Every morning, out of the blackness, a hint of brightness would appear, impossible to say when one gave way to the other. Soon a saffron ribbon would emerge, or some silver lining, or, on days of destiny, bronze. After that it was only a matter of time until the world was up and making mischief.
Ronan looked at his watch. Not yet seven. His pyjamas sported a white crossways stripe like a jailbird. His large angular head hinted at a big bony body under the blankets. The chemo had taken the little hair that was left at eighty. The blue eyes were alert like lights on a dashboard that showed the motor still running.
‘Good morning, Malachy,’ he said when the watch edged past seven. Ronan had volunteered to double up with Malachy, who had not spoken a word for two years. ‘Another foggy one, I’m afraid. Did you sleep well?’ He always threw in a question in case a miracle happened overnight and Malachy might be bursting to talk.
Down the hill past the two ash trees was the river—which was why this was called the Riverside Nursing Home—a prudent river that never overflowed. Where it took a turn one could see the water reflecting the bronze sky. The wall was still there, if it was a wall. And where the wall met the water a boat, if it was a boat.
‘She’s still there, Malachy,’ he said. Someone shuffled by on the corridor. From the distance came the clatter of dishes. ‘I’ll will you all my worldly goods, Malachy, if you’ll just say something.’ He scratched his groin. He could stand himself no longer, reached for the mobile.
‘I need to urinate.’ He knew Starski was on duty.
‘Good morning, Ronan,’ she said affably. ‘You know how to urinate. Or shall I walk you through it step by step?’
‘If you would, please.’ But she had cut him off. He eased himself out of bed, sat for a minute to check aches and pains. He had only one crutch, which he used under the right or left wing depending on the spur of the moment. ‘I’ll be back in a minute, Malachy, don’t go anywhere.’
When he emerged from the toilet he got into the faded blue robe. The television set was still asleep on the wall. The wardrobe had a mirror attached, in which the remaining tatters of his ego refused to look at him. On the locker beside his bed was a black- faced clock, a stack of books and more on the floor. Malachy’s side of the room was crowded with medical instruments and plastic tubes one of which was stuck in his nose supplying a sort of life. There was a picture of the pope on one green wall and a calendar on another. It was a hard room to love. He phoned Starski: ‘The senior occupant of 244 is moving out. Malachy wishes to be excused.’
‘Leave me alone, Ronan,’ Starski said. He never risked phoning the other nurses.
In the dining room, Benny and Sara were already eating their bran flakes. ‘You’re late,’ Sara said. She was ninety and counting. She had lost her dentures years ago and no one ever replaced them. She was in love with Ronan and told him so whenever she could pry him loose from Benny, who in turn was in love with Sara. The three of them stuck together, Benny said, because they were the only intellectuals left in the nursing home.
‘The sun came up again,’ Ronan announced as he attacked his lukewarm porridge.
‘It’s tireless, that sun,’ Benny said. ‘That’s several times this week.’
‘You’re looking debonair, Ronan,’ Sara said, ‘you must have slept a sight.’ She had spilled the milk and it dripped from the table into her lap.
‘Thank you, Sara.’
Meanwhile, other residents were wheeled into the dining room. The walls were green like the bedrooms and kissed in places by the sun. The toast arrived. One girl brought coffee and another tea. Life seemed ordinary, Ronan thought, yet every time the sun showed up it instigated enough intrigue to drive the world out of its mind. He pulled out the mobile and dialed expertly with his thumb.
‘This is Ronan O’Day, don’t hang up. I need to go to confession… I know— I’m sorry, I won’t do it again.’
‘What did he say?’ Benny wanted to know. ‘He didn’t say anything, he just hung up.’
‘By the hokey,’ Benny’s laugh sounded like a series of hiccups. He wore stylish, gold-rimmed glasses and never left his room except in his blue striped suit and a white straw hat on his round head. ‘If I was you I’d report him to the bishop.’
‘It’s no use. The bishop is running out of clergy and the few who are left have forgotten how to hear confessions.’
‘Sure don’t I know. I never bother myself.’
‘You’re looking debonair, Ronan,’ Sara returned to her theme.
‘Did I ever tell you about Pascal’s Wager?’ Ronan asked.
‘You never did,’ Benny said.
‘Tell it, Ronan,’ Sara coaxed.
‘Just between ourselves, Pascal’s Wager is why I need confession.’
‘Go on,’ Benny encouraged.
‘Do you believe in God, Benny?’
‘Well sure I do.’
‘And have you any proof?’
‘I don’t need any—I’ve got along grand without proof until now.’
‘A God that might send you to hell?’
‘Oh I’m going to hell for sure,’ Sara said with enthusiasm.
