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 6

Ethna went down with chicken-pox, and Mungo stayed by her bedside and told her stories until she slept. They revived forgotten memories. Some detail always surfaced in the telling, though in truth there were few adventures to recount. One day had blended imperceptibly into the next, for the most part, but Ethna didn’t mind hearing a story over and again and spotted a new detail every time, which was perhaps why he resisted invention. He was afraid he would have been found out. So it was: the comic personalities of the cows; the dog’s genius with the sheep; the silken bainbh born to the huge sow under the warm lamp; the stream alive with flitting trout; all which once seemed eternal and now seemed on an island of the past, a realm of wonder for his children. To bring them to see it now was like showing them a shadow. Only through memory did it take on flesh, and he realized that memory was only so enriched by the profound familiarity of seeing and experiencing the same animals and people and things day after day, in their own places, according to the season. It was, he thought, high time he brought the children to see their grand-mother again.

He resumed his jogging. It was spring and he could lay off his heavy coat, but whenever he came across a jogger in the accepted apparel, he remembered his boots and jeans and heavy jumper, and slowed to a walk until the real jogger was well past. He preferred the empty acres of the Phoenix Park, away from the roads and where only the deer would stare at him, running like a countryman over a bog as he had done so often as a boy. His arm was strong again, weaker than the other but strong enough to pump it in a matching rhythm as he ran. He would soon have to face a medical referee to deter-mine if he was still entitled to his disability benefit, but he put that out of his mind, enjoying the clean air and the fresh smells of spring. The phallic monument to Wellington provided a line for him to run towards and, judging from experience how much puff he had in hand, he sprinted towards it, running up the steps of the plinth two at a time until he reached it, and he gasped, hands on knees.

He sat down, uncomfortably sweaty, and calmed. It had been a month now since he’d seen her, perhaps more, and he had thought of her every day, sometimes only fleetingly, before he fell into sleep, or for a few moments when he woke, but sometimes, when he was alone, he would think of no one and nothing else for as long as he was left in peace. It was funny, how she was in the city, there along the quays below him, no more than a few minutes bus-ride away, and yet he hadn’t seen her in a month. He hadn’t gone into town for a while after the fiasco, but still, in a city where you met people you knew at every corner, she may as well have been on the far side of the earth.

He wondered if it had been a womanly ploy to make him lust for her, but dismissed the thought. There had been real hurt in her eyes, and it haunted him. He longed to heal that hurt, as if only by doing so would he gain his own peace. And it was obvious that she too was embarrassed by what had happened. This cheered him, as it brought them back on equal terms. Them. Us. We. Why did he think of them as a couple, two people who interacted in an intimate way? His momentary happiness drained away as he realized he had been harbouring a fantasy for a long time. He looked about him, trying to forget it, to maintain some dignity; but the more he tried to rid himself of her image, the more his involuntary being rebelled. That this should happen to him at his age was the worst humiliation, as if he were a youth again, ignorant of women.

He ran blindly down the steps and around the monument until he was wheezing, and he staggered to a halt. Here he was, literally running away from her. The green expanse of park land reminded him of Wexford and he was conscious again of the strong pull of the countryside. Connie wouldn’t go, of course, but the children would love it and maybe Connie would like a few days to herself. Strange woman, Connie. She liked her own company, but she could sing her song, a glass in her hand. Those few hours of revelry, of forgetting everything, were further apart as the money grew tighter, and the only thing that bound them was putting the children before everything. How long was it now – months? With her barricades down she liked her sex, and he recalled that deep grunt of pleasure when he slid into her, if he was fortunate enough not to be too drunk himself, or unsure, or too tired, when she would turn away from him as if to say, it’s always the same, the same old story.

She was washing out the fridge when he got home. The sunlight reflected off the back wall which he had painted white a few years before, and the back door was open so that a
cheerful freshness enlivened the kitchen.

`Have a nice walk?’ she asked without turning around.

`Yeah. I was up in the Park, as far as the Wellington Monument.’

She sniffed.

`You stink of sweat.’

He sniffed under his arms. It was true.

`Sure sweat’s a natural thing.’

‘So’s shit.’

