Editor’s note: Ronan Keenan’s story in the Delmarva Review (Volume 14) has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in fiction.
Author’s Note: “Welcome Day is about a parent’s angst of how a combination of flawed genetics and a murky past will impact her child. The central character, Maria, is a single parent trying to distance her young son from her history of involvement in Irish paramilitary activity. In the story Maria watches her son begin life in a new school and worries how the ‘nature versus nurture’ dynamic will impact his development.”
YOU’D SWEAR THERE’S A PIPE BOMB INSIDE, the way Maria holds the envelope at arm’s length. “The strain of fear’s gotten into ya,” Jimmy would say if he could see her now, panicked about opening a letter. This is the same Maria who’d hardly break stride when planting loaded packages near the Belfast barracks, years ago. Back then, she could create thick barriers in her mind, making it easy to categorize the soldiers as a faceless enemy from across the water rather than young lads barely out of school, homesick and frightened in strange borderlands. These days, Maria’s barriers are low and permeable, allowing fear to seep through whenever it wants. Today, it has come through her letterbox.
Sure enough, this envelope contains what she dreaded. The note inside is written on thick card with deep imprinted letters. Bolded in black are the stomach-twisting words: “Family Welcome Day!” Underneath, conjoined italics tell her to “embrace the Xavier College spirit with fellow parents and pupils to celebrate the new school term.”
The move down south was supposed to make things quieter, easier. An event like this would be neither. She’d rather be stuck under blinding lights for days, being interrogated by sweaty men pounding the table in continuous frustration. At least then, she just had to keep her mouth shut.
For once, she can’t blame Jimmy for dragging her into something. She chanced her arm at the Xavier private school thing, not believing that her son Robbie would be accepted. The sob story worked. Yet would the school notice if she bailed on the event and stayed in bed for the day? Robbie wouldn’t blink. He’s been through worse.
AS MARIA WALKS TO THE CAR, her tights make the itchy noise of funerals and court cases. When the car shudders to life, she swats aside plastic rosary beads dangling from the rear-view mirror. “We’re only going for a wee while, so you be nice to everyone and it’ll be fine,” she says, glancing at Robbie, who’s sitting up front for the first time, despite being just seven. “Do you hear me, Robert?”
“That’s your proper name. You’re a big boy now.”
“Will my hair be like this every day?”
“Yes. In this school, you’ve to keep it nice and neat,” she says, resisting the urge to toss the deep parting that looks like a freshly ploughed field. “And by the way, let me answer if any parents ask you a hard question.”
“Hard questions like what?”
She takes a deep breath, calming herself with Jimmy’s old carps about city folks down south living in their own bubble, as if news from north of their own island rebounds off some sort of invisible blockade that would make North Korea envious.
“Look, these are all Georgian buildings, ya see?” she tells Robbie, remembering how the school’s brochure described the surrounding city streets.
“What’s a Georgian building?”
This is the start of it, she thinks. What questions will he throw at her once the school starts giving him homework? Although it can’t be much worse than her stuttering lecture to him on the difference between being “on remand” and “in prison.”
AT THE BOTTOM OF THE STREET, looms the school, its pristine white paint and long frosted windows making it look more like a government building. On arrival, a smiling senior pupil accompanies them up concrete steps, past a heavy black door, and through a marble hallway. The rattling of cheery chatter in the distance sends beads of sweat down Maria’s back.
She turns to see Robbie whisked off by several older boys who excitedly ask him where he’s from. Is it that obvious he’s from up north? God knows what Robbie will tell them. Maria instinctively goes to follow but is swiftly directed to a table scattered with name tags.
She stands alone in the doorway of a large ballroom, her sticky label in hand, facing a crowd of colorful parents who banter away like they’re lifelong friends. Her eyes whizz erratically around the room, wary of making contact with anyone. Out of options, she skirts around the perimeter, sneaking peeks at the rosy faces, gleaming teeth, and shiny hair. They all look fit and healthy, though not as thin as her. In a mirror, she catches sight of her exposed raw-boned arms, which are not an achievement by choice.
In front of her, the path is blocked by a group of parents who seem to be in hysterics about something—maybe Maria’s comical awkwardness. She knows they’re likely laughing at something else, but the sight of a side door exit proves too difficult for her to resist.
Outside, she wanders in crooked circles, surrounded by tall buildings that trap her in an empty asphalt yard when all she wants is to find Robbie and go home. Finally, she comes across a narrow passageway that opens onto a wide green expanse of playing fields. A gentle breeze flickers at her hair. She’s the only parent around. In the distance, a towering man, evidently a coach, booms instruction at a group of boys who frantically chase a rugby ball like little ants scurrying from a kicked nest.
