These are Marias’ gifts, her dowry to her new family, the sharp bite of freshly squeezed limes, the hint of garlic in a rich tomato sauce – her mothers’ recipe, and the scent of sweet almond oil which she ceremoniously combs through her hair every Saturday night.
The children, ranged in size on the sofa, watch her carefully. They are unmoved by her attempts to make their home, their lives more beautiful.
The cheap glass vase, filled with flowers picked from a quiet corner of the park, is shoved to one side, replaced centre stage by the economy sized bottle of red sauce.
The same red sauce is used to cover, to drown any of her cooking they actually deign to eat. Usually, they simply look at the food, push the plates away and move pack like toward the freezer, with its seemingly unending supply of chicken nuggets and oven chips.
Her face aches from smiling, her throat feels tight, her words, her first love, feel as trapped as she does in this grey pebble dashed North Dublin suburb.
Even the children’s’ names catch in her throat, Ardal, Declan, Siobhan and Niamh, these are not names she can imagine whispering endearments to, so she doesn’t .
When summer comes, she is dismayed by the lack of heat, but makes the best of it. She had assumed that they would all de-camp to the outside, to talk. eat. read after the months of grey rain which kept them indoor, the curtains drawn by 4pm. But the curtains remain closed, the children’s’ milky white translucent skins keep their indoor pallor.
Sometimes, he, her new husband, joins her in the concrete clad garden, but he too, is anxious in the sunshine and sits in the shade watching her bask under the sun.
The children’s hair, at first fascinates and then begins to repulse her, she is unwilling to touch it and stops helping the younger two at bath time, much to their relief.
They attend mass each week in a church where the car park is larger than the boxy church and its purpose-built community facilities. Looking around, she realises how many of the congregation share the children’s’ colouring, their skin so thin that the bones seem too close to the surface, too protruding to be normal.
She starts to be unkind, a push here, a poke there, There is a terrible fascination in seeing how easily their skins bruise.
The children are more wary around her now, they wear their hostility openly, badges of pride. She becomes adept at the sly pinch, the push that is a fraction too hard.
They are all involved in guerilla warfare now, they stalk each other around the dull grey house.
She knows her marriage is over when she beats the youngest step child and doesn not even bother to invent a reason.
She beats him with his own hairbrush and when it is over, she looks down at the brush, with those ginger hairs caught in it and throws it away from her and has to wipe her hands many , many times before they feel clean.