So, she had thrown the dice. He had not made a sound, but he was gone sure enough, and now the muffled thud of the hall door was like a blow to her heart. Angry because he had not answered, because they had not clashed in a row, because he had not acknowledged her feelings, if only to rubbish them – she trembled as she finished dressing.
She went to the front window and looked out at the Liffey and the passing traffic. How quickly a body came to rely on another in order to know itself. Although not so quickly – it was over the past several months that he had become her only friend. Now he was gone, and she was alone – but, she swore, she wouldn’t be alone for long. She ran to the bathroom and examined herself in the pocked, half-length mirror. With a little war paint, she could turn any man’s head. She pulled up her tee-shirt and stared at her stretch marks. Her weak point, and she hated it, railed against the injustice of it. Mungo didn’t care about them and she had learned to relax with him because of this. It was a lie, of course, but you needed lies to get along, sometimes. Still, with a little care and distraction they could be concealed, at least until her fish was hooked.
Three o’clock. Three o’clock. Why three o’clock? Why three o’clock?! Yes … They had arranged that she would collect Arthur at three o’clock, but she didn’t know why. Yes she did. So that she could stay a while, there would be no rush, it wasn’t often they had time together. They were nice people, with little sign of their genes in Brian. There had been, which was why she married him, but he had turned into something else. Turned by life, and by what life had done to her, perhaps. It would be nice to talk for a while. She marvelled at how two conservative people could be so tolerant of her leaving their son.
They could talk for a while, then she could have Arthur in Ringsend a decent time before dinner at six. It was all worked out, all arranged to fit other people’s schedules and habits. That was why and if she didn’t move she’d be late. The angry part of her wanted to be late, if only by ten minutes, or a quarter of an hour, maybe. Somehow it would be a blow against other people’s habits and schedules which ruled her fife, and against Mungo, and not least, against herself, of course. She wanted that, because she hated herself for letting herself be judged null and void. She pinched herself hard, trying to feel something acute, but it was no use, it could not reach beyond that black, still sea of recrimination. If she butted her head through the pane of glass, perhaps, cut her forehead, let some real blood flow. No. She was not melodramatic. If she was going to hurt herself it would be subtle and concealed from judgmental eyes.
The storm passed, and she did not shake any more, but neither did she leave to meet Arthur and his grandparents until her quarter of an hour had elapsed, which she spent trying not to think. Then something clicked, and the Tess who acquiesced in everything took over. She was about to leave but then realized she could not go the way she was, that she should wash and put on a bra and bright summer dress she had picked up in a charity shop, and having done this, she stuffed a cardigan into a shoulder bag for the evening.
It was a cloudless day and she walked up Capel Street, across through the markets and up Church Street on her way to Phibsboro, glad she had put on the dress, even if she could have done without the bra, and wishing she had sun-glasses.
The markets gave her a lift as she sensed several men glancing at her as she passed.
There was a private door, but she preferred going in by the shop. It was a small news agents and grocery, the front room of their house in effect, but fourteen hours a day there were always a few customers. Now there was only one, an old woman who loudly proclaimed she was dying of the heat and for whom Susan was preparing an ice-cream.
`Ah there you are Tess – I’ll be with you in a minute.’
`Hello Susan.’ The old woman looked her up and down.
`Isn’t the heat fierce.’
`It is.’ The woman looked her up and down again.
“Course it’s alright for ye young wans’, she said darkly as she limped out of the shop.
`It’s a while since I was called a young wan, Susan!’
As the customers came and went, they chatted, talked about how Arthur had been during his stay with them. Susan was a small grey-haired woman with a kind face and a warm voice. She’d had a breast removed, and sometimes Tess thought she saw that experience flicker across her eyes. They laughed a lot, as usual, and for a while Tess forgot what had happened earlier in the day, as if it had happened in the distant past.
More customers came, and Tess went out to the large patio and garden to find Arthur and Tom, who was supervising as Arthur watered the dozens of potted plants and flowers and shrubs with a plastic watering-can. Tess watched as Arthur stopped before each pot to receive instructions about how much water these particular flowers liked, and asked its name, before watering it.
Tom was bald and wore whiskers to compensate. In the shop he was straight and business-like; he would joke with the regulars, but always kept his distance in the end. Here, in. his garden with his grandson, he was a frail, gentle teacher imparting knowledge. It moved Tess very much and she was grateful that Arthur had such a man to look to.
`Hello Tom.’ They turned, Arthur still watering. `Hello Arthur.’
She kissed Arthur and then Tom, then sat with Tom on the bench and chatted with him. When Arthur had finished, Tom brought them on a tour of the garden, going over the names of each plant and flower with Arthur, who remembered many of them. It was a happy interlude, and Tess was reluctant to leave, assuring Tom and Susan that she would see them soon, knowing it was true only because she would bring Arthur back several times over the summer, and that otherwise, despite the serenity her visits gave her, she would not come.
They took a 22 to D’Olier Street and walked to Ringsend. Arthur was full of talk, and it seemed he was going to be a gardener when he grew up, a prospect which pleased Tess. Walking over the canal bridge, they fell to their own thoughts. Could Susan or Tom have guessed, she wondered, that an hour or two before they welcomed her as their daughter-in-law, she was in a sweaty embrace, writhing and groaning with a stranger? Could she herself have guessed that, minutes after their happy repose, she and that stranger, her only friend, would savage each other, with a few words and silence as weapons? Ding-dong-dell, pussy’s in hell. And now she could repent at leisure when her parents went to the pub later on, and Arthur was in bed, all heavy-eyed after his gardening.
