Mungo walked past the queues waiting for buses by the walls of Trinity College. He liked to look at people, especially at women in all their marvellous variety, and bus queues were full of wonder. A light rain was falling. In his coat pocket he clutched an appointment card for a medical referee who would decide his fitness for work. Mungo knew he would be declared fit, and knew also that there was no work – at least not regular, paid and taxed work; so that meant a move down from the luxury of getting a cheque through the letterbox to joining a queue at the dole office.
The facade of the building was ugly; inside it was drab and functional. The information clerk directed him along a narrow corridor which led to a waiting area. To his surprise this was bright and comfortable, decorated with a few pertinent posters. This queue was at least seated. Below a certain income, Mungo reflected, a man or woman was condemned to queues: for buses, which might not come; for money; for medical care; for charity. The world was divided into those who queued, and those who kept appointments and drove cars, the lot of one being resignation and the other, purpose. There were magazines on a low table, but Mungo noticed that no one was reading. Perhaps it was the early hour, or because it was Monday morning. He shifted in his scat. Everyone, he noticed, was very tense. Perhaps he should be tense as well, but he was by far the fittest person in the room, so there was no doubt in his mind that he would be declared fit to work. They were mostly men; a few women, mostly partners of the men. All, it seemed to Mungo, with the possible exception of a pale youth, were obviously sick, or handicapped by injury or illness.
Mungo’s resignation turned to pity as he glanced around the room. A husband and wife spoke in low, worried voices to each other. He was thin, painfully so, and his skin was grey. A middle-aged nurse entered and called a name. A woman on a stick rose awkwardly from her seat, and the nurse hurried to support her. Mungo watched their slow progress until they disappeared behind a door, the nurse declaring her name again for the benefit of the doctor. The man beside the vacant seat coughed. His face was red, laden with fat beneath a slack skin. His lips were moving and for a moment Mungo thought he was praying, but then realized he was rehearsing what he would say.
Mungo got himself a magazine from the table and flicked through it. It was a month since he had his last certificate, and his arm had improved dramatically since then because of Tess. He closed the magazine. What had Tess to do with it and where had that thought sprung from? He had worked very hard at building up the strength in his arm and he had done that because … of Tess. He put the ridiculous notion out of his mind and tried to imagine his interview, although maybe that wasn’t the right word. There would only be one view. He tried to work out the sums of entitlement he had talked about with Connie, and if his family would be worse off, but he couldn’t grapple with this. Very often the professionals didn’t know for sure.
His turn came and he sat before a man of late middle-age who seemed upset about something. Perhaps he had sciatica, or gout. Perhaps he hated his job. Mungo wanted this over with as soon as possible.
`I was at my doctor a month ago -‘
`Yes, I know.’ The doctor looked up from Mungo’s records, but Mungo was determined, although he didn’t want. his anger to show.
`I’ve been working really hard on it since, and it’s responded very well.’ Mungo knew that `responded’ was a good medical term since Aidan’s time in hospital. `Especially in the last week or so. You could say I’m fit in other words.’
The doctor, who had been reading throughout Mungo’s speech, looked up again, and stared at him.
`I could, but then again I might not. Take off your shirt.’
Mungo burned, but did as he was told, glancing at the nurse who had busied herself at a separate desk. After a brief examination, Mungo dressed, and the doctor ignored him as he wrote his report.
`Well? Am I fit for work?’
`You’ll hear in a week or two.’
Mungo shook his head in disbelief, but said nothing, unsure if he was expected to leave or not. He stood. The nurse rose and asked him how he had travelled into town. By bus, he said, and he received a voucher which he could cash in the front office for his return bus fare, and with it, a mildly satisfy-ing theft from the tormenting State, as he had walked in, and he would walk home.
Outside, he took a deep breath, and caressed his ill-got gains in an otherwise empty pocket. He had, perhaps, enough for two cups of tea and a shared bun, and, thinking this, he gave up denying that Tess had been at the back of his mind, that there was a possibility of meeting her in The Winding Stair, and that that was why he found himself walking there.
