‘…people will find a way – sometimes, it seems, despite themselves – to take comfort from others, to make homes where they can, even among the ruins.’
Set in a post-war London still recovering from the Blitz, The Water Star follows the intertwining lives of five characters. Brendan, his son Hugh, and Sarah, are Irish; another, Karl, is German, while Elizabeth, an Eastender who has moved to Citizen Road in Holloway to better her life, is English. As Erica Wagner remarked in her review in The Times, ‘Through the interweaving and the overlapping of these relationships, Casey examines how human nature is shaped by sorrow; how people will find a way – sometimes, it seems, despite themselves – to take comfort from others, to make homes where they can, even among the ruins.’
They got off the trolleybus and Brendan headed straight to the newsagent’s for cigarettes and a paper. Hugh crossed the road and waited for him. The rain had eased, but in the distance the thunder still rolled away. It had forced them to stop work early, and they were drenched and tired. Brendan crossed through the traffic as if charmed, dragging on his cigarette, protecting his newspaper under his coat, and they walked by the low wall and railing of the flats in Wedmore Street, Hugh pushing himself to keep up. Brendan’s cigarette never left his mouth, and his eyes were squinted against the smoke. Between drags he rolled it along his lips.
Shag this, Hugh thought, I’m not in the army. He slowed, but his father pushed on as if he hadn’t noticed. The door was open when he reached number eighteen, and already Brendan was filling the tin bath upstairs.
Hugh covered the bedclothes with an army blanket and lay back in relief. His trousers were heavily smeared with mud, and every muscle in his body ached. The only sound in the room was the gas flame as the kettle boiled.
His father was slumped in the old armchair.
‘They’ll hardly have us work tomorrow.’
‘Not worth the bother of getting up, so.’
‘That would suit you fine, wouldn’t it!’
On the street, Mrs Dempsey called Dennis as they arrived home. He was forever running ahead, putting the heart crossways in his mother.
‘More money lost,’ Brendan muttered, adding the water he had boiled. Then he stripped and washed, standing in the bath.
Hugh took his turn, then emptied the bath into the porcelain sink, cursing quietly as some of it backwashed on to the lino. He glanced out the back window as he dried himself, and pulled on a dry shirt and trousers. Beyond the garden was a red-bricked office building. More often than not, there was a man sitting beside one of the windows on the third floor, and sure enough, there he was, looking down into the garden, watching young Dennis talking over the fence to the little girl next door. Hugh had never actually seen the man working. He was always either staring into space or looking out the window.
Brendan handed him a list, written with a carpenter’s pencil, and read out each item deliberately. Hugh took money from a biscuit tin and went across the road to Sally’s. Sally knew that he didn’t speak very much, and he was comfortable with her. She respected a person.
Brendan set to frying the bread, eggs and sausages as the kettle boiled. The cooker, Hugh noticed with a vague disgust as he washed the dishes from the night before, was covered in grease. As he’d promised himself many a time, he’d give it a clean the coming Sunday, but right now he was starving and his mouth watered as the food spluttered in the pan.
‘Are you going to Sarah’s on Sunday?’ Brendan asked as he finished his meal and pushed the plate away.
‘I suppose so.’
‘You better do your lessons so,’ Brendan laughed. He found the idea of anyone in long trousers doing lessons embarrassing.
‘I’ll do them tomorrow. Are you coming?’
‘Ah,’ he said, making a face. ‘I’m past it.’
‘She has me bothered asking about you.’
‘She’s a good woman,’ Brendan said, lighting a cigarette, ‘but Lord Jesus, she can be a fierce tyrant, and I’m too old for that kind of carry on. But you keep it up. You’re young enough.’
Brendan took out his glasses and read his paper, but after a killer of a week, Hugh was too tired for anything but sleep.
He had deluded himself that he could lie in for once, and was baffled when Brendan called him early for work. It was a beautiful morning, but he carried the bricks on his hod with a grudge, especially as the oul’ fella was in a good mood at the recovered day, and laid the bricks fluently, a cigarette rolling around his mouth.
By evening Hugh was exhausted, but after supper Brendan insisted on going for a drink to The Good Intent, an old pub a few doors down on Wedmore Street.
‘Here,’ he said, placing a pint before him. ‘You earned it.’
‘How come you wouldn’t have a pint with the lads?’ Hugh asked. ‘I was dying with the drought when we finished.’
Brendan drank from his pint.
‘Ah, the less you drink with them fellas, the better,’ he said. ‘You’d end up pissing all your wages against a wall, like the rest of them.’
Hugh drank in silence while Brendan read the paper. He couldn’t bring himself to accuse his father of meanness, but that’s what it was. Brendan couldn’t bear to pay for a round of drinks, seeing as he had lost a half day’s wages the day before, even though they had worked an extra few hours to make up for it. Shag it, it was the one bit of crack he had all week, those few drinks with the lads, when Seán was always good for a laugh, and the mean old whore couldn’t even leave him with that.
