The Fabulists :: Chapter 4

Tess managed to get out of bed. Pulling her tee-shirts down around her knees so that she crouched, she stumbled into the kitchen. It was almost eleven and the morning was fine, and while the water had left its tracks down the wall, it had dried. She filled the kettle and struck a match for the gas but there was no gas. Damn. Pouting, she absently scratched under her breast. How was she going to face the day without a pot of tea? She poured out some flakes and milk, and ate, only half awake, standing on the floor and unaware of the cold. Finished, she put the plate and spoon into the sink, not bothering to rinse them. She rubbed her caked eyes.

There was a smell of dampness, so she opened the window and the sharp air flowed in.
Shrieking, she closed it again. That was enough fresh air for one day and, pulling a blanket around her, she curled up on the sofa. A raucous gull flew past the window. What if she fell ill, she wondered. Would anyone even know? She drew the blanket tight around her, but as soon as she was comfortable, she thought she heard a knock on the door.

She dressed quickly, and as she went downstairs, her shoes clattered on the bare wood, and echoed through the empty house. It had been the postman. There were bills, two for her ex-landlord, and a card from Marian.

She pulled herself slowly upstairs by the heavy oak banister, waving the card with her free hand. So there was still someone out there after all. Who else would it have been? Bless you Marian, she whispered. Bless you.

Back in the flat, she pulled the curtains in the front room and, wrapping the blankets around her again, sat into the arm-chair. The picture was of the U-Bahn network, with round colour pictures marking the termini. The only ones she recognized were the Olympic Stadium and Checkpoint Charlie. She read them aloud in a faulty German accent before reading Marian’s few lines again:

“Tess you darling bitch, why haven’t you answered my last two letters? I need you to tell me I still exist and that what I write to you isn’t a figment of my imagination. My life is so real that I don’t believe in it. In case you’ve lost my address it’s at the top of the card, you blind wagon. Write, you lovely woman you, write!
Love, Marian.”

She recalled the headlines about East German refugees, and how she had stayed on in Fairview for the television news at six o’clock, watching in fascination as the Berlin Wall came down. Marian was there, in the midst of history being made. Tess should have been excited, but she wasn’t. What she had felt was more like resentment.

But now, with her card in front of her, she chose to forget all that. Dear Marian, who kept her alive in secret ways. She had encouraged her to leave Brian. She had found her this flat, however temporary it might be, through friends who were emigrating to Berlin. Above all, she continued her efforts to persuade her that life was there to be lived. It was true that she hadn’t written, but what was there to write about? Sweet fuck-all. She roused herself and flicked through a German grammar which had gathered dust on her bookcase. Despite her best intentions, her meagre school German had been allowed to wither. Now she had all the time in the world to learn it properly, but knew that she never would. She washed in cold water, ran a brush over her tangled hair and went to The Winding Stair. Pausing on the return, she browsed through the posters, vaguely hoping there might be something that would interest her that she could also afford.

Billie Holliday was singing “Detour Ahead’ and amongst the music, books, posters, photos and potted plants, she felt an ease soaking into her like a drug. A few browsers and couples drank coffee by the windows. Eileen climbed down a ladder and greeted her with a smile.

“Hi. How are you?’

“Death slightly warmed up. A coffee, Eileen. A large one.’ “It’s like that, is it? How’s the leak?’
“You might say I’ve running water, Eileen, though not all of it’s on tap.’ It was their joke.

Tess drank her coffee by one of the windows. It was a luxurious way of being part of the morning, looking over to the Ha’penny Bridge where streams of people crossed in both directions. The variety of the human form never failed to engross her, as did the traveller children, thrusting their plastic begging cups towards oncomers.

She felt like staying there all day, but needed to get some food in the supermarket. And what else? Some fifty pence pieces for the gas.

The street was icy cold and she paused to pull her scarf a little tighter. Her eyes settled on a man at the bridge, waiting with a dozen others to cross. Some didn’t wait for the lights to change, but he did. The traffic kept blocking her view of him, but despite his heavy overcoat she could see he was freezing. There was something about him that was familiar. Then she openly stared. Yes, she thought, averting her head, it was him, the shy one.

