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Trisha Hughes

SCORPION

Chapter 1

Saturday, 20th May

 

 

The thick double door beneath the sign, Neil’s Bar and Grocery, was shut and a For Sale sign jutted from a side wall with an ‘Under Contract’ banner plastered across it. The blinds were down, as if the house too had closed it eyes and died.

That’s all I had time to notice as my taxi whipped past. I couldn’t tell the driver to slow down since I’d already given him instructions to hurry. I looked back as we passed and felt a tug at my heart. It looked like nothing had changed. And yet, it somehow looked different. Smaller perhaps.

We flew past Murphy’s farm then took a sharp right-hand turn and it was gone, disappearing from my sight around a bend.

A left turn brought us to the two-roomed schoolhouse where I’d learned to read. It had grown immensely and a large sign stood proudly before the scattered wooden buildings stating I was looking at Richmond Primary School.

“That’s it!” I called out before we almost passed it. “That’s the church!”

The taxi screeched to a stop, gravel crunching under the tyres, bidding goodbye to my hopes of a discreet arrival. Heads turned to look as I quickly gathered my handbag and scarf from the seat next to me.

 

I should have known the crowds would be spilling out of the church. My mother was well-known as the proprietor of Neil’s Bar and Grocery, the town’s shop and pub. The hub of Richmond. It was always going to be a big funeral. The years peeled away as memories flooded in and suddenly, instantly, I was laid bare and fragile again.

There was no escape. The driver was out of the car, taking my suitcase from the trunk, opening my door saying, “Here we are now love,” in his strong, chirpy Irish accent.

I can do this. I can do this. I chanted to myself. I can do this. The vow that seemed so potent yesterday in my small house in Southport felt puny now. Doing it doesn’t necessarily mean going into the church, does it? I was so late. Wouldn’t it be more discreet to shrink back into the seat and wait it out, catch Kathleen later, on her way home? Or even better, go back to Hobart and lie low until all the fuss was over?

 

Harden up, I admonished myself. You’re a grown woman now not a sensitive child. You’re a police detective. You have a career and a mortgage on a house. You have a life away from here. Get in there now!

As I psyched myself up, I put my sunglasses on top of my nose to protect myself from the staring eyes, not so much the watery sun straining to appear through dark threatening clouds. Then I took the clip from my hair to let it fall forward over my eyes, a veil of sorts. The breath I took was so deep it hurt.  

And then, I was stepping out of the car onto Richmond soil for the first time in twenty years. The air felt moist and cool, hardly like air at all, and the nausea that had been plaguing me growled again. I walked through the open gates of the little church yard. Here I am folks, the entertainment of the day, the news that you’ll pass on to each other whenever Mrs Neil’s funeral is recalled.

I fixed my stare beyond their curious eyes and it collided with the door of the black hearse, open like a yawning mouth. It drew me to it, inexorably. As I drew nearer, people began to turn and recognise me. One voice whispered, “Hello Samantha. Welcome home.” Another murmured, “Sorry for your loss and trouble.” Then there was a general murmur of greeting and sympathy. I acknowledged every one of them with a nod from side to side.

I remembered the names and faces of every one of them. I could draw lines between them on a whiteboard showing the relationships between them all. I remembered it like yesterday.

A man turned to greet me with a snigger. “Oh yes, here she is. Samantha Neil. It’s a welcome you’re after, is it?”

I knew his face too. He was one of the Kennedys, who always used to mock me from his high stool at our bar. Subtle alliances and old hatreds are never far from the surface.

At the door, they parted like I was Moses and they were the flooding waters to let me through. I walked head up, my back ramrod straight, towards the words I haven’t heard for a long time: “Let us give thanks to you, Almighty Father…”

The priest was as bald as a Buddhist monk, a big man wallowing in emphases and pauses. “…gave to His disciples and said….”

Two other priests in purple robes stood behind him and the congregation was on its knees, heads bowed. It was the Consecration, the holiest part of the Mass. The quietest part of the Mass. In the silence, my heels sounded like horse’s hooves as they clicked loudly down the aisle louder than they should have been. The sound echoed in the stillness. 

People turned and nudged each other in the holy silence, their eyes travelling up and down my body. As whispers began to swirl in my wake, Father Doyle sensed the loss of his audience and looked up. Seeing me, recognising me, his eyes narrowed, two black specks of stone. Again I was gripped by the urge to flee, but the pull of my mother’s coffin sitting there on the trolley before me, all polished wood and burnished trimmings, was stronger. It was covered in glossy funeral flowers already dying.

