Eva reversed the Starlet out of the car port with a rasping roar, cursing Lar out loud. Since they’d got married, the car was the one place she could be absolutely alone. When they’d got together, Lar had called the Starlet a typical single girl’s drive. He’d said it fondly, or so she’d thought. Then he’d offered to help her with financing a replacement, and she wasn’t so sure. But she had insisted on keeping it; it was her first car and she was attached to it. The Starlet was a womb, the last remnant of her old life. Life before Lar.
Aren’t you taking on a lot, her friends had said when she’d told them she was getting married. Their foreheads creased with worry, I mean, three kids? But Eva had felt invincible; in her head she’d already taken on the three kids. The only difference was she was getting Lar into the bargain. He was besotted with her and Eva had succumbed to his humid gratitude which, if her friends had asked, she’d have told them had its own sexual allure.
“I can’t believe my luck, my darling,” Lar had said when she’d said yes to his proposal. His endearments still unnerved her. (No wonder, her mother said shrewishly when Eva reported this back, he’s a single father.)
Eva had been employed as the au-pair for the twins. But the truth was that in a matter of weeks, working for Lar hadn’t felt like a job; she didn’t even feel she was working for him. She was working for those two motherless babes. Eva had never known such love. It had pounced on her and become fierce and necessary. It was what she had expected from romantic love but none of her sexual entanglements had produced anything like this. She didn’t have to check on this love, or take its temperature. She didn’t have to speculate or wonder. Fiach and Con were her darlings. No, it was more than that, they were hers. Life without them was unthinkable.
She swung out from the estate and on to the main road, still fuming. Lar was weak as shit. But, of course, the real problem was Finola. Finola was Lar’s eldest. At 13, she still had live memories of her mother and she wasn’t going to let Eva forget it. After all the work Eva had put into coaxing her around, it was always Finola’s trump card. Mum this and Mum that. It made Eva hate Niamh, a woman she had never met and with whom she had no real argument. Niamh was dead, for God’s sake!
I am your mother, Eva wanted to scream at Finola when they clashed, or as good as. What she thought to herself was ─ I am 28 years of age and mothering another woman’s teenager who hates me because I can’t be her mother. I just can’t win.
The main road was relatively clear. She got a clear run through several sets of traffic lights; the progress soothed her, though her heart was still racing with the injustice of it all. She had no idea where she was going, apart from away. Away from Lar’s house. See, that’s how it was; it was still Lar’s house, she thought savagely, even after seven years.
The twins were still babies when Niamh died – well, they were why Niamh had died. That was the first shock for Eva. Imagine, in this day and age, a woman dying in childbirth! She didn’t know the whole story then. When she first met Lar, she’d presumed that he was divorced and the victor in a custody battle. When he opened the door to her that’s what he looked like – a trendy, stay-at-home Dad with long locks tied in a ponytail and wearing an embossed tunic shirt with a Chinese collar over a pair of jeans. He showed her into the living room which had a thick, soft-pile white carpet. A strange choice, she’d thought, for a house with small kids.
“You have to understand,” he’d said once they’d settled into the interview, “the children’s mother is dead.”
“Oh,” she’d faltered, feeling a bitch for judging him.
“So you see,” he continued, “I’m looking for someone who’ll be more than just the hired help.”
A mother, Eva’s mother said, that’s what he’s been looking for from the get-go.
Eva felt the need to put her foot down; she headed for the ring road.
When she’d started working for Lar she’d had no experience of grief – or a grief-stricken man, to be more precise. At first she noticed nothing different about Lar. He seemed like most older men – friends of her father’s were her closest experience – brisk, civil, distant. If you didn’t know he was recently bereaved you wouldn’t have guessed he was a tragic figure. Eva saw a lot of him. She lived-in five nights out of seven and he worked from home. He was an architect with a successful practice in town but after Niamh’s death he’d turned one of the big bedrooms upstairs into his office. Sometimes clients would come to see him, or other architects from the town office would drop by, but most of the time he would talk to them on the phone. He disappeared up there in the mornings and he didn’t like to be disturbed. But his presence made a difference; it provided authority and perhaps reproof. Eva was acutely aware of the man upstairs, particularly when the twins were cranky or off-colour, when one’s wails would set the other one off in a frenzy of stereo bawling. To reassure Lar, she would bring him up a cup of coffee mid-morning, as if to say in the midst of the tantrums and chaos, I am in control. The light-filled front room was an oasis of order. Everything seemed white. Lar’s desk, the thin screen he worked on, the hum of what looked like a large copying machine that sat under the window. She needn’t have worried about the babies’ squalling, she discovered. Lar wore earphones when he worked, which he lifted off and let fall around his neck when he saw her coming, so they sat like a manacle of torture around his neck.
