The Fabulists :: Chapter 2

A few days later, it dawned a fine morning. Mungo got the children out to school and, whistling softly, he walked up Stoneybatter to cash his disability cheque. Nothing put him in good humour like a fine morning. He had even brought Connie breakfast in bed and, although she had tried to conceal it, she was surprised and pleased. Maybe he should do it more often. He was bursting with life since giving up drink, and felt smug as he passed Moran’s pub. With his exercises and then his long walk in the mornings, he was fit for anything, and his mind was coming alive again. Sometimes his walks took him well into the Phoenix Park, or as far as Stephen’s Green. In the park, which he preferred, he could find a quiet stretch and burst into a jog when he was sure no one was watching, and he made trebly sure, because the idea of anyone seeing him jog in his boots, jeans and heavy overcoat was excruciating. Not to mention his arm, whose limpness, he knew, made him look odd, especially when running. His arm was all that bothered him. It ached badly. At first he had excluded it from his exercises, but then it became more difficult to do so, and now it felt like fresh, rearing blood was trying to push through veins grown accustomed to a sluggish flow. His left hand tingled, and he flexed it. That was another thing about walking: he could gently, unobtrusively, exercise his hand – flex, open, shut, flex, open, shut. He still couldn’t raise the arm very well, but that would come soon, he felt sure.

In a few weeks time it would be two years since the fire. That would be a bad time for Connie. Aidan seemed to have forgotten about it and got on with his life as children do, especially as the burns had healed so well, thanks to the people in James’s. Sure, the poor guy still had the dreams, but they were less frequent. Mungo was trying to be as kind as he could to all three of them. Connie still hadn’t forgiven him, he knew, so he couldn’t just hand her a bunch of roses, for instance. She wouldn’t wear it, so he’d have to sneak in and put them in the kitchen, maybe in that white delft vase she liked.

Six red roses. Romance on the welfare she’d say, if she said anything. She hadn’t spoken to him, not a word, for nearly a year after the fire, but nobody could keep that up all the time, so now she only spoke to him when necessary. Maybe she was softening. The response when he brought her breakfast in bed this morning had given him hope. He had been trying to work up the courage to do it for weeks. Perhaps there was no going back, but he just wanted to be part of the human race again.

He cashed his cheque in the hushed bank, and back home, he left the money on the table for Connie, keeping only the loose change. He sat and looked at it, that which only barely carried them through the week, though he didn’t smoke or drink any more. Connie still smoked, but not a lot. He heard the bedsprings as she turned.

“Is that you?” she called.

“It’s me,” he called back.

“Well get some meat if you’re going out.”

At least the children were fed and clothed. Nothing fancy, but enough. The curse of Christmas was still to come, but if children couldn’t have Christmas, what could they have? He took some money and left the house.

He went down Grangegorman, crossed North Brunswick Street and turned left at North King Street, flexing his fingers as he walked, and sweating a little at the effort. It took concentration. His New Year’s resolution would be to get the strength back in his hand and arm. If he couldn’t get a regular job then he could do nixers until the building trade took up again, and someone had told him that that wasn’t far off. He had intended continuing along North King Street, but when he came to Smithfield, he set out across the cobbles which stretch almost to the river. On one side were warehouses, some of them derelict, covered in colourful, garish murals. He passed the weigh house. There were young trees planted in rows of three all the way down. On the other side was new Corporation housing and, farther down, the new Children’s Court. In between were three travelers’ caravans, smoke rising from the aluminium chimneys.

“Mungo! Hey, head-the-ball!”

This was as he passed the Children’s Court. An old drinking crony was lounging on the steps.

“Hey Frankie! I thought you graduated from that place a while back.”

“Been rejuvenated. Mungo, you’re a rich bleedin’ culchie – any ciggies?”

“Sorry, pal. Don’t smoke any more.”

“Ah, keep goin’, so. You’re no use to me.”

He walked on. That was about the size of it. Once you were one of the lads, knocking it back a couple of nights a week, money no object, you were a great fella, but hit bad times and you might as well never have existed. When he thought about it, he hadn’t one real friend. It was a useful piece of knowledge.

His journey brought him past the derelict distillery on to the fruit and vegetable markets, and as the pavements were blocked by crates of produce, he followed a dray cart through the chaos of vans and lorries and whining forklifts. He realized he was thirsty, so instead of taking the more direct route along Little Mary Street, he checked the change which he kept for himself, and went down to Abbey Stores on the corner of Arran Street and Mary’s Abbey. He saw the butcher talking to a customer outside his shop farther along Mary’s Abbey, and thought of the meat. If he didn’t get it now he’d forget it, as sure as daylight. So he went down to McNally’s. The butcher, who he presumed was J. McNally himself, stayed outside, finishing his conversation in the sunshine.

“I’ll be with you in a minute,” the butcher called into the bright but old-fashioned interior.

That was fine. Mungo was in no hurry. He had all the time in the world.
“Now, what can I get you, sir,” Mr McNally asked as he came back in.
“Can you give me a couple of pounds of stewing stuff?”
“Sure. Why not?”

The meat was good and it was cheap. This was the way to do things – combine a little business with a pleasant walk. Pleased with himself, Mungo doubled back to Abbey Stores. It was a tiny shop but they had nice oranges and they didn”t mind if you only bought one.
“Magic,” the young shopkeeper said when Mungo handed him the exact amount.

A juggernaut from Holland was parked in the lower, resi-dential part of Arran Street, being unloaded by a forklift. Tons of apples. Mungo happily sucked on his orange. He turned into Little Strand Street to avoid the quays. At the junction with Capel Street he paused, then gravitated to a shop window and a multiband radio which caught his eye. It cost what his family now lived on for a week, but it would give him access to any station in the world, almost; to languages he could never hope to understand, unless Spanish, perhaps. It was first year college Spanish, brushed up a little on the Costa Brava, but it would be something to build on. It was vaguely painful to know that he would never be able to buy the radio, unless he was able to work again. He tried to lift his arm, thinking it would never recover.

He turned and crossed over to Great Strand Street, away from shops and dreams. There were Corporation offices, a pub and one single shop, which sold guitars and amplifiers, but apart from a school, it was a street of light industry and dereliction in equal proportion. A granite-faced warehouse, refurbished and converted into small units, pleased him. It had been a while since he had been along here.

Just as he turned into Liffey Street, joining the streams of people walking between Abbey Street and the Ha”penny Bridge, he saw her. She gave a little start of recognition, just as he did, but he continued around the corner. Not knowing what to do, he stepped onto the road to let her pass, or what-ever she might choose. She passed, but he could see that she was hesitant too. They walked almost together for a few moments, she slightly ahead; then he crossed over to one of the Pound Shops and pretended to browse, his heart pound-ing. She had paused too, and he knew that, like him, she was pretending to be interested in a shop window. This was his cue, but he was transfixed. She”s beautiful, he thought, and this was all his mind would allow. No strategy, no opening line, only the all-consuming fact of her physicality.

Baffled, he perversely entered the shop, when all he wanted to do was catch up with her and tell her his name. That was it: My name is Mungo, what”s yours? It”s so simple when you can think straight, he thought, and rushed out of the shop. She was gone. It was impossible, but she was gone.

He hurried, trying not to run, to Abbey Street, and looked up and down. Nothing. Over to Upper Liffey Street. No sign. She had disappeared. Agitated, he checked again in four directions. She had to be in a shop somewhere. Perhaps at that very moment she was watching him, highly amused. This sobered him, and he reassumed his dignity.

In the shopping-centre he walked through the crowds in a daze. All the shoppers could think about was Christmas; all he could think of was how beautiful she was, and that he would never see her again because of his stupidity.

He took the library lift for a few moments privacy. Her red hair dropped a little below her shoulders. She seemed about the same height as himself, five foot seven, but with raised heels on her boots, it was hard to know exactly. What else? Her eyes he wasn”t sure of – blue or green, but they were generous. She seemed … plump, although again it was hard to know with her heavy winter clothing. He couldn’t picture her legs, but remembered with pleasure that she walked gracefully. To him, grace was important.

He went straight to the travel books by force of habit, taking down the largest volume on Spain, His paper mark was undisturbed and he opened the book at page ninety, but though he read two pages without pause, not one word registered. He felt sure her carriage would be matched by her manner and voice. Her voice would immediately decide if … Her voice would decide what? he wondered. He was a married man, after all, which was not altogether beside the point.
He hoped he hadn’t spoken aloud, and moved to another reading table in case he had. His attraction to this woman had amounted to a surge of hormones, yet his imagination had leapt ahead, making assumptions and laying down conditions. The attraction disturbed him. Even if they met again, which was unlikely, it would have the same inconsequential end. A similar experience in his youth reminded him how juvenile his reactions were. It was just an attack of juvenile projection. He could read his book in peace.

He read about a traveller journeying through Castile by train. It had been snowing, but as dawn broke the sky was a steely blue and the snow was compact and silent across the plateau. Later, as the sun rose, the traveller saw a herd of black bulls, and then the eleventh-century walls of Avila.

Mungo closed the book and dreamed himself onto that train approaching Avila, the city of Saint Teresa. At first he tried to remember the details, but abandoned this and let his imagination provide. Apart from the two weeks with Connie and the children in a tourist hotel on the Costa Brava, he had never been outside Ireland, unless he counted the months on housing sites in the English Midlands, a failed student. So it was Spain that nourished his fantasies about a new life, the discovery of which would change him, as if stepping out of the skin that was his past. It would even change his past, give it a context which would lend it meaning. Then, one day he would go to Spain and not return.

The idea was still crude, but little by little it was forming.He opened the book again and went back to the beginning of the chapter. The traveller, an Irishman, had relatives in Galicia – the Celtic part of the peninsula. Mungo envied him such a background. At the same time, it would be better if he, Mungo, were completely alone to make a fresh start.
It didn’t have to be Spain, but it was the country he knew most about for now, more than England – more than Ireland, perhaps. A fresh start. In reality it was impossible, he knew; but he could rehearse it in his imagination. Maybe he could disguise it as a story for the children. He returned to where he had left off, and finished the chapter.

