Sometimes all that can heal grief is the right story. In late 1980s Dublin, Tess meets Mungo, who, like herself, is ridden with guilt – she because she is forced to leave her son with her hated husband; he because his son is scarred after a fire caused by his carelessness. They are too hurt to reveal their real selves to each other, but Tess hits on inventing a fantastic life in Berlin, and he picks up on it, inventing an equally fantastic life in Spain. Their fables spark erotic desire, and afford them the courage to confront their anguish and deepest fears. It isn’t important that they stay together – and Tess does strike out with new lovers, to Mungo’s initial bewilderment; what is important is that they finish their stories.
Tess was brooding about Arthur and Brian when a large puppet bird caught her attention. Its head lunged on its unwieldy neck as it led the noisy, colourful parade along O’Connell Street. A judge rolled his eyes and absently waved a claw from his perch. His platform was dragged by lawyers, their wigs askew as they strained and groaned under the weight of the law. It was all good fun, but when she saw thatthe Keystone Cops were confused about guarding some men in a cage, she realized the point of the demonstration. The case of the six men had become notorious. Tess believed they were innocent, and now, by chance, she could support their cause.
She was mesmerized as one scene displaced another. Weird ranks of marchers dressed in black, with cowls or tricorn hats, carried flaming torches. Their faces were black, their masks were white.
There was a choir, in red and orange cloaks. It was like the German carnival Marian had mentioned in one of her letters.
She was relieved when the drums faded, and as the support groups began to pass, she slipped in behind a union banner. By O’Connell Bridge the groups had become less disciplined and more sociable. Even Tess had joined in the banter. She could see no one that she knew, but although he was more or less with a group behind a banner, a man was casually watching her. She had already noticed him as she joined the parade, because he had a stiff arm, but now he was lost in the shifting crowd. There were mythic animals everywhere she looked, weaving in and out of the straggling groups, keeping them moving, insulting friends from the safety of their masks. She hadn’t enjoyed herself so much in a long time.
Darkness fell quickly as they marched on. At the Central Bank Plaza, the parade mustered under the moon in a clear sky, and the crowd spilled over onto Dame Street. Tess shivered. She had been fine while she was walking, but now she was glad of her long coat and boots, and her woollen cap. By the time the last of the marchers had arrived, the speeches were coming to a close. Christy Moore had sung, and there was one last chorus from the red and orange choir as a sculpture of a victory fist was set alight. Tess had got herself close enough to feel its heat dancing on her face. She turned to leave, and saw that man glance at her again.
She walked quickly behind the Bank and through Merchants’ Arch to the Ha’penny Bridge. As she waited for the traffic lights to change, he arrived beside her. In the steady flow of traffic, a bus and then a lorry passed, leaving clouds of diesel fumes in their wake. By now he was one of many who had come from the Plaza. The lights changed as they streamed across. The yellow bulbs of the bridge lamps were flickering in their black casings. She could taste the sulphur in the air as coal fires burned across the city.
Perhaps it meant nothing, but he was still walking beside her and she was uneasy. On the other side they had to wait for the lights to change once more. When they did, she hurried across and, pretending to look through the security gates of The Winding Stair Café & Bookshop, she could see that along with two others he was following her. This was ridiculous. Her heart was pounding, and she broke into a run until she reached her door. There was no sign of him, but her hand shook as she unlocked it. She ran up the stairs, out of breath, and slammed the door of her flat. Not daring to turn on the light, she went to the side of the window. It took a few moments, but then he came into view. He was separated from the others and walking at a leisurely pace, his head bowed.
She didn’t think he looked like someone following a woman with intent, and to her relief, he didn’t check her door as he passed; but you could never tell.She pressed her cheek against the cold pane and stared at the floodlit bridge.
‘Fuck him,’ she said out loud, annoyed that she had got herself into a panic. Now that she could think straight, he looked harmless. Even pleasant.
Her thoughts returned to Arthur. She had recently been struck by something he’d blurted out – something very male. It had made her realize that she dreaded the end of his childhood.
She lit the gas fire and went to the bathroom. A fungus had formed on the wall where a chronic leak had left its tracks. It would have to be seen to, but right now she hadn’t the energy to think of such things. In the living-room, she drew the curtains and put on her cassette of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy. She thought about the parade. The Parade of Innocence. It had passed an hour very pleasantly. The city could do with a carnival, something to lose yourself in, if only for a while. Turning off the light, she nestled into the scruffy armchair, and in the dull heat of the gas fire she fell asleep for a few hours.
