The Fabulists :: Chapter 13

The Fabulists

Tess stayed overnight in Fairview to ease Arthur into his first day back at school. It distracted her from Mungo and her worries about where she was to live. He had insisted on giving her a key and in the end, she reasoned, she didn’t have to use it. Meanwhile it nestled in her bag, an embarrassing secret. Arthur didn’t seem to appreciate that his freedom was over, and she let him play on the street till nine, when she had fin-ished ironing clothes for the coming week. Then she went through his books and copies with him, and he looked at them as if they contained a judgment.
But he had a bath and went to bed without fuss. She assumed that playing all day had worn him out, but when she looked in on him, expecting him to be asleep, he was reading. She was put out. Not long before he would have demanded that she read him a story, if only as a proof of her attention. Now he was growing away from her. She should have been pleased but she wasn’t, and when she sat back in the armchair to watch a film she had looked forward to, it was with a long face. Brian said nothing. He put a bottle of beer to his lips.
At the commercial break she asked him if he would like a cup of tea. This for some reason surprised him.
`That’d go down well,’ he said then.
Her heart sank as she spotted his smile. She had only sug-gested it as something neutral to say, expecting him to refuse because of the beer. But he had taken it as a conciliatory ges-ture. As she foresaw, the serving of the tea and scones created an intimacy. It was the closest they had been for a long time.
`These are delicious,’ he said, regarding his half-eaten scone. She had baked them for Arthur, primarily, and she thanked him for the compliment. He waited till he was almost finished, and cleaned his teeth with his tongue. Then he looked into the dregs of his tea, and swirled them around. Such a cliché she thought, as she waited for him to speak.
`Tess … I’ve been a bollocks, I know.’ She looked at the floor. `I was under a lot of strain …’ She knew he was put out that she wasn’t responding. The cosy little scene hadn’t worked, and now he would blow his lid and prove that he was still a bollocks. But to her surprise he composed himself and spoke softly, reasonably.
`Look, things haven’t been perfect – but what marriage is, for Christ’s sake? I ask you. And I’ve been pulling myself together. I’ve given up the gory videos, and the porno – did you know that?’
`Yes, you told me.’
`The Sound of Music,’ he guffawed. `That’s what I’m re-duced to now!’
`I thought you had that out months ago.’
`Yeah, well, that kind of stuff, you know? I get them out for Arthur. We watch them together.’
`I know. He told me. The Everlasting Story is his favourite.’
`That’s right! Christ, I’ve watched it twenty times if I’ve watched it once. Good film, mind. Great imagery.’
It was the end of that lead and Tess was trying to keep track of the film which had long since resumed. He slumped into the armchair and stared at the television, but at the next com-mercial break he rallied again.
`Tess, we’ve had our bad times, but we’ve had good times too, remember?’ She didn’t reply. `Jesus …’ he whispered. `What am I supposed to say? I fucked it up, I know. I’m sorry. But there’s two sides to every story. You’re no angel yourself.’

`I never pretended that I was.’ It was a mistake to answer him and she knew it, but silence had become impossible. He relaxed and rearranged himself to face her.
`Look, Arthur needs the two of us. Why don’t you move back in? We can take it easy for a while, see how it goes.’
`I’m here every day, Brian.’ He was clever, she had to give him that. The film resumed and she pointedly turned to watch it. He seemed at a loss for a while.
`Well, I’ve laid my cards on the table. It’s your hand now. I’m off to bed.’
Tess stubbornly watched the film to its insipid end, before pulling out the bed-settee and retiring in a trough of gloom. She lay awake in the dark, tears drenching her pillow. She gave him credit for making an effort in recent months. If he had done so two years before, she could have responded, willingly. But now it was too late. He was trying to persuade the woman who didn’t exist any more. She reflected on how true that was. It was tragic, in a way.
Brian left early, banging the door behind him to make sure she woke. She dragged herself out from the clammy duvet and coaxed a dazed Arthur out of bed. He was difficult. He drag-ged on her nerves at every move. He baulked at his uniform, the way an animal refuses clothing, and she almost hit him in despair; but she drew back, knowing that if she did she was lost.
Inevitably they were late, and she had to push him through the class door, but it was the first morning back. It was almost expected, and they wouldn’t be doing much today, the teacher said. Arthur looked around him as he sat in the desk. The reality, it seemed, wasn’t so bad.
On her way back to the quays she made up her mind: she would move into Stoneybatter for a few weeks, use it as a base to get a job and get some money together for her own place. If she was going to sort herself out, she needed that at the very least. It would have to be cleaning or waitressing, and on the black, but so be it.