He spent a pleasant hour in the book-café, watching the crowds cross the Ha’penny Bridge, listening to the music and sipping tea long after it had gone cold. He had not bought a slice of fruit cake, in case she came after all. Then depression set in as he realized the futility of his vigil and he left, knowing that all he had to do was walk down the quay and knock on her door. But instead he walked home down Great and Little Strand Streets, Arran Street, Chancery Street, past the old, crumbling distillery into Smithfield. All the way, he was rehearsing the story he would spin for Tess when they next met. Half-way up Smithfield he noticed debris where the travellers’ caravans had been. At first he thought that they had dumped rubbish before moving on, but there was something about it that was odd. He went across to see for himself. All that was left of the caravan was a rectangular heap of ashes, an axle, and an aluminium chimney.
At home, Connie listened to his account of the morning in silence, but when he said he’d told the doctor he thought he was fit, she looked at him in exactly the same way as the doctor had.
`Are you a clown or what are you?’ she asked, the humiliation of their predicament now compounded. She put her head in her hands. `Oh what am I married to? Did no one ever tell you to keep your mouth shut in a situation like that? What am I saying? Didn’t I make myself hoarse telling you that last night?’ She looked up at him, her eyes bright with tears.
`Did no one ever tell you that sometimes you have to do the wrong thing for the right reasons?’ he retorted.
`What reasons?’ she shouted, knocking over a chair, as she ran upstairs to the bedroom. He heard the springs groan under her sudden weight, and then the sobs.
What reasons? It was a good question which he couldn’t really answer, except that it had given him strength of a kind. It was a decision, and he needed to make a decision. He poured himself a cup of water from the tap, afraid that his one decision would have to suffice for some time.
A short time later a decision was made for him. He was fit for work and should report to his local labour exchange. His arm felt weak again, but he didn’t dare mention this to Connie and suffered his fears alone as he walked through Stoneybatter and up to the Navan Road.
As it turned out, the woman at the new applicants hatch was courteous and efficient, tracking down stamps he had forgotten about on her computer, and adding them to the total, which would boost his income, if only for a few months. He completed the form and waited for the woman to come back. Already there was a queue behind him. He could sense the restlessness, the moving from foot to foot. To his left, a large, middle-aged policeman manned the staff door, bored but at ease. The woman returned, satisfied with the details, and he signed on. He wouldn’t get money until the following week. If he had difficulty, he should go to the supplementary welfare officer at his local Health Centre, who would tide him over. The clerk smiled. As he left, he glanced at the long queues he would be part of in a week’s time. There was a murmur from them like distant traffic.
At the bus stop he looked back at the dole office, which was built away from the road itself, behind a fence, maybe for security reasons, but it seemed as if it was in a field. He realized he was waiting for a bus, though he was within easy walking distance of home. A bus was coming at speed down the dual carriageway, and he checked if he still had change. He went upstairs, elated. Several people were smoking, although smoking was banned on buses, but a window was open and the air was fresh so Mungo didn’t mind. He was going to see her. What had got into him? He was going to see her, and the prospect made him feel alive.
He knocked loudly three times. No reply. He knocked again and was on the point of leaving when she opened the door, hair dishevelled and in her dressing-gown.
`O God – you!’ she said. `I thought you were the postman.’
His heart sank. He had been in dreamland. Now he was yanked back into the real world.
`Some parcel,’ she said.
`If you don’t want to see me I’ll go.’
She stood back and opened the door. `It’s just that I’m in a state. I’m not even dressed,’ she said, mounting the stairs ahead of him.
`Don’t mind me,’ he said. She stopped and looked back at him for a moment, but said nothing. This was awful, but here he was going ahead with it, like an idiot. What would they say to each other, for Christ’s sake, sipping tea across the table from one another? He thought of his story, but the problem was the lead into it. Jesus.
`What happened you last Sunday?’ They had reached the flat.
`Yes. Last Sunday night. You can think of a good excuse while I’m dressing.’
She disappeared into her bedroom. What could he say? One day was the same as the next to him, and he couldn’t remem-ber what happened the day before, never mind the previous Sunday, though now that he thought of it she had mentioned something about a film, something to do with the sky. He couldn’t have gone, and he was sure he didn’t agree to go, but how in the name of Christ could he have forgotten?
`So how are you anyway?’ she asked him as she emerged from the bedroom. She seemed relaxed, very pleasant, as if her clothes had transformed her. He was relieved.
