‘Buttons’ short fiction by Kerry Nesbitt

There they are. I like to trace their round, defined edges and feel their smooth, metallic textures. It’s comforting. I like to count them one by one, as they line up in perfect procession – soldiers standing to attention. When I dress myself each morning before Anna arrives, I spend precious moments locating them, easing them into their corresponding button holes, and then carefully counting and checking, counting and checking. 

I reassure myself that everything fits into its place; everything is exactly where it should be. Only then am I able to leave my room.

It’s a ground-floor flat with just four rooms, but it’s all I need. A place to exist in. Some people might consider me reclusive, or antisocial, but the world is not a welcoming place. I am tired of other people. Rude people. Impatient people. Cruel people. People who push past me in the street, eager to get to somewhere else and to be there right now. Others who shout at me slowly without any discernible reason as to why I might not be able to understand. Worse still, are those who talk freely and frankly about me, not caring if I can hear them or not.

I settle in my favourite chair, located by the window (exactly five steps forward from the door, and three steps left) and tune in to listen to the morning news on the radio. The government is as incompetent as it always is. Them Ones are fighting with Those Ones about That Thing That Happened Way Back Then. A shooting in the north of the city. A suspicious object that turned out to be a hoax. The weather will continue to be wet, wild and stormy.  Nothing ever changes very much here: the news is stagnant, tired, depleted. 

‘Good morning!’ calls my daughter. Anna is always cheerful. It could be the most miserable of Mondays and she would still refer to it as ‘good’. She brings me peppermint tea and hot toast; she clasps my hand for a moment with hers before replacing it with the first slice of buttery soda bread. It’s the most human contact I can hope to experience these days.

‘So, what are the plans for today, then?’ she continues chirpily, sofa squeaking as she eases herself into its leathery skin. 

‘Well, I thought I might do a sky dive for the beautiful view of earth from above,’ I say with more than a hint of sarcasm.

Anna just laughs.  

My daughter is well accustomed to my dry sense of humour. It doesn’t bother her, even when I am blatantly rude. She just pours me more tea and helps herself to the spare toast. Sometimes it seems like nothing could bother Anna, nothing can disturb her relentless optimism, her insistence that life must go on.

Except when it comes to Dave, of course. I tried to warn her about him, even before what happened at Christmas. When he first told her he loved her – well, of course Anna believed him. She’s Anna, and she is like most people. She is like you. Love ensnares you with its false promises of security, stability and completeness, with its multitude of promises that float away from you over time, dissolving even as you grasp at them, even as they leave you behind without a second glance. 

When Anna first discovered Dave’s betrayal, something changed in her. It was only to be expected: nobody quite knows how to react when you discover your fiancée in your shower with a younger version of yourself. It wasn’t easily decipherable, but I felt it. Call it a mother’s instinct. Her anger, which started as a subtle spark, grew into a fire that kept burning and burning in her heart. A wildfire that couldn’t be tamed.

One day, as she was dusting the good room, a vase must have fallen, and I heard it shatter spectacularly on the carpet. Anna swore and screamed at it, then cried to me, ‘Mammy, I’m so sorry – that was a birthday present, wasn’t it?’ 

I dismissed it with just a wave of my hand. The tears started then, wild internal sobs so intense that I didn’t realise she was crying at first, until I felt her shoulders shaking as she lay in my lap, a child again. 

Then, as quickly it came, it went again. Extinguished, vanished, forgotten – like a space left empty when a magician tricks you into thinking the rabbit has disappeared. The old Anna was what remained, but it was a different version of her. A more subdued and reserved Anna, an Anna who had been burnt by love and was scared to reach out for it again.

But then again, unusual as it was, last Christmas wasn’t the only time I have seen my daughter so consumed with anger, so aggrieved at a great injustice. She got that passion from her father, Dylan. He was passionate about many things – tackling poverty, helping the homeless, climate change, abuses of political power, saving victims of HIV, fighting the authorities at every possible opportunity – but through peaceful protests. 

