Sparing the Heather: a short story by Louise Kennedy
Each time she came it felt less like her house. There was a pot soaking on the hob, a dark mealy ribbon peeling away from its sides, the dregs of a stew of lentils or beans; Hugh only ate meat he had killed himself. The kitchen dresser had been rearranged. She had left ornaments behind, things she neither liked nor used. A pair of glass candlesticks, an Aynsley china vase. Six dark blue pottery wine goblets too heavy to drink from. A pewter ashtray. Hugh had moved them aside and they were in hasty clusters in the corners of the shelves. There were photographs in their place, faded Polaroids in assorted frames.
The kitchen table was covered with sheets of newspaper. Hugh’s shotgun was dismantled on the pages: barrel, shaft and fore-end laid out neatly, the cleaning paraphernalia less so. There were twisted rags, a roll of blue paper towels. Brass-tipped mahogany rods and its attachments: a couple of jags, a phosphor bronze brush, a tiny wool mop. An open can of lead and copper solvent that smelled like pear drops, a closed can of gun oil. The rent was in an envelope on the dresser. Mairead put it in her bag and went down the hall to Hugh’s room.
Normally the dog rested his chin on the bed and waited. Today he was agitated, skirring about the room. He was a wire-haired fox terrier called Arthur, with a coarse beard and eyes that watered like an old man’s. As Hugh finished, Mairead felt a tongue across the sole of her foot.
Bloody dog, she said, wiping her heel on the sheets.
Hugh’s thigh was lying heavily across her hip and she had to push him off to get up. He switched on the bedside lamp and watched her dress. She turned away. She hated the silvery pucker of her stretchmarks, how flat her tits looked without the chicken fillets she put in her bra. The papery slump of her skin. Not that he seemed to mind. He was always looking at her, leaving the light on so he could see what he was doing, watching as he put himself inside her.
I can give you a lift up the road, he said.
Will you fuck. I’ll see you later on.
She left the house through the back door. It needed a coat of varnish, the window frames too. She’d asked Brendan to paint it, but he said for the pittance they were getting off Hugh in rent he could sing for it. The wind was coming from the east and walking uphill against it she felt weak and small. She stopped at the top of the road where the glen came into sight. It was florid with heather, blackened in strips where Hugh had begun the burning. The tents the Garda search team had erected were at the foot of the north slope. For weeks they had been combing the moor, crossing back and forth in high-vis jackets. Today the only movement was the sporadic flapping of white canvas. It was Sunday.
Brendan was loading the car in the driveway when she got home.
We need to leave in an hour, he said.
I’m only back from a walk. I don’t know if I’ll bother.
There’s a meal booked for after. The rest of the wives’ll be there.
Is that supposed to make me want to go?
I don’t know, Mairead. Go or don’t go.
She went upstairs to their room and tilted back the long mirror. There was gun oil on her face, a smear that started at her chin and disappeared under her collar. She took her clothes off. The mark stopped abruptly at her left nipple. She heard Brendan’s feet on the stairs and went into the bathroom. She took her time getting ready, imagining Brendan sitting in the car waiting for her, seething.
When she came down Brendan was strapped into the driver’s seat with the engine running, his elbow resting on the open window. There was pop music playing on the car radio but his fingers were tapping in time to some unheard tune, one of those dreary pipe solos he liked to listen to. She got in beside him and turned the volume up. They went the half mile or so to the glen without speaking.
Half the village was in the lay-by. Brendan got out and began to empty the boot. Mairead pulled down the visor. Her makeup looked caked on and patchy where Hugh’s chin had scraped her. He was near the stile, wearing the jacket with all the pockets he called a jerkin. Arthur was nervous, running at cars as they pulled in, scudding against legs and knees. Mairead got out and went to the boot to change her shoes. The dog came cantering towards her, butting her hard in the crotch and knocking her against the car. Brendan frowned at her, as if she had done something to encourage the animal. Hugh gave a sharp whistle and Arthur went back to him. The dog could give them away, carrying on like that.
She followed Brendan towards the stile. He put his hand on Hugh’s shoulder. Well, big man, he said. Not a bad turnout.
Not bad at all. He clapped his hands together and they all turned to look at him. Right, he called. Let’s go.
Someone said Tally-ho. Someone else laughed. Hugh didn’t seem to have heard. He wasn’t meant to.
