By Nuala Ni Chonchuir
Early McIntyre had a badger-stripe of silver flashing through her hair from root to tip. My mother said she should dye it black, to give herself a more youthful appearance. She only said that to us, though, not to Early herself. They had been at school together but were never friends. My mother told us that people said old Mr McIntyre had built a circular house – a place without angles – so that the Devil couldn’t lurk in the corners and tempt his daughter.
‘The Devil can hide as easily in the human heart as in a corner,’ my father said.
My mother humphed. ‘Shut bloody up. What do you know about the human heart?’
My father disappeared back into watching the television.
‘She looks like a witch,’ my brother Ian said.
‘Turn your gossipy mind to higher things, Ian, and stop making assumptions,’ I said.
He kicked the leg of my chair. ‘Get a life, Grace. You’re a gock.’
She’d left our village before I was born but, when old Mr McIntyre died, Early turned up and moved back into her childhood home. When I saw her, my skin spurred with excitement. Early was scarily magnificent: she had a silent face, waist-length hair, and a black bike that she teetered around on. Anytime I saw her in the greengrocer’s or Horgan’s bakery, I took in all about her. I was fascinated by the poppy-seed loaves and garlic bulbs she bought, as much as by her flowing clothes, and the head-up way she carried herself. I was sure she never saw me – a gangly eejit with frizzy hair – hovering. And what I wanted most in those weeks was for Early McIntyre to notice me.
My fourteenth birthday came that August. We had a sponge-cake for tea. Ian crowed, ‘You look like a monkey and you are one too’, when they sang Happy Birthday. I spent those end-of-summer days on the tyre-swing in our garden, holding my face up to the clouds. I squinted through the tree-branches, imagining a far-off version of myself, where I was comfortable in my own skin and famous for doing something-or-other. It made my gut warm. When I wasn’t dreaming on the swing, I cycled in front of the round, limed house on the rise, hoping to find Early on her way in or out.
The road cleaved, poker-straight, from the McIntyre house to the church at the bottom of the village. I would cruise down to the church-gates on my bike and pump back up the hill, my thighs screaming, trying to look like I was just passing by. Early never seemed to be around and I thought that she must have gone away again. One afternoon, I lifted the gate-latch and walked up to her front window. As I hooshed myself forward to look inside, the window opened and Early’s face loomed in front of mine.
‘Can I help you?’ she whispered, her nose almost touching mine. I jumped.
‘Oh, I…I was looking…’
‘Would you like to step inside?’ I wasn’t sure if it was an invitation or a summons.
She opened the front door; the whole of the downstairs was one circular, many-windowed room. I smelt a peppery smell, like orchids; it was overlaid with the warm musk of spices. Early took my sweaty hand between her large fingers.
‘You’re welcome here,’ she said. ‘I’ve seen you about.’
I nodded, feeling suddenly small and protected. Up close, I saw that Early’s face was raddled but fresh; her cheeks as firm-looking as unripe tomatoes. She had a caramel tan and moved her voluptuous, animal body easily; Early was more beautiful than she’d seemed at a distance.
‘What’s your name?’ she said.
‘Ah, a beautiful name. One to live up to. I’m Early McIntyre.’ Her voice came slow, like warm honey.
She pointed to a sofa and I sat. The room was marked out into territories: the kitchen had units curved to fit the walls; the dining-room was bright with road-kill-red wallpaper; her sitting-room took up the central floor space. A scatter of marble elephants pointed their up-turned trunks at the door and a huge, age-pocked mirror stood against one wall.
‘I like to collect things,’ Early said, handing me a mug of tea. ‘What do you like to do, Grace?’
My tongue felt tangled; I couldn’t think of one thing that sounded interesting enough to say to her.
‘I love my bike,’ I said, eventually. ‘Cycling.’
‘We’ll have to take a bicycle ride together sometime soon, while this warm weather lasts.’
My mother prepared the picnic; she seemed to want to impress Early.
‘Early’s been around,’ she said. ‘Been all over, I mean. What sort of food does she have in that house of hers?’
‘Spicy food, curries, that sort of thing. But, you know, a few sandwiches will do fine.’
‘Sandwiches? Have a bit of imagination, Gracie, for pity’s sake.’ My mother hung in front of the fridge, frowning.
