The Fabulists :: Chapter 3

It was where she shopped anyway, so for a week she found an excuse to go to the shopping centre every other day at about the same time. The coincidence of meeting him twice in an hour was one thing, but the moment had passed and was lost. She shrugged. Such things happened all the time in the likes of Henry Street – didn’t they? Apart from his stiff arm, what intrigued her was that he had frightened her half to death on the night of the parade, but in daylight he seemed deferential and almost timid. Anyway he looked pleasant enough. She was very lonely, but she didn’t want another arsehole messing her around. She”d be in control with this one, that was certain, and for a few days she felt a surge of exhilarating hope. It was nice to fantasize about him – what he might be like, what he did, if he was married. Yes, he was married, but then so was she. Thoughts of an affair made her smile and even laugh, but the tread of her life reasserted itself and she forgot about him. Finding a decent present for Arthur on her few bob took up most of her time. She spent weeks, hesitating, counting her pennies, hoping to come across a better bargain. As a truce offering, she bought Brian a video tape.

Christmas passed more peacefully than she could have hoped. Arthur was happy with his football and boots, and his video games from Brian. Annie had spilled the beans about Santy, but despite Tess’s annoyance it had turned out to her advantage in the present arrangement, and his manic spirits kept their minds off reality. Alcohol and television and the visits to Arthur’s grandparents did the rest.

They drank so much on Christmas night that they ended up fucking on the living-room floor, she not caring who he was, and she even came. It wasn’t great, but it was better than fighting. The next day, appalling hangovers allowed them to pretend nothing had happened. She left that evening, relieved that Christmas and its obligations were over. She put the idea of pregnancy out of her mind. On New Year”s Eve she went to Christchurch, and rang in the New Year and New Decade, dancing with strangers with as much abandon as if she believed they held a promise of happiness. She went to a party off the South Circular Road, where there were so few men that several women danced with each other. They were several drinks ahead of her and she felt awkward, so she walked home around three, ignoring the boisterous calling from passing cars. At least she hadn’t been alone for the first few hours of the year. That was symbolically important. She took down the redundant calendar and burned it, hoping all her bad luck would go up in smoke.

Arthur settled back into school, and the routine was established again. On her way back from Fairview, she felt the first drops of rain as she hurried across O’Connell Street. Already the windscreen wipers were zipping on passing cars. She crossed into Abbey Street while the lights were still red, but within moments she was caught in a downpour. Her head was bare so she cursed fluently while running to a bus shelter, where she huddled with a dozen others, but then realized the rain had soaked through her coat and she walked slowly and miserably home.
Once inside the flat, she made no attempt to change her clothes but looked around the cold room, so bleak and lifeless in the naked light: the old armchair with its torn covering and collapsed springs; the red Formica table with the accumulated dirt in its steel rim impossible to dislodge; the tattered nylon carpet which made her skin creep; the discoloured chipwood wallpaper; the thin grey curtains … A tear trickled down her face. Even her posters seemed dispirited.

Water dripped rapidly into the bath. She pushed open the bathroom door and watched a separate leak stream down the wall, nourishing the fungus. It didn’t matter that it would saturate the floor below, no one lived there any more. There was a lesser breach in the kitchen over the cooker. She moved a pot until it was directly underneath, the thick drops striking hard.
Her body tensed and her teeth began to chatter. She went back into the living-room with a towel, lit the gas fire and undressed, drying her body vigorously, oblivious to the spluttering flames. She tilted her head to one side to dry her hair and stared at the fire as it died. Cursing, she rummaged through her bag, but there was no fifty pence piece.

Tess felt the breadth of her squalor, but she steadied herself and weighed up her options. To go into the rain again, begging for a coin would be ridiculous, so all she could do was go to bed once her hair was dry. Taking a few blankets, she sat on her heels in the armchair and wrapped them around her. Clutching them to her with one hand, she furiously towelled her hair with the other. Both friction and action combined made her tolerably warm and also breathless, so she rested a while.

The blankets fell open, exposing part of her left breast. She examined it, not for lumps, but for its substance and texture as a sexual object. She laughed, without feeling. This was the piece of protruding flesh that turned men”s heads, that they loved to handle and kiss and admire, and, not for the first time, she wondered about its fascination. Her breasts were small, with thick nipples which she considered ugly, and she was convinced they had lost their firmness. No fear of her tits fascinating men! Not that she cared. They seemed to retreat from the cold and were suddenly covered in goose pimples. She looked at her belly which was still slim but its skin was somehow slack, and blemished, as she thought of it, with the wrinkles of an ancient.

She looked farther down at her bush, and closed the blankets about her and towelled her hair again. She felt only an emptiness and bitterly knew that in such a state, far from wanting pleasure, she only wanted to hurt herself. Perhaps that’s what puritans meant when they called it self-abuse. Not that she was against giving herself pleasure and she thought about some of her more memorable explorations, which made her feel good and she stopped rubbing her hair and silently laughed. She had done it first while still at school, where the precocious Marian had alerted her to its possibilities, but it wasn’t until she had come to live here, at the age of thirty-two, that she deliberately sat down one evening in this same armchair in her open dressing-gown before a warm fire, and began to explore her body, inch by inch, in a way no man had done and perhaps no man could know how.

That was very beautiful and not just because of the pleasure, but because it gave her back hope. It was so difficult to recapture a moment like that, and why it should be so she didn’t know. She would try again, yes, but not now, the mood wasn’t right, even if the thought had cheered her. Yes, it had, and she hugged herself in gratitude.

In bed she threshed her body and legs about until the friction warmed the sheets, but she still wasn’t warm. A chill breeze, blocked on one side of the bed, made its way in some-where else. Too lazy to get up again, she tried to stick it out, but in the end she jumped out of bed and found the oversize tee-shirts she was fond of and donned three before jumping back in, threshing about again.

It was no use, she would have to make the bed properly. So, getting out once more, she did a little dance as she carefully tucked in the sheets and blankets. Back in, she wriggled about for a while, then paused to gauge the effect. Not bad. She pulled the tee-shirts down her thighs. Better still. Content, she turned on a Schubert tape and played it until she could no longer hold off sleep.

* * *

Mungo lay awake beside Connie, who was snoring. She had most of the bed but that didn’t matter. His arm ached badly and his hand tingled and this worried him, as he had heard someone in a pub saying that it was the sign of a heart attack. Or was it a stroke? The side of his head tingled as well, so maybe it was a stroke. That was queer because he had never felt better physically and his arm, he felt sure, was coming on well. The irony – to get yourself to the peak of fitness, and then die of a heart attack! Or a stroke. American suburbia was famous for it.
Then again, maybe the tingling in his scalp was due to the hard pillow and maybe he had lain on his arm. He had slept deeply before waking. Now he longed to know the time, but the luminous figures on the clock had faded long ago, It was probably two or three. The wind had risen and it was still raining, and the leak from a gutter was blown onto a roadworks drum in a tattoo.

He rubbed the side of his head briskly and the tingling faded. Then he put his left arm across his body and caressed it, slowly, from the shoulder to his fingertips. Lately he had dis-covered that as well as making his arm feel better, there was sensual pleasure in it too. He looked over at the shadowy figure of his wife. They had not had sex since before he gave up drinking. She was steamed up that night too, singing all the way home with a few of her girlfriends, their men a few paces behind shouting friendly abuse, but excluded all the same. The defences were down and the baby-sitter from next door was paid off quickly, and the singing continued sotto voce up the stairs as their clothes came off, and into bed until it was silenced by famished lips and tongues.

Shag it, he had an erection. Weary, he sighed and thought of welfare bureaucracy and it subsided. This never failed and as there was no point in tormenting himself, he used it every time. The kettle boils over if it’s left too long on the flame but it couldn’t be helped, and if Connie noticed when the sheets were washed she never protested. She turned and her arm fell haphazardly on his chest.

He was about to gently remove it when she moaned. Her arm twitched a few times, and he left it there, sorry for her now. It couldn’t be easy for her either, with no one that he knew of to touch her, to convince her that she wasn’t a fleshless soul wandering around the city of the lost. He thought he knew how she must feel. As suddenly as before, she turned and moaned again. He hoped she was having a nice time.

A scream came from the children”s bedroom and without thinking Mungo was on his feet. As he knelt by his bed, Aidan was fighting off some danger, and Mungo knew what it was. Ethna was sleeping peacefully so he switched on Aidan”s torch, still unsure if he should wake him or let the nightmare take its course, in which case it might leave him be for a while. He watched his son struggle and sweat and suffered with him as he pulled him from the flames which he, Mungo, had set alight. One night of drunkenness, his cigarette had made his son”s bed an inferno and had almost killed him and Ethna, too, if it hadn’t been for Connie. They might all have died.
Aidan sat up suddenly, gasping, his arms flailing.

“Da, Da!” he shouted.

“I”m here, son, I”m here,” Mungo whispered urgently, holding him. “I have you out. You’re safe. As safe as could be.” Ethna was still asleep, and he rocked Aidan until he calmed.
“Was it the same dream?” Aidan nodded. “Gawd – it’s a tough one, isn’t it?” The boy nodded again. “You haven’t had it for a while, though, have you?” Aidan shook his head. “I”d say you”ll have it less and less, until you won’t have it at all. Maybe this is the last one,” he added optimistically.

Aidan was silent for a while. “I was in a church.”

“A church?”

He nodded, this time vigorously.

“You never had a church in your dream before, had you. Was it a big church?”

Aidan reflected.

“No. It was small. And there was no altar.”

No altar? How could he know it was a church if it had no altar, Mungo wondered, but didn’t ask as he knew there was more to be told. But Aidan said nothing and there was silence, apart from a bluster of rain against the window. Mungo gently laid him back and tucked in the bedclothes.
“Will I leave the torch on?” There was no reply, but Mungo stayed, on his knees beside the bed. Then Aidan mumbled, and alert again, Mungo leaned over to listen.

“A bush …” Aidan”s heavy eyelids opened and he looked at his father.

“Yes? A bush?”

“There”s a bush in the middle of the church.”

“Is it a nice bush?”

