by Derbhile Dromey
Looking back, I think it was Red’s hands which made me fall for him. They resembled shovels, but they cupped my face tenderly, tracing it with reverence. He burst into my life the summer I finished university. His uncle’s firm had been hired to do carpentry in my parents’ dining room. I was due to start working in my father’s printing business and planned to make it the biggest in the area. I was restless that summer, anxious to start work, and I had the curious feeling that my life was lacking some vital ingredient.
Red was somehow bigger, freer, and more vivid than anyone else I had ever met. His clothes were paint stained, and he smelled of turpentine. But I loved the way the sunlight lit up his curly red hair, and the way his laughter bubbled up from the depths of his being. He showed me canvases dripping with colour, dreams of artistic fame giving his eyes a soft look. He was my brief moment of rebellion. On top of our wedding cake sat a pair of delicately proportioned wooden figurines Red had carved.
The beach is cold, windswept, as I walk along it. Red’s cottage is at the other end, the last house on the cliff road. The waves suck and surge, their soothing sound a background to my thoughts. I don’t see the beach, barely feel the sand under my feet. Instead I see Red across the courtroom, hurt and bewilderment mingled in his green eyes. Given the father’s unstable circumstances, it is more suitable that custody should remain with the mother. He’s retreated to this cottage, which belonged to his father. I always told him it was silly to hold onto a building, which was virtually beyond repair. It’s only because of Letitia that I’m here.
His hands looked absurdly large as he held his newborn daughter in his arms.
“Let’s call her Letitia,” he enthused, “It means happiness. ”
But happiness is fleeting. It hadn’t taken long for the cracks to appear. While I guided the firm to new heights, Red drifted from job to job. Occasionally he sold his wooden figurines. His paintings remained largely unsold, dismissed as childish splodges by the gallery owners I consulted. More and more, he stayed at home while I devoted hours to the firm. He tried to be supportive, but at the dinner parties I hosted for clients, his loud laughter and gauche questions made me cringe. He spent hours painting with Letitia in the shed which served as his workshop-a shed I paid for.
But I lost count of the number of times her school called me at work after he forgot to pick her up. One day, after he quit yet another job, I felt something in me snap. I told him I couldn’t stay married to him. The image of him on the day he left is still etched on my mind. He carried a battered suitcase, his shoulders were hunched.
For weeks after he left, Letitia alternated between tears and rage. Until the day I told her about the court decision. She sat across the table from me, her arms folded.
“Why did you do it? Why did you let the court think he was a bad father?”
There was a curiously adult note in her voice, remote, unyielding. Since then, she has avoided me, spending her days in the shed, breathing in Red’s lingering scent.
I have been waiting for the phone to ring since I found her bed empty this morning.
“Dad said I had to phone you,” she says. I feel my > knees collapse, and sit heavily on the chair.
I can hear the pips as she hands the receiver to Red. It’s the payphone in the village.
“I’m coming to get her. ”
“Just one night. Please. ”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. You have your visit next week. ” My voice is crisp, business like. It’s a steep climb up the cliff road to the cottage. I can feel my shoes sink into the soft shingle. My irritation mounts, as I think of the meetings I’ve missed to come here. But as I reach the cottage, I feel a grudging sense of admiration. Red has made the cottage virtually unrecognisable. The walls have been whitewashed, and the fence around it has been painted white to match. I press on the old-fashioned brass knocker. There is no sound. Then I hear their voices, carried by the wind. I move around the side of the cottage. As I reach the latched gate that leads into the garden, I see Letitia, running to catch a piece of paper which has been blown away by the wind. She makes a triumphant leap for it just as it is about to hit the ground. Her laughter fills the air. Red laughs too, his joyous, gurgling laugh. Letitia returns to her easel, which is next to Red’s. I don’t know how long I stand there watching as they paint in companionable silence. After a while, Letitia turns to show Red what she has done. A tendril of hair has blown across her face. He picks it up and tucks it behind her ear. Her hair is the same burnished colour as her father’s. But his gesture speaks of a harmony that goes deeper than hair colour.
He kisses the top of his head and puts his arm around her.
“Your mother will be here soon. Totally lost track of the time. ”
Typical Red. My irritation returns.
“Can’t we paint for a little longer. She can wait. ”
“Light’s going to go soon anyway. Come on, you can help me get everything ready. ”
I creep around the side of the house, and wait a moment before knocking.
He opens it. “Hello, Marie,” he says warily. “Come in. ”
Letitia is sitting at the table.
“I’m not coming with you,” she says, her green eyes flashing. “Let’s eat first,” says Red, “then we can talk. ”
A loaf of crusty bread is laid in the middle of the scrubbed table. Letitia pours thick soup into bowls. We sit down to eat. Red’s soup warms my belly. I’ve forgotten what a good cook he is.
When we finish, Red clears the plates. “I suppose you’ll want to bring her back now,” he says, staring at the floor. His foot taps against the flagstones, which are smooth and round.
“Another night won’t do any harm. ”
Letitia looks up. Her smile is tentative, but it is the first proper smile she has given me in a long time.
The glare of the streetlights hits me as I approach the town. I think of the soft light of the beach, of the world Letitia and Red share, a world which I have never really understood. It was for the best, I told Letitia. But she is thirteen years old, and she needs her father. I have driven a wedge through that world; it’s up to me to restore it. My mind suddenly feels light and clear. Full of resolve, I open my personal organiser, find the number I will ring to set the wheels in motion.
Derbhile Dromey is a freelance journalist based in Ireland. She writes articles and short stories. She is active in her local writers' group, and her work has appeared in various local anthologies. Contact Derbhile.