The house felt different at night. Not in any inexplicable way, but merely a heavier measure of the familiar deepening of shadows and hunching of walls as they reasserted their presence in the fading daylight. In Sydney the night had a soft, enveloping character to it—warm yellow streetlights glowed pleasantly behind the drawn curtains, open and inviting to visitors—while here the night seemed to pile up against the windows like drifts of molasses, black and impenetrable, and the small, lamplit rooms became the sum of the visible universe.
But the nights were still short in August, and the days were long and rewarding, packed tightly with mild Irish sunshine and tree climbing and lake paddling and glasses of elderflower cordial on the picnic table in the front garden. Her cousins were lively enough company during the day, enthusiastic organisers of games and chasing and treasure hunts in the head-high ferns covering the hills above the house. By the evenings, however, a frustrating lethargy seemed to overcome them, and they passed dinnertime in sheep-eyed torpidity, scooping food into their mouths and staring confusedly at Alice whenever she tried to rise them. After supper they could barely be dragged through a few games of Ludo or gin rummy before wandering in the direction of their bedrooms, often when it was still bright outside. Alice put this down to a lack of Australian vim and vigour, a bone-deep energy imparted to her by the spirit of her recently-departed homeland.
Her aunt and uncle seemed oddly disinterested in the evening habits of their children. Alice could not tell whether these early nights were appeasements or a natural tendency unbidden by the grown-ups. She certainly never noticed an instruction, ambiguous or otherwise. No hints. No raised eyebrows. The three children simply took themselves off to bed before nine o’ clock, leaving Alice alone to deal with the approaching absoluteness of the night.
Her aunt and uncle took on a distracted air in the late evening, in stark contrast to their offspring. In the night hours they cleaned and organised and chatted amiably between themselves. Alice found it impossible to engage them during this time. While they never instructed her to go to bed, when addressed directly they would turn and adjust their glasses, seeming puzzled to discover a four-foot human in the living room. It didn't take long for her to leave them to their evening life and ascend to bed.
Her bedroom (hers alone) was a converted attic, and she retreated there with books in hand and read herself to sleep. Due to the aforementioned vim and vigour, this process often took a number of hours, and all the while her aunt and uncle could be heard moving below her, murmuring and laughing and reclaiming the house for themselves.
Alice had been living with her cousins for almost two months, ever since a Tuesday afternoon in early winter when a policeman vanished her parents. He said her name, and then her parents’ names, then inhaled deeply, sucking them both out of the air in front of him, and said, ‘There’s been an accident.’ He repeated her name, but those of her parents were never again mentioned. The social worker never said them, the doctor never said them. Even her uncle John, arriving off a plane two days later, never said his brother’s name to Alice. Your parents. Your parents. Your poor parents. He looked very unlike the John who had visited them in Sydney two years before, laughing and tanned and exclaiming at the sun. Now: dark hooded eyes, ringed purple, and his black hair slicked greasily backwards. The funeral had already happened, he revealed. She had been sitting in a care worker’s couch watching morning cartoons while the funeral was dealt with.
What confused her most, stocktaking on the long flight to Ireland, was the disappearance of Australia. Not the disappearance of her parents—the reasons for which were clearly explained again and again by solemn strangers—but that of her teachers, her neighbours, occasional babysitters. Her parents’ friends. Her own friends, vanished in the moment of the policeman’s exhalation. Why had no one come to see her? Except John, dry heaving in the bushes outside the foster home, then turning to grin at some point yards behind her.
A new life was unveiled, sitting waiting for Alice in a bright, white house at the bottom of a narrow valley in County Wicklow. At the end of the valley: a still, cold, peat-brown lake. At the end of her garden: lumpen, many-limbed trees. At the end of her bed: a bookcase. John laid a hand on her shoulder as he piloted the jeep along the pot-holed road. ‘We’re a bit out of the way,’ he said apologetically. Alice had never seen ferns so green, trees so green, grass so green.
Now: her aunt Bebh, a new stranger in these days of strangers, kneeling and kissing Alice like she were anything but. ‘Poor Alice. Poor Alice.’ And cousins. Jason a year younger, and Maebh and Roisín younger again. Blond, freckled, wary.
The city to the country. Winter to summer. Blue to grey. Brown to green. Days to nights.
