulk diminishing from the dread, until eventually it was decided Bernard would go and see what was happening. But it’s possible too that nothing would have been done without Ester’s involvement.
“Moire isn’t in the flat anymore. She’s living with an older man. He’s terrible Mammy,” Ester had said.
“Holy God,” her mother exclaimed, “Why didn’t you tell us?”
Bernard appeared on a Friday afternoon. Ester’s day off, maybe her mother had told him this. Moire had stopped working a few weeks ago. She said she was going to go to college, she said she had plans, but Ester couldn’t believe that.
Ester opened her door to a pale, red-eyed Bernard. His jeans and sweater were crumpled.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, and he said her mother had come to their house.
He said Moire’s father was worried sick, but he was too weak to travel. “It’s his heart,” Bernard said.
“Where is she?” he asked.
Ester wasn’t able to tell him. She moved back from the doorway, and Bernard became upset. He asked if she could understand what it was like to hear nothing from Moire and then to know that it was worse than they had imagined. Moire was being influenced, and he had to help her. He couldn’t do it without Ester. He was still talking when she appeared in her coat.
Puzzlement crossed his face when she said, “I’m going out now, and you better not follow me.” By the time she’d closed the flat door, he understood.
He didn’t sit beside her on the bus, as if she might forget about his presence when everything else paled in comparison. Ester was glad she didn’t have to converse, that he wasn’t asking questions about Ron, or Moire’s life here. For the first time in months, she felt relief. The responsibility for Moire was no longer solely hers.
Bernard got off the bus with her and lingered behind. Every now and again she’d glance back to look at him. His blond hair was bright amidst the surrounding grey.
At the corner of Lymington Avenue, she stopped.
“It’s number 30,” she told Bernard and was starting to go when he put a hand on her arm.
“She might feel bullied if it’s the two of us,” he said, and Ester felt stupid for not thinking that herself. “I’ll wait here,” she said, and he told her, “No, she might see you. I don’t want to risk it.”
He smiled, and Ester saw the worry in his blue eyes. “I’ll only get one chance at this,” he said. A child shouted from one of the houses. Ester hadn’t realized how jumpy she was. He asked her to go home, “I’ll bring her there.” When she didn’t move, he said, “Please Ester, I love her.”
He started for the house and then stopped to look back at Ester. She smiled and walked away.
At home, Ester envisioned Moire opening the door to Bernard and crying with relief. She imagined Bernard telling Ron that he was talking Moire home where she belonged. Moire would leave without bothering to pack a bag. And while Ester lay on her bed listening to her flat mates chatter and giggle, they were on her way to her. As the day darkened, she grew scared that Ron had answered the door and had stopped Bernard from entering.
The lights were off in the living room when the doorbell rang. Ester ran to answer it. Her smile faded when she saw Bernard. He looked as if he’d been crying.
He said, “I don’t know what happened.”
“You’re cut,” she said and reached out automatically, but he flinched, and her hand fell. She felt like a vacuum had opened between them. The scratch near his eye looked deep.
“What did you do?” Ester said. She imagined him trying to get into the house, and it frightened her. But in the next second his upset became leveled against her.
He was glaring when he said, “What do you mean what did I do? I wasn’t the one who waited to get in touch.”
“I’m sorry,” Ester said. “I didn’t know how to help her.”
He told her it was too late for him to do anything now. He said it was awful. Moire had shouted at him to go away. She said she hated him and wouldn’t go anywhere with him. He grew morose when he said he had no choice to leave Moire in that house.
Ester had spent the day waiting for Moire and Bernard’s arrival. Moire was supposed to share her room with her again. They were supposed to laugh at Moire’s stupidity while Bernard slept on the couch. Ester had gotten the spare blankets ready for him, but she knew he had no intention of coming in. “It’s no use,” he said. Ester asked what he was going to do and he said he wasn’t staying in this city any longer. She was still standing at the door when he’d walked away.
For two days Ester rang in sick. It was impossible to smile and serve customers when Bernard’s blame was fresh. She cried in her bed and locked her bedroom door to her flatmates. The thought of returning to Woodgreen made her nauseous, but on the third day she made the journey. Disembarking from the bus on High Street, Ester remembered how easy it was with Bernard, how nice it was to have someone with her as she trudged through the streets.
She didn’t expect Ron to be at home, but he answered the door.
He looked at her for a long time before asking, “What?”
“Is Moire here?"
“No,” he said, though Moire’s dark coat was hanging on the peg behind him. Ester glanced at it, but he didn’t notice or didn’t care. He was about to close the door, and Ester’s hand went out. She noticed the cracked and chipped wood on the inside of the door by the latch.
“Her stepbrother did that,” Ron said.
The scorn in his voice made Ester grow limp. She hated his conceit and the way he looked at her as if she was insignificant. She thought he must have looked at Bernard like that before the door was closed in Bernard’s face.
For the next months during her journeys to Woodgreen, Ester stopped noticing the people in the streets or the stores she passed. With the cushioned seat and the cool glass against her forehead, she thought only of the red bricked house that held her friend. She often felt hollow with the thought of knocking on the door.
