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 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi. How are you?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The church? Yes.’

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

‘So?’

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

‘So?!’

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

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

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

He was spoofing. He was definitely spoofing.

‘And you come here everyday because of that?’

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

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

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

‘I don’t believe you.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Were you there long?’

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

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

‘You’re separated.’

‘And you?’

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

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

‘Where?’

‘Where?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“¿Es verdad?”

Si, es verdad.”

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

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

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

Mungo laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What then?’

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

`I presume you got off at Avila?’

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

`You were a dangerous criminal, of course.’

He grinned.

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

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

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

`Oh. It’s an effigy, then.’

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

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

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

They laughed together.

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

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

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

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

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

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