IT APPEARS THAT, ALTHOUGH THE BELL for the end of the school day rang a good five minutes ago, class in the Geography Room is still in full swing. Crouching slightly, Howard peers through the narrow window set in the door. The boys inside show no sign of impatience; in fact, by their expressions, they are quite oblivious to the passage of time.
The reason for this stands at the head of the class. Her name is Miss McIntyre; she is a substitute. Howard has caught glimpses of her in the staffroom and on the corridor, but he hasn’t yet managed to speak to her. In the cavernous depths of the Geography Room, she draws the eye like a flame. Her blonde hair has that cascading quality you normally see only in TV ads for shampoo, complemented by a sophisticated magnolia two-piece more suited to a boardroom than a transition-year class; her voice, while soft and melodious, has at the same time an ungainsayable quality, an undertone of command. In the crook of her arm she cradles a globe, which while she speaks she caresses absently as if it were a fat, spoiled housecat; it almost seems to purr as it revolves langorously under her fingertips.
‘… just beneath the surface of the earth,’ she is saying, ‘temperatures so high that the rock itself is molten—can anyone tell me what it’s called, this molten rock?’
‘Magma,’ croak several boys at once.
‘And what do you call it, when it bursts up onto the earth’s surface from a volcano?’
‘Lava,’ they respond tremulously.
‘Excellent! And millions of years ago, there was an enormous amount of volcanic activity, with magma boiling up over the entire surface of the earth non-stop. The landscape around us today’—she runs a lacquered fingernail down a swelling ridge of mountain—‘is mostly the legacy of this era, when the whole planet was experiencing dramatic physical changes. I suppose you could call it Earth’s teenage years!’
The class blushes to its collective roots and stares down at its textbook. She laughs again, and spins the globe, snapping it under her fingertips like a musician plucking the strings of a double bass, then catches sight of her watch. ‘Oh my gosh! Oh, you poor things, I should have let you out ten minutes ago! Why didn’t someone say something?’
The class mumbles inaudibly, still looking at the book.
‘Well, all right…’ She turns to write their homework on the blackboard, reaching up so that her skirt rises to expose the back of her knees; moments later the door opens, and the boys troop reluctantly out. Howard, affecting to study the photographs on the noticeboard of the Hillwalking Club’s recent outing to Djouce Mountain, watches from the corner of his eye until the flow of grey jumpers has ceased. When she fails to appear, he goes back to investi-
‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry.’ He hunkers down beside her and helps her reamass the pages that have fluttered all over the gritty corridor floor. ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you. I was just rushing back to a… a meeting…’
‘That’s all right,’ she says, ‘thanks,’ as he places a sheaf of Ordnance Survey maps on top of the stack she’s gathered back in her arms. ‘Thank you,’ she repeats, looking directly into his eyes, and continuing to look into them as they rise in unison to their feet, so that Howard, finding himself unable to look away, feels a brief moment of panic, as if they have somehow become locked together, like those apocryphal stories you hear about the kids who get their braces stuck together while kissing and have to get the fire brigade to cut them out.
‘Sorry,’ he says again, reflexively.
‘Stop apologizing.’ she laughs.
He introduces himself. ‘I’m Howard Fallon. I teach history. You’re standing in for Finian Ó Dálaigh?’
‘That’s right,’ she says. ‘Apparently he’s going to be out till Christmas, whatever happened to him.’
‘Gallstones,’ Howard says.
‘Oh,’ she says.
Howard wishes he could unsay gallstones. ‘So,’ he rebegins effortfully, ‘I’m actually on my way home. Can I give you a lift?’
She cocks her head. ‘Didn’t you have a meeting?’
‘Yes,’ he remembers. ‘But it isn’t really that important.’
‘I have my own car, thanks all the same,’ she says. ‘But I suppose you could carry my books, if you like.’
‘Okay,’ Howard says.
Possibly the offer is ironic, but before she can retract it he removes the stack of binders and textbooks from her hands and, ignoring the homicidal looks from a small clump of her pupils still mooning about the corridor, walks alongside her towards the exit.
‘So, how are you finding it?’ he asks, attempting to haul the conversation to a more equilibrious state. ‘Have you taught much before, or is this your first time?’
