Clothes maketh the man, Mother used to say. Her words stay with you as you riffle through the hanging ghosts in your wardrobe. It’s a moment of infinite anticipation. What to wear? The evening’s expectations are secreted among the limp fall of fabrics, the yielding crush of shoulder pads, the sly whispers of silk. You whisk two or three recruits from the comradely army in the closet and set them up around the room – over the mirror, on the twin mother-of-pearl inlaid handles of the wardrobe, or fainting on the bed. It makes it seem more like play; makes more of a ritual of it.
Often the bedroom will end up strewn with discarded clothes, denuded hangers, fleets of shoes poised in the second position and still, you won’t have made a choice. You find such disarray intoxicatingly seedy, though nothing could be further from the truth. You’re a careful dresser, in fact, discreet, but unambiguously feminine.
You don’t go overboard, of course. No polka dots, no stilettos in pre-school colours. But you don’t like sober either – otherwise, what would be the point? It is called dressing up, after all. You can’t stand calculated understatement, that eunuch look the younger ones go for. Those pin-striped trousers or sober little black suits with a white tee shirt peeking underneath and a bit of underwire cleavage just to tantalise. That really is drag. You’re doing impersonation, not caricature. You’d love to totter around in platforms or heels but there’s your feet to consider. And your height. You can’t afford to magnify flaws. It’s all about disguise as any “girl” will tell you. The opaque tights are your biggest compromise. With a different anatomy you’d go for broke and wear fishnets. But if you’re big-boned you can’t play the vamp with any kind of grace. Anyway, you want to look like a woman, not a tart.
The bridge club variety, you mean, the blue rinse brigade, George sneers. Bitchy! But according to George, you have slender hips – this said with some envy – and a real waist. You appreciate George’s fitting room verdicts, admiration professed if only to the mirror. Makes you feel real. Your biggest weakness is floral. Not loud, but more the summer garden variety. Mother used to have swing dresses with pink coins of colour like lily pads dimpling a Monet lake. You used to love those. Maybe you’re operating out of sentiment, or nostalgia. Though even you would baulk at admitting that your fashion sense is down to Mother’s frocks. But, look, you loved your mother. It’s not a crime, is it? Though these days any extravagant expression of affection, particularly for your mother, seems to arouse suspicion. Suspicion of what, you’d like to know. You’re not afraid to admit that you idolised Mother – God rest her. You keep her alive this way too, with those blessings of hers. You use them sincerely though sometimes people, including George, presume irony. (You open your mouth and your mother comes out, George says.) Maybe you cling to Mother’s memory simply because for so long there was just the two of you.
Father disappeared when you were two – he did one of those magic tricks. Put his hand in the till and went up in a puff of smoke. Left you both in the lurch, Mother would say. In your mind’s eye you saw a drunk on a deserted street, lewd smile, evil laughter, rotten teeth. Something to do with that word lurch, as if he had reeled off and blundered into another dimension. Of course, he wasn’t like that at all. The family photograph (yes, just the one; this was a time when fathers took the photos rather than appearing in them) shows him in a rumpled-looking suit, hair in corn drills, shirt collar askew. He looks like an overgrown schoolboy, his worthy clothes over-tended, unloved. He was a solicitor’s clerk. He worked in a chamber of brown linoleum, bentwood chairs, a hatless coat-stand, a mahogany desk inlaid with green leather. There was a hatch to keep the public at bay. He stayed in the Inner Office, trapped behind towers of thick-lipped manilla folders. Keeper of the cheque book.
“He couldn’t even get cheating right,” Mother would lament.
It was the first out-of-character thing he had ever done. For years he had plodded off to work every morning, peck on the cheek for Mother, and the promise of promotion. Before you came along, a late child, unexpected. Of course, you don’t remember him. Useless was Mother’s verdict. And she made him so over the years. What use could he possibly have been? Mother was your world. Authority, breadwinner, confidante. If that screwed you up, as George would put it, then so be it.
The dressing up started at home. Mother did it, and you copied her. She had a wardrobe that housed a future that never came. A ballgown in turquoise taffeta whose skirts seemed tainted with water marks when you looked at it in a certain light. A couple of cocktail dresses, one in black silk, backless, another in plum velvet with a sequined bodice, heavy as a suit of tears. Some of her clothes you can only remember fragments of now – pink netting here, the fringes of a scarf there. The greatest treasures were hidden away. A fur stole, all watchful eyes and snakish tails, pungent with mothballs, wrapped carefully in tissue paper in a hat box on top of the wardrobe. The wedding dress the light had turned to ivory still rustling superstitiously under a clear plastic shroud from the dry cleaners. And below in the shadows of frothy hems, Mother’s shoes. You remember pushing plump five-year old feet into a pair of her white patent sling-backs. Cold in there. They bowed in the middle like a sagging bridge and the heels threw you forward into the mousehole of the toe. And the lovely clatter they made, the slap and clack! It was a trade-off with Mother. If you agreed to have your hair washed and not to scream when the shampoo got in your eyes, Mother would allow you to wear her shoes for a treat after bath-time. Forget satin corsets and suspenders, you say. The memory of being naked in heels seems to you the ultimate in erotic.
Then you moved on to her evening gloves. She had several pairs – cream, pearl grey and black. Your little fingers burrowed to the tips – it was like climbing inside her – the scalloped ends bunching around your bare bony shoulder. You liked to rummage in the drawer where she stored her headscarves. Horses and anchors and nosegays of daffodils. You’d toss them in the air and in their fluttering descent, her bouquet was released – Blue Grass. You fingered her floral polyester blouses – cross your heart, fabric-coated buttons, sleek to touch but toothily static. Skirts billowed round your head. No slacks here – Mother didn’t hold with them though she acknowledged they were handy if you were a working woman. Which, somehow, implied that she was not. The final frontier was her underwear. Flesh-coloured brassieres, lace-hemmed bloomers, the shivering agony of slips. You turned her roll-on into a straitjacket, your arms and torso encased like an Egyptian mummy; then you lay on the floor and played dead.