After dinner her father persuaded Arthur to learn a tune on the tin whistle. He had a few whistles, along with his mouth organ, his button accordion and fiddle. As far as she knew, her mother hadn’t played the piano for a long time, which would explain the dud notes. An instrument could lose its potential to be played by not being played, or so she believed, thinking that pianos and humans were not all that different when it came down to it. Her father had Arthur play one or two simple Irish tunes on his own, then: `Do you know this one, Arthur?’ Arthur followed the tune, `The Yellow Bittern’, intently, as her father ran through it once, and then, encouraged, he joined in a duet.
Tess went to the bathroom and sat on the bowl, listening to Arthur’s faltering notes breaking the smooth flow of her father’s. He needed all this attention, this accumulation of love from his grandparents. It would deepen him as a man, make him more rooted and able to give, and she was pleased and glad for him, and for the men who were fulfilling their role; but she was outside it all, as if her role was all but over, becoming less and less, leaving her in the end with nothing but memories of him, and wanting, if she let herself be cursed, to relive them over and over.
She would have none of that.
The following morning she left Arthur with his grandparents for his holiday with them. His grandmother had discovered to her great pleasure that he liked her Schumann records and promised to get the piano tuned and to teach him. Tess was pleased too, not least because it would get her mother interested in playing music again.
She thought about Mungo all day and all the following days, and after she had received his card she physically missed him as time passed and took to relieving herself in the early hours of the morning to stop her tossing and turning and crying into her pillow, only to drift into a troubled sleep where she would see him loitering under the shade of an old tree, watching but never touching her.
She broke the days by spending an hour in The Winding Stair before going to see Arthur. A card came from Mungo to say his mother had died. Just that. She had no way to offer him sympathy or anything else.
One evening she surprised herself by going to see Tom and Susan. There were some very hot days, and she took Arthur and two of his friends to the beach in Howth. Tess settled on a place near the low dunes by the track as another DART train pulled in. The boys immediately stripped to their bathing trunks and ran to the water with their ball. The tide was out a good distance, and Tess watched them anxiously as they ran across the dappled sand, but then realized there were many children splashing happily about in the shallow water. Trawlers put-putted out of the harbour, by the island to the open sea. Tess stripped to her bathing costume, but instead of reading as she intended, lay on a towel and covered her eyes with her book. Then she sat up. She had, after all, come here to forget herself on a beautiful summer’s day. There were very few young adults on the beach, which surprised her. Mostly there were parents and grandparents, keeping an eye on small children. But then she saw a handsome couple, obviously in love, walk very slowly across the beach. He, though not tall or muscular, was trim and well-shaped. She was beautiful, her black hair cut at the nape, her one-piece costume displaying her flowing buttocks in a way which seemed just right. Tess envied her serenity, which she knew was the secret of her beauty.
A red inflatable whined across the water, making tight, foaming turns. They were obviously on manoeuvres; maybe it was a rescue team. Then Tess watched, amused, as four cyclists rode slowly in a line across the hard sand near the water. What struck her were the colours of the bicycles – red, yellow, green and orange – and how they rode wheel to wheel, as if carefully practising balance.
A few weeks after they had parted, she could bear it no more. All she had to show for her suffering were a handful of postcards, with messages so brief they might have been in code. They were, to an extent, but knowing this only added to her frustration. Her predicament, she knew, was in no small part due to obsession. There was nothing and no one – no adult – to replace him or at least put him in perspective. She went to the bathroom mirror again, and doubtfully examined her freckled and tanned but tired face from different angles. What had Mungo seen in a face like that, she wondered. She grinned, but the effect was grotesque. There was no way she could face a bar full of strangers like that. It was hopeless. At thirty-four her hour had passed. Mungo had been an aberration. He had been attracted to her because she was a lost soul like himself. It had, she conceded, turned out well for a while, but only because of the stories. If she attracted another lost soul and gave in to him because of loneliness, as she knew she would, it would be a disaster. She showered, washed and dried her hair, read a few chapters of a book and went to bed.
It was noon when she woke, and it took a few hours for her head to clear. The weather had broken and a light rain fell persistently. Cooped-up, Arthur would be bored stiff on a day like this. She went to Ringsend and brought him into town to see a children’s film, her mother insisting on giving her the money.
Arthur loved the film. He laughed and laughed, but she fell into a drowse. Later, they ate in a fast food place. She felt queasy as she watched him slurp down the vanilla milkshake on top of his burger and match-stick chips, but he loved all this, and that was what mattered. Then he startled her by humming a melody from Schumann’s Kinderszenen. He faltered, then grinned, pleased at her full attention.
`That’s great,’ she said, forgetting the garish surroundings and the numbing piped music, `go on.’ She couldn’t name the particular piece, but there it was in her head, note perfect.
`I forget the rest,’ he said. He twiddled with the milkshake straw. `Granny’s teaching it to me on the piano.’
`Did she get it tuned?’
`Yes!’ he laughed.