“Very nice.” Aidan seemed to drift back to sleep again, and Mungo let him be, but he rallied, as if he had a need to tell his father. “A bush …”

“The bush … the bush is important, isn’t it?

“I take a leaf off the bush, and then …” Aidan whimpered and sat up in bed again, rubbing his eyes. Mungo sat up quickly beside him and held him close, almost weeping.

“What happens then, my precious boy?” Aidan buried his face in Mungo”s belly.

“The bush goes up in a big fire,” he said in a rush. Mungo stroked his head and rocked him.

“And do you run?”

“Oh Da, Da …” Aidan was crying now. “Oh yes Da, I’m runnin’, an” the bush is runnin’ after me.”
That was it. That was enough, it was too much for one small boy to endure. It was too much for a man. Does the bush catch and consume him? The question tormented Mun-go, but he didn’t dare ask.

“You save me, Da.”

“Do I?” Mungo choked.

“You’re very strong and brave.”

Aidan had calmed. Mungo was adrift, but by some intuition, he realized what was happening and accepted a healing peace. They were being men together, or that mythic, heroic part of man which slays the dragon that the boy dreams of and to which the man has long bade his wistful farewell.

Aidan was asleep. Mungo laid him back and tucked in the covers again. He gazed at the peaceful face turned on its side, wondering if he had been the same when he was nine years old. That was all of twenty-six years ago and he had only the vaguest image of himself at that age. He must have been happy, being useful about the small farm, trudging to school, playing hurling in the long summer evenings. His childhood was a pleasant journey until hormones ambushed his brain at eleven or twelve; and then his father died, steering his motor-bike into a telegraph pole. What age was he then? Sixteen.

He went over to Ethna – the happy, impish, stubborn, lovely, bad-tempered, charming, whining, tell-tale beat of his heart. Her fist was closed at her mouth, curling open her upper lip, making her snore lightly. He had nearly killed her, too. He had nearly killed them all, including himself. Connie was right.

The bed lamp was on when he returned to bed and Connie was awake, looking at him. Suddenly he felt the cold on his back and shivered.

“Well?”

“Well what?” He got into bed. “Aidan had another nightmare.”

“Yes. But he”s fine now.”

“The same one?”

“No. Well, yes, but a different version. He was able to tell it to me in detail. It was that clear. Maybe they’re ending.”

She asked him to describe it for her, and he did. He would have done so anyway but was pleased at the soft, unguarded tone of her voice. It was as if there had never been a rift. They talked for some time. Then she said: “He needs you a lot at the minute,” and she turned over, put out the light and went back to sleep.

At the minute … The northern phrases of her childhood came back sometimes. He couldn’t sleep until he realized she had spoken to him for Aidan’s sake. He admired her for that, and he pulled the blankets over his shoulder to settle down, content. He had a place after all. But sleep would not come.

Connie took a deep breath, and her body relaxed. He felt her heat. It was doubtful if his own body gave off such warmth for her, though maybe it did. That they were still together, warm-ing each other in the same bed was a kind of love, he supposed; one which had no spontaneity and no expression except the care of their children, which was no small thing. Then again, maybe he was clutching at straws, and maybe it was better to admit there would never be any love between them again.

He needed an interest. Something frivolous. Jogging was all very well, but he did it to make him fit. He needed some-thing without purpose. As every day passed, their children were becoming individuals, separate from their parents and would soon be away in the world. There would be nothing left then for him and Connie but to ignore each other in the silence of their marriage bed.

The Fabulists :: Chapter 5

The Special Branch cars sped along Fairview Road, their sirens wailing, the flashing beacons held on the roof by the second man. A marked squad car emerged from a side street, its tyres screeching, and followed them. Then, as if on cue, an ice-cream van cruised by, playing its barrel-organ jingle, `A-Hunt-ing We Will Go’. How those people sold ice-cream in this weather she could not tell.

She realized Arthur was looking up at her as they walked by the park and glanced down at him, flashing a nervous smile. He persisted. Was he reading her thoughts? He never looked at her like that; he always looked straight ahead, absorbed in himself.

`What’s wrong, Arthur?’ she asked, unable to keep the sharpness out of her voice, yet without the nerve to look at him. She could see from the side of her eye and that was enough.
`Why are you so quiet?’ he demanded. `You always talk to me on the way home.’
`Is that why you always look straight ahead and never say a word?’ she countered. This was one opportunity she refused to miss. He considered her point and smiled, as if acknowledging its truth. Then he looked ahead as usual, though still smiling faintly.

What a strange child I’ve given life to, she marvelled. As always, the realization made her a little afraid, but she was very pleased too, that he had missed her talking to him, even if it was usually about nothing at all.

Arthur picked at his food. Usually he ate it in a functional, matter-of-fact way. Tess was tempted to hurry him, but she saw that he was getting through it, however slowly. Once or twice he glanced at her to see how she was reacting but she pretended not to notice. She tried chatting to him, to make up for her silence on the way home, but he just answered in monosyllables or with a shrug.

Later, he went to the living-room to watch the cartoons as usual. The evenings were bright for noticeably longer, so that Arthur knelt in a grey light before the television. Tess watched him from the doorway and gnawed her knuckles. She felt bad that he should be so alone. He should have a brother or sister, or at least she ought to be around to tell him stories and tuck him in at night. He shouldn’t be kneeling alone in front of a machine, her forlorn child. Just then, a cartoon cat was squashed and Arthur laughed.

`Arthur!’ she barked.

He turned, his eyes hard and unfamiliar, his face contorted in hatred. Her anger subsided as quickly as it had come, and she faltered, confused and afraid.

`Where is Annie? I haven’t seen her…’

He got to his feet and ran against her, his little fists pummelling her body. Surprised, she hardly felt the blows at first. Then she reacted, and struck him continuously, without a word, and conscious only of release. He battled with her, silently, blindly and without caring. She beat him until both were exhausted, and gasping, reaching for the armchair, she fell into it. His back was turned to her, his body jerked in sobs, but no sound came except his broken breath. She pitied him and reprimanded herself, despite the increasing pain in her shin and the ache in her ribs; but behind all that, violence had given her a craved-for satisfaction, and for the moment she refused to be appalled by this.

Arthur recovered and, without looking at her, sat in front of the television again; but when the cat was elongated as a result of its own greed, he did not laugh. She too watched the cartoon for a while, but vacantly. The advertisements replaced the cartoon, and still they watched in silence, like a couple dead to each other.

She roused herself to look after Brian’s dinner, feeling awful. Peeling the potatoes, she began to cry. How could her own son do that? Was he going to turn out like his father after all? She bent in two as if suffering a spasm and wept.

`No, no,’ she whispered, `please, it can’t be happening. Please, oh please, don’t let it happen … He never kicked me like that.’ Then she couldn’t hold back her sobbing any longer. When it was over, she steadied herself against the draining-board, and vacantly stood like that for a long time.

She sat by the cooker, watching the food cook. When Brian arrived, she hastily repaired her appearance in the mirror on the window and busied herself setting the table and draining the vegetables, her face momentarily bathed in a cloud of steam. Ironically, she hoped he was in a bad mood, in which case he would sulk and not notice anything unusual. Her timing was perfect. As he sat down, she served up the steam-ing peas and potatoes and the still-sizzling steak, overdone as he preferred.

She should have left then. He normally made his own tea and washed up. That was their understanding, but she wanted to make it up with Arthur and hadn’t the courage to face him for the moment. The cartoons were still on but it would soon be six o’clock, the news would replace the children’s programmes, and she would have to make some move. Or more likely, the drama would come to her, overwhelm her, leaving her without control, as ever. Taking an apple, she sat down at the table and ate it slowly, trying to think. Brian, continuing to chew his steak, looked at her curiously. He swallowed, removed a fibre of steak from his front teeth with a prong of his fork, and went on eating, his eyes on his food.

`What’s wrong with you?’

`Nothing.’ Her mouth was full of apple.

`There’s something up. You’re usually out of here like a bat out of hell.’

She ignored him, but his curiosity brought her thoughts into focus again. What she feared was Arthur’s rebuff, but she’d have to risk it. Yet she sat where she was, gnawing the apple to its core.

`If it’s money you want, you can forget it,’ he said, finishing his meal and rummaging in his jacket pockets for a cigarette. He swore silently as he realized he had none, then looked about the kitchen. Tess glanced at him anxiously, and then she went cold as he pushed back the chair and went into the living-room. Her heart pumped as if it would explode. It was too late now. It was too late.

`Arthur, have you seen a packet of cigarettes anywhere?’

It seemed to Tess like a long time before Brian returned to the kitchen. She didn’t look up, but she could feel him there.

`What happened to Arthur?’

No matter what she would say, it would come out like the cold assault of a child.
`What did you do to Arthur?’ he shouted. He grabbed her by the jumper with both hands, hauling her to her feet to face him. He panted with rage.

`Well?’ He shook her, and she turned her face away. `When I ask you a question,’ he shouted, `you answer it. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?’

Head bowed to one side, she didn’t move. She knew that he wanted her to struggle, or answer back, or even whimper. Then, by some odd code he adhered to, he could strike her with a clear conscience. She knew this of old, and remained unresponsive. He let her go, and stood in front of her, frustrated but waiting for her to make a false move.

He would always remember her like this, she supposed. As she was now she would always live, so long as he did. Tess knew she was on the verge of hysteria, but she could hold this moment in suspension, until the episode had spun out its conclusion. Suddenly Brian had hauled Arthur before her, demanding of her what she had done to his son. A gale broke. She tried not to look at Arthur, who was crying. Of course he was crying. Of course he was. Oh Arthur. She was crying too. Brian was triumphant. It hadn’t turned out like he had expected, but he was triumphant. She hadn’t moved, or uttered a sound, but she was crying. Brian said something about stopping her seeing his son. A solicitor. Barring order. He was enjoying this overflow, this slopping-out.

He quietened. The venom was gone. She knew it, knew they were only words filling the silence. She looked at Arthur, his eyes swollen from crying and from her blows. Arthur broke free, ran to her and she hugged him. Then she lifted him into her arms. He was heavier than she had expected, but then she hadn’t lifted him like this for a long time. Brian was sneering, but his ground had been cut from under him. Arthur clung to her neck.

