When they summoned me here they said just a couple of hours.
You’d think they’d know by now how long it would take. God knows they see enough of it.
Mind you, I did go home last night and got a bit of sleep. There’s nothing like your own bed, your own bits and pieces round you. They said they’d put up a stretcher in the room with him, but I said no. I’d rather go home. I like my own pillow and the weight of the blankets. I’m sure they’d have given me one of those duvet things. I don’t like them at all. And I need the window open. I like the strands of wind that blow in from time to time, right to your nose and the cooling air that you breathe right down into your lungs. He and I used to fight about the window, he said the wind roaring in would make him cough. He preferred to sleep in his own safe fug, his own many-times-used air. I like to hear the birds in the early morning that chat and murmur to each other as they wake – friendly chat. I can lie there, with my eyes shut, eavesdropping on them. All my life I’ve slept with my window open, summer and winter.
My mother was a great one for health; a piece of fruit after every meal, she insisted on that, and the bedroom window open. She said fresh air cleaned your lungs out and pumped away the day’s poison. She was quite a sensible person. On her own, she liked being on her own. I think I must have learnt that from her.
My father died when I was three. I don’t remember him at all.
We never spoke of it to anyone. My mother didn’t want anyone to know
about a thing like that. I remember the smell of disinfectant in the house after they
had taken him away to the hospital. Everything was scrubbed. She burnt all his
clothes and the bed clothes. Not a germ could have remained alive in that little
War on germs.
Germans, she used to call them.
The trouble with germans is that you can’t see them. They creep up on you
without you knowing. They won’t get us though, so they won’t.
That tea is cold now.
It wasn’t a good cup in the first place. I don’t understand why they can’t give you a decent cup of tea in a place like this. Worried people waiting. Tired people. It’s those teabags they use. Floor sweepings, my mother used to say. She never had one in her house.
There’s nothing like a good, strong cup of Barry’s tea. I’ll bring a thermos with me when I come tomorrow. And a few sandwiches.
I’ve some good tomatoes at home and a nice bit of ham. I’ll cut off the crusts. And a piece of fruit. Yes.
I could be here till kingdom come.
I do go in and sit beside him, but he’s not conscious.
They come in and turn him over from time to time and he cries out when they do that. ‘Why do you have to do that?’, I asked, ‘it upsets him when you do that’, and they mutter about bed sores and that sort of thing. Personally I don’t think they should be hurting him. He’s not going to be around long enough to get bed sores. On the other hand, maybe he is.
There’re some who say it’s the crown of life – priests and the like. I don’t quite know what they mean by that but even if I did I don’t think I’d agree with them. It’s like fighting a battle you won’t win. Well, that’s what it’s been like for him. A long battle.
Sister asked me this morning if he’d like the last rites. I said no thanks, sister. I think he’d be upset if he woke and realised what was going on. He was never one for church, and in the last few years he turned really against it. He wouldn’t darken the door. Sunday was never a good day for him. Quiet, he needed; a darkened room – choking and spitting in his own stink. I don’t think the last rites would do anything for him.
My mother just dropped dead. God was good to her. She had just come in from doing her shopping, she had put the messages down on the floor of the hall and she dropped among the bags. Dead.
She’d been dead two days before she was found. It was her friend Molly who found her lying there – among the bags. Molly had been passing and had seen the milk bottles gathered on her doorstep and had run home for her key. She lived just down the road and always had a key. She was a nice, reliable sort of woman. My mother had bought a bit of fish for her tea and it was smelling when Molly went into the hall. She told me that. I expect it was a nice bit of cod. She liked cod. She used to make a very good fish pie.
She had died before she hit the floor, the doctor said, so she hadn’t suffered. She had known nothing. Molly phoned me directly after she had found her and I got the first plane. He didn’t come with me as someone had to stay and look after the shop.
He liked her though.
That was a nice little shop we had, just off Holland Park Avenue; a good neighbourhood; a corner shop. Every day we were open, except Sunday. Nice people round there. People you’d see on television – polite, jokey people who said please and thank you; people who paid their bills.
‘I don’t know what we’d do without you’, one lady said to me once. Nine o’clock in the evening, that was. I was just putting up the shutters. He’d just gone into the pub across the road and she came flying along the path and slipped in the door – such a pretty lady and such a nice smile.
‘A pound of butter and half a pint of cream – just made it by the skin of my teeth.’ She was one of those television people. ‘I don’t know what we’d do without you.’ I remember thinking to myself, you’d have to be a bit more ordered in yourself, but of course I didn’t say that. My mother wouldn’t have tolerated me being rude. No, never.