`That’s wonderful, Arthur,’ she said, and felt an unreasonable joy. Later, when she brought him home; he demonstrated the notes he could play, and she felt another stab of happiness.
`Thank you, mom,’ she said, putting an arm around her mother and squeezing her to her. Her mother blushed, her pleasure ill-concealed. Tess looked up the name of the piece. It was Hasche-Mann, Blind Man’s Buff.
It began to rain as she walked home. This time, she welcomed it as it turned into a downpour, and she made no attempt to hurry, relishing her drenching, how it made her light summer clothes cling to her, how her tears, released again, burned out of her eyes and were washed away by the rain. Tears of happiness, of pain, of loneliness, of guilt assuaged, relieved, postponed. The evening cleared as she crossed the Ha’penny Bridge and she felt light and alive, as if her blood had congealed but was now flowing and throbbing through her veins again.
She had a hot shower and dried her hair as she walked naked about the flat. It was beautifully warm, and the rain had cleared that terrible heaviness that had been in the air. In a fanciful moment she imagined she was in a tropical paradise, where one did such things as walking about as nature intended. She giggled, grateful for her levity.
On impulse, she checked her purse. There was still some money left from Arthur’s outing, enough for a few drinks, and doleday not far off. That was settled then; she was going to get herself a man. She blushed, as if someone had overheard her unbidden thoughts; then she repeated them. She was going to get herself a man, young, with a flat belly and a neat arse and soft eyes and nice hands and … and … and how’s yer father! She laughed, nervous and delighted at once. The idea of landing a young man in her net was ridiculous, but it was thrilling, too. With a little luck, she’d find one who was attracted to the older, experienced woman. Why not?
She pulled in her stomach, making her inhumanly thin, then, unable to hold it any longer, she puffed. Your guts for garters … The phrase came to her: I’ll have your guts for garters!
Had she any garters? No. Of course not, but extending one to examine it, she knew her tanned legs, with their sun-bleached hair, would do nicely thank you. Brown and bare, all the way up.
The make-up went on, unhurriedly, with great care but with a light touch. Make-up was one skill at least that she hadn’t lost, and she was enjoying the transformation of her face, an art she could take pride in. The faintest blusher, and then the lip-stick and the lightest mascara and it was done. One final touch, the dab of tissue on the lips … and the metamorphosis was complete. Whoever he was, he hadn’t a chance.
Grabbing her bag, she jauntily made to leave the flat, but instead she checked herself in the mirror one last time and froze in doubt. There was no way she could launch herself on the street like this, with her brazen shoulders and tarted face. It was all too obvious that her bright, backless frock was too young for her. Heart pounding, she stopped to consider. It was useless, she was fooling herself. Her breasts seemed ugly without the shaping bra, and her hairy legs, bleached or not, made her look like a sweating horse. Fuck it – fuck it. A fantasy had kept her vital and happy for an hour – but that was it, sister! That was it, and what more could she expect. The tears welled, but she fought them back, not wanting her careful work to end in smudge. So. So she still wanted to go out. Yes, and she would. Yes. But not like this. No. Not like this. A coat? Too warm. A jacket? Yes, a jacket, and she had a neat jacket that came to her waist. It had cost her fifty pence in a charity shop, but it was good quality stuff. Doubtfully, she put it on in front of the bathroom mirror, turned around, examined it from both sides. It covered her shoulders and back at least, and yes, her breasts weren’t so blatant – not that they were big or anything, she thought, trying to reassure herself, though she’d often worried about their smallness. She took off the jacket and sniffed it. It was okay, but she would have to get out the iron again.
She had been on her way to The Jasmine, a snazzy pub, but that was out of the question now. It was a crazy idea, hit upon only because the svelte young men there had their trousers stuffed with their fathers’ money, would buy her drinks and bring her to a night club. She hadn’t been to a night club since before she was married.
Shit! She had almost ironed a hole in her jacket while she lamented a lost night on the tiles. It was okay, though. And there was nothing wrong with Grogan’s. Especially since she’d heard, or rather overheard, that art students haunted it now, and she hadn’t been in there for a long time. Or anywhere else. The art student she conjured was lean and hungry-look-ing, a few inches taller than herself, with two days black and even stubble. No. No, he was clean-shaven, and his facial bones were strong, but subtle. He was quiet, but was used to the sight of an imperfect naked woman in the life drawing classes as well as a few beds here and there. He could appreciate her, she had no doubt about it.
She put on her jacket and, as an afterthought, a silk scarf that she had also bought in a charity shop, and walked to Grogan’s, apprehensive but with a steady, determined stride, open to what the night might bring but wishing to God she had a gin and tonic in her stomach. She stood outside Grogan’s, lost her nerve, and kept walking until she reached Grafton Street, where at least she could lose herself in the crowd. She walked towards Stephen’s Green and then back down again, pausing at the clothes shop windows, longing to touch the expensive fabrics, to feel the luxury of them on her body. She imagined how she would look in them, and decided which would suit her and which would not. On impulse she went for a drink in Davy Byrnes.
Self-conscious, she waited nervously for her drink, not daring to glance at the customers at the bar, and seated in small groups. It seemed so easy for them and so difficult for her. She sat alone at a table and felt shabby, although she knew no one had paid her the slightest attention. It was all she could do not to gulp back her drink. She would drink it slowly, and then go. She thought of the shops on Grafton Street again. What beautiful clothes! One day, she swore, if she had to rob for it, one day she would walk into a fashion joint, and spend five hours buying a dress, and underwear, and shoes, the whole shaggin’ lot! Despite herself, she gulped back the last of her drink, and left.
