Nobody really knows what happened to Delilah’s hair. Of course the campus was abuzz with rumours all that spring and the gossip was first-class, high-octane stuff; but Delilah wasn’t talking, and, needless to say, neither were the O’Haras.
The name Delilah entered Joyce’s consciousness for the first time one chilly morning early in the winter term when she overheard two male students gossiping in the college library: ‘Have you seen that American babe called Delilah in first year English?’ whispered one. ‘God yes—wouldn’t mind being subdued by that!’ breathed the other, as a whorl of chilled air trembled round Joyce like a portent, catching her breath and wrapping her arms around her bosom.
In the afternoon, the way things happen, out of sorts since the morning, Joyce found herself face to face with the ‘babe’ across the no-man’s-land of the library information desk. Oh yes, the young men had not been wrong—annoyingly luxurious hair in some sort of elaborate braid, long slim body, loud confident attitude. ‘I’d like to apply for a Trinity library pass to help me with my research,’ said Delilah, in an irritatingly precious sort of way which suggested that research probably wasn’t something the Irish knew a lot about. Joyce, scanning the application, found herself wanting to kill her, while breathing in deeply through her nose and managing to communicate in a sort of strangled gasp, ‘I see you’ve got Professor O’Hara as your tutor.’
‘Oh yeah,’ gushed Delilah, ‘isn’t he something?’
‘Isn’t he just.’ Joyce pushed the air out through her teeth.
That night, as Professor O’Hara and his wife shared a fine bottle of Chablis (something they tended to do regularly since he’d become head of the English Department at the university), his wife remarked in her by-the-way voice: ‘I hear there’s an “American babe” called Delilah in first year.’ James, who had had a good look at Delilah during the freshers’ induction meeting that morning and made sure she was in his tutorial group, developed a sudden interest in the small print on the wine bottle, while replying casually, ‘Oh there’s always a fair sprinkling of “babes”, as you put it, in first year, although I must say there’s a particular energy about this first year lot, quite invigorating for the department really.’
‘Hmmm,’ responded Joyce, drily, as she regarded her husband of thirty years, the charming James O’Hara, father of their son and daughter, possessed of an incisive intellect, a midlife crisis and a ponytail. She thought of Milan Kundera and his theory about chance happenings, amazing coincidences; fortuities, he called them. Joyce was fascinated by the idea of coincidence, loved pondering on the degree of chance required to link people and events together. She and James had themselves been fatefully drawn together by the magnetic combination of their names, meeting as they had at a Bloomsday celebration; he, rakish in Joycean hat and glasses, she drawing his eye in voluptuous Molly Bloom muslin—an age ago that all seemed now. Her mind wandered to the coincidence of the birth of their daughter Eudora on the same day as Chelsea Clinton. Joyce now felt an affinity with Bill (he pacing in Little Rock while she laboured in Holles Street) which vindicated her staunch defence of him when he was behaving like a prick.
… but then all men were pricks at some time or another, were they not?… forgetting they had wives, carried away by some young one with chutzpah and looks… and if they were charming enough they got away with it… ah yes, fortuity, coincidence, fate, call it what you will, but of all the English departments in all the universities in all the world a babe called Delilah has to walk into my husband’s.
Joyce O’Hara sensed a fortuity of immense proportions gathering force around her. Her pet name for her husband was Samson.
She thought nobody else knew about the nickname, but of course, this being Ireland, and, in particular, a small university town, everybody did. Delilah, hearing the name whispered to her at the freshers’ induction meeting by a first year repeat called Alice, had also a sensation of being sucked into a fortuitous moment in time—how could she not? For there was more than the mythical pairing of the names Samson and Delilah; there was the fact that the name Delilah was also a nickname, acquired some years earlier at a student party in Boston College when she had taken the scissors to a drunk and offensive young male and cut his hair off while he slept. She could, of course, have discarded this name when she came to Ireland, and had been in half a mind to revert to her real name, which was Anna, but found herself changing her mind the moment she laid eyes on the interesting Professor O’Hara of the ponytail and enigmatic eyes. When she was introduced to him as Delilah Barrymore from Boston, a young writer who would be attending English classes as an occasional student for the coming academic year, they shook hands almost mischievously and afterwards neither could remember who raised an eyebrow first.
