They caressed each other, tentatively. They were falling apart instead of coming together, and there was nothing he could do about it. After a while they gave up their attempt to make love and simply lay in each other’s arms.
She switched off the light and he brushed back her hair with his hand, again and again. They had hardly spoken since she had finished her story, and he could think of nothing to say. She turned away from him. He lay awake, knowing she was awake too, but he must have blacked out, because suddenly he found himself in the middle of the night needing to piss.
Instead of going back to bed, he hesitated at the door of the children’s room before going in. Their two bunks were bare, and without their chaotic presence the room looked des-olate. He remembered Ethna, huddled in sleep, thumb in her mouth, and he wished she was here, where he felt she belonged. And Aidan … He lay back on Aidan’s bed, new since the fire, the fire which had repeated itself so often in his son’s head. For all its terrors and responsibilities, its fights, silences and boredom, this house was where life had happened for him, and now he was throwing it away. There would be one last story between Tess and himself. He did not know what it was, but he knew it was important that he make it count.
He woke at dawn, chilled, vaguely aware of Aidan’s dreams, and slipped in beside Tess.
When he woke again she had showered and was at the end of the bed, beginning to dress.
`Hi,’ she said.
`Where were you last night?’
`Screwing another woman.’ He yawned.
`Huh. Nothing would surprise me.’
`I’m going to miss this house, Tess,’ he said, pulling on his trousers. He turned to her. `Now I’m going to miss it even more.’
`Your children mean everything to you, don’t they?’ she asked him over breakfast.
`Not everything,’ he said through his mushed corn flakes, `but an awful lot. I suppose Arthur comes first with you?’
They talked about their children then, the anecdotes, sad and hilarious to the universal parent. Mungo still omitted the story of the fire, though it loomed large, and partly because of this preoccupation, they faltered after a while. He put on some music to fill the gap, and they washed up. A waltz began, and he pulled back the table and chairs to make a space and hauled her into the dance.
`What are you doing?’ she laughed, half resisting. `You’re crazy, at this hour!’
`What does it matter what hour it is?’ Their time was short, and he knew she knew it was a way of being close, and they danced in silence, and he read in her eyes and parted lips what she could no more put in words than he could.
The music changed to a reel, and he plunged them into a wild, formless dance.
`I forget how to do this!’ she shrieked.
`I never knew in the first place!’
Whooping, she threw herself into it with him until one lost balance and brought the other into a heap on the floor. In a moment, breathless, they were undoing each others buttons and zips.
Afterwards, they showered together, soaping each other, sharing the same towel. Later, she saw him off at Connolly Station. He had to ring Connie, and his heart pounded in case his voice betrayed him as he felt sure it must do. But Connie, good old Connie, was brisk and to the point. She would meet him, but she might be late because of the children. He left down the receiver, relieved. Tess was looking away. He led her to the bench beside the toilets and they sat.
`I shouldn’t have come,’ she said quietly. And then she said: `You lie so well.’
`I didn’t tell a word of a lie.’
`Mungo … Can you loan me the money for a deposit?
`I’d say one hundred and twenty, if I’m lucky.’
`I’ll see what I can do.’
She looked away from him, embarrassed. He took her hand, but she kissed him suddenly and walked away. He was dazed as he went to the train, but he knew that Tess was right. By the time he reached Gorey he would have recovered enough to pretend nothing had happened, with total convic-tion, talking only of business, keenly interested to know what had gone on while he was away. Yet, he turned the same ques-tion over again and again.
All along they had spoken to each other by means of a story, which had not only satisfied them but seemed necessary. Now her last story seemed to be just that: her last. As he walked the fields over the following week he could not recon-cile the passion of their last hours together with the end of passion and, worse, the end of friendship; but it seemed that forces outside their control were working towards that end. Connie noticed his depression.
`I don’t want to sell our home in Dublin.’
`But we have to.’
`Yes, I know. We have to. Don’t you find that depressing?’
But Connie was glad to be out of Dublin. She had blos-somed and had quickly got used to the extra money which was, for the moment, available. And she only had to point to the children to prove how right she was. For the time being, the subject was a useful veil for the real source of his depres-sion. His only problem was to get the money for Tess, which he solved by getting a small loan from a different bank. He would use the surplus for the initial repayments and worry about the rest later.
A letter arrived from the estate agent. Three clients had seen the house in the past week, and one was interested and would view again in a few days time. He had to get Tess out of there fast and used the excuse of airing the place to go to Dublin early.
‘There’ve been tribes here since you went,’ she greeted him.
`I know. We’ll get you a place, don’t worry. I have the money.