Once in the supermarket she relaxed, except that she didn’t know why she was in the supermarket. Bread. Milk, matches and some plaice. A piece of plaice please. She amused herself by thinking up variations: a prime piece of plaice please. Pardon? A particularly pleasing prime piece of plaice please. She spluttered, alarming an old lady, but when she got to the fish counter what she said was: “Could I have that one over there – yes, that one, thanks.’

As she walked back along the quays, she found herself thinking of him. There was something she had to figure out. Somehow, that time they had nearly bumped into each other he had made her heart jump. Not today; today she had felt nothing except a desire to be as far away from him and his pale, haggard face as possible. And yet … now that he was safely gone it was diverting to think of him. He was married – she had decided that immediately. Unemployed. Yes, he was unemployed. His main interest in life, now that he had tired of conjugal bliss, was soccer, and probably darts. Peripheral interests were: walking in freezing weather and following women. Perhaps she had something to write to Marian about after all.

It was another week before she was in The Winding Stair again. This time the tables on the first floor were full, so she went up to the second, browsing for a while before her cup of coffee. Kevin came pounding down from the third floor.

“You have a customer,’ she called from behind a stack of books.

He stopped short, peered over his glasses and shook his balding head. “Oh no, you again. I was afraid it might be.’

“Only for my business you’d have to close down, Kevin. You know that well.’

“At least one floor,’ he laughed, going behind the counter to put on fresh coffee.

Van Morrison was singing ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?’ She leafed through copies of the National Geographic and came across one which featured Berlin, East and West. As it was several years old and recent events had made the Wall redundant, she was gripped by the fascination of one looking through old photographs to see how much their subjects had changed. Kevin gave it to her for a pound and as she sat by a window, drinking her coffee, she wondered if Marian knew these streets. As she read, she imagined herself there, and remembered the place-names Marian had mentioned in her letters, which conjured up a life with possibilities. A respite. She sipped her coffee and looked out at the bridge.

Jesus. Here he was, coming over the bridge again. It was him, wasn’t it? Yes, it was him, definitely. But this time he stopped in the middle and stared up-river. She saw that he was dropping his head on his shoulder, now left, now right. Intrigued, she turned on her seat to watch him. He moved a few steps to his left, keeping his eyes ahead. Then after a while he moved some steps to his right. Then finally, she was sure, he moved back to precisely his original spot. This was too much.

‘Kevin,’ she called, “don’t throw out my coffee.’ Valerie shielded a customer’s soup she was bringing to the second floor as Tess rushed past. Eileen glanced up.

‘I’ll be right back,’ she called as she slammed the door behind her. She crossed through a break in the traffic, and strode up to him, out of breath. His head was resting on his right shoulder, and giving it a little jerk, he shifted his gaze from the river to her face. The wind on the river was cutting and he looked very cold.

‘What are you doing that for?’ she asked, more aggressively than she had intended. “What’s so damn fascinating?’ she demanded, unable to stop herself from looking up-river. “What’s so damn fascinating that you come here everyday and look up there?’ and she pointed, her arm rigid. He straight-ened and turned to her.

‘Well …’ he faltered. “It just struck me today, as a matter of fact. Do you see the domes of the Four Courts, and Adam and Eve’s on the left side of the river as we look, but a bit closer?

‘The church? Yes.’

‘Then farther down on the Four Court’s side there’s an-other church with a dome, although you can’t see it because of the bend in the river. All three domes being of lovely oxi-dized copper,’ he said, “and so the same pleasing colour.’

‘So?’

‘So they make a very interesting triangle, don’t you think? And then farther again down the river on the left, there’s the Guinness steam house, which also has a copper roof, now oxidized.’

‘So?!’

‘Ahm … have you ever heard of the Golden Rectangle?’