Sometimes Ron answered, sometimes no one. Ester would call to her friend through the letter box. “I’m sorry,” she’d cry. “I didn’t mean to make it worse.”
After each failed visit, Ester swore she would not try again. She would forget Moire, but by the end of the week she’d be pulled towards the house. Eventually, Moire appeared at the door. She didn’t look good; she was pale. Her hair had been cut short. She seemed tired and unsteady. Dressed in dark pants and a white blouse, Moire looked light enough to blow away, yet her stare was unyielding and added some weight to the image.
There was the likelihood that Moire would have closed the door in Ester's face if Moire had not been overcome with sickness. She ran up the bathroom, leaving Ester at the door. Seconds revealed no other sounds in the house; Ron was not there. Ester closed the door and followed her friend to see her on her knees at the toilet. It didn’t occur to Ester at once. There was the rising from the floor, the washing of Moire’s face, and the quiet walk downstairs with Ester at her heels. In the kitchen, Moire put on the kettle. “What do you want?” she asked Ester. “Why do you keep coming back?”
Moire’s skin was like putty. She looked queasy. “Oh my God, you’re pregnant,” Ester said.
Moire didn’t deny it. She didn’t say yes either.
She faced Ester and said, “It doesn’t matter, I’m not keeping it.”
“What are you talking about?” Ester asked.
Moire moved past Ester, who followed, though her limbs felt heavy. “But you love Ron?” she asked.
“It’s not what you think.” Moire said. She sat on the armchair. Ester wasn’t offered a seat though she wouldn’t have been able to take one regardless. Looking into Moire’s misty eyes and seeing the paleness of complexion, she was struck with the idea that Moire might break into little pieces by her feet if she touched her.
“Then why don’t you tell me what it is, what’s happening. Jesus you wouldn’t have even told me you were pregnant if I hadn’t guessed.”
“Because you’re so trustworthy, how do I know you aren’t going to run back and tell everyone?” Moire said.
“I had to talk to someone. I was scared. I still am,” Ester said.
Moire’s dark eyes fixed on Ester. Moire would give nothing away, and her absence made tears come to Ester.
Ester said, “I didn’t know what to do.”
“Who said you had to do anything?” Moire asked.
“I should just leave you alone in this house?” Ester asked.
“I was happy,” Moire said.
“You were, but you’re not now. Help me. Tell me what I should do,” Ester said.
“Nothing Ester, I want you to do nothing. Do you understand?”
There was no music in the house. The curtains were drawn, and the air was oppressive.
Ester eventually said, “Ron doesn’t want the baby, does he?”
“Ron will do whatever I want,” Moire told her.
Ester wondered if Moire really believed that. This woman who had let age creep up before time and had grown cold sitting before the fire.
“Then keep your child,” Ester said.
“I hate this child!”
“What’s happened to you?” Ester cried.
“I’ve never pretended to be someone I’m not. I'm not the liar,” Moire told her.
Ester might have known at that moment that she was going to leave London, though she couldn’t remember thinking anything when she left Moire. There was only the slowness of her steps, and her desire to lie down and cry.
Ester hadn’t been in London a year before Ester’s mother collected her from the bus station in Sligo town. Her mother was a small woman. Her mouth was tight and hard, the lines crawling through her forehead showed her anger even before Ester heard it in her voice.
“What’s this I am hearing about Moire?” her mother asked. “She won’t let her own family visit.”
“I don’t know what’s happening Mammy,” Ester lied. “I haven’t seen her.”
Within weeks at home, Ester got a job in a newsagent on Wine Street a few yards from the bus stop. Most days, she suffered some nausea from expecting to see Moire arrive with her backpack on her back, and a shy smile.
Instead, Pete came in. She sold him cigarettes, and he asked if he could meet her after work. He said, “I teach in Summerhill.”
“Is that supposed to be a recommendation?” she asked, though it was easy to picture his tall frame among a crowd of boys and his smiling face gaining trust.
Pete was the only person Ester cried with, the one person she could trust not to keep an account of her talk. He fought against her going to England. “Moire will only hurt you again. Don’t do it to yourself.” But Ester had counted the weeks to the birth and needed to see if Moire had allowed the baby to bring her back from the dark place she had disappeared to.
Pete flew to England with her, but she went to that house alone. The moment the front door opened, Ester noticed Moire’s small belly.
Moiré’s smile was kind but her, “Hello Ester,” sounded flat.
“Where have you been?” Moire asked, and Ester told her she’d moved home.
Moire said, “Good,” and this annoyed Ester. She didn’t come for Moire’s approval.
Ester scanned the sitting room for a crib or small vests.
“There’s no baby here,” Moire said. She was standing by the living room window, dressed in dark trousers and a pale pink t-shirt. Her hair was pulled back. She looked tired. Although her gaze was soft, her voice had grown impatient. “Is that why you came?” She asked.
