Running late. Pissy day. Rainbow off to his right, hovering over the Rock of Dunamaise – Gabby used to say that God liked by-times to squeeze juice from a rainbow into a goblet and drink its cocktail of seven colours without pause to even lick His lips. Poor Gabby. Small wonder his tongue choked him. He wasn’t the worse of uncles.
Slogging it behind a tractor and its bockety trailer along a narrow and winding road, takes him an age to overtake.
And it is done on a stream of muttered invectives.
Honks at the tractor wanker and gives him the lone finger salute, for the delay, for not having the nature to pull over and make the overtaking possible and easier.
His thoughts churn – tries to rein them in, gather the wild horses, the chattering monkeys, the devil talk. Babby whispers: an infant’s voice. Gimme ears a break, the lot of ye!
‘Off the tabs, fuck them,’ he mutters, ‘and the doctor who put me on them. They don’t agree with me at all.’
Rain ticks against the windscreen of his aged Volkswagon Golf, grey as the day.
Worm in the apple, this day. Whispers.
Fly shite in the pie, this day. Whispers.
A good day to die. Sombre enough for it. Not a good thing to go dying when the sky is a full blue. Waste of sunshine, that. Better to die in the bleed of a black night.
God, where are you? Are You there? Are You ever? We gotta talk.
Internal dialogue like Norman Bates in Psycho, that’s who he is. Potential killer of woman in a shower. Puncture her naked and suddy body with… stop…. sicko. Jesus, you’re a sicko. Not you, Jesus; me. Me? Yeah, I’m the sicko.
Calm… calm… you’re not a sicko. What you are is worried and anxious and nervous. Excited, too. But why excited?
It’s the kind of day that makes him wish it was tomorrow or yesterday; last week or next week. Any day, except this one.
Pass by The Cush Inn with its steel bandaged eyes and weedy car park, surrounded by floodwater, created by the latest batch of the hard rains.
Got a hot summer ride there once. Big girl she was. Asked her to dance and up she rose from the black polyproplene chair, garnished she was with a smile. Overdid it on the musk, she had.
Long curly black hair. Name? Caroline from Allen. Loved Brendan Shine and his country and western, his aul lobby washed down. In without the rubber and the roars of her on the warm grass, and did she ever get pregnant from that night? He does not know. Away to Newmarket and horse land the next morning and didn’t set foot on shamrock for ten years. Back then to slobber mortar on blocks and bricks and build for himself a red brick bungalow on land his father left him, a dry patch surrounded by bog. Deep and deeper he and his uncle Gabby went with the foundations, and he wanting to dig deeper, but Gabby said there was no need. Shouldn’t have listened to him. Gabby was an expert in how to take short cuts that ended up being the long way round. Later, the subsidence kicked in, cracks came to the plaster and ceiling; and these he sometimes thinks are a map of what had gone wrong inside of his wife’s brain.
Married her within a year of his returning to the bog home. Gave up on her five years later – rather, they had given up on each other. He woke late afternoon still drunk and edgy from the scare of the night before, to find a note pinned to the fridge door by a Fungi the dolphin magnet, to say she couldn’t take the rows anymore. He’d supposed it had saved him from thinking what he should do about her; because something seriously had to be done.
He wasn’t surprised to see the torn page of the lined Bond letter, nor hurt nor even sad. She was gone and there was silence and at first it was a grand silence with which to be living, but into the silence grew the pain of missing her.
Bella sure had had a hard time living under the weight of the person that she’d become; that was for sure, he thinks, putting the wipers on full speed.
A dirty season, this month. Whispers.
It will be no night of sorrows the day she dies.
Not a nice thought. Whispers it… ah, not a nice thing to whisper.
Dry the false tears, call up the insurance crowd, wring the death cert out of whoever in whatever office and the marriage cert too. Get on with getting on.
An omelette with fillings of green peppers, red onion and mushrooms – only ate it an hour ago and hungry again.
Fuck that. Whisper.
Wild tongue for the mushrooms.
You know you’re old when it takes two weeks for a burger to pass through your system; that’s so fucking true.