She got off her knees, and cast him an ironic glance as she squeezed the cloth into the plastic basin.

`Right,’ he said. `I’ll wash in a minute.’ He was stalling and she knew it.

`You want something, don’t you?’

She had got fresh water and was down on her knees again, rinsing out the fridge.

`How’s the cash-flow these days?’

`Ah. Tight as usual. Why?’

`I was thinking it was time we went down to Wexford.’

`You know I can’t stand that mother of yours, and she can’t stand me.’
`I know, I know. But she’s the children’s grandmother.’

`They’ve two grandparents in Donegal. When was the last time they went to see them?’

`They’ve been down twice in the last year, haven’t they?’

`Oh yes, they have to come down, don’t they? Otherwise they’d never see their grandchildren, never mind their daughter.’

`They have the free travel.’

`So has your mother. As well as a car.’

It was true, but this was getting nowhere.

`Why don’t I bring the children to Wexford, seeing as ye women don’t get on, and you can slip up to Letterkenny for a few days?’

She paused, and he knew he’d said the right thing. Even if she had been in Dublin for fifteen years, he had always noticed that a break amongst her own people charged her batteries, and in truth she hadn’t been north for over a year.

`We don’t have the money for both,’ she said, and continued her work. He deemed it wise to withdraw, to let the thought settle, and he went to the bathroom to wash his stinking body.

Two weeks later, he handed her his disability money as usual. She sat at the kitchen table and counted it carefully, then produced money from a tin box.

`I suppose you want to go by train.’

He did.

`There’s enough here for my bus and a phone call to Letterkenny, a phonecall to Wexford, our bus fares in and out of town, train fares to and from Gorey and a few bob for comics and sweets for the children.’

`Great.’

`It’s not great, but we can scrape it if we can count what we save by scrounging off our families for the weekend. And I need to get out of these four walls.’

`Me too.’

`Right. It’s settled then.’

There were tears as Connie hugged her children at Busaras, but as they walked up the steep approach to Connolly Station, Aidan and Ethna bickered and had soon forgotten their mother. They were early, and Mungo settled them on the seaboard side of a non-smoking carriage, bribing them with crisps and a supply of comics which they would happily read a second or third time, or so he hoped.

He was looking forward to this trip. On the phone his mother had been cool at first, which he knew was her way of making her point at his prolonged neglect, but before his money ran out she had agreed to meet them in Gorey, having subtly ascertained that Connie would not be with them.

He glanced up-river as they passed over Butt Bridge, and he wondered what Tess was doing or thinking at that moment. How many weeks was it now? Almost six. He bridled at their separation, which seemed unnatural somehow. He looked about him, wondering if his face had betrayed his thoughts. He would have to shut her out, at least until he was alone in the big field at the back of the house, when he could risk shouting out her name and have it echo over several hills.

`What are you smiling for, Daddy?’

`Eh? Was I smiling?’

‘Yeh.’

`Yeah Dad, you looked like you’d won the bleedin’ Lottery,’ Aidan joined in.

`That’ll be the day. Lotteries don’t bleed by the way.’ They thought that was hilarious. `Go on back now to your comics.’

`But why were you smiling, Daddy?’ Ethna persisted. Trust Ethna.

‘What, did you never see me smile before? Look, we’re on holiday, aren’t we? And you’re happy when you go on holidays, aren’t you? And it’s a lovely day, and it will be even nicer in Knockmore. That’s a good reason to smile, isn’t it?’

Content, they went back to their comics, but he thought how sad it was that he couldn’t tell his children, or anyone, not even the woman in question, that he was in love. At least and at last he had said it to himself. He would have to tell lies to hide it, even to Tess, and he knew how much it cost him to lie, or even to avoid the truth; how it made him say foolish things, make foolish gestures, act foolishly.

He dozed for a while, until they came to Killiney Bay, a curve of sea and land culminating in Wicklow Head, the glory of which he never tired.

`Look,’ he said, `isn’t that lovely?’ They looked.

`We saw it before, Dad,’ Aidan said.

`What? Well you didn’t see it today. Something really beautiful is beautiful in different ways every time you see it.’

