The first one was this:
A hand on her shoulder, as might scare her had she seen it on a screen, with suitable music, making her jump. A long fingered hand, bitten nails, tree-knot knuckles, the wicked witch from Snow White that had terrified her little sister when they were young and Disney-going. But she had not jumped. Rather she had calmly turned, a slow rotation of a dark world to a bright world, as if dreamless sleep was a stroll in a lightless place, and dreams a populating of the void, a bloom of colour and detail and sound and scent. She saw a city in the palm of some hills. She saw the sea. A river to it. Streets that trickled here and there. Buildings with the morning sun upon them. Low city. Summer haze. Oh lovely. She saw the scurrying shapes of vehicles and people, but there was a silence, and the absence of familiar things, and she knew she saw some altered world. And then she saw the face that owned the arm that turned her. A kindly face, old, wrinkled, womanly, but only in the eyes, as if that was where the beginning had fled in the end. She smiled, her head in a blue scarf. Bad teeth. The scent of peeled potatoes.
Then Mary Cleary woke.
At work a break-in. Three PCs gone, a filing cabinet battered open, paper everywhere, Mary’s three canisters untouched. But Pat’s slides were all over the place, most of them walked on, most of them ruined. Small smudges on the pale floor, grease spots, tiny shards. Pat sniffed and sipped coffee and scratched his head.
‘Maybe they’ll catch something,’ Mary told him, wanting to rub his arm, or tousle his hair or somehow bring him succour.
‘No. The burglars. I mean maybe they’ll catch something from the samples. You know.
Dutch elm. I was making a joke.’
He didn’t look at her. She pulled on her lab coat. Stepped on something.
‘Oh! Oh God, Pat, look what I’ve done! It was intact. I’ve broken it.’
He stepped over and crouched and Mary sighed above his thinning red hair and wished she could forget the woman she had dreamed of. The woman. The woman. He held a slide cracked sideways as if folded, held together by a tiny label running along its length.
‘Blue atlas cedar,’ said Pat. ‘From the Phoenix Park. 1989. It might be alright.’
He carried it to a table, placed it gingerly down, peered at it. ‘lt might be alright.’
Mary looked carefully for undamaged others. She picked them up.
‘I’ll put Stephen’s Green here, Phoenix Park by you.’
‘Liffey by the sink,’ said Pat and Mary laughed, a little too loudly.
‘There’ll be streets as well,’ he said. ‘Put them together. Fairview. St Anne’s. Merrion Square is unopened. So is Milltown. God. I don’t know. There’s ones missing from every where. Most of Howth is smashed. They go back sixty years, they do.’
He named the city to her by its green spaces. He named trees. Oak, elm, lime. Beech, sycamore, birch. Lawson cypress. Horse chestnut. Ash.
‘Ash from Malahide, Mary. I can find none left.’
He became pale, and for a moment Mary saw the future, when it would not be slide samples of bark and leaf and sap, but the trees themselves that had been lost to us, and she closed her eyes, and whispered a prayer for the work they did and the children of her sister.
The second was this:
The same city, stones thrown down and lived in. But this time a storm raged. The sea heaved in the bracket of the bay, splashing the land with its foam, thrumming the air, putting a knife in the cold wind. And the wind. A howl of soaked air funnelled down through the low hills, a mouth-filling punch, all unseen and screaming, as if a great ghost, the ghost of a different city, moved through its taken place, raging at the living places, pushing what was pushable, groaning what was not. Mary stood first where she had stood before, but seemed then to be in a different place, lower, the storm engulfing her, her hands on the stone of deserted streets and small alleys. Crying. Why crying? Why? She felt a childish fear, scared of the high wind, the solid rain, the sea she had seen. All will fall. And then her fear seeping out of her as if the storm was abating. It was not, but she felt a calm come into her, and looked around and saw again the woman in the blue scarf. Younger now. Mary’s age. She spoke.
‘Island in the salty sea, the island in the salty sea.’
Maybe it was that. Maybe not. Mary adjusted her head in the rushing air.
The woman, she was not beautiful, she was from the pages of a book, as if dreamed. Dreamed. Dream. Mary Cleary woke with a jolt.