Professor James O’Hara was well aware of the virtues and failings attributed to him by his wife, but he was even more acutely aware of the sexual attraction he held for many of his female students, who gazed at him and blushed and were awkward in his presence. He realised this was in part due to the student worship phenomenon which seemed to apply even if a lecturer looked like a horse’s arse. In his case, however, it was in no small way, he felt, due to his innate sexuality and to his voice, achingly rich, he had been told, which he allowed to rise, then to fall almost to a whisper, so that students leaned towards him in the lecture hall in a half swoon of intimacy as he intoned on wastelands and worms and roses. That Delilah should be attracted to him was therefore not in itself surprising, but the Samson-Delilah coincidence could not but strike him as ironic and rather alarming. When Joyce called him Samson he quite naturally assumed a connection with Milton’s Samson Agoniste, all strength and pillars and teasing metaphors, but the more vulgar tale of Samson having his locks cut off by a scheming Delilah was a different kettle of fish altogether, considering his attachment to his beloved ponytail. For his grey-gold ponytail was not just about a refusal to let go of his youth; it had become, in fact, central to his image, striking others, he imagined, as an artistic counterpoint to the elegance of his academic gown, a garment which he affected to wear each day, much to the annoyance of his colleagues in the Arts faculty.
The first time she came to him in his room he was overcome by a bleakness, a sense of a foreshadowing of intense possibility which it would be up to him to include in or reject from his life. She had come to him straight from a lecture in which he had read, rather beautifully, he thought, from Muldoon’s ‘Incantata,’ the intimate love poem which begins: ‘I thought of you tonight, a leanbh…’
‘What does “a leanbh” mean?’ she asked him, and he replied, ‘Darling,’ knowing quite well that it did not, but unable to stop himself, the word hanging between them as if no further words were necessary, or even possible.
And neither did it seem possible that they would not be drawn towards each other into a fictive world of desire; these two, the teacher past his youth, seeped in an imaginary world of words and language, and the young aspiring writer, honing her craft on the waves of make-believe. Their narrative was played out against the backdrop of first year English literature, across a sea of literary love that had never been or would never be again: Yeats, who would never be loved by Maud Gonne; Gretta Conroy grieving for her young lover, Michael Furey, in ‘The Dead.’ What chance did they have in a climate of literary criticism where sexual politics played such a pivotal role, where every sigh was analysed, every glance deconstructed, tutorials informed by the whisper of angels dancing on the heads of pins.
After tutorials, which were held in his room, he would sometimes say, ‘May I have a word, Delilah?’ and the other students, banished, would convulse with laughter in the corridor outside. ‘A word, yeah right, is that what he calls it?’ And later that night across the Student Union someone would call, ‘Hi Tom, I suppose a word would be out of the question?’
But that was all it was—words. Rivulets of words, pools of words, words spoken and unspoken, half-whispered, half-heard. He would say quietly to her, ‘And how is our work in progress?’ and instead of the smart rejoinder she longed to make she would find herself leaning into her bag, retrieving pages from her latest short story. He admired her writing, liked its fluidity and lyricism but thought her style too reminiscent of Virginia Woolf and encouraged her to allow her own voice to emerge. He warned about overuse of interior monologue and a formlessness of character which he detected in her work. She expected him to kiss her, and was surprised and disappointed when he didn’t, but the stream of students past his window plus muffled noises from the corridor were reminders that discretion must prevail. He would come from behind his desk to find a book on his cluttered shelves and they would stand hip to hip, heads almost touching, hands not quite reaching, in a pose of unfulfilled desire, discussing a passage from Carver or Hemingway. Students passing the window, very slowly, it must be noted, reported seeing them like this, or sitting at his desk, a book between them, not reading, or talking, but simply gazing at each other. These reports varied, depending on the time of night or how often the story had been retold; memory played tricks, and in an atmosphere of Chinese whispering the only thing the students agreed on was that, whatever this thing was between Samson and Delilah, if they could bottle it they’d make a fortune.
The faculty was agog with speculation; students drank their coffee by day and their beer by night in a warm belonging of gossip; the staff watched with amusement tempered by anxiety. At times Delilah was surrounded by a small group of friends, mostly roommates from the student residence where she lived, the students hoping for some confidence, some titbit which they could proudly whisper next day. But when Alice would say, ‘Ah c’mon Delilah, what’s the story with yourself and Samson?’ Delilah would toss her hair and say, ‘Story, what story? There is no story.’ But she liked the idea of a narrative developing around herself and James O’Hara, the sense that they had been assigned roles in the remake of Samson and Delilah, the ending not yet written.
As the winter drew in it seemed to Delilah that the beginning had scarcely been written. Sometimes she thought she imagined the whole thing, that her writer’s mind had conjured up something which did not in fact exist. She was often solitary, walking under the dark trees of the deserted campus on a December evening, over the bridge towards the lights of the ‘dreaming spire’ of the old chapel, half hoping she would meet him, although she never did.