Groceries it was.
Written over the door: Callaghan Groceries.
We made quite a little packet out of that shop.
Indians have it now.
They’re open seven days a week. It looks good, busy. They have fruit and vegetables stacked in boxes and shelves outside.
We never had things like that.
‘No perishables,’ he said. ‘I can’t be doing with perishables.’ We could have stayed there, I think, if things had turned out differently. We could have stayed. We could have had lots more money jingling in our pockets, like all the rest. They all go to Spain, Disney World, even Turkey for their holidays now.
He never wanted to do that.
‘Why would I want to go to a foreign place? I wouldn’t be able to understand a word they said to me. What use are holidays anyway?’
It didn’t occur to him that I might have another point of view.
Judy wants me to go to Turkey with them in the spring. I might do that, I really might.
My mother used to come over every Christmas to stay. We couldn’t go back home because it was the busiest time of year for us. What would our people have done without us? Running in and out on Christmas Eve, ‘panic stations!’ they would shout as they dashed in. ‘What would we do without you both?’
She used to bring a ham with her and a piece of corned beef. He loved corned beef.
She enjoyed those little trips.
My cousin Judy would come to dinner and her husband and five kids. Quite a party we had.
Christmas Eve was great. After we’d tidied and locked up, my mother and I would slip down to midnight mass in St. Francis, five minutes down the road. Everyone was there. The church was packed, even the little courtyard outside was filled with people. Mind you, there were a lot of dirty drunks vomiting on the cobblestones. My mother was disgusted by them.
‘Have they no shame at all?’ she would ask in a loud voice. Would they not stay at home and be sick in their own toilets?
But we went year after year, in spite of them.
He stayed away. He’d be in the pub until it closed and be wrapped up in bed by the time we got home – snoring fit to beat the band. He used to sleep in the hollow in the middle of the bed and I’d have to cling to the edge like a drowning man on a raft.
That was before I moved out into my own little room. I often wondered if that was a bad thing to do. He didn’t seem to notice – never said a word. Was it a sin – not to be there … just in case?
He was never too bad when my mother was around. I told her once that she should come and live with us.
‘Thank you for nothing,’ she said, ‘haven’t I my own neat little house and my own way of living? And you want me to give it up? You need your head examined, girl.’
Those were the harshest words she ever threw in my direction.
They should have a room in this place where you can smoke and not be sending you out into the rain and cold; cruelty, that is. I don’t smoke all that much – about fifteen, not life threatening. Not like him. Fifty, he devoured, and only ceased when he was snoring. Sometimes I would slip in and take the butt from between his two lips as he slept. I was afraid he’d set us ablaze. Up, up in smoke, the pair of us, and the terraced house too. I didn’t want to go like that, whatever about him. I don’t think he would have cared how or when he went. Life held very little joy for him. Even his drinking didn’t give him much pleasure. It made him ill – killed him in the end. Well, he’s not gone yet but it’s only a matter of hours.
Fifty-eight. Too young to die. I said that to him after he’d been to the doctor for the first time. I said, ‘You’re too young to die. You’re not wise. Would you not stop? Cut down on the booze and those things. All that money going down your gullet and all you’re doing is poisoning yourself.’
Lungs and liver, the doctor had said. ‘He’ll be dead before he’s sixty if he doesn’t stop.’
And then he shouted at me, ‘You’ll be a merry widow. That’ll make you happy, won’t it?’
I always wanted to cry when he said things like that to me, but where was the point? So I just used to leave the room, leave him shouting at himself.
We were young once.
Yes, indeed we were. Well, not very young, not in our giddy teens. Even then the teens were a giddy time for everyone. We’d passed through that.
My mother had a little shop in Glasthule, in the main street, with its back to the sea; newspapers and sweets, that sort of thing. I had worked there from the time I left school. I really enjoyed that – the customers, the kids, little chats, gossip. That was when I learned to be a good shop owner – the instincts you need, whom to give credit to, whom not to, all that sort of thing.
He came in one day for a packet of fags and we got chatting.
He was easy to chat to.
He had a red, country face and a voice that made me laugh inside myself. ‘Yerrah,’ he would say, ‘yerrah get on wit ya.’ And then he would blush and be silent for a while.
He was a silent man. We walked the pier from time to time when the sun was shining and it was coming on for evening and we could get the whole way there and back to Glasthule without him saying a word. I suppose I talked too much. That’s what my mother said when I told her of his silence: ‘He wouldn’t get a word in sideways with you chattering to beat the band’.
