Welcome to the latest of The Scotsman’s regular feature showcasing the talents of Scotland’s best writers. Every Saturday we carry a great piece of prose or poetry from household names to up-and-comers, all reinforcing our place as the home of Scotland’s best writing
Mary McMullen opened the door to the guest bedroom and let Rosa walk in first. Rosa surveyed the room and nodded. She straightened her glasses on the bridge of her nose.
‘I like, thank you,’ she said, ‘I get my sweet case.’
An hour later, Dermot McMullen was sitting in the window seat reading the paper when a black cab stopped in front of the flat. The taxi driver got out of his seat as Rosa was already lugging a hefty suitcase on to the pavement.
‘Here comes the sweet case now,’ Dermot shouted to his wife and strode across the hall towards the front door. Mary was already on the steps, reaching out with both hands to grasp the handle of the case.
Mary made pasta to make Rosa feel at home. She said they might as well use the dining room table. It had a better view than the kitchen. Dermot sat at the head of the table with Mary and Rosa on either side of him. He talked slowly and enthused about Italy – the food, the museums, the people; setting his fork down on the side of his plate to finish his anecdotes. He had been to Rome many years ago for a cousin’s ordination to the priesthood. It was just before he met his wife.
‘Yes,’ said Rosa, ‘In Italy, is good, is nice.’ She sat with her spine straight and her head dipped slightly.
‘Just a great experience…of course, my cousin’s no longer a priest, but fair enough,’ he shrugged.
‘He lost religion; he gained rationality!’ Dermot laughed and sipped his red wine.
Mary held out the wicker bread basket. ‘More bread, anyone?’
When Rosa was studying she liked to leave the door of her room open. She moved the pine desk in view of the hallway and laid out her books in neat piles. When Mary or Dermot walked past, Rosa lifted her head from her work and smiled. Dermot spent every afternoon painting in his studio, crossing the hall once or twice to make a cup of coffee.
‘The kettle’s boiled if you fancy a cup of something,’ he shouted to Rosa.
She went to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water from the sink. Mary had gone to work at the library and left a plate of four strawberry tarts by the bread bin.
‘Oh, I know I shouldn’t…’ said Dermot. He raised the strawberry tart up, as if it were a glass of champagne, before biting into it.
‘On you go,’ he said, holding the plate towards Rosa, ‘Sure you’re on your holidays.’
In the evenings Mary and Dermot watched TV together. They always watched the news, then documentaries and the odd sitcom. Rosa came in and sat on the carpet with her knees pulled to her chest and her back to the radiator. They were watching a documentary about the discovery of DNA and Mary was sewing a patchwork quilt. Rosa pointed to the quilt.
‘Oh thank you. It’s for my niece’s first child. Do you know ‘niece?’
‘Well, niece – for a baby,’
Dermot moved his feet so that Rosa could sit on their three-seater sofa. Rosa gestured that she was okay but Dermot insisted.
‘It’s okay, sure there’s enough room.’
When the adverts came on, he muted the sound.
‘No need for mindless capitalism, eh?’ he said to Rosa. She smiled.
‘Mi papa, he watch only motor car on TV. Grand Prix?’ Rosa made engine noises and rolled her eyes.
‘Oh God, no, anything but motor racing. I’d rather watch the adverts,’ said Dermot, taking a sip of wine.
Rosa giggled and nodded.
‘Is true. He like motor car more than family. Mi mama no is happy.’
Mary raised her eyebrows as she tried to re-thread her needle. The cat lay beneath the armchair toying with a spool of black thread. Rosa told them how her parents spent their honeymoon in Venice and her mother wanted to go on a gondola ride but her father refused.
‘Mi mama never still on gondola, whole of life.’
‘Oh, what a shame; isn’t that sad…’ said Mary.
Rosa nodded; her pupils wide behind the lenses of her glasses.