It had been snowing, but as dawn broke the sky was cloudless and the snow was compact and silent across the plateau. Mungo repeated the lines to himself while descending the library stairs to the shopping centre.

As he turned from the stairs he almost collided with her. She smiled faintly as if in recognition, but flustered, he wasn’t quite sure if it was the same woman, and side-stepped to let her pass. Could it be her? Surely not. Was it a smile of derision? He backtracked, and she had paused by the sweet shop. Staring, as if in shock, he decided it wasn’t her. This woman didn’t fit his luminous image. True, she had light red hair, and similar clothing, but she seemed defeated somehow, whether by age or constant misfortune he could not say. And he had remembered her as having flaming red hair, hadn’t he? If only he could see her face again, he would know then. If he could see her eyes, then certainly he would know. It would give him a chance to smile, and she could smile back and they could laugh at his foolishness and say hello. She didn’t turn, but as soon as she walked along the passage to Parnell Street, he knew. He stood at the sweet shop and watched her retreating figure. Yes, it was her all right, and yes, despite her graceful carriage, she seemed defeated. Suddenly, he felt the weight of defeat too, and turned to leave by the Henry Street exit, when Parnell Street would have brought him more quickly home.
“Ripe bananas, five for fifty!” “Cigarette lighters, four for a pound!”

The sing-song cries of the street-sellers greeted him on Henry Street. He lounged about for a while, browsing amongst the cheap shoes, and then in the music shop across the road. He hated wasting time like this, when he could afford neither shoes nor music, but he did it all the same, knowing he was trying to avoid thinking about the woman.

He found himself walking back along Liffey Street, half believing he might meet her again, and paused at the junction with Strand Street, where he felt something magical had brought them together for those shocking moments. At the Ha”penny Bridge, he looked down Ormond Quay and recalled that his journey home after the Parade of Innocence had left him in her wake. How she had hurried away! Of course it had been dark, and maybe without realizing it he had scared her, and he felt pity and then affection and a desire to make amends.

On the hump of the footbridge, he stopped and looked around him, as so many passed by. Then he peered up-river. He knew he was attracting curious glances, and he longed at that moment for a camera. With a camera he would have a legitimate reason – a composition, perhaps, of the copper-green domes of the Four Courts and Adam and Eve’s, with the Guinness steam house in the distance, slightly left of centre, completing the picture. Without a camera he felt naked. If he was a passer-by, he too would wonder why some-one was staring into the distance from a bridge over a river at high tide. The obvious reason was furthest from the truth. He did it because he wanted to, and that was reason enough. There was no other reason. He had no purpose here, nor did he want or need one. He felt a thrill of happiness at his brief freedom, and gratitude to an anonymous woman.

The Fabulists :: Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

“Da, Da!” he shouted.

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

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

“A church?”

He nodded, this time vigorously.

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

Aidan reflected.

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

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

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

“Yes? A bush?”

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

“Is it a nice bush?”

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

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

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

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

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

“And do you run?”

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

“You save me, Da.”

“Do I?” Mungo choked.

“You’re very strong and brave.”

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

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

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

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

“Well?”

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

“Yes. But he”s fine now.”

“The same one?”

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

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

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

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

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

The Fabulists :: Chapter 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

`Arthur!’ she barked.

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

`Where is Annie? I haven’t seen her…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

`What’s wrong with you?’

`Nothing.’ Her mouth was full of apple.

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

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

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

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

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

`What happened to Arthur?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

`Are you married?’

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

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

`I see.’

He smiled.

`You’re separated?’

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

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

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

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

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

`Mungo And yours?’

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

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

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

He nodded, doubtful but amused.

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

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

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

‘Janey.’

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

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

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

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

“Several thousand, I hear,” Marian said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

`Very. What did she say then?’

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

`Irish. And Spanish. Some jazz.’

`Do you know Schubert?’

‘Naw. Heard of him, that’s all.’

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

`You mean now?’

`Yes …’

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

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

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

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

`A great city for stairs,’ he remarked.

`Not as many as Berlin.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

`I like the music,’ he said.

`Is that all you like?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

`What?’

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

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

‘Mungo? Thanks.’

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

`For what?’

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

The Fabulists :: Chapter 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

`Looks like it.’

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

`Me too.’

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

`That’s okay.’

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

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

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

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

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

`Oh come on. Please come.’

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

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

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

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

`The Sheltering Sky!’

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

`Oh.’

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

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

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

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

In Fairview, she whistled, off-key.

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

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

‘Tess, is that man your new husband?’

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

`I’m sorry. Which man do you mean?’

`How many men did we meet today?’

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

`Don’t be stupid.’

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

`Promise?’

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

`I promise,’ she whispered.

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

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

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

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

`What do you want?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

`Now, there’s a good boy.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

`Yes. Brian was getting on my nerves.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

`Don seems in good form.’

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

Tess winced.

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

`Oh?’

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

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

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

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

`Maybe I’ll have one here.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fabulists :: Chapter 8

Mungo walked past the queues waiting for buses by the walls of Trinity College. He liked to look at people, especially at women in all their marvellous variety, and bus queues were full of wonder. A light rain was falling. In his coat pocket he clutched an appointment card for a medical referee who would decide his fitness for work. Mungo knew he would be declared fit, and knew also that there was no work – at least not regular, paid and taxed work; so that meant a move down from the luxury of getting a cheque through the letterbox to joining a queue at the dole office.

The facade of the building was ugly; inside it was drab and functional. The information clerk directed him along a narrow corridor which led to a waiting area. To his surprise this was bright and comfortable, decorated with a few pertinent posters. This queue was at least seated. Below a certain income, Mungo reflected, a man or woman was condemned to queues: for buses, which might not come; for money; for medical care; for charity. The world was divided into those who queued, and those who kept appointments and drove cars, the lot of one being resignation and the other, purpose. There were magazines on a low table, but Mungo noticed that no one was reading. Perhaps it was the early hour, or because it was Monday morning. He shifted in his scat. Everyone, he noticed, was very tense. Perhaps he should be tense as well, but he was by far the fittest person in the room, so there was no doubt in his mind that he would be declared fit to work. They were mostly men; a few women, mostly partners of the men. All, it seemed to Mungo, with the possible exception of a pale youth, were obviously sick, or handicapped by injury or illness.

Mungo’s resignation turned to pity as he glanced around the room. A husband and wife spoke in low, worried voices to each other. He was thin, painfully so, and his skin was grey. A middle-aged nurse entered and called a name. A woman on a stick rose awkwardly from her seat, and the nurse hurried to support her. Mungo watched their slow progress until they disappeared behind a door, the nurse declaring her name again for the benefit of the doctor. The man beside the vacant seat coughed. His face was red, laden with fat beneath a slack skin. His lips were moving and for a moment Mungo thought he was praying, but then realized he was rehearsing what he would say.

Mungo got himself a magazine from the table and flicked through it. It was a month since he had his last certificate, and his arm had improved dramatically since then because of Tess. He closed the magazine. What had Tess to do with it and where had that thought sprung from? He had worked very hard at building up the strength in his arm and he had done that because … of Tess. He put the ridiculous notion out of his mind and tried to imagine his interview, although maybe that wasn’t the right word. There would only be one view. He tried to work out the sums of entitlement he had talked about with Connie, and if his family would be worse off, but he couldn’t grapple with this. Very often the professionals didn’t know for sure.
His turn came and he sat before a man of late middle-age who seemed upset about something. Perhaps he had sciatica, or gout. Perhaps he hated his job. Mungo wanted this over with as soon as possible.
`I was at my doctor a month ago -‘

`Yes, I know.’ The doctor looked up from Mungo’s records, but Mungo was determined, although he didn’t want. his anger to show.

`I’ve been working really hard on it since, and it’s responded very well.’ Mungo knew that `responded’ was a good medical term since Aidan’s time in hospital. `Especially in the last week or so. You could say I’m fit in other words.’

The doctor, who had been reading throughout Mungo’s speech, looked up again, and stared at him.

`I could, but then again I might not. Take off your shirt.’

Mungo burned, but did as he was told, glancing at the nurse who had busied herself at a separate desk. After a brief examination, Mungo dressed, and the doctor ignored him as he wrote his report.

`Well? Am I fit for work?’

`You’ll hear in a week or two.’

Mungo shook his head in disbelief, but said nothing, unsure if he was expected to leave or not. He stood. The nurse rose and asked him how he had travelled into town. By bus, he said, and he received a voucher which he could cash in the front office for his return bus fare, and with it, a mildly satisfy-ing theft from the tormenting State, as he had walked in, and he would walk home.

Outside, he took a deep breath, and caressed his ill-got gains in an otherwise empty pocket. He had, perhaps, enough for two cups of tea and a shared bun, and, thinking this, he gave up denying that Tess had been at the back of his mind, that there was a possibility of meeting her in The Winding Stair, and that that was why he found himself walking there.

He spent a pleasant hour in the book-café, watching the crowds cross the Ha’penny Bridge, listening to the music and sipping tea long after it had gone cold. He had not bought a slice of fruit cake, in case she came after all. Then depression set in as he realized the futility of his vigil and he left, knowing that all he had to do was walk down the quay and knock on her door. But instead he walked home down Great and Little Strand Streets, Arran Street, Chancery Street, past the old, crumbling distillery into Smithfield. All the way, he was rehearsing the story he would spin for Tess when they next met. Half-way up Smithfield he noticed debris where the travellers’ caravans had been. At first he thought that they had dumped rubbish before moving on, but there was something about it that was odd. He went across to see for himself. All that was left of the caravan was a rectangular heap of ashes, an axle, and an aluminium chimney.

At home, Connie listened to his account of the morning in silence, but when he said he’d told the doctor he thought he was fit, she looked at him in exactly the same way as the doctor had.

`Are you a clown or what are you?’ she asked, the humiliation of their predicament now compounded. She put her head in her hands. `Oh what am I married to? Did no one ever tell you to keep your mouth shut in a situation like that? What am I saying? Didn’t I make myself hoarse telling you that last night?’ She looked up at him, her eyes bright with tears.

`Did no one ever tell you that sometimes you have to do the wrong thing for the right reasons?’ he retorted.

`What reasons?’ she shouted, knocking over a chair, as she ran upstairs to the bedroom. He heard the springs groan under her sudden weight, and then the sobs.

