On P.O.E.T.S. Day, prize winning fiction by Maria Kenny

Maria Kenny won the 2019 Maria Edgeworth Short Story Competition. Her short stories and flash fiction have appeared in the journals Crannóg and Boyne Berries, also online in the UK, Mexico and America. She was longlisted for the WoW award 2016 and was shortlisted for the Kanturk Flash Fiction Competition 2019. She also got a notable mention in Cúirt 2020 and was a semi-finalist in the LISP flash fiction competition 2020.

The older women of the village thought Danny was just a quiet sort. He was well liked by all the elders; he’d give lifts if he was driving past and drop them home, even when they insisted it was only up the road. They would talk about how proud his grandmother would be of him. 

His own mother was a single woman who left him when he was five, to find a life. Seven years into her new-found life, she ended up being killed in a car accident with some boyo she had picked up on a night out. Drink driving, he was. 

‘You can’t do that in the city,’ Mam said, ‘too many cars up there.’

The whole village turned out for the removal. Danny and his grandmother travelled up to Dublin. They followed the hearse back home. Two hours staring at the coffin. It was dusk as they turned the corner at the top of the hill. The headlights dipped as the hearse glided towards us, the womb holding the coffin was lit up, making it seem more like a film than real life.

‘Jesus, Mary and sweet Joseph,’ Mammy had said blessing herself.

I moved closer to her.

I couldn’t take my eyes off Danny, looking for any little difference in him. 

***

When his grandmother passed away, she left him everything, lock, stock and two large houses. The house they both lived in till her death and the one her husband grew up in. He sold his grandfather’s house, it had been rented out for years and the O’Neill’s, who had lived there for as long as I could remember, got a loan from the council and bought it. The village was full of whispers about how much money Danny must have. The ‘Celtic Tiger’ was roaring and everyone was listening. 

Around that time, a lot of young, single women began to take an interest in him. Danny never bothered with any of them.

‘He must be queer that one,’ my mother said. 

Her opinion was shared by most of the residents surrounding us.  I had no view one way or another. When Danny left the village, I barely noticed. My main concern was straightening my unruly curls so I too could have hair like Hayley Byrne. Most of that year was spent burning the head and wrists off myself. 

‘You’ll have no hair left,’ Mam said, ‘you’ll never straighten it. You’ll never hide the Irishness in you.’ 

The grandmother’s house stood waiting for Danny’s return. Breege Murphy was keeping it going. She was the keyholder.  She’d call in every single day, usually around lunchtime so she could sit and have something to eat, looking out at the view Danny saw all his life at each of his mealtimes. In the winter she’d go twice a day, putting the heating on and then later turning it off, ignoring the timer that was set to come on first thing in the morning. 

Walls get fierce cold here and start to cry if not kept warm. My mother’s bedroom wall has a black tearstain in the corner of her room, just up beside the ceiling so she can lament with it every night as she lies in bed. 

If you were lucky and Breege was in the right mood, she might give you a tour of the house, pointing out where Danny and his grandmother slept. I did the tour with my mother. Danny’s room had posters as faded as the pop stars in them.

The house was discussed in the post office-cum-newsagent, the consensus being it was ‘badly in need of a lick of paint’. It was the biggest tourist attraction in Ballydowden for the first eight months after he had gone.  

He drove back into the village two months after my thirteenth birthday. 

‘Did you see what he was driving? You’d need a ladder to get into it,’ my mother said peeling the potatoes for dinner. 

The wheels on the vehicle were up to my hips. A crowd from Dublin followed down after him, builders, plasterers, painters, landscapers.  For four whole months the village was full of strangers. Tommy in the local Spar told us what they bought each day for lunch. Mostly spicy chicken rolls, crisps and red bull, while Breege held court again discussing the comings and goings of each van, car and jeep, not forgetting the star attraction, who turned up most days and disappeared again an hour or two later. Nancy O’Dwyer said she’d seen his ‘Monster Truck’ as it got to be called, in the nearest town, outside the only hotel there. Once again Danny’s house became the big tourist attraction, but this time it was night viewing only, through the windows.

‘He’s gutting the place beyond,’ Mam said after her viewing. ‘Poor Grace would be spinning in her grave if she saw her house now.’ 

To me the house seemed to be coming alive, breathing new life into everything surrounding it, including our village. Mass was abuzz with whispered chatter that ceased as soon as the bell rang and continued on the steps of the church after Mass had ended.

 Danny became an enigma to us teenagers, the stuff of legends. We’d nudge each other if he happened to walk into Clancy’s while we were on our lunch break. He winked at Ruth McNamara once and you’d think he’d proposed to her with the stink she made about it. It didn’t matter to us that he was in his thirties, we knew handsome when we saw it.

