In honour of Bloomsday, here’s an extract from Penelope Unbound, my speculative novel about Nora Barnacle that imagines a life for her without James Joyce. Here’s the assignation Nora and Jim fail to have before they reschedule for the iconic meeting on June 16.
They’d arranged to meet outside the Surgeon Wilde’s house, but she didn’t show. Told him a fib about having to work overtime, how Miss Fitzgerald came up to her on her way out the door, as she was trying to spear her hat with a pin in the hall mirror, and said that Molly Fowler was sick and couldn’t do her shift.
Sure what could I do?
It could have happened like that. Only it didn’t. Instead she’d said – But Miss Fitzgerald, I have a date with my young man.
As if they were an item but sure they’d only just met. He’d picked her up on Nassau Street only a few days ago with a saucy smile and a sailor’s suit. A boy with jamjar specs, not her type at all.
I see that, Miss Barnacle, says Miss Fitzgerald, looking into the glass behind her with a kind of smirk, more music-hall than spinster. And before Miss Fitzgerald had time to cajole, for she had a way of getting on the sweet side of you when she wanted something, Nora had pulled open the heavy front door of Finn’s and gone tripping out into the dusty sunlit lozenge of the street.
But as she hurried, hand on hat, towards Merrion Square, a strange desolate feeling overtook her, a pang of doubt. She slowed her tripping step to a heavy-footed stroll, and then to a halt. What had possessed her, to say yes? Yes to a college boy with a boater. Though he wasn’t the first college boy she’d had. Hadn’t Sonny Bodkin been at the university, even if he didn’t finish, too old for her, they said – no, she wouldn’t think of him now, not now. She darted around by Sweny’s Chemists and scurried across to the pillars of the Gospel Hall. She could hear singing from within. The Brethren must be at it, but I thought they didn’t hold with singing. But the place is thronged with them. Just as well, this way she can spy on yer man without him seeing her.
She remembered the specs he wore. He won’t pick her out from the crowd at this distance even though the sun is glancing coppery off her hair. And, sure enough, there he was, a stick of worry, standing at the corner, hands on hips. Then pacing a little this way and that. He had on the same get-up as the day he chatted her up. Not bad-looking up close, a bit skinny, pull-through for a rifle, when did he last have a square meal, I wonder, and his clothes had seen better days. Then she remembered she’d told him where she worked. He could duck down to Finn’s, if he had a titter of wit, and ask after her and then her fib would be exposed. He’d know then she’d stood him up. Deliberate like. And it wasn’t that she wanted to say no, she just wasn’t sure about saying yes. Outright.
And if he had come to Finn’s looking for her, would that have decided her about him? She just wasn’t sure, not like with Sonny Bodkin. Poor Sonny who had stood in the Pres garden and called out to her in the flogging rain. And she half-delighted, half-mortified by him standing there, loyal as a beaten dog while she hid in the darkness of the auntie-room letting on she wasn’t there. But this fella was no Sonny Bodkin, she could tell that even from afar. Sure, no one could be. No one could be the first after the first.
He was dithering now, she could tell. But so was she and the longer she waited the stranger he became. Was he a foreigner, was that what made her hesitate? A Swede maybe with those blond looks?
Reasons not to approach. Now that she was here she could find a dozen. The minutes passed, five, ten, and her delaying was like a jelly left to set. If she had a penny for every time he changed his mind she’d have a fortune. There he’d go, gathering himself up then doubling back like a dog at a post sniffing, then trying and sniffing again. The hum and the haw of him.
Hello, hello, she could have rushed up all breathless and false and full of sorrys and old excuses he wouldn’t even listen to because he’d be so relieved. Fellas forget themselves. She almost moved then but she didn’t. She was stuck to the spot as if she was the one being stood up. And as she stood there debating, didn’t he make her mind up for her. Fixed his cap on his crown and strode away up the west side of Merrion Square. In a temper, she’d have said, by the look of him.
And then she felt the let-down.
What did she go and do that for?
What was all the mirror-gazing in Finn’s for, and wondering will I do?
She remembered the lightness of her step as she had set off and now she was morose and cursing herself for being so perverse.
What ails you, girl? That’s what Mamo used to say. What ails you.
No, she told herself shaking her head, I did the right thing, a fella who’d pick you up on the street like that, what kind of fella would he be? Not a patch on Sonny Bodkin, that’s what.
She turned to go, checking one last time to see had he changed his mind. But he hadn’t – he was a cross white speck in the summer sunlight now. She trailed back the way she came, her hat in her hand, her hair dejected. She hadn’t the heart to do anything else with her precious night off. If she knew where Vinny Cosgrave was she might seek him out, but no, if he saw she was keen, he’d only get a swelled head.
Miss Fitzgerald was at the desk when she came in and raised an eyebrow.
Back so soon, Miss Barnacle? She was a prissy one.
He stood me up, Nora, said as she donned her apron, lucky for you.