Nanny told me not to, but I did it anyway.
For the Irish history project, some picked the Famine, some the invasion of the Vikings. I picked the history of our town, Ballymunroe, for no reason other than that it seemed to require the least amount of effort. Nanny grumbled as she squeezed us fresh orange juice, the pan of rashers and eggs crackling next to her.
“Why would you pick that? Sure can’t I tell you everything you need to know about it? Haven’t I lived here all my life?”
She flipped an egg, sunny side down, just the way I liked it.
Ms. O’Brien brought us to the library and helped us pick our books. Among the dusty shelves of the Irish history section, I found a thin book of the history of the town of Ballymunroe with large print and lots of pictures. I sat alone at my table, copying down mundane facts about the steeple of our church and the year the main road was built. I flicked absently through the last section, the most recent history of the town, through the photos of smiling people, and balked in disbelief when I saw an old photo of Mammy. She was cradling a baby who could only be me, with a man whose face I had no memory of. Anna Vaughan-Smith and her husband, John Smith, with their baby Maeve, in 2002.
I had never seen a photo of my dad before; he and Mammy died in a car crash when I was three. Though they lived in England, the small print under the photo explained they had flown home for my christening in Mammy’s hometown. The man was beaming at the camera with pride as he cupped my small head in his hands. After years of picturing what he would look like, he was nothing like I had imagined. He looked like me, a thin face, brown hair, blue eyes. He seemed to look right at me, like he was really seeing me. I carefully ripped the page out of the book, pressed it into my copybook and stowed it away in my schoolbag.
The bus dropped me off at the bottom of my road, where Nanny was waiting, slightly stooped, silver-haired, in her blue apron, to collect me. Our house was only minutes from the bus stop, but Nanny was there every day after school, waiting for me.
“You can’t trust people, Maeve,” she scolded me, scowling through her wire-rimmed glasses. “There are all sorts of bad eggs around. Someone could be waiting to snatch you away.”
I didn’t tell Nanny about the photo of my dad. In our house, there were photos of Mammy in every room, and a candlelit shrine to her memory under the stairs. There were no photos of my dad. Nanny hated my dad. She cut him out of every photo we had, so his and Mammy’s wedding photo in the glass case of the sitting room was strangely lopsided. I grew up without knowing his name. Nanny changed my name to Vaughan when they died, to match her’s and Mammy’s.
Nanny seemed to blame herself for letting Mammy go to England with my dad. Nanny was never wrong about anything, but she was sorry that she didn’t have the power to stop Mammy from moving away and dying in the accident. Nanny bought Mammy ten yellow tulips every week and arranged them lovingly in a blue vase on her shrine. She never let the week slip by without fresh tulips.
“Yellow tulips were your mammy’s favourite,” Nanny told me. “When she looks down from heaven and sees them, she’ll know I’m sorry. I did nothing wrong Maeve, but I’m still sorry she left with that awful man.”
There were no tulips for my dad. If I asked questions about him, Nanny brushed them off like cobwebs, so my imagination had to fill the paternal void. I harboured my secret version of my dad for nine years. I made up my own stories about him and repeated them to myself over and over until they felt real. He was a hero who tried to save Mammy as a drunk driver hurtled towards them. He gasped to the paramedics with his dying breaths to leave him, save his beautiful wife. He played with me and my toys. He took me to feed the ducks and spoke in a silly quack-quack voice to make me laugh.
I had never found a trace of who he was before. I needed to know more about him and who he really was. My access to the internet was severely restricted by Nanny. I wasn’t allowed a phone, though I had made her promise I could get one for my thirteenth birthday. But that was months away.
“I have to do some research on the computer. It’s for my history project,” I told Nanny as she pulled a tray of lemon buns out of the oven.
“What more can you need to know about roads and bridges, Maeve,” she griped, dropping the tray on the counter with a clatter. “You’ll only be looking up useless information and distracting yourself. There are a million things you can learn without a computer. Let me show you how to sew your school skirt, the hemline is falling down. That’s a real skill, bet you can’t learn that on the internet.”
We compromised on Nanny sitting at the computer, typing my questions at a glacial pace while I wrote the answers down mechanically, silently scheming. There were computers in school that we used once a week. Ms. O’Brien would plod around behind us, peering over our shoulders to make sure we weren’t looking up anything scandalous.