`Oh.’ She seemed to have forgotten about that, or not believed he would remember, or that he’d forget on purpose. He brought her into town and read the evening papers over tea and cake in The Winding Stair. She rang three numbers, two in Rathmines, one in Heytesbury Street. They were all tiny, but despite their dilapidation both Rathmines bedsitters were already taken by someone ahead of them in a long queue, so that when she found herself at the head of a queue in Heytesbury Street, and despite the claustrophobic, cramped space, she took it. The landlord, still dressed in his Garda uniform, asked if she was working.
`Waitress,’ she said quickly, praying he wouldn’t ask where, and check if she lied, but when she produced the one hundred pounds deposit he showed no further interest.
`I took it,’ she said brusquely as she walked past Mungo who was waiting outside the door. She checked the phone number in the hall before leaving.
`You don’t look too happy about it,’ he said, catching up with her on the street. She turned on him.
`It’s a hole, and a hole in the wall, to boot. I’m thirty-four, I’ve to share a bathroom with six others. I’ve to cook where I sleep and I’ve to pay most of my dole for the privilege. Do you expect me to be giddy with happiness? Come on, I might as well move in.’
They hailed a taxi outside the hospital, went to Stoneybat-ter and loaded her belongings into the car. Then she asked the driver to wait a minute and led Mungo inside. She gave him his key and her number.
`I’m going back on my own, Mungo. Don’t contact me for about a month. I need to lick my wounds.’ She turned to go, then stopped without facing him. `Thanks for the money. I don’t know when you’ll get it back, but you will.’ She hesi-tated again. `Ring me. Or write me a card. Something.’
And then she was gone. He stared at the door, then sat in the armchair, staring into space. Eventually he roused himself and walked to the Phoenix Park. He walked through lush pas-tures and scrubland, past a herd of deer peacefully grazing, out past the Papal Cross, until hunger drew him home again. There were the remnants of a loaf, the dregs of a carton of milk, some butter, and he made tea and finished it all. He was tempted to get drunk and had enough money to do it prop-erly but he went to a mindless, violent film instead. He hated such films, but they were noisy and he needed distraction. On the way home he stopped in Hughes’s pub, and listened to the musicians over a few pints which he hoped would make him sleep.
When he pulled back the covers he saw that she had left a few hairs and a stain. He switched out the light and fell into bed, wondering how it could be that the woman he already missed so much could have been here twelve hours before. He shook his head in bafflement, and then, finally, a few tears came. There was nothing for it but to endure.
In the morning he took the sheet and put it in the refuse bin. The stain was light and had not seeped through to the mattress. He tidied the house and washed himself, and the agent and his couple arrived. They were young, already had a house in the suburbs but wanted to move close to town.
`You won’t get much closer,’ the agent beamed.
`Any children?’ Mungo asked to be pleasant, although he felt awful.
`One,’ the woman said. `He’s in the creche this morning.’
They looked over the house again, discussing how they could make it as open-plan as possible. Mungo leaned against the kitchen sink, wishing he was far away. The deal was done. Now it was a matter for the solicitors.
In the station, he sorely wanted to ring Tess, ask how she had settled in, anything to hear her voice, but he didn’t. Instead, he rang Connie, who was delighted with the news, and he told her he was on his way.
The weeks passed, and he dealt with his pain by working himself to exhaustion until light faded. His one pleasure was to watch the leaves of the oak in the big field change to yellow and then brown as they accumulated around the tree. With the children at school he stayed out of Connie’s way until they came home. He was asleep by the time she got to bed, up before she woke, so that hardly an unnecessary word passed between them from one day to the next. The farm was getting back into shape through their labour, and this seemed to be enough.
There was a brief Indian summer. One afternoon was par-ticularly warm and he sat under the oak to rest. He leaned back into the trunk, as if it exuded comfort, and realized he had hardly stopped to take breath for weeks. Tess had asked him to ring in a month. It was now long passed a month, but he was reluctant to revive the pain and to what he perceived as little purpose. Then he remembered his last story. An inkling had come to him the night he had slept on Aidan’s bed, but he had pushed it from his mind. In the weeks since, it had come back to him in fleeting moments, but each time he had rejected it, just as he had rejected any deep feeling about what had happened his child. Aidan had broken into the last story he had told her. He had come from nowhere, from an unseen corridor in a labyrinthine hospital, in great pain, being pushed by two strangers whose thoughts were elsewhere. His train journey was leading him back to the beginning, when his life was changed, and Aidan was marked for life. There was one last train journey then, on – what were they called? Tranvias, the local trains. One last journey on a tranvia along the coast. Both Aidan and Mungo loved a train journey by the sea. That was it – a trip to the Costa Brava. And an outing to an aban-doned church overlooking the sea. He jumped up and went to the house.
`Connie! Do you want anything from the village? I’m going to get a few beers.’
`Get something for the rest of us. This is worse than summer.’