Mother was on a fixed income. She managed a nursing home and you lived in. You spent your childhood among old ladies, querulous or melancholy, sagging folds of skin merging with crumpled clothes. Their bony fingers with rings they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, part with, twitched on counterpanes or feverishly counted off the decades on beads. There was the accompanying smell – though Mother was scrupulous about hygiene – which is not urine as people like to think, but the sour odour of organs slowing down. Vapours of decay, in other words. Not the ideal environment to grow up in but it was home. You felt singular amongst all that fading female energy, a buoyant child, beloved.
“Baby,” they would call after you as you dodged past the asparagus ferns in mock-brass urns in the hallway. They always had their doors ajar.
“Baby!” Sometimes it sounded menacing, envious. You were baby to all of them. Some other baby, some lost baby. In her turn, Mother lavished endearments on her patients – sweetheart, pet lamb, even love – and they would invariably soften and wilt and bend to her will. For a moment they would shed their pruney carapaces and smile beatifically at her. But for you she reserved a special term. Darling, come and help Mother out of her dress. Darling, run and get the bed-pan for Mrs Proctor. Darling, tell Mother that you love her.
Maybe that’s why you were slow to make friends. How could the world outside ever replicate Mother’s love and that of all those senile surrogates? You didn’t feel the lack, not when you were a child. And, afterwards, you had George. Mother and George never met. Well, you kept them apart, didn’t you? Mother would not have taken to George’s vulgar candour. Is George the kind of friend we’d like to cultivate, darling? No would have been the answer. No one would be good enough. You feel a stab of resentment when you think of it now, when you stand here faced with a wardrobe full of clothes that echo hers. It makes you wonder. Have you somehow turned into Mother? All dressed up and nowhere to go?
No, not true. Tonight you have somewhere to go. On the bed you lay out a jade velvet skirt, a black sateen jacket, a white blouse with an extravagant ruffle to hide the crepey skin around your neck. They lie there playing dead, as if you were dressing a corpse. You wanted to do this for Mother, to choose a costume for her final journey. The thought excited you even in the midst of grief. The turquoise taffeta, the fur stole? You liked the thought that the fox with its hunter’s eye and the long drip of its tails might be buried, and once below ground might reassemble itself and emerge into the night to prowl again. But no, Mother had left detailed instructions. She wanted a shroud, plain brown from the Poor Clares. But you did help with her make-up; that undertaker had no idea!
Now you sit in front of the triptych dressing table mirror doing your own. Like most of the furniture, it’s Mother’s. All wrong here. Too big and overpowering for the rooms of a semi-d on Prosperity Drive, a place Mother would have looked down her nose at. Scruffy children playing on the street and next door attached, darling! True, on summer evenings you are plagued by boys ringing the bell looking for their football back, and when you look out on your pocket-sized lawn you find your Calla lilies trampled and broken. But despite that you’ve grown to like it here. You stop and chat to that nice Mrs Devoy and have a nodding acquaintance with Mrs Elworthy, a working woman like Mother, with two little girls and no sign of a husband. You don’t belong here exactly but you can’t be put out. You own it, something Mother never did. You have something to leave. But to whom? You shake away the mournful thought and examine your pores in the mirror. You used to watch Mother doing her face. If Father had stayed around you might have been as fascinated by his shaving rituals. As it was, Mother didn’t have anyone to watch admiringly as she powdered her face sending clouds of motes reeling into the air, or applying lipstick – Coral Island – to pouted lips. No one, that is, but you. It was the ceremony that compelled you. The mask behind which Mother’s face disappeared, the glossy lips, the brooding eyeshadow – Deadly Nightshade. You were fascinated by the tweezers, the eye pencils, the emory boards. The mystery of all the little brushes – what were they for? – the powder puffs, the pale squares of make-up in a box like your water paints, the tiny bottles of gilded nail polish. Even then you were learning how to be a woman.
Mother used to bring you with her when she went to the cosmetic counters at Switzers. You used to love that. Picking up the phials of perfume, lifting the heavy glass stoppers and inhaling the scents – tea rose, verbena, musk – while Mother tested lipstick on her hand, or had her cuticles done. What a pair you must have made! Mother in her starched whites from work – she wasn’t a nurse but she said people had more faith when they saw a uniform – and you in your shorts and sandals, a crop-haired urchin. You were going through your tomboy period then. The assistants were charmed that you were so taken with the products.
“Lovely to see a sensitive boy,” one crooned. She had alarming black hair in a Cleopatra cut and an ochre complexion.
“The world will soon beat it out of him,” the other said tartly as she redid her fiercesome lashes. And they both laughed knowingly.
You blushed defiantly. Mother was too discreet to point out their mistake. Afterwards, years afterwards, she said. “But darling, that would have spoiled it for you. You wanted to be a boy then. I knew it was just a phase you were going through.”
You’re all done now. Ready for the performance. Roar of the crowd, smell of the greasepaint! Despite the numerous times you’ve made yourself up – how many times in a woman’s lifetime, who could calculate? – you’ve never quite got used to the dusty, caked feel of foundation. And the look, despite your best efforts, seems fake. If Mother were alive today – a preposterous thought; she’d be 108 – she’d say pityingly, “look at you, darling”.
Tonight is a special occasion. It’s a work thing. A party to launch the new consultants’ clinic. Fancy place, atrium preening with plants, a coffee dock, and lifts – a far cry from the old dingy surgeries and tatty waiting rooms. You work for a foot surgeon. Mr Stafford. He’s portly, self-important. But he’s got a right, you suppose. He wears three-piece suits like a lawyer and a handkerchief in his breast pocket, his only concession to flamboyance. He keeps his distance – from you, from his patients. He’s like an old-fashioned headmaster. You think he would secretly like to be called sir. You wouldn’t mind, but in this day and age you’re not sure if that’s not a crime too. So he relies on his bearing and his obvious wealth to command respect. With his fees, that’s not hard. He’s married, of course, and years older than you, but he depends on you for all sorts of things. His Girl Friday he calls you, which shows his age and yours, because you get the reference. George says you’re like the “other woman” for him. Nothing could be further from your mind but George has always revelled in being outrageous.
You met her at secretarial school. She started off as your pal, at least that’s what Mother called her. The one with the strange name, Mother would add as if you were besieged with friends. Short for Georgina.
“What a handle,” she would say, “I don’t know what possessed my parents!”
“Why didn’t you shorten it to Georgie?” you asked.