On one such walk, her feet freezing, pellets of icy sleet catching her breath, she began to reflect that what had started out as a mischievous game had somehow, for her, metamorphosed into something much more. She was humiliated by the fact that he had never suggested meeting her outside of the academic timetable. She had expected they would be lovers by now, the thing between them running its course, burning itself out.
She passed under the dark shadow of the Aula Maxima and into the square of the old campus, history surrounding her, casting, it seemed to her, a cold eye on her misery. He had mentioned a Yeats’ weekend in the new year. Did he mean they would be together then? And after that, what then? She felt out of control, her confidence sapped, fearful she might lose this game which was no longer a game, cursing the weird selection programme that had thrown them together, finally admitting to herself that she had fallen for him, the bastard.
Through the gates of the university and up into the small town, the warmth of the student pub luring her, all noise and bursts of laughter and discordant Christmas carols, but proving no match for the words and phrases forming and splintering in her head; her sense of dislocation acute; her thoughts turning on alternatives… shatter this ridiculous myth, forget the name Delilah, my name is Anna, go home, go home to Boston… she turned suddenly, tears freezing in the fur of her hood, almost savouring the foolishness, the timelessness of her situation, a rich store of emotions settling in her consciousness, the need to transfer her thoughts to paper bringing her swiftly to her rooms.
The O’Haras, meanwhile, sip Pouilly Fumé in their warm, lamplit drawing room. James is restless, finding excuses to return to the college, half hoping he will meet her, although he never does. Joyce never mentions Delilah again. She dresses elegantly and with great care, in silk and linen, her blonde bob sleek and shining, her eyes inchoate, her talk bright. From time to time sniggers of whispered conversation waft towards her in the library: ‘…wonder has Delilah her scissors sharpened yet… What will the Prof look like without his ponytail…’
Delilah herself drifts across her vision now and then— statuesque, beautiful, in expensive jeans and short sweaters, eyes avoiding, knowing quite well who Joyce is.
In the library one January morning a poster is hung, advertising the Yeats Weekend Winter School in Sligo. Members of Professor O’Hara’s tutorial group interested in attending please contact the Secretary of the English Department as soon as possible.
In the end all ten members of the tutorial group elect to go, as if each fears he or she will miss too much if they stay away. Although the weekend trip has been set up by the Professor, precisely so that he and Delilah may be together, of necessity it must take on the semblance of a jolly, instructive student outing— the Professor hoping the other lecturers will think ‘how sporting of old O’Hara to take a crowd of first years to Sligo’ while knowing damn well they would think no such thing.
Both packed with seduction in mind; Delilah purchasing delicate silk camisoles and French knickers; James escaping from a seminar at Trinity to select a velvet smoking jacket which he felt might be just the sartorial touch required for quiet drinks in his room—he allowed himself to think no further than that. As he closed his bag on Friday afternoon Joyce handed him a pair of scissors, ‘just in case the hair might need a trim.’
In the Sligo Park Hotel as the Yeats Winter School got underway, Delilah, seeing James O’Hara with his colleagues and counterparts from other universities, was struck by the hierarchy in which she found herself; to these professors, lecturers, poets and writers she was but a student expected to bow to their gravitas; indeed, had she been less self-absorbed she would have realised that the hierarchy operated inside the academic circle as well and that many a feather would be ruffled before the weekend was over. Her professor was kind, but of necessity drawn into another world of scholarship, a world which had been earned by long years of lecturing, publishing and occasional back-stabbing.
From the other side of the room she watches him spend time with Ireland’s smiling laureate, Hamish Sheeney, discussing arrangements for the following night when James will give a short poetry reading before the great man’s lecture on ‘Yeats and Love.’ She hears Joyce’s name mentioned frequently as she is enquired after, ‘Give her my love, must get together soon, how are Eudora and Tobias?’ Eudora and Tobias—Christ, how pretentious!
She felt exhausted, alienated, turned back on the students to whom she had paid so little attention on campus. They include her in their group, magnanimous in her discomfort, the young men and women pleased for different reasons. After the musical interlude which follows the welcoming address by the President of the Yeats Society she finds herself seated beside a young Ph.D. student from Queen’s University who talks enthusiastically about his thesis on the healing effect of literature on the troubled North. She hears herself telling him distractedly about her interest in writing, about ideas she has for some new short fiction. She notices James being swept away by the organising committee, hears talk of checking out the Yeats Memorial Building, cars starting up outside, doors banging shut.
