John Walsh was born in Derry but now lives in Connemara. He’s published three collections of poetry, including, Chopping Wood with T.S. Eliot (Salmon Poetry). He has read at events in Ireland, the UK, Germany, Sweden and the USA. He is organizer and MC of North Beach Nights in Galway, Ireland’s leading monthly performance poetry event. Border Lines is his debut short story collection.
By John Walsh
The young woman was face-down in the water. Of course one immediately thinks of suicide. The newspaper says a corporation worker jumped in and rescued her. A passing driver took them to a nearby hospital, where she remains critical.
He looks at his watch. Ellen is late. She said she would come for breakfast. It’s odd because being punctual is a big thing for her. He folds the newspaper and drops it onto the armchair. Then it crosses his mind Ellen might want to sit there and he tucks the newspaper into the bookshelf.
The sky is heavy with low cloud, leaves frame-freezed against the greyness. He’s counted the spoons into the coffee machine, remembering details like the line of shoes in her front hall, the space created between them for his own; the small tray of chocolate-coated waffles set on a wicker table. Candles poised for lighting. The first time he was there, he was afraid their lives would clash. The image of the drowning woman returns to him. What is it like to be dragged back into this world if you have decided to leave? She must have thought about it, have come to terms with what she was about to do.
Yesterday when Ellen rang, she was parked outside his front door. The surprise was perfect. He didn’t bother to ask how she had found him. She had a knack of walking into his life. The first time she appeared he could feel something was about to happen, but he managed to avoid it. Months later, when she turned up again, he was caught off guard. After that, his life never went back to the way it had been before.
‘You’re such a baby,’ she had told him in St. Ives. The room wasn’t ready. The cleaners could walk in on top of them she said. No way they were going to make love. She placated him with her finger on his lips. He sulked. The narrow streets got tangled up in it. Most of it was façade anyway. In the restaurant a waiter eventually took their order. Then they waited. Ellen told him she had known all along what they were getting into. None of it had been a surprise for her. ‘Why you chose me I don’t know. Or was it the other way round? Maybe I was the one.’ She shifted the knife on the right. ‘Who knows any more? I knew there would be chaos.’ The waiter brought the starters. Small portions on large white plates.
He checks again that everything is on the table, rearranges the blue napkins. At the sound of the doorbell he jumps. Suddenly he is walking along the hall, unsure of himself, wondering if it will be obvious that she has spent the night with someone else.
‘Hi! Sorry I’m late. Still haven’t caught up on Irish time.’ As she slips past him in the
narrow hall he feels the touch of her breasts against him. It triggers needs he has almost forgotten. She knows how to do this to him, the same way he knows she can do it to others.
‘How does anyone find you in this mumbo-jumbo?’ she is saying. Outside the wheelie bins are lined up for emptying. He closes the door and turns to her. ‘What do you mean?’
‘All the houses look the same. You need to make things a little easier for people.’
‘People?’ Anyway, yesterday she didn’t have a problem.
He follows her into the kitchen where a single green candle flickers on the table. It jars with the napkins but Ellen won’t say anything. She turns and angles her face towards his, allows herself that second of hesitation. A rock-breaker in the distance hammers staccato as their lips touch.
‘Poor Ian.’ Her fingers trace a line across his cheek. She lets her fingertips rest on his lips, then pulls them away.
‘Cut the pity-crap, Ellen. It’s not you.’
‘It’s not my pity we need to talk about.’ She walks over and sits down at the table. ‘Feel this place. It oozes with pity. You have to get out of here. Christ, why do Irish mothers have to screw everything up?’ She stares at him, waits for him to speak. It’s hard to pinpoint which direction the rock-breaker is coming from.
‘Straight into it as usual. Not much changed, has it?’ He turns his back to her and reaches for the coffee pot.
‘You started it.’
Ian decides not to reply to this. The coffee smell drifts in the air. ‘Did you have a good night?’ he asks as he half-fills her cup.
‘Do you really want to know?’
‘I probably don’t,’ he lies. ‘Doesn’t really make much difference who you are fucking at the moment.’
‘I don’t fuck.’ The way she spits out the words appeals to him. ‘That’s your department.’ Her eyes lock on his, ready to release bolts of contempt. ‘Is that what it was, Ian? Did we fuck? Was that all?’
‘Of course we fucked. We enjoyed it, remember?’ Had that been all, the chaos would not have happened. The noise of the rock-breaker stops. ‘Anyway have you a better word for it?’
‘Fucking’s fine with me.’ For a moment she poises the white cup at her lips and stares into the garden. Then she swings around. ‘We had our chance, we didn’t take it. No, correction, you didn’t take it. The cage was wide open, Ian. What held you back?’ She is dangling a strip of salmon on her fork. ‘And now, are you any more ready? I don’t think so. You want to know how my night was? Spectacular. How about yours?’
