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The Reservoir

Rose Malone

Grace locked her car and went slowly and a little unsteadily towards the reservoir, a favourite walking route. She needed to walk peace into her bones. The surface of the water was broken into wavelets by an insidious breeze and seemed unhappy and unsettled under a curdled sky. Small plovers took short, experimental flights and were tossed around like pieces of torn paper. Their piping cries were thin appeals for help.

‘The breeze will blow the cobwebs away’, she said aloud. She expected to hear her mother’s voice in sarcastic retort at the cliché, but Marjorie was silent. She didn’t like that kind of false cheerfulness, Grace thought. Making the best of it. But what else could she do, on a day like this?

She had wakened early, out of a confused dream of Red Riding Hood and a wolf whose stomach was full of stones. Was she Red Riding Hood or the wolf, or maybe the grandmother? Something grey and formless was weighing her down. Holding her back, like a crash barrier. She tried to pull words out of the murk. There was something about today. Some looming thing. Birthday. The word came and filled her mouth, like nausea. Nonsense, at her age. But this birthday had a particular significance – the first one since Marjorie’s death. The quality of absence was different today. Deep silence from Marjorie’s room. Just one place set at the table. Mug, plate, cereal bowl. Big spoon, small spoon, knife. Where she had always sat, with her back to the garden. Across the table from Marjorie. On a sudden whim, she moved the crockery to Marjorie’s place. Surely, now, it was time to grow up, at fifty-five. Become the woman of the house. She had stayed living with her mother, at first from a kind of inertia, later because Marjorie depended on her. People used to say she was crazy, when she was young.

“You should get out more, be independent”, was the advice. Later they said she was a

“saint”, which irritated her. The truth was, it had suited her, this anomalous life. She could work as and when she pleased, follow her interests, even if she didn’t make much money. She had no financial worries and could always be sure of a roof over her head. They had got on well, herself and Marjorie. Most of the time. Now she berated herself for laziness, lack of initiative. For her impatience, as Marjorie’s grasp on reality had loosened.

Often, she could hear Marjorie’s voice in her head, its exact timbre, the sharp exhale of cigarette smoke. But today, nothing. She felt like she had killed her mother. That Marjorie had died all over again and was now more completely absent. Grace might have expected that her grief could be tempered by some kind of a sense of freedom. Her friend Nessa had suggested a “makeover” – new haircut, contact lenses, dental work, revised wardrobe. She got as far as the new haircut and didn’t recognise herself in the mirror until she washed her hair, when it reverted to its normal look, only shorter. Her cousin Claire suggested counselling. Harry, a colleague whom she knew only slightly, was impertinent enough to suggest that she should sell the “big, gloomy house” and buy an apartment in a retirement complex. He had a friend who was an estate agent and would ensure she got a “good deal”. They all probably meant well.

On her birthday morning, she drew back the heavy, dark curtains and allowed a sword of sunlight to fall across the room. It was certainly cold. The old electric storage heaters merely took the edge off the chill. Sitting in Marjorie’s place, she had a view of the garden. The morning was bright but there was still frost on the grass. A blackbird was making a hysterical fuss in the cherry tree. The overgrown shrubs were beginning to leaf out. Soon, she thought, their tentacles would encircle and bury the house. The spring sunshine high-lighted the heaviness of the brown furniture – the dark chairs and sofas and tables which stood about the room like patient beasts, furred with dust. Every surface supported a tribe of things – old china, tarnished silverware, grotesque mementoes, ashtrays, sundry religious objects, curling photographs. Important framed photographs – her father, Clement; Marjorie and Clement on their wedding day, Grace at various times in her life – communion, confirmation, graduation - hung on the walls or lounged at angles on shelves and small tables. The ones on the walls shared the space with paintings from Marjorie’s oil painting phase. They were just this side of terrible. The glass of the paintings and photos was smeared, and the silver frames were tarnished. Grace had always told herself that she had more important things to do than housework. A woman from Moldova used to come every week while Marjorie was alive, but Grace had dispensed with her services afterwards. She felt awkward and guilty in the woman’s presence and found it all too much of an ordeal. She told herself that she could manage, but failed to establish any kind of routine. She felt even more guilt about the Moldovan woman’s loss of income and her own incompetence.