`Fine. As a matter of fact, I’ve just been declared fit for work.’
`Is that so?’ She grinned. `Do you know anything about repairing a leaking roof?’
`A leaking roof? Where’s the problem?’
`Do you really know something about it?’
`We can have a look, anyway. It might be simple, and it might not.’
She showed him the tracks the water had left in her bath-room and kitchen. Though she had cleaned it away, a light fungus was growing again. He looked out her kitchen window and saw that there was a lean-to roof beneath it. Tess, he realized, was now serious, weighing up whether he could in fact help her or whether he was playing her along. He wondered about this himself, and tried to ignore the question of his arm, whether it would let him down in a dangerous situation on a roof.
`Well, let’s see what it’s like outside.’ He leaned out, twisting his head upwards. The gutter was a good distance up, so there was no question of standing on the sill to reach it. On the other hand, the lean-to roof would most likely support a ladder.
`You don’t have a periscope handy, do you?’ he asked, closing the window.
She grinned again.
`Well yeah – without a ladder, rope, hammer, roofing nails, probably a few slates and some flashing.’
`Oh. I have a ladder.’
She found the ladder in one of the vacant rooms. There was also a length of rope heaped in a corner. It was frayed in parts and probably unreliable, but he decided to try the ladder. He could see she was serious now and willing to believe he might be able to do it, and remembering he had a toolbox at home, long idle, he was beginning to believe it himself. They left their footprints in the dust of the room.
The ladder reached to just above the gutter, which was enough to let him clamber onto the roof, and the rope was long enough to lash the ladder to the gas pipe which ran below her window, which, hopefully, would stop it sliding down the lean-to.
One of several problems was that the bathroom was on one side and the kitchen on the other of the roof. Still, it was a narrow roof. He got out on the sill, and dropped gingerly onto the lean-to.
`Careful!’ she implored.
He licked his lips. He lashed the ladder to the gas pipe and climbed to the gutter, remembering that he had no head for heights. The things a woman could make a man do! The ladder gave a little, and he heard Tess asking him again to be careful, but the rope tautened and held. When he got to the roof there was no perceptible damage, but he guessed the flashing was at fault. He leaned across, guessing where it might be, and, sure enough, it had raised a little, enough to allow a stream of water into her kitchen. It was probably the same on the other side. A few nails and sealer. That’s all it needed, or so he hoped. The slates although probably old were in perfect condition. He was enjoying himself, and he looked into the clear blue sky and, with great satisfaction, took a deep breath.
He descended, untied the rope, and between them they got the ladder back in. Then she helped pull him inside. His arm was aching madly.
‘If I can come back tomorrow with a few tools I think I can fix it. No promises, mind.’
She smiled and thanked him, put a kettle on the gas and told him to light the heater in the living-room. He warmed himself, surprised that he’d been so cold, and looked around the room. The clear light revealed the tattered details. Over the fine mantelpiece was a plastic sun, its jolly rays dancing around its circumference. He sat into the armchair, its springs protruding under the leatherette, and waited. He could hear no sound from the kitchen, and for a moment he imagined he was alone in the house. She was standing in front of the kettle, waiting for it to boil; or staring out the window, brooding; or putting off the moment when she would have to face him again. After a few minutes she pushed the door open with her foot, two cups on her left forefinger, a pot of tea in her right hand, a plastic bottle of milk held between her left arm and her breast.
`Do you take sugar?’
`Good.’ She smiled quickly and he was relieved to see she was nervous. `I don’t have any…’
`About Sunday night … My wife’s parents were visiting.’
`That’s okay.’ She sipped her tea, eyes lowered. She had lovely eyes. He thought of a desert animal, eyelids spreading over the eye under the blast of the sun. The light made her seem peaceful, her skin pale and softened by departing youth. She looked up, blushed slightly at his gaze, which he quickly averted, before looking back at her again. His throat was dry. The side of her mouth quivered.
‘How’re your children?’
`Well.’ He shrugged. `The same as ever. And your boy?’
