Folio Prize Nominee: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin
We conclude our look at the Folio Prize shortlist with Nora Webster by Colm Toibin.
‘You must be fed up of them. Will they never stop coming?’ Tom O’Connor, her neighbour, stood at his front door and looked at her, waiting for a response.
‘I know,’ she said.
‘Just don’t answer the door. That’s what I’d do.’ Nora closed the garden gate.
‘They mean well. People mean well,’ she said.
‘Night after night,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how you put up with it.’ She wondered if she could get back into the house without hav ing to answer him again. He was using a new tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.
‘People mean well,’ she said again, but saying it this time made her feel sad, made her bite her lip to keep the tears back. When she caught Tom O’Connor’s eye, she knew that she must have appeared put down, defeated. She went into the house.
That night a knock came at almost eight o’clock. There was a fire lighting in the back room and the two boys were doing their home work at the table.
‘You answer it,’ Donal said to Conor.
‘No, you do.’
‘One of you answer it,’ she said.
Conor, the younger one, went out to the hall. She could hear a voice when he opened the door, a woman’s voice, but not one that she recognized. Conor ushered the visitor into the front room.
‘It’s the little woman who lives in Court Street,’ he whispered to her when he came into the back room.
‘Which little woman?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know.’
May Lacey shook her head sadly when Nora came into the front room.
‘Nora, I waited until now. I can’t tell you how sorry I am about Maurice.’
She reached out and held Nora’s hand.
‘And he was so young. I knew him when he was a little boy. We knew them all in Friary Street.’
‘Take off your coat and come into the back room,’ Nora said.
‘The boys are doing their exercise, but they can move in here and turn on the electric fire. They’ll be going to bed soon anyway.’
May Lacey, wisps of thin grey hair appearing from under her hat, her scarf still around her neck, sat opposite Nora in the back room and began to talk. After a while, the boys went upstairs; Conor, when Nora called him, was too shy to come down and say good night, but soon Donal came and sat in the room with them, carefully studying May Lacey, saying nothing.
It was clear now that no one else would call. Nora was relieved that she would not have to entertain people who did not know each other, or people who did not like each other.
‘So anyway,’ May Lacey went on, ‘Tony was in the hospital bed in Brooklyn, and didn’t this man arrive into the bed beside his, and they got talking, and Tony knew he was Irish, and he told him his wife was from the County Wexford.’
She stopped and pursed her lips, as though she were trying to remember something. Suddenly, she began to imitate a man’s voice:
‘Oh, and that’s where I’m from, the man said, and then Tony said she was from Enniscorthy; oh, and that’s where I’m from too, the man said. And he asked Tony what part of Enniscorthy she was from, and Tony said she was from Friary Street.’
May Lacey kept her eyes fixed on Nora’s face, forcing her to express interest and surprise.
‘And the man said that’s where I’m from too. Isn’t that extraordinary!’
She stopped, waiting for a reply.
‘And he told Tony that before he left the town he made that iron thing – what would you call it? – a grille or a guard on the windowsill there at Gerry Crane’s. And I went down to look at it and it’s there all right. Gerry didn’t know how it got there or when. But the man beside Tony in the bed in Brooklyn, he said that he made it, he was a welder. Isn’t that a coincidence? To happen in Brooklyn.’
Nora made tea as Donal went to bed. She brought it into the back room on a tray with biscuits and cake. When they had fussed over the tea things, May Lacey sipped her tea and began to talk again.
‘Of course, all of mine thought the world of Maurice. They always asked for him in their letters. He was friends with Jack before Jack left. And of course Maurice was a great teacher. The boys looked up to him. I always heard that said.’
Looking into the fire, Nora tried to think back, wondering if May Lacey had ever been in this house before. She thought not. She had known her all her life, like so many in the town, to greet and exchange pleasantries with, or to stop and talk to if there was news. She knew the story of her life down to her maiden name and the plot in the graveyard where she would be buried. Nora had heard her singing once at a concert, she remembered her reedy soprano – it was ‘Home, Sweet Home’ or ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’, one of those songs.
