A few days later, it dawned a fine morning. Mungo got the children out to school and, whistling softly, he walked up Stoneybatter to cash his disability cheque. Nothing put him in good humour like a fine morning. He had even brought Connie breakfast in bed and, although she had tried to conceal it, she was surprised and pleased. Maybe he should do it more often. He was bursting with life since giving up drink, and felt smug as he passed Moran’s pub. With his exercises and then his long walk in the mornings, he was fit for anything, and his mind was coming alive again. Sometimes his walks took him well into the Phoenix Park, or as far as Stephen’s Green. In the park, which he preferred, he could find a quiet stretch and burst into a jog when he was sure no one was watching, and he made trebly sure, because the idea of anyone seeing him jog in his boots, jeans and heavy overcoat was excruciating. Not to mention his arm, whose limpness, he knew, made him look odd, especially when running. His arm was all that bothered him. It ached badly. At first he had excluded it from his exercises, but then it became more difficult to do so, and now it felt like fresh, rearing blood was trying to push through veins grown accustomed to a sluggish flow. His left hand tingled, and he flexed it. That was another thing about walking: he could gently, unobtrusively, exercise his hand – flex, open, shut, flex, open, shut. He still couldn’t raise the arm very well, but that would come soon, he felt sure.
In a few weeks time it would be two years since the fire. That would be a bad time for Connie. Aidan seemed to have forgotten about it and got on with his life as children do, especially as the burns had healed so well, thanks to the people in James’s. Sure, the poor guy still had the dreams, but they were less frequent. Mungo was trying to be as kind as he could to all three of them. Connie still hadn’t forgiven him, he knew, so he couldn’t just hand her a bunch of roses, for instance. She wouldn’t wear it, so he’d have to sneak in and put them in the kitchen, maybe in that white delft vase she liked.
Six red roses. Romance on the welfare she’d say, if she said anything. She hadn’t spoken to him, not a word, for nearly a year after the fire, but nobody could keep that up all the time, so now she only spoke to him when necessary. Maybe she was softening. The response when he brought her breakfast in bed this morning had given him hope. He had been trying to work up the courage to do it for weeks. Perhaps there was no going back, but he just wanted to be part of the human race again.
He cashed his cheque in the hushed bank, and back home, he left the money on the table for Connie, keeping only the loose change. He sat and looked at it, that which only barely carried them through the week, though he didn’t smoke or drink any more. Connie still smoked, but not a lot. He heard the bedsprings as she turned.
“Is that you?” she called.
“It’s me,” he called back.
“Well get some meat if you’re going out.”
At least the children were fed and clothed. Nothing fancy, but enough. The curse of Christmas was still to come, but if children couldn’t have Christmas, what could they have? He took some money and left the house.
He went down Grangegorman, crossed North Brunswick Street and turned left at North King Street, flexing his fingers as he walked, and sweating a little at the effort. It took concentration. His New Year’s resolution would be to get the strength back in his hand and arm. If he couldn’t get a regular job then he could do nixers until the building trade took up again, and someone had told him that that wasn’t far off. He had intended continuing along North King Street, but when he came to Smithfield, he set out across the cobbles which stretch almost to the river. On one side were warehouses, some of them derelict, covered in colourful, garish murals. He passed the weigh house. There were young trees planted in rows of three all the way down. On the other side was new Corporation housing and, farther down, the new Children’s Court. In between were three travelers’ caravans, smoke rising from the aluminium chimneys.
“Mungo! Hey, head-the-ball!”
This was as he passed the Children’s Court. An old drinking crony was lounging on the steps.
“Hey Frankie! I thought you graduated from that place a while back.”
“Been rejuvenated. Mungo, you’re a rich bleedin’ culchie – any ciggies?”
“Sorry, pal. Don’t smoke any more.”
“Ah, keep goin’, so. You’re no use to me.”
He walked on. That was about the size of it. Once you were one of the lads, knocking it back a couple of nights a week, money no object, you were a great fella, but hit bad times and you might as well never have existed. When he thought about it, he hadn’t one real friend. It was a useful piece of knowledge.