In the car park of the church two teenage boys were discussing the resurrection. Historical fact or no. Not documented, said one, not witnessed, second-hand accounts only, and they of the aftermath (his fine hips, brittle as a thin cheese), and they only written by others, later, sixty years or so, later. Consistency of report, said the other, documented by proxy, truth through perseverance, the clarity of the notion (he stroked his own neck, palmed the short hairs, sending pale sparks to heaven), the consistency, always, over several versions, the consistency of rising. As easily proof of a well worked recipe, said the first, not at all, said the second. Mary stood blessing herself by the font, waving her wet fingertips up to her forehead and down to her breast and brushing her shoulders with her damp prayer.
He came from behind her, out of the cold air and the shadow. The boys glanced at him and moved away. Mary watched their arses, pistoning their pale blue engines across the black world, as the priest took her arm.
‘You wanted a word?’
‘Yes. I won’t keep you. Are they yours?’
He looked. Seemed to squint, suspiciously, at the side of her giveaway head.
‘They are. Nice lads. Paul there on the left has the stirrings of a vocation. Smart too. His friend is, ah, I don’t have his name right, something vaguely continental, his father Swiss or Italian, airline man. Good looking boy. Plays soccer day and night. Good at it too they say, though it’s not my game and I wouldn’t know. I’m a hurler born and raised.’
He made an awkward swinging motion and hit her on the hip. She smiled and he blushed. Coughed into his hand.
‘What can I do for you, Mary?’
The boys went out the gate and parted with outstretched arms, as if, tilted, one was falling from the other, clutching awful air, unable to touch, unable to reach that far. Had they sorted out the resurrection then she wondered? Put it to rest. Laid the ghost. Laid.
‘I am having bad dreams.’
They sauntered through an arboreal archway, into the warm air of the garden, the other silence, the greenery.
‘Yes. They concern a city. This city I believe. I find myself in it, or above it, sometimes below it, around it, beside it, whatever. I find myself there. In the company of the Virgin. She tells me things about time.’
He looked at her, all his usual pallor returned.
‘The Virgin Mary? Our Lady? The Mother of Our Lord?’
He stalled in his stroll and sought out the bench. They sat. Mary breathed deep the fragrant heat. She spied out the coxcomb, pinched her eyes at a yellow rose, weighed the chrysanthemums, thought of cooling. Thought of her frozen soil.
‘I’d be wary.’
‘Why are you telling me?’
She shrugged, dislodging the buzz of a creature from a point somewhere starboard of her left shoulder.
‘Priest. Mary. Fear.’
He hummed, swatted at his deserted knee, seemed at a loss.
Mary sighed, searched the blue sky for a face.
‘What does she say?’
‘That the city is going up.’
‘Going up. Ascending. Entire. In the year after, something. Abu Simple. Shifting upwards. Due to flooding. I believe this is metaphor.’
‘Yes. Simple. Symbol. Something such as. But this is also the past. Neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. A qualifier there, you’ll notice. Destroy. This is also the future. The city will go up. Raise itself, I gather. Be gathered. Then down below, I suppose, there’ll be some rainfall.’
‘You’re Noah, are you?’
She gave him a look. He gave her a smile. Oh indulge the Lord.
‘No. I am not. All the world is for the bin except here. Except the bit of the river, the length of the river and the width of the river’s length across the river.’ He let his breathing be heard. Pushed his feet across the grass, cracked a small
bone into place, embraced his self.
‘How many dreams?’
‘Not at first. Then regular as sleeping. All entirely remembered. All as clear as day. And they do not fade over time. I could close my eyes and tell you start to finish any one of them as if I dreamed it now.’
He shifted his black seat, waved at his face as if sending it away somewhere and clutched the edge of the bench.
She shut out the light and the heat went with it. Number thirty-three came to mind. A loop.
‘We’re sitting in the, what will I say, parlour, is that right, I don’t know, of a suburban house in the nineteen thirties.’
‘She uses the word. A small sitting-room, chilly. On the wall there is a wide painting, dark browns and deep greys and shadows on the faces. It is Christ feeding the five thousand. He has his eyes turned up as if in pain, but serene, and baskets of fish at his feet, and his hands out, all palms, and loaves in the folds of his robe. Mary sips tea. Clears her throat. She tells me that there will be a fire. A fire? A fire. Not a flood? A fire first she says, across the sea, and the water will fall before it rises-an ebbing preceding the great foaming rush. She says that before the fire there will be not enough prayer and after the fire there will be too much.’
‘Too much prayer?’ snaps the priest. His face, Mary senses, a bit like a jumping horse, though she keeps her eyes shut.