Books crowded the shelves and all available surfaces, including the sofa. The collection was random and eclectic – contemporary thrillers, poetry, Booker shortlisted novels, nineteenth century novels, cookery books, sheet music, texts on literacy and the teaching of reading, books on gardening, on wildflowers, on birds. In her final months, Marjorie had developed a fondness for historical, romantic novels – Georgette Heyer, Norah Roberts. Books with the titles in raised, golden letters. Grace had bought them in charity shops and read them aloud to her mother. Now she could hardly bear to touch them. Grace herself had developed a taste for murder mysteries, the more gruesome and explicit the better. American, Scandinavian. The English ones were too tame. She had no interest in genteel murders in vicarage gardens. The knitting that Marjorie had abandoned when her hands became too arthritic lay in an armchair. Grace had never learned the skill.

Her phone pinged with birthday messages. Thoughtful, welcome, but they served to underline Marjorie’s absence. She had always sent a card through the post. Even though she could have just handed it to Grace. It was one of the many small ceremonies they had always observed. The letterbox rattled and Grace began breathing fast. She could hardly bring herself to go into the hallway. She steeled herself and went out to pick up a political flier and an electricity bill. Loneliness hit her a blow to the solar plexus but no tears came. The house seemed alien, almost threatening. She had to get out.

She drove with little sense of a destination, just a compulsion to put distance between herself and the dark oppression of the widow-and-spinster house. The light had the clear vividness of early spring. She had forgotten her sunglasses and the brightness lanced through her head, made her eyes water. Everything was a blur of yellow, blue and green and other people’s happiness.

When she found herself driving southward on the M50 motorway, she knew she was headed towards a favourite trail that she and Marjorie had walked regularly until Marjorie became too frail. She left the motorway and headed towards Glendalough on the mountain road. The hysterical sunshine dimmed, as banks of cloud shrouded the higher hills. Grace found that she could scarcely remember the route that she and Marjorie had taken to the reservoir trail. She missed the turn-off and arrived at the outskirts of the village beyond it. She decided she might as well stop for coffee and pulled into the carpark of an inn where they had often had a meal. Pandemic restrictions had made some changes to the layout of the lounge, but a welcoming fire was burning brightly. She pulled on her mask before sitting to a table near the fire. The room was deserted, and she was the only customer until two men came in and sat at a nearby table. Neither of them was wearing a mask. They opened folders full of papers and began discussing local football teams that they managed, and schedules for matches. Grace felt pleasantly invisible, even when she took off her mask to drink her coffee. The warmth lifted her mood. Her sense of isolation and invisibility brought on a reckless feeling, and she decided to have a whiskey. She very seldom drank spirits. She and Marjorie had been accustomed to drink small glasses of wine most evenings, their abstemious behaviour making the bottle last. This now seemed to her as emblematic of their careful, constrained, parsimonious lives. The Jameson arrived with a small glass jug of water on the side. She swirled the golden liquid and noted the slight viscosity, its cling to the sides of the glass. She was loth to dilute it, but prudence suggested that she should add a little water. The burning glow of alcohol in her veins took her by surprise. Her face flared and she replaced her mask to cover the redness. Her compulsion to leave the house had driven her out without eating anything and the whiskey made her feel light-headed. However, it seemed important to persevere. She swirled the glass again and, lifting it as though to drink a toast to herself, she lowered her mask. One of the men at the next table smiled at her and she realised, to her horror, that he thought she was toasting him. Her face flared, beetroot red. She pulled up her mask again and put down her glass. To compound her alarm, he stood up and walked over to her.

‘Can I join you? Would you like another one of those?’ he said, pointing to her almost untouched whiskey glass.

‘Actually, I’m just about to leave’, she said. ‘And I’m driving.’

He pointed to the whiskey and laughed.

She realised that she had no repertoire of word or gesture either to extricate herself firmly but gently from this situation or, perhaps, to engage in a flirtation which might lead to foreseeable consequences. She was not completely inexperienced sexually, but was inexperienced in satisfactory relationships. Her name had always seemed to her to be cruelly anomalous. She felt particularly graceless in this awkward situation. He stopped laughing and sat down at her table. He smiled across at her. His eyes were very blue.

‘You should eat something’, he said. ‘I’ll order us a sandwich. You’ll have to take off that thing, but.’ He gestured at her mask.

