|Apr/May 2017 Fiction|
Photographic image © 2017 Stuart Gelzer
On a cold February day, the uncle came into the cafe with his nephew and sat at the table by the large window. Faith served them. We knew she and the uncle had grown up on opposite sides of the village. It was a small place, and there was very little we missed. The uncle's family used to live over the bridge. Through the cafe window Faith would have been able to see the silver sparkle of the railings in the sun or the rain swallowing it whole. "Lording over the town," her mother said when Faith renovated the small building and enlarged the front window.
We'd known the uncle since he was a skinny boy with dark brooding eyes and pent up energy from too many ideas in his head. He and his brother used to have us harassed in the housing estate. They were hardly out of nappies when Mrs. Lavin found them washing her husband's car with sponges bigger than themselves, and she was told it wouldn't cost extra if she wanted the interior cleaned. In all kinds of weather we'd be sure to get a knock on the door and find the Hurley brothers looking to earn a pound, as if we'd had any to spare. We knew of their plans to go to London, and they might have made something of themselves if their father hadn't died and the mother hadn't taken ill, so the brother was left to take care of her and Dick had to go alone. By the time he was leaving, our children had university degrees. They were teachers, lawyers, and accountants, yet we had no choice but to send them off on the boats in search of jobs. The brain drain they called it, when it was our hearts drifting away. They'd come home for Christmas, and Dick would be with them, disheveled and skinny with dirty jeans and calloused hands from the buildings and a new liking for drink that we tried to ignore. Sunday at mass, shaking hands during the sign of peace, we'd avoid looking at his red eyes and stubble chin.
At his brother's funeral he was clean shaven and trembling from the want of it. He sat in the same pew as his nephew and sister-in-law, and the space between could only be measured in silence. After the mass, from the low stools in her living room, we watched the little boy cling to the grieving mother, and in the kitchen saw the uncle drink tea and step outside the back door. He was smoking when Faith found him there, and he flinched with her brief touch on his arm. Maybe he didn't want to look at her pity, or maybe his old classmate reminded him of the years he'd wasted. Above them was a blue sky. A single seagull cawed on his flight towards the sea. She said she was sorry for his loss. He said he'd lost his brother a long time ago, and it was his own bloody fault. "That's not true," she said, when it would have been better to leave the man alone with his heartache. "He cared about you."
She stepped back when he threw the cigarette on the ground and stamped on it.
"If I hadn't fucked up, he'd be alive right now."
"Oh," she said, "London."
He said, no, that wasn't it, and she nodded without listening. The back door was opened, but people paused inside. There was a tension to the uncle and Faith that no one thought fit to disturb. She said, "Things happen. You can't wish your life away."
The uncle's eyes narrowed. He said he wasn't the one wishing his life away, staying cooped up in a bloody café day and night. He said he wasn't stuck in the past, either, talking about fucking London as if that was important now. That wasn't what he'd meant at all. His brother had stayed out late with him. He'd been tired because of him. "So don't talk about things happening."
Faith winced with his outburst and had to hold back tears, while Dick's explosion exhausted him. His shoulders slumped. He took out a cigarette and was about to light it when Faith walked away, and he yanked the cigarette from his mouth. His dark eyes were pleading on her retreating back, but she was gone before he thought of anything to say.
We felt sorry for them then, children whose dreams had gone to ruin.
When Faith was a girl, her café had been a clothes shop. Bright hats with feathers and trims were on display in the window. Faith wasn't able to pass without gazing inside. Her reflection, petite and long- haired with shabby jeans or school uniform, made the merchandise more exotic. The shop was owned by Mrs. Reilly, a tall, regal woman with bobbed silver hair and a Northern accent. Eventually when Faith was 13, she invited the girl in. There'd been no need for her to go into that shop before that. Faith's mother tended towards smocks and long skirts and laughed at the frills and nonsense. The interior of the shop was small and dark. Faith was inclined to stay near the door.
"They're like sweets," Faith told Mrs. Reilly when the latter asked why she was so enthralled with the hats. Mrs. Reilly laughed and said she'd never seen bonbons as big as that before. And Faith said, "No, I mean pastries."
To Mrs. Reilly she confided her dream of owning a shop with cakes towering in the window, so every time we saw her on the street we thought of the pastries rising like waterfalls and colored like gems.
After finishing school, for seven years she worked in the civil service in Dublin and saved her money. On her return home, the grimy, cob-webbed O'Reilly window showed her reflection: no taller, but less dream-like and more set in the mouth. It wasn't the shop we'd imagined. In Dublin, there were places like the bakery on Henry Street with sellers crying their wares and crowds every day of the week, and a store on Middle Abbey Street, which was close enough to O'Connell Street and Dublin bridge to have pedestrians strolling by at all hours, but Faith ended up meeting the wrong man and running home to a shop with barely a foot path in front of it.
