Stuffed at the back of an enormous freezer in Clark’s Grocery Store, two blocks up from my childhood house, was the body of a stillborn baby. Maybe “stuffed” is the wrong word: the infant had been tenderly wrapped in a soft blue blanket, then parcelled up in brown paper, and wrapped in aluminium foil.
The police found it when old Mrs Clark went into the nursing home down the road. She’d become forgetful, and had left the gas on when she went to bed.
The baby had been a shock – Mr Clark had been overseas, and Mrs Clark had strayed only once the whole time and not even realised she was pregnant. She managed to recall that it breathed only once in her arms before fading away. She didn’t even remember putting it in the freezer.
When my father realised I’d overheard Sergeant Brennan tell him all this, he didn’t scold me for being out of bed. He laughed, and got me to pour him another Scotch.
When I met the editor of my very first newspaper for the very first time, he expressed the usual astonishment that with a father like Jack McCauley, I wasn’t going into writing fiction. Stories like finding a dead baby in a freezer are precisely why I couldn’t write fiction. I tried to picture Miss Cynthia Clark’s face when she opened her copy of a book I would never write, with a soft blue cover, wrapped in brown paper, her half-brother stolen and splashed all over the stiff cream pages inside.
‘Your first name…what the hell is it? Looks like a typo to me.’
‘Aoife.’ I could never keep the Irish out of my voice when I dragged out the vowels of Eee-fah.
‘No, it’s more of an F sound than a V.’
‘It’s too Irish for our readers. They won’t read your articles if they can’t read your name.’
He looked up to the ceiling, pondering this conundrum.
‘You can be Ava McCauley. People like Ava Gardner. And it’s easy to spell.’
I gathered my things and hurried to my desk. I’d always hated my name. My mother had nearly died giving birth to me, so my father had picked it while she recovered, drugged beyond comprehension.
My father was an author, and my mother was an illustrator. Jack ‘made it big’ in a way Moira never did. His books were constantly on the best-seller list, one was even adapted for the movies. He cemented his success with an acrimonious divorce from my mother, and remarriage to a former Miss Rhode Island. That marriage was followed by another one, to an airline stewardess, who divorced him after discovering his indiscretion with a secretary, whom he later married in Las Vegas before settling in California. I missed most of this while I was at boarding school, but friends were kind enough to pass me the press clippings.
My mother remarried to a doctor and settled down to have her real family with him.
It turns out changing my name from Aoife to Ava had a transformative effect on me. With my first wage packet, I bought my first lipstick. Tracing the crimson bullet over my lips, I imagined that Ava Gardner’s glamour was rubbing off on me. When I checked my reflection later on in the street, I was horrified to discover that the crimson rosebud the salesgirl had so admired in the department store was nothing more than a bloody gash on the lower half of my face, sucking all of the colour out of my complexion.
‘Rub a little of it into your cheeks,’ advised Myrtle at the next desk, ‘And think about mascara. That way your eyes won’t get lost.’
I wasn’t sure exactly where my eyes were getting lost, but I took her advice, and it seemed to work better. Myrtle even gave me a dusty pink shade to wear around the office. I’d grown up away from all of my glamorous stepmothers and stupidly thought lipstick only came in red.
After I’d been at the paper a month, I went to drinks with Myrtle and a few others. To my horror, I found myself wedged between Tom Denehy and Joanne Carter. Tom was the coming man in those days; he’d even been published in The New Yorker; Joanne was an arts critic. My father had a new book out that month and Joanne was tossing it around the table, along with the pretzels. Nobody apart from Myrtle had asked my name, so nobody made the connection.
‘It’s too ridiculous for words!’ Joanne laughed. ‘Does he really expect us to believe that things like that actually happen?’
They had been analysing the story of the baby in the freezer. I sipped on the martini someone had bought me, and tried to focus on the peculiar feeling of the oily yet fiery sensation of the drink. The image of a slug spontaneously combusting at the back of my throat popcorned to life in my head, and I tried not to retch.
‘That’s not the worst of it,’ howled Maurice Shaw, a theatre critic. ‘The wife curling up with a hot water bottle whenever the husband goes to his mistress? So cliché!’
I remembered a weekend home from school, and seeing Miss Rhode Island doing just that. I then remembered seeing Maurice Shaw’s name on the list of those auditioning to play Rick Chance, the protagonist of my father’s third novel, when it was made into a movie. My father was good buddies with the producer and the two of them had gotten roaring drunk at the auditions and hurled an empty bottle of Bourbon at Shaw’s head.
If I ever wrote a novel, I thought, I would open with that. Miss Rhode Island had always been kind to me. I got the impression that the food parcels and books she sent me a school were an apology for her breaking up my family.