What did she mean, `worse than summer’? Weren’t the goddamn winters long enough for her? She’d soon find that one out, up here in the hills. He drove through Monaseed and on to Hollyfort, bought the drinks and made sure he had enough change. It occurred to him that she might not be in on such a fine day, but she picked up the phone just as it rang.
`I was afraid you might be out on such a glorious day.’
`Is it fine down there? It’s pissing rain here. Ah … Mungo, I was just on my way out to work, and I’m late.’
`You’re working? Since when? What at?’
‘Waitressing. It’s handy hours, early afternoon and evening and I need the money. I’ve got to -‘
`What about Arthur?’
`He goes home himself now. Listen, Mungo, have you any plans to come up? It’d be nice to see you.’ His spirits rose.
`Do you fancy a fancy-dress party for Hallowe’en? The girls in the house here are all talk about it. You could come up on the evening train and meet me after work. Do you know The Ranch?â€™
`I know where it is. A fancy-dress party? I wouldn’t have a clue what to go as-‘
`Wear your father’s uniform you were going on about. I’ve got to run, Mungo, I’m late already. Eleven o’clock, Hal-lowe’en, The Ranch. Right?’
His father’s uniform. Jesus. There was something scandal-ous about wearing it to a party. He shuddered and replaced the phone. There wasn’t much room in her life now, he thought, as he drove the long way home, north, then across the side of Armagh Hill – but at least she’s squeezing me in. His thoughts now with the autumn landscape of the valley, now with Tess’s offhand inclusion of him in her plans, he wondered if there would be time to tell his story. He realized he was at peace, as if something wild and mournful had settled in him. Perhaps it had something to do with the valley, its colours dying to make way for winter on this beautiful day.
`I rang the solicitor to see how things were going,’ he said over supper, `but he was out. So the secretary offered me an appointment for Thursday morning, ten o’clock.’
`Sure these things take months, Mungo.’ Connie buttered a slice of bread for Ethna. `Anyway, I thought you didn’t want to sell the place. What has you so anxious to get rid of it now?’
`For one thing, let me remind you that it’s sold. And if it’s sold we might as well get the money as soon as we can, seeing as we’re not millionaires. And you have to push these people!’
`Alright, alright, you’ve made your point – Ethna, don’t spit out good bread!’
`There are children starving in Africa, you know,’ Aidan lec-tured, repeating what his mother had said so often. Ethna replied by hitting him on the shoulder with her knife, the flat end, with enough force to hurt.
`She stabbed me, she stabbed me!’
`Stop it, stop it both of you!’ Connie yelled.
`Cop on, Aidan,’ Mungo said. `And don’t you hit your brother with a knife again, Ethna.’
Ethna and Aidan scowled at each other, but peace returned. `I’ll go up on the evening train on Wednesday,’ he said to Connie.
`Wednesday? But you can’t go away on Wednesday – it’s Hallowe’en!’ Aidan protested.
`We have to have a party for Hallowe’en!’
`A party, a party,’ Ethna joined in, clapping her hands. Mungo’s heart sank, but then he had an idea, and opened his arms wide and smiled a generous, paterfamilias smile.
`Well then, we’ll just have to have the party before I go, won’t we?’
The children cheered.
`What do we need?’
`Apples, and monkey nuts,’ Aidan said, none too sure.
`And crisps,’ Ethna nodded.
When Connie had settled in front of the television and the children were playing outside, Mungo went upstairs and uncov-ered his father’s khaki and helmet. Imagine going out to die in shorts, he thought as he held them up. Why not? A corpse doesn’t care how it’s dressed. He took off his clothes and put on the uniform and to his surprise it was a tight fit. For some reason he expected it to hang off him, but then he realized that his father had only been twenty in 1943. He put on the helmet and ammunition pouches and stood to attention before the mirror, rifle in his left hand. There he was in the guard of honour, like his father, waiting to be inspected by Winston Churchill. Only twenty, little more than a boy, in one of the great battles of his-tory. Yet he never spoke about it. The medals on the shelf in the wardrobe, dull with age and neglect, were testimony to his pres-ence and perhaps his courage. His mother had never spoken about it either – had refused, in fact. It stank of mothballs.
`What are you doing done up in that?’ Connie asked qui-etly. He swung around, and stared at her.
`It’s my father’s uniform,’ he said then.
`I know that. But what are you doing in it?’
`Just curious. I’m thinking of bringing it to Dublin to sell.’
`Good idea. I was going to throw it out. I don’t want Aidan to get any romantic ideas about war.’
She left. Maybe she had a point, though it was a shame not to show him his grandfather’s uniform. It was his own history, after all. It was Mungo’s, too, and yet he was going to demean it at a party. He took it off and put it away.