47, receding gums, hairline, expanding paunch, on the Kildare Dating Web and attracting women who are worse head the balls than she whom he is on his way to visit.
Back in the territory of the past.
Get your ticket out of there, bring you down and keep you there.
Her old fella.
A grass wolf that man. Loved to cut his grass. Spent the winters servicing his lawnmowers, keeping an eye peeled for the first growth of spring. Slaughterer of grass.
Collect your laundry. Don’t forget, he thinks. The drive-in is closing today for good and he ‘s got 50 jocks in the mix, along with 30 shorts and 30 everything elses – cheap closing down deal. Fetch today because tomorrow the door closes for ever and ever, amen.
His parents were sloppy when it came to recording milestone dates.
His birthcert says 20th and his baptismal cert reads 16th: so he was baptised four days before he was born. Put on the wrong path from the very beginning.
Here is a town populated by two types of ghosts: those who had had to leave and wished they could have stayed; and those who wished they’d gotten the hell out of here. Each envious of the other.
Bella says in her top floor apartment off a drab square, in this midlands town picked to death by recession and austerity cutbacks, ‘How do you do that?’
‘Tell people everything yet tell them nothing?’
‘I don’t know what you mean, explain.’
Her flesh has fled from her, he thinks, like snow off the bones of a mountain. Moon eyes, round and closely set – sunken. Bluey grey. She has on a white slacks and a long red cardigan with anorak buttons of imitation ivory. No cat. Thank God for that. He hates cats.
They are sitting at a drop-leaf table. It wears a tablecloth embroidered with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The cancer flower – he is fairly sure it is a symbol of a flag day collection.
‘You told me that you loved me,’ she says, ‘But yet you told me nothing, because you didn’t; did you ever Coochie?’
‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I did, indeed.’
The silence is like ivy on a wall: it creeps so as to grow; a slow smothering.
‘I did,’ he asserts. Above a whisper.
Sips at his tea.
‘Really?’ she says. ‘And so when did you stop loving me?’
She sits with her elbows on the table, her eyes trained on him like Turkish gunners on his great-grandfather’s Gallipoli beachhead. Not missing anything in the fall of his features.
Her hair is short and she had gotten in a colour. Reddish. She is on the road to getting better, she had said. Looking at her he thinks she still has 3,000 miles to travel, and through some dodgy countryscape too. Like avoiding booze, drugs and bad men and bad women and the badness of herself.
‘When?’ she repeats.
‘The jungle drums sound both ways, Bella, when did you fall out of love with me?’
‘I could never get you to answer a serious question.’
‘Fine…here’s your answer. I stopped loving you when you aborted our baby.’
‘It was either her or…’
‘You should have told me.’
‘After the fact, that’s when I heard.’
‘After the fact,’ she says, going for her mug of green tea.
‘That’s when,’ he says, ‘only then did you begin to consider me.’
They lapse into silence.
He does not like her apartment. The touches are fine; are her’s: the lilies on the kitchen counter, the lace on the back of the brown leather armchair that’s parked too close to the TV, the landcapes paintings of woods and full moons and bits of moon and McCarthy’s Castle on the beach at Ballinskelligs, where they had honeymooned together in his uncle’s Bluebird mobile home, before that village in Kerry became a tourist attraction, because of the Skellig islands, because it was Kerry in general.
‘This floor,’ he says, ‘Is a bit of a tight squeeze for you.’
‘It will do for the time being.’
‘A long haul for you up those wooden steps, every one of them a woeful creak.’
‘I don’t mind – The exercise does me good.’
‘So, I’m here,’ he says.
‘And you said we had to talk about matters that we couldn’t talk about over the phone.’
‘I’ve been getting ready for our talk for a long time.’