I left the house the next morning, lugging enough food for seven people. My mother shouted after me that I was to send her best regards to Miz McIntyre. Ian shadowed her in the doorway, sniggering. Wishing they’d go back inside, I heaved the food-bag into the basket on my bike. It was one of those fresh, not-too-sunny days. We took the main road out of the village; the ditches overflowed with montbretia and red haws. Cycling side-by-side along Icehouse Lane, Early told me she used to play there as a girl with the green slabs of ice. She told me things and asked my opinion, as if what I thought mattered. I watched Early cycle ahead of me, her hair a winding helix down her back, her bum cushioning both sides of the saddle like an overstuffed pillow. She kept herself erect and sang strings of tuneless gobbledy-gook; it was hard to believe she was the same age as my mother.
We stopped under a sycamore; I was sweaty all over and threw myself onto the blanket that Early spread out. She lay beside me and I listened to our breathing become less of a fight.
‘Beautiful,’ Early said.
‘What is?’ I propped on one elbow to look at her.
‘This. Here. Home. The air is so clear, so breathable.’ She flicked a daddy-long-legs from her nose. ‘India was smothering at times.’
‘What were you doing there?’
‘This and that. Travelling. Working mostly.’
‘Did you like it?’ I looked at the band of silver that flowed from her crown through her thick plait. She sat up.
‘Yes. The people are warm, inquisitive, generous. Despite their poverty. The women are kept down, though, even the wealthier ones.’ Early frowned. ‘My friend Sabitha, who was married to a politician, didn’t wear lipstick because her husband didn’t like it.’ She shrugged and started to unpack the picnic. ‘Do you plan to travel, Grace?’ I had never thought about it but, wanting to please her, I said that I did. ‘Travel broadens the heart as much as the mind. It should be de rigueur for every young person.’
Early opened the food-packets delicately and made a mini-buffet. We ate my mother’s egg and parsley rolls, heavy slices of date loaf, mandarin oranges; we drank apple juice from cartons. Early consumed everything robustly and said to thank my mother very much. She broke dark chocolate into a silver dish and sucked on the pieces, the chocolate browning her lips. Swinging two wet-beaded bottles from her bag, she snapped off the caps with her fingers.
‘Kingfisher beer. It’s Indian.’ She handed a bottle to me. ‘Most thrilling chilled!’ she read from the label and laughed.
The hoppy beer warmed my throat; after a few gulps, my stomach felt hot. I grinned at Early and she clinked her bottle to mine and said, ‘Chin-chin’. I lay back, puckering my mouth over the neck of the bottle to take awkward swigs. Listening to Early sipping hers, I imagined her mouth wet. She half-sat and leaned over me; I scrunched my eyes to focus on her – she seemed to be swaying.
‘I love these little kiss-curls you have, Grace.’ She wrapped her finger into the hair over my forehead. ‘You look like Goya’s Maja, lying back like that – the clothed version. Do you know the painting?’ I shook my head. ‘Goya was Spanish. He painted two portraits of the same girl: in one she’s nude; in the other she’s dressed. They are absolute masterpieces. The maja has tendrils around her face. Like yours.’
I smiled and my eyes fixed on the plumpness of Early’s lips; I could smell the sweet fug of her breath and see her small teeth, perfect inside her mouth. Leaning up, I closed my eyes and let my lips touch hers. She flicked the tip of her tongue between my teeth, pressed her mouth to mine, then drew away. We stared at each other, then Early lay back and I flumped alongside her.
‘Have I told you how I got my name?’ she said, after a
‘It’s kind of obvious really.’ She giggled. ‘I was born seven months after my parents’ wedding: I was a strapping bouncer – hitting ten pounds.’ She paused and my ears filled with countryside sounds: a far-off tractor-whirr, clicking insects, the tussle of leaves. ‘My mother insisted that I was premature and, to reinforce the point, she christened me “Early”.’
‘I love your name.’
‘Thank you, Grace.’
She touched my hand; I wound my fingers into hers, listened to the soft buzz of insects and closed my eyes. I fell into a light sleep, still holding on to her.