He crossed first, swinging a long leg over the wire fence. Brendan followed him in close, quick movements. She hadn’t seen them together since the day Hugh moved in. Brendan had objected to the Gun Club’s plan to hire a gamekeeper, but when it was clear it was going ahead he behaved as though it had been his idea, offering the house at low rent, showing him around. He bought a bottle of whiskey and asked Mairead to call to the house with him. Hugh made them hot toddies and talked about the estate he had worked on in Scotland. When Mairead called the following week to collect the rent, Hugh was at the kitchen table, buffing his boots with dubbing. Radio 4 was playing low. He said he often went days without speaking to anyone and thanked her for coming. The next week he didn’t say anything at all and they had sex on one of the kitchen chairs.
They crossed into the low field. Underfoot the earth was soft, the layer of dab a wet, shallow wadding that sat on the bedrock, tufted with pond sedge and reed. Brendan and Hugh were four or five feet apart. There was a difference in how they moved across the land. Her husband hunched and wary. The Englishman loose-limbed, easeful.
There were crows in the sky. One dropped into their range, and both men aimed. Hugh fired first, his shoulders jerking back on the recoil. The bird flung its wings wide, tumbling over itself as it fell. Arthur ran to get it and came back with the body swinging slick and limp from his jaws. He dropped it at Hugh’s feet.
Boggy sedges gave way to cross-leaved heath, to bilberry and wintergreen. They were climbing, the tilt of the mountain straining Mairead’s knees, her shins. A narrow trail bent upwards to the tor, beaten flat by men’s boots; one by one they took it. The path was uneven, and Mairead had to take high, deliberate steps to avoid a nub of rock, a clump of scutch grass. The wet fields and the village appeared to flatten out below them.
The path opened out and they were on the moor. Listen, said Hugh, and they all stopped where they were. There, he said. The call of the male. Some of the others were nodding. All Mairead could hear was the beat of wind in the air, the screaks of crows.
This close, the heather was a tangled weave of woody stalks and small purple flowers, without the dark blush it had from a distance. Across the moor were blackened strips, uniform in shape and size. Hugh led them to the one he had burned first, in the autumn when he had just arrived. He said that grouse need old heather to hide in and young heather to feed on; that controlled burning yields both. Small green shoots were already poking from the charred mess.
He turned suddenly, crossing in long light strides towards a dense bank of heather. He aimed into the thicket. There was a glimpse of ginger fur, and a fox slipped away over the hanging rock and down the western slope. I’ve been trying to get that bugger for weeks, he said.
He wouldn’t be the first Brit out-foxed round here, someone said. Hugh glanced around. This time he had heard.
He walked a few paces and laid down his gun. He lowered his shoulder and let his backpack slide onto the ground. He took out kerosene, a lighter, a rag. Brendan was beside him as he started the fire, the rest of the party hanging back, ten or twelve feet away. There was a leap of orange flame that died to a grey smoulder. The wind came up and it caught fire, parched stems snapping in the heat, smoky and fragrant. It was the scent she knew from Hugh’s skin and hair, from his daft-looking jerkin. They watched the fire burn out, and he stamped his boots heavily around the edges.
They turned back towards the trail. Her foot bounced off something dark and sleek that made a tight, high sound like a baby’s toy. A crow from an earlier cull, squeaking with maggots.
Cars from both sides of the border were lined along the road outside the hotel, the northern ones clean and new. The Sunday lunch crowd was preparing to leave. There were flushed children roaming the room in gangs of five and six, mothers looking under tables for jackets and small shoes. Along one wall, several tables had been pushed together and covered with white cloths; the women in the party allowed a waitress to usher them to it. They took their seats slowly, changing places, arranging their gaudy waterproofs on the backs of their chairs, pouring water for each other. The men went to the bar and Mairead followed them.
Brendan was at the counter with his back to her. He handed back pints to the men as they were put up. Hugh was standing slightly to the side. He smiled at her.
Hello, he said quietly.
Hiya, she said.
Brendan turned from the bar. There’s wine on the table.
I saw that. I’ll have a gin and slimline.
He turned back to the counter.
Did you enjoy today? Hugh asked her.
It was alright, she said. I got in my 10,000 steps.
She had found it brutal. The men spreading out across the heath. The sudden burst of fire in the heather. The dead crows and the harried fox.