“I gave birth two weeks ago.” The dead pan way Moire was speaking made Ester feel faint. “I was given this, so I might never forget.” Moire pulled up her t-shirt to reveal a scar, running from below her breast to the button of her pants. Minutes later, Ester ran down through the streets to the park where Pete was waiting and was never so glad to have someone’s arms around her. She didn’t tell Pete about the scar or that Moire said her baby was in a good place. Ron had made sure the adoptive parents were Irish. Ester had resisted the urge to spit with the sound of his name and had stumbled out the front door while Moire remained standing in the living room.
“Moire wouldn’t dare show her face,” Pete said when Ester was writing out invitations for their wedding the following summer. He was right. After the ceremony, Ester stood under the greenery of Benbulben Mountain sparkling in the afternoon sun. Specks of white clouds drifted by, and Pete squeezed Ester’s hand and told her, “You have me now.”
Moire scared him for the hurt she’d caused Ester, but he didn’t stop her from trying to write after their first son was born. She sat at the table with the blank paper, and wrote "Dear Moire." Then she thought of the baby Moire had given up for adoption. Maybe it was a boy too. He would have been around four. Ester wondered if Moire thought of her child and if she missed what she had given up. If so, it would difficult to open a letter to read "I have a son." To write with the news could easily be construed as vindictive. Ester threw the paper in the bin.
Throughout the years, Ester tried to write several times. There were two more sons, birthdays passing them by and weddings of old schoolmates, but she never knew how to start. "How are you?" seemed wrong and "I miss you" brought her heart into the open.
When Pete had his stroke, Ester’s eldest boy was twenty. And it was like a double suffering, to see her husband pale in hospital and to remember sitting with Moire in Trafalgar Square, whispering about people’s lives. It’s never as you imagine it, she’d wanted to tell Moire when Pete couldn’t work, and they’d had to move to the council house on the other side of town.
Ester never thought she would get used to the houses built close together and the lack of space, but she made friends with the women in the estate quickly and grew to love the small house and the view of the green where children played.
She was in her kitchen having tea and looking out at the empty scene when the phone rang on a warm September day. Pete was fishing by the river, and the boys were long gone. Two had given her grandchildren. She rose slowly. She was sixty-three, and she thought it might be one of her friends from the estate. They would phone again if she didn’t make it on time. They knew she didn’t like to rush.
She said hello and was asked, “Is this Ester Raines?”
Ester said yes and heard, “I’m Moire Harding’s daughter.”
“Oh,” Ester said. She couldn’t speak. All her grief for her friend had unraveled with the woman’s voice. The woman was starting to cry. “I know,” she said, and Ester heard an intake of breath, “You were her best friend.”
Ester’s trembling settled a little though her face was a mess of tears. Her voice was low and shaky when she said, “Where are you?”
“In Dublin,” and Ester thought of course. She’d heard the accent. “I only found out about my mother recently, and it took a while to get her address in Sligo. A man called Bernard gave me your number.” She paused, and the silence scared Ester. She didn’t want this girl to go. The girl said. “Can I see you?”
“Yes,” Ester said, “Please come.”
She gave Moire’s daughter her address, and the daughter said she would leave that minute.
The daughter had waited forty years to find her mother and was two years too late. A weak heart had run in Moire’s family. Ron had written after Moire died. The letter took a week to get to Ester.
I miss her every day, and she missed you. She wanted me to tell you she was sorry, but there were some things she could not tell you. I think she regretted that decision.
Pete had come home to Ester sobbing in bed with the letter still in her hands and had spent the night holding her.
The house seemed too quiet now, and Moire’s daughter would take at least three hours to arrive. In the kitchen, Ester finished her tea staring out the window. The radio was on, and she listened without hearing anything. The DJ was still talking unheard when she took everything out of the fridge and cleaned the shelves and put all the food back again.
After lunch, she found herself stripping her bed. She stripped her boy’s beds too, though they hadn’t been slept in for months. The sheets were piled up and brought to the laundry. She vacuumed the rooms and had to search for any dirt and dust.
She started on the bathroom. The lemon scent from the detergent was a comfort to her. She was on her knees by the side of the bath and scrubbing the rim when the doorbell rang. It took longer than she would have liked to stand. She ran to the front door. When she saw Moire’s daughter, the ground shifted under her feet. Without the door for support, she might have fallen. The girl was tall and slim with straight brown hair, but her eyes frightened Ester. She’d seen those blue eyes so many times before. On their last meeting, Bernard had looked down at her and said, “There’s nothing we can do about Moire."
Moire’s daughter said hello. Ester said, “Look at me just standing like a fool.” The girl laughed, and Ester remembered the cut on Bernard’s face and the cracked wood on Moire’s front door. She must have tried to stop him from entering. “I was happy,” Moire had said. She was until Ester led Bernard to Woodgreen, and Ester finally realized that Moire had always been trying to escape him. Tears came to Ester’s eyes. She said, “I’m so glad you’re here.”
Moire’s daughter nodded and there was something in her movements that reminded Ester of Moire, a nervous shuffle of her feet, the slight bend of her head. Ester stepped back to let her enter. She might have been thinking of second chances then, or maybe that came later.
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