There was the talk around town. Murmurs at first. Every so often his name coming up in conversation in those months after he walked out of his job. Occasionally a friend would let you know they’d bumped into him in the street, chatted with him for five or ten minutes, said they thought he looked well. Later they might throw in a few details or a bit of conjecture, though no one, I think, really knew what to say. Most of the time you simply got word of him in passing, so that afterward you never remembered where or when or from whom you’d first heard something. Suddenly it was just there, spidering in your thoughts. The way you might read a novel in stops and starts over a long period of time so that after a while the information began to enter you sideways. It was only later that things got more involved. Nights when you could shift your weight a few inches on a bar stool and be confronted by the latest theory. That’s just it, you see. Oscar’s always been like that. Don ‘t you remember when we were kids..
There were the things people began to say. A tone of voice you began to recognise whenever someone mentioned his name. For a while I think everyone tried to put a positive spin on it. ‘He’s taking a break from things,’ they’d say. ‘Christ, you’d want to take a step back every so often and have a look around. Especially these days.’ For a while this was what they’d say. Though I still remember one or two occasions when discretion faded away. Like the time someone tried to drag his ex-girlfriend into the middle of our chatter, her eyes suddenly glaring. ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ she said, ‘I don’t want to talk about him!’ Or the night one of the stoners at the end of the bar got impatient with the topic of conversation. ‘That’s Oscar, like! I mean fuck it, what’s there to say really..’
There was his sister telling everyone he was just lazy.
There were the things you knew for certain that year. All of us living our lives in each other’s pockets, so that it was difficult sometimes to tell the difference between real and rumour. For me, it was the year Claudia and I got a flat together in town. It was the first time either of us had ever lived with someone, and I suppose both of us were a little jumpy at the start. But we were like any other couple when you thought about it. We burned dinners, shopped for house plants. We stayed in bed on Sunday mornings. We slowly began to take each other for granted.
Living with her, that was my certainty. Real or rumour.
Then there was Oscar. Walking out of a job and a life one day without explanation, and moving back home. His name suddenly coming down to you with an air of hearsay and second-hand information. And while he still joined us occasionally for a night out, people had started to talk about him as if he’d upped camp and moved to China. As if he no longer lived just up the road. Oscar Lynch, twenty1our. Doesn’t get out much anymore…
‘He’s always been like that.’
There were the old stories we all knew, but got told again for the sake of it. As if something might be plucked from their retelling, and offer some answers. There was the one about him dropping out of university in Dublin when he was twenty, throwing his hands up after only a few terms, and moving back to town. Or his trip to Amsterdam a year or two later, going off with a few friends for a long weekend in June and not coming home for the rest of the summer. He just stayed out there, he said afterward, working for a while in one of those giant flower warehouses.
There was the way his mother died unexpectedly not long after that.
There was his old boss. Oscar had been working as a second or third chef in a restaurant in town. He had quit pretty much the way he did everything else-without saying a whole lot to anyone. None of us knew about it until the following week when the head chef, a stout and rather emphatic Italian in his late thirties, began to ask around for a replacement. We all knew the Italian from the pub, and one night over pints, I asked him what had happened with Oscar.
‘Son of a bitch!’ he said, his eyes lighting up. ‘One day he does not come to work. No call, nothing. I even begin to worry!’
Claudia who was with me began to laugh.
‘Now, I’m an okay guy,’ the chef continued, his hands open-palmed in front of him as if the things he was saying were questions he often asked himself. ‘I make a good place to work in. But Oscar? Non so.. I would have liked a call.’ With that he held his fist to his cheek, gesturing as if with a phone, and shrugged his shoulders.
After a moment Claude asked him, if he had the chance, would he hire Oscar again.
‘Absolutely no!’ he said. Then, pursing his lips to fight back a smile, he added: ‘Well . . . tell him to come see me.’
Figlio di puttana. Un po’ strana. There were the phrases I picked up that evening talking to the Italian chef.
There was the way his ten-year old neighbour put it.
