Two years since he’s emerged from zero by completing a course in web design, speaking in a clear even tone, and moving into the centre of town to an apartment that leaves him nothing saved at the end of each month. Less than nothing, for his income is supplemented by a claim for rent assistance. No shame in that, none at all; he’d be quite prepared to mention it if the subject came up, but so far it hasn’t come up, not among the people he meets now, and there’s no reason why it ever should.
He loves to look at the city lights from the top-floor landing. A silent vista through double panes of glass. There is a feeling of contact, of being in the middle of life. The lines of red tail-lights move smoothly, each orange street lamp casts a circular glow on the pavement. The stronger halogen lights around business premises cast a glow on the air itself, creating a fuzz around each intense point. He blinks and rubs his eyes, wondering if the late nights have got to him, or if maybe the shampoo he uses has frosted the corneas. On the corridors and landings there are no windows that open, but when he opens those in his room the air blows in damp and cold, only faintly charged with the fumes of an endless rush hour.
Amanda Bennett invited him. Sure you’ll come, it’s just people, not my friends. Half of them I’ll hardly know, she’d said. You know the way you just invite a load of people because you know only half of them will turn up anyway?
But I’ll definitely come, he said.
Right, you know the Bull Harbour building? It’s Block E, Apartment 16 but the intercom doesn’t work, so I just ask people to give me a buzz as soon as they get to the front door. You have my number, don’t you?
Sure, I have your number somewhere, he said.
And you have a mobile?
Yes, I have a mobile, he confirmed in a level voice.
He’d met her in the foyer of Keystroke College where he’d been running an eye down the list of courses starting that month. Do you study here? he’d asked. She pouted, seemed about to say something sharp, then said carefully: Well, I’ve just finished up a course. Why? Are you thinking of doing one?
He took the cue from her tone. Maybe not, he said, I don’t think it’s that good. Still, it would be nice to have something else on the old CV.
What kind of work do you do?
Graphic design, he answered. He had completed a leaflet for a local karate club just two weeks before. The club rented some warehouse space in his uncle’s scrapyard.
Really? she said with interest. Me too! But honestly you’d be better off without the course here. What kind of design work do you do?
Commercial flyers, clubs, that kind of thing.
There’s a lot of freelance contracts going around but it’s so hard to get anything steady, don’t you think?
When they parted she handed him her card as a matter of course, as though he might be another significant contact.
When Amanda comes down the stairs and opens the metal-framed door that evening she’s in a different mood, more reckless and trusting, the same confidence, but now it’s not based on her professional manner.
Hi, she says, sorry to make you ring. It’s just the kids. They hang around outside and press all the buttons. The buzzer went off twice already today. So your doorbell works again?
Yes, but the intercom doesn’t, like I said earlier.
The precision of her memory irritates him slightly. He wonders how she can be so involved with every detail that she remembers them all. He follows her up the carpeted stairs, snatching glimpses out the windows, or rather the continuous glass shell, at the tin-can profile of the gasometer and the dark hulk of the stadium. For though he lives in a high apartment himself, he never tires of the transformation from a height, the sudden revelation, like watching your home town become the setting for a Hollywood thriller.
Cathy, Conor, Alvin, Coreen, Louis, Chris. She performs the introductions with six waves of her left hand around the room. Each guest nods and mutters. This is Colin by the way, she adds at the end, I should complete my introductions.
No one offers to shake hands. He figures it’s just a mixed party, and wonders how he’ll phrase it when they ask him what he works at. But everyone seems content to lounge across the chairs and sofas without conversing much.
Someone has gone to a lot of trouble with the food. Translucent rectangles of smoked salmon on soda bread, grilled cheese on baguette, shredded lettuce and rocket salad, cream cheese on crackers, small cylinders of sushi, bowls of tuna pasta salad, strips of red and green pepper, little sherry-glasses of prawn cocktail with each prawn bent over the rim of the glass, like a man leaning over a railing to puke.
You have a nice apartment, he says.
Don’t you want to leave down your coat? she asks. She points him through a door to a second room. He sees a desk and computer. There’s a bed with papers and coats thrown across it. Cardboard boxes are wedged between the bed and the wall. Thick hard-backed books stacked on the floor. This is the spare room then; he sees another door opposite which must be her bedroom. A two bed-roomed apartment on a few freelance hours per week. Some things you just have to wonder at and never ask.
Are you still a student? he asks.
No, why? Is it the books lying all over the place? They’re just my old ones. I actually go back and read them sometimes.
Not something I’d ever do.
What did you study?
Web design, he answers.
She looks perplexed. But you didn’t just do web design?
Indeed I did.
For four years?