“Everything alright,” he would always ask and she would nod and sit opposite him to watch him drink and savour this grown-up place set apart from the rowdy downstairs. It was over these coffees that Lar began to talk to her.
Where was she going? She needed to be somewhere off the radar. Swan Lake, that’s where she’d go. This was Fiach’s name for the lake which nestled on the side of the motorway. He and Con would try to count how many swans they could see – sometimes they got as far as fifteen or sixteen. When the twins were toddlers, she and Lar would take them to feed the swans though Lar was always clownishly looking over his shoulder because he said he was sure it was against the law. He’d said it was like a capital offence, or was that killing them? She couldn’t remember. The thought of going there now reassured her, as much for the memory of those happier times, as of the place itself. In fact, Eva had always thought the lake a bit impoverished, with the motorway right beside it and the thrum of cars whizzing by full of people too busy to stop. It was a drive-by beauty spot. But, look, it was only a couple of miles away and it was a destination; otherwise she was afraid she might just keep on driving and who knew where she’d end up?
The first time she saw Lar upset was when she asked about Niamh’s photos. Or lack of them. Finola was doing a school project on genealogy and needed images of her forbears. Which made it sound as if we were all descended from grizzlies, Eva thought. But when she went to look, there were no family albums, no framed photos on the mantelpieces or in the children’s rooms. Not even a wedding photo. I’ll ask your Dad, she’d said to Finola.
“I destroyed them,” Lar said shortly.
“What about the children?” Eva had demanded. She’d done a course on bereavement in her early childhood care course.
“I couldn’t bear to still see her.” He raised a hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes from her and his shoulders began to shudder. Eva realised with a start that he was weeping. Oh god, she’d made him cry.
“I’m sorry . . .” she began but he shook his hand at her and turned his head away. There was something appalling about his disintegration. No man, no adult had ever broken down in front of her like this. It was a bit like watching him come. When she leaned out to touch his arm he was still waving at her; she couldn’t work out if he was fobbing her off or reaching for her.
“Sometimes,” he said, snuffling loudly, but still shielding his gaze, “every thought is a pain.”
Head in the sand, Eva thought as she flew down the ramp and on to the ring road and geared up. She loved that surge of power though anything over 80kms made the poor Starlet rattle and moan. All of this over a Hallowe’en hop, she thought. God, how banal it sounded! Is this what her life was reduced to? Domestic dramas in a battle that wasn’t really hers. Finola had wanted to go to a fancy dress disco at school. She catalogued its virtues. It would be highly supervised, teachers patrolling the perimeter of the school gym, a father doing dee-jay. It all sounded a bit lame to Eva who, at Finola’s age, was the champion French kisser in contests they had in the youth club and at 16 had lost her virginity to a boy in Irish college.
In a strategic move, Finola had asked Eva first. She’d come into the kitchen wearing her outfit ─ a sleeveless white dress with a sheer top and a feathered skirt. Eva suppressed a laugh. The dress was made for someone bigger and gaped under the arms. It was surely meant to have an under-slip because Nuala’s little breast swellings were clearly visible.
“What do you think?” Finola had asked twirling around in her bare feet.
“What’s it for?” Eva had asked.
Finola told her about the disco. “Can I go?”
“I don’t see why not,” Eva said, “but not in that thing! Who are you meant to be? Big Bird?”
There was an uncharacteristic silence.
“This was Mum’s wedding dress,” Finola said, her bottom lip wobbling. Oh God, Eva thought. Another transgression to add to the list. (Silently she compared this glorified slip to what she had worn at her wedding. She and Lar had married in a registry office on the QT with only Eva’s mother and Lar’s brother as witnesses. It was in February and Eva had worn boots and a winter coat.)
“You’ll have to ask your Dad,” Eva said to Finola hoping they wouldn’t get snagged on Niamh’s bridal dress sense. When she heard herself calling Lar Dad, it made her feel like she was just another of Lar’s brood.
Lar was surprisingly strict about child-rearing particularly where Finola was concerned. Even though he had got rid of all her photos, he kept the memory of Niamh alive in his parenting. If there was a decision to be made, he would always speculate out loud as to what Niamh would have done. Eva wasn’t deemed qualified to decide, not with Finola. The twins, yes, but Finola was a different jurisdiction.
