The Fabulists :: Chapter 1

Tess was brooding about Arthur and Brian when a large puppet bird caught her attention. Its head lunged on its unwieldy neck as it led the noisy, colourful parade along O’Connell Street. A judge rolled his eyes and absently waved a claw from his perch. His platform was dragged by lawyers, their wigs askew as they strained and groaned under the weight of the law. It was all good fun, but when she saw that the Keystone Cops were confused about guarding some men in a cage, she realized the point of the demonstration. The case of the six men had become notorious. Tess believed they were innocent, and now, by chance, she could support their cause.

She was mesmerized as one scene displaced another. Weird ranks of marchers dressed in black, with cowls or tricorn hats, carried flaming torches. Their faces were black, their masks were white. There was a choir, in red and orange cloaks. It was like the German carnival Marian had mentioned in one of her letters.

She was relieved when the drums faded, and as the support groups began to pass, she slipped in behind a union banner.

By O’Connell Bridge the groups had become less disciplined and more sociable. Even Tess had joined in the banter. She could see no one that she knew, but although he was more or less with a group behind a banner, a man was casually watching her. She had already noticed him as she joined the parade, because he had a stiff arm, but now he was lost in the shifting crowd. There were mythic animals everywhere she looked, weaving in and out of the straggling groups, keeping them moving, insulting friends from the safety of their masks. She hadn’t enjoyed herself so much in a long time.
Darkness fell quickly as they marched on. At the Central Bank Plaza, the parade mustered under the moon in a clear sky, and the crowd spilled over onto Dame Street. Tess shivered. She had been fine while she was walking, but now she was glad of her long coat and boots, and her woollen cap. By the time the last of the marchers had arrived, the speeches were coming to a close. Christy Moore had sung, and there was one last chorus from the red and orange choir as a sculpture of a victory fist was set alight. Tess had got herself close enough to feel its heat dancing on her face.

She turned to leave, and saw that man glance at her again. She walked quickly behind the Bank and through Merchants’ Arch to the Ha’penny Bridge. As she waited for the traffic-lights to change, he arrived beside her. In the steady flow of traffic, a bus and then a lorry passed, leaving clouds of diesel fumes in their wake. By now he was one of many who had come from the Plaza. The lights changed as they streamed across. The yellow bulbs of the bridge lamps were flickering in their black casings. She could taste the sulphur in the air as coal fires burned across the city.

Perhaps it meant nothing, but he was still walking beside her and she was uneasy. On the other side they had to wait for the lights to change once more. When they did, she hurried across and, pretending to look through the security gates of The Winding Stair Cafe & Bookshop, she could see that along with two others he was following her. This was ridiculous. Her heart was pounding, and she broke into a run until she reached her door. There was no sign of him, but her hand shook as she unlocked it. She ran up the stairs, out of breath, and slammed the door of her flat. Not daring to turn on the light, she went to the side of the window. It took a few moments, but then he came into view. He was separated from the others and walking at a leisurely pace, his head bowed. She didn’t think he looked like someone following a woman with intent, and to her relief, he didn’t check her door as he passed; but you could never tell.
She pressed her cheek against the cold pane and stared at the floodlit bridge. ˜Fuck him,” she said out loud, annoyed that she had got herself into a panic. Now that she could think straight, he looked harmless. Even pleasant.

Her thoughts returned to Arthur. She had recently been struck by something he’d blurted out – something very male. It had made her realize that she dreaded the end of his childhood.
She lit the gas fire and went to the bathroom. A fungus had formed on the wall where a chronic leak had left its tracks. It would have to be seen to, but right now she hadn’t the energy to think of such things. In the living-room, she drew the curtains and put on her cassette of Schubert’s ˜Wanderer” Fantasy. She thought about the parade. The Parade of Innocence. It had passed an hour very pleasantly. The city could do with a carnival, something to lose yourself in, if only for a while. Turning off the light, she nestled into the scruffy armchair, and in the dull heat of the gas fire she fell asleep for a few hours.

When she woke, her neck ached and, confused, she stared at the red light on the cassette-player. The air was dry and her mouth was parched. She turned on the lamp. The clock on the mantel ticked loudly; it was almost midnight. Grumbling, she looked through the curtains at the street below, wondering if she might get a take away. The Chinese would still be open, it wasn’t too far, and her mouth watered at the thought of a beef curry – but it was too damn late.

Her kitchen was so narrow that if she bent down her head could brush one wall and her heels the other. In a box on the floor were carrots, Brussels sprouts, an onion, some garlic and a few potatoes. Cut up fine, they would boil in a few minutes.

She put on the other side of the Schubert as she ate. The meal revived her, which she appreciated as food often made her feel bloated. Poverty had some compensations after all. There was a screech of tyres as a car sped against the flow of traffic outside. Later, she lay awake, listening to the music until after four, her only light the red eye of the machine.
When she woke again, she lay still for a time. There was something important she ought to think of but it didn’t matter right now. She stretched out and brought the clock to view in the grey light. It was two, and she had to be at the dole office at half-past. There was just about enough time for a cup of strong tea, and a quick wash and change.