‘I think I’ll go for Galcador,’ Brendan said, folding his paper with satisfaction. ‘He’s only a miler but that French fella is lucky. Do you want to pick a winner?’ He offered the paper to Hugh.
‘Naw, I’m never lucky,’ he said.
‘Ah you’re right. It’s a mug’s game. The Derby though, it’s a big occasion.’ He took another swig. ‘Once a year.’ He carefully folded the paper and put it away in his jacket pocket.
They had two drinks before going home to bed.
Brendan liked to listen to the radio in the dark. Hugh didn’t like the posh voices, so unlike anything he had heard in England, but Brendan liked them.
When Brendan had been alone in England and Hugh had lived with his mother on the mountainside, he had missed his father so much that Máire, his mother, had often come across him trailing a saucepan along the bed of the stream, searching for gold. The thought of his mother cut through him. Why it had upset her, he had never discovered, but he persisted. Everyone said there had been gold on the mountain in the days of the landlord. He wasn’t sure what gold looked like, but knew that if he could find one small nugget, or even grains, his father could return and stay.
Recently he had missed her a great deal. The pain of it struck him from nowhere, when he was working, or crossing the street, or buying groceries. Why had the hurt come now, he wondered, so long after she had died?
The hard week caught up with him, and the upper-class English voices drifted far away.
The next morning he woke at nine, confused. Brendan was snoring and would doubtless do so until the afternoon. That’s how he managed to work like a horse all week, the oul shagger. Hugh felt as if he hadn’t slept all night, although it was a long time since he had slept so well, but he struggled out of bed and washed. He lay wearily back on the bed again for some time, but then he dressed in his Sunday suit, and struggled with his tie before he got it tolerably right. He could never remember the knack, and only got it out through luck.
The fine morning cleared his head, and as he crossed Holloway Road at the zebra above the hospital, and crossed into Tollington Way, he found himself whistling loudly. He waited until he had walked out of earshot of anyone who may have heard him, and began again, this time softly. He reached the T-junction at Hornsey Road, turned left and then right into Tollington Park, past Sarah’s house. He looked to see if Deirdre, Sarah’s daughter, was waiting for him at the window as she sometimes was. Sarah didn’t go to Mass, so he assumed she was a Protestant, though Deirdre went to the Catholic school across the way.
He assumed this even though Brendan didn’t bother any more, either.
When he was a child, he had always thought that London had no hills. He remembered this as he walked up the incline of Tollington Park, past the large Protestant church and into Everleigh Street, where the Irish faithful were congregating. Hugh was perversely proud that his church had a corrugated iron roof, in contrast to its grand Protestant neighbour. No matter that Catholic churches in Ireland were of good stone and slate, the poverty of this one made him feel a cut above the Prods, morally speaking. As he dipped his fingers in the holy water font, he spied Mrs Dempsey with her husband and children.
After Mass, as they queued to get an Irish paper, they spotted him as he used his sweet ration at the hucksters, and waved, but small talk terrified him, so he smiled and moved on quickly. It meant he was too early for Sarah’s class so he walked for a while into Upper Tollington Park, before doubling back. Along with the heat, his self-consciousness had made him sweat, and he thought with relish of the two bitters he had had the night before.
He was still too early when he arrived at Sarah’s, which he knew she didn’t encourage, but he needed a drink of water. Deirdre greeted him as always.
‘It’s hot, Deirdre,’ he said.
‘Would you like a drink of water?’
‘I’d kill for it.’
‘Oh there’s no need to do that,’ she said primly.
‘Here’s your sweets,’ he whispered, following her inside.
‘Thanks!’ she said, her face lighting up, and she rushed in to hand them to Sarah, who was in the kitchen, washing vegetables. Without a word, she took the sweets from Deirdre and put them away until after lunch.
‘You’re early,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry, Sarah. I had a terrible thirst.’
Deirdre squeezed in beside her mother to get the cup of water.
‘Well, don’t make a habit of it,’ she said. ‘The others’ll think you’re my favourite.’
‘Oh. Right,’ he said, not knowing what to make of that.
Hugh drank back the water and held out the cup to Deirdre for more. She filled it again and watched him as he drank a second time.
‘I’ll wait on the step,’ he said, handing Deirdre the cup again. Sarah ignored him and continued preparing lunch.
She was only having him on, he knew that, but at the back of his mind he felt like a servant, dismissed until she was ready to call him. Sarah and her education often made him feel like that, but he put up with it because he knew that however high and mighty she pretended to be, at least she was sharing her education with those who needed it, and he thought a lot of her for that. For now he was grateful to sit on the steps, refreshed and lording it in the sun, alone. He didn’t think – thinking was the last thing he wanted to do – and he drifted into an exquisite laziness.
