Stephen Dineen was born and grew up in Dublin. After studying history and politics, and travelling, he began a chequered career that has encompassed academia, politics, journalism and the civil service. He has had three short stories published and one long-listed in the Fish Short Story Competition. Stephen lives in Dublin. In his spare time he runs.
By Stephen Dineen
Looking back, it seems fitting that both were leap years.
After finishing college my friends and I went to Australia for a year. We did everything: worked, played, drank, womanised. I even fell in love. The last act was dangerous given I would have to go home. Onto the plane home I brought the enduring image of her sitting on a wall by a Sydney beach, so beautiful but out of reach, her beauty as powerful as the ocean’s waves, me telling her I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I knew I was losing as I said it.
I returned to Ireland that spring for my brother’s wedding. At the airport my mum’s warm body enveloped mine, my father’s thick hand outstretched to clasp mine. Dublin was grey, the streets perpetually cold, but I knew the spell of Australia would be gone if I tried to revive it. Like my parents, I was soon consumed in wedding preparations.
Despite the spotlight on my return, it didn’t take long for my parents to confront my future. ‘I got you the paper,’ my father said as we sat in the sitting room late one night, ‘here’s the jobs supplement.’ Under his gaze, I leafed through the pages brimming with opportunities. What was a graduate in French and history supposed to be looking for? I’d persisted with French despite my instincts and had done poorly. All I could stand over was a reasonable result in history.
After the wedding, I began applying for jobs. A cover letter extolling my phantom suitability; an outline of why my degree was relevant; a CV I wasn’t bothered editing to emphasise specific skills – whatever the job, however long each application took, the ritual always ended with relief and dread of the next. My parents were bewildered I failed to get a job quickly. I shrugged my shoulders, feigning a lack of surprise.
‘I don’t understand it really, there are so many jobs out there. Are you researching how to submit letters?’ my father asked me as he chewed on a thick slice of soda bread with marmalade one morning.
‘Yes, of course,’ I said, my voice raised.
‘Have you thought about going to back to college? To do something with a practical qualification?’
‘I can’t think of anything I’d do,’ I wondered why they hadn’t suggested it several years earlier.
‘Well, think about it again. You need to find get a career,’ he said, reaching for some letters concerning the wedding. ‘Anyway, your uncle wants you to ring him. He’s got a bit of painting work if you’re interested in the meantime.’
My uncle, a bachelor, worked for the European Commission. His work divided his time between Brussels and Dublin. Most of it was abroad but he’d kept his large, semi-detached, Dublin house as his base. ‘I need the kitchen, living room and lounge painted; it’s long overdue,’ he told me hastily on the phone, traffic behind him. ‘I’ve left a few colour options on the kitchen table, whatever you think. Your father has a spare key. The kitchen and lounge are south facing,’ he said, promising to recoup the cost of paint and pay a generous rate for each full working day. With that he was gone.
I arrived early at his house early every morning, greeted by a smell of must, flecks of dust floating in the sunlight above the frayed carpets. Silence clung to every wall. Old furniture and appliances looked unmoved for decades and had to be moved, the walls scrubbed of old strains and spots of dirt before I could begin painting.
My uncle’s neighbours soon tickled my attention. To the right lived a small, plump pensioner who moved slowly when he got into or out of his sports car, never gone for more than twenty minutes. A disparate group lived on the other side, three people who separately came and went at different times. A bald man in his late thirties who always seemed to wear hoodies walked down to the local shops a lot, and we soon got talking. He was an actor.
Some mornings I noticed a beautiful brunette, about ten years older than me, leaving their house. Her body bounced gracefully, and even from afar her brown eyes shone. I peered into her car some mornings as I arrived. It had the neatness of a company car, but with vast paperwork and a child’s seat in the back. ‘Leah’s Jimmy’s girlfriend,’ the actor explained.