What do you mean four years? he asks in a neutral voice, as though he hasn’t figured out she assumes he’s been to university. As do a lot of people he meets. It’s just too unexpected: a presentable professional, or halfway to being a professional, who never went to university. Amanda waits a moment for him to elaborate, then passes into the living-room.
Take one too, she says, I spent five hours slaving in the kitchen so you’d better appreciate it or you’ll never get invited again. She hands him a plate and moves along the table piling on a little of each salad. He would hardly recognise her out of her career-girl slacks. Mousy brown hair you can see the tangles in, mouth too wide and flat. But there’s no one going to say this to her, she’s too nice for that. She talks on and on in full confidence that talk makes everyone the same, like they are all in the same boat, everything is going to be all right so long as we can keep talking about it. You could introduce yourself with ‘I beg for money on Capel Street,’ and she’d say, ‘Really, you must meet a lot of interesting people. But I wouldn’t like to be doing it on a day like this.’
He takes his plate over to the window, where some people are talking about the view. He points out Liberty Hall and the gap where the river lies. It turns into a kind of puzzle, to guess what each significant cluster of lights could be. That stream of lights, he points, is the Stephen’s Green Centre. And that chimney there is way over in Smithfield.
In one of the dead ends off the streets directly below is the back entrance he knows too well. It’s not true that he’s emerged from zero, but the six years after leaving school were spent out of sight in the stockroom of a department store, taking deliveries from lorries. The boxes he stacked were huge, tall as a man, but light. He used a hand-operated hydraulic trolley. Pile on the boxes, raise it up with a few quick pumps of the lever. A forklift wasn’t needed, so after all that time in a warehouse he didn’t even have a forklift qualification. Not even that one small chance to gain something concrete from his time there. Six years spent in a cavernous space lit with bare bulbs, out back behind the heavy vinyl curtains that separated it from the shop floor. Any new girl who started on the shop floor assumed he must be a grade below them. One who didn’t need any training, have to shave or wear a tie, or neat clothes of any sort, and who was incapable of operating a cash register. They were surprised to see he got the same reduction on clothes as everyone else. At Christmas he was handed the same wad of vouchers.
Most of the staff were female—girls straight out of school, mothers with teenaged children, mothers who didn’t have any choice. It was the kind of job someone might take up for a few months, despite the impression given by the career opportunities posters around the canteen. People were rotated around the different departments, the bargain basement being the least favourite, even lower than the warehouse. But Colin was never rotated. He regretted not having in his CV the usual line on having experience in dealing with the public. In retrospect, he supposed, there was nobody forcing him to stay hidden out the back. All he’d had to do was ask and he would have been trained at the register. They’d have been happy for him to ask.
But Colin doesn’t tell these people about the warehouse entrance below or the empty top floor of the store they could see into through the window. I know the city pretty well from a height, he tells them, you know not a lot of people can figure it out.
Nobody smokes inside the apartment, that’s understood. A couple of tiled steps lead down to an aluminium door. Outside is a small terrace, on one side is a drop four storeys to the ground. A gravel oval, two shrubs shrivelled by the wind. The terrace is shared by three other apartments. A clothes rack is tethered to the door frame.
Amanda’s things flutter brazenly from it.
A guest sitting on the bottom step nods, moves to one side. Cigarette? the man asks, take one of mine. He taps the open end on the packet to firm the tobacco. You don’t have to go outside, she allows it here when the door is open.
Not a bad party this.
Yes, Amanda’s salads are really—well let’s say they’re designed to impress, no matter about the taste.
He looks behind himself, ironically checking to see if she is listening. He is in his late twenties, blond hair combed back, the kind of good looks that ease the way through a lot of things.
Almost film-star looks, but the accent is familiar. From Dublin
Where are you from?
Not a bad spot.
I haven’t lived there for a while, Chris says. This must be Chris, Colin decides, there were a lot of names beginning ‘K’ introduced around the room.
Nice pad she has here, what? A balcony and the works.
It certainly is, the man replies.
Jays the city out there is a lot different to when I was running into town on the hop from school.
Chris doesn’t smile at the chummy language. He speaks like he has to pluck the words from the air.
Things look different. I got used to Canada when I was there.
You were in Canada? I thought you needed a visa for there.
I was there five years, maybe six. Working at various things.
You must’ve had a brilliant time there. Jays compared to the dump this place was then.
Yes it was great, said the stranger. It was different from Dublin. But it was also in a sense, the loneliest time in my life. A time when I had to come to terms with myself.