The mid-day church bells rang. As they faded, the Pakistani woman climbed the steps with her daughter, and Hugh stood and nodded to them. Her mother’s eyes remained cast down, but the girl, who was about sixteen, flashed him a quick smile. Kathleen Pilkinton, a young, stout Irish woman whose face was covered in spots, arrived as Hugh knocked on the door. She was flushed and out of breath.
Hugh didn’t like Kathleen because her shyness threw him back on his own, but he felt obliged to greet her.
‘How are you?’
she replied, looking away. ‘I thought I was late.’
Deirdre answered the door, and as they trooped in, she waited for Seán Burke who she spotted moseying along the street.
‘Hello, Seán,’ she called.
Deirdre was delighted. Sarah had remarked how Deirdre loved Sundays, when Hugh and Seán made a fuss of her. Hugh listened to her and was never impatient, and she loved Seán because he called her ‘flower’ and was always in good humour. Ah sure, everyone liked a bit of attention, not just small girls.
They gathered in Sarah’s bright living room, on the left as you went in the hall, with its big bookcase which never failed to impress Hugh. Sarah’s West Indian tenant was already seated and smiled at everyone.
‘Good man, Hugh,’ Seán greeted. ‘Hello ladies.’
Hugh relaxed, grateful for Seán’s presence. If he thought about it, he was his only friend. Deirdre wasn’t the only one who loved him. Everyone did. The West Indian and the two younger women smiled at his every word, and even the Pakistani woman, although she’d probably die before she’d look him straight in the face, even she allowed herself a distant smile.
Sarah limped into the room, muttering hello, and sorted out the books on the table with her back to them.
‘Right,’ she said then, turning to them with a smile. ‘Hello, everyone. I thought that maybe we’ve had enough of Kipling for a while, and that we’d like to read something mysterious and wonderful, so I found these little books about the Egyptians, and their pyramids and how they were built. Deirdre, will you hand them out?’
Deirdre did so.
‘Now, as usual, I will read them first, and then I will ask each of you to read. Everyone comfortable? There are some hard words, like “pyramid”, but we can go over them a few times, and as you all have come on so well in the last few weeks, it will probably be easy for you. Right then. There are some nice pictures, too, by the way.’
She began reading, slowly, distinctively. The Pakistani woman, who could not speak English, gazed at her daughter’s absorbed face. Hugh was drawn to them, and Sarah’s voice and the images of old Egypt it conveyed settled with the picture of the two women in his brain.
‘Now,’ Sarah said. ‘What did you make of that?’
‘They had great imagination,’ Seán said.
‘But they were tyrants,’ Kathleen said.
‘They were. And what do you think, Eriz?’
The girl thought for a while.
‘Maybe tyrants with imagination make some good.’
‘Yes, I wonder about that myself, sometimes. Although a tyrant with an imagination is a rare beast, let me tell you. Have you any thoughts on the subject, Hugh?’
He cleared his throat and shifted in his chair.
‘Ah… no. I think everything’s been said.’
‘All right then. Would you care to read? You have the page there, haven’t you?’
He read slowly, unsteady over words which he had not the confidence to risk. Sarah was patient, helping him to pronounce them, and because the passage wasn’t long, she asked him to read it again, and this time, taken by the story, he forgot himself and read it correctly. Then the others read, as Sarah took them over the difficult words. When everyone had read, they discussed these words until their pronunciation and what they meant were familiar.
Hugh saw that the class had gone well, and that Sarah was happy.
‘You may keep the books,’ she said, ‘and I hope you get a lot of pleasure from them. As you know, this is the last class for a while. I’m sorry we’re finishing a little earlier in the year than I expected, but you’ve all become so good that I think if you keep reading, you won’t need me any more. If you think you do, come back in October – the first Sunday. If not, good luck to you all,’ she said with emotion.
They grouped to thank her and say goodbye, and the women left quickly. The West Indian said she would see her later and flashed Sarah a smile, which she returned. That woman had fine teeth, that was for sure. On his way out, Seán stopped to give Deirdre a shilling, and Hugh intended to do the same, but Sarah held on to his hand.
‘How’s your father?’
‘He’s grand, Sarah.’
‘He doesn’t want to come any more, obviously – and he nearly the one who needs it most!’
‘Ah he’s tired after the week’s work, you know? And sure he’s probably snoring his head off this minute.’
Sarah continued to hold his hand and look into his eyes. Seán said goodbye again, and she replied and asked Deirdre to see him out, but she kept her grip on Hugh’s hand. He was uncomfortable now.
‘He says he’s too old to learn.’
‘You’re never too old to learn, Hugh, no matter what it is. Remember that. Stay for lunch.’
‘Ah, I’m grand, thanks,’ he mumbled.