Calling up to Oscar’s house one evening that summer. The two of us kicking a football around in the car park out front. A small boy with cropped hair and a pensive face watching us quietly from nearby.
Oscar and I had just spent the last hour talking in his kitchen over a halfhearted game of chess. Dirty dishes and a half-full bread basket cluttered on the table as we played, a saucepan cooling on the stove. The smell, even from the hall, still suggesting the tomato sauce he and his family had had with dinner before I arrived. His sister and father had eaten and left and only news talk was rolling off the kitchen radio when I came in, an eternal feature of their house the few times I’d visited in the past.
Oscar’s house was something of a local oddity. An old one-storey council house sitting by itself on a narrow stretch of green between the N22, the main road north out of town, and a car park. An old groundskeeper’s quarters without any grounds left to keep. Behind it there sat a big stone grotto with a plaster statue of the Virgin facing out onto the road. On the other side, directly across the car park, there was the old district hospital where his father had worked maintenance for twenty-seven years, retiring only recently. The hospital had long since become a nursing home.
That evening in his kitchen we had talked with half an eye on the game. Nothing heavy-local news, football, films we’d both seen recently. He asked after Claudia, who was working that night. There was nothing of the knot that had been growing in all our heads about him over the last seven or eight months. There was nothing like that. How would one have put such a question anyway?
As we kicked the ball around outside that evening, I couldn’t help but catch one or two plain glimpses of him in the dimming light. The way, in certain moments, we manage to observe our friends, or those close to us, objectively. To anyone who didn’t know him, Oscar would have seemed an unlikely figure to cause a stir. Thin framed, almost bony, his pale plain features that reminded you of one of Brancusi’s sleeping heads. His small, alert eyes. His hair was cut short that day, ‘just like every other arsehole in town’, he told me, according to his sister.
After a while the boy crossed the car park and approached us.
‘Don’t mind him,’ Oscar said.
‘Okay,’ I responded, but almost immediately the boy spoke over me. He said that the ball was his and that he had left it there earlier, but he spoke in that roundabout way kids do, and a lot of it I didn’t understand. He had a creaky asthmatic voice, like that of a very old man. When Oscar told him to fuck off, he responded by taking a swipe at the ball. I shifted it away and kicked it back to Oscar.
The boy wore a sleeveless T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms and a pair of new looking school shoes in which he walked with a slight bound. There were faded henna tattoos on both his shoulders. He shouted after Oscar and chased him into the middle of the car park.
Oscar began to play keep-away but didn’t have to try very hard. The boy raced after him but it was like watching someone in slow motion, as if some unseen physical restraint was preventing him from moving the way he wanted to. Eventually he lunged at Oscar who kicked the ball down the centre of the car park where it became wedged under the back of a car. Breathless, the boy looked up at him. He lunged again, this time punching Oscar on the hip.
‘Little shit,’ shouted Oscar.
The boy winced and held his hand. He had struck bone. Both of them began to walk back in my direction, but the boy stopped after only a few steps. He announced again that the ball was his and that he was going to tell his brother who, Oscar told me, was about our age and ‘twice as fucking crazy as this one.’
The boy walked off in the direction from which he had come. He passed where the ball was wedged under the car, but didn’t take it. Then, just before disappearing, he turned back to us. He threw both his middle fingers in the air, gyrated his hips like a hula dancer, and shouted in a loud voice:
‘Get a job!’
I began to laugh. That’s a bright kid!’ I said.
‘Little shit,’ Oscar said again, though he could hardly conceal his smile.
‘He’s always been like that.’
There was the way Claudia put it later that evening, after I got back from his house. We were in bed and it was a warm July night with the windows open, and she had to speak over the voices in the lane. She was lying next to me, her eyes closed.
‘I’ve known him since we were kids,’ she said. ‘We went to the same school together. He was always a bit quiet, but even then there was something, a respect. The other kids never picked on him even though he was small. The teachers were mad about him. The girls, I suppose we all had a thing for him… but that wasn’t it exactly. I don’t know, it’s difficult to explain.’
As she spoke her voice became singsong, as if about to fall asleep.