His journey brought him past the derelict distillery on to the fruit and vegetable markets, and as the pavements were blocked by crates of produce, he followed a dray cart through the chaos of vans and lorries and whining forklifts. He realized he was thirsty, so instead of taking the more direct route along Little Mary Street, he checked the change which he kept for himself, and went down to Abbey Stores on the corner of Arran Street and Mary’s Abbey. He saw the butcher talking to a customer outside his shop farther along Mary’s Abbey, and thought of the meat. If he didn’t get it now he’d forget it, as sure as daylight. So he went down to McNally’s. The butcher, who he presumed was J. McNally himself, stayed outside, finishing his conversation in the sunshine.
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” the butcher called into the bright but old-fashioned interior.
That was fine. Mungo was in no hurry. He had all the time in the world.
“Now, what can I get you, sir,” Mr McNally asked as he came back in.
“Can you give me a couple of pounds of stewing stuff?”
“Sure. Why not?”
The meat was good and it was cheap. This was the way to do things – combine a little business with a pleasant walk. Pleased with himself, Mungo doubled back to Abbey Stores. It was a tiny shop but they had nice oranges and they didn”t mind if you only bought one.
“Magic,” the young shopkeeper said when Mungo handed him the exact amount.
A juggernaut from Holland was parked in the lower, resi-dential part of Arran Street, being unloaded by a forklift. Tons of apples. Mungo happily sucked on his orange. He turned into Little Strand Street to avoid the quays. At the junction with Capel Street he paused, then gravitated to a shop window and a multiband radio which caught his eye. It cost what his family now lived on for a week, but it would give him access to any station in the world, almost; to languages he could never hope to understand, unless Spanish, perhaps. It was first year college Spanish, brushed up a little on the Costa Brava, but it would be something to build on. It was vaguely painful to know that he would never be able to buy the radio, unless he was able to work again. He tried to lift his arm, thinking it would never recover.
He turned and crossed over to Great Strand Street, away from shops and dreams. There were Corporation offices, a pub and one single shop, which sold guitars and amplifiers, but apart from a school, it was a street of light industry and dereliction in equal proportion. A granite-faced warehouse, refurbished and converted into small units, pleased him. It had been a while since he had been along here.
Just as he turned into Liffey Street, joining the streams of people walking between Abbey Street and the Ha”penny Bridge, he saw her. She gave a little start of recognition, just as he did, but he continued around the corner. Not knowing what to do, he stepped onto the road to let her pass, or what-ever she might choose. She passed, but he could see that she was hesitant too. They walked almost together for a few moments, she slightly ahead; then he crossed over to one of the Pound Shops and pretended to browse, his heart pound-ing. She had paused too, and he knew that, like him, she was pretending to be interested in a shop window. This was his cue, but he was transfixed. She”s beautiful, he thought, and this was all his mind would allow. No strategy, no opening line, only the all-consuming fact of her physicality.
Baffled, he perversely entered the shop, when all he wanted to do was catch up with her and tell her his name. That was it: My name is Mungo, what”s yours? It”s so simple when you can think straight, he thought, and rushed out of the shop. She was gone. It was impossible, but she was gone.
He hurried, trying not to run, to Abbey Street, and looked up and down. Nothing. Over to Upper Liffey Street. No sign. She had disappeared. Agitated, he checked again in four directions. She had to be in a shop somewhere. Perhaps at that very moment she was watching him, highly amused. This sobered him, and he reassumed his dignity.
In the shopping-centre he walked through the crowds in a daze. All the shoppers could think about was Christmas; all he could think of was how beautiful she was, and that he would never see her again because of his stupidity.
He took the library lift for a few moments privacy. Her red hair dropped a little below her shoulders. She seemed about the same height as himself, five foot seven, but with raised heels on her boots, it was hard to know exactly. What else? Her eyes he wasn”t sure of – blue or green, but they were generous. She seemed … plump, although again it was hard to know with her heavy winter clothing. He couldn’t picture her legs, but remembered with pleasure that she walked gracefully. To him, grace was important.
He went straight to the travel books by force of habit, taking down the largest volume on Spain, His paper mark was undisturbed and he opened the book at page ninety, but though he read two pages without pause, not one word registered. He felt sure her carriage would be matched by her manner and voice. Her voice would immediately decide if … Her voice would decide what? he wondered. He was a married man, after all, which was not altogether beside the point.
