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Thumbprints

 

 

Thumbprints

 

 

~~~

 

 

Lou Shalloo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duplicator Books

 

 

 

Copyright © 2014 Lou Shalloo.

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

 

All rights reserved.

This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of Duplicator Books except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

 

 

ISBN: 1500120332

ISBN-13: 978-1-5001-2033-7

 

First Edition, 2014

 

~~~

 

Stay in touch with Lou Shalloo via the West Clare

Writers Collective Facebook Fan Page and on twitter @DuplicatorBooks

Contents

Contents 3

House Party 1

The Wife 20

Evening Strolls 31

The Circle of Life 52

The Return of Declan Boyle 64

Trip Home 85

Running, Late 99

In the Blink of an Eye 107

Business Expenses 114

Duty-Bound 125

Seeks Partner 140

Cars 162

House Party

Gabriel jabbed at the doorbell and it gave a sharp shrill remonstration. He disliked the damn things, recalling another time, another place: Emer’s sister’s house, and the doorbell getting jammed. A hammer had been required to silence it. Not your fault, her sister had said, observing the smashed wires and doorbell with a grimace.

He looked down, at the narrow top step he stood on. He would be too close to the door when it opened. He stepped back to the lower step. Down here creates less of a first impression, he thought. Which was better?

Stop overthinking, you fool, he said under his breath.

The pale streetlight cast his shadow onto the top step, and he noticed a tuft of hair stuck out above his left ear, a backlit hirsute transgression. He put the wine down on the step and tried to smooth it quickly back into place, but it remained unbowed, refusing the attempt to manage his crown of curls into slicked-down hair for the party. Relax, just be yourself, it silently reproached him. He heard someone come down a stairs then and he rushed up the step, abandoning his hair control.

Oh hi, I’m Gay, eh, Gabriel.

Hi gay Gabriel. I’m straight Joanne.

What? No, sorry, just–

I know, I’m kidding you. Gabriel; you teach with Mary, right? Come in, come in.

Damn it, what was it with meeting new people? Stumbling over his own name, caught between the ambiguous and angelic. His only defence, and a meagre one, was that it had been years since he had been to a party alone. He was consumed with individual awkwardness.

The hall was painted white, not eggshell-this or barley-that, just an absence of colour, the cheapest paint a landlord could find. A dark timber floor narrowed promptly into a corridor to the left of the stairs. Gabriel had rented a place just like this a few years back, with a couple of others, before moving in with Emer. They were fine old red-brick buildings, high-ceilings, sometimes with original coving. Dado rails too, if you were lucky. This place had the same layout, he imagined: three rooms upstairs and the bathroom, corridor downstairs leading through to the kitchen-cum-dining room, and the living room through this door here to the left. Downstairs toilet squeezed under the stairs, installed in the seventies, and not for the taller gent.

It was ten past eight. Was that too early? He had overestimated the time to get here, although Mary had said to come around eight or half past. If Emer had been with him, they wouldn’t be leaving their place for another forty minutes, and he hated being late. At least he wasn’t late. He could control that much now, without rocking any boat.

I’m too early, he said.

Not at all, replied Joanne, sure people have to start showing up some time or there’d be no party.

She led him through into the living room.

It was empty, tinny music at low volume echoing around the empty space, colours swirling against the walls from a disco ball. Ah, parties.

Can I get you something to drink, Gay or Gabriel? she asked. As he tried to think of a witty response, she continued: Actually help yourself to the fridge; I’m just going to finish getting ready, if that’s alright.

No, that’s out of the question, he said.

What?

Hah. No, I was just kidding, I’ll help myself, thanks.

Joanne wrinkled her brow, then disappeared back upstairs. She was cute, but incompatible humour, perhaps? Muffled conversation and giggles followed upstairs. Hmm, perhaps not. A shout from above, Mary.

Hi Gabriel!

He didn’t bother bellowing back. It was enough that she knew he had arrived.

Those giggles, what did they ever mean? Interest? Ridicule? Men were straight-up; if they liked you, they’d make their move. Often helped by so much liquid courage that they couldn’t string a sentence together, but still, the object of their desire couldn’t be in any doubt. Girls were the more troublesome part of the equation, the complex creatures; there were so many layers to be peeled away, to see who they were and what they meant: perfume, makeup, clothing, gestures, words.

He stood in the kitchen, listening to the dull scuffing of feet and creaking of old floorboards over-head. Cute caterpillars metamorphosed into beautiful butterflies.

Jesus, never say something like that to a real woman, will you, he promised himself, as he opened the fridge.

The cold air and cool light reached out to him, projecting his image onto the window. He glanced out beyond his reflection, to the unkempt wilderness of monthly-mown grass. A dry night, good for a walk home. Looking at the beers crammed into the fridge, shoved in lengthways on top of low-fat yoghurts, dips and celery, he remembered that he had brought a bottle of wine with him, for Mary and her housemates. He must have left it on the step when he was messing with his hair. He ran his hand lightly over the back of his skull, skimming the errant clump. Still there, still unruly. He went out along the corridor to the front door.

He stepped out for a moment to sniff the chilly air, not at all like the fridge’s sterile coldness, and looked up and down the street.

Was anyone else ever going to come, or had Mary’s party invitation just been some lure to bring him here to feast upon his innocent flesh? You could never tell with ladies. Mid-musing, he heard that unmistakable click behind him. The door had closed. Shit. He tapped the doorbell. From within he heard a woman’s voice – Joanne or Mary, he couldn’t tell, nor the words, but he could guess what had been said:

Gabriel, can you get the door?

Well, no he couldn’t. He rang again, trying not to sound too insistent, but he might as well make the point. Thunder approached, bare heels on wooden stairs. Joanne again.

Hi… oh, hi?! she said.

I thought I’d try my entrance again. You must be Joanne.

What?

Ah no, I left this outside, and the door shut on me, said Gabriel, gallantly presenting the wine to her. Here, it’s for you ladies.

Ah, aren’t you a star? Thanks.

His act of generosity earned a peck on the cheek, and the mingling of various scents filled his nostrils – the smell of her perfume and her and her makeup, her hair, all these things in a flash – then her face re-appeared before him.

Okay, I’m going back upstairs. I’ll let you take care of opening this for us. Will you stay inside this time if I let you in?

I can’t make any promises.

She laughed, then retreated upstairs to the beauty parlour. Further sounds of relayed conversation, then more laughter from Mary, maybe the other girl too, what was her name? Emily maybe, or…? No, it was Emily, alright.

Gabriel brought the wine through to the kitchen and stood there holding it in the quiet solitude. He had done better the second time, certainly, with Joanne. Did second impressions count? She seemed like a sweet girl. He tried out the shape of her name in his mouth. Joanne. Jo. Gay and Jo. Gabriel and Joanne. Jo and Gay. The Brennans. Jo Brennan. Not that it mattered. She could keep her own name, he was a modern man like that. He wasn’t even sure about marriage anymore.

He set the bottle down on the counter and hunted around for a corkscrew, finding it in the second drawer. Always in the same places, in his experience: the top two drawers, or in a large ceramic jar beside the hob with the oversized cooking implements. Gabriel splashed some wine into a glass then paused, having second thoughts: would beer be better?

It didn’t agree with him, the yeast perhaps, and more than four or five was a guarantee of a terrible hangover, but it seemed a little less… less studied, less self-conscious. Ironically. It was the mead of the masses, what everyone drank. So be it. Blend in, dear man, blend in. First impressions were what mattered right now: wine would have to wait until he was back in a relationship. He pulled a bottle of beer from the fridge and took it into the living room.

Forgoing the opportunity to dance alone, Gabriel gravitated towards the pictures arrayed on the mantelpiece, to see who was who.

Colour photographs one and all, with a variety of frames, and two other photos without any frame, a couple of blurry snaps from a recent night out. He picked up one of the frames.

Mary and her family, he deduced: her brother, and his wife beside him, most likely; her older sister, and that would be Mammy, sitting, with Mary’s father beside her. He looked sickly in the photo, and Gabriel knew he had died over five years ago, so the photo was that old, at least. He put the frame back on the mantelpiece and was reaching for another when the doorbell sounded.

This time he was quickly out to the door, calling upstairs as he went:

It’s just me again.

Further laughter. Oh Gabriel, you really are on fire, he said to himself. He opened the door to a couple, standing on the step.

Oh, hi.

Hi, are you guys here for the party?

That was a dumb thing to say. Gabriel noticed their faces registering confusion at seeing him. Best to rattle off some householder’s names and check for signs of recognition, he thought.

Mary, Joanne, Emily?

Emily Sweeney?

Sure, why not, thought Gabriel.

Right, well, come in, he said, the girls are all still upstairs. I’m Gabriel, by the way.

Freddie. And this is Polly.

All three mumbled something to the effect of Nice to meet you. A silly lie, a social lubricant to cover the awkward exchange of this as-yet useless information. It couldn’t be nice to meet someone you knew nothing about, that was the thing. It wouldn’t be nice to meet a thief or a murderer, would it?

Anz ai em Adolf Hitler.

Nice to meet you.

Nice, the word had diluted into meaninglessness in any case, so maybe it was as appropriate a space-filler as any. Gabriel thought for a moment how the world would operate where names were not the first thing people offered and requested. How might that go?

I’m a doctor.

Oh what luck; I’ve had this intolerable itch in my groin for months, if you have a moment. May I introduce my wife, an architect? I myself work as a stage lighting manager.

Certainly, sir, I’d be delighted to take a look in the upstairs bathroom momentarily; as it happens, I am currently considering an extension to the rear of my office, so isn’t this a fortuitous encounter?

At that stage, people could feel free to swap names around – please do, go ahead – when they might actually mean something. How much better Gabriel’s way of introductions than that impossible circle of seven or eight people all at once, hearing names mashed together into a blend of blandness. If you’re lucky, he thought, you remember a couple of names and some faces to put them with. Although never so lucky that the faces match the names.

The couple had seated themselves on the couch, the guy and the girl both in black leather jackets. They were curious-looking, similar thick dark eyebrows over small eyes, close cousins or a brother and sister who decided they liked each other a little too well. Gabriel shut the door into the hall.

So you guys are friends of Emily…?

Well, I know Emily from work, and… yeah.

Yeah indeed. No need to say any more. Chatty guy, clearly, although the girl seemed even less inclined to waste words on Gabriel.

Cool, said Gabriel. You guys want a beer, wine?

That glance between couples: what are we drinking? Funny how much deferred to consensus in a relationship. That had been him too; he still caught himself about to check what to do with Emer, five months on. What are we doing later? Where would we like to sit? Any question directed at one required unequivocal assent through a searching glance into the eyes and the soul of the other. No drinking whiskey tonight, remember? We’re having lunch with Mum tomorrow. That sort of thing. It was an uncomfortable liberation, but a liberation nonetheless.

Yeah, a Heineken and a Bud Light.

Gabriel went into the kitchen. They were an odd couple. He noticed they hadn’t brought anything to the party. Even if you drank what you brought, and more, it was the gesture, the thought that counted. And that Polly was either mute or Freddie’s submissive, forbidden to speak for the evening. In the kitchen, he didn’t need to see them to know that they would share a glance now, the couple, maybe even a low exchange:

This place is dead. What time is it? I told you we were early. He’s a little weird. I didn’t know they had a butler. Where is everyone?

He closed the fridge with unnecessary force, to kindly warn them of his return, and came back into the living room. Jesus! She was on his lap, a tangle of limbs and lips. He handed them their beers, being regarded as some deviant interloper instead of a guy just trying to make them feel at home. No help needed there, clearly. What’s more, they stayed there like that, on top of each other. Cool as you like. Maybe they only had the one chair in their apartment. Whatever.

Avoiding the couch, Gabriel chose the only other seat, the armchair by the bay window. Christ, imagine if I had been gone any longer.

Gabriel’s seat was faced towards them on their couch in a cosy layout of furniture, as a sort of voyeur now. The pair seemed interested in continuing what Gabriel had interrupted, but societal norms won through, mercifully. She readjusted herself so that they were both facing him, though she remained on his lap. The music had come to an end. A tidal wave of silence built up. He was about to get up and fix that when a question spurted forth from the guy.

So, is it Graham?

Gabriel, yeah, he replied, frozen in position, half-out of the chair. He slowly eased himself back into the seat as the two watched him.

Gabriel, sorry, I’m useless at names. Gabriel, right. What do you do?

Everyone was useless at names; that was entirely the point of having them in the first place, to add that extra bit of awkwardness when meeting people for the first time. Not that it was difficult to feel uncomfortable right now, as he sat watching these two attempt to become one before him. She shifted in his lap, or was it a playful squirm? Oh good God. Gabriel had an awful thought that time would stall right then, that no one would come, and he would be lost, trapped in this hideous moment forever. The pair were waiting for an answer.

I teach at the same school as Mary. Science.

Oh, that’s cool. I always thought I should have done teaching myself. Ye have great holidays.

That’s what everyone always said, Gabriel thought. It’s just reward for getting thirty hormonal boys to behave while he talked sexual reproductive organs. But he simply smiled and replied: Ah yeah, can’t complain there. What about you?

Data server analyst.

Ah, right.

Logging, monitoring of mobile devices. It’s very hush-hush. You know, I could find out everything about you if I had your email address, even track your movements. There’s a lot of stuff out there people don’t want you to know about.

Oh yeah? That sounds interesting, Gabriel said, thinking: that sounds like the reason Emily had to invite you.

Hopefully, if anyone else actually showed up tonight, he wouldn’t get caught talking to this guy – what was his name again, Frank? – about whatever it was he did. It was a whole other world to him, that tech world. A foreign culture he had no interest in: he could use them, computers, and that was enough. He could mess around with some photos and music, jump onto the internet. The sordid secrets of Frank’s job? No thanks. It was Frank, wasn’t it? He couldn’t ask now, because it would seem like he was being petty after Frank’s mix-up with his name.

Another benefit of being in a couple, two pairs of ears. Not that that had done much for Polly and Frank. Maybe it wasn’t Frank, was it Fred, or Ferdia. Something beginning with ‘F’. Fuck. He could just listen in on someone else later and figure it out.

Or just avoid him altogether. He didn’t want to get trapped in some dark corner as Frank’s tech-speak mingled with speckles of booze and spit in his ear, as Gabriel looked out over his shoulder into the room, at the faraway hills, at Joanne maybe, pretty and scented, laughing her laugh far away from the ‘servers and systems and secrecy’ he was having to endure.

Right. That silence building once more. Gabriel pushed himself out of the chair to get some music going again. The pairs of eyes followed him. Trial by taste. The current playlist was marked Party Mix. He could just hit play again, but another caught his eye: Jo’s best hits. If you want to know someone, there’s a lot to be gleaned from their taste in music, he thought. He selected that one and fell back into his chair as the doorbell went once more.

Duty calls, he said and hopped up to answer that call.

He was at the front door by then. Duty calls, what a thing to say. Ah, who cares, they’re a bloody weird couple anyway. Better luck this time.

Hiiiiii!

A chorus of girls, three, no, make that four. Two maybes, two maybe-nots. The straggler tottered up the path behind the rest, unsure in her heels on the broken concrete path.

He was ‘back in the game’ to be sure, but the current ratio was becoming a little daunting. It was hardly even a ratio, just a tally. As much as it favoured him, it could get to the point of ridiculousness.

Hi ladies, come on in.

They filed in past, pretty things in similar coats and makeup and hair. The tribal markings. Louise and Sarah and Lisa, maybe. He wouldn’t bet his life on any of those names being right. The last came in, the straggler. Husky-voiced. Party girl.

Hi, I’m Joanne.

Gabriel.

Another Joanne. A rival to the first. The first had his attention for now, but would she ever reappear from upstairs tonight, from the mysterious rites being performed up there with bronzers and brushes and tweezers and lashes? That reminded him of Emer again, the preparation and the waiting, quiet fuming downstairs as the clock ticked by, setting the night off on a grumpy footing before they had stepped out the door. What was it with girls and time?

The newcomers announced their presence, calling upstairs in high-pitched happy cooing, answered in echoes from on high.

He returned direct to the kitchen, to fetch another drink.

A low light illuminated the kitchen table, and his eyes surveyed the tortilla chips and carrot slices, with some vague lumpy beige sauces arranged alongside. Dips. Garlic-infested. Not if he had any designs on someone tonight, but he could keep it in mind for later if things were going poorly on that front.

Another sound at the door. He headed out the corridor as clattering heels on the stairs trumpeted the condescension of one of the upstairs party. Joanne the first, looking lovelier.

I’ll get this, Gabriel.

Fired like that? Don’t I get two weeks notice at least?

Oh, we’re ruthless around here, Joanne smiled and turned back to the door.

Two guys, Joanne’s friends. A kiss on the cheek for the one on the right, who squeezed past into the living room. And more for the second, one hand gently finding another.

Well, that was that. Gabriel shrank back, retreating to the kitchen for the solace of soapy beer. He looked suspiciously at the counter. Hadn’t he opened one? He could have sworn he had, but it was gone. No matter. He opened the fridge and retrieved a new one. The bottle of wine sat on the counter, the glass beside it holding the dribble of red he had poured into it earlier.

It was hard, getting over it, over her, getting back into the game. Into the game, a silly term for it. How would the game have finished then, him and Emer, a boring nil-all draw at the end of the day?

He smiled at this, then remembered a crowded bar, with her friends and a whispered comment: Gabriel, she had said, don’t be smiling to yourself like that; they’ll think you’re a weirdo.

Why? What did that even mean? He couldn’t say. Ask her, ask Emer; he never had done, and now he’d never know for certain. Don’t smile ever? Look moody? Be the strong silent type? He didn’t have the build for that, besides which, the tactic only worked if a girl was already interested: then you could stand alone from the herd, make it easy for her to approach.

Not that Gabriel even had a herd, not any more. The days of the buffalo were past. Scattered and decimated, by migration, age, and nature. Settling down and moving out of the city and kids. He wasn’t ready for all of that, not yet anyway, which had been part of the problem.

Still, he wasn’t a huge fan of this, either. Trying to remember what he had never understood. Figuring out the subtle messages, silent signals, divining for what lay beneath the surface. He had time, of course, more than women had, at their – his – age. It was cruel, the fate handed them, where–

His reverie was broken as two silhouettes entered the kitchen. Two of the new girls.

You’re guarding the fridge?

Ha, no. Just… just trying to figure out what I… what to drink.

Wine, great. Whose is that?

Ah, I brought that, actually, but then I thought maybe beer–

…is better. So people won’t think you’re–

Exactly.

Well, I’ll have a glass, anyway. You, Jo? This to Joanne the Second.

No, I’m having a beer, and get me two for Lou and Lisa.

The fumbling grappling done with the drinks, Joanne the Second returned to the party room, where the volume had increased manifold. Jo’s Party Mix was helping, ably assisted by bodies and beers.

Here, said Gabriel to the remaining girl, I’ll get you a glass.

Thanks. And you’re Gabriel, right?

He smiled. That’s right.

Yeah, I think Mary mentioned you before. You work with her, don’t you.

A statement masquerading as a question. He gurgled some of the wine into her fresh glass and topped up the one he had begun to pour earlier.

Yeah, that’s me; but what about you?

What about me?

How do you know the girls, or Mary anyway? Not through school; I’m sure I would have noticed you.

He felt his stomach contract involuntarily as he added that part. Was that too blunt? No, he decided, it was ambiguous.

She was cute, contagious smile. A voice that you could love listening to: that was important. Emer’s used to grate a little on him, if he was tired, or busy doing something else. Towards the end, anyway. Either it hadn’t mattered or he hadn’t noticed in the beginning: he’d noticed nothing in the beginning.

Mary and me, we’ve been best friends since we were five.

Ah, cool. So do you work here, in Dublin, or you just come up to party, or…?

Oh yeah, I’m a real party girl. No, seven years in the bright lights. Dublin city. She laughed at this, some private joke. He joined in. It felt good to laugh. He lifted his glass towards his mouth, then decided to toast something.

To the bright lights of Dublin city, then.

The bright lights.

Their glasses clinked, and her eyes caught his over the top of her wine glass, for a moment.

The door again, and someone else answered it. From their vantage at the end of the hall, he could see them coming in. A trio, slightly favouring males. A perfect pair and their mildly-inebriated vestigial tail, shortly to be sundered and cast off into the primordial gloom of the living-cum-party room.

Gabriel leaned back against the counter. It was always better in the kitchen, where you could chat, away from the silly dancing and potential breakables waiting for careless elbows, of which he owned a well-used pair. A sudden clumping on the stairs above, right above his head, startled him. The girl laughed again, and he laughed with her.

Jesus, your face.

I thought the house was collapsing.

Mary came through straight into the kitchen. The tardy hostess demanded: What’s all this laughing going on?

She kissed Gabriel on the cheek and turned to the girl: Well, hey stranger, haven’t seen you since…

Lunch today?

Haha, that’s right. Gabriel, this is…

Ah Mary, sure me and Gabriel are old friends at this stage.

She did that on purpose, denying him a chance to catch her name, he thought, and smiled to himself.

Gabriel was our very chivalrous host while you were swanning around upstairs, she continued.

I had to apply the warpaint, Mary retorted. Are the rest here with you?

She took a beer from the fridge and led the other girl by the arm, then stopped at the portal to the party.

Gabriel, aren’t you coming in?

Yeah, I’ll just… Gabriel trailed off, as Mary disappeared into the other room, the girl with her, to the noise and the music and laughter.

That was a pity, Mary coming down when she did. Sometimes that’s just the way it went. Science: I could bore you all about it, Freddie or Frank, he thought. A random collision of particles. Random interactions, with consequences.

He drained his glass. Not too bad. He looked at the label, to remember the bottle, not that he even recalled where he had bought it. He heard Joanne the First’s laugh from within followed by the deeper laugh of a man; her man, surely.

Was there something there, a spark, with the girl with no name? Even as he was sure of it, the proximity to the moment fell away, and his surety with it. Easier to doubt it had ever been there.

He looked at his watch, then towards the door. He had been here an hour, a little over. He hadn’t brought a jacket, he could just take off now. Slip off out the door and stroll away down the street, a lovely crisp evening for it, maybe home along the Canal. He could do it and no one would know. He could be gone now. But it would be awkward when he met Mary on Monday, if he did that. Then again, it was awkward either way; questions to be answered then or now. You can choose the time and place, but you can’t avoid the questions.

He put the glass back on the counter and exhaled silently. He looked at the front door again and made up his mind.

Time to face the music. He refilled the glass and went in search of the girl with no name.

 

 

***

The Wife

She sat at the kitchen table, absent-mindedly tugging on the eyelashes of her left eye as she looked at the patio door. The rain was pelting down, the angry impacts on the step outside causing muddy splashes on the base of the glass. Another little job to do later, whether later was in a week or a month. Another task to add to the list. She shivered and looked up at the calendar.

It certainly didn’t feel like the middle of May. Shouldn’t the sun be peeping through fluffy clouds so fluffy lambs could frolic in grassy meadows? That was what summer was supposed to be like, according to the children’s books. Divorced from reality, those things. Setting up false hopes. God, was she basing her life’s expectations on a children’s book?

She rubbed at her eye, an eyelash trapped beneath the lid, hurting the eye instead of protecting it from hurt. She glanced up at the clock. Nearly half past three, but dark enough to pass for evening.

Time to light some lamps, she thought, and a glass of wine, to warm the place up. A fire would be nicer, but she couldn’t risk it without the guard in front, and that spoiled the effect, stealing the heat away and ensnaring the warmth within.

She got up from the kitchen table and began to clear away the mess from lunch. It was the perfect life: two beautiful girls, a loving husband (sort of), a home of their own (sort of), still young (sort of), still pretty (sort of), still independent…? No. Stop. That was a lie, and her mother had taught her never to lie to herself, first and foremost.

She was not free, she was not independent, she was trapped. Trapped in a loving relationship. Trapped by her two beautiful girls. Trapped by the bloody bank and a thirty-year loan, and the tightness of their financial situation. Trapped by life and the path chosen. God.

She scraped the leftovers into the brown bin – did that have to go out today? If it did, tough – the day was just too miserable to think of stepping outside. The plastic plates and cutlery were loaded into the dishwasher and she cranked the dial to turn it on, then turned her mind to higher things. The drinks cabinet and one of the nice glasses, a wedding present from her aunt. Five years. Yes, five years this July. Felt like no time at all, in some ways, and forever in others.

Derek still loved her, and she still loved Derek, of course. Of course she did, it was ridiculous to think otherwise. It’s just things became routine, a little forced or anticipated. The bit you never get in the movies, the after-the-happily-ever-after. Familiarity and comfortable cuddling was great, but there was a lot to be said for anticipation and novelty, too.

Romantic notions fell swiftly from her mind, as a grumble emanated from the baby monitor. Just Maria turning over in her sleep, but it was enough to send the would-be Latin lover part of her away, to be replaced by the mother. Dutiful, responsible. She must go up to check on them in a minute.