Colin can’t see where this is going. His heart beats like he’s entered a danger zone. Who is this person to say such things? He scrutinises the pale eyebrows and the fingers pointing the cigarette away so the smoke drifts past him. The grey eyes are turned to him, not sharply, but curious, testing. Like he has just told a riddle, and he is not sure if the listener appreciates riddles.
Colin jumps from the step, flicks his cigarette through the half-open door. Fuckin RAIN out there! he says, turns and takes the steps in one bound, rubbing his hands together in feigned anticipation of second helpings.
It’s a week of new contacts, new work opportunities in the
offing. An email arrives with a few casual sentences:
Hi, Amanda here.
Take a look at this message I got and see if you’re
interested. I don’t have the time to handle it. You can
reply yourself, or else I can take it on and just pass you
the work—I know the people there and what they
>> TCO here at Vigilant. Hi Amanda. Our office would
like to produce a 20–30 page colour document for new
clients. I can’t say any more at this stage, but if you are
interested in this project reply asap.
That was how it worked. No fretting about being clean-shaven or how to knot your tie correctly, no sitting before a table with humble eyes, no churning up school certificates, hobbies, achievements you are proud of. The farce of an interview— thinking about the humiliation brings blood to his face. Two or three in the months after leaving school had been enough for a lifetime. With this line of work his school results do not matter, nor does the certificate from his course, which wasn’t even in graphic design. What matters is who you worked for the month before, what names you can mention. And if it’s a name that is recognised—and in a small country it often is—the job will fall to you.
His old friends, the ones from the department store days and even earlier, have a laugh at him when they meet. You’re your own boss now, you can lie in the scratcher until two in the afternoon, they laugh, or rather sneer, for he never meets them intentionally now. They only run into each other by chance on the streets. There is the usual enquiries about friends in common: How’s old Richie, how’s Cully Mac Enthusiastic questions, though in fact it is some five or six years since he has met these other people, and he is not quite sure he would even recognise them anymore.
They inevitably ask what he’s working at these days. He tries to explain, but it sounds too glib. He doesn’t mean to but he gives the impression that anyone still working on a nine to five job must be a fool. See you in Fagans sometime, they will say on parting, though nothing will come of it.
At the end of the week he rings Amanda and asks how the party went. That party? she says after a pause to figure out he means of course the one he was at. Sure, it was great. Yeah, he agrees instantly, I really enjoyed it. Thanks for inviting me. He hesitates, he’s about to ask casually about one of her guests when she says, I’ll let you know when I’m having another one. That would be great, he says, and can’t think of any way now to enquire about Chris that wouldn’t sound downright weird.
For he had meant to pile a few salads on his plate and go back to the smoking exit, down the three steps. Get talking to Chris some more about Canada, about work there and gun licences, winter snow. Gradually circle back, approach the abruptly severed topic from a different angle.
But it was also in a sense, the loneliest time in my life. The sentence recurs to him at the oddest moments, intriguing him, irritating him. Who did he think he was, this blond-haired man no older than twenty-six, to speak like a teacher, a priest, a prophet? Were the ordinary bullshit words not good enough for him? Maybe it was a sophisticated joke and he’d missed the point. Like the gilt-framed image the guests had passed around at Amanda’s that same evening. Bubbling over with laughter, the girls with hand to mouth, then hanging it back up on the wall with ironic reverence. It was a relief of the Sacred Heart. A ring of thorns around the iconic red heart, rays emanating from it. The soft beard and gentle features of the standardised Catholic Jesus. The intense blue eyes followed the viewer from left to right around the room. This was no high technology—just a simple optical illusion. He laughed too, but felt there was some extra hilarity that he’d missed.
Maybe Chris was a student of English, or Arts, and took him for another eternal student in touch with the latest ironies. Maybe it was a scene from some film everybody was supposed to have seen. That would explain the precision of the words spoken, and that little testing smile that seemed to taunt: Do you recognise this? Who am I being now?
But it wasn’t possible Chris was a student. It didn’t fit. He’d mentioned working for six years in Canada. It was understood that ‘working’ meant ordinary simple jobs, the kind that anyone might get when they need to pay the rent. There isn’t a lot to remember and mull over from just two minutes sitting on a step, but everything pointed to complete sincerity, a simple direct statement. But why did he have to speak like that, in a way that sealed off any ordinary reply?
His anger summons back the tiled steps, a man sitting on the bottom one, his grey eyes questioning the smoke curling from a cigarette, an empty pack at his side folded to form an ashtray. Just say what you mean to say, don’t make a speech of it, he wants to say in a harsh voice to the stranger who might possibly be called Chris. So you weren’t too happy in Canada? Why was that? He speaks in a common-sense tone, forcing the stranger onto his level. He hears about difficulty in finding work, long hours spent in a dead-end job carrying boxes on a building site, a piss-off boss who didn’t even know his name. Yeah, he sympathises, a few years of that and you’re banging off the walls. You need to have contacts with the right people to get ahead. That’s the way it is all over. Did you not try hanging around the Irish bars?