“I’ll talk to your Dad,” Eva had promised.
When Eva broached the subject of the dance, Lar said emphatically: “She’s too young.”
“Oh come on, Lar, it all sounds pretty innocent.”
“Anything could happen.”
“Like what?” Eva demanded. “Rape, pillage? It’s a school disco.”
“No,” Lar said, “Niamh had strong feelings about this sort of thing.”
Eva groaned inwardly. Finola had been six when her mother died; had Niamh already formulated a policy on teen dating?
“She wouldn’t have approved of the over-sexualisation of children,” Lar went on.
“Well, if you’re going to say no, then you’ll have to tell her,” Eva said.
Which he had. That morning he’d called Finola up to the office. She was on mid-term break and loping around the house bored. Eva waited for the explosion. Five minutes later, she heard Finola galloping down the stairs two at a time. She stomped into the kitchen where Eva was feeding the dishwasher.
“I hate you!” she yelled. There were little beads of spittle in the corners of her mouth.
“What have I done?”
“Dad said you argued against the disco!”
“Dad said. . . ” she began.
“I did no such thing.” Eva could feel her anger boil over into incoherence.
“Your mother would never allow it,” Finola said, mimicking Lar’s stentorian tone.
Eva was about to interject ─ I’m not your mother, remember? ─ until she realised the trap she was in. Since the wedding last year she’d been trying to get Finola to call her Mum – which she steadfastly refused to do. Now, now when it suited her, when Eva could be successfully scapegoated, suddenly Eva was her mother. And Lar! He hadn’t meant her when he was talking to Finola; he had meant Niamh.
She considered having it out with Lar there and then, but her anger had boiled over now and she could feel tears sprouting. Foolish, weakening tears. She thought of the red Starlet in the driveway. She did a lightning calculation. The twins were at school; Finola was big enough to look after herself. And Lar. . . well, sod him! She whipped the car keys from the bowl on the kitchen counter and stormed out.
It wasn’t the first time she’d felt this way. When Lar declared he was in love with her, she’d felt the same – let me out of here. It came at the same time he’d decided to send Fiach and Con to crèche. “They need the company of other children,” he said.
He was taking them away, her Fiach and Con. Didn’t he realise?
“Give you a break,” he’d said.
She didn’t want a break from them – did he understand nothing?
“I’ll pay you the same, of course.”
“It’s not the money, Lar.” She was on first-name terms with him by then.
“What is it, then? I thought you’d be pleased.”
I can’t bear to be parted from them, she wanted to say, they’re mine.
“I . . .”
“What are you trying to tell me?” he asked like a puzzled doctor.
He was standing in front of her and for a moment she thought he was going to have another grief ambush. Then he grabbed her upper arms as if he was going to give her a good shake.
“Do you feel what I do?” he demanded. It sounded more like an interrogation than a declamation of love. What she felt she would have found hard to put into words. His confidences – his confessions, more like – gave her gravitas, made her feel empowered; maybe that was what love was – being in charge of other people’s secrets? She looked into his hurt blue eyes and thought two things – I can’t wound him further. And I can’t lose the twins.
“Yes,” she said and nodded vigorously, an image of Fiach and Con fixed in her mind.
And it was true. Just not for him.
She found herself slowing so that she wouldn’t miss the turn-off for the lake. It was beginning to rain. Great paw prints splatted on to the windscreen disorienting her. She turned on the wipers. As she did she noticed the car ahead of her suddenly buck and judder. What the. . . Then it did it again. She put the brakes on gently while checking in the rear-view mirror that there was no one behind her. The last thing she needed was to be rear-ended. The car ahead was slowing too but still veering crazily off course, plunging over the centre white line, ducking and weaving as if it was jousting with something. Overtaking drivers were blasting their horns, their siren wails fading like lost warnings as they passed. What on earth was wrong? Was the driver drunk, she wondered, or ill? She put on her own hazard lights. The next minute something very hard and white hit the car. Except that the impact was so loud, it could have been a cloud – what keeps clouds up, she thought fleetingly – as she tried to steer blindly towards the hard shoulder. Everything slowed up. It was like being snowed-in or trapped in a very sudsy car wash. Was it the airbag? Had something set it off accidentally? But no, this was not something inside the car, this was from outside. Then she saw the beak, the windscreen splintered with a strange tinselly sound, and as she came to a halt, there, straddled on the steering column, like some awful bloody sacrifice, was a swan. The crushed head and the dead eye of the creature stared up at her. The air inside the car was thick with feathers. She swallowed a mouthful of down. It was only when she had come to a complete standstill that the shaking started. She could feel her breath coming in gasps and something wet dripping on to her knees. Blood. Swan’s blood. Some vague memory stirred.
