The Roseate Tern: An Exclusive Short Story

By Emma Claire Sweeney

It took only the creak of her letterbox to wake her, so lightly did she still sleep. Her father’s retreat into senility had brought her as close as she would ever come to motherhood – she’d begun to make her peace with that.  He had been dead a month now, her father, but her limbs were still tense with the anticipation of his nocturnal calls. And the mornings in this vast house – without eggs to hard-boil and mash – now unfurled with excruciating slowness.

The keening sound, which worked itself into Leah’s sleep-rinsed mind, caused her to push herself up on her elbow in readiness to tend to her dad. It took her a few moments to register that the sound must have come from the letterbox. She’d deliberately left its hinges unoiled so as never to miss the post.

In the seconds that it took for these thoughts to fuse, daybreak’s light coaxed open her eyes. It was her forty-seventh birthday, and she was particularly looking forward to this morning’s exchange of pleasantries with the postman. Not that she expected cards – even her twin sister, who’d religiously marked the anniversary of their birth, wouldn’t send anything this year. But Leah let herself hope that the postman might bring her a gift from his garden – strawberries, say, enough for two.

On her twenty-first, he’d given her a scrapbook filled with stamps from twenty-one countries. And he’d continued to add to her collection ever since – even after she’d returned his ring; during later years, after he married a girl from Carlingford; and years on still, after he and his wife parted ways.

‘The roseate terns are back,’ he’d told her just this week, the warmth of his palm pressing against hers as he handed her a Ghanaian first-class.

‘So they are,’ was all she’d said, although her spirits were raised by the flock’s unexpected return after these long years.

Only later did she remember that the terns wintered on Africa’s western shores, and wondered if the postman also dreamed of tropical lagoons, whether he too envied the migratory pattern of the birds.

Having slept almost every night of her life in this same room, she knew its view’s every variation from dawn to dusk. Right now, a silvery glint graced the inlet’s mudflats; a steeliness skimmed the surface of the incoming tide; and a mauve shadow part-cloaked the great Mountains of Mourne. It could be no later than five thirty or six, and Peter Mulligan had never been known to deliver the post to Omeath Farm before nine.

Leah’s body clenched with a response so unaccustomed that she could hardly have named it as fear. But it wasn’t so much the prospect of an intruder that raised her senses to high alert, but rather the emptiness of the house at the cusp of day.

Sensing the remnants of night-chill in the air, she draped a long cardigan across her shoulders. She was as slim now as she had been in her early twenties, back when her twin sister, Rachel, had gone off with that man. Their room too remained much the same: the walnut dresser, the cuckoo clock, the Lourdes statue of the Madonna and child. But she’d pushed the two single beds together when it became clear that her sister was not for coming back. Two decades had passed since then, but Leah still slept on the right side of the mattress’s divide.

A whispering sound caused her to flinch, until she realised that it had only been the draft excluder combing through thick-pile carpet as she opened her bedroom door. The shrivelled funeral arrangement on the landing filled her with a sense of self-loathing. Rachel would have disposed of the petals and sponged away the pollen’s stain as soon as the flowers began to wilt – despite their long estrangement, Leah felt sure of this. Her sister was someone who got things done: she never failed to mark Christmas or Easter or Father’s Day, sending photographs of her children as they grew. But Leah didn’t pass them on to Dad for fear of causing him further distress.

Ever since Peter Mulligan delivered the solicitor’s notification, scenes from their childhood had kept rising up. The happiest of memories stung the most: following Rach downstairs in the night to take sips from mum’s bottle of Baileys; switching desks to see how long it took until their teacher noticed; encouraging each other to swim that little bit further out to sea. Rach had always been full of mischief, Leah secretly glad to play along.

The sound of a man clearing his throat intruded onto the landing, amplified by the emptiness of the space. Her rational mind told her that it came from outside. But, even as the tension in her limbs began to loosen, Leah instinctively glanced at Dad’s room. She’d laundered his linens during the adrenaline-fuelled days following  his death, and then replaced them onto his marital bed, smoothing out every wrinkle. The few pullovers and pairs of cords hanging in his wardrobe, she’d passed on to Peter Mulligan, asking him to give anything he didn’t want to the Society of St Vincent de Paul. But she hadn’t even begun to tackle anything else. She’d found a picture of Rachel in her father’s bedside drawer, and the shock of it had caused her to stall.

