Five Little Words – Jackie Walsh

I’ve never felt so happy. Pressing gently on the soft blanket below my hand, I smile. I cannot take my eyes off him. His tiny pink lips. His flickering eyelids. His marshmallow skin. How can something so small be the biggest thing in my life? Conor briefly turns his attention from the road ahead to steal a glance at his new son. ‘Is he okay?’ ‘Yes,’ I say, leaning over to get a closer look while swallowing the jab of pain that shoots up through my body. ‘You’re okay. Aren’t you, sweetie?’ I whisper in his tiny ear. My heart leaps when his eyes open, little dark pools of innocence looking back at me. He yawns as I run my finger down the side of his face. I’ve already imagined him at every stage of his life. His first steps. His first word.

Running down the stairs to see what Santa left. His first day at school and me crying in the yard. Trying on football boots for his first game with Ballycall GAA Club. Then college, girls…or boys. I see his life fastforwarding before me, right up to the day he leaves me, to stand on his own two feet. ‘What a beautiful life you’re going to have, little Shay,’ I whisper, hoping, praying that he will but fully aware that not everything turns out the way you plan it. Stop it Laura, don’t go there, stay happy. Conor turns the car off the M3, down the narrow road that leads to the village I’ve called home for the past six months. The autumn sunlight leaps in and out of the car through the tall golden-leaved trees. I lift my hand to block the glare from my eyes.

My other hand automatically moves to cover Shay’s face. I’ve got this. I’m going to be a great mother. ‘Almost here,’ Conor says, snatching another glimpse of Shay before turning the bend. The church steeple piercing the sky is the first sign of life in this remote corner of the county. Then the road slopes down to where colour appears in the shape of shops, the school, the police station and the newly refurbished playground at the side of the church. I hope little Shay spends plenty of happy hours swinging from the monkey bars. After all, his daddy paid for them. When we arrive at the village, the car twists its way down the narrow main street, past the shops and cafes before stopping at the traffic lights in the middle of the road. My attention is automatically pulled to the building on my right.

Hedigan’s Pub has a red painted frontage, with black and gold lettering boasting the sale of premium brands. There’s a board outside. Today’s Specials, scribbled in chalk. Inhaling deeply, I picture her standing there placing the board into position, her hand eager to wave at familiar passersby. Everyone knew Vicky. I even got to meet her in the short time I’ve been here. All smiles as she busily wiped down the table before taking our order. I would have liked to have known her better. Maybe had a drink with her at the bar. But I’ve been pregnant since coming to live here so it was only ever ‘a fizzy water for me, please’.

I hear a soft mumble: Shay, vying for my attention. He wiggles a little so I place my hand back on top of the blanket. ‘We’re nearly there, baby.’ I kiss his face. Conor moves the car on down the road. I’m hoping the arrival of this new little life will bring some joy to this devastated community. The news of Vicky’s murder has suctioned the happiness out of the place, leaving everyone baffled, confused, sad, carrying on in disbelief that a young woman could lose her life so horrifically, in this, their perfect little village. Chapter Two Balloons, banners, ribbons; the whole house is covered in the stuff, blowing in the wind as the car crawls up the gravel driveway. That can only be the work of one person: Maggie. Conor’s mother has been so excited about the idea of becoming a grandma.

I can see her waving as she stands beneath the two big pillars that adorn the entrance of this monstrous house. Five bedrooms, each with their own en-suite. A living room the size of a football pitch and a kitchen so modern you’d need a degree in technology just to boil an egg. Taking a deep breath, I smile out the car window as Conor pulls up. Maggie rushes towards the car and grabs the handle of the door, pulling it open and sticking her head in before I even have a chance to get out. ‘Oh look at him,’ she gleams. ‘He’s so beautiful… so tiny.’ Her arm crosses over the baby’s car seat and unlocks the belt. ‘Come to Nana, little Shay.’ Without asking, she lifts the car seat out and pushes her face into the tiny bundle, snuggling and kissing him.

What is she doing? I want to carry him into the house. I want to be the one to take him home. But no. Leaving me and Conor in her shadow, Maggie walks up the two granite steps and in through the front door. ‘Welcome to your home, baby Shay.’ Conor looks over at me, shrugs and pulls an amused frown. ‘Sorry,’ he says. He should be. I specifically asked him to tell his mother I wasn’t coming home until tomorrow. Just one night of peace is all I wanted.