I’d known him about six months and he asked me.
No beating about the bush.
On the pier, sheltering from a skirl of rain, there at the bandstand.
He put his hand on my shoulder and turned me towards the harbour where the boats bobbed and jiggled.
‘I’m going,’ he said, ‘I’ve money saved and I’m going.’ He nodded towards the Mail boat which was sitting there gathering steam.
We were silent for a long time.
I didn’t know what to say.
I’ll miss you, I thought inside myself.
‘I’ve enough put by to start a small shop; groceries, that sort of thing. London; I thought I might go to London. Would you think of coming with me?’
I put up my hand and touched it. It was wet with the rain.
‘I’ve always wanted to go to London,’ I said.
That wasn’t exactly true. I’d never given it much thought.
I’d visited my cousin Judy from time to time, but I was always glad to get back to Glasthule. I liked the cosy feel of it there, the village and not yet a village thing about it, everyone knowing everyone else and, of course, there was mother.
‘Yerrah now, isn’t that great?’ he said, and I laughed and as usual he blushed. ‘We’d better go and tell your mother,’ he said after a long silence. He took my hand and we set off home through the rain.
Yes. That was how it happened all right.
My mother was thrilled; she didn’t even mind the thought of us going to London.
‘Isn’t that fine? Isn’t it grand?’ She bustled about making tea and bringing fruit cake to the table. For her it was better having a daughter married and living in London than an unmarried one living at home with her and helping in her old age.
It was as if he had no parents. I asked him once about them as we walked along the sea front, just some simple question, and he turned from me and stared across the bay towards Howth. It was a misty day and the hill lay there on the water like a grey ghost.
‘I have no family,’ he said.
‘I didn’t know you were an orphan.’
‘To all intents and purposes,’ he said, ‘that’s what I am.’
And we left it at that.
He went to London shortly after that to set up shop and find us a place to live. You can’t start your married life without somewhere to lay your head. ‘I’ll be back by Christmas and we’ll be married in the new year’ and he stepped onto the gangway of the Mail boat and was gone.
I blew my nose and waved until the boat was out of the harbour. I didn’t think I would ever see him again. I don’t know why I had such a thought but I did, and it troubled me.
‘Don’t be such an omadaun,’ my mother said to me when I told her, ‘of course he’ll come back. Why would he not?’
I helped her in the shop and I bought myself some little things I might be needing in my new life: a pair of soft, black leather gloves, a pink silk scarf to brighten up my best grey coat, a couple of pairs of good nylon stockings – fine and almost flesh-coloured – and a blue Viyella nightie with little rosebuds all over it. I still have that. It’s warm and comfortable to wear, though the rosebuds have washed off.
My mother was right. He came back – the week before Christmas.
He just walked into the shop one afternoon, no warning at all. There were three customers waiting to be served, but he paid no heed. He came in the door, round the back of the counter, took me by the shoulders and kissed me.
‘Here I am,’ he said, ‘come to fetch you away with me.’
‘Glory be to God,’ said my mother from the other side of the counter, ‘didn’t
I tell you he’d come?’
So we left Glasthule on the fifteenth of January on the Mail boat and I was so sick I didn’t think I’d last the journey. No one had told me that that might happen. As we were steaming up the Mersey, wrapped in damp mist, I threw away my new pink scarf because of the horrible smell that came from it. It fluttered behind us for a while like a pink bird and then drifted down into the water. ‘Yerrah,’ he said to me, ‘what did you do a thing like that for?’
I must have been feeling a little better because I laughed and he blushed.
It was a nice little place he had rented. It had been a grocery shop but the old man who owned it had died, so there was a hard core of customers there already, and my cousin Judy lived in Shepherd’s Bush, only a ten-minute walk away, so I didn’t feel too lonely. And the church was handy, not that I was a great church person, but I liked the comfort of being able to pop in for a few minutes when I needed to. He, as I think I said before, never darkened the door.
We lived over the shop; well, all round the shop. There were two rooms upstairs and a kitchen and living room out the back, next to the store. That was a nice room, with a big stove that opened up so that you could see the flames and benefit from the warmth.