`Oh he’s fine.’ She lowered her eyes again, then looked up and smiled. Her eyes shone, and he noticed that her hand was open on the sofa, towards him. His heart pounded. He reached out and took her hand, gently, then turned it over and caressed it. Her breasts were lifting and falling. The smile was gone, completely, but her lips were slightly open. He reached forward, brushing them with his own, forgetting everything else. It was awkward like that, but he kissed her face, her closed eyes, before returning to her mouth. They moved closer, arms around each other, his fingers tracing her back-bone through her jumper. The tip of his tongue touched hers, the merest touch, the cool breath from her nostrils blowing against his light stubble. He put his hand under her jumper but she pushed it away.
`No,’ she whispered, `let’s go inside.’
Once in the bedroom they abandoned themselves to a deep kiss, standing fully clothed, their tongues bathing now in one mouth, now in the other’s. Gasping, she bared her neck to him. Shaken, he traced it with his fingertips, then holding her nape, he covered her neck with lingering kisses so that the lightest pink bloomed and faded as he moved across it. She pushed him away then, to undress, and she watched him follow suit. He supposed his face too was flushed with desire. He knew his body had moved into an automatic mode he had forgotten, his muscles jerking, yet in a primitive control, which gained him a different kind of movement, blood pummelling his head. As she straightened, naked, the fullness of her bush and the way her breasts bounced made him catch his breath, and she smiled nervously, turning slightly before pulling back the covers and, for a moment, as her right knee supported her as she climbed into bed, her stretched body seemed perfect, her buttocks curving fluidly into supple, graceful legs. He lay in sideways, pulling the bedclothes over them and falling in towards her, and they kissed urgently. He rolled over her, to her other side, so his good hand could caress her, and then found that he could rest his weak hand beneath her thighs, so that both his hands were exploring her, the weak one softly and slowly, the strong one quick and firm, until it slipped into her mound, moving lightly across her soft flesh.
This was something new to him and her moans surprised him at first, then encouraged him to be more daring until it seemed he had acquired a natural way to her, and his pleasure became commensurate with hers. More rapidly than he would have guessed, she was lost to him and, it seemed, to herself, aware only of the deep roll of sensation his fluent hands were feeding her. He lifted his cheek from her breast, and saw her ecstatic face, her teeth bared, her skin flushed, a sheen of sweat on her forehead. When his cock struck her thigh he faltered in his rhythm, aware of himself again, and his caresses became mechanical.
She opened her eyes, whispering, `Please, Mungo, please,’ and tried to pull him on top of her, but his stiffness was gone and he felt stranded. He closed his eyes tight, beginning again, the pad of his finger tentatively circling her hidden bud until her sighs, then groans, drew him out of himself once more. He worked patiently. Her hips were bucking now, she wanted it harder and harder, and when he slipped his finger to the knuckle into her, she cried out, her arms over her head in complete abandon. His muscles were, aching but to stop now would be cruel, and he drove his fingers faster and faster until she shouted and arched her back, pushing his hands violently away and closing her legs as she huddled into herself foetally. She was shaking, as if she had a chill, her legs jerking in spasm and her lips curled grotesquely as she gasped for breath. He was sweating profusely, hardly believing what had happened, his groin congested, his forearms aching, his heart in his mouth, witnessing this little death. He didn’t dare touch her in case he would intrude on her oblivion. Then suddenly, it seemed, she was calm, and he felt she was ready for him. He felt so tender towards her, moved her hair to one side and kissed the back of her neck, softly. She smiled, languorously turned and took him in her arms, running her fingers through his hair, holding him dose. His groin still ached, but he felt no desire, thinking that for the first time he had achieved a selflessness in love. He could even smile at his impotence.
When he opened his eyes, she was grinning at him.
`Old sleepy head. I must have worn you out.’
`Eh?’ Had he been sleeping? He had only closed his eyes for a few seconds. `You look refreshed yourself.’
`Oh yes.’ Her fingernail played around his nipple. `And what about you?’ she asked coyly.
`Me? I’m fine.’
`Are you sure?’
`Very.’ It wasn’t something he would confide to a man, but in the time they had left he was content to forego his own bucking and curses, happy to be with her now like this. It seemed to please her very much.
`Tell me,’ she said, running a finger along his cheekbone, `Whatever happened to you after you got to Madrid.’