I clomped on.

 

The priest stopped the ceremony, his hands together in the prayer position, a pillar of forbearance, silently watching me. The two priests behind him imitated the pose, censuring me with that loaded, condescending silence they must get taught at the seminary.

I was almost at the top pew where my family was sitting. I could see Kathleen now, looking thin, too thin, almost gaunt. She followed the eyes of the priest, turned to see what was causing the disruption and when her eyes found me, pure exasperation broke across her face.

Now Sam? it said before she turned her head on its long, elegant neck away from me, back towards the altar. Now?

I couldn’t blame her. It must look so careless, so uncaring, to crash in like this, turning our mother’s funeral into the latest act in the long-running Neil drama. My sister would be grieving my mother’s death sorely. I didn’t want to add to that.

At the same time, I did blame her. I blamed them all – Kathleen, my mother, Daddy, even Nana Peg. These scenes I brought upon the family were never just my doing, though I got the starring role. They all played their part, though they live and die pretending the stage is not even there.

I realised the girl kneeling between Kathleen and her husband Donald must be Rianne, my eight-year-old niece. She stared at me with Kathleen’s eyes from behind a veil of red hair not unlike her father’s. Her expression told me she had heard all about her Auntie Samantha.

She and Donald pushed down to make room for me but Kathleen, in one of her childish gestures, stayed firm and solid. She would not move. Ignoring her, I squeezed and wriggled into the pew beside her.

Once I was on my knees, Father Doyle began again, “Heavenly Father, you gave your only son….”

The wood was hard against my kneecaps. The smell of incense sent another wave of nausea undulating but I knelt and stood and sat through the half-forgotten rites waiting, as I had waited out so many days in Richmond, for it to be over.

Why was I here? All the way through the early morning flight from Brisbane to Hobart, through every bump of the cab ride from Hobart airport to this church in Richmond. For twenty-three minutes and thirty-seven seconds, I’d been nursing the same question: Why? Why, when I’d spent twenty years not making this journey, when I had left it so late that I was unlikely to arrive on time anyway, had I nonetheless organised a last-minute ticket? Why did I feel I had to come?

And it wasn’t just me. Why had Kathleen, who so long ago gave up trying to get me back to Richmond while our mother lived, made such frantic efforts to contact me once it was clear Mum was dying?

But in time for what, I asked myself? To visit the hospital and be confronted with a totally different mother, twenty years older, one who was weak and dying? To snatch a few words from her, say something in return, then watch her go? What difference could that possibly have made?

I knew how my eldest sister imagined the scene: our mother looking up to see one of her girls ushering in the other, meaningful looks passing between us all, a clasping of hands and forgiveness all round. Then the two daughters together at last, watching her die, smiles and tears, hands clasped or arms around each other, ushering her out of the world.

No Kathleen, too much has been left to curdle for too long for that to happen. No words, not even deathbed words, would have been strong enough to hold it all together. No, it was better the way it happened. Believe me.

The organ sprang into sound for the last time and an elderly voice began a quavering ‘Ave Maria’. I looked up to the balcony and saw Mrs Mead, my mother’s friend, chins a-wobble. While she struggled with the top notes, an undertaker stepped up to release the brake and glided the coffin down the aisle. Kathleen was crying, curling her sobs into her husband.

Outside, the chill covered us. Kathleen was immediately engulfed by sympathisers, a wall of backs around her. Seeing me alone, Donald stepped across and bent down to bestow a grudging kiss on my cheek.

“So,” he said in the sardonic tone he affects, “the prodigal returns.”

I have met Donald only a handful of times in the many years he has been married to my sister. When they were first engaged, Kathleen brought him to meet me in Surfers Paradise and that first encounter has always stayed with me. He enfolded her as the two of them sat opposite me in a restaurant, her holding out her hand to display the tiny diamond perched in the ring on her third finger.

“How is Kathleen doing?” I asked, ignoring the jibe.

“Wearing herself to a frazzle. Your mother had very definite ideas about this funeral and Kathleen, being Kathleen, is carrying them out to the nth degree.”

This time the scorn was unmistakeable. Kathleen had always claimed that Donald and our mother were fond of each other, but when it comes to family relationships, my sister is prone to whitewash things.

 

“Is she still annoyed with me?” I asked, knowing full well she was.

“Your mother wanted to see you before she died and Kathleen promised she’d track you down. When she wasn’t able to, well,…”, he shrugged.