When he went down to the living-room Connie was watch-ing the news. A reporter was commenting on the Presidential campaign, and Connie made some disparaging remarks about the woman candidate, who she regarded as a communist because of her liberal record. Mungo said nothing. He had already made up his mind to vote for her.
The next day he made the appointment with the solicitor. Even if it cut into his time with Tess, he felt better covering his tracks. In Monaseed he bought apples and nuts and a large turnip, which he hollowed out, with eyes and nose and mouth, and put a candle in it. Connie helped him to set things up, putting streamers in the kitchen, pennies in a basin of water which they had to retrieve with their mouths, and hang-ing apples from the ceiling by a thread, which they had to eat with their hands behind their backs. Then they blacked out the kitchen, lit the candle, and called the children, who wore the masks and old clothes which would disguise them when they went begging for money or nuts or whatever indulgent neighbours would give them.
For the first time in too long Mungo saw Connie laugh so hard at the children’s attempts to bite the elusive apples and retrieve the submerged pennies that she held her belly. If only they could be like this even occasionally. If only laughter would soften them to each other. He was shouting a mixture of encouragement and jovial abuse as he thought this, as the children’s enthusiasm spilled over into mayhem which would not have been allowed at another time.
Connie drove him to the station. The children were still excited and in their costumes but for once she was indulgent, curbing them only when they interfered with her driving, at which point Mungo supported her. At the station he kissed the children good-bye in the car and wished them happy pick-ings for the night. Connie leaned over and kissed him on the lips. `You were great,’ she said, her hand on his cheek.
`So were you,’ he said, and she smiled and got ready to turn the ignition.
It was easy to get a seat on the train. He had more luggage than usual. In a holdall he had the carefully folded uniform and helmet of a Desert Rat.
When he arrived in Dublin he went to The Ranch and, pre-tending to look at the menu on the window outside, he saw Tess, in uniform, wait on a table. He was tempted to go in and order a meal, but instead went to a local pub and had a toasted cheese sandwich and a pint. Already the bar was full of the young and beautiful, some of them in fancy dress as priests, nuns, wizards, French maids, stocking-and-garter nurses, and weedy-looking Supermen. Mungo felt much older than his age, although there was a sprinkling of his contempo-raries. They were probably actors, and artists from the local studios. One group was talking about the presidential elec-tion. The Tanaiste, one of the presidential candidates, had been sacked from the government. Obviously, to his surprise, the campaign was stirring interest among more people than Connie. There was no doubt who was the favourite here, and now, with this latest news, she was the favourite to win.
This time Tess spotted him as he peered in from the dark street. Some customers were still in the restaurant, but she winked and put up her hand, fingers splayed. Five minutes. Accustomed to no more than a few bottles of beer on warm evenings, he was a bit drunk after a few pints. It felt good, though. He was relaxed and optimistic and smiling to himself. She was nearer to fifteen minutes, and when she came out, carrying a bag, she kissed him quickly and took him by the arm back to the pub from which he had come. She’d had a quick glass of wine earlier to get her in the mood, but now she needed a long cool pint followed by whiskey. The bar was now difficult to get into, and she shouted to him to get her a drink while she changed. With the leavening of drink and fancy dress, the atmosphere was intoxicating. He had never seen so many garters, so much revealed flesh, anonymous behind masks and make-up, but he felt an outsider and gulped back a lot of his pint to equalize things somehow. When Tess returned he didn’t recognize her in her snake crown, her golden make-up, her false beard, spiral earrings and long golden dress off one shoulder.
`Who are you?’
‘Nefertiti. I saw a bust of her in Berlin. Give me that pint before I die.’ She drank several mouthfuls. `What about you – did you bring the uniform?’
`Yeah, it’s in my bag.’
`Well change! I want to see my soldier boy.’
`Here?’ He cringed at the thought.
`Can’t you see that everyone’s dressed up?’
`You’re the only one with clothes on a nudist beach. I’ll mind your drink.’
He took his bag and went down the narrow stairs to the toilet where a bishop and a Roundhead were urinating. He went into the water closet.
`Father, forgive me,’ he muttered, his eyes raised to where he presumed his father’s spirit dwelt. It was a struggle to change in the toilet, as apart from being cramped the floor was wet, but there was a hook on the back of the door, so at least he could hang his bag there. He took off his jacket and shirt, being careful of his wallet and keys, and put on the army shirt. That was simple enough. The smell of stale urine was getting to him and he thought that if he got out of this place without a tropical disease he’d be lucky. He rolled off wads of toilet paper and put them on the ground, largely solving the prob-lem if he could keep his balance. It proved relatively easy, but he lost his balance once because of a light head and fell against the wall with his khaki shorts half on. Balancing on one leg, he got himself upright again and strapped on the ammunition pouches, into one of which he stashed his wallet, and the other his keys. It had been too awkward to bring the rifle, but he strapped on the heavy revolver. If some smart fucker jeered him once, he swore, he’d pull it on him. He had a piss while he was there. There was no mirror in the toilet, but he peered into the dull chrome of the hand drier. He had forgotten the helmet. He strapped it on and peered again. That was better. He’d probably end up needing it.