Maria has no idea about the rules of rugby, but she knows it’s a far cry from the hurling Jimmy used to play back home, where parish rivalries were settled by a stick in the ribs or the crack of an errant shoulder. Instead, rugby has always been foreign, brought from across the water, so she was never allowed to like it. But it was exotic, played with an oval ball and a more sincere physicality, with strapping lads hidden away in a leafy suburbia and only accessible to her via glimpses on television and in newspapers. This coach on the field is a real-life effigy of what she imagines a rugby man to be: shoulders wide and straight like bridges, a commanding voice and confident stride that indicate a familiarity with achievement. Awkward days like today will be worth it if Robbie grows up to be half of this man.
She deliberately stays well away from the field’s white- washed sideline yet can easily identify Robbie lagging behind the horde. He moves like a ferry doing a U-turn, reminding Maria of her own sluggishness at sports when she was his age. It brings a mild sense of comfort, a sign that Jimmy’s genes have not fully infiltrated the boy’s DNA. Still, Robbie does have Jimmy’s top- heavy physique: a tubby belly and legs like a new-born calf. Yet, like Maria, he doesn’t appear eager to join in unless the coach yells loudly. You can tell Robbie is only pretending to take part, running after the ball when it moves away from him and then retreating whenever it comes close. That’s Jimmy there, all right. Like how he pretended his ‘operations’ needed to continue to help the community, long after everyone else was sick of fighting and the noble mystique of the cause was confined to history. Then his grip on the past slipped, unveiling a grimy motive that transcended from a campaign of fear to outright ferocity against more vulnerable targets than the army. “We’re owed this payoff for the sacrifices we made,” he’d say after handing her a wad of cash. “That fella was no saint, by the way.”
DESPITE ROBBIE’S EFFORTS to stay on the margins, the ball eventually glides toward him. Maria steels herself, as if she’s the one ready to make a dash for the line. Robbie holds his arms out rigidly, awaiting the ball’s arrival, until he flinches and lets it slip through his hands like a soaped-up trout. The coach groans loudly. Robbie seems to say something back, probably an excuse, but Maria can’t hear. The coach marches right up to Robbie, towering above him. “That’s not how we do things at Xavier,” he bellows. “Now man up and get involved.” Robbie’s little legs scurry and his eyes are wide and uncertain, like a puppy that has been shooed away.
It seems an overreaction from the coach—all because a child made a mistake with a rugby ball. But the coach knows better than her. Time to wander off somewhere else, she decides, and come back when Robbie has finished another day exposed to the “demands of excellence” that the Xavier brochure trumpets. Then a piercing yell from behind changes her plans. “Let’s go, boys, concentrate,” cheers a man from behind Maria. “Eye on the ball, Edward.” Maria glances over her shoulder to see a small man approaching with several other parents. A female voice asks Maria if she’s enjoying the game.
“It’s good, yes,” croaks Maria. “Very good.” The woman is older than Maria expected, offering a gentle smile and soft, baggy eyes that look like they’re stuffed with cotton. A round of introductions ensues with Maria feeling like a lost lamb, bleating out her name over and over. She instantly forgets the folks’ names. There’s two men—a tall chap with glasses who’s with the soft-eyed woman. The other shouty fella is shorter than Maria and continues his instructions toward the field. Another woman, presumably his wife, reaches over and lays her fingers on Maria’s arm. The woman’s long neck is decorated with pearls that look like they cost more than Maria’s house. Well, technically they did because Maria’s new house is owned by the city council.
“So, your husband didn’t play?” the long-necked woman asks with a strained grin that looks like it was pulled up her cheeks by levers. How much does she know about Maria’s husband? Oh, it’s the loose wedding ring Maria put on today for the first time in ages because she thought it would make her feel more normal.
“No, he played hurling,” answers Maria.
“Very interesting, a true Irish game. He’s working today?”
“Yes. Yes, he is,” says Maria, trying hard to suppress her accent and the quiver in her voice.
She feels the dread of the pause.
“Where does he work?” says the woman.
“He’s in operations.”
“Like Jeff,” she says gesturing to the small man who’s still
shouting at the game. “He’s Chief Operations Officer at a hedge fund. What company is your husband at?”
“It’s a small business group. A bit under the radar.”
The woman doesn’t respond and starts straining her neck like a swan, looking to see if anyone else is around. The other woman, the one with the soft eyes, begins talking directly to Maria about how lovely the grounds are. She seems friendly, commenting on how the grass is so much greener than the yellowed fuzz in her garden. “Looks like the school uses well-rotted manure,” says Maria, letting slip her farming background. “Oh, is that the secret?” says the soft-eyed woman, leaning inward. Her husband hums in agreement. Maria’s chest warms from a little glow of acceptance.
There’s lots more detail to go into, but Maria can’t hide a wince when she hears the coach yelling at someone for being “lazy!” Is Robbie under fire again?
“I know how you feel,” says soft-eyed woman. “It’s a bit unusual—”
“My son?” says Maria, her jaw tightening.
