‘What do you do during the day?’ Eddie asked me when he got in from work, while he was watching the news.
I knew he was going to ask that. I had been lying on the couch under a blanket and had set the alarm to get up an hour before he came home. Now we were both sitting on the couch, the blanket was back on the bed. A few years previous, when I had been on extended leave, Jim, my old boyfriend, came out with the same question. Jim was curious about things, whereas Eddie is careful. Eddie asked me questions maybe twenty-four hours after they first came into his mind. I could see when the question was forming and usually a day later he would ask it, in a neutral tone when we were watching the news or one of our TV series. That’s because he is a thoughtful guy. You could rehearse so many answers between Eddie thinking of his question and asking. To amuse myself I would imagine him in some other historical time, as a gladiator or wearing a Nazi uniform or just ten years back before we met, asking the same question. Whole movies played through my mind revolving around his yet-to-be asked questions.
When Jim had asked me, I said ‘what do you think?’ back to him, not in an aggressive way, more interested. He said, ‘When I was unemployed after I left college, I‘d go downtown and just join a line. Like in the post office or the bank. When I‘d get to the top I’d drop out. Even a line for tickets. Once I was in a line for an audition for a TV programme. All the other kids had guitars and were stretching and doing voice exercises. I said I was a ventriloquist. It was fun, kind of social. Even if the line was slow, it kept up some momentum, always moving, always getting closer to the top and we were all in it together.’
That was the first time he told me that story and I remember because it was such a hot evening, we had the windows open. There were kids practising their dance moves outside, and I could hear them singing, doing the choruses over and over. In fact, I remember every detail about that evening for no particular reason; I guess I was in love. Jim was waiting for Senan to arrive to watch the match. His friend Senan called around every week; they were friends since school. Senan would always say to me in a squeaky voice, ‘Jiminy Cricket may only be a half-inch tall but he’s quirky as hell.’
They had a whole stock of catchphrases they traded back and forth in place of conversation. Jim wasn’t a half-inch tall but he was shorter than Senan and a little shorter than me and I didn’t mention the fact much. Jim and Senan had spent a summer in Boston together as students and those couple of months had changed their language; it was the basis for a whole host of catchphrases—Catch ya later bud, hot tamale, Alright already. Jim still used American words like line and sidewalk.
When I rang the home the nurse on duty didn’t seem to know my mother or where she might be. It was four o’clock so I asked her to check the chiropodist or the music nostalgia club. When I got transferred through, my mother says, ‘Why are you calling during the day? You at home? I can hear the radio. You should be at school.’
It had taken a year and a few minor accidents to see through the smoke and mirrors but now her senility was clear to me. Once the doctor confirmed it, I phoned Louis and laid out the situation. We were her only family and we had to be practical.
‘I’m on holidays from work,’ I said.
She sucked her teeth. ‘Those kids next door. The way they treat that cat. Like a little Persian princess. When I passed the front window, I saw with my own eyes, it had a chair, sitting up on cushions at the table, right between the twins. It spits at me when I walk by. To be spat at on your own street.’
‘The cat’s gone, Mother.’
‘Those twins are hussies. When we moved here first, your father offers the hand of friendship. He sees them running for school he says “shake a leg there.” One says “why don’t you shake a leg or maybe you want to shake my leg?” And you know what the other one says?’
‘Yes I do know. She said “we usually shake hands in our country.”’
‘Don’t mock, your father is a decent man.’
Mother’s senility was like a pair of inverted binoculars in her head. All the memories after my father left are gone, her trips to Louis in New York obliterated, the four other houses we lived in vanished, her gardening columns in the local paper like invisible ink. All she thinks of is the family who lived next door to us for three years, thirty-odd years back.
‘When I looked over the back wall, I saw the twins in the dirt, one of them doing her business in the yard.’
‘Mother,’ I said, ‘they were three.’
‘Three?’ I could hear her frowning down the line, sucking her lips. ‘They were two, they were twins.’
‘No. I mean they were three years old when they did the business in the yard. They were just little children.’
Her doubts cleared and she continued. ‘I went straight in and I said to their mother, “the twin is doing her business in the yard.” “Which one?” she said to me. Never an invitation to cross her threshold. Who can tell them apart? And the older boy is trouble with a capital T. With his bikes and his carts.’
‘You know he died, Mother. He was a bank manager, he died in a robbery. He died of a heart attack.’
Not long after Jim left, I met the older boy Thomas at a bank function I attended with a friend. Over the course of a couple of drinks, we worked out that we had both lived in the same neighbourhood, next door on the same street. I was too young to remember, so I just had my mother’s stories; he had his own memories of those years, none featured my household. We slept together that night and during his Wednesday lunch breaks.