She did not think that May Lacey went out much except to the shops, or to Mass on Sundays.
They were silent now, and Nora thought that maybe May would go soon.
‘It’s nice of you to come up and see me,’ she said.
‘Oh, Nora, I was very sorry for you, but I felt I’d wait, I didn’t want to be crowding in on you.’
She refused more tea, and when Nora went to the kitchen with the tray she thought that May might stand up and put on her coat, but she did not move from the chair. Nora went upstairs and checked that the boys were asleep. She smiled to herself at the thought of going to bed herself now, falling asleep and leaving May Lacey down below, staring into the fire, waiting for her in vain.
‘Where are the girls?’ May asked as soon as Nora sat down. ‘I never see them now, they used to pass up and down all the time.’
‘Aine is in school in Bunclody. She’s settling in there now,’ Nora said. ‘And Fiona is doing her teacher training in Dublin.’
‘You’d miss them when they go away,’ May Lacey said. ‘I miss them all, I do, but it’s funny, of all of them, it’s Eily I think about most, although I miss Jack too. There was something, I don’t know, I just didn’t want to lose Eily. I thought after Rose died – you know all this, Nora – that she would come home and stay and she’d find some sort of job here, and then one day when she was just back a week or two I noticed her all quiet and it wasn’t like her, and she started to cry at the table, and that’s when we heard the news that her fellow in New York wouldn’t let her come home unless she mar ried him. And she had married him there without telling any of us. “Well, that’s that, Eily, then,” I said. “You’ll have to go back to him, so.” And I couldn’t face her or speak to her, and she sent me photo graphs of him and her together in New York, but I couldn’t look at them. They were the last thing in the world I wanted to see. But I was always sorry she didn’t stay.’
‘Yes, I was sorry to hear that she went back, but maybe she’s happy there,’ Nora said and immediately wondered, as May Lacey looked down sadly, a hurt expression on her face, if that was a wrong thing to say.
May Lacey began to rummage in her handbag. She put on a pair of reading glasses.
‘I thought I’d brought Jack’s letter but I must have left it behind,’ she said.
She examined a piece of paper and then another.
‘No, I haven’t got it. I wanted to show it to you. There was something he wanted to ask you.’
Nora said nothing. She had not seen Jack Lacey for more than twenty years.
‘Maybe I’ll find the letter and send it to you,’ May said. She stood up to go.
‘I don’t think he’s going to come home now,’ she said as she put on her coat. ‘What would he do here? They have their life there in Birmingham, and they’ve invited me over and everything, but I told Jack I’d be happy to go to my reward without seeing England. I think though he’d like to have something here, a place he could visit and maybe Eily’s children or some of the others.’
‘Well, he has you to visit,’ Nora said.
‘He thought you’d be selling Cush,’ May said, settling her scarf. She spoke as though it were nothing, but now, as she looked at Nora, her gaze was hard and concentrated and her chin began to tremble.
‘He asked me if you’d be selling it,’ she said and closed her mouth firmly.
‘I’ve made no plans,’ Nora said.
May pursed her lips again. She did not move.
‘I wish I’d brought the letter,’ she said. ‘Jack always loved Cush and Ballyconnigar. He used to go with Maurice and the others, and he always remembered it. And it hasn’t changed much, everyone there would know him. The last time he came home he didn’t know half the people in the town.’
Nora said nothing. She wanted May to leave.
‘I’ll tell him I mentioned it to you anyway. That’s all I can do.’ When Nora did not reply, May looked at her, clearly annoyed at her silence. They walked out and stood in the hall.
‘Time is the great healer, Nora. That’s all I can tell you. And I can tell you that from experience.’
She sighed as Nora opened the front door.
‘Thank you for calling up, May,’ Nora said.
‘Goodnight now, Nora, and look after yourself.’
Nora watched her as she made her way slowly down along the footpath towards home.
It is the late 1960s in Ireland. Nora Webster is living in a small town, looking after her four children, trying to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. She is fiercely intelligent, at times difficult and impatient, at times kind, but she is trapped by her circumstances, and waiting for any chance which will lift her beyond them.