We didn’t bother much with London, except when my mother would come over for Christmas and I would get him to mind the shop and I would take her to see the Changing of the Guard or the Tower of London. She liked to get around to see the sights and the passing crowds. She liked the big shops too, like Harrod’s and Peter Jones; she could spend hour upon hour wandering and staring. In those days there was nothing like those big shops in Dublin. Liberty’s was her favourite. We would walk through that shop and she would give little cries of pleasure and excitement and put out her hand and touch the silks and velvets – run her fingers down the stuff slowly, like you might see a man on the pictures run a hand over a woman’s skin.
‘If I was rich,’ she would whisper to herself, ‘if I was rich.’
I bought her a tiny cushion there one year for Christmas. It cost a fortune. A gold velvet cusion, like you might put a glass slipper on. Her fingers shook as she opened the parcel. ‘Liberty’s’ was written on the outside and it was tied with a black silk ribbon that she neatly coiled round her fingers as she opened the package and then slipped into her bag. She sat staring at the cushion for a long time without speaking and when she eventually looked at me her eyes were filled with tears.
‘It is the most beautiful present that anyone has ever given me,’ and she reached across the table and touched my hand.
I was mortified that I hadn’t done it earlier.
That was her last Christmas.
He liked her.
He always made a bit of an effort when she came over. He would sit at the table for supper and even chat to her. He liked to hear the news of Glasthule. She knew it all – who had had a baby and who had died; whose son had gone to Boston and who was walking out with whom. The old shops were disappearing now. That depressed her. Boutiques were taking over, Italian shoes in the windows and the odd expensive dress that she wouldn’t have been seen dead in. There was a wine merchant rather than an off licence and a very expensive fish restaurant. People went to Dun Laoghaire in their cars now to the supermarkets. She didn’t like that. She saw no future for people like herself, so she had sold her shop to a woman who ran a second-hand bookshop and she remained on upstairs until the day she dropped dead among her messages.
I must say, she had a great funeral. The church was packed; everyone knew her. They had known her for years. The hearse was filled with flowers. I put the gold cushion in the coffin with her. I think she’d have liked that, I really do.
‘Have you no one at all?’ I asked him when I got back to London.
He shook his head angrily.
‘A cousin, an aunt or uncle? You must have someone. Everyone has someone – unless they’re an orphan and you told me you weren’t an orphan.’
He said nothing.
‘What would I do if you had an accident?’
‘You know right well. Just put me in the hospital.’
‘I hate the idea that there’s someone wondering about you – all these years wondering. Not even a Christmas card.’
‘Would you shut up?’
He put a hand on my arm and gave a little squeeze.
He lit a cigarette and took a deep lungful of smoke.
He coughed. His coughs those days were rattling and deep, like they came from the bottom of his stomach. His face had a look of great weariness.
‘Okay, so,’ I said to him, ‘we’ll leave it’ and I never mentioned it again.
But of course I wondered and I spoke about it to my cousin Judy.
‘Maybe,’ she suggested, ‘he murdered someone and is on the run.’
That made me laugh.
‘Yerrah,’ I said, ‘he’d never do a thing like that. Murder! For God’s sake, woman, take a pull out of yourself.’
Then we both laughed.
We did a lot of laughing, Judy and I.
He used to empty his pockets and divide the change between her children.
‘Saves me carrying all that weight around,’ he would say.
She told me once about a play she had seen about the west of Ireland. There was this lad who had hit him with a loy and left him for dead in a field.
‘What’s a loy?’ I asked her.
‘I think it’s one of those long-handled yokes for cutting turf. Anyway, the old man wasn’t dead and he came after him and he had this great hole in his head. He kept showing it to everyone; it was very funny. Maybe something like that has happened to him.’
I shook my head.
‘He wouldn’t hurt a fly.’
‘He’s running from his half-dead father.’
‘Not a bit of it.’
‘We’ll think of it like that and it will give him a bit of glamour.’
Glamour wasn’t anything you’d think of when you looked at him.
We used to go to the pictures on Tuesday evenings, she and I. There was a nice old cinema in Notting Hill and we got front balcony seats.
Her husband minded the children, gave them their tea and put them to bed. He said she needed a night off.
We used to have a meal in Lyon’s or McDonald’s and then just cross the road to the cinema. It smelled of dust but it showed old films as well as newish ones and it had a nice feel to it. The King and I, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, An American in Paris. I loved musicals. You came out warm from that cinema, even in the depths of winter. Grace Kelly, Gary Cooper, James Stewart… I’d love to have brought him home with me… and James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor growing old in that film. Oh God, what was the name of it?
Every Tuesday we would link our way back home and make a cup of tea. He was never there. He was over in the pub. I would hear him clattering in after I was tucked in bed. He wasn’t capable of being quiet, the state he’d be in.