It was his wild hippy hair that caught my attention when I watched him dancing in the Cellar Bar. He was moving as though he’d never felt so free. The seventies were not an enjoyable time for teenagers of our age, not by any stretch of anyone’s imagination – not even Dylan’s. But somehow, he managed to radiate energy and enthusiasm and hope for our future, and it was electrifying. 

One dance together and a lengthy conversation over pints of the black stuff, shouting over the music in order to be heard, and I was mesmerised by his eccentric mannerisms, captivated by his ambitious plans for his future, inspired by his staunch socialist ideas and youthful beliefs in the power of being an activist. Dylan made life extraordinary. Dylan was not like any other Belfast man I’ve ever known.

And Dylan made me pregnant. He promised he’d be there for us. There wasn’t a test in those days, but I knew in my heart it was a girl. I could feel her; she was a part of me. My girl. We decided to marry before she was born, to avoid the dirty looks in the street and the not-so-subtle whispering in mass and the shame of it, the utter shame of it – my father would not tolerate it. What the neighbours would say was of much more concern than what I had to say about it, what I wanted to do about it, how I felt about it. It was how things were, then. 

The ceremony was booked, a small reception afterwards, and I had just the wedding dress to fit – it conveniently hid the bump so well that I just looked a little curvy. I felt beautiful in that dress, I felt special. I was an imposter, pretending to be a caste, virginal bride while hiding my secret sin in my bump. But it was the right thing to do, we had agreed.

I waited forty-five minutes before it was called off. Forty-five agonising minutes. 

The first time I read Great Expectations, I remember how sorry I felt for Miss Havisham, doomed to die alone and miserable, dressed in that tragic white wedding dress and mourning her lost love for eternity. Now, I was that abandoned woman. I was that tragic story. Dylan would never be forgiven. Or permitted to live, if you were to believe my father’s furious threats expressed so explicitly on the long drive home to our terraced house.

When I look at my daughter now, I can see traces of Dylan in the precise way she holds herself, in her bright, optimistic eyes, in the scattering of freckles on her face in summer and in the creases of her dimples. 

After breakfast, Anna insists that I need fresh air and some shopping, so we catch the number six bus into town. I hate leaving the house, even with Anna. The chatter of teenagers on their way to school irritates me, as does their continual stabbing of the buttons which activate the bell. They smell strongly of stale body odour and teenage hormones, badly disguised with nauseating body sprays. 

When we approach City Hall, I am overwhelmed by a chaotic cacophony of engines groaning, pedestrian crossing signals beeping, a multitude of babies crying, loud men laughing, and the continuous conversations of passers-by, a melody of home-grown accents punctuated by rigid vowels and raucous rhoticity. 

‘Did you hear what your fella said to me the other day…’ 

‘It’s tarrah altogether, now…’ 

‘Scundered! Were you not scundered?’ 

‘Keep it lit lads.’ 

Anna takes me for coffee in one of those over-priced, over-rated chain stores. I order a latte and marvel at how unremarkable it is, while Anna tells me she’s working on a new project. It’s called Voices, a community project in which the public record their memories about the past and draw an accompanying visual representation. Anna’s role is to encourage volunteers to take part and to facilitate the recordings, then she’ll collate the findings to create an exhibition that will eventually open to visitors at the Ulster Museum. It’s the biggest project she’s been assigned so far in her job as an exhibition designer and curator.

‘It’s going really well, Mammy,’ she says as she sips her black coffee. ‘You’d be surprised at just how many people are willing to take part. Just last week, a man in his eighties came in to tell us about his mother – how she was forced to hide her pregnancy as an unmarried mother, how he was brought up believing she was his sister until his mother told him, as she was dying, that in fact she was his grandmother. Imagine!’

I could imagine.

