SHE DIDN’T KNOW THEY HAD SECURITY MEN in the General Post Office now. They were standing inside the door in front of the penguins in the snow. She only popped in because some fellow wrote into The Times and said smartly enough that the US could stop looking for Bin Laden because he was in the crib in the GPO. She didn’t want to delay too long in front of it without a child in tow, but she thought he probably meant St. Joseph, though it could have been one of the wise men too.
She’d just left and was waiting on the traffic to clear while eyeing the flower stall on the long island that runs down the middle of O’Connell Street. She’d decided whatever it was going to be, it wouldn’t be carnations, those pastel colours upset her stomach like perfume in a car. She was standing on the newly widened footpath which must have been put there for all the hullabaloo that goes on nearly every week on that street. The last was a march down it by the army to commemorate the Irish UN soldiers who’d served in the Lebanon. She’d watched it for a little on TV, though she could hear the drums plainly from her flat. Then she’d gone back to Alias Smith and Jones (also known as Kid Curry and Hannibal Haze or Jedidiah Thaddeus Smith and Joshua Jones) holed-up with perfect strangers who entrusted their pre-pubescent daughters to them for picnics, where they had Adventist singalongs. She loved the way they rode together on the one horse out of a tight spot.
‘Ellen, is it you ?’ A heavy man about sixty stood in front of her.
She knew him right off, he still had those eyes for staring down bulls, but new were the humble glances slopping about on the grey bulbous face. She had an urge to laugh madly, instead she rattled off a line from a song: ‘Fol dol the di do, he was a nice man I tell you, skiddly die I do , diddly a, diddly a, die dum!’
‘Well I can’t believe it! I was sure I’d never again lay eyes on you, Ellen,’ he said, smiling hugely. She saw he was at a loss for molars.
‘Been a long time, Kieran, so long you’d have left when artificial colouring and flavouring was all the rage! ‘ She said, maybe in some way referring to the gaps in his mouth. How often she’d nearly passed out kissing that mouth!
He looked confused. ‘Things have changed alright, I noticed the troughs of rabbit food are over here now too.’
‘How’ve you been?’ She asked him slowly, carefully, because it wasn’t the question she wanted to ask.
‘Oh fine, Ellen, and yourself?’ he said again, smiling. She didn’t remember such a smiler, but he could pull his mouth over his head and it wouldn’t hide the mad old eyes she’d stared into, awake or asleep for years after he’d left.
‘Oh… ‘ she said adopting his exact tone, ‘if a dog is alright his ears are straight!’ That kept him quiet for one of his significant seconds, though she could see he was a little thrown. She knew he would think she was bitter because he hadn’t married her, but that was a long time ago. Standing there facing him she fooled herself into thinking she had never done a scrap of preparation for the scene of their reunion.
‘You’re thin, Ellen… not that it doesn’t suit you ! l wish I could lose it myself,’ he said, sneaking his hands inside the open jacket to catch two rolls of the offending stuff.
She said nothing to that, looked at his clothes but knew they were no gauge for anything. Her own clothes were not cheap but they were not as expensive as she would once have wanted them to be. She didn’t have a big wardrobe, but when she dressed every morning, each item worn was a valid point made. To whom in particular it didn’t matter. For anyone who cared to come too close with mockery or kindness.
He looked around the spot he was standing on, the eyes widening. ‘I don’t know why, but when I got back the smell of winter in the country gave me the biggest shock of all. You know the smell, Ellen, wet cattle and earth. I have it up my nose still. You can’t smell winter in the city.’ His gaze had locked on the flashing pink neon of The Happy Ring across the street. She suppressed a laugh she considered to be without a trace of bitterness at the irony of it all.
‘What other shocks did you have?’ she asked him, remembering once he had her so happy with her nervous state that she’d looked even at the ragged little panes of her nails with no regrets.
‘Home! I felt I’d just come-to, though ’twas the old fellow dying in the bed. All the years away from him dissolved. Yesterday I buried him, nearly ninety the bitter old gooseberry. I expected him to say sorry or something, I’m too long in America it seems. What he said to me was: “He who dwells in Heaven laughs!”‘
‘Oh…’ she said even though she heard the question in his voice.
‘It would be nice if we could go have a drink and a chat, Ellen.’