The kitchen’s first coat of paint nervously met the wall, but the second and third coats embraced it. A softness descended over the ground floor rooms as the early morning sunshine settled onto the kitchen after hiding behind distant fir trees or clouds. I chose a sunset pink for the abandoned dining room, which also seemed to glow with the new lease of colour. The disused dining table and empty cabinet on the old unfashionable brown carpet now seemed painfully tired.
Not long after my uncle saw the changed kitchen, he asked me to paint the whole house. I began to imagine the world of a painter with all of its physical work among the soothing backgrounds of radio, tea, family sounds and observation. There was so much worth describing, even imagining.
Occasionally my uncle would arrive unannounced late afternoon, coming from either the airport or a working day in Dublin. He’d make strong filter coffee and serve fancy pastries, something continental about this tall, well groomed man in a grey suit as he put the delicacies on small plates.
‘So what do you see the future for yourself Barry? The world’s your oyster now,’ my uncle said, plunging the coffee in its pot.
‘I don’t know. I really don’t know. I should know and should have thought about all this when I was deciding what to do in college,’ I said, looking directly at him.
‘Oh don’t worry about that, there’s no fixed path. You just have to try something and then feel your way around from there. Get a job and see how it works, and if it doesn’t go well you move on. That’s the way it goes nowadays,’ he said, despite his own structured career. He asked a lot about Australia, resting his chin on his hand as he asked, time seeming irrelevant. Then he would vanish, another demand tugging at his time.
My parents’ questions about career never subsided. ‘What’s the problem? I’m painting and earning money, amn’t I? I’ll be grand,’ I said as we ate dinner one evening.
‘Your uncle won’t be re-painting the house forever,’ my father said, his clean, fat hands holding cutlery mid-air. ‘Have you made any appointments to see recruitment agents?’
‘No, not yet.’
‘You should,’ my mum said, her aquiline grey eyes penetrating mine. ‘There’s a career guidance counsellor in the university who I know, will you meet her?’ My mum worked in the local university as an administrator. My father nodded.
As I began painting the final rooms, the morning sun spilling onto the soft coloured walls in the south-facing bedrooms, I began meeting recruitment agents. The first agent wanted to meet in a nearby hotel. She shook hands without saying much, then frowned when I hesitated at paying for both coffees.
‘So, what’s the colour of your parachute then?’ she asked after we sat down, sighing.
‘I don’t know. I’m painting my uncle’s house at the moment. I did a degree in French and history, then went travelling. I was hoping you might have the answers.’ She smiled pityingly. ‘I’m not interested in French really,’ I said. ‘Has history ever created jobs? What areas are worth going into right now?’
She clutched at her left ear, then interrogated me. What was I good at? What interested me? Could I type well? What was I like with computers? At the end of the meeting her shoulders seemed to rise. ‘I’ll put your name on file. You need to think about what kind of activities interest you as well as an actual job.’
The woman intrigued me: the suggestion of a smile at certain answers, her thick sandy hair, the mole above her left eyebrow, her diffident gaze. Was she humorous outside of work? What were her hobbies? The questions grew the more I reflected.
Rain poured relentlessly the day I visited the career guidance counsellor. As I walked through the campus I felt my own inertia bearing down on me, the students’ glee among the puddles reinforcing my isolation.
‘So, your mother tells me you haven’t worked it all out yet!’ said the greying woman with soft blue, narrow eyes. She looked like she wanted to laugh.
‘And you’re going to reveal the answers to everything in the next fifteen minutes!’
‘What interests you most?’ she asked.
‘Well, people interest me,’ I said.
‘People, situations, places. I think about them, about encounters.’
She leaned back and smiled. ‘And when you’re not thinking and encountering?’
‘I don’t know,’ I paused, ‘thinking about their lives, their stories.’
We talked at length but with no direction. I told her about the recruitment agent and how she’d expected me to buy the coffee. The counsellor laughed vibrantly, and as the conversation was ending she took off her spectacles and shook her head. ‘No, I’m not worried about you. You remind me of a young man who came in here before doing his finals, many moons ago. He was grumpy and disillusioned, had no answers. I told him to be pragmatic. He ended up becoming one of Ireland’s most famous musicians.’