‘It’s what she says. She sips tea. Then she tells me that as the city rises, the length of the river and the river’s width etc., there will be sundering. Along the line of the going up there will be the line of the staying put. Families split, she says. Farms in two. People driving, safe one second, drowned the next. Houses where the kitchen will split from the parlour. The parlour. Such as this, she tells me, and with that I feel a lift-off, and I cannot help but think of astronauts, and the whole room goes up but for the one wall which is ripped, masonry falling, crumbles of brickwork, flakes of plaster, and is left behind, and the sky appears where it has been and we shoot up into the sky like a fucking rocket.’
The priest inhaled a high squeak.
She opened her eyes. The light was like a liquid. Thick and clinging. The real world.
‘Is that it? It stops there?’
‘Yes, Father. We’re left in mid-air. Except that it repeats. It’s a repeating dream. A loop. Three times.’
‘Yes. The second time it’s not the feeding of the five thousand but the wedding feast at Cana, and the third time it’s the Last Supper. All food-and drink-based affairs you’ll notice. Other dreams repeat before I wake, some as many as a dozen times. Those tend to involve the apostles.’
‘Tell me those.’
She briefly let her eyelids fall. Oh God. There is a touching. She opened wide the world. She did that too. Which was it, James or John with the mole beside his navel, a black eye by a pale gaze, a rock by a pool? Which one was it whispered from the Book of Daniel, and he changeth the times and the seasons, he removeth kings and setteth up kings, he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge… and oh, and oh. That was her last. And Judas was the gentlest, but Philip was the best. His chest a drum of wilderness. A pillar of words.
‘Thus were the visions of mine head in my bed.’
The priest coughed. Mary rubbed her eyes.
‘I’m sorry, Father. Some dreams are… ‘
He coughed again. Closed that part. His squinty eyes. Mary stood and he followed.
She walked a circle of the garden, feeling the heat less for the height she had and more for moving. A tear of sweat meandered down her back. She cupped a bell lily in her damp hand.
‘Do you want them to stop?’
‘Yes. No. I want to know what it means. I want to know whether I should hope.’
‘You should always hope, dear,’ he said, without pausing to think. He stopped then, she could hear his uselessness. ‘Not of course that it is true. That would be a little dramatic. I think rather that, as you say, this is a metaphor. I would say that it is up to you how you take this, ah, gift, this gift of visions, and up to you how you react, how you yourself interpret it. For after all, I think perhaps we are the only ones who can interpret our own dreams. For we are the only ones who know them fully. Know them all. Know how they are informed by the lives we lead. How they are shaped in that way. Whether they are calls to correction. To prayer.’
No fool he. All of them, he said. Fully, he said. It was her fault then. Her
weakness. Her mind.
‘You don’t believe it is the Virgin?’
‘Her name is Mary.’
‘Your name is Mary also.’
Mary Cleary straightened her wet back and glanced at her priest. All black to catch the sun. He was smiling.
‘Father. . .’
‘Yes … ‘
‘You’re not listening to me.’
Pat folded a sheet of negatives carefully and placed it in an envelope and the envelope in a drawer. He yawned. He turned the small key in the lock in the drawer and pulled the key out, tried the drawer, put the key in his pocket. He had missed a bit shaving, under his chin, giving him a shadow there, as if the sun was above him and he stood in the centre. Mary looked at his shoulders. At his short hair and the way it thinned and disappeared beneath his collar, his skin blotchy there, red. He dressed badly, in cheap pastel shirts and shiny arsed black trousers. She tried to fancy him. She forced herself to look at his crotch when she was sitting and he was walking towards her. There was nothing. No mystery. Flat and black and boring like staring at a flap of road. She wondered what he did with it. Where he put it. In which part of his life. She sniffed at him when he passed. Tumble dryer and soap and a stinging spurt of metallic spray. Man clamped and clipped. Working man. Naked but for his clothes. Cropped by time. She thought that such men would go neither to heaven nor hell but hover for a while in the light air and form a queue. And re-enter then, re-incarnate themselves into middle management. And so on.
‘Have a good weekend?’
He hummed. Yawned again. Maybe he’d been up all night fucking a perfumecounter girl from Switzer’s and didn’t know what day it was.
‘I went to Cork.’
Well. There are women in Cork. There are long tunnels. Imaginations and star
ing and adventurous …
‘I was running in a 5k.’
‘A 5k road race.’
He smiled. His body was that of a runner then. An athlete.
‘I didn’t know you runned. Ran.’