‘Come on,’ she said, squeezing his hand harder before letting it go. ‘It’d be nice to have a man to lunch. Us women get fed up on our own, don’t we, my darling?’ she said as Deirdre came back, clutching her shilling. ‘Away now and get plates for three – and knives and forks and spoons. And don’t spend all that money in the one shop.’
Deirdre laughed and put her money in a piggy-bank before doing as she was told. They went into the room across the hall which Sarah used as a dining room. The kitchen was off that. She dragged the table to the middle of the floor and he rushed to help her. She flashed him a quick smile, took a linen table cloth from a drawer and he helped her to spread it.
Lunch. As far as he knew only Protestants had lunch. But now that she wasn’t teaching, her voice and accent were more natural, and that was a relief.
Lunch turned out to be lettuce and raw vegetables and crusty bread, what Brendan who had been to lunch with her called ‘Sarah’s sheep food’, but although he found it strange, especially the oil, and although he wondered how a child could eat it with hunger, to his surprise he enjoyed it.
‘Actually, Hugh, I have another book here for you,’ she said, holding it up and flicking through its pages. ‘The Bridge Over San Luis Rey.’ Now there’re a lot of difficult words in it, but if you feel like giving it a try, we could meet next Sunday in Finsbury Park, if it’s fine – you know those three benches beside the lake, by the big tree?’
‘God, that’d be great!’ He was pleased, as he had come to rely on her classes for company other than his father’s.
‘And then Deirdre and I are off on holidays the following weekend, aren’t we pet?’
‘Yeh,’ Deirdre grinned. Her lips and chin were coated with the debris of her meal.
‘Are you going to Ireland?’
‘Oh no. We’re going to France.’
‘France? What would you be doing there?’
‘We’re going to get ourselves a Frenchman, aren’t we pet?’
‘We go every year, actually.’
‘Would you like some tea and biscuits?’
He nodded, yet again aware of the distance between them. As she left with the dishes, Deirdre came around the table and grinned.
‘Je suis une petite fille,’ she said deliberately.
‘Is that French?’ he whispered in her ear.
‘Oui,’ she said. ‘Do you speak French?’ she whispered back.
He shook his head, ashamed that even a child was better than him. ‘But I speak Egyptian,’ he rallied.
‘Really?’ Her eyes were as round as pennies.
‘Ummm.’ He nodded solemnly.
‘Nahirz ish yo bujum nairy-o,’ he said without hesitation.
‘Oooh.’ She stared at him. And then curiosity replaced her wonder. ‘What does it say?’
‘It says… it says “The white clouds will carry me to a distant mountain”.’
‘Sarah!’ she shouted, running to the kitchen, ‘Hugh speaks Egyptian!’
‘I’m sure he does, Deirdre.’ Sarah appeared at the door with a laden tray. ‘I’m sure he does.’ She poured the tea. ‘You must have that book on Egypt off by heart already.’
‘Every word.’ He sipped his tea, unable to look at her.
‘Here,’ she laughed. ‘Have a Marietta.’
‘Hello, Beth,’ Millie greeted her sister.
Elizabeth winced but then squeezed her hand and walked past her into the hall. She left her straw bag down, took off her hat and checked herself in the hallstand mirror. There was a comedy on the wireless.
‘Is he here?’
‘‘He’s in the front room, choking the place with smoke,’ Millie said, closing the front door. Elizabeth could smell it drifting into the hall. She hesitated, nervous, then kissed Millie on the cheek.
‘Is he all right?’ she whispered.
‘Oh, he’s full of himself. You’d never think he had a day’s hardship in his life!’ Millie smiled and nodded in encouragement towards the open front room door. They could hear him laughing.
Elizabeth stood at the door, leaning against the jamb, and watched him, a cigarette between stained fingers, another one behind his ear. He looked so young, much younger than when she had seen him last, but then his own clothes would make a difference, and his hair had grown a little. He laughed again, and it was nice to see he was so absorbed in a silly programme.
‘Wotcha, sis!’ he said as he turned and rose to embrace her. ‘You look fantastic.’
‘Well, I went and did myself up, didn’t I?’
‘For your bruvvah?’
‘For my brother.’
‘You was always posh, Beth.’
They laughed and hugged. He had mortified her so many times, but he was her only living brother, and she always forgave him.
‘Fancy some lemonade? Harry didn’t come with the cider yet.’
‘I’m not sure it’s right to take strong drink on Sunday, Sam,’ Millie said.
‘Special occasion, Millie darling,’ he said, giving her a sideways squeeze. ‘Won’t do no harm.’
‘I’m toasted,’ Elizabeth said. ‘I’ll have some lemonade.’
He turned off the radio and got her the lemonade and she drank it back. As she was drinking, she saw that his face darkened, and he looked older and dangerous, as she had seen him in prison.
‘Millie tells me you’re shacked up with a Jerry,’ he said as she handed him the empty glass.