‘Oh’—she blows upwards at a wayward strand of golden hair—‘I’m not a teacher by profession. I’m just doing this as a favour for Greg, really. Mr Costigan, I mean. God, I’d forgotten about this Mister, Miss stuff. It’s so funny. Miss McIntyre.’
‘Staff are allowed to use first names, you know.’
‘Mmm… Actually I’m quite enjoying being Miss McIntyre. Anyhow, Greg and I were talking one day and he was saying they were having problems finding a good substitute, and it so happens that once upon a time I had fantasies of being a teacher, and I was between contracts, so I thought why not?’
‘What’s your field normally?’ He holds open the main door for her and they step out into the autumn air, which has grown cold and crisp.
Howard receives this information with a studied neutrality, then says casually, ‘I used to work in that area myself, actually. Spent about two years in the City. Futures, primarily.’
He cracks a grin. ‘Don’t you read the papers? Not enough future to go around.’
She doesn’t react, waiting for the correct answer. ‘Well, I’ll probably get back into it someday,’ he blusters. ‘This is just a temporary thing, really. I sort of fell into it. Although at the same time, it’s nice, I think, to give something back? To feel like you’re making a difference?’
They make their way around the sixth years’ car park, a series of Lexuses and TTs—and Howard’s heart sinks as his own car comes into view.
‘What’s with the feathers?’
‘Oh, it’s nothing.’ He sweeps his hand along the car’s roof, ploughing a mighty drift of white feathers over the side. They pluff to the ground, from where some float back up to adhere to his trousers. Miss McIntyre takes a step backwards. ‘It’s just a… ah, sort of a gag the boys play.’
‘They call you Howard the Coward,’ she remarks, like a tourist inquiring the meaning of a puzzling local idiom.
‘Yes.’ Howard laughs mirthlessly, shovelling more feathers from his windscreen and bonnet and not offering an explanation. ‘You know, they’re good kids, generally, in this place, but there’s a few that can be a bit, ah, highspirited.’
‘I’ll be on my guard,’ she says.
‘Well, like I say, it’s just a small percentage. Most of them… I mean, generally speaking it’s a wonderful place to work.’
‘You’re covered in feathers,’ she says judiciously.
‘Yes,’ he harrumphs, swiping his trousers summarily, straightening his tie. Her eyes, which are a brilliant and dazzling shade of blue custom-made for sparkling mockingly, sparkle mockingly at him. Howard has had enough humiliation for one day; he is just about to bow out with the last shreds of his dignity, when she says, ‘So what’s it like, teaching history?’
‘What’s it like?’ he repeats.
‘I’m really liking doing geography again.’
She gazes dreamily around at the ice-blue sky, the yellowing trees. ‘You know, these titanic battles between different forces that actually created the shape of the world we’re walking around in today… it’s so dramatic…’ She squeezes her hands sensually, a goddess forging worlds out of raw matter, then fixes The Eyes on Howard again. ‘And history—that must be so much fun!’
This isn’t the first word that springs to mind, but Howard limits himself to a bland smile.
‘What are you teaching at the moment?’
‘Well, in my last class we were doing the First World War.’
‘Oh!’ She claps her hands. ‘I love the First World War. The boys must be enjoying that.’
‘You’d be surprised,’ he says.
‘You should read them Robert Graves,’ she says.
‘He was in the trenches,’ she replies; then adds, after a pause, ‘He was also one of the great love poets.’
‘I’ll take a look,’ he scowls. ‘Any other tips for me? Any other lessons you’ve gleaned from your five days in the profession?’
She laughs. ‘If I have any more I’ll be sure and pass them on. It sounds like you need them.’
She lifts the books out of Howard’s arms and aims her car key at the enormous white-gold SUV parked next door to Howard’s dilapidated Bluebird. ‘See you tomorrow,’ she says.
‘Right,’ Howard says. But she doesn’t move, and neither does he: she holds him there a moment purely by the light of her spectacular eyes, looking him over with the tip of her tongue tucked in the corner of her mouth, as if she is deciding what to have for dinner. Then, smiling at him coyly with a row of pointed white teeth, she says, ‘You know, I’m not going to sleep with you.’
