Blame: a Short Story

I took the bus.

Upstairs, three rows from the front on the left. My preferred spot. 47 minutes to the second to
last stop on the number 8 route. 47 minutes of feeling sick. Feeling lost. Feeling shamed.
What the hell just happened?

I had 47 minutes to get myself together, to stop shaking and learn to breath all over again. I
leaned my forehead against the mercifully cool window pane and caught sight of my distorted
reflection. White as the proverbial ghost. How could I do this? How could I walk into my
home and pretend nothing had happened?

The beads of sweat forming on my skin were pin pricks – sharp and insistent. Unforgiving
and relentless. My stomach clenched, gut churning in a threatening way and I prayed I would
not vomit on the already ugly textured green seat – I had no tissues in my bag, no cardigan
with me to mop up. It was a warm day in late August and it had started like any other.
It certainly wasn’t going to end like one.

Come in for a visit, he’d said, I’ve a surprise for you. I was delighted. Pleased he’d phoned. I
loved my visits with him – that time just for me. Time to talk and relax, to let go of all the
anxieties I was carrying that particular summer. There was always tea and cake, on a tray,
with napkins. Like at home. I felt secure. Minded. And, most importantly to me, listened to.
Like everyone else in the world I lived in a dysfunctional family. People used to refer to
‘broken’ homes as dysfunctional, but in truth, there are no actual functional families really,
because no one, and no combination of people can be perfect. It took me a while to realise
and accept that and I can tell you it was a relief to acknowledge that truth. We were as normal or as bonkers as the neighbours. And we had some pretty strange neighbours. It was all good.
But my problem was that, as the youngest in my family, I took on the role of mediator and
peacemaker. It was a lot, especially those few months, as my eldest sister’s marriage fell
apart and she and her two small boys descended on us, and then her ex decided I was the one
he needed to confide in. Me. At 17 and not an ounce of life experience worth a jot. That
unfortunately, was about to change.

The bus stopped in Dun Laoire, outside McCullaghs department store. The queue was long
and soon many French students tumbled up the stairs laughing and calling to each other, their
cool navy and red jumpers tied casually about their shoulders, back-packs tossed on the seats
as they spread out along the back few rows of the bus. For once I didn’t mind. I understood
their chatter. I was recently returned from spending a school term in Brittany learning French
and I gratefully let my ear tune in to their gossip.

Anything was better than the screaming in my head.

He’d had the painting framed. A large watercolour of the senior team, reaching high, in a
rugby line-out. I’d drawn it from a photograph he’d given me, so proud of his boys as they
played in the annual school’s cup. It came easily to me. Drawing and painting were what
kept me sane, kept me focused. My goal was to go to Art College, following in the footsteps
of both my parents. I kept a sketch book with me at all times and loved the feeling of pride
when my work was praised by anyone who flipped through the pages.

Wow, I thought when I saw the picture on his study wall. It looked so….different, so
professional, framed in glass with a light wood surround. He had chosen the mount and frame
to suit his wall and it showed. I could feel a flush of importance fill my cheeks as he indicated
a chair next to the tea tray. It was several weeks since our last visit. The third since my return
from France. That may seem excessive but the first was him showing me the photograph,
asking for a painting, and then the second was me handing over the painting. It hadn’t taken
long to do. It was a labour of love after all. And now, the reveal. Visit three. Our last visit, as
it was to turn out.

There was sponge cake and chocolate biscuits. The tea was strong and perfect, the china cups
delicate and, he said, a family heirloom. Honoured at their use, I sipped carefully. The
conversation flowed. He was good at this. Making difficult things easy. ‘And how did that
make you feel?’ What a professional. What a charlatan. What a bastard.

I answered. Of course I did. Pouring out my heart – my worries and anxieties, my concerns
and upsets. There was no one else. I had great friends. I was lucky. But this family stuff? This
private angst ridden terror that my family was falling apart? I couldn’t burden them. He, on
the other hand, offered his help, his counsel. All in confidence. All kept secret. He promised.
Of course he did.

The French students piled off at Sandycove. I was glad to see them go. Understanding their
chat hadn’t helped – not really. The reel spinning on in my head wouldn’t shut down and now
there was precious little time left to process. I didn’t know that term then – processing, I was
merely trying to make sense of the facts. Hindsight is great for figuring things out but I
instinctively got off the bus at Bullock Harbour and walked the rest of the way, the long way,
home. Over and over I replayed what happened. Over and over the shakes started. One foot in
front of the other as I climbed that hill. Slowly, each step a heavy heartbeat.