‘The odd time. Used to be good. I’m slower now. I might have made something of it one day.’
What did he mean? He was twenty-five, no more. Too late? Too late already? She pressed her fingers to the wood of her desk. Something shot through her.
‘Did you win?’
‘Will you come to dinner?’
‘Out I mean. I can’t cook. We could go somewhere nice. My treat. We should really. We’ve worked together long enough. It’d be nice. Do you like Thai?’
His head bobbed, he swallowed a smile, the bastard, brushed at his arm with his other hand, did something with his feet.
‘No. No. I mean, I don’t think. Thanks anyway. I’m not much for going out anyway. Thanks anyway.’
Then a dream beyond dreaming:
A pair, more than a pair, of hands, held her ankles, her delicate ankles, and inched her carefully, slowly, out of her bed, pulling, tugging, the length of her, the whole of her, out over the edge, the precipice, the b, br, brink, out, Christ, the cold air rushing, out over the deep black space, out over the abyss, the gap in the world, out from the height, the rise, the going up, the gone up, the push, the haul, out from the high hill of the saved city, and dangled her, dangled her, swung her round and her flat shape cutting the night cold air, and dangled her, dangled her, first by a foot, then by a toe, over the whole sodden world, dammed in a watery pit below her, and she felt her long hair fall and her arms fall also, all akimbo in the high night. And her dizzy eyes picked out the drowning and the spires of swallowed churches. The splashing hands. Mary Cleary screamed and tried to wake. Nothing. The sound of hanging in the brittle future. Again she took a fill of cold wet wind and bellowed out her fear and shook her head to wake it. No. Nothing. She swayed and felt the fingers on her big left toe slip a little. Be still she told herself. Be still. She spat and watched the thin silver traces plummet through the inky distance, disappearing in the small choppy glints of the flood.
‘This disjunction,’ said a voice, hollowed out by ease and astonishing calm, ‘is true in the extreme. Here I am.’
And there she was, Mary in her blue hood, looking a little bored, hovering upside down in front of dangling Mary Cleary, her arms folded, her feet bare, her mouth set in a puckered line, a troubled figure in the earthless world.
Not upside down of course. It was Mary Cleary who was upside down, hung head first. ‘Your apostate. His mouth is very wide, Mary, not that you should have confided in the first place. My son is angry. Wants me to drop you.’
And the fingers let the toe of Mary Cleary go, and the water shot closer like a shift in magnification. Mary Cleary squeaked a scream. Then. A pair of full hands grabbed her arches.
‘But I will not. For he’s had enough of this world. My touch is subtler.’
Mary Cleary fought for breath. Blinked and swallowed.
‘Am I dreaming?’
‘Am I to understand that there is some dispute between your son and yourself?’ ‘Yes.’
‘Indeed. So he’s turned his back on us. A certain pique at the balance of devotions.
He’s elsewhere, trying again.’
‘Are you really,’ asked Mary Cleary, finding it hard now to keep all the blood of
her body from the shallow cup of her head, ‘who I think you are?’ The hovering holy mother twitched.
‘Who I think you are?’
She made a face then, as if mildly disgusted, as if such a question was beneath her. Much was beneath her. The world as well. Mary Cleary watched the weight of her question carry the Virgin down a good twenty feet. And pause then, her pale face raised.
‘It is all I am.’
Mary Cleary thought on that, and it hurt her eyes, pounded at her temples. She blinked a long blink and looked for something peaceful. When she opened her eyes again she was no longer dreaming. No longer dreaming. No longer in the same dream.
He was sitting in a wooden armchair in his ante-chamber, his sacristy, slumped as if exhausted by the mass, the low fumes of wine and dust and altar boys swirling between them.
‘You nearly got me killed.’
He was astonished, and shifted a little.
‘Nearly got me killed.’
He left his mouth open and she looked into it. There was a hollow of darkness with a pale glow and she wondered where the soul was and whether it might be in the mouth.
‘You ratted on me.’
‘Told who? What?’
‘Told someone about my dreams.’
He moved his head slightly forward, closed his mouth, raised his eyebrows, looked up at her meekly.
‘No,’ he said.
‘Well actually yes you did, so really I don’t mind if you deny it because I know that you did whether you know it or not.’
‘I always talk to you in confidence, Mary. Always.’
She looked around herself. One of the walls seemed to consist, largely, of little drawers. She liked that-all those tiny hideaway places where it might take an age to locate the simplest of things.
‘I swear I have not said a word to anyone about … about what you told me.’