She stopped off at the supermarket in Henry Street to buy refuse bags and, back at the flat, immediately began to fill them. Her books were neglected and she thumbed them open, raising little clouds of dust. She sat on the floor and began to read through blurbs.
Her packing took all morning, and when she had finished she wasn’t so sure about Stoneybatter any more. She washed herself, went to The Winding Stair for soup and a roll, and braced herself to traipse around every restaurant she could think of to ask for a job. Because of Arthur, it had to be in the evenings, so that narrowed it down further. She lied about her experience, but it was no use, there was nothing. Maybe another time. Maybe. She saw that most waitresses were far younger than her, light on their feet, capable of pleasing cus-tomers, who would in turn part with a tip, perhaps. She was useless, good-for-nothing.
Back in the flat she lay on the living-room floor, exhausted and sorry for herself. God, she hated poverty, how it cramped her life, how it stopped her from being who she could be. Somehow, it hadn’t been so bad when Mungo had been poor too; it had been normal, and funny in a way. The tears streamed back over her ears. Now he had a fucking farm, living in ease with his fucking wife. A current of energy seized her and, jumping to her feet, she grabbed a bagful of books and, despite the weight, swung it against the door. Several books spilled from a gash in the plastic and twisted as the weight crushed them this way and that.
She stared at what she had done. As usual she had injured something she loved for the sake of a moment’s release. To cap everything, she couldn’t afford a taxi until doleday. She left the carnage where it was, unpacked her tape-recorder and some cassettes, lay on her bed and played `The Wanderer’. She fell asleep before it ended and woke about two, her head clear, racing through her preoccupations: Berlin, Fairview, Stoney-batter, her mother, Arthur, Mungo, schemes for earning money. It never solved anything but she could not stop, and the hours passed that way. She got up and watched the bleak light of dawn on the Liffey, the gulls gliding low over the water, smooth and shiny as glass, an occasional car disturbing the silence. For the first time, sorrow at leaving here replaced anxiety at finding somewhere new.
She went back to bed and awoke at noon. There was noth-ing to eat but she made black tea, went to the park at Jervis Street and sat there with a book on the tarot until it was time to collect Arthur. She wondered if he was old enough to be embarrassed at being met by his mother, but she put it out of her mind and hurried him home. She was starving, and it would have to be filed away with all the other things she had to think about. Later, she justified her humiliation in asking her son for the loan of a pound by persuading herself that it would make him feel grown-up, and in fact, he seemed pleased about giving her the money.
`Ten per cent interest,’ she promised.
`Oh that’s alright,’ he said, waving away her offer. `What’s ten pence these days, anyway.’
Taking some butter and hoping it wouldn’t melt, she bought milk and bread on the way home, so tea and toast was assured for breakfast.
The questions piled up as she sipped tea at her front window. Did she love Mungo? Was she harming herself by loving him if she did, as she would have to endure the long weeks of loneliness between seeing him, to be rewarded by a few snatched hours? Should she fall deeper into the trap by living in Stoneybatter for a while? Was he using her? Did he have a real case in staying with his family or should she con-front him with a choice? What, in the end, was at the root of her predicament?
The tide was out and the river was low enough to see the Poddle river flowing out in front of the Clarence Hotel. It came for miles, and mostly underground. She only knew its route took it under Dublin Castle with its history of power and imprisonment; under the Olympia Theatre, with its ghosts of laughter and dancing; under the Clarence – and who knows what dreams had been played out in its rooms? Did she love him? Yes. No. She missed him badly, and yet there wasn’t that x factor she thought should be associated with love. Maybe it came down to a decision. She needed a dandelion or daisy. I love him, I love him not. Was she harming herself if she did? Yes, but she was harming herself either way, as she could think of no other way to redeem herself other than through her few hours with him. Perhaps her willingness to be hurt spoke of a kind of love. She should go to Stoneybatter if for no other reason than that she wanted to; she wanted to occupy a place that wasn’t hers, as if somehow, if she couldn’t have a happiness rooted in herself, she could at least strike a vicarious blow at Connie, or whatever her name was.
Was he using her? Yes, in the same way she was using him, so that cancelled out. And what was the other? Oh yes: the choice. That would be a wielding of power, but she realized that what she would lose or gain in the end by wielding it would reveal something about herself, something fundamental perhaps. At her age, it seemed vital to be able to flush out something she could recognize as being truly belonging to her, something basic about which she could say, well, maybe I don’t like it but it’s me. I can build on this and go with it in the direction it takes me, because I know it’s true. Even if it meant self-destruction. There was another question she had posed, but she couldn’t remember what it was, and her tea was cold.