One night to get myself and Shay settled before all hell broke loose. I want to challenge him, ask him why he couldn’t do what I asked. But there’s no point. This is not the moment to create a negative atmosphere. And I doubt Maggie would have listened anyway. She thinks I’m lucky to be here at all. She’s made that quite clear, dropping subtle and not so subtle hints whenever she gets the opportunity, letting me know how so many women would love to be in my shoes. To have nabbed Conor, her son. The most eligible bachelor in the world, according to Maggie, with his good looks, his money, his future. But I never saw him that way, which was one of the things Conor said he liked about me when we first met.

I didn’t know about his money or his company. He was just a guy I liked, who liked me. Then he became a guy I loved, who loved me. It was quite a shock when I discovered he came with his very own world. Conor takes the suitcase and baby bag out from the boot of the car and follows me into the house. When he closes the door behind us, I notice some cards have been dropped through the letterbox. I slowly reach down to pick them up. ‘How are you?’ Maggie remembers to ask. ‘I’m fine, just a bit…’ but before I get a chance to moan about how tired I’m feeling, she’s already telling Conor the list of people who called to congratulate her. Congratulate her? What did she do? In the kitchen the festive décor continues: more balloons, more banners.

Jesus, how much did that woman spend? It’s not like the baby will even know. ‘I’m going to take a selfie,’ she says, placing the baby seat onto the sofa by the wall and sitting down beside it. Maggie pulls the phone from her bag and swipes the screen with her red fake nails. Her tentative finger doddles backwards and forwards before deciding on which button she should press. She’s new to it all. Instagram, Facebook, a phone without a lead. When she’s happy with her snap, she holds the phone up to Conor. ‘What do I do now?’ ‘What do you want to do?’ he says, taking the latest, shiniest, smartest Samsung phone from her hand. ‘I want to post it.’ Placing the cards on a nearby shelf, I leave the two of them to decide which social media site my newborn baby’s face will be splattered all over and walk to the fridge to get some water.

My mouth has dried up all of a sudden. I really should tell her: No. I don’t want Shay’s picture going all over the town. But again, not the right moment. And to be honest, I’m so tired I don’t have the energy to show I care. Conor looks over to where I’m standing and winks. Then, like the man I hope I married, he thanks his mam for being here when we arrived home and asks her if she needs a lift. Maggie looks from right to left, then at her bag, then at the baby. ‘Oh sure… of course, I’ll leave you to get settled.’ Then she turns to me and says, ‘Laura, get plenty of sleep and don’t be afraid to call me if you need any advice.

’ What does she mean by that? ‘Thanks Maggie, but I think we have it covered.’ ‘We’ll see,’ she whispers, bending over to kiss Shay goodbye. ‘Bye bye little Shay. I have to go. Daddy is throwing me out.’ ‘C’mon Ma,’ Conor laughs, handing her bag to her. * The house is quiet now, just the three of us. Conor and I stare into the crib. I feel like my heart is never going to slow down, like it’s beating to a rhythm it was always meant to. I cannot look away from him; his silky streaks of dark hair, his… ‘Is that what I think it is?’ Conor says, holding his nose.

‘Time to try out the new changing unit.’ Both of us bend down to lift Shay, bumping our heads in the process. ‘Time for you to rest, Laura, let Daddy do something.’ Lifting Shay like he might explode if he makes a wrong move, Conor holds him against his chest. I want to stay with him, share the moment, check Conor is doing it right. Shay is about two years younger than Conor had hoped for, judging by the disposable nappies he bought during the week. ‘For God’s sake, Conor, we can’t put these things on him. They’re not for newborns, look!’ I hold the nappy up. It could double as a sleeping bag for my little boy. ‘I don’t know, I just grabbed a packet.

I’ll go down to Spar and get… what have I to get?’ ‘Nappies for newborns. It will say it on the packet.’ Conor’s eyes dart from the counter to the sofa to the coffee table. He can’t find his keys. The poor guy is already struggling and it’s only day one. Walking over, I put my hands on his face and make him look at me. His eyes are wide with fear. ‘It’s okay Conor. Relax. We have this.

’ Slowly I bring my lips to his, close my eyes and remind myself why I’m here. After a brief moment Conor pulls away, takes a deep breath and stares back at me. ‘I’m sorry Laura. I… I—’ ‘Shuuush.’ I kiss him again. This time he engages, sweeping his tongue around my mouth with vigour. He squeezes my body close to him. I want to scream with the pain but I don’t. I bear it, letting him relax with me until eventually I have no choice but to pull away. ‘I hope these stitches dissolve soon,’ I say.