The queue had stalled because of an argument at the hatch, and several women were already grumbling and restless. There was a light steam rising off their coats, and one woman’s hair was stringy from the rain. Tess took off her cap. Small mercy, her hair was dry. The young woman at the head of the queue was still arguing, her voice rising and her face red. She turned sideways, shouting from an angle at the unfortunate clerk who was now exposed to the queue. Tess stepped a little to the right so she could see everything. The clerk retreated behind an immovable bureaucracy, but Tess could see she was upset.

˜Fuck this for a lark,” the woman in front of Tess swore. ˜I’ve a kid to collect.”

˜Me too,” Tess said.

The woman glanced at Tess, then roared at the clerk. ˜Would you not get her a supervisor so we can get out of here today?”

Tess gnawed on her nails, and stared at a big rubber plant as she automatically shuffled along. Her turn came, she put her cap firmly back on, signed the docket and brought it to the pay-hatch queue. The notes were fresh and before she put them into her purse she flicked them for the pleasure of it. Outside, she hesitated, longing for a cup of coffee, but she would have to get the bus to Fairview.

She arrived at the school on the stroke of three, and heard the faint bell and then the clamour of the children as they rushed out. Tess glanced at a woman who nodded and they smiled at each other. There were a few men waiting too, aloof – embarrassed, she supposed. Only one spoke to his children; the others turned as their children came up to them and one walked away as soon as he saw his girl, letting the child catch up with him along the street. He was the surly one who stared at Tess most days but always turned away when she faced him, as if she embodied all his humiliation, and she hated him. It wasn’t her fault that he was unemployed and humbled like this in front of women. He was employed bringing his child home, like everyone else here.

Arthur as usual was last, holding his satchel in front of him, his knees bumping it forward as he walked. She always meant to reprimand him for dragging his feet coming out of school as if she was the last person he wanted to see, but as soon as she saw his dreamy brown eyes, she forgot. They stayed on her until he had almost reached her, and then his face would come alive, in a mischievous, embracing grin. Like an actor with perfect timing, he left it to the last moment, keeping her sense of expectation flickering.

˜Hello Tess.”

˜Hello Arthur.”

She gave him a quick, sideways hug. Arthur was a loving child, but she had discovered that boys, no less than men, dis-liked being embraced in public. They walked happily through Fairview, oblivious to the constant roar of traffic. She glanced down at Arthur, who seemed completely at ease, and while envying his self-possession, she was grateful for it too.
He was obviously happier since she and Brian had split up. There was peace in the house and he could be with both his parents for some of the day, most days. How had two people, who had been at each other’s throats for most of their marriage – how had they produced a placid, contented boy like Arthur? She often wondered, and supposed it to be one of life’s conundrums.

˜Can I invite Annie to tea?”

˜Who?”

˜Annie. She’s been sick.”

˜Annie. Oh yes, of course … Yes of course, invite her to tea! That’s a very nice thought, Arthur.”

And to think she hadn’t even missed Annie. He retreated back into himself, with a hint of a smile, content. He looked as if he had his life plotted out, and his asking permission was only a polite formality.

They went into the playground in Fairview Park and she sat down, holding him before her and looking into his eyes. ˜Arthur, do you miss me not being at home at night?”

He thought about it for a moment.

˜Would you come and tuck me in more often? Daddy’s not very good at telling stories. He reads through a book at a hundred miles an hour and turns out the light as soon as he’s finished.”

˜Do I tell good stories?”

˜Well, you don’t rush, and they come out of your head, and your eyes go all wide when you think of the good bits.” She laughed.

˜But apart from the stories, is it all right?”

˜I suppose so,” he shrugged, and dropping his bag, he ran off to the slide. She watched him climb and slide several times before calling him, and he immediately trotted to her, satisfied. She wanted to get some mince.

Annie was Arthur’s age, but taller. After tea, they went into the garden, playing under the tree in the precious minutes before nightfall. Tess grinned. Annie believed that she dominated Arthur, not realizing it was impossible. What would become of him? He seemed assured of his rightful place in the world, something special and fulfilling, if he wasn’t hurt along the way. She gnawed at her knuckles, watching him for a while, and then set to making Brian’s dinner.
Half-way through making it, she remembered that shepherd’s pie used to be his favourite dinner. She had even liked making it for him, once upon a time. She sometimes thought they might still be living together, at least, if she hadn’t had to go out to work to keep a roof over their heads.