That first night together I closed my eyes and imagined he was the wild boy next door, brooding, with bikes and long hair but it was too much of a stretch. I wanted trouble with a capital T but got boring with a capital B. He was married with two kids, not twins. That summer he went on a holiday to Portugal with his family for three weeks and we didn’t see each other after he came back. I heard through a friend he had the heart attack. There had been a spate of bank robberies around that time, paramilitaries. He confronted the robbers but his heart gave out just as he went for them. Turns out they were drug addicts with toy guns. The bank has some kind of memorial for him, a golf trophy. I didn’t attend the funeral. I wanted to go, to see the twins grown up but I didn’t want to see his boys. The twins still looked like each other. I knew because he had a fold-down wallet with pictures of his boys, his wife, the twins and their families, even his dogs. I asked him about the Persian cat but he didn’t remember owning a cat. Maybe they fed strays sometimes, he said.
‘The twins still look the same, Mother. They’re grown up, both teachers.’
‘What twins? Your father was a good man. His brother turned his head. His stories of wrapping diamonds around all the aristocratic necks of London. Telling your father that he was wasting his days with dead foxes and mink, coming home with the smell of death on his hands. I know what I would have wrapped around his neck, a noose.’
The fox, the diamonds, the noose—again, the magical binoculars were cutting out the edges, erasing details surrounding the picture. I was wearing a small, silver necklace when we had this conversation and I moved across the hall to stand in front of the mirror. I didn’t stop listening but I removed the necklace with one hand and kept the phone to my ear with the other. I wanted clear space to visualise some diamonds around my own neck. If I came into a little settlement of sorts, I might even stretch to a necklace and earring set.
‘If I see Lindburgh flying over this building, so help me, God, but I’ll drag him from the sky with my bare hands.’
‘Well, Mother, Lindburgh hasn’t taken his plane up in a while but why don’t you get the nurse to put your chair up beside the window so you can keep watch. And I’ll be over to see you this weekend.’
When Eddie asked me what I did during the day what he really wanted to know was where I went if I left the house. He wouldn’t like to bump in to me during his working day. It would be like a mistake happening to him and he avoided mistakes.
‘I do housework and jobs mostly. If I go into town, I go to galleries,’ I answered. But I did leave the house sometimes with no particular place to go because I missed the journey to and from the office, particularly the morning walk down the quays. Walking to work took me away from the city whilst most of the foot traffic was moving in the opposite direction. I was on nodding terms with a couple of fellow pedestrians. An older couple taking up the whole path, he always on the kerbside. The jogger with boyish face and hair who I recognised from growing up, maybe from a youth club or school. What are you doing with yourself if you’re out jogging every day, I thought. The Spanish girl always late. She passed me by most mornings, long strands of hair sticking out at odd angles, usually in sandals and cotton patterned swing coat. I could tell how late she was depending on where our paths crossed.
As a matter of course, when I worked, I would choose my clothes based on the 7.55 am weather report, having also considered my options the night before in relation to the 11.15 pm report. Eddie enjoyed listening to the weather with me. For me the forecast drew me into myself, my body, my wardrobe, my day ahead. I could draw accurate conclusions about the next day’s weather from the shipping reports at night but I still listened to the morning news just in case.
My first meeting with the union official went okay apart from his clothes. He wore an open-necked checked shirt with casual pants and introduced himself as Michael. In my previous dealings with the union, I had been assigned a more senior representative, Anthony, a suit and tie man, very sympathetic to my situation.
I told Michael the ins and out of what had happened. ‘I deserve my dignity at work,’ I said. ‘I don’t put in or out on anyone and I deserve my dignity in return.’ I finished with: ‘At the end of the day, she’s a boozehound, and I can’t be managed by a boozehound.’
I could see he was not familiar with the term boozehound but I used it to describe the boss to Eddie and it got the reaction she deserved. According to my mother you could tell by the nose if a person was a boozehound. She said we had washed up on the shores of Boozehound Island, thanks to my father.
‘Well, the picture you paint is not a pretty one,’ Michael said taking careful notes. ‘I’m aware from your file you’ve moved departments before, so presumably you wish to remain in your current position. I’ll stake my reputation on your reinstatement and a full and satisfactory resolution of the situation, with your dignity restored.’
I didn’t know what his reputation was worth but I knew my rights. On the way home I thought that my case would make a good afternoon series. Michael was more like a character from an evening courtroom drama, a little bit too serious and long-winded for afternoons. He called the very next day and had secured three weeks special leave for me. But I already had an appointment with the doctor to renew my certificate and I had planned my lunch around it so I went down to the clinic anyway.