There had been a miss between Finola and the twins. Another boy called Hugh. (Eva felt she must now know everything about Lar.) It was late on, Lar had said. The contractions began without warning. Luckily, he’d been home that morning. He was just about to go off to work when he found her, folded with pain in the living room. (She used to stand at the picture window to wave him off in the mornings.) Niamh had been warned it would be inadvisable to have any more, Lar had said, but she was determined that Finola would not be an only child. Oh, Eva thought, so twins are here for Finola’s benefit. She felt a hot bubble of rage against Niamh; then she checked herself. Without Niamh’s biological determination, she wouldn’t have the twins now. So while Lar talked, she pictured the white rug in the living room, imagined the blood and wondered how you would ever get the stains out. . .
She was afraid to move lest she disturb the corpse. The dashboard was bowed like a sagging shelf and the windscreen was reduced to a milky web. A sharp breeze was coming through the gap where it had sheared away from the roof of the car. There was a knock on the window at her shoulder. Lar! But how could it be? In her haste, she hadn’t even brought her mobile with her. Leadenly she rolled down the window.
“Are you alright?”
She had a television view of a man in a v-necked jumper, bouncy drills in his hair, and Elvis sideburns. She was about to answer when he raised a calloused hand to his mouth.
“Oh Jesus tonight,” he said, and turning away, he threw up on the side of the road.
The twins were identical but Eva had always been able to tell them apart. Fiach had a little laziness in his left eye, Con had more curls. When she wasn’t with them, she would close her eyes and have the same image of them, aged two, a pair of blond cherubs, their adoring faces looking up at her, perfect baby teeth, Fiach’s runny nose, Con’s teething drool, eyes the palest blue, their hands clamped to her thighs. Up, up up, they would chorus in unison.
The guards were called and by the time they arrived a crowd had gathered at the lakeside. Eva had got out of the car. Rain was still spitting though it hadn’t become a shower. Somebody rang Lar on her behalf. A passer-by shoved a paper cup of scalding coffee into her hand from a nearby petrol station. They’d over-sugared it and she’d burnt her tongue, but it gave her something to hold on to. An ambulance came though it wasn’t needed. Shock, they said, and wrapped her up in a cape of tin foil and took her blood pressure. There wasn’t a mark on her.
“She’ll be no use to you now,” the man who had got sick said to her and for a minute, Eva thought he was talking about the swan. Then she looked at the poor Starlet – a write-off.
Stray feathers wafted in the early autumn sunshine. In the distance on the lake, the living swans had gathered. Did they know what had happened, Eva wondered. And why did this swan want to get away? She hadn’t even known that swans travelled. They mated for life, didn’t they? She’d always thought they just stayed put. Well, why wouldn’t you, if you’d found your soul mate?
She stole a glance at the bloodied corpse lying spread-eagled on the bonnet like a felled dive-bomber. She had a sudden image of Finola in her finery. Soiled, limping home. Look how easily beauty could come to grief. Lar was right. She was too young.
When he came to collect her, the twins were strapped in the back seat of the people carrier. Finola was in the front passenger seat but when Lar pulled in and jumped out leaving the driver door open, she got out and meekly joined the twins in the back. All Eva wanted to do was to rush to them to tell them everything would be alright. Imagine if she’d been injured, or worse? How would those poor children survive it? Her stomach made a sickening turnover – that was the seat of her feelings, she realised, not her heart. She turned towards Lar. He was whey-faced. His hair hung in lifeless drifts around his shoulders adding to his distressed look. He dropped his hands to his side when he saw the slaughter on her bonnet.
“Oh my god,” he said. Then he looked at her. “I thought I’d lost you.”
She thought of how it must be for Lar, the dread of history repeating itself. All her rage was spent. She felt only compassion; wouldn’t that do? She moved towards Lar gingerly, adjusting her silver cape. He staggered forward wrapped his arms around her. Their embrace made a crackling sound.
“You poor thing,” he whispered in her ear, the full beam of his sorrow finally on her. Over his shoulder, she could see Con’s face pressed up against the passenger window, his mouth squashed against the glass like a gurning thief in a stocking mask, and she knew what she had to do.
This story appeared on Headstuff.org in February 2016.
Illustration by Delaney Davis.