Back on Grafton Street, she paused at Brown Thomas’s window, and gorged herself again. Ah! she was only annoying her head, and she swept down the street. Her momentum carried her into Wicklow Street and, against all her intentions, she stopped off at the International Bar for another drink. After this one she would go home and have sense, and maybe write to Marian, and tell her her woes, and ask her had she room in her flat in Berlin, for a week, or maybe forever. This time she had less inhibitions about drinking quickly. She couldn’t care less if she never talked to another human being ever again, much less chat up a man, and her dreary flat seemed like the only haven she had ever dreamed of. She finished her drink and stood outside the bar, looking up South William Street.
`Come on,’ she said to herself, `go home,’ but instead she went to Grogan’s.
Although it was past nine o’clock there were still empty seats by the tables in the lounge. Tommy greeted her and brought her a gin and tonic, and she took several quick sips before taking in her surroundings. There were a lot of paintings on the wall since she had last been, and a few sculptures, by the art students, she supposed, without studying any of them beyond a glance. Across from her was a big old black and white photo of Killiney Bay and Wicklow Head. So, the changes in the pub were superficial, and she took comfort from the familiarity of the photograph.
Under it, two couples of late middle age were talking and laughing, but to her surprise, they were drinking pots of tea. She looked at them openly, admiring their lively, intelligent faces. She knew them to see; perhaps she had seen them here before, and she guessed they had not always drunk tea in public houses.
There were no art students in as yet; most likely they were in the bar, but there was a vociferous group in the seating next to her, all much younger than her. The fantasy her hopes had burgeoned on were fading. She had money for two more drinks, but already her isolation was bearing in on her. The couples under the photograph were leaving, and they were the only group she had warmed to.
To take her mind off herself, she looked hard at the photo, traced the line of the railway overlooking the beach. She remembered then that it was the Wexford line, the one Mungo would have travelled on, in what seemed an eternity ago. She wished he was here. Those brief hours on a few afternoons had kept her going. Now she did not even have the stories, those comforting lies they told each other, to keep her brain alive.
He wouldn’t be back. It had been an interlude, and he had returned to his wife, choosing comfort before passion and imagination. And as she looked at the photo, she realized why here were no art students. It was summer.
Someone in the group next to her got up to get a round of drinks, and a young man pushed back his stool to make way for him, hitting against Tess’s table and upsetting her drink. Embarrassed, he turned to her.
`Please excuse me!’
`Oh, it’s fine,’ she insisted. `No harm done.’
`Allow me to buy you another drink.’ He stood up. `What is it you are drinking?’ He smiled. `Please.’
`You’ve twisted my arm,’ she said, grinning. `A gin and tonic.’
He wasn’t a day over nineteen, she thought as she watched him at the bar. Tall and thin, with narrow hips and a tight cut on his hair, as if he had just finished military service. It was only then she realized he was German, and she swallowed hard. He was no Sascha, there was no experience in his clean-cut, open face, no sensual charm; she couldn’t imagine him having the daring to sweep her into his arms. He returned with the drink.
`Are you German?’
`Yes,’ he said, bringing his drink and sitting before her. Jesus. It was as easy as that. She had forgotten. `From Köln,’ he said, `do you know it?’
`No, I can’t say I do.’ Why couldn’t he have been from Berlin?
`Perhaps you know it as Cologne,’ he said. His grin was getting wider and she could see he thought she was easy. She grinned back.
`Ah yes, I have you now.’ He was drunk, which was fine, but she didn’t want him too drunk. His name was Max. The pub had filled suddenly and it made her feel more secure. She finished her first drink. Remarking how hot it was, she took off her jacket and saw his eyes widen a little in appreciation.
`I have a friend in Berlin,’ she said, but he had never been there and wasn’t interested in talking about Germany. His head was full of Ireland and Irish music and the wonderful pubs where you could meet people so easily and people liked to talk. So she went along with it as if that was her world too, as if she was immersed in it. She bought him a pint. They toasted each other. She told him what she could remember of a Fleadh Cheoil she had been to years before. The families of musicians, the drinking, the wildness, the craic. He loved it, knew more about it than she did.
`Where are you staying?’ she asked as the barmen began to call time.
`In a hostel near Christchurch,’ he said. His eyes were watery from drink, but they had sex in them. Perhaps her own were the same.
`Oh. I live near there.’ She hesitated, waiting for him to pick up his cue, but he just continued to look into her eyes. `Maybe you’d walk me home?’
Like the schoolboy he was, he grinned at his friends as he left with her, and they grinned back, men and women of the world – but Tess laughed, knowing who was picking up who. He had bored her, though she tried to deny that to herself, concentrating all evening on his body. One night was all she wanted, and then he would be gone. She set a quick pace, bringing him down through Temple Bar and across Grattan Bridge, opening her door and letting him pass in without a word.
`The toilet’s up there,’ she pointed. She had just remembered the question of condoms. She wasn’t going to fuck him without condoms, and for a few desperate moments she wondered if Mungo had left any behind him; but no, she would have come across them by now. The toilet flushed. There was no other way. She was going to have to ask him straight out and if he hadn’t she would jerk him off where he stood and send him back to the hostel. Maybe it was enough just to know she could seduce him. Then he stood before her, looking down on her, and she knew it wasn’t enough, knew she wanted him, all of him.