‘I can’t today I’m afraid,’ she said, not thinking he’d cope so well with the rejection.
‘Well, I’m here ’til tomorrow evening, my flight is at six.’
Not seeing any way out of it, she agreed to a meeting the next day. Neither of them suggested meeting that night. Forgetting the flowers, she stopped off at a Centra and picked a squashed sliced loaf of Super Thick White and went home forcing herself to eat a sandwich. Following her lunch she drank several glasses of water and then headed for the hospital for her abdominal ultrasound.
She sat close to the water dispensing machine and used the white tap because it was supposed to be less chilled than the blue. On the tank was a sticker of a camel with saliva jumping from either side of his mouth. The sun fell between it’s humps. She began to feel a little faint and cold from the water, noises sounded far away to her and then as though her ears were lined in reverberating sheets of tin, too near. The water seemed more in her stomach than in her bladder. A young woman passed by looking like a wild fuchsia with her wine dressing gown too short for her nightie.
IN HER VIEW, there were people doctors told the worst to, people who’d never before been chosen as a confidant. She was proud she was that type of person, as the doctor swivelled the instrument on her abdomen that processed the pictures of her ovaries. She could see nothing so deadly in those pictures herself, but the doctor was sure. The need to empty her bladder took precedence over questions. He told her to come back in and they’d talk it over. He used a tone that tried beautifully but failed to balance ‘all might not be lost’ with ‘but don’t count your chickens’. She knew it was over. Old words from somewhere came back to her: ‘Only thing, if you get it, grub well! ‘ It was said about cancer but she didn’t remember who said it.
She turned into the hospital canteen as though the smell of food might jog her memory. She stood in an awkward spot looking at the menu, unknowingly annoying people who had to walk around her to get in the queue. Peppered beef, celery, carrots, peas, corn, french beans (they’d be rubbery), chicken leg (pay more for the breasts). Looking at the menu she wondered who would bury her as she’d no one belonging to her. The oddness of the thought had nothing to do with her lack of appetite. She left the hospital without going back to the doctor for the details.
On the way back to her flat she dropped into a church. The few people that were there were all close to the back. She walked up the left side aisle, knelt opposite an empty alcove, its pale green paint bubbling with the damp. On the cross Christ, his arms raised, bent a little at the elbows, the way the priest raises the host in the air while saying: ‘Body of Christ, take away our sins’. Dingalingalingaling go the altar boys’ bells.
No matter how long she sat there, she knew she couldn’t do it, there were no late entries for some and it was plain to her she’d die without the comfort of religion. The practicalities of death intruded again, she would have to figure out a way to be discovered before her body had lain dead for days or weeks. It didn’t take her long from that thought to think about her chance meeting with Kieran. Although he was going back to America and maybe he wasn’t the most convenient. It would mean courage and good timing on her side. So it was final, she had earmarked him for the duties of her death.
It was twilight when she crossed over O’Connell Bridge and passed the sturdy winged statues, one of them with a caned bollard perched on its wing tip. The sky was the colour of deep blue glass and the street lights and car lights all vied for attention. All the trees along the centre were strung with Christmas lights. Figures of hope seemed to be everywhere and she knew it was some primordial trick of her brain that started her pointing each one out: O’Connell with his arms up for the workers; Fr. Mathew for the drunkards; Christ, in a glass fronted box, for all; and Parnell at the bottom with his right arm flung out to the side as though a wall to lean against were missing.
She threw an eye into the black hairdressing salon that was doing great business even in the evenings. She noticed they’d put a new sign in the window with photos of any and every kind of design carved into the black skulls. Inside her flat she looked at herself in the mirror, tapped at her own white hair and then chose an outfit for the meeting with Kieran the next day. Unconsciously she went around the flat making an inventory of all her belongings, it was good that she could take care of all those and not have him bothered by them at least when the time came.
THEY’D DECIDED THE DAY BEFORE on meeting in the Gresham. It suited her, being grand and near. She’d planned out what she was going to say, and it wasn’t like she had much to say but it had still needed a lot of thought. He was there before her sitting up straight in the chair and coming to the end of a whiskey on the rocks. His clothes looked more American than yesterday, she guessed he’d been dressing down for the occasion of going home for his father’s funeral, no sense in turning up like the returned Yank. He stood up when he saw her coming and sat again as she sat opposite him.