“Oh, no. The coach. He’s very loud.”
“Ah, sorry.” Maria breaks into a skittish laugh of relief. “Is this normal in rugby?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Nah, there’s no need for him to be so harsh,” adds soft-eyed woman’s tall husband. “I think he’s putting on a show for us.”
“Aye, thought as much,” blurts Maria, her accent inflecting as an imaginary weight leaps off her back. “Ridiculous carry-on from him, it’s supposed to be a bit of craic. What’s his problem, anyway?”
No answers are forthcoming. But there are questions.
“Are you new to Xavier?” says the small shouty man, spinning around like he’s on a swivel chair.
His words hang in the air, like nettles stinging Maria’s face. She chews her thin lips. “Yes, first time here.”
“That is Chris-to-pher Hamm-ond,” announces swan-neck woman, separating the name’s syllables so much you could drive a bus through them. “He’s been a core member of the Xavier family for many years.”
“He’s brought so much success to Xavier,” chimes the small man. “Not to mention a great player himself.”
“He sure was,” adds the tall husband of soft-eyed woman. Maria stares at her scuffed shoes as the volleys are launched. “These boys would do well to heed his advice.”
“Did you hear about the money he raised on the charity cycle
“If only more people were like him.”
The couples turn toward the field and continue showering Hammond with compliments as he struts around his domain. Maria, paralyzed by indecision, remains near the couples but stands a few feet behind, hoping they’ll forget she’s there.
At least Robbie is oblivious to her dismal attempt at fitting in. How is she supposed to give him proper advice on things she’s clueless about? Maybe some of Jimmy’s good genes will eventually come through and will somehow only help Robbie be confident and good at rugby, without the bad stuff. He has an opportunity now to make future business connections and all the trappings that give a life of independence, free from the desperate escapism his mother sought, where she followed the first person she met because he offered a speckle of purpose within her teenage gloom.
If only she could redo it all. Even just go back to when Robbie’s infant limbs were soft and mushy, like raw sausages, not yet under threat of consumption by the harsh reality of expectations. There were no worries about how his emerging personality would translate into abstract notions like measuring success. Or how he’d judge her.
MARIA’S BEEN SO STUCK IN HER OWN HEAD that she missed Robbie catching the ball. Now he’s running with it. Maria moves closer to the field, right onto the sideline in front of the couples. Robbie is sprinting fast, finally showing signs of a latent athleticism. Briefly. His legs falter, and he plops onto his arse, accompanied by several titters from around the field. Maria readies for Hammond to yell something. Robbie beats him to it.
The word travels far and wide like the stench from a cracked slurry tank. A piercing shrill of a whistle puts all eyes on Hammond, who stands motionless. Maria feels her stomach snaking into a knot. She’s sure Robbie was shouting at his boots—he must have tripped on a loose lace. Robbie’s never said that word before; it’s another thing he’s picked up from, well, her. But she only ever says it about Jimmy, no one else.
She watches Hammond’s finger draw Robbie closer, like reeling in a fish that’s given up. Maria can’t hear what’s been said, though there’s something about “don’t speak like that down here …” And then another word. Laddie? Or was it Nordie? Nah, it must have been laddie. She hears chuckling coming from the small shouty man. What’s he laughing at? It must have been Nordie.
Hammond waves his long firehose arms, signaling the end of the game and an instruction of fleeting handshakes between the boys, who are quickly guided away by older students to a table of snacks. Maria watches her boy lag behind the group, head bowed as if his face is crumpling into itself. The same way Jimmy looked the last time she saw him.
A strange energy runs down her arms, like electricity stinging her tendons. She senses Jimmy, the wisping breeze like his breath on her neck, asking why she’s not defending their son. But what’s she supposed to do? Complain? Around these folks, her gargled words sound like an anabolic frog lodged in her throat. Writing is a waste of time, too. As if they would listen to someone who’s only here because Xavier was forced to create a “social integration program” for several students. She imagines Hammond crumpling her letter with his ham-sized fist.
Maria knows what Jimmy would do, though. Firstly, he’d go over to that small shouty man and make him squeal like a pig stuck under a gate. Jimmy would leave the husband of soft-eyed woman alone, he seems all right, but Hammond would get it. Maybe not here; no one’s taking Hammond down in a fist fight. Instead, Hammond would find a surprise arriving at his door. The thought brings a pinch of guilty relief to Maria, like touching a part of herself she forgot existed.