As he went up the stairs, he momentarily startled a young man who was coming down. Then there was a nod of amused recognition, and Mungo passed him stiffly, his eyes, he imag-ined, glinting like steel in the desert sun.
`Hey, you look great!’ said Nefertiti, handing him his drink. He needed it. They bought a bottle of whiskey to take away.
The atmosphere on the street was electric, like a souped-up Saturday night. He spotted French maids and Mandrakes dodging between cars, hopelessly looking for taxis. Above the noise of the traffic he could hear laughing and shouting. Tess looked very young, and, he realized, very upright. She was walking like a queen.
`Here,’ he said, `give me your bag. It’s ruining the effect.’ `Thanks,’ she said out of the corner of her mouth.
`The only thing I don’t like is the beard. It isn’t very femi-nine.’
`I have to wear it to look right,’ she said. `It’s a symbol of authority.’
By the time they reached Heytesbury Street the party was in full swing, with bodies, singly or in pairs, sprawled in the hall and on the stairs. Loud music with an insistent bass pounded the house. Tess brought him to her room and closed the door.
`Well, aren’t you going to kiss me?’
`Not with that beard on,’ he said, putting down their bags. She put her arms around him and kissed him, her tongue deep into his mouth. Then she grabbed the bottle of whiskey, took two glasses and brought him to one of the larger flats down-stairs. Throughout the night she kept introducing him to people who lived in the house, but there wasn’t much point, as he forgot their names instantly, and as they were disguised there was no way he could remember their faces. People began to cluster in small groups and couples. One couple was leaving little to the imagination; several were necking. Mungo and Tess were necking too. It was after three a.m. and theywere very drunk.
`Let’s go to your room,’ Mungo said.
`Yes, let’s,’ she agreed, but when they got there, a naked man with a eagle mask on the back of his head was lying between the legs of a similarly attired woman. Another couple, who seemed not to have quite made it, was lying on the floor.
`Fuck it.’ Tess was crying with frustration, the tears incre-menting the chaos of her make-up. `Fuck it, I need to sleep. Do you still have a place?’ He nodded. `Let’s go then.’ She was gone and, unsteadily, he followed her. It needed all his concentration to negotiate the sprawled bodies on the stairs, and by the time he reached the door she was crossing the street. The traffic was sparse but she looked neither left or right and strode on, her head in the air. The taxis were full and they had to walk. His mind wandered and he recalled the argument in the pub earlier in the night.
`Who’re you going to vote for?’ he asked her.
`Who do you think? And you?’
`Oh, the same.’ He had made up his mind and it pleased him.
`I can’t wait,’ she said.
They walked down from Dame Street, into Parliament
Street and reached Grattan Bridge. `Where are we going?’ he demanded. `Wherever,’ she said.
`Hey, we hardly danced at all tonight,’ he said, his eyes clos-ing. `Let’s dance.’
So they danced off the pavement to some tuneless waltz, onto the middle of the bridge. A passing taxi driver blew his horn, but they were oblivious.
`Hold on a minute,’ she said abruptly and trotted to the
parapet. `I don’t believe it,’ she shouted. `The fuckers!’
`What? What don’t you believe?’
`They’ve knocked my lovely house down, that’s what I
don’t believe. Wankers!’ she shouted. ‘Wankers!’
`Let’s dance,’ he said, his arms stretched out to her.
`My lovely house.’ She was crying and without warning she ran towards the demolished building, and Mungo’s arms were left with nothing but air between them. Nevertheless, arms outstretched, he resumed the dance, waltzing onto the middle of the bridge again. The tanks had opened up, and day turned to night as the tracks churned up the sand. He was scared of dying, his stomach capsized in fear, and he vomited over the parapet into the Liffey.
That sobered him a little and he looked around for Tess. He found her along the quay, sitting on the pavement, snif-fling, her shoulders shaking in irregular spasms, staring at the gap which had once been her home. He sat down beside her and put his arm around her and she leaned into him.
`I loved that place. It’s the only place I was ever free.’
He looked up to where they had first gone to bed, and he had been so confused when she stopped him he had put his trousers on back to front. And then, the other times when they had got used to each other and their passion had ignited. And then their tall tales, told to each other so intimately. The ghosts of so much embarrassment and lust and happenings he knew nothing of, floating about up there. And their own ghosts. Did they leave any mark on the universe at all?