What reasons? It was a good question which he couldn’t really answer, except that it had given him strength of a kind. It was a decision, and he needed to make a decision. He poured himself a cup of water from the tap, afraid that his one decision would have to suffice for some time.

A short time later a decision was made for him. He was fit for work and should report to his local labour exchange. His arm felt weak again, but he didn’t dare mention this to Connie and suffered his fears alone as he walked through Stoneybatter and up to the Navan Road.

As it turned out, the woman at the new applicants hatch was courteous and efficient, tracking down stamps he had forgotten about on her computer, and adding them to the total, which would boost his income, if only for a few months. He completed the form and waited for the woman to come back. Already there was a queue behind him. He could sense the restlessness, the moving from foot to foot. To his left, a large, middle-aged policeman manned the staff door, bored but at ease. The woman returned, satisfied with the details, and he signed on. He wouldn’t get money until the following week. If he had difficulty, he should go to the supplementary welfare officer at his local Health Centre, who would tide him over. The clerk smiled. As he left, he glanced at the long queues he would be part of in a week’s time. There was a murmur from them like distant traffic.

At the bus stop he looked back at the dole office, which was built away from the road itself, behind a fence, maybe for security reasons, but it seemed as if it was in a field. He realized he was waiting for a bus, though he was within easy walking distance of home. A bus was coming at speed down the dual carriageway, and he checked if he still had change. He went upstairs, elated. Several people were smoking, although smoking was banned on buses, but a window was open and the air was fresh so Mungo didn’t mind. He was going to see her. What had got into him? He was going to see her, and the prospect made him feel alive.

He knocked loudly three times. No reply. He knocked again and was on the point of leaving when she opened the door, hair dishevelled and in her dressing-gown.

`O God – you!’ she said. `I thought you were the postman.’

His heart sank. He had been in dreamland. Now he was yanked back into the real world.

`Some parcel,’ she said.

`If you don’t want to see me I’ll go.’

She stood back and opened the door. `It’s just that I’m in a state. I’m not even dressed,’ she said, mounting the stairs ahead of him.

`Don’t mind me,’ he said. She stopped and looked back at him for a moment, but said nothing. This was awful, but here he was going ahead with it, like an idiot. What would they say to each other, for Christ’s sake, sipping tea across the table from one another? He thought of his story, but the problem was the lead into it. Jesus.
`What happened you last Sunday?’ They had reached the flat.

`Last Sunday?’

`Yes. Last Sunday night. You can think of a good excuse while I’m dressing.’
She disappeared into her bedroom. What could he say? One day was the same as the next to him, and he couldn’t remem-ber what happened the day before, never mind the previous Sunday, though now that he thought of it she had mentioned something about a film, something to do with the sky. He couldn’t have gone, and he was sure he didn’t agree to go, but how in the name of Christ could he have forgotten?
`So how are you anyway?’ she asked him as she emerged from the bedroom. She seemed relaxed, very pleasant, as if her clothes had transformed her. He was relieved.

`Fine. As a matter of fact, I’ve just been declared fit for work.’

`Is that so?’ She grinned. `Do you know anything about repairing a leaking roof?’

`A leaking roof? Where’s the problem?’

`Do you really know something about it?’

`We can have a look, anyway. It might be simple, and it might not.’

She showed him the tracks the water had left in her bath-room and kitchen. Though she had cleaned it away, a light fungus was growing again. He looked out her kitchen window and saw that there was a lean-to roof beneath it. Tess, he realized, was now serious, weighing up whether he could in fact help her or whether he was playing her along. He wondered about this himself, and tried to ignore the question of his arm, whether it would let him down in a dangerous situation on a roof.

`Well, let’s see what it’s like outside.’ He leaned out, twisting his head upwards. The gutter was a good distance up, so there was no question of standing on the sill to reach it. On the other hand, the lean-to roof would most likely support a ladder.

`You don’t have a periscope handy, do you?’ he asked, closing the window.

She grinned again.

`Mission impossible?’

`Well yeah – without a ladder, rope, hammer, roofing nails, probably a few slates and some flashing.’

`Oh. I have a ladder.’

She found the ladder in one of the vacant rooms. There was also a length of rope heaped in a corner. It was frayed in parts and probably unreliable, but he decided to try the ladder. He could see she was serious now and willing to believe he might be able to do it, and remembering he had a toolbox at home, long idle, he was beginning to believe it himself. They left their footprints in the dust of the room.

The ladder reached to just above the gutter, which was enough to let him clamber onto the roof, and the rope was long enough to lash the ladder to the gas pipe which ran below her window, which, hopefully, would stop it sliding down the lean-to.

One of several problems was that the bathroom was on one side and the kitchen on the other of the roof. Still, it was a narrow roof. He got out on the sill, and dropped gingerly onto the lean-to.

`Careful!’ she implored.

He licked his lips. He lashed the ladder to the gas pipe and climbed to the gutter, remembering that he had no head for heights. The things a woman could make a man do! The ladder gave a little, and he heard Tess asking him again to be careful, but the rope tautened and held. When he got to the roof there was no perceptible damage, but he guessed the flashing was at fault. He leaned across, guessing where it might be, and, sure enough, it had raised a little, enough to allow a stream of water into her kitchen. It was probably the same on the other side. A few nails and sealer. That’s all it needed, or so he hoped. The slates although probably old were in perfect condition. He was enjoying himself, and he looked into the clear blue sky and, with great satisfaction, took a deep breath.

He descended, untied the rope, and between them they got the ladder back in. Then she helped pull him inside. His arm was aching madly.

‘Well?’

‘If I can come back tomorrow with a few tools I think I can fix it. No promises, mind.’

She smiled and thanked him, put a kettle on the gas and told him to light the heater in the living-room. He warmed himself, surprised that he’d been so cold, and looked around the room. The clear light revealed the tattered details. Over the fine mantelpiece was a plastic sun, its jolly rays dancing around its circumference. He sat into the armchair, its springs protruding under the leatherette, and waited. He could hear no sound from the kitchen, and for a moment he imagined he was alone in the house. She was standing in front of the kettle, waiting for it to boil; or staring out the window, brooding; or putting off the moment when she would have to face him again. After a few minutes she pushed the door open with her foot, two cups on her left forefinger, a pot of tea in her right hand, a plastic bottle of milk held between her left arm and her breast.

`Do you take sugar?’

`No.’

`Good.’ She smiled quickly and he was relieved to see she was nervous. `I don’t have any…’

`About Sunday night … My wife’s parents were visiting.’

`That’s okay.’ She sipped her tea, eyes lowered. She had lovely eyes. He thought of a desert animal, eyelids spreading over the eye under the blast of the sun. The light made her seem peaceful, her skin pale and softened by departing youth. She looked up, blushed slightly at his gaze, which he quickly averted, before looking back at her again. His throat was dry. The side of her mouth quivered.

‘How’re your children?’

`Well.’ He shrugged. `The same as ever. And your boy?’

`Oh he’s fine.’ She lowered her eyes again, then looked up and smiled. Her eyes shone, and he noticed that her hand was open on the sofa, towards him. His heart pounded. He reached out and took her hand, gently, then turned it over and caressed it. Her breasts were lifting and falling. The smile was gone, completely, but her lips were slightly open. He reached forward, brushing them with his own, forgetting everything else. It was awkward like that, but he kissed her face, her closed eyes, before returning to her mouth. They moved closer, arms around each other, his fingers tracing her back-bone through her jumper. The tip of his tongue touched hers, the merest touch, the cool breath from her nostrils blowing against his light stubble. He put his hand under her jumper but she pushed it away.

`No,’ she whispered, `let’s go inside.’

Once in the bedroom they abandoned themselves to a deep kiss, standing fully clothed, their tongues bathing now in one mouth, now in the other’s. Gasping, she bared her neck to him. Shaken, he traced it with his fingertips, then holding her nape, he covered her neck with lingering kisses so that the lightest pink bloomed and faded as he moved across it. She pushed him away then, to undress, and she watched him follow suit. He supposed his face too was flushed with desire. He knew his body had moved into an automatic mode he had forgotten, his muscles jerking, yet in a primitive control, which gained him a different kind of movement, blood pummelling his head. As she straightened, naked, the fullness of her bush and the way her breasts bounced made him catch his breath, and she smiled nervously, turning slightly before pulling back the covers and, for a moment, as her right knee supported her as she climbed into bed, her stretched body seemed perfect, her buttocks curving fluidly into supple, graceful legs. He lay in sideways, pulling the bedclothes over them and falling in towards her, and they kissed urgently. He rolled over her, to her other side, so his good hand could caress her, and then found that he could rest his weak hand beneath her thighs, so that both his hands were exploring her, the weak one softly and slowly, the strong one quick and firm, until it slipped into her mound, moving lightly across her soft flesh.

This was something new to him and her moans surprised him at first, then encouraged him to be more daring until it seemed he had acquired a natural way to her, and his pleasure became commensurate with hers. More rapidly than he would have guessed, she was lost to him and, it seemed, to herself, aware only of the deep roll of sensation his fluent hands were feeding her. He lifted his cheek from her breast, and saw her ecstatic face, her teeth bared, her skin flushed, a sheen of sweat on her forehead. When his cock struck her thigh he faltered in his rhythm, aware of himself again, and his caresses became mechanical.

She opened her eyes, whispering, `Please, Mungo, please,’ and tried to pull him on top of her, but his stiffness was gone and he felt stranded. He closed his eyes tight, beginning again, the pad of his finger tentatively circling her hidden bud until her sighs, then groans, drew him out of himself once more. He worked patiently. Her hips were bucking now, she wanted it harder and harder, and when he slipped his finger to the knuckle into her, she cried out, her arms over her head in complete abandon. His muscles were, aching but to stop now would be cruel, and he drove his fingers faster and faster until she shouted and arched her back, pushing his hands violently away and closing her legs as she huddled into herself foetally. She was shaking, as if she had a chill, her legs jerking in spasm and her lips curled grotesquely as she gasped for breath. He was sweating profusely, hardly believing what had happened, his groin congested, his forearms aching, his heart in his mouth, witnessing this little death. He didn’t dare touch her in case he would intrude on her oblivion. Then suddenly, it seemed, she was calm, and he felt she was ready for him. He felt so tender towards her, moved her hair to one side and kissed the back of her neck, softly. She smiled, languorously turned and took him in her arms, running her fingers through his hair, holding him dose. His groin still ached, but he felt no desire, thinking that for the first time he had achieved a selflessness in love. He could even smile at his impotence.