When they found Dylan’s body, I was in labour. They decided not to tell me until the baby was born, in case stress affected the birth and the baby. Pushing and pushing until it felt like I must have reached beyond the very boundaries of pain endurance itself, twelve long hours of labour, rewarded when they put Anna in my arms. As I recovered in the ward, nursing her closely and coming to terms with this human miracle I had created and given life to, my mother told me quietly about the discovery of Dylan’s body on the hill. 

Small, soft and vulnerable, Anna lay still and stared at me with sapphire-blue eyes. Dylan’s eyes. I wept. Screwing up her face in confusion, Anna also wailed. What I had lost, it hurt more than the birth itself. There is no uncomfortable beginning that can be as painful as something worthwhile ending. Love was not meant to be slaughtered savagely in the way it was.

They found his body on Cave Hill. Naked, bloodied and barely recognisable. Beaten with a variety of monstrous weapons by the usual crowd. But it was a case of mistaken identity, as a police investigation later revealed. What a waste of life, of promising potential, of youth itself. He was identifiable by the tattoo of Jesus he had on his thigh, and by the large gash of a scar across his stomach from the time he had raptured his appendix as a child, with disastrous and painful consequences. 

A family on a hike found him not far from the peak, the point where you could stand and gaze down at the city, at the abandoned buildings and ruins which used to be streets, at the bridges connecting one place to another, the walls separating one place from another, the barriers keeping people out, and the houses trapping people in. They tried to cover their young son’s eyes, but still he saw and still he screamed, not stopping even when they took him away in the car after calling the police. 

Years passed. Anna was nine when it happened. When I remember it now, years after the event itself, I like to imagine it differently. This time, she’s not there. I have attempted to erase her from my memory of that day. I have selected and deleted carefully every single detail that I don’t wish her to remember with computer-like precision. That’s one of the very few advantages of being what I am. I choose what I want to see. I see what I want to see.

I remember looking out of the window that day at around two in the afternoon. They were patrolling the streets again; they were searching the houses again. This was not unusual. They rarely bothered to visit us, knowing that my parents and I kept ourselves to ourselves and only asked to be ignored rather than interrogated. I think they were aware of Dylan’s murder and felt sorry for us, for the injustice of it all. 

I was dancing with Anna to the radio music in the living room, spinning around while the Beatles promised the imminent arrival of the sun. The photo-frame with Dylan’s picture inside was clasped to my chest as I spun and spun; it made me feel close to him, like we were dancing in the Cellar Bar on a Saturday night once more, young and carefree. Closing my eyes, I floated away from here, away from Belfast city and its greyness, its misery. 

A deafening sound punctured the air and drowned the Beatles. I don’t remember the bullet striking me with the force of a missile, or seeing blood gushing down my face like a scarlet waterfall, or the intense pain that seemed too surreal to be happening. Then the screaming started. I don’t want to remember it, but I do. I try to block out the sounds of Anna’s helpless, gulping cries as she ran into the street and yelled, ‘How could you do this, how could you? How could you do this to my mother? How could you!’, and my neighbours Sue and Eddie had to hold her to stop her from attacking the soldiers with her bare little fists, her attempts at revenge frail and futile. 

My memories of the world in general have been replaced from this point with blank, empty space – gaping holes in the meandering timeline of my life. Like cracks, helplessly waiting for somebody else to fill them. My eye sockets are empty and blank, damaged and disturbed. Button holes made permanently vacant, disused and out of place.

'Buttons' short fiction by Kerry Nesbitt

Kerry Louise Nesbitt lives in Belfast and spends most of her spare time writing, when she is not teaching English to young people or reading everything she can get her hands on. She particularly enjoys historical fiction, contemporary poetry and flash fiction, and is an
avid Harry Potter fan: always.

About the contributor

Kerry Louise Nesbitt lives in Belfast and spends most of her spare time writing, when she is not teaching English to young people or reading everything she can get her hands on. She particularly enjoys historical fiction, contemporary poetry and flash fiction, and is an avid Harry Potter fan: always.

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