`Let’s go,’ he whispered, `before we get our death,’ and she got up without protest and followed him along the quays.
Coming towards them, a couple were fighting, screaming and shouting at each other. A cruising squad car pulled over and a guard warned them to be quiet. The man turned on him and abused him with a stream of oaths, at which the guards moved in to arrest him. The man struggled and his girlfriend cursed the guards. Then the man went limp as a guard opened the backdoor of the squad car to bundle him in, but he suddenly came to life and broke away. The guards ran after him, one of them shouting into his radio, and the girl followed, screaming, across the road and into a laneway. Mungo and Tess followed at a discreet distance. The guards had the man on the ground, punching him, but he was fight-ing back, loudly encouraged by his girlfriend. Two more guards came running down the street, then another squad car with two more, and between them the six guards quietened him and dragged him to the second squad car and bundled his hysterical girlfriend in beside him. Mungo decided it was time to leave and spotted a free taxi on the quays. As it turned in, the second squad car accelerated, followed a few moments later by the one on the quay.
When the Desert Rat awoke beside Nefertiti her beard was on her cheek. He too was fully dressed, and he did not know which hurt more – his feet or his head. Looking down at his boots, he saw for the first time the cracks in the shining leather. Nefertiti stirred, instinctively removing her beard. Through bloodshot eyes she looked at the Desert Rat and groaned.
`We’re in trouble, Tess. Our clothes are back in your place.’
`Shit.’ She closed her eyes. `So are my keys.’
`That’s wonderful news. And I’ve an appointment with a solicitor in fifteen minutes.’
`Has he a sense of humour?’
It was a mistake to get up quickly, as his head spun and he was flooded with nausea, but he managed to steady himself. After he had been to the bathroom he went back upstairs to assess the situation. His helmet was on the floor and perhaps it was a good idea to take off his gun. Apart from his stubble and bloodshot eyes, he convinced himself that his image in the mirror was no worse than that of an eccentric tourist.
`I can’t go out on the street like this,’ she groaned.
`Sure no one’ll recognize you, Tess. But what the fuck are we going to do?’
‘Francine. You met her last night.’
‘Bell seven. Keep ringing till she answers. She works with me. If you’re not back in two hours I’ll hang myself.’
At least he had his wallet. He picked up the helmet as if it were a hat, glanced at her and left. He was halfway to the solicitor’s before he realized he was still wearing the gun, and when he put his hand gingerly to his head there was a tin hat on it. It was only then he noticed that people were staring at him. Didn’t they realize he was a refugee from a fancy-dress party? Then he remembered that time on the Ha’penny Bridge twelve months before, and lengthened his stride. If it wasn’t for his throbbing head, he wouldn’t have a care in the world.
After a moment’s surprise, both the secretary and solicitor treated him as if he were wearing a three-piece suit. The secre-tary even allowed him to make a phone call. It rang for a long time.
In less than two hours Mungo had rescued Tess in a taxi and she made him breakfast.
`It was a colourful night, huh?’
`Yeah. I have to go in a few minutes. Do you want to see me again?’
`Why? Don’t you want to see me?’
`Yes. Very much.’
`Well then. Ring me.’ She stretched out her hand and he squeezed it.
He rang from Hollyfort or Gorey every few days. Brief calls. If there was talk of anything, it was about the presiden-tial election. It seemed to be an obsession with Tess. Connie and Mungo argued over the woman candidate, the first in Irish history. He couldn’t believe that Connie was so emo-tional about her, so critical, so vehemently against her. His mother’s voting card arrived, but neither Connie nor Mungo was registered in Wexford. Connie said she wouldn’t have voted anyway, but he declared his intention of going to Dublin. Connie was incredulous that he would waste a day like that. Tess was delighted.
`She’s going to make it, you know,’ she said fervently.
He thought so too, and it put him in a buoyant mood. It led to a damaging row with Connie. A lot of old hurt poured out, and when she had nothing else left, she cast up the fire which had scarred Aidan. That killed him off, as she knew it would, and she walked in victory out of the room.
`You bitch,’ he said faintly. `You bitch …’
He packed a bag with enough fresh clothes to last for sev-eral days and hitched to Gorey and caught the afternoon train. Tess was not expecting him till the following day so he would have to wait for her outside The Ranch. He went to a boring picture and had a few drinks in the pub nearby. By eleven he was waiting across the road from the restaurant. He noticed a tall young man check the name of the place and then look inside the window. It must have been a trick of the light, but he could have sworn he saw Tess wave at him. Whether it was Tess or not, the young man waved back and then walked a few paces on, evidently pleased with himself. Within minutes Tess had left work and was in the young man’s arms, and for the second time in several hours, Mungo was shaken to his heart.