She was very tired of people, men especially, telling her what she should do, but ingrained politeness was an insurmountable barrier to a sharp retort. She took off her mask, nevertheless and gave him what she hoped was a cool, social smile.

‘That’s a good idea’, she said ‘and kind. But I insist on paying.’ He smiled without replying and gestured to the woman behind the bar. The woman sauntered over and put her hands on his shoulders. She seemed to smile at Grace, but she kept her mask on, so Grace wasn’t sure.

‘Don’t listen to his sweet talk’, the woman said. ‘He has five beautiful children and a wife at home.’

His face darkened. ‘Don’t talk shite’, he said.

‘Yeah, I’m joking’, the woman said. ‘About the kids.’ She cuffed him lightly on the side of the head. ‘What can I get you, darlin’?’ she asked Grace.

‘A chicken sandwich, please’, Grace replied. Ordering for herself made her feel slightly more in control, although she felt completely out of her depth in deciphering the relationship between this man and the woman from the bar.

‘Gimme one as well’, he said. ‘And a glass of Heineken.’

‘Far from it you were reared’, the woman replied and walked away

Grace began to shred a beer mat into tiny pieces. The man reached a hand across the table.

‘PJ’, he said. She was puzzled for a second, then realised that he was introducing himself. ‘Don’t mind Josie’, he said. ‘She likes to tease me whenever she sees me talking to a good-looking woman.’

Grace shrugged and took his hand, rather limply.

‘Grace’, she said. She ignored his other remark. She considered for a second giving him a false name, but couldn’t think of one on the spot. Except Marjorie, and for several reasons, she baulked at that. The other man who had come in with PJ came over and clapped him on the shoulder.

‘I’ll be off’, he said. ‘Behave yourself’. He winked at Grace and went out. She felt her face redden again. Josie returned with two sandwiches and a glass of beer on a tray. And another Jameson.

‘From Liam’, she said to Grace, who was too startled to reply. The other man? Her first glass of whiskey now appeared to be empty. She had drunk it quickly, out of nervousness. She certainly didn’t want another one. They ate their sandwiches with minimal conversation. Somehow the second glass of whiskey appeared to be empty, but Grace no longer felt dizzy. Her main preoccupation was with getting out of there with some kind of dignity and without rancour. PJ stood up and said he was going to the Gents. Grace decided quickly to put an end to the encounter, even though she felt it was a cowardly way to do it. She took out her credit card and went up to the bar. She offered to pay for the whole lot.

‘Liam paid for the second whiskey’, she said. ‘But you’re doing the sensible thing, darlin’, gettin’ out of here’, Josie said. ‘I’ll distract him for a minute while you escape.’

Grace sat into her car and paused in the car park to reassemble herself. Her thoughts whirled. None of it made sense.

‘Are you fit to drive?’ Marjorie’s voice asked her.

She remembered why she was here, in this village. She would go back to the reservoir which was only half a mile away. The walk would clear her head and she could drive home. Pick up normality again.

‘Yes’, she lied to Marjorie, who sighed loudly. She backed out excessively slowly and carefully.

When she arrived at the reservoir, she had returned sufficiently to herself to notice that all the bright sunshine of the morning had disappeared, and the water had the dull greyness of tarnished pewter. The unsettled wavelets could hold no sheen. She walked slowly because the dizziness was back, accompanied by nausea. She stepped off the path and vomited into some dark bushes. She could scarcely believe that she had, even for a moment, contemplated or failed to reject out of hand, some kind of carry on with PJ or anyone like him. Carry on? It certainly wasn’t a relationship. Her nausea came as much from self-disgust as from alcohol. She sat gracelessly on the ground and frowned at her own heavy, white legs emerging from her sensible winter skirt. On a sudden impulse, she began stripping off her layers of clothing – her waterproof jacket, her boots and hiking socks, her knitted sweater, the skirt, the high-necked blouse, the sensible thermal vest, her XL knickers, the armoury of her greyish bra. Fabrics piled beside her in an untidy heap. She would have liked to tear off her own skin. To her left, she saw a tiny beach of small, sharp stones. She gasped as the cold grab of the water shackled her ankles, causing her to fall and plunge awkwardly into the icy grasp of the reservoir. Her body now looked almost golden in the peaty water. She struck out for the furthest shore.

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