When he opened his eyes, she was grinning at him.

`Old sleepy head. I must have worn you out.’

`Eh?’ Had he been sleeping? He had only closed his eyes for a few seconds. `You look refreshed yourself.’

`Oh yes.’ Her fingernail played around his nipple. `And what about you?’ she asked coyly.

`Me? I’m fine.’

`Are you sure?’

`Very.’ It wasn’t something he would confide to a man, but in the time they had left he was content to forego his own bucking and curses, happy to be with her now like this. It seemed to please her very much.

`Tell me,’ she said, running a finger along his cheekbone, `Whatever happened to you after you got to Madrid.’

`Madrid?’

`Yes, Madrid. You dodged the police by the skin of your teeth, remember? When you robbed the family when they were asleep?’

`I didn’t rob them. I gave them something to wonder about.’

`You robbed them, poor things.’

He grinned.

`I didn’t stay very long in Madrid. Too big and too busy. I liked the Metro though. It was old and it brought me to all sorts of ordinary, dull places. I like that, somehow. Of course I went to the Prado, to see the Goyas.
`I got the train that night from Chamartin to Barcelona. It was a nightmare, with so many packed onto it. There were hundreds of North Africans. When I got to my compartment there was a row going on between some North Africans and Spanish over a seat, and someone had called a Civil Guard, who was losing patience. I tried to ignore the argument, which in any case I could barely understand, looked at the seat number, saw that it matched my ticket, and proceeded to settle in. There was uproar. The other passengers looked at me anxiously, and it began to dawn on me that something might be wrong and I was at the centre of it. I looked up to see the Guard staring at me as he fended off the angry Africans. Then he stretched out his hand. “Billete.” No please or thank you – just billete. The train jerked, and was moving smoothly out of the station as he examined the fine details of my ticket, then matched it to the number above my head. “Muy bien,” he said abruptly, handing me back my ticket and closing the door almost in one movement. My fellow passengers heaved a collective sigh of relief.’

`They were shut of the rabble.’

`Exactly. One was a very proper, thin woman in her fifties or so, but lower middle class, or else she would have been on a more expensive train. She was obviously still recovering from the prospect of sharing the compartment with a Moroccan – her lips were trembling. When she had composed herself she spat it out:

“¡Moros sucios!” Filthy Moors …

`The Spaniards looked at each other as the Moroccans began to clap their hands in a slow but then faster and faster rhythm outside the compartment door. My heart was beating like a steam hammer, whether because of the rhythm or the infectious fear in the compartment, I couldn’t say. Your hatred of people you don’t know is a more pure hatred, I suppose, because it feeds on the fear that they’re capable of things you can only faintly imagine.’

Mungo paused for a moment and reflected. Tess raised herself expectantly on her elbow.

`But they were courteous and generous people. The older woman said that the Moros would rob them as they slept. She really feared them.’

`Ho ho! Little did she know who was in their midst!’ Tess said.

‘Naw. I’d no more Irish notes.’

`But your pockets were burning with hot pesetas, all the same.’

`Which of us is blameless? But I still felt that their hatred of the Moroccans should have been a hatred of me too, which doesn’t make sense, but I felt it all the same. After a while I fell asleep. It was stuffy in the compartment, with six bodies packed together. When I woke the lights were out. The sol-dier was in the corridor, smoking. It was four a.m. I needed to piss, I needed air and I needed a drink, so I got my water-bottle, strapped it to my belt, carefully stepped over legs and got outside quietly. The cold in the corridor was a shock. I hesitated, wondering whether to talk to the conscript, but he seemed deep in thought and unaware of my presence so I let him be. The corridor was full of men, most of them smoking, staring out into the darkness. The end of the carriage, at the toilets, was almost impassable, with Moroccans seated on the floor, their heads resting on their knees, packed together for mutual support and warmth. A few were dressed in the burnous, their hoods up, the others in European clothes with woollen caps. In the middle of them were two young women and a woman of late middle-age, all of them in black, and asleep. The toilet door was jammed open by the pressure of bodies, so I had no choice but to stretch my legs over a couple of sleeping men and piss in full view of whoever might wake or pass. No one did, that I noticed. When I got back out the older woman caught my attention as she stirred. They had blankets – richly coloured, I seem to remember, with a lovely blue pattern – but this, I thought, was no way for a woman of her age to travel such a long distance. It’s no way for anyone to travel, with the temperature so low, in a strange country. I turned and saw a man watching me. He was dressed in a burnous, but he seemed more suave and relaxed than his companions. We looked steadily at each other for a few moments, and then he nodded at the woman.

“That’s the woman the row was about last night,” he said, in English. Surprised, I looked at the woman again.

“What do you mean?”

“You were rather late taking your seat. Her sons were arguing that she should have it while it was vacant.”

“I see. Well tell her she can have it now. I didn’t realize what was happening.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. If you like, I’ll tell her sons in the morning, but it won’t make you very popular with los españoles. In any event, it’s your seat.”

`Perhaps it was the rocking of the train, or maybe she felt me watching her, but the woman opened her eyes just then, and they met mine. They were the sad, strong eyes of a woman who has seen everything, and she outgazed me.

“Tell her she can have it now.”

The Moroccan laughed. “Do you enjoy riots at four a.m.?”

“We can tell them she’s been ill.”

`The Moroccan shook his head, amused, but nevertheless lightly touched the shoulder of one of the woman’s sons, who was immediately alert, and said something to him. The woman caught my attention again, with her gaze and the faint trace of a smile, and I didn’t need to understand Arabic to know what the response would be. They had all obviously been dozing rather than sleeping and they were appraising me now. My friend smiled and said that the son thanked me but that his mother was comfortable where she was. I bowed, which is all one can do before dignity.’

“My name is Ahmed. Would you like some tea? Mint tea?” He pulled a flask from his bag, which was leather, and I wondered if he smiled in his sleep too. I smiled myself, and nodded. There was no question of sleep now, anyway, and I had never tasted mint tea. I told him my name in turn, and as we drank the delicious tea you’d think we had been friends for years. He asked me about Ireland, of course, but he didn’t go boom boom, and of course I asked him about Morocco. He was from the Atlas Mountains. I had thought it was all desert, but Morocco has everything. Sea, sun and snow.’

‘Mungo,’ Tess whispered. ‘Mungo, you’ll have to go now.’

`Eh?’ She had yanked him from a village in the Atlas Mountains to a bed in Dublin. `Oh, getting a bit boring there, was I?’

‘No, but I’ve to collect Arthur.’

`Oh yes. That must mean it’s time to collect my two.’

`It must. Will you come again soon?’

`Well, I’ve to fix your roof, haven’t I?’

She grinned and quickly got out of bed and dressed. He watched her, lazy and feeling good.

`Come on,’ she said, clasping her bra.

He walked to the school, early for once, so he took his time. He thought about the progress of the train story, how it seemed so natural to tell it to her. How would he finish it?

Children were streaming out of the school gates now, but no sign of his own. Mungo always stayed a little away from the gates, leaning back against a gable wall, partly out of laziness, partly out of discretion. He wasn’t sure if Aidan was at an age when he would be embarrassed to be met by his father at the school gate. Then Ethna skipped out and ran up to him, leaning in to but not hugging him. Maybe she was self-conscious too. Aidan took a while, coming out, Mungo was pleased to see, with a friend and stopping to talk to him.
`Tell Aidan to hurry up,’ Ethna demanded.

`Oh he won’t be long,’ Mungo said. Ethna leaned in to him again. He was prepared to wait as long as Aidan needed. The boys seemed impressively composed, as if discussing a topic in an adult way. Everything appeared so calm this afternoon. Mungo was glad to be alive. Aidan’s friend went in the other direction, and without greeting, apart from a light tip on Aidan’s shoulder, they walked slowly home.

Connie was in a good mood as well. Perhaps it was the fine weather. Or maybe it was because her mother had been nice to her on the phone, and was sending them a loan to tide them over the week. He had forgotten about the need for that. No wonder she thought he was a useless dreamer. Her cheerfulness irritated him. The radio blared, she sang out of time, for-getting the words as she drained the potatoes, engulfed in steam. He used to enjoy her at a time like this, but now it seemed that his happiness required her to be surly and hateful. She made him feel bad and he resented her, yet somehow he managed to conceal his state of mind and indulged Aidan and Ethna, who once they had their homework done never let him be, as if they sensed his tolerance and were eager to make the best of it. In a way it was to his advantage, as he didn’t have to face Connie; but then she looked on with approval and in all likelihood would look back on this evening as an example of when they were all happy together.

When the children were in bed, they watched television. Connie made them tea and she talked about the neighbours and things of little consequence to Mungo, but he feigned interest, asking questions and leading her away from anything serious. He was afraid, above all, that she would talk about living in Wexford. As a programme ended Connie gathered up the cups and plates and brought them to the kitchen. He could hear her rinse them and then there was silence. Perhaps she was looking at the back of his head which he knew was visible over the sofa. Maybe, he thought with a twinge of panic, she suspects what happened. Had she found a woman’s stray hair, could she smell the trace of a woman on his body, or on his clothes? He stiffened as her arms came about his neck and she kissed the top of his head.

`I’m going to bed,’ she said.

`Okay. I’ll be up soon,’ he heard himself say in an even voice. She left, and he stared at the television without taking anything in. Why now? Jesus Christ, why now? He had been desolate for so long, and now two women wanted him. There was so much hurt involved with Connie, on both sides, yet she, it seemed, had forgiven him, still thought of him as her husband, however flawed. Maybe she was more mature. He had always believed in one man, one woman, but now he had discovered magic, and he wanted it. He knew Connie was waiting for him, but he stayed watching a stupid programme. All he had to do was go upstairs and fuck her, and everything would be fine, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He stayed more than an hour, until the National Anthem played and the colour card came on the screen.