Somehow he endured. There was nothing for it but to endure. On Grattan Bridge he looked over the side and re-membered Hallowe’en. Idly, he thought he should jump, it looked black and deep enough, but dismissed the idea as melodramatic. He looked up at the dark air where Tess’s flat had been, and for an instant he felt crushed again, but pulled back. He was determined to endure, to put his pain into a strength that would help him take hold of life again. It was unrealistic to expect her to survive on his periodic embrace. She was a mature woman, and needed more. Yet, when he reached the house that was no longer his, he could not bear to lie in the bed that she, and before her his spiteful wife, had lain on. Instead, he lay down on Aidan’s bed and fell into a deep sleep.
The next morning he woke late. He lay in bed, reluctant to get up. His neck, for some reason, was stiff. There were voting cards on the floor in the hall which he had overlooked the pre-vious night. It gave him a sweet satisfaction to vote in Aidan and Ethna’s old school. The place was full of young voters, and women with small children, and for the first time he could remember, Mungo felt an excitement in the polling centre. One woman was agitated because her child had scrawled all over her polling card, but she had identification, so to her immense relief, they let her vote. Mungo hung around the yard for a while. It was hard to believe that Ethna and Aidan had so recently played in this yard; that he had waited so often outside the gates to meet them. There were too many ghosts accumulating of late.
He bought some provisions and made himself breakfast. Tess was expecting him to call and he wondered now if he should, but he had always found it impossible to break an appointment, however unpleasant, and he knew it was inevit-able that he would ring. He would not ask her about her young man. That was her affair. They had made no promises of fidelity to each other. And in reality, or what passed as the real world, in sharing the difficulties and pleasures of ordinary life they had never been close, and never could be. That was sobering, and it was sad. And yet, somehow, her fickleness didn’t matter. What mattered was that in telling her his sto-ries, and in listening to hers, a loneliness which he had been barely aware of all his life had gone. He drank back the dregs of his tea, and laughed. Imagine! They were friends. Even as he thought this, he knew he felt more than friendship, but knew also that he would settle for it. With Tess as his friend, perhaps he could survive his life in Wexford. That seemed to be the way things were turning out, presuming he could swal-low the row with Connie, and he had only to think of Ethna and Aidan to know that he would.
His hand shook as he held the receiver, but he went through with it.
`I’ve just voted. How about you?’
`First thing. God, if she doesn’t make it, I’ll die.’
`She will.’ His voice was soft, but to his surprise it was also
steady. They talked on for a while, quietly, like two people
who know each other very well. She asked him to meet her
outside The Ranch after work. `I’ll be there.’
When he put down the receiver he wondered if Francine and the other waitresses knew if Tess was keeping a couple of men on a string. He supposed they did, and that they laughed about it, but he didn’t care. He supposed it must be good for Tess’s ego, which he knew was fragile.
She looked tired, and that wasn’t surprising; but she looked genuinely happy to see him. After a few drinks her tiredness seemed to disappear and she became more and more affection-ate. He became more confused. They took a taxi back to her place and she insisted on paying. He had taken more taxis in the last few months than he had taken in his life, but so what. She nestled into him, breaking into his loneliness.
When they got to her flat she went to the bathroom for a few minutes, then immediately stripped and got into bed. He went too, then joined her, but although he muddled through the motions of responding to her kisses, his mind was else-where, and he broke away from her.
`I’m sorry Tess. I can’t. I had a big row with Connie before I left.’
`Don’t worry about it. We’ll do it another night.’ She ran her fingers through his hair. `I’ll tell you what – why don’t you tell the rest of your story. Your Spanish story.’
Yes, he thought. That was the one thing he could rise to, the one thing that mattered that was still untold. As usual, he paused to find the thread.
`There isn’t much left to tell. Connie and I came home and got married. Aidan was born about two years afterwards. I had qualified as a carpenter before I went to Spain and I took it up again when I came back. I never liked it but I was a man with responsibilities now so I did it. Ethna came a few years after and I worked like a dog, overtime, nixers, anything I could get. We wanted for nothing, had our few drinks at the week-ends when the kids got strong, and I’d saved so much I man-aged to pay off the house, which we’d got cheap anyway. Everything in the garden was rosy. I was too tired during the week, but Connie seemed satisfied with sex on a Saturday night.
`Then we went back to Barcelona on a holiday, as much to lay old wounds to rest as anything else. Connie went back to the hospital, took a look at the ward she was in, and cried for about two days. It was good for her, and she was a lot happier. Then we moved up the coast, to the Costa Brava, to a small village which looked nothing but it had a lovely, deserted beach. The main road to Barcelona passed through the village and there was the constant noise of the traffic, but the beach was worth it and we spent a few lovely days there.