Later in the week, we went to the computer room to research our projects. When Ms. O’Brien waddled over to Denis Mooney’s computer on the other side of the room, I typed in John Smith. Page after page of results flashed up on my screen. I scrolled, glancing over my shoulder every few seconds, but there were too many John Smiths, none of them my dad. I pulled the photo from the library book out of my bag and stared at it hard.
I typed John Smith Anna Vaughan. My stomach flipped as a photo of Mammy and my dad on their wedding day popped up, the original version of the lopsided one at home. They both smiled radiantly at me. Holding my breath, I clicked on the photo. It was attached to an article, a piece from a tabloid, the headline in screaming bold capitals. I froze. My eyes scanned the words on the screen. I was a slow reader. Maybe I misunderstood the words. Man kills wife and then himself in gruesome London tragedy - their young daughter was with her grandmother, who had flown from Ireland to help her daughter leave her abusive husband - the jealous husband shot his young wife when she told him she was leaving him after years of abuse, then turned the gun on himself - he had a history of violence and controlling behaviour - police discovered the bodies in the family home -
I read it again and again, while the words popped like fireworks in my head; abusive, jealous, controlling. I sat silently while the minutes ticked by, and didn’t start when Ms. O’Brien’s heavy breathing came close to my ear. I felt her hand press on my shoulder.
“Oh Maeve,” she whispered.
The school called Nanny, who arrived in ten minutes, red-faced, her glasses askew, her apron dusty with flour. She ranted for the whole drive home, but my mind was too foggy to make sense of her words. Her voice grew louder as she steered me into the kitchen, where I sat on a chair with my head bent, my lips pressed together, the crumpled page clutched in my fist.
“I told you and I told you, there are some things not worth knowing,” she berated me, flapping her tea towel around, her voice cracking. “I didn’t tell you for your own good. You didn’t need to know. I told you before he was a bastard, why wasn’t that enough?”
She slammed the pots and the pans around the kitchen. “She would never have wanted you to know. I was protecting her. I was protecting you.”
“You should have told me, Nanny.”
“Don’t you take this out on me, Maeve,” Nanny snarled.
“Yes you are. I told you not to do that project on local history, but you didn’t listen, you had to do it your way. Well, this is what happens when you don’t listen to me, Maeve. Things go wrong, like they went wrong for your mammy. I couldn’t stop him hurting her, but I didn’t want you to know that your dad could do such a thing. I told your mammy over and over that he was bad news, a terrible man, that she was throwing her life away, but she didn’t listen to me, and now you won’t listen to me either-!”
“Stop it, just stop it! Why are you shouting at me? I didn’t do anything wrong!” I cried. She stopped stock still, her mouth agape. I flew to my room and slammed the door. I threw myself onto my bed where I curled in a heap and sobbed. I unfurled the ball of paper in my hand. My dad’s creased face grinned back at me, taunting me. For nine years I believed in him, believed he was good, no matter what Nanny said. But she was right all along. I clenched it tightly in my fist and hurled it as hard as I could to the other side of the room, where it bounced off the door and landed harmlessly on the floor.
Hours later, when I was lying motionless in the dark, there was a timid knock at the door. I pulled the pink bed covers over my head and pretended to be asleep. A chink of light seeped into the room.
“Maeve,” Nanny said. “Are you asleep? Oh… well, I’ll see you in the morning. I’ll make you understand tomorrow....”
She approached my bed, breathing slowly, something rustling in her arms. She paused in the dark, but I said nothing. She placed something on my bedside table and then she turned and walked around the room, moving things around, for a few minutes, and then closed the door softly behind her. I lay awake for most of the night, my brain whirring. I turned towards the wall, trying to block my dad’s face, a murderer’s face, out of my mind.
When I woke up in the morning, still facing the wall, my swollen face stiff with dried tears, I heard Nanny making breakfast in the kitchen. The familiar crackle of rashers and fried eggs wafted into my room. For a moment, I kept my eyes closed, inhaling deeply. Then I rolled over and opened my eyes. Arranged on every available surface of my bedroom, encircling my bed like bursts of the brightest sunshine, were dozens of bunches of yellow tulips.