The bedlamp was still on when he went up, and she was lying away from his side, her eyes closed, but he knew she wasn’t asleep. Connie was a proud woman and would only wait so long. He stripped quickly and got into bed, noting she had her usual nightie on, and switched off the lamp. His guess was that while she had waited for him, she was naked, but now, in the silence of her head she was calling him all the foul names a woman can think of for a man. He was tense until he knew she was asleep, and he could think over an extraordinary, sensual day.
It was one or two in the morning and he was wide awake. Connie moaned and turned, and he waited anxiously while her breath returned to an even rhythm. He looked towards her in the darkness, this complex woman, who he knew so well, and yet she had become a stranger to him. Even if he had hurt her tonight, and he knew he had, his resentment was now dis-placed by sympathy, or tenderness, or both. She had a point of view, conflicting emotions, bewilderment, just as he had, and for a moment he was tempted to wake her, though he knew it was ludicrous, and take her in his arms, but even as he wanted this, he knew he would go to Tess in the morning and make love to her.

Tears. At two in the morning. He held them back, swallow-ing hard, and even as he did so, yawned. He had a piss and carefully got back into bed. Connie grunted as the mattress took his weight, but did not wake.
When he got back from leaving the children to school, Connie was out. They had barely spoken at breakfast and he knew she was avoiding him now. Unreasonably, this irritated him, but what else could he expect, and he knew he would have been irritated no matter what she did or said. He found his toolbox, selected a hammer and screwdriver, wrapped them in a cloth and put them in a plastic bag. His heart and the back of his head were pounding, as if he was about to commit a murder, and, yes, he was killing off something, he knew that, however dimly.

He walked to Capel Street and bought a tube of sealer and some roofing nails. The nearer he got to Tess’s place, the more remote Connie and his problems with her seemed.

Tess was in the same dressing-gown, dishevelled and mildly surprised, but this time she smiled.

`I’ve come to fix your roof,’ he said, holding up the bag.

`I see.’ She said nothing as they went upstairs, but turned a few times to glance at him. `I’ll get dressed,’ she said, closing the door behind them.

By the time she was dressed, he had the ladder on the lean-to, and was lashing it to the gas pipe that ran along the wall. She leaned out the window and held onto the ladder in a token gesture. She had to stretch out so far that if the ladder slipped she would be forced to let go.

He was confident until he climbed onto the roof, but once there he was scared. Splayed onto the slates, he didn’t dare move.

`Are you okay?’ Tess called.

`Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine …’ He was going to have to move. The only problem was that he didn’t know how. If a slate came away he was in trouble. He edged his way up by using the sidewall of the adjoining house as a reliable edge, and one foot on the top of the ladder as a lever. The ladder gave a frac-tion, but held. It was then he realized he needed crawling boards. He didn’t have far to go, and in fact could reach it, but he needed that extra few inches to work, and those inches caused him much sweat. He felt underneath the raised flash-ing and found what he hoped was an undamaged slate nailed to a batten. He pressed the flashing down and drove home the nails. He hesitated, waiting for some disaster, then sealed it. Now he had to get down, move the ladder to the other side and repeat the process. What should have taken a few minutes took almost an hour.

`If I’d had crawling boards,’ he said as they got the ladder in the window, `it could have been done in no time. But it should be okay now.’ He wasn’t sure about that, but she was pleased and that was enough for now.
It was good to feel useful again, to have his labour and risk acknowledged. She made tea, and he forgot his weariness.

She asked him to tell her about the farm and his childhood there. He was surprised by that, and very slowly he told her the simple memories he had of growing up on a hillside farm. He was telling her about how he had discovered his father had been a Desert Rat when she kissed his neck. Arms around each other, they went into her bedroom and made unhurried love. Instead of feeling driven, he felt light, at ease, able to let his pleasure flow through him like a warm stream. They could stop, kiss, caress, as if it was all part of the rhythm they had struck, before continuing. He could hardly believe it was happening, yet beneath him was a woman who he seemed to understand; everything he did with her, said to her, was right. A burden had lifted from him and had gone far away, as if it had never weighed on his body, or kept his feet too heavily on the ground.
Afterwards, as they lay together, still sweaty and dazed, this thought was still with him and he was grateful. He opened his eyes, and brushed away hair which had fallen over her face. A faint smile acknowledged him. She looked … purified, light, at peace. He looked at her greedily, wanting to remember everything, then wondered if he would look the same to her. He had felt like that until he began to think of it. He closed his eyes again, sinking back into a blessed darkness.

‘Mungo?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Mungo, what ever happened that man in Morocco?’

`Morocco?’ He was immediately alert, his brain searching for the thread. `Oh you mean the man on the train.’

`The train? Yes, he was talking about Morocco, but he was on the train. He went to Barcelona, with you.’
`That’s right. Well, there was no point in trying to sleep, so we talked till dawn. There was a fog, but here and there it had lifted and you could see we were on a plain – a plateau, I think you’d say about these parts.’
He was playing for time, delving into an empty bag, but then, as the train slowed, he remembered what had happened and wondered how he could ever have forgotten.

‘Ahmed yawned. There was no sign of a town, but the train slowed, and then stopped, it seemed, in the middle of nowhere. Ahmed pulled down the window and looked out. He was silent for a moment and then he started laughing. “See for yourself,” he said. I looked out and for a moment I was puzzled. There was no station, only a short platform. Bey-ond that, nothing, except a small tree, little more than a sap-ling, about a hundred metres away. Then Ahmed tapped me on the shoulder.

“Excuse me Mungo,” he said with a mischievous grin, “but I need to crap, and that tree over there is as good a place as any, don’t you think?”‘

Tess laughed, and cuddled in closer to him.

`Now the tree was no thicker than my arm, and of course I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. He got off the train, winked, walked to the tree, went behind it and disappeared.’

`What? You chancer!’ She exclaimed, slapping him on his bare shoulder.

`It’s true, I tell you! He disappeared – all you could see was this skinny tree. And I wasn’t the only one to notice. You could hear people shouting and people were pulling down windows because they didn’t believe their eyes, shouting about this guy who had evaporated into thin air. Some even got off the train, but they didn’t go to the tree. They argued in groups, waving their arms all over the place, and shouting. I looked out the window again. People were leaning out of win-dows or getting off all along the train. On the platform, an official in uniform had sacks of mail on a trolley, but he too had stopped to look at the tree. Everyone was waiting and I think the driver was waiting too. The arguments stopped, replaced by a tremendous silence. I began to wonder if he had fallen into a hole behind the tree, but then, as if the breadth of the tree could in fact have hidden him, Ahmed stepped from behind it, zipping up the jeans which he wore beneath his burnous. Oddly enough, there still wasn’t a sound as he came back to the train, but he was grinning from ear to ear. A path opened up in a group to let him pass, and as he boarded, the train jerked and moved off. The men below it seemed in no hurry to board, as if they knew it would take some time to pick up speed, and they all stared at Ahmed as they got on; but, oblivious, he continued to gaze at the tree with a tranquil smile. When we were cruising, he turned to me, still smiling.

“How did you do that, Ahmed?” I asked it very quietly.

“When you have little shelter, you must make the most of it,” he replied, and that was all he would say.’

‘Hmm!’

He threw back his head and laughed, and she hmmed again. `And what about you? You left off your memoirs of Berlin some time ago, didn’t you?’

`They’ll have to wait for another time,’ she said. `Next time?’

`All right. Next time. We’d better go now. We’ve children to collect, remember?’

`Yes, so we have.’

The Fabulists :: Chapter 10

The weather remained broken and Mungo stayed indoors, haunted by the memory reflected in the rain as it trickled down the window. To have lived to find himself in that furnace of passion and abandon was a revelation of what life could after all hold. It would never happen quite like that again, if only because he now knew it existed. Perhaps it could happen in another way, shock him to the core, change him all over again; but he refused to hope for that; it was asking too much.

If it would happen with anyone it would be with Tess. Yet if he had known her ten or fifteen or even five years before, it would not have happened. They each had to go through their seemingly barren lives to reach the point where they could be like that. And, he consoled himself, even if he could have waited unattached and free it still would not have happened: they both had to go through marriage, children, the death of love.

How alive, he wondered, had their loves been, even in the beginning? He had perhaps not been very much alive himself. He was twenty-four when he met Connie, she a year younger. He had spotted her as she danced with a big countryman twice her age in the Irish Club in Parnell Square. It was quite possible that she had cast her eye on him first. In any event, it was soon clear that they fancied each other, and after two weeks, having overcome a token resistance, she convinced him he had seduced her. After a night of energetic tussle, there was no turning back. It was still like that: energetic, blind, craving for oblivion, and what came between was accidental and a means to an end. And then, long spells when they were strangers to each other. He had noticed it first after Aidan was born. The pattern had begun to establish itself then, he realized, and not after Aidan’s accident. Perhaps if things had not gone so smoothly in the beginning, it might have been different. They might have been able to gauge their real need of one another, got to know each other, or parted. It was his fault. He had drifted on the ebb tide. He had felt it was time for marriage, and Connie was there. No doubt her reasoning had been the same. He liked her body, he still did. It was the main reason he still had sex with her, however rarely; and now he liked the comfort of his home, the backdrop of security for his children. And when the children were gone, he would settle for his own comfort. Was that it?

He longed for a cigarette or a drink. All this reflection was too painful to take neat. And yet he welcomed it; what had been blurred for years was now as clear as a formula. He wondered if Connie had seen this a long time ago, but had just given in and retreated to her bed, television and the Sunday night drink with the girls. Maybe she kept going for the sake of the children. She was a good woman, and he felt a sympathy with her. He couldn’t be easy to live with, but something beyond being tied to him had died in her. Perhaps it was only the flush of youth which had given the impression that it had ever lived. He wished for things to be different, to roll back the years and build a bridge between them with what he was aware of now. But he knew it was too late, and it was impossible to change someone anyway. And yet … and yet … He was different with Tess, a different man to the one he had always known himself to be. The question was: did he want to take the leap into that way of being himself? Would Tess have him, once she became stronger, as he believed was happening, even if this was because of him? Could he give up being a father to his children, which had given his life any meaning it might have had until now? Perhaps on this point he could come to an arrangement, like Tess had with her son, but Connie was a proud woman in spite of everything and he felt sure she would use the children as a stick to punish him.

