Roses in the Attic: Ruminations on Moving Back Home – Abby Connolly

Image by João Barbosa, via Unsplash

It had almost been a year. This night, a year ago, was when I had had to come back. The realisation was a rock in my gut that nauseously listed every now and then to the side, keeping me awake. It was the sensation of motion in the deprivation-tank stillness of night that displaced me and had me turning over and over again in the sheets to try and counteract the anxious lilting. I had already capsized and was swallowing water by the lungful, but this panic was a silent one that didn’t break the serenity of the big moon or sleeping suburb of Kilbarrack. It was a fish-tank worry that only felt so huge to me because I was within those four walls.

I could hear voices in the dark but not the words. Muffled shapes moving through walls, absorbed by carpet and plaster. Maybe it was two voices. Maybe just a phone call. Maybe just musings. Well past midnight. My mind latched onto the soft sounds like a life ring, distracting me enough to raise me momentarily out of the water.

The sounds travelled slowly down to me. The air seemed thicker at night, somehow weighed down by the absence of light and my body weighed down too by the winter duvet. I used it all year round, trapping heat in beneath my skin no matter the weather. Pillows of warm, tight-packed cloud or slick licks of sweat wetness in the summertime, but I had always been stubborn, and I’d rather wake wet, my head thumping with a dehydration headache, than sleep exposed or admit I needed something else. Mam called me a cold creature.

It wasn’t her voice, though, and that left few it could be.

I was lying in a bed that had been my brother’s, in a room that had been my sister’s, with walls I had reclaimed with magnolia paint. Beyond the door and over the landing to the turn in the stair where the un-played forgotten records were stacked like a part of the architecture, was a small window where, if you stood on those records, you could peek out and see the connected ceilings of the semi-detached garages. If you really strained, you could see green tips of gardens, the asphalt-grey corner of road, a patch of suburban blue with the knife of St. John the Evangelist’s pyramidal steeple stabbing up into it. The little draughty window of my shared bedroom off Meath Street had only offered the view of high walls and barbed wire looking up, bloody tissues and piss-soaked alleys looking down and unhappy apartment dwellers directly opposite trying to dry underwear on broken clotheshorses in the relentlessly damp Dublin air. But now I was back home, removed from my city bed and so I romanticised it, impossibly. I missed the far away cheer of card games, the thud of tipsy roommates downstairs or a rattle of the door, housemates coming home from a late shift. I missed the bubble of Portuguese conversation. Even the angry neighbours and grey vagrants who sat on a broken dishwasher outside the gate, their voices scraped harsh by street living but still strong enough to slap the morning wide awake. I didn’t need an alarm there. I still don’t, but for different reasons. It was quiet back here. Too quiet to sleep.

But the voice wormed into my ear like late night whale songs, and I thought maybe it could be music, played low, to soothe a baby. The house next door, beyond the landing and the window, had been recently sold and I hadn’t spoken to the new occupants yet – a young couple, and younger children.

Before, Dave had lived there with his tragic family that got all cut up and spread out in ways I couldn’t imagine. We used to be friends, but it became strange, I suppose, because I had stopped being a girl and womanhood had been creeping up on my body before my head noticed.

I didn’t realise he was thinking like a man until suddenly one day he started saying all the unpleasant things they did. Mam said the new people had a couple of kids, but I never saw them. Never heard them either.

The voice didn’t sound so far away, and no baby cries were reaching up and harmonising with the nightly feline caterwauling. Low lullabies and monitors would surely dissolve into the distance between us.

The wall behind my headboard was shared with the house on the other side, supporting someone else’s headboard or dresser, in number 17. The attachment to our semi detachment.

Misses Hartmut used to live there with her husband but when I was little, he seemed to grow smaller and smaller as I grew big, spine curving until he bent over almost circularly and then he rolled away forever. Misses Hartmut seemed to be going that way too, small and round, bleached around the edges like she was already fading away. When Mr Hartmut died, their daughter Doreen came to stay, bringing along her fatherless son and a string of unbecoming suitors. She had a habit of smoking with these men in the front garden by the wheelie bins while the son fiddled underneath his starter Punto and Misses Hartmut tended her roses in the back.