‘Yes of course,’ she said, trying to remember what it was, and suspecting that he wasn’t too sure either. She could sniff out a spoofer at a hundred paces.

‘Ah. Well, I’m trying to figure out if the composition made up by these four buildings in relation to each other constitutes a Golden Rectangle. I’m handicapped by not having either a camera or an aerial photograph, of course.’

He was spoofing. He was definitely spoofing.

‘And you come here everyday because of that?’

‘I don’t come everyday. The last time I even crossed here was a week ago.’

‘But that’s why you’re here,’ she stated, annoyed with herself.

‘That’s why I’m here. At this moment.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘Oh.’ He looked back upriver as if he were saddened by this, and she waited for a response, feeling the goose pimples all over her body as she stood there without a coat in the wind, knowing her coffee was rapidly going cold. Why was she doing this to him, and herself? Why couldn’t she just leave him alone to figure out his golden mean or golden triangle or whatever the hell it was? He put his hand above his eyes as if to shield his view from the weak sun.

She was shivering now, looking at him intently and still combative despite her better judgment.

‘Do you know something? I left a cup of coffee to interfere in your business,’ she said, as if it was his fault.

He turned his head and smiled, but didn’t otherwise move.

‘God!’ she exclaimed. ‘I’m going to get a dose out of this. Are you coming for a cup of coffee or aren’t you?’

He nodded. She could see he was half frozen, and in danger of catching a dose himself, and as she led him to The Winding Stair she couldn’t help feeling that he was smug about the way things had turned out.

Upstairs, Tess sat him down at her table. He rubbed his hands and she could see he was grateful to sit in the warmth. As she ordered two coffees – an extravagance but this was no time to count pennies – she watched him out of the corner of her eye. He was looking around appreciatively at the books and plants, posters and photographs, and the framed newspaper clippings which sang the praises of the place. Then he looked out onto the bridge and grinned.

‘I knew it,’ she fumed. ‘I fucking knew it. God, I’m a right eejit,’ she said aloud.

‘Thou hast thyself said so.’ Kevin was amused.

Her lunatic thawed as he sipped the coffee. ‘What’s your name?’

She didn’t answer immediately but now that she was warm again and had a chance to study his face, she softened towards him.

‘Tess. I mean Deirdre. My real name is Deirdre but most people call me Tess. My mother was a fan of Thomas Hardy.’

‘Oh. Tess is short for Teresa, isn’t it?’

‘I suppose it is. I don’t know really.’

‘I thought for a moment you might have been called after Teresa of Avila?’

‘The saint? Lord, no! No no no!’ she laughed.

‘Would you like to hear how I first saw Avila?’

‘What? Oh I see. You’ve been to Spain.’

He nodded. He was easier to be with than she had expected, although his limp arm made her vaguely uneasy. Somehow she couldn’t imagine this thin pale man under a hot Spanish sun, but she was curious.

‘Were you there long?’

‘Long?’ He hesitated just too long for her to believe another word he said.

‘Several years … On and off. In the sev-enties, early eighties. … My wife and children are still there. I’ve two children,’ he said. “A boy and girl.’

‘You’re separated.’

‘And you?’

‘Me?’ She hadn’t expected him to move tack so soon. She knew he was playing for time, that much was obvious.

‘Yes, well, I’m separated too … I’ve a little boy, Arthur. He lives with his father.’

‘Where?’

‘Where?’

What a question! But she thought about it for a moment, partly because the word Berlin had been in her head all day. Berlin. Why Berlin? Why not Berlin? He was a total stranger, and if he could spoof about a family in Spain, then she could spoof about a family in Berlin. Two spoofers. It might even be fun, and she smiled.

‘Neukolln,’ she said with a hint of defiance. “Tell me about Spain,’ she added quickly.

‘Avila …’ He sighed and smiled at the same time, ruffling the back of his hair. She could see he was gathering his wits to rise to the occasion. But it didn’t matter if she didn’t believe him; what mattered was that he would tell a story, no matter how unlikely it might be.