“Too Enid Blyton. Too Mallory Towers,” she said. “No, George makes more of a statement.”
George was always brighter than you. Her brisk, brunette manner was a cover for ambitions a well-read girl from her background couldn’t afford. You and she started out working in the typing pool at the gas company together. Clackety-clack, ding! A synchronised orchestra like Esther Williams and her troupe on dry land. You went for lunch every day at the Parliament Hotel, and to dances on Saturday nights at the Arcadia, long since demolished. Your first holiday abroad – when you were 32, imagine! – was with George. You went to Rome on an organised tour. It was only after you arrived you realised that it was for honeymooners, eloping or fleeing their families, or wanting to get a blessing direct from the Holy Father. You and George were the only singletons. That’s the word they use now, a production line term as if you were cartons of milk or an easy cheese serving. George flirted madly with anything in pants, but you were too embarrassed. A pair of the hotel’s breakfast waiters, brothers, took a fancy to you. There was a particular night on the Piazza Navona – the boys took you to see the Neptune fountain. Ridiculous to call them boys, but now you can’t see them as men. George was walking ahead, draped around Nando – how lightly she distributed her favours, you thought; what a prude you were then – and you were leaning against the curved lip of the fountain desperately holding off his brother. You remember the hardness of Licio’s body grinding up against yours, how insistent his ardour was, and how little it meant.
“Cara,” he breathed.
And suddenly you thought of Mother. No, not suddenly. You were always wondering what she would think. Perhaps if you had succumbed then. What? Perhaps you could have banished Mother altogether. But you couldn’t. And then you dissolved. Not discreet lady-like weeping, but something more akin to the fountain beside you, as if some inner hydrant had been opened and was spraying everywhere, drenching the bystanders. Licio backed away, hands aloft in defence, then thumping his breast in Latin exasperation saying “I do nothing.” Mother was only dead six months then.
“What on earth’s the matter?” George asked after the brothers had sloped off fearing your hysteria was contagious. You shook your head. You felt ashamed as if you had acceded to some squalid backstreet encounter and miserable because you knew you had queered George’s chances.
Despite that, she stayed. Despite her beautiful kissable mouth (she has always known how to make the most of her best features) and her sauciness and her proud, uncompromising name. You felt sure she would marry but she never did. Here the two of you are – twenty-five years on – still girls together, though others might snidely call you companions. She will be at the party too – for back-up. Nothing worse than wandering around these drinks and finger-food functions without an anchor, without someone to go back to. That’s what George has become. The woman you go back to. Like Mother, really.
There, ready. Except for the jewellery. Mother’s locket, with that picture of Father cut down to size. You thread her wedding band around the chain. It wouldn’t be right to wear it on your finger. On your breast a costume brooch – also hers – like a spray of Baby’s Breath.
Exploitation, George calls it. “I wouldn’t do it for my fella,” she says hotly. Hers is the president of a bank. George plays golf with hers; she dresses down for casual Friday.
But you don’t see it that way. The surgeon’s wife is sickly and can’t often attend these things. Nothing Mr Stafford can do about it. (Her feet are perfect, apparently.) So you’re roped in. You’re happy to do it. You see it as part of your job. You collect his dry-cleaning, you make him tea, you arrange his appointments, you order flowers for his wife. Soon you’ll be doing the rounds of nursing homes recommending the best one for her particular needs. Well, you do have expertise in that particular area. So what’s the big deal about swanning around in your finery for an evening, playing the role of hostess? Although you’d never admit it to George, you actually enjoy it. You enjoy being mistaken for his wife. You like the way he steers you about the room with his hand lightly at your elbow and introduces you as merely Pauline (though in his rooms it’s always Miss Larchet) as if you two are intimate. That’s why you have to look the part. That’s why the impersonation has to be perfect. You are not playing yourself.
Perfume – always the last thing before you leave. A quick spray at the ears and the wrists. It buoys you to the door like the splash of holy water the ladies at the home used to spray you with. A good luck charm, a way of warding off evil. Blue Grass. Mother is with you.
Illustration: Portrait of Shangela: Wealth-simple
A version of this story appeared in The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories 2005/05, ed David Marcus and is part of my collection, Prosperity Drive, (February 2016)
The treatment doesn’t make me sick, it makes me dazed. And tired. Dog-tired. Fatigue strikes like a power cut and I have to sit down ─ now ─ or I think I’ll die. The hospital is a stone’s throw from Suesey Street, the part of town I used to frequent a decade ago, when we were an item. Last week, after my session, I found myself wandering there when I had one of my turns. It was a thundery kind of day; the sun was spiteful. There I was, passing “our” pub. Where we would meet on days like this one, hot and humid, or on brown afternoons threatening rain, during our two seasons together. Either way, this was where we would meet in secret and hide from the prevailing climate of prying eyes.
As I halted in front of the pub, I wondered if I could still rightfully call it ours, since on the outside it had clearly been made over. The masonry is now a fuchsia red and there’s a new name over the door – it’s called Billy Pilgrim’s. I suspected that inside would be similarly altered ─ primary colours, stainless steel, loud music, themed. Superstitiously, I’ve never gone back there. But needs must. Migrainous from the sun, I knew if I didn’t take the weight off my feet soon, I would fall down on the street. I pushed through the pub’s double doors with the same milky glass panels I remember from before, and became a visitor in my own past.
I made my way through the outer bar to our spot in the long back room, under the big station clock, so, you said, we wouldn’t be reminded of how little time we had. The relief of sinking into pub leatherette was ecstatic. I looked around furtively in case I had registered out loud to the fact. But there was no one in the pub except for the bar-tender, a blocky, shaven-headed young man, with his sleeves rolled up and nothing to do. Apart from him ─ and he was probably still in short trousers when we were meeting in here ─ the rest of the pub was unchanged. The same polished oak, marble-topped counter, partitions of dimpled glass, brass rail to lean your feet on, a snug in the front of the shop, a back room and a mirror behind the bar so that even before you’ve got drunk you’re seeing double. The smell was just the same too. An oozing mix of stale porter and pungent urinal. I sat in our corner gratefully and ordered a mineral water. (A bald woman wearing a wig downing vodkas alone at four in the afternoon would have seemed as big a cliché as our affair – the older married man and the youngish single woman trysting in a pub. These days I’m trying to avoid clichés, even age-appropriate ones.) The electively bald barman landed the glass on the low table with a clink-clunk and obligingly opened the bottle and poured. I drank thirstily. The flinty taste of the carbonated water set my teeth on edge ─ funny aversions afflict you with chemo. I pushed the glass to one side where it spat effervescently still trying to be the life and soul of the party.
