I remember when we were young, we would sneak up to your attic to watch the fields turn to gold. Do you remember that, Marian? The ladder was spiky with splinters, and we had to be careful of our hands. When we got up there, in between inhaling clouds of dust, we would unlatch the window and look out at the setting sun. You could see the end of the world from your attic window, Marian. We were like two little sparrows looking out from the eaves, me and you.
Do you remember, when we were young, Marian? We would run down to the bakery and pick out the bread. We would hand the money over, smirking at each other and glancing at Mr Brown's shiny bald head, and if he was feeling generous, he would pop a hard boiled sweet into our sticky hands and send us on our way, and we would chase each other home, the piping loaves under our arms. Two little sparrows, we were, bringing home the bread. You would get to your house, and I get to mine, and we’d wave at each other on the front step.
Do you remember my house, Marian? Do you remember the garden filled with Mammy’s flowers? I never knew their names, but I can remember their violet and peony-pink heads smiling up at her as she watered them. They were like her children, and she spent all her time tending them, because I was her only child, and sometimes she would cry as she knelt with her watering can, and I would wonder why.
Marian, do you remember the lake behind your house? Behind the long grass? We were never supposed to go down there without an adult to mind us, but we never listened to them. We went there all the time, catching dragonflies with our bare hands, being eaten alive by midgets, thrashing the nettles with sticks, jumping in the water until we were soaked to the bone. You said we would always be like this, two free birds in the open air.
Do you remember the attic in your house, Marian? Do you remember the sparrows, Marian?
Are you there? Can you hear me?
Do you remember, Marian, Mammy’s famous sandwiches I took to school? My favourite part of the day was taking out my sandwich wrapped in cheesecloth, carefully made by Mammy, while the other boys looked on, steaming like hot boiling kettles with envy. Some of the bigger boys might try to rob my sandwich if I bragged about it too openly. The first time it happened, I ran home to tell Mammy. I was crying Marian, and when Da got home I cried again. And he told me never to cry again, but to give those boys hell if they went near me again. And he told Mammy not to make me special sandwiches, couldn't I take a boiled potato in my pocket like he did in his day, but Mammy didn't pay any heed and I still got my sandwiches.
Marian, do you remember the stories about the coal mines? Do you remember when Da came home, coated with dirt, and he’d have to be hosed off in the garden before coming inside? Do you remember the stories about the dynamite they used? And the shuttle cars, and the collapsing roofs? And the canary birds? Do you remember the birds, Marian?
Da didn’t want me to work in the mines. He wanted me to work in an office, so I wouldn’t get the lung trouble and the hearing damage and the itchy feeling that he was always covered in coal dust that plagued him for the rest of his life. I looked at numbers, balance sheets, day in day out, looking out the window and wishing I could fly away. I don't remember much else about it. It wasn't very exciting. I don't know why I don't remember. I get scared when I don't remember.
What happened then, Marian?
What comes next, Marian?
“Who is he talking to?” I’ve been wandering, but now I stop. Blocking my path, a young girl, dressed in a green uniform, like a little soldier, but that can’t be right, she’s too young. I reach out to touch the bow in her hair, but a hand swipes mine and someone hisses, “Don’t you touch my daughter!”
I stumble back and they move out of my line of vision, and people with blurred faces mill around me, I can hear laughter and chatter and shouting and music. I move, and the crowd moves away from me, if I reach out my arms I touch nothing, nothing but air.
Where was I, Marian?
Do you remember our wedding day?
“Would you shut up for five minutes? I don’t mind you sitting there, but you’re scaring away paying customers.”
I look up and see a shining bald head; it’s Mr Brown.
“The same again, Mr Bloody Brown, every day,” the man sighs. “Keep moving, would you.”
Was Mr Brown at our wedding? I can’t remember. Maybe.
I remember our wedding day, do you? You wore a dress with pearls on the front that had cost you a fortune, but you never did tell me how much. It was the latest style, and you always liked to be fashionable. I remember when I saw you walking down the aisle, I wanted to cry, but I didn’t let myself.
“I asked you to move. I said move!”
I move, people move around me, my path is always clear.
Do you think I was too cold, Marian? Do you wish we stayed the way we were when we were younger, two sparrows ready to feel the wind beneath our wings? When I came home from work at you had my dinner made and my clothes washed and the house tidy, but you couldn't talk to me, because I was tired and you had nothing to say. What did you do in those long lonely hours, Marian, when your friends were cradling their babies? You crocheted tiny cardigans and hats in pastel shades, until the piles of tiny handmade clothes grew too big to be borne, and you gave them away. When I heard you cry in the night, I turned away, Marian, I remember that now.
What more did you want from me, Marian? Didn’t I do enough for you? Didn’t I work enough? When your parents died, I bought your childhood home for us. I bought food for you to eat. I tried my best Marian, I know you don’t believe me but I did, I really did.
“Would you like a sandwich?”
It’s not wrapped in cheesecloth and it doesn’t taste like Mammy’s famous sandwiches. It's all getting mixed up and muddled; I'm lost in the coal mine, there's dust everywhere.
Maybe if I had tried to talk about it with you. Maybe if we had tried to adopt. But I didn’t know what to do Marian. Do you remember when I found you at sitting at the lake, sitting around the little graves marked with crosses made of bent reeds. You told me their names, and I wouldn’t listen. I couldn’t, Marian. And you told me your heart was broken. And I told you we'd be fine, we'd be just fine. But you didn't believe me, and you wouldn't come inside. I remember looking at the lake, where our parents told us we shouldn’t play in case we fell in. Where were the sparrows then, Marian?
Why wouldn't you come inside, Marian?
Marian, won’t you say something?
I don't remember the rest of the story, Marian.
Where did you go, Marian?
“Will someone throw him a euro, to shut him up?”
I’m going to rest now Marian, but don’t worry at all, I’ll be right here if you need me. I’ll rest my head under my wing.
“Not you again. Go to sleep in someone else’s doorway!”
A blow to my ribs winds me, I move on, though my chest feels tight. The sea of people part before me, I push forward in my path like Moses repelling the waves. Black speckles cloud my eyes, like the coal dust that coated Da when he came home each day. Why did Moses cross the Red Sea? What was he looking for? Was he looking for sandwiches, or canaries in the coal mine, or loaves of bread fresh from the bakery, or the sparrows?
Marian, do you remember me? Do you remember who I was? I don't remember.
Where did you go, Marian? Are you still by the lake?
Mammy's flowers are dead now, Marian. I forgot to water them.
"That man smells really yucky."
"Shh, don't look at him."
"Is he a monster?"
I feel so tired Marian, and it's getting cold. It's cold here, without you, Marian. It's cold by the lake. Won't you come inside?
We could be sparrows again, Marian. We would hide up in your attic, fly over fields of gold. Can we go there, Marian? Let me in, won't you? Let's be sparrows again.
Let's go inside, Marian.