She took down a glass and fogged it with her breath, giving it a polish with a paper towel. No, that was the problem, passion got lost in a fog of familiarity. With duty. With words unspoken. When he came home, Derek, there was the perfunctory greeting, a kiss, a sigh after the hardship of his day’s work, a glance towards the kitchen, then a shout of joy from the two girls – Daddy’s home! – then some play time.

It was that glance that really needled her: him looking beyond her, over her shoulder, towards the kitchen. It seemed to say: What have you prepared for my dinner, mother-servant-woman?

Maybe that was unfair on Derek, but maybe not. She had thought him different to the rest, when they first started dating. And he was. But maybe all men are the same in the end, reverting to a truer version of themselves over time. They all want some sort of mother-hooker ideal. They want their food on the table when they come home, and sex when they feel like it, but at your instigation, so they don’t look like the needy one. Egos with willies attached, she thought. She opened a bottle of red and poured it into the glass. Ah, that lovely sound.

She didn’t want to say anything about the look towards the kitchen again. What could she say, that wouldn’t lead to an argument like before? Always dancing around the central issues, returning to the same tired themes.

He was provider; he was tired after a long day. He would love to be at home playing with the kids all day. He wanted to spend more time with his children.

What about my career? she would say, tears coming to her eyes; him aloof and logical.

We agreed. It made sense for you to stay at home.

Spinning around and around, going nowhere, like a wheel in the mud. The same things. The cost of childcare. The price of petrol. Running two cars. Lunch in the canteen. All the things that chopped away at freedom, that tightened the handcuffs about her wrists, chaining her ever more to the kitchen sink, to the life she hadn’t chosen.

She was reliant on him utterly, on him not needing the car for work if she wanted to get out of the house, to get anywhere on a grey rainy day like today. It was horrible, having to squeeze his shoulders and simperingly beg: is it okay if I have the car tomorrow? Like the car wasn’t as much hers, too.

But that was just it; it wasn’t hers, it was his. She had sold her car; he kept the saloon. And he was the sole earner, now. Everything was more his than hers, whatever each might pretend aloud. Breadwinner, provider, maker of money. The car, the house, the clothes for the kids, the food on the table. Sure, everything was shared, but he paid the bills, handled the accounts, checked the credit card statement to make sure we’re not being cheated. But was that the royal we? He would hunch over the bills at the kitchen table.

What’s this for 29.30? The Weezer Café, he would say, looking up. Was that you?

And maybe he was just checking for card fraud, but it seemed to her that every little joy was a guilty one, in certain knowledge that she would have to defend having a coffee or lunch with a friend.

Yeah, me and Sophie, remember? I told you.

Oh, right. Wow, the ladies are living it up, eh?

He meant it as a joke. Or did he? Was he admonishing her, implying that he was slaving away in the office and she was swanning around in trendy cafes all day, drinking champagne, shopping with her friends, so that he had to come home to noisy children and another lasagne? He’d actually done that one day: sighed and said Oh, another lasagne. In a week where Maria wasn’t sleeping a wink and Therese was still recovering from whatever bug she had picked up. She couldn’t believe it, but she was too exhausted even to argue, so instead she went to the bathroom and cried.

She never said anything when he went for drinks on Thursday or Friday after work. Team-building. For sure that put more of a hole in the paycheque than a coffee and muffin in Weezer every couple of weeks. She needed that escape, to let off steam for an hour, although even then only a bit. Sophie didn’t get the full truth from her, because you had to put a brave face on it, keeping up appearances; besides, whining about it wasn’t going to change anything except make Sophie think twice about meeting up for coffee.

She rubbed her eye again. God, they just needed a break, from the stress, from the kids, from the normal everyday. From each other. That was maybe the truth of it.

Not forever, of course not. It was just that it was hard. To see so much of each other, and so little of anyone else. With the kids, and belts being tightened, and grandparents – his mum and dad – too busy enjoying retirement to lend a hand or babysit. It seemed they never went out anymore, Derek and her, never met friends in nice restaurants, never headed off for a weekend somewhere. Except those goddamned weddings.

Bloody things, Derek’s large group of friends and nerdy colleagues. They were all work, no pleasure, as she played the sweet timid domestic while he pushed for partner. They would be better-off then, financially, but he would be busier and had mentioned them moving someplace closer to town, towards the office, somewhere more prestigious. That path led to dinner parties and formal social events, more of the stuffy things she’d always laughed at. Dammit, she hadn’t been alone; they had laughed, both of them. Derek too, but of course, he had become institutionalised – companies had a way of making you conform, or ejecting you like poison from the system.

She put on the lamps in the corner of the room and closed the curtains across a little. There, things felt warmer already. On her tippy-toes at the fireplace, she looked at her eye in the mirror, and wriggled the lid about, but the offending lash wasn’t budging.

It was just such a pain. She had enjoyed work. Office banter, project goals, rushing for deadlines. Then the girls arrived, one after the other. An almost two-year hiatus from work, and suddenly someone who had been reporting to you was now your mentor. An empty term, but humiliating nonetheless.

She knew things moved fast in the tech world, that was a given, part of the excitement of it, but when they told her that she would now be reporting to Robyn – Robyn? I mean, come on!

To add insult to injury, she would be taking a wage cut, on less than when she left. The economy, times being what they were, blah blah blah. It was bullshit. She knew they were busier than ever. The computer industry was still booming, but it was a convenient excuse to scare people into accepting less. So without her even looking elsewhere, Derek and her had had a rethink. They quantified the costs. Childcare, taxes, car, quality of life: it didn’t seem to make sense to go back to work.

But the cold hard numbers ignored so much. Future pay rises. Quality of life. Esteem. Dignity. Reliance on the government to keep their promises. Dammit, her sanity!

At the time she was tired, though, still recovering from Therese’s birth, and the sting of the lower offer at work. In a fit of anger, she’d decided that she could freelance from home. A two-fingers to work and the Man.

Ha! Reality soon set in. Like anyone had time for anything else with two kids. It was energy-sapping. Constant vigilance required.

The worst of it was when she thought a little further down the line, when they started going to school. Would she become a stay-at-home mom? In her mother’s era that was fine – it was the done thing, kids minded themselves more, and there were other mothers to chat with and meet for a cup of tea. These days, though, it was so different.

Nearly everyone she had met in the first prenatal class, for Maria, had drifted back to work, ostensibly to help with family finances, but they seemed happier since. She was almost the only one – in fact, she would be the only one, once Hilary returned to her old job in July – not working at least part-time. It was terrifying, really. She suddenly felt alone and left behind, the gap growing with every month she stayed at home.

She heard another crackle from the monitor, and put her glass down to creep upstairs, see how they were doing. Beautiful babies, loves of her life. That was the hard bit. Whenever she felt bitter about her choice, she only had to look at her two angels to feel an overwhelming guilt for having had such thoughts. How could anyone not want to spend all their time with these two precious girls?

She leaned in over Maria and breathed her smell deeply. Ah, sweet scent. She had read that babies emit certain pheromones that acted like a drug for women. Well, darling, Mommy needs a hit today. She looked over at Therese. She tiptoed over and brushed the hair back from her face gently. So hard not to touch them, lift them up and cuddle them. My little everythings, my beautiful little girls.

The rain was drumming softly on the kitchen window when she came back downstairs, a hypnotic effect in the darkened calm of the house, warm lighting and the rug and thick socks. She boosted the heating for an hour as she passed the wall panel, just to take the edge off the cold – in May, imagine!

As she fell back into the couch, her foot tipped the glass over. Oh shit! she said, grabbing the stem quickly. Just a few drops. She thought about getting some white wine to set about remedying the situation, but it was only a few drops.

The cream rug too, of all the things. They’d got it before the girls arrived. Might as well use it and enjoy it, because it wouldn’t last much longer. She had seen glimpses of their future in other homes, and it was not a bright white one: they all start out with the finest of furnishings, clean surfaces, everything polished to a shine. Then baby numero uno arrives and the dusting loses priority. Then the marks appear on everything – clothes, furniture, walls, your face – until a critical mass was reached and you no longer even noticed or cared.

She still kept their place tidy, but then she wasn’t working. She felt guilty if she let things slip a little, afraid Derek would judge her. He had no right to, but she felt he did, a little. Sometimes.

He’d come home after a tough meeting or one of the trips to HQ in the States and he would be tired, cranky. Everything that met his gaze fell short in one way or another. It was terrible, but she couldn’t invite him to express himself, or they would have another frustrated row.

They never served any purpose, these rows. They both said stuff, but it didn’t seem like things were better afterwards. Nor were they even worse, just the same. Like a pressure cooker fizzing and pfffting. The pressure underneath was always blowing or just about to. The release didn’t suddenly provide a respite. Maybe they argued about the wrong things. That was possible.

No, that was definite in her case. She refilled her glass and stepped carefully over the little red blobs on the floor. She would just say that Maria spilt her juice, if he noticed.

It went deeper, in her case. Her whole life was on hold, indefinitely, and she was frozen, trapped, and not sure the marriage was giving her everything she needed. There, she said it. No. She didn’t even dare say it here, alone in the house. It seemed terrible enough to think it. But there it was. How do you have that argument, say what you truly feel? If she said that, what would she hope to gain from it?

It was pointless. She would gain nothing from it, that was the thing. Would it make Derek react? Would he just laugh and say she was being hysterical? No, what could he say, what could he do? He was as trapped as she was, that was the thing, like two insects side-by-side in amber. She plucked once more at her eye to remove the lash, in vain, drawing only tears and pain.

She couldn’t simply start anew in some other place, with someone else, forget everything had ever happened. It wasn’t that easy. They were married. What would people say? There was the house, how to split that? And the car, his car? Ha, wouldn’t that be funny.

But then, most of all, there were the girls. It wouldn’t be right; it wouldn’t be fair on them.

Fuck. It wasn’t fair on her, either, though. He got to be the hero, coming home all joy and smiles, while she was the demon who punished them if they were bold, the face they saw so much of, too much of. The one they ran to when they were scared. They needed her, and she needed them.

They were everything to her, her entire purpose now. And yet, they were all that stopped her, in all honesty, from walking out. That was the truth of it.

The other truth was that if they were not here, she’d be working and there likely wouldn’t be an issue. They would be like they were before: Derek wouldn’t expect things to be done around the house, silently measuring her worth every evening with his glances. They would share the housework, eat out like they used to do, with friends, go to concerts, the movies. Skiing. Holidays in the sun. God, the sun, remember that?

She drank some wine then swirled the last of it thoughtfully, the ruby liquid swimming in her vision. How strange, she thought, that what binds you together can push you apart.

 

***

Evening Strolls

The evenings were starting to draw in, so Shay began taking his strolls again. Like a swallow, his migration instinct kicked in about this time every year, the strong desire to head south, although in his case – without wings – the range kept him a little closer to home.

The bus whisked out past Ballsbridge, red-brown brick houses set back behind big old trees. The leaves were just turning to gold, shivering in today’s crisp breeze. On the bus went, out through further leafy suburbs of Dublin 4, the lit-up offices interspersed with the darkened windows of empty homes, some just now flaring into life as people returned to their nests, another day’s work done.

Jonathan finished up with a client and glanced at his watch. Just after four-thirty. The meeting had gone on nearly ninety minutes. He gathered his notes together for a few moments, then buzzed out to his secretary.

Yes, Mr Carson?

Okay Sheila, bill that for three hours, and that’s me done for the day.

Yes, Mr Carson.

Jonathan left by the rear door, down to the carpark, and sat into his Jaguar for the drive out home.

Shay sat downstairs in the bus, behind the driver’s seat. He didn’t ever go upstairs. There was something about being up there he didn’t like, a sensation of feeling trapped.

He watched two old ladies grapple with each other getting off the bus just before Monkstown, both attempting to prove their able-bodiedness by helping the weaker one down. The collection of dark wool coats and hats tottered back the way the bus had come, as the bus pushed on through the centre of Monkstown.

If it could still be called that. The place was no longer an entity unto itself, just another traffic choke-point for the commuters heading homeward to Dun Laoghaire, Greystones and Bray.

Jonathan gunned the engine and made it across another set of lights switching from amber to red. He had escaped the office before the worst of the rush hour traffic, and so made good time, although one did have to be careful of schoolkids around Blackrock, and their complete lack of awareness of traffic.

He cracked the window and breathed in the crisp clear air.

Grand evening, he thought. He’d get the dog’s walk out of the way early, then relax for the evening with a glass of his favourite tipple – forty-year-old single-malt Kinclaith.

Once more, he shoved his foot onto the accelerator and whisked past a bus, and another set of lights, then a sharp left before an oncoming car. He gave an indignant retort at the admonition of the car’s horn.

I made it, didn’t I? he said aloud, to no one in particular.

Shay stood up and pressed the button for the next stop. The bus driver pulled to a halt at a gap left between parked cars, and Shay jumped off, mumbling his appreciation to the driver.

Outside, he left a trail of breathfog in the chilly air as he cut across the main thoroughfare, headed down a street that was not so bothered by traffic. This quieter street pointed due east, across the Irish Sea, and with the change in aspect, the wind made its presence felt a little more. The trees insistently shushed all that other noise away, the cars and buses and bustle. Straight out ahead, Shay could see the grey-flecked water and already-blackened eastern sky. A few twinkles, some stars, some late boats returning to Dun Laoghaire Pier.

Grand evening for it, Shay thought. He cast a glance to the houses to his left as he passed down the street, then picked up his pace a touch as he headed down the lane at the rear. Circling around the back, Shay watched more carefully.

Seeing that the lane was quite clear, he jumped against an overgrown wall and clambered in over. Catching his breath, he took stock of his surroundings. As he’d expected, the garden was in poor condition. Overgrown bushes, patchy lawn. Matched the front. It made sense.

He had scouted this place, amongst others, for a few weeks now. He’d gone on his strolls in the evening. He’d gone for his walks in the morning. Heading into the winter was the perfect time: morning or evening, the dark meant that everyone had their lights on if they were in a room, letting him tally up the population within.

In the case of this house, Number 39, it was certain that no one lived there but one ould fella.

Trevor was listening to the radio, a discussion about the by-election in Carlow-Kilkenny. He felt cold, even though the heater was on in the front-room and the air was stuffy. Trevor took a handkerchief to his nose and blew weakly. He dabbed around his left nostril to clear away any remaining blood and replaced the handkerchief in his cardigan pocket.

Gripping the arms of the chair with an intensity borne of necessity, he pushed unsteadily to his feet and shuffled out to the hall.

Jonathan called down the hall to Karen that he was taking Rex for his walk, and leashed him up. He headed out, taking a right to the end of the street, casting a glance along the front of the houses he passed, appraising them as he went, comparing them to his own recently-acquired pile.

Shay watched now from the bushes as the ould fella came through the doorway of the kitchen from the hallway and threw on the light. He looked doddery on his feet, feeble in his old age. And living alone.

That was the important thing. Shay could be in and back out before the ould fella knew anything. Wouldn’t know he was even there, would hardly miss whatever Shay took. He’d grab whatever few valuables that were handy and be gone again. Wallet, cash, watches, small and light and easy to move. And whatever the takings, they didn’t have to be split two ways anymore.

Shay used to work with Midgy, but he wouldn’t be working for a while now. Feckin eejit. And not even for burglary, either – unlawful possession of a firearm and aggravated assault. That was a long stint.

A pity; there was safety in numbers somehow, a bit of comfort. But that was Midgy: always after the soft touch. He’d gotten it too, from one of the local pushers. The easy money. It was always on offer from them fellas, to just stand there outside while these lads do the real work. They made it sound like charity, no risk. But they wouldn’t be offering money to every crook and user who walked in the door if that was the case. So Shay had always turned it down. He’d get his money the hard way. The way he could rely on.

The bus into town and out to these suburbs. Monkstown, Ballsbridge, Leopardstown: these places, small estates full of big old houses, full of older people that refused to go into some old folk’s home. The ones sitting on goldmines, and their families only desperate for them to croak so they could get at the money themselves, the greedy bastards.

Jonathan took Rex around the back of the properties opposite his own. You could tell an awful lot from the rear of a property, he felt. Just like in his line of work: everyone put up a public face, but once one got behind that, it was quite clear how much of a show that façade was. If only to legitimise Jonathan’s neighbourly nosiness, Rex still retained utility.

Otherwise, Rex was old and an inconvenience. He gassed around the house, barked at nothing, shed hair, and did his business in the street more often than in the lane. Still, Karen had refused to have him put down, so Jonathan just had to put up with the dog for now.

Rex stayed clinging to one side of the lane, stopping, sniffing, going on again, returning to a patch he’d missed, lifting a leg. Jonathan wondered how much piss the dog used up in each walk. He never seemed to run out of the stuff.

All the while, even as he observed people’s houses from the back, Jonathan was waiting and hoping for the ‘big stop’ right here, in the back lane. If the dog went here, Jonathan wouldn’t bother picking it up – there was no real need, he figured, and the rain would wash it away – but on the street, where a neighbour might notice, he’d have to.

It was a foul deed, having to crouch and fold up the dog’s faeces in a thin plastic bag, still warm, while the wretched dog watched you clean up his mess. It was demeaning, simply horrible. He shivered in disgust.

Trevor groped around the countertop in the cold pallid gloom of the energy-saving lightbulb. His eyes were weaker nowadays. His last trip to the optician had nearly seen him lose his driving licence, so he hadn’t been back since. Some glitch in the system had kept him free from a re-test, so he did what he could to avoid causing a fuss. That was six years ago, and his glasses, if he could find the damned things, still left things blurred and foggy.

He shuffled around the kitchen using the table in the centre as his anchor point. He mostly operated on familiarity nowadays, around the house, a memory of where things were, shapes and edges. If things were moved around – by that busybody social worker – he knocked into chairs and suffered bruises and couldn’t find his medicines. Like now. He muttered to himself as his hands searched about for his pills.

Why can’t she leave things as they are? he grumbled, feeling around on the counter. Why does she have to move things around on me?

Shay was on his hunkers in the back garden behind two bushes. The garden at the lower end was completely overgrown, bushes spilling out over the wall onto the lane.

Thanks be to Jaysus there were no briars, Shay thought. Climbing through them, getting all scratched up? No thanks, mister, I’ll find an easier gaff.

Between Shay’s pair of shrubs and the house, the light cast through the kitchen window showed on alternating patches of bare clayey mud and weedy grass, on what had once been a fine garden.

No one around to keep it now, thought Shay. A massive place like this would need fulltime gardeners, bit of maintenance, that sort of thing. At the least, people to use the grass, play football on it, mow it. One ould fella wasn’t enough in a gaff like this.

The front, he remembered from his scouting mission, wasn’t any better, the hedge coming out through the railings onto the footpath, and a heap of ivy over the porch looking like it was fit to collapse and bring the whole gaff down with it.

Jonathan, flicking through some emails on his phone as Rex sprinkled the grassy shadow at the base of a telephone pole, would have agreed thoroughly with Shay: he considered that the front of Number 39 was a disgrace.

He and Karen had moved in, across the street and two doors down, last October, and despite having a range of business interests to otherwise occupy it, his mind constantly returned to the house across the street. What could be done? he wondered. The unruliness lowered the tone of the street, he felt. The overgrown shrubs, turned feral, were in sharp contrast with the manicured lawns and perennial floral displays that Karen had had installed at the front of their place.

No, thought Jonathan, you wouldn’t get that state of disrepair if the Sullivans were there. Lottie Sullivan would make sure of that. Wouldn’t that be a nice solution all round?

Trevor’s large loose hands shook as they searched along the back of the counter near the sink. Two at eight, with his breakfast, and two at five, before his evening meal.

Not that the evening meal was much to talk about, some brown bread and butter, perhaps a little cheese when his constitution could handle it.

In his youth, Trevor had the appetite of two men. In his youth, he could swim an hour straight in the Irish Sea, from the Pier around to the Forty Foot and back. He used to go out, to a dance, on a Friday evening and come home after Saturday’s dawn was done, and sleep fourteen hours straight that night. Now, he ate no more than a little sparrow. Now, he was afraid to get into the bath. Now, if he was lucky, he would snatch four hours through the night, in little pockets of sleep here and there.

Age had taken everything that was important: Ethel first and most of all, then eyesight, hearing, appetite, health.

As Shay kept an eye on the ould fella through the kitchen window, he suddenly heard ferocious barking behind him. He leapt to his feet and whirled to face the danger, but there was nothing there.

Nothing immediate, anyway. The barking was outside the wall, out in the lane. A dog on his scent?

Heart drumming, Shay crouched in total silence. On his side, at least: the dog outside was still barking like crazy. Then a man, shouting:

Come away, Rex! Damn you, Rex. Rex. Rex! Come here, you stupid dog!

Shay heard the scuffling of paws on the road, and then a yelp, before the noise of muttering owner and whimpering hound receded.

After straining to listen a while more, he risked a glance out over the top of the wall. He spotted the bulk of a man and his best friend away to the south, turning downhill for the coast. All else in the lane was at peace again, and Shay turned back to the house.

The kitchen was now empty, but the light was still on. Shay figured he missed the ould fella leaving when the dog was barking, though in his experience, the oldies didn’t waste a spark of electricity. In that case, the ould fella could be putting on an egg or something, so he might just hold on in the garden for another five minutes.

Shay’s legs were getting stiff in the damp, so he adjusted his footing and looked once again at the back door. He had got a good look at it earlier, when it was a little brighter, and reckoned he could open it easy enough. Most of these old doors were a cinch, if the bolts hadn’t been shut across. Even if they had been, the wood was rotten in either the door or the frame. Especially the frame, attached to the perpetual damp of the wall.

All the old houses went one of two ways: either the ould fella was too tight to change a thing, or he had every new invention going: the fancy new doors and security alarms and attack whistles and panic alarms and everything else besides. Make no mistake, them fellas were getting shafted too, only they were getting robbed by legitimate crooks – the security companies and salesmen, peddling all that shite and scaring ould ones with fearmongering.

When it came to the older doors, Shay was a dab hand. He’d worked in a locksmith’s as a younger lad, for a while anyway. It was interesting enough at first, boring as shite for a finish. He just wasn’t cut out for a regular job. But it had been useful in his line of work, all the same: any house that hadn’t gone over to the new PVC doors, he could open them without leaving a mark. It was the deadbolts that gave the trouble, but even then, if you gave them a sharp shove, they’d give way. Afterwards, the screws could nearly always be pushed back into the timber fairly neatly. Only someone taking a good hard look would spot it, and the cops had enough to be going on with, between paperwork and taking statements from the neighbours.

Jonathan’s self-imposed mission on his walks was to keep an eye out for a potential home in the area on behalf of the Sullivans, ever since they’d called on Karen and him several months back.

Jim and Lottie Sullivan had sold up and moved out from their place on Haddington Road in Ballsbridge three years back, after Jim had his big windfall selling his company. They’d had a quaint notion of retiring early, and had found a charming place nestled in under the Wicklow mountains. The period farmhouse on two hundred acres was meant as a sort of hobby-farm for Jim and their two boys, but Lottie said to Karen that they were finding it all a bit parochial out there, and that Jim just wasn’t cut out for the muck and dirt of country life.

Jonathan figured that it was more likely Jim missed the buzz of the business world, and said as much to Karen.

Jonathan also knew that Jim was still sitting on a bunch of money from the sale, and he had the very project for Jim and his cash. Helping to find the Sullivans somewhere on his own back doorstep was all part of a grand plan.

Shay looked once more through the bushes, without seeing any further movement within. Right, fuck it, he muttered, and made a dash for the back of the house.

He was plastered against the wall below the kitchen window now, and stretching to his full height, could just about peer in, enough to convince himself that there was no one in the kitchen. Might as well go for it, he thought. Could spend all evening out here freezing, and yer man inside in the sitting-room with his Alzheimer’s having forgotten all about the light.

Shay slipped over to the back door and pulled out his skeleton keys. The lock was a Chubb, one of the standard set. Grand. He turned the latch but the door held firm. That was funny. He didn’t think there was a bolt on it. He shoved on the door a little more and it gave. Then there was a high-pitched squeak. Shay gasped then held his breath, listening. An alarm?

No, he realised. The jamb, swollen and bowed out against the door. The noise of wood on wood. He put his shoulder to the door and gave it a quick shove. The door yielded, and he was in.

Shay nudged it open a fraction and peered in. He heard noise, voices arguing, from the other room. He froze, suddenly wary. Someone else here? No, he realised, listening to the outraged tones a little longer. Politicians. On the radio, it sounded like, not the telly.

His nose took in the warm cloying air, gas fire, mustiness. The smell of old. A vague tang of a bin somewhere with eggs or meat in it. Gone off, beginning to smell. No smell nor sound of a dog, though. That was the important thing. No barking. He’d have seen him anyway, the dog, over the last couple of days. Dogs need walked, or to be taken out for a shite anyway.