Alice would wake a few nights a week to find people in the house. Noises downstairs—cackling laughter and doors slammed and chair legs pulled across floorboards. The materialisation of her aunt and uncle’s visitors was surprising in its regularity. Stranger still was the lateness of it. She never heard anybody arrive, even though she was often awake past midnight. The noise would drag her from sleep in the unmapped hours of night, loud and raucous, seeming dreamlike and improbable the next morning. On occasion she pulled aside her curtain to try to spot guests arriving or leaving, but the night outside was featureless black, without the familiar panes of light cast into the yard by the downstairs windows. Meaning, she supposed, that the downstairs curtains were all well-pulled. This didn’t explain the lack of a light seam under her bedroom door, but perhaps her aunt was conscientiously muting the hallway light after they moved to the sitting room.
She asked Jason, one morning, about the previous night’s party, but he stared at her wall-eyed over his bowl of porridge. ‘The people,’ repeated Alice. ‘Last night. Visiting your parents.’ He shrugged almost invisibly in his loose dressing gown. ‘I don’t wake up at night,’ he said.
A month after her arrival Alice was introduced to the chamberpot. She woke to familiar revelry downstairs, becoming aware in the same moment of a strong urge to urinate. Girding herself against sleepy encounters on the landing, she slipped out of bed and went to open her door. The brass knob sat rigidly in her hand. It was locked. She tried again, to be sure, then knocked at the door. On the second knock the noise below her ceased abruptly, and there were footsteps on the stairs.
‘Alice?’ said her aunt from behind the door.
‘Why is the door locked?’
There was a pause. ‘So nobody wanders in. Are you alright? Go back to sleep.’
‘I need to pee.’
‘Do you? Can’t you hold it?’
Alice squirmed. ‘I need to, I think. I need to pee.’
There was a sigh and the rustle of her aunt’s dress. ‘Alice, there’s a pot under your bed.’
‘A pot? Can you open the door, please?’
‘A chamberpot. We use chamberpots in this house, Alice. I’ll see you in the morning.’ The steps retreated and, after a pause, the noise downstairs resumed.
Alice pulled the porcelain bowl from under her bed and relieved herself awkwardly. The next morning she poured the slops into the toilet and rinsed the pot out in the bath, then stowed it back beneath her bed. She was familiar with the concept of the chamberpot from Victorian storybooks, but was surprised to find them still in use in Ireland. Surely the upstairs toilet removed the need. But she had a strong bladder, and rarely needed to go at night, so the pot did not trouble her hugely.
The parties were the greater oddity. Her uncle’s house was hidden at the end of a long and empty valley roadway. Trips to the village were treated by her new family as a grand expedition—a lurching, rocking fifteen minute drive to the main road, and then another five to the shop. ‘How far are we from the nearest neighbours?’ she queried John as they passed a huddle of bungalows outside the village. ‘Six or seven miles,’ he replied. ‘Three as the crow flies,’ he added, and laughed.
Late summer, talk of school. A few early blackberries. Aunt Bebh angrily shooing pigeons off the picnic table with the sweeping brush. The leaves, so soft and damp when Alice arrived, were now brittle and a duller shade of green. The day retreated always sooner than expected. The mountains throwing shadows over the house and garden and inking the lake purple. Her cousins drooping in tandem with the threat of autumn, refusing to play outside after dinner. Maebh would start school in September, like Alice, who had never begun a school year in September.
The principal looked her over (‘Poor girl. Poor girl.’) and questioned her long division. It seemed to satisfy her that Alice simply knew of the existence of long division, and the particulars were not examined. She was given a biscuit and tea, and afterwards a tour of the three-classroom school. The principal touched her once, briefly, on the shoulder. ‘You’ll be grand,’ she murmured, and Alice pictured herself a queen, tall and decorous. ‘Grand like okay,’ she replied, and the principal smiled, nodded.
John drove her home after the interview. It had rained the previous night, and the road was half-covered with mud puddles. ‘What’s your job?’ Alice asked, for he never disappeared to an office for the day as her parents had done.
‘I’m between roles this summer,’ he replied. ‘Waiting to see what I am.’ He glanced over. ‘A bit like you,’ he added. Alice ignored this, for she knew already what she was.