When she woke, her neck ached and, confused, she stared at the red light on the cassette-player. The air was dry and her mouth was parched. She turned on the lamp. The clock on the mantel ticked loudly; it was almost midnight.
Grumbling, she looked through the curtains at the street below, wondering if she might get a take away. The Chinese would still be open, it wasn’t too far, and her mouth watered at the thought of a beef curry – but it was too damn late.
Her kitchen was so narrow that if she bent down her head could brush one wall and her heels the other. In a box on the floor were carrots, Brussels sprouts, an onion, some garlic and a few potatoes. Cut up fine, they would boil in a few minutes.
She put on the other side of the Schubert as she ate. The meal revived her, which she appreciated as food often made her feel bloated. Poverty had some compensations after all.
There was a screech of tyres as a car sped against the flow of traffic outside. Later, she lay awake, listening to the music until after four, her only light the red eye of the machine.
When she woke again, she lay still for a time. There was something important she ought to think of but it didn’t matter right now. She stretched out and brought the clock to view in the grey light. It was two, and she had to be at the dole office at half-past. There was just about enough time for a cup of strong tea, and a quick wash and change.
The queue had stalled because of an argument at the hatch, and several women were already grumbling and restless.There was a light steam rising off their coats, and one woman’s hair was stringy from the rain. Tess took off her cap. Small mercy, her hair was dry. The young woman at the head of the queue was still arguing, her voice rising and her face red. She turned sideways, shouting from an angle at the unfortunate clerk who was now exposed to the queue. Tess stepped a little to the right so she could see everything. The clerk retreated behind an immovable bureaucracy, but Tess
could see she was upset.
‘Fuck this for a lark,’ the woman in front of Tess swore. ‘I’ve a kid to collect.’
‘Me too,’ Tess said.
The woman glanced at Tess, then roared at the clerk.
‘Would you not get her a supervisor so we can get out of here today?’
Tess gnawed on her nails, and stared at a big rubber plant as she automatically shuffled along. Her turn came, she put her cap firmly back on, signed the docket and brought it to the pay-hatch queue. The notes were fresh and before she put them into her purse she flicked them for the pleasure of it.
Outside, she hesitated, longing for a cup of coffee, but she would have to get the bus to Fairview.
She arrived at the school on the stroke of three, and heard the faint bell and then the clamour of the children as they rushed out. Tess glanced at a woman who nodded and they smiled at each other. There were a few men waiting too, aloof – embarrassed, she supposed. Only one spoke to his children; the others turned as their children came up to them and one walked away as soon as he saw his girl, letting the child catch up with him along the street. He was the surly one who stared at Tess most days but always turned away when she faced him, as if she embodied all his humiliation, and she hated him. It wasn’t her fault that he was unemployed and humbled like this in front of women. He was unemployed bringing his child home, like everyone else here.
Arthur as usual was last, holding his satchel in front of him, his knees bumping it forward as he walked. She always meant to reprimand him for dragging his feet coming out of school as if she was the last person he wanted to see, but as soon as she saw his dreamy brown eyes, she forgot. They stayed on her until he had almost reached her, and then his face would come alive, in a mischievous, embracing grin. Likean actor with perfect timing, he left it to the last moment, keeping her sense of expectation flickering.
She gave him a quick, sideways hug. Arthur was a loving child, but she had discovered that boys, no less than men, disliked being embraced in public. They walked happily through Fairview, oblivious to the constant roar of traffic. She glanced down at Arthur, who seemed completely at ease, and while envying his self-possession, she was grateful for it too. He was obviously happier since she and Brian had split up. There was peace in the house and he could be with both his parents for some of the day, most days. How had two people, who had been at each other’s throats for most of their marriage – how had they produced a placid, contented boy like Arthur? She often wondered, and supposed it to be one of life’s conundrums.
‘Can I invite Annie to tea?’
‘Annie. She’s been sick.’
‘Annie. Oh yes, of course … Yes of course, invite her to tea! That’s a very nice thought, Arthur.’
And to think she hadn’t even missed Annie. He retreated back into himself, with a hint of a smile, content. He looked as if he had his life plotted out, and his asking permission was only a polite formality.
They went into the playground in Fairview Park and she sat down, holding him before her and looking into his eyes.
‘Arthur, do you miss me not being at home at night?’
He thought about it for a moment.
‘Would you come and tuck me in more often? Daddy’s not very good at telling stories. He reads through a book at a hundred miles an hour and turns out the light as soon as he’s finished.’
‘Do I tell good stories?’
‘Well, you don’t rush, and they come out of your head, and your eyes go all wide when you think of the good bits.’
