Martina’s hands tremored against the buffering wind. She wrung them together, desperate to keep some part of her body moving. She needed to remind herself that she was still alive, still on this earth. That she was still living in the same body she had all those years ago. In contrast, Jim was a statue beside her. His hand was fixed to his walking stick, his leg cocked out from the bench slightly, eyes trained on the rough sea foam beyond the dock. If he didn’t occasionally blink, Martina would wonder if the revelation had actually killed her husband.
“Tell me what you’re thinking, love.” She felt her voice running off into the wind and wondered if she needed to repeat herself but after a few seconds, Jim’s body came to life with a sigh.
“I think we need to meet her.” Martina wasn’t sure if it was the thick Salthill gusts or the news of their long-lost daughter looking for them, but in that moment, she felt Jim had aged ten years.
He had always looked spry. Even now at eighty-six years of age, he had the agility of a man in his late sixties. His voice, even just his presence, commanded a room when he walked in, but not in a domineering way. He always gave the impression that everything was under control. It was what had attracted Martina to him when they first met all those years ago.
But now, his voice was raspy, shaken. He had never sounded so unsure of something. It unnerved her. She swallowed the lump in her throat and reached for his arm.
“I think so too. But I’m scared.” Finally, Jim tore his eyes away from the gurgling sea water and looked at his wife. She could see the small glint of confidence in his eyes and it calmed her a little.
“I am too. And we have to be ready for whatever she has to say. We have to be prepared to hear about…her life. What happened to her. What she’s doing now. If we’re going to meet her, we have to listen to her. We can’t just shut it all out. Otherwise, there’s no point.” His voice was returning to normal now, despite the wind picking up. Martina wrapped her shawl tighter around her body.
“It’s our fault, Jim. It’s our fault if she had a horrible life.”
“You can’t think like that, love. We were teenagers, we wouldn’t have been able to take care of her.”
“But we could have protected her from that! We wouldn’t have done that to her–”
“We were kids, Martina. You can’t blame yourself.” His voice boomed, completely overtaking the wind, but it still had something of a comforting tone to it. He put down his cane and placed both hands firmly on her arms, gripping them tight enough for her to feel them through her many layers. It was as if he was worried that she’d blow away. She looked down at her lap and examined the small, dark circles on her coat from her tears. She hadn’t even realised she’d been crying. Without looking up, she nodded.
“Look. She wants to see us. I don’t think she’s angry. And even if she is, we have to let her feel that way.” Martina nodded again, unsure of what else to do. Jim placed his hand gently on hers. They were like crinkled paper and yet she could still see the younger version of her husband’s hands encased within these aged shells. Most people can see past the masks that years put on their partners, see their youthful faces, hear their unchanged voices. Martina could see all of those things in Jim too, but also a great deal more, including the hands that spun her across the dance hall 70 years ago. The hands that held her bare body that first time. The hands that took hers when she discovered she was pregnant. The hands that encased her shoulders as she screamed through labour and sobbed through giving up the beautiful baby in her arms under cover of darkness. Her mind started to skate through the rest of her life on fast forward. The tears, the depression, the working two jobs, the running away with Jim, the new life, the new jobs, the wedding, everything that came after that…
He squeezed her fingers, bringing her out of her daydream. She looked up at his tender expression and felt warm in spite of the cutting wind.
“Come on,” she said. “I think it’s time to go.”
Denise turned the coffee cup in its saucer, making a faint scratch of a noise with each turn. It wasn’t quite as hard on the ears as nails on a blackboard, but it wasn’t pleasant. Still, she found it to be sort of melodic. A distraction from why she was really sitting there. This particular cup was old. She came to the café far too early and ordered straight away. Now the waitress was hovering nearby, no doubt wondering whether or not she should take the cup that was clearly empty. But Denise kept rhythmically twirling it, as if entranced by it, hoping to hold off until just the right time to ask for it to be replaced with a fresh one. She looked at the clock over the door and then at her watch and then at her phone, as if any of them would give a different answer, but no. They were all annoyingly accurate.
Ten more minutes before they were due to arrive. The waitress was making her antsy, so she stopped twirling the empty cup and put her hands under the table.
Maybe if I let her take it from me, she’ll stop lurking nearby and leave me in peace.
As if on cue, the waitress almost skipped up to the table and swiped the cup with a smile.
“Could I get another cappuccino?” Denise said, too fast, and then added “please” before the waitress scurried off. An anchor dropped in her stomach, scolding her for seeming rude. Her parents raised her better than that. Her parents. Even though it was a conversation happening in her own head, she tripped over the words.
She pinched her right wrist lightly. Just enough to stop from looking at the clock again.
If I can keep myself looking straight ahead until the coffee arrives, I’ll have done well. And then it’ll nearly be time. And then they’ll be here.
She pinched harder as she self-lectured from inside her own skull. Her legs started to prickle but she would not scratch them, no. She would just continue to stare ahead and tell herself that she’d be OK until the coffee arrived. She would not think about what she was going to say to these people, who were due to arrive any minute. She would not think about having to tell the stories of the countless other parents she has had. The lovely ones who taught her to say please to waitresses and the not so lovely ones who taught her that bad girls get locked in wardrobes.
I don’t need to scratch my legs. There are no rashes there. It’s not a real itch. The coffee will be here soon and then I will be fine.
“Miss? Are you OK? Do you need a tissue?” The window in front of Denise’s eyes had gone blurry so she wasn’t surprised the waitress was asking her that. However, she was surprised when she blinked back the tears, to find the waitress staring in horror not at her eyes, but at her right wrist, which now had a swollen blob of dark red blood balancing on top. Her own shock caused her to twitch her arm, which brought the perfect puddle cascading down in a streak.
Shit. I broke the skin again.
Before Denise could say anything, she spotted an elderly couple a few hundred yards away from the coffee shop slowly approaching. She wasn’t sure if it was a biological instinct or just an intelligent guess, but she knew it was them. She grabbed the cappuccino from the waitress and waved her off. Without hesitation, she plunged her fingers into her untouched glass of tap water and rubbed them across her bloodied arm to get rid of the streak. She then pulled down her sleeve to cover the mark and went about tidying the table that suddenly looked like she’d nested there for a month, as opposed to half an hour.
Stupid idiot. They won’t want you now.
The thought leaked out of her brain and into her veins before she could stop it and made her stomach harden. She did not really let herself realise that until that moment. That she wanted them to want her. And suddenly as the bell over the coffee shop door chimed slightly off key, Denise’s body went rigid, except for her right hand, which was now pinching her left wrist under the table.