The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Epilogue – Bridget: New York, 1999

Three o’clock in the morning must be the loneliest time to be awake. I so want to sleep but I can’t. Sleep is for the young and the innocent. The ache in my body reminds me I’m no longer young, and as for innocent…

Maybe I should tell myself a story. Like my mother used to say to me when I was a child. ‘Close your eyes, Bridget,’ she’d soothe. ‘Lie quietly and tell yourself a little story.’

A little story? Maybe a little story about my life – where would I begin?

Stephen, my life began when I met Stephen O’Hanlon. The very name conjured up contempt in our village.

‘Keep away from the O’Hanlon boys,’ my mother would warn me. ‘They’re nothing but trouble.’

She was right. Stephen did trouble me, with his golden brown hair, the colour of the toffee my Ma used to make, and his eyes the green of moss. He was different from the rest of the O’Hanlon brood; gentle and sensitive, aware of the world around him. I took pity on him living with his ruffian siblings, his brute of a father and his pathetic unresisting mother – and pity turned into love.

I begged my Da to let me marry him. He said no many times, and then after Ma passed, the fight went out of him. Deflated, he gave in to my pleas. He even gave us the cottage next to his to live in when we were married. Maybe he thought we’d be a comfort to him.

At first it was wonderful – oh so wonderful. Stephen, away from the rough-house the O’Hanlons called a home, relaxed. He delighted in his painting and we’d spend hours by the river, Stephen tracing the outline of the cottages and trying out all the colours on the palette. Nobody had taught him, he just knew what to do, said the colours ‘spoke to him’. He had a great talent, bringing the scene so vividly to life.  The cottages were his favourite subject. ‘So calm here,’ he’d say. ‘I want to capture the peace.’ Sometimes he’d try to sketch me but he got annoyed that I wouldn’t stay still for long enough. ‘It’s easier to paint the cottages,’ he’d say. ‘They don’t wriggle as much as you do.’ We hung his paintings around our small home; our favourite was the one of the two cottages with the bluest sky and fields the green of his eyes. He had that one especially framed for me. Delicious days…but they didn’t last.

The babies soon came along, first Aileen, then the boys. Life wasn’t so carefree any more; crying babies and relaxed landscapes don’t go hand in hand. Tempers shortened, laughter ceased, and then the loving stopped. No time now to waste at the river’s edge.

‘Get some help, love,’ Da said. ‘You can’t go on like this. These babies are too much of a handful for you.’

Mary Scanlon answered the ad. An angel sent to rescue me and my marriage. A youthful angel, with an air of competence unusual in a girl so young. She sorted us out alright.

They didn’t think I’d noticed but I could see them from the window upstairs. Mary didn’t wriggle when she was being sketched, perhaps that was the attraction.

I knew even before she left us that she was carrying Stephen’s child. I knew as a wife knows.  Stephen only spoke of it once. His tearful confession assured me that he wouldn’t see her again. She was going away and the baby would disappear.  Stephen thought it could be that simple. I wondered if he ever knew that the shame of it killed his pitiful mother.

We tried again, Lord knows, we did. Little Timothy was two and I had another on the way when I heard Mary was back in the village. Visiting her sick father, apparently. Mary had returned bringing baggage with her which surely didn’t help her father in his illness. Grand little dot with toffee-coloured hair, ‘James’ his name was. A village is a small place with whispers as loud as thunder. And the village made sure I heard and knew that Stephen had seen her again – and seen the child.

Run, all I wanted to do was run as far away as possible. And yet I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay in the home I knew, stay with my father … stay with Stephen.

‘Aunt Sarah will take you and the children,’ Da said. ‘Go – get away from it all. Go to New York. I’ll give you the money.’ Da took control. He booked our tickets and organised my life while Stephen stayed away, out of reach of my father’s fury and my misery.

Dazed, I started packing things for me and the children; confused tearful children who didn’t know what was happening. What would I need for a new life in America? I had no idea. All I knew was that I would miss my home with every beat of my heart. Wandering around the house I stumbled into the little room off the kitchen, not really a room more like a large cupboard. Stephen used it as his studio but that was too grand a word for it. Brushes and paints were stacked against half-finished watercolours on rickety shelves. I picked up a pile of paintings, strewn on the floor and leafed through them. Scenes of the village, our cottages and the river … and then one of her, her arms above her head, a curious knowing smile on her face, the top buttons of her blouse enticingly undone.  I screwed the painting up, then took pleasure in tearing it into little pieces, watching the knowing look become disfigured and ugly. I snatched up the paintings of the village and the cottages. These little pieces of home would come with me – and I would take ‘our’ painting too.