Brendan handed her the drink and leaned back against the bar. He took a sip of his pint and looked off into the middle distance, his features arranging themselves into the ridiculous seanachaí face he wore on occasions like this. He started to speak. The old name for the place was mointean cearca fraoigh, grouse moor, he said. The heather had once twitched with the fat russet birds, he went on, the coarse call of the male, co co co co mo chlaidh, mo chlaidh? who, who, who, who goes there? crackling across the glen. Mairead had an impulse to laugh or scream or pour the gin over her own head. She looked at Hugh, hoping to exchange a sneer or an eye-roll, but he was rapt. One day, Brendan went on, when he was none or ten, his father brought him up the glen. They met men from the north coming down the path, stooped over with the weight of the sacks of dead birds they’d slung over their backs. From the edge of the heath they watched them leave. Saw a thin red line of blood dribbling down the trail in their wake. He and his father went onto the moor and listened for the call – he lowered his voice for this part – but there was nothing. The grouse were gone. The story never changed, always the same words in the same order, the same conspiratorial delivery. So faithful to the first time she’d heard it she didn’t believe it anymore. Obliteration was so much slower than that. A dying off in tiny increments.
Brendan loved this sort of story, of men from the north or the east laying waste to his heritage. Once, they had stayed in a hotel down the country. In the hallway there were taxidermied animals in glass cases. A plaque claimed that one of the palsied, glassy-eyed creatures was the last Irish wolf. Mairead overheard an American tourist say it looked like an Alaskan one. She went to the spa to book her free treatment, leaving Brendan to take photographs of it.
Dreadful. Utter barbarians, Hugh said. Mairead drained the last of her drink. Brendan moved away to talk to the other men and Hugh stood to buy a round. When he passed her the glass, he bowed and fanned his arm towards her in a rolling wave, like a medieval knight. She felt heat spreading across her face.
What are you doing? she said.
You needn’t bother your head.
He didn’t see.
Everyone else in the place did.
They joined the others at the long table. Brendan sat at the head, with Hugh and Mairead either side of him. The waitress came. Hugh asked about the vegetarian option. She said it was a noodle dish that she couldn’t pronounce the name of.
I don’t know if I can face another Irish stir-fry, he said and ordered a roast beef dinner without the meat.
He lifted a bottle of white wine and filled Mairead’s glass. He hadn’t asked her what she wanted. He sucked in his breath, realising his mistake. A good guess, he said. He offered wine to the others. Brendan swilled beer around his glass and watched.
It was something else, up there today. Hearing the call again, said Brendan.
I hear a different call, you know, said Hugh.
What would that be?
Go back, go back, go back back back.
They must know you’re English, said Brendan, and punched him lightly on the arm. Do you mind being up there all day on your own?
I’m used to it. I like the fresh air. The quiet. And it’s not that lonely. I’ve got to know the guys from the search team.
The guards? said Brendan.
Yes. Sometimes I have tea with them.
You’ll be the only one who’ll miss them when they’re gone, so. They’ve this place on the news every other day, making us look bad.
They aren’t going anywhere.
Is that so? said Brendan.
They’re going to concentrate the search on the western slope.
That’s very specific.
Talk went around the table. It’d be a relief for the family if they find his remains. It must be dreadful for them. All those rumours. They say his body was ground up in a meat processing plant. I heard he didn’t die at all. He was driven away by British intelligence and given a new identity.
Truth will out, I suppose, said Hugh, and bent over his plate. He went at his food, slashing it into small pieces, mixing it briskly. When they were alone she liked his eagerness. Now he seemed school-boyish.
They were served a ‘trio’ of wobbly desserts and tea and coffee from vast stainless steel pots. People began to leave. Mairead refused a lift home from a neighbour. The room was almost empty when they left the table and went to sit at the bar. Hugh went outside to give Arthur some water. She asked Brendan for a brandy. She had drunk most of the bottle of white wine and her teeth were furry with sugar. He usually remarked on how much she had drunk, but he gave it to her without comment. What was he at?
Hugh came back in and sat beside Brendan. They talked about sport. Hugh about cricket, how he always bought the Sunday Telegraph because it had the best coverage. Brendan about hurling, in a way that sounded like polemic, even though he’d never held a stick in his life.
Mairead stood to go to the toilet, too fast, and caught her foot on the edge of Brendan’s stool. Are you alright? Hugh said.