I drained my glass. Muttering apologies, I shoved past Joanne to the bar, where Myrtle was sitting with another group of co-workers. Just as I reached them, however, she got up and headed for the restroom. I was left standing, open-mouthed and alone in front of people I didn’t know, holding an empty glass. I felt like my father and I wanted to die.
‘Ava, same again?’
Tom Denehy took the glass from me and steered me into a bar stool. I shook my head.
‘How about we have a coffee instead?’ He gestured to the barman. I didn’t like coffee any better than I liked Martini cocktails, but I thought it would be impolite to refuse him twice.
‘Not a fan of McCauley’s work?’ he asked.
‘Not really,’ I said. ‘Although I do think he’s getting more honest with age.’
Thomas looked taken aback. ‘How so?’
I realised that I had offered an opinion and immediately vowed to Our Lady in Heaven never to accept another Martini for as long as I lived.
‘I remember reading about that baby in the newspapers,’ I said. ‘Also, I think he’s started to realise what an ass he makes of himself sometimes, chasing after women who are young enough to be his daughter.’
He scanned his copy of the day’s paper. I later found out it was his practice to take a copy everywhere with him, open at his own column, in case a restaurant was full or something like that.
‘Hey…’ he said, ‘Ava McCauley?’ He’d found my name tacked to a dreary article on dry rot in Midtown. ‘You’re not related, are you?’
I laughed. ‘No. But I get asked that all the time.’
Tom flashed perfect white teeth at me and his eyes crinkled at the edges. ‘Well, it’s not like you’d pass up a leg-up like having Jack McCauley as your old man, is it?’
I smiled, and blew on my coffee to cool it.
I don’t know how long exactly we sat at the bar talking, but I do remember leaving with the distinct impression that Tom Denehy would be my first Great Love Affair. Already, I could see us in bed together, his tenderness at my inexperience barely masking his eagerness; then a few months later, I would receive a job offer at Mademoiselle or somewhere like that. He would beg me to stay, but we’d both know our time together was at an end.
The old affection would cling long enough for me to read the announcement of his engagement to an unremarkable, dumpy secretary name Claire or Camille or something like that…I’d never liked ‘C’ names.
I would attend the engagement party, striking in a burgundy dress – scarlet would have been too obvious. He would have one too many whiskies and profess his regrets and undying love, but I would no longer feel the same about him. We would part friends. He would name his daughter Clarissa Ava in my honour.
Even my daydreams were depressing.
There was nothing I could trust about Tom. Even though he never came out and said to, I instinctively avoided him at work. I rarely went out for drinks with the gang, slinking off to a movie theatre by myself, where he would meet me an hour later.
He wanted me with an intensity that scared me, and I started to wonder if it was him I liked, or the fact that he liked me. He would kiss me so passionately that on several occasions, I nearly fainted from lack of breath. I started to believe that my lung capacity was increasing from the sheer effort of keeping up with his kisses. I figured that if journalism didn’t work out, I could become a synchronized swimmer.
On the night we finally slept together, in my rickety single bed in my tiny apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, he didn’t hold me as tightly as he had when we’d just kissed. I knew then that he would end up breaking my heart.
Jack was back in New York for two weeks, and he asked me to meet him for lunch.
‘What d’you think of the book?’
‘Not bad. Less verbose than your last one.’
He poured me a glass of wine and I tried to settle into the feeling of being a twenty-one-year-old working woman discussing serious literature and drinking Cabernet Sauvignon with her father, whom she hadn’t called dad in thirteen years.
‘Some of my colleagues thought the stories were far-fetched.’
‘Joanne Carter…Maurice Shaw…’
‘Tom Denehy liked it.’
‘Hm,’ murmured Jack. ‘Who’s Tom Denehy?’
‘We – we just work together.’
He nodded slowly. ‘Which stories did they think were far-fetched?’
‘Mrs Clark’s baby.’
Jack scoffed. ‘Well, I hope you set them straight.’
‘They don’t know you’re my father and I’d quite like to keep it that way.’
I’d never seen Jack look hurt before, not even when Miss Rhode Island lost their baby at twenty-two weeks, but he looked hurt now. Only for a moment. That moment was the pride and joy of my life, I realised, as I sat opposite him, my hair coiffured, my lips rouged, my eyes fringed with black lashes as soft and alluring as magpie feathers. If any press spotted us having lunch, my latest stepmother would doubtless be straight on the telephone to scream accusations into my father’s ears. His ears were creased where they met his face, I noticed. My father was getting old.
‘You should have written that story,’ Jack said. ‘Sandy used to make me read all the stories you sent home. What in God’s name are you doing writing about dry rot and beauty contests?’
The waiter who’d been headed towards us to take our order made a swift diversion to an empty table, brushing a piece of imaginary lint off the pristine tablecloth.