`Yes, Madrid. You dodged the police by the skin of your teeth, remember? When you robbed the family when they were asleep?’
`I didn’t rob them. I gave them something to wonder about.’
`You robbed them, poor things.’
`I didn’t stay very long in Madrid. Too big and too busy. I liked the Metro though. It was old and it brought me to all sorts of ordinary, dull places. I like that, somehow. Of course I went to the Prado, to see the Goyas.
`I got the train that night from Chamartin to Barcelona. It was a nightmare, with so many packed onto it. There were hundreds of North Africans. When I got to my compartment there was a row going on between some North Africans and Spanish over a seat, and someone had called a Civil Guard, who was losing patience. I tried to ignore the argument, which in any case I could barely understand, looked at the seat number, saw that it matched my ticket, and proceeded to settle in. There was uproar. The other passengers looked at me anxiously, and it began to dawn on me that something might be wrong and I was at the centre of it. I looked up to see the Guard staring at me as he fended off the angry Africans. Then he stretched out his hand. “Billete.” No please or thank you – just billete. The train jerked, and was moving smoothly out of the station as he examined the fine details of my ticket, then matched it to the number above my head. “Muy bien,” he said abruptly, handing me back my ticket and closing the door almost in one movement. My fellow passengers heaved a collective sigh of relief.’
`They were shut of the rabble.’
`Exactly. One was a very proper, thin woman in her fifties or so, but lower middle class, or else she would have been on a more expensive train. She was obviously still recovering from the prospect of sharing the compartment with a Moroccan – her lips were trembling. When she had composed herself she spat it out:
“¡Moros sucios!” Filthy Moors …
`The Spaniards looked at each other as the Moroccans began to clap their hands in a slow but then faster and faster rhythm outside the compartment door. My heart was beating like a steam hammer, whether because of the rhythm or the infectious fear in the compartment, I couldn’t say. Your hatred of people you don’t know is a more pure hatred, I suppose, because it feeds on the fear that they’re capable of things you can only faintly imagine.’
Mungo paused for a moment and reflected. Tess raised herself expectantly on her elbow.
`But they were courteous and generous people. The older woman said that the Moros would rob them as they slept. She really feared them.’
`Ho ho! Little did she know who was in their midst!’ Tess said.
‘Naw. I’d no more Irish notes.’
`But your pockets were burning with hot pesetas, all the same.’
`Which of us is blameless? But I still felt that their hatred of the Moroccans should have been a hatred of me too, which doesn’t make sense, but I felt it all the same. After a while I fell asleep. It was stuffy in the compartment, with six bodies packed together. When I woke the lights were out. The sol-dier was in the corridor, smoking. It was four a.m. I needed to piss, I needed air and I needed a drink, so I got my water-bottle, strapped it to my belt, carefully stepped over legs and got outside quietly. The cold in the corridor was a shock. I hesitated, wondering whether to talk to the conscript, but he seemed deep in thought and unaware of my presence so I let him be. The corridor was full of men, most of them smoking, staring out into the darkness. The end of the carriage, at the toilets, was almost impassable, with Moroccans seated on the floor, their heads resting on their knees, packed together for mutual support and warmth. A few were dressed in the burnous, their hoods up, the others in European clothes with woollen caps. In the middle of them were two young women and a woman of late middle-age, all of them in black, and asleep. The toilet door was jammed open by the pressure of bodies, so I had no choice but to stretch my legs over a couple of sleeping men and piss in full view of whoever might wake or pass. No one did, that I noticed. When I got back out the older woman caught my attention as she stirred. They had blankets – richly coloured, I seem to remember, with a lovely blue pattern – but this, I thought, was no way for a woman of her age to travel such a long distance. It’s no way for anyone to travel, with the temperature so low, in a strange country. I turned and saw a man watching me. He was dressed in a burnous, but he seemed more suave and relaxed than his companions. We looked steadily at each other for a few moments, and then he nodded at the woman.
“That’s the woman the row was about last night,” he said, in English. Surprised, I looked at the woman again.
“What do you mean?”
“You were rather late taking your seat. Her sons were arguing that she should have it while it was vacant.”
“I see. Well tell her she can have it now. I didn’t realize what was happening.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. If you like, I’ll tell her sons in the morning, but it won’t make you very popular with los españoles. In any event, it’s your seat.”
