The Fabulists :: Chapter 12

Mungo woke in grey light as Tess eased out of bed, stretching along the inside, and for an instant the line of her body made an image, as graceful as a wild animal, which he would never forget. He heard her piss into the bowl downstairs, then silence, until the toilet flushed. She came back, oblivious to him, and he marvelled at her female composition as if he was looking at a woman’s body for the first time, with the miracu-lous suspension of her breasts, and the perfectly balanced tri-angle between her hips. Her breasts hung as she leaned for-ward, peering at the floor to find her scattered clothes.
`Good morning,’ he said softly.
`Oh. Did I wake you?’
`What time is it?’
He reached over to the bedside table and peered at his watch. `Ten past eight. It seems a lot earlier.’ He yawned, but watched her through squinted eyes as she went around the bed to pull back the curtains. She examined the sky and groaned, as if the heavy grey clouds had no right to be there. She glanced at him and grinned.
`What are you looking at?’
`The loveliest sight I have ever feasted my eyes on.’
`Am I now?’ The smile had vanished, and she sat back on the bed. `I know you’re a smooth liar, but thanks all the same,’ she said, and kissed him.
`You’ve got breath like a stale floor cloth in the mornings,’ she said, screwing up her nose.
`You’re no spring breeze yourself,’ he countered, and they laughed. He knew he had made her happy, if only for a while, and he felt as if his senses had rounded out.
`What’s your hurry?’
`I’ve to get Arthur his school stuff.’
`School? But that’s not for another few weeks, is it?’
`Come on,’ she said as she dressed, `get up and have break-fast with me.’
He wished she hadn’t mentioned it, reminding him that Connie, being a planner, would probably be in Gorey doing the same thing, his children apprehensive about their new school. Even more than his mother’s death and her will, it brought home to him how events were conspiring against him.
`Well, come on, glum face,’ she demanded, pausing at the door.
When he went down she had found everything and had made toast under the grill. It was as if it were her kitchen, had been for years, and he felt an odd displacement as he put his arms around her and kissed her neck.
`Did you say the agent was coming today?’ she asked over breakfast.
`Two o’clock,’ he said, his mouth full of toast. `What am I to do till two o’clock if you’re not going to be here?’ `You’ll find something.’
`I could stay in town another night if you could come back this evening … ?’
`Randy, aren’t we?’
`Thank you, ma’am.’
`I’ll leave Arthur with his father’s parents. They wanted him back, anyway. Well then,’ she said rising, `if I was back here about five?’
`Grand,’ he concurred, rising with her.

`I’ll get something to eat. You get wine or beer or whatever, if you like . . .’
Her voice trailed off into a whisper as he embraced and kissed her, his lips brushing lightly along hers.
When she was gone he sat against the table, his mind blank. Then he saw the washing up from the night before piled in the sink. He pulled himself together, intending to obliterate all traces of recent occupation before the agent arrived. He stopped as he stripped the beds which like much else had been left as they were before the family had moved to Wexford, as they thought, for a few weeks. Why should he facilitate the sale? If they couldn’t sell the house, then in all likelihood the farm would be unviable, given the debts, and it would have to be sold instead. He lay down, staring up at the ceiling. It was too late. He was trapped and he knew it. What a sleepwalker he was!
He rolled off the bed and went for a walk, recalling the time, which seemed so long ago, when he used to jog. Inevitably his perambulation brought him to the Phoenix Park where, crossing through the People’s Garden, he took off his shoes and ran over the grass to the Wellington Monument, circling it once. Sweating and out of breath, he stumbled onto the lowest step of the plinth. He wasn’t fit any more, that much was certain. The humidity was awful. His life was awful. No matter which way he turned, there would be sacrifice and hurt.
The agent came as agreed and assessed the house, and they settled on a sale price. When he had gone, Mungo walked through the house as if bereaved, imagining his children run-ning through it, pausing at the foot of the stairs as he watched Connie’s ghost and his own stumble up the stairs to make drunken love.
He shook his head. He was being sentimental. Nevertheless he went upstairs and looked into his bedroom, which seemed unnaturally quiet. They had made their children here, they had quarrelled and lain back to back in anger and bewilder-ment. How many dreams had passed through this room. And nightmares, and tears, and groans of passion? And Tess’s ghost had come between him and all of that, and he didn’t know if he had betrayed or escaped it.