`Charming. Charming. Well, ye love each other so much, ye can hold onto each other for the rest of the evening. I’m going for a drink.’

Then he was gone. After a few moments the outside door slammed and a blissful silence fell.
She dreamt about Arthur several times after that evening. In her dream she longed to see him, to bathe his healing bruises as if to wash away her brutality and the awful but undeniable feeling of power. He mocked her lack of goodness. She, who had thought herself superior to Brian, was no better than he was, and it galled.

Spring was seeping into the year, giving a definition to things. Tess awoke, thinking about Marian. She’d had some vague dream about her. She went to the toilet, sat on it for a while brooding, until she realized she was cold. There was a letter from Marian. Often, when she dreamt of someone, she heard from them the next day. Usually that seemed to give depth, or warmth, to the letter; but Marian’s was brief and hurried, it didn’t give anything of herself other than the few moments it took to write it. Her social life took up too much of her leisure to allow her to settle into herself. Her life was allsurface. Tess put the letter into the biscuit tin in which she kept all correspondence. She resented Marian’s carefree life and brooded over breakfast, sifting the letters in the tin beside her. A glance told her what was in each one. On her loneliest nights she read them until she probably knew them by heart.

It was Wednesday. Doleday. Her time had been changed from afternoon to morning, but she was still on time, only slightly resenting the fact that she could no longer go straight from the dole office to collect Arthur. Her stride was loose and relaxed as she came back along the quays.

She spotted Mungo in D’Olier Street as she stood on the traffic island on O’Connell Bridge. At first she wasn’t sure, and then to her surprise she thought it might have been wishful thinking, though she hadn’t thought of him in weeks, or not much; but no, it was him right enough. He was still a distance away, walking slowly past Bewley’s, but there was no mistaking that walk of his, his left hand in the pocket of his heavy black coat. The lights turned green. She crossed and waited for him, surprised that she was pleased and, even more so, that her heart was thumping. To her relief, his face lit up when he saw her; better still, he blushed.

The awkwardness of their greetings somehow pleased Tess. They interrupted each other nervously, and Tess realized that this had not happened to her since she was a girl. Her dole money allowed her to suggest a coffee again in The Winding Stair, and when he mumbled that he didn’t have money she could pat her bag, in which nestled her temporarily plump purse. To occupy her hands, she bought an apple from the fruit seller on Aston Quay.

He recovered once he had the coffee before him, an old blues song in the background, and he smiled. He had just come from another bookshop, Books Upstairs, when she had met him, and he joked about the link between stairs and books. She had forgotten, in her pleasure at seeing him, that he would ask her about herself, but he did.

`Are you married?’

`We’ve already established that, haven’t we?’ She shifted on her seat, clutching her cup. `Yes. I mean, I was. You definitely are, aren’t you? I know by the look of you.’ She laughed as she said this, it was an attempt to lighten the conversation, but she realized before it was out of her mouth that it was aggressive, an accusation. He didn’t, or pretended not to pick up on it.

`Yes, I am. Well, sort of. We’ve two children, and that keeps us together, I suppose.’

`I see.’

He smiled.

`You’re separated?’

`Well …’ she faltered, `he’s in Berlin, so you could say that, yes.’

`Berlin?’ He sat forward, his face bright with interest. ‘Really?’

`I left my son with him,’ she said, pushing her cup in a small circle. `I suppose you think that makes me a bad mother. No proper maternal feelings and all that.’

`Don’t push your guilt on me.’ They glared at each other until he said, `It’s all I can do to handle my own. Tell me about Berlin. About you in Berlin, I mean.’

`Me in Berlin … ? What’s your name again?’

`Mungo And yours?’

‘Tess. And I’m sorry Mungo. You’re right.’ She sighed and looked out the window. `Me in Berlin?’ She looked back at him and grinned. `God I loved it. Why I came back, I’ll never know. The cafes serving breakfast at four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. It says it all, doesn’t it?’ She laughed at this scrap from one of Marian’s letters, but only to buy her a moment to gather herself.

`But it’s so full of people larger than life, you know. I had an Irish friend there called Marian. She saved my sanity when my husband was at his worst – she knew everyone, or so it seemed to me. I remember once she brought me to see this old lady in … what the hell was it called … Nollendorfstrasse? Yes, that’s it. The street where Isherwood lived in the thirties.’

‘Isherwood?’
`The English writer. You know, Cabaret, the film? “Money, Money, Money”?’

He nodded, doubtful but amused.

`Well, it was at night, hardly anyone in the streets, a car passing the intersection now and then, slowly, as if it was kerb crawling. Marian pressed the intercom and answered someone in German, I hadn’t a clue, and the door buzzed and she pushed it and we were in. It was like a big adventure for me, the walls clad with marble, spotless and cold, and quiet as the grave. Then we were in one of these old cage-lifts and up we went, three or four floors, and the lights went out, and all we could see was the red glow of the time-switches. A maid, a young Turkish woman, let us in. There was this lovely smell of flowers and wood wax, and there were huge ceramic vases of flowers and plants and ferns, and the parquet floor squeaked and sent a shiver down your spine. There was no hall to speak of, and one room opened into another. In one, there was a tall young woman with her back to us. She had a pile of art books on her desk, I remember, and she was staring at a computer. She obviously made a mistake, because she swore in German, Spanish and English, quite fluently I think.’

`Spanish? Can you remember what she swore in Spanish?’

`Oh no. I just recognized the language. The maid knocked on a tall double door, of mahogany I’d say, and announced us to Frau Pohl. There she was, eighty-five years old, propped up in bed by silk pillows and cushions, a pair of headphones on.’

‘Janey.’

‘Yeah. It was a hot night, but she was sitting up in bed, dressed as if she was going to the opera, but Marian had told me that she hadn’t left her bed in thirty years. Her dress was plain black silk, quite low-cut, and she wore a single pearl, which drew the eye to the clusters of freckles on her chest, as did the long black gloves to the freckles on her forearms. She was a thin bird of a woman, and her eyes were of a cornflower blue, very aware. A silver fox-fur was draped over her shoulders and her silver hair was clasped with a jet brooch.

`The maid caught her attention, and announced us again. Frau Pohl pointed to the headphones, and the maid removed them, and, I presume, announced us a third time. “Ah Marian,” Frau Pohl said in English, ignoring me, “how nice to see you again. Come here and kiss me.” Marian smiled and kissed the woman on both cheeks.

‘”Frau Pohl,” Marian said, “I’ve brought a friend this evening, she’s from Ireland and has come to live in Berlin.”

“Ah, another Irish,” Frau Pohl said, turning her gaze on me. “Berlin has many, it seems.” Her accent was strong, but her English caused her no effort.

“Several thousand, I hear,” Marian said.

“Do you go to concerts?” Frau Pohl asked me. When I said no, she looked at me, you know, as if she pitied me. “But you are so young!” ‘

Tess broke off and looked for signs of reaction to the words `young’ and `pity’ but she could discern none. He was a little older than her, a piece of flotsam like herself and, in seeing him like that, it gave her a good feeling of affinity.

`She searched about the cushions until she found a pack of cards. “I think you must have a hard life in Ireland. I will look in the cards and see for myself.”

Marian looked at me and I looked at Marian while Frau Pohl shuffled and cut the cards with surprising nimbleness, then scrutinized each one, her nose screwed up as she peered through her glasses, tut-tutting every so often. “Oh my poor child,” she said then, and I thought she was foretelling something dire for me, but these cards looked into the past, it seemed. “You are married and have a son. He is eight years old, and naturally you are emotionally close to him, but… “‘

Despite the caricatured German accent, Tess was wary of revealing her troubles to what after all was a stranger, who she now realized she wanted. Then she shrugged, and smiled at him, resuming the character.

`”But, you and your husband …” Frau Pohl looked up from the cards, then back, and said nothing for a while. “If a woman is unhappy for too long, she eats up everything around her, she sucks it dry until the life is bled white; but that is because she craves for life. When a man is unhappy, he is worse than a beast in a corner, he is eaten away by a wish to destroy, he empties himself of life and light, he sinks lower and lower, until he wants only that which is a perversion of what once made him happy. And the cards say that this is your husband, and the first one is you.”‘

Tess pushed her cup in semi-circles, and was quiet.

`Phew! And was she right?’ Mungo asked after some time.

`Yes. All very black and white, of course.’

`Very. What did she say then?’

`I’ll tell you another time. Do you like music?’

`Irish. And Spanish. Some jazz.’

`Do you know Schubert?’

‘Naw. Heard of him, that’s all.’

`I have a tape if you’d like to hear it.’

`You mean now?’

`Yes …’

He looked at her, suddenly beware, and her heart pounded at her audacity. Well, is he a man or isn’t he? What was all this supposed to lead up to anyway? Damn men. They blame you no matter what you do or say. And then, sweet Jesus, he smiled.

`We might as well improve my education – in case I ever bump into this Frau Pohl.’

She smiled back, repressing a sigh of relief. She must, above all, retain her veneer of composure, otherwise she was lost.

Self-conscious, she led him from The Winding Stair and along the quay. The traffic was deafening, so she just smiled to encourage him and reassure herself. When she closed the heavy door behind them, shutting out the din, she smiled again. He cleared his throat and looked about the bare but still imposing hall.

`A great city for stairs,’ he remarked.

`Not as many as Berlin.’

The spring sun washed the hall for a moment, bathing them as they clattered up the bare stairs, before clouding over again. They said nothing, but Mungo betrayed his nervous-ness by missing his step, and Tess bit her lip. She had hoped he would be confident enough for them both.
Once inside the flat, she noticed he stretched out his hand to touch her, but lost his nerve and turned away. She took a deep breath.

`A nice place you have here,’ he said, clearing his throat.

`It’s okay,’ she said quietly. She lit the gas heater.

`Sit down. I’ll get the music and make us a cup of tea.’

In her bedroom, she looked in the mirror and stared at her image, running her fingers along the wrinkles under her eyes.