The drawers had small labels on them she thought, with writing which she could not read from where she stood. So she set off on a little amble towards the wall, her hands behind her back, leaving her bag where it was in a heap on the tiled floor.
‘Do you pray, Father?’
There was writing alright, handwriting, the same hand on each label.
It was faded, a blue grey scrawl sloping heavily to the right.
‘And when you pray do you tell about your day, relate the incidents thereof, make a
little list ofall the things that happened, present them as a tally, meditate upon them?’ There were fifteen drawers. Five rows of three; three columns of five.
‘Yes, I. .. ‘
‘Bookkeeping, is it?’
‘Debits and credits and bad debts and balances.’
‘It is not so cold as that.’
She thought one of the words was threadbare or threaten or theosophy, and another seemed clearly to be conventions and a third looked like fleet or foetal or fleece.
‘Well, that’s how it happened then.’
‘That’s how what happened?’
She wanted to open a drawer and have a peek, but his voice had turned a little impatient and she thought she should give him her full attention. She went back to her bag and looked at him.
‘You prayed you see. You prayed, I bet, to him, to Christ, rather than to her, his mother, or any random saint.’
He nodded, very uncertainly.
‘And tipped him off, inadvertently I know, but nevertheless, and he’s gone berserk with the mammy and she’s taken it out on me. Nearly frightened me to death she did, never mind about the actual dropping business.’
He looked confused, and made a shrugging, Mediterranean-type gesture.
She leaned forward from the hips, spoke quietly.
‘They’re having a row,’ she said.
He nodded, very slowly.
‘It seems that he has become jealous, or has always been jealous, or will have become jealous very shortly now in the past, or he was jealous in the next couple of days, he is jealous last week, used to be jealous in the future and is currently oscillating his jealousy over a roughly, in our terms, bifocal, or rather, bi-millennial kind of time frame. Although it is kind of bifocal, or it seems that he is. I’m sorry, I’m not making myself very clear.’
He was not buying this at all. He stayed where he was and made slight rotary movements ofhis lower arms, his hands. His face, though perturbed, was gentle, had assumed again that soft, vaguely stupid humanity which she supposed he felt was required of him. For her own part she felt that it would achieve nothing to shout.
‘Basically what it amounts to is that I’m having these dreams.’
‘And that these dreams suggest to me that I know more about your business than you do.e’
‘Which is very rude of me. I shall not talk to you any further on the matter.’
He formed a church with his hands, which Mary thought very sweet, and looked up at her from roughly the sacristy, thereby seeing her from within a representation which was itself within a representation of what was after all a symbol. There theyhad it-a little trinity as if by accident. He nodded.
‘I have not been very helpful, Mary. Please, if you feel that you would like another priest to listen to you, I can make an introduction, without any detail whatsoever of course, andset it up for you. Or if you wouldlike any other form ofcounselling, nonspiritual or spiritual, then please ask me and I’ll see what I can do to help. But as for myself, I am really not a dreams and visions man. I play some golf, I raise money, I say mass, I know my lines, what can I tell you?’
‘You’ve been very kind.’
She leant down and opened her bag.
‘Have a drink.’
She took out the middle canister, labelled IslandBridge 1989, and unscrewedthe top.
‘What have you got there?’
‘Just water,’ she said. Just the flowing water rising andthe sea will soon meet it, and if she couldn’t have one thing she would have the other, and if her dreams were her own they were no worse for all that, and that if they were not she would take what was due her.
She looked around for a cup or a glass and could see only the washed chalice, and immediately liked the idea of that. She fetched it and poured him a mouthful, just a mouthful, just enough to fill his mouth, to bathe his little soul.
‘Just take a sip,’ she said, and walkedtowards him andsaw the small fear in his eyes, and felt that she might be dreaming andshe might not, but that either way there was clearly between them all of the future and all of the past and that if one was to be torn from the other then it may as well be localised, internal, something you might feel from the soul in the mouth to the city in the gut.
He protested but she made him do it. Made him drink. Though the dream here is vague and the distance intervenes and the times are shuffled and the scene is stretched. He drank, he drinks, now, just now, this moment, not before, not afterjust as you read this he drinks. The two of them, alone, together, in the room off the cross, in the armpit of the lord, they sip together, they drink together, their lips together, their lives together.
Some of it spills, and they can sense in the small room, distinct and home-made, shared from the well, gathered from the trough, the smell, the smell, the smell of the river.