`Perhaps it was the rocking of the train, or maybe she felt me watching her, but the woman opened her eyes just then, and they met mine. They were the sad, strong eyes of a woman who has seen everything, and she outgazed me.
“Tell her she can have it now.”
The Moroccan laughed. “Do you enjoy riots at four a.m.?”
“We can tell them she’s been ill.”
`The Moroccan shook his head, amused, but nevertheless lightly touched the shoulder of one of the woman’s sons, who was immediately alert, and said something to him. The woman caught my attention again, with her gaze and the faint trace of a smile, and I didn’t need to understand Arabic to know what the response would be. They had all obviously been dozing rather than sleeping and they were appraising me now. My friend smiled and said that the son thanked me but that his mother was comfortable where she was. I bowed, which is all one can do before dignity.’
“My name is Ahmed. Would you like some tea? Mint tea?” He pulled a flask from his bag, which was leather, and I wondered if he smiled in his sleep too. I smiled myself, and nodded. There was no question of sleep now, anyway, and I had never tasted mint tea. I told him my name in turn, and as we drank the delicious tea you’d think we had been friends for years. He asked me about Ireland, of course, but he didn’t go boom boom, and of course I asked him about Morocco. He was from the Atlas Mountains. I had thought it was all desert, but Morocco has everything. Sea, sun and snow.’
‘Mungo,’ Tess whispered. ‘Mungo, you’ll have to go now.’
`Eh?’ She had yanked him from a village in the Atlas Mountains to a bed in Dublin. `Oh, getting a bit boring there, was I?’
‘No, but I’ve to collect Arthur.’
`Oh yes. That must mean it’s time to collect my two.’
`It must. Will you come again soon?’
`Well, I’ve to fix your roof, haven’t I?’
She grinned and quickly got out of bed and dressed. He watched her, lazy and feeling good.
`Come on,’ she said, clasping her bra.
He walked to the school, early for once, so he took his time. He thought about the progress of the train story, how it seemed so natural to tell it to her. How would he finish it?
Children were streaming out of the school gates now, but no sign of his own. Mungo always stayed a little away from the gates, leaning back against a gable wall, partly out of laziness, partly out of discretion. He wasn’t sure if Aidan was at an age when he would be embarrassed to be met by his father at the school gate. Then Ethna skipped out and ran up to him, leaning in to but not hugging him. Maybe she was self-conscious too. Aidan took a while, coming out, Mungo was pleased to see, with a friend and stopping to talk to him.
`Tell Aidan to hurry up,’ Ethna demanded.
`Oh he won’t be long,’ Mungo said. Ethna leaned in to him again. He was prepared to wait as long as Aidan needed. The boys seemed impressively composed, as if discussing a topic in an adult way. Everything appeared so calm this afternoon. Mungo was glad to be alive. Aidan’s friend went in the other direction, and without greeting, apart from a light tip on Aidan’s shoulder, they walked slowly home.
Connie was in a good mood as well. Perhaps it was the fine weather. Or maybe it was because her mother had been nice to her on the phone, and was sending them a loan to tide them over the week. He had forgotten about the need for that. No wonder she thought he was a useless dreamer. Her cheerfulness irritated him. The radio blared, she sang out of time, for-getting the words as she drained the potatoes, engulfed in steam. He used to enjoy her at a time like this, but now it seemed that his happiness required her to be surly and hateful. She made him feel bad and he resented her, yet somehow he managed to conceal his state of mind and indulged Aidan and Ethna, who once they had their homework done never let him be, as if they sensed his tolerance and were eager to make the best of it. In a way it was to his advantage, as he didn’t have to face Connie; but then she looked on with approval and in all likelihood would look back on this evening as an example of when they were all happy together.
When the children were in bed, they watched television. Connie made them tea and she talked about the neighbours and things of little consequence to Mungo, but he feigned interest, asking questions and leading her away from anything serious. He was afraid, above all, that she would talk about living in Wexford. As a programme ended Connie gathered up the cups and plates and brought them to the kitchen. He could hear her rinse them and then there was silence. Perhaps she was looking at the back of his head which he knew was visible over the sofa. Maybe, he thought with a twinge of panic, she suspects what happened. Had she found a woman’s stray hair, could she smell the trace of a woman on his body, or on his clothes? He stiffened as her arms came about his neck and she kissed the top of his head.