Before her daughter came, Misses Hartmut had always had Jack Russells. In my naivety I thought it was one same dog all through the years with one impossible lifespan.

When our dog died, we buried her in the garden in a shoebox where dad later kept the kayak. He had a kayak phase. He had many phases. Sometimes the new dog would sniff around the turned earth, sealed for years by then, but I was still nervous he’d dig her up.

But he wasn’t as sharp as she had been and would get a fright from his own tail when it wagged.

The Jack Russells used to bark and bark. It never bothered me. I liked it, actually. To me, there was something unsettling about a silent dog. Like a silent child. Things are never that well behaved for no reason.

When our dogs used to bark dad would kick them until they were quiet or lock them up in tiny wooden boxes until the barks would bleed into distressed waterfalls of begging, whimpering panic. He used to make the boxes himself out of chipboard to match the floor. They had a lock and a small slit at the top the width of my finger. He was a handyman. He dismantled things and said little and wouldn’t be told. He knew everything but sometimes didn’t bother to piece things back together again.

It was almost worse to see the little puppy snouts and paws jab at that slit, looking for a way out. I would beg the dogs to hush, sometimes close to tears, but in their puppyish innocence they didn’t understand their peril. They couldn’t comprehend the box or that they could possibly find themselves in it. They were my Schrödinger heartbreak. They eventually learnt not to say anything and be good, but discipline left its dents and neighbours knew our dogs as hostile and blamed mam for her lack of authority.

But dad had no power over the wall and Misses Hartmut didn’t seem to mind the yapping as she kneeled in soil wearing her red gardening gloves that were as oversized as oven mitts coming up her tiny arms.

I wondered if she ever worried about the noise her dogs caused like I worried. My worry for the creatures mutated into worry about everything, all the time, but I didn’t think Misses Hartmut would imagine dad as the kind of man who would lose himself in rages like that.

He didn’t seem like it. No one could imagine him pushing mam through the doorway and laughing at her for being so clumsy and I didn’t want to tell them. I just wanted to look at Mrs Hartmut’s beautiful healthy roses, full and red.

As an adult living in the same house again, I saw myself doing things that I hadn’t noticed before. When he entered a room, the dogs would slink away, and I quickly followed. I left cutlery down on dishcloths, so as not to make a sound and I walked on tip toes, so I didn’t disturb. I even had my post delivered to a virtual address, so he wouldn’t be bothered by the postman.

After the childhood memory of the chipboard boxes, I expressed my reservations about getting a new puppy, but mam loved dogs. They were a light in her life, and she had already sacrificed so much for him that it felt equally cruel to tell her she couldn’t have a puppy because the meanie might punch its snout. After coming home, I had to catch myself from scolding her as though she was the child.

Those outbursts didn’t happen so much anymore. Once she left him, officially, things became much quieter. He laid discipline on the new dog, sure, but nothing like before. Nothing I’d wince at, and the dog was all the sweeter for it.

I knew it was the muted bass tones of his voice sinking down into my midnight ears as I lay awake that night, but I didn’t like to admit it. He stifled things like a slow corroding infection, squeezing possibilities into hard, little rocks.

I supposed that was how he kept things manageable, but in the middle of the night when heads were dreaming, I didn’t want to think about why his couldn’t, why his mouth ran off in familiar sour mumbles instead of imagining. I didn’t want to think about why I was still awake.

He slept in my teenage bedroom in the attic. Sometimes he stayed awake all night and would make noise cleaning the kitchen. When I moved back in, I loaded the dishwasher one evening before heading to bed only to see him stop the cycle and rearrange it. He had become increasingly particular. We didn’t talk about it, but she still talked about him, still trying to unpick how she had let him treat her like that and I was at home again, so I was an ear again, and I asked her, once, not to tell me. I cried once, please don’t ask me. I didn’t want to hate him, but she kept telling me things. She spoke poison and it twisted me against her too sometimes, but when I thought of how I let some men leave marks on me I softened and resumed painting hate double thick on him. He didn’t say anything. A lot of the time it was as if he wasn’t there at all. At least not physically. He was an imprint in the wall. The moving eyes in a painting. A ghost.

