22nd December 2014 — Short Story

Belfast - A Christmas Past

A Short story...

I hang clean white shirts in the wardrobe with a twinge of guilt, thinking I should wash and iron them myself. Harry is a traditional I’ll bring home the bacon your job is to raise the children and run the house sort of man. I know he would think it an awful extravagance to send his shirts to a laundry. But I can afford it. And it’s a door to door service. This is my Christmas present to myself. I don’t have to stuff dirty clothes into grubby pillowcases and heave them half a mile through the estate to the launderette. I don’t have to haul them back to the house and look at them heaped on the sofa, waiting to be ironed. I tidy my guilt away with the shirts. I tell myself as long as Harry always has a clean shirt to wear to his work, what does it matter who washes and irons it? I think about the money I earn in the time saved. Three extra hours child-minding equals an extra nine pounds in my hand. I give a five-pound note to the man who returns the laundry every Friday. He gives me four pounds change. I give a pound each to the children. I keep two pounds. Harry has a clean shirt every day. Oop-la. Happy Christmas.
I smile at myself in the mirror on the wardrobe door. Santa Claus looms behind me, making me jump.
“Jeez, Harry. You gave me an terrible fright.”
“Have you been sending my shirts to the laundry?” His voice is agitated.
I turn to stare at him. “What are you doing home from work?”
“What laundry was it?”
“I thought you were Santa until 6 o’clock.”
“Was it the 4 Square Laundry?”
“What does it matter?”
He backs away from me and flattens himself against the wall beside the window. “Shit.”
I am still staring at him. He jerks his head towards the window. “Look out there. Try not to look as though you’re looking. Pretend to be doing something. Anything.”
I pluck my nightdress from the bed and use it like a cloth to clean the window. There is nobody in the street. I can see Christmas lights winking in the windows of the houses opposite.
“What’s going on Harry?” I press harder on the glass to stop my arm shaking. “Are you still involved, Harry?” I am near to tears. “You told me you were getting out.”
“Don’t look at me. Any Brits about?”
My mouth feels dry. It is an effort not to look at him. I see a blue Ford Escort turn slowly into the street. “There’s a car, Harry. It’s slowing down.” There are two men in it. I am straining to see who they are. I sense Harry on his toes, like a sprinter in the blocks. “I recognise the driver. It’s…”
Harry is bounding down the stairs before I find the name.
“Sean Duffy,” I call out. The front door bangs.
Harry looks up at me and gestures as he clambers into the back seat of the still moving car. I wonder if he is trying to blow a kiss. I don’t care. I swear he can keep his kisses. Like his promises. “I was only moving a bit of gear out of town. I swear to you. No more wee jobs.”
“I want us to go away, Harry. Leave Belfast.”
I think about his mouth nuzzling the back of my neck, urging me to turn around. “We’ll leave after Christmas. I promise.”
My throat is tight. Tears are running down my face. I sit down on the bed. When the tears stop, I begin to shake.
I am still shaking when I hear the army land rover pull up outside. I go downstairs and open the door so they don’t kick it in. They charge past me into the house. I stand outside in the street. The policeman who always accompanies the soldiers says, “Wait inside.”
“I’m waiting here,” I say. “I’m not going anywhere.”
He hesitates. Then he plants himself in my doorway, alternately looking at me and looking over his shoulder into the house. I hear the thud and scrape of furniture being moved and floorboards being prised up.
Gradually, my neighbours come out of their houses and stand around me. Light is falling. They are like moving shadows.
A shadow moves behind me. A man’s voice whispers, “Don’t worry. They’ll not find anything.”
I am motionless.
“Fucking Brits ran the laundry,” says the voice. I don’t bother trying to identify it. “They were looking for residues on clothes.”
Harry won’t be coming back, I think.
“You’ll get a message from Harry in a wee while,” says the shadow.
The whispers of the crowd drift around me.
“I always thought there was something funny about that laundry.”
“Thon price was too good to be true. Know what I mean?”
“They did a lovely job on my sheets.”
“They searched McKenna’s. They lifted Tommy Dornan and his Da.”
“Hung him out to dry along with his shirts.”
I watch the soldiers emerging from the house, shrugging. They get back into the land rover. It roars off. A voice from the crowd says, sourly, “Happy fucking Christmas to you too.”
Other voices say, “Wrecking bastards.”
“Do you want a hand to fix up the house, love?”
“I’ll send my Tommy round to help you.”
“Sure you can come over to us on Christmas Day.”
I stare at the Christmas lights. They blink back at me, brightly, furiously. I notice Santa’s cotton wool beard, discarded on the pavement. I wonder if someone will come looking for the Santa suit. I think how much I like not having to wash and iron shirts. I think I might look in the Yellow Pages for another laundry. I think there’ll be less to do with Harry gone. Happy New Year.