I went into the little sitting room and took the painting off the wall, ‘our painting’, the one of our cottages and the peaceful blue sky. Wiping the tears from my face I gazed at the picture – it had been changed. The once blue skies were now grey, painted over randomly and hurriedly by a troubled brush; the air of the painting, once hopeful and bright, was now sombre and depressed.  There was a face at a window I hadn’t seen before. So Stephen knew I’d been watching them. Was this to be Stephen’s parting message to me? I jammed all the paintings in a box and put it next to the cases to be sent to America, unsure whether I would ever bear to look at ‘our’ painting again but determined that Stephen would not have it.

On the day we were due to leave I wanted one last walk around my village, a chance to say goodbye. I left the children with my father telling him I needed a little time on my own. Just as I reached the shop I saw a woman with a pram coming up the hill. She parked the pram on the small cobbled pavement and went inside the shop. I knew who she was.

I’d like to say that reason left me, that my brain ceased to function, all those excuses but they would just be lies. I didn’t know how it would work out but I knew what I was doing. The child didn’t cry out as I took him from the pram; didn’t cry as I hurried home with him and put him into Timothy’s cot while Da was outside with the children. Didn’t cry when I bundled him into Timothy’s pushchair, the blankets obscuring him from view.  Didn’t cry as I hurriedly said tearful farewells to my father and hustled the children into the waiting taxi. ‘Sssh,’ I said to Aileen. ‘It’s a secret.  Mummy’s bought him at the shop – a little playmate for Timothy.’ A little bit of Ireland that your Dad won’t miss. It was easy to smuggle him onto the ship. Everyone wants to help a flustered mother with a young family. Twins, everyone thought he was Timothy’s twin. When we got to New York Aunt Sarah looked after all of us, and Collum too when he was born six months later.

And for years it worked. Life in America was good, after a while. I struggled but with Aunt Sarah’s help I managed.

And then Mary disrupted my life once more. Sixteen years, she told me, sixteen years she’d scrimped and saved to come and find her child. Stephen hadn’t wanted her to know where I was but when Mary told him she had the money and was going whether he liked it or not he gave up the fight.

I let James go. He wanted to be with her anyway when he knew who she was. Said he would never forgive me.  I didn’t tell the others the truth.  A loner as a child and a rebel as a teenager they just thought James had left home. He’d never been one for settling down to anything, always a restless spirit.

Strange thing was, a woman turned up at my house a few years later. Said her name was Laura and she was looking for James O’Hanlon. She had a little child with her. Well, I couldn’t help her.  I said the last I knew of James he’d gone off with his mother but Laura seemed surprised that I wasn’t his mother. She said James had abandoned her. ‘Like father like son,’ I told her. ‘Bad lot, the O’Hanlons.’

The child was a cute little thing. Naomi I think her name was … no wait, Niamh, that’s it. I remember thinking that James had not forgotten his Irish roots, giving a babe a name like that. ‘My child will grow up never knowing anything about her father or his family,’ said Laura. ‘Where I come from family is important.’ I took pity on her. ‘Wait a bit,’ I said. I went to the cupboard in my bedroom and from the very back of it pulled out Stephen’s paintings, the unfinished ones and ‘our’ painting in its ornate frame. They’d been in hiding there for years.

‘This is the village in Ireland where we all came from. James lived there for a bit when he was small.’ I showed her the scenes of the village and the cottages. ‘James’ father painted these,’ I told her.

‘Look, Niamh,’ Laura said. ‘This is where your Daddy came from.’ She pulled the little girl onto her lap and let the child’s chubby fingers grasp at the frame of ‘our’ painting. ‘You can keep this if you want,’ I said, handing Laura one of the unfinished paintings … but after she’d gone I saw she’d left it lying on the chair. Looking at the pictures again and talking about James had brought back painful memories for me. I quickly gathered up the paintings, taped them up in a box and stored them away in the attic. I thought that maybe one day I’d summon up courage to look at them again.  As for ‘our’ painting, that was too much to bear. I took it to a junk shop the next day.

Never heard from Laura or James again. And never knew what happened to Mary either.

Well, that’s my little story – not quite what my mother had in mind for me when I was a child. I’m just glad my Ma never knew it.

Perhaps I’ll sleep now.

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