`Have you condoms?’
She smiled, relaxing, and stood up on her toes to kiss him, her tongue sliding into his mouth.
`I won’t be a minute,’ she said then. `The bedroom’s over there.’
When she went into her bedroom she caught her breath. In the bathroom she had been nervous, wondering if all this was real, but now the sight of him, standing naked, made her forget herself and she smiled, looking him up and down.
`You’re very nice,’ she said.
He smiled. She could see he was nervous, and his large, flaccid cock hung like a perished white tube. She went to him and kissed his chest, running her fingertips over his nipples. So the dream was coming true; but then he reached down and clutched her buttocks and she was brought back to earth as he tried to pull her frock over her head. Whatever else happened he was not going to see her completely naked, so she stopped him, putting a finger to her lips.
`Get into bed,’ she whispered. He grinned, and slowly obeyed, watching her all the time. Before turning out the lamp, she saw that a condom was opened from a packet of three on the bedside table.
`Why do you turn out the light?’ he asked from the darkness.
She didn’t reply, but trembling, she undressed and lay on top of him, kissing him deeply. She thought she would pass out as he turned her on her back and roughly kissed her neck and breasts, passing his fingers between her drenched lips. This was basic stuff, but her imagination had made her ready long before, ready for anything.
Then, to her consternation, he stopped and took his fingers and body away from her, so that she was stranded in the dark. Her rasping breath slowed, and she heard a low curse in German. She could hardly believe it in one so young and big, but it was obvious what was wrong. He was kneeling back on his heels, and she knelt in front of him, taking the head between her fingers and thumb, flicking her tongue into his mouth, squeezing her eyes shut to hold onto her own plea-sure and anticipate the pleasure to come, and very slowly he responded and grew hard.
She groaned as he entered her deeply, but though he took a long time to come, she did not peak herself, and long after he was asleep, she lay awake wondering if she had won or lost. At least – at the very least – she had played.
When she woke, it was bright and Max was at the toilet. Her first thought was to don a tee-shirt, and when he returned, unabashedly naked, she kissed him quickly and went herself. She took off what remained of her make-up and after she had washed, she pondered whether to put some fresh stuff on and decided that no, he could see her as she was, her face at least. She had bedded him, he would be gone in an hour or so, and that was it.
She expected him to be dressed when she returned, but he was propped up on an elbow in bed, smiling that knowing smile, and she noticed that another condom was opened on the side table. Here we go again, she thought – but why not? She laughed and got in beside him and immediately his hand was on her naked crotch.
`Take off your clothe,’ he said firmly. `I want to see you naked.’
`Who’s full of beans this morning, then?’ she countered. She had to think quickly. Clothe. He made to take it off him-self but she stopped him. `Isn’t it enough to feel me?’
`No. I must see you also.’
`Only in a special way, then …’ Perhaps there was a way out of this, a way which would fascinate him and perhaps her too.
`You are making rules?’
`Maybe, but I think you’re going to like it.’
`Kneel up in the bed, away from me, and close your eyes. If you do that, I promise I’ll take off my tee-shirt.’
He hesitated, but she knew by his half-smile that he was intrigued.
`But I still won’t see you,’ he half protested.
`You will, in a very special way.’
Warily, but nevertheless smiling, he did what she asked.
`Alright,’ she said, `I’m taking it off now, but if you turn, I’ll throw you out.’
She waited a few moments to be sure, not trusting him for an instant. Then she rolled up her silk scarf and put it around his eyes.
`Was … ?’
Then, and only then, did she take off her tee-shirt.
`I’m completely naked,’ she whispered. `Now … I’m going to get out on the floor and do a sexy dance for you, and I’ll show you every part of me.’
‘Aber … how can I see you when you have made me blind?’
She tapped his forehead. `Here. You will see everything here.’ He put his head to one side, doubtful, and now that he could not see her she felt confident and in control, and she trembled with pleasure. He would do anything she wanted. She had dreamed of this, or something like it, for a long time without ever believing it would come to pass, and now, with a simple device, she had made it happen. As an afterthought, a final delicious touch, she guided his fingers to his stiffening cock, and he took the cue. Now! Now it was up to her. She stood on the floor,
not knowing quite where or how to begin.
`Can you see me? In your mind, I mean?’
`Ja. Yes. I can see you very well.’
She cupped her breasts in her hands, watching closely as he became hard beneath his fingers.
`I’m caressing my breasts,’ she said, a tremor in her voice, her breath becoming short. `Can you see me?’
`Yes.’ His mouth was lax, his chest was rising and falling.
`Can you see what my breasts are like?’
He hesitated a moment, as if bringing them into focus, and affirmed that he could. She admired them herself, kneading them softly, becoming more preoccupied with the erectile changes in her own body than in his.
Her hands moved down to her belly. It was a part of her which had stretched beyond her to contain a miracle, and for the first time she enjoyed it, was grateful to it, felt she loved it as her own.
`My belly,’ she whispered hoarsely. `Can you see it? Do you like it?’
`Yes. Yes, it is soft and white. I am kissing it, I am licking it.’
