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A Perfect Prayer

Afterwards Maryn could not explain why she did not put the eggshells directly into the compost bin, why she put them in a bowl and placed it on the window sill.  She’d just come in from work, tiredness dragging at her as she struggled in with the shopping. A late meeting, her mind straining against Magill’s words. Missed targets, raising the bar, strategies going forward. But something more urgent than usual in his voice, a vein pulsing on his forehead.  Once long ago when she started the job first she’d wake up in the middle of the night buzzing with ideas. She soon copped on. There were other people for ideas, she was the numbers woman and she better make sure she got the figures right.

Christ, she said, as she tried to find a spot on the kitchen counter to put the bags. There were saucepans, bowls, used cups, a knife greasy with butter. By the hob a pile of eggshells, a bowl with the slick of yellow pooled in the bottom, the snail trace of clear slime in irregular patches on the worktop and drawer ledge. She drew her breath inwards.  So messy, boys. So thoughtless.

While she cleared away the mess, she rehearsed angry phrases in her mind. She wiped the countertop, then went the whole hog and jiffed and scrubbed it with the coarse back of the sponge.  As she cleaned, her anger increased. Her son, Marcus, had become so irritable, so uncommunicative, since he’d split up with his girlfriend Fiona. And it hadn’t helped that the cafe he’d worked in at weekends had closed down. He’d been hoping to move out, she knew that.  Nowadays the only conversation seemed to be negative.

She put the kettle on, then changed her mind and opened a bottle of wine instead, phoning the Chinese before she sat at the table. Coffee could wait for later. She sighed. Dr. Spock and all the others had no real answers for problems living with adult children.

The delivery boy looked to be about the same age as Marcus. He had the same runners, Nike high tops with blue and navy laces and edging.  She smiled and tipped him two euro and he gave her a diffident thanks from under deep set eyebrows. She lay on the couch after eating, bringing the bottle of wine with her, watched the soaps and the news and fell asleep as she often did before the ‘Late Late’ was over.

On Saturday morning she realised Marcus had not come home. He had agreed to always let her know if he was staying over somewhere. Her anger returned. Still she left it until evening to phone him. No reply.

In the days that followed she sometimes wished she could replay the scene, feel the anger that had coursed through her. Anything better than the numbness that gradually seemed to seep into her as one day rolled into another and he did not come home. There were all the phonecalls of course, the speculation, then the guards, questions, more speculation. Her sister came, her friends, neighbours. They filled up her house with talking and questions and good natured attempts to distract her. Never alone except to sleep. She took to wandering around the rooms of her house at night in the dark.

He could walk in the door this minute- her sister’s mantra- in an hour, tonight, tomorrow.  Maryn no longer believed that really. Oh she said she did, she put everything into trying to, helping to find photographs for the leaflets her family made, trawling through his friends, his contacts,  his networking sites.  His whole life sliced open and examined. When she got access to his Facebook page it was like discovering a new drug to which she was instantly addicted.  She kept going back, obsessively examining every photograph, every comment. At times she felt that she was looking at a stranger’s life. It was so hard to fit this new picture of him to her own experience.  She pored over his ‘likes’, followed links to other pages, to UTube videos. One night she spent until dawn watching music videos, trying to grasp something of him from the blank spaces that were crowding in on her.


On Wednesday morning her eyes fell on the bowl of eggshells she had so carelessly placed on the windowsill and something unclenched itself inside her, found release. She lay on the couch, cradling the bowl in her arms, sobbing and moaning until there was nothing left but a dull headache and an empty feeling. When she was calm again she matched the parts, ran her fingers over the edges and the surface, brought them to her nose as if a trace of him might linger from his touch.

Every day someone was sure to use some new tired phrase about not losing hope but that word was too abstract for the blank feeling Maryn had. She spelled it out, lingering over the individual letters, but if hope is ‘a thing with feathers’ then it flew away for good on Thursday night when she was trying to drown the sound of her own thoughts in the noise of the telly and the next episode of ‘The Wire’ came on. He never missed it. She watched it all the way through, her despair growing as the action unfolded.

When it was over she went to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and took out the tray of eggs.  She picked one and rolled it in the palm of her right hand. Then she closed her fist tightly on it, waiting for the crunch. Nothing. She pressed harder, almost sobbing in frustration.  How could something apparently so fragile have such resilience? She cracked it angrily off the side of a glass and then crunched it, watching the slime and the yellow yolk slide though her fingers and drip onto the worktop. She took another egg, but this time broke it in two halves and allowed the insides to drop into the glass. It did not take long to empty the tray.