`Really?’ Aidan was impressed by this and they both checked it out again.

`It’s nice,’ Ethna said.

`Even if it didn’t change everytime,’ he said in an effort to be truthful, `it’s good to look at something nice more than once – many times!’

`Why?’ Aidan asked.

‘Why? Because … it makes you feel good, that’s why.’

They looked out again, and this time they watched the sea until it was blocked from view near Bray, and Mungo wondered if they had learned what beauty could be to them, and if they would remember this afternoon.

Below Greystones there was another favourite stretch, with the sea close to the tracks, the mountains in the middle distance to the west, with marshland and fresh water between. Today he was luckier than usual.

`Look!’ he said, pointing. There were swans on the water, basking in the sun. The children were entranced, and now he was sure they were touched, and he felt wonderful and more at peace than he had been in a long time. His happiness lasted while they passed through the spring foliage which flanked the track below Wicklow, over the black, pure river beneath the bridge below Rathdrum, past the Arklow golf-course where the stones and banks of the river were discoloured by the copper sediment from the defunct mines at Avoca – even past the fertilizer factory, spewing out its sulphurous smoke, his happiness held.

Only when they passed Inch Creamery, a few miles from Gorey, was it displaced by a need to be prepared, in case his mother could read it on his face, or worse, read into it. He wasn’t supposed to be happy with Connie, that was a guiding principle, so it would follow that something or someone other than Connie was making him happy.

Despite what had happened, despite their separation, despite his despair, he was happy. Or to be more precise, Tess had given him a depth of feeling he hadn’t believed possible, and it was the knowledge of his capacity to feel so profoundly that made him happy. He wallowed in the warmth which flooded him, as if the pain of the last six weeks had never hap-pened. The children had been miraculously quiet, reading, telling jokes and even talking to each other as companions, which was rare and to be noted. As the approach of Gorey was announced, Mungo pulled himself together, organizing the children and preparing their paltry luggage.

`Where’s Granny?’ Ethna demanded, looking worried. Mrs Kavanagh was not on the platform to greet them.

`She’s probably in the car outside,’ Aidan reassured her. Ethna would have forgotten, but that was where she usually waited. Mungo spotted the blue Ford and sent his children ahead. They ran to the car, but when they reached it and Mrs Kavanagh opened the door to greet them, he saw that as always they suddenly became shy, and Ethna looked back to him for reassurance. Mrs Kavanagh drew Aidan into the car to kiss him and he acquiesced, though he squirmed a little.

`Give Granny a kiss,’ Mungo told Ethna, but Granny was still caressing Aidan’s face, telling him what a lovely boy he was, and for a few awkward moments, Ethna was stranded. Then, to Aidan’s relief, Mrs Kavanagh shifted her attention to Ethna.

`Oh aren’t you lovely?’ She exclaimed, drawing Ethna into the car as Aidan escaped into the back seat. Ethna was more comfortable with the attention, and pointedly looked down to her new dress, which wasn’t new, but had been given to her by her maternal grandmother, was only worn on special occasions and was now almost too small for her.

`What a lovely dress!’ she declared, thus gaining Ethna’s favour. She glanced at Mungo by way of acknowledging his presence, but continued her caressing and praise of Ethna. Mungo wondered how long it had been since she had touched a human being.

`You’ve grown up into the sky,’ she said in wonder, guiding Ethna into the back seat where Aidan was slumped, his hands in his pockets. Mungo sat in and kissed his mother lightly on her weakly proffered cheek.

`Well,’ she said. `You’re welcome.’

`Do you want me to drive?’ he asked as usual, knowing the answer.

`You can’t drive with that arm of yours,’ she said, starting, and chugging onto the junction with the Avenue.

`It’s much better,’ he said. `I’ve been exercising it a lot.’

`Well you can give me a hand at home, so. There’s enough for you to do, God knows.’