He went into the children’s room, imagined Ethna sleeping there, her thumb in her mouth; imagined himself pulling the cover back over her shoulders on a winter night. Then he turned to Aidan’s bed, saw before him what had happened there, what had changed his life – the flames, the screams, the nightmares – and yet, also, the closeness and tenderness as he comforted his children.
The mugginess of the afternoon finally got to him, and he lay back on Aidan’s bed and fell asleep. He woke an hour later covered in clammy sweat, not knowing whether he had dreamt of a thunderstorm or not, or of a low-flying jet, cir-cling to land or curving away to its journey over the Irish Sea. A light rain streamed down the window.
He rang Connie from a phonebox in Stoneybatter. It took her a while to answer and she was breathless when she did.
`We’re just in,’ she said. `How did you get on?’
`He didn’t turn up, so I rang him a minute ago and he said he’d come round at six.’
`Oh. So you won’t be home this evening.’
`No. And I don’t know if I’ll make the morning train tomorrow, so don’t expect me home till the evening.’
`What are you going to do up there all day on your own?’
`Oh, read the papers, I suppose. Go to a film in the after-noon, maybe. Or maybe I’ll just go for a walk in the park.’
`You really like it up there, don’t you.’ She wasn’t being sarcastic, but warm and understanding.
`Yes … I do. I love it, in fact. I’m running out of money,’ he said quickly as the warning bips sounded, `I’ll see you tomorrow evening,’ and, as she hesitated, the phone went dead before she could reply. He took a deep breath, held it and let go again before replacing the receiver.
On his way home he bought three bottles of wine and a bunch of carnations, making a mental note to get rid of the empty bottles and redundant flowers before returning to Wex-ford. The flowers brought the room to life again. He put on the immersion, and, realizing he hadn’t listened to music for a long time, chose his favourite cassette, Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Lying back into the sofa he imagined himself in Spain, with the rolling guitars and cutting violins. This was the very life. The water was lukewarm, and he left the bathroom door open as he showered, listening to the music, and he smiled, thinking his taste must make him a romantic. What-ever about that, he felt good and let the water run cold. He hadn’t many Spanish tapes, but he played them all until Tess came, almost an hour late.
`God, I’ve had a terrible day,’ she said, her face drawn. `Can I have a shower?’
`Sure,’ he said, and he turned on the immersion. `It’ll take a while.’
`Hold me,’ she pleaded. `If you can stand the smell of sweat off me.’
He held her tight, his face in her damp, straggled hair.
`The bastards are finally going to throw me out.’ She leaned back from him a little to face him and laughed bitterly. `In a week’s time I’ll be homeless.’
She moved away from him and sat at the table, and then, in agitation, turned. Then she saw the carnations. Leaning across the table she smelled them and closed her eyes.
`They’re lovely. Are they for me?’
`Of course. What do you mean, you’ll be homeless?’
`Homeless. No home. No door to close after me at night. I can’t afford anywhere else with the price of flats. Not even those boxes they call bedsitters. It was too good to last but now the number’s up. There was a solicitor’s letter waiting for me in the hall when I went back this morning. God!
‘You can stay here.’
`What? But you’re selling the place.’
`I know. But it mightn’t be sold for months, and then you could still be here for a while after that – it’d give you a breathing space, if nothing else.’
`That’s good of you Mungo, but it’s not on, really. I like the house but it’s not my place, do you know what I mean? And what if your wife decided to come up and check on the place – what’d happen then? I’d be out in the rain in five minutes, and you’d probably be out with me.’
`She won’t come near this house if she can help it. She hates it and she’s as happy as a fly on a dungheap down there.’
`Oh I don’t know. We’ll see. I might have to yet. Thanks anyway. The alternatives are going to live with my parents which is not really an option, or going back under my hus-band’s roof, which is not an option at all. Is there by any chance a hair-dryer, or even a blow-heater in the house?’
`A blow-heater? Sure, just there.’
`Oh, wunderbar! And have you a spare shirt?
`Great,’ she said, getting to her feet. `Let’s get this meal on the road, and I can have my shower then. I want it hot!’
She launched herself into the preparation of the meal, and again he noticed how easily she took Connie’ place.
