Neil Brosnan – Miss Gilbert’s Sister

Brosnan LE P&W Humour June 2024

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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing, Special Edition on Humour June 2024.

Miss Gilbert’s Sister, story by Neil Brosnan.

Miss Gilbert’s Sister

There were two Miss Gilberts, but which was Miss Gilbert and which was Miss Gilbert’s sister depended entirely on the gender of the perceiver. Spinsters both, the Misses Gilbert – as Dad referred to them – still lived in the house where they’d been born and reared, and they both spent their entire working lives in their home town. They were primary school teachers: Rachel, in St Mary’s girls’ school; Sarah, in St Malachy’s boys’, where she had been responsible for three of my first eight years of schooling. Teaching was in the sisters’ blood: their father, known as The Master, was principal of St Malachy’s during Dad’s and granddad’s schooldays, while Mam had been taught by his wife Ursula, who was the first lay teacher to attain the position of deputy to Mother Damien, the reverend principal of St Martha’s convent secondary school. The Gilberts were a true teaching dynasty and excluding pre-teens and blow-ins, there wasn’t a person in our town at that time who hadn’t encountered one or more of the Gilberts in their formative years.

I was seven when I first encountered Sarah, in second class, where she treated me as if I was the only boy who’d ever stolen an apple from her orchard. There were no allowances for time already served when we met up again in fifth class, and then – insult to injury – in sixth, when she ‘passed’ with us before finally following Rachel into retirement. Hers was one face I thought I’d never forget, but midway through secondary school I began to understand my parents’ difficulty in distinguishing one Gilbert from the other. Even to me, it seemed that the sisters grew more alike with each passing day.

The Miss Gilberts were actually our next-door neighbours but although our homes were separated by no more than fifty meters, our houses were centuries and worlds apart. The Gilberts lived in Woodlands House, an impressive Georgian edifice which had stood in solitary splendour at the western edge of town for almost two centuries. The economic lift of the mid-nineties saw a serious invasion of the Gilberts’ privacy, with the construction of ten semi-detached, two-storey houses, known as Woodside, along the narrow cul-de-sac between Keeldowl wood and the crossroads at the bridge where the Suanamon River bisects the town. As we lived in number ten Woodside, both Miss Gilberts would pass our gate at least twice each day during their many decades of school terms. Mam – who is sharper than most – would freely admit that she could tell the sisters apart only because Sarah would usually leave home about five minutes before Rachel, as St Malachy’s – being south of the river – was a slightly longer journey. Though Rachel was a few years the elder, the tall, gaunt, ramrod-straight sisters could have easily passed as twins, and their outdated tweeds and headscarves – which Mam believed they regularly interchanged – did little to soften the sharp angular features or their spectrally pallid dials.

Though curious to the point of downright nosiness, Mam has never been a gossip. Mam treasures the power of knowledge, and she fully understands that – like most commodities – the more it is shared; the less valuable it becomes. On the other hand, Dad is a disaster when it comes to news: it seems to go in one ear and out the other. I’ve witnessed many occasions when Mam couldn’t wait for Dad to return from work to pass on some juicy titbit, only for him to say that he’d heard it days before. He would then explain that the facts – as relayed by Mam – were not only out of date but also quite erroneous. When asked why he hadn’t kept her informed, he would simply shrug and say something like: ah sure, don’t the dogs in the street know that?

In retirement, the Gilberts had become even more reclusive than ever. Unconfirmed rumours that the sisters had been spotted together at first mass, or taking a summer stroll along the river walk, did little to allay Mam’s concerns. Dad hadn’t helped, suggesting that perhaps only one of the Gilberts was still alive; that one had murdered the other in order to appropriate her pension, and had then buried the body in the orchard behind the house. Part of me hoped he was right, that Rachel had done Sarah in; but what if Rachel was buried inside the high orchard walls; what if Sarah wasn’t just getting away with murder but also reaping the rewards of her victim’s pension? From the various punishments I had suffered at Sarah’s hands, I could well believe her capable of murder, but the idea that she could not only cheat justice but also profit from such a heinous crime roused the sleuth that had long slumbered deep in the darkest depths of my psyche.

By August, I had decided to use the last few weeks of freedom before my sixth and final year in secondary school to put Dad’s theory to the test. My bedroom was at the rear of our house and, as Woodlands House is set about fifty metres further back from the road than ours, my window offered the best view of the Gilberts’ hall door. By mid-September, my dossier told me that the Gilberts’ gardener had been on three occasions: mowing lawns, dead-heading roses, weeding flowerbeds, trimming hedges, and raking the gravelled driveway. There had also been regular Friday afternoon deliveries from Tesco, when a tall, thin female would admit the van driver through the front door. A TV & satellite contractor had visited about a fortnight into my vigil, a day or two after the electricity meter man had made his rounds.

While I’d caught several glimpses of some Miss Gilbert, there had been nothing to indicate that both sisters were still operational. I had intended to check out first mass on some Sunday but since returning to school I had really needed my weekend lie-ins. Also, I knew that the sisters parked their little Fiesta at the back of the house – which was blind to my vantage point – and by using their rear entrance to access the slip road they could drive wherever they wished without my knowledge.

About a week into my vigil I wasn’t surprised to learn that Mam has been carrying out an investigation of her own.