Being Friday, Gorey was heavily congested with traffic, and the conversation was for the moment dominated by Mrs Kavanagh’s nervous difficulty in negotiating it. As they crossed the main street to head out the Hollyfort Road, Mungo recalled how he had begun to drink in Gorey during the long, hot summers of his teens after a hard day on the farm. Then the forays to Courtown Harbour with his mates from Monaseed and Carnew to dance with Dublin girls who knew more than he did, such as the layout of the locally notorious courting ground.
Mrs Kavanagh was by now giving a running commentary on the families who lived along the route: births, deaths and marriages; jobs, redundancies and emigration; exams, harvests and financial standing; affairs, solitudes and diseases, whether alcoholic or cancerous. To Mrs Kavanagh it was a drama, the stuff of life. To her adult son it seemed like a chronicle of local history, of a time not far removed, perhaps, but removed nonetheless, the personae like dimming photographs in his memory.

As they approached Hollyfort his interest quickened. He had known some of the people there as he grew up, and as they turned uphill towards Monaseed, past the Protestant church and graveyard where some old friends of the family were buried, it seemed as if he was slowly being restored to the fabric of the area.

Mrs Kavanagh changed gear to climb the steep hill to Knockmore. Her commentary had hardly stopped for breath. To the left was the village of Monaseed, where Mungo had gone to school and Mass, and he interrupted his mother to remind the children of this. They sat forward in interest.

‘Monaseed,’ he said, relishing his fatherly role of explication. `The name comes from the Irish Moin na Saighead – Meadow of the Swords.’

`There’s one now for you, Aidan,’ Mrs Kavanagh said. `Meadow of the Swords.’

`Me too!’ Ethna protested.

`You too, Ethna,’ Mungo laughed. `There was a battle there in 1798.’

`A battle!’ Aidan exclaimed.

`A battle!’ Ethna copied.

`Yes, a battle. Well, a small one. Hollyfort – that comes from the Irish Rath an Chuilinn. And then Kilanerin, that’s another village farther back, that means Coill an Iarainn – The Wood of Iron.’

`What does Knockmore mean?’ Aidan asked.

`Do you know something, Aidan, I never thought of that. Do you know, Mother?’

`Well now, I don’t,’ she said, concentrating on getting the car up the hill.

`Let me see. Knock – that comes from cnoc, which means?’

`Hill,’ Aidan said.

`And more – that comes from mór, which means?’

`Big. So it means Big Hill,’ Aidan smiled.

`Big Hill,’ Ethna repeated.

In a few minutes they turned off the road and down a rough laneway to a farmhouse partially hidden by trees. An old dog struggled out to greet them. A sow, rooting in the grass near the edge of the yard, ignored them but a pet sheep, trotting in from a field, stopped dead, regarded the visitors with confidence, then came up to receive attention from the delighted children.

`You should bring them down more often,’ Mrs Kavanagh observed with satisfaction. `Young children need freedom, and pets, and all those things you took for granted when you were growing up.’

They prefer computer games nowadays, Mother.’

`Nonsense. Children will always love the same, simple things. Come on,’ she said. `Let’s get the kettle on. Ye must be starving.’

The farm, he saw, was vivid with life: the animals, always so unpredictable, the birdsong, the trees, the hens clucking in the yard. It was like being in a timewarp in the farmhouse, a strong two-storey building where the only change in a generation was the phone and colour television. All the old furniture remained, the same lino on the kitchen, the Aga cooker which had seldom been out, the heavy kettle seemingly always on the boil. And the oleograph of the Sacred Heart, the red electric lamp burning beneath it like a coronary pulse. He had to swallow to get a grip on himself. Every detail conspired to drag him back to childhood, to being a child, even.

`Your old clothes and boots are under the stairs. There’s enough for you to be doing,’ his mother called.

`Right,’ he called back. He needed to do something which would physically tax him, to do the things a child hadn’t the strength to do. As he changed, he heard the children laughing outside. They were making fun of the sheep.

After a tea of fresh scones and butter, and some home-made apple tart, he cleared a drain the pigs had trampled and used two flagging stones, which were exactly where he had remembered them to be, to shore it up. He cleaned out the pig house and spread fresh straw. Once, his mother crossed the yard with an air of satisfaction. The children were somewhere down the fields, with the dog and pet sheep. His arm hurt, but he didn’t care. The more he worked, the more he could avoid thinking or daydreaming or remembering. It was almost a pure state, a technique for being in the present and free of guilt or yearning.