I couldn’t give him the response that leapt to my mind and found I couldn’t think of anything at all to say. Kathleen was the single thing we had in common. Communication between us was always strained when she was not with us. Just as the silence was stretching towards awkwardness, we were rescued by a loud shriek.

“Ahh,” smiled Donald, turning. “Our keening friends again.”

At the church door were four young women in costume, made to look old, with black wrinkles painted across their foreheads and around their eyes and shawls drawn up over grey wigs. I resisted the impulse to cover my ears.

“Keeners? What the…?”

“Professional mourners, one of your mother’s many special requests,” he shook his head, a look of disgust on his face. “She left pages of instructions, practically a guidebook. How to Have a Good Irish Send-Off.” He smirked. “We had a wake last night, complete with those four weeping and wailing and flinging themselves on the floor.”

I looked across at my sister, explaining to everybody what the sideshow was about and wondering how she could bear it. While planning all this, my mother would have been imagining her celestial proceedings from above, watching and weighing who did what so she’d know how to treat them accordingly when they eventually caught up with her, hopefully in heaven. She wouldn’t have been thinking about Kathleen at all.

I felt a hand on my back and turned to see Eileen standing there with her husband Seamus. 

“Samantha,” she said sincerely, “I’m so sorry.”

Eileen worked in our shop while we were growing up and lived with us until she married. I let her hold me. Her hug seemed to give the others permission to approach and now, people I hadn’t seen for years, were coming across to grab my hand. Faces I remembered, names I’d forgotten. Names I remembered, faces I’d forgotten.

My mother was a great character, they told me. She has gone to a better place, they said. God would give me comfort. Only one old woman told me anything that sounded liked the truth and she got herself dragged away by the arm for it. 

“Who are you?” she yelled, glancing over her shoulder. “I never heard Maeve mention you at all.”

Then, out of the mass of well-wishes, came a particular hand and a particular voice, one I did know.

“Sam,” he said, and my heart skipped in recognition as I took the proffered hand. A second one came to encircle mine in warmth and then he was there in front of me. Rory. Rory O’Donovan. All of him, looking down on me, our hands joined.

I had thought about Rory on the journey back. I won’t say home because I haven’t considered it home for many years. I’ve built a new life for myself and a new home in a little suburb near Surfers Paradise. I had planned my opening lines and the airy way I would deliver them, but in my imaginings, we’d meet again on a beach. Or per chance on the street. Not here, not at my mother’s funeral, the last place I would expect to find him, or any O’Donovan. Not here, in front of everybody. Certainly not here.

“How are you, Sam?”

Extra weight had loosened his jawline. He was still the picture I have held in my head and heart but blurred at the edges, like a photograph out of focus. His hair was gone, his long, black, beautiful hair. It used to flow down his back, soft, wavy and shiny as night-water. I used to sink my face in it, hook it through my fingers, knot it around my naked neck. All gone. Shorn and thinning and greying now. And he was wearing a suit. Any man’s clothes.

I had to look closely for the Rory I used to know.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Sam,” he said, the conventional phrase again but in his voice, low and concerned, it sounded different. Personal. “But oh, it’s so good to see you.”

The keeners choose that moment to raise their wailing to a higher pitch and he rolled his eyes at them. It was a look to share, confident of my amusement. Just like the old days, the two of us against our families.

Kathleen appeared out of thin air, violent and furious. 

“How dare you!” 

She was barely holding the anger in as she glared at Rory. I saw her jaw tighten and the well-remembered fire flared in her eyes. Her face, with a network of lines, registered fury as she fisted her hands on her hips.

 

“How bloody dare you! The cheek of you and your family. Coming here today.”

I dropped my eyes to the ground, not ready for the backlash I knew would hit me soon enough.

Kathleen turned to me. “And you! Talking to him after everything he and his family have done to us!”

Keeping his voice soft, Rory said, “I haven’t done anything, Kathleen.”

“You’re all alike, you O’Donovans!” She spat the words at him. “Don’t think I don’t know what your family is capable of! Don’t you dare think I don’t know that.” 

I lifted my eyes and saw the shuddering of her chest as she took great gulps of breath. The anger had brought the blood to her face and she was positively glowing.

“Leave. Now!” she said through gritted teeth. She would have pointed dramatically if not for the crowd now turning to watch, so she kept her hands clenched in tight fists at her side. It was as if she was trying desperately not to hit him.

“Your kin will be waiting a long time if they expect to be allowed through the gates of heaven. They have done so much to hurt our family. For one thing, they murdered our sister Merrell and you have no right to be here now!”

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