`Put on some music,’ she said, washing the rice at the sink. He rewound the cassette and switched on the Rodrigo. When she had the vegetables ready she sat with him on the sofa and listened. The adagio began.
`I know this,’ she said quietly. `It’s beautiful.’ She leaned into him until the movement ended, then went back to her cooking without a word.
`What are you making? Or does it have a name?’ `Lamb Shashlik, I’ll have you know.’ `There’s posh.’
When she was satisfied that it was in progress, she dried her hands and turned to him, leaning against the sink, but said nothing until the cassette clicked off.
`Where’s that shirt you promised me? The water should be hot now, shouldn’t it?’
She took the shirt and locked the bathroom door behind her. He turned over the tape and listened to the Castelnuovo- Tedesco.
`Can you set up that blow-heater for me?’ she called from the back. He went out to see her hanging her dress and knick-ers on the line in the backyard. She was wearing his shirt, her hair stringy after the shower, and once again he was pierced by how natural it seemed that she should be with him like this.
On her instructions, he checked the food as she dried her hair, smiling at how she was organizing him, and wondered how long he would put up with that if they were together. For now, of course, it was part of the magic. He opened the wine. The evening had turned cloudless and pleasant.
Over the meal they talked about music while another Span-ish cassette played at low volume. He had been shaken by desire for her as she walked about in nothing but a shirt, his shirt, but he had constrained himself, and now, with the food, the wine, the music, the flowers – her easy sensuality had blended into an erotic atmosphere. She talked on as if oblivi-ous to it, how she had hated her mother’s classical records and her mother’s attempts to teach her simple classical pieces on the piano, but in her late teens had read biographies of Schu-bert and Schumann, and how their lives had appealed to her romantic phase.
When they went to bed they were both drunk, and she was maudlin, and turned away from him, crying silently. `Why are you crying?’ He knew it was foolish to ask, but to say nothing was unbearable. And he was bewildered. The evening had been perfect and he could not understand how it had come to this. A crystal stream flowing into a quagmire, that’s how he thought of it. Shag it. He stroked back her hair, but she was quietly inconsolable. When she spoke, after an interval which seemed much longer to Mungo, her voice was plaintive.
`What happened when you got to Barcelona?’
`Barcelona?’ He paused, gathering his befuddled wits. The train. Yes. If he could gain time by finishing the train journey, the rest would fall into place. He took a deep breath, wonder-ing if he had the strength.
`I had fallen asleep on the train, and when I woke it was full light and we were travelling along the coast, somewhere between Tarragona and Barcelona, in view of the Mediter-ranean. A fleet of American warships seemed to be at anchor off-shore, squat and black in the glistening morning water. We were travelling at speed now, and there was an air of expectancy in the train, though we still had some time to go. Ahmed was asleep, nestled among his family, and I felt sorry that I would probably never see him again.
`Connie was waiting for me at the station. She was two months pregnant at the time, and mad at me for staying longer than I said I would in Vigo, but I’d had such a good time I was easily persuaded. I suppose it was hard to blame her, in her condition.’
`Very hard.’
`After Franco’s death, the place had got very exciting. The King was crowned and he wasn’t the fascist puppet most people thought he would be. Then there were huge marches in Barcelona. Kirsten, our flatmate, Connie and I were plan-ning to join one when Connie had a miscarriage.
`She was three months gone and she was devastated. We both were, but I don’t think she ever recovered. When I went to see her in hospital the following day, she wouldn’t speak to me, and the nurses looked at me as if I was some kind of dirt. Maybe that’s why I said I would marry her when we came back to Ireland for the summer. As soon as I left the hospital I went on the piss.’
`How very male.’
`Well, I was hurt and confused. A part of me was gone too, even if it was a nuisance, and we had talked on about mar-riage, leaving it on the long finger. We were very young. We didn’t have work permits, so we weren’t sure if we could marry in Spain.’
`Did you go on the demonstration?’
`Yes. I was dying, of course, after drinking all night, but I went.’
`Well, don’t just lie there! Tell me about it?, ‘Now?’
`Yes, now!’
`I was very hungover, and exhausted. I don’t remember much about it. Except that there were thousands. Hundreds of thousands.’
`What else? Surely you must remember more.’
`More? There were lots of banners, mostly in Catalan, and Catalan flags, which I hadn’t seen much of before. I wasn’t very aware of things Catalan, most of which had been banned under Franco. Except they spoke Catalan in one of the offices where I taught. I went with Kirsten,’ he added as an after-thought.