‘He’s my lodger, Sam,’ she said, turning away and seating herself in the old armchair. She looked him in the eye. ‘He pays me good money every week.’
‘What about it, Millie?’ he shouted. ‘Our two brothers at the bottom of the fucking Atlantic and she’s shacking up with a bleeding Jerry.’
‘Cork it, Sam.’ Elizabeth feared him like this, but knew that she mustn’t show it. ‘The war’s over. He lost all his family, and besides, he was in prison here for the war. All of it. He never fired a shot.’
‘But he’s a stinking Jerry!’ he screamed.
‘I said cork it!’ She rose to her feet, angry.
‘Bob’s your uncle, Beth.’ The storm was over as suddenly as it had begun, and he was meek and young again. Millie looked from one to the other.
‘How do you think,’ Elizabeth said quietly, ‘how do you think I got you those extra rations when you were in the nick?’
‘The boys …’ he trailed off in disbelief.
‘The boys? The boys?’ Her voice shook. ‘The boys didn’t lift a finger for you, Sam. You could have rotted for all they cared. Out of sight, out of mind. Stay away from them. They’re no good, and you go inside once more and you’ll never see me again. Go back to sea, anything.’
‘I’ll go back to sea, Beth.’
‘You see you do that. Earn some money, find a good woman. Our Betty, now, she’s still fancy-free. There’s lots of them!’
‘Old Betty. Fancy-free….’
He switched on the wireless, but the comedy was over, so he switched it off again.
‘Harry’s late,’ Millie said.
‘Myra’s making him clean behind his ears,’ Sam guffawed. ‘That’s what Beth wants for me, Millie. Under a woman’s thumb.’
‘Someone has to keep you in line, Sam,’ Millie said.
‘Yeh,’ he said, dejected. ‘Suppose so.’
There was a knock on the door.
‘That’ll be Harry.’ Millie jumped to her feet to let him in.
‘About bleeding time,’ Sam muttered. ‘I’m gasping.’
‘Come in, Harry,’ Millie said.
‘Well, well, Millie Burton. You get better looking every time I see you.’
‘Away with you, Harry. What would Myra say if she heard you!’
Elizabeth made a face and Sam grinned at her. He was sitting on the table, but when Millie, carrying a large white porcelain jug of cider, led in Harry, he stood, hand outstretched.
‘Wotcha, old cock!’ he said, looking at him sideways.
‘Sam! You ain’t changed thruppence worth!’
‘They fed me well, Harry. They fed me well.’
They had a good laugh at that. Beaming, Millie placed the tall glasses on the table before Harry, and he poured elaborately. Millie handed them out, and Harry raised his to the company.
‘Go on – you too, Millie,’ Sam said, looking as if he might flare.
‘O all right then,’ she said, and poured herself a glass.
‘Yeh, fuck it, to bleeding freedom,’ Sam agreed.
‘What are we doing inside on a day like this?’ Elizabeth demanded.
‘Well then,’ said Millie, ‘come on, into the yard. Come on, Harry.’
But it was Sam and Millie who were first out with their chairs. Harry took off his jacket and turned to look directly at Elizabeth for the first time, and winked.
‘On with you, Harry,’ she said. ‘The sun only lasts a tick in that yard.’
He reached for her, but she evaded him, pretending not to notice.
They sat in the small, whitewashed yard. The green paint was peeling from the corrugated iron shed. It had been peeling as long as they had been there, since the middle of the war. Elizabeth recalled her mother sitting against it, arthritic, and looking old although she was little past forty-five, in mourning weeds for her two sons. And to think she died in such a disgusting way herself. She drank back half her glass at once.
‘A penny for them,’ Harry said as he filled her glass again.
‘Oh, nothing. Nothing at all … I was just thinking of Mother,’ she conceded, ‘sitting beside that shed on a day like this. Do you remember that day, Millie – was it ‘44? She got all cross because she didn’t want her photo taken.’
Sam stopped just as he was about to drink, put his glass on a slab, and went inside.
‘She was cross in the first place, as I recall,’ Millie said, looking skyward, because you brought home that American airman without telling her, and her hair was in a mess.’
‘Airman? Which airman was this, Beth?’ Harry frowned.
‘O, some airman, Harry. I met him at a dance and he wanted to see how the English lived.’
‘So you brought him here.’
‘Yes, I brought him here. I wanted him to take a photo of us before we were all killed. But he never sent it.’
‘Fucking Yanks,’ Harry said. ‘Stealing our women while we were dying like flies.’
‘I was never your woman,’ Elizabeth said sharply.
Harry’s glass froze at his lips. Millie was electrified.
‘I reckon,’ she said then in an even voice, ‘I reckon the poor fool got blown to smithereens over Germany.’
‘Yeh, Beth,’ said Harry, chastened. ‘I reckon so.’
‘Funny how we never talk about the war,’ Elizabeth said.