`I look old,’ she whispered. `But then, he’s no great shakes either, so maybe it’s okay.’ As she slipped the tape into the machine, she wished she could feel a wild desire for him, that he might do something unexpected and wonderful, but all she could feel was her heart beating a little faster because some little bastard of a voice knew she was making a fool of herself. She pressed the button and the music was happy, optimistic, and totally alien to her emotions.

`Where’s the jakes?’ he called. She turned her head, but didn’t answer immediately.

`Down the hall and up the steps,’ she called back to him. She listened to the muffled sound of his stream into the bowl, and remembered that the toilet was in a mess, brown from accumulated urea, but at least there were no serious stains, so it wasn’t too bad. He wasn’t here because she was a good housekeeper. What was he here for? Her bed wasn’t much better than the toilet, the spots from her last period were still on the sheets, and that was more significant than the state of the toilet, which flushed. She pulled the blankets off and turned the sheet toe to head, and replaced the blankets loosely almost in one movement. It was then she realized that her bedroom was cold. Damn. Was it going to happen? She didn’t know, and didn’t know if she cared, but she knew she couldn’t wait much longer. She took a deep breath and joined him.

`I like the music,’ he said.

`Is that all you like?’

He turned her around, slowly, which was pleasing, but she could feel the tremor in his hands. He looked into her eyes as if he was in great turmoil, or needing to know what she was up to, if she was playing with him or if this was real, and she hoped he wouldn’t ask. He kissed her, and she put her tongue into his mouth, but he pulled away, waited a moment, and started again.

It seemed he only wanted her lips, and she went along with it, beginning to enjoy herself. Tentatively, his tongue began to explore her lips, and then her gums and teeth. Fuck! His tongue would jag on her cavities! She launched her own to grapple with his. He flicked rather than thrust in response. He was dictating, which she could accept, but his lack of subtlety irritated her. She wished he could do all this without thinking, as if he had really mastered the skill, if he couldn’t be naively sincere. She forced her tongue into his mouth again and he allowed her to plunge deeply, before disengaging and turning away.

He kissed her cheek, and her ear, and then her neck which she exposed to him, and pleasure burned along her skin. He was by now unbuttoning her shirt, his tongue in the cleft of her breasts, lingering, for reasons best known to himself, on the one, two, three – fourth rib. She pushed him away, and staring at him in passionate hatred, led him to the bedroom. They were breathing heavily, his eyes fixed on her breasts, but it was her lower clothes that she removed first, and as if in a trance, he took off his jacket, jumper and shirt. Only when he leaned over to untie his shoes did she quickly finish undressing, and before he had the second sock removed, she was safely under the blankets, her belly hidden.

He sat on the other side of the bed to remove his trousers and underpants, so that, daring a glance, all she saw of him was his pale, bony back, a few hairs curling on his shoulders, before he turned and was under the blankets in one movement. Her eyes were almost closed. They must have seemed closed to him, but she saw that he was leaning on an elbow, his tongue nervously moistening the thin lines of his lips, as he watched her, unsure, she thought bitterly, of what to do next. Then, to her surprise, as she hadn’t seen or sensed him move, she felt him kiss her, lightly, just as, she realized, she had wanted him to, and her lips parted.

He explored them tenderly, just where they become moist, as Brian had done in an inexplicable moment years before and had not done since. Irritation rose in her again, this time against Brian, but as Mungo’s hands moved down her body, as his kiss became fuller, she felt herself beaten, and instead of anger, she was filled with mourning for what should have been, what should have filled that emptiness which had become so much a part of her she hadn’t named it until now. His lips were covering her right nipple which was erect and she was crying silently, even as a wave of pleasure rippled through her. Then, inevitably, his fingers inched their way across her bush, having lingered on her belly as if it was a treasure, and she knew they would slip between her legs and find her very wet. Without thinking, she wrenched his fingers away.

`What?’ he whispered in bewilderment. `What? Did I hurt you?’

`I’m sorry,’ she said, her voice muffled in the pillow.

`What?’ he repeated. She could hear his rapid breathing, feel him get to his knees, and she wiped her eyes in the pillow-case and faced him. Her eyes involuntarily fell on his cock, which wasn’t very big, or at any rate not nearly as big as Brian’s, but it was full and hard all the same, and she wondered, with a frisson of fear, if in his frustration and bewilderment he would rape her.

`I can’t,’ she whispered. `I’m sorry.’ And then, as an after-thought she said: ‘… I’ve my period.’

When, in apprehension, she glanced down at his cock again, it was, as if by a miracle, soft and small and somehow pathetic, and it crossed her mind how powerful a word could be. She bit her lip. His chest was still heaving and his face flushed, but his eyes were blank, and she wondered if the memory of a similar rejection had made him crazy and prone to violence; but after some moments in which she truly feared him, he recovered and dressed at the foot of the bed. He turned then, eyes averted, looking for his jacket, and she stifled a shriek of laughter with her hand.

‘Mungo …’ she said, struggling for control, noticing how he was still shaking.

`What?’

‘Mungo …’ and she couldn’t help smiling, though her pity had finally vanquished the laughter, ‘Mungo, your trousers are on back to front.’

`Jesus,’ he whispered, and she was in agony at humiliating him further, but then he saved them both by smiling. `I think I came into the world back to front.’ Then he set about putting it right.

‘Mungo? Thanks.’

He said nothing until he was fully dressed and ready to go.

`For what?’

She shrugged and pursed her lips, glancing at him nervously. And then he left.
It had been so long, she had wanted it to be right first time, knowing that it never had been. Given the chance, he could have given her comfort, the attention her body craved. It was true she had relished the power she had over him for those few moments, its delight heightened by fear, but it had quickly soured, and she wept in rage at whatever had made her act against herself.

The Fabulists :: Chapter 7

The repeated loudspeaker exhortation to get her key cut now bore in on Tess’s reveries. She had been looking at the prices of paint, thinking it would be nice to decorate her flat. It would also be nice to have a spare key cut as a token to the gods who might send her someone special. Arthur said he preferred pale blue; Annie, in her superior way, declared she liked dark yellow.

`Come on,’ Tess ordered the children, and led them across to the Car & Household Accessory shop. Annie was delighted, Arthur affected a disinterested air. She bought a packet of pot scrubs, five for Fairview, the rest for her flat. Then, to prod fate, she had a spare key cut, and bought each of the children a plastic game.

Although Mary Street was not pedestrianized, the Saturday shoppers spilled onto the road, oblivious to the crawling traffic. As Tess endured the crowds she focused on a man’s back. He was carrying shopping bags and flanked by two children. The little girl fell behind and he half turned to wait for her. It was Mungo.

She turned away. It was bad enough to meet him again, but with children, that was worse, although she realized it was pleasurable to see him, and she resumed her course. He saw her and she swallowed, suddenly unsure, but he had the grace and wisdom to go pale. She smiled, and he smiled back, but she was relieved that he was ill at ease, knowing she was better at hiding such things.

`Hello,’ she said. `Long time no see.’

‘How’re you? Ah, these are … this is Aidan, and this is Ethna. Say hello to Tess.’ The children mumbled helloes, and Ethna moved as close as possible to her father.

`And this is my son Arthur, and his friend Annie.’

Arthur and Annie said nothing but looked at one another before assessing the other two.

`We’re off our feet,’ Mungo said. `Would you like to join us in the park for a minute?’

The small park was a reclaimed graveyard, overshadowed by a deconsecrated church in which Wolfe Tone, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Sean O’Casey had been baptized, and in which Wesley had once preached.

`What a relief!’ Tess laughed as Mungo sat beside her. Arthur tried to scramble onto the slatted bench too. `Go on now,’ she said, `Why don’t yourself and Annie make friends with Ethna and Aidan?’ He looked at her for an unnerving moment, and then at Ethna, who immediately clung to Mango.

`I’m tired, Daddy,’ she moaned. Mungo lifted her and stood in one movement, then swung her around several times.
`Tired? Tired? My Ethna is tired? That’s impossible! That just can’t be!’

She squealed in delight, and by the time he left her down, she was mollified.

`Come on, Ethna, the adults want to talk,’ Arthur said, taking her hand and leading her to a nearby bench. She glanced back at Mungo, but went willingly enough. Aidan had been standing back from the group in his usual way, but Annie had been watching him.
`Come on, Aidan,’ she said, tipping him on the elbow and leading him reluctantly to the others.

`That’s some young fella you have there,’ Mango said.

`Yes.’ She smiled. `I think he’s taken a shine to Ethna.’

`Looks like it.’

`And you’ve two beautiful children,’ she added. They watched the children, then she said, `I’m glad we met.’

`Me too.’

`I wanted to apologize for what happened. It wasn’t fair on you.’

`That’s okay.’

`I felt really bad about it, and I’d no way of contacting you. Anyway, the harm was done.’

He didn’t reply, and her confidence ebbed. Somewhere in the back of her mind she had imagined a future with him, however tentative, but now it seemed that would be beyond her.

`You never finished your story,’ he said quietly, his face lightening.

`That’s right, I didn’t. Listen, there’s a film I want to see. I was going to go on my own tomorrow night. Will you come? I don’t know when I last saw a film.’

`I’d prefer to hear your story.’ He turned to her and grinned, lazily.

`Oh come on. Please come.’

`I don’t know if I can,’ he said, serious again.

`If the shillings are short, don’t worry. I know how it is, and I’ve a few spare pounds this week. I’m going over to my parents for dinner tomorrow evening, and you can ring me there. The last show doesn’t start till twenty to nine. I’ll wait for you till eight and not a minute more.’ She handed him the number on a scrap of paper.

He looked at it and put it in his breast pocket. Then he grinned again.

`What’s the name of this film anyway?’

`The Sheltering Sky!’

‘Oh-huh?’ He looked up at the sky which was mostly blue. `I suppose it is.’ He looked at his watch. `My wife’s uptown doing the shopping,’ he said. `I’ve to meet her in Abbey Street in a few minutes. The bus home.’

`Oh.’

He stood and called his children, then turned to her, patting his breast pocket.