They sat down to dinner at six thirty and Mrs Kavanagh switched on the radio news out of habit, but it was low and in the background, her real interest being in the children. Her absorption in them made her look as if she was in her prime again as she ruled her seven children, but happier, more relaxed, delighting in Aidan and Ethna’s rapturous account of their afternoon. Mungo smiled. It was as if they were living out the stories he had told them, which had been replaced in their imaginations by experience, an experience enriched by the stories. Once or twice Mrs Kavanagh glanced at Mungo as she laughed. Were they casual glances, he wondered, a shared indulgence of the innocence of children by two knowing adults? Somehow he doubted it.

After dinner the television was switched on to see a favourite programme, a long-running soap which bored Mungo. The children watched it with apparent interest, but then they loved television. When it was over she rummaged in a drawer for a pack of cards and called them over to the table. `You too,’ she commanded Mungo.

Oh God, he hated cards, and he suddenly longed to be with Tess, to ask her to finish her Berlin story. A bland TV pro-gramme remained on as the games of 25 or Snap progressed to the obvious delight of the grandmother and her grandchildren. The son and father survived, feigning an occasional laugh, consoling himself that Tess existed, and had given him a glimpse of a risky but interesting vitality. It was good to know he was capable of feeling alive.

The card games lasted until Aidan suppressed a yawn and Ethna wilted, the fresh air and excitement combining with the hour to tire them. Mrs Kavanagh put them to bed and Mungo settled to watch a show which had been running for as long as he could remember. It could be very interesting or very boring, within the same hour and a half.

Mrs Kavanagh returned with the air of someone who had done a job she was mistress of, rubbing her hands and suppressing a smile.

`Well well, those children have grown into the sky – who’s on `The Late Late’ ?’ she asked in one breath.

`An American writer.’

`Ah, we’ll make a cup of tea at the break,’ and she instantly tuned in to the American who had spent much of his early life addicted to drugs and petty crime. At the break Mungo offered to make the tea but she refused, and returned with tea, scones, apple tart and a tumbler of whiskey for Mungo, having missed an excellent ensemble of unaccompanied women singers.

‘Aidan has healed up well,’ she said at the next break.

`Yes.’
`You’d never have believed it after the fire.’

`No. No you wouldn’t.’

`They love it here, you know.’

`Yes, I know. And it’s good for them.’

`That’s right. It’s good for them. And I can’t carry on for much longer on my own.’

`Mother, what are you trying to say?’ He remembered now that they’d had this conversation before.

`Well now, it’s obvious isn’t it? You’ve no job in Dublin, you’re living hand to mouth there with two young children roaming the streets, who love being with their granny, and I’m not able for the farm any more. I was never able for it on my own, you know that well, and yourself and the children could have a wonderful time here, and we could all be happy.’ She had worked herself into a state and was almost in tears.

‘Connie doesn’t like the country,’ he said, though he was thinking of Tess.

`I could never see what you saw in her. You were never suited, you know, and I’ve a fair idea you know that now.’

`What makes you think that?’

`Ah now, I know. I’m not a fool. I know you think I am, but I’m not.’

`Are you saying … ? ‘The Late Late Show’ resumed, and they left the question hanging. I’m going to die, he thought, knowing I’ve lived an awful life, and he drank half the whiskey back. His heart pounded from the shock of the alcohol, but he didn’t care.

`Will you have a drink?’ he asked after a while.

`No no,’ she said, keeping her eyes on the screen. `But you help yourself.’

He didn’t move, except to sip the whiskey, which he was now enjoying. The one thing I really went after in my life, he thought, was marriage to Connie. And I was right. She was the only happiness I’ve ever had, but now it’s all gone wrong, it’s over, and I’ve probably half my life to live. He clutched his glass tighter, and this time drank back a mouthful. There was another commercial break, and Mrs Kavanagh prepared herself for another speech.

`Well, as you well know, there were seven children reared in this house, though the Lord knows, I sometimes ask myself what I reared ye for.’

`For emigration, of course,’ Mungo laughed.

