‘Lights and Stones’ short fiction by Gerry McCullough

A dark, icy-cold night in early January. I am seven years old. I’m standing at the bus stop, holding my mother’s hand, and finding it hard to keep still as we wait for the bus to come along. I’m going to see the pantomime in the Grand Opera House with my parents and my two sisters.

I have just been allowed out of bed today after what my mother calls ‘a bad dose of the flu.’  I’m wrapped up warmly and only the tip of my nose feels the icy tingle of the Christmas chill. I smell the sharp, winter air as we wait. I can feel excitement buzzing through my not quite recovered body.

I am wearing several layers of clothes; a vest, a liberty bodice, warm school navy knickers, a jumper and skirt, my good winter coat, red woolly hat, scarf and gloves. I am a penguin, waddling through the cold. I am cocooned in cotton wool.  I am very secure.

This security comes above all else from the grip of my mother’s hand. My mother knows how to look after me. She’ll never let anything bad happen.

The bus pulls up with a squeal of brakes several yards beyond the stop.

I panic. Perhaps the driver hasn’t seen us, or doesn’t care. Perhaps he’ll drive on without us. I let go of my mother’s hand as we run towards him.

Then we are seated safely inside.

Outside is dark, except for the street lights and the signs on the shops. The neon lights are mysterious, mazy, remote, beautiful, through the windows of the bus. They catch at my heart. 

I can see my reflection in the window glass. I arrange my expression into an attractive smile, pull a strand of hair to a more flattering position. I study my face earnestly. Am I pretty?

We are moving through the traffic up Royal Avenue, now, and into Donegal Place.

Before us the City Hall suddenly appears and hangs in the air like a palace from the Arabian nights. It is lit-up and it shines through the misty haze of the street lights. I have never seen anything so wonderful. I feel tears pricking the corners of my eyes. I don’t want to cry in front of people.

My mother notices.

‘Are you all right?’ she asks. ‘Do you feel sick again?’

‘I’m okay,’ I say.

‘We get off here,’ says my mother. ‘We have to walk the rest. It’s quite near.’

The Opera House is enormous and warm and crowded.

We push our way in and my mother produces the tickets from her handbag and gives them to a lady in a dark red uniform. My mother has saved up for these tickets for months past out of the housekeeping, just as she saves up every year from January onwards so that we can go on holiday for a week in the summer. My father doesn’t object, but doesn’t seem to get involved either. My mother has learned to be a good manager. 

The foyer smells of tobacco, and of people, some of them perfumed or soaped, others rank. One old lady crushes up against me and the odour of her fur coat almost makes me sick. It is many years afterwards before I first identify this disgusting smell as mothballs.

The tickets are for upstairs, at the front of the Circle. I am surrounded and overwhelmed by the gold, the red velvet, the carved and curved edges of the boxes, the gold cherubs flying up beside the huge red velvet curtain.

Arabian nights again but this time I am on the inside.

My mother has brought a box of chocolates with her. We are allowed to choose one each while we wait for the curtain to go up. I look eagerly for the orange cream, but one of my sisters likes it too, and when the box reaches me it is already gone. But nothing can spoil tonight.

The curtain goes up. Music, bright beautiful costumes, men and girls dancing. Then the principal boy strides on.

I fall instantly in love. It’s not important that the actor is a girl. In my fantasy world, this is a prince. But perhaps ‘in love’ doesn’t really describe it. What I want, more than anything else, is to be this person, to stride about in thigh length boots, cracking my whip, dominating everyone else, admired and loved by others. I don’t formulate these thoughts clearly. It’s enough to watch and to long.

The comic characters appear next. I laugh uproariously, like the rest of the audience, but there is nothing to fix them in my memory. It is the transformation scene, much later in the evening, which matters. The gauzy curtains, hung at the back of the stage since the intermission, are raised. There is haunting, melodic music. Lights flash on and off and change colour. The Fairy Queen’s palace shines through the dimness.

Suddenly I am looking again at the City Hall by night; and this time, safely hidden in the darkness, I can let the tears come. 

Walking back to the bus, I hold my mother’s hand very tightly. I want to say thank you to her. Thank you for giving me so much. Thank you for letting me see the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. But the words don’t come.

I am fourteen. I have grown ugly in the last few years. I don’t have a boyfriend. I know no boy will ever look at me. Instead of the short straight nose, fair curly hair, and small rosebud mouth of the film stars, I have pronounced features, large nose and mouth, straight dark hair.

I look at myself in the bathroom mirror and feel pain. Despair fills me. What am I to do?

My best friend has fair curly hair. She has a boy friend. I am achingly in love with him. I suffer increasing pangs of embarrassment every time my best friend and I hang out together. I see the boys coming to talk to her. No boys talk to me. When I watch her boyfriend kissing her, which he does often, my heart breaks.

My mother says, ‘I’ve made an appointment for you to have your hair set at the hairdressers next week.’

It’s incredible. I can’t wait for next week to come. My heart bursts with gratitude to my mother. How could she have known how much I wanted to have curly hair?

‘It won’t last, you know,’ she says. ‘But if you like it you can have a perm.’

I come out of the hairdressers looking as beautiful as a film star. Even my nose and mouth seem to be reduced and softened by the curls which surround my face. I am in the seventh heaven.

That afternoon a boy asks me to go to the pictures with him. He is red haired and rather fat. I say no.