`Thanks for this. I’ll try and call around six tomorrow’

`Good.’ They smiled as the children arrived and exchanged goodbyes. Tess followed with Annie and Arthur, watching Mungo walking down Jervis Street to Abbey Street with his children. `It’s in the Savoy,’ she said to herself.

She wanted an evening out with a man friend; it was something she hadn’t enjoyed for a long, long time, and she wanted it very badly, caring not at all that he was married. She guessed that he was so in much the same way as she was, and he would call at six. What might lie beyond the cinema she refused to allow herself to consider.

In Fairview, she whistled, off-key.

`Stop that, Tess!’ Arthur commanded. She laughed. God, it took so little to make a body happy, it was a mystery why people weren’t happy all of the time. Even Brian, pottering about in the garden, was happy because it was Saturday and so he was free to go for a few pints. So little to look forward to, and yet it was enough.

Arthur expected a long story to complete a satisfying day with his mother and she rose to the occasion, glad that he had made continuous demands on her, as if drinking her in to satisfy a thirst. Being needed so was her central reality, her lynch-pin. Take it away, and she would fall to powder. She threw herself into the story, the actions, pauses, bulging eyes, an elastic face, acting for her life. Arthur loved it, as much for the complete attention as for the entertainment. When the story ended they smiled at each other, and she felt wonderful. As she elaborately tucked him in, he became serious.

‘Tess, is that man your new husband?’

`Which man?’ she asked too sternly. `What do you mean, my new husband?’ The little swine had to ruin it all, and now he was sulking, his head turned away and punishing her as only he knew how.

`I’m sorry. Which man do you mean?’

`How many men did we meet today?’

`Oh. You mean the man in the park with the little boy and girl! You liked the little girl, didn’t you?’

`Don’t be stupid.’

`Of course, he’s not my new husband. How could he be? I don’t have a new husband, and I won’t, ever.’ Arthur tried to suppress a smile. So that was it.

`Promise?’

`I promise.’ She stroked the hair back from his forehead, and leaned over to kiss him. He smiled.

`I promise,’ she whispered.

She tidied up and watched television, preoccupied by the boy’s jealousy, chiding herself for having toyed with the idea of a friendship between him and Mungo’s child in a cosy arrangement which would have suited her. Those few minutes in the park had been part of a special day, a very important part, and if Arthur came first, then she had needs too.

`I’m grumbling. I’m moaning. I’m giving out,’ she declared aloud. `Shit.’

Her eyes kept closing, the price of a day of close attention to Arthur, until she could no longer resist sleep. When she awoke the television was still on, some American cop opera. It was midnight, and Brian wasn’t home. Or had he slipped in while she was asleep? Not wanting to go to bed before he came in, she went upstairs to check. His bed was untouched, so she watched the cop opera, but after a few minutes her chin was on her collarbone again. She turned off the television, pulled out the sofa-bed and was almost immediately asleep.

She woke to the overpowering fumes of Brian’s alcoholic breath. He was trembling, staring at her as if in fear, his upper lip curled a hand’s length from her face. As she woke, bewildered, her hand instinctively shielding her eyes from the light, he drew back a little, at first as if guilty, and then as if to study her better.

`What do you want?’

Breathing through his mouth, he looked dazed and didn’t answer. She was afraid he was crazy enough to rape her, but managed to conceal her fear and when he pulled back the cover and squeezed her breast through the cotton of the tee-shirt, she had to use her full strength to prise his hand away.

`Don’t touch me,’ she whispered, as if she was in full control.

`Fuck you,’ he said, breathing heavily now. He wasn’t dazed any more, but looked angry and intelligent. At the door he turned briefly and repeated, `Fuck you.’

She held her breath as he stomped up the stairs and slammed his bedroom door behind him. There was still a chance that his frustration would turn inwards and propel him downstairs again, but gradually her fear subsided, though she lay awake, not really secure, for more than an hour.

As she woke, she heard Arthur talking to the cat in the kitchen. She dressed hurriedly and put up the sofa-bed, and on her way to the bathroom popped her head inside the kitchen door. Arthur was on his knees, stroking the cat, which lapped its milk from a red plastic bowl.

`Morning,’ she said in a stage whisper, and smiled as he looked up. He smiled back, before concentrating on the cat again. She pissed and washed quickly, anxious to be with Arthur as soon as possible, to make him breakfast, to be motherly. He had already helped himself to corn flakes.

`Did you wash your hands after stroking that cat?’

He hesitated, then rubbed his hands along the front of his jersey.

`Come here,’ she said briskly, wetting one end of a towel and soaping it. He dutifully rose from the table and held out his hands, and they got it over with. Toast popped up in the toaster. She took it out and put in two more slices. She supposed she ought to be grateful that he was so independent, and she was, most of the time, but not this morning. As the kettle boiled, she buttered the toast, and dripped honey on it, to the consistency he liked, and poured the weak tea just as he finished his flakes. Milk, lots. No sugar.

`Now, there’s a good boy.’

If he’d had a brother or sister they’d be arguing or fighting by now, jealous of a scrap of favouritism, but Arthur ate and drank in silence, accepting the attention as his due. She looked at him as she waited for the tea to draw and wondered if it was indifference or whether he basked in her motherly care but hid it well. No matter, she felt deeply satisfied in being with him like this, having him to herself to enjoy and spoil.

He refused to invite Annie when they went to the park, and Tess felt a ludicrous pleasure, as if she had vanquished a rival. She could see that in his quiet, aware way, he was determined to make the most of their hours together. It was the simplest and happiest of times as he talked to her about school, where he shone with ease, about his friends, his favourite programmes, about nothing at all. He delighted in being pushed ever higher on the swing. He clutched his belly in helpless laughter at her exaggerated difficulty in running after his football, especially when she slipped and fell heavily on her rear, looking around at him with a clownish, hurt expression.
Brian was up when they returned home. He was unwashed and his eyes were bloodshot, but he seemed happy enough with his cup of tea, and was immersed in the sports pages of a tabloid.

`Hi Dad,’ Arthur said, nestling into his father.

`Morning, son,’ Brian mumbled and put an arm around Arthur’s shoulder, but continued to read.

There was a colour photo of a half-naked woman in a part of the paper which lay on the table. Tess noticed that Arthur looked at it for longer than she might have expected, and her face hardened as she set about making the Sunday dinner, even though by now Arthur had found the comic section.

`Turn on the news, Arthur, will you?’ Brian asked him quietly. `There’s a good lad.’

There was a brief silence as Arthur turned on the radio, then came the pips for one o’clock and the announcement of the main themes of the programme. Brian put down the paper and turned towards the radio. Arthur knew better than to compete with the news, so he sat into the table and read the comic, smiling from time to time. Tess busied herself with the dinner, which helped to cover her confusion.

She left an hour earlier than usual, unable to be in the same house as Brian any longer. Arthur didn’t notice, or perhaps the morning had satisfied him. His interest in the picture of the half-naked woman had frightened her, and she kept blaming Brian for keeping porn videos. She wanted to throw a brick through a window, or slap someone across the face, someone who was helpless to strike back. It was fortunate for them both that Annie wasn’t playing on the street and perhaps, also, that this Sunday Arthur would go to Brian’s parents, not hers.

She reached Ringsend. The residents of her parents’ street were ageing, so it was quiet, with only a few small children absorbed in a street game to suggest that it might renew itself. There were no front gardens here, the doors were flush with the pavement, and soon, because it was a spring day and the window was open, she faintly heard the resonant voice of Paul Robeson, her father’s favourite singer.

Her father was a small but good-looking man with thinned, almost white hair and a neat moustache. He answered her knock and his face broke into a broad smile revealing strong, tobacco-stained teeth, and he embraced his daughter.

`Is that – ?’ her mother called as she came out of the kitchen, from which came the smell of roast beef. `Hello love,’ she smiled. Unlike her father’s, her mother’s embrace was light. `You’re early,’ she said in a mildly interrogative way.

`Yes. Brian was getting on my nerves.’

`Oh.’ The subject embarrassed her parents, whose own marriage was one of unfailing companionship and mutual support. She saw that he didn’t drink too much, and that he had a regular life, cunningly finding things to fill his day now that he had retired. Their greatest love was music and, like some Victorian couple, she had played the piano while he sang in a tenor voice that Tess had come to admire in recent years, having found it excruciating throughout her adolescence. For some reason, they didn’t do that any more, at least not that she knew.
Her mother returned to the kitchen and her father poured her a whiskey. He liked drinking with Tess, and he smiled as he handed her the glass and they sat down together. Tess sipped the whiskey and sighed with pleasure as she relaxed into the armchair.

Her father asked her the ritual questions which masked his helpless love, questions to which the answers seldom varied: about her flat, lack of a job, her son. Since their separation, Brian had been delicately left to her to mention and she never obliged beyond a brief, disparaging remark, despite the raised eyebrows which she knew were pleas to go back to him for the sake of their idea of marriage. But Arthur was their common cause, and it was a relief to tell of every detail she knew about his week since they had seen him. Her mother stood at the kitchen door, unconsciously wiping her hands on her apron, her eyes lively as Tess spoke of their darling grandson.

After dinner Tess washed up and her mother dried. This was their time together, although her mother always stopped short of intimacy, which, although she could not define it or give an example, Tess knew would satisfy her in some way. And yet chatting away like that was a way of being intimate.

The phone rang and Tess caught her breath, the dish sliding from her fingers back into the basin. Her mother was already away to answer it, a lightness in her step. Of course it was Don, ringing from Dallas. Slowly her heart calmed, and she finished the dishes. Her father was on the phone now.

`Yes, she’s here,’ he said, but Tess pretended not to notice until she was called. She was a little mad at her brother for giving her a fright like that, but she could never be really mad at Don. She loved his warmth and gentleness, his soft voice which she could never remember being raised against her in anger or accusation, so that whenever they spoke, whatever she said had always a backdrop of gratitude and love. Now, knowing he would understand, hand cupping the mouthpiece, she whispered that she was expecting a call, and then in a normal voice asked about Mac.

`He’s fine. And thank you for asking, sis. You always do. Bye for now.’

She replaced the receiver, hesitated, then turned, smiling.

