“Joyce!” Berach whisper-cried as he opened the door. “I weren’t expectin’ ter see ye today!”
He hadn’t been, either. He usually didn’t see Joyce on the days he had off from work. Sundays she spent with her family, and he usually visited either his parents or Ailís. Saturdays, he had a feeling, were usually spent putting her cottage to rights from five days’ worth of Leah. And he usually had plenty of things to catch up with of his own, so he had neither the time nor the energy to go visiting.
But if she was visiting him … after she had said good-bye to him and Leah so strangely the night before …
Berach enfolded her in an embrace before his brain caught up with his arms and asked them what the hell they thought they were doing.
But she didn’t resist. She didn’t even stiffen. She just nestled into all his corners and curves, like one of Leah’s shape-toys clicking perfectly into place.
And when she spoke …
“Leah sleepin’?” she murmured into his ear.
“Ye were whisperin’.”
“Oh!” Berach kept whispering. “Aye, aye, she is. Jest got her down fer her nap.”
“Good.” Joyce squiggled out of his grasp as he stood gaping. Good? Why didn’t she want to see Leah?
She seemed to see his surprise and bit down on her lip. “It’s jest — I need ter talk with ye about somethin’, Berach, an’ I don’t want her overhearin’.”
“Joyce, she’s so little, she don’t understand much.”
“She understands more ‘an we know, Berach.” Her face looked so careworn and frightened — Berach wanted to lift his hand to her cheek, stroke away the frown and the sadness and fear in her eyes like he would stroke away a tummyache of Leah’s.
But adults didn’t calm so easily as little ones did. And even though Berach thought things were going well with Joyce, he knew they weren’t ready for him to start comforting her and shushing away her tears; for he himself wasn’t ready to take that liberty.
“She certainly seems ter pick up three more dirty words fer every time she’s left alone an hour with my pa,” Berach tried to joke, hoping to coax a smile onto Joyce’s face and chase the worry away that way.
Joyce didn’t smile. “Berach, can we sit down?”
He said nothing, merely waving to the bench by the door. Joyce plopped herself down on it, Berach following. He would have made another joking remark, but his heart was too far into his throat to consider speaking.
Watching Joyce, he somehow managed to gulp around the heart. He remembered the way she had said good-bye to him and Leah the night before. Nervous, distracted, biting her lip. None of the normal tickling of Leah, none of the normal teasing of him. No heartfelt, “See ye Monday!” or “Don’t be a stranger, now, ye know ye’re welcome anytime around here.” She had just smiled at him, and looked up at him with troubled brown eyes, and said very little.
Could Berach be blamed, now, for biting his lip and dreading what she was about to say next?
Joyce took a deep breath, staring at him with huge eyes and an expression more deathly serious than any he had ever seen on him. If Joyce was happy with him, he knew it — if she was angry with him, he knew it. Before today, he wouldn’t have thought there was an in-between. And now the in-between was staring him in the face.
“Ye ain’t gonna like this, Berach.”
Whatever it is, it can’t be worse than the waitin’.
Joyce took a deep breath. “Yesterday mornin’, on her way back from the Orkney keep, me ma stopped by.”
… What am I not supposed to like about that?
But the pause was not meant for a reply, it was merely so Joyce could screw up her courage and continue. “She had — she had some private family news she wanted ter share with me, and it weren’t somethin’ she thought could wait until Sunday.”
By the “private family news,” Berach guessed he was not meant to ask just what this news was. Well, it wasn’t any of his business anyway.
“Leah was playin’ on the ground near us. I don’t — I don’t know what, if anythin’, she understood of what we were sayin’. She might be havin’ some interestin’ questions fer ye in the next day or so; if she do, I — I’m sorry. I can’t imagine any o’ ’em will be ones ye’ll be wantin’ ter answer anytime soon.”
Now Berach was curious about the “private family news.”
“But — but she axed me somethin’, after me ma left. She axed — she axed if my ma were, well, my ma.”
Berach blinked. He turned his head a little to one side. “Joyce, honey, I hate ter say this, but — I don’t quite understand what ye’re gettin’ at.”
“I didn’t understand what she was gettin’ at, either, Berach. So I axed her what she meant, I mean, o’ course me ma was me ma!”