I had talked, mostly about my brother in law and his expectations that I would listen, without
judgement, to his litany of complaints about my own sister. That was hard to do. She was no
saint – not by a long shot – but she was mine. And yet… I could totally see his frustration and
lack of comprehension that she would leave him. Actually pack up and go. Living with him,
gentle a soul though he was, would make me pack and go too. But my job, or so I believed,
was to make him feel better. To boost his morale. To ensure he continued to spend time with
his boys. It wasn’t my job. It was never my job or my responsibility but that gnawing sense
that I must fix everything and make everyone happy wouldn’t leave me. That erroneous
belief in personal accountability began in my tenth year, the year my mum got very sick and
we were told she needed complete calm or she might die.

That year.

So I became the one who calmed, smoothed, mediated. The one who did the extra chores so
mum wouldn’t hear the arguing amongst my sisters and …die.

And every year after that I watched her like a hawk. If my siblings were quarrelling or
bugging each other I inspected her for signs of exhaustion, strain or worry. And I tried to sort
them out. When there was petty envy because I was asked to another party or weekend away
with pals, I often didn’t go. One sister hogged the TV – she was loud and demanding so
mostly got her way. I didn’t care – it shut her up, and mum wasn’t dying that day.

I carried these burdens – no one asked me to or expected me to. I have no one to blame but
myself. But it was good, very good to be able to share them with another adult. A person of
‘consequence’, who had shown an interest in me and my cares. Who heard me.

Big mistake, as Julia Roberts from Pretty Woman said, huge.

There was a seat at the top of Bullock Hill. We used take a rest there when our granny would
walk with us. I rested there that day. My heart was still beating fast but that could have been
from the steady incline. I leaned my back against the uneven stone wall, warmed through by
the late afternoon sun. I let the images in. And replayed it all in my head.

What the hell happened?

It wasn’t awful. Not technically. And even then I knew people who had way, way worse
things happen to them. But it felt disgusting. Wet lips and grabby hands. Pants of breath in
my face as he held me firmly against his barrel chest. The insistent push of teeth and tongue.
And the shock. Complete shock that this man, the one adult I had truly trusted, could do this
to me. Take ‘liberties’ and think it was ok.

Was it because I wore a skirt that day? I usually didn’t. Was the neck of my blouse too
tempting? What had I done to bring this about? Because it must be something I said, or did,
or, oh God, asked for…mustn’t it? Did I lead him on? Did I flirt with him? But how could I?
I didn’t know how.

I pushed him away. Stepped back. Felt a wave of heat, of chills, follow one after the other
down my body. Mumbled something about mum needing me home for dinner. I grabbed my
bag from the chair and hurried from the room. I’d been about to leave anyway, had stood up
and gone to study my framed painting again, turned towards the door and straight into him. I
hadn’t heard him move to stand behind me. And when our bodies bumped into each other I
expected an apology and a step away. I didn’t expect groping and fumbling. Hands pawing at
my breasts. And sounds. Ugly sounds. No. I didn’t expect that.

I can’t remember how we said goodbye. He did not apologise or mention what he did. He did
say something about telephoning me the following week. I can’t remember. I don’t want to.
And as I sat in the fading warmth at the top of Bullock Hill I wondered what to do and how to
do it. I knew, absolutely, that I would never speak to, or see him, again. Ever. I hated confrontation and there was no way I could be in his presence again and yet fake that nothing had happened. So I would be an ostrich, and pretend nothing had happened. I got up from the old wooden bench and began walking the last half mile or so home. My mind was made up. It all became clear. My mum didn’t need this added cross to bear. And I wasn’t close enough to my dad to confide in him. They were staunch believers. I’ll never know if they would have
believed me. I never gave them the chance.

Maybe I didn’t want to take the chance.

And that? That made me so sad.

When the phone rang the following Thursday evening and Dad said it was for me, I hesitated.
I asked who it was.

“Your priest friend,” he said.

“Tell him….” I began. Paused. All the feelings flooded in. All of them, swamping me like me
like being tossed in hot blanket on an even hotter day. Anger, shame, hurt, betrayal. And
blame. His. Mine. Theirs.

“Tell him I’m not home.”