My parents huddled on the end of my bed; she poked him, trying to get him to speak but all that came out of his mouth were small grunts. I sat with my arms tucked around my knees, staring at my father’s nostrils, the bend of his ears. My mother’s breasts were low and lumpy under a T-shirt and her mouth was tugged sideways from the constant scowl she wore. I picked sleep-grit from my eyes, wanting and not-wanting them to get on with what they’d come
‘What?’ I said.
My father fiddled with the eiderdown.
‘Well, Grace, the thing is, your mother feels,’ – prod-poke with one finger from her – ‘that is, we feel that you’re spending too much time with Ms McIntyre. With Early. She’s a grown woman and you’re probably bothering her. I’m sure she has things to do.’ He looked at my mother. ‘We’re sure.’
I stuck out my bottom lip, rolled it back and forth – it was something Early did when she was thinking about what she wanted to say next.
‘Early likes my company.’ I eye-balled them. ‘She says that I’m refreshing.’
‘Pfffff.’ My mother shook her head.
‘What?’ I said.
‘Refreshing,’ she sneered.
‘And what would you know about it?’ I poked her shoulder to emphasise my words: ‘You. Stupid. Old. Bag.’
I saw my father’s hand and twisted away but his palm slammed into my jaw; I careened backwards, knocking my head off the wall.
‘Jesus,’ my mother yelped, jumping up. My father’s breath puffed through his nose in short spurts, like a horse. I crouched on the bed and they stood for a few moments before backing out of the room.
‘It smells like dung.’
I was sitting on Early’s sofa; she was holding a poultice to my face: muslin packed with a mish-mash of who-knew-what.
‘It smells perfectly fine.’
She lifted it away, looked, winced, then replaced it. My jaw felt puffed out and sore.
‘I suppose I look like a toad.’
‘Yes, you do, Miss Toad of Toad Hall.’
The length of her thigh was pressed to mine; I looked up at her face, the steep arch of her eyebrows, her thin lashes. She flashed a grin at me.
‘Thanks,’ I muttered, and she nodded, pouting her lip.
‘So, are you going to tell me why he hit you?’
‘Oh, bless me Father for I have sinned, I called my mother a bad name…’
‘You didn’t, did you?’ Early lifted the poultice away. ‘I’m surprised, Grace. Why did you do that?’
I pussed, but she urged me on, so I told her they’d said I was to keep away from her. Early plopped the sopping muslin into a bowl. She sighed and said maybe they were right; maybe it wasn’t OK for us to be together so much.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You have your school work to think of now, with the new term starting. It’s probably time to concentrate on that.’
‘But Early, I –’
‘No buts, Grace. How can I go against your parents?’
She slid off the sofa and went to the sink. I watched while she cleaned out the bowl with a spray of water: I could see her bra-strap through the material of her blouse, the violin-curve of her waist and hips. Going to where she stood, I slid my arms around her from behind.
‘Have I ever told you how I got my name?’ I whispered into her shoulder, starting to cry. She turned and took me in her arms, wiping at my tears and snots with her sleeve.
‘No, you haven’t.’
I dropped my head onto her chest and she twisted one hand through my hair and rubbed the small of my back with the other.
‘Ian is six years older than me. My mother always wanted lots of kids so, after him, she kept trying for another baby, but nothing happened. She had tests done but they didn’t find anything. Three years after having Ian, she got pregnant again and was thrilled. But after four months, she lost the baby. She had three more miscarriages after that, one on top of another. My father didn’t want to try anymore – my mother was so sad each time another baby didn’t live. Her doctor said to stop too.’ Early took my hand and led me back to the sofa. ‘My mother knew she could have a baby, so she just kept on trying. When everyone else had given up, she got pregnant with me. And I stuck.’ I squeezed Early’s hand. ‘If I was a girl and if I lived, my mother swore she’d call me Grace: Latin for ‘the loved’, ‘the favoured’, ‘the honoured’. So she did.’
‘That’s a beautiful story,’ Early said. ‘And I adore your name. Grace, the loved. Grace, the favoured. Grace, the honoured.’ She bent low, took my face in her hands and kissed my nose. ‘Amazing Grace.’
I put my arms around her neck. Early hugged me tight and we held each other, both sobbing, until the round room grew dusk-dark and all I could see were shadows fingering towards the ceiling. I breathed in the yeasty smell of her hair and felt the slack heat of her weight against me; my eyes were heavy from crying. When she fell asleep, I pulled myself from her arms and made my way home.