‘I couldn’t write about that,’ I croaked. ‘It wouldn’t be right.’
Jack scowled. ‘It wasn’t right that Mrs Clark felt so terrified that the only thing she could do with that poor baby was bundle it into her freezer for the next thirty years! You know her daughter called me after it was published?’
‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘She called me an asshole. But I don’t give a damn, Aoife, and I’ll tell you why. Not telling these kinds of stories keeps the people who are down at bottom, always, which is exactly where some people think they should be kept. I don’t give a damn for somebody being born the wrong side of the bedsheets! What the hell kind of difference should that make in this day and age? You know I was a bastard, don’t you?’
I hadn’t known this, and the shock must have shown on my face.
‘They sent your grandmother off to one of those godawaful Magdalen laundries. They would have taken me away from her, but her brother was going to America with his wife, and he got her out. They made up a story about a dead husband back in Dublin, and that was that.’
Maybe there was a connection between how my father ran from one wife after another and how he’d come into the world.
‘Why didn’t you tell me any of this?’
Jack smiled. ‘Hell, I’ve gotta leave you something to write about.’
We filled the whole hour with talk. Outside the restaurant, Jack squeezed my arm and turned to leave, then paused. ‘I hope this Tom guy is a decent sort.’
I loathed him at that moment. He’d been absent for most of my life, would be hard-put to tell you what colour my eyes were, and yet here he was, giving me the fatherly advice I’d craved my whole life.
When Tom came by that night, I noticed that his ears, too, were starting to crease where they met his face. I also noticed the smell of Femme de Rochas clinging to his body.
I remember vomiting as soon as we’d made love, and asking him to leave. I told him I’d probably picked up a bug.
When he’d gone, I changed the sheets and tried to think about what I would do. I remember crying, and as I licked the tears from my lips, tasting him on my mouth. He’d brought a bag of cherries over for me, and had eaten some on his way there.
I threw the whole lot in the trash, full of rage towards him and the other woman; was she admiring a similar bowlful of cherries on her counter top?
I realised, just before I fell asleep, that I couldn’t remember the colour of Tom’s eyes.
Tom didn’t come to the office the next day, or the day after that, or even for the rest of the week. He was over at The New Yorker. All week, I swung between wanting to murder him and being desperate for him, so much so that I didn’t notice my monthly was late until Friday.
Tom was coming out of The New Yorker with a smooth-looking blonde girl. I lingered across the street, feeling keenly the cheapness of my blue suit and the tightness of all the powder I’d applied to my face.
When I told him what was wrong, the colour drained from his face. He told me he knew of a place where it could be “taken care of”. I wondered how many women he’d said those words to.
When I asked him if the blonde was the one I’d been able to smell on him the week before, he didn’t say anything. He just pushed a crumpled wad of notes into my hand. I felt like a prostitute.
‘I’m not going to one of those butchers,’ I said, sounding more resolute than I felt. I pushed the notes back into his hand and walked away before he could say anything.
When I felt the sensation of something coming away inside me, I knew it wasn’t my monthly. I’d just crossed the road to my apartment, and swung my bag around me so that it covered my backside.
I could make out the spinal cord, and the ribcage. It looked like a fossil one sees in a museum, its chest flayed open on the wad of tissue I cradled it in.
Placing it inside a clean Tupperware, I went back into the bathroom to let the rest of the blood drain out of me, and into the lavatory.
Afterwards, I put the box in my refrigerator, and fell asleep, fully clothed, on the couch.
The only woman I knew for certain who’d lost a baby was Miss Rhode Island. She told me to rest up, then see a doctor. I called in sick and stayed in bed for three days straight. Tom didn’t come by, or even call. I emptied the Tupperware down the lavatory.
On the start of my fourth day in bed, the telephone rang. It was my father, telling me to get up, get dressed, and get my ass down to the 21 Club.
‘It’s hard now, but it’ll make great material.’
My mouth dropped open as Jack ordered two more whiskey sours. Sandy had wisely waited until that morning to telephone him to break the news of my misfortune.
‘How the hell can you say something like that?’
‘Aoife, you should be writing properly. Write the truth. Write about your grandmother. Write about what a terrible father I was. Write about this Tom Denehy, and put the goddamn frighteners on him so he thinks twice before treating another poor girl like this.’
He pushed my drink towards me and I threw it back without hesitation. Part of me wished I’d kept Tom’s money and bought a one-way ticket to Paris.
‘Any other pearls of wisdom before you leave?’ I asked Jack.
‘Just the one,’ he said. ‘Change your last name, too. You don’t want people thinking you’re riding my coattails.’
About the Author:
FRANCES HOLLAND is a writer from Northumberland. Her work has been published in The Manchester Review, Mslexia, Fragmented Voices, Litro, and other publications. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University.