Typical, muttered Jonathan. Sure enough, Rex had decided to go on the footpath, and as a couple approached. He couldn’t just ignore it, so there was nothing to do but fall to one knee and pull a plastic bag from his pocket. Between this and the barking earlier, he was in danger of slipping into a foul mood that his single-malt would do nothing to alleviate.

Shay gave a last look behind him, out into the garden, for reassurance, then edged into the kitchen.

And that’s when he saw him, the ould fella. His legs anyway. Two legs, sticking out on the far side of the table in the middle of the kitchen.

Fuck, Shay mouthed. He straightened up in silence and took a quick glance around the room, then out into the hallway. Still the radio people argued. Shay’s breathing had stopped of its own accord. The voices in his head started arguing amongst themselves over what to do.

He whirled around. The back door. Could he just leave as he had come? No. He could not. Fuck it, he could. Bollocks, no, he couldn’t. Maybe. But would the cops be called if someone was dead? Would someone decide to take a closer look at the door?

Fuck, he said once more, under his breath. Jesus!

He peered around the corner of the table. Was yer man dead? He wasn’t moving, and he looked pale. Still, he mightn’t be dead.

What could Shay do, though – ring an ambulance? Say he happened to be passing by? Mind you, if he was dead already… Well, the only thing was to put it to rest: either he was dead or he wasn’t dead.

Shay crept around the other side of the table, to the man’s head. He crouched down and leaned in, listening. He didn’t seem to be breathing. He stood up and looked around, spotting a knife. Hunkering down again, he brought the blade to the man’s lips and tilted it. Shay caught his own reflection in it and wondered what in the hell he was playing at. Shay pulled the knife closer to the man’s lips for an instant, then drew it up to himself.

Fuck it. There was a light fog. He was still breathing. Great news for the ould fella, but not so magnificent for Shay. What the fuck should he do now?

If he called an ambulance, forensics might run through the place. He looked down at his hands. He had gloves on, he was grand there, but everything else? He’d been careful ever since he’d got out, and that was three years gone, but there was no guarantee they weren’t checking up on him, or watching him. No guarantee they wouldn’t find something – DNA, mud on a shoe, something – that would link him to the crime. Even if he did nothing now, only got the hell out, he could still be done for breaking and entering, and who knows what kind of case they’d make. Had he done this, had he scared yer man to death?

No, Shay thought, I didn’t make a sound. If I do nothing now, this old fella might die, or he might not, but it’s nothing to do with me. My conscience is clear. Time to get out.

With a quick flick of his wrist, Jonathan threw Rex’s bag of dirt into a skip on the Strand Road outside a house someone was in the middle of renovating, and turned for home. Lightened of that load, and buoyed by the bracing wind cutting in from the coast, he was looking forward once more to his evening and his whiskey.

Come on Rex, he shouted more jovially at the dog. Rex, hearing the change in his master’s tone, scampered for home in his arthritic way, hind quarters bouncing off to one side.

Back in the kitchen, Shay was still rooted to the spot.

Bollocks, he said. Fuck it anyway.

He couldn’t just leave him to die. That was the same as killing him, and whatever else Shay’d done, he’d never killed anyone. Never held a knife or a gun to someone. Christ, he’d never even held a gun: that shit was trouble. Just look at Midgy.

Ah Shay, you’re a fuckin eejit, he said aloud.

After a quick search, Shay found the house phone, in the front room by the bar heater, and dialled. He held the receiver to his ear: it rang a moment, and answered almost immediately.

Howya, yeah, Shay said. Here, will ya send an ambulance to 39 Monkstown Terrace, there’s an ould fella here lying in his gaff nearly dead… I don’t know, I just found him…I don’t know, I said. Yous are supposed to be the professionals. Look, just send the bloody ambulance, would ya?

He hung up and made for the front door. He opened it wide, and considered bolting this way, but a woman with a pram was approaching. Shay rushed back down the hallway to the back door. He wasn’t sure where the nearest hospital was, but he knew the cop shop was less than ten minutes away, if they were called, and he couldn’t be seen to be running from the place. He couldn’t be seen, full stop. If the guards wanted to take this further and look for suspects or witnesses, he didn’t want to be noticed by anyone. A fella like him might well get noticed in Monkstown, even if he was dressed the part.

He was wearing what he always wore for his evening strolls, what he called his posh clothes: black pants, a jacket he’d robbed once and a hat. He reckoned he didn’t stick out so much, and between the dark evenings and the hat, it’d be harder to positively identify him afterwards.

Cutting across the back lawn, he noticed the mud was soft enough to take his footprints. That was a trail leading to him, and to his shoes. They’d have to go. And the buses had cameras installed too, so he had to be careful there. Fucking cameras everywhere these days.

He climbed up onto the wall and watched a moment, up and down the lane. Nothing, all clear. He prepared to jump down when a car suddenly swept around into the narrow lane.

Fuck. Shay held his breath and his jump, clinging on to the top of the wall. The headlights weren’t those of a squad car, but even if it was just someone driving into their garage at the back of their gaff, he’d still be screwed if they saw him coming down off the wall.

Come on, come on, Shay muttered. What the hell are they at, crawling along like that?

Fuck, he thought, maybe it was undercover. The car stopped dead twenty metres away and Shay gave thought to making a run for it past the car.

Then there was a clanking noise, and the garage door just ahead to the left of the car opened. Shay’s heart pounded in his chest even as relief washed over him.

Before the car’s tail-lights were gone fully in, Shay had hit the ground, and was walking as fast as he could towards the other end of the lane.

He heard sirens in the distance and had to resist the strong urge to leg it. No, if anyone saw him pegging it away from here, it’d look way too suspect. Stay calm, he thought. You’re grand.

He reached the end of the lane. To the right was Monkstown; to the left was the water. All the noise and busy streets – potential witnesses – were up the hill to the right, so that made up his mind for him. He could head down towards the water, get the DART there at the station, or walk along by the shore for a bit, even, and skip on to the next station, grab it at Blackrock or Booterstown.

He turned down onto the Strand Road and loped along the footpath, still on high alert. He caught a glimpse up ahead of a fella with a dog. The same fella as before? Looked like the same shape alright.

Rex, with a head start on Jonathan, made straight for the scent he had got earlier.

Rex! Get back here! shouted Jonathan, huffing up the slight hill after him as the dog began barking at the man coming against them.

Shay shook the dog away from his trousers, not wanting to kick it and have the fella get aggro on him.

Rex! Rex! puffed the fella, catching up with the dog and yanking him back from Shay’s trouser leg. Terribly sorry, he said.

Ah no worries, man, said Shay, pushing by quickly with his head tilted to the ground. The fella hadn’t got a good look at his face, he figured, and the street was dark enough. Besides, the owner didn’t know him from Adam. He couldn’t have seen him earlier. No reason for him to suspect anything. He’d just put it down to his dog going off on a mad one. Shay glanced down at his leg. The trousers would have to go.

Jonathan crouched holding Rex’s collar, whines still emanating from the dog.

What the hell is wrong with you this evening? he asked aloud, but Rex only growled in reply.

Rex had bitten through that fellow’s trousers; it was a fine thing the man had brushed it off, but if he hadn’t, or if Rex had hit flesh, it could have been tricky, because Rex ought to be on a leash by law. As with all legal matters, Jonathan made a very good living from interpreting the law to suit himself, and thus Rex went without a leash more often than not. Jonathan cast a glance back at the man striding away down the hill, in a strange attire of cheap black trousers, designer coat and baseball cap. An eccentric, he thought.

Jonathan continued up to Monkstown Terrace, passing the front of Number 39 once more as he did so. The front door of the ramshackle place was open. Jonathan shook his head ruefully. That was all they needed around here, he thought. He climbed the steps to his own house. After he had hung the leash on the hook in the front hall, he went back out to the front porch to survey his street once more.

Of all the properties there, that rundown place was the one he really kept an eye on. The inhabitant almost as much as the place itself: the owner was a cranky old devil, coughing and spluttering into a grubby grey handkerchief on the few occasions Jonathan encountered him. But Jonathan could look past that, and beyond the creepers and the filth of the property. He could see the potential, the leverage.

The house would be sold when the present occupant croaked, he was sure of that. He’d never seen anyone visit the place that didn’t have the look of a social worker. No family or close next-of-kin, it seemed, which would be handy come the time, he thought. Besides, with capital gains tax, whoever it was that inherited it would likely have to sell anyway, which was perfect. Jonathan would be well-positioned to make sure it came Jim Sullivan’s way.

Shay hadn’t had time to count the cash, but there must have been close on a few grand in the tin box in the living room. He’d thought about leaving it, but then he decided: fuck it, it was a cheap price to pay for a life if the ould fella made it. Hopefully he would and all that, but at least if he didn’t, the cash was better off with Shay than some greedy bastard who didn’t even visit.

He emptied the cash into his inside pockets and threw the box out across the DART line into the water, then headed for the station in the dark.

The wailing siren Jonathan had heard in the distance grew louder, and an ambulance braked down at the end of the street and turned up towards him. From his lofty vantage across the street, he looked on with mounting interest as it screeched to a stop outside the dilapidated frontage of Number 39. One of the men got out and headed to the front door.

The driver exited the vehicle and opened the back doors of the ambulance. A shout from the other fellow and the driver retrieved a gurney from the rear of the amublance and brought it up the gravelled path, and on up the steps into the house.

The two men emerged moments later with the gurney, and the old man on it, the driver talking to the radio thing on his shoulder. The ambulance went up to the end of the cul-de-sac and managed a tight turn there, then sailed down past Jonathan without the sirens.

Approaching the bottom of the street, the whoop-whoop of the sirens came on and the ambulance disappeared from view. Jonathan figured they always did that, that thing with the sirens, so they could get to their cigarette break a little quicker.

To him, it didn’t look as though the old man would be returning. Now that was interesting. He slipped his phone out of his pocket and sent a message.

Could be an exciting new development on our street. Will keep you posted.

That little investment deal with Jim Sullivan’s cash could be on the cards sooner than expected. Excellent. He shut his front door and went through to the lounge to tell Karen the good news.

 

***

The Circle of Life

Brenda woke with a start, burning, sweat all over her body. The same strange dream, in a clearing outside the village in India. Everything had started fine, they all sat in the circle cross-legged and breathed deeply as they did every morning. But then he looked at her, the yogi, and his gaze penetrated deep into her, into her soul, it seemed, searching for the secrets she kept even from herself. Then two flashes of light burst forth from his eyes, blinding her, or, or was it that…?

It was all so confusing now. It didn’t make sense, the dream, but it was always the same, each time. She shoved up onto an elbow and gulped on some water from the glass on the bedstand. It was stale, the water, there for a week or more. She registered the faint film of dust and tiny bits of fluff clinging to the sides as she returned the glass to the bedstand. With one eye still shut, so that she needn’t wake yet if she didn’t have to, she fixed the open eye on the clock. Six-twenty, it claimed. And Monday morning.

She sighed and fell back into the sheets. An in-between hour. Almost two hours before she needed to get up, so she could either try to go back to sleep, or get up and do her yoga, the daily routine that she hadn’t done in weeks.

Still tired, she turned onto her right, away from the streetlamp and the thin curtain, and closed her eyes, but her foot brushed against some sweat-dampened part of the sheets, and the unexpectedness startled her from slumber.

Mumbling to herself, Brenda climbed out of bed and went to the bathroom. She came back into the room to pick up the yoga mat and brought it downstairs.

In the front room, the small sidetable had been left in the middle of the floor. A tray sat on it, one half-drained teacup – Mum – a mug for Dad, and an empty plate with a trail of crumbs on the floor leading to Dad’s chair.

Honestly, Brenda wondered, why couldn’t they clear these things away at night, instead of leaving the mess until the next day? She lifted the entire ensemble to one side of the couch and unrolled the mat in its stead.

She closed her eyes and stood at the edge of the mat, breathing deeply to centre herself, but in the dark those stupid flashing eyes returned in her mind, so she dragged open the curtains and welcomed in a grey windy morning before returning to the top of the mat.

First position: Adho Mukha Svanasana, she whispered to herself. Downward Dog. She eased into the pose and held it, keeping her knees slightly bent and her core engaged. She took a deep breath, pushed back into her heels and began to relax.

A creaking noise above, from their bed. Important to stay focused, ignore what’s going on outside your mind. Hear noise, acknowledge it but don’t focus on it. Be a mountain, and let thoughts roll by like clouds.

Muffled coughing again, from above, the ritual emptying of his lungs and the hobbled footsteps of Dad rising. Brenda’s mind wandered despite herself.

He was seventy-three next month, and had more ailments than she could keep track of. When she had returned from India, Brenda had tried to get him to share in the benefits of what she had learned, the importance of stretching, some simple yoga positions, but he was having none of it.

Mum, on the other hand, had enthusiastically tried them, laughing at the silly names, but she wouldn’t take it seriously, and wanted to be able to do everything first time out. When she couldn’t, she lost interest. No matter that she was in her seventies and probably hadn’t stretched since she had given birth to Jim. No matter that Brenda had spent a month in India, working on these poses for four hours a day. No, Mum had to be able to do everything first time.

So neither of them had joined in, despite the benefits they would reap. Mum was worse, because at least Dad complained about his back and the pains in his legs and his lungs. Mum just said nothing, trying to be the hero as ever. But as Brenda’s English teacher used to say to them: Life is a tragedy, and the tragic hero must die. Brenda would rather not have any more heroes, just parents who would live on for ever.

She changed to Chandrasana, facing the fireplace. Heavy steps on the stairs preceded her father coming into the room.

Well, he said, what one is that you’re doing?

Brenda reminded him, once more, that she was not supposed to speak while doing yoga.

Why not?

It’s a form of meditation.

He didn’t get it, of course. Dad was not for meditating on anything more than what might be for dinner later.

Meditating about what? he asked.

Life, Dad. Our purpose.

Ha, purpose, is it? he said, and shuffled through to the kitchen. The kettle began to churn and a chair scraped back across the tiles. More coughing, a groan for his back, then banging of cupboard doors as he fetched his bowl and the oats. Further elucidation followed from the sage when the kitchen was on the verge of quietening for a moment:

Enjoy life while you have it. While you’re still young.

It was impossible. He added the radio to the cacophony of chewing and coughing. In India, at the retreat, Brenda had never had to put up with this level of intrusion. She felt more like a cloud than a mountain at this moment.

Was that the right answer, Brenda?

The kettle sounded like a launching rocket and her nostrils picked up the porridge on the stove: it was an overwhelming assault on too many senses. No one could concentrate in these conditions.

Stomach grumbling, focus lost, she straightened up and left the loosely-rolled mat at the bottom of the stairs. Maybe after work, she thought, and padded out to the kitchen to grab breakfast.

Well, did you hear my answer? said her father.

I did, Dad, said Brenda, patiently.

Was it right?

It’s different for everyone.

Ye went to town last night?

Yeah, I told you. I went to the cinema with Yvonne.

But didn’t ye go anywhere after; a pub or anything?

No, we had a coffee around the corner then we came on home.

Brenda could feel herself about to lose it. Just stop talking now, Dad, please, she thought, to no avail.

Sure Brenda, you’ll never meet another fella that way.

Jesus Dad, leave me alone, will you? Brenda stormed out of the kitchen, leaving her father and his cooling porridge to themselves.

What was wrong with her at all? he wondered, stirring the steaming gloop in the bowl and risking another mouthful. All this feckin meditation nonsense and that yoga. She hadn’t been the same since she came back from there – and he was against it in the first place – but of course her mother had caved in. Paid for it all too.

She should pay for it herself, if she wants to go that badly, he had said.

Look, it’ll do her the world of good–

If you wanted something in my day–

John, it’s not your day any more, no more than it is mine; it’s her day, her time.

He had had the thought since then that maybe she was a lesbian. Maybe that was what was eating her. And if she was, so what? he thought. Gerry Brennan’s daughter was one for the last ten years, and Gerry only laughed about it now.

At this stage, John didn’t care. Thanks be to God, at least everything was on an even keel with Jim. A fine big house, and Tina, and two grandkids for John, a boy and a girl. Tina was a grand girl, and sensible, not like Brenda. Of course, Brenda had been like that, before. Sensible. Now? He blew on the porridge and shook his head again.

A shadow came across the table. He looked up. Tessie.

Well? she said.

Well what?

What did you say to her this time?

Nothing. Jesus, I’m only trying to straighten the girl out, Tessie.

She doesn’t need straightening out, John, she needs our support.

Arrah Christ, support! he said quickly. She’s a grown girl, tis time for her to cop on to herself and find another man.

He got up abruptly and strode out to the back door, then turned. Or a woman, he added, I’ve told her that. I don’t care at this stage.

With that, he was gone. Tessie threw her eyes to heaven. What would they do, all of them? Two’s company, but three’s a crowd. That was for love affairs, wasn’t it, but it applied just as well to them.

Since the accident, since Brenda had moved back home, they were all on edge with one another: John constantly at Brenda to find someone, Brenda battling back that he should leave her alone, and herself caught in the middle trying to keep the peace. She wished things could go back to the way they were.

Of course, that could never be, but she had still hoped, dipping into their savings to pay for Brenda to go on her little trip. And when she came back, she did have a new light about her, a radiance.

Ah, it’s only all shine, John said, when Tessie had mentioned it to him.

Tessie disagreed, but he was right. It was a funny kind of bouncy positivity, all on the surface, as if everything had been buried beneath. Brenda wasn’t letting anything out, trying to put the brave face on it, and all the yoga and meditation in the world couldn’t change the fact that she had undergone a traumatic experience.

John didn’t see why Brenda hadn’t moved on, why she couldn’t move on, but Tessie knew how terrible it must be – still – for their daughter.

Brenda stood numbly under the shower, as if water would wash away everything: the well-meaning questions, the awkward realities. She was thirty-eight, and back living in her parents’ home. She knew that. She didn’t love the arrangement either, but she also didn’t need a reminder of it every Monday morning from her own father.

She put on her foundation in the half-fogged mirror, then the rest at the mirror in her room. Back under the same eaves as her parents once more, having left nearly two decades ago to move in with friends. She had changed more than they had, and it was an impossible setup. Mum understood, though Brenda often caught her stealing a glance at her with that loving but sad expression on her face. She didn’t want sympathy. She just did not want it – anything – mentioned.

Brenda pulled on a cardigan over her blouse and decided to just grab something in the canteen before work. She couldn’t face Dad again this morning. She clattered down the stairs in her heels and called a goodbye before pulling the door shut.

She opened the door of the car and threw her handbag in on the passenger seat. It was brand new, the car. Well, three months old now, but the safest car in its class. That had been important. Of course. Although it was too late, in a way.

A new hatchback, an iPad, a collection of shoes and clothes that had spread into Jim’s old room. Material possessions, she acknowledged, completely at odds with the teachings of the yogi. But it was different there, in a small retreat outside a village in rural India, cocooned by nature and others who either felt the same or owned nothing to begin with.

Back in the western world, it wasn’t quite so easy. A barefoot person walking around in robes and preaching against material possessions was more likely to end up locked up than revered. So she had adapted, bought possessions. There was an anonymity in them that she needed, a kind of shield.

So this was her, the new her. These things were what defined her now. The old ones were gone: they could never be brought back.

Brenda sat in and drove out of the estate, a quick beep goodbye and a wave to her mother. Mum had appeared in the shadow of the porch, as she did every morning since she had come back, this sad little wave, still in her dressing gown, and that same pitying expression on her face.

The single bed creaked as Tessie sat on the edge, and looked at the things on Brenda’s bedside locker. Her glasses case, a necklace, a dusty box of tissues, a grubby glass of water. Tessie picked up the necklace, a delicate one with little coloured stone beads, and looked around the room. Unconsciously she fingered the beads, murmuring to herself as she glanced around the walls for signs of her daughter’s past.

But there were none. Tessie had done this a hundred times and more: she knew there were none. It was as if Brenda had come into being two years ago, fully formed, with no past and no desire for a future. No wedding ring, no photographs, no indication that she had ever existed before she moved back into her childhood room.

Tessie looked up at the certificate Brenda had brought back from India, just to one side above the head of the single bed. It had replaced another award, from almost three decades ago: Nature Lover, from St Paul’s, Brenda’s primary school. Brenda had gathered more litter in her estate than any other child in her class. Was it third class or fourth? Tessie couldn’t remember. It was a long time ago. John had had to bring the bags to the dump. No such thing as recycling bins then.

Most of this new piece of paper was in some class of writing that Tessie couldn’t read. All apart from the name: Brenda Marion Desmond, in calligraphy. Three thousand, two hundred euro, and some change. All that for a name on a piece of paper. It could say anything, it wouldn’t have mattered. Tessie would gladly have paid it ten times over, more than they had in savings, if it would have brought her Brenda back.

But it hadn’t. The Brenda that came back was a bubble: like John said, all shine, empty inside. India hadn’t given them back their bright young girl. She had been so full of life before, the girl stolen from them, the day of the crash. What had Donal been thinking…? Tessie just couldn’t fathom it. Donal and their little grandson had died, and so had Brenda, the old one.

Time had moved on, but it was as if it had happened last week, in some ways. For Brenda, most of all. She hadn’t shared her grief. She hadn’t wailed, hadn’t taken time off work, hadn’t talked about it. Just locked down that entire part of her that had anything to do with it. PTSD, Tessie knew it was.

Post-traumatic stress disorder. She’d heard a lady on the radio one morning, a psychologist, talking about American soldiers returning from Afghanistan. As Tessie listened to the symptoms, they might as well have been talking about Brenda. The lady said that women were more likely to suffer than men, that the female soldiers were more prone to it. That was it then, for certain: her poor daughter had been in shock ever since the accident. Maybe the girl that came back from India was as good as they could hope for.

Tessie would love to have her see a counsellor or something, but she couldn’t force her daughter to do it. There was just something about what had happened, about Brenda herself and the way she clammed up or stormed out of a room. Tessie just couldn’t bring it up with her. She could get annoyed about it, Brenda’s unwillingness to cope or to move on, as John did. Or she could try to gently support her. But there was just something about Brenda and the accident that didn’t let the subject be brought up. It had to come from herself, and if she wouldn’t or couldn’t, then there was nothing to be done.

Outside, at the back, Tessie could hear the dull repetitive thumping. John, chopping up wood, as he did after every time he and Brenda spoke, it seemed. He couldn’t take his frustration out on anyone else or anything else but the poor ould lumps of wood. The timber was down to kindling at this stage, and if he didn’t get a new lump of a tree from somewhere, all they’d have would be sawdust in the back.

It wasn’t like it was easy on him, either. John had loved Donal like a second son, probably even a rival to Jim in his affections. Jim was a great boy, a model son, and he had everything in fine order, thanks be to God, but he knew everything, too. He couldn’t be told, and wouldn’t suffer to listen to his father tell him, how to do things.

In contrast, Donal would listen diligently to John’s advice, take interest in John’s nature walks up through the park, argue about rugby and football but let John have the last word, laugh at the same old jokes in all the right places. No, John missed Donal dearly – no doubt about that – but he was also accepting of life’s fundamental unfairness. John had buried many near and dear to him over the years, his mother dying young – long before Tessie had met him – his father after, and two brothers, and lifelong friends. Life was hard, brutal, always too short, and yet it went on, for those left to mourn. There was only one alternative to life, and it was a very final one.

Brenda woke with a gasp. She looked about her wildly, then her shoulders fell back and relaxed. She knew where she was, and when it was. It was Tuesday morning. It was six-thirty-seven. She was in her parents’ house. She was not in the clearing, and no pair of eyes gazed upon her.

Time for some yoga before work, if she was quiet about it. She tiptoed to the bathroom, then crept downstairs with her mat.

 

***

The Return of Declan Boyle

That Friday evening, as Michelle was applying the last touch of mascara before they went for their drink at Danny’s, she had to steady one hand with the other. It was shaking. She was shaking, more nervous than she could remember. And all because Declan Boyle was back.

Mum, are you ready yet? came the call from downstairs.

Cathal, jingling the car keys – a habit he’d clearly picked up from his father – trying to hurry his mother up, so he could drop his parents at the pub and get over to Gary’s to play their computer games.

Two minutes, she called.

She took another peek at her phone and the message she’d received earlier, the last of a series.

See u there 2nite?

She quickly replied:

Definitely, wouldn’t miss Danny’s on a Friday ;-)

She dropped the phone into her bag, and stood up, a little light-headed at the thought of seeing him. She still didn’t know how she would react.

It must have been over five years since she had last seen him, since he had disappeared off abroad once more. Only for Colette, his sister, mentioning his return last week, she would still be none the wiser as to her mystery texter’s identity.

As she slipped on low heels – heels, in Danny’s! They’ll be doing some looking – she remembered the first message: an unknown number, late last Saturday night, Sunday morning really.

The soft brr of the phone had woken her. Sleepily, she peered at the screen:

U looked hot 2nite. Hot!