And yet, what did he know of Tess? Only what he knew through the tall tales she had told, and the tall tales he had told her. How strange.

The rain had cleared without him noticing, and now a band of blue sky lay between the rooftops and the lightened cloud. Connie came, laden with shopping, and proceeded to put it away. Somehow, she had avoided getting wet, though she had no umbrella.

`You realize the children get their holidays tomorrow,’ she said.

`Thanks for reminding me.’

`Have you spoken with your mother about them going down?’

`No, not yet.’ His heart sank. He would be expected to go too, along with Connie, to be a family, as a dry run before settling there.

`Tell her I’ll go down later in the month,’ Connie said, as if she had steeled herself.

`Alright.’

`I got a letter from Mammy this morning. Daddy isn’t well, so I thought maybe I’d go up for a few weeks.’ `What happened him?’

`Took a weak turn. I don’t suppose it’s serious but you never know.’

`No. I’ll ring Mother today, then.’

Connie went into the kitchen. So the die was cast and he was trapped. The possibility of an alternative life was falling away. Was he relieved? Yes, a part of him was, that lead in his bones and blood; but mostly he felt defeat, as if the events of his life had conspired against him for so long that he needed an anger and energy he could not find to throw them off. Yet, he found that it hurt him, and in that were the seeds of an anger that might one day liberate him. It was now very clammy and he needed to get out in the open.

`I’m going to take a walk as far as the GPO to ring, alright?’ he called.

`The GPO?’ Connie called back.

`Well, it looks like clearing. Anyway, I need some air.’

He walked by way of the cobblestones of Smithfield Market. Peace at last. Dressed in tee-shirt, jeans and runners, he exulted in his freedom in the hot sunshine that had broken through, so that for a time he found it easy to keep his predicament at bay. Halfway down, he saw that a broken mains near Queen Street had become a fountain, unnoticed, it seemed, by anyone except himself. He walked up to it, enchanted by the sparkling drops of water caught by the sun, as if each drop was a teeming world intensely alive for a moment before falling back into the gushing universe. Enjoying the cool air and the boyish novelty, he was tempted to walk through it; but no, he thought, let it be what it is. He walked away, but then he heard a Volkswagen van slowing, and he turned to see the driver and his woman companion grinning as they rolled up the windows and drove very slowly over the fountain. Now it was something else, but no matter, and Mungo grinned too. The van circled and this time a side of the van was simultaneously washed and cooled. They came a third time, laughing and conscious of Mungo observing them, and washed the other side of their van. They circled again, but this time they stopped, looking at Mungo and laughing. The driver nodded towards Mungo and then to the fountain, and Mungo looked from the couple to the fountain again, and on impulse he leaped to their suggestion and ran through the fountain, which almost knocked him out of his stride, and despite his run, drenched him. He turned to face the other two, grinning and breathless, and noticed that the young woman had stopped laughing, though her mouth was open, as if she was impressed or moved by what he had done. Then she decided to do the same and without hesitation got out of the van and flung herself through the fountain, stumbling as she passed through it but at the last moment staying upright. She turned in triumph to face her companion, and taken by surprise, it was a few moments before he took up her unspoken challenge and imitated her with a whoop. He jumped through it with such vigour that he ran on, and in those few seconds the woman turned and looked straight into Mungo’s eyes.

He saw at a glance that her breasts showed through her drenched shirt, and that she in her turn looked frankly at how his clothes clung to his body. But then the moment was gone and in the instant her companion turned, she turned to him. His lips twisted into a leer, and then he advanced towards her, and though her back was turned to Mungo he could see her shoulders rising and falling, and she spread her feet slightly, as if to brace herself- her jeans, Mungo noticed, clinging to her; and when her companion reached her, they kissed passionately.

Mungo turned away and hurried, walking as fast as he could, until he reached the fruit and vegetable markets where, although it was mid-afternoon, the fork lifts were still busy. Along Mary’s Lane, past the aroma of The Pastry Bakery, it suddenly came to him: there were obligations he had to fulfill; there was a space to be cleared, and then in turn, and then, he would be free. That’s what he wanted to say to Tess. That was her position too, with her son. They were both in the same boat, and he hurried along Capel Street to the quays, bursting to tell her.
Even as he pressed her bell, he knew she was gone to collect Arthur. His clothes were almost dry, though his runners still squelched, and he realized that he had attracted glances, but he didn’t care any more what people might think, and took off his runners and went barefoot, airing them as he walked.

In the GPO, the phone rang for a minute or so before his mother replied. He persisted because he knew she’d be about the yard somewhere, and also because the GPO was a long way to walk to without an answer. He felt neutral, somehow beyond what was inevitably unfolding.

`Well.’

`The children are off school now. We were thinking of going down at the weekend.’

`You could have told me.’

`Well …’

`And what about you?’

`I’ll put them on the train-‘

`What? and leave me-‘

`I’m rising you. I’ll be with them.’

`You never grew up, Mungo, you know that.’ He knew it well, she’d been telling him for twenty years.

`And what about Connie?’

‘Connie’s father’s not well. She’ll be down in a few weeks – we’re staying a few weeks, if that’s all right.’ There was a brief silence. Mungo knew that it was a moment of something more than satisfaction for her, which now that the die was cast he felt generous enough to concede.

`What do you mean – a few weeks? You’ll stay for the children’s holidays at least.’ It was both plea and command.

`We’ll see.’

`Tell Connie she’ll have the run of the house.’

It had cost her a lot to say that, but she was nothing if not a realist.

`Fine, I’ll tell her that.’

`Friday afternoon?’

`Friday evening. There’s a few things to be seen to.’

Like, he thought, his eyes closed – like seeing Tess for maybe the last time.

Somehow he got through the rest of the day, caught up in the children’s excitement and the practical details of organizing the holiday. It took him a long time to sleep. There was so much to do, according to Connie’s schedule, that he would have no chance to see Tess. He would have to write to her, and he only vaguely knew her address. In fact there was no getting around it: he knew where she lived, but he had no idea of her house number. He didn’t care about himself any more, only for Tess, who he had no choice but to abandon, when, he remembered with longing, her story was only half told. His too, but he would have to find a way for her to tell hers; he owed her that. And his story? It was stalled somewhere on the rail tracks between Zaragoza and Barcelona. Soon he would see the Mediterranean again and they would arrive in – what was the name of the station? Perhaps he could find it in the library in Gorey, but the name was only a detail, and he wouldn’t know what it was, never mind being able to tell it, without her in front of him, listening to every detail, making sure it was true. His lips opened to tenderly kiss her ghost.

`You look wrecked,’ Connie said at the breakfast table, after the children had bounced away. Already they were arguing in the yard.

`Didn’t sleep very well.’ He looked at her directly. `I’m not looking forward to this.’

`To Wexford? Well,’ she said rising to clear the dishes, `neither am L’ She paused for effect. `But your mother has made the effort and so should we.’

He smiled. `You’ve really got your sights on the farm, haven’t you?’

`Haven’t you?’ She hadn’t taken offence. They were very matter-of-fact.

`No. I don’t want it at all. If my mother died in the morning – and she’ll live for the next forty years, by the way – or if she signed it over to us, my family would have their hand out for their share, and who would blame them? And the value of land on paper is always more than it’s likely to produce in a lifetime.’

`We can sell this house, you know. We don’t lack capital.’

`Capital?’ He stared at her as she cleared the table, realizing that she was a business woman who would come to life if she got half a chance. Whereas he was a dreamer who would never do anything, his only value to her being as a means to an end, and an indulgent if wayward father to her children. He could see she was animated by her long-term scheme. No doubt she was seething with ideas. No doubt she could make the farm pay its way, and debts would be cleared, treated as a challenge. Of course he knew the basics, even if he had tried to forget.
She would use his knowledge until she was proficient herself. The children and their inheritance: that was the justification. He could only admire her.

`Here,’ she said. `Check this list and make sure I’ve thought of everything.’

`Wellingtons,’ he said, glancing through it.

`What?’

`Wellingtons. I’m okay, there’s boots down there for me, but the children need wellingtons.’

`Well now, aren’t you great?’ she said, seeing how pleased he was.

`There’s been a lot of rain of late. They’ll be up to their shins in muck.’ He was grinning now.

`How would I cope without you,’ she said, taking money from her purse and handing it to him. `Sure you’re great altogether.’

`It’s what marriage is all about.’

`Don’t start me.’ She scribbled a note. `Here, you can never remember what size they take. And don’t be all day. I need some help.’

With one bound he was free. The phrase came back to him as he closed the door behind him. From some comic he had read as a child, no doubt, like Dash it, old chap! and Achtung! and Schweinhund! and Himmel! and For he’s a jolly good fellow! and Tallyho! He could have used them all at various moments over the last twenty-four hours.

The fountain in Smithfield had been stemmed. He avoided the markets by opting for Chancery Street and cutting down by Ormond Square onto the quays. Small children were play-ing on the swings and slides in Ormond Square, their play-ground bordered by cherry trees whose blossoms had long since blown over the surrounding houses in the spring winds. The children’s voices filled the square. Mothers sat with babies in prams, chatting, sunning themselves.

For once, Mungo welcomed the heavy traffic on the quays. By the following day he would miss it, but for now his only prayer was that Tess would be in. It was still early, she might not even be up. He rang the bell. Forty-two. That was her number. Forty-two, forty-two. He rang again. Forty-two.

She opened the door in a tee-shirt and skirt, obviously just out of bed, but she smiled and gave him her cheek to kiss.

`You’re lucky,’ she said. `I wasn’t going to answer but I looked out the window and saw you.’

`Thanks,’ he said quietly.

`You look very subdued. Are you okay?’

`Let’s go up.’

She looked at him but said nothing and led him upstairs. He could see she was preparing herself for the worst, and he wondered what in fact he would tell her. For the first time he noticed hair on her legs, and once more, maybe for the last time, he drank in the curves of her body through her light clothing. She seemed so vulnerable, balanced between youth and the attrition of age, and he wanted to say something stupid like, `I’ll love you anyway, even if you lose your figure.’