At least there was someone who would understand. The television was already on, her mother looked around and she joined her mother on the sofa.

`Don seems in good form.’

`Yes,’ her mother beamed. `He’s a good boy.’

Tess winced.

`He said he was getting a rise,’ her father interjected.

`Oh?’

`The man has brains to burn. How he understands them computers I don’t know – and “programmes” them, if you don’t mind. Jazes, it bates the band.’

`He’s brains to burn true enough,’ her mother added.

They were right to be proud of him. They never said it, or even hinted, but she had given them nothing to be proud of. Except Arthur. They watched television. Now and then Tess looked around at the phone, as if by looking at it she could make it ring. At seven, her father looked at his watch for several moments, before looking meaningfully at his wife, who, after a moment’s hesitation, rose to get ready for the pub, their ritual Sunday outing.

`Do you fancy a drink?’ he asked Tess. She shook her head, unable to repress a smile. He always asked, intimating that it would do her good to get out, and she always declined.

`Maybe I’ll have one here.’

`You do that daughter,’ he said, and went to get ready himself. They were gone by seven twenty. Tess poured herself a whiskey to quell the tension, which seemed to sit in a ball beneath her heart.

She sipped it quickly, then took her bag to the bathroom and made up her face, slowly, deliberately, and gradually she calmed. The makeup was subtle, apart from the carmine lipstick, and she smiled inwardly as her mask fell into place, making her look as she had ten years before – alert, bright-eyed, with her life before her as a blank page, waiting for a hot man to inscribe it.
She shook with laughter, and returning to the livingroom feeling strong and relaxed, she sipped her whiskey again, noting the ghost of her lipstick on her glass.

As she grew drunk, and the telephone remained silent, her sips became more frequent and her irritation mounted. For once, for once in her life … The last show was scheduled for eight thirty-five. If he rang now, she tried to convince herself, if he rang within the next ten minutes, they could still make it.

They’d miss the ads and the trailers, they wouldn’t have time to buy chocolate or popcorn, but they’d make the feature. As the minutes passed she made more concessions. They’d missed the film. So what. They could go for a drink. Maybe he was looking after the children or something. He could step out to a phone, apologize, arrange to meet again, and to her horror, she realized she would be grateful for that small gesture.

It was nine thirty and her third glass of the evening was empty. She raised it to her face and watched the traces of lipstick near the rim. The tip of her tongue stole between her lips, and stayed there for a while, before moving slowly, round and around. Then, as far as she could manage without strain, she extended her tongue until its tip could wipe the glass clean.

Tears trickled onto her cheeks, leaving a ragged trail of mascara. The house was completely silent. She poured herself another whiskey, this time half filling the glass, and drank back so much its fumes flooded back through her nostrils and made her cough. Her heart pounded, scaring her into being more careful. As she drank a glass of water at the sink, it calmed, and she cried some more. Taking a fistful of paper towel, she wiped her lips and eyes, haphazardly, the vague intention being to remove her useless makeup, but instead she smeared it across her face in a mess of red and black.

In the livingroom, Tess lay on the settee and stared at the piano for a long time before rousing herself to check the music sheets. It had been so long since she played, but now she ached to play, if there was a piece within her range. There was nothing except tunes from musicals, some faded Moore’s Melodies, which, like the songs from the century’s turn, were family heirlooms of a kind; but none of this was what she was looking for. She took a cautious sip of whiskey.

Schubert. That’s what she wanted. Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. So what if she couldn’t play it all; she’d play the slow bits, the adagio, wasn’t that what it was called? It didn’t matter what it was called, she had heard it often enough on her old cassette-player, and now, taking another drink and turning out all the lights except for one over the piano, she sat in to play.

She fumbled the keys at first, but eventually she mastered the tune in her brain, repeating it several times until it flowed. It was necessary to dada da, because one of the keys was dead and she was forced to sing the note.

Leaning into the piano, her faint shadow playing about the wall above, she forgot everything but the music. She paused only to drink, or to laugh with abandon.

But suddenly she stopped – mentally if not physically sober. It was past ten and, being Sunday, the pubs had served their last drinks and her parents would soon be home. She closed the lid, turned out the lamp and went into the bathroom, scrutinizing her grotesquely daubed face with detachment before cleaning it.

As she walked unsteadily along the quays, the wail of a siren rose above the hum of the city, and she wondered if it was the police, or an ambulance, or the fire brigade. Someone, somewhere was in trouble. Real trouble. At another time this might have assured her that her life wasn’t so bad after all, that she could pick herself up and make something of it, but not now. All she wanted to do was sleep, for days on end. No, that wasn’t it. She wanted to give in.

The Fabulists :: Chapter 9

Tess laughed as she cleared Arthur’s room. This had been happening for some days now. She looked out to the back garden. Her laughter reminded her that she knew it wouldn’t last, but also of her amazement that it had happened at all. She didn’t quite know the woman she had turned out to be and it was scary. It was as if she had been speaking a language without knowing the meaning of its words.

It had been too much, three mornings in a row. Suddenly Mungo had taken over her life, so she had applied the brakes, asked him not to see her for a few days. Maybe she was also afraid they would get used to each other too soon, and never having known such exquisite passion she wanted to keep it on edge. Yes, that too. So much to work out! She dragged herself from the window, humming as she tidied Arthur’s books. At the back of her mind she knew she would probably never work anything out. An instinct against being taken over might well protect her, but as likely as not she would let the affair take its inbuilt course.

Her only problem was how to continue the Berlin story. He had pressed her and she had dodged it, smothering him in sincere yet manipulative kisses, but he wouldn’t be put off another time. She laughed again. That was another reason she had banned him for a couple of days. As if their relationship depended on these crazy lies. Maybe it did, and in thinking this she sat on the bed and brooded. It was all they had to keep them talking to each other. The rest was sex. Or at least it made the sex work, it made them happy with each other, and in themselves. She recalled his face, happy, confident, strong, as he spun his tale, and she loved that in him. He would have seen the same transformation in her, she supposed.

Arthur was happy these days. He still came out of school in the same way, bumping his bag ahead of him with his knees, self-possessed, like a little man. He had picked up on her happiness, and it gave her a surge of joy, as if anything was possi-ble. Now, when they stopped off at the park before continuing home, she played with him, kicking his plastic ball, laughing and screeching, not caring, for the first time, what anyone might think.

`O Lord, I’m far from fit,’ she gasped as Arthur scurried off for the ball yet again.

He dribbled past, his co-ordination surprising her, and he laughed in triumph. He was growing up more quickly than she had imagined. Tired but happy, they walked home, closer, she thought, than they ever had been. At home, and over his meal, he played the fool. At first it was funny and then it was tiresome, but she indulged him until she saw he was losing control; so she hugged him till he was calm again.

`Hush my pet. That’s enough for today,’ she whispered. He still wore his foolish smile, but he settled, and went to the living-room to watch the cartoons. Tess stood by the sink, gazing out the window across the garden. It seemed warm and comforting, and she drifted into a childhood memory of the deep shade of monkey-puzzle trees within which peacocks stood, silent and motionless, their glorious tails at full display.

Brian looked at her curiously as she served him his dinner, but for once she didn’t mind. She was imperturbable this evening, daring not to worry whether or not it could last. He said nothing, but she could see he knew she was happy, had guessed one of the reasons and resented her for it; but he ate in silence and that was fine by her.

There was a stretch in the evenings, so on her way home she strayed from her usual route and dallied on the Matt Talbot Bridge to gaze out towards the sea before going on to Books Upstairs in College Green to browse. This was a treat she hadn’t given herself in a long time, for no reason. Even touching the books made her feel good. How long was it since she had bought a new book? Not for a long time, and that would have to change.
She left, going up Dame Street. She crossed by the Central Bank through Temple Bar and onto the Ha’penny Bridge, and stood there looking west, the smoke from the Guinness steam house blending into a violet and cobalt dusk, and fancied that darkness rose from the river and moved slowly along its walls towards her. Walking along the quays, she realized she loved Dublin as never before.

There was a card from Marian on the hall floor.

`Dear Bitch! What’s with this MAN? And he tells you stories?? Sounds weird. Especially as you didn’t mention anything about the other. Didn’t think there was that kind of weirdo in Dublin (this place is full of them, whooppee!) but I suppose Dublin is like anywhere else, nowadays. Have to run. Writeandtellmeall! Right? Love, Marian.’

Marian’s handwriting was large and expansive but grew smaller as it went down the card until it was tiny and squeezed in at the end. Tess grinned. It was a good evening for writing a long letter especially as she could now report a great deal about `the other’, and she went upstairs eagerly, already com-posing the chronicle of her recent life.

She didn’t notice anything at first, in the near darkness, but when she switched on the lamp her heart jumped and she screeched. Her letters, mostly from Marian, were strewn across the floor, out of their envelopes. She realized immediately that the intruder had gone through them all, perhaps had read each one. The old sofa was upturned, as if he – she supposed it was a he – thought there might be something hidden there. Her books had been thrown from their shelves.

Trembling, she forced herself to look in the bedroom and gasped at what she saw. The bedclothes were in a heap on the floor, the mattress and pillows upended like a sinking boat at the edge of the base. Her cassette-machine was open, yet it was still there, where she had left it. Her tapes had been looked through, but they were all there. The door and drawer of the wardrobe were open, her clothes and underclothes scattered about the floor.

In a daze, she went into the kitchen. The table was turned over, her cup was smashed, her pots were thrown about the floor. The window was open. Was that how he got in? But how did he get on the roof? She closed the window, and checked the bathroom. It was untouched, but it seemed unfamiliar, and she stood by the bathroom door for some time, shaking, feeling nauseous and violated. Then she started as she heard a noise on the roof.

`You bastard,’ she whispered. `You bastard you’re up there tormenting me.’ She checked her purse, and without touching anything, she went to the Lady Gregory on Jervis Street. Over her neat whiskey, she tried to decide what to do, but for a while her mind wouldn’t function. Then, as the alcohol calmed her, she realized she couldn’t stay in her flat overnight. There was nothing for it but to go back to Fairview.

She sensed a man sitting beside her, and then she heard a gentle voice ask if she was all right.