‘Best forgotten,’ Millie said, twisting her fingers.
Maybe it was. But she would never forget how her mother died. Nor little Georgina, neither. She chided herself then. She wasn’t the only one who would never forget.
‘I get some geezers down the pub, never talks about nothing else,’ Harry said.
‘Okay folksy-wolksy! Get ready to smiiillle!’ Sam, marching into the yard, held aloft a Kodak, and planted his feet apart, finding the right balance, ready to snap.
‘Oh Sam!’ Millie groaned. ‘Not now.’
‘Come on, Millie,’ Harry insisted. ‘I want my mug taken with two beautiful gals,’ and he sat between them, which mollified Millie, who arranged her hair; but Elizabeth was unmoved.
‘Where did you get that Kodak, Sam?’
Sam lowered the camera and grinned.
‘Where did I get it, Beth? From a mate, that’s where. Come on now, say cheesey-wheezy.’
Millie laughed, and leaned her head towards Harry, but Elizabeth saw out of the corner of her eye that at the last moment he glanced at her.
‘Harry, now you do the honours, mate,’ Sam said.
‘Eh? Oh, all right.’
Sam sat erect and solemn between his two sisters. They gazed into the lens, following it as Harry checked the position of the button. He squinted, tensed, and with appropriate effort recorded them for posterity.
They felt easy after that. When the sun moved out of the yard, Millie served a roast, a rare treat. Sam wolfed it down, remembering his fierce hunger, quelling it with a deep concentration. Elizabeth postponed her own meal as she watched him eat, realising for the first time how the bones stood out in his pale face. She promised herself that she would encourage Betty Hindley. Betty’s husband had been a merchant sailor too, lost in the Atlantic like Elizabeth’s brothers. She wouldn’t mind him being away months on end, and she had kept a flame for Sam since they were children. The irony of it. Sam had been on a bloody warship, and yet he was the one who survived.
Harry loosened his tie and paused, trying to think of something. Then his face brightened and he went to his jacket and brought back a box of cheroots, opening the box to Sam.
‘You know how to celebrate, mate,’ Sam said, sniffing the cigar.
‘Ladies?’ Harry offered in that way which Elizabeth had constantly to forgive.
They declined, but Millie opened a fresh packet of Woodbines, and the room filled with smoke. Sam sprawled in his chair, and reaching back, switched on the radio, full volume.
‘Turn it down, Sam,’ Elizabeth said wearily.
‘Yeh, it’s too loud.’ He yawned, then standing and stretching, he turned it down low. He sat in the armchair by the fireplace, and stubbed out the cheroot in the empty grate. Then he sprawled back and closed his eyes, his chin dropping on to his collarbone. Harry pushed back his chair and dropped his bulk on to the settee. He smiled at Elizabeth, but it was Millie who sat beside him, placing the ashtray between them.
‘O, I’m so sleepy,’ she yawned. ‘It must have been the cider.’
Elizabeth was sleepy too, but her corset was hurting her, a garter button was digging into the back of her thigh, and sweat was trickling across her groin. She could go to Millie’s bedroom and arrange herself, but she was too lazy. She exhaled a cloud of smoke and watched it rise. Millie finished her cigarette and stubbed it out and lay back, her eyes closed, her body tilting towards Harry, but even when she fell asleep, her head never quite reached his shoulder. He too was nodding off, his cheroot still smouldering between his fingers. Elizabeth smiled. Another fraction and it would burn a nice big hole in his trousers.
He had gone quite bald, she noticed, and grey hairs were gathering at the side. Lately she had found herself wondering what she really felt about him. He looked well in his starched white cotton shirt, which Myra had ironed perfectly, and his red, blue-speckled tie. He was a fine man, there was no denying that.
Anyway, it was time to go. She got up, adjusting her corset slightly beneath her dress, which she flapped to air herself, and extinguished her cigarette beside Sam’s cheroot. He was snoring lightly. She leaned over him and turned off the radio. Children were playing on the street, and there were some cars about. She could hear the rise and fall of Millie’s breath.
In front of the hallstand mirror, she gazed at her face. If Harry was losing hair, she was getting wrinkles around her eyes that her make-up didn’t quite hide. And there, on her forehead, those thin, puckered lines seemed to be multiplying in the last while.
She had sunburn on her chest. As she put on the hat, Harry came and stood beside her. She glanced at him. His eyes were bloodshot but he was staring at her, his lips open.
‘My word, you look a treat,’ he whispered.
She smiled and continued to arrange her hat, but stopped as he put his arms around her waist and they both looked at the other in the mirror.
‘I think of you all the time, Beth. All the time. The good times we had, remember?
‘That was a long time ago, Harry. Besides, you forgot all that when you married Myra.’
‘You’re the one to talk! What about that bloke you were going to marry?’