The noise of the bins being emptied outside disturbs his concentration. Last week he complained about his bin being dragged halfway through the estate. ‘We don’t get paid to keep people happy, mate.’ The way they looked at him, he knew what they thought.
He wishes they hadn’t got so tangled up again, after all she has come back, for whatever reason he isn’t sure. ‘We’re good for each other,’ she always told him. A kind of a mantra. In ways we are, yes.
‘I had a strange dream,’ he tells her.
The bin lorry has reached the corner. ‘I was somewhere in France, standing outside a bakery, looking at all the cakes and sweet things. But I’ve no money. Suddenly I feel someone tapping my shoulder. When I turn around, this woman hands me a bag of sweets. Before I can say anything, she disappears into the crowd. Leaves me wondering why me.’
‘Ian please, don’t act so innocent. You must know it’s about you, about the signals you send out. Maybe it’s not even a conscious thing you do. I picked them up. Other women pick them up. We all come running with our little bags of sweeties for you. Sweeties, sweeties!’ She dangles the blue napkin in the air.
‘Stop it, Ellen. Just stop it!’
‘Oh, have we touched on a sore spot? How many bags of sweeties will it take to make it go away, Ian? Have you any idea? Or maybe you don’t want it to go away. We all need our little hang-ups, don’t we?’
‘Cut it out. You didn’t go to all the trouble of finding me here just to go all psycho on me now.’
‘You asked for it. Anyway, let me be good at something.’ She reaches for bread, fidgets with a slice on her plate. ‘We used to talk every day, remember? Fuck the cost. We knew everything about each other. I miss that. I wanted to see how you are.’
‘So, can you spot the difference?’
‘Nothing’s changed. How much longer are you going to go on doing this to yourself?’
In September they rented a house somewhere near Killarney. He picked her up off the late flight in Shannon. It rained all the way down. He told himself they needed time together, it didn’t matter where. But the everyday things caused complications. The absurdity of pushing a trolley around Costcutter; the frustration of damp fires; Ellen’s need to take in everything new. The real world impinged on them. After the week nothing was certain any more.
‘I don’t know. Three years, five years? How long does it take? These life changes. You’re the expert, Ellen. You should know. You’ve read all the books.’
One day he built a fire in a corner of the garden, watched the flames eat through the pages of the books she had given him. He thought this way he could break the hold she had on him. She laughed at him when he told her what he had done.
‘What are you freeing yourself from, Ian? I have no power over you.’
‘What’s his name?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘What does he do then?’
‘He’s a doctor.’
‘A real one?’
‘So how did you two meet?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘And you’re sticking to your story that it’s nothing?’
She doesn’t look at him. She dabs her lips with the blue napkin, then drops it on the plate.
‘On a scale of one-to-ten he’s a five, maybe a six.’ As she speaks, she walks over to the
patio door. ‘Probably more a five. Do these things open?’ She releases the catch and slides back the door. ‘You were an eight, maybe a nine. Not bad,’ she says as she steps out onto the patio. The candle flickers in the draught. ‘The gardens they give people here aren’t big enough to swing a cat in. You don’t have a cat, I know. You’re not into animals. Pity! They can be such good company.’ From the garden she asks, ‘who did your wall?’
‘I did it.’ He’s surprised that she has noticed.
‘I like the colour.’
‘The grey was doing my head in. A few cans of paint was all it took. Blue breeze blocks seem less obscene.’ He leans against the patio door, notices the paleness of her hand as she touches the wall.
‘True,’ she says and turns to face him. ‘Do you keep a score on your women, Ian? Was I a five or a six, maybe an eight or a nine?’ He wants to answer but she doesn’t let him. ‘It’s okay. Don’t get alarmed. I don’t think I really want to know. Where’s my Brooder?’
‘He’s in the other room.’
She comes back in, slides the patio door shut behind her.
It’s the only picture on the wall. The other paintings are still in a pile in the corner. She told him it reminded her of him. He had to stop brooding she said, had to get himself out of it.
‘I thought of you the minute I saw this. I told you. You’re back in that same place, aren’t you? But it’s no use raking over the past, Ian. You’ll never work it out.’ Her eyes fall on the edge of the newspaper in the bookshelf. She pulls it out, glances at the headline and drops it on the armchair again. ‘I’d better go.’
‘You could stay.’ He wants to walk towards her but there is no movement. ‘Keep us company for a while.’
‘No, Ian. I have to go. I don’t want to be part of your prison any more. We almost had you out. But now the two of you are stuck here together. We failed miserably, didn’t we?’
When she leaves he blows out the candle, clears the table, dumps the napkins in the bin. Then he picks up the newspaper. There’s a story about a fire in one of the new estates. A man trapped in his bedroom, overcome by smoke. The fire had probably started downstairs in the kitchen. He was unconscious when they got to him. The medics tried to resuscitate him in the back of the ambulance. But he didn’t make it.