At first Howard is sure he must have misheard her; and when he realizes that he has not, he is still too stunned to reply. So he just stands there, or perhaps totters, and the next thing he knows she’s climbed into her jeep and pulled away, sending white feathers swirling about his ankles.
Howard the Coward: yes, that’s what they call him. Howard the Coward. Feathers; eggs left on his seat; a yellow streak, executed in chalk, on his teacher’s cape; once a whole frozen chicken there on the desk, trussed, dimpled, humiliated.
‘It’s because it rhymes with Howard, that’s all,’ Halley tells him. ‘Like if your name was Ray, they’d call you Gay Ray. Or if was Mary, they’d call you Scary Mary. It’s just the way their brains work. It doesn’t mean anything.’
‘It means they know.’
‘Oh God, Howard, one little bump, and it was years and years ago. How could they possibly know about that?’
‘They just do.’
‘Well, even if they do. I know you’re not a coward. They’re just kids, they can’t see into your soul.’
But she is wrong. That is exactly what they can do. Old enough to have a decent mechanical understanding of how the world works, but young enough for their judgements to remain unfogged by anything like mercy or compassion or the realization that all this will one day happen to them, the boys—his students—are machines for seeing through the apparatus of worldliness that adulthood, as figured by their teachers, surrounds itself with, to the grinding emptiness at its heart. They find it hilarious. And the names they give the other teachers seem so unerringly right. Malco the Alco? Big Fat Johnson? Lurch?
Howard the Coward. Fuck! Who told her?
The car starts on the third try and putters past slow droves of boys babbling and throwing conkers at each other till it reaches the gate, where it joins a tailback waiting for a space to open up on the road. Years ago, on their very last day of school, Howard and his friends had paused beneath this same gate—SEABROOK COLLEGE arching above them in reversed gold letters—and turned to give what was now their alma mater the finger, before passing through and out into the exhilarating panorama of passion and adventure that would be the setting for their adult lives. Sometimes— often—he wonders if by that small gesture, in a life otherwise bare of gestures or dissent, he had doomed himself to return here, to spend the rest of his days scrubbing away at that solitary mark of rebellion. God loves these broad ironies.
He reaches the top of the line, indicating right. There’s the ragged beginnings of a sunset visible over the city, a lush melange of magentas and crimsons; he sits there as witty responses crash belatedly into his mind, one after another.
Never say never.
That’s what you think.
Better join the queue.
The car behind honks as a gap opens up. At the last second, Howard switches the indicator and turns left instead.
Halley is on the phone when he gets home; she swivels her chair around to him, rolling her eyes and making a blah blah shape with her hand. The air is dense with a day’s smoke, and the ashtray piled high with crushed butts and frazzled matchsticks. He mouths Hi to her and goes into the bathroom. His own phone starts to ring as he’s washing his hands.
‘Farley?’ he whispers.
‘I called you three times, where have you been?’
‘I had to do some work with my third years for the Science Fair. What’s wrong? Is everything okay? I can’t hear you very well.’
‘Hold on’—Howard reaches in and turns on the shower. In his natural voice he says, ‘Listen, something very—’
‘Are you in the shower?’
‘No, I’m standing outside it.’
‘Maybe I should call you back.’
‘No—listen, I wanted to—something very strange has just happened. I was talking to the new girl, the substitute, you know, who teaches geography—’
‘Aurelie. It’s her name.’
‘How do you know?’
‘What do you mean, how do I know?’
‘I mean’—he feels his cheeks go crimson—‘I meant, what kind of name is Aurelie?’
‘It’s French. She’s part-French.’ Farley chuckles lasciviously. ‘I wonder which part. Are you all right, Howard? You sound a bit off.’
‘Well, okay, the point is, I was talking to her in the car park just now—just having a nice, normal conversation about work and how she’s getting on, and then out of the blue she says to me’—he goes to the door and opens it a sliver. In the next room Halley is still nodding and making mm-hmm noises, the phone cradled between her jawbone and shoulder—‘she tells me she isn’t going to sleep with me!’ He waits, and when no response is forthcoming, adds, ‘What do you think of that?’
‘That is strange,’ Farley admits.
‘It’s very strange,’ Howard affirms.
‘And what did you say?’
‘I didn’t say anything. I was too surprised.’