I’m bored to distraction.
You should have taken that lift, said Brendan.
She grabbed her bag and stalked towards the ladies. The barman was pushing a bottle bin along the corridor. She asked him for a cigarette and he offered her one from a packet with Polish writing on it.
How did you get yourself landed in this shithole? she said and went through the dim foyer to the front door. Evening had fallen low and thick over the village, and under the streetlights the air glittered with damp. The cigarette burned her throat, and she tossed it on the footpath and started to walk.
She had put on leopard-print pumps that were too wide for her, and her soles slapped off the road as she went down the hill towards her old house. The wind was piping through the straggly hedgerows and she could hardly see. She half-ran down the road to the house and didn’t slow until the security light came on. She let herself in. The newspaper and gun oil were still on the table. Hugh had left the radio on and a vast romantic symphony was playing quietly from the speakers. She looked in the fridge. There was a bottle of wine, the stuff he bought her in the local shop that smelled like petrol. She poured a tumbler of it and went to the dresser to look at the photographs. In one he was a youth in a school blazer, looking vaguely mortified beside his parents. Another had been taken on the ramparts of a fort or castle, somewhere hot and dry and rocky. His hair was tied in a ponytail that looked wrong with his polo shirt and short chinos. In another he was sitting on a flowery chintz settee with a brown-haired woman. Two small girls were lying across them, laughing, as if they’d just been tickled.
She sat in an armchair. He’d never mentioned children. He knew about her two, away in Australia picking grapes or whatever it was they were doing. She had presumed he was free, unencumbered. Who was the woman in the photograph? They looked happy. Why was he here?
She woke with the glass tilted sideways across her stomach and Arthur’s whiskers scratching the back of her hand. Hugh was standing over her.
What are you doing here? he said. Brendan nearly came back for a nightcap. What the hell were you thinking?
I was thinking I’d rather be fucking anywhere than in that house with him.
She got up and went towards him. He stepped back and was looking at her top. There was a dark stain on it where she’d slopped wine over herself.
This isn’t a good idea. He’s going to find out, said Hugh. There were too many close calls today.
I couldn’t give two shites.
Well, you should. He’ll be home now, wondering where you are.
He’ll not even notice.
It isn’t right. He’s a good guy, and I feel like an utter bastard.
He has you well fooled if you think he’s one of the good guys. She went to the dresser and picked up the photo of the woman and children. She stabbed her finger into the woman’s face. Who’s she, when she’s at home?
She’s my wife.
You have a bloody wife! Did you not think to tell me?
We were having problems. I came here for a break.
Fuck’s sake. What problems were they?
I was seeing someone else.
Jesus. Is this what you do?
That’s a little sanctimonious, don’t you think? Mairead slammed the photo face down on the shelf. Steady on, he said.
She picked up her bag and stumbled across the room to the back door. I’ve only been with two men, she said, and you’re one of them.
She left the door open, thinking he’d come after her, beg her to stay. She was barely on the tarmac when she heard the back door click shut. Out on the road, she bent into the wind and rain, clutching her bag to her chest, sometimes walking, sometimes running, until she reached the main street.
The hotel was still open. She went into the lounge. The barman was putting chairs upside down on the tables. He went behind the bar and put his hands flat on the counter.
Are you trying to go home? she said.
It’s okay for twenty minutes, he said.
She ordered a brandy and sat by the fire. Her clothes were soaking, the wet fabric giving up the scent of scorched heather, Hugh’s smell. Brendan had brought her up the glen not long after they’d met. He’d told her the story about the last day of the grouse, and they had stood on the moor and listened to the wind in the scrub. He led her to the place he’d buried the body and said she was the only one in the world he’d ever told. It was years before she understood he had told her the secret to bind her to him, to this place. The search team were preparing to move to the western slope. She hadn’t just told them the general area. She had stood in the shadow of the high hanging rock of the tor and paced out her steps, three whins across to the base of the youngest holly tree, before calling the confidential number from her mobile. They would find the remains in the next day or so.
She went outside and stood on the street. Lights dotted the lower fields on the outskirts of the village. She couldn’t see the glen, just the black loom of it, the dark mass of rock and bog and secrets. She stepped onto the road as a white car with a jazzed up northern plate sped through the village, and the passenger rolled down his window and shouted something at her. She crossed the street after it, rainwater fizzing up around her ankles, and started walking.