`Oh you’re very funny.’

`Well it’s true. That’s what happened. And,’ he added cruelly, `I’m thinking of going myself.’ She paled for a moment, but then, deciding he was baiting her, recovered.

`There were seven children reared in this house, and there’s room to spare. I could have a little flat and Connie could have the run of the rest of the house.’ There, it was said, the die was cast. Then, to push home her point, `I’m leaving the place to you anyway, so what’s the point in wasting away above in Dublin when you could be leading a healthy life down here?’

`I thought the place was Tom’s – he’s the eldest, isn’t he?’

`He’s in Australia.’

`Have you heard from him?’

`Oh he never writes. Too much trouble. Sheila is the only one who writes. She’s coming home with the children in the summer – she hopes.’

`Ah. Good.’

`It’s funny how no one comes in the winter, when you need them most.’

`I do,’ he said, aggrieved that he didn’t count, as usual.

The programme returned with an Irish singer in a cowboy outfit, singing a sentimental song about a love far away.

`Wasn’t that lovely,’ Mrs Kavanagh said.

`I’ve heard worse,’ Mango said truthfully.

The next day proved as sunny and fresh, and they were out early feeding the pigs and hens, checking the sheep and the small herd of bullocks. Mango was anxious to clear any work that his mother had been unable to do, but as a neighbour helped her out once a week there wasn’t that much left over at this time of year. She hadn’t kept cows since her husband had died, and the milk in her fridge was bought at the local shop. So were the vegetables, even the potatoes. That seemed to be common nowadays. At least Mrs Kavanagh still kept hens.

The sheep were all present and correct; the bullocks were content. He continued into a broad empty field leading down to the valley. On the far hill he could make out the spire of the Hillwell church; beyond that, the Wicklow mountains. Nearer, to his right were Annagh Hill and Croghan. Cruachan: stack or small mountain. Its full name: Croghan Kinsella. Just at this moment, as the clouds scudded across the sun, he stopped. If he stayed quite still and didn’t think, perhaps he could hold onto it for a moment, this easiness where he and his surroundings were in harmony. It passed. He could still appreciate it, but that elusive relationship was gone.

After such an experience it seemed foolish not to live here, but it only required a brief reflection to remember its bleakness in winter, and the isolation of the farm. His mother would continue to rule, of course. She was too set in her ways to change. He felt guilty because it was in his hands to transform her loneliness into a sense of continuity and fulfilment, but he knew the price was the destruction of what little autonomy he had. His siblings had removed themselves from such guilt, and could justify their long absences by distance and the responsibilities to families supported by good incomes. Except, perhaps, Tom. Sheila and Jimmy were married in England, with families. Ned, Lizzie and Matt were married in the States, with families. But Tom had been married twice, and divorced twice. Tom could never come home. He had a son by his first marriage, and two daughters by his second, but they were grown up now. Tom was the outcast, the one who was never mentioned if possible, the one who had let the family down, who had thrown away his inheritance and all that he had been brought up to believe. His mother claimed that Tom had put his father in an early grave, although his marriage problems had surfaced after the accident. Having done that, he had not come home to the funeral. In fact he hadn’t been home since his first divorce.

Mungo looked across the wide field, the biggest on a farm of fifty-two Irish acres. If he did in fact inherit it, it would cause him endless trouble as his siblings looked for their inheritance. The best thing would be to sell it, if he outlived his mother – which was not a foregone conclusion – and divide what was left after debts. And if for a moment he could fantasize that there would be no debts, no inheritance claims – what could he do? He would live in Dublin during the week, bring his family here at the weekends, or perhaps in winter come on his own, and little by little cover the farm with trees: oak, mostly, ash, beech, copper beech, birch, silver birch, and near the house, if it would grow here, a strawberry tree. He laughed out loud. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? The colours in autumn would be fabulous. That would be his dream.

That evening, the children watched cartoons as Mrs Kavanagh made dinner, and Mungo retired to his room. He had shared it with two brothers, and now it was crammed with old drawers, their polish long faded. He lay down, staring at the ceiling, drifting through his thoughts of the afternoon. The Angelus struck on the television below, and his children called their grandmother. He closed his eyes, then rolled off the bed to go downstairs. At the door he hesitated before going over to the first drawer.