“I didn’t know what to do;” she was saying to Dad when I arrived at the Saturday breakfast table, “so I just smiled and nodded. She did the same, and then headed to the checkout. Thanks, Sarah, Tommy Mac says, and off with the Gilbert woman about her business.” Mam paused for a sip of tea.

Dad continued to chew a mouthful of sausage; a mischievous twinkle brightened his eyes as Mam resumed.

“So, when I reach the checkout, I say: Sarah is looking well, Tommy, and I then mention how I hadn’t seen Rachel for a while. To be honest with you, Dorothy, Tommy says, I couldn’t say when I’ve last seen Rachel in the shop. You see, Dorothy, Tommy says, if it wasn’t for the cigarettes I’d never know which one of them I have. Oh, I used to know who was teaching in which school, all right; didn’t I have Sarah in first class? But if they were both standing in front of me this minute, I couldn’t tell one from the other…So, I ask him about the cigarettes; he tells me that Sarah has always smoked Rothmans, while Rachel has recently changed from Benson & Hedges to Silk Cut, as a first step towards trying to give up. So, Tommy, I say, you have it all sussed out, but then he says, I’m fine when they both buy their own fags, but if one of them buys for both, I’m none the wiser…Don’t you see?” Mam asked. before pausing for breath, her eyes flickering between Dad and me, “I’m as badly off as ever…”

“By God,” Dad muttered, lighting a Benson.

“So, Jim,” Mam said, “maybe you should try cutting down to the Silk Cut; what do you think, Jim?”

“I think,” Dad said, exhaling a long stream of smoke, “that when I quit, I’ll do it cold-turkey – after Christmas – like I do every year.”

As twilight enveloped the late September evening, I switched my desk light on and went to close my curtains. There was a figure on the Gilberts’ doorstep – pressing the doorbell. The door swung open; a thin little man with stooped, sloping shoulders was briefly illuminated in the glow from within. I kept watch until the undertaker stepped inside and pulled the door closed behind him.

“Mr Wallace has just gone into the Gilberts’ house…” I blurted from the hallway.

“What; Ned-the-dead is courting?” Dad gasped; “won’t he make some toyboy?”

“Jim!” Mam scolded; “has it not occurred to you that one of our neighbours may have died?”

“Which one do you think it is this time?” Dad chuckled, winking in my direction.

Unwilling to dignify the taunt with a reply, Mam despairingly rolled her eyes skywards. Undeterred, Dad nudged my elbow.

“Did you see any sign of a doctor, or a priest, or an ambulance, or a hearse coming or going beforehand?” I simply shook my head.

Even though several days passed without further news of the sisters, I continued to monitor their door. Ned Wallace reappeared on the sisters’ doorstep exactly a week later – almost to the second. I didn’t report this visit, but when he turned up again on the following week I resolved to be particularly vigilant on future Thursday evenings.

With the pre-Halloween buzz in full swing, and with ghosts and ghouls lurking around every corner, it seemed that Mam’s darker side had come to the fore.

“I didn’t say anything, but I’ve met her at least half-a-dozen times in the last month. It’s definitely the same one; no doubt about it. She’s had those scratches on her right cheek – Tommy says she got them while pruning a rosebush – they’re completely healed now. So, where is the other one; what was the undertaker doing there a few weeks ago?” Mam was looking directly at me.

Deciding that the moment had come to reveal my findings, I took a deep breath.

“A rosebush, you say?” Dad interrupted. “Hah, that’s a likely story! I’ll wager ‘twas a last dying swipe from her sister’s fingernails. Sure, neither of those two has ever done a moment’s gardening. Doesn’t that simple lad from the hill do all their tidying-up? Ah, I have it now: she probably got him to bury the sister as well!”

“Ah, Jim;” Mam groaned, blessing herself; “this has gone way beyond a joke.”

“Mr Wallace has been calling every week,” I blurted; “I’ve seen him four Thursdays in a row, always at around eight o’clock.” Mam blessed herself again – even more reverently than before.

“That’s it!” Dad was in his element. “They’re in it together. Her toyboy is taking the body parts, one piece at a time, and slipping the odd arm or leg into other people’s coffins; you know – whenever he has a funeral, like. I can’t wait for Gabriel’s trumpet…to see who appears with an extra…”

Our doorbell buzzed. Dad jumped highest of all, but it was Mam who tiptoed into the hallway. The hollow rattle of the holy water font echoed through the silence.

“Tomm-eeee?” she gasped, relief rising like a treble clef between syllables.

“Sorry to disturb you, Dorothy; but is there any chance you could lend me a deck of cards, please?” It was Tommy Mac, the newsagent.

“Cards? Oh, playing cards,” Mam’s titter was bordering on hysteria.

“Ned the…em…Ned Wallace asked me to bring a new deck from the shop, but I forgot. You see, we play bridge at the Gilberts’ on Thursday nights. The sisters haven’t lost a hand since God knows when; Ned is convinced that they’ve been playing with a marked deck…”

© Neil Brosnan

From Listowel, Ireland, Neil Brosnan’s stories have appeared in print and digital anthologies and magazines in Ireland, Britain, Europe, Australia, India, the USA and Canada. A Pushcart nominee, he has won The Bryan MacMahon, The Maurice Walsh, and Ireland’s Own short story awards, and has published two short story collections.

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