‘Aha. Now we’re getting somewhere.’ Tess didn’t seem to be maudlin or very drunk any more. His own head was very clear, and aware.
`Well, we had gone to see Connie in hospital. Connie was so depressed that we didn’t stay long and Kirsten and I went for a drink, and when I asked her did she want another, she said no, she was going on the demonstration. It was only then I remembered it, to tell you the truth. A curious thing about Kirsten. I never saw her without gloves. Connie said it was be-cause she had lost the fingers on her left hand in an accident, and it must have been true because she had only one glove on this particular evening. Buff-coloured, and kidskin, I think. I don’t know why, but it intrigued me. We were attracted to each other, there’s no doubt about that, but I wasn’t going to betray Connie while she lay on a hospital bed, her heart broken. We spent a pleasant half an hour, that’s all, and then we set off for the demonstration. It began in Plaza San Jaime, where even though the march had long since begun, the crowd never seemed to get any smaller. Eventually we found ourselves out of the square, heading towards the port. We turned right, down past the Columbus Column, and right, into the Ramblas. I had one of those hangovers that worsen as the day goes on. My head was splitting, and at the first cafe I saw I persuaded Kirsten to leave the march to get a brandy.’
`Tut, tut.’
`I didn’t intend abandoning it. Not at all. I just needed a cure. Kirsten wouldn’t have anything, so I knocked it back and she dragged me by the hand back into the thick of it. On the reservation, the flower sellers and flag sellers were doing fast business as the marchers broke ranks to equip themselves suit-ably for the evening. The brandy had hardly any effect and it wasn’t long before I dragged Kirsten away for another. The cafes were doing a roaring trade, so I wasn’t the only one. I knocked it back again and Kirsten looked at me anxiously but I wasn’t drunk. I was like a flower pot that hadn’t been watered; it seemed to evaporate inside me.
As the march got nearer Plaza Cataluna, it slowed. There seemed to be more huge banners and the chants were getting louder. We were at a standstill for minutes at a time. I needed another drink. Kirsten pleaded with me.’
“Mungo, sip it, sip it, or you’ll have a heart attack.”
“Sip it. Okay. Maybe you’re right.” I took a sip and then put it under my jacket and walked out, back into the heart of the march. I suppose I was drunker than I had thought be-cause I drank the brandy, sipping as Kirsten had suggested, by the ring of the glass, and as she so rightly warned, I could easily drop it that way. Then I heard sirens and there was shouting and people backed into us and I spilt most of my drink. The grey jeep, full of heavily armed Grises, had moun-ted the centre of the Rambla at high speed, scattering every-one. You could feel the fear and see the reason. With all of us jammed there so tightly, they could have pointed their sub-machine guns and killed hundreds, though they were now a good way down. I started shouting angrily with hundreds of others. I suppose part of it was delayed fright. Anyway, when I looked down, my hand was bleeding profusely and the glass was smashed on the ground.
“Oh God,” Kirsten said, “they’ll think you’re shot. Let’s get out of here before there’s a riot.” I hadn’t thought of that and I didn’t argue. I hid my hand under my jacket and we hightailed it down a side street, where Kirsten examined my hand. “It’s worse than I thought,” she decided. “Hold it up.” We walked on, my bloody hand in the air, for what seemed an age. I think we were lost. Then Kirsten spotted a pharmacy, bought a bandage, and bandaged it on in the street. “Hold it up! I think you need stitches. We’ll have to get you to a hos-pital.”
We got a taxi. The driver was doubtful but he took us. We said we’d been on the march when he asked what happened and that seemed to satisfy him. Kirsten had to keep reminding me to keep my hand, which was now very sore, in the air. Then, without warning, she kissed me, forcing her tongue in as far as it would go. I was startled of course, and then I responded, trying to remember to keep my hand upright. She withdrew, kissing me rapidly on the face and neck, then resting her head on my breast. I glanced in the mirror and saw the driver was keeping an eye on us.
