Sweet Night, short story by Doreen Duffy
Doreen Duffy studied creative writing at Oxford University online, University College Dublin & National University of Ireland (NUIM) Maynooth. She is a member of Platform One Writers. Her work has been published internationally. She won The Jonathan Swift Award and was delighted to be presented with The Deirdre Purcell Cup by the Maria Edgeworth Literary Festival. Doreen is a Creative Writing tutor with Creative Writing Ink. http://doreenduffy.blogspot.ie/
Dad let me sit on his knee while mom got his dinner ready. She was turning the liver over and back on the white plate with the blue trim, dusting it with flour before putting it into the pan. The flour barely hid the wetness of the red. It made a loud hissing sound as it went in. I hated liver. I hated the look of it in the tray in the butchers. It made me think of the bags of blood in the hospital that they hang on the high metal stands and the machine that beeps while the bag empties into me. I hated the way when the butcher scooped it up into the shiny white paper; he was never quick enough to stop a splash of blood drop and pool in the tray.
Mom poured steaming hot tea into dad’s big blue and white striped mug and he drank it as if he hadn’t had a drink of tea for weeks.
It was Friday night, sweets and comic night. We had sat in the front room after it got dark. Amy and Patrick were supposed to be doing homework and I was supposed to be resting, so we had to keep quiet. We were really listening for the door though. The clock ticking was really loud, it sounded like it was getting louder the longer we waited. My dad always got home late.
“There’s no work for him nearby.” Mom said earlier, when Amy was moaning again.
“It’s not fair mom.”
Mom banged the cupboard door shut, the noise blocked out something else she said.
As soon as we heard the latch lift on the side gate we piled into the tiny kitchen, a huddle of three small bodies lit up under the long bright kitchen light. When the back door opened and the light shone out, there was our dad. Black hair brushed back in waves, tanned skin, the three of us tumbled into him while he tried to come in.
Mom used to say he was weather beaten. I didn’t like that. I didn’t ever want anything to beat my dad. He was the tallest man on our street. When he carried me on his shoulders I felt like I was just short of touching the sky. When I was up there I could do anything, it made everything else look so small.
There were squeals of excitement as he handed out our comics, rolled tight with elastic bands and like a magician he pulled long red liquorice laces from his jacket pockets. He had little paper bags of sweets with two twists on the top of each where the lady in the shop at the top of the road had twirled them around after weighing them out.
“And how’s small fry?” he said smiling, as he swept me up in his arms his unshaven face gently scraping my cheek.
“How has she been today?” He said looking at mom’s back. He’d stopped smiling. “Any better?”
I knew he was talking about me. They always asked each other first. They might ask me later but I never knew what to say anyway. I always just felt the same.
From where I watched I could see mom’s eyes looked too shiny and a drop fell onto her hand, she wiped it quickly on her apron and picked up the corner of it and squashed it against her eyes.
“This pan is too smoky, it’s stinging my eyes.” She whispered to me but I didn’t think it was smoky.
I thought I was ‘small fry’ because I was the youngest. I heard my big sister one day telling my brother it was because I was sick. She said that was why they were always bringing me to the hospital, why I had to get all the attention.
Amy and Patrick went into the living room to read their comics but I stayed. Mom didn’t say anything about how they’d driven her mad earlier fighting with each other even though she’d said she would. She’d shouted at them until she seemed to wear herself out and then she stopped as suddenly as she’d started and dropped down onto the couch beside me.
Dad stood up and put his arm across mom’s shoulder and kissed her on her cheek, she didn’t look up from the cooker until he turned to take off his jacket. He bent down to unlace his work boots; he pressed his toe against the heel and eased each foot out. Some dry mud off the bottom of his boots fell out onto the mat and he lifted it and shook it outside the door, then he went to wash his hands.
“I have to go soon.” She said when dad came back into the kitchen.
She’d got a job. When dad came in on a Friday night she went out, and all day Saturday as well. His shoulders dropped down on the end of a deep breath.
“It’s not worth it, this job. You’re going out when I’m coming in and two buses to get to it and after being in and out of the hospital all week.”
I didn’t like that she had to go but I was so happy having dad at home. He never got so stressed that he’d start to cry and he stayed really calm while he cleaned out the tube that gave me my medicine.