It was full of loose photos, pamphlets, cuttings from the local paper which had lost their relevance many years before, and a collection of almanacs. The drawer beneath was stuck, and it took him a while to open, but he was patient. If he had one thing in abundance it was time, and he was rewarded. There were several old photo albums, mostly in black and white, and some of the earlier photos were tiny, their subjects, mostly gone to their rewards, barely recognizable. He was in some of them, mostly among the coloured ones, and there were some of his father, usually with his mother. Mungo looked very closely at one he didn’t remember, a photo obviously taken in the mid-forties, possibly before they were married. They would have been much younger than Mungo was now. It was strange to think of them like that.

And then, in another album which seemed even older, he found a photo he had never seen before. It was of a soldier, dressed in khaki. Puzzled, Mungo looked at it closely. It was hard to say, but when he compared it with the forties photo of his parents it was obvious that the soldier was his father. Perhaps it was one of his father’s brothers, who had also been in England during the war, but as Mungo stared at the photo he knew in his heart who it was, and that he had uncovered this secret after a silence of almost fifty years.

`Mother,’ he asked quietly as she laid the table for dinner, `Was Father in the British Army?’

‘Shh!’ Her eyes darted in fear in case the children had heard. She was very pale, and clutched a dinner plate on the table, unable to look at Mungo. Then she took a deep breath, and continued as if nothing had happened. The veil had been drawn over again.

He drank more whiskey and woke on Sunday with a hangover. After Mass, through which he dozed, Mrs Kavanagh brought them though south Wicklow, stopping off in a hotel in Avoca for lunch, which emphasized yet again Mungo’s lack of money. On the way back they stopped at Hillwell church, where Mrs Kavanagh lit candles. Mungo did not have to guess the fervent wish which one of them represented.

`Make a wish to God,’ she whispered to the children. `I’ve lit a candle each for you.’

They closed their eyes and wished, the candlelight reflected on their faces. There was a tenpenny piece in Mungo’s trouser pocket, and he dropped the coin into the donation box and lit a candle. He had one burning desire, and that was to see Tess.

`What did you wish, Daddy?’ Ethna whispered.

`I wished that we’ll all be happy.’

`That’s what I wished too.’

`I asked God that we’ll all see each other again soon,’ Mrs Kavanagh said, looking directly at Mungo.

`What did you wish, Aidan?’ This time Ethna’s voice resounded around the church.

`Like Granny,’ he said, but without conviction, Mungo thought. Like his father, he had a secret wish.

`Good boy,’ Mrs Kavanagh said. `We will see each other again soon, so.’

Outside, the children played an impromptu game of tig in the neat grounds.

`You’ll see that Aidan’s wish is met, won’t you?’ Mrs Kavanagh said quietly.

`As soon as we can afford it,’ Mungo said.

`I have a few shillings set aside, I can send you the money.’

`No. No there’s no need for that.’

`Humph. You and your empty pride. The very same as your father.’ They sat into the car, but before she started, an idea occurred to her. `Children, would you like to come down to Granny for your holidays?’

‘Yeeaass!’ they shouted in unison.

`They’re big enough now, you know,’ she said, looking over to Mungo.

`You mean on their own?’

`Please, Dad,’ Aidan said. `It’d be mega.’

`Please, Daddy,’ Ethna imitated. `It’d be mega.’

Mrs Kavanagh beamed.

`I’ll have to ask your mother,’ he said to the children.

The evening train was a beautiful sight. He was glad they had come. It had been necessary and the children had loved it and adored their grandmother. But Mungo had had to confront a problem which in Dublin he could put to the back of his mind. It was a cruel fate that had left his mother to cope alone, but there was nothing he could do about it. It was as if she had some lingering, incurable disease.