Poor Jimmy. Maybe if she wasn’t so desperate for change, he could be here—a father watching his son playing beyond the gates of a hallowed gentry estate. And maybe Robbie would like the sport if he had Jimmy’s guidance. Jimmy’s heart was in the right place, until she broke it by ripping Robbie from his arms, abandoning him to die alone in England. That’s the Jimmy she prefers to remember. Not the Jimmy that was on the run because he cut a teenager to bits, then got a heart attack when the coppers smashed into his safehouse, leaving Maria to be charged with covering up his crimes and making Robbie an orphan for 163 days. As she withered to the bone, she swore every one of those days that Robbie would never be vulnerable again. That was supposed to involve moving to a new city and the safest school around.
It’s time to go, she finally decides, and begins the march toward the boys at the bottom of the field. Nothing will ever get between her and Robbie again. Except Hammond. His mountainous frame appears in her path. She thought he was heading back toward the ballroom with the couples, but now he’s going toward the boys, sauntering with a languid plod as if trying to crush every blade of grass on his turfed catwalk. She’s about twenty yards behind him, but the distance is closing as her footsteps inexplicably quicken, like wheels gliding on ice.
Now she’s just feet from his back that’s as wide as a barn door, topped off with a tree stump of a neck.
“My son,” she says loudly in an unfamiliar voice from deep in her chest. “What’s your problem?”
The pounding of her heart thumps her eardrums like a leather ball being kicked at a drum. Her mind never anticipated that he’d turn around, and when he does, she sees a mustache and cap with the lion of the Xavier crest.
“Excuse me? Who are you?” he says with a voice that’s refined yet gruff, as if his throat is filled with the same thick hair of his mustache.
“You’re picking on him too much. Do you know how fragile he is?”
“Who? I treat them all the same.”
“They’re only little boys.”
“I’ve been here nineteen years. I think I know how to handle the boys.”
Hammond continues on his way, though brisker than before. Maria’s hands ball up into fists and she digs her nails into her palms, determined not to cry. She follows him. She sprints. Hammond turns to face her. Maria runs right at him and sees the whites of his eyes flare up like headlights. She stops just short of him; he flinches and somehow gets his feet tangled, flumping onto his arse. His cap falls off, revealing a bald crown. He tries to bounce up immediately, but his foot slides on the slickly manicured grass, and he flounders like a child.
Maria’s eyes shift in and out of focus, as if refusing to process what’s happening. But it’s a familiar disorientation she became accustomed to during Jimmy’s operations. She steps around Hammond and waves over at Robbie, who’s among the other boys eating orange slices. She can’t tell if he sees her or not; they all seem more interested in the food. She turns back up the field.
Hammond dusts his knees and mutters something that Maria ignores. She continues casually, arms crossed over her chest as she feels the sun peeking out from the clouds to point a finger at her. Reaching the top of the field, she sits down in the shade of the trees and waits until the boys traipse off.
A tremor circulates through her limbs and continues as she glides through the ballroom, receiving smiles from soft-eyed woman and her husband—knowing smiles of approval? Maybe pity? Or did they even see what happened outside? Maria meets Robbie in the marble hallway and squeezes her arm around his shoulders until he shrugs it off. On the drive home, they don’t talk about the day, or much else.
That night, she lies awake in restlessness. Strains of fear percolating as the minutes pass, her mind unable to build the barriers. Will Hammond seek revenge on Robbie? If she really wants to protect Robbie, shouldn’t she withdraw him from the school right away, so he can avoid Hammond during rugby practice in the morning? But maybe Hammond doesn’t know that Robbie is her son. What if Robbie is shamed with expulsion because of her actions?
There’s a brief entry into the foggy hinterland between sleep and wake until she hears sparrows singing outside—a sound she used to enjoy until Robbie told her it’s a sign of the birds’ distress. That’s what he learned in school. The singing is accompanied by an unfamiliar rustling downstairs that turns into a loud slam. It’s barely dawn, far too early for Robbie to be up.
With a cloudy head and Jimmy’s old hurling stick in hand she passes Robbie’s darkened room and descends the creaky stairs. She freezes at the sight of a dark object near the front door. In the faint light, she sees a bag of some kind. She approaches, crouched and taut, with slashing images of consequences catching up. It’s a sports bag. Something is sticking out. A boot. For rugby. It’s Robbie’s new bag that he must have packed himself. From the kitchen comes a clinking of metal and the rushing of cereal into a bowl, full of hunger, readying for the day.
Ronan Keenan’s fiction credits include publication in Pif Magazine, The Virginia Normal, Flash Fiction Magazine, From The Well 2018, and 2020 anthologies. His nonfiction writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Irish Times and World Policy Journal, among others. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Delmarva Review, Volume 14 (2021, paperback, 423 pages) is an independent collection of new poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. In this, its largest edition, editors selected the writing of seventy authors that stood out from thousands of submissions during the year. The review is available in print and digital editions from Amazon.com and other major online booksellers, as well as from Mystery Loves Company, in Oxford.
The journal is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit literary publication with funding support from individual tax-deductible contributions, sales, and a public grant from Talbot Arts with revenues from the Maryland State Arts Council.