He hoped he hadn’t spoken aloud, and moved to another reading table in case he had. His attraction to this woman had amounted to a surge of hormones, yet his imagination had leapt ahead, making assumptions and laying down conditions. The attraction disturbed him. Even if they met again, which was unlikely, it would have the same inconsequential end. A similar experience in his youth reminded him how juvenile his reactions were. It was just an attack of juvenile projection. He could read his book in peace.
He read about a traveller journeying through Castile by train. It had been snowing, but as dawn broke the sky was a steely blue and the snow was compact and silent across the plateau. Later, as the sun rose, the traveller saw a herd of black bulls, and then the eleventh-century walls of Avila.
Mungo closed the book and dreamed himself onto that train approaching Avila, the city of Saint Teresa. At first he tried to remember the details, but abandoned this and let his imagination provide. Apart from the two weeks with Connie and the children in a tourist hotel on the Costa Brava, he had never been outside Ireland, unless he counted the months on housing sites in the English Midlands, a failed student. So it was Spain that nourished his fantasies about a new life, the discovery of which would change him, as if stepping out of the skin that was his past. It would even change his past, give it a context which would lend it meaning. Then, one day he would go to Spain and not return.
The idea was still crude, but little by little it was forming.He opened the book again and went back to the beginning of the chapter. The traveller, an Irishman, had relatives in Galicia – the Celtic part of the peninsula. Mungo envied him such a background. At the same time, it would be better if he, Mungo, were completely alone to make a fresh start.
It didn’t have to be Spain, but it was the country he knew most about for now, more than England – more than Ireland, perhaps. A fresh start. In reality it was impossible, he knew; but he could rehearse it in his imagination. Maybe he could disguise it as a story for the children. He returned to where he had left off, and finished the chapter.
It had been snowing, but as dawn broke the sky was cloudless and the snow was compact and silent across the plateau. Mungo repeated the lines to himself while descending the library stairs to the shopping centre.
As he turned from the stairs he almost collided with her. She smiled faintly as if in recognition, but flustered, he wasn’t quite sure if it was the same woman, and side-stepped to let her pass. Could it be her? Surely not. Was it a smile of derision? He backtracked, and she had paused by the sweet shop. Staring, as if in shock, he decided it wasn’t her. This woman didn’t fit his luminous image. True, she had light red hair, and similar clothing, but she seemed defeated somehow, whether by age or constant misfortune he could not say. And he had remembered her as having flaming red hair, hadn’t he? If only he could see her face again, he would know then. If he could see her eyes, then certainly he would know. It would give him a chance to smile, and she could smile back and they could laugh at his foolishness and say hello. She didn’t turn, but as soon as she walked along the passage to Parnell Street, he knew. He stood at the sweet shop and watched her retreating figure. Yes, it was her all right, and yes, despite her graceful carriage, she seemed defeated. Suddenly, he felt the weight of defeat too, and turned to leave by the Henry Street exit, when Parnell Street would have brought him more quickly home.
“Ripe bananas, five for fifty!” “Cigarette lighters, four for a pound!”
The sing-song cries of the street-sellers greeted him on Henry Street. He lounged about for a while, browsing amongst the cheap shoes, and then in the music shop across the road. He hated wasting time like this, when he could afford neither shoes nor music, but he did it all the same, knowing he was trying to avoid thinking about the woman.
He found himself walking back along Liffey Street, half believing he might meet her again, and paused at the junction with Strand Street, where he felt something magical had brought them together for those shocking moments. At the Ha”penny Bridge, he looked down Ormond Quay and recalled that his journey home after the Parade of Innocence had left him in her wake. How she had hurried away! Of course it had been dark, and maybe without realizing it he had scared her, and he felt pity and then affection and a desire to make amends.
On the hump of the footbridge, he stopped and looked around him, as so many passed by. Then he peered up-river. He knew he was attracting curious glances, and he longed at that moment for a camera. With a camera he would have a legitimate reason – a composition, perhaps, of the copper-green domes of the Four Courts and Adam and Eve’s, with the Guinness steam house in the distance, slightly left of centre, completing the picture. Without a camera he felt naked. If he was a passer-by, he too would wonder why some-one was staring into the distance from a bridge over a river at high tide. The obvious reason was furthest from the truth. He did it because he wanted to, and that was reason enough. There was no other reason. He had no purpose here, nor did he want or need one. He felt a thrill of happiness at his brief freedom, and gratitude to an anonymous woman.