And then, shortly before the house was finished I found myself in his car. It was another rotten day in late October. The road home seemed to have extended by at least five kilometres and I was dragging myself and a schoolbag full of books through sheets of rain. It was that rain that comes at an angle and just when you think you have a handle on it, the wind changes direction and the needles of ice hit in the only dry place left on the body. I didn’t notice the car, my chin was bent to my chest, determinedly pushing up the road. 

 ‘Rachel.’

I raised my head to the voice.

‘Get in,’ he shouted opening the door.

If Saint Nick himself had opened that door I would’ve jumped in, so without thinking of it, my bag landed beside his passenger seat and I was pulling myself into the warmth of his jeep.

‘Jesus what a day,’ he said leaning forward to look out the window as if the rain had only started the minute I got in the car

I remained mute, pulling my hair off my face, suddenly conscious of where I was. 

‘I’ll drop you home,’ he said. ‘You’re soaked.’

He looked me up and down as if to confirm his words. I was dripping water onto his leather, heated seats as it rolled off the defunct rain jacket the school insists we wear, a jacket that sits neatly on the waist and offers no protection from drizzle never mind the waterfall that was spilling over the car. 

I nodded, finding a great interest in the rain slapping off my window. We didn’t talk for the rest of the journey and four minutes later he pulled up at the end of our driveway. 

‘Thanks,’ I said, risking a quick glance at him. 

Mam never copped the car, she was in the back of the house in the kitchen. I stood in my soaking clothes watching the car drive back up the road and when I couldn’t see it anymore I still stayed in the garden, frozen by the wonder of him knowing my name.

It got to be a pattern then. It didn’t matter if it was raining or not. Same time most days the bus would haul away and Danny would pull up. Without a word I’d open the door and get in. We took to driving around. Soon I began to get off the bus at an earlier stop, stating a new interest in walking to quell my mother’s suspicions. Danny would be waiting. His jeep would appear from nowhere as the bus disappeared from sight.  

On a Friday we took to going to the privacy of his house.

‘It’s P.O.E.T.S. day,’ he’d say as he’d follow me around the empty rooms, tools scattered willy-nilly.

‘Poets day?’

‘Yeah Piss Off Early Tomorrow’s Saturday.’

He’d laugh and I’d smile, not quite sure if he was teasing me or not.

And I would look at him as he’d take my hand and lead me to the back room, wondering what it was in me that held his interest. 

It wasn’t long before my mother got wind of where I was. I reckon it was Breege who ratted us out. She’s like that. 

‘Go to confession,’ Mam said the Saturday morning over the ironing.

‘I will not.’

‘For your Grandad. Rachel please. He’s worried.’ 

The iron hissed its concern.

An hour later I was sat in the confession queue beside J.P. Sullivan. He was hitting twelve and was our local yob, having already being brought to the attention of the Gardaí for shoplifting pencils in Tesco. He was getting to be notorious, though he was too busy that day, concentrating on arranging his sins to speak to me. I never had any interesting sins until I met Danny, anyway I had long ago given up on Jesus, he wouldn’t get any gossip off me that day.

Thinking back now, the scandal made me a bit of a celebrity. The Gardaí called to my house. Noreen Touhy, the only female guard in our parish, sat in the good front room with me and Mam, asking questions that made me squirm inside and out. Mam held my hand the entire time Noreen was there. I concentrated on the growing slickness between our palms and wished they’d both let me go. 

I didn’t say a word. 

Grandad couldn’t bring himself to look at me.

‘It’ll be alright,’ Mam said every time we left the house. 

I was off school for weeks. A counsellor from Dublin began calling to the house once a week and gradually explained the wrong Danny had done to me. 

Danny disappeared.  His face was in the papers. I cut it out and hid it under my mattress, only looking at it in the small hours when I could hear Grandad snoring and Mam’s soft puffs coming from her room next door. 

They found all sorts of weird stuff in Danny’s house after he had left.  Again, Noreen arrived –

‘Did he take photos of you?’

‘Did he take videos of you?’

‘Were there other men?’

‘Were there other children?’ 

Endless questions I wouldn’t answer. 

I heard they had found photos of other girls, younger than me.  In the photos the girls were doing all sorts of things. The sick feeling in my stomach sent me to bed early. Mam sat on the duvet beside me.

‘None of this is your fault Rachel. You are not responsible for those other poor girls,’ her eyes filled up. 

‘Jesus, if anyone’s to blame it’s me for not paying more attention to my only child.’

There was no way to explain to her that it was jealousy making me sick.

It’s been two years now since Danny left. The house remains unfinished. Empty, soulless. I look through its windows searching and at night I twist and turn and search some more.

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