The next morning she hauled her belongings downstairs, got her welfare money and took a taxi to Stoneybatter. She sat at the table and looked at her black bags lying on the floor. This was only temporary. Mungo would be back in two days. She would tell him then. The house wasn’t the same without him and was far too quiet. She put on one of his Spanish tapes and began to nod, then sway to the guitar, and then a wild thought occurred to her. What if she could pick up someone and bring him back, and fuck him in Connie and Mungo’s bed? What about that! And have Mungo catch them on Friday morning… Would he be violent? Would he care?
She didn’t carry it through, not knowing if she hadn’t the nerve or if it was just the anarchic thought of a woman on edge. For all that, it preoccupied her over the next few days, and she concluded that she liked being in the house like that, on edge, as if she was about to be caught doing something shameful, or at least unapproved.
Mungo surprised her by arriving early on Thursday and, although he said nothing about it, she could see he was pleased she had moved in. Her bags were still on the floor, unpacked, and she apologized, offering to move them under the stairs, but he stopped her. There was someone coming to see the house; it would give the impression they were in the process of moving out. Before she grasped what he was say-ing, he kissed her and held her close. It was what she had wanted for days, hardly knowing she did, and she gave herself up to it.
`They’ll be here in a while,’ he whispered.
`Oh.’ They touched each other lightly, hardly breathing, stealing glances at each other. `We have to talk,’ she said, brushing a stray hair from his brow.
`Right,’ he said, lowering his gaze. Maybe he had looked forward to a morning of uncomplicated pleasure; maybe he had hummed and smiled to himself all the way up on the train, feeling light and free, and now here was a woman full of complications. Life was never simple. Certainly his face had become older in an instant.
`I’ll make some tea,’ she said, breaking away from him. In the kitchen she reflected that it might be easier to tell a story, and in truth, though she felt the need to talk, now that the moment had come she had no idea what she wanted to say. She would just have to blunder into it.
They drank their tea in silence. It was excruciating.
`Are we going to just go on like this?’ she asked him.
`Do you have a suggestion?’
`No.’ She hated her questions answered by a question. It was a sure way of going round in circles. `I thought you might have.’
`Sorry. I’m at a loss.’
`I’m only going to stay for a few days, till I get a flat of my own.’
`Right. I want to tell Connie about you,’ he blurted.
`What?’ She felt a wave of panic tinged with pleasure. She wasn’t ready for such a thing, if she ever would be. `Don’t be foolish, Mungo!’
`Well, I want …’ The doorbell rang and he went to answer it. It was the estate agent with a young couple, and Mungo invited them in.
‘Good morning, Mrs Kavanagh,’ the agent nodded to her. Mungo found that amusing, but her mouth dropped open and she stared at the agent. Shit. She had to get out of this house as soon as she could. The young couple came forward, smil-ing, to shake her hand, and she rose and found the grace to respond, though a voice was screaming in her head that she should run.
`Excuse us a moment,’ she said, and took Mungo to one side. `I’m going. Are you staying this evening?’ He nodded. `I’ll see you about seven then. Maybe you could make dinner.’ She tried to smile, and left him with a swift kiss on the cheek.
That evening, as she left Fairview, she was reluctant to go to Mungo, but for the moment she had little choice. As she walked through Phibsboro and into Rathdown Road, she dragged her feet, perversely hoping the dinner would be ruined by her late arrival. It was nearer eight than seven, and would do no harm to keep him on tenterhooks. When he opened the door she was pleased to note his anxious face, but he said noth-ing. He had waited, cannily enough, before cooking the food, and over a glass of wine they recounted their day, he doubting whether the couple would buy, and carefully avoiding the ques-tions of the morning until midway through the meal.
`I want to see you on a regular basis,’ he said, `once a week, say.’
She didn’t reply, still unsure whether she wanted this or not, while enjoying his need for her.
`Don’t tell your wife. Tell her you need to get up once a week or whatever. Tell her anything, but don’t tell her the truth. Life is difficult enough.’ Then she turned away. `All we need now is a fire.’
He lit a small fire, while she put on the theme from Elvira Madigan and they finished a bottle of wine, together on the sofa.
`Is that a pack of cards I see on the mantelpiece?’
`Yup ‘
`Let’s play poker! I haven’t played for years!’ So they played for pennies.
`You haven’t told me a story for a while.’