`On the Sunday morning we decided we’d go for a walk into the country, which really meant into the hills. It was ridiculous really. Poor Ethna was exhausted by the first hill, but Aidan insisted on continuing, so Connie said she’d go back with Ethna and gave me her water bottle as it was already hot. Aidan and I watched them go down the hill and I’ve often wondered about that moment, as if it was one of those times where your life divides into before and after and there is no turning back. The sea was glinting, and far out you could see the squat black shapes of the US Fleet, just as I had from the train years before.
`The countryside was beautiful in its way, but brown and somewhat monotonous to Irish eyes. I was afraid it would get too hot, but Aidan spotted a lizard and was so amazed he insisted on going on so that we might see another. I was about to insist that we turn back when we heard music, and in the distance we saw a file of people led by a priest, a trombon-ist and a drummer. That settled it. As we came up to them, we saw that a few in the procession were carrying an enormous wicker basket of flowers. We were heading towards an old church, which blended into the background on a rise. Some of the group looked at us, then said something in Catalan, smiling and nodding an inclusive approval. Aidan smiled up at me as if to say, well, wasn’t I right? and I smiled too and clapped his back. We had to cross a small footbridge, no more than a footstick, really, over what turned out to be a surpris-ingly vigorous stream.
`The church had been abandoned a long time, maybe over a century before, and I longed to ask why but didn’t have any Catalan. There was nothing inside except heaps of dried bushes and vegetation and whatever the -wind had blown in, along with a thick layer of dust. A lizard basked where a window had been, and Aidan pointed in pleasure.
`They placed the basket of flowers in the centre and the priest walked around it sprinkling holy water and blessing it. Then he led the pilgrims in prayer, and the little band struck up, played something very haunting, and it was over.
`Outside they broke into small groups of men and women, the priest talking to the women. The men lit cigarettes and offered one to me, but I declined. They smiled at us and we smiled back. Then the party set off down again and stopped at the stream to cool themselves, splashing the water on their faces and washing their hands and feet. It seemed part of the ritual, probably born of ordinary physical need, and we did the same. They smiled at us again, and as we went down the hill one of them tried to engage me in conversation, and with the help of my rusty Castilian we talked the usual small talk in such situations. We had gone some way before I noticed that Aidan was missing and I made my excuses and went back up the hill, calling him. There was no sign of him at the stream and then I thought I heard a faint crackling, and when I looked up I saw smoke coming from the church. I wanted to call him, but I had lost my voice. I was running, but no matter how hard I tried it was as if I was a film in slow motion. Then suddenly I was inside the church and what I saw I will never forget.’
`Aidan was standing beside the basket of flowers, sur-rounded by burning bushes. He was screaming to me, but I could not hear him above the roar of the flames, which had covered the entire floor of the church apart from the circle at the centre of which Aidan and the flowers were a part. Then a flaming bush floated up to a rafter and I couldn’t help looking up. It had a captivating beauty as it wafted upwards until it was blocked by the rafter, which it seemed to play with, until the rafter ignited with an angry burst. Then at last I heard Aidan’s voice, and I wasn’t sure if the fire was in the church or in my head, but I screamed and braced myself to run through the flames. Maybe fear is the first path to intelligence, but some voice told me I should throw dust on the flames and that is what I did, like making a path through the sea, until I reached him. You’d think I would have run with him the way I came, but no, I picked him up and both of us were sobbing with fear, and I squeezed him to me. Then Aidan, his face smudged with smoke and tears, reached back from me and took a large white flower from the basket and said, “Come on, Daddy, come on,” and we started back, choking on the smoke, Aidan swinging the flower from side to side, beating back the flames to make a way. Then the rafter collapsed and fell before us, a shower of sparks flying away from it. A gust of hot air blew against us and, choking, I dropped Aidan and he fell … he fell …’
Mungo was panting and covered in sweat, unable to say it, and yet he had to. If he did not say it now, he never would. He would turn in on himself and wither away, and he knew this, so he groaned and gathered himself for a last effort. Tess stared at him.
`He fell into the flames, which were no higher than the length of a hand, but they were flames, and his shirt caught fire. I don’t know if it was the best thing to do, it may be what scarred him in the end, but I rolled him over and cov-ered his torso with dust. It was hot but it smothered the flames. Aidan was screaming, beating my face with pain and fear, and I was terrified myself and sure we were going to die. I thought for a moment it was wishful thinking, a mirage that would help us die, but as if by a divine hand the fiery rafter was moved to one side and the flames on the floor had noth-ing left to devour and died away, and I heard shouting in Catalan as Aidan passed out. A woman took him from me and others supported me and brought us down to the river, bathing Aidan in it with great gentleness as the priest prayed over him. In the distance I could see a young man running like a hare to the village, so I knew I could trust them to take care of Aidan, just as I knew that nothing would ever be the same again.’