He nods, though he has no idea why. Recalls an old woman the spit of herself opposite him, who used to keep a wide stand of orange dye in her otherwise short tidy blue hair. Espied her in a cafe on another occasion, her hand shaking violently as she brought her mug to her mouth, or tried to. On a windy Sunday he witnessed her kicking the wing off an angel figurine in the cemetery, one that had been keeping watch over the grave next to the one she’d been tending. She did this unawares to herself and he watching her and she not knowing that his eyes were licking against her, stronger than a stamp to an envelope. Three times he saw this woman within a week and thereafter never saw her again. Sometimes he gets the feeling there had been a lesson in his seeing her; perhaps to suggest that sometimes unbeknownst to himself he kicks the wings from angels.
‘So you’re still living on the bog island,’ she says.
‘Is the crooked house still standing?’
‘Still standing, crookedly.’
‘On weak foundations.’
‘Yes, I know that now, but Uncle Gabby wasn’t a builder – He was your worse sort of cowboy in the sense that he believed he had the skills to do everything.’
‘You built it with him.’
‘I did, but he dug the foundations. Said we’d gone deep enough, fed shards of iron into the concrete to make it more solid. We’re grand he said. Grand…’
‘Is he alive?’
‘No, Bella, he got cancer of the tongue and it travelled.’
She makes the sign of the Cross.
He thinks to, but refrains.
She pushes her chair back a little and asks if he would like some more tea, or a sandwich? Scone?
‘No, I’m grand,’ he replies, although he is very hungry.
Then he realises that she will not eat in front of him and says he would eat half a scone. He watches her work the knife, spread the butter, the strawberry jam – notices the shake in her hands, catches her eye momentarily, long enough to see the extent of her brokenness, to hear her song of regret and sorrow.
‘Are you living alone?’ she says, after her voice climbs over a small cough.
‘I am. And yourself?’
He says this in such a way to suggest that living alone is no great trial.
He already knows she lives alone. There is no smell of a man in the apartment, no physical sign. And because she is aware that he knows, she does not respond.
‘Are you working?’ she asks.
The dark arcs under her eyes: are these a sign that she is still using the weed or an indication that her heart has grown weak?
‘Part-time is all I have, that’s with Nelson Tuohy – I ride out a few mornings a week. He said he’s going to give me a horse – I asked him if I could have it – he was contemplating sending it to the knacker’s yard. So…’
‘That was nice of you.’
He raises his chin like a drawbridge, suggestive of there being a limit to his kindness.
‘I suspect the beast still has bit of fire in its heart,’ he says, ‘We’ll see.’
‘What’s his name?’
Blank expression greets him and he clarifies, ‘In the Mire.’
She nods and says, ‘I can see why you would like the horse.’
‘So,’ he says, then looks into the milky dregs in his mug.
‘I need to use the bathroom,’ she says.
He watches her as she pushes back the chair and leaves the room. Hears the tinkle, the flush, the washing of hands. Hears too a cascade of a foreign language rise up from the apartment below. Then there is silence, broken by her emergence through the door, hinges in her wake crying thirstily for greasing.
‘Butter them up,’ he tells.
But she won’t. She will constantly neglect to, no matter the amount of prompting.
He puts a finger behind his watch’s chrome links. It has always been too tight, and he is always meaning to lose a link or two, but it was his father’s and he hasn’t the heart. Meets with Bella’s eyes and guilt climbs many rungs inside of him, for what he had thought about her on the journey over – that there would be no one mourning her death for too long.
Brings his eyes to the electric heater and imagines its paltry heat and her sitting close to it, as close as she sits to her TV, and he feels a pain come to him.
‘I have to be elsewhere, Bella,’ he says, a lie – but he wants to speed her along to the point of his visit. Else she would travel miles with her tongue to bring them there.
Her head bobs and then she blurts, ‘I hate it here. I’d sooner be back in the mental home, Coochie – there’s a crowd of Poles living under me and they’re nice people and that, but… Better than the Nigerians – I think they were cooking cats – the smell was rank and two apartments under mine live this bunch of Chinese. I don’t like the Chinese, they’ve poisoned us Irish with their cooking. Takeaway killers.’
She puts the tip of her tongue to her upper lip and by this means applies a brake and stops speaking.
She’s what, he thinks… asking to move back in with me?
‘I won’t be any trouble,’ she says.