The café's building sat alone at the top of Main Street. On her right was the major road for Sligo and on her left the narrow Station road. Both led onto our only street, but no matter where we started off, we had to cross a street to get to the café's island. The shop could be aglitter with color, but none of us would pass on the way to the butchers or the supermarket, and we'd forget about the pastries until we were halfway home.
The cakes didn't sell quick enough, so Faith offered sandwiches and soups and put out a blackboard with her menu for the passing trade on their way to Dublin or the North. The café was small, with three rows of two tables between the large window and the counter, but until the by-pass was built, she employed a waitress and two people in the kitchen to handle the breakfast and lunchtime trade.
As for her pastries, we saw advertisements in the local paper with pictures of cakes she'd done throughout the years, birthday cakes in the shapes of cars or ponies, wedding cakes that were towers of silver icing, cakes for baptism with the white cross in the center (which would be surprisingly popular), pink-layered Easter cakes that rose from the plate like an egg, and many others she'd catalogued. The orders came in, and she'd bake in the evening when the café was closed, so it looked as if she was floating away from the world. With the tables and chairs in darkness and a small light burning in the back kitchen, we'd see her standing at the front window watching the village, a silent, unyielding witness like the statue of Our Lady that stood on the other side of the bridge. Most of us had passed the grotto nearly every day of our lives, and it was reassuring to think that Faith had taken up the responsibility with her, the young and the old, minding everything in between.
Faith kept her distance, though she must have wondered if we knew about Dublin. From watching the village she'd have understood she didn't need to say something aloud for people to know. There could have been a silent witness to her life in the city where she'd lived in the shabby one bedroom apartment. A bed-sit would have been cheaper and let her save quicker, but to live without a kitchen would have been torture. Before she'd left, she'd already had the tools of the trade—mixer, whipping siphon, spraying gun to name a few—and she'd spent evenings in Dublin experimenting with different ingredients, such as avocado creamed like butter for icing on a chocolate cake, natural sweet beets in batter of a sponge cake, parsnips in carrot cake for added spiciness. Each day, she'd have something to bring in to her colleagues in the office, but she never shared her ingredients until he sat beside her on the bus. He was broad with fair hair and sparkling blue eyes. His face had the ruddy complexion of a farmer, and his voice was surprisingly soft and gentle. The accent was hard to place. He told her Wexford and that he had no family. His hands were small and well-kept with square shaped nails. The cake on her knees was the first thing he pointed to, and she told him it was a chocolate potato cake. Maybe it was this that endeared him to her, the simple sharing of her secrets that would go on every morning on the bus, or it might have been his enthusiasm to taste the cake when she'd seen the doubt in his eyes. Regardless, after many tastings he asked to see her kitchen, "where the magic happened." She brought him, and so their love affair began.
When it ended, she tried to recall details of that first bus ride and wondered if there were something in her face or composure that told him she would be easy to fool. How did he know she would not demand reasons for his cancelled dates or his departure from her bed in the early hours of the morning? "I need to be closer to work," he'd say, and she demurred without a fight. She was 23, and he was in his thirties. A lawyer, he never knew when a case would come up and he'd be smothered with it. When his phone was off for two days in a row, he'd arrive at her flat full of apologies and promises to make it up. He'd tell her he had to work hard and make sacrifices for their future. He talked about children. They'd have a son and daughter, he said, and once the babies were old enough, she would start the bakery she'd always wanted. She baked for him all the time: angel cake with sponge that melted in his mouth, strawberry trifle with homemade vanilla pudding, apple tarts with a taste of cinnamon, frosted chocolate layer cake that he couldn't stop eating.
They'd had so many dinners and conversations while his real life had been put on silent. He'd had two phones. His wife found his second one in his glove compartment and phoned the only number on it. Faith became haunted by the woman's faltering voice. Not one memory was left unscathed with the notion of' his wife's constant presence. She'd sat at the table with them while they ate in dark restaurants. She'd lain between them in bed while they talked and touched. She was a specter that Faith could not get rid of. If Faith didn't want to walk around the city that had been fouled by his lies, if she'd felt deceived and dirty, how could the woman to whom he'd said, "I do," survive? The thought of losing so much was terrifying, so Faith moved home and watched us in the dark.
She was not prepared for the uncle and nephew. The uncle kept his head bowed when they slipped quietly into the café and took their seats. They were both dark haired and skinny with long fingers. The uncle's eyes were large, the boy's smaller and more pensive. His gaze was held on the table when the uncle asked, "Is it a ham sandwich you want?"