‘Well,’ he began, “I was travelling through Spain – in January 1975 – and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The Central Plateau was covered in snow. I was a passenger on a train from Vigo to Madrid, and we had met the snow somewhere west of Zamora.’

“Do you have to talk of snow on a day like this? And in Spain of all places!’

‘It gets warmer,’ he laughed. ‘Anyway, I didn’t think of myself as a tourist – though that’s what I was – but as a traveller, ignorant of the climate and geography but discovering a new terrain and my own ignorance.’

She looked at him askance, and he cleared his throat. She was determined to avoid bullshit, and to his credit, it was obvious that he saw that. He actually cared.

‘But that’s jumping ahead. It was a long journey, especially as I was on a mail train, or expreso, which despite the description stopped at every village. I shared a compartment with a middle-aged man and wife, their adult daughter and two conscripts. There were many conscripts on the train, on the way to begin their military service, and a lot of them were drunk in the corridors, singing all night. Morbid songs. Their loneliness seemed to hang in the air, sealed in a train moving through the darkness, and even though I was very tired, it affected me. As well as that, the heat in the compartment was stifling and made it difficult to sleep, and then there were six feet and legs, and it was a delicate operation to move.’

He had been caught up in his story, but now he noticed that she was listening intently.

‘At … about two in the morning the women fell asleep, and when he was sure of this, her man took a bag from the luggage rack and produced jamón serrano – that’s a leathery, rich ham – some bread and a porrón of wine. A porrón is a kind of jar with a spout and you raise it at arm’s length and let the wine stream into your mouth. There was just a dim light from the corridor. I was hungry and thirsty and the soldiers must have been too because we all leaned slightly towards the man. He cut the ham slowly and passed the sandwiches around, and we ate. Then he took a long stream from the porrón and passed it to me. I hadn’t the panache at first, and the wine streamed down my shirt, to their great amusement; but then I succeeded, and the vino tinto washed into my mouth. I produced what food I had, and a broken, inevitable conversation began.

I was English, of course. No, I was Irish. Ah. The Galicians were Celts, like the Irish. Red hair. The red-haired Celts of Galicia. A stone in Galicia which commemorates a voyage to Ireland three thousand years ago.

“¿Es verdad?”

Si, es verdad.”

The Celts, the older man said in the gloom, they have always wandered. His own sons were working in Germany; his brothers at one time had all emigrated to Cuba.

But the soldiers weren’t interested in this. They wanted to know about Ireland’s religious war and about the IRA, which the Spanish pronounce as ‘era‘ – the same as ira, which means ‘anger‘. A religious war. It sounds medieval, doesn’t it? And you try to explain that it isn’t as simple as that; but it’s too complicated in English, never mind in broken Spanish. We talked for another while about Ireland; about pubs and the Church and all the clichés you can think of; but then I couldn’t stand it any longer and escaped into the corridor, glad of the conscripts who were amiably drunk, and singing miles out of tune.

When I went back to the compartment, the others were asleep, and I had a few hours myself. It was bright when I woke. The others were still asleep and it took me a while to realize where I was.’

Mungo laughed.

`I was as stiff as a board, and the compartment smelled of stale wine – or maybe I did. I went to the jakes and gave myself a cat’s lick, and reasonably awake, I stopped by the carriage door to look at the snow, which lay on a plain that stretched to the horizon and reflected a weak sun. The sky was cloudless. As the train braked, I pulled down a window and felt the shock of the air. It was like taking a cold shower. Just then the carriage came alongside a herd of young, galloping, black bulls. You could see it was great fun as they bucked and snorted, kicking the snow into a spray. No doubt it was a regular game. As the train left them behind, I stayed at the window, smiling. And at the same time uneasy, somehow. After a few moments I stuck my head out, not back at the bulls but into the cold slipstream and saw, for the first time, on an incline which rose out of the plateau, the old white walls of Avila.’

He stopped, absorbed. In a way, he had been talking to himself. She said nothing, knowing he had never before seen the walls of Avila, but it was a fair bet he could see them now. Then he glanced at her.