She had been still half asleep as she first glanced at the phone, but the unexpectedness of the message woke her fully. Richard snored beside her, as he always did after a few pints. She quickly turned away and buried the phone under her pillow, to hide the light from it. And probably the guilt of having received such a message. She blushed.

Her first reaction was that it must be a prank, or a wrong number. It was ridiculous to think that someone else was thinking of her, like that, at that hour of the night.

Lying there in bed, she could have done anything. Ignore it, she thought to herself. She tried, for a minute, then shook her head. This is silly, she thought: I’ll just delete it. That would have been the sensible thing to do. In the end, though, curiosity got the better of her.

I mean, come on, Michelle thought, an admirer, at my age. Pull yourself together, woman, would you? Obviously it’s a wrong number.

Not that it was impossible. She was in good shape from the jogging – might pass for forty, late thirties even, if it was a casual glance. From a distance. In candlelight. Ah no, but she was looking well enough. It was just that things like this never happened in real life. To think that someone would text out of the blue, saying that she looked hot… Well, even if it was a wrong number, it was somehow flattering to pretend otherwise for now, a shot in the arm. No, it’s definitely the running, she thought. Even the notion of having a secret admirer was a boost to the ego. If you knew who it was, you might feel otherwise, but in the absence of that, you were free to assume the best – Brad Pitt, maybe, shooting a movie down at Glendalough, and co-starring with that fella out of Twilight. A low-budget movie, so the two of them had to share an Irish mobile while they were here, and fight for her love. Well there we are; mystery solved. And it was nice of them to think of her in that way, but she just wasn’t interested. Yeah right.

In the end, she couldn’t resist a reply. It was harmless in any case. She just wanted to know who it was that was messing around. Of course it was just a prank. She knew that. Of course it was, it had to be. She was just going to find out who it was, that was all.

Who is this?

She had slipped into the bathroom, lights still off, the blue-white glow of the phone colouring the tiles. She sat on the edge of the bath and examined the number once more.

She never used to have the phone by her bed, never saw any point, until Cathal and his pals had been out last year at a youth disco in Greystones and they couldn’t get a taxi until half-five. Frozen, he was; only a t-shirt on him, and jeans drowned wet from dancing around for three hours. Flu for the week, a bad dose, plus missed school, but most of all it had sent the frights up Michelle. What if it had been Lily? Fellas weren’t likely to end up with anything worse than a cold, but even a streetwise girl, at that hour of the night…? No, better to give Mum a call and she’d pick them up in less than ten minutes. It was peace of mind, for them – for Michelle, mostly – to know that they could contact her or Richard.

And but for having the phone there, by the bed, she’d never have seen that first message. She sent her message and the screen went dark, throwing the bathroom into blackness. In the gloom, she felt less exhilarated, silly even. Look at her, like a teenager over some prank. She shook her head. Back to bed. Just as she was getting up, the phone illuminated again.

New message. Same number. She hovered, not noticing the tension in her thighs as she crouched, half-sitting, half-standing.

An admirer of a beautiful neighbour

She felt a tingle of excitement. It’s just a prank, she told herself, the sensible part of her trying to fight off the romantic side. Turn off your phone and look at it in the morning. It’s a bunch of kids playing around with random numbers.

Still, there was the first text. You looked hot tonight. They had been down in Danny’s earlier, as usual. Not for long, only two drinks, hardly more than an hour, but long enough to be noticed if someone was looking. Once upon a time, she might have been deemed a catch, and she kept herself looking fairly decent, but she wasn’t kidding herself, time was marching on. Besides, this was Roundwood. Wicklow County, not Orange County. Unless you counted Cynthia’s notions – and Michelle did not – things like that didn’t happen around here.

Or did they? Maybe they did. Maybe it was happening to her. An admirer of a beautiful neigh-bour, it had said. Oh, that was tantalising. A real tease, that. Someone letting her know, maybe, that he knows her. How exciting. This was like a detective story, but she was the victim and the detective all-in-one.

Still, she didn’t want to look like an eejit. She had to think about how her texts might look to someone else if this was just a joke.

Lots of beautiful neighbours around here.

There. That was coy, playful, but also harmless. Didn’t stick her neck out too far. She waited for an age, nearly half an hour, but got no further reply. Had she been too cool? Was it only a joke? Or maybe they’d just gone to bed, like she should, too. It was half-past three. Get a hold of yourself, Michelle, she told herself. Look at yourself, in the loo in the dark like some giddy schoolgirl, waiting for your Romeo.

The following morning a reply, from just after she had gone to bed.

Only one neighbour I ever think of

There was no way to answer that one, so she didn’t. But then nothing from the mystery man for a few days, even as her mind was in a lather, to the point where even Lily asked her what was wrong with her – Lily, who never noticed anything anymore outside of her college bubble. Everyone Michelle encountered, she tried to imagine if they could be her mystery texter. The prankster or admirer, she still couldn’t say.

Despite considering everyone who passed her by, she could not fathom who it might be. She didn’t want to reply to that last message. She couldn’t encourage that sort of thing, as sweetly flattering as it was. It wasn’t like she needed an admirer anyway. Still, it was nice to have one. If that’s what it was.

Then on Tuesday night, another one. A soft bing on the phone, at half-ten. Michelle was in watching tv on the couch with Cathal and Lily, Richard gone for a quiet few. Some romantic comedy with Jennifer Aniston and that beefy hairy guy. She was smiling at some verbal sparring between them when the phone buzzed. She stiffened and lost her grin. She glanced up quickly, guiltily, but neither of her two had noticed, still engrossed in the tv. No-one noticed. Amazing how hypersensitive you could be to such things yourself, and how oblivious everyone else could be.

Anyone want tea? she asked, getting up and heading for the kitchen. Once there, she stole a glance at her screen. A new text. The same number. As she had suspected. It was a bit of a thrill, wasn’t it? She enjoyed wondering what it would say for a while, like weighing a wrapped present in her hands before opening it. She held off until she could hold off no longer.

Danny’s ain’t d same without ur cute ass

Well, that was shocking. She was outraged.

At least, she tried to be. But she was thrilled. She tilted and looked at her ass in the reflection on the kitchen patio door. Cute ass. I’ve got a cute ass. She beamed with pride. She wondered whether to reply straight away or not. In the end, she slipped the phone into her jeans pocket, her cute ass pocket, and brought the tea in. She couldn’t concentrate on the movie after that, though. In the middle of some fight between Jennifer and the almost-perfect man who refused to give up his old ways for her, she got up and mumbled about going to the bathroom. Cathal sighed loudly and pulled out the remote.

No, no, don’t pause it, watch it away, she insisted, I think I’ve seen it before anyway.

To the bathroom and the guaranteed privacy contained therein, the only room in the house that held any chance of that. She pulled out the phone again and basked in the pale glow. What to say to that? The only sensible response:

Who is this?!

An immediate response…

Oh now dat wud b telling ;)

…and then another rapid-fire one:

Who wud u like it to b?

Well, clearly it’s someone good with his fingers, she thought. Who would I like it to be? No, she wasn’t going to play that game. Although one name, one face, did come to mind. Declan. But he hadn’t lived in the country for more than twenty years. And she wasn’t about to name him out to anyone. Anyway, this here was only harmless fun, wasn’t it? A little mystery she was dying to get to the bottom of, and once she had done so, that would be that.

For now, though, she needed to do more detective work. More clues. But how could she respond to that last text? She couldn’t go naming out half the men of the parish in the hope of weeding out her admirer, but she was keen to know, nonetheless. That was the hook that had caught her, the mystery. Who was watching her, checking her out? It was flattering. Really, it was. Since she couldn’t answer the question, she ignored it and plumped for further flattery.

I’m sure there are plenty more cute asses in Danny’s.

Plenty of cute hoors anyway, as Richard might say, she thought. The sudden thought that this might be some cruel game cooled her off. She switched off the phone in disgust and went back out for the rest of the movie. She felt better and forgot all about the texts, for the night, at least. And Jennifer Aniston got her man, too, in the end. Fair play to her, thought Michelle, thinking once more of Declan Boyle.

Michelle was still up when Richard came home.

Many there tonight? she asked, innocently enough. Tuesday ought to be relatively quiet in Danny’s; perhaps she could narrow down the list of potential admirers.

Ah sure, the usual croneys, Richard said. Sweeney, Roger Byrne, Pat, and Sonny Kavanagh.

None of them struck her as remotely likely; certainly more interested in headage payments and pondering the footballers’ prospects of a Leinster final this year than bothering themselves with texting a married woman.

Right, said Michelle. God, isn’t it quiet, though? Only the five or six of ye – sure it’s hardly worth his time opening up.

Ah well, there was a handful in the lounge alright, and one or two were in as I arrived, but they didn’t stick around.

Oh right, said Michelle, not wanting it to look like she was pumping Richard for too much information.

What’s-his-name was there, offered Richard. The dapper fella.

Richard wasn’t being coy; that wasn’t his nature. He never knew about her and Declan. She had never said anything about it to him. What was the point, when men got touchy over such things? Anyway, few enough knew – not even her own brothers, nor her father, unless her mother had told him.

Her heart jumped. Who’s that? she said, feigning nonchalance.

Jesus, I can’t think of his name now, said Richard. He had a lady with him.

Michelle’s heart plummeted. Ah, sure it doesn’t matter, she said.

She didn’t want to know if it had been Declan, not if there was another woman. Although of course he wouldn’t have come back alone. It was obvious that some glammed-up doll would be hanging off him. She felt jealous, and annoyed at herself for caring so much, still, after all these years.

Your man, Hogan, Pat Hogan, that’s him.

Oh, sweet relief! Pat Hogan was a real boyo; the local auctioneer, with plenty of suspect deals under his belt, and God’s gift to the ladies, in his own eyes, at least. But he was not Declan, that was certain.

Go on; on a Wednesday? Who was she? she said.

Ah sure, no clue, said Richard. Some poor dote he’s trying to flog another of them ruined cottages to, no doubt. Oh, and Sharon Thomson was in for a drink. Did I hear something about her being let go from Gareth Dineen’s?

The conversation drifted away from Danny’s and who else might have been there, and towards Sharon’s plight and what that might mean for the Thomsons. Michelle couldn’t bring the topic back to who was in Danny’s, so she let the mystery lie, content that at least Declan hadn’t returned with some floozy.

The next day, when she turned her phone on, there was a new message, from just after the one she had sent last night.

Plenty asses here, but a different kind. No cute one in ur jeans though.

Michelle called over to Colette’s on Wednesday before lunch, as she did every week, dropping off carrots from the plot at the back of her house. They were having coffee in the kitchen, as Colette was preparing food. At a pause in the conversation, Michelle was about to mention the message, to recruit Colette as co-investigator finding out who her admirer might be, when Colette blurted out: Oh yes, Declan’s returning home.

Michelle missed a breath.

What? she said in a low voice.

Declan. For good, apparently. Actually, I think he’s home already, but he hasn’t been down to see us yet, said Colette. Sure you know what he’s like.

Really? said Michelle, too stunned to say more. She hadn’t dared truly believe that it might be him all along. It had just been harmless daydreaming until now.

Yeah, he’s sick of London or Manchester or wherever he is now, and he might set up basecamp, if you don’t mind, here in Roundwood.

Imagine, Michelle thought, Colette not knowing in what part of the world her own brother was. And what a brother. Still, it was no doubt hard to keep track of Declan Boyle: he lived in perfect perpetual motion.

Since Michelle had been old enough to adore a male form, that male had been Declan, Colette’s older brother. Being a couple of years older than her and Colette, he was a man already in their eyes, and thus instant star status was afforded him. But on top of that, he was gorgeous and had a motorbike when nobody had one. Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Declan Boyle. She had done everything to attract his attention but to no avail. Then he was gone to Dublin, and less often at home, despite every attempt Michelle had ever made to try to be over at Colette’s house when he might appear on weekends. And anything she thought of doing or saying to impress him – excelling in an exam or daring boob tubes – had just seemed juvenile when contrasted with his life in Dublin. And of course, the not-so-occasional girlfriend brought home, which invariably left Michelle distraught and in a temper, and Colette wondering what she had done to upset Michelle.

A few years later, Michelle herself had started working in Dublin, and she met him out, a chance meeting on Leeson St at half-twelve on a Thursday night. More gorgeous than ever. She was heading home; he was only heading out. Naturally. To her astonishment, it was he who suggested going for a drink, and of course she had agreed. They had hit it off, the age difference not important any more, and it was a whirlwind, a fantasy come true.

It was the wrong time, though. Declan was off, to Chicago that time, the ticket already bought. He was very keen on her, and she was crazy about him, but Ireland held no work for him and she couldn’t go with him, not with the way things were then. That was the late eighties; she was broke and her parents even more so. There was no question of getting a ticket over, to visit or to work.

He said he’d call, and he did, once, but the line was bad, and she couldn’t hear him. He’d tried again one other time, but she had just gone down to the village. Her mother had taken the call, said it was lovely of him to call but said she thought Michelle might be gone into town for the night. Michelle remembered losing it with her mother, screaming at her for not taking a number and storming out of the house in tears.

But there had been no number to call back on anyway. She found that out years later, at Katie Dolan’s wedding – his cousin, Michelle’s neighbour. Five years ago now, that wedding was. He’d been living in a rough enough spot, he’d explained. He laughed about it there, at the wedding, but he hadn’t been laughing at the time. Having a phone was the least of his worries, he said. Labouring, odd jobs and scraping by. Making out you were getting on better than you were getting on, as he put it. And yet, one way or another, he’d survived and thrived, as anyone in the village knew he would.

But that was it. The missed phone calls, the inability to communicate, had just gotten in the way of what could have been a good thing. A very good thing indeed. Imagine if that had all happened nowadays. Between skype and mobile phones and everything else, they needn’t have fallen out of touch. Of course, nowadays she would be over to the States in a flash. Recession or not, there was a lot more money around than in the eighties; however much people might crib on the radio about how bad things were now, they were a hell of a lot worse then.

Now that she knew it was Declan texting her, she couldn’t help but reply. It was more fun this way, knowing who was texting her, especially when he didn’t know she knew.

It was around eight, that same Wednesday night. She was just back from her jog and about to step into the shower.

No more live updates from Danny’s?

No immediate reply. After her shower, there was one new message.

Not there. No point.

She knew where this was leading, but had to ask anyway:

Why not?

No point. U won’t b there :(

Aww, a sad face, how sweet. She fell back onto the bed laughing and caught sight of herself in the mirror. This was really rolling back the clock. Here they were, two – well, okay, ‘middle-aged’ people, if she had to use the term – texting each other, flirting like a couple of kids. She remembered when she had last seen him, at Katie Dolan’s wedding. God, was it really five years ago?

She had wondered if he might be there, and despite herself, her heart did a little bounce when she saw him. He was married then to a Yank; from Dakota, he’d said, but she wasn’t there. Michelle was married by then too. Of course. Time had moved on, and so had they. The attraction was still there, though, no denying that. A couple of weeks shy of her fortieth birthday, but she felt more like fourteen again.

They had bumped into each other at the bar. Business was brisk all around them, the usual squeezing and shoving match to get drinks, but they might have been alone for all that they took notice of anyone else at that moment.

You were my only regret, leaving Ireland then, Declan had said, gazing at his hands as he spoke. Those hands that had held her for four magical weeks in ‘89. A narrow band around his ring finger. Then he looked up into her eyes.

Still are, he added.

He wasn’t married any more, Michelle knew. Separated now, or divorced even, Colette wasn’t sure. She hadn’t asked. Sure he’d never give you a straight answer anyway, Colette had said, but he said something like the UK didn’t agree with her. Declan had moved there after the States. London. Some sort of building-related company he owned, or was involved in. Not exactly construction work, but supply of something to do with it, maybe construction waste or skips. Honestly, Colette was a disaster for details like that, when Michelle wanted every little morsel of information she could give her. Then again, Michelle supposed she would probably be the same with her own brothers: different story when you fancied the pants off someone. Or used to.

Michelle and Colette had been cool when she’d found out about her best friend and her brother. It was understandable. Michelle had betrayed her all those years, claiming that Rory Connelly or Andy Mullen were the two lads she fancied the most. But it was hard too, for all those years, not being able to confide in her best friend that she was in love with her brother. It would have been weird. Mind you, it had been weird that when Michelle was clearly meeting someone in Dublin, she was unusually reticent about the… well, the details they used to discuss about guys at the time.

Still, when Declan had left, Colette and Michelle had been there for each other, able to share that emotion at least, the loss of a loved one to geography, and they picked up where they left off in their friendship.

So is Declan back in the country, do you know? Michelle had asked for perhaps the fourth time over coffee, having called over again to Colette on Thursday.

Jeez, Michelle, will you go easy with the inter-rogation, said Colette.

Ah, no, I’m only asking, Michelle protested. God, I’m long past Declan, let me tell you. I’m a married woman, love, remember? she continued, waggling her ring finger at Colette. She looked back out the window. Long past him, she said again.

But she wondered, nonetheless. That burning passion she’d had for him, could that ever truly go away? Did some embers remain, covered in ashes, that the right breeze might expose and set aflame once more.

Back in ‘89, when it was clear that theirs wasn’t going to be one of those long-distance relationships that works and her hopes of another telephone call faded, Michelle had picked herself up and moved on, and then fallen for Richard. After a few years of old-fashioned romancing, they’d had their wedding in St Brigid’s in the village, and she moved out to their newly finished two-storey on the farm, just down from the home place – as he called his mother and father’s cottage – and they had begun their life together.

They were opposites in so many ways: Richard was a rock, steady, reliable, of the land; Declan always had something of the city about him, and was as rooted to the ground as a gust of wind. Colette was right: this plan of his to move back to Roundwood was pure Declan. He might be gone again in a month, and to the moon! No, Richard would never leave the home they had built together, and that was what Michelle cherished now. Stability, sense of place, safety, comfort, security.

Still, though, Declan Boyle. What if he was serious about moving back? Maybe it was because he still felt the same about her. She thought about being bold, and asking outright in a text if it was him or not, but if it wasn’t, wouldn’t she look like an awful eejit? Even if it was him, how would it look if she was falling all over herself, swooning, at the first indication it might be the mighty Declan. No, Michelle thought, I can play it cool too.

Friday evening, her phone buzzed around six.

Hey sexy

That was it. Hey sexy. That’s me, she thought, and blushed. It was lovely to feel admired. Then another.

See you there 2nite?

She hadn’t replied immediately, but she knew wild horses wouldn’t keep her away.

Michelle was anxious. She had put extra effort into looking good tonight. Even Richard noticed how well-turned out she was, as he put it, and that was saying something.

Cathal dropped them at Danny’s about nine, a little later than usual, and Richard led the way inside. It was busy enough, a table of German-looking tourists taking one of the two tables near the fire. Anglers, she figured, looking at them; she’d probably passed them at the lake earlier on her run. Elsewhere, it was regulars. No Declan here yet, Michelle noticed, but he was always the night owl.

Richard stuck with her for a drink with the Grattans, but in his next excursion to the bar, he somehow found himself drawn towards the corner where his cronies, as he called them, resided, and shortly had them chortling. A real man’s man, he was, Michelle thought. She found herself chatting to Patsy Meehan and Cynthia. Michelle was distracted and figured she wasn’t adding much to the conversation, though Cynthia could always be relied upon to fill any silence.

The door to the bar opened and Michelle looked over, expecting Declan to walk in at any moment. It was only a couple of young lads coming in from the lounge side of the pub; one of the Byrnes – Joseph, maybe, although she couldn’t tell them apart – and young Stephen Collins, a more handsome breed than the Byrnes. She gave them a smile and nod of greeting as they came in. Joseph nodded, and Stephen muttered something in reply as he brushed by her.

A moment later, Michelle suddenly excused herself and slipped out past Cynthia to the door.

When Michelle returned to the conversation several minutes later, Cynthia was busily telling Patsy of her most recent manoeuvre; her eldest girl was seeing one of the Gaffney boys from Rathnew – you know, with the big farm of land.

The Byrne boy slipped off his stool and left when his comrade had not returned from his absence. Michelle looked over at the other end of the bar. Richard had his crew in peals of laughter. He met her eye and Michelle smiled, then tuned back into Cynthia’s latest intelligence-gathering exploits with regard to her daughter’s prospects.

Michelle hadn’t heard Stephen Collins’ words clearly at first, but her brain had unscrambled what he had said.

Cute ass.

She had found her mystery admirer, and with a sudden galling realisation, she knew it wasn’t Declan Boyle. She had stepped out into the darkness to gather herself, the side of the pub with the benches and trees fronting onto the lake, and stood by the nearest tree, recovering her composure in the shade.

Then she spotted Stephen Collins coming out the back, looking for her! The brazen pup, she thought. Well, he’s about to get an education.

He spotted her and loped over with a nervous grin. It didn’t take long before she was back inside, running cold water over her tingling knuckles in the ladies’. She had left Stephen lying on the ground. It probably hadn’t gone how he’d expected, but he wasn’t what she had expected, either. That’s the way life went.

Cute ass, indeed.

Undoubtedly some courage drank in the lounge, a young buck thinking to press home his advantage. She had gone cold suddenly when she had registered that he was her mystery texter. This? This was what she had been excited about; this was her secret texter?

Not Declan Boyle, not even a man. A kid, a spotty kid, with fluff masquerading as stubble on his cheeks.

Like a bolt, it had hit her. Everything she had – a loving husband, two great kids, respect in the community, her dignity – and she was willing to risk all that for some schoolgirl’s delusion she still held?

No. She most certainly was not. So she sent the most direct message she could – a blow to the abdomen, and a warning never to text her again, or it would be Richard he’d have to deal with. The cheek of him. And to follow her outside? She’d flay Cathal alive if she ever thought of him doing a thing like that.

Declan Boyle did arrive into Danny’s later that evening, about half-eleven. Michelle spotted him across the bar, gliding up for a pint, in that old familiar way he held himself. She recognised him instantly, and his eyes lit up when he spotted her. He motioned with fingers and hands that he’d be over to her immediately.

He looked older, Declan, and weary, in a shapeless leather jacket a little dated and too large. Instead of desire, Michelle just felt sorry for him, and pity is cold water on passion. Perhaps it had taken one misguided teenager to set another right, Michelle thought; she ought to thank young Collins for that much.

In the car home, Richard and Cathal talked in the front. Michelle absent-mindedly watched out the window as hedges and houses blurred by.

He was moving back to the States, he’d said. Ireland’s just too small. There’s no ambition in people here.

There was no desire here, either; that fire in the embers had just been so much smoke and no flame, the last traces of something lost long ago. Declan Boyle was on the move again, blown about by the breezes, a restless drifter looking for something or someone to ground him.

 

 

***

Trip Home

The plane hammered the tarmac and rebounded, startling him from his drunken slumber. He blearily took stock of his surroundings, idly wondering if he had shouted out with the impact.

He glanced to his left, through the round-edged window. Back once more on the native sod. He’d needed a drink to straighten himself out. This call out of the blue. The keening from the homeland. Mother Ireland. A claim on his soul. Rush for tickets, at short notice, business class. Shock too, in there somewhere, precursor to grief, now safely drowned under a slosh of Guinness and whiskey. Things he only drank at home or going home. Acting the part, playing the expat.

The mist on the window coalesced into streaky drops. On the lady’s window, really, not his. Her seat, her window. Fair’s fair. A regal old dear, reading a book. He couldn’t see the cover, but it had the look of a library book. Pale, her skin, ethereal: if he stared hard enough, he might see through her. Less of those nowadays. Real, honest-to-god physical books. And libraries. And nice old ladies. His grandmother. The reason for this sudden trip home on a Wednesday evening. The woman even resembled her, in her own way, like all elderly ladies, converging on some unknown ideal of ancient feminine beauty.

He hadn’t spoken to her, the lady. Sometimes you could just tell they were a good sort, though. A glance as you sat down beside your armrest-comrade for the journey. Let’s get along, shall we? That’s what the look determined. Non-committal. All depended on whether they smiled back, or began talking, or worse still, glared, as if you were stealing something rightfully theirs, the adjacent seat, the airspace over the armrest, their limited oxygen. None of that with her, just a smile breaking across a brittle face.

There had been no applause for the pilot landing, he noted. Good. This wasn’t gymnastics; landing was their obligation. Though the seatbelt sign was still on, some passengers were already crouched for the race to begin, head down, alert, poised, waiting for the starting gun. Whoops, can’t joke about guns any more, mustn’t joke now, mustn’t joke… that’s the way the world was going, or had already gone. Politically correct.

A gust wobbled the plane as it taxied to the terminal, and the raindrops on the smeared window did a synchronized shaky dance under the blustery wind outside, a liquid murmuration. The plane approached its final resting place, and he sat back in his seat and closed his eyes. No rush just yet for him. Marshall the thoughts for what was to come.