‘Eddie is ten years dead, Harry. And I wasn’t going to marry him.’ She wanted to unclasp his arms, and yet his urgency made her hesitate, uncertain of what she wanted.
‘What about Myra?’
His hands cupped her breasts, squeezing them hard.
‘Beth, let’s do it. The others are snoring their heads off.’
‘Don’t you and Myra do it any more?’
He turned her around roughly and buried his tongue in her mouth, his swollen business bruising against her. She turned her face away, gasping, and he lifted her on to the box of the hallstand, pulling up her dress and trying to spread her legs. A bit of flirting was one thing, but she didn’t want this.
‘Stop it, Harry,’ she said. ‘Have you lost your marbles?’
She pulled down her dress and stood up, her hat askew. He could not meet her eyes.
‘Harry,’ she whispered. ‘What’s got into you, old chuck? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be caught like that.’
‘Then bring me to your house, Beth!’ he pleaded.
‘No,’ she said, ‘no I can’t do that.’
‘Tell me where you live – I’ll slip up there.’
‘You’re married, Harry. Remember that.’ She turned to re-arrange her hat.
‘And you’re a spinster. Don’t you want it?’
A cloud darkened the hallway for a moment and she took a light cardigan from her bag and put it on, avoiding him.
‘You think you’re too good for me, don’t you. You live up there – where is it? Camden? What’s wrong with round here?’
‘Go home to Myra, Harry. She loves you.’
He stopped as if he had been hit.
‘How come you don’t speak like us. How come you speak posh?’
‘Be seeing you, Harry,’ she said, clipping him under the chin with her finger nail.
She walked through Cheapside. There was no way she would let Harry know where she lived. Millie knew and Sam didn’t care. And that was the way it would stay. Her lives were separate. She looked around, suddenly wary that Harry might have followed her. But he hadn’t dared, or bothered. She was sweating, so she took off her cardigan. Normally she took the bus, but this time, as a precaution, she got the tube at Aldgate to Holloway Road.
The rock of the train lulled her, and she thought back over the encounter. He had tried it on before, several times, but never with such fierceness – whether it was because of her summer skirt and bare shoulders or what, she couldn’t say. But whatever it was, now that she was safe she was flattered, in a way. She laughed to herself as she recalled what he had said about her being a spinster. So he didn’t know, then? That she was married to the enemy, in all but name, since forty-eight? Millie had been discreet, to all but Sam, and he wouldn’t tell it for shame. She was safe, and that was why her lives would always be separate, why they would never know where she lived.
It was six o’clock when she got home to Citizen Road. Karl was upstairs in his room, playing one of his boring old records. She had bought him the ancient wind-up player, with its beautiful brass horn, in the market for his birthday. She had also bought him some popular records from the forties, but he had never played them. She went into the kitchen and drank a cup of water.
‘How was your visit?’ he asked softly. She turned and saw that he was in his underwear and bare feet, and wondered again how such a big man could make so little noise.
‘Hold me,’ she said after a while.
She pressed her face against his hairless, moist chest as his arms took her in.
‘Hold me,’ she repeated.
This was why she spoke differently, absorbing his correct grammar and precise pronunciation. This was why she sounded posh to those she had grown up with and still loved. But he would never know them either, which in a way made her alone.
‘Are you hungry?’ she mumbled.
‘No. I ate at four.’
She looked up at him, then led him to her room. He got into bed, keeping his drawers on. She took off everything, loosening in relief her imprinted flesh, and pulled off the bedclothes before lying beside him.
‘Just hold me, Karl.’
They lay together, sweating in the evening heat.
NB if you live in the Amazon.com region, The Water Star is available for 99c for limited period.
Select bookshop stockists in Ireland for paperback
Zozimus Books, Facebook| Books Upstairs on Facebook | Kennys of Galway who deliver post free worldwide.
Retailers order on demand
Casey is a poet and a playwright; he has a poet’s delicate ear and a playwright’s eye for direction . The tale that unfolds in this thick, satisfying volume is not particularly complex – any more than the circumstances of any of our lives are complex, which is to say, infinitely and infinitesimally so.
Through the interweaving and the overlapping of these relationships, Casey examines how human nature is shaped by sorrow; how people will find a way – sometimes, it seems, despite themselves – to take comfort from others, to make homes where they can, even among the ruins.
Casey’s technique, too, is one of interweaving and overlapping. He will tell the same story more than once, each time from a different vantage point: Of course, it is not the “same story” that’s told, which is precisely the point. As an idea in the abstract this might seem laboured; in the novel, however, it works seamlessly, simply functioning as it is meant to and unfolding the story like a fan.
. . . The Water Star is a graceful, gentle novel that does not shy from the truth.
– Erica Wagner, The Times.