`Fuck off,’ she hissed. How was it that a woman couldn’t have a drink alone in peace. Then she looked at him, his hands raised, his shoulders shrugged and his bearded face open and half apologetic, half amused.

`I’m sorry,’ she said quietly. `I didn’t mean that, it’s just that I got a fright this evening. That’s why I’m on this stuff,’ she said, raising her glass.

`Were you attacked?’ She looked at him closely. He seemed genuine, his question asked quietly, concerned but not melodramatic.

`No, but I feel as if I was. Someone got into my flat and threw everything around the place.’

`Did you call the Guards?’

`No. Oddly enough, nothing was taken.’

`You had no money in the house?’

`No. Not a penny.’ She smiled. A thief wouldn’t feed whatever habit he had on her income. And for now, it was good to talk to another, sympathetic human being, foolish as it might prove to be.

He offered her a drink and she refused, not wanting to be indebted to him in any way, but later she accepted. As well as needing his company just now she was enjoying it. He was a businessman separated from his wife. This evening he had come for a drink after a long day selling office stationery, but usually he came for the Irish music on Saturday nights. His tie was loose, his shirt open at the neck where his chest hair sprouted. He was very hairy and she wondered if she liked that or not.

About ten o’clock she caught herself slurring her words. If she didn’t stop now she would do something foolish, like bringing him back and fucking him, because she needed to be with someone. There was no way around it: that was the only way a woman could be with a man. As he talked, watching his eyes go dusky from drink, she felt like blubbering. Why did it have to be that way between a man and a woman, like some unbreakable rule? She felt tender towards him. He was gentle and kind, and she would have liked nothing better than to talk with him half the night.

`I have to go,’ she said interrupting him. He could let her go or ask to leave her home and for a moment she felt exquisitely alive as if the direction of her life depended on the next few seconds. He looked at her as if in a daze.

`I’ll leave you home,’ he said, without very much conviction, or so she thought.

`No, it’s okay. It’s been nice meeting you,’ and then suddenly she was under the cold night sky, running. She did not look back until she was at her door, fumbling with her key. Once inside, she leaned back against the closed door, her heart beating painfully, her breath rasping, and she cried. She could not face her silent, violated rooms, and yet she had no choice. There was no choice. There was no question of going to Fairview now, and there was no friend to whom her presence would not be a burden and embarrassment. Apart from Marian, all her friends were married, with problems of their own. The women she knew, knew her as Brian’s wife, and that was how she fitted into the scheme of things. All her pent-up self-pity for her loneliness, for the unfair difficulties she had to face, broke forth in sobs and tears. It was no way to live, she couldn’t go on like this, and in frustration she turned and kicked the door. She limped upstairs, sure she had broken her big toe.

She paused at the door, taking in the room in the harsh light. Feebly closing the door behind her, she went to the toilet and sat on the bowl long after she had pissed, before pulling on her knickers again and washing her hands, rubbing them together until the soap had dried to a wax. She looked in the mirror and saw that while in the morning she had been young, now she was old.

There was no choice. She righted the mattress, made the bed, turned out the light and undressed. There was no sound, only the measured drip of the cistern; but in bed she lay awake, waiting for a footstep or a squeaking door hinge. The silence was a deep black pool, the drip from the cistern making noiseless ripples. An dubh linn. Dublin. She smiled. Dublin was a black pool. Despite her squalor, despite her fear, and despite her lack of Irish she could make a translingual pun at a time like this. She turned on her side, her body unwinding, no longer afraid of the intruder, or who it might be.

Tired though she was, sleep would not come. What she needed was a friendly body lying beside her and for the first time in several hours she thought of Mungo again. Her hand, that for a moment was his, crept under her tee-shirt, skimming her belly before making its way by a circuitous route to her heart, where it settled. Then, to her irritation, she couldn’t help but think of Brian again. She could never see him doing this, touching himself, discovering that he could feel pleasure in more places than the great One. Fuck him; she was upset again. She supposed he wanked in front of his dirty videos; that had always been how she explained how he did without women. But now she wasn’t so sure. He was too afraid of himself to do even that; afraid, no doubt, that he’d go blind. Then she remembered there was a brothel in Fairview, how she’d seen men, mostly of middle-age and obviously married, enter and leave in the broad light of day. Calm as you like, as if they had conducted a business deal, which, when she thought of it, was perfectly true. What were they like, the women who worked there, the men who came to them? Women like herself, men like Brian.

She woke early and the morning was fine. Rubbing her eyes and yawning, she surveyed the livingroom. To her surprise she was calm, and she dressed and breakfasted as if nothing had happened, bringing a mug of coffee with her as she knelt on the floor to sort through the scattered letters. It was an opportunity to arrange them according to the stamp dates and when she had done this, she organized the rest of the room before she sat back into the armchair and read through Marian’s letters in chronological order. In one, she read slowly Marian’s throwaway description of a brothel. From the street you could see the men inside, waiting. They just stepped in through a bead curtain, in broad daylight. Had they no fear of being seen? She sat back on her heels, fascinated. She gathered the letters back into their box and put them away.

By eleven, the rooms were casually tidy, as he had seen them. It was important that she keep the break-in to herself. Time was short, and there was none to spare for distraction, and besides, she did not want pity or concern to complicate whatever relationship they had.

Having checked her own appearance – clean, but casual, with no make-up – she made sure the bedclothes were passable. There would be no concessions beyond those of normal courtesy and hygiene. Then she settled to wait and time passed slowly. As the minutes accumulated, the boundaries she had laid down for Mungo began to trouble her, as if she was being punished for being presumptuous. It was important to her to remain in control, but oddly enough, unless he was present, she was powerless and adrift. So she would set no pre-conditions; she would leave herself open to whatever might happen, if only he would come.

At midday she decided he wasn’t arriving, and felt let down. In some way she needed him to counterbalance the violation of the night before to give her back what the intruder had taken from her. She needed him to assert herself by telling her story. Yes, that was it, and without him there was no one she could tell it to. She flung a cushion onto the floor. Where the hell was he, the very morning she needed him?

And with a snort, she said aloud: `Snuggled up in bed with his wife, I suppose.’

Bitterly, she tried to put him out of her mind, and think of her life in Berlin. The next time she saw him, she would lay it on thick about Sascha, that much was certain. Sascha? But that was Marian’s man! No matter. It would secretly even the score with the bitch. The cow. The slut. She laughed.

He was tall and muscular and virile. Moreover, he was well-off and educated, with a degree in … electronics. He was an electronics engineer and made pots of money. What a lover! He knew without asking where his hands should go, at what pace, at what pressure at precisely the right time. And there was never any question of drooping, no matter how much wine – no, champagne! – they had drunk, on a balcony overlooking the small-hour lights of Berlin. She laughed. That would teach him for not turning up when she needed him!

She turned lazily on the sofa. Such men did exist, that was the sad thing about her life. One of them, at least. This indulgence in regret was not like her, but was all the more enjoyable for that. Oh Berlin! It represented everything a woman like Tess should have as of right.

Instead, she lived alone in a squalid flat which some bastard knew he could break into any time he liked. She went to the bathroom to wash away the tears, but as she looked at her heavy face in the mirror, she realized the tears had not come. There was no release, but she washed her face anyway, and left for The Winding Stair. It was busy and she had to take her coffee and bun to the top floor to get a seat, but she was glad of the crowd, to be anonymous and busy and involved in life somehow.

Looking out over the Liffey, she saw that the Ha’penny Bridge was thronged with a lunch-time crowd, going in both directions, and was a little amused to see that Mungo wasn’t there after all, striking some odd pose, as she half expected him to be, knowing perhaps that she would come here, and that such a performance would be a way of getting back into her good books. Perhaps she might even have left her coffee and have run out to the bridge, to demand what on earth he was up to. She smiled into her coffee cup.

But no, he wasn’t there. It was only fantasy to hope he might have been, as some solace at the end. The real harsh world prevailed, with nothing to soften its blows. To think that twenty-four hours before she was a happy, deluded wo-man. But she hated when she was self-indulgent like this. She had, after all, her son, who she would see in a short time, and maybe, despite everything, they could be happy again for a few hours.

Arthur expected to be brought to the park, which was fine by her, as it was a lovely day. With abandon she perfected the art of letting him seem like a football wizard beside her, and he took on his role with glee. On the way home he spoke about his day, his friends and enemies, the fight he had been in, in a way she never remembered hearing before. This was what she had missed, and her loneliness was no longer total. In a moment that teetered on folly, she almost told him about the break-in, about her need for someone to talk to, before she remembered that he was a child. A bright child, mature beyond his years, but nevertheless a child. For now, his opening out to her, as if she was his best friend, was enough, more than she had come to expect. Perhaps solace would never come in the way she might hope for, but nonetheless it would come in unexpected ways, and the trick was to be open enough to recognize it. She acknowledged this, and yet she longed to be giddily happy with all her hopes fulfilled, as a girl might have the right to wish.

As she made Brian’s meal she toyed with the idea of talking to him, perhaps in some roundabout way. Small talk. What she really wanted to know was if he was involved with a woman, or women, but that was a dangerous subject in several ways. In the end, she kept her silence, which now constituted normality within those walls.
As she prepared to leave, Arthur was watching the cartoons, but he was restless, and more than once he turned to her with a quizzical smile. She sat on her hunkers to say good-bye, and stroking his hair, she tenderly placed her forehead against his.

`Are you going to come home to stay, Tess?’ he asked, so quietly that it could have been a thought of her own.
She was shocked for a while, yet did not move her head from his, but kept it there, her one contact with reality.

`No, my love,’ she whispered. `I can’t. Your dad and I aren’t friends any more. We can’t talk to each other, and if we do, we shout, and that’s very bad for you. For us all. It’s better this way. It’s better to be happy for a few hours every day than to be miserable all day. Isn’t it?’

`Yes, I suppose so.’

They were both clinging to this moment of togetherness for all they were worth, but suddenly it was over, and she kissed him quickly and was gone.

She crossed the Liffey and went to Trinity, plagued by the thought that she had left Arthur high and dry. All she could hope for was that he knew she loved him, and that in his precocious wisdom he would know that she had no choice but to live apart from his father.