It would be a busy few days. Ever thus. The round of visits, spending time with his grandmother, these last moments a poor attempt to make up for half a lifetime of never enough of them. The woman who had cared for him, loved him, a second mother. You have to live your own life, follow your own path. She had always said that to him, and yet there was sadness in that, acknowledgement that his path led away, from home, from her, from all she knew. Too soon he was gone from her, and then it became difficult to find time.

Always a matter of time, the one immutable constant. If it was constant. It was unidirectional, anyway; a cul-de-sac, a one-way street.

This trip, an attempt to reverse back that one-way street, and hope that time wouldn’t notice. But time missed nothing. Even crafty attempts at rebellion would be put down. You could try to go back, a little, but time altered the landscape. The street did not look the same as before, the attempt to cheat was in vain. Cunning meets cunning. Very well.

Was it us passing through time, or time passing through us? Did space have any say in the matter? Maybe leave that conundrum for later, on the train. To kill time. Ha. A nice idea.

 

The death has occurred of Time, infinity years old, suddenly, at everywhere, all at once. In repose at McInerney’s funeral home, followed and preceded by and coexistent with funeral mass at St Mary’s. Dearly missed by the three visible dimensions of space, and the other hidden dimensions too.

 

The plane finally juddered to a halt, and the seatbelt sign was switched off, with a ding. A flurry of activity ensued, like chickens discovering a fox in their midst. Time again. A big rush to get off to hurry on to somewhere else faster so we could do it all again. All of us, rushing headlong to our deathbeds.

He pushed himself to his feet and reached overhead for his small case. The bare essentials. A few bottles of duty-full duty-free escaped their confines and he managed to gather them together to his bosom. Precious orphans. But not his.

Sorry, thanks, those are mine.

A voice from the belly of the plane, behind. He nodded, and managed to convey with exaggerated motions that he would simply take them into his care. No point in attempting conversation across the frustrated heads of the other people in the aisle. He put the bottles down onto his seat, and caught the eye of his window seat lady.

Can I get you anything? he asked her.

A gin would be lovely, she said, looking down at the bottles.

No, I mean, any bag or….

No, I understand you well enough. I have no baggage, thanks, dear.

That clipped accent, a lady who’d spent some years abroad no doubt, various places, before return-ing home to start a family. Common story, wartime years and all that.

He grabbed his bag from above. The plane was still not emptying, for some reason. No announcement as yet. He decided to sit back down for now.

He plopped back into his seat. After a moment, he registered that he had not landed hard on the bottles of drink, ergo they were gone. He looked about in confusion. His comrade clinked the bottles together.

I figured you wouldn’t want to land on these, she said.

Thanks. They’re not mine anyway.

No, I heard your wife–

Who, that lady? I don’t know her at all, she’s just some woman who–

Ah, how fickle men can be, she said, but in jest, and looked out into the gathering darkness.

The announcement came then. Some delay with their gate being cleared. Temporary. Resume your seats. Blah blah. There they were, stranded between the sky and the ground, purgatory. He hoped they wouldn’t be there for eternity. If this was purgatory, it was a little too much like hell for his liking.

His new friend retained her air of serenity. A strange old bird, travelling alone, at her age. And no luggage. That was a first.

So you travel light?

Apart from these, she said, raising the bottles.

Well, we’ll have to give those back, you know.

She drew them into her chest: Why?

Well, they don’t belong to you; they’re the woman’s. I said–

You didn’t say a word, I was listening. Besides, what’s that woman to you that I’m not?

Saying this, she screwed open the gin and took a swallow.

He stared, aghast, then quickly looked around. No one had noticed. People were back in their seats, piped-in music filled the cabin to mask misgivings about the delay. Phones were bleeping into life, loved ones updated on the minute-by-minute action as it wasn’t unfolding. He discovered his mouth was still gaping. Her face wrinkled up in pale perfumed crinkles of mirth.

Oh we’re not stealing it; I’ll give her double what she paid for it. Don’t be a sissy.

He shrugged and took a swallow for himself. Who was he to be declared a sissy by a little old lady?

There, that’s better, isn’t it? she said.

He coughed and nodded in acquiescence, then cleared his throat: So, do you have a name?

Of course, one can’t get on a plane just by walking on with the captain anymore.

You used to?

Well, I must say, for a man who hasn’t said a word all flight, you ask a lot of questions of a sudden. Are you a detective?

No, just curious. You seem interesting, I suppose.

That’s kind of you, but you’re more right than you know.

About what?

Everything; here, have another gulp. In for a penny, in for a pound, what?

He complied, a gentleman to the core. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and he could feel the gin beginning to warm up his sweet spot already.

So, miss–

Missie will do fine.

And so it went. The bottle, too, by the time the plane finally decanted its contents, recompense paid to the original owner, and he found himself with Missie in the airport bar with further drinks in hand. It looked like he was going to miss the train he’d planned on catching, but plans are subject to change, or chance. Both. Missie was commanding the young barman like an admiral with a navy, concocting another drink that she’d had once upon a time, but many’s the time, in the Soviet Union.

They don’t call it that, anymore; ruined the place, if you ask me.

Through the foggy stew of his brain, he couldn’t string together a coherent comment, barely able to grunt by way of reply. She was bearing up much much better than he, as if she wasn’t drinking the half of what he was. Maybe she had eaten something. He had better ask.

Dinner?! Splendid idea, dear boy.

She enquired of the barman and before long, they were seated in a limousine bound for Stephen’s Green, champagne bubbling up from the bottom of the glass tickling his throat. He couldn’t quite recall the particulars of how, or why, but there they were unquestionably, and then again, seemingly moments later, in Shanahan’s, at a fine table overlooking the restaurant. Wine was liberally splashed into glasses. Red. He attacked some delicate breadsticks, desperate for something more substantial to nourish his wound-ed stomach. Missie sat resolute beside him, appraising the inhabitants below her with a steady gaze that swept the room.

And that’s the Minister, I’m sure you know him, and that fellow with him. I met him once, in Vienna, a professor. Fine Arts, and carrying on with a beastly woman. Cinq-à-sept, you know the sort. His wife there, you must know her. Lovely thing, but so timid. The nerves.

His head was in a lather, spinning about. He had to tend to urgent business.

Please ‘cuse me moment, he said, then lurched towards the general direction of the gents.

Within, swaying at the urinal, he cooled his forehead against the tiles on the wall and rocked his head back and forth, as if to shake sense into it. Still in position, and with a cavalier attitude, he freed his right hand and held his watch to his ear, to hear time tick by. Silence. He recalled that it was digital. Had Time objected to the change? He looked dumbly at his wrist for an answer, then forgot what the question was.

A plan formed in his mind, impulsive, drunken thought following thought. He removed himself towards the entrance and with pomp and overblown discretion, paid for the meal, then pushed out into the swirling mist of the evening. A taxicab waited, convenient to the entrance of a fine restaurant and its temporary occupants. He fell in the back. With infinite care and precision, he enunciated: Heu. Ston. Eh. Please.

In vain. The eyes in the rear-view mirror screwed up in confusion.

Where did you say?

Train. Goin’ the train.

Heuston, is it? Right.

The driver, having deciphered the garbled words, pulled away from the kerb.

In the back, he was thinking about his struggles with basic speech. And breathing. In the gloom of the cab, he stabbed around the door panel until his finger hit a button and the window slid open a fraction. Damp air. He held his nostrils to the crack at the top of the window and breathed in, then fell back into the embrace of the seat. For a moment, he fell asleep again.

The taxi came to a halt by the side of the station. The cab driver half-turned in his seat to address him.

Right, here we are.

Hmmmmh! he replied, as if suspicious of the assertion, but there was no doubting the stout grey gloom of the station, the wet stone rejecting the orange lamplight cast on it. He grubbed around in his trouser pocket and emptied a ball of coins and crumpled notes into the driver’s hand.

‘nough? he managed to mutter, and was glad to receive some back. Mostly coins, but he didn’t notice. He stumbled out and stood a moment, recovering his land legs. The cab had pulled up a little to join the rank, though the driver watched him still in his rear view mirror, as if afraid some crazed impulse might send him out into the traffic instead of the station.

In we go now, he announced to his chest.

And in he went, swooping away out of the mist and into the ticket hall. The booth was empty, closed after six o’clock on weekdays. In the absence of a companion, he took up conversation with himself.

Electricity. Computer. Magic.

The automated ticket dispenser was of course still in operation. Computers don’t need to go home at a reasonable hour.

Button, press. Screen stab, press card pay money, pin, fuck, pin.

His card was rejected.

Transaction failed? You failed. Computer failed. Try again. All again, other pin, screen, button press card. Pay money, enter pin, which pin, forget pin, uh-oh, try this one, two two one two, ca-ching, you win, yes success, button press, issue ticket, yes please, accept card, accept ticket. Bingo!

There was no one else there to share his victory. He lurched to pick up his bag and ticket and glared at the screen overhead to see when he might move on from this waiting post.

Platform seven, nine-twenty. Thirty minutes, -ish.

He fumbled in his jacket pocket and brought forth his phone, its sleek casing sending it through the chute of his clumsy hand and clattering to the ground. Folding over to pick it up, he nearly fell, and stabilised himself on all fours.

Ha ha, he said, thrilled with his lightning reflex.

He straightened up and brought his phone back to life. He stuttered through the station towards Platform 7. His train stood there, waiting, hissing, static but anxious to be on its way westward.

A series of bleeps and alerts brought his attention back to the phone. New text message:

are you on train, couldn’t see you, love mam, x

Fuck, she must have been waiting for hours. He pressed the call button, then again to cancel it. No, food first, further nutrition, like a bear approaching hibernation. To the shop none too steadily, like the recent raindrops, buffeted by ghosts of gusts. Nutrients and nourishment. He loaded up on bananas and a bottle of water, a bottle of orange, two bars of chocolate and a muffin.

All muffins these days. No more buns, hmm? Buns’re dead. Like Time. Is Time dead? he asked the girl behind the counter. She raised an eyebrow but neglected to reply as she watched him carefully, while his free hand gathered a bounty, filling the basket formed by the crook of his other arm.

Now, how much for them? he asked, gesturing grandly towards his harvest.

That’s seven-fifty altogether.

Good girl, there’s ten, thanks, for a bun or something, what? he said with a conspiratorial nod.

He made for Platform 7, and climbed into the first carriage before examining his ticket forensically, lacking only microscope or magnifying glass. No mention of a seat.

Unassigned seating, it says, he announced to the empty carriage. No, not entirely empty. Two girls, college-age, halfway along. He drew down past them imperiously, blowing hard from the effort of walking and staying cogitative simultaneously. He heard the giggles and ignored them.

He fell into a seat in the next carriage and promptly fell soundly asleep, ticket pinched between his thumb and forefinger should an inspector be looking.

He awoke with a start, to the last clanging peals of church bells, desperately thirsty in the darkness, hurtling towards what, hell? Maybe; a thirsty hell, thirsty as hell. He looked at his watch in the dark. Ten-something. Fifty-two, maybe. He patted himself down and retrieved the bottle of water, emptying a good portion into his mouth, and a sprinkling, a blessing, on his coat and the table. Why did they fill these things right to the top? Hadn’t they ever tried to open them?

He felt woozy, but more together now than when he had got on the train, for certain. The power of sleep. There were more passengers in his carriage. No one beside or opposite him, thankfully. A few down the aisle. A group of young guys, tracksuits: students, perhaps, or bowsies. A woman with her child, soothing him. Or her. It, gender-neutral tiny bundle wrapped in white, no telling. An older lady who looked like Missie.

He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and took a closer look. No, not Missie, but he realised he hadn’t said goodbye.

A noise once more, not of church bells; his phone. Another missed call. Seven missed calls, the phone said.

Ah feck, his poor mother. He’d forgotten. Time to sober up, and fib too, as ever. He called her back.

Hi, look sorry…

Jesus, are you alright?

What? Yes, look sorry, my phone… feckin battery. Sorry, I’m sorry, you must have been wondering…

Well, we just didn’t know, Fiona and me here, listening to the news, in case anything–

I know, I know, sorry, the feckin thing…

He looked down at the phone as he said this, believing the lie himself. Easier than facing up to his own faults. Always been the way. She must have known too. But she played her part.

Well look, you’re alright and that’s the main thing, thanks be to God.

Yeah, he said. How’s Gran?

Ah, well she’s… His mother sighed. Where are you now?

He didn’t notice the change of topic, senses still somewhat scattered.

Eh, I don’t, I think… hold on, let me check… hold on, he said, pushing to his feet and asking the group of students.

Mam? We’re just past Limerick Junction, so I’ll be in there in about twenty minutes or so.

Right, well we’ll still be here.

Yeah, thanks. Sorry again.

Ah no, look, not at all.

I can’t wait to see ye, he blurted out then, but she was gone.

 

He watched the water on the window perform a mesmerising mime, as the rhythm of the train thrummed a pulse on the tracks heading west in the night. Home again, to a land of mist and time, and drink and memory.

 

 

***

Running, Late

You bloody useless thing! Peter yelled at his old watch. In sudden temper, he flung it hard, but only into the yielding softness of the sofa. Useless, yes, but valuable too.

He himself had no value in the old timepiece – if it couldn’t be relied on to tell the time, it was worth nothing to him – but it was apparently worth a few bob; all the more reason to sell the damned thing and be done with it. Let someone else try their luck getting it fixed: any jeweller he’d ever brought it to seemed unable to get it to perform its most essential function, and right now, that meant he was running late.

He rushed out the door, a bunch of keys in one hand as the other arm wrestled through the sleeve of his jacket. Shouldn’t have needed the outer layer, he thought. Today had been promised fine, but promises are dust. The watch promised to keep time. Gary had promised to call before lunch with a lead for a job. He had promised Helen, and Celia herself, that he’d pick up his daughter on time. A day of broken promises. He strode through the estate towards the school.

Approaching the low grey-brick building, cars lined and clogged the roads. The weather, he thought: most parents drove their kids to and from school, even on the dry days, but hardly anyone else picked them up without a car if there was a hint of a shower. Helen had needed the car to get to the airport this morning, but Peter preferred to walk anyway. Besides, it was probably quicker on foot, when traffic was like this, and when he could cut up through the back of the estate, across the football fields in the park.

He took a couple of deep breaths, and exhaled loudly. It was good to get out of the house, get a bit of air, shake him up. Days like this, he was always reluctant to leave the nice warm house, heading out into the wet. But once outside, actually out in the elements, it was always better than he’d expected. Not as rainy; fresh, invigorating. Bit of wind, bit of rain, bit of cold. It made you feel alive, he thought, after a day of sitting in the kitchen, leafing through the paper, tinkering with his CV, cold-calling old contacts or ringing to follow up on emails.

He’d been two months out of work, but it felt like a year. He hadn’t realised how much he enjoyed working, or at least how much he enjoyed not being unemployed. You always want what you don’t have, they say, and he’d always thought that a bit of time off would be great – spend time with Celia in the afternoon, odd-jobs around the house, watch some tv, just unwind from the pressures of the daily grind. And now here he was, eight weeks off the wheel and frantically scrambling to climb back on.

Now, where was Celia? His eyes scanned the five or six brightly-coloured rainjackets still wandering around the yard. The numbers were reduced to two as another tardy adult picked up their fuchsia-and-lime-resplendent offspring and left.

Peter stood there a long moment, frowning, looking over and back, right to left and left to right again, to be sure. But he knew what he had known the instant he had arrived at the gate. She was not there.

He twisted and looked back from where he had come. He could almost see across the park to the house from here. Where was Celia? Where had she got to? Was she still inside school? It wouldn’t be like her to misbehave.

He walked across the yard to her classroom and put his face up to the window, startling Miss Cahill, the teacher, still sitting at her desk. But the classroom was otherwise empty.

Holy shit. Holy shit. A cold sweat pricked Peter’s skin. Don’t panic now. Panicking was no good. She must be home. She must have gone home. Yes, she would have gone home. Good girl, she was gone home. She was at home. There was no other reason, no other way. He heard the squeal of tires. behind him. He whirled at the sound. An image flashed across his mind – her body crumpled on the damp grey road, life leaving her, headlights through misty rain. He started towards the car, but stopped up short. It was nothing, just Jennie Wilson, mother of the two remaining kids.

He stuttered back across the yard again, as the two Wilson children climbed into their car. Jennie let down her window.

Hi Peter, everything okay?

Celia, just… she must have… she’s, ah she’s gone home, I’d say. You didn’t see her, no?

Sorry Peter, Jennie said, I only just got here. Sure you know me, always late, she added, smiling sympathetically.

A squirming sick feeling sloshed around Peter’s stomach. He glanced around everywhere and nowhere all at once. Disjointed snapshots of his surroundings. The shrubs at the side of the school. Up the road. Down the road. Had Celia tried to find her way home alone? Had some bastard got her? More unbidden thoughts flooded in: a vague unshaven figure pulling her towards a car. Celia lost, crying in a dirty alley. She was terrified. Crying. She was dead. Some bastard had her. That red car over there, was that her peering out the back window?

He turned about for some trace of her, anything. Had she gone the wrong way? Could he hear any sound? Was there crying?

His mind reeled with these things. Jesus, no. Please God, no. He must calm himself.

He must have just missed her on the walk over. Somehow. He’d been so distracted. No. She would have seen him. Dammit, he’d have seen her, no matter what, if she came that way.

That way. Yes! That was it; he’d come up the shortcut but she must have gone the other way, the longer way. On the footpaths, so her little wellies wouldn’t get drenched crossing the fields. That was it.

Jennie was still anxiously looking up at him from the car as the engine turned over.

Sorry Jennie, said Peter, she’s after walking home, so I’d better catch her up.

Right, Peter. Good luck.

Kids, thought Jennie, they’d break your heart. She watched Peter hurry away in the mist. The constant worry. Always worrying. Making sure they were eating right, behaving themselves in school, with their books, and with other kids, not being bullied, or doing the bullying. She glanced in her rear-view mirror.

John! she said sternly, leave your sister alone.

Peter stalked off away from the school, towards home, unable to contain the pretence of calm for long. He broke into a half-trot.

He couldn’t see Celia from here, but she would be home by now. At the front door, waiting to get in. Ringing the front door, sniffling and annoyed with him at the front porch. That was it, he was sure of it. He was looking forward to her being cross, telling him off for being late. Good, yes.

He started to run, patting down his pockets for his keys and phone. Keys, yes; phone, no. Damn it, it was all the bloody watch’s fault. He’d left everything in a rush.

Poor Celia, he thought. She’ll be furious. She was a stickler on time, had learned to read the clock before her a-b-c’s. She hated being late, hated people keeping her waiting. Himself, mostly: time-keeping wasn’t his strongest quality. He was always kidding his wife that Celia couldn’t be his daughter, that Helen must’ve been carrying on with a Swiss fella.

Bloody watch, he muttered again as he ran. He’d been sitting there lost to time, messing around with his CV for the hundredth time, filling it with the latest buzzwords. All the while, that damn watch was lying to him every time he looked at it.

Turning the corner, he could see their house through the neighbour’s hedge. And like that, he was home.

But no sign of Celia. A gasp escaped his lips.

It wasn’t possible. Had she climbed the fence, gone around the back? No, impossible. But she must have got in somehow. She must have. He shoved in through the door.

Celia?

No little voice replied. Peter rushed upstairs, pushing into her room, the bathroom, their own bedroom. Nothing. Every second wasted, she was slipping further away, whatever had happened her. He vaulted down the stairs, into the kitchen, the living room. Both empty.

Celia?

He called her name again, and again:

Celia!

Out in the front yard, shouting her name. Ear cocked, mouth ajar, tongue almost tasting the wind, the better to hear a reply of some sort. He turned and called her name once more, eyes seeing nothing while he strained to hear. Nothing.

Had he left her, missed her somewhere? Where could she be? What had he forgotten? Maybe Helen had picked her up, got off early. But no, she was in London all day for meetings. She’d have called.

He went back inside. He grabbed his phone from the countertop and lumbered out to the hallway in a daze. Who took her, and why? Once more his mind somersaulted, leaping to wild notions. Blackmail? Some pervert? Kidnapping?

He stood panting and sweating in the hall, heart hammering against his chest. With trembling clumsy fingers, he punched in the number for emergency services. He pushed the call button, then saw the note.

A piece of paper fluttering in the breeze on the floor. Must’ve been pushed under the door and he’d missed it when he burst through earlier.

Ransom note. That was his first thought on seeing it. He crouched and grabbed the slip of paper with a quivering hand.

Emergency services, a voice said. Hello?

Peter read the words slowly, his brain frozen by fear.

Hello? said the voice. Emergency services. Are you okay?

 

Celia is over here with Emily, said the note. Tried knocking but no answer.

Nora Connors.

 

Oh thank Christ! Oh Jesus! he spluttered.

Hello? Sir? Do you need an ambulance?

No no, Peter said, it’s all okay now. Everything’s okay. Oh thank God. Thank you, thank you. I’m sorry, it’s okay now.

He hung up, and leaned against the wall to catch his ragged breath. Then with purpose, he entered the kitchen and wrenched the watch from the countertop. With all his might, he pelted it against the wall, then stamped and smashed the fractured face again and again until his foot started to throb.

He bent over, resting his hands on his knees, shaking from the exertion and the shock. Then he stood and cleared his throat, and headed out to pick up Celia.

 

 

***

In the Blink of an Eye

The big day had arrived, and Cormac stood there at the altar. Nervous? A little, if he was to be honest, though he was making a great show of smiling and making jokes with Tommy and Stevie, his grooms-men. Mum’s eyes were on him, he could feel them, though he didn’t look. His father there, down the aisle, throwing the head back with laughter. A show too, perhaps.

Cormac glanced towards the movement down at the door. One of the ushers in a conversation of nods and gestures with another outside. The congregated noise fell from a shuffling hum to hushed silence, an occasional whisper, long lenses and phones poised and pointed towards the rear of the church. The organist, fingers draped above the keys, focused his gaze to his right, down the polished stone aisle for the first sign of motion there.

Then, a burst of blinding light, and the music of angels. A haloed silhouette appeared, formless and flowing at first, as the intense brightness bent and folded around, unwilling to give her up just yet to the gloom of the church.

And in she came, Sarah, and he saw her, saw her face, as if for the first time once more.

And then it came, his mind hit with a flurry of images, with a force that nearly pushed him over.

The honeymoon, in Venice. Then home, their home, applying the finishing touches. The first few years, slipping by so fast. Nights out and celebrations. Stags and hens and late nights. More friends following them down the aisle. Special nights, and hungover days. Cliona, Joe. Rebecca and Mark. Jamie and a new face. Then babies appearing on the scene. Sarah and Cormac, happy for others, anxious, waiting.

A long long wait for number one. Frustration. Time rushing by. Months, years. Shouting, tiredness, visits to specialists. Tests, missed periods, false hopes, but nothing. Then – finally – Elizabeth, Liz. Relief. Exhaustion. Sickly. Further hospital visits. Trying for another. Easier the second time, less pressure. Charlotte. More exhaustion. Joy. Calmer. Relaxed. Work. Pay rise. Overtime. Exhaustion. The car crash, all okay.

Dad, suddenly, in his sleep. Mum, a broken heart not long after. The settlement of the will. Bad feeling with Tommy. Selling their childhood home, splitting the bills and the proceeds. Tainted memories. Didn’t seem fair. Bad blood, loss of a friend.

Then a boy. Steven. And then another, by accident. Emma. Another pay rise, promotion this time, but travel required. Long weeks, snatching short stays at home. Liz to school, then Charlotte. All growing up. Moving house, better school, better neighbourhood. The park nearby, a bonus. Weekend strolls with the kids.

Then that child going missing. Helping with the search. Nothing. Discovered the following week. Met the parents. Distraught. Sarah fearful for their own. Paranoid. Unrealistic that it would happen again. Tensions. Trips. More trips. Business. A blur.

Liz to secondary, Emma in primary. All growing up so fast. Partner. Finally, deservedly. Champagne. Success. Another move, away from that park. Liz on gap year across the world, Sarah concerned. Month without contact in South East Asia. Stress and breakdown, for Sarah. Angina. Stress. Medication. Liz the cause. On an island all along.

Liz home, rejects further study. New boyfriend. A layabout. Tension. Fighting. What to do about that? Just leave it be. She’ll see sense. She’s throwing away her opportunity. It’ll pass. You only live once.

Charlotte – Lottie – pressure to do well. No gap year. Model child. Sports scholarship. Champagne. Whiskey. The new secretary. Tensions. Tensions everywhere. Working hard and working late. Anger and suspicion.

Stevie up-front on the youth team, final. Scouts. Hopes. Hat-trick and trial in the UK. Prospects. Don’t neglect studies. Family decisions. Move in support? No, more than one child to consider. Uproot everyone for this? No. Carry on as before. Meet the family he’ll stay with. Bedsit. Crying on the phone. Homesick.

Brief thing with the secretary, one night. Regrets. Nips that in the bud. Stupid, idiotic. Haunted by it. Guilt and fear. One moment. Redoubled efforts at home.