`Tea?’

`Please.’ He closed the door behind him as she disappeared into the kitchen, grateful, he supposed, for the respite in which she could steel herself and save her dignity, if nothing else.

They drank in silence, each looking at the other, desire hemmed in by caution.

`You don’t want to see me any more, do you?’

The question hung in the air.

`I won’t be able to see you for a few weeks. That’s why I came yesterday, and this morning, to tell you. And even then, if you still want to see me, there will be intervals of weeks.’

That was it. He had said what he had to say, in more or less the way he wanted to say it. By some magic her presence lent him a fluency, he who in other company rarely spoke more than a few words at a time.

`May I ask why?’ There was no recrimination or drama, only a hint of loss. His estimation of her went up another notch; but now that he had to answer her inevitable question, he feared that he would descend in hers.

`I’ve let myself … be persuaded by two women, my mother and my wife, that as I’m not gainfully employed here, I should help out on the farm in Wexford, which I am led to expect will be passed on to me. My children love it there … and their grandmother adores them … and so I tell myself I’m doing it for them.’

`You don’t love it there.’

`No.’

Their eyes met and he reached out and lightly touched her cheek. She closed her eyes and pressed her cheek against his hand, and it seemed to him that she was taking the last deli-cate ounce of their time together, when she could have done otherwise without blame.

`The things we do for our children,’ she whispered. `Our one constant love.’

His hand moved across her face, and she dragged her lips against his fingers, then pushed back her head, exposing her neck to his kisses. He was powerless to hurry, even if he had wanted to, but he didn’t care about the clock. This was their time together, which lapsed under its own rules.

After they had made love, they lay together for some time. Then she sniffed.

`We stink. You better wash if you’re going back to your wife, not to mention your mother.’

He laughed, but it was a pained laugh.

`What time is it?’

She leaned across him to check the clock.

`Twenty past one. I’ll have to go soon. I’ve to collect Arthur from Brian’s parents. Shunt him over to my parents. They all want a piece of him. Then he’ll be with me for the summer.’

She grinned.

`Maybe we could go down to Wexford!’ He lifted himself onto his elbow, suddenly alert.

`Silly! I can’t afford a holiday in Wexford or anywhere else.’

`Oh. What a pity.’

`Come on, get up.’

`Yeah. Suppose we better.’

She didn’t move and he felt her watch him as he dressed and wondered if she took pleasure from it, or if she merely saw that he too had lost his youthful sleekness. It embarrassed him a little to be observed like this, but he wasn’t slow to do the same to her. Fair enough. He had his trousers on, and he pulled his shirt over his head. There was nothing further to see, or so he thought.

`I can’t say whether I’ll be here when you come back, Mungo.’ He turned. `There’s no knowing what might happen between now and then.’

`I know.’

She turned away to dress, and certain this was the last time he would see her like this, he stared at her, trying to burn the details of her body into his memory.

`You’ve given me back my appetite for sex,’ she said, still turned away. `I don’t think I’d be able to last without it now.’

He didn’t reply. How could she say a thing like that, when she was still hot from his body? She was still dressing, slowly, her back turned to him, tense and silent. He was shaking, unable to handle this. Then the anger came and he made to leave, not caring if he ever saw her again. Furious, he turned at the door to say what he thought of her – but her back was still turned to him. So be it. He left, leaving the doors open behind him, slamming the front door closed.

He bought the wellingtons in Henry Street without any hesitation and strode home, throwing them on the table.

`Oh you’re back!’ Connie called from upstairs, her voice laden with sarcasm.

`Look,’ he shouted up the stairs. `I’ve got the wellingtons and I’m going to fucking Wexford. Is there anything else I can do for you, like drowning myself or something like that?’

He fumed, waiting for the retort which didn’t come. Ethna came in from the street and he glared at her, but she was oblivious and danced up to him.

`Hallo Daddy,’ she sang, and he relented.

`Hello pet,’ he said, holding her. Content, she danced away again.

`There’s still some hot water for a shower if you want one,’ Connie called. He caught her conciliatory tone and assented, remembering, as that bitch had put it, that he stank. Connie was standing at the door of the children’s bedroom, a bundle of Ethna’s pants in her hand.

`What’s got into you?’ she asked quietly.

`I’m going to Wexford,’ he said with perfect truth, `but I don’t have to like it, do I?’ and he closed the bathroom door for a respite. As he washed his hair, the water ran cold.

On the train, the children had settled by Bray. Once again, he had made sure they looked up from their comics to see the curve of Killiney Bay as the train slowed on the single track beneath the overhanging rock at the edge of the cliff. Below, there were families dotted about the beach, a few swimmers by the shore, a few small boats easing their way through the tranquil water. Again, Aidan and Ethna were silent while the view lasted, then returned to their comics without comment. Mungo wondered if it affected them at all.

It affected him. It calmed him, and he saw that he had been foolish. If he was deserting her, which he was, then she had every right to feel like that, to say it, to wound him with it, even. He’d write to her from Gorey. That was all he could do now. That the loss was not inevitable, that it was his choice in the end, made it very painful.

`Did we bring paper and envelopes to write to Mammy?’ he asked Aidan.

`I have them in my bag.’

`Did we remember stamps?’

Aidan made a face.

`Never mind, we’ll stop off in Gorey and get some.’

Mungo, he thought, necessity is making you devious.

Thinking back over the day, he realized that his anger had surprised Connie. It was the first time he had shown anger since Aidan’s accident and it had stopped her in her tracks. She had even kissed him good-bye at the station, for Christ’s sake – to the amused approval of the children – and had deferred to him all afternoon. Could it be that she approved? He thought about that for a moment and dismissed it. She was humouring him, afraid he might upset the apple-cart.

They were now below Greystones, travelling at speed between the long stretch of narrow beach to the east, and the moorland and mountains to the west. The anger, the assertion had felt good, had given him back a feeling of his strength, of his right to say what he needed and what was detrimental to those needs. He would say it – he would make it plain, and if Connie really wanted that Godforsaken land, she would have to meet him halfway or lose everything. By Arklow, he was looking forward to the summer. Perhaps it would be a season of discovery.
In Gorey, he took the wheel.

`But I’m not insured,’ his mother protested.

`Well, we’ll have to get insured.’ And he drove to the post office.

‘Why are we stopping?’ she demanded.

`Because we need stamps to write to Mammy, don’t we children?’

`Yes,’ they chorused.

`But I have stamps at home!’

`Oh we can’t sponge off Granny! We have to get our own, don’t we?’ This time only Ethna agreed. Aidan was looking at his grandmother, who was looking at Mungo as if she sensed he was crazy.

`Can I come? I want to come!’ Ethna shouted.

`No no, stay there with Granny. I won’t be a minute.’

He bought a dozen stamps and a mail letter in the post office.

`Dear Tess, I acted like a small boy, as you will have noticed. Naturally you’ve a right to look somewhere else – why wouldn’t you. If you’re still around, I would be very glad to see you the next time I’m in Dublin. I want to hear the rest of your story and I’d like you to hear mine – we can’t finish until that happens can we? I miss you. Mungo.’

`There you are,’ he said, turning to the children as he sat into the car. `Three stamps for you, Ethna, and three for you, Aidan – that should be enough, shouldn’t it?’

Mrs Kavanagh fretted about the insurance and his bad driving until they reached home. Bowing to the inevitable, she arranged the insurance the following day.

They settled into a routine, and Mungo revelled in clearing the backlog of work. In the evenings he walked to neighbours’ houses to renew old acquaintances. Some of them called during the day. He ventured farther afield in the car, bringing his mother if she let herself be persuaded, but always taking the children so they would know the haunts of his own child-hood and youth. To his gratification, they loved this. At night he was so tired he fell asleep immediately, knowing he was leaving no space to think.

His mother checked everything he did, but it didn’t bother him. He knew she wasn’t going to change now. How Connie would take it was another matter. Yet as he watched her, unknown to her, checking on him, he saw her vitality was ebbing, and for a stomach-turning instant he imagined a shadow walking beside her; that her energy was flowing, little by little, into this shadow. It was the first time he realized she was mortal, yet she was still vigorous enough to drive herself to Mass every morning.

The postman came with letters for the children from Connie. In Aidan’s there was a note for Mungo. Her father was recovering well, and she would be down soon, would ring from Dublin. Love, Connie.

She came few days later, and to his surprise and admiration, she settled well. His mother too, seemed to have thought matters out, and their relationship worked from the beginning, despite the antagonism which had not always been disguised since Mungo had introduced them. Both women had been wary even before that, he remembered.

Now, it seemed, they were in league against him. He was amused, until he overheard them talking about him one morning, when his mother thought he had gone to check the sheep. They were washing and drying the dishes.

`You like it here, don’t you Connie?’

`Aye, it’s great, Granny. The children adore it.’

`Well, the city is no place to rear children.’

`No, it isn’t really …

‘You know I’ve left the place to Mungo in my will.’

`No … no, I didn’t know that …’

`Well I have. And if ye were to come, to live – not just a holiday – to live, then I’d sign it over, on the spot.’

`God … that’s very good of you.’

`Well Connie, I’m getting old. Maybe I am old. Anyhow, I can’t really manage any more, and it’s lovely around here. You’d have the run of the place, Connie, there’s no question about that. The house is big enough, God knows, and I could have a little flat to myself. So what do you think?’

`It sounds wonderful. It really does.’

`Well would you talk to that son of mine. Sometimes I think he’s away in the clouds. Anyhow, he doesn’t listen to his mother.’

‘Ach, he loves it here as much as the rest of us, Granny. He just likes to be coaxed into doing what he wants. Sure all men are the same.’

`You’ll see to it then?’

`Don’t worry. I’ll talk to him.’

`It’d be a great weight off my mind, I can tell you.’

Mungo left to count the sheep, bringing the dog who, without a word from him, rounded them up into a corner. He couldn’t remember if it was easier to count them like this, bunched together, or scattered, but he counted them three times and came to the same tally. The air was heavy and it hurt his eyes to look at the clouds, so laden with rain that they almost glowed. Halfway up the hill it came, and he took shelter under the big oak in the middle of the field. Within seconds the rain covered the hills and valleys in great squalls which fascinated him. The stream would flood; a good time for fishing.