‘But apart from the stories, is it all right?’
‘I suppose so,’ he shrugged, and dropping his bag, he ran off to the slide. She watched him climb and slide several times before calling him, and he immediately trotted to her, satisfied. She wanted to get some mince.
Annie was Arthur’s age, but taller. After tea, they went into the garden, playing under the tree in the precious minutes before nightfall. Tess grinned. Annie believed that she dominated Arthur, but it wasn’t possible. What would become of him? He seemed assured of his rightful place in the world, something special and fulfilling, if he wasn’t hurt along the way. She gnawed at her knuckles, watching him for a while,and then set to making Brian’s dinner.
Half-way through making it, she remembered that shepherd’s pie used to be his favourite dinner. She had even liked making it for him, once upon a time. She sometimes thought they might still be living together, at least, if she hadn’t had to go out to work to keep a roof over their heads. Then, out of the blue, he had landed a job in a warehouse in the East Wall, just as she lost hers in Norton’s clothing factory. It seemed ludicrous paying the bills for a house she didn’t live in any more, but it had maintained her right to Arthur. With money in his pocket Brian was civil to her, in speech at least, but she didn’t care about that anymore as long as she could see Arthur. It was, as her father put it, a queer set-up.
In a way, Brian had it made: his meals prepared for him and a free baby-sitter at least one night a week. No sex, of course, not from her anyway. She stood on a chair and took down his videos, carelessly hidden as usual on top of the kitchen unit. What did he have out this week? She examined the titles and the faked ecstasy and disintegrating flesh of the cover photos.
It wasn’t so much the porn or even the horror she minded. What she minded was that he never got out anything else. All he seemed to be interested in were anonymous fannies and gouged eyes. In one of the horror videos, a hypodermic needle plunged into an eyeball.
She bundled them back, leapt from the chair and retched at the sink. Of all the videos she had watched with Brian, that was the one which made her sick. And now he had it out again. Apart from the sadism, which made her squirm, all those things she would never have dreamt of doing with Brian or any man – and certainly not with a woman – all that appealed to the voyeur in her for a while. It was fascinating
and some of it even turned her on; but then its cold athletics bored her and the horror stuff made her angry. The videos protruded over the kitchen unit, so she pushed them back out of sight with the brush.
Over dinner, Brian was in a good mood. He even repeated a joke one of the men had told him during the day. It was actually witty for a change, and, laughing so much, he wasn’t put out when she didn’t respond.
‘I see you’ve got more of those videos,’ she said, looking at the floor.
“So you’ve got a seven-year-old son.’
‘And you don’t want him to see nude women, is that it?’
‘Seeing nude women is one thing. Crude sex and torture is another.’
‘He sees worse on the six o’clock news … Okay, okay!’
She had been about to protest.
‘I’m not going to let him near them, don’t worry. I’m not a monster. I look after him, remember. I’m here six nights out of seven. I put him to bed, and get him out to school in the mornings.’
‘I know what you do!’
‘But I don’t know what you do, six nights of the week, unless you’re walking the streets.’
‘Fuck you,’ she said quietly, her voice breaking.
‘And you. Though I wouldn’t. Not now. Not never. And I’m sorry I ever did.’
She pushed the table away, upsetting everything on it, and ran into the hallway. She was furious, mostly with herself for leaving herself open. In the kitchen, his fork grated across his plate. Breathing heavily, she felt as if she was breaking in two, trying to cope with her fury and hurt. She wanted to shout that she wasn’t going to be his skivvy any more, that he could make his own slop in future, but, biting her lip, she remembered Arthur.
Drained, she leaned against the living-room door. Arthur knelt before the television, absorbed in a loud cartoon. Tess watched him for several minutes, but he didn’t move, except when his shoulders shook in mute laughter. The cartoon ended and she knelt beside him.
‘I’ve got to go now, pet.’
He looked at her and leaned in towards her and she held him close, rocking him, moved as ever by his spontaneity.
‘I love you very much,’ she whispered. There was no reply,but she could feel how he bathed in her words, and gave himself completely to her, and she knew she would die for this, if she had to.
She looked around and saw that Brian was watching them. He looked empty and lonely and beaten, and for a moment she felt sorry for him and yearned that all three of them could be together in a warm embrace. But it was a wild fantasy, and, breaking the spell, he turned and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?’
Arthur looked up, nodded and rolled away onto his knees to watch a new cartoon. She went to the door, then looked around.
‘Bye,’ he answered, without taking his eyes off the screen.
She walked back to her flat, her cheeks streaked with tears in the cold evening.