Then, out of the blue, he had landed a job in a warehouse in the East Wall, just as she lost hers in Norton’s clothing factory. It seemed ludicrous paying the bills for a house she didn’t live in any more, but it had maintained her right to Arthur. With money in his pocket Brian was civil to her, in speech at least, but she didn’t care about that anymore as long as she could see Arthur. It was, as her father put it, a queer set-up.

In a way, Brian had it made: his meals prepared for him and a free baby-sitter at least one night a week. No sex, of course, not from her anyway. She stood on a chair and took down his videos, carelessly hidden as usual on top of the kitchen unit. What did he have out this week? She examined the titles and the faked ecstasy and disintegrating flesh of the cover photos. It wasn’t so much the porn or even the horror she minded. What she minded was that he never got out anything else. All he seemed to be interested in were anonymous fannies and gouged eyes. In one of the horror videos, a hypodermic needle plunged into an eyeball.

She bundled them back, leapt from the chair and retched at the sink. Of all the videos she had watched with Brian, that was the one which made her sick. And now he had it out again. Apart from the sadism, which made her squirm, all those things she would never have dreamt of doing with Brian or any man – and certainly not with a woman – all that appealed to the voyeur in her for a while. It was fascinating and some of it even turned her on; but then its cold athletics bored her and the horror stuff made her angry. The videos protruded over the kitchen unit, so she pushed them back out of sight with the brush.

Over dinner, Brian was in a good mood. He even repeated a joke one of the men had told him during the day. It was actually witty for a change, and, laughing so much, he wasn’t put out when she didn’t respond.

˜I see you’ve got more of those videos,” she said, looking at the floor.

˜So?”

“So you’ve got a seven-year-old son.”

˜And you don’t want him to see nude women, is that it?”

˜Seeing nude women is one thing. Crude sex and torture is another.”

˜He sees worse on the six o’clock news … Okay, okay!”

She had been about to protest.

˜I’m not going to let him near them, don’t worry. I’m not a monster. I look after him, remember. I’m here six nights out of seven. I put him to bed, and get him out to school in the mornings.”

˜I know what you do!”

˜But I don’t know what you do, six nights of the week, unless you’re walking the streets.”

˜Fuck you,” she said quietly, her voice breaking.

“And you. Though I wouldn’t. Not now. Not never. And I’m sorry I ever did.”

She pushed the table away, upsetting everything on it, and ran into the hallway. She was furious, mostly with herself for leaving herself open. In the kitchen, his fork grated across his plate. Breathing heavily, she felt as if she was breaking in two, trying to cope with her fury and hurt. She wanted to shout that she wasn’t going to be his skivvy any more, that he could make his own slop in future, but, biting her lip, she remembered Arthur.

Drained, she leaned against the living-room door. Arthur knelt before the television, absorbed in a loud cartoon. Tess watched him for several minutes, but he didn’t move, except when his shoulders shook in mute laughter. The cartoon ended and she knelt beside him.

“I’ve got to go now, pet.”

He looked at her and leaned in towards her and she held him close, rocking him, moved as ever by his spontaneity.

˜I love you very much,” she whispered. There was no reply, but she could feel how he bathed in her words, and gave himself completely to her, and she knew she would die for this, if she had to.

She looked around and saw that Brian was watching them. He looked empty and lonely and beaten, and for a moment she felt sorry for him and yearned that all three of them could be together in a warm embrace. But it was a wild fantasy, and, breaking the spell, he turned and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea.

˜I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

Arthur looked up, nodded and rolled away onto his knees to watch a new cartoon. She went to the door, then looked around.

˜Bye ”

˜Bye,” he answered, without taking his eyes off the screen. She walked back to her flat, her cheeks streaked with tears in the cold evening.

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 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi. How are you?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The church? Yes.’

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

‘So?’

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

‘So?!’

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

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

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

He was spoofing. He was definitely spoofing.

‘And you come here everyday because of that?’

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

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

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

‘I don’t believe you.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Were you there long?’

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

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

‘You’re separated.’

‘And you?’

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

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

‘Where?’

‘Where?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“¿Es verdad?”

Si, es verdad.”

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

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

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

Mungo laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What then?’

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

`I presume you got off at Avila?’

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

`You were a dangerous criminal, of course.’

He grinned.

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

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

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

`Oh. It’s an effigy, then.’

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

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

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

They laughed together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fabulists :: Chapter 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 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a card from Marian on the hall floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

`Did you call the Guards?’

`No. Oddly enough, nothing was taken.’

`You had no money in the house?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

`Yes, I suppose so.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

`Sorry. I forgot.’

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

`How have you been?’ he asked mildly.

`Okay. How’s your little girl?’

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

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

`Was I away too long?’

`Yes.’

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

`Maybe you’d like me to go.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She paused for effect.

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

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

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

She stopped and looked at him disingenuously.

`Do you mind me telling you this?’

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

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

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

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

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

Mungo stood and lifted her skirt.

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

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

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

`Harder,’ she groaned, `harder.’

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

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

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.