Jesus: he does not loudly invoke the name.
‘If you can take in a broken down horse,’ she says.
‘What else did you think that I was going to talk with you about?’
She has the low flat accent of the Midlands while his is tempered from his time spent in England.
‘Money, sell the house and give you half, all of that sort of whinge and grasp,’ he says.
‘No…I would never think to do that. All that is yours. I came to you with nothing and I left with nothing.’
Not entirely true, he remembers silently, she took the father’s old brown suitcase and his jamjar of coins.
‘What do you think?’ she says, ‘Will you give it some thought at least?’
‘Taking in the horse – I’ve got three stables in a barn – He won’t be living under the same roof as me.’
‘I could have the small room.’
‘There’s black mould in it. The Devil’s arsewipe.’
‘I’ll clean and paint the walls. Look, I can get you the psychiatric report – I’m better – I’m no longer a threat to anyone, including myself. Ring the doctor…’
‘I don’t know. You’re asking a lot of me. I mean I still get the fucking shakes when I think on that night, Bella.’
‘Coochie, swear to God but I thought the gun was empty,’ she says.
‘But Bella, it fucking wasn’t – the holes are still in the ceiling. It’s like a sieve for the rats to piss through.’
‘You have rats?’
‘Had a couple – But three go’s of the poison saw them off.’
He shakes his head slowly, thinking on her request.
She says, ‘I only pointed it at you to scare you into loving me better. I was sick, Coochie, I’m not anymore.’
Reined in a multitude of other thoughts to say, ‘You’re still on meds.’
‘Yes, and will be for the rest of my days.’
‘I’m off my own tabs for a while,’ he admits.
He chews on his bottom lip. Apartment living isn’t for her. It would be good to have some company in the evenings during the sorry weight of the bog night – she’s a good cook. All the positives about her dash to the fore and he has to push through this crowd to sow in the negatives.
Over nothing or little or nothing. Nothings to him and major things to her – like wearing dirt under his fingernails; smelling of oats and horses; of block and cement; of beer feed… being himself.
Of her threatening to shoot him if he didn’t stand aside. Pulled the trigger as he raised the barrell, of which she has a memory. But she did not recall the knife incident, when she’d slashed out at him – stoned drunk out of her skull. Other times when she did other things too, she had no memory of, or had but did not wish to air. Said disturbing things that disturbed him – of childhood sexual abuse – other things – that she usually kept shuttered behind barricades.
‘I hated myself after the abortion…’ she says, ‘I hated myself more than you hated me.’
He would have not have found out but for her drink talk, and he’d prised the drunken truth from her when it and she were sober: he had had to bring his tongue on a painful and relentless pursuit in order to bring forward a confession. There was more to be mined from her, but this was another’s day work that never arrived.
‘Bella, it wasn’t your decision alone to make,’ he says evenly.
‘I couldn’t take the chance, Coochie – you knew what my line of the family were like. Disabled and retarded, yeah, three in a family of eight. You have no idea of the shite we had to endure. No idea. Everything revolved around them, everything – fucking everything. The da was useless and I had to muck in – I’d no fucking childhood is what I’m saying. Mam went to her grave glad of the rest it would bring.’
‘I’m not being mean when I say those things, Coochie, but I didn’t want to spend my whole life taking care of people who were hard to care for. I didn’t want those memories to look back at, at the end of my days. Ending up like Mammy, worn to the bone in mind, body and spirit.’
‘There was a chance that she would have been born sound,’ he says quietly.
‘A bigger chance that she would not. And I couldn’t tell you because you would have given me a ton of grief.’
For sure. And she’s right about her family. Hard islands they lived on. And he has never dared to try wring from her the abuse she endured, from an uncle now long dead. Perhaps she has come to terms with all of that?
Don’t piss on still waters.
‘Us. It can’t happen overnight, you understand,’ he says, ‘if I decide to even dip my toes in the water with you, it’s going to be a slow process getting to where you…we want. And it might never happen.’
Must ensure that there isn’t a sheer drop from a shelf, a distance off the shore of her mind.
