On duty Chloe Vars is unrecognisable. She cannot function if she allows herself to think of her boyfriend Joao and if she does allow herself to think of him when she is on duty she makes it clear to herself that he has not left to live in Portugal but is in the room next door polishing wine glasses so that they shine like lasers, and if they talk it is to discuss lemons or ice.
When she signed up for the job that took her from Nimes to Faro to Macau, Macau to Hamburg and then to a celebrated hotel in Connemara, Chloe wanted things to be perfect. Though she begins with an uninterrupted walk through the hotel grounds she knows today will not be perfect and will end in shame. There is a small wedding party arriving and she is not looking forward to the expectations and illogical questions that will turn her hotel into something like the end of the world. She ends her unstressed walk carefully crying under a dripping tree.
She hopes for word from Joao, who left quickly for another barman’s job at a resort near Lisbon, obliging Chloe to deal with his belongings before moving into her single room in the staff accommodation. She gets to the office and sees there is nothing from Portugal; only a call from the wedding photographer.
‘You know when I said I was having problems getting the horse for today’s
‘Please don’t say you’re not going to do what you said you would do,’ says Chloe.
‘You’re confusing me now. I’m not saying that I’m not going to do anything.’
‘What did you say to me when I asked you for this horse?’
‘I can’t remember?’
‘You said yes. So where is it?’
‘I don’t know.’
Short of time, unaccountably tired, and weighed with anxiety about Joao, even down to his whereabouts and well-being, Chloe hustles the delivery of a horse from a local riding school. From the office window she looks out at a lone fisherman in a tiny boat on the river. She once saw him fall out of his boat reaching for a leaping salmon and she thinks of it now.
She works so hard and sets such high standards that an unsuspecting country hotel, prized for its dreamlike setting, can hardly be blamed for her unease, a truth she mistrusts but cannot deny. She has suffocated the vagueness about when Joao might return with a certainty that she has a job to do, allowing herself security of one kind if not another. She finds herself surrounded by his fishing rods and nets and waders, birthday and Christmas presents that were at first adored then casually abandoned. Now, she fears that his belongings are hers. She wonders if he is missing his things.
Lately, in boredom, she has found herself whistling and sweeping, smoothing out cling-film in the hope of reusing it. She can’t bear the silence at night, the bed pressing against her. There are mice, a team of capering bats, whose squeaks have become an invitation to something sexual: she often imagines they are in the room with her, but refuses to be afraid of bats. She refuses to fear the stillness, the mindless night. She imagines the silent river, the tunnel of sleep, a squeak and then morning.
There is an American, a man called Bill Disk, in the lobby. He drives her crazy by talking to her in a French so earnest and correct that she pities him.
Bill Disk takes care to repeat that it is his second but his wife-to-be’s first marriage; once to remind her who is in charge of whom, twice to make it clear that it is not a normal wedding with invited guests, and three times to spell out that it may be a no-fuss wedding but it will be a perfect wedding. Chloe doubts it will be perfect.
‘Can I offer you something to drink?’ she says.
‘At this hour?’ he says. He is blandly handsome and as pale as pastry, or margarine.
‘Perhaps we’ll send some coffee and home-made pastries to your room?’
‘Not one bit hungry.’
‘Just the coffee?’
‘Keeps me up.’
Chloe, who normally prides herself on delivering the pure moment of welcome, says something airy.
‘Does this place work?’ he asks. ‘The water’s brown.’
‘This is normal,’ she says.
The language barrier is an advantage in some situations. However, her desire to be clearly understood and Joao’s inability to clearly understand seems to be the reason her room is still full of his unwanted belongings. He was Portuguese, she was French, they communicated in English, and the more she tried the less he understood, until now, when he appears not to even hear. On the phone, she can hear him being quiet, this is what it has come to. It has become a kind of numbness, a hypothermia.
Then something strange. Bill Disk’s beautiful but ratty bride-to-be Marion Bishop arrives. She flutters her fingers, looks over her shoulder impishly and, like it’s a Frisbee, flies her hat across the lobby where it comes to rest on a lamp. Then she pops her collar and rolls her shoulders as if expecting applause.
Chloe crosses the lobby and wordlessly places the hat on a rack by the front door and instructs O____, the porter, to be especially careful with the luggage. She expects to see Marion Bishop bursting into flames at the top of the stairs before cart-wheeling into her room. Chloe’s life seems innocuous by comparison. She takes some soup to her room but her curiosity about Bill Disk and Marion Bishop won’t subside. In bed, she fixates on Bill, his fiancée, and carefully imagining their lives and landscapes, the reasons for marrying in a cold castle far from home, far from anywhere, the allpowerful dreams that compel you to transport you and your wedding cake five thousand miles, and, slowly giving in to the irresponsible dream that Joao will return with infinite apologies, Chloe, grinning, giggling, mimicking Marion Bishop’s shoulder-roll, lies awake until dawn.