I found myself painting slower. Details of the neighbours and the beautiful brunette who occasionally stayed over had revealed themselves. The middle aged couple across the road, who always seemed to be at home, had become more interesting by the day. I wondered what life would bring when the painting ended. As I drank coffee during a ponderous break one afternoon of my penultimate week, my phone rang.
‘Hi, this is Carol from the university.’ It was the career guidance counsellor’s benign voice. ‘I’ve been talking to a colleague whose husband works at the French embassy. There’s a woman there who’d like to talk to you about some possible work,’ she said, and gave me the woman’s number.
‘Bonjour,’ intoned the French woman whom I called without delay. ‘We have an education programme for French students here. There is a six month contract for someone with both languages to help run cultural activities,’ she said. ‘Would you like to come to the embassy tomorrow to discuss, if you are interested?’ Beaming, I assented, reflecting on how a moment can change everything. A connection; a phone call; an unknown variable like adequate French: in ways it seemed like fiction.
When I was offered the job later that week, my first thought was not to ring my parents or text any friend, but call my uncle. The ring tone was foreign.
‘It’s Barry, sorry to interrupt you. You’re probably really busy.’
‘No you’re grand, go ahead.’
‘I’ve been offered a six month contract by the French embassy. I’m inclined to take it and they want me to start on Monday but I haven’t finished the last rooms yet. Is it okay if I finish them at the weekends or evenings?’
‘Of course it’s fine, I’m delighted for you Barry,’ he said, sounding unsurprised. ‘You have to run with these chances when you get them. We’ll finish the painting when things settle down.’ His voice was focused despite the din of talk and activity behind him. Before I knew it he’d concluded the call.
The interim between the two leap years was kind. My life changed, as did those of those closest to me in ways noticed and unnoticed, moments like that call from the French embassy dropping like dew, ripe with the taste of life.
My continuous employment lasted four years. I worked in the embassy for a year and a half before getting a job in the EU office in Dublin. For two years I worked in the research department, mainly writing reports, and loved the challenge of constructing text from all the possibilities of a blank page. Each report had its own demands for finding the right words, technical or plain. Sometimes I translated from English to French, or vice versa, which brought its own challenges with words and tone.
Not long after I started working there, I met a girl one Friday night in a crowded, Baggott Street pub. That moment also fell like dew. In the instant in which we got talking the crowd, the smoke, and the noise all seemed to evaporate. Her name was Amy and her hair auburn. Her body moved whenever she spoke.
During those early days with Amy, I thought of my experiences in Sydney four years earlier. 2000 had been a leap year too. ‘You know we’re very lucky with all the additional time we’ll have in our lifetime,’ I said to her one evening unintentionally.
‘What?’ she asked, almost giggling.
‘Leap years happen every year that’s divisible by four, but not by a hundred, like 1900. But there’s a strange exception. They do happen in years divisible by a hundred and also four hundred. So we’ll have one leap year more than most generations.’
‘So it took me a day longer to find you than it should have,’ she teased, her smile knowing no boundaries, her grey eyes penetrating mine in a novel way. The dew drops felt even fresher.
Then one warm June Friday afternoon, I lost my job. It had been a temporary contract and funding for the programme had been cut. With the news came all the terror of not knowing when the next pay cheque would come, of all plans for the future put on hold. I’d been planning on buying a house, a motivation that had increased with finding Amy.
Frantically I started to apply for jobs. I sent letters of self-recommendation with tweaked CVs to any people or employers I thought might be interested. I teamed up with an old college friend who was half idle, half unreliable with deadlines, and submitted a few tenders for government research projects where our writing and language skills might be used. With each interminable afternoon scouring the internet a growing feeling settled that things would not change quickly.