‘I know that, Coochie, I understand – of course, you need to be certain that I’m not a threat. I know that.’
He reads her body language. She is a woman in turmoil, searching for a way to cope, wishing for a light to guide her.
Do I need this situation in my life? He thinks. The associated risks. Whisperings in his mind – he was no angel either; he had tormented her over a prolonged period for killing their unborn darling; was cold and distant to her; treated her badly.
‘Are you drinking these days?’ he whispers, then brings it aloud.
‘It’s been five years, three months, fifteen days, twenty hours since I last took a drink.’
‘Hmm,’ he says, ‘And we’re living apart for seven.’
She goes to say something but are lips are a silent O.
‘What?’ he prompts.
‘Did you kill our Blackie?’
‘No…no…I reversed over Bluey…why would I tell you that I had done that and not the other.’
‘Because Bluey was an accident – Blackie…’
‘No,’ re-inforcing the word with a shake of his head.
‘Are you not eating your half of the scone?’
He does; she eats hers. And they don’t speak during the eating.
‘There’s something else, Coochie…I’m sorry. I should have had her, should have. I often think that now, you know. That maybe I did wrong.’
The fall of her eyes is deeper than the fall of her shoulders – she is a person sunken into herself, making herself small, knowing there is only one way for her to be as small she would like; cradled in the grave.
A sigh escapes him. This is a bought scone he tells her, a little stale, she herself baked far better.
‘I can’t cook or bake properly with an electric cooker, for some reason,’ she says.
‘I…’ he begins.
‘Please,’ she says.
He chews on his lower lip.
‘When…Coochie…did you change?’
‘You wouldn’t have intervened back in the day to keep a horse from going to the abbatoir. You wouldn’t have noticed that even happening.’
He has no answer. Does not think there is one. He has gotten older, that is all, and maybe ageing has slipped his heart on to another track, bringing him to what had been a far country for him… a land of awareness, free of judgement. Maybe?
‘Let me think on it for a while. A week or so,’ he says quietly, walking his words on the thinnest of ice.
Her ‘okay’ is faint.
‘Had you got a name in mind for her?’ he says quietly.
‘No, there was no name.’
‘I call her Florrie, after my mother.’
‘Florrie,’ she says, with a worried look, ‘your mother? You call her, Coochie.’
Wave of her hands as she replies, ‘Nothing, nothing.’
‘I don’t hold it agin you anymore…I can’t. It’s not in me, Bella, not anymore.’
She stares through the window. Her shoulders climb.
‘Tell me,’ he prompts, sensing she has something to divulge.
‘Gabby,’ she says, still staring, the name forced between lips that had opened just a fraction to allow its release. A whisper from the darkest corner of her being.
‘What about him?’ he says, simultaneously understanding. He is slowly numbed by what he now knows.
She does not answer.
‘I’ll ring you in a few days,’ he says, getting to his feet, ‘Maybe we’ll go for a coffee or a spot of lunch. Talk some more if you want to.’
The disclosure has left him feeling agitated, put out, angry but mostly he is in shock.
‘Do you believe me?’ she says, looking at him in near astonishment at how quietly he has shipped the revelation.
‘Why would I not?’ he replies.
‘I couldn’t stop him. I tried… I couldn’t… Just couldn’t.’
‘He was a terrible arsehole, Bella. Worse now than I used think about him before I heard this. I never thought him to be one of the worse kind of man. I’m not running away, but I need to sit with this awhile on my own.’
‘It was him I was on my way to shoot. I was going to get in the car and drive down to his house… But…’
‘I got in the way,’ he says.
She nods. Tears come to her. Some of the strain leaves her features. That he has not cast her out of his life as though she were a demon to be exorcised. He feels a wave come on too, but he blinks and turns back the tide. Squeezes her hand and says, ‘I’ll be calling.’
He drives well below the speed limit, not wanting to reach home too quickly, not wanting yet to drive up that cratered road flanked with gorse and rushes, and stretches of low and broken barbwire, to the crooked house. And all of his whisperers have fallen silent.