Crestfallen at their loss of freedom, the children were quiet, and succumbing to the soporific after-effects of the mountain air, they were asleep by Rathdrum. They had been lucky to get a seat. Most of the passengers were young people, returning, Mungo supposed, to college or work after a weekend at the family hearth. This was how it began, for those who were lucky enough not to have to go directly, still wet behind the ears, to another country, usually England. How many of them, he wondered, had their future planned; how many took it for granted they would go? Mungo had been lucky, or relatively so, coming to maturity at a time when such pressures were waning, and if he hadn’t made the most of the freedom he hadn’t realized was his, then the fault lay with himself. Mungo looked around him, wondering what it was like for them now, embarking on their lives. His head dropped. The weekend was catching up with him, too. His children slept peacefully. In a few years they would be on a train, travelling though a strange countryside, leaving himself and Connie behind. As he dozed, he wished them safe journey.

`Daddy, you’re snoring!’ Ethna was pulling his hair, which both Ethna and Aidan found amusing.

Even more amusing was his bloodshot eyes, looking at them with vague recognition. He took a deep breath and smiled at them. They were passing Sandymount Strand, and so within a few minutes of arrival. The tide was out, and two horses were being exercised by the waterline. Nearer the railway, a man was digging for bait, or maybe shellfish, leaving a haphazard trail of upturned sand.

The children, it seemed, had forgotten the country already, but as they walked up the platform at Connolly Station they were more good-humoured and tolerant of each other than they had been for some time. And then, at the exit they spotted their mother and ran to her. She was the last person Mungo had expected to see. The children were excited, trying to tell her everything at once, and she was laughing. When was the last time he had seen her laughing, except in a pub with her girlfriends? She looked up at Mungo and smiled, and, warily, he smiled back.

‘Ye had a good time, then?’ She left the children and came to Mungo, taking him by surprise by kissing him on the mouth.

`Aye,’ he said, seeing that Ethna, in particular, approved. `These two had a ball.’

Connie put the children to bed that evening. Mungo heard them laughing and joking with her. Outside it was dark and cool. He went to the window and stared, idly aware of the flickering yellow street lamp. He realized it was raining softly. Connie had been nice to him – obviously her break had done her a lot of good; but having wanted a return of their closeness for so long, he felt deadened by its imminence. It was as though there should be a neutral interval, a mending, almost day by day, back to the time when they were easy with one another. To begin again as if nothing had been amiss was to begin without trust, and so it was false, but he knew he wouldn’t say this, he knew he would go through the motions, and he wasn’t sure whether this was because he wanted whatever comfort he could snatch, or if he was too cowardly to face unpleasantness, or whether in fact he didn’t care.

Connie was standing behind him and he tensed slightly in case she should touch him.

`I’ll make a cup of tea,’ she said.

He stayed at the window as she busied herself making the tea, but he caught the aroma of fresh country bread as she sliced it, and when he heard the tea pour he finally gave in to the inevitable and sat at the table.

`You’re very quiet,’ she remarked. `Is something bothering you?’

`Yeah,’ he said, grateful for a plausible excuse. `My mother wants us to move in with her. She said she’s leaving the farm to me. She says she’ll take a flat in the house and leave the rest to us. It’s a big house, as you’ll remember.’

Connie was silent for a while, sipping her tea. Then she asked him what he thought of the idea.

`I don’t know. What do you think?’

`If your mother has a flat to herself and stays out of the way, maybe it’s a good idea. The children obviously love it, it’s your inheritance, and we’re not getting anywhere here, are we?’

He shouldn’t have mentioned the flat. He had walked himself into life imprisonment, and, yet again, he thought of Tess. Connie put her hand on his.

`Don’t look so worried. We’ll talk about it another time. There’s a lot to consider after all. All right?’ He nodded. `Come to bed,’ she whispered, and the implication of her tone was unmistakable.

In bed Connie did not notice that his caresses were automatic, and it seemed that no matter where or how he touched her her pleasure increased, and she began to caress him feverishly in turn. He prayed that he wasn’t about to make her pregnant, because despite himself he was fully erect. As he entered her she grunted and her face contorted, but a deep resentment welled up in Mungo as he thrust. He couldn’t name its source, but it drove him to push deeper and harder in ever-increasing brutality, beyond when Connie climaxed in uncontrollable sobs, until he shouted out his own climax and they fell into the darkness together.