She sighed, adoring him kissing and licking her smooth, soft white belly and she began to groan, her eyes closed, her hips moving so that the floorboards creaked beneath her. Very slowly, because she wanted it to last, her fingers moved into her crotch.
`My hips, my bush, can you see them?’
`Your bush … ? Yes, I love them.’ He was now engorged, his mouth open, his head held back, his chest heaving.
Her fingers lingered along the V towards her mount, then moved between her legs to either side of her lips and lingered there. Her moans and sighs mingled with Max’s grunting, and her juice leaked and trickled down her thighs.
She thrust her pelvis forward and gasped as her fingers slid between her lips.
`My cunt … my cunt … can you see it?’
‘Ja … Yes!’ He was frantic. She could see it through her own clouded eyes. He was frantic. She staggered, possessed by a greed for his cock. She took the condom and wrenched away his hand and put it on. She knelt in front of him on the bed and lowered that urgent hardness until it probed her lips. Impatiently she manoeuvred herself, it was awkward at first and he was no help, but then it happened and she was impaled. She rode him hard and loud, abusing her breasts and clitoris, out of her mind. His hands were around her waist and shoulders, she hardly knew and didn’t care as long as he kept up that pounding rhythm with her and she arrived at where she craved to be, and as his groans became louder and she sensed he was not too far off, she pummelled her pubis, her head rolling from side to side, and rode him deeper and deeper, until after he had come she screamed, the waves of pleasure overcoming her, and she fell away from him onto the bed and curled into herself.
For some time she lay there, dazed and trembling, spasms jerking in no particular sequence through her body. Vaguely, she wondered about his silence, if, perhaps, he had already gone. He had not reached out to touch her. Maybe, just maybe, he was as dazed as she was. When eventually her body quieted and left her instead with a peace which seemed to stretch into the distance, she took a deep breath and looked around at him through half-closed eyes. The blindfold was off and he was sitting in a semi-lotus position and watching her as if she was a strange animal he was cataloguing.
`Did the earth move for you too, darling?’ She laughed and stretched, pleased with herself and pleased with the world. He did not laugh, and continued to look at her in silence, and she went cold as she realized he was looking at her belly.
`Would you like some breakfast?’ she asked as she took her dress and turning away from him, put it on.
`I have no time. It is now ten and I’m going to Galway on the eleven o’clock train.’
They both dressed in silence, and she went out to the living-room to wait for him as he finished. They were awk-ward as he hesitated at the door.
`Well, good-bye then,’ she said. He nodded.
`Good-bye.’ And he was gone. For a moment she thought he was going to shake her hand. No kiss, no embrace, not even a smile. Just a hesitant glance. She went to the window and watched as he crossed the road and walked by the river to cross at Grattan Bridge. He was so tall, she thought, and so young, and how would he remember this morning, and would he remember it when his own body wasn’t perfect any more?
She would always remember him, for all his boyish confusion. She had lived this long before realizing she was free after all – or at least far more so that she had ever imagined. Long after he had disappeared into Parliament Street, she was smiling, a vacant, lost world in her eyes.
She went to see Arthur that afternoon. He was playing with some children on the street so she let him be and talked instead to her mother; and for once, with all her tensions drained away, it was easy, and the ordinary gossip which usu-ally got on her nerves was entertaining. Her mother looked at her knowingly, and although she would never verbally ap-prove, Tess noticed her faint, quizzical smile. Arthur’s face lit up when he came in for his dinner, but at the table he was shy and looked at her curiously several times and she became un-easy. When she left he kissed her in the usual way, but he held something back.
It troubled her on her walk home. Maybe she had imagined it, or maybe she was projecting guilt and the child picked it up. This angered her, although whether she was angry with herself or Arthur was hard to tell. Whichever it was, she re-fused to believe she could be guilty about the best thing that had happened to her since Arthur was born. She had waited long enough and the odds were that its like would never happen to her again. Happen to her? She had made it happen, and she broke into a smile.
She dreamt of Arthur that night, but in the morning she could only recall the faint ghost of his face. She forgot about it and, as she queued in the dole office, fancied she still tingled from her hour of glory, and the smile stayed put. With her money in her bag she went to Stephen’s Green and lay in the sun, her skirt hitched well above her knees, and daydreamed about her seduction, going over it in detail and marvelling that she had done it, as if for a while she had become a different person to the one she had always known, and she vowed not to rest on her laurels. She sighed at the luxury of it, and smiled again.
She rang her mother to tell her she would not be over that afternoon, as in her light mood she had said she would. There was no denying it, she thought as she walked down Grafton Street, although she would never admit it to anyone: with that young German she had been a femme fatale and she had loved every minute of it, and because, as she reasoned, she could not be a mother as well as a femme fatale, she was afraid of her son and his unknowing judgment.
There was a card waiting for her when she got home.
`Dear Tess. I will be in Dublin on Friday. I’ll call about twelve, hoping to see you. Love Mungo.’
Short and without ornament, as usual. Reading it over several times, she was at a loss as to what she was supposed to feel, finally deciding as she slowly ascended the stairs that what she should feel was resentment. In all the time she had needed him, he wasn’t around. Now that she was feeling good and strong, he was turning up on her doorstep, full, no doubt, of woe.