What did she expect then? It didn’t make her feel any better. She placed the eggshells in a bowl next to the other one on the windowsill. She stood there for a moment, looking distractedly at them, then she picked up the bowls and went upstairs to the study. His college books and notepads were scattered on the table. She put the books in a pile on a shelf, cleared everything else into drawers and placed the shells in the centre of the table. There were six fragments for each day he’d been gone. She placed Marcus shells first, matching the parts as best she could. They kept rolling out of place so she went to the bathroom for a roll of surgical cotton wool and used a layer as a base to balance them.  She put them in three rows and placed some more on top.

When she was satisfied she dragged over the leather armchair and sat down. For the first time in six days her mind began to clear.


After ten days Maryn returned to work. She could have taken more time but she couldn’t bear the long days and the endless callers. At least at work she could forget for a while. Most people were solicitous of her, even Magill, though they were all under pressure to increase performance. She could sense the tension but felt removed from it. Each evening she’d hurry home, eager to return to silence. On the bus she’d stare at a book to discourage conversation, remembering to turn a page now and then. 

Some days she collected eggshells from the canteen and she’d place her bag carefully on her lap, cradling it against jolts and accidental knocks. She’d walk the last bit with head down, shoulders hunched, and if there was someone she knew she’d pretend not to notice.

Relief would flood through her as she turned the key in the lock. She’d shrug off her coat and scarf, kick off her shoes, and pad silently up the stairs to the study, holding her breath as she opened the door.  Each day, she’d feel a sense of calm as she sat down.

It was day seventeen. Tuesday. Toni in the kitchen canteen had looked at her strangely, had been too solicitous. He’d never been like that before. She took deep breaths to quell the rising sense of panic, the heat that seemed to start in her brain and radiate out. She sat heavily into the comfortable leather armchair, concentrating on her breathing until the waves of heat subsided. She opened the box. All in shades of brown, the colour of Mediterranean skin. She chose a speckled shell and placed it on the table, then a darker one that reminded her of the colour on the inside of a teacup. Some you could put back together and turn so that you almost couldn’t see the join. Others were jagged and broken at the edges. The last one she chose was paler, more insipid looking, but it was almost whole.

She was ready then and she walked around the table examining her construction. She took the pale shell and rolled it in her palm, feeling the fragility of it, the perfection of roundness.  An engineering marvel, the inside like porcelain, the membrane separating from the shell, a hint of yellow at the bottom. When she had picked a spot she placed it gently, careful not to disturb the others. It was a random structure, begun without forethought.  It had spread out as it grew upwards, three layers in places. Three eggs everyday. So now, sixteen by three – 48- and then twice that for the halves-96. The trick was to get the balance right, to make the fragments satisfy some unconscious aesthetic principle. Some days it only took a few minutes. She’d sit back in the chair then and watch the play of light on the surface, as the evening darkened.

She eased the pale shell into place at the front. 99, 100, she said to herself, waiting for one of the speckled parts to settle before adding the darker one. Her hand shook.  100. A perfect round number. If she could stop now, how perfect it would be, a perfect prayer.

She sat down, waiting for the shaking to stop. She never prayed. Only this, this thing without logic, which created its own need. As the light faded, the deepening shadows emphasised the curved surfaces, making the delicate structure look solid as if cast in concrete. Maryn sat there into the night darkness, drifting from mild blankness into a half sleep.

She was startled awake by a rapping noise from downstairs.  She woke from a dream of his birth, the slither of him as he slipped out of her like a thorn popping from a sore, the warm flood of relief, muscles easing and relaxing. She stood up, confused, looking at her watch. Eight already.  Maryn shook herself, sighing heavily, then made her way down the stairs.

Later, exhausted by the effort of assuring her sister that she was ok, that she was coping, she went back upstairs. She wandered through the rooms, relying on the light from the windows.

This house with its sighs and old moans had so much of her, all the hours that she had worked overtime, did accounts freelance as well as her job- all for this, for her son, for her future, his. It felt like a womb this house, a familiar comforter that she could draw around her.

Maryn sighed. She eased herself into the armchair again, drawing her legs up under her.  The glow from a street light cast hard lined shadows on the floor but played softly over the curves of the structure.

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