The by-pass had brought a subdued quiet to the village, and there was no one working in the café besides the kitchen porter, so Faith had no choice but to serve the uncle herself. He smiled at her and said Hello, Faith, but she kept her gaze fixed on her notebook and said, "What can I get you?"
The uncle ordered. He didn't take his suit jacket off and looked strained. Behind him was a dry day. A few teenagers were hanging out in front of the Fast Food Restaurant, a mother was trying to drag her two-year-old into Spar, and the boy and uncle looked like a painting in front of the scene. They were so still, the boy with his hands tucked under the table, the uncle watching him with a soft hopelessness and his narrow shoulders declining downwards.
From the kitchen Faith heard the uncle's mumbling and nothing from the boy. We knew the boy's mother had not spoken to the uncle until his brother's quarry accident brought an end to his drinking, but seeing the boy, it was easy to imagine how he would have clung to her until she'd felt smothered and phoned the only other family they had. They ate their sandwiches quietly. The uncle asked what the boy would like to do next, and the boy shrugged. He had yet to look up and reached for his glass of Fanta with his head down, only for the glass to topple sideways and spill its contents over the table. The uncle sat rigid, staring at the spillage as if was a living thing. When Faith came to help, he smiled sadly at her, and she couldn't help nodding back.
The second week wasn't much different, only it was raining lightly and on arrival their hair sparkled with silver drops. The boy sat in a tight, angry ball. The uncle stared out the window when he'd finished his sandwich, not like a man with no interest but one preoccupied with thinking about something to say. He was staring at the street with an intensity that made his eyes narrow. He didn't glance at Faith when she brought the bill and cleared the table, and he might have sat there longer if the boy hadn't said he wanted to go home.
"Do you like stories," the uncle said on the third Saturday. The gray day sent a shadow over them.
"What kind?" the boy said, and the uncle shook his head and asked, "What do you mean what kind?"
The boy shrugged and the uncle repeated, "Do you like stories?"
The boy nodded and might have mumbled a yes. Faith was at the counter writing. She kept her head down when the uncle started, "Long ago, in a place called Cong in County Mayo, there lived a young woman. She was about to marry the king's son whom she loved very much, but he was killed by in a fight."
"What kind of fight?" the boy asked. The uncle shrugged and said he wasn't sure, but it was a bad one, and everyone in the village was very sorry for the lady. One day she disappeared, and the villagers thought the fairy people had taken her away. Then they noticed a white trout in the lake. This was strange because a white trout had never before been seen in the area.
"Was it her?" the boy asked.
The uncle winked and said he'd find out soon enough. He said the villagers watched the white trout for many generations, and it never changed its appearance or its habits. The people thought the trout must be a magic fish and always treated it with great respect. But a stranger came one day and caught the fish.
The boy's dark eyes had widened. He looked scared. Faith held her pen but had forgotten to keep writing as she listened to the uncle describe the fire the stranger built to cook the fish. The stranger put the fish on a skillet and kept it there over the scalding heat, but the trout wouldn't brown. No matter how long it was in the skillet, it stayed white. The stranger wasn't too worried. He thought he'd eat it anyway and got his knife and fork.
The uncle paused and the two figures at the table seemed to move closer.
"The stranger cut into the fish," the uncle said. The boy was like stone.
"And he heard a loud scream, and before him was a beautiful woman. 'Look what you've done!' she says to him. 'I'm bleeding. And why did you take me out of the lake? I'm waiting for my love, so you need to throw me back in immediately.' The stranger said he couldn't throw a beautiful woman back into the lake. She told him he'd better, or she'd haunt him forever, and at that she turned back into the white trout. The stranger raced to the lake with her and put her back into the water, where there was a stain of red from her cut. And to this day all trout have a red mark on their side."
Ahead over the bridge was a dense patch of clouds. The boy asked, "Why did she do that?"
He couldn't have been much more than seven, but there was a seriousness in his eyes that belonged to an older man.
"Do what?" the uncle asked.
"Wait for him when he died. Doesn't she know he's not coming back?"
"I don't know," the uncle said, and his glance towards Faith made her shoulders straighten and a flash of heat appear on her cheeks. It would have been easy for her imagine the talk, poor Faith Wheeler coming back from Dublin heartbroken and staying in her café and waiting for some lost love. Her strides towards the table were quick and urgent. The uncle and nephew were startled when Faith slammed down their bill. To the uncle, she said, "Not all women spend their time waiting."