I confirmed the barman’s suspicions that I was a mad old bat when I called him back and ordered coffee instead. It came in a thick cream catering cup, slopped obligingly in the saucer. It was thin and bad, from a jug stewed for hours on a hot plate of torture. But it was like a madeleine to our long lost affair. With each sour sip, I was no longer visiting my past, I was right back in it.
After treatment, most sensible people would go home and crawl into bed. But post-chemo, the last thing I want to do is to give in to sleep during the day. If I do, it means I’ll be awake – and alone ─ in the blackout hours. Ironically, I live alone, or should that be I live alone ironically? I have made it a practice to call out “Honey, I’m home” when I let myself in as a joke to myself, on myself, and to puncture the squeamish silence of a house undisturbed since I left it. I try to imagine the Sanforized existence that would match my smooth and hearty greeting. The set of “I Love Lucy” comes to mind, a gleaming kitchen rich in appliances, a brave suburban light. Not my dim and over-shadowed household. I use all the tricks of wolfish loners to combat solitude. I talk my way through tasks aloud. Trina, I say, time to sluice the tub. And so I set to, wiping down the surfaces, the tiles, the wash-hand basin and colouring the bowl with a squirt of lemony liquid. And because I can never manage to keep the towel wrapped around me ─ and now my body geometry can’t support it – I end up naked and sweating amidst the disinfectant fumes, the closest I get to a sexual glow these days.
This was the time of day we used to meet. It annoyed me that you would arrive breathlessly as if you were just managing to squeeze me in. But once you sat and calmed, we entered another time zone where all other pre-occupations fell away. So absorbed would we become that a parade of our nearest and dearest could have passed by and we wouldn’t have noticed. This place absolved us from being furtive; it was the only time we were not mindful of our situation, where it became just the pair of us, alone in the world. Perhaps that’s why it was so intense; for an hour-and-a-half twice a week we played ourselves. No wonder I hadn’t wanted to come back. But as I sat there, I found myself soothed by the atmosphere, not haunted by the associated memories. In the torpor of an empty afternoon pub, I realised I’d found the perfect asylum for the chemically blasted.
It didn’t stay empty for long, of course. Students started trickling in, a few pensioners arrived, men with caps and newspapers, and embroidered the bar. A family of tourists, Italians, guide book in hand, joined me in the back room. Mama, Papa, Silvio and Chiara. They took photos of themselves with their phones. Papa tried a pint and didn’t like it; the children bought crisps and released salt and vinegar into the air. I ordered another coffee and settled in. Not out of nostalgia. I cannot be nostalgic for something I destroyed myself; I am not that perverse. I stayed because it was easier than going home. And then, coming up for five when I was totally off-guard, when I had made my own of the place, you arrived.
Really, it was you. You, as a boy, that is. Slender – you always said you’d been a beanpole in your youth ─ a thin hollowed-out face, gaunt almost, a mop of black curls and eyes to match. It was uncanny. The boy wore a sludge-coloured rain mac over a faded t-shirt, a pair of navy drainpipe jeans, dilapidated Beatle boots with pointed toes. If it wasn’t you, this boy must have raided your youthful wardrobe. He sat in the outer bar in the corner but right in my line of vision. He – you, what pronoun to use? ─ nodded at the barman. He was a regular, it seemed. (Did you have a life in this bar before it became our haunt, I wondered? I’d never thought to ask.) He fished a paperback out of a canvas satchel and began to read. When the barman steered a pint towards him, he raised his eyes to say thanks and his gaze met mine. Well, I wasstaring. He raised the pint to his lips – I almost expected him to raise it in a toast – and then over a moustache of foam he smiled directly at me. Then I knew. Knew it was you, because that crease appeared between your eyebrows (the one I thought had come only in middle-age from too much worry) and your mouth turned downwards. You don’t smile up like most people. It isn’t – wasn’t ─ a mirthless smile, just one tempered with a clownish sadness. I felt myself weaken all over again. Shyly, I smiled back. Why shyly? Because I felt all my old uncertainties return as if I too had been spun back in time. To a time before I met you. To a “you” I’d never known.
You settled into your book. By right it should have been one of those orange-covered Penguins – Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene – but without my specs, I couldn’t work out what it was. After the initial startlement, I felt invisible and pleasantly voyeuristic. I was happy to sit and watch you. After all these years, I finally had you all to myself.
Sharing. That’s what usually dooms an illicit affair in the end. The mistress not wanting to share. But I didn’t care about that. In truth, I didn’t feel I was sharing you with anyone. She was just the silent partner as far as I was concerned. I just didn’t want anything broken because of our association. I hated it when you talked about your past. Not because it contained her, but because it contained you. You blamed the past for our predicament. Bad timing, you would say. If I’d met you when I was younger we could have. . . We could have what? Obliterated your mistakes? Had children? When I still could. You could have brought out the maternal in me. If you’d known me then you’d understand. . .
Understand what, though? That you weren’t always this rueful self? The trouble was I couldn’t imagine you younger; I could only see you as you were. Acting old, your role to impart wisdom, already writing me out. Don’t do what I did, you used to say, don’t marry for gratitude. As if I were inundated with suitors seeking my hand. I was 37 and considered past it. Worse than past it, because I was engaged in a fantasy relationship that couldn’t stand the light of day. That’s what my girlfriends told me. Even if you had managed to leave the silent partner, I’d have got the worst of you, an old man with sagging dugs and slowing walk, enduring a guilty superannuation trying to win back his wounded off-spring. I would get compromise while the silent partner would have had the wholehearted best of you. That ardent, warrior youth you seemed so nostalgic for. I would become the bath-chair pusher, the caretaker, witness to your decline. That was never my style. For one thing, I’ve always been careless. Careless with people. Other people might mistake it for carefree; not the same thing at all. I am free of care because I care less. I was not vigilant enough even about myself, as it turned out. If I had, I might have noticed the giveaway pellet of hardness on the underside of my breast, right over my heart.
