I have previously published Stuff Happened on my blog in three different instalments, but I also wanted to publish it here in one longer post, for those who would prefer to read all of the story at once. For people who prefer to read it in three parts, here are the links to part one, part two and part three. 🙂
‘Well! Are we all ready to shovel some shit?’ Ben asks gleefully as he starts up the Jeep and maneouvres it out of Jenny’s driveway. Bébhinn laughs at this and glances into the back seat, where Jenny – wearing her trademark bright red lipstick, as usual, with a matching red bandanna tied around her tight, unruly black curls – beams back at her.
‘I’m going to do more shit-shovelling today than anyone has ever done,’ Jenny declares emphatically.
‘Wellies?’ Ben calls out.
‘Mine have a couple of holes in them, but they should be grand,’ Jenny’s partner John says a little fretfully, as he pulls them out of a worn-looking plastic bag and examines them. ‘I put a bit of Sellotape over the cracks, see?’
‘I’ve brought extra, in case anyone forgot one,’ Jenny says cheerfully.
‘Will there be a riot?’ Bébhinn asks with a laugh.
‘If we get too close to Perla’s babies, yes,’ Ben replies. ‘Lynn says she’s very protective of them.’
’She’s a pig who gave birth recently,’ Bébhinn explains to a bewildered-looking John. ‘Lynn and Steven took her in not too long ago. She’s gorgeous! She has the most soulful pair of eyes I’ve ever seen. But she doesn’t like people going too close to the piglets.’
‘Ah, right … Jen, where did I put the damned bottle opener?’ John exclaims, throwing his hands up in the air. ‘I thought it was in the same bag as the cakes.’
‘Well, I don’t know, darling…’
‘Do we need to go back to the house for it?’
‘Ah no, I’m sure Lynn and Steven will have their own one.’
‘But what if they don’t?’ John frets. He leans forward in his seat. ‘Ben, would you mind turning back?’
‘Don’t mind him, Ben, he’s getting himself into an ould state, as usual,’ Jenny trills affectionately. ‘I’ll call Lynn now and ask whether she has her own bottle opener. That should put your mind at rest. Okay?’
Bébhinn shakes her head and smiles as she listens to them. Those two never fail to make her laugh.
‘Hello, Lynn? Yes, we’re on our way. John has gotten all upset about forgetting his bottle opener. I wondered if you might have one … You do? Great. That’s great, my dear, we’ll see you soon. Bye now.’ Jenny hangs up and beams at her partner, before pulling him close to her and planting a kiss on his forehead. ‘Relax now, you big worry wart, you.’
After exchanging a brief look of amusement with Ben, Bébhinn settles back into her seat and closes her eyes. She can’t wait to see the pigs – though the experience will undoubtedly be tinged with sadness, now that Jill is gone – and watch the chickens skip briskly across their yard. She can’t wait for the moment of their arrival, when the dogs will run right up to the gate – as they always do – and set up a cacophony of excited barking. She can’t wait to get her hands on that battered fence and see it gradually taking on its former shape, as they all work together on it…
They have now approached the Lucan slip road. With a slight lurch of her stomach, Bébhinn tries to avoid looking directly at it. She doesn’t want to think about the last time she was in Lucan. Not now, at any rate…
‘Okay, so I’ve just got to pick up Lexi,’ Ben says as he turns onto the slip road, much to Bébhinn’s alarm, ‘and then we can –’
‘You’re picking up Lexi?’ The question bursts, unbidden and high-pitched, out of her mouth. She hastily clears her throat, attempting to make her voice sound as nonchalant as possible. ‘I didn’t know that.’
‘Yeah, she was saying she might not be able to make it today because her flatmate needs the car, so I said I could come and pick her up, no problem,’ Ben explains, frowning slightly at her.
‘Ah, right. So … she told you this at the committee meeting, I guess?’
“Bébhinn cannot help watching Lexi as she runs out of her apartment building a minute later, clutching a pink duffle bag, her brown curls streaming out behind her…”
Ben throws another sceptical glance her way, but she deliberately avoids looking at him and turns to stare out the window instead. The only way she will get through this with her dignity intact, she resolves to herself, is if she doesn’t look at Lexi or speak to her unless absolutely necessary. Yes, that’s what she will do. Still, she can’t stop her stomach from churning as they get ever closer to her apartment block.
Once they are there, Ben makes a brief phone call to say that they are waiting outside. Bébhinn cannot help watching Lexi as she runs out of her apartment building a minute later, clutching a pink duffle bag, her brown curls streaming out behind her … but she has to quickly avert her eyes.