‘The Housebuilder!’ she announced suddenly. ‘It was something I read once and I don’t know why but it’s always reminded me of him. It was this lovely line from a book full of lovely lines, you know, one of those cheap little things they sell at the counter in the bookshop, full of sayings. It was from some Buddhist holy book, I think, about the cycle of lives. That at the end of many painful rebirths, at the end of the many houses we live in, we arrive at a place free of want or need. What were the last lines again…’
At that moment she switched to a melodramatic voice:
‘But now, Housebuilder, I have found you out and I am free!’ she exclaimed. ‘You will not build me a house again!’
She laughed at hearing herself say this and afterward she drifted off. But just before sleep, she added in a semi-conscious voice: ‘It’s mad, you know, the way people are going on about him.’
There were the late season crowds.
Sitting in the pub one evening after work. It was the end of September and it had been almost a year since Oscar’s disappearing act and by then no one talked about it anymore. Other gossip came and went, we barrelled through other people’s stories. And at the core we had our own problems to deal with. Like the way Claude and I were beginning to get in each other’s way at home. ‘Oscar?’ I heard someone say across the room that evening, ‘Jesus, I haven’t seen him in ages!’ I was sitting at the bar reading the paper and paused a moment to listen. But by then the conversation had moved elsewhere.
When I walked outside that night it was almost dark. Just a cool lucent blue shell above the streetlights. I could hear amplified music nearby, then someone shouting through a loudspeaker. There were no cars on the streets. That summer the local authority had chosen certain nights to close off the centre of town for pedestrians and it was one of the last of these evenings. When I turned the corner, I saw where the music was coming from. A large crowd had gathered around a pair of street performers. I could see flashes of light in the middle of the crowd, each flash followed by loud thumps against the pavement and applause.
At the edge of the crowd I remember noticing a young couple, tourists, standing in the street with their backpacks on the ground in front of them. The girl was pulling something from her pack, a sweater it turned out, while he flipped through a guidebook. Both looked a couple years younger than me, students I thought, and the girl had a pretty face and narrow hips and she swayed, half-dancing, next to her boyfriend. Both looked lost. They gazed around them at the busy street, at the other tourists hovering in the doors of overcrowded restaurants.
As I moved through the bodies, the music came back on. A loud screeching circus music, then further flashes of light. I never did make out what the street performers were doing. A couple of small kids ran straight toward me so that I had to step out of the way to let them pass. The audience roared and clapped and got tighter. I haven’t seen him in ages… At that moment I looked past the crowd and the noise towards the street ahead, and beyond that, towards the main road north out of town. In my mind, I could make out the grotto and the car park and the old district hospital. I could picture that rickety old council house with its busy kitchen and talk radio and the overhead light hitting his almost perfectly expressionless face. And all of us with our grand certainties and our carefully averted eyes. All of us wanting to pin something, anything, on the only person in our portable lives who was standing completely still.
But that night there was just this shitty local street theatre. And a crowd too easily amused at it all. And the pretty tourist girl dancing next to her boyfriend that made me wonder what was waiting for me at home.
It’s been a few years since then. Since the night I called up to Oscar’s house and we played a lazy game of chess in his kitchen. I bumped into him the other day coming out of a newsagent’s and we chatted for a few minutes in the street. Local news, the next round in the Champions’ League. As we talked I couldn’t help but be struck by his appearance. I hadn’t seen him in a while and his face looked thinner, his smile a little more weary. His dark hair was speckled white in a brilliant February sun. I couldn’t help but think how so much has changed. Claudia and I have long since split up and many of the faces from that summer you don’t see around anymore. Everyone seems to have married or moved on. The Italian chef collapsed with chest pains at work one night and spent two weeks in hospital before returning home to Genoa for good. Funny thing was I think that was the first time any of us knew what part of Italy he was from.
And yet there was something reassuring about chatting with Oscar the other day. I don’t know what it was exactly, but something told me he hadn’t changed. That he was still the same. Still working as little as possible. Still making dinner for his family at the weekends. And, from time to time, still terrorising the local kids.
Still the ease with which he does nothing at all.