The clock struck six and a girl breezed in. She had long, sand-coloured hair and a gapped fringe. She wore something filmy and floral. Not your type at all, but then that’s presuming I was your type. She looked like the kind of girl who’d stand on the shore with a towel to dry you off if you were in swimming. Girlie was territorial about you, fixed you with her big eyes and talked – a lot – some breathless account during which she would snatch your hand for emphasis, or poke you playfully on the arm.
“And then he asked me if I’d cover the late shift. . .” She exhaled indignation. “I mean, really!”
You played with the ends of her hair and gazed at her with an unseemly kind of yearning that made me look away. Then you leaned in and kissed her. She was bruised into silence by your lips. That was something you used to do with me. In mid-flight I would find my words smothered by your mouth. It used to infuriate me that you couldn’t bear my small talk. Looking at it now, I recognised desire. As you disengaged, another person joined you, a boy this time. I thought maybe I’d be able to identify him. Maybe he’d be someone who had survived into my time? But I couldn’t. He had a face whose features seemed in untimely progression. He had a boy’s eyes and soft chin, but a man’s brow and nose. His mane of nondescript hair grazed his dejected-looking shoulders. I christened him Lionheart, but it was you, with your dark looks, that consumed my attention.
I kept you constantly in my sight-lines and every so often our eyes would meet and lock for a moment, though as the pub filled up with office workers, it was harder to maintain a clear line of vision. Girlie produced a phone and I could hear you planning the rest of your night. You wanted to go to a gig with a band called Methuselah, Girlie wanted to go for something to eat. Lionheart eyed Girlie, then you – he seemed to have the casting vote. I wasn’t sure who he was most in love with, you or Girlie. Between the standing army of drinkers, I kept on catching your eye. A quizzical eye, at first, lightly sardonic, then more calculating, curious. This is how it was when we met. Even with age you couldn’t cloak your emotions so everything got played out on your face. I felt, somehow, you were communicating with me, over the heads of your friends and the Friday night crowd. But what were you saying?
I hadn’t thought of you in years. Really! Not in that way, I mean. Not in the pained malignant way of the unrequited. But no, that’s not true. I was requited. During that time with you I was more alive and more unhappy than I had ever been. Maybe the two go together. Now I am chronically content and half-dead. Though even at the time I knew what we were doing was a recipe for heartbreak – someone’s. Yours, as it turned out.
In the end, I couldn’t stand the tension of waiting to see who would break first. You? Me? Or the silent partner? I wasn’t slave enough to the cliché to wait for you to say – I can’t leave my wife. So I ended it. Chop chop. A swift guillotine. I remember your face when I said it – here on this very spot. Everything fell, as if I’d struck you. You started bargaining furiously.
“I’ll do it, right now.”
“It’s not that,” I said but you weren’t listening.
“Here, I’ll phone her now,” you said, lifting the mobile like it was a brick with which you were going to smash your life to pieces. On my account. A gesture. Our gestures give us away.
“Put it away,” I said. “It’s over.”
It’s not every day you get a chance to see the prequel to love. That’s what kept me in a sticky, airless Friday night pub sipping cold coffee. I’ve never liked being alone in a pub – call me old-fashioned. Even when we were together, I hated being early. Waiting for someone I was never sure of, full of dread about being hit upon by amateur predators. That wasn’t a problem now. If anyone was a predator in this situation it was me. But I couldn’t bear to leave before you. It seemed important this time around that you leave me.
Finally at half seven, the three of you rose, gathering up your stuff and pushed out into the main thoroughfare of the pub. Immediately, in a pincer movement, three of the suited ones moved into claim your space. I felt the betraying heave of disappointment that goes with the beloved’s withdrawal of presence. You turned to go; then you stopped and whispered in Girlie’s ear. She looked back at you briefly then bounced towards the exit where Lionheart was waiting patiently. I could see his face lighting up as she approached. Ah, so it was her he was after. He pulled open the door and she darted through it. He followed her.
You turned towards me. I felt panicky but told myself to stop. You were going to the toilets, maybe, or using the side-door, the one that opened out on to a laneway, the one I used to favour when we were together. I could see your head bobbing up and down as you weaved your way around the crowd that stood between us. I was trapped; this was too close for comfort. I had not banked on our worlds actually colliding like this. You stopped in front of me.
Chemo fugue, my friends say. It was your ex-lover’s son you saw. But no, I knew you had fathered only daughters. A trick of the mind, the light. But no, it was none of that.
“Do I know you?” he demanded.
When I didn’t answer – well, how could I answer? ─ he rephrased it.
“Do you know me?”
He was more earnest than I expected. You were never earnest; had it beaten out of you, you said, in the rough justice of boarding school. You were playful in company, serious in bed.
“It’s just that. . .” he started. A lighter voice than yours; age makes us growl and grate.
“Yes?” I said, feeling the bloom of ambiguous trepidation show on my face.
“Can I . . .?”
He folded himself on to the small stool opposite me that had remained empty except as a repository for bags and jackets. He laid these carefully on the banquette seat beside me. If it was a delaying tactic, it worked. What was he going to say? Could he do me for harassment? Young people are touchy about this sort of thing and I had not kept custody of the eyes, as we were instructed in convent school.
“You’ve been staring at me all night,” he said simply. No outlandish accusations, then.
“I’m sorry,” I said, rising to go. I had been a bad voyeur; I’d attracted attention by the focus of my own. “I have to go. . .”
I tried to squeeze by him but he grabbed my arm.
“Why is that?” he demanded. “What do you want?”
To turn the clock back, I wanted to say. He gripped my wrist and looked up at me imploringly.
“Are you my mother?”
That broke the spell, the chemo fog.
“Are you my mother?” he repeated and stood up. There was the steel I knew from your eyes, the grit of refusal. I shook him off, my folly made manifest.
“My natural mother,” he hissed in my ear. When I tried to wriggle out of our awkward embrace he raised his voice. “Are you the woman who gave me up? Who gave up on me? Who refused to meet me but feels free to spy on me? Are you?”
There was a ripple of anticipation in those around us; a pub crowd recognises when there is a row brewing. What I wanted to say was yes. Yes to everything. Except to the accusation of motherhood. To that I wanted to say – do you think, dear boy, that if I were your mother, I wouldn’t rush bald-headed to claim you?
