It wasn’t front page breaking news or even in the supplement section. It wasn’t the sex scandal that scorched the headlines or bloody enough to have readers beat each other for a copy but it still found its way into black and white, pressed forever, or until the print faded, into a line between births and marriages, deaths and disasters.
“Mary, come take a look,” Peter called to his wife at No. 19, “it’s here. Look at it.”
Mary wrapped her dressing gown around her waist but didn’t need to ask what he meant as she came downstairs towards what she knew would be the tiniest of ads, for what more was there to say?
“Have you seen it?” Joe asked his brother over breakfast at No. 15.
“I did,” he said sombrely, “still can’t… can’t believe it. Has she called?”
“No,” replied Joe, “not a sound, but, sure… we’ll see her later.”
At No. 21, Matthew could hear the newspaper being shoved through the letterbox. He was lying on the daybed, in that room, with the cot, staring at a million stars they’d filled the ceiling with only a month ago.
Michael was busy folding the morning paper into a million creases at No. 22, covering it with smudged fingerprints, looking for yesterday’s football results when Anne came in and saw the mess he was making of everything that had kept her awake all night.
“Would it kill you to think of something other than sport, just for once?” she asked him, pulling the paper from his jam-stained clutch and bringing it up to her chest like it were gold leaf about to dissolve and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
At No. 20, the kids were throwing Cheerios at one another when John walked into the kitchen, wondering why his normally rule-rigid wife was ignoring the commotion as she held the newspaper up, lost in what she was reading. Was the world ending and only the newspaper was reporting it? He walked behind her to see what was stealing her attention and then, there it was, the tiny message, not even a paragraph, but it had been enough to let riot rule at their breakfast table that morning. He put his hands on his wife’s shoulders and Alice knew, instantly, that that gentle touch meant more than any words he could ever say.
“I can’t go over yet,” she told him, looking up from the newspaper to her children who played as if there wasn’t a worry in the world. Suddenly she felt guilty at being able to see her own kids on front of her, as wild and wearisome as they were.
Back at No. 21, Jane was also lying down, but in their own bedroom, when she heard the weight of the newspaper falling to the floor downstairs, just below the letterbox. She felt the force of it like it was a building falling on her chest. She couldn’t move, breath. She couldn’t face reading it, not just yet. Was it wrong to seek comfort in the shadows and stillness for just a moment longer? Was it wrong to let reality linger outside for another minute or two? She knew he was in the other room, that room, with its yellow walls and butterfly border. Why had they listened to everyone telling them to paint it yellow? Why was yellow a neutral colour? Now it felt simply cold, sickly and uninviting, or at least that’s what she imagined. She hadn’t gone into that room since, well, not for a while.
In a daze at No. 19, Mary made Peter his coffee, with a dash of milk and two spoonfuls of sugar. When she finished, she sat across from him at the table, watching him drink it, wondering how and when she’d made it. His black hair had a life of its own in the morning, finding every way to stick up, out of place and at odd angles but she would’t have him any other way. He put his cup down and caught her stare. The clock ticked away on the wall but he heard nothing except his wife’s gentle breathing and he realised that if that one sound was all he heard, for the rest of his life, then that would be more than enough.
Joe stood by the hallway mirror of No. 15, attempting to knot his tie for the forth time while his palms perspired.
“Ah, for God’s sake, did Dad teach you nothing?” his brother asked him as he came over and took the tie and all its complications away from his younger brother. When he finished, they both turned and looked at each other in their black suits, white shirts and black, now neatly knotted, ties.
“Our sister needs us today, so head up, young man,” he told Joe, smiling at him in the mirror but they both knew there was nothing concrete behind that smile to hold it up for long.
“For feck’s sake, come on now, Mick, why are we always the last ones? You’re always saying that women are the slow ones! And look at you, Jesus, was it too much to ask for a suit… on today of all days?” Anne was asking at No. 22.
“Ah for Christ’s sake, you kidding me? It’s bloody Tuesday, Anne. I’ve a job this afternoon. Want me fixing a leak in that penguin suit? I mark it and I’ll never hear the end of it from you.”
She took a deep breath, as if every reply from him lately was the wrong reply and he knew exactly what she was thinking, saw it all on her face. 18 years of marriage was a lesson in reading expressions, if nothing else.
“Hey, come here to me for a minute,” he said and, totally unexpected, he put his arms around her and held his wife against his chest like he had done so often in the early years and it felt so good, in that moment, to be held, to be wanted, to be still seen amid all that was now invisible.
“I want you both to behave today,” Alice told her kids while John finished washing the breakfast dishes at No. 20.
“Maybe we should get a dishwasher,” she then said randomly, “to make life a little easier, you know?”
“I think it’ll take more than just a dishwasher for that,” he answered with nod towards their two blonde boys, already kicking each other under the table, “don’t you agree? And you were the one who wanted kids?”
“We wanted kids,” she corrected him, “and aren’t we lucky to have them,” Alice reminded him and he hit his head with a sudsy covered hand for his majorly inappropriate remark in the midst of the current devastation that had brought a silence and a halt to life on their normally idilic street.
“Jesus, I’m sorry, you’re right… of course we are. I’m a gobshite at times.”
“That’s true, but I love you for that too,” she told him as she walked behind him on the way to put on her black dress and ran her hand along the broad expanse of his back, the back which she nestled her head against every night.
When they finished dressing at No. 21, they came downstairs together as the cars arrived. The silence felt like a presence that had moved in with Jane and Matthew, suffocating them. The only break came from occasional cries that filled certain rooms, cries from adults now, not their child. The newspaper was lying by the door. They didn’t pick it up. They knew what was written inside.
‘We held you for only a moment, but we’ll remember you for a lifetime.’
All Words and photographs by Damien B. Donnelly.
Photograph taken in the Musee Rodin, Paris, France.
Originally published by OriginalWriting in Ireland in their 2015 Short Story Anthology ‘Second Chance.’