Social welfare procedures demanded I go down to the social welfare office to make an appointment about signing on. The office was grey and steeped in its own shadows. Coughing reverberated off the lino floor and snot green walls. A spectacled woman wearing a lilac woollen jumper eventually beckoned me to the glass counter. As she reached for a form and started asking me questions, I heard an almighty clatter. ‘Just meet me half way, will ya? I’m just tryin to level with ya,’ said a young sedate man at a distant booth. ‘You’ve got to meet me half way, okay?’ he repeated.
At my neighbouring booth, a girl dropped her forms on the floor. ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t done this before. I think I might have filled this in the wrong way,’ I watched her say as she scrambled to pick them up. A large sneeze erupted from the din behind her and the girl dropped her pen. By the time I was finished, the blue seats in the middle of the room were full.
As I emerged into the daylight, I just wanted to escape. I bought a newspaper for the jobs supplement, then fled to a pub. The supplement was never opened. Instead I travelled the world for the afternoon through the pages on war, corruption, scandal, innovation, and stories of human kindness. When I’d finished, the coffee half abandoned and cold, I wondered about the lives of those in that welfare office, what wars, scandals, and endeavour those now filling in and dropping forms may have faced before eventually succumbing to a social welfare office. With a pen in my bag I wrote words in the crossword’s scribble box. ‘Poverty. A girl fumbling and apologising with sheets. The deforestation of India. The reasons people take bribes,’ I wrote without reason or rhyme.
Later that day my father rang, asking if I’d come home for dinner. Months earlier, he’d retired from a long career as an ESB engineer, had discarded the working world as easily as a shirt for a new one of painting, art appreciation, and four urban hens who each provided a daily egg. Yet the ease of recent dew drops now sounded distant.
‘We’re gonna go to Boston in a week’s time,. Things aren’t going great for your brother and Miriam. It’s all got a bit messy apparently,’ he explained that evening. He’d moved to America during my working years for a different job and my sister-in-law had seemingly never settled in. I’d half known.
‘We were wondering if you’d look after the hens while we’re away. Your sister is busy with the twins and everything, and it’s only for a few weeks,’ my mum added.
‘Look after the hens?’ I was incredulous. ‘For three weeks?’
‘We might even be gone for longer. We’ll have a better idea about things when we get there.’
The urgency to find a job suddenly seized me. ‘Do you not think I’ve enough to do looking for a job without playing hen house minder? Is this going to happen every time you go away?’ I asked, but even as I said it I remembered their patience during the last leap year and prepared to assent.
My parents’ departure to America gave me routine. I would call over each morning to feed their hens and release them from the wired, cordoned off area at the back of the garden where they slept. The Rhode Island reds had beady, brownish-red eyes and brown coats dotted with white, upturned feathers. Every morning when I arrived to release them, panpipe-like toots and coos would greet me before their hardened beaks would peck at the feed in their troughs. I would give them an hour or two to roam the whole garden’s lush green grass, forage amidst the herbaceous borders or bathe in the earth.
While the hens foraged, I’d peer through the house, observing my parents’ new world. Amidst dust and cluttered corners sat new books on art history and my father’s attempts at painting. The pristine order of items from his working years was gone though my mum still worked. Old games, sports gear and other prized possessions from the younger lives of my siblings and I still lay in different rooms as though we might someday return and need them.
‘What’s the latest over there, or can you talk?’ I asked my parents on the phone one night.
‘Paul and Miriam are still having a tough time, but we’re doing our best to help them. He’s just outside in the garden,’ they spoke softly. ‘We’re going to stay on for a few more weeks. Are you okay to mind the hens? How’s the job hunt going?’ they changed topic. My answers were shorter than theirs.
One morning whilst watching the hens forage, I heard a confident knock on the door.
‘Hi there, my name is Colm. I’m from Amalgam Household Goods. I was just wondering if you’d had a chance to look at the catalogue I put through the door a few weeks ago,’ said a tall man in his mid thirties with a boyish face. Pearl white teeth revealed themselves with every sentence. ‘There was a yellow note on it saying: “for collection”.’
