The Fabulists :: Chapter 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi. How are you?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The church? Yes.’

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

‘So?’

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

‘So?!’

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

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

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

He was spoofing. He was definitely spoofing.

‘And you come here everyday because of that?’

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

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

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

‘I don’t believe you.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Were you there long?’

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

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

‘You’re separated.’

‘And you?’

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

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

‘Where?’

‘Where?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“¿Es verdad?”

Si, es verdad.”

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

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

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

Mungo laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What then?’

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

`I presume you got off at Avila?’

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

`You were a dangerous criminal, of course.’

He grinned.

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

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

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

`Oh. It’s an effigy, then.’

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

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

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

They laughed together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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