In the waiting room I sat between a mother with a sneezing baby and a young man, the jogger. In the surgery, in his regular clothes, he looked employed, wearing cords and a cord jacket, similar to a professor. That would explain his flexible schedule. Who wants to meet in a doctor’s surgery? It could generate any kind of conversation. I picked up the first magazine from the pile—Caravan Monthly. Scanning the ads for second-hand trailers, hoists, tents, I hit the contact section. People, it appeared, were looking for very specific contacts to do specific things together in a caravan.
‘I know you?’ he said.
I tried to force a surprised smile and said, ‘No, I can’t quite place…’ I’m not good at hiding the truth. Jessica, the new administrator, told me that, barely a week after she started. ‘It’s written all over your face,’ she said, ‘so don’t bother putting on the sugary voice.’ That’s what I had to put up with.
‘I knew your brother. How is he doing?’
One of Louis’s exes. I misheard, thought he said who is he doing and was about to answer. The doctor’s secretary called his name right then and he said goodbye to me and that we should meet for a coffee sometime if I’m free during the day and that he hoped I would be okay, medically.
A woman phoned me to come in for the second meeting. My union man, Michael, didn’t seem senior enough to have a secretary. Maybe she was the receptionist and he just asked her to make the call.
‘Amidst claim and counterclaim the waters can become muddied, very muddied indeed. A number of factors are working for you and a number against you,’ he said.
I liked him less this time. Mentally, I moved him from an evening legal drama to a history channel. The folder of extra documentary evidence I had put together, notes of conversations, letters, photocopies of the boozehound’s diary, were sitting over to one side of the desk, unopened and he hadn’t taken the top off his pen.
‘Your absences for one thing,’ he continued.
‘Stress related. My dignity was shattered. Everyone knows there are physical manifestations.’
‘But 86 sick days in seven months and yet you clocked up 105 overtime hours in the same period?’
‘Some people would see that as commitment.’
He was not meeting my eyes. ‘But,’ he said, his face clearing, ‘management were clearly negligent in the supervision of the situation. Other staff members have corroborated some of the drink-related incidents you report. But there are also some serious allegations around bullying behaviour on your part, which as I have said previously, muddied the water. Considerably.’
Clearly he was out of his depth in this muddy water.
‘I’ve weathered this kind of accusation before. Why am I persecuted for no reason?’
My leave was extended by another week. I had to consider the factors. That night Eddie and I watched a quiz show. But I couldn’t concentrate because inside my head Michael’s final phrase stuck in my mind like a jingle from an ad. It played on a continuous loop—Your star, I’m afraid, is not in the ascendant. Actually what Michael had said was ‘your star, I’m afraid, is not in the ascendancy.’ Because of his mistake I liked him less. I noticed mistakes. Even from a distance I can spot a spelling mistake. Things on food boards, shop signs, taxis, mistakes everywhere. There was a euro sign at the end of the price of soup outside a pub. When I told the waitress she said, ‘I’m Australian, that’s how we do it.’ I felt like saying, well you’re here now. But I left it. In the material shop, buying curtain tape to fix up the curtains Mother gave me from the old house, I saw across the road in the sandwich shop Two Roles For The Price Of One. On my way to the bus stop, I told the woman; she said, the last thing I needed was two rolls.
In the evenings I would tell Eddie the mistakes they made in work. Mostly spellings, but if Boozehound had one too many at lunchtime she could come out with anything. I kept notes in my diary. Eddie, he says, ‘Go easy on those secretaries at work. They need to learn.’ Or, ‘Everyone makes mistakes—its doesn’t mean they’re bad people.’ If Eddie is having an affair and I believe he is, he’ll make a mistake and I’ll be right on it. He knows it too. I could see him thinking for nearly two days before he asked me ‘Can’t you just get along and live with mistakes?’ He thinks I’m not doing myself any favours but I’ve got to play the hand I’m dealt. Maybe he’ll want to get me the earrings if I ask him and I could buy the necklace myself.
My star was not in the ascendant. Without much science behind you, who can really get a grip on the heavens? You know a star is dead before its light reaches us. Dead in the water before the lights go out. Once your star begins its descent, take it as a message you were a goner a long while back.
I can’t remember when Jim’s star was in the ascendant but I know exactly when it began its descent. One night, we were at a party, a work party. I was across the room but I knew by his hand movements he was telling the story about joining the queues to a group of people. Later when we got home, he smoked half a joint before we went to bed. With his head in the crook of my arm he said, ‘You know what I love? Sorting out fresh laundry together, you know matching socks, folding stuff, the whatever, the smell. It’s got all the rightness just doing that. Together, you know. It’s love, right?’
