‘’In all honesty, we thought we were different. We believed the world was our oyster and, with a head full of shite about goals and positivity, we thought we could achieve anything. Little did we know that our lives weren’t our own’’
I had just taken the lasagne out of the oven when my husband died. That’s what I think anyway. I wasn’t actually there but, when I obsess over it, I think it might have been when I was poking the scab of cheese on top with a knife. Conor would think that was gas. I couldn’t even watch an episode of Games of Thrones when he was alive and here I was analysing his exact moment of death with the gore of a lumpy lasagne.
It had been a Tuesday, a day when I used to think nothing ever happened. I was making dinner while Conor was at football training. When I’d seen his friend Mark’s name flashing up on my screen, I’d figured Conor’s phone had gone dead. Mark was a joker. We all grew up in the same estate in North Dublin and, even at thirty, he was still fond of pranks. I’d answered the phone, balancing it on my shoulder while trying to rip open a bag of salad with my teeth. The line was muffled, like the phone had gone off in Mark’s pocket, making his voice sound far away.
‘Sammie … Sammie?’
‘Yeah, Mark, what?’ I turned the bag over, pleased to read that the salad was pre-washed. ‘I can’t hear you.’ I stopped what I was doing, pressing the phone closer to my ear.
It was just noise, then I made out ‘Conor’s collapsed.’ Mark had sounded so dramatic that I thought it was another one of his pranks. I rolled my eyes and was about to hang up. ‘You need to get to the hospital, Sammie.’ I could hear the wobble in Mark’s voice, the shift of something enormous between us plummeting my stomach to my knees. ‘It’s … it’s not good.’
I started crying like my heart already knew what I hadn’t yet been told. Mark’s words kept coming, morphing into gibberish before they reached my ears.
‘Sammie? Sammie, are you still there?’ His shouts turned to sobs and I can’t remember much after that.
Sometimes during the night Mark’s phone call plays on a loop in my head. My mind will play cruel tricks on me, making me believe it’s happening all over again. Some days, I can lose hours folded inside my thoughts, dissecting the weeks before Conor died. Did I miss a sign? Was there some vital clue?
You see, I come from a long line of hypochondriacs. Mam and her sisters love nothing better than discussing their ailments over a large pot of tea. Nana Margo was the worst for it. Dad used to joke that she’d get a buzz out of dying. But with Conor we never got a chance to check anything. He was walking around with an underlying heart condition, his heart like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. ‘Sudden adult death syndrome’ was what the doctor said. The younger one with the kind face and enormous engagement ring, who I’d say hugged her fiancé tighter that night after meeting me. She had broken it down for me to its ‘general term’. To something I had heard of. To something I’d never thought in a million years would become part of my world.
Four months after Conor’s death, I was still moving around my house as if in a dream – in one place and then, somehow, all at once in another. One Sunday morning I found myself sitting at the dining table, my back stiff, hinting that I’d been there a while. The whole house was still. The sun squeezed through the cracks in the blind, lighting the kitchen in thin strips of yellow. I flicked on the kettle and tapped my phone to check the time. It was only 11 a.m. and worst of all I was off work, so the day at a glance, was already long and torturous. Hours squandered on social media were now a thing of the past. I couldn’t bring myself to peek into other people’s lives – even obviously staged photos still stung.
I made tea on autopilot and sipped it slowly, not quite sure what to do when it was gone. I was still hugging the cold mug when my doorbell rang.
‘Sammie, hi. Sorry to disturb you. I, ehm … well, this came on Friday.’ John from next door was standing in front of me, holding out a large brown box. ‘I was away, and I’d had it in the hall and … ehm … here.’ He placed the box in my arms and pulled his hand through his ginger hair, visibly relieved to have passed it over. ‘All okay?’ He looked at me, his eyes pleading for a yes.
‘Yes, thanks, John. This is great.’ I sort of hooshed the box up a bit, like I knew what was in it. I hadn’t a clue. My days of internet shopping had come to a halt. I must have looked bad because John was staring at me, the corners of his eyes crinkling with concern. I smiled, making them smooth out a little.
‘Sure, I’ll, eh… leave you to it so.’ He half-waved, sidestepping awkwardly over the low wall that separated our gardens. ‘You know, if you ever need anything, me and Celine are right next door.’ He pointed with his thumb like I might need clarification.
‘Thanks, John.’ I closed the door, slipping my smile back into my pocket.
I walked into the kitchen and placed the box on the table – only then did I see the name. Mr Conor Keegan. I ran my finger over each letter, feeling his name against my skin. I picked the corner of the brown tape, pulling it back across the box, my heart beating louder than the tearing sound. I didn’t know what to expect, what Conor could have ordered that would have taken four months to get here. I opened the box and inside was a compliment slip. The words looked cheery against the silky cream paper. Our apologies for the delay. With kind regards, Dawson Printing. I pinched the slip between my fingers and the memories flooded in. Snippets of conversations. Conor at his computer, obsessing over artwork: ‘Is that a lightbulb or a pear, Sammie? It’s a bleedin’ pear, isn’t it?’ I remember biting my cheek trying not to laugh as he held the piece of paper up at different angles. He’d got straight back on to the printers and demanded it all be redone. I’d never heard him complain before.