She picks a spot on the windshield and decides not to move her gaze from it until they have arrived at the sanctuary. She can still hear everything, though. She can hear Lexi greeting Jenny and John, and asking Ben where he got this Jeep, and Ben explaining that Lynn loaned it to him for the day. She can hear all of them exchanging pleasantries about the weather, and about how great it will be to get a solid day’s work done under these conditions… Oh God, she must look so rude, just sitting here and saying nothing. A few minutes pass before Lexi says – in a slightly annoyed tone – ‘hi Bébhinn.’
Bébhinn reluctantly turns to look at her. There is something challenging in the other woman’s hazel eyes – something that dares Bébhinn to continue ignoring her, now that she has directly called her out by name. Bébhinn forces her lips into what she hopes is a casual, carefree smile.
‘Hey Lexi. How are you?
‘Grand thanks. And you?’
With that, Bébhinn turns back around, her cheeks crimson. She is well aware that Ben is staring strangely at her yet again.
“There is something challenging in Lexi’s eyes – something that dares Bébhinn to continue ignoring her, now that she has directly called her out by name.”
‘Well, it’ll be great to get a bit of fresh air, I must say,’ Jenny remarks hurriedly, rushing to fill the awkward silence. ‘I can’t wait to get stuck in. I haven’t been to the sanctuary in ages. But this lazy lump here –’ she elbows John, then kisses him on the cheek, ‘well, he’ll spend the day by the fire reading his newspaper, won’t you John?’
‘I will not!’ he protests. ‘I’m going to spend the day cleaning out the sheds, I’ll have you know.’
‘Ah, you know I’m teasing you, darling…’
The sound of their jokes seems to fade slightly as Bébhinn closes her eyes. She’s feeling a bit faint and queasy – hopefully she isn’t about to pass out. She should have eaten a bigger breakfast this morning…
Ben’s voice reaches her as though from a great distance. ‘Are you alright, Bébhinn?’
‘Fine. Fine … a bit carsick, is all.’
‘Carsick?!’ Ben screeches. ‘Well, if you’re planning to throw up, O’Brien, you can get out of here this instant. If Lynn hears that her Jeep has sustained vomit damage on my watch – on top of everything else she’s had to deal with lately – I will be killed. Let me repeat that. Killed.’
‘Don’t worry, Bébhinn,’ Jenny says soothingly. ‘I have a couple of poop scoop bags in my backpack somewhere. You can use those to get sick in. I can’t reach the bag myself, with this casserole on my lap, but it’s that brown one with the flowers and sequins, see it?’
‘I’ll get ‘em,’ John assures her, reaching over to it.
‘We’re pulling over,’ Ben insists, squinting at the stretch of road just ahead of them. ‘There’s an empty field over there. The footpath beside it is a bit high, but we should be grand…’
‘Car sickness is horrible, isn’t it?’ John interjects sympathetically. ‘My God, I used to get it something terrible, when I was a lad…’
Bébhinn feels rising alarm at the fuss everyone is making. ‘No, Ben, honestly –’
‘We’re pulling over,’ Ben repeats, with grim determination. He manoeuvres the Jeep over the footpath a little too quickly, and it gives a sudden jolt.
‘Be careful with that steering wheel, Ben,’ Jenny howls. ‘I nearly spilled the casserole all over the floor…’
Bébhinn can feel her cheeks turning crimson yet again. She glances at Lexi – who is gazing fixedly out the window, her jaw tight – and mutters, ‘Ben, there’s no need for this. Really. Maybe if I just tried to sleep it off for a while…’
‘When I said Lynn would kill me if I bring this Jeep back to her with vomit damage, I was not exaggerating.’
‘But –’ Bébhinn begins, before Ben gets out of the Jeep – closing the driver’s door firmly behind him – and makes his way to the door beside her seat. He yanks it open and says gently, ‘I’ll walk with you to the edge of the field if you like.’
‘Don’t forget those poop bags!’ Jenny reminds them brightly. John has now finished rummaging through her sequinned backpack, and is holding out a few small plastic bags. Bébhinn sighs, resigned to her fate. ‘Thanks, John.’
The sound of the passing traffic is slightly overwhelming. Bébhinn cautiously gets out of the Jeep, assisted by Ben, and walks to a small tree a short distance away from the edge of the field. She leans her hand against it – acutely aware that John, Jenny and Lexi must be watching her from the Jeep – and slumps slightly as a fresh wave of nausea hits her.
‘You okay?’ Ben asks softly.
‘I … I will be.’ As she takes a few deep breaths, her nausea begins to subside. She closes her eyes for a moment – wondering whether she will vomit – but doesn’t feel as though she will. All she had for breakfast was a tiny apple and a spoonful of yoghurt. ‘Nothing’s going to come up. I can feel it.’
Ben rubs her shoulder and watches her with concern for a few moments. ‘You sure you’re up for this, Bébh?’
Bébhinn inhales deeply again. ‘Yeah … yeah, I’m sure. I feel a bit better being out here.’
‘If you still feel sick when we get to the sanctuary, I’m sure you can just lie down somewhere.’