My best friend’s boy friend hasn’t fallen madly, desperately in love with the new beautiful me after all. I am still deeply in love with him, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

I am twenty-one and no longer ugly. I am in love again. This is the fifth time. My loves last for several years at a time. Then each is overtaken by the next one.

This time I know it is the real thing. We are engaged to be married. It’s the most important thing that has ever happened to me. Joy pierces me through and through until my head buzzes and I find it hard to speak.

My mother says briskly, ‘Where are you going for your honeymoon?’

I haven’t thought about it. I don’t know how to organize something as important as that. Next time we meet I say to the boy who unbelievably wants to marry me, ‘What about the honeymoon?’

He doesn’t know either. His face falls.

I say, ‘Maybe Dublin?’

‘Maybe,’ he says. He doesn’t know how to find somewhere to stay, somewhere we can afford to pay for.

I think maybe my mother might know.

That night I ask my mother. She offers to book a guesthouse for us, enquire about train tickets, book them as well if I like. I feel a great relief. My mother knows what to do.

The guesthouse is booked. The train tickets are booked. I tell my boyfriend. 

He is angry. His face gathers itself into lines. I can smell his sweat.

‘A man should at least be allowed to arrange his own honeymoon,’ he says. 

I don’t pause to think it strange that he calls himself a man, although he is the same age as me. This is too serious for laughing.

‘She only wants to help,’ I say. I don’t say, ‘I asked her to.’ I am afraid to say this. He is so angry.

‘Your mother isn’t going to run our lives,’ he says.

‘She doesn’t mean to,’ I say.

‘You’ll have to tell her to cancel the things she’s booked,’ he says. ‘And tell her not to interfere again.’

I am horrified. How can I do it?

‘It’s her or me,’ he says. ‘You’re my wife, not her daughter, from now on.’

Why can’t it be both? I think silently, but am too much of a coward to say. 

‘I’ll speak to her myself,’ he decides. ‘But you need to tell her to apologize to me for her interference.’

We go into the house. My mother is ironing in the kitchen. It’s a good time to get her alone. Everyone else is out.

My boy friend speaks to my mother. His voice is loud. He is very forceful.

My mother doesn’t know what she’s done wrong. 

Then it’s my turn.

‘You should apologize,’ I say. My voice is very small. I don’t look at her. The light at the base of my mother’s iron is green. A small, green safety light. To remind you that the electricity is on. It catches the stone in my engagement ring and the red light in the stone’s depths winks at me.

‘I’m sorry,’ I hear my mother say. Her voice sounds strange. I look up quickly. She is looking down at her hands, and she is crying.

I am forty. I have been on holiday to the West coast for the last week. I came back yesterday.

The phone rings. It’s one of my sisters. My mother has been knocked down by a car. She’s in hospital, in Belfast. She’s in a coma.

The train journey to Belfast takes forever. I sit and look at the backs of my hands. They are beginning to wrinkle. There are no rings. I took them off at the time of the divorce. There is a scar across my right hand where my ex husband stuck a knife into it. There are lots of freckles, too many to count. There are three dark patches. Moles. Too soon yet for them to be liver spots, surely?

Out of the train window I see the beach, covered in large, hard, heavy stones. They are shining with the rain which wraps them like a layer of thin polythene. The light from the train bounces from one to another as it passes. I watch my face in the reflecting window glass. I look unmoved, unmoving.

The stones produce a memory. Years ago I travelled to Belfast on this same train, and a woman, a stranger, who shared my compartment, got into conversation with me. I remember her face, lined far beyond her age, and sadder than any face I’d seen, or have seen since. Her son had been murdered by the terrorists, twenty years before that, but she still thought about it every day. She wanted to talk to me, and I listened unwillingly.

‘Said he was a tout, so they did, but I know he wasn’t. They took him away one night, and I didn’t know what happened to my wee boy until the police found him after a week. Dumped on the beach, just out there.’ She pointed vaguely through the window of the train.

‘They cut a cross into his back. I don’t know why they did that. I can’t never forget it. Twenty-two, he was. Only a wee boy. How could anyone do that to him?  Hard as them stones, they were. Hard as them stones.’

Tears flooded suddenly down her face.

I was less than twenty-two myself, at the time, not long married, and very unhappy.

The train pulls into Belfast. The lights of the station are cold, unfriendly. There are not many people on the train. We disembark with polite avoidance of each other’s space.

The bus trundles me past the street lights and the neon lights over the shops. I feel nothing. The wonder has disappeared.  I am concentrated on my mother. My mind is empty. I am one of the stones the woman spoke of. Hard, unable to feel.

I sit in the nurses’ office. The doctor comes to speak to me. My mother, he says, has slipped quietly away. My mother is dead.

I say little. I don’t cry.

Later that night, I wake up suddenly. I sit up in bed, propped against the pillows.

I see my mother’s face, looking down at her ironing board, with the tears falling to make a damp mark on the blouse she has been ironing for me.

Presently the mark dries.  I lean against the pillow and stare, dry-eyed, into the darkness.

About the contributor

Gerry McCullough lives in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland. She won the Cuirt Award for her short story Primroses, 2005, has won, been short listed and commended in many other literary competitions, and has over 100 short stories published. Gerry is a poet with around forty poems published in literary magazines and anthologies. In 2016 Gerry’s poem Summer Passing won the fourth Bangor Poetry Competition, run by Blackberry Path Art Studio. Gerry's first novel, Belfast Girls, published by Night Publishing in 2010, was a #1 bestseller on paid UK Kindle. It was republished in 2012 by Precious Oil Publications.

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