“Is it you?” he pleaded, “come for me?”
Oh God, I couldn’t bear the interrogative. I had come for you. But the wrong you. I yanked my hand away and ploughed my way through the crowds of drinkers, jogging elbows and upsetting drinks as I went. A couple of aggrieved “heys” followed in my wake. I stepped out into the laneway where more shirt-sleeved drinkers had spilled out into the golden evening. Once clear of them, I ran. I ran, clutching my false hair in case I should lose it too. In my haste I crashed into a stack of shopping trolleys parked in a bay outside one of those late-opening supermarkets. I ducked in and found myself in the refrigerated aisle. He didn’t follow me, or if he did, he didn’t find me. I counted it as a lucky escape, a remission of sorts.
THE CHILDREN OF LAR
Eva reversed the Starlet out of the car port with a rasping roar, cursing Lar out loud. Since they’d got married, the car was the one place she could be absolutely alone. When they’d got together, Lar had called the Starlet a typical single girl’s drive. He’d said it fondly, or so she’d thought. Then he’d offered to help her with financing a replacement, and she wasn’t so sure. But she had insisted on keeping it; it was her first car and she was attached to it. The Starlet was a womb, the last remnant of her old life. Life before Lar.
Aren’t you taking on a lot, her friends had said when she’d told them she was getting married. Their foreheads creased with worry, I mean, three kids? But Eva had felt invincible; in her head she’d already taken on the three kids. The only difference was she was getting Lar into the bargain. He was besotted with her and Eva had succumbed to his humid gratitude which, if her friends had asked, she’d have told them had its own sexual allure.
“I can’t believe my luck, my darling,” Lar had said when she’d said yes to his proposal. His endearments still unnerved her. (No wonder, her mother said shrewishly when Eva reported this back, he’s a single father.)
Eva had been employed as the au-pair for the twins. But the truth was that in a matter of weeks, working for Lar hadn’t felt like a job; she didn’t even feel she was working for him. She was working for those two motherless babes. Eva had never known such love. It had pounced on her and become fierce and necessary. It was what she had expected from romantic love but none of her sexual entanglements had produced anything like this. She didn’t have to check on this love, or take its temperature. She didn’t have to speculate or wonder. Fiach and Con were her darlings. No, it was more than that, they were hers. Life without them was unthinkable.
She swung out from the estate and on to the main road, still fuming. Lar was weak as shit. But, of course, the real problem was Finola. Finola was Lar’s eldest. At 13, she still had live memories of her mother and she wasn’t going to let Eva forget it. After all the work Eva had put into coaxing her around, it was always Finola’s trump card. Mum this and Mum that. It made Eva hate Niamh, a woman she had never met and with whom she had no real argument. Niamh was dead, for God’s sake!
I am your mother, Eva wanted to scream at Finola when they clashed, or as good as. What she thought to herself was ─ I am 28 years of age and mothering another woman’s teenager who hates me because I can’t be her mother. I just can’t win.
The main road was relatively clear. She got a clear run through several sets of traffic lights; the progress soothed her, though her heart was still racing with the injustice of it all. She had no idea where she was going, apart from away. Away from Lar’s house. See, that’s how it was; it was still Lar’s house, she thought savagely, even after seven years.
The twins were still babies when Niamh died – well, they were why Niamh had died. That was the first shock for Eva. Imagine, in this day and age, a woman dying in childbirth! She didn’t know the whole story then. When she first met Lar, she’d presumed that he was divorced and the victor in a custody battle. When he opened the door to her that’s what he looked like – a trendy, stay-at-home Dad with long locks tied in a ponytail and wearing an embossed tunic shirt with a Chinese collar over a pair of jeans. He showed her into the living room which had a thick, soft-pile white carpet. A strange choice, she’d thought, for a house with small kids.
“You have to understand,” he’d said once they’d settled into the interview, “the children’s mother is dead.”
“Oh,” she’d faltered, feeling a bitch for judging him.
“So you see,” he continued, “I’m looking for someone who’ll be more than just the hired help.”
A mother, Eva’s mother said, that’s what he’s been looking for from the get-go.
Eva felt the need to put her foot down; she headed for the ring road.
When she’d started working for Lar she’d had no experience of grief – or a grief-stricken man, to be more precise. At first she noticed nothing different about Lar. He seemed like most older men – friends of her father’s were her closest experience – brisk, civil, distant. If you didn’t know he was recently bereaved you wouldn’t have guessed he was a tragic figure. Eva saw a lot of him. She lived-in five nights out of seven and he worked from home. He was an architect with a successful practice in town but after Niamh’s death he’d turned one of the big bedrooms upstairs into his office. Sometimes clients would come to see him, or other architects from the town office would drop by, but most of the time he would talk to them on the phone. He disappeared up there in the mornings and he didn’t like to be disturbed. But his presence made a difference; it provided authority and perhaps reproof. Eva was acutely aware of the man upstairs, particularly when the twins were cranky or off-colour, when one’s wails would set the other one off in a frenzy of stereo bawling. To reassure Lar, she would bring him up a cup of coffee mid-morning, as if to say in the midst of the tantrums and chaos, I am in control. The light-filled front room was an oasis of order. Everything seemed white. Lar’s desk, the thin screen he worked on, the hum of what looked like a large copying machine that sat under the window. She needn’t have worried about the babies’ squalling, she discovered. Lar wore earphones when he worked, which he lifted off and let fall around his neck when he saw her coming, so they sat like a manacle of torture around his neck.
“Everything alright,” he would always ask and she would nod and sit opposite him to watch him drink and savour this grown-up place set apart from the rowdy downstairs. It was over these coffees that Lar began to talk to her.
Where was she going? She needed to be somewhere off the radar. Swan Lake, that’s where she’d go. This was Fiach’s name for the lake which nestled on the side of the motorway. He and Con would try to count how many swans they could see – sometimes they got as far as fifteen or sixteen. When the twins were toddlers, she and Lar would take them to feed the swans though Lar was always clownishly looking over his shoulder because he said he was sure it was against the law. He’d said it was like a capital offence, or was that killing them? She couldn’t remember. The thought of going there now reassured her, as much for the memory of those happier times, as of the place itself. In fact, Eva had always thought the lake a bit impoverished, with the motorway right beside it and the thrum of cars whizzing by full of people too busy to stop. It was a drive-by beauty spot. But, look, it was only a couple of miles away and it was a destination; otherwise she was afraid she might just keep on driving and who knew where she’d end up?