Her twin’s eyes stared up at her, the ocean blue of Rachel’s irises just the same shade as hers. The sisters looked more identical in that picture than Leah had ever felt them to be – considering herself the less attractive, although the doctor claimed that they’d formed from one egg. In this photograph, they shared the same conker-shine hair, their complexions each as pale as the breast of a roseate tern. Back then – and they couldn’t have been more than fourteen – Leah was the more boy-crazy of the two, the one to pore over the fashion magazines at the general store, to smear her lips with gloss. And yet, in the coming years it would be her twin to whom the boys would post their valentines. Rachel, who never went in for makeup, didn’t seem particularly grateful for the attention, and Leah burned with injustice at that. But this photograph was taken in the time before: Rachel smiling widely, Leah posing so the camera could catch her best side, the still water of the loch lapping at their toes, the Mourne’s hunched spine behind.

Leah hadn’t stepped foot back inside her father’s room since snapping shut his bedside drawer, the photograph still stowed within. But thoughts of her sister pursued Leah now as she wound her way down through the house. She’d always assumed that her father had removed Rachel from his will, back when their mother died. There’d been a few years when he could have done it, before such thoughts leaked from his mind. ‘She’ll not be welcome back,’ he’d said, when Rachel first left. But it had been their father who’d insisted that Rach must receive an invitation to her mother’s funeral. ‘It’s time to make our peace,’ he’d said. Rachel attended – unaccompanied – but Leah refused to share a pew.

It took Leah until she reached the foot of the stairs to notice the envelope lying on the welcome mat – no stamps to indicate its journey, no handwriting to hint at its sender. As she picked it up, she thought of Peter Mulligan’s hands – the sea-salt dryness of his fingertips, the papercuts, his nails paired close and clean. This note must  be from him. The realisation made Leah feel as if it had been her rather than Rachel who’d received those valentines.

Had Leah ever talked about it – which, of course, she had not – she would have claimed that the cattle-feed salesman from Dundrum had played a mean trick, using her to reach her twin. Sure, his talk had been full of Rachel; true, Leah had still been wearing Peter Mulligan’s ring. But her hopes had been raised by that handsome man from beyond the Mountains of Mourne.

Leah sat on the front step, Peter Mulligan’s note in her hands, her gaze straying to the easterly tip of the village, where his stone cottage stood on a finger of land that pointed out to sea. As she prised open the envelope’s lips, she sloughed off the solicitor’s warnings about Rachel’s right either to share their home or force her to sell up. All was well with the world: the scent of thyme had chanced on her garden while she slept; the sky was awash with ambers and pinks, which reflected in the incoming tide; the roseate terns had come back to roost.

Omeath Farm empty; Peter’s wife gone: emboldened by these thoughts, Leah reached into the envelope to discover a birthday card within.

Right then, a gust of wind careened across the inlet, causing Leah to glance up. Two sets of footsteps had already imprinted themselves on the sand, and a couple stood at the water’s edge, gazing northward out to the Mountains of Mourne. It took her a moment to recognise Rachel. Her sister’s hair had begun to silver, whereas Leah took care to hide any grey.

The birthday card was from Rach – she knew this as soon as she saw her own movements in the shiver that shimmied up her twin’s spine. Her sister’s husband sheltered his wife from the wave-whipped air by turning her away from the sea and towards Omeath Farm.

The sight of her sister’s face caused Leah to call out – instinct glinting through her built-up resentment. From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed a pair of roseate terns perching on Peter Mulligan’s chimney, the twin-tone of their call ringing out before they took flight, their wings spreading wide above the waves.

Emma Claire Sweeney is the award-winning author of Owl Song at Dawn (Legend Press, 2016), her debut novel about a fiercely proud septuagenarian who has spent her lifetime in Morecambe Bay, trying to unlock the secrets of her exuberant yet inexplicable twin.
With her friend, Emily Midorikawa, she is currently co-writing A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf (Aurum 2017).

emmaclairesweeney.com

waterstones.com/book/owlsong-at-dawn/emma-claire-sweeney/9781785079672

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