Tuesday after Tuesday, always the same.
I sometimes wonder if God wants us to be happy.
Those cinema evenings were really grand. We both used to look forward to them. She would bring a bag of iced caramels and we would chew our way through them as we watched the film like a pair of schoolgirls, only, as she said, in those days we never had the money for a bag of caramels.
Anyway, this evening, it was spring.
Spring in London is so beautiful – fresh and bursting out of winter, the birds singing, everything edged with green and smiles on people’s faces.
One of her young ones was in a dancing show in a hall just at the back of Shepherd’s Bush Green and we went to see it. She was good enough. She kicked her legs up high and kept time with the music, but I’ve never been a great one for Irish dancing and at about half nine I left and made my way home. I went into the kitchen and put the kettle on. Time for the news, I thought to myself, and went into the room to turn on the television. As I stretched out my arm to switch on the light a movement caught my eye. On the big couch two curved figures lay sleeping in each other’s arms. The light from the open stove flickered on their naked bodies. I stopped in my tracks, I can tell you that.
Filthy, abusive words filled my head and I was just on the point of switching on the light and letting them have the lot spew over them when I saw that what I thought to be a woman was a man, a polished, dark man with soft, black curls. Dark and light they lay, curled together on the couch, my husband’s pale arm across the man’s dark chest, his dark hand between my husband’s pale legs. I slipped quietly from the room, not daring to close the door and I went out into the street. I stood for a moment, my heart banging so loud inside my ribs that I felt they would be wakened by the noise of it.
Then I walked.
The evening was warm with a damp little breeze and from time to time I could hear the peacock’s mournful cries from Holland Park. I felt I should make the same cries myself, if only I knew how.
That is all I remember; the mournful cries and the breeze which patted my face with damp fingers. I walked for over an hour. I don’t remember where I walked and I don’t know what I was thinking.
I found myself back at the shop.
I let myself in. There was no sound anywhere. I switched on the kettle again and then walked firmly across the kitchen to the door of the room. I clattered my way across the floor. I even hummed a little tune.
The stove door was closed. I switched on the light; the couch was as tidy as if I’d just cleaned the room and made everything neat. There was no one there. There was no sound in the house.
Maybe, I thought to myself, I had dreamed the whole thing. But I could still see in my mind’s eye the firelight flickering on their bodies – the dark and light of the pair of them sprawled at ease on the cushions of the couch.
I went upstairs to bed and after half an hour or so I heard him come in, as usual clattering on the stairs, pissing in the toilet without closing the door, banging his bedroom door, for all the world as if nothing had happened. He was a drunk man returning home after an evening in the pub.
Yes; that was what he was.
We never spoke about what I’d seen. I never knew whether he’d seen me come into the room or not. It would be strange if he had not. In fact, sometimes when I run over the picture in my mind, I see the firelight dancing on a blue eye that stared straight at me; pale blue and sparkling with reflected firelight.
I have wondered from time to time whether to speak to Father Anthony at St. Francis, but something stops me – a voice saying in my head ‘let him have his peace’. That was what they felt the two of them lying there – peace. I could see that.
Let him have his peace.
He never felt that with me, in all those years.
Nor I indeed. No peace.
I almost told my cousin Judy one evening on our way to the pictures, but as the words were about to pop out of my mouth I thought the better of it. She might be angry. She can be a devil when roused – not to me, but I’ve seen her go at other people. She might have gone at him and what business is it of hers? She might have spoken to other people.
These secrets are so hard to keep inside yourself. They scream in your head, but it’s best they should remain in there.
I think that anyway.
When he sold the shop we moved to Shepherd’s Bush, just round the corner from my cousin Judy. That’s good. The kids pop in from time to time.
We sold the couch and bought a smaller one. I didn’t feel like sitting on it anymore; uneasy, it made me.
I have it in my head that I might look for his family when he’s gone. He might have a brother or sister who might have wondered from time to time what became of him.
They might have been amazed by his disappearance from their world.
I wouldn’t tell them.
Even if my mother had been alive I wouldn’t have breathed a word to her either.
She’d have been bothered.
He wouldn’t have liked her to be bothered.
He was fond of her.
And me. I think that in spite of everything he was fond of me. Even though he didn’t have that peace with me.
I hope he was.
They just leak out of you from time to time, like a tap that needs a new washer.
I suppose I should go and sit with him a while, take his hand in mine, whisper words of comfort to him, as if I knew what they were.
Poor old bugger.