`I closed the window and took a deep breath. Back in the compartment the young woman was snoring and for some reason I wondered if a man before me had ever seen her tonsils. The blind was still drawn but there was light enough. Had a man’s tongue ever touched those tonsils?

‘Leave her alone,’ came a loud voice – my conscience, don’t you know – as if I had my hand up her skirt. The mother’s mouth had dropped open, but she wasn’t snoring. Her bottom teeth were visible and discoloured, as if she chewed tobacco. Her husband’s head rested against her shoulder, his jaw falling to one side and distorting his face.’

Mungo’s lips had set in a narrow smile. He was obviously enjoying the discovery of this cruelty in himself; this safe cruelty at the expense of people who had never existed. Tess watched, fascinated.

`Then I noticed that the man’s wallet protruded from inside his jacket pocket. The train had slowed as if already entering the station, and they would wake as it halted, but the temptation was overpowering.’

`To my surprise and relief it came out with ease. Twenty crisp notes, twenty thousand pesetas. Obviously this was a special trip to Madrid, possibly of importance to the young woman. Yet, having taken the money, I couldn’t leave it back. Then I remembered I had Irish notes stashed at the bottom of my rucksack. The train would stop at any moment and I’d be caught, maybe beaten up by the conscripts disillusioned in their romantic idea of the Irish, but I couldn’t stop now. I plunged my hand down through the books, maps, toilet bag, towels and underwear and found the embossed leather wallet, quickly counted the Irish notes and calculating the exchange, found that it amounted to a thousand pesetas more than I had stolen. What the hell. He would have a pleasant surprise when he went to the bank, and laugh about the crazy Irish for years to come. I hadn’t the nerve to replace the wallet, but left it beside his open hand and was out of the compartment just as the train stopped.’

Mungo smiled. It seemed as if he thought it a natural conclusion to the story, but Tess wasn’t satisfied.

‘What then?’

‘What then? Ah … let me see. What happened then.’

`I presume you got off at Avila?’

`Of course. Yes, I remember now. I had a breakfast and stayed on in the cafe over several cups of black coffee. Two Guardia came in and stood at the bar, drinking coffee, but didn’t pay me any heed. It was only when they had gone that I realized I had been waiting to be picked up, and if they didn’t find me in Avila, then they’d be waiting for me in Madrid.’

`You were a dangerous criminal, of course.’

He grinned.

`By this time it was almost mid-morning, so I dodged down a side street and ended up in a chapel with a golden altar. It was dedicated to St Teresa and I got the fright of my life when I saw the embalmed body of a nun in a casket with glass on the side.’

`It’s not still there, is it?’ Tess interjected, alarmed.

`Well, I could have sworn it was herself, in person. But someone told me afterwards that the real Teresa is in a place called Alba, near Salamanca.’

`Oh. It’s an effigy, then.’

`I suppose so. But it didn’t stop me feeling a bit weird in its presence. It had a sort of authority, you know, lying there, as I thought, for four hundred years and not a wrinkle out of place. Oblivious to everything, and yet still there, being an influence on things. I can tell you, the twenty thousand pesetas were burning a hole in my pocket and I got out of there as quickly as, I suppose, respect would allow, and got the next train to Madrid.’

`And they were waiting for you?’ Tess was grinning.

`The Guardia? No. No, I got away with it.’

They laughed together.

`How about you? You have to tell me about you.’

`Me?’ Somehow she had forgotten he might ask that and now she was uncomfortable. He was waiting, his eyes questioning.

‘What time is it?’ She uncovered his watch and looked for herself. `Twenty past two! My God, I have to run!’

He looked up at her in mute appeal as she donned her coat. She was in a quandary. She liked him and his tall tales, if she could keep him at arm’s length, but she guessed that he would insidiously occupy her life.

`I have to run,’ she repeated, biting her lip. `I’m here at lunch hour some days. ‘Bye.’

The time had flown. The God-awful time had flown!

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 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.