‘Blaise Pascal,’ Ronan held up the cup for more coffee, dumped an extra spoonful of sugar into it, feeling expansive, an intellectual among intellectuals. A world of nostalgia drifted up from his days at university when athletic young men and mysterious girls solved ancient enigmas in cafés down Dublin’s side streets on evenings that had no end. ‘Blaise Pascal was a philosopher, you see.’
‘A what?’ Sara asked.
‘One can’t be sure God exists: that’s where Pascal came into the picture. Aquinas’s five proofs, Anselm’s ontological argument, when it comes to real life these are only old wives’ tales.’ He lit a cigarette. ‘Here’s the nub of it. God either exists or doesn’t exist. If the chances are fifty-fifty, you might be tempted to take a sporting chance. But you’d be on thin ice. Because, if you backed the wrong horse, hell might be waiting on the other side.’
‘You’re a genius, Ronan,’ Sara’s head was lolling, eyelids drooping.
‘So if one met God over yonder, with heaven in his right hand and hell in the left, a hell full of burning and regretting that might go on for eternity, one could, to say the least, be in a fix.’
‘So long as there’s a toilet there, I won’t mind,’ Benny said and shuffled off. ‘But if one has wagered on God’s majestic existence,’ Ronan focused his full attention on the sleeping Sara, ‘then one can face the future with equanimity. If, at the heel of the hunt, we find no one there, we won’t have lost anything. We’ll just have darkness, which under the circumstances won’t bother us. But if God is indeed among those present, why, we’ll be glad we bet on a winner. That’s what Pascal said, back when the world was innocent.’
Sara opened one eye and smiled at Ronan.
‘But there’s a catch, Sara, old doll. If we bet on God we have to stick with the straight and narrow. Don’t bear false witness. Put money in the poor box. Go to confession when lust raises its head or we want to kill a neighbour.’
Several crows were perched in the trees beyond the window, sullen and watching. Another couple arrived and a few flew off. They knew a lot from observing people. Certain crows were said to live ten thousand years, and the last thing the world needed was some ornithologist to come along and disprove this for her master’s thesis. Ronan removed the mobile from his robe pocket, put the robe around Sara’s shoulders.
‘Spiffy pyjamas, Ronan,’ Starski passed him on the corridor.
It took an hour to dress. ‘It’s not us, Malachy, it’s time that has shrunk since we were young.’ He dialed again. ‘Is that Riverside Radio?…This is Ronan O’Day, don’t hang up. Aye, the schoolmaster. Am I on the air?… The priest refuses to hear my confession… Very well, I’ll be back tomorrow.’
The carers had changed Malachy’s sheets during breakfast. They had topped up the liquid in his plastic pouch. Short of a miracle he would never eat another fried egg. His closed eyes pretended to peer over the fresh white linen. He didn’t need to be conscious for his hair to keep growing, and his white stubble. Occasionally there would be an accident under the sheets followed by the odour of sanctity, which the carers took in stride because they had hearts of gold.
‘Hold the fort, old friend.’ He took two extra pills for the pain. He buttoned up the topcoat and slipped out the side door. When the sun came from behind a gable his pale shadow hobbled ahead of him down the hill. All he could see was a dab of colour in the distance. The only excuse to call it a boat was its proximity to the river. That and a belief in destiny. The bladder was a problem, unpredictable and impatient. When he reached the hedge he peed with satisfaction on the safe side of the laurels.
A moment came when the coloured object was unmistakably a boat. That still left unanswered questions. Was she seaworthy? Were there oars? Yet one had to take some risks with life.
‘It’s a boat alright,’ he announced to Sara and Benny at teatime. ‘You know the routine,’ he said to Benny after Sara fell asleep by the radiator. Benny grinned until his face bulged, and saluted in silence.
Back in his room, Ronan phoned again. ‘I need confession,’ he said without preamble.
‘The last time,’ the priest said, ‘you blasphemed.’
‘And if you come over I’ll confess it.’ The lonely purr of the phone told him the priest had hung up. ‘Did you hear that?’ Ronan said to Malachy. ‘You’ll have to do.’
He brushed his teeth. He turned the bedside light low, lay on his back on the bed.
‘It’s sixty years, more or less, since my last confession.’ He lit a cigarette, placed the ash tray on his belly, blew slow smoke at the ceiling.
‘If it’s all right with you we’ll skip the preliminaries and go straight to the meat and potatoes.’ He glanced at Malachy, who raised no objection. ‘There was a girl—that’s the part I want to get at. When I was at the university. We were all young—young and foolish, what can I say, but in fairness we were also planning to change the world. Debating about Plato and Nietzsche and Moses and the pope, drinking and smoking and showing off.