His jacket hung of the back of the chair I leaned my face against it. I could feel the roughness of the wool. Without looking I could see the little squares of dark red in the grey and I could smell the work off him when he moved. I traced my fingers along the thick veins that ran like rivers along his forearms and heard the rough skin on his hands as he rubbed his face trying to massage the tiredness away. I put my two small arms around his neck and tried my hardest to hug the tiredness out of him when I said goodnight.
I woke up later I didn’t know how much later and I heard them talking. I was glad mom was home, I hated the thought of her out in the dark, getting buses on her own. I crept downstairs. Through the crack in the door I could see her, she was sitting on the arm chair, she had slipped off her shoes and was stretching her toes out, they looked like they were trying to get away, grabbing on to the carpet until she clawed them back.
“It’s too much.” Dad said. “For you, and it’s hard on the kids as well.”
When he said that, her voice got a bit too high, like she was trying not to cry.
“We have no choice, we need the money, and if we can get enough to go home it will be worth it. It’s not like they’ll be scarred for life we’re doing our best, for God’s sake. We have to get home. I’ve had enough of all this and at least at home we’ll have family around us, it’ll help, with…”
She put her hands up to cover her face; I could hear her voice, it sounded like something was hurting her. “With everything” she said and then dad got up and pushed the door closed.
I went down the rest of the stairs and crossed the hall over to the front room. I couldn’t hear mom’s words, I just heard my name. I stared down at my bare feet and realised how cold they were. My head felt really sore again but I didn’t want to go in to tell them in case they’d get mad at me for still being up. I went back up to bed as quietly as I could. I kind of knew they wouldn’t want to see me and know I heard them talking. Sometimes when they thought I was asleep I heard them whispering in the dark. I heard my name and some words I didn’t understand but I remember one of those words. They always whispered it, tumour. I hated the sound of that word.
On Saturday morning I woke up and heard dad’s music playing. I was glad to see everything just the way it always was on a Saturday. The smell of the fry cooking, the sizzle of sausages and the way Dad never left the pan, not even for a minute but stayed holding it steady, kept it tilted to stop the fried bread getting soaked in grease. I sat curled up in my pyjamas watching him. I felt really tired. I had a page and colouring pencils and I drew a picture copying the pink flowers on my pyjama top. I told him it was a present for mom.
After breakfast he took off his watch and folded the face against the strap so it stood like a tiny clock on the window sill and he opened his wash bag and laid out his silver razor and short soft shaving brush. I dragged my chair over beside him to watch.
He brushed the soap all over his face and chin and then swept the silver razor, revealing smooth clean tracks of skin. His movements were slow like someone painting a picture, the razor held gently between his fingers and thumb. When he was finished he wiped thin lines of soap left on his face with the towel and bent down to kiss me. We could hear the noise of the other two arguing upstairs and breathing loudly he went to sort out whatever the argument was about.
I reached up and picked up the silver razor. It was heavier than I thought it would be but I was sure I would be able to use it. I had watched him so closely so many times. I made an attempt at swirling the lather brush over my face it was lovely and soft. I loved the soapy smell. I drew the razor down my face in lines just the way he did. I was almost finished when he came back into the room. I smiled at him but when I saw his face, I stopped smiling and I bit my lip, it tasted weird.
The other two had followed him still pushing and shoving each other until they saw me and stopped. He reached me in two long steps and took the razor out of my hand. He looked scared and that scared me. He grabbed the towel and twisted it and held it under the tap. His arm caught the mirror on the sink and tilted it downwards. It was flipped over to the side that made everything seem really big and I saw what looked like my eyes peeping out above shiny red liver and then the blood began to drip onto my hands, down onto my pink pyjama top, while he pressed the wet towel against my face. It stung, little stings becoming bigger like when mom brought me to the hospital to get the needles but this time the stings were all over my face.
Mom always said everything would be okay in a while, it would make me better. She would hold me close all the way home from hospital telling me how brave I was. I didn’t feel brave. I knew mom would have to get the two buses home and that it would take a long time and I didn’t know if she could make me better this time.
Dad was holding the phone in one hand talking fast, his other hand let the towel against my face fall for a second, it was soaking wet with blood. I looked down at the flowers on my pyjama top, they looked all wrong; the pale pink was turning brown, they looked like flowers that had been left lying out in the rain until they got buried in the mud.
© Doreen Duffy