Lottie progressing through, about to graduate. Entering the grown-up world. Then Liz home. Pregnant. Boyfriend gone. Abortion? Yes. No. I don’t know. I want to keep it. Echoes through life. Tough decision. Driving over on the boat. To visit Stevie. Hushed up. Week out from work. Busy time. Family first. Possible merger ongoing. Bad timing. Difficult decisions. On boat, get word of Sarah’s mother. Suddenly taken to hospital. Sarah goes back. Liz crying, screaming. Coldness comes between them.

With Liz in England, to visit Stevie. Him wondering what’s wrong. Nothing. Keep your head down boy, keep working. Lonely here. Trained with first-team squad. Progress. Still apprentice. Finished schooling here. Thinking about options. Need contract at end of this year or it’s all over.

Outside the clinic with Liz, early morning, wondering. Already paid for, already booked. Support whatever decision you make. Family’s the most important thing.

Sarah’s mother has the scan. Too far gone to operate. To be released until the end. Gran never complained, never said. Comforting hollow words. Life going on, right here. It’s not easy, but now or in a week’s time, it’s still the same impossible choice. It’s for life, Liz. I know, Dad. Either way, it’s for life. Make the decision. She has it, the ‘procedure’. Stay in awful hotel halfway to the ferry. Crying, throwing up on the stormy crossing. Distraught. Straight to the hospital to see Gran. Someone asks about boyfriend. Didn’t know. More tears.

Emma’s final exams. Pressure to do better than Lottie. Big sister, role model. Emma doesn’t know what she wants to do. Gap year. Sarah refuses after Liz. Gran released home but constant care required, debilitated. Grandpa too weary to take care of her. He’ll be fine. I’ll manage. Liz still in house but not speaking to Sarah. Tensions, frostiness. Charlotte graduates top of her class. Champagne. Night out.

Emma’s boyfriend attacked. Jonah. Critical. Pulls through. Speech slurred but improving. Court case. Convicted but released. Emma and Jonah engaged one month after. Delight tinged with fear. Great kid, but will he be okay. Can he take care of them? Emma changed, all serious now.

Stevie gets a contract. Heads south, to London. Becoming pro, lower-end team, journeyman. Keep studying, keep learning.

Merger begins. Thinking about retiring. Emma moves out, with Jonah. Liz moving in and out, across the years. Arguments with her. Sarah and him closer now, stronger through shared adversities.

Lottie in startup. Some success. Talk of buyout. Excitement, but tensions, jealousies between sisters. Living in apartment. Driven girl. Then buyout, the lump sum, Lottie thrilled, entire team moving to Silicon Valley, part of the deal. Exciting, sad. Both. Lottie thrilled, sees no downside when career is everything.

Liz in evening studies. Writes essay on parental neglect. Meets Rita from class and moves in with her. Still never worked a day. She’ll be fine.

Grandpa passes suddenly. Heart. In kitchen. Good innings, but a shock. Sell the house. Gran either with them or into care. With them. Need to change house layout.

Liz and the anarchists, arrested. On the news. No longer talking to Sarah. Still our daughter.

Extension for Gran drags on. Neighbour complains about noise, legal dispute with builder. Gran passes one month after moving in. Sarah distraught, spends month at a retreat in the west, finding comfort in Jesus.

Deciding to retire. Meeting Liz for occasional catchup in grotty flat. Sad. Refuses offer of ‘capitalist money’.

Emma and Jonah finally marry, reminder of their own day. Starting family. Grandkids. Lottie flies in and out.

Stevie and girlfriend too. English girl, Marion. Moved back up north, Premiership team. Squad player. Past peak, but experienced. Might get game. Loaned out, back south. Injuries, coaching badges.

Sarah more involved with the grandkids, revitalised. Retirement, pension, time on the course with the guys. Seeing the grandkids.

Big trip to California, to see Lottie. Articles in newspapers about her. Success. Fella, another tech guy from the startup. Big place. No time to start a family yet, maybe some day. Swift marriage. Swift divorce. Just not working. Mutual. Affair. Bastard.

Not going back to California, trip too far. Sarah’s cyst removed. Old before her time. Him too. Weary, and worn out from Liz. Sell the home for somewhere else smaller. Warmer? Abroad? No. Friends and family here. Grandkids. Slip, hip operation. Sarah’s lungs, damp air, coughing.

Lottie head of some new company, not sure what they do. Technology moving on.

Liz surviving on welfare, angry with the State. Found men again, gone back to being straight. Starting a family, later than the rest. Emma with three. Lottie none, no desire. Stevie with three, little London accents, coaching lower League side. Liz with one. All growing up. Getting names mixed up.

Feeling the effects of it all. Fading away. Clothes hanging loose, withered legs, noticing the cold. Sarah slipping, but he fades faster. On the golf course, then a burning bright light…

Cormac steadied himself, focused once more on the shape cast by the light, at that familiar and lovely silhouette taking form.

Sarah looked beautiful. He met her eyes, and they saw only each other across the space, and smiled.

 

 

***

Business Expenses

Fergal smelt candle and quenched flame as he grappled with the door in the dark. It defied his attempt to shut it quietly, the low thud echoing about the bare walls and hard tiles. Keys deposited on the sidetable with infinite delicacy, he pushed himself off into the livingroom.

All was in darkness, save one pinprick of light, a small lamp at the far side of the couch. As he moved into the space and towards that light, his eyes adjusted to the gloom and he spotted another beacon in the distance, on the table along the hall. A trail of torches to light his way home.

First though, a detour to the kitchen, for some orange juice, or lemonade, something to quench his thirst. He pulled open the fridge. The sudden clinical brightness stabbed his eyes, and he shut them a moment, but the reeling forced him to open them again.

Though still a little tipsy, he clocked the food on the shelf and reached for it, spotting also the half-empty bottle of white in the door, and an empty one on the counter beside it. He wheeled accusingly towards the dining table. Candles, white tablecloth, one set of cutlery.

Fuck, he mumbled.

She’d had things ready for romance. He’d sus-pected as much, something in her voice on the phone, but she’d never said. It wasn’t his fault, he didn’t have second sight. He wasn’t to know about the wine, the food, the candles. She’d never said.

Maeve moved in bed, unsettled in her sleep. Some ever-vigilant part of her brain registered the move-ment and noise beyond, and thought: Do not disturb me. You let me down. You never even called me back. I waited. I had candles. I had music. I had wine chilling, food ready.

Fergal ate without ceremony, a weaving shadow before an open fridge, dainty tapas disappearing into an undiscriminating hole. He drank from the carton, ignoring the general rule against such things, and thus sated, headed down the hallway.

It wasn’t his fault. He’d had to go after work – reluctantly – to the bar. He knew the girls were gone down to Auntie Rita’s. He knew that. And he knew she’d want a nice evening in, just the two of them. He wanted it himself, to get home, relax, just themselves, maybe grab some flowers on the way home, watch a bit of telly and hit the sack early. But it was business, they were clients; that was just the way it went.

Maeve groaned softly, awakened by the squeaking of floorboards as Fergal tried to tiptoe by into the bathroom. She turned over onto her side. She squinted at her watch on the bedside locker – two-forty-nine. She fell back into the warm hollow of the bed.

Tonight had been a disaster, a massive disappoint-ment in the end. She had decided they would make love tonight. Not sex, although that would be the end result, but love.

Candles, bedspread on the floor in the livingroom, finger food, strawberries, chocolate, music, a trail of clothes from the front door. The twins gone to their cousins. A CD playing, an old one, Rod Stewart, songs she knew, with happy memories. Familiarity. Tonight’s the night. She danced around the house, preparing, living out the evening in her mind, happinesses from the future and the past mingling. Then the phonecall.

Same as ever. Clients. Bloody clients.

Fergal had tried to break away early today from the pub. He’d even gone to empty his bladder just before he made his goodbyes, but on his return, Wayne was returning with another round of drinks. Foolishly, Fergal sat down, his partner stayed on his feet and signed off.

Listen fellas, it was great meeting you today, Wayne said. Sorry I’ve got to run but Fergal here is better able to handle his drink anyway. Besides, he’s the man that signs the expenses cheques around here.

With a wink and a round of laughter, Wayne escaped for the evening. He’d beaten him to it, the bastard. So what was Fergal to do then, leave too? He couldn’t. No way. Someone had to entertain the clients, someone had to schmooze them. There was no other way. That was how you closed the deal.

Business was personal. Business was built on relationships between people, not by magic. Personal relationships. Friendships, if you could call them that. In time, perhaps he could. Perhaps in time, he would be able to disappear early. And perhaps they would all be happy to do so, when client had become friend, when they might invite one another over on weekends for family-and-friend barbeques, when the wives had been introduced and become close. That was all for the future, though; right now, they were fragile budding relationships, and they were bloody time-consuming.

The conversation replayed through Maeve’s mind again, Fergal calling just before five.

Yeah honey, look, I’ll be back a little late… We’re just wrapping up with a couple of clients and we… well, they… It’ll just be a few drinks, okay?

God, clients. She looked around the scene she was preparing, feigning nonchalance: No, that’s fine, she said coolly, but hurry home after, love, won’t you?

Oh yeah, of course, pet. But we’ll see how it’s going, okay?

A pause on her side, then Fergal went on, to fill the silence:

These could be our biggest clients yet, Maeve. These guys are the big-time… and we’re stealing them from those bastards too, he whispered, the glee evident in his voice.

Maeve gave the evening up there and then for a lost cause.

Fergal splashed water on his face and looked at the reflection staring back at him, a slack paunch beneath a sagging face and greying hair. The price you pay, he thought.

The business had taken a hit when the boom went bust. Everything did, everyone did. He and Wayne had scrambled to survive, calling in favours, desperately ringing old acquaintances, classmates, distant relations – anyone they knew – for the smallest little job available, something to keep them going for this month, the next month, the one after. It was relentless, exhausting, trying to survive for a few years like that. They had hung on for the whole second half of 2010 through piecemeal shitty work from a pal of Wayne’s father-in-law, but they had hung on nonetheless.

Before, during the boom, work had been hard too, but in a completely different way. Having the kind of tough decisions to make that any business would relish: whether to become more selective with their clients, or to expand and take on more people. The difficulties of finding good staff, then having to take on anyone at all, with the shortage of qualified people.

Then like a hammer blow, everything all at once went sour and south. Having to lay people off. Never easy, though at first at least it was those who had never fitted in to begin with.

Then, though, with the lean times continuing, having to make hard choices. Good guys, fellas with a wife and kids, twenty years of experience, but too expensive, even after wage cuts. Choosing the fresh graduates, willing and able to work for a pittance. Awful decisions. Awful days. Ageing and agonising in the office.

Now – finally – they had made it to the far side of the crisis. Things had turned around at last, or perhaps there was just no one else left. Survival was success in times of hardship. With a sudden swell of joy, he had a thought that today’s bit of business could finish off Kane & Liddell. If Wayne could come good on the fees, they would have today’s clients, and they’d be the only game in town worth talking about. Fergal would love to see the look on Mike Liddell’s face when he found out. The prick.

Maeve had always thought that women were supposed to be the ones to hold grudges, until she’d seen Fergal and Wayne in business. Really, they took some matching!

Those bastards, he’d said. Kane & Liddell, Fergal’s one-time employers. Jesus, why were they all so fucking petty? It was all a big willy-waving contest, a running tally of grievances, and who was saying what behind the other’s back, and who had which account, and who they won it from.

Was it too much to ask, that Fergal could put all that to one side, once a week, once in a month even, that he might come home at a reasonable hour? Maybe surprise her with flowers, like he used to? She wasn’t such a fool as to imagine things would always stay the way they were in the beginning, but she hoped they could recover some of the spark they’d had, before it went too far. If things were picking back up, he could surely take his foot off the pedal a little.

Survival, he thought. As far as it went for the past five years, it came down to survival. Bigger companies than theirs had folded, collapsed, years of heritage with them. Smaller companies, caught at the wrong moment, trying to expand, had disappeared in litigation and loans gone bad.

They had been lucky, Wayne and him, just at the stage where they were consolidating their base, about to push on with a further expansion – a second office, up North, to follow the investments up there.

All of which meant that the business had been the only priority, in truth, ever since. There was no denying that. No denying that everything else had suffered. Impossible to admit as much to anyone, least of all Maeve, but the business had essentially become the sole focus of his life. It had had to be. Without it, there was nothing. Nothing to live on, nothing to pay for the mortgage or food for the kids.

Fergal undressed, trying his best to stay quiet, tripping and hopping on one leg on the slippery tiles, his foot caught in the trouser-and-sock amalgamation.

He pushed the door open and crept out. Halfway across the floor, he remembered to brush his teeth. Reversing, the belt slipped from the bundle of clothes in his arms and clattered to the floorboards. He winced as he retreated.

She winkled one eye open at the noise, spotting his silhouette framed by the bathroom door. All these late nights, was it possible he was having an affair? She knew Wayne was, the smug shit, but Fergal had told her that himself. How would she know if Fergal was? No, she rejected the thought. It just wasn’t him. Besides, it wasn’t as if he looked any different and he certainly wasn’t taking better care of himself. He had cancelled his gym membership mid-business-crisis and no question, it showed.

The constant work was killing him, and killing them, and her passion for him. He was out of shape, eating takeout for lunch and god-knows-what for dinner with drinks, the occasional cigar to keep the client company. Between slipping out to the office on Saturday mornings and Sunday lunch meetings, it felt like the only waking time they shared was first thing in the morning. Even there, traces of work lingered – the smell of last night’s drinks on his breath killed any romantic thoughts she had.

Fergal brushed his teeth vigorously and gazed at the exhausted face looking back. How did Maeve still find this attractive? How was Wayne still in shape, and how the hell did he find time for an affair? Fergal was finding it difficult enough keeping his marriage together. Success in business, if he could call it that yet, came at a price. Something had to give: that was the cost of keeping food on the table. He had given everything – no one could say he hadn’t – to keep the company above water. Without the company, he didn’t even want to think what would have happened him. Or Maeve. Or the girls.

He couldn’t reason it in those terms to Maeve. He just couldn’t find the right way to put it when they argued, tongue-tied and wounded at her words. She would say that his family should be put first. He would insist that they were, that her and the twins were everything to him. She would deny it. He would insist. It would go back and forth until she was crying. He would apologise, feeling sorry and angry at the same time. She couldn’t see it in his terms; he couldn’t explain it in hers.

The consequence of the last few years of dedication to the business was that everything else had become a blur in the margins. Only now, as they climbed back out of the low years, were things beginning to swim back into his vision, still unclear, as if he had been dreaming all this time.

A start of realisation, looking around himself, to realise that the twins were stretched into real little girls now, no longer jabbering little puppyfat babies, but real girls in school. And Maeve was older too, thin lines at the corners of her eyes, and tension at the sides of her mouth. Five years of worry and isolation, of smiling through cutbacks and letdowns.

But the biggest change was in himself. Almost unrecognisable, apart from the nose and ears, his father’s legacy. His hair had fallen back at the wings and gone either grey or white, depending on the angle of the light. His face had filled out, with cheeks a touch on the red side, the line between jaw and throat less clear. Below, what had once been the insinuation of a six-pack was more like the start of his second trimester. There was just no time for the gym like before. Maybe next year again. Right now, there was no time for anything but the business. All about finding the time.

Which was the greater crime, he wondered – his or Wayne’s? Was there any difference in the end? Spending time with another woman or with clients, late into the night, sharing alcohol-enhanced moments, all of them engaged in this balancing act, where did it stop?

There would never be enough for him, Maeve realised. His drive to succeed with the business, it was just part of who he was, part of what made her love him. Unceasing, unrelenting, there would always be more: another client to pull in, another target, another goal, getting one over an old rival or squeezing out a new challenger. She didn’t know what it was that compelled him onward: ego, or fear, or courage, but it would never end. It was something just in him, part of him no less than his two hands or his skull, part of what made him the man she had fallen in love with.

She heard the door crack open again and pretended to be still asleep. He’d better not try to nudge against her – by accident, of course – to wake her, to have sex. Now, at three in the morning, after letting her down! With no foreplay, no anticipation. No, he’d better not.

 

Fergal turned off the light and nuzzled into Maeve. She murmured, rewarded with a tender kiss on the top of her head. She was relieved that he didn’t try for anything more; he was relieved she didn’t want to talk. He fell back from the embrace and they lay side by side, feigning sleep – one unwilling, and the other afraid, to say anything – before tumults of private thoughts settled in silent exhaustion, and they fell asleep, separately, together.

 

 

***

Duty-Bound

Crumbs lay upon crumbs around the periphery of the dining table, embedded in the thick old rug that smothered all sound in the room. The grubby blinds in the windows diffused the light, dulling the room, hiding a multitude of sins – cobwebs holding darkened corners together, tea-splash stains on carpet by the armchair, strata of dust protecting the surface of a sideboard last polished seven years and three months ago.

He brought the egg to the table and sat heavily into the chair at the end. For now, he did not have his collar on; for now, he was just himself, not a priest, not a man of god, just a man. A man in mourning, grieving for his dearest friend.

The house he sat in was still, shrouded in the silence that a grey and misty morning brings. The priest’s house, built in 1873 beside the church, by the community. A voluntary labour of love. You wouldn’t get that any more, the volunteers. People had no meas, no faith, like that in their community any more. In their parish. Hard to blame them now. Faith in what, exactly?

He sat tapping the pointy end of the egg with his spoon, aware of its resemblance to his own balding skull, and wondered had he ever suspected, in all his years, had some part of him never had misgivings at the seminary, never wondered that maybe the church could be founded on something less than what he had accepted?

No, of course not. He had been seduced by mother church, no different to any other callow youth swayed by the wiles of an older woman, really. Ever since he had been a boy, kneeling there at the altar step inside the rails with his comrades, breathing in that heady perfume, the fog of incense, inhaling the sanctity, the history, the power and the glory, he had known what he wanted: the lure of knowledge and that power, to study the teachings of some of the greatest minds of the last two thousand years, to walk in the footsteps of Christ, to live a life of sacrifice and contemplation of mysteries, gain a deeper understanding of the world. His twin loves, as a child, knowledge and power.

Power to do good, mind. He was never malicious even as a lad. Of course, there were a few things he was not proud of, looking back; a few scrapes in primary school; the usual horseplay in secondary; even the seminary, playing practical jokes when doddery old Father Finnerty had turned his back on them. Ah, but harmless things really, actions that allowed him to sympathise with the sins of his congregation; no, every good man regrets, as someone much wiser than himself had once written. Although he was beginning to wonder if his entire vocation fell into that category now.

He was a bright man, Fr James. He had always excelled academically, at every stage driven on by a zealous pursuit of knowledge, goaded into the priesthood by the suspicion that the real answers to everything lay there. Oh, and what a priest he had been, honest, hard-working amongst the community, kind. Of course all that stuff over the past ten, fifteen years had hurt the church, and him too, but no one considered him part of that. People got that instantly about him. Nothing repressed here. Strong. Strong in his faith, in his belief, both in God, and the mighty things God could achieve for the community through a strong man, through his deeds and his words.

Yes, the words. The sermon. He had always been fascinated by it, that there could be so many messages contained within the Bible, so many lessons even for our modern times. Amazing the power of the Holy Word to inspire and guide, after two thousand years. But then, maybe there were as many powerful life-lessons to be found in fairy tales, if you asked the Grimm Brothers!

He shivered. He would never have thought such a thing before, the older him, or rather, the younger him. It was still hard not to rebuke himself for the blasphemous thought, though the concept of blasphemy was shedding meaning to him now. Ah indeed, happy is he who has not seen and yet still believes.

That was the great leap across the chasm of futile existence. Faith. Faith and Reason, the twin pillars of the church. Now, Fr James was looking anew at the church; now, he could see that Reason was not a pillar of the church at all, just a trompe l’oeil, just a function of where he had knelt in prayer all those years. From his new vantage point, the pillar of Reason passed clear by the Church, which was left floating on Faith alone.

Yet he would become no crowing atheist. There was no joy in his discovery. Hope liberates from misery; knowledge condemns one to it. There was no solace in what he knew, and the church was not bad of itself – what miracles it had worked in the name of Good, what wonders it had created. Misguided or not, Christ brought a message of fairness, justice, charity to the world. Unquestionably good things. Two millennia of reflection and dedication to the Word. The world’s greatest artists, theologians and scholars had spent their lives in service to the infinite mysteries of the church. Saint Paul, Thomas of Aquinas, Saint Augustine, Cardinal Newman; they had all given their lives to the church, in hope of eternal reward, to join the chorus of angels and saints in heaven.

The more aspects he contemplated now, the more he found it all ridiculous. An eternity of blasting trumpets and choirs of angels. A den of din. He knew a few, even from his own little choir, who should not be allowed to sing even on Earth, though perhaps voices underwent augmentation above? Sacrilege. He stopped himself. What point was there in mocking it either? It was hard, discovering this, now, at his age. He tried to see the funny side of it, to smile through it, but it was hard. His body racked suddenly in heaving, though tears did not come.

A life wasted, then, on a faith he no longer believed in, his brief existence spent but for some loose change, and what to do with that? That hurt most of all. He was trapped in his union with the church, for others more than himself. Sacrifice or waste; didn’t he have that in common with Christ?

He was not the sort to begin ranting against it in public. He respected the right of others to believe, knowing the comfort faith brought in tough times, so who was he to take away that, illusion or not? Everyone had the right to that comfort, that belief – in truth, he envied them greatly, though that was a sin, too. If one believed. What other option did he have but to go on? Yes, he could quietly leave the priesthood, he could retire, but on what? Since his days at the seminary, priests had had to survive on less and less. It was an implicit vow of poverty now, absolutely. Not that he could call to mind an ostentatious priest in his time. He himself had had to manage without a housekeeper now for seven years, since Mrs Reidy passed.

A man who had never had to contemplate such mysteries as cooking or mopping or dusting, or dreaded slow spin cycles. Clothes went into the infernal thing and never came back out the same size or colour as they had been before.

At his age, it was all too new, too difficult. He had managed the housekeeping these last few years, offering up his small daily struggles to God as penance for his sins and the sins of others. Now all of that seemed the actions of a naïve fool. And it was never-ending and impossible, even to tidy up after one soul.

What puzzled Fr James was the great men. Sharp men, like the bishop, and the cardinals of Rome, truly intelligent fellows. Fluent in many tongues, and in the ways of the world – these men of keen intellect and real depth of theological thought; did they believe at all, or were they just career politicians of a different sort? He preferred to take the more benevolent view, that they were so caught up in arguing obscure points of theology that they never stepped back to consider the whole. Whether a particular tree was an ash or an oak didn’t matter if the whole forest was a mirage, but some were so dedicated to that one tree that they never looked around them.

He reached into the egg with the spoon and withdrew it, cloaked in opaque milky white. A half-cooked egg, he thought, disgusted. I can’t even boil an egg. His shoulders fell, and he dropped the spoon with a clatter onto the plate. Simple things, inconsequential things.

He had been one of those too, a theological warrior, keeping up regular correspondence for over twenty years with a friend in Augsburg, Fr Pieter Erstmann, on the letters of Timothy.

It was in the course of researching one of the sources for these that he had come across the paper that had sown the seed of doubt. He had read the document, aghast at the blasphemy, outraged by the accusations the author made, but he read on to the end, as if to fuel his indignation. In seeking to refute the points the author had made, he accidentally nourished that first seed of suspicion in his own mind. The more he read, the less convinced he became, and the moral high ground crumbled away beneath his feet. He came to the brutal realisation that the ‘blasphemous’ paper was historically faultless, and his powers of faith were shattered by his powers of reason.

He looked down the table at the latest missive from Fr Erstmann on the tainted lace cover. It had sat there since it had arrived. He couldn’t find the strength to open it, lacking the courage to say what he truly felt now, yet without desire to continue the discourse when he no longer believed any of it. It made no difference what Timothy had or hadn’t being implying when one compared the original Greek copies versus the Latin translations. It was all irrelevant when what Timothy had been writing about was wrong in itself; flawed, the work of mere men, contradictory passages of neo-Judaic apocalypticism.

The worst part of it all was that there was a good message, a beautiful message, undoubtedly, amongst the confused conflicting writings. Love your neighbour as yourself. Charity. Respect. Forgiveness. Repentance. All these things were immeasurably noble and honourable things, good things. Of course, with the good comes the bad, ancient preachings twisted to subjugate women, to persecute, to wage wars, to condemn unbaptised children to an invented eternal purgatory, suicides to eternal hell, and those left behind to eternal anguish. Terrible, shameful deeds. In good faith, perhaps well-intentioned? Who could say; the church had itself been abused by power-mad men since its beginnings, converted into a tawdry political machine.