‘There was one girl, as I say.’ How explicit would he need to be? A real priest would probe for the telling little details. ‘Everyone said how beautiful she was. I took their word for it, though personally I don’t any longer see that it mattered. When word spread that she was pregnant, Nietzsche proved to be of little help. There were no potential fathers rushing forward to claim their prerogatives. And there was no wronged high-cheeked girl to point the finger. She had disappeared. It was easy to disappear because none of us looked very far. The summer exams were approaching. We had futures to think about. We hid behind our books until the storm would blow over. Not a storm, either— she could have created one but only a gentle breeze blew through the space she had occupied in our lives. Word spread that her family had disowned her; that she was working with the nuns in a laundry in the south. No one accused anyone of hardheartedness, much less of fathering the baby. If there ever was a baby. One morning, it was as if none of us had ever met her or each other. On one ordinary day we became strangers created by this disappeared girl. We walked past each other in silence taking short cuts to the rest of our lives.
‘After the exams I would search for her, I vowed. I would rescue her from that laundry. I would cherish her and marry her just as soon as I found time and got my life in order. If there were a child I would be her father, or his father, even if she didn’t look a bit like me. Then one thing led to another, and I started teaching, and I never got my life sufficiently in order to go and find her. I was waiting to have a bit of money, a better job. Above all I was waiting for the backbone to claim a daughter or son already two years old and then three, then ten or twenty. Every year the undertaking grew more formidable. I steered clear of marriage, because if such an occasion arose I would be forced to search first for the other woman. In the end I felt we were married, wherever she was. An unwritten contract bound us together. I was convinced she had not married either. We were both waiting for the right moment when our lives would finally be in order.’
He threw a glance at Malachy and waited. He didn’t expect the usual absolution—that came from a higher authority. But this would be a good time for a few words. Malachy, however, held his peace.
‘I’ll say one Our Father and ten Hail Marys so,’ Ronan said. ‘That should cover it.’ He prayed them silently, meticulously, as the cautious Pascal would have done. Beyond the window, half a moon was leaning over. It would be throwing light on the boat. Ronan put on the topcoat and tightened the belt buckle. He put on the woolen cap and scarf. He put his wallet in one pocket and toothbrush in the other, picked up the flash lamp, carried the crutch under his arm, that way it would make less noise.
‘Thanks for everything, old pal,’ he tweaked Malachy’s toe.
He knocked discreetly on Benny’s door. Benny wore a large puffy jacket like a tent, and an orange scarf across his lower face like a bandit.
‘It’s very mysterious, Ronan,’ Benny said as they stumbled and slithered down the hill towards the river.
‘There’s a woman lives on the other side.’ He had to tell Benny something. ‘Aren’t you the sly devil.’
‘Keep it quiet, Benny, or Starski will come after us.’ They stopped to pee behind the laurel hedge, then they pushed on. She might be on the other side— it was a mighty big world over there. If she ever existed. That would have been the year he was twenty-two. But he couldn’t remember being twenty-two.
‘Do you remember 1942, Benny?’ ‘I’m afraid I don’t.’
‘Me neither.’ Ronan felt relieved. That year had never taken place. Sometime he’d search for old calendars or newspapers just to make sure.
‘Slow down,’ Benny said, falling behind.
On the other hand there was, according to some, the golden book. What mattered was whether the recording angel remembered the year in question. Pascal’s Wager was more than an intellectual exercise. To be quite frank about it, a man with an immortal soul needed to cover his arse.
He looked back at Benny sitting on a stone.
‘Take this, Benny,’ he handed over the flash lamp. ‘If you go back now, you’ll be in time for the bran flakes.’
‘Goodbye so, Ronan.’ Benny’s soul had a shorter wing span. They shook hands solemnly.
The moon pointed a finger at the boat. The boat tensed and held together. Ronan unwrapped the chain from around a stone. He shook off old age and infirmity and gave her a push, then a pull, up to his ankles in the dirty water. She moved readily enough, went with him, until it seemed she was pulling him along. There was an oar and then another, stretched patiently across the two seats. Only then did he realize the boat had been waiting there, year after year, for some codger from the nursing home to grab the bull by the horns and give destiny a last chance. He threw his leg over the side as once on summer days. Pushed with the oar in the rushes. Settled himself on the cold seat. Eased the boat out into the dark water where the silver half-moon danced. And headed for the future.
Up in the nursing home, a few lights had refused to go out. He pulled out the mobile.
‘Starski? There you are.’
‘I’ll kill you, Ronan,’ she was affable as ever.
‘Benny is safe and sitting on a rock. He’ll be home in time for breakfast.’
Before she could respond he threw the mobile in the water.