“It — it took a bit o’ doin’ — but I finally got out o’ Leah that Nellie an’ Josie have a ma; an’ Katie an’ Paddy an’ all the rest o’ yer brother’s brood, they got a ma; an’ ye got a ma; an’ even Basil has a ma; an’ now I have a ma.”
“Er … why wouldn’t we?”
“Berach, she thought she … didn’t have a ma.”
Berach felt the air whoosh out of him as it hadn’t since that one time Grady punched him in the stomach and Berach wasn’t able to breathe for far too long a time. “Wright, she’s only three!”
Joyce didn’t say anything to reassure him — to say that he had a smart little girl — to point out that even a three-year-old might be expected to pick up on the fact that every other Sim in the world seemed to have a mother while she did not. Instead, she stared at her apron and picked at it.
“That — that weren’t all she said.”
“What else did she say?”
Joyce turned to him without warning, her arms lifting in — what? Prayerful supplication? Exasperation? “Berach, ye can’t go gettin’ too — too angry at me fer what I’m about ter tell ye I told her. I — I didn’t think — no, I didn’t have no time ter think. She jest axed, an’ I had to answer!”
“What did she axe?”
“She axed why she didn’t have no ma.”
The bench — the apartment — the world seemed to lift up and tilt ninety degrees. Berach was amazed he wasn’t thrown to the floor.
“An’ I — I told her that she — she once had a ma, but she didn’t no more.”
Berach felt rather than willed himself to gasp.
“Why didn’t she have a ma no more?”
“Berach, ye gotta remember, I didn’t think! I didn’t have time ter think!” Even in her agitation, she spoke barely above a whisper. “I jest said the first think that popped into me head, an’ regretted it right after!”
“What did ye say?”
“Berach, fergive me, but I told her that her ma was dead.”
Berach felt the ground drop out from under him. Then he found himself on his feet.
Joyce followed, her gaze begging him for mercy. “Berach, I swear, I jest didn’t think, an’ I didn’t know what else –”
“Ye told her that her ma was dead?”
Berach was amazed at how much venom he could squeeze into a whisper.
“Well, what else was I supposed to say?” Joyce whisper-shouted back. “Ye didn’t exactly tell me what ye told her about her ma!”
“I never told her nothin’ about her ma!”
“Then she should have known she would sooner or later start axin’ questions!”
“It ain’t the questions she’s axin’ that’s got me upset, it’s the way ye answered ’em!”
“How else was I supposed to answer it?”
For a moment, Berach imagined himself from Joyce’s perspective — eyes narrowed into slits, hand pointing at her, mouth curled into a sneer. It was not a pretty picture.
The he remembered the lie she had told his little girl, and stopped worrying about the picture he presented to Joyce.
“Ye could have told her ter axe me about it!”
She looked stricken and for a moment, he almost let up on her. But the tide of his anger carried him farther, and he added, “Or failin’ that, ye could have told her the truth!”
Joyce stared at him. “The truth?” she hissed.
“Aye, the truth! That her ma is still alive, an’ –”
“Is a whore!”
“Watch your tongue, that’s my baby’s mama ye’re talkin’ about!”
“Don’t make her no less a whore, and it don’t erase what she’s done!”
“Oh, fer Wright’s sake Joyce, don’t start on that –”
“I ain’t talkin’ about openin’ her legs ter anyone who’ll slip her a copper!” Joyce hissed. “I ain’t talkin’ about seducin’ men away from their sweethearts! I don’t care nothin’ about that! But I do care that she abandoned that beautiful little girl an’ jest dropped out o’ her life!”
“Wei Li did not abandon Leah!”
“Then why does Leah think she don’t have no ma? Has she ever seen Leah since the day she dropped her on yer doorstep an’ never looked back?”
“She didn’t abandon Leah!”
“Answer me question!”
“She didn’t abandon Leah! She gave Leah ter her father!”
The door opened — the loudest sound in the room, for though Berach was certain they both wanted to scream, somehow they kept their voices to a whisper — but neither of them turned to look at the entrant.
“That ain’t answerin’ me question!” Joyce hissed.
“I don’t have ter answer none of yer questions, after what ye –”
Both of them broke off their argument to stare at Clarence.
“So ye finally found out she was a slut,” he said in a perfectly normal tone of voice.
Berach blinked. Wei Li? Who didn’t know what she was?