In the afternoon sunlight, Rosa stood in the living room in front of the paintings as if alone in an art gallery. She found Dermot’s signature on the bottom of a collage. It showed painted figures on a beach, super-imposed by disjointed newspaper print. She linked up the words ‘Yours – to – Enjoy.’ Dermot came into the living room with a cup of coffee. He was dressed in his blue painting shirt, khaki trousers and paint spattered shoes. Rosa switched her focus to the bookshelves, tilting her head to read the spines.
‘Have you seen this one?’ Dermot said to Rosa, sliding a heavy book from the bottom shelf. It contained pencil cartoon drawings with captions in German.
‘I don’t know what the words mean, but aren’t the drawings beautiful? Do you speak any German?’ Rosa sighed and tucked her hair behind her ear.
‘No, only English, little Spanish.’
‘They say a man with one language is like a man with one eye. That means I’m drastically visually impaired,’ laughed Dermot.
‘But…,’ Rosa looked unsure. ‘But, you have lot of books and pictures. Mi papa has no book in house.’
‘Yes, books are great. Borrow any of them you like. Here, look at this one.’
Dermot handed Rosa a book the size of a telephone directory full of photographs. There were different sections – world history, arts and culture, sporting triumphs. Rosa flicked past a few artistic nudes in black and white and the book fell open at a harrowing photo of children in the Vietnam War. Dermot sighed and took a sip of his coffee.
‘Man’s inhumanity to man. Where do you start?’
‘Yes,’ said Rosa, ‘Is terrible.’
Mary offered to help Rosa with the grammar of her business report. When Rosa got 78 per cent, Mary clapped her hands together and Rosa said,
‘It is for you, also.’ In celebration, Rosa bought some iced buns from the supermarket.
‘British people eat lot of cake,’ she said.
‘We like our snacks,’ Mary smiled.
‘Snacks,’ said Rosa, ‘Yes, snacks…I like to say this word, ‘snacks.’’
Rosa went to the phone box at the end of the street to phone Luca. When she came back she had a crushed tissue in her palm.
‘You must be missing your boyfriend,’ said Mary. She was watering a spider plant on the mantelpiece. Rosa started to cry.
‘Yes, I miss him but he never say he miss me. Or never say love me.’
Mary put down the plastic watering can and sat beside Rosa on the sofa.
‘Oh, I’m sorry. He should miss you. We’ll miss you when you go.’
Rosa shrugged through her tears.
‘Luca and me, we break up before and have to start again since zero. Maybe he break me up again…’ Mary puts her hand on Rosa’s shoulder.
‘Well,’ said Mary. ‘Maybe everything can start since zero and it will still be all right,’
‘I be sad to go home and I sad to stay.’
‘I know, but you’ll be okay, and sure you can come back some other time.’ The door started to open and Rosa straightened her posture and wiped her eyes quickly. The cat walked in with its tail in the air and gave a muted miaow greeting.
‘Oh, only cat,’ said Rosa and sniffed into her tissue again.
A week later, Mary recognised the hand writing on the envelope postmarked Milan; a card inside showed a fine art painting of a cherub boy with wings. Mary read it over breakfast then handed it to Dermot who was chewing his All-Bran. They sat in the kitchen opposite the window. Rain streaked the glass.
‘Poor Rosa,’ Mary said. ‘But I think she’ll be okay.’
‘The father of my dream,’ read Dermot aloud, leaning back in his chair. ‘The father of my dream.’
‘I know,’ said Mary. She stood up and put her hand on his shoulder.
‘I’ll pick up some potatoes and a bit of fish for the tea, after work,’ she said, sipping the last of her tea and setting the cup in the empty sink.
About the author
Ciara MacLaverty was born in Belfast, educated on Islay and lives in Glasgow. Having endured and finally overcome 20 years of the illness ME, she is now a full-time mother with ideas of becoming a part-time writer. Previous stories have appeared in New Writing Scotland; and her first pamphlet of poetry, Seats for Landing, was said, by Liz Lochhead, to possess an exactness, “so acute it is often funny as well as painful”. She is increasingly inspired by the less-is-more approach, in life and literature. She blogs at http://ciaramaclaverty.blogspot.co.uk/