Alice woke again to laughing. Great cawing cackles she recognised from earlier nights. She imagined herself going downstairs, to enter into this din as she had once before in her home in Sydney. Tottering sleepily down the hall to find two dozen adults in the living room, her parents pink-cheeked and delighted to see her. The smell of smoke and sweet alcohol everywhere. Her father lifted her onto the table and presented her to his friends, who shook her hand and interviewed her with mock formality. Her pyjamas were covered in birds, it was noted. ‘It’s almost morning!’ her mother cried. ‘Back to bed!’ and Alice allowed herself to be carried to her room. Her father smelled like a pub; cigars and fresh beer. A stubbled goodnight kiss.
The idea of entering the noise downstairs filled Alice with a twinge of unexpected fear. Lighting the bedside lamp, she climbed down and reached for the chamberpot. It was not there, and she realised that she’d left it in the bathroom earlier in the week.
The door was locked. She knocked once, twice, three times against the raised voices below. On the fourth knock: silence. Murmurs and weight on the stairs.
‘Alice?’ She could feel her aunt’s irritation through the wood.
‘I need to pee. Sorry.’
‘Use the pot. There’s a pot under the bed.’
‘I left it in the bathroom.’ Alice cringed as she said this, ashamed and angry at her shame.
Her aunt sighed artificially. ‘Well you’ll just have to hold it.’
‘Bebh, I can’t. I need to use the bathroom.’
‘We have guests. This is adult time. It’s really very inconvenient of you.’ There was a pause and the tap of her aunt’s toe on the floor. ‘Alice, if I bring you to the bathroom, you’ll have to close your eyes.’
‘Close my eyes?’
‘It’s night time. It’s not for children. You’ll have to close your eyes.’
Alice felt the knot in her stomach tighten. But it was a familiar sensation by now. A long summer. She had learned to disregard it. ‘I can do that.’
The key turned in the lock, and she backed away and screwed up her eyes. ‘Are they closed?’ her aunt asked. Alice nodded, then said ‘yes’ when her aunt asked again.
The bedroom door opened, and she felt a clumsy touch on her shoulder. ‘Beer,’ she thought, remembering her father’s stubbled kiss. Her aunt did not speak, but she heard the rustle of clothing and the click of heels on the wooden floors. The smell was not of sweet alcohol nor cigars.
The touch guided her across the hall landing to the bathroom, propelling her forwards before the door closed after her. The appearance of light behind her eyelids told her she could open her eyes. She was alone in the bathroom.
She relieved herself and washed her hands, pausing to curse the chamberpot sitting on the floor under the sink. She was reaching for the door handle when her aunt’s voice came impatiently. ‘Are you finished?’
Alice closed her eyes. The light disappeared, the door opened. Again, the touch on her shoulder. Not a clasp, just a guidance. She felt her bare feet move from the cold bathroom tiles over the sill and onto the wooden floorboards. The hallway was silent but for their creaks and the whisper of her aunt’s dress. The gathering downstairs was paused, waiting.
Moving forward through the dark space, towards the cloaked glow of her bedroom, Alice caught her toe on the edge of the worn spanish rug that ran the length of the hall. She stumbled, falling onto one knee. Away from her aunt’s touch. Her eyes opened automatically.
The first thing she saw in that moment was the frame of her lit bedroom. Her mound of bedsheets, the pile of books, the warm, orange light of her bedside lamp. All seeming to recede into the darkness of the landing. The second, as she spilled over, was the immense black shape standing over her, its wing outstretched into the space opened between them. Black, backturned legs tapering to great gnarled talons, one raised and half-curled against the floor. The featureless hunched mass of the crow’s body, grotesquely outsized, filling the hallway. And the head, side-on to Alice, with its rough-hewn beak and single staring black pearl of an eye, gulping mechanically against the air.
‘Oh, Alice,’ came her aunt’s voice, although the creature’s beak did not move in any approximation of speech. ‘Now what are we going to do? This is so upsetting.’ From downstairs came a single cawing laugh. The crow settled its wings and moved towards her, floorboards quietly moaning. And Alice, finally, into the approaching black, released her mother’s name.
Written by Pierce Gleeson and illustrated by Helene Pertl.