‘You hadn’t been rubbing her thigh or anything like that?’
‘That’s just it, it was completely unprompted. We were standing there talking about schoolwork, and then out of nowhere she goes, “You know, I’m not going to sleep with you.” What do you think it could mean?’
‘Well, offhand I’d say it means she isn’t going to sleep with you.’
‘You don’t just say to someone that you’re not going to sleep with them, Farley. You don’t introduce sex into the conversation, out of a clear blue sky, and then just banish it. Unless sex is what you really want to talk about.’
‘Wait—you’re suggesting that when she told you, “I’m not going to sleep with you,” what she actually meant was, “I am going to sleep with you”?’
‘Doesn’t it sound like she’s laying down a challenge? Like she’s saying,
“I’m not going to sleep with you now, but I might sleep with you if certain circumstances change.”’
Farley hums, then says reluctantly, ‘I don’t know, Howard.’
‘Okay, I see, she’s just trying to save me a little time and embarrassment, is that it? She’s just trying to help me out? There couldn’t possibly be any sexual element.’
‘I don’t know what she meant. But isn’t this entirely academic? Don’t you already have a girlfriend? And a mortgage? Howard?’
‘Well obviously,’ Howard says, simmering. ‘I just thought it was a strange thing to say, that’s all.’
‘If I were you I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. She sounds like one of those flirty types. She’s probably that way with everybody.’
‘Right.’ Howard agrees curtly. ‘Here, I’d better go. See you tomorrow.’ He hangs up the phone.
‘Were you talking to someone in there?’ Halley asks him when he comes out.
‘Singing,’ Howard mutters.
‘Singing?’ Her eyes narrow. ‘Did you actually have a shower?’
‘Hmm?’ Howard realizes he’s neglected a key element of his cover story.
‘Oh yeah, I just didn’t wash my hair. The water’s cold.’
‘It’s cold? How come? It shouldn’t be cold.’
‘I was cold, I mean. In the shower. So I got out. It’s not important.’
‘Are you coming down with something?’
‘I’m fine.’ He sits down at the breakfast bar. Halley stands over him, examines him carefully. ‘You do look a bit flushed.’
‘I’m fine,’ he repeats, more vehemently.
‘All right, all right…’ She walks away, puts on the kettle. He turns to the window, silently trying out the name Aurelie.
Their house lies several four-lane miles from Seabrook, on the front line of the suburbs’ slow assault on the Dublin mountains. When Howard was growing up, he used to ride his bike around here in the summer with Farley, through fairy-tale woods ticking with grasshoppers and sunshine. Now it looks like a battlefield, mounds of sodden earth surrounding trenches waterlogged with rain. They’re building a Science Park on the other side of the valley: every week the landscape has morphed a little more, the swell of a hill shorn off, a flat gashed open.
That’s what they all say.
‘What have you got there?’ Halley comes back with two cups.
‘No shit.’ She takes it out of his hands. ‘Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That.’
‘Just something I picked up on the way home. First World War. I thought the boys might like it.’
‘Robert Graves, didn’t he write I, Claudius? That they made into a TV series?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘He did.’ She scans the back of the book. ‘Looks interesting.’
Howard shrugs non-committally. Halley leans back against her chair, watching his eyes buzz restlessly over the counter surface. ‘Why are you acting weird?’
He freezes. ‘Me? I’m not acting weird.’
Interior pandemonium as he desperately tries to remember how he normally acts with her. ‘It’s just been a long day—oh God’—groaning involuntarily as she pulls a cigarette from her shirt pocket. ‘Are you going to smoke another of those things?’
‘They’re bad for you. You said you were going to quit.’
‘What can I tell you, Howard. I’m an addict. A hopeless, pathetic addict in the thrall of the tobacco companies.’ Her shoulders slump as the tip glows in ignition. ‘Anyway, it’s not like I’m pregnant.’
Ah, right—this is how he normally acts with her. He remembers now. They seem to be going through a protracted phase in which they’re able to speak to each other only in criticisms, needles, rebukes. Big things, little things, anything can spark an argument, even when neither of them wants to argue, even when he or she is trying to say something nice, or simply to state an innocuous fact. Their relationship is like a piece of malfunctioning equipment that when switched on will only buzz fractiously, and shocks you when you’re trying to find out what’s wrong. The simplest solution seems to be not to switch it on, look instead for a new one; he is not quite ready to contemplate that eventuality, however.