‘I think I’ll be okay. Let’s just … let’s wait here a bit before we go back.’
‘No problem.’ He leans against the tree and folds his arms. ‘So. What’s going on with you and Lexi?’
‘Come on, Bébh. When have you ever been able to bullshit me?’
She stares at him for a moment, struggling to come up with a plausible story, before her shoulders sag.
‘You remember the night of the fundraising gig?’
‘Of course,’ she mutters awkwardly, remembering that this was the night he and Neil broke up. ‘Well, afterwards, I – we … well, we were hanging out. Me and Lexi, that is. And a few of her friends. In Pygmalion. I got a little drunk, I guess, but not … I mean … I wasn’t, you know, really drunk. Just kind of tipsy.’ She knows she is stammering, talking too quickly, stumbling over her words. The only way she can get this story out is if she hurries it along as quickly as possible. ‘I didn’t want to go all the way back to Owen’s place at the end of the night. Not after … you know, the fight we had. Lexi didn’t have enough for a taxi back to Lucan on her own, so she … um, she said we could split the taxi bill and I could stay at hers. I just slept on the sofa for a few hours, it was fine. But then we … in the morning, we ended up talking and…’
Ben heaves an enormous sigh. They stand there for a few seconds – listening to the roar of traffic on the road beyond – before he turns to her and opens up his arms. ‘Come here.’
Bébhinn leans into the hug. She is comforted by his warmth, his sheer size, and the fact that he is willing to simply be there for her. ‘Um … Ben, how are you?’ she asks cautiously, after they have spent a few moments in silence. ‘The whole thing with Neil – we never really talked about it…’
She feels him tense up. ‘I’m alright,’ he says eventually. ‘Well. I will be, at some point in the future.’ He stands back and smiles a little sadly at her. ‘Let’s keep our chins up, okay?’
They make their way back to the Jeep and climb in. Bébhinn allows Ben to respond to Jenny and John’s questions – ‘all okay?’, ‘no need for the bags, then?’, ‘ah yeah, Bébh just needed to be outside for a bit, we can get back on the road now…’ – while she settles into her seat and closes her eyes once more. She has stopped feeling faint, at least.
“Bébhinn looks back at Lexi a little nervously and chances a small smile: the most she feels able to give her, for now.”
‘Are you alright?’
The question has come from Lexi. Bébhinn’s eyes fly open, but she does not turn around to face her.
‘Mm-hm. Yeah. I just … you know … felt a bit light-headed.’ After a moment’s hesitation, she adds, ‘thank you.’
Bébhinn looks back at the other woman a little nervously and chances a small smile: the most she feels able to give her, for now. Lexi responds with a shy smile of her own before turning her head to look out the window.
‘Fresh air will do wonders for car sickness,’ Jenny declares stoutly. ‘So, did you not need those poop bags?’
‘No,’ Bébhinn says with a smile as she hands them back to her. ‘Thanks anyway.’
✮ ✮ ✮
‘Ah, there you all are now!’ Lynn’s broad grin greets them as they pull up to the gate. She is a middle-aged woman of small stature, with short red hair and a round, open face. She bustles over to the gate, shooing away a few dogs who have – as usual – gathered around it, full of excitement. ‘Let me open that for you now, Ben…’
She unlatches the gate and Ben slowly moves the Jeep to a nearby spot behind the chickens’ shed.
Suddenly, one dog – a particularly exuberant husky – takes a running jump at the Jeep and climbs right through Lexi’s open window, despite Lynn’s belated attempts to pull him away.
‘Ah, Bobby! Get down! You bold boy! Get down, I’m warning you…’
The dog plonks himself on Lexi’s lap – his tongue lolling out of the corner of his mouth as he pants rapidly, dripping saliva everywhere – and lets out a few happy barks.
‘Are you okay?!’ Lynn asks anxiously, running up to the window. ‘For God’s sake, Bobby…’
Lexi’s response is somewhat muffled, but she sounds amused. ‘Well, breathing is a bit of a challenge right now, but –’
‘I am so sorry. He’s a bad dog. Do you hear that, Bobby? You’re an awful, awful dog! I should have locked them all away before you arrived. I was so busy with the chickens just before you got here, but I should have remembered…’
Bébhinn watches him stick his head out of the window – still panting and looking utterly delighted with himself – and chuckles. Out of all the dogs at the sanctuary, Bobby is her favourite. Lynn has always said that huskies are ‘lovable assholes’ – incorrigibly stubborn, no matter how much training they receive – and she has to agree with that.
‘How are you, Lynn?’ she asks, as they all begin to get out of the Jeep.