She wondered if she should tell him about the bold Max. Not in every detail, of course; she couldn’t do that even in the guise of a story. This reminded her of their stories, and how she missed them. In truth, she also missed him, and that night she lay awake in bed for a long time, listening to Schubert, unable to think out how much Mungo meant to her, but the question stubbornly remained.
The next morning she rose early and went shopping for lunch, presuming he would like ham and cheese with his salad, and she stretched her budget to a couple of bottles of beer. As she checked her face in the mirror she reflected with a smile that with Mungo there was no need for make-up, but the smile faded as she wondered if they would end up in bed, and if she would be disappointed if they did not. She still felt sated, and maybe if she wanted anything now, it was tenderness, and maybe their stories. Her story? She hadn’t a clue, but he was sure to have one, and that would carry their time together.
The bell rang at twenty to twelve. He was quiet, diffident and somehow he had aged in the interval, despite his deep tan, and for the first time she noticed the flecks of grey through his brown hair. His face lightened when he saw the table set, and she immediately brought out the plates of salad and two bottles of cold beer.
`I thought you could do with one of these after the journey,’ she said.
`That’s very nice of you.’ He smiled, and sat in to the table.
Nice? It hurt. He had said it as if he was being polite, as if they were strangers, being nice to each other.
`I’m sorry about your mother,’ she said, remembering.
`Thanks. It’s … ah … it’s been a difficult time for me. One way or another. A lot of problems I’m not used to. Responsibilities, debts. I’m up to sell the house here in Dublin. To put it on sale, that is.’
`Oh. So you’re settling down there.’ She hadn’t bargained on this and was surprised at how much it upset her.
`So it seems. I’ve missed you.’
`Have you?’ She composed herself and looked up, meeting his eyes. `Have you?’
`Yes. Very much. You. The way you are. Your body. The stories … Somehow you gave a … a texture … I don’t know what I’m saying. I missed you. Your stories. What happened then?’ he asked, almost plaintively.
`Your dinner-party lover.’
They looked at each other, and she knew that he knew this wasn’t the right moment. It didn’t do any longer to just launch into their tall tales, avoiding everything else they needed to say. But however faintly, the lines were open again, and he put his hand on hers, and she grasped his in turn.
`I can’t remember what happened next. It’s been so long, Mungo. I’ll have to think about it.’
They ate, and she got him to tell her about the farm, his mother’s death, about living in the country.
`It’s pleasant in the summer, and of course the children love it – the freedom, the things to do. But I’d prefer to be here.’
They were quiet again and she knew he wanted to make love to her, but they ate and drank and talked again and time passed.
`I’ve to meet an agent at two,’ he said. `If I could see you this evening I wouldn’t go back to Wexford, and we could relax together. What do you say?’
She would love to. She had to meet her son, anyway. They could meet on Sandymount Strand, at the Irishtown side, between four and five, and decide what to do.
When she went to Ringsend, she discovered that Brian had been to see Arthur the previous day, and Arthur, his face alight, told her how his father had brought him to the park and had played football with him until they could no longer see the ball, and implied that Brian was a far better ball player than herself. She was pleased that Brian had done it, but it was so unlike him that she felt uneasy.
Arthur was doubtful when she suggested an outing to Sandymount Strand, but once it was arranged that his friends could also come, he warmed to the idea. The tide was out, and they played ball along the sand, breaking off to chase gulls, or parody the gentle trot of a pony ridden by a girl who knew she was rich.
Barefooted, Arthur was having a wonderful time, and for a while Tess forgot about Brian; but he crept back into her thoughts, and she wondered if, with the freedom he had with Arthur on holiday, he had found a woman, and if perhaps his happiness had made him generous towards his son. She recalled her battles with him over the videos. A man like that would think nothing of going to a massage parlour if he had the cash, and she drifted on from there to a throwaway sentence in one of Marian’s letters that had stuck at the back of her mind – something about red lights on ordinary streets, where men casually stepped into such houses in front of women and children, but no one took any notice. The sun had made her lazy and she had given up mulling over Brian’s sex life when Mungo spotted her and called out her name. She sat up, blinking, to greet him.
`Hello. Did you get your business done?’
`He’s coming out to see the place tomorrow,’ Mungo grinned. `So I would have had to stay over anyway.’
`Have you rung your wife?’
`Yes.’ His smile disappeared, but he soon rallied. He had aired the house, and he wanted her to stay the night with him there. She didn’t answer. She had noticed how Arthur had stopped playing and was glowering at an oblivious Mungo.
`Don’t act too intimate with me.’
`I think my son is jealous of you. Tell me how to get there and I’ll meet you at eight.’
`I see what you mean,’ he said, discreetly watching Arthur who had just kicked the ball very hard. He wrote down his address and drew a rough map and when Arthur looked around again he was gone.
On the way home, Arthur walked ahead of her with his friends. When they were gone, he waited a while but she could see he was bursting with righteous indignation.
`Who was that man on the strand?’
‘Hmm?’ She was ready for him, angry in turn but deter-mined not to betray herself. `Oh you remember! He’s the father of that little girl you liked so much.’
`I did not!’ he retorted. But he was blushing, and he never mentioned it again.