‘How was work?’ he says conciliatorily.
‘Oh…’ She makes a gesture of insignificance, flicking the dust of the day from her fingers. ‘This morning I wrote a review of a new laser printer. Then most of the afternoon I spent trying to get hold of someone in Epson to confirm the specs. Usual rollercoaster ride.’
‘Any new gadgets?’
‘Yeah, actually…’ She fetches a small silver rectangle and presents it to him. Howard frowns and fumbles with it—card-thin and smaller than the palm of his hand.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s a movie camera.’
‘This is a camera?’
She takes it from him, slides back a panel and returns it. The camera issues an almost but not quite inaudible purr. He holds it up and aims it at her; a pristine image of her appears in the tiny screen, with a red light flashing in one corner. ‘That’s incredible,’ he laughs. ‘What else does it do?’
‘Make every day like summer!’ she reads from the press release. ‘The Sony JLS9xr offers several significant improvements on the JLS700 model, as well as entirely new features, most notably Sony’s new Intelligent Eye system, which gives not only unparalleled picture resolution but real-time image augmentation—meaning that your movies can be even more vivid than they are in real life.’
‘More vivid than real life?’
‘It corrects the image while you record. Compensates for weak light, boosts the colours, gives things a sheen, you know.’
‘Wow.’ He watches her head dip slightly as she extinguishes her cigarette, then lift again. Miniaturized on the screen she does indeed seem more lustrous, coherent, resolved—a bloom to her cheeks, a glint to her hair. When he glances experimentally away from it, the real-life Halley and the rest of their home suddenly appear underdefined, washed out. He turns his eye to it again, zooms in on her own eyes, deep blue and finely striated with white; like thin ice, he always thinks. They look sad.
‘And how about you?’
‘You seem a bit down.’ Somehow it’s easier to talk to her like this, mediated by the camera viewer; he finds the buffer making him audacious, even though she’s sitting close enough to touch.
She shrugs fatalistically. ‘I don’t know… it’s just these PR people, God, they sound like they’re turning into machines themselves, you know, ask them anything at all and they feed you the same pre-recorded answer…’ She trails off. The backs of her fingers move across her forehead, barely touching it; the viewer picks up fine lines there that he has never noticed before. He pictures her here on her own, frowning at the computer screen in the alcove of the living room she has made her office, surrounded by magazines and prototypes, only smoke for company.
‘I tried to write something,’ she says thoughtfully.
‘A story. I don’t know. Something.’ She seems happier too, with this arrangement, liberated by not having to look into his eyes; she gazes out the window, down at the ashtray, kneads her bracelet against the bones of her wrist. Howard suddenly finds himself desiring her. Maybe this is the answer to all of their problems! He could wear the camera all the time, mount it onto his head somehow. ‘I sat down and told myself I wasn’t getting up until I’d written something. So I stayed there for a full hour and God help me, all I could think of was printers. I’ve spent so long cooped up with this stuff that I’ve forgotten how actual human beings think and behave.’ She slurps her tea disconsolately. ‘Do you think there’s a market for that, Howard? Epic novels starring office equipment? Modem Bovary. Less Than Xerox.’
‘Who knows? Technology’s getting smarter every day. Maybe it’s only a matter of time before computers start reading books. You could be on to something big.’ He places his free hand on hers, sees it jump in Lilliputian form into the corner of the screen. ‘I don’t understand why you don’t just quit,’ he says. They have had this conversation so many times now, it is an effort to keep it from sounding mechanical. But maybe it will turn out differently this time? ‘You’ve got a bit of money saved, why don’t you take some time off and just write? Give yourself six months, say, see what you come up with. We could afford it, if we tightened our belts.’
‘It’s not that simple, Howard. You know how hard it is to find someone who’ll give me a work permit. Futurlab’s been good to me, it’d be stupid to quit there with things as they are.’
He ignores the implied accusation here, pretends that this really is about her writing. ‘You’d find something. You’re good at what you do. Anyway, why not worry about that when the time comes?’
She pulls a face and mutters something.
‘Seriously, though, why don’t you?’