Then Joyce hissed, “Ye devil!” and Berach saw her look of mortification.
He didn’t …
He looked from Joyce to Clarence, who, for his trouble, wasn’t looking back. He threw himself onto the bench, his boots hitting it with a clatter that was almost certain to wake Leah.
His father’s ears listened for a child’s cry. None came.
His father’s eyes warred with his lover’s eyes as he looked at Joyce. One the one hand, she had just told his best girl that her mother was dead … on the other …
On the other, if she was to be believed, she had done it on the spur of the moment, not thinking — even coming close to apologizing for it — and perhaps she was trying to spare Leah what pain she could … a dead mother couldn’t help being dead, but a living one could help dumping her into her father’s lap and then never coming for a visit …
And Joyce’s lip was quivering, and her fists were clenched, and he was sure her eyes were blinking back tears.
“Clarence,” Berach heard his voice say, “who did ye jest call a slut?”
“Her, o’course,” Clarence remarked, nodding toward Joyce.
He would not humor this man by asking him why he dared to call an honest Wrightian woman a name Berach hesitated to apply to women who were neither honest nor, perhaps, Wrightian. Instead, he heard his voice say, “Stand up.”
Clarence’s eyebrows went up, as if to ask, And what army is going to make me stand up?
“Clarence, stand up. Now.”
The lodger sighed, but with the air of a man doing another man a great favor, he stood and faced Berach with a mildly inquisitive glance.
“Apologize ter the lady.”
He didn’t know what demon possessed him to make him do this, but he grabbed Clarence’s shoulder and spun him around to face a gaping Joyce. “The only lady in this room!”
“Apologize fer what?”
“Fer –” Berach wanted to tear out, how was it that this man was a friend of Simon’s? Simon had even less patience for fools than he did! “Fer callin’ her a slut!”
“But she is one!”
Berach stared at Clarence. It had been a long time since his fist inched so …
Aw, what the hell, was his last distinguishable thought before his fist rose up, swung back, came forward and connected to Clarence’s nose with a crack that made Berach’s stomach turn even as his hand began to hurt.
“AAH! My nose!”
“Get out,” Berach heard himself say even as he shook his fist.
“Ye ain’t welcome here no more. Get out!”
He saw Joyce’s jaw fall out of the corner of his eye.
“Ye can’t do that! We agreed!”
“Ye want ter stop me, get a town guard! Until then –”
Until then, Berach was going to say, he didn’t want any man under the roof he paid for who couldn’t respect a woman. Until then, Berach wanted to say, he had had it. Until then, Berach wanted to say, Clarence could go to hell.
He didn’t get a chance to say any of these things, for at the words “town guard” Clarence turned tail and ran from the room.
Joyce darted to the window and pulled up the curtain. “I don’t think he’s runnin’ fer the guard,” she said. “He jest ran right past one!”
“Did he?” Berach asked, bending next to her to find Clarence running right by a man in the familiar off-white uniform. More than just running by, shielding his face as if he didn’t want to be seized.
A bloody nose could do that to a man. Berach grinned.
Berach looked up to find Joyce’s nose mere inches from his.
“Ye didn’t have ter do that — I know ye need the money –”
“I don’t want none of his money. If — hell, if worse comes ter worst, Ailís and Neil have room in their loft. An’ Leah would love ter be nearer her cousins.”
“Berach! I don’t want ye gettin’ yerself an’ yer little girl thrown out on the street fer –”
Berach grabbed her around the waist and stopped her lips with his.
It was like there hadn’t been over three years between the last time he kissed Joyce and now — it was like they had stepped back in time, before Joyce’s jealousy and his philandering tore them apart. She melted in his arms, just as she always had; his lips covered hers like a perfectly tailored tunic, just as they always had. She tasted of sweet berries and crisp vegetables and a certain something that was just Joyce. Her hand on his shoulder, her other hand on his hip and straying lower … this wasn’t a kiss, this was coming home.
And when they finally parted, thanks to that pesky need for air, Berach rested his chin on her shoulder. He listened to Joyce pant and gasp in his arms, holding him just as tightly as he was holding her. “Aw, Joyce,” he whispered. “Don’t ye know I’d do more than lose this damned apartment fer ye? Don’t ye know I’d do almost anythin’ fer ye?”