Then the second sentence: A time when I had to come to terms with myself.
Fucking queer, Colin rages to himself, springing up from the step again, pacing the room. For what else could the sentence mean? Who else but a gay man would speak like that? What other reason could there be? He’s shot through the stomach with anger, not precisely at the possibility that Chris is gay, but the possibility that the words were a lure, testing the waters. And it’s not even an anger at being mistaken for gay—on the one occasion that happened before he was only irritated that just because he didn’t brag about drinking ten pints at the weekend there must be something odd with his masculinity. All the same, he is resentful, he feels he has uncovered a fraud.
He sits down again at his desk. Pulls a draft guide for mortgage providers in front of him, stares down at it, circles the images he wants moved. His eyes are sore, it’s maybe the fifth time he’s gotten up and come back with a coffee. Two half-empty cups are perched alongside the monitor, a third is on the floor at his feet. The conversation is waiting to be resumed, there, just to the left of him.
So Chris, he says, sitting down on the step again, slapping a knee. He’s a man of the world now, not awkward, not nervous of ambiguities. There are matters to be resolved.
There was something about yourself that you had to change? Something about the way you were? Am I supposed to guess what it is?
Chris smiles, rubs his jaw a bit guiltily. His foot slips on the tiles and bangs against the door. No, I… I was involved in a lot of bad business. Scamming people. You know, knocking at doors pretending to sell insurance, marking the places we could break into later. Nobody would suspect me, Irish you know. It was pretty low stuff.
I had to sort myself out. Big time.
But you got away from it in the end?
Put away from it, he laughs drily, that’s how I got away from it. Yeah I didn’t stay six years in Canada living the high life, that’s for sure. A nice time seeing the world abroad.
I like it, said Amanda on the phone. When you say it took you all day it makes it hardly worthwhile in terms of money, but if you’re still on I can pass some more on to you.
Sure, he says brightly.
There’s a range of labels we have to adjust to Irish regulations. A Canadian company.
Canadian? There was a Canadian at your party a few weeks ago.
Yes. So there was.
What’s he up to?
Up to? Well I suppose he’s still putting in heating pumps. He’s been in the apartments so many times I just invited him along. But he’s very interesting, not at all boring. You’d never guess he was just a plumber.
Another variation: Yeah, “come to terms”? Maybe I don’t want to come to terms. Maybe I want to obliterate instead. And the stranger sets his jaw and understands.
But would he really have said that?
It shouldn’t be a big surprise to run into Chris one day on the ground-floor corridor of his own apartment building. Yet Colin stops dead. There is something uncanny about the figure, down on his hunkers untying a cable.
Chris? he says uncertainly. Then he sees the tiles are indistinguishable from those at Amanda’s building. Chris looks up, there’s a moment of recognition untethered to place or time.
What’s your name again?
Right. Amanda’s party. I just have to pack this stuff away. Do you live here?
They head towards the city centre, thinking of some café, but turn in at the doors of a fast-food outlet because they see a couple of free seats inside and it’s getting on for lunchtime. He hears about Canada, about the frozen waterfalls, savage winters in Watson Lake, going for a walk through untracked forest and getting lost in the wilderness with the sound of a jam factory whistle cutting the silence every hour, always the same distance away.
Halfway through the coffee a couple of girls come in, throw a glance.
Doyles Stores girls, says Colin, that’s the black and white zigzag. The warehouse entrance is up that laneway across the road. We used to come here for our lunch. Three at a time, forty-five minutes. Just enough time to get your food and get it down. I worked there in the stockroom packing boxes for six years.
Six years? Why did you stay there so long?
Colin looks over at the girls in uniform. They are fresh-faced, all laughing, probably still at school just one or two years before. He can’t rightly explain why he spent so long there. It seems almost to have been an experiment on himself. He had wanted to see if he could be happy working at a simple job, just living, or if on the other hand something would rebel within him, force him out. It was wrong to make of himself a small and shrivelled thing, wrong to view himself from a height as one more figure walking along the pavement.
It seems to me now like my buried life, he says. Like I wanted to see if I could bury myself under ten feet of earth and be silent and content, or if there was something within me that would make me wake up.
As he speaks it becomes clear that this is what happened, and that the dead self he had dragged along with him could finally be cut loose.
The girls throw a glance back as they pass out the door, but it’s not because they recognise him. All the girls from that time would have long since moved on.