A Broken Vow (Before Life: A Collection of Short Stories)

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William hesitates when she stretches out her long leg and holds her foot in the air above his knee, and then, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, he takes her foot in his hands and rubs the rough sole of her foot with his thumbs, carefully avoiding the water-filled blisters on the ball of her foot. The woman moans a little when William hurts her accidentally. The woman has put her boots back on and is sitting between William and Licia at the table. William is drinking the wine again and talking volubly about his lifelong passion for British vintage sports cars.

The woman is interested in what he is saying. She tells him she knows how to service a 4x4, and she nods her head when he talks about straight sixes and V8s. But Licia wants to shout at him, to tell him that no one gives a damn about his useless knowledge, his relentless competencies.

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She pitches the dregs of her tea into his face. Wet leaves slide like fat ants down the prominences of his cheekbones.

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The woman stands up and walks to the French doors. I lost me first when I was seventeen.

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A boy. Me husband bet me a week later for the first time. A few months later I was in the club again. Seven times it happened before I left. Me father bet me after that. In the car park of the Bush hotel. Nearly finished me with the scelpin he gev me with the electric leads. That was Daddy. I stays east since. West is too chancy. A cousin might see you, you know.

William is smoking a cigarette and humming to himself. He moves the glowing tip in little circles above the glass ashtray. They have let the garden go to ruin. William goes back into the house. Below the decking, the flat, grey earth of the flowerless centre bed is a trough of silvery moonlight. Suddenly Licia wishes she believed in ghosts. Stephen, my love, I wish I could picture you, floating above us, looking down on the little night scene we have made here with this strange woman.

What would you make of us? Licia clenches her jaw until her teeth hurt. If Stephen were alive he would at least know her name. The woman grabs his wrist and pats out the burning pages on the table. She takes the remnants of the pages and walks into the shadows. For a few minutes, she forages for branches and pieces of loose timber. When she has gathered a small bundle, she carries it to the centre bed and arranges the branches on the dry earth. William is standing beside the woman now, and gives her his lighter.

The fire quickly takes hold, and when the flames are steady the woman hands the half-burned poems to William. He holds them away from himself and then lets them fall into the fire. When the woman leaves the fire will be a bed of ashes. How can you walk in those boots? Where will you go? Licia collects more wood and drops it onto the pile beside the fire. The woman takes what she brought and heaps the fire higher.

William has gone back inside the house. When Licia reaches the French doors, William is reversing out, grunting, pulling something heavy. Licia asks him if he is sure about the chair. After a moment, she throws the tea things onto a metal tray and follows him out. The woman is piling the last of the branches onto the fire. William stands on the base of the chair.

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He lifts his foot and smashes each of the arms, then he turns the chair over and kicks out the legs until they break. He hands her the broken chair back and she angles it against the blaze.

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The flames flare up strongly for a few minutes but then die back quickly. The woman places the kettle at the edge of the fire. When the water is boiled she makes fresh tea. Poems William wrote about our son. The car of his dreams. His friend survived. Stephen died hanging upside down in the seat. He was so proud of himself that morning. He called me. You took him go-karting.

Our only child. Fat drops of rain are falling. There is a sizzling sound from the fire. William throws the wine bottle into the bushes and leans back with his mouth open. He looks as if he is drinking the rain.

Licia hands the woman her cup, and she takes it and tilts it forward in the half-light. The rain has flattened down the curls on her head. For a moment her expression changes, and she looks much older — a crone. William stretches his arms behind his head, cracking his joints. The rain bounces off his upturned face.

The woman tilts the cup forward, and Licia sees the leaves, washed back, floating in the bottom. When she is finished reading, the woman grimaces and closes her eyes and drops the cup on the ground. William takes his shirt off and throws it into the bushes. He leans back, his face upturned to the downpour, singing to himself the nonsense words of a song never heard before. Licia opens her blouse and takes the full force of the rain on her skin.

She ululates a high, keening noise, the sound coming from somewhere between her breast bone and her throat. The woman joins the keening and unties the knot in her shirt. A crimson blossom flashes in the runnels and scallops of healed flesh.

Broken Vow by Holly C. Webb

He has also been nominated in the First Fiction and Emerging Poetry categories. His first collection of poetry, The Book of Water, was published by Salmon ; he is finishing h is second collection. He lives in Dublin. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.