There again, much of that was in the past. Ironically, the church now was as close to a model church as it had been perhaps since it began, certainly compared with these past five hundred years. It had had some great men to lead it in recent times, for sure. Good men and true. Popes shackled to a terrible past yet still testing the chains a little, as much as possible. A creeping revolution. Hard to change except incrementally, with a billion faithful relying on the church for daily hope, most in crippling poverty.

Yet fundamentally the thing was flawed. This was his problem. He could continue, would continue, must continue, to offer solace on the sad days to come, to rejoice in the new life or new union, to provide some measure of relief for those uncomfortable sins, but the rest of it? The first readings? Tainted and tampered ravings of sun-baked ramblers in a desert two thousand years ago, contradicting and counter-manding the dictats of the preceding and following readings.

He brought the egg and spoiled toast to the bin and emptied it in. That would smell, the egg: he must remember to leave the bins out for collection on Monday evening. So many things to do in the ordinary world, to take a mind from higher thoughts. Hah! Well, no such thoughts any more. Perhaps he should welcome all the distractions, in lieu of abstractions.

Today was an unwelcome distraction. Most unwelcome. The funeral of Willy Mitchell. He glanced out through the window. A grey day. Sombre. Fitting weather for burial of a dear friend. A man who had never questioned but that the church was right in all things. A dear old friend, of the church but of Fr James even more so. Someone he could call on, and had called on, many evenings. And vice versa.

People overlooked that about priests, what a lonely life it could be. Sure, it was a fine lifestyle in a city parish, a big old house shared with fellow priests. He had had that luxury for the first three years after Maynooth, as curate in Ballsbridge, and it was fun, companionable. But out here, out in the country, two counties away from the village he had grown up in?

He had been here for the past forty-five years, or forty-six. Forty-six in April, the first and only parish that was his own. He had been curate for several years, until Fr Power, the incumbent parish priest, had gone into the home. Then he had become the P.P. to the people. Mrs Reidy had been in every morning to clean and prepare the breakfast and things. A great loss to himself, and to the church. Very devout woman. The church, for all its ambivalence towards them, would never survive without the women. Nor the greater community, for that matter. Oh sure, the men were mighty fellas to organise things, get something built, to plant the seed. But the nurture, care, maintenance, all the stuff that was unseen and unrewarded and utterly essential to life, that was the domain of women. And somehow they were okay with that unrecognised labour. Truly mysterious.

He threw the last dribble of tea into the sink and rinsed the cup in cold water. The hot tap hadn’t been working for a fortnight now, but he kept forgetting to mention it to Mattie Conway on the parish council. Only so much that elbow grease could do for dried-in egg. He wouldn’t mention it today, if he saw him, but he must remember to at some stage before the weather got properly cold. Fr James put on his coat, dark grey, and a cap for the day that was in it. Willy Mitchell. Ah! It was sad. Another good man gone.

He rubbed the sting that came into his nose and blinked, and looked at the carriage clock on the mantelpiece. Just gone half-past. No distance to go anyway, the church here beside the house, Killerk church, not Kilmore, at the eastern end of the parish. Two churches he had to look after now, two parishes melded into one over the last fifty years, a marriage of necessity and scarcity. Two half-empty houses of God, and a priest’s house beside each.

What would become of them? he wondered. The Church and its churches. There was hardly anyone coming to replace him, however long he held out here. No, the priests from the surrounding parishes would just manage, spread a little thinner than before, like margarine on meagre bread. Fr Patterson, Fr Kinnane and Pat – Fr Walsh. Them three and himself had managed when Cloheen parish had to be covered, after Fr Noonan had passed away, taking every fourth mass or thereabouts, but it was no way for a parish to continue, and he supposed that Cloheen would eventually fall away altogether, as the numbers were showing. People moved their worship to one of the other churches for good, rather than having a different priest every week. It wasn’t like in the cathedral in town, where you expected that – part and parcel of town living was the greater anonymity. No, people felt proprietorial towards their priests in the rural parishes. They owned him, in a strange way. People felt they had a right to their own priest, very protective of him, as much as they might crib about his lengthy sermons or whatever else amongst themselves.

Of course, all that was assuming Fr Patterson would survive the hip operation. He was a hearty fellow, a grand healthy man, but at his age, there could be complications with the surgery. He could be confined to the bed or a wheelchair for a long while after. The thought of having to cover Clooneen parish did not fill him with joy. Not only was the church almost fifteen miles away, but the way the cost of petrol was going, he’d probably have to get a lift.

Still, enough of that kind of thinking. Put away those thoughts from his mind for the day, maybe, and give a fond farewell to ould Willy Mitchell, a man he could hand-on-heart say was a well-loved man. Great interest in the GAA, not just Emmets, his own club, but the county too. Passionate about the parish and farming life, involved in the running of the parish council for years, and of course a loving father, and later grandfather, and a devoted husband to Teresa all of her days. Committed to the community, to farming, to family. Committed to God now. Ah Lord, he’d miss him.

The mirror on the back of the front door was framed by an assortment of muted scarves. He put his hand on the latch then caught himself in his reflection, reaching up to his neck in surprise. The collar. He went back down the corridor and into his bedroom to fetch it.

There, he said to himself, and cleared his throat, and went out into the grey gloom. Adopt the collar and adapt to it. The man stayed inside the house; the priest went out once more.

Fr James considered that he was no longer suffering what one might term a crisis of faith. No, not at this stage. It was gone far beyond. It was a collapse, an absence of faith. Complete and absolute. There might be a god, but that god was not the one presented by himself. Not the one represented by the one true catholic and apostolic church. Yet he could only rail against it internally. Who could he talk to? No one; that was the hard part. The most difficult struggles are always internal.

He had thought to bring it up with Willy once or twice, when the conversation led close by that topic on a wet evening warmed by the smoke of damp turf and a whiskey. But he had held back in the end. What good will this do? he had thought to himself. What purpose does it serve, only a selfish one? Willy had his faith, and who was he, the shepherd of his people, to lead one of his own flock astray, to deny him the comfort of that faith?

It was the same with fellow priests and the bishop. That wouldn’t do; either they had their faith or they did not. No good could come of it, save some fleeting personal triumph, if even that. And that too would pass, to be replaced with sadness at what he had stolen from his confidant. So he must find a way, somehow, to reconcile himself with his fate. Duty. Providing comfort to others, wasn’t that it? Priestly duty. He’d love nothing more than to call in to Willy this evening, for an ould game of cards, watch the news, a cup of tea and a few biscuits, argue about the way the country was gone and what would be done about it. Two old men harmlessly pontificating in by the fire on a Thursday evening. To be a man, just an old man as he was, and not a priest. Instead, Willy was gone and his one enjoyment, his one outlet, with him. A selfish thought, but all thoughts and actions prove themselves selfish if followed down to the end.

The mist swirled in around the porch as he pulled the door shut, dampening the back of his neck. In this old and dying parish, there were less and less people around to mourn for those dearly departed, and those that lived led busier lives than ever. Even weddings these days tended to be smaller, but funerals in particular were lonely, hollow affairs, his voice from the pulpit echoing around the empty space, adding harshness to the message for the huddled few.

Outside the church, there were small clusters of people. As he headed across to the sacristy, Fr James nodded sombrely in response to the glances he met. He stopped as he passed Breda, Willy’s daughter, the one that had stayed home. She was talking to two men that bore a family resemblance: the high forehead, Willy’s straight nose. Breda’s two brothers, he supposed: Anthony and William Junior, though he hadn’t seen them in many years.

Breda was the only one still left in the parish. She’d stayed to mind Willy when her mother had passed, and she’d never married herself. Never had the chance, really. Duty there, too. Toughest on her.

Breda, he said, with an inclination of the head.

Hello Father… Father, this is my brother Tony, and William. Sure Dad never stopped talking about them, what?

All three murmured, more noises than words: greeting, expression of sympathy, low voices in keeping with the occasion. The mist began to thicken into rain as the voices faltered into silence.

Right, said Fr James. I’ll go get ready inside, Breda, if you need anything…

Yeah, of course. Thanks. Thanks, Father.

Ah God, poor Breda, she was terribly upset, he could see that. In shock, the poor thing. The little children, subdued and not sure why, were held close to mothers and fathers, to console them. Ah, it was very hard on them all. They’d miss Willy, or Dad or Granda, whatever they knew him by. Breda, though, most of all.

He walked in through the sacristy and out onto the altar, to see that things were in order thereabouts. Stepping back into the gloom of the sacristy, the thrum of the rain on the sacristy skylight was lessening, then it cleared away altogether. A sun’s ray escaped the folds of cloud and a beam of blissful light filled the silent space, setting his vestments aglow. He looked down at them numbly, at the rich cloth laid out earlier by the sacristan, as a drop fell on them and then another, matched by the patter on the skylight.

Poor Breda, Fr James said, and thought of sacrifice, of duty, and lives spent in service to others.

 

 

***

Seeks Partner

Three years they’d been together, her and Gavin. Two years living apart and coming together; twelve months living together but coming apart. They tried but failed. An experiment in cohabitation, compro-mise, consolidation. Two became one, became two again.

In the end it was better to cut their losses, for both of them, and try for something else, something better. So she had told him, anyway, when she sat him down in the old apartment. It was her decision, finally, though she’d heard otherwise from Olivia and Jeff. Ciara was single again, in what seemed a man’s town.

Dublin must have twice as many women as men, she thought, and the foreign girls would put anyone to shame: miniskirts, makeup and lowcut tops. Not that the locals were slow in catching on, or trying to outdo them, even, as if to make up for a lack of exoticism. One way or another, there seemed to be a direct correlation: the shorter the skirt, the longer the odds they would be walking out the door on their own. Whatever works, girls, Ciara thought, but she was looking for something longer-term herself, not a one-night thing. She was gone beyond that. As much fun as it was, she’d left that part of her life behind a good few years ago. Thirty-four now and time to find the one. Maybe not the one so much as a one, a decent one. She didn’t need perfection, just a decent guy with the ability to laugh, and to not be an ass. Not too much to ask, but difficult to describe in the job application – no time-wasters need apply, please. No assholes.

For all intents and purposes, Ciara had given up on the pub scene for meeting someone; she’d never have thought it a few years ago, but it actually did get harder to meet someone in that environment. It wasn’t like she was ancient, and if anything, there was more fun to be had in your thirties – people had lived a little, weren’t so self-obsessed. But it was difficult to organise a night out: most friends were already in relationships, and couples tended to go out less frequently, whatever they might initially protest. It was just a fact of life, no point denying it; she used to do the same herself, leaving singleton friends to fend for themselves while she’d stay in with Gavin, especially on those October evenings, the rain battering on the windows. At the last minute, she’d bail out, a guilty text apologising with some feeble excuse that both sender and receiver knew was just that, knowing that Mona or Paula were being left in the lurch. Now it was karma time – they were both since married, both now sending those same texts she once had. It was funny as she thought about it right now, at home and warm; never quite so hilarious when the text arrived as she sat all alone in some dive off Dame Street. And Amy and Susan had kids, so they were ruled out for any night out that wasn’t organised months in advance. Again, she couldn’t fault them; she’d be the first to do the very same herself – anything to avoid the meat market that was town on a Friday night. When she thought of the gangs of lads and giggly girls, it wasn’t hard to think of a reason to stay away if possible.

It got messy in town, especially if you went on for a dance after the pubs shut. Broken heels and hearts, spilled pints and shouting matches. It was a wonder tourists came at all to the place, Ciara thought; that bleary aggressive side that comes out in us Irish with drink. She had never seen that on holiday in Spain or Portugal, but maybe her and Gavin had always just hit the wrong spots. Or the right spots, the smaller towns away from the main drags by the coast.

They had had some great holidays, little fishing villages with pretty squares where all the local families would come and stroll around in the evenings. Mostly down to hours of internet research by Gavin; that was one of his good qualities, the holidays.

She still couldn’t make up her mind as to whether the three years with him had been a complete waste, a partial waste, or no waste at all. She wasn’t even sure that she shouldn’t have stuck it out, that they weren’t going through a difficult teething phase when they’d started living together, something that would have passed in time. He was far from the worst. They fought over silly little things, but she wondered if they hadn’t been both too scared to commit truly, or hadn’t spent enough time together, or whether his friends or hers had been a stumbling block. No, either way, it was gone. No point looking back at what-ifs and maybes.

She hadn’t been in touch since they had semi-mutually decided to cut their losses and he had moved out. She left the apartment at the end of that month, got the deposit back from the landlord, sorted out the gas bill and moved a little further out. Even though her current apartment was much smaller and no longer smack-bang in the middle of town, she was forking out more for the dubious convenience of single living. Her address said Irishtown, but she said Sandymount if asked. It was almost the same thing, and it sounded better.

She had wondered about calling him up since, Gavin, but pride got in the way. What if he had a new girlfriend, or thought she was trying to get back what she’d foolishly thrown away. It wasn’t like that; she didn’t regret it, only that time had moved on, and that it hadn’t worked out.

That was the tough bit: with only one life to live, how were you supposed to know you were making the right choice? Did you stick with the failed relationship you had, or cut your losses and move on in search of something better?

It was never easy, with so much invested in the relationship, so many cosy things between them by then, comfort in the familiar, even if it wasn’t how she had always imagined it would be. It was better that she had moved out of their place in town. Not that she could have afforded it on her own anyway, but all those memories rattling around in the apartment would be too much, every knick-knack on the mantel-piece a burnished memento of the good times, as the bad memories dulled and faded away altogether.

Time was moving on, had moved on, and now she wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted from a relation-ship. She had been busy with work, thrown herself into it as an escape even before the final breakup. Consequently, as things with her and Gavin were on the slide, her career was on an upward trajectory.

Ciara had always been ambitious, a hard worker, all throughout school, even in college, although that had all been unfocused effort, with no clear purpose in mind. Only with her finance degree under her belt, and a couple of years in the industry, had she really figured out what she wanted to do. She audited now, that was her thing, a certified external auditor and chartered accountant, going through the books, following numbers all the way to the end, looking for anomalies.

The entire financial sector had taken a bashing in the papers since the recession, but she was genuinely proud of what she did, whatever about anyone else. She did her job well and worked hard, and she wasn’t paid a fortune for it, but it wasn’t a bad reward for doing something she loved. And she knew where she was headed, unless something messed it up. Like babies.

That was the kicker. It didn’t affect the guys, but it was the kiss of death to career progression for a woman. It wasn’t fair, but it was the way it was. She had seen how Terry had been sidelined the year she became pregnant with her first. Whether that was for other reasons or not, she wasn’t sure; or if it was just the company recognising that Terry was going to have other things on her mind for the next few years. And again, whether the company’s stance was self-fulfilling or not, Terry did disappear. Two kids and three years later, she was back working full-time, but in a different department, less responsibility, no clear path upwards, whereas Ciara’s path was signposted and shiny, gleaming. Same with Laura – mat leave and a reduced working-week when she came back. Job-sharing. No wonder the fellas got the promotions. They were back and fighting fit a couple of weeks after the first baby, a couple of days after the second, and all the while they were away, they were staying on top of things, dealing with the critical emails. No, in a way, she couldn’t blame a company for acting that way, as borderline illegal as it was. It was just business, nothing personal.

She worked directly with Thomas, the second-youngest partner in the Dublin office. She was his protégé, and he liked her, her work ethic and sense of humour. Handsome enough, too. Shame he was married, he was a good guy and was able to have the craic with her despite her gender. Said a lot about him, really, where others might be worried about gossip or somesuch, he couldn’t care less about that sort of thing. All about getting the job done and working with good people.

Did she even want a relationship, need one? That was the other thing she wondered sometimes. Was that what she wanted, or would she rather have a successful career, or could she have both? Certainly it was possible for a man – Thomas, for example, a wife, three kids and junior partner. And all at only thirty-nine; forty next month. Should she get him something, or would that be taken up the wrong way by him, or by his wife? No, she thought, dismissing the notion; never mind what his wife would think, what would he think: getting him a gift was the sort of thing his secretary might do, but not someone who hoped to be his equal.

Would she make junior partner by thirty-nine? Unlikely. Five years time. Thomas had brought in two big clients, that was what had sent him up the ranks. Working under him and his still-growing list of clients meant that the opportunity for her to develop her own list was non-existent. Still, the path for progression was there. Thomas would be heading the Dublin office for certain within the decade, the logical choice. Mid-to-late forties and running the largest European branch. That was impressive, and no one doubted that he would be perfect in the role.

Would she replace him then? That was the plan, her plan anyhow. From what she could gauge, his too. Taking over clients she would have worked with for a decade, while he took on a whole new set of responsibilities in the larger corner suite down the hall, where Alan Browning was currently ensconced. Fifty-seven and with heart trouble, one bypass, it was only a matter of time for Alan. Retirement and the golf course beckoned. For her, and for Thomas, the longer that day could be held off, the better. Thomas was too young now to be accepted as head of the office, but in six or seven years, certainly, people would accept that. In the meantime, she would continue to watch and learn. She worked with his clients day-to-day; she could make herself indispens-able to them, their go-to girl when Thomas was out winning other work, and in fairness to him, he was never not out winning other work.

It was about more than being useful, though; she knew that, from watching how he ran things. Clients wanted a familiar helpful voice on the other end of the line, but they wouldn’t respect someone willing to bend over backwards. Then they would view her as nothing but a gopher, lower down the scale, particularly being a woman. No, what would bring her up to their level was meeting them, socially, finding the common ground. A few drinks after work, an invitation to a small barbeque on a Sunday, that sort of thing.

What made that impossibly awkward was herself: female, reasonably pretty, young, and single. Single, really. If she had a fella on her arm, then she could go for those drinks, the dinner parties or whatever, no problem. Without a guy, though, it was difficult, and would remain so. Older married men would be uncomfortable with how it might look – or worse yet, creepy – while her contemporaries would see her in terms of a conquest after a few beers, someone to chance their arm with. She didn’t encourage that sort of behaviour. Their professional world was a small one, and reputation was everything. She had absolutely no intention of letting a few drinks and a silly fling ruin her career.

Her thoughts kept circling back around to that same theme: she needed a guy, one way or the other, even if only for career progression. And if she wanted children and something different from life? Well, she certainly needed a man then, too.

And she did want children. Two. A girl and a boy. Would she go as far as three? Sure. Beyond that?

No, she thought: even with three, it would be a struggle to juggle the career she had worked so hard for and the demands of modern motherhood. Just the thought of it made her feel nervous, and suddenly exhausted.

She’d seen the mothers who brought their kids to meetings, or had them sitting in reception or an empty office with colouring pencils, but really, it wasn’t fair on the children and it didn’t come across as very professional. People like to have a personal life to chat about, but bringing it into the workplace was too much. Here and now, she solemnly vowed never to do it, knowing that if she was in a bind, of course she would. A Dublin man would be ideal, with parents who would be hands-on with their grandkids. Close by, but not too close, mind you. Perhaps on the way to work, but not so close they didn’t need to drive over. Family was great, but his family? Never the same thing.

Post-Gavin, Ciara had gone out into the world to make it happen: signed up for things she had never tried before – art classes, cookery courses, even a tango class – but without success. As everywhere else, too many ladies, too few guys, and those present under duress, at the tango classes anyway, practising for their first dance, mortified in case they would meet anyone else they knew.

She had gone for coffee at break in the cookery class with one guy, but he was either a complete gentleman or completely gay. The art class had had three guys the first few weeks, all turning various shades of deep red when a male nude appeared in the classroom one of those Friday evenings. He was nothing special, the nude, seemed a bit full of himself, but the following week, the three were down to one, and that lone straggler seemed to lose heart and left at coffee break that evening, never to return.

With Deirdre, Ciara had attempted tag-rugby. Great way to meet guys, one of their other friends had said, but she played it once and didn’t like it. It just wasn’t for her. Besides, weren’t guys trying to get away from girls when they played sport? Wasn’t that why cycling and golf were so popular? Hours at a stretch where you weren’t bothered by the shrill sound of a woman, as Gavin had put it, joking but getting the message across.

Maybe he was wrong though. It was only the opinion of one male. That was the thing she had noticed of late. Many of her preconceptions were his preconceptions. Comments he passed that she had adopted as her own thoughts. That was a relationship, she supposed, a mashing together of two different sets of notions into a unified and contradictory worldview, of how things were and ought to be.

Nevertheless, having retired after her first tag game, and with the other alternatives she could think of seemingly exhausted, she poured a glass of wine this evening and plucked up the courage to join an online dating website – oneplusone.ie, it was called.

She’d seen the flyers on the table coming out of her pilates class. She had paused beside them, pretending to search for something in her gymbag while she studied it. Free for a month for females, then a monthly fee. That was the kind of discrimination she didn’t mind in the slightest, though it had taken her a while to get over the notion that meeting someone over the internet was weird. Another preconception borrowed from Gavin: the internet was for trophy brides, porn downloads and swingers, not somewhere normal people meet.

But then what was so different to meeting someone in a bar with a lot of alcohol involved, or on a nightclub floor – the guy with the smooth moves and the thrusting hips? Charming.

Or playing tag rugby on a freezing muddy field in Sandymount and deciding that yes, the over-exuberant hairy guy who’d hauled her to the muck was indeed the man she’d always dreamed of being with.

At the very least, a guy on a dating website was computer-literate, and she could check his grammar and spelling. Also, she could see straight away how he viewed the world, and whether he took himself too seriously or not at all. No, this was actually the perfect way to scope people out in advance. Their curriculum vitae. Not so different to Facebook, really, but a bit more focused, more marketing involved. Easy, she thought.

It was anything but.

First up was a blank white box to be filled in.

Write a little about yourself here… said the chirpy helpful comment just below. For an hour, Ciara alternated between sipping her wine and biting her lip, as she sat in front of the computer. In that time, she had typed in half a sentence probably five times, each time re-reading it and deleting it in embarrassment before staring at the blank space all over again. It was so tough to put herself across, to think of the right word or phrase that showed who she was (or thought she was, or wished she was and had committed to becoming).

After spending half the evening without coming up with a single good line, she decided to skip over that part until the end, reasoning that there must be something easier up ahead.

Other languages spoken, the form asked, cursor blinking expectantly for a long list.

French, she wrote, then removed it, then rewrote it, then edited it to French (basic).

There, that would do it. She went back and edited it a little later to:

French (Leaving Cert Honours)

Perfect, shows I’m brainy and vaguely sensual, picking French over German. After further reflection, she deleted the whole thing – I mean, really, Honours: who am I trying to impress? – but then it looked too bare. Who only speaks one language, she thought, and replaced it after some thought.

French, but not since the Leaving!

There, that was better. It showed that she wasn’t claiming to be fluent, and had a sense of humour about it. And so it went, down through the list, emptying her first thoughts down onto the screen, then sculpting them, editing and rewriting until she felt the tone was just right, just her.

Smoker/Non-smoker? asked the dropdown list.

Non-smoker, she selected.

That was true, not like Deirdre, who was a virulent nagging anti-smoker, but put a drink in her hand on a Thursday evening and she would be the one leading the troops to the smoking area all night long. Ciara often ended up there herself, breathing in second-hand smoke, all the downsides with none of the glamour. She used to practise smoking as a kid, in the mirror, copying the old movies and the way they used to make it look so good. But it just wasn’t her, she knew that much. But was that a no-no for him?

Would Non-smoker put a potentially great guy off? Should she leave that out and keep the pool from which she would fish as broad as possible? She’d never dated someone who was a smoker, though she’d kissed a few in her time. It hit you, a shock, when you tasted their mouth, and then it was gone, a fleeting impression, but never a deal-breaker if he was cute. That was then, though, and this was now. Would it make a difference long-term? Coughing fits in the mornings, or the smell on their clothes, their wardrobe? Hers too. Would she make him go outside to smoke? It seemed terrible to be already bossing someone around, forcing him to conform to her ideal of a man – someone she hadn’t even met yet – but it was probably important, she just didn’t know yet how important.

All sorts of little things add up to the whole picture, some good features offset by some… less-good ones. Poor bathroom hygiene, or poor hygiene in general, was definitely out, as were facial tics, snifflers, bouncy nervous legs, guys with monobrows and shifty eyes. God, her list came thick and fast on that front, and that was just off the top of her head.

Positives? An easy smile, laughter, good sense of dress. Not like Dad; Mum had a fulltime job to keep him from looking like he’d dressed in a skip. Good with kids. That was one, but not essential. Who could say without their own? As she well knew herself, it was exhausting playing with someone else’s – even her own two nieces – but your own would be a different story, probably, so best to wait until they appeared on the scene before making judgements and hypotheses about how good he should be, in theory, with his as-yet unnamed unborn children.

Drinker/Non-drinker?

Hmmph, approach with caution, she thought. Well, I’m not a heavy drinker, and not a teetotaller, somewhere in between. Occasional glass of wine.

Ciara liked to have a few drinks: that was the truth, but it also sounded like a euphemism for a girl who had to be carried home twice a week. She drank no more or less than anyone without a problem, but the grouping within which she felt she belonged was a non-existent one between ‘Victorian prude’ or ‘alcoholic lush’. Perhaps she just had to pick one and live with the consequences. Eventually, after agonis-ing for what seemed an eternity, she found her answer hidden in the unhelpful Help menu. She went back to the main screen and found a button to remove the option from appearing in her profile.