The nephew stared up at her. His dark eyes held surprise and a little fear. God, he was a nervous child, and the uncle gazed up at her with soft apology.
"It's just a story," he said.
We knew she didn't believe that when the lights in the kitchen burned all night and the front window held no figure of a woman. It was getting bright by the time she had the last cake out of the oven. She was first to mass. We noticed her at the top of the church, sitting erect with flour in her hair. It wasn't a surprise when the priest made the announcement that there would be a giant cake sale. Faith was barely in the café door before we started to arrive. We bought chocolate cake with buttermilk cream, lemon cake with marshmallow frosting, gooey butter cake, bite-sized strawberry trifle, and almond honey cake, to name a few. The uncle was among us. It was March, the day fair and bright, yet he wore a long coat and didn't step into the café. He watched us come and go with pastries hiding our faces, and when he saw the nephew approach hand in hand with his mother, he walked away.
The next week was a blue-sky day with a slight breeze. The morning was slow going. Faith kept glancing at the clock, though we weren't sure what drew her eyes there, until it reached 2:15 and she stood at the counter with a hardened gaze and her attention on the window. The uncle was in his usual suit. Since he'd decided to run for the County Council, he never wore anything else. This time, a navy blue pants and jacket with a white shirt. The boy was in his jeans and fleece jacket. They walked with their heads down, the boy with his hands stuck in his jacket pockets, the uncle with his hands by his side and his dark hair falling over his forehead. He gave her a shy smile as he stepped through her door, a smile that was not returned. In the kitchen, there was the clatter of pans being washed from the lunch customers. A table was taken in the front. The uncle ordered a BLT for himself and a ham sandwich for his nephew. "Okay," he said, as Faith walked away. She was in the kitchen when the uncle asked the boy if he knew what a selkie was. The boy shook his head and whispered no, and the uncle told him it was a mythical creature that resembled a seal in the water, but a human on land.
"Are they real?" the boy said.
"Of course they are. Sean married one."
There was a pause before the uncle said, "A fisherman."
The boy looked out the window towards the river.
The uncle started to tell him about the three fishermen coming along the coast one evening. The sun was just about to set, and they were hungry and tired and looking forward to getting home. Sean was the first around a bend in the road. He stopped so suddenly, the others bumped into him, and the three stared at the most beautiful woman they had ever seen. Sean said she was a selkie. "Look, there's her skin lying on the rock beside her."
The boy was watching his uncle with a frown. He seemed closer to the table than the previous weeks and not so tight in the shoulders, but his hands were hidden under the table and gave the impression he would have liked to hide. The uncle had his jacket off, and the rolled up sleeves gave him the look of determination or settling into a task he wasn't sure he was capable of, though he seemed a little more at ease when he thanked Faith for the sandwiches.
"Sean's friends agreed she had to be a selkie," he said after he took a first bite of the sandwich. Faith had retreated to the counter and pretended to be busy with menus. Her gaze was constantly pulled to the table. A blue sky pushed against the window, and the boy ate in tidy bites. "So Sean crept forward and grabbed the seal's skin. He held it tightly with both hands when the woman looked up with a sad expression on her face. 'Will you not give my skin back?' she asked sadly."
Faith was staring at the uncle now. His hair was growing too long for a politician. There was a boyish excitement in the way he leaned forward. The uncle told the boy that selkies were supposed to make the best wives, and Sean wanted her to be his, so he said no, he wouldn't give back the skin. The selkie said she would miss the sea, but she had no choice.
The boy's mouth had opened. He took a sip of his Fanta. Everything he did was slow and thoughtful.
The uncle continued, "They were married three days later, and Sean locked the selky's skin in a strong chest and kept the key on a chain around his neck. Sean's fortunes improved as soon as he was married, and in no time he owned his own fishing fleet. His wife gave him three strong sons and two beautiful daughters. Sean was very happy, but his wife spent as much time as she could by the sea with her own people. Eventually Sean decided his family had to move to a bigger house. The day they were leaving, Sean's wife went into the house to take a last look around. In one corner, she noticed the chest. It was so old, it was easy to break the lid. She couldn't believe her luck. She quickly searched through it and found her skin. She ran out the door and raced down to the sea. She heard Sean chasing after her and shouting his love. But, before he could catch her, she threw on her skin. In front of his eyes, she changed back into her seal form and swam far out to sea."
The silence was thick and seemed to descend on the boy. He was watching his uncle and didn't ease when the uncle smiled.
"What happened?" the nephew finally said. The uncle shook his head. When he glanced at Faith, she dropped her gaze. She would have known the end of the story. The selkie disappeared and never came back. The boy's dark eyes searched his uncle's.