Philip Casey’s second novel, The Water Star, confronts the central Irish experience of the twentieth century: exile. It is distinguished by the finely wrought lyricism that has characterised much of his poetry. His first novel, The Fabulists (1994) won acclaim; his new one confirms that he is a writer with a gift for uncovering the tortuous impulses of his characters with a lucid and affecting eye. Set in a post-war London still recovering from the Blitz, the novel follows the overlapping lives of five characters who inhabit the ruins of North London
. . . Casey escorts his reader through the labyrinths of his characters’ minds, unpicking the jumbled mosaic of mourning, desire and fear. The Water Star is a bitter-sweet testimony to the never-ending struggle between exile and assimilation.
– John Tague, Times Literary Supplement. Full Review
There is something at once tough and endearing in Casey’s predominant concerns with making his creations seem like real people, with delineating intimate human relationships – with being, essentially, emotive and compassionate.
… No one should read this book in search of lapidary sentences or shock tactics. Instead, the peculiarly quiet power of its tale should be enjoyed at the leisurely pace demanded by its length. It is perhaps a good thing to be sometimes driven to a blurbish cliché: The Water Star is, somehow, haunting.
– John Kenny, The Irish Times. Full Review
Philip Casey has recreated a whole era of Irish life in this amazing novel.
… If you want to find out what it was like for the Irish in London in the early ’50s, read this book. It is a treat.
– Pat Byrne, The Irish World, 26 May 2000
This elegiac novel casts a gentle – but discerning – eye on the lives and loves of Irish and other exiles in a London shattered by the Blitz. Philip Casey brings the lyricism of a poet and the dramatic sense of a playwright to his tale of lost souls doing their best to glue their fragmented lives back together; his characters are vivid, subtly shaded, often tragic, but there’s no wallowing in misery here – on the contrary, a life-affirming tenacity and humour, reinforced by an elegant cyclical structure and more than a hint of mysticism, makes The Water Star a pleasure to read. The final sequence, set in Ireland, chimes a little uncomfortably with the rest, but then comfort was never going to be a top priority in a book about alienation. An intelligent, memorable, moving novel.
– Arminta Wallace, The Irish Times, Saturday April 1st, 2000
Gentle, metaphorical, totally believable.
– Bristol Evening Post
Derelict bomb sites are a refuge for the lonely, war-scarred characters who inhabit the 1950s London of Philip Casey’s impressive second novel. Elizabeth, Cockney-born and bred, invites Hugh, a semi-literate young Irish labourer who has run away from his domineering father, to share her home. They become lovers, marry, and soon after their son Charlie is born, and Hugh is reconciled with his father, who has found happiness of sorts with another unhappy Irish exile. The lives of these characters become totally absorbing as different versions of important events are related from their respective viewpoints. Casey has brought alive the dilemmas of a lost generation and made them vivid and memorable.
–The Good Book Guide
Philip Casey’s first novel, The Fabulists, was one of the most original of recent years and remarkable for his ability in writing about women. That skill is evident in his second, The Water Star, which follows the lives of an interconnected cast of characters in London during the fifties. The Water Star is a compelling series of life stories at a crucial point in modern history; it is equally compelling as an imaginative analysis of national versus private identity, of how people may transcend the bogus boundaries of their lives through small acts of honesty and kindness.
– Sharon Barnes, IMAGE
Casey’s approach to a hackneyed theme – the sadness of exile – creates original new fiction. Based in fifties London, his story mixes together displaced Irish and Europeans and concentrates on new beginnings in alien territory. This series of love-stories told from individual perspectives resonates with authentic feeling.
– Sharon Barnes, round-up of the year’s fiction, IMAGE, December 1999
The Water Star is a powerful work of fiction, at once passionate and compassionate.
– The Waterstones website review
Philip Casey is one of our most intuitive and interesting writers. …What is most impressive in this multi-layer book is that it captures both the British and German experience of the aftermath of war, as much as the mindset and experience of the migrant Irish flocking to find rebuilding work. The torched buildings of Hamburg in RAF raids are as real here as the improvised mountain slopes of Wexford that its main protagonists, Hugh and his widowed father Brendan, leave behind. Casey is excellent in slowly weaving together these diverse and conflicting strands of human life as (like the city they inhabit) they struggle to rebuild the present, while still haunted by old loyalties and ghosts from the recent past. …This is a lyrical and captivating read in which the dead are as present as those survivors rebuilding their lives and the mental scars of inexpressible wounds find expression in moments of exquisite tenderness …
– Dermot Bolger, The Sunday Independent
Written with a poet’s eye for the intensity of physical detail the narrative unfolds gradually, and time moves in loops with one event being recounted by up to five different voices’…
– Della Nock, Irish Post
… Yet there is something compulsive about the lives recounted in Casey’s flat, slow-moving prose that keeps you reading right to the end
– Alannah Hopkin, The Sunday Tribune
Casey captures the warmth and tragedies of ordinary life with exquisite detail.
– Maurice Haugh, The Evening Herald