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.