We arrived at the hospital, an old building from the last century, and I had to wait quite a while in casualty. I obviously wasn’t the only one to have a minor accident on the march. Kirsten said she’d take some air and wait for me in a cafe across the road. Then a friendly young doctor with an opennecked shirt stitched up my hand, chatting pleasantly as he worked. He seemed pleased that I had been on the march and was convinced that Spain would soon be socialist and was very happy at the prospect. There were two children waiting with their mother in the queue, and I realized they were staring at me and for some reason they made me nervous. I could see the mother had been beaten up and was pretty dazed. The nurse sent me on my way, no charge, and I thanked her, but once she had turned away I couldn’t take my eyes off the chil-dren and they were looking at me in a very hostile way. They were about the age of Arthur, say, and Ethna. Come to think of it, they looked vaguely like them too, apart from their brown eyes. They made me so nervous as I passed them that I backed into the wrong door, and found myself going up a stairs. This was so obviously ridiculous that I turned back, only to see the children had followed me. I can’t explain why, but they terrified me, so up I went the stairs again. I looked around and the little devils were following me, and not to put a tooth in it, I fled.
`I didn’t know where I was going, but no matter how quickly I walked, when I turned, they were there, side by side, staring at me. I reached the end of the hospital, but the doors there were locked, so I had the choice of confronting them or going up another flight of stairs. When I reached the top of those they were still there, no more than twenty paces behind, whether I walked fast or slow. It occurred to me that they were wary of coming closer, but that didn’t lessen my fear of them. By now I was walking rapidly and sweating heavily. When I got to the end of the corridor, back where I started except one floor up, a crowd of off-duty nurses were waiting for the lift. There was nothing for it, but up the stairs to the third floor, my tormentors in pursuit. By now I was tiring fast, and the more tired, the angrier I became, and I pushed through two heavy wooden doors and stood rigidly still. The doors swung back and forth for a while, and when they had stopped I glared through the oval glass panel at the two. They stared back, but for some reason they retreated. Then a low moaning made me turn. I could see nothing, as the doors were at a T-junction, but then an appalling sight passed before my eyes. A child of about eight was being wheeled on a trol-ley, obviously to an operating or dressing theatre, by two indifferent orderlies. The child, whose body was covered in loose dressings over what I guessed were burns, was otherwise naked.’
Mungo faltered, in obvious distress, and Tess took one hand and squeezed it, and with her free hand she caressed his face. He gathered himself again, as if for one last effort.
`I knew … I knew that even though he was heavily drugged, he was in too much pain to lie down. They passed on, out of sight. I turned left, away from him, and then right through another pair of heavy doors until I came to a second very long corridor, bare of humanity until an orderly in gleaming white came through the doors at the far end. Then he started running at me with tremendous speed, and as he passed me his face was grotesque with fear. I burst through the doors, gasping. When I turned, I noticed that the orderly had in fact only walked a few metres, and was looking back at me as if I had done something odd, but was otherwise calm. There was no sign of the children, which was what I was really interested in, and I took off my jacket and used it to wipe the sweat from my face. Looking up, I saw that I was standing under a glass dome, and that the evening sky had turned ver-milion. At the far end of this area there were stairs, and I went down the three flights into the hospital garden where there was a seat under a tree, and I rested there for a while. I can’t tell you how soothing it was to sit under that tree, the leaves rustling. It was a feeling of great and sudden freedom, and looking up at the old sandstone building I felt that I had been a prisoner there for a long time, but now I had finally and per-manently escaped.
`Across from where I sat, there was a large wrought-iron gate. It was locked, but I saw there was a turnstile beside it and when I tried it I found myself on an unfamiliar street. I reckoned I could find my way around the block to the cafe where Kirsten was waiting. Half-way along the street, I stop-ped to let a truck enter a yard. Curious, I saw that it was trail-ing drops of dark blood, and I watched as the truck stopped beside a small crane. The driver and his helper jumped out, laughing, and opened the back. Their cargo was a dead black bull, the sword of the torero still in its back behind its neck. The men called several of their work-mates over, and they laughed and joked about it. One of them jumped onto the lorry then, and tried to remove the sword, but couldn’t. Then each of them tried, with equal lack of success. The two of them tried together, but they failed too.
`Finally they gave up, manoeuvred dirty canvas strapping under the bull and hooked it onto the crane. For a moment I thought the bull was too heavy for the crane, or that the canvas would snap, but suddenly it was suspended high above the yard before being lowered onto a trolley and pushed into a low, white building, and the workmen pulled the doors behind them.’