‘Oh fine, fine…’ the older woman replies, still looking somewhat frazzled. ‘It’s lovely to see you all. I’m still upset about Jill, of course, and so is Steven, but – ah, Jenny, you brought your casserole? You shouldn’t have! Thank you so much … and Ben, thanks for bringing the Jeep back. You’re absolutely sure you’ll be okay getting the bus home tonight? If it goes on late, you know you can all stay here, I’ve a couple of empty rooms at the moment, but hopefully things won’t go on too long and Steven will be back from town soon so he’ll be able to pitch in – ah John! How are you? Long time, no see… What? Cakes too? Oh, you and Jenny have us spoiled. You’ll all come in for a cup of tea, after that bit of excitement.’ She gives Bobby a light tap on the head as he saunters past her, tail held high.
Lynn and Steven’s kitchen is cosy and bright. A large concrete fireplace takes up most of one wall and a few armchairs and stools are dotted around it. It is to this area that Lynn directs them, while she bustles around making tea and gratefully taking the casserole and cakes from Jenny and John.
Bébhinn and Lexi begin to move towards the same armchair. They look at one another, startled.
‘Oh, sorry, I –’
‘No, don’t worry.’
‘You take the seat.’
‘No no, you’re the one who had to deal with Bobby jumping all over you! You take it.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Don’t be sorry, you have nothing to be sorry for.’
Lynn stares at them both with a raised eyebrow as she approaches their group, carrying a tray loaded with tea paraphernalia. Ben looks as though he is struggling not to laugh. Jenny and John exchange a glance – John momentarily seems as though he’s about to say something, but she lightly squeezes his arm, holding him back, and reaches out for a cup of tea. ‘Thank you for this, Lynn…’
The conversation soon turns to the work they will be doing today: cleaning out the pigs’ barn, pulling weeds out of the vegetable patch, and mending a fence that was blown over in a recent storm. Determined as Bébhinn is to concentrate on the discussion – knowing that it is an honour for her to help the animals who so often arrive here utterly broken, unable to trust anyone – she can’t help sneaking an occasional glance at Lexi. Lexi is listening closely to Lynn’s instructions, her brow furrowed. As a relatively new volunteer, she is still not familiar with the way the sanctuary operates.
“Lynn stares at them both with a raised eyebrow. Ben looks as though he is struggling not to laugh. Jenny and John exchange a glance.”
After tea, they make their way out to the rickety old shed that houses the gardening tools. ‘Oh God,’ Lynn groans as she opens the door and peers inside. ‘State of those rakes in the corner. If one of ye could stay here and sort through them for a bit – just give them a quick soap down…’
‘I’ll do that,’ Lexi assures her.
‘Ah thanks, Lexi,’ Lynn says warmly. ‘The rest of ye now –’ she clicks her fingers and points them in the direction of the shed ‘– grab a spade and let’s do this.’
‘Here we go,’ Ben declares jauntily as he steps into the shed. ‘Shit shovelling time!’
‘Great to hear your enthusiasm, Ben,’ Lynn remarks wryly as she begins to stride out towards the field.
Bébhinn is the last person to pick up her spade. She lingers, allowing the others to pass by, and watches Lexi pull the rakes out of the corner. Her throat feels tight.
Lexi freezes, but doesn’t look around. ‘What?’
‘I’m sorry. I really am.’
No response is forthcoming: Lexi continues to stare down at the rakes, with her back turned to Bébhinn. Bébhinn sighs and turns to go.
‘Why did you leave?’
Her voice is sharp.
Bébhinn finds herself stumbling over her words yet again in her haste to reply. ‘I just couldn’t – I … I didn’t know what to say. Afterwards. I got scared, I freaked out, I didn’t know how to handle it. But when I got home … I told Owen.’
Lexi turns around and faces her at long last. Her eyes are wide. Concerned. ‘What?’
‘Things weren’t working with him. I knew that. It was nothing to do with you … not really. We were having problems long before you. But I – I never had the courage to talk to him … and I should have. I let him down. I let you down. I…’ Bébhinn feels her throat constrict with the effort of holding back a sudden wave of tears. ‘I should have been honest.’
‘What did he say?’
Bébhinn smiles ruefully at her. ‘Well, I’m staying on Ben’s couch right now. That says it all, really… Anyway, I have to…’ she gestures awkwardly towards the field. ‘Can we talk later?’
‘Sure. And, um … Bébhinn, thank you for saying sorry. That means a lot.’
‘Don’t thank me. I should have done it long before now.’
Bébhinn steps outside and turns to face the cool breeze, the chickens skipping across the yard, and the dogs, who are barking and jumping around, as usual, running after Lynn and the others as they make their way to the barns. The sound of their joy fills her ears, obscuring all else.
The two piglets: A. Sparrow/Flickr
The two dogs at the gate: Puppy Bumpers
The small tree: Wikimedia Commons
The two women laughing: Women’s Wellness Care
Husky in car: YouTube
“Laughing” husky: Tenor
Woman in shed: Shutterstock