`I’m going to bed,’ she said.
`Okay. I’ll be up soon,’ he heard himself say in an even voice. She left, and he stared at the television without taking anything in. Why now? Jesus Christ, why now? He had been desolate for so long, and now two women wanted him. There was so much hurt involved with Connie, on both sides, yet she, it seemed, had forgiven him, still thought of him as her husband, however flawed. Maybe she was more mature. He had always believed in one man, one woman, but now he had discovered magic, and he wanted it. He knew Connie was waiting for him, but he stayed watching a stupid programme. All he had to do was go upstairs and fuck her, and everything would be fine, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He stayed more than an hour, until the National Anthem played and the colour card came on the screen.
The bedlamp was still on when he went up, and she was lying away from his side, her eyes closed, but he knew she wasn’t asleep. Connie was a proud woman and would only wait so long. He stripped quickly and got into bed, noting she had her usual nightie on, and switched off the lamp. His guess was that while she had waited for him, she was naked, but now, in the silence of her head she was calling him all the foul names a woman can think of for a man. He was tense until he knew she was asleep, and he could think over an extraordinary, sensual day.
It was one or two in the morning and he was wide awake. Connie moaned and turned, and he waited anxiously while her breath returned to an even rhythm. He looked towards her in the darkness, this complex woman, who he knew so well, and yet she had become a stranger to him. Even if he had hurt her tonight, and he knew he had, his resentment was now dis-placed by sympathy, or tenderness, or both. She had a point of view, conflicting emotions, bewilderment, just as he had, and for a moment he was tempted to wake her, though he knew it was ludicrous, and take her in his arms, but even as he wanted this, he knew he would go to Tess in the morning and make love to her.
Tears. At two in the morning. He held them back, swallow-ing hard, and even as he did so, yawned. He had a piss and carefully got back into bed. Connie grunted as the mattress took his weight, but did not wake.
When he got back from leaving the children to school, Connie was out. They had barely spoken at breakfast and he knew she was avoiding him now. Unreasonably, this irritated him, but what else could he expect, and he knew he would have been irritated no matter what she did or said. He found his toolbox, selected a hammer and screwdriver, wrapped them in a cloth and put them in a plastic bag. His heart and the back of his head were pounding, as if he was about to commit a murder, and, yes, he was killing off something, he knew that, however dimly.
He walked to Capel Street and bought a tube of sealer and some roofing nails. The nearer he got to Tess’s place, the more remote Connie and his problems with her seemed.
Tess was in the same dressing-gown, dishevelled and mildly surprised, but this time she smiled.
`I’ve come to fix your roof,’ he said, holding up the bag.
`I see.’ She said nothing as they went upstairs, but turned a few times to glance at him. `I’ll get dressed,’ she said, closing the door behind them.
By the time she was dressed, he had the ladder on the lean-to, and was lashing it to the gas pipe that ran along the wall. She leaned out the window and held onto the ladder in a token gesture. She had to stretch out so far that if the ladder slipped she would be forced to let go.
He was confident until he climbed onto the roof, but once there he was scared. Splayed onto the slates, he didn’t dare move.
`Are you okay?’ Tess called.
`Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine …’ He was going to have to move. The only problem was that he didn’t know how. If a slate came away he was in trouble. He edged his way up by using the sidewall of the adjoining house as a reliable edge, and one foot on the top of the ladder as a lever. The ladder gave a frac-tion, but held. It was then he realized he needed crawling boards. He didn’t have far to go, and in fact could reach it, but he needed that extra few inches to work, and those inches caused him much sweat. He felt underneath the raised flash-ing and found what he hoped was an undamaged slate nailed to a batten. He pressed the flashing down and drove home the nails. He hesitated, waiting for some disaster, then sealed it. Now he had to get down, move the ladder to the other side and repeat the process. What should have taken a few minutes took almost an hour.
`If I’d had crawling boards,’ he said as they got the ladder in the window, `it could have been done in no time. But it should be okay now.’ He wasn’t sure about that, but she was pleased and that was enough for now.