‘Oh, for Christ’s sake—I don’t know, Howard. Maybe this is all I’m good for. Maybe office equipment is all there is to write about.’ He withdraws his hand, exasperated. ‘Well, if you won’t do anything about it, then you’ve got to stop complaining.’
‘I’m not complaining, if you ever actually listened to what I—’
‘I do listen, that’s the problem, I’m listening all the time to you telling me you’re unhappy, but then when I try to encourage you to do something about it—’
‘Just forget it, I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Fine, but then don’t tell me I’m not listening when the problem is you don’t want to talk—’
‘Can we just forget—Jesus, would you put that fucking thing down?’ She stares at him, alight with wounded fury, until he slides the camera’s panel shut. Right, right, this is how they act. She grabs another cigarette, lights and tugs at it in a single blur of antipathetic motion.
‘Fine,’ says Howard, picking up his book and getting to his feet. ‘Fine, fine, fine, fine.’
He closets himself in the spare room and turns the pages of the Robert Graves book till he hears her get in the shower.
Halley and he have been together for three years, which, at twenty-eight, constitutes the longest relationship of his life so far. For a long time it coasted along, joshing and amicable. But now Halley wants to get married. She doesn’t say it, but he knows. Marriage makes sense for her. As an American citizen, her right to work here currently depends on the benevolence of her employer, who must renew her permit every year. By marrying Howard, she would become, in the state’s eyes, naturalized, and so free to go where she pleased. That isn’t the only reason she desires it, of course. But it does bring the matter into focus rather sharply: suddenly the question becomes, why do they not get married right away? And it hangs above them like some hulking alien spacecraft, blocking out the sun.
So why don’t they? It’s not that Howard doesn’t love her. He does, he would do anything for her, lay down his life if it came to it—if for example she were a princess menaced by a fire-breathing dragon, and he a knight on horseback, he would charge in with his lance without a second thought, stare the serpent right in its smouldering igneous eye, even if it meant getting barbecued there on the spot. But the fact is—the fact is that they live in a world of facts, one of which is that there are no dragons; there are only the pale torpid days, stringing by one like another, a clouded necklace of imitation pearls, and a love binding him to a life he never actually chose. Is this all it’s ever going to be? A grey tapestry of okayness? Frozen in a moment he drifted into?
And so in short everything remains on hold, and everything remains unspoken, and Halley gets more confused about where they are going and what is wrong, even though technically nothing is wrong, and she gets angry with Howard, and Howard as a result feels even less like getting married. Actually, when the plates start flying, it feels like they’ve already been married for years.
After dinner (microwaved) a détente of sorts is reached, whereby he sits reading in the living room while she watches TV. When she rises to turn in at ten-thirty, he presents his cheek for her to kiss. The protocol that has emerged of late is that the first person to the bedroom is given a half-hour’s grace, so he or she can be asleep by the time the second comes in. It is forty-five days, if you’re asking, since they last had sex. Nothing has been explicitly said; it is something they have agreed on tacitly, indeed is one of the few things they do not, at present, disagree on. Eavesdropping on the pornographic conversations of the boys at school, Howard considers how inconceivable the idea of not wanting to have sex would have seemed to his younger self—remembers how his every atom hurled itself (mostly fruitlessly) after physical contact with the unthinking, unstoppable urgency of a wild salmon flapping up a waterfall. There’s a woman in your bed and you’re not having sex with her? He can practically hear the disappointment and confusion in that younger self’s voice. He’s not saying that he likes the present situation. But it is easier, at least in the short to middle term.
Often, as they lie side by side in the darkness, neither letting on to the other that they are still awake, he has long, candid conversations with her in his imagination, where he fearlessly lays everything out on the table. Sometimes these imaginary conversations end with the two of them breaking up, others with their realizing that they can’t live apart; either way, it feels good to make a decision.
Tonight, though, he is not thinking about this. Instead he is sitting in the front row of a classroom, staring with the other boys at a globe that spins with luxurious, excruciating slowness under slender fingers. And as he stares into it, the globe changes under the fingers from a map of the world into a crystal ball… a crystal ball-cum-lucky dip, where any future you want is there for the taking; and under his breath he is murmuring, ‘We’ll see about that. We’ll see.’