I looked behind me at the deluge of ad mail. ‘Yeah, I have it here, but I didn’t get a chance to read it I’m afraid. I’m actually only keeping an eye on this place.’
‘Well, you can always have a look at it over the next few days and I can come back. It’s full of great offers on household appliances like really cool home entertainment systems, computers, laptops. Are you renting with others?’ he asked with a lingering smile.
‘If you come back tomorrow or the day after I’ll have had a look at it then.’
‘No, take your time. I’ll come back in a week or so. What do you do yourself? I’m Colm by the way,’ he asked.
We got talking. He’d been a sales agent for Amalgam for a few years and was highly successful. He purchased a bulk volume of catalogues, distributed them, and when orders came in, got commission on sales, traced back to him through the catalogue ID numbers required for ordering.
‘Very good,’ I said, nodding.
‘You should give it a go if you’re looking for work,’ he said. ‘You get to meet people and you’ll be surprised at how much people are interested in buying new appliance for their houses. It’s a material world. You can make thousands in a month and it’s relatively easy with few hours a week.’
With plans already swirling in my mind I invited him in for coffee. For over an hour in the garden Colm explained the daily grind, took a sip of his coffee, then continued. ‘All you have to do is distribute the catalogues, then engage with people about buying when you call back for the catalogues. The great thing is if you get other people to become agents you get commission on what they sell, and if they recruit people you get commission on what they sell too, and down the line too.’
There would be a living, and money, and abundant time – time to live and love. I would entice others to become sales agents, mentor them and form a lucrative empire. ‘What’s the cost of it?’ I asked.
‘Just the cost of paying for the catalogues when you order them; there’s no start-up fee at all,’ he said. The sunshine seemed to flow behind his shoulders. As he finished speaking one of the hens flew onto the white plastic table, peered sideways, preened herself, then glided onto his lap. His smile vanished, but in the ensuing laughter the matter seemed settled.
‘I’ll have a think about it for a few days, but it sounds impressive.’
‘Don’t think about it for too long though!’ he said, smiling as he dusted off his trousers.
That night Amy called over to my place and I described the proposal in detail. ‘You should get involved too,’ I told her, Amy listening as he index finger gently scratched my knee.
‘It’s pyramid selling,’ she said flatly, but I countered with the facts again. She shook her head.
I rang my best friend and explained everything. ‘Give it a shot, you’ve nothing to lose,’ he said, and I was sold.
The next morning I rang Colm. He called over that afternoon and in a whirlwind of smiles and excitement he shook my hand, then I shook his again as I signed the form. A few days later, an An Post van arrived in the pouring rain with the catalogues. As the rain-swept delivery man watched me sign his electronic receipt book, drops of water singeing his moustache, I felt like a businessman laying the first blocks of an empire.
For two weeks I devoted the morning to delivering or collecting leaflets after feeding the hens. I never delivered in my parents’ estate, but walked through it en route to less familiar ones nearby. Half guest, half spectator, I noticed familiar houses had received extensions. New houses had been built in the crevices of space beside corner houses. People I’d played with as a kid had become busy adults. Some of their parents had shrank or grown grey. Several homes had occupants I didn’t recognise.
With each glossy magazine I left a personal note inside the plastic cover saying I would collect them. Some people sat in wicker chairs in porches gazing out and shook their heads when I called back. Other houses had gardens that seemed loved by labour, their driveways adorned with small boats on stilts. Walking to these doors I felt hopeful.
‘Good morning. Can I give you one of these catalogues of Amalgam Household Goods please?’ became my standard line.
‘No thanks, you’re grand.’ ‘We’ve no money for that kind of stuff.’ The rebuffs always scorched.
On trips to collect the catalogues, more people talked. A tall man with white hair and beard told me he’d returned to Ireland to retire after working at sea for decades. ‘I do ask myself now why I came back,’ he began, looking out on the street, ‘if it was too long in the making.’
With this sentence he revealed how much he had read, reflected and travelled. I listened for over an hour. ‘So, can I tempt you to consider placing an order on some of our wonderful household goods?’