‘Heh?’ She had a full house. `A story? Wait till I clean you out, then I’ll tell you a story.’
They played for an hour, and she won most of the time, which put her in excellent humour.

`Alright then, I’ll tell you about Berlin. Any wine left?’ He opened another bottle.
`Where did I leave off the last time?’
`The brothel.’
`Oh yes.’ She giggled. `The brothel.’ She snuggled in to him and settled. `Well, that cut the corners off him. He found out where I was living, and begged me to go back to him, would you believe, but I wasn’t going to live with a man who went to brothels!’ She had meant this to be humorous, but somehow it wasn’t. `He said he had just gone on the spur of the moment, that he wouldn’t do it again – he nearly went on his knees. So I gave in, said he could have Arthur at the week-ends. That’s the one thing I admire in him, the way he looks after his son …’
`So I got a job in a hotel as a cleaner during the week, and I worked in a restaurant kitchen at the weekends, and that’s how I got by. It was okay, even if I didn’t get out much. Of course I saw my lover some afternoons, but he was away a lot.’
`Sounds familiar,’ Mungo interjected.
`It does, doesn’t it.’ She touched him lightly on his neck, absent-mindedly tugging the hairs which sprouted there. `And then of course,’ she said, moving on quickly, `I had the odd beer with the girls at work, only one of whom was German, mind, and good old Marian kept me afloat. Apparently Frau Pohl had been asking about me, so we arranged another evening. Her beautiful granddaughter let us in with a big smile. “This way, girls,” she laughed, as if we were in for the time of our lives, and she led us to Frau Pohl’s room with such a bounce in her step I thought she was going to break into a dance. “Granny, your visitors!” she announced in English, and Frau Pohl nodded, with an indulgent smile, to her grand-daughter.
“Good evening, ladies. You are welcome. Dorothea, ask Yeliz to bring us tea and biscuits. Or,” she asked us, “would you prefer chocolate?”
`She was seated in her bed, supported by pillows and satin-covered cushions, as before. Tarot cards were spread out on her bedside table.
“I thought that perhaps this evening we might listen to some music.”
“That would be lovely,” Marian said. Turning to me she said: “Frau Pohl has exquisite taste in music.”
“Dorothea – won’t you join us?”
“Yes Grandmother. You want me to pour the tea?”
“I thought the ladies said they wanted chocolate?”
`We had said no such thing, of course.’
“Yeliz?” Frau Pohl called. “Yeliz has a wonderful ear for music, you know. Dorothea, will you put on Mahler’s Eighth?”
“Ah,” said Dorothea. “You want me to be disc jockey.”
“It would seem that Dorothea’s in love,” Frau Pohl said. “She reveals all the signs. But she will not gratify her grand-mother by confiding in her.”
“I am simply full of the joys of life, as always.”
“Not always.”
“But who is?”
‘Yeliz came, going directly to Frau Pohl, who spoke quietly to her in German. Yeliz smiled at us and took a seat as Dorothea found the record and put it on.
`It had been a long time since I’d heard the Eighth. My mother used to play it when I was a child, on a record player not unlike Frau Pohl’s. She played it when she was in one of her dark moods, and, I remember, she used to close her eyes, her head back, as the opening chorus began, and now I knew I was doing as my mother had done all those years ago, my head back, all my frustrations cast away on the great tide of the chorus.
`I wished I could be there forever, in that room, at peace, with Ireland far away. It seemed that life should always be like this: beautiful, grand, plumbed and made meaningful by great music, great art.
`The first choral section ended and I opened my eyes. The others had their eyes closed too, except Dorothea, who stared peacefully into the distance. For a few seconds the room was perfectly quiet, and then that slow orchestral movement began. It haunts me, I don’t know why. I felt like crying. Why had life to be so difficult? Always, always, it was relentless, from bed in the morning to bed at night. And listening to the slow, quiet music, I felt I could hold that recognition in my hands, and examine it from all sides, and see that it was true. Then the chorus slowly entered the orchestra again. And then the powerful tenor. As long as we have strength, I thought, as long as we are strong enough for the burden, and come out the other side – at least to some kind of understanding.
`The first side ended, and Yeliz was there, pouring our deli-cate cups of chocolate. It seemed like an ideal time to gossip, or something. Having been in the clouds as well as the depths I felt stranded, and I felt like a young girl and wanted to say something girlish. I wanted to talk to Yeliz, but I didn’t know how to. She looked so dignified and at peace with herself. And so young.