There, she thought.

Almost there, said the computer. It brought her back to that unfilled space:

Write a little about yourself here… said the comment once more.

Right, she thought, time for the marathon. After all the drop-down lists and multiple choices, the essay. It brought her right back to primary school, and English compositions: What I did this weekend, three pages. She hated that stuff then, and she hated it now, writing about herself. Thankfully she hadn’t had to do up a CV in years, though at least that was in the third person, and about professional stuff.

This was everything personal, the soul bared: hobbies, favourite movies, favourite music, favourite books, other interests. Everything exposed to ridicule. Thinking of the ridiculous, she puckered her lips and started typing:

 

I love the taste of expensive champagne bubbles, helicopters and yachts off Malibu, and beds covered in hundred-dollar bills.

 

She read back what she had written and laughed. Complete nonsense, but it was easier to write than the truth. What was the truth? Ciara was open to anything, pretty much, but that either meant leaving it blank or writing: I am up for anything, please impose all your preferences on me. I am wishy-washy.

She wasn’t a fanatic, an obsessive, about anything, as far as she could tell. Some of her friends were borderline obsessive about certain things – sports teams, or tv shows, mostly. Hiking. All of that was fine now and again, for a day, or the occasional weekend, but not every day, and not every weekend.

Ciara liked most music, indie music in particular, never rap, and not bad jazz. She enjoyed going to the occasional concert or gig in town, most chick-flicks, meeting friends for coffee or dinner.

Fine, she thought, write that down. She deleted the nonsense and began to craft her dating resume.

 

I enjoy meeting friends, for coffee, dinner or a cocktail. I enjoy relaxing on the weekends, catching up with family, going to see a film (or movie).

 

There, she thought, that’s a start, and I don’t even sound like a complete psycho yet! With a start, it was easier to get going. Other things started to fall into place.

The buzz of city centre living, she added.

There, that was important. Ciara didn’t want to find the man of her dreams, only to realise he wanted to drag her from the city to some bog beyond Dublin. No thanks. Better make that clear from the beginning. That one was not for compromise. It was fine to visit, all the greenery and countryside, but not for living. Best to add something about sport, to have any hope of luring in an Irish male.

Watching rugby.

She was somewhat tentative about that, though. She didn’t want to end up having to watch some Thirds game in the lashing rain in Wicklow in December because of a silly notion he had gotten. It was always something she could clear up after. Maybe she should fix it, though.

. Watching professional rugby.

Harsh, but fair, and crystal clear. Lansdowne Road? Yes. Six Nations weekends in Paris or Rome? Yes. Bective on a Friday evening? I don’t think so, sweetheart. He needed to know where she stood on it. Communication was key to a successful relationship, not like the passive-aggressive comedy that passed for her parents’ era of marriage. Honestly, she wondered what the hell those people had discussed in advance of marriage, because it certainly didn’t seem to be anything like shared interests or checking for compatibility. Dowries, perhaps, or family political affiliations. It was comical to watch them in action, trying to maintain their previous mode of living despite being thrown together, two mismatched cogs grinding and slipping past each other in a new machine. No compromise, no discussion. Gavin’s parents were the very same. They used to laugh about it. Different, of course, but the same, in the end. Sighs and barbed comments and taking outsiders into their confidence about how he never does this and she always does the other. Funny to observe, but not what her generation wanted for themselves. Now, back to her resume.

I like eating out.

Oooh, an expensive girlfriend. Prima donna who can’t cook. Pretentious. That was her own reaction when she re-read it.

But everyone likes eating out, she argued aloud.

It was just when she put it down here on the screen, it sounded like all she wanted was Michelin-starred restaurants and six-course meals.

I like eating out, and baking.

Fatty. No, she would have to try harder than that.

I like eating out occasionally, and home-cooked Sunday roasts.

There, that hit it about right. But to be clear, the Sunday roast did not imply that she would take care of all domestic duties. There was something nice about a roast, though, something homely and timeless, comforting, a reminder of innocent ageless childhood, when days lasted forever and the sun always seemed to shine and her cousins visited and they played for hours and hours. Hmm, what else?

Pilates.

Yes. Excellent. A nice hint that she was toned and looked after herself, without the associations of leaf-munching that yoga still held. All that could come later. This was advertising, after all.

She looked once more at the website’s guidelines for further inspiration. She couldn’t help noticing that they were explicitly clear that you should not give out too much personal information. It’s a dating website, for God’s sake! They had already taken her age, interests, height, weight, all her bank details for the monthly fee, everything bar her PIN code (although she might not have reached that bit yet) and then they warned her about not giving away personal inform-ation? Someone had a sense of irony, she thought.

Finally, then, the moment she had been dreading most of all, even more than the essay.

The picture, the dreaded picture.

Ciara felt she looked fine, attractive enough; she’d walked past the building sites in her time and noticed one hardhat nudging another, but somehow that hadn’t translated into a single usable photo on her computer.

Any pictures that she had thought would be perfect turned out to have someone else’s face in there too, nights out with the girls or Gavin’s stupid head mashed into her cheekbones. She couldn’t photoshop him out without the whole picture looking dubious, nor could she put in a picture with her and the other girls, with a big red circle around her: Look, this one is me.

Great, so she had to resort to taking a selfie and make it look like it wasn’t. The photos she had been thinking of were perfect insofar as they weren’t staged, just her on a night out – casual, fun, natural. Now she had to try to recreate that while being aware that she was faking the entire thing, here in her apartment.

She was not optimistic of the results. She had avoided Drama at school with good reason: she tended to play life straight, no mind-games, no beating around the bush. Yet here she found herself, in her apartment, trying to make it look like someone else had taken a snap of her, unaware, in all her nonchalant beauty.

She came up with a clever scheme to capture that non-posed look. Having touched up her makeup, she set up her little camera and put it on the shelf above the tv in the corner, then set it to fifteen minutes on the countdown timer while she put on a Friends dvd. The plan was flawless: she would forget all about the camera until it would catch her, mid-natural laugh, looking her best. It was a good plan, a great plan. So great, in fact, that she forgot about the camera until a series of sudden blinding flashes from above the screen set her screaming and scared the life out of her.

Needless to say, those photos were none too alluring, so next attempt was a close-up. Looking away, slightly off to one side, or just over there, as if something more interesting was just out of view. Most were complete failures. Nine out of ten, she cut herself off either below the eyes or above the mouth, just a neck and some cleavage. Lovely. Hello boys, indeed.

Should it be just a head shot, Ciara wondered, or would guys think she was hiding her body for a reason? Should you give a little cleavage, nothing at all, leave them in suspense?

What, she thought, would she want her ideal guy to look for in her? She didn’t know, that was the trouble. She just wanted to lure him in, lure them all in and then pick the best of the bunch from what they had to say in person.

Even when she scanned profiles herself, it was only the photographs she looked at, until she saw a cute face; then and only then would she read his profile to see what he sounded like. She was as shallow as the next person: the perfect personality needed to be attached to a perfect body, or face anyway, which was all the guys ever gave away. Not so her fellow females, some of whom were clearly there to capture men seeking the slutty sort. Okay, that was maybe a bit mean, but still: some of the thumbnail pictures were half-face, half-wonderbra’ed cleavage, certainly not trying to give any impression other than my personality is all here or something. Which was fine, everyone was free to do with their bodies what they would, but this was what she had to fight against.

The hell with it, then, she decided: she was going to look straight at the camera. That was her. Direct, no bullshit, or little enough anyway. If someone wanted to ignore her and click on Mrs Titty beside her, that was their loss. Or they were looking for something different; either way, her target audience was not someone looking for cheap thrills on a dating website. Plenty of other places for that online: she wanted something long-term, straight up.

Having selected a picture from the fifty or so she had taken, she uploaded it to the website. Finally, she thought. She clicked Submit and pushed back from the table.

Ciara stood in her bedroom before the mirror, alternating two dresses in front of her, for the wedding next week – the wet weather dress and the dry weather one (that she still hadn’t worn, two years after buying it).

A bing from the living-room brought her back to the present. Then another. Ciara came out to the living room and opened the laptop. The screen lit up. Two new messages, it said.

From: onetoone.ie.

Subject: Kevin F. would like to arrange a date.

From: onetoone.ie.

Subject: John H. would like to arrange a date.

 

 

***

Cars

Thanks again for the lift, Grettie said.

No worries, Mam, said Paul. I’ll give you a call when I get down anyway.

He beeped twice – his version of goodbye – after backing out of the drive onto the street, and a trail of exhaust coiled a moment in the rain of the last Sunday in October. Grettie waved in reply from the door as the tail-lights headed out of the estate, before shutting out the cold and damp afternoon.

Paul had brought her back from the shops with the messages for the week. She had had to remind herself, as she went around the supermarket, not to buy too much, that she was only buying enough food for herself. Paul had stayed for a bite to eat, but then he was eager to be going back down to Galway. She didn’t blame him: it was exciting, moving out for the first time.

She had been down with Paul for the last few days, helping to set him up, going about her business, buying things her son wouldn’t know he needed, until he went to make a cup of tea and found he didn’t have a kettle to boil, never mind teabags. Or reached for a wooden spoon and saw he didn’t have one of those, either. Dishwasher tablets, a cutlery tray, teatowels, bin bags, duvets and duvet covers. The two boys Paul was moving in with would probably say she was a fussy old woman, but she didn’t mind that.

Now, after all that excitement, the hustle and bustle of moving Paul’s stuff down – three trips over and back in the car since Thursday morning – all was restored to calm here. The house was empty and silent, apart from her own movements.

Grettie plumped up the pillows on the bed, in what had always been Paul’s room, from once he had no longer slept in their room, in the cot. Twenty-three years, through college and his first job afterwards, and now he was off out on his own, like the other two before him.

It made sense, Grettie knew. He would be on just a little more money than the last job, but working with some of his friends from college. He’d be better off, and besides, it was time for him to leave the nest. He’d never left, other than a summer in the States – California on the J1, and that ended up only being a month, after he’d had to repeat three of his exams that August.

Sheila had been gone over ten years, having gone to university in Sheffield. That had been a stretch for them, financially, but they had managed, as they had always done. And Colin was gone five years now, although just across town, in Rathmines. He and Sinéad were looking to get a place in a new estate near Sandyford. That was almost as easy to get to, too: Rathmines was a great location for them, great for getting to places, but difficult to get to itself, without a car.

It made sense, the move out to Sandyford: Colin worked in the industrial estate there, an electronics company, and Sinéad would have the Luas all the way into work by the Concert Hall, and her parents nearby, in Leopardstown. Most of all, house prices were just about low enough there that they could get a foot on the ladder before they started their own family. The cycle beginning all over again.

The property cycle too, she was reminded. The paper was downstairs. She hadn’t opened it, but the headline threw her back fifteen years.

[_ House prices up 8% in Dublin _].

Was all that about to begin again? The recession was heartache, but really, that stuff all over again.

It was nearly true for that fella that Miriam had on the radio: wealth doesn’t suit the Irish. People were outraged, of course, to hear it from someone with a posh British accent, but Grettie happened to agree with some of what he said about the bluster and showiness of the Celtic Tiger era. Please God it would be different this time.

She had hoped Colin and Sinéad would find somewhere closer to her, so she could see them more often, but she knew Sinéad’s heart was set on being closer to her mother, once she started her own family. And house prices in Castleknock were beyond what they could afford. A pity, all the same. She would’ve loved to have the grandchildren nearby, when they arrived, but well, that was that. She’d find a way without a car: she always had done.

Grettie smoothed the throw at the bottom of Paul’s bed, and put two cushions up against the pillows. She looked about the room and its newly bare walls, rectangles of darker shades where posters had finally been taken down, the emptied wardrobe; she’d had to pack the hangers in the last run, another of those things her son would never have thought to bring.

They’d never expected this day would finally arrive, she thought. Not back when the house seemed to be overrun with screaming children, helter-skelter up and down the stairs on the Saturday mornings as Seán and herself still lay in bed, and no end to the ruckus until they were all fit to drop once more that evening.

Paul had hung in there the longest, the quiet child, the homebird. But he had gone now, and she knew that while he might return more often at first, the trips would grow further and further apart as he found his feet and settled in Galway.

And Seán gone. Two years in December, the fourteenth. A sudden blow. The shock had passed, a little, but there wasn’t a day she didn’t think about him. Now, today, with Paul heading across the country, Grettie was alone for the first time since she’d met Seán, the first time in almost forty years.

Back then, they too had made a move across the country – up to Dublin, away from their families, for Seán’s promotion from the factory in Shannon to the head office.

She remembered their excitement. It was a big increase in salary too, in those days where people stuck with one company for life. They’d headed up in the Datsun. Funny to think now, but brown was all the rage in cars in those days. You couldn’t buy one for love nor money nowadays; it just wouldn’t suit the shapes, she supposed.

That was it, the brown Datsun; was it five hours of a journey? In and out through every little town and village. She could still remember most of them, coming out of Tuamgraney, down to Killaloe, across into Ballina and Tipperary. Seán would insist on cutting out the road to Birdhill, even though the other road was as bad. On then into Nenagh, turning for Roscrea and a well-deserved cup of tea on the other side, at that hotel that was gone now. What was it, the Roscrea Arms? Something like that. Then on out of Roscrea and the big decision: whether to go on up to Dublin by Borris-on-Ossory or Kinnity.

Borris-on-Ossory was Mountrath, Mountmellick, Monasterevin, Kildare, Newbridge, Naas, Rathcoole and away in towards Chapelizod, over the bridge by the Phoenix Park and home.

Kinnity would normally take anyone else on up to Tullamore, Edenderry, Enfield and Maynooth, but Seán took his own route, of course, a completely different one through Killeigh, along an old boreen through to a second Ballina, then on to Rathangan by some combination of roads that never seemed to be the same. She always had the fear of God that one day they would get a puncture out there and that would be the end of them, in the middle of the Bog of Allen.

Seán was always looking for the most direct route across. These days, of course, the motorways took away that need: she had been over and back with Paul driving in the one day on Friday. That would never have happened in the old days.

Every time her and Seán came on towards the second Ballina they would arrive into the main street and the radio would be switched off. Seán never even realised he was doing it. When the kids arrived, they went across less frequently, of course, but still he would insist on this quest of his, for this famous most direct route. The kids were shushed then, and for the better part of an hour everyone travelled in silence, as if travelling through enemy terrain, while Seán forged on. It was never the dry day this happened, of course, always the grey wet one, when hedges were closing in over the roads, turning them into dark tunnels, where a crossroads and a turn into a field looked the same to the foreign eye.

The smoke wouldn’t help with visibility either. The two of them, puffing away like troopers. Wasn’t it gas to think of all the things children those days grew up with, and not a bother on them? They had all turned out okay in the end. For certain, they’d had falls plenty of times, and there’d been enough visits to emergency wards with forehead gashes and Colin when he drank the small bottle of bleach and everything. These days, Grettie thought, she’d be arrested, or the kids taken off her.

On they’d go, in smoky silence, apart from the wipers jarring and squeaking across the windscreen. The sky would be turning dark when somehow, miraculously, they’d enter Rathangan and were back on safe ground. Seán would always beam – relief, satisfaction, or some combination – and turn back to the troops:

Now lads, he’d say, who’d like an ice-cream?

Whatever the weather, the screams of joy from the back heralded that everyone would. And a bottle of Coke too, please daddy, Sheila would insist.

Grettie used to just laugh along with the shouts from the back, at him, in relief too, she supposed now.

Seán would look over at her, and say in all seriousness: You know Grettie, I’d say that saved us three-eighths of a gallon. Then he’d look suspiciously at the radio – wondering when it had fallen quiet – and turn it back on, now that he didn’t have to concentrate so hard.

On towards Prosperous with them and their melting ice-creams, then Clane, Cellbridge and Lucan, and home from the north. She smiled now, remember-ing that. The brown Datsun, that was some car. Then Seán had sent it flying in over a ditch in Kildare one Sunday evening. Her heart, that evening. A call from the hospital in Kildare, looking to speak to Mrs O’Loughlin.

Seán had gone down home for a funeral. She’d stayed above in Dublin with the kids – Colin was sick with the mumps or something, and besides, she didn’t know the deceased man’s family well. Seán had given Joe Grady a lift up from home, and they’d stopped in Rathangan for something to eat and a few pints, after that complex part of the trip was done through the Bog of Allen. For certain he was drunk – no doubt about it, by today’s standards – but it was different in those days, that was just how it was.

She had knocked at the door of her neighbours in a panic – the Dohertys had only moved in two months then – and Frank had brought her out to Kildare hospital in their car. She’d left the three young lads with Nuala, whimpering away, between Colin’s mumps and Sheila picking up on her mood.

He had broken his leg, Seán, the shinbone, as well as a nice cut and a bruise on his forehead. Joe Grady was grand, only a bit shaken by the crash. No lasting effects on either of them, but that was the end of the Datsun.

A Volvo then, with an armrest in the backseat that the kids were either sitting on or crawling behind into the boot anytime they were on the trip cross-country. Easy enough to climb through if you were small and malleable enough. God, wasn’t it something to think of, too, in those days? Grettie thought. No seatbelts, no childseats, nothing for the young ones in the back. If we had ever hit anything with the kids in the back like that?! My God. The only thing was, with the way the roads were, and the pace of life in general, no one ever seemed to be flying it. There was nobody doing seventy, eighty miles an hour on a motorway, that was for certain.

The Volvo had taken them on their first ever trip abroad, over to France. A green car, with some silver in there, too. Another colour that wouldn’t make it into a showroom these days. Down to Rosslare and overnight to France. What was the name of the place again? Le Havre, maybe.

The excitement of them all when they came outside for the crossing, to see Ireland falling away behind, and the sea spread out before them. That was a grand crossing, calm seas. There wasn’t much to look at though, once it got dark, once they’d left Rosslare behind, so they headed back inside with a pack of cards and an endless supply of crisps and tea.

No, Cherbourg, that was the name of it. Naturally, they had nothing booked in advance. No one did. You’d need to have planned that with a travel agent, but Seán preferred the adventure.

Sure, what if we booked a place from one of them cowboys and it was a hellhole? he said. We’d be stuck with it then. No, sure we’ll go and take a look around.

Luckily, they found a lovely B&B where the fella spoke perfect English.

Currency was the next thing. No euro in those days. Francs and the constant conversion in your head.

Janey, but meat is for nothing here, Seán would whisper at her, eyeing the man behind the counter totting up the amount. We’ll get another few chops there.

In France, Seán had his two words: s’il vous plaît and merci.

Might as well be polite about it anyway, he said. Everything else was a matter of smiles and vigorous hand movements and laughter, with Seán speaking loudly and slowly in pidgin English. Yes. More. Chops. Chops. More. You have? all the while pointing at the butcher and making hacking motions with his hand, with nods and wiggling eyebrows to add to the effect. Sure, the fella must have thought Seán was having some sort of seizure.

They’d step out of the butcher’s and Seán couldn’t have been more pleased with himself.

Sure I’d swear I’m half-fluent, he’d say. What would you say to moving here altogether? We’d have chops morning, noon and night.

Oh, he loved his chops alright, cooked over a barbeque in the place they were staying. By the way back, he had it all figured out, that they’d pack it all in in Dublin and drive across on the ferry and start all over. If Grettie had thought he’d even half a notion of it, she might have tried to argue against it; as it was, she only encouraged him.

That was the Volvo, the all-conquering king of Europe. They had gone over to England too, another year. The Cotswolds, a relaxing holiday in the wilderness. And up to Scotland, and the North. Funny to think of, but that was fancy enough in the day, going abroad. Putting an entire brood on a plane wasn’t so popular then, and expensive as hell. Besides, there weren’t so many regular flights, apart from over to America, and midweek to Europe for businessmen. At least as far as she could remember, there were no such things as city breaks. These days, people wouldn’t think twice about carting the entire family off to Europe on a plane.

Then another Volvo, and a third, but that started giving some trouble. One thing after another needed replaced, so Seán just traded it in. A Citroen next, pale-blue with the back wheels half-covered. Part of his French phase. She remembered him wandering around Quinnsworth one Saturday morning, gathering up French-looking cheeses and baguettes and everything, not to talk of the music, tapes and tapes of chansons he’d found in some record shop in town.

Then the promotion to general manager, and their first German car, a Mercedes. Black. They weren’t at all as common then, the German cars. There were a few Volkswagens around, of course, but at the other end of the spectrum, there weren’t many in the country apart from the ministerial vehicles. That was right before the boom began, in the early nineties.

For a finish, Grettie thought, everyone had one. At least one. The roads through every estate in Dublin were clogged with luxury cars, three or four to a household. That was the madness of that era. Grettie hoped people might have a bit more sense this time around.

The last one then, another Mercedes, the year before he retired. Dark navy, lovely on the inside. Leather seats, and heated too.

Sure what do we want with heated seats? Grettie had said.

Twas either that or a GPS, Seán had replied. They were throwing in one or the other, and there’s no way I’d let a computer tell me where to go!

That car did them until he passed away. Paul was still at home but in college, so it was usually just the two of them, Grettie and Seán, all over again.

Little trips into town, across to visit Colin and Co, as Seán used to call the flat where Colin ran through a series of questionable girlfriends before somehow finding Sinéad. Thanks be to God he had, and she’d managed to settle him.

Down the country herself and Seán used to go once more. Funerals with greater frequency, a reminder that they were all getting on. Trips up North now that it was safe, no longer a big deal to cross the border. Up to Newry for the day of shopping, for the novelty of using a different currency again. Little adventures down to Cork, for a weekend, or across to Sligo. Somewhere that had a golf course and a spa, to keep them both happy. The roads had improved so much these days – busier, yes, but better, too, safer – even Seán’s backroads that he’d take to see the country properly, as he’d say.

She’d sold the car when Seán passed away. She’d asked Paul if he wanted it, but he said he didn’t, and of course, Grettie had never learnt to drive herself all those years. There’d never been any need, and sure she was too old now to learn. Besides, she had the free travel, anyway. All had come full circle, she was back where she’d begun. A girl in need of a lift.

She remembered walking down the lane at home, sent to collect the messages from O’Donnell’s in the village. The weather could always be relied on not to be relied on, even in the first week of June. And sure enough, she had no sooner turned onto the road than it started to spit rain. As it began to bucket down, she took shelter under the oak just after Broderick’s Cross, but it was still coming in at an angle, the rain, and she knew she’d be soaked before long.

That’s when he came around the corner for the first time. In a green Ford Escort. An apt name, she thought after.

The passenger door was thrown open and she climbed in gratefully.

You’re Jim Nugent’s daughter, he said, straight off. Aren’t you?

That’s right, she said, shy and at a disadvantage for knowledge.

Helen, isn’t it?

No, she’s my sister. I’m Grettie, she replied. Margaret.

Where are you headed in this desperate weather, Grettie?

Just up to O’Donnell’s, to get the messages. Thanks.

You don’t know who I am at all, do you?

No, sorry.

I’m Seán O’Loughlin, Martin’s son.

Oh right, she replied.

You don’t know my father either, do you? he said, laughing.

No, sorry, but thanks again for the lift, Seán.

Not at all, but listen: is there any chance I could take you to the dance in Tulla on Friday?

 

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stay in touch with Lou Shalloo via the West Clare

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Thumbprints

Thumbprints is a collection of twelve stories set in contemporary Ireland, with something for fans of Maeve Binchy, Cecilia Ahern and William Trevor alike. In turns light-hearted and sombre, Thumbprints offers a fascinating glimpse into the innermost conflicts of those around us: –Gabriel, 30-something and newly single, finds himself trying to remember how to play the dating game. –A rich man and petty crook cross paths in one of Dublin's leafy suburbs, with a surprising outcome. –What price are Fergal and Maeve willing to pay for success in business? –Fr James, an elderly Catholic priest, struggles to reconcile his faith and his intellect, on the day he is to bury his best friend. –A groom awaits his bride's arrival at the altar, and sees much more than he ever expected. –Can a young wife "trapped in a loving relationship" adjust to her new life, or will she find the strength to break free of society's expectations of her? –In The Return of Declan Boyle, self-described "grown woman" Michelle becomes a skittish schoolgirl all over again, with the prospect of a reunion with her former lover. Is it worth risking everything she has for a ghost from the past? –Grettie reflects on the bittersweet memories of a life lived through changing cars and times. –Career-focussed Ciara must set some priorities if she is to find love… but does she really have to use a dating website? An immersive plunge into the lives of others, and an insight into the hopes, fears and thoughts that people carry around with them every day, each one making choices that are at once personal and universal.

  • ISBN: 9781370139156
  • Author: Benny Neylon
  • Published: 2017-04-04 10:20:11
  • Words: 43748
Thumbprints Thumbprints