But just once ever had he helped me fold the laundry. He happened to be in the utility room because he was stoned and found the sound of the dryer comforting. That night in bed I saw that Jim would pick one incident and make it stretch over a lifetime. The joining-the-lines story was probably just a once-off thing that had happened. Jim would use the minor anecdotes of his life like a join-the-dots picture. Living off the dots, stretching them, joining them with shaky lines to form an outline of himself. Like trying to make a plough out of seven dots of light. His star was not in the ascendant. And he fell asleep before we had sex. He was a not a join-the-lines man, he was a join-the-dots man. That was my catchphrase for him. His star was plummeting.
To me, my life seemed seamless, without a defined pattern. For example, I couldn’t pinpoint the exact day when it all changed at work. Like untangling a ball of string, now I had to hold on to the end and work backwards from there. At night I would wake up suddenly and have paranoid thoughts.
‘Eddie,’ I would say, ‘what about if I left food in the fridge and it went off and someone else had to clean it out or maybe Jeanette’s scarf that went missing last December, maybe she thinks I stole it. The Boozehound knows I’m on to her and she set the dogs on me. She knows I have her number.’ Or ‘Eddie, what if someone with my name committed a crime? I should go to the library, the internet, look for people with the same name that would cause people to take against me.’
Eddie was the best sleeper I ever slept with. He would answer you like it was the middle of the day but in two minutes his breathing was so regular and peaceful you knew he was gone again. In the back of my mind I thought maybe the trouble was because of my family. It never came up in the office but the Human Resources Manager compiled a list at the beginning of each year for emergency purposes—next of kin, number to call in case of emergency, religion. I had ticked no religion but I put my mother’s name as next of kin, maybe that was the giveaway, the Jewishness of her name. The day before I returned to work the phone rang.
‘Are they feeding you in that boarding school? Your father worked his fingers to the bone to keep you there.’
‘I would have rung you, Mother. I have a new job now. I got a parallel promotion. I’m starting in a new section tomorrow.’
‘In my day it was up or down or out on your ear. No parallel parking on the job. My boy Louis was promoted from the 43rd to the 57th floor. He’s practically a part of the New York skyline, his head is so close to the clouds.’
Her memories of me had fixed now on my secondary school years, but were running a separate loop for Louis. For Louis it was the broker years, after he emigrated, the young man in a striped shirt, bringing her up to the top floor of the skyscraper, greeting colleagues in the lift. She saw his move up the building as a promotion, with the higher floors the epitome of success. He never told her he had left the firm and set up a catering company with Eric, his boyfriend. They had a place that sold high-end juices, wraps and low-fat pastries.
‘Why did your father pick this hellhole for us? You know why? For the one simple reason.’
I said, ‘I know already why we’re here, Mother,’ to try to stop her, but I had just put on nail polish so I had to sit still anyway. ‘Some soldier after the war, right?’
‘He was in a bar after the war. He thought the boy was Scottish but he turned out Irish. And this soldier tells your father about Lindburgh flying across the Atlantic on his solo run. And Lindburgh’s surrounded by fog and he sees some little fishing boats. So he knows he’s near Europe and he wants directions. So he flies down low, shouts the question, tries to get them to point him in the right direction. But they ignore him. Which direction Ireland? England? France? Nothing. They watch the man in the plane but at the same time they keep pulling up their nets and emptying them. The man in the bar told your father that not only did the Irish fishermen not help him, they didn’t even bother to point him in the wrong direction. Lindburgh thought they couldn’t understand English but that soldier said they understood alright, everyone had been reading about the flight in the paper for days. My God, your father hated Lindburgh. And he thought, after all we had been through, he wanted to settle us in a place where people mind their own business and let history go on overhead. Your father is a fine man. He was at the top of his trade in this country, the best society people. His shop was filled with the ascendancy. His brother turned his head.’
When my father took up with my mother’s sister in London there was never any confusion about whether to call her aunty or stepmother because we never spoke about her again at home. So, one way or another, someone turned his head and he never looked back.
‘Don’t worry, Mother, our star is in the ascendancy,’ I replied. ‘Any news on the twins?’
That set her off for another fifteen minutes and I got started on my toenails.
The new job is in a different section but in the same building. My first morning I couldn’t decide whether to use the bus or to walk. I made my way down to the corner and paused to cross the road. A turn to the left would bring me to the bus stop; a turn to the right was the beginning of the walk. I was imagining sitting in front of the therapist and telling her my feelings about what? Trying to make a decision to cross the road and what type of transport to take? Part of the package is visiting her every two weeks for six months. The lights changed a number of times at the pedestrian crossing. The newspaper seller who has a regular spot against the wall came over and took my elbow.
‘You need a hand across?’
God almighty, I thought, he thinks I’m gone blind.
‘No problem,’ I replied, ‘I’m on my way.’ I crossed. I’m on the way. I pictured myself saying that to people, new work people and maybe some of the old people in the canteen who might enquire after my health and well-being. Well, I would say if I spoke to them, I’m okay; my star is on the up and up again.