‘Are you okay, Laura?’ ‘Yes, I just need to sit down. No – I just need to stand up. Actually, I think I’ll take one of those salt baths the nurse recommended when you get back.’ We both turn our attention to the crib, staring at our little miracle sleeping like… well, a baby. Conor puts his arm around me. ‘Thank you Laura,’ he says, looking at his watch. ‘I’ll run down and get the nappies now.’ * Shay is awake, staring at me, kicking his bare legs while his tongue explores how far it can travel outside his mouth. ‘Daddy won’t be long,’ I say, pulling the blanket up over his body. I turn around and notice the cards that were dropped in through the letterbox sitting on the shelf.

Picking them up, I carefully settle myself on the nearby sofa. I open the first one. There’s a picture of a baby dangling in a towel from a stork’s mouth. I open the card. To Laura and Conor, Congratulations on the birth of your new baby! Ollie and Ciara. Ah, the couple from the petrol station. Nice of them. Then I open the second card. A blue teddy bear sits on the cover, his hands clapping, ‘Congrats!’ written in gold above his head. I open the card.

To Conor and Laura, Congrats, Margaret Cash. That’s the older lady who lives on her own in the next house about fifty metres down the road. ‘Thanks Margaret,’ I say out loud while opening the third one. The pink envelope is addressed to me alone. Laura. The card inside has a picture of a tower of toy bricks with ‘Congratulations on the birth of your new baby girl!’ written above it. Ha. I open the card and read the words scripted in black letters. Your husband is a murderer. Where was he the night Vicky was killed? Chapter Three Your husband is a murderer.

Where was he the night Vicky was killed? I read the words again, pulling myself off the sofa. A jab of pain lets me know this is real. This is not a dream; this card is in my hand and it’s saying that Conor is a murderer. But who sent this? And why? Maybe someone hates me. Someone jealous that this outsider, this city girl managed to nab their most eligible bachelor. There are a few candidates, especially Olive. But she wouldn’t do this. Would she? No one could despise me enough to send a card like that. But if the card wasn’t sent to upset me, then someone out there thinks Conor did it. That my husband killed Vicky Murphy.

But that’s impossible. Conor was with me the night she was killed. All night. And while I haven’t known him that long – only a little over a year – it was some year. Moving house, getting married, having Shay. We’ve done a lot together. I got to know Conor and the more I did, the deeper I fell in love with him. I think I would have noticed if he was capable of murder. I read the card again and check the envelope to look for a clue. But there is none.

My heart is thumping hard in my chest, and the thought occurs to me that it might just be a sick prank. One of the lads from the club. They’re always playing the worst tricks on each other. But I don’t think so. Not the day I come out of hospital with Conor’s son. No, this is not a prank. This is not funny at all. This card was sent to upset me… or to warn me. * The sound of the key turning in the hall door disturbs the silence. Quick, hide it.

I don’t want Conor to see it. If he sees that card, what he has described as the best day of his life will be ruined. Pushing the card back into the envelope, I shove it between the other cards and place them on the counter under a magazine. The stress of it all has me gasping for air when Conor bursts into the room swinging a shopping bag. ‘Daddy to the rescue,’ he says, rushing over to Shay and glancing into the crib before turning to look at me. ‘Are you alright, Laura? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’ Conor walks over to me and puts his arms around me. His body feels warm. ‘You’re shaking, babe… are you okay?’ No, I’m not okay, but I can’t say this. I can’t let him know about that card.

Whoever sent this is not going to ruin this moment… ‘I’m… I’m okay, just a bit of pain.’ I watch his face, looking for any sign of stress or worry. If he’s hiding something behind that electric smile that hasn’t left his face all day, he’s doing a good job of it. ‘I think I need to take some more painkillers.’ God, I wish I had some real drugs. ‘But first let’s get this nappy on this little man.’ * When Shay settles I find my bag and swallow two of the prescribed pills. ‘Only if you need them,’ the doctor said, ‘because they will make you drowsy.’ I need them and I hope they make me drowsy. Getting the vision of that card out of my head is what I want to do right now.

Conor calls down over the bannisters, completely unaware that someone is trying to sabotage our happiness. ‘I’m running the bath for you, Laura.’ Putting the bag down to follow him upstairs, I take the container of pills out and put them in my pocket. I’m sure if the doctor knew what just happened, he’d tell me to fire away. ‘As many as you need, Laura.’ The water is hot, stinging. I lower myself into the bath. It’s one of those fancy ones where you can push buttons and the water massages you from different angles. Like a jacuzzi, but smaller. I won’t be pushing any buttons today.

Holding my breath, I dunk my head. Now I’m totally submerged, hoping to relax, but my mind is trying to make sense of that card. I should have known this was all too good to be true. That it was only a matter of time before karma would find me.

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