The first time she saw Lar upset was when she asked about Niamh’s photos. Or lack of them. Finola was doing a school project on genealogy and needed images of her forbears. Which made it sound as if we were all descended from grizzlies, Eva thought. But when she went to look, there were no family albums, no framed photos on the mantelpieces or in the children’s rooms. Not even a wedding photo. I’ll ask your Dad, she’d said to Finola.
“I destroyed them,” Lar said shortly.
“What about the children?” Eva had demanded. She’d done a course on bereavement in her early childhood care course.
“I couldn’t bear to still see her.” He raised a hand to his forehead, shielding his eyes from her and his shoulders began to shudder. Eva realised with a start that he was weeping. Oh god, she’d made him cry.
“I’m sorry . . .” she began but he shook his hand at her and turned his head away. There was something appalling about his disintegration. No man, no adult had ever broken down in front of her like this. It was a bit like watching him come. When she leaned out to touch his arm he was still waving at her; she couldn’t work out if he was fobbing her off or reaching for her.
“Sometimes,” he said, snuffling loudly, but still shielding his gaze, “every thought is a pain.”
Head in the sand, Eva thought as she flew down the ramp and on to the ring road and geared up. She loved that surge of power though anything over 80kms made the poor Starlet rattle and moan. All of this over a Hallowe’en hop, she thought. God, how banal it sounded! Is this what her life was reduced to? Domestic dramas in a battle that wasn’t really hers. Finola had wanted to go to a fancy dress disco at school. She catalogued its virtues. It would be highly supervised, teachers patrolling the perimeter of the school gym, a father doing dee-jay. It all sounded a bit lame to Eva who, at Finola’s age, was the champion French kisser in contests they had in the youth club and at 16 had lost her virginity to a boy in Irish college.
In a strategic move, Finola had asked Eva first. She’d come into the kitchen wearing her outfit ─ a sleeveless white dress with a sheer top and a feathered skirt. Eva suppressed a laugh. The dress was made for someone bigger and gaped under the arms. It was surely meant to have an under-slip because Nuala’s little breast swellings were clearly visible.
“What do you think?” Finola had asked twirling around in her bare feet.
“What’s it for?” Eva had asked.
Finola told her about the disco. “Can I go?”
“I don’t see why not,” Eva said, “but not in that thing! Who are you meant to be? Big Bird?”
There was an uncharacteristic silence.
“This was Mum’s wedding dress,” Finola said, her bottom lip wobbling. Oh God, Eva thought. Another transgression to add to the list. (Silently she compared this glorified slip to what she had worn at her wedding. She and Lar had married in a registry office on the QT with only Eva’s mother and Lar’s brother as witnesses. It was in February and Eva had worn boots and a winter coat.)
“You’ll have to ask your Dad,” Eva said to Finola hoping they wouldn’t get snagged on Niamh’s bridal dress sense. When she heard herself calling Lar Dad, it made her feel like she was just another of Lar’s brood.
Lar was surprisingly strict about child-rearing particularly where Finola was concerned. Even though he had got rid of all her photos, he kept the memory of Niamh alive in his parenting. If there was a decision to be made, he would always speculate out loud as to what Niamh would have done. Eva wasn’t deemed qualified to decide, not with Finola. The twins, yes, but Finola was a different jurisdiction.
“I’ll talk to your Dad,” Eva had promised.
When Eva broached the subject of the dance, Lar said emphatically: “She’s too young.”
“Oh come on, Lar, it all sounds pretty innocent.”
“Anything could happen.”
“Like what?” Eva demanded. “Rape, pillage? It’s a school disco.”
“No,” Lar said, “Niamh had strong feelings about this sort of thing.”
Eva groaned inwardly. Finola had been six when her mother died; had Niamh already formulated a policy on teen dating?
“She wouldn’t have approved of the over-sexualisation of children,” Lar went on.
“Well, if you’re going to say no, then you’ll have to tell her,” Eva said.
Which he had. That morning he’d called Finola up to the office. She was on mid-term break and loping around the house bored. Eva waited for the explosion. Five minutes later, she heard Finola galloping down the stairs two at a time. She stomped into the kitchen where Eva was feeding the dishwasher.
“I hate you!” she yelled. There were little beads of spittle in the corners of her mouth.
“What have I done?”
“Dad said you argued against the disco!”
“Dad said. . . ” she began.
“I did no such thing.” Eva could feel her anger boil over into incoherence.
“Your mother would never allow it,” Finola said, mimicking Lar’s stentorian tone.
Eva was about to interject ─ I’m not your mother, remember? ─ until she realised the trap she was in. Since the wedding last year she’d been trying to get Finola to call her Mum – which she steadfastly refused to do. Now, now when it suited her, when Eva could be successfully scapegoated, suddenly Eva was her mother. And Lar! He hadn’t meant her when he was talking to Finola; he had meant Niamh.
She considered having it out with Lar there and then, but her anger had boiled over now and she could feel tears sprouting. Foolish, weakening tears. She thought of the red Starlet in the driveway. She did a lightning calculation. The twins were at school; Finola was big enough to look after herself. And Lar. . . well, sod him! She whipped the car keys from the bowl on the kitchen counter and stormed out.
It wasn’t the first time she’d felt this way. When Lar declared he was in love with her, she’d felt the same – let me out of here. It came at the same time he’d decided to send Fiach and Con to crèche. “They need the company of other children,” he said.
He was taking them away, her Fiach and Con. Didn’t he realise?
“Give you a break,” he’d said.
She didn’t want a break from them – did he understand nothing?
“I’ll pay you the same, of course.”
“It’s not the money, Lar.” She was on first-name terms with him by then.
“What is it, then? I thought you’d be pleased.”
I can’t bear to be parted from them, she wanted to say, they’re mine.
“I . . .”
“What are you trying to tell me?” he asked like a puzzled doctor.