"Sean moved to his house," the uncle said, and Faith looked helplessly at the boy. She might have wanted to tell the boy that the selkie came back every week to visit her family and everyone was happy, but it wasn't true, so she was left to look at the two figures at the small table, so alike in their falling posture and dark hair yet miles apart from each other.
We didn't think it was anger that kept her baking all night, but a heavy regret that wouldn't let her sit still. She phoned her kitchen porter in the morning to help her clean up, and he whistled when he saw the piles of cakes along the sideboards: chocolate pound cakes, banana cakes, Neapolitan cheese cake, confetti cakes with chocolate filling, and gingerbread men were only the half of it. Once again she got to the church before mass and asked the priest to announce the cake sale. She was the first to walk out with her head held high and chocolate sauce on her cheek. There were more customers than the week before. Children played outside, hopping off the pavement as we fought for our cakes. We quieted when we saw the boy's mother arrive holding the boy's hand. She was tall and broad-shouldered with short, graying hair and a reluctant smile. She bought gingerbread men.
The uncle did not come.
"Don't you like cakes?" Faith said the next week. The window seat was taken, and the table by the wall made the boy and uncle look caged in. He looked surprised. His dark eyes lingered on her a moment before he said he did, but he didn't like early mass. "Will the cake sale be every Sunday?" he said.
She said it might.
The orders were taken, and Faith looked nervous to hear what story the uncle might share. It seemed to be digging a hole for him, taking the boy further away, but it was hard to imagine the uncle doing anything else.
When he started to tell the boy about the giant Finn McCool in the North and his ongoing feud with the Scottish giant Benandonner, Faith smiled. It was impossible to think a boy would dislike this story. The uncle said, "Benandonner wanted to fight Finn and decided to cross the sea for him. The whole land shock with his steps, and Finn and his wife Oonagh knew it was a battle he would never win."
"How big was he?"
"As big as two houses…"
"And how big was Finn?"
There was a pause. Faith, getting the sandwiches missed the uncle's shrugged. "As big as one house…"
The boy said oh.
"When the giant got to Ireland, he roared for Finn. Oonagh ran out to him and asked him to hush now, be quiet, my baby is in bed."
The boy was sitting straight. His chair was an inch from the table, and his head was cocked. He didn't look at Faith when she slid the plates in front of them. The uncle's narrow shoulders were bent over when he said that Oonagh had gotten Finn to lie in the cot and pretend to be their baby. When Benandonner saw the size of the baby, he got a bit of a shock. The boy laughed.
"Oonagh invited him to stay for lunch," the uncle went on. "And baked bread with stones and said it was her husband's favorite, but when Benandonner ate some, three of his teeth broke. The poor fella needed to clear his head after that, and Oonagh brought him outside where the garden was scattered with boulders as big as the giant. Finn likes to play catch with those boulders she said. He flings them over the Fort and runs to catch them before they land. Benandonner tried to lift one but could barely move it an inch. He was scared of Finn, who could eat stones for lunch and throw boulders miles and had a baby half the size of Benandonner himself, so he thanked Oonagh for her hospitality and said he needed to get back before the tide turned."
Silence, and the boy said, "Did he ever came back?"
"Not that I know of," said the uncle.
"But what if he came back?" The boy was sitting forward with wide-eyed worry, his hands gripping the armrest. Faith stepped forward. "They'll be friends if he comes back," she said.
The kitchen porter was at the kitchen door, but he probably wouldn't have noticed the boy's grasp easing, the stiffness of Faith's legs, or the gratitude in the uncle's eyes.
"They won't fight?" the nephew asked her, and she said, "No, they won't fight."
Now, we could tell you about the weeks of stories that followed and the cakes Faith continued to bake on Saturday nights and her growing pride as she walked out of mass on Sunday mornings. But we don't recall the particulars of the stories or how long it took before Faith stopped doing sandwiches to concentrate on what she loved. She kept the kitchen porter on, and he surprised her with how well he took to baking, but that is beside the point. What is important is that before the bakery took off and people started travelling from miles around, the uncle and nephew stopped coming. Faith spent two Saturdays standing at the café counter until her legs grew stiff. There was a good reason for their failure to come: the nephew took ill and was unable to leave the house, or the mother decided to get away for a while and took the son with her. We don't recall the specifics. No one does. It was the sight of Faith Wheeler sitting in her bright café late at night that people still talk about. With the light shining over her, she was as still as a statue. No one knew she was waiting until Dick Hurley walked through her door. When he did, she stood for him. The street was quiet then, not a soul in sight, so we are not sure who was the first to see Faith Wheeler and Dick Hurley alone, but there must have been a witness.