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 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.