Inside the box were stacks of flyers and business cards, each with the lightbulb logo – now perfect – above Conor Keegan Electrician. Conor’s dream was in this box. Everything he had worked towards for the past two years was stacked within four cardboard walls. When he could have been out having fun, he’d chosen to stay in, to get ahead, to work towards his big future. Our big future.
In all honesty, we thought we were different. We believed the world was our oyster and, with a head full of shite about goals and positivity, we thought we could achieve anything. Little did we know that our lives weren’t our own, that there was something dark lurking alongside us and we were never in control. My stomach twisted into a knot of anger and I clenched my jaw not to scream. I picked up the box, shaking, and threw it against the kitchen cabinet. The sides burst, spewing Conor’s dreams on to the floor.
After Conor died I had gone to stay with my parents. I don’t remember it ever being a choice that I’d made. One minute I was at Conor’s funeral, the next I was lying in my childhood bedroom surrounded by lava lamps and Tasha’s creepy porcelain dolls. I lay for days under a poster of Take That, only leaving to use the bathroom. I couldn’t function on any level and spent most of the time asleep or half-dazed.
‘How are you feeling – today?’ asked Mam. She’d learned from her Parents of Young Widows Group, which was ‘conveniently’ set up by Breda Byrne and Fr Brennan in the local community centre after Conor died, that the correct approach to take with the recently bereaved is to ask only how they are today, ‘as grief can only be taken one day at a time’.
Mam gave me a sideways glance as she took two cups from the kitchen press. ‘You look exhausted, love. Are you sleeping?’
I pretended not to hear her – instead I made a big of deal of untangling a strand of hair from Aria’s fingers.
Mam was looking at me, holding the kettle mid-air. ‘Would you not let me get you something off Doctor Ibrahim?’ She poured some water into each cup, somehow managing not to scald herself, as she was still staring at me. ‘It’s nothing to be ashamed off, Sammie. Just a few relaxers to help you through.’
‘I don’t need tablets.’ I pouted my lips and blew on Aria’s nose, making her giggle. I wanted to say that Conor would still be dead when I came off them. Unless, of course, I stayed on tablets forever, which at times did seem appealing. Ah, a world of foggy bliss …
‘They helped me after your Nana Margo died. I know it’s not the same thing, but they let me relax a little.’
‘A little? You were practically horizontal for the first six months.’
Mam clicked her tongue like she always did when she had something more to say but didn’t want to. She squeezed out the teabags and poured in the milk, no doubt playing out the rest of the conversation in her head.
‘Here you are now.’ She put the tea down in front of me, spilling a little over the edge of the cup. It was my cup, the one with my name, now faded, down the side. Samantha – Excited by change. Life of the party. I watched as a thick brown dribble spread through the words, breaking them apart.
‘I’ll take Aria while you have your tea,’ said Mam. ‘She’s due a nap now. Aren’t you, pet?’
I watched Mam as she settled Aria into her pram. She looked tired, her body slower, her mouth twitching with concentration. I’d only ever noticed old people doing that before, and I wanted to tell her to stop. I picked up my cup and took a mouthful of tea, trying to wash down the fear of someone else I loved dying.
Mam walked over to the kitchen window and lowered the blind in an effort to block out the sun, which now hung like a giant medallion, pouring heat through the window. ‘It’s stifling today,’ she said, ripping open a packet of Viscounts. ‘I’ve had these in the fridge.’ She shuffled a couple out onto the table and slid one towards me like a game of air hockey. She knew they were my favourite. She’d recently stopped trying to force feed me meals, in the hope that I’d call around more.
‘Oh, I almost forgot, Sammie. Look what I found.’ She picked up a wad of kitchen roll off the microwave and carried it over to me like a wounded bird. Carefully, she opened it out and I swore I was going to hear a chirp. I peered inside to see a raggedy white feather, making me swell with irritation.
‘I was walking home from the shops thinking of Conor, as I often do when I’m passing the all-weather pitches, when a feather fell from the sky, just like that.’ Mam wriggled her fingers in front of my face, like she was doing Incy Wincy Spider. ‘It floated down and practically landed on my nose.’ Her eyes were wide, trying to channel her enthusiasm. ‘And before you say it, Sammie, there were no birds flying over. Sure, Conor was the height of a house – it was like he was standing there and dropped it so I’d know he was with me.’ She took a deep breath and I looked away, trying to ignore the pink bleeding into her eyes.
‘Yeah, it’s nice, Mam.’ I picked up a biscuit and slowly unwrapped the shiny disc. The sugary mint hit my nose, making my throat constrict in protest.
‘It’s a sign, Sammie. Isn’t it? I told Tasha. Your sister agrees with me.’
I should mention here that I would have agreed with them too, not so long ago. That’s the thing about feathers. I used to believe they were a sign from loved ones, along with butterflies and robins – a hello from the other side. When Nana Margo died, I’d kept a white feather stuck to the sun-visor in my car. It had been comforting to look at as I imagined her with me.
But when Conor died, so did my belief in all that. He’d never been into any of it, and to think of him sprinkling feathers on Mam’s head or anyone else’s was just ridiculous.
Author: Janine Edgeworth. The Thing About Feathers is available on Amazon.co.uk