Living in that house, my parents’ house, and my childhood home, once more past fledgling age, felt like failure. With siblings all flown and the rubble of a marriage like eggshells under my feet, I felt like I was always holding my breath.

I’d lie awake at night and dream about waking up somewhere else and wondered if I could ever relax or if I would always jump over the third creaky stair and lie my butter knives on bunched up tea towels wherever I went. The silence would swallow me up. No canine yapping. No street cats in heat. No febrile babies crying. No more Mr Hartmut sitting up late to watch satellite television on the other side of this headboard.

My parents used to fight so much sometimes they’d forget things. They always fought on a Saturday, and we always had to clean our rooms to keep the warpath clear. My sisters and I would hide in one bedroom and pretend to rearrange clothes and stuffed animals and not hear the yelling spearing up through the floorboards. Mam would hoover and shriek and throw things and his voice would take on a particular edge that was unnervingly steady. We hated to hear it. So, we pretended we didn’t.

They didn’t fight anymore. There were no more children to hold it together for. The quiet was better than the violence but it was strange. The silence felt empty and drew rings around itself like the echoing barks of the long dead dogs.

Here, we live in a ripple, suspended in motion. The fragments of the vase that mam threw down the stairs sit in some dump somewhere. Maggie lies in a shoebox beside the yellow kayak. Misses Hartmut’s Jack Russells sleep beneath her rosebushes undisturbed.

Mam has a new vase now, one I bought her for Christmas, and she buys herself flowers. She wears lipstick and flirts in the dog park with men who speak adoringly of their Vizslas, eighteen months old. She has cut herself away from him and he, bloody, has become removed, but we are all stuck here.

Mam and I talk of escaping often, musing about where we would go if we had the money or time or opportunity or nerve- if part of me didn’t worry about leaving her alone with him and if part of her didn’t worry about leaving him alone.

In the past she has worried about him being depressed and I understand the feeling. Growing up with a complicated father had me anxious on stormy nights when he’d take off on a motorbike without telling her where he was going or when he’d be back. As a teenager I’d realise I hadn’t seen him for days and be gripped with a dread that he’d be hanging over the banisters when I arrived home from school.

I know he’s still alive because sometimes I hear the washer go past midnight or steps will creak up overhead and a low voice will patter back down. He speaks to himself.

 I wonder what it will be like when he’s old, or when he’s gone, and whether it will feel any different. He told me once he didn’t know who I was, as a matter of passing, and I’m not sure if it’s possible for him to look at me with any less recognition. He cannot sense if I am here or not, like I feel the weight of his presence.

I look at the kayak sitting at the end of the garden and think of him as though he’s already a memory. I don’t know how the silence will feel when the noises already seem like a reverberation of something long since set down. I think one day I’ll turn to leave this house again and with a last glance I’ll spot the open skylight of his attic bedroom and it will be quiet, and just one tangled, light-starved rose will be growing silently towards the sky. Maybe then I will be able to stop holding my breath and be free to go.

*

Abby Connolly is an English graduate and library assistant based in Dublin. She specialised in creative writing at university and has had work published in college magazines such as The Attic and TN2 as well as in the Dublin-based literary magazines Sonder, Puca and Bealtaine. She was an Irish Writers’ Centre Young Writer Delegate for the 2021 Irish Book Festival. She hopes to write more professionally in the future and is particularly interested in writing contemporary Dublin.

‘Roses in the Attic’ is the third of three pieces from this year which have explored relationships with home, belonging, identity and memory. Read Bailey Vandiver’s ‘Back Home in Old Kentucky’ and Sally Gander’s ‘The Ache for Home‘ for different personal takes on what it means to be home.

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