It was good to feel useful again, to have his labour and risk acknowledged. She made tea, and he forgot his weariness.
She asked him to tell her about the farm and his childhood there. He was surprised by that, and very slowly he told her the simple memories he had of growing up on a hillside farm. He was telling her about how he had discovered his father had been a Desert Rat when she kissed his neck. Arms around each other, they went into her bedroom and made unhurried love. Instead of feeling driven, he felt light, at ease, able to let his pleasure flow through him like a warm stream. They could stop, kiss, caress, as if it was all part of the rhythm they had struck, before continuing. He could hardly believe it was happening, yet beneath him was a woman who he seemed to understand; everything he did with her, said to her, was right. A burden had lifted from him and had gone far away, as if it had never weighed on his body, or kept his feet too heavily on the ground.
Afterwards, as they lay together, still sweaty and dazed, this thought was still with him and he was grateful. He opened his eyes, and brushed away hair which had fallen over her face. A faint smile acknowledged him. She looked … purified, light, at peace. He looked at her greedily, wanting to remember everything, then wondered if he would look the same to her. He had felt like that until he began to think of it. He closed his eyes again, sinking back into a blessed darkness.
‘Mungo, what ever happened that man in Morocco?’
`Morocco?’ He was immediately alert, his brain searching for the thread. `Oh you mean the man on the train.’
`The train? Yes, he was talking about Morocco, but he was on the train. He went to Barcelona, with you.’
`That’s right. Well, there was no point in trying to sleep, so we talked till dawn. There was a fog, but here and there it had lifted and you could see we were on a plain – a plateau, I think you’d say about these parts.’
He was playing for time, delving into an empty bag, but then, as the train slowed, he remembered what had happened and wondered how he could ever have forgotten.
‘Ahmed yawned. There was no sign of a town, but the train slowed, and then stopped, it seemed, in the middle of nowhere. Ahmed pulled down the window and looked out. He was silent for a moment and then he started laughing. “See for yourself,” he said. I looked out and for a moment I was puzzled. There was no station, only a short platform. Bey-ond that, nothing, except a small tree, little more than a sap-ling, about a hundred metres away. Then Ahmed tapped me on the shoulder.
“Excuse me Mungo,” he said with a mischievous grin, “but I need to crap, and that tree over there is as good a place as any, don’t you think?”‘
Tess laughed, and cuddled in closer to him.
`Now the tree was no thicker than my arm, and of course I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. He got off the train, winked, walked to the tree, went behind it and disappeared.’
`What? You chancer!’ She exclaimed, slapping him on his bare shoulder.
`It’s true, I tell you! He disappeared – all you could see was this skinny tree. And I wasn’t the only one to notice. You could hear people shouting and people were pulling down windows because they didn’t believe their eyes, shouting about this guy who had evaporated into thin air. Some even got off the train, but they didn’t go to the tree. They argued in groups, waving their arms all over the place, and shouting. I looked out the window again. People were leaning out of win-dows or getting off all along the train. On the platform, an official in uniform had sacks of mail on a trolley, but he too had stopped to look at the tree. Everyone was waiting and I think the driver was waiting too. The arguments stopped, replaced by a tremendous silence. I began to wonder if he had fallen into a hole behind the tree, but then, as if the breadth of the tree could in fact have hidden him, Ahmed stepped from behind it, zipping up the jeans which he wore beneath his burnous. Oddly enough, there still wasn’t a sound as he came back to the train, but he was grinning from ear to ear. A path opened up in a group to let him pass, and as he boarded, the train jerked and moved off. The men below it seemed in no hurry to board, as if they knew it would take some time to pick up speed, and they all stared at Ahmed as they got on; but, oblivious, he continued to gaze at the tree with a tranquil smile. When we were cruising, he turned to me, still smiling.
“How did you do that, Ahmed?” I asked it very quietly.
“When you have little shelter, you must make the most of it,” he replied, and that was all he would say.’
He threw back his head and laughed, and she hmmed again. `And what about you? You left off your memoirs of Berlin some time ago, didn’t you?’
`They’ll have to wait for another time,’ she said. `Next time?’
`All right. Next time. We’d better go now. We’ve children to collect, remember?’
`Yes, so we have.’