Students were sprawled on the verges of the playing fields, talking and laughing. Several athletes were pounding out their laps. She lay on the grass for a while. After all, there was no hurry, and it was pleasant to lie in the waning sun amidst the indolence of youth. A few athletes ran past, one of them a woman, and she watched them hungrily. There were few things more beautiful than the human body responding to the will with ease. They were running at an even pace, but suddenly, halfway around the track, their strides lengthened into a long, powerful rhythm which fascinated Tess. The woman was good, she noted with satisfaction. She couldn’t catch the leader, but she held her own with the third man and at one point she passed him before fading. During the sprint, their bodies seemed to consist of powerful legs, their torsos and arms superfluous appendages; but then it was over, and they jogged like ordinary mortals. Tess wished she could have been like the woman who passed her now, able to release a power in herself, to overcome her pain and catapult herself into a differ-ent way of being.
She watched the athletes complete a second lap. There was no sprint this time, so she decided to leave before she became bored with them.

The roar of traffic in College Green always took her by surprise after the tranquility of Trinity, just a few steps away. She stopped off in Books Upstairs again, browsing among the new titles, revelling in the touch of books, unresentful of the fact that she couldn’t afford to buy them.

By taking her time in this way, it was almost nine when she got home. There was a note from Mungo saying he wouldn’t be able to see her for a while, as his daughter was sick. For a gut-wrenching moment she misread it, probably because she had half expected it, and thought he had written that he wouldn’t be able to see her again, but to her relief she saw that his absence would be temporary. That was an elastic word, but it probably meant the duration of a childhood illness – a week? Ten days? She would have to kick her heels for however long it took, having no choice, as there was nothing else in her life but her need to tell this man her story. At least he had the grace to add he was looking forward to seeing her.

Easter caught her by surprise, and the children’s holidays meant they couldn’t see each other for much longer than they had assumed. She had to stay in Fairview to mind Arthur during the day, but she slipped back every other day, when Arthur was with his grandparents, hoping there might be a note, hoping, even, that they might meet by happy accident.

It was two weeks before he arrived, two weeks of beautiful weather during which she went to Stephen’s Green every day for a few hours, reading a book on feminism which she had picked up in the library. It was interesting, in that it high-lighted many of the things which were wrong in her life, and many of the wrongs perpetuated against her as a woman, but it was interesting in a way that a book on dieting is interesting. All of it was perfectly true, but meaningless unless she acted on it. At least she had put down a healthy tan, plus the inevitable freckles to which she was resigned, between the Green and Fairview Park, where she played football with Arthur, which, she acknowledged with amusement, had made her fit after a fashion.

For a week she had stayed in until noon, hoping against hope for the ring on the bell which remained silent, when she began to think that the note was a ploy to let her down easy. For most of this time she was calm and could read or listen to Schubert and Schumann, or sometimes, Paul Robeson and Jessie Norman, but occasionally the frustration of the enforced wait burst through, and on one bad morning before her period came, she cried.
The weather broke. When the bell finally rang, Mungo was looking suitably apologetic. Despite herself, all she could think of was that she had him the way she wanted him. After the exchange of pleasantries and a light kiss on the cheek, she led him upstairs and made tea. He had called the day before.

`But you know that’s my dole morning,’ she said, irritated.

`Sorry. I forgot.’

So they had missed a precious day, and now he was looking at her with unmistakable lust. Well, he could wait, and if she couldn’t tell her story, if he didn’t give her the opening she needed, or encourage her, the wait would be indefinite.

`How have you been?’ he asked mildly.

`Okay. How’s your little girl?’

`She’s back at school, but she made the most of it while she was sick. Little girls like to boss their daddies around, you know, and no easier time to do it than when they’re sick.’

She laughed at that. Drops of rain were making their way down the window panes, just like they did in Berlin that Nov-ember. Ask me, for Christ’s sake, she thought. If she stayed silent, he’d be forced to cast about for an opening, and Berlin was the most obvious one surely. Or had he forgotten? She looked at him, but just as quickly looked away again and went to the window. A floorboard creaked as he followed and stood behind her.

`Was I away too long?’

`Yes.’

He put his hands on her waist, lightly; but as quickly she removed them. They were silent for a while. The rain was coming down in waves of fine mist, and the traffic had thickened along the quays.

`Maybe you’d like me to go.’

She turned, her eyes glistening and she resented him very much, but said nothing. If that was all he had to say, then maybe she would prefer him to go. She looked out at the rain again and the awkward silence was there again, but she was past caring.

`I was looking forward to hearing more about your time in Berlin,’ he said then, and immediately the tension drained away, and without turning, she smiled.

`This weather reminds me of it,’ she said very softly. She could tell he had relaxed. `It rained all of the November I was there, and I used to stand at a window just like this, watching it dribble down the panes.’

She turned and directed him to the sofa where they both sat. This was what she had been waiting for, this feeling of being drugged and confident. Drugged with confidence.

`Brian and I had just separated, and if it was hell with him, it wasn’t heaven being alone with a small boy who wondered every day if his father was coming home. Brian, to give him his due – or he was obliged to under German law, I’m not sure – he gave me money for Arthur through a solicitor, so while I was having a hard time, at least I had the means to survive. It was pretty lonely, mind you. I heard as much Turkish as I did German, always on the street or across a courtyard. The Turkish women sometimes talked from window to window. I don’t know what I’d have done without Marian, my Irish friend. I think I told you about her before.’

`Yes. She brought you to Frau Pohl’s.’

`That’s right.’ She was pleased, and could see that he was pleased with himself for remembering. `She used to drag me out, sometimes with Arthur, and at other times, later on, she’d baby-sit. The first time, she insisted that I go to a dinner party. I was terrified, I had hardly any German, none really, and …’ she glanced at Mungo ‘… that’s where Sascha and I …’

Suddenly she was nervous. Something had flickered in Mungo at Sascha’s name; she wasn’t sure what. But there was no turning back. `Marian had brought Sascha along a few times to my apartment and it seems he liked me and asked Marian to make sure I went to his party. So I went.’ Her confidence returned when she said that. She had every right to go, whether Mungo was happy about it or not, and if he wasn’t, he could lump it. `It was quite a place: a long pale blue room with a low ceiling and with nothing on the walls. Nothing. A few shelves, that’s all, and in the far end of the room there was a big bed, covered in furs, would you believe. I …’ she grinned ‘… I got to know that bed very well.’ Mungo smiled too. He’s taking it very well, she thought, although – and she thought this with relish – there’s a lot more he’s going to have to take.

`There were six people seated at a table which was fully dressed with a saffron cloth, and candelabra and tureens – the works. Lots of wine, of course. They all spoke good English and for a while they were polite and spoke it for my benefit, even among themselves, but then of course, after a few glasses of wine, the conversation which was quite highbrow and a bit self-conscious, I thought, got more animated. It was then that Sascha began to hold my hand under the tablecloth and look meaningfully into my eyes. He was tall and broad and very solid, several years younger than me, and of course I was knocking back the wine, and his soft but very masculine voice was getting under my skin, so he didn’t have to work very hard on me. When I first saw the room, the very idea of a bed in full view of the dining-table shocked me, and I didn’t know what to think – whether perhaps I was in for an orgy or what. Maybe that’s why I drank so much. Anyway, by the time he got around to holding my hand I was ready for anything, and I really did think he was going to make love to me in full view of everyone on that bed. Just goes to show how naive-in–reverse you can be. But I was fully prepared to let him, even join him.’

She paused for effect.

`For the first time in my life, I was as hot as a brick in an oven.’

She was pleased to see that Mungo’s eyes widened.

`He waited until everyone had gone, about two in the morning, I suppose, but he had stoked me all night, a light kiss on the neck, his hand on my waist, a burning look that said everything I had ever wanted to hear.’

She stopped and looked at him disingenuously.

`Do you mind me telling you this?’

`Ah, no … no. It’s very interesting. Go on.’

She could tell his mouth was dry, but what she hadn’t bargained for was that her own body was betraying her, her palms were sweating and her heart was beating faster. If she wasn’t mistaken she was very moist and her blood seemed to be lying just beneath her skin in languorous pools. There was nothing for it now but to continue, to play it out to the inevitable end.

`He … When he closed the door on the last guest, he hesitated for a long time … anyway it seemed like a long time … looking at me. Then he changed the music, to something beautiful, I think it was a Schumann waltz, and he took me in his arms and danced me around that apartment, that heavenly-blue apartment until I felt like passing away. No faltering, no stepping on toes, just two bodies in harmony. And then he kissed me.’

Tess stared at Mungo, who stared back. They were both trembling. She closed her eyes, and cupped her breasts in her hands.

`His hands seemed to be all over my body, everywhere at once,’ and Tess’s hands began to move rhythmically across her belly, over her mount, around her neck, `at the perfect pressure and pace,’ and now her breath was laboured, `until I was shaking. And then, kissing me on the back of the neck, kissing me like a god, he turned me around,’ and Tess twisted on the sofa, groaning, her skirt riding up her leg, `and I just knew, I knew I should lean across the table,’ and Tess half stood and leaned on the arm of the sofa, `so … so he could lift my skirt …’

Mungo stood and lifted her skirt.

`Like this?’ he asked, his voice uneven.

`Yes, like that …’ she whispered, `and he took down my pants and …’ as Mungo followed suit ‘… and caressed me softly down there …’

As Mungo’s fingers moved with surprising ease under the hood of her mount, her eyes began to go back into her skull. His free hands roamed her body, and when his finger missed its mark, she manoeuvred it back again, and her pleasure swelled, wave upon wave.

`Harder,’ she groaned, `harder.’

`Wait,’ he said, his voice shaking and far away, `I have a condom.’

That’s what Sascha said, and if he said it, it was fine by her. She wasn’t waiting, she was in a state of flux, and she didn’t care: she had achieved what she had always dreamed of doing, she was making passionate love to a tall handsome German in a strange apartment in Berlin, and as Sascha filled her from behind she let herself go upon a great surfing wave, until she and her god were spent.