‘Ah, you’re grand thanks. But thanks for listening,’ he said, his benign gaze unwavering.
After two and a half weeks, I’d had five small sales. Nobody had signed up as an agent. ‘I guess I’ll keep ploughing on,’ I told Colm on the phone.
‘Well you could place an order for yourself just to get your case credits up and running,’ he said. His quick comment seemed a far cry from the reassuring words over coffee. After the phone call I thought about all I’d observed, as well as my sobering level of output.
My parents returned several days later, my father dumping the suitcases by the front door when we got home from the airport. He poured us a glass of wine. ‘I don’t think he really knew her when he married her,’ he said. ‘They’d been going out for less than a year when they got engaged, which by today’s standards probably isn’t so long, is it?’ he asked, not looking for verification.
‘I always thought there was something terribly protective about her,’ my mum added.
‘Anyway, we needed to stay around to help him get his head in order. He’s ashamed of himself, which is crazy, but he’s coming for your mother’s birthday.’ She was turning sixty in a few weeks time and they had always been close. ‘And how’s the jobs situation Barry boy?’ he asked, a term he called me in moments of candour or fatigue.
‘I’m, I’m making inquiries, putting in applications,’ I said. ‘It’s been hard juggling it all with feeding and minding animals.’ They didn’t flinch. I told them about the household goods selling. They frowned. ‘My embassy contacts – I was thinking of trying them too,’ I added to retrieve the situation. I’d expected there’d be a second glass of wine, that we’d chat late given I was staying the night, but they soon began turning off lights. Deep toned chatting emanated from their room and I imagined it was despondent reflections on how their children had fared. I closed my eyes until their confiding eased, hoping the morning might bring answers.
Amy called over the following night. ‘The network selling isn’t working out,’ I told her. ‘I think it might be time for a radical change of career.’
‘And do what?’
‘Find a steady career, study something maybe.’
‘It would probably mean going back to study for a few years, wouldn’t it?’ Amy asked, looking directly but benignly into my eyes. ‘What would you do?’
‘Something with writing involved I think. I can’t keep jumping from pillar to post; some day it’ll all come tumbling down.’
In the days that followed I made a flurry of contact with the same connections I’d contacted after losing my job. Some people said they might know somebody and would get back in touch. Their promises felt painfully calm. The clock’s tick was deafening.
With the same suddenness of my father’s revelations that my uncle had painting work, or the career guidance counsellor’s call about the French embassy, my friend and I got an email informing us that the government tender we had written had been short-listed. My project partner and I met up to re-familiarise ourselves with the material. In his cluttered house it felt good to re-acquaint with purpose and urgency. We met the department officials and talked through our proposal.
Two weeks later, another email informed us that we’d won the contract. I leaned back, smiled and exhaled deeply. The previous months fall off me like weight, the future now a changed and interesting friend. Everything wasn’t resolved, I reflected, but the transformative power of the news struck me, and for the first time I felt the need to bring that transformation alive through words. I picked up the closest pen and started writing – words, images, phrases – all the joined but disjointed parts of that transformative moment streaming onto the page.
The first of many consultation meetings for the government project took place the following Thursday. Rain split down as I dressed up in suit and tie, and a career of formal meetings, extensive reading and late nights finishing reports presented itself to my mind. It didn’t sound neat, but nor did my siblings’ lives.
That night I picked up the page of images and words I’d written. I began to write sentences. They manifested themselves into a short story, starting with a return from Australia, moving to painting of an uncle’s house. It had recruitment agents, an unexpected job, a girl, domestic hens and an episode of network selling. I wrote quickly, years of memory and imagination now flowing in the ink that bound these images. What connected them was the theme of a main character who would begin to write.
My brother returned for my mum’s sixtieth birthday. He stayed for a fortnight. He looked shook but was cheerful. The spotlight of vulnerability had shifted onto him. My own life grew busier and the pleasures of time and observation were curtailed once again. But the writing continues. The pen is still pushed.