He was standing in front of her and for a moment she thought he was going to have another grief ambush. Then he grabbed her upper arms as if he was going to give her a good shake.
“Do you feel what I do?” he demanded. It sounded more like an interrogation than a declamation of love. What she felt she would have found hard to put into words. His confidences – his confessions, more like – gave her gravitas, made her feel empowered; maybe that was what love was – being in charge of other people’s secrets? She looked into his hurt blue eyes and thought two things – I can’t wound him further. And I can’t lose the twins.
“Yes,” she said and nodded vigorously, an image of Fiach and Con fixed in her mind.
And it was true. Just not for him.
She found herself slowing so that she wouldn’t miss the turn-off for the lake. It was beginning to rain. Great paw prints splatted on to the windscreen disorienting her. She turned on the wipers. As she did she noticed the car ahead of her suddenly buck and judder. What the. . . Then it did it again. She put the brakes on gently while checking in the rear-view mirror that there was no one behind her. The last thing she needed was to be rear-ended. The car ahead was slowing too but still veering crazily off course, plunging over the centre white line, ducking and weaving as if it was jousting with something. Overtaking drivers were blasting their horns, their siren wails fading like lost warnings as they passed. What on earth was wrong? Was the driver drunk, she wondered, or ill? She put on her own hazard lights. The next minute something very hard and white hit the car. Except that the impact was so loud, it could have been a cloud – what keeps clouds up, she thought fleetingly – as she tried to steer blindly towards the hard shoulder. Everything slowed up. It was like being snowed-in or trapped in a very sudsy car wash. Was it the airbag? Had something set it off accidentally? But no, this was not something inside the car, this was from outside. Then she saw the beak, the windscreen splintered with a strange tinselly sound, and as she came to a halt, there, straddled on the steering column, like some awful bloody sacrifice, was a swan. The crushed head and the dead eye of the creature stared up at her. The air inside the car was thick with feathers. She swallowed a mouthful of down. It was only when she had come to a complete standstill that the shaking started. She could feel her breath coming in gasps and something wet dripping on to her knees. Blood. Swan’s blood. Some vague memory stirred.
There had been a miss between Finola and the twins. Another boy called Hugh. (Eva felt she must now know everything about Lar.) It was late on, Lar had said. The contractions began without warning. Luckily, he’d been home that morning. He was just about to go off to work when he found her, folded with pain in the living room. (She used to stand at the picture window to wave him off in the mornings.) Niamh had been warned it would be inadvisable to have any more, Lar had said, but she was determined that Finola would not be an only child. Oh, Eva thought, so twins are here for Finola’s benefit. She felt a hot bubble of rage against Niamh; then she checked herself. Without Niamh’s biological determination, she wouldn’t have the twins now. So while Lar talked, she pictured the white rug in the living room, imagined the blood and wondered how you would ever get the stains out. . .
She was afraid to move lest she disturb the corpse. The dashboard was bowed like a sagging shelf and the windscreen was reduced to a milky web. A sharp breeze was coming through the gap where it had sheared away from the roof of the car. There was a knock on the window at her shoulder. Lar! But how could it be? In her haste, she hadn’t even brought her mobile with her. Leadenly she rolled down the window.
“Are you alright?”
She had a television view of a man in a v-necked jumper, bouncy drills in his hair, and Elvis sideburns. She was about to answer when he raised a calloused hand to his mouth.
“Oh Jesus tonight,” he said, and turning away, he threw up on the side of the road.
The twins were identical but Eva had always been able to tell them apart. Fiach had a little laziness in his left eye, Con had more curls. When she wasn’t with them, she would close her eyes and have the same image of them, aged two, a pair of blond cherubs, their adoring faces looking up at her, perfect baby teeth, Fiach’s runny nose, Con’s teething drool, eyes the palest blue, their hands clamped to her thighs. Up, up up, they would chorus in unison.
The guards were called and by the time they arrived a crowd had gathered at the lakeside. Eva had got out of the car. Rain was still spitting though it hadn’t become a shower. Somebody rang Lar on her behalf. A passer-by shoved a paper cup of scalding coffee into her hand from a nearby petrol station. They’d over-sugared it and she’d burnt her tongue, but it gave her something to hold on to. An ambulance came though it wasn’t needed. Shock, they said, and wrapped her up in a cape of tin foil and took her blood pressure. There wasn’t a mark on her.
“She’ll be no use to you now,” the man who had got sick said to her and for a minute, Eva thought he was talking about the swan. Then she looked at the poor Starlet – a write-off.
Stray feathers wafted in the early autumn sunshine. In the distance on the lake, the living swans had gathered. Did they know what had happened, Eva wondered. And why did this swan want to get away? She hadn’t even known that swans travelled. They mated for life, didn’t they? She’d always thought they just stayed put. Well, why wouldn’t you, if you’d found your soul mate?
She stole a glance at the bloodied corpse lying spread-eagled on the bonnet like a felled dive-bomber. She had a sudden image of Finola in her finery. Soiled, limping home. Look how easily beauty could come to grief. Lar was right. She was too young.
When he came to collect her, the twins were strapped in the back seat of the people carrier. Finola was in the front passenger seat but when Lar pulled in and jumped out leaving the driver door open, she got out and meekly joined the twins in the back. All Eva wanted to do was to rush to them to tell them everything would be alright. Imagine if she’d been injured, or worse? How would those poor children survive it? Her stomach made a sickening turnover – that was the seat of her feelings, she realised, not her heart. She turned towards Lar. He was whey-faced. His hair hung in lifeless drifts around his shoulders adding to his distressed look. He dropped his hands to his side when he saw the slaughter on her bonnet.
“Oh my god,” he said. Then he looked at her. “I thought I’d lost you.”
She thought of how it must be for Lar, the dread of history repeating itself. All her rage was spent. She felt only compassion; wouldn’t that do? She moved towards Lar gingerly, adjusting her silver cape. He staggered forward wrapped his arms around her. Their embrace made a crackling sound.
“You poor thing,” he whispered in her ear, the full beam of his sorrow finally on her. Over his shoulder, she could see Con’s face pressed up against the passenger window, his mouth squashed against the glass like a gurning thief in a stocking mask, and she knew what she had to do.
This story appeared on Headstuff.org in February 2016.
Illustration by Delaney Davis.