So all men were the same? Somehow he didn’t think so. There was a time when he had thought all women were the same. Now he knew it wasn’t true. Tess was very different to Connie, and although they shared traits, Connie was different to his mother. He could say with a degree of certainty that he was different from the man he had been, and that neither Connie nor his mother had noticed, or if they had, they had put it down to male pride. Pride had nothing to do with it. For one thing, the man they thought he was did not follow strange women. He laughed out loud, relishing the freedom to do so, surrounded by rain and the large field.

The rain lasted several days, and while the children played in the outhouses and the hay barn, they were about the house a lot and there was tension between the women, which Ethna finally broke by cutting her hand. Aidan looked on guiltily while Connie tried to stem the blood and Ethna screamed, but Mungo said nothing. The cut required two stitches and Ethna settled into being the focus of attention, her mother and grandmother outdoing each other to spoil her. When the weather cleared, Mungo brought Aidan to see the stream at the bottom of the big grass field, telling him on the way that the big oak, alone on a mound in the centre, was a fairy tree. All such trees were fairy trees, he said. Aidan was cynical, laughing at his father. He was too old to believe in fairy tales. Mungo tried to tell him that this was a different matter; this was a part of the land he was standing on, and which, perhaps, he would one day own. But Aidan wasn’t fooled, leaving Mungo unaccountably sad. He cheered again when Aidan responded to stories about how Mungo and his brothers and sisters had played in and fished the clear stream; and they crossed the footstick, though the stream was only a few inches deep now that the flood had subsided, and explored the scrub where Mungo had set snares. This fascinated his son: the tracks, the burrows, the droppings, they were all still there, as Mungo remembered them.

Later, they rolled over the heavy bales of hay to air them. Mungo explained that when he was a boy, hay was cut with a mower in rows, its scent filling the air like perfume; then as it browned in the sun it was turned with either a hay fork or machine, before being gathered into cocks. Now most farmers seemed to favour silage; at least here, the hay was still made, in whatever way. There was much he had to tell the children. There was even more he had to remember and learn.

In Gorey, he bought a card which showed scenes from the town.

`Dear Tess, my train has broken down outside Barcelona, stuck there until I see you, which I hope will be soon. I miss you. Mungo.’

He had to go to Dublin soon. There was at least one excuse: to check the house. Maybe Connie would want to hand it over to an estate agent. He didn’t want that to happen. Despite the disasters and unhappiness, he loved that house. It was his base and springboard. His children were conceived there, and there had been happy times, which seemed now to outweigh the unhappy ones. He supposed that for Connie, Aidan’s accident was synonymous with it.

But the days passed, and neither broached the subject.

The following Saturday morning he was checking the sheep when he heard Aidan shouting, panic-stricken, and running towards him as fast as he could. Granny had fainted, he was shouting, Mammy said he was to come quick! Mungo ran up the hill, and Aidan turned and ran ahead.

His mother was dead. She had collapsed at the foot of the stairs and Connie had done all she knew to revive her, a doctor and a priest were on their way; but she was dead. Mungo stared at her, unable to believe it. The children were crying, afraid, knowing something beyond their ken had happened.

`Here, help me get her up to the bed.’ Connie said.

Then she remembered the children.

`Hush,’ she whispered, hugging them to her. `Hush, hush, it’s alright.’ They quietened. `Go on outside for a wee while.’ They obeyed, unsure, looking over their shoulders, and with difficulty the two adults carried the body upstairs and laid it on the bed. As Mungo looked on, Connie got some towels from the hotpress and placed them underneath.

`Close her mouth,’ she whispered. He pressed the pale chin upwards, and, almost as an afterthought, closed her eyes.

`Is she really dead?’

`Yes.’

He stood back to look at her in a way he had never looked at her in life, and now that she was gone, and although he could not articulate a single word, his head flooded with what he had always wanted to say, but could not. So few meaningful words had ever passed between them, and now it was too late.

`She looks very dignified, doesn’t she?’

`As she always did,’ Connie said, and to his astonishment, he saw that she was silently crying.

The priest came first, and anointed her. Then the doctor, who officially pronounced her dead. So it was real after all. Mungo was dazed, and yet somehow he got through the motions, being polite, getting what was necessary done, not least a list, beginning with the undertaker, of who to contact.

When the doctor had gone, they called the children in again. There were smudges around their eyes, and Connie told them that their granny had gone to heaven.

After a pause, Aidan said: `You mean she’s dead.’

We mean both,’ Connie said. `Whichever way you understand.’

`She’s dead,’ Aidan said to Ethna, who nodded, wide-eyed, in agreement.

There were so many things to do. Somehow, over the next few days, they were all seen to, and arrangements fell into place. He marvelled at how efficient Connie was, and wondered how he would have coped without her.

His siblings were like strangers, uncomfortable in their childhood home. Connie ran everything, falling into the role of woman of the house. Mungo saw at once that it was noticed and resented, though nothing was said.
It was a big funeral. The family stood in the pews at the front and waited while the congregation filed up to shake their hands, and murmur `I’m sorry for your trouble’ like a healing mantra. It gave Mungo strength. People knew that he was the son who had come home to help out his mother, and there was a silent assumption that he would take over the farm and be their neighbour; so they paused that fraction longer with him, pressed his hand tighter. That mute language of the mul-titude had singled him out, and after a short time there was no mistaking it. As he realized what was happening, Mungo became acutely embarrassed. The neighbours had taken for granted what his family did not know for certain, and neither did he, if it came to it.

After the burial the house was full of family, and neighbours, and faces that Mungo barely knew. Connie, with the help of neighbours and Mungo’s sisters and sisters-in-law, saw that everyone was fed. The men of the family looked after the drinks. Division of labour. There was a great deal of laughter. It was as if nothing had happened, apart from a gathering of old friends, swapping familiar phrases. Something a Yankee brother said stuck in his mind: he knew a guy who blew his nose in one hundred dollar bills.

Knowing what lay ahead, Mungo was nervous as the last neighbours left. He had been too busy to drink more than a cup of tea all day, but now he poured himself a large whiskey and drank half it back, neat. The family sat into a long table and devoured ham and chicken sandwiches and tea. It was Jim who broached the subject on everyone’s mind.

`It looks like you’re getting the place, Mungo.’ Everyone stopped talking and looked at Mungo.

`I don’t know, Jim. No one’ll know till we see the will.’

From the corner of his eye he saw Connie stare at him.

`And that won’t be read for a while. In the meantime, Mother has only been in her grave a few hours.’ He said this on an unexpected wave of grief, and everyone fell silent for a while, eyes lowered. Ethna came around the table, crying.

`I want my Granny,’ she implored Mungo, who held her close. Aidan, Mungo saw, was pale and quiet.

`Poor Mammy,’ Cathleen sobbed. There was silence again, until Mary spoke.

`You’re the one who lives here, Mungo, so it’s only right that you get the place. But we all have families too,’ she added. The implication was not lost on anyone.

`Any idea how much the place is worth?’ Jim asked.

`I haven’t a clue, Jim. But I’ll let ye all know as soon as I know myself.’

What had to be said was now said, and everyone relaxed, breaking into small groups of conversation.
They were staying in bed-and-breakfasts around the area and there was a prolonged series of good-byes the next day. Mungo sat into his evening meal with relief. Both of them had fallen into an exhausted sleep the night before, but now that they had the house to themselves Connie brought up her preoccupation.

`We will get the place, won’t we?’

`Ah … yeah.’

`We have to know soon,’ she said, her voice rising, `the children’ll be going back to school.’

`Relax, relax, who else would she leave it to? She schemed for years to get us down here. And we were here,’ he said, as another wave of grief surprised him. `She died at peace. What more could any of us ask?’

`You’re right,’ she said, assured.

`Listen, I should go to Dublin soon, to check on the house.’

`Oh yes.’ She paused. `You know, I’d almost forgotten the house. It seems like years since we were there.’

`Yeah. A lot has happened.’

`You should put it up for sale while you’re there.’

`For sale?’ His heart went cold.

`Ah, no.’

`Why not? We can’t eat bricks and mortar.’

`Not till after the will is read, anyway,’ he countered, kicking to touch. `I’m going to count the sheep – I didn’t get a chance this morning.’

He counted the sheep which were down by the river, then made his way back up the hill and sat under the oak. It was good there was some grit of uncertainty surrounding the will. He grinned, enjoying his malice. When you want something badly, you shouldn’t get it too easily – otherwise you get arrogant. Slowly, slowly. Then he was serious again, remembering his own uncertainties about what he wanted so badly. At least he was going to Dublin. If he could send her a note the following morning from Gorey, it would arrive the day after, and she would have two days’ notice. He’d ask to meet her in the evening, that way there was a possibility he could stay with her overnight … if she would have him. The evening light took on a warm, amber glow. Sunset, he thought idly, without turning.

He would be in debt for many years, something Connie didn’t seem to appreciate. If he had any sense he would sell the place and divide the proceeds amongst his family, and for a moment it was the solution; but the real solution, he knew, was to stick it out until Aidan and Ethna had grown, and then leave and strike out on his own to whatever destiny, even if, as he supposed, there would be no Tess any more.

Tess. Dear Tess. She would never fit in here like Connie did, so naturally. She was alien to all he was supposed to be, to all he had been brought up to be; but in a way that was marvellous, through her he had discovered that he was someone else, that something hitherto unknown to him which he couldn’t describe which resonated with something in her. The only word he could think of to describe it was abandon: the desire to be lost, cut off. And it came to him again, this time more clearly: he would fulfill his obligations, and then set out on that adventure in which he would lose himself, cut free from the language and baggage of the past. And then? Who could tell, and he felt a joy that he could not bear without jumping to his feet and laughing. He strode back up the hill, vaguely aware of the strangeness of the light and then on impulse he turned, his mouth falling open.

The oak was ablaze with light. If he blinked, he could imagine it in flames, as he had once seen, he knew not where, a lone tree on fire. Now he could see it without blinking. He dared not blink; until, all too soon, the sun had gone down.