It was strange, being in another woman’s house, alone with her husband. In many ways it was like her own abandoned home. Mungo showed her around as if she was a prospective buyer. He had a meal ready: fish, complete with sauce, potatoes and broccoli, with a cool, Italian white wine, a second one in the fridge. He even had paper napkins. She felt she was being courted and it was a nice, almost forgotten feeling.
When they had finished the meal they went to bed. It was as simple as that. He had been patient, but she knew from early on that he wanted her badly, and although she felt strange in another woman’s bed, she enjoyed him without losing herself to his thrusting body. It didn’t matter. She stroked his head as he lay still on top of her, glad they had made love, glad they were together. He was so still, for so long, his hands on her shoulders, his face buried at her neck, that he seemed unwilling to leave where he was, entwined in her thighs. There was satisfaction in that. Her thoughts drifted pleasantly to Sascha, and little by little, her story pieced itself together. Afraid that Mungo might fall asleep, she nudged him after a while and he climbed off her, his eyes heavy. Now was the time.
`After that first night with Sascha,’ she began, and laughed as he perked up. `After that first night with Sascha, I began to see him constantly. He was a strange one. Sometimes he refused to come, said he wanted to conserve his essence.’
Mungo laughed, settling into her story like a child. She was amused too, not knowing where that last bit had come from. Encouraged, she took a deep breath.
`Another afternoon, he blindfolded me and made me touch myself while he talked dirty about his body. Could you believe it,’ she laughed, rubbing his nose with her finger, `the things men dream up.’
`It was all squeezed into an hour in the afternoons, though, that was the trouble, so it was all frenzy and madness. I could hardly ever see him in the evenings because I couldn’t afford a baby-sitter so often. He wanted to pay, but it’s best to stay independent in these matters. And then somehow, Arthur seemed to sense what was happening and became very difficult and wanted his father back. He’s usually quiet and easy-going, but Arthur is a jealous young man as you discovered this afternoon.’
`So I did.’
`Once, after a particularly heavy session with Sascha, I arrived home late and I suppose a bit all over the place, and he was waiting for me at the door. I had been late before, but I usually had some shopping in my arms so that was fine – that’s what mothers are supposed to be doing in the afternoon. But this time, this time he no sooner had me inside the door than he charged at me, kicking the shins off me. Well! Well I lost the rag myself and I beat him around the room – but the little devil fought back and the two of us were black and blue before we fell into a heap, worn out. Needless to say, I didn’t see Sascha for a few days after that, and when I was on the street I wore dark glasses and black tights.’
`You better watch your step, so.’ She hesitated.
`I still had my dark glasses on about two days later and I had just finished shopping in a market, and when I came out into the strong light I was blinded for a moment, even with the glasses – they were a cheap pair. There were a couple of bookshops across the road, and when I could focus again I saw a man browsing at one of the outside stalls. I noticed him because he was so restless and he looked familiar. Then I realized it was Brian – my husband. Now it was mid-afternoon so he was probably on his lunch break, so that was fair enough, but I knew he wasn’t in the area to see me, as he didn’t know where I lived any more – or so I hoped. And I knew he wasn’t interested in books, so I decided there was something fishy and that instead of dodging him I sat down on a bench and watched him. He was like a cat on a griddle, and when I noticed a red light on a building half-way up a side street, I realized why. All of a sudden he moved off like a shot, went down a few steps and disappeared. Well now, it was really none of my business, I mean, we weren’t divorced but we were separated and so it was his own affair what he did, but for some reason I just sat there getting angrier and angrier, and eventually something snapped. I took my groceries in my arms and ran up that street. I expected to find some kind of door with a buzzer, or something, or a bouncer, maybe, but all there was was a red bead curtain and you could see men sitting inside in a kind of red glow. Well, that took the wind out of my sails for a second.’
`Jesus.’ Mungo grinned.
`Only for a second, mind. The fact that it was all so open made it worse, somehow. I was furious, and I jumped down those steps and through the bead curtain, and the men jump-ed up with a wild look on their faces, as if I had a machine gun or something, but Brian wasn’t one of them. Then some of them started shouting at me. They looked unreal in the red light. Everything was red – red velvet, red lamps and even the horny photos looked red. It took my eyes a few seconds to adjust, but then I saw that the moans and groans were coming from a video in the corner. Then this enormous woman, fully dressed, appears and shouts at me in German, but I didn’t give a blind tit for her and I gave as good as I got. “Where’s my husband?” I shouted in English, and you should have seen the boys, looking nervously at the street in case their wives were about to jump into the room too. Then the big lady started shouting something about the police and I laughed, I just laughed at the idea of the police coming to throw a woman out of a brothel for disrupting business.’
Mungo laughed. It was a good one alright.
“I’m not leaving here without my husband,” I screamed. I suppose I was a bit off my head, little ol’ me in a place like that, but I nearly freaked out altogether when I saw Brian coming out from behind a curtain with his whore in tow. The two of them were standing there with their mouths open, as if the Last Day had come without warning. He had all his clothes on at least, but she had nothing on but a G-string. I went to clobber Brian, but as he stepped back I got a good look at her face … and her hair … and her body … and I nearly flipped my lid. She was my double. I lost the head altogether then and knocked her to the ground and somehow or other I knocked her out cold. There I was in a Berlin brothel, my groceries scattered over the floor, lying on top of a naked woman who was the image of me. I ran out of that place like a scalded cat, and gave Arthur beans on toast for his dinner for the next three days.’