At Lissadell next day, after a night of stormy dreams and waves lashing the Sligo coast, he seeks out Delilah. He finds her, in Yeatsian pose, almost as he had expected: her hand on the round polished table, the light from the great windows open to the south, her beauty gazelle-like. He watches her, his thoughts fragmenting as they had done in his dream last night. He sees her as Maud Gonne, haughty, denying, morphing into Delilah, astride Samson with scissors in her hand, himself, reaching out, calling to two lovers called James and Anna, whom he can’t reach, who can’t hear him through the storm and the crashing waves. He thinks he might be going a little mad. He notices the attention she is being paid by that young fellow Sean from Belfast, brilliant scholar, so they say, good-looking, have to admit, in an annoying Pierse Brosnan sort of way, and does not immediately turn her head when he speaks to her.
‘Are you enjoying the weekend?’ he asked her quietly.
‘Yes indeed, most instructive’
He studied her. ‘A drink with me tonight in my room?’
She almost leaned into him, and in truth, if she had done so he would hardly have resisted. Instead, she inclined her head slightly and taking that for assent, he nodded, but before he could continue he found himself being addressed by a persistent junior lecturer from UCC who was after a job in his department. The junior lecturer would wonder for the rest of his life why he did not get the job when he was clearly the most qualified candidate.
At dinner that night he sits at table with the academics, she with the other students. Among his own kind he is different, imposing a foolishness upon her which it is humiliating to acknowledge. Before she came here she had imagined she would sit by his side. She wears a stunning dress of midnight blue, zipped down the back of the strapless bodice, her hair falling to her waist. She blushes into her wild salmon and turns her head to acknowledge a remark from Sean. As James O’Hara rises to speak Sean seems to be inviting her to Queen’s for a seminar with Eoin McNamee, the Northern writer whose dream-like prose she greatly admires. ‘You’ll find it wonderfully refreshing, so you will, postmodern writing at its best after all this Yeats stuff—very good for your own writing.’
She listened to the familiar voice reading the familiar lines; holding her gaze as he ‘murmured a little softly how love fled and paced upon the mountains overhead and hid her face amid a crowd of stars’; heard him segue into ‘things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’ and a warning bell chimed in her soul and it seemed as if her spirit left her body and floated high in space, looking down upon the scene below. She saw the two of them from a great distance, their faces and bodies in mist, two dreamers whom fate had teased to a madness, seduced by the fantasy of a myth. Samson and Delilah. She watched as the mist wafted their story away from them, and all the love they could have known drifted away, engulfing them in an aura of incredible bleakness. She heard a chair scraping backwards and realised it was her own, as she stood and went from the room, and in the echo of her footsteps she could hear the laughter of the gods and their whispers, ‘Where is the drama, the myth must end in drama.’
And James O’Hara, watching her, at one with her in the epiphany of that moment, sensed also that it was over. As he left the podium to applause for Sheeney he knew that their story would end here tonight, with what consequences he didn’t dare to imagine. He climbed the stairs and entered his room and Delilah followed him; there was no velvet smoking jacket, no removal of a midnight-blue dress. He held her and she held him and they both said ‘Darling’ and meant it. But the story could not be over till Delilah wielded the scissors, as she had always known she must (what irony that they should be Joyce’s scissors, waiting in that room as if she herself had placed them there), for the gods must be appeased and the myth must have its ending. James O’Hara gasped as clouds of hair fell to the floor and kept on falling, then bent and caught a soft black tendril and closed it, for eternity, in the palm of his hand.
Delilah stayed longer in Belfast than she had intended; it suited her, this dear old city; made her feel like she’d been there before. Its images and contradictions appealed to her; the atavistic mindset and dark beauty of the old streets juxtaposed with a leafy modernity and a dry humour and warmth. She had been easily accepted into Sean’s world in the postgrad community of Queen’s where she would return shortly to take up a place in the graduate school of creative writing. She was fragile, different, but felt a promise within her that she might find a niche among the new generation of Northern writers finding their voice in the wake of the troubles. As to her old life, the laughter of the gods had faded, and for James O’Hara there had been no loss of face. Her hair became her, as she had known it would.
When she returned, briefly, to the university in the small town, Delilah went first to the library to work on her latest fiction; it would turn on the themes of hubris, desire and ambiguity.
Joyce watched her, the soft blue velvet beret elegant on the dark cropped head.
‘What really happened in Sligo?’ Joyce wondered. ‘What sacrifices were made, and by whom?’
‘What happened to Delilah’s hair?’ the students whispered.
But Delilah wasn’t talking, and, needless to say, neither were the O’Haras.