‘It’s really nice to meet someone from home,’ he said, not smiling at all, just as she remembered him.
‘Isn’t that from a song?’ All of a sudden she felt a little awkward.
‘What?’ He looked puzzled and was distracted trying to catch someone’s eye to get drinks. She began to hum and then sing it softly.
‘… I’ve been over here a long time on my own, and it’s really nice to meet someone from home. Oh won’t you tell me now how Dublin city fares, it’s such a long long time since I was there… ‘
‘Are you mocking me, Ellen?’ He turned hard on her.
‘Don’t flatter yourself Kieran, I just remember the song!’ The colour spotted her cheeks which had sunk i n the last months. They stared at each other a little while and both knew they’d found a crack in the wall of separated time and it would be hard to keep pretending they had changed so utterly as to not know each other. He got up and went to the bar for their drinks, when he came back she said: ‘So you’re married!’ Wasn’t it obvious. ‘Any children?’
‘Two. One of each, they’re grown up now, married, have their own kids.’ He said it all so carelessly, in such a way that she knew they were a close family and both his children had done well for themselves. Bright, beautiful children now with their own bright, beautiful children. She was happy for him, there was no doubt in that. She wondered if he could guess that she hardly had a pot to piss in and maybe even that she’d no one to bury her.
‘And you?’ He asked it anyway, fair play to him.
‘I never married,’ she said, running that in to her next question for fear of his response. ‘ls your wife American?’
‘She is,’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you get married yourself?’
‘You’ve a good nerve to ask me.’ She tipped half the glass of whiskey down her throat.
‘We can avoid talking about it if you want but what’s there to lose for either of us? We’re both adults now, that stuff is way in the past, Ellen. Can’t we just talk it over?’
‘What, Kieran… is there something you’d like to know? Weren’t you there yourself?’
‘I had to go! ‘
‘Go on then, talk! Tell me your side of it.’
He sat looking at the tips of his thumbs. ‘I got her pregnant.’ His voice was almost inaudible.
‘Her being your wife is it? Was that difficult, her being in America and you here? Oh sure I forgot what you were like then! You showed me didn’t you! ‘ She said tipping the remainder of her whiskey down her throat and storming off to the bar for two more drinks. He didn’t look up from his thumbs until she got back.
‘She came over here, a relation of one of the neighbours down home.’
‘Well it hardly matters now anyway,’ she said, surprised at her voice clogged with the pain of it. He leaned over and grabbed her wrist hard, the memory of it nearly caused her to drop the drink out of her other hand.
‘Ellen! ‘ he said, his eyes begging her to let him talk, to let her talk.
‘Hoped for the best after that, didn’t you? Was that enough to ward off the worst from happening, is that what you want to know?’
‘Was it?’ he asked, letting go of her wrist.
‘It was, there was no baby from that night. Would you have come back if you knew there was one?’
‘I was a young fool then,’ he said, staring into her eyes to tell her that he wasn’t an old fool now.
‘No, you wouldn’t have come back then! Imagine that…’ She told herself it was another woman’s bad news not her own.
How they moved the conversation to different things was a wonder. She didn’t know if it was because of the news she’d received yesterday or because she thought that at least they could try to part on good terms. What else had they but to part on good terms? As the time drew on for him to leave for the airport they were both a bit drunk and it became more important to her to be as sweet as she could be to him, since the next time he would have dealings with her it wouldn’t be so nice for him. He’d looked a little surprised she thought when she asked him for his address and phone number. It did cross her mind then that maybe he would give her the wrong ones afraid of what she would do to upset his marriage. She knew she couldn’t afford to think like that though-there was no one else.
She waited with him at the taxi rank across from the hotel. It didn’t take long, it was a good time to get a taxi even with the Christmas shoppers about.
‘Goodbye Ellen,’ he said quietly.
‘Yes,’ she said as he kissed her cheek.
She didn’t know that from the time he sat into the taxi he’d started counting the hours until they’d meet again, sure now that she would call or write to him. He needed the sign from her to leave and when her letter came he huddled over it, too happy at first to dare reading it.
The news of her suicide devastated him less than finding no expression of love for him. He thought at first it was her revenge. Afterwards he tried to be thankful that the chance meeting had happened and he could at last do something for her. And everything was in the open now, it was time for him to give up trying so hard.