`Frau Pohl looked tired, and for the first time I thought of her as old. We had finished our chocolate, and she nodded to Dorothea, who lay the needle on the second side. In a few moments I had forgotten everything but the pleasure of the music and those soaring voices, or the depths of the bass, unaware of the lyrics, except for their whispering or exultant sounds. It is beautiful to be softly tugged in different direct-ions, not caring where it leads, knowing only that the journey is full of wonder. I’m not sure where – I think it’s where the soprano and two altos sing so gloriously together – I realized something was amiss and I opened my eyes.’
Tess went pale and stared.
`Are you alright?’ Mungo asked.
‘Ahm, I think so,’ she smiled, her colour returning. `But …’
`But you’re not going to believe this. What matter. It hap-pens to be as true as you could wish.’
`Of course.’
`I was suspended,’ she laughed. `Ah what the hell! I was suspended almost two metres above the floor, as if I was in a trance.’
‘Janey Mac!’
`At first I didn’t realize what had happened, as I looked straight at Frau Pohl, who was perfectly at peace. Perhaps I would have closed my eyes again, but I noticed that her quilt hung like an ice-cream cone beneath her. I looked around me. We were all weightless, and if the ceiling was not there we might well have floated out into the night. But that wasn’t all.
`Dorothea was gazing at a small, exquisite pastel of a maid on her way to serve chocolate. She was an eighteenth-century girl – of that I’m quite sure – carrying a wooden tray with a glass of water and a delicate, tall china cup on a saucer. The flesh tones of that chaste maidservant were perfect, and so were the tuck and flow of her clothes. But the glory of the pastel was the girl’s apron. Each crease was so finely done you could almost hear the starch rustle. No wonder Dorothea con-sidered it in rapture.
`I had for a moment confused Yeliz with the chocolate maid, but not at all. She was wearing the dark, modest clothes of her Turkish mother, and carried a basket of fresh vegetables on the crook of her arm. She looked proud, like a woman sure of her station.
`I wasn’t sure what had happened, whether I was hallucinat-ing, projecting my own idea of what made these women happy; or whether the music had revealed them to me. And so I was afraid to look at Marian. Or, to be more precise, I was afraid of the jealousy I had felt for her since our schooldays. She had always got her heart’s desire without any effort that I could see. But I also know that she had the courage to do things that I had not, and so she deserved her success, waltz-ing around from one city to the next, lapping up the good life. Imagine, I hated the guts of my best friend. So my mouth fell open when I saw that she was suckling a naked baby girl, her breasts full of milk, her face flushed with pleasure. To think that that was what was beneath it all. A Mother Earth. The sly bitch.
`And that left me. And no, I’m not trying to hide the truth, but the fact is, I couldn’t see myself. By now I was drowsy, and my eyes closed again. The choir was singing the Mater Gloriosa and I was swept away. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream No no no! It mustn’t be like this! I was thinking of happiness. I feared it like hell. I feared being obliterated by it. And sure enough I went cold, as if, as I feared, I had died. Died of happiness, a no more deadly murderer.
`But when I opened my eyes I realized it was the coldness of the night air. I was floating above Berlin, being carried along by a light wind. I had travelled away and was now above the city centre, above the Gedachtniskirche and the sex joints. The smell of burgers and sausages wafted up to me and I beheld the Mercedes-Benz star; and on a rooftop garden I could see the clients of a women’s sauna cooling off.
`I crossed over the Zoological Garden and didn’t hear a sound. It was too much, and I closed my eyes tightly, hoping this was a dream from which I would awaken soon. But I flew on at speed, I could feel it, and tears drenched my face and my body was stiff, the air was so cold. In the distance I could hear a police siren and the groaning of the S-Bahn. And yet I could still hear the music surrounding a tenor voice which I knew was somehow keeping me afloat. It went on and on, and as it died away I felt my feet touch the ground.
`The final chorus, the Chorus Mysticus, began then. When, very frightened, I opened both my eyes I was in darkness. Wouldn’t you be scared? But it wasn’t pitch darkness, and I realized I was in a large arena. A sports arena. In fact I was in the Olympic Stadium. I was on the track where Jesse Owen had mortified Hitler in 1936.
‘I took off my shoes and ran. I only intended to warm my-self up at first but then I began to enjoy it, and I laughed at Marian back in that apartment, suckling a baby. I had done all that. The choir sang on, filling the stadium with a powerful sound. I ran faster, wheezing like mad, and I knew I would have to stop. But I didn’t want to stop, and instead I ran faster, and faster, and faster, and faster.’

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