She delivers Marion Bishop’s breakfast to her suite.
‘With our compliments,’ says Chloe.
‘Tell me you brought the coffee?’
‘Keep it coming. This is the finest castle in Ireland, right?’ she says.
Marion Bishop is disappointed the castle is so cementy: it reminds her of a huge elephant or the surface of a distant planet or just too much cement. On the silent TV, on a cookery show set somewhere in southern Europe, a family is having a faithfully recreated Sunday lunch. The scene contains women with unpinned hair, in hats like Marion Bishop’s, battered pots and much-used bowls full of fennel and lentils. An old man is dancing with his granddaughter, and somewhere in the scene, Marion Bishop, or is it Chloe, hesitates then kicks away her sandals.
Marion Bishop runs a bath. She asks Chloe to stay. She wants company, another faithfully recreated scene of comfort and confidentiality. The way Marion Bishop fixes the bathroom door so that they can continue to talk easily and then steps into the bath so that she can prepare to be married and her cloudless life will start. It was the way Marion Bishop caught Bill Disk’s eye before she threw the hat across the lobby, it is the way she smiles when Chloe mentions his name now. Chloe sees Marion Bishop’s eyes close with this soft talk of marriage and in the bedroom she sees the hat, Marion Bishop’s neat white trouser suit she would like to wear herself but won’t, and knows already that she will take pleasure in breaking this stranger’s marriage apart. She excuses herself to check on news of the horse.
‘Did you misunderstand the word horse?’ says Bill Disk.
Chloe disintegrates when she sees it: the horse is so puny she could wrestle it to the ground herself. ‘There was no misunderstanding,’ she says.
‘It is not as if I asked for a ship in a bottle.’
It is not in her nature to refuse to oblige a guest. It is in her nature to say yes. She arranges for extra flowers, more champagne, cigars, a harpist, but cannot manage to find a horse that doesn’t look like it has just had a stroke. Worn-out and cautious and chaotic with failure she feels something harden: the hypothermia again, and briefly she considers just leaving; a bus and a plane tonight and a train in the morning and she can be in Nimes by lunchtime. She knows the schedules. She stands in the office and frets until V____, the hotel owner, calls to say she is employee of the month; but this and bouquets and thank-you notes and compliments of any kind seem to her now to be like sunlight she is aware of but cannot feel.
Bill Disk returns from his wedding à deux and delivers a speech to anyone who will listen: ‘Me and my new wife will live to a hundred. We’ll eat our greens. We’ll eat our greens and on weekends you won’t see us for dust because we’ll be drunk and in bed.’
Bill Disk and Marion Bishop dance before dinner; proper frothy dancing and when it subsides Chloe assigns one waiter to Bill Disk, another to his new wife and terrorises them both into slickness, freezes them into it. She cleans glasses and wonders if Joao is sleeping with M____ again and good for him if he is, if that’s what it takes. If he can find someone to put up with his constant stupidity, good for him. Chloe feels brutish and unwomanly since Joao has gone.
She is in her office enjoying a heap of well-travelled wedding cake when, inexplicably, Bill Disk appears and begins to talk. About who hasn’t made the journey from Seattle, can he blame them? About all the beautiful food, which isn’t what he expected at all, after the brown water. About, he supposes, being married. About addressing certain issues, tiresome issues, that he has no interest in even being aware of let alone addressing or sharing. About, if possible, learning to share them. Though it makes her uncomfortable, Chloe understands his urge to talk has less to do with happy-ever-afters than with the rooms and routines that come with them. Bill Disk advances a few such hopeful theories and Chloe, not unkindly, grows fitful. She is employee of the month and could be doing other things for a living.
Bill Disk has had lovers coming out of his ears. When one such lover had cold feet at an architecture conference in Montreal, he took off on his own and Marion had the same idea! When he stepped into the restaurant he had the sense of being at an appointment. They found themselves drinking fine Jurançon Sec and quickly checked into somewhere picture-postcard where she had to sleep in the bath because he snored like a chainsaw. They awoke and cried with excitement and cried over matters of the soul that even talk of moving in together immediately couldn’t fix.
That night she can’t sleep. For all that he haunts her, like a dead man, and for all her clarity, she cannot picture Joao. She finds photographs of their visit to his grandparents’ almost uninhabitable house in the Algarve and considers his obsession about returning there and considers the agreeable but pointless notion of moving to Portugal. She thinks of fishing nets, piled up like pasta, and fishing boats, white and blue, the taste of cocaine from Joao’s red-apple lips, and only when she sets fire to the photographs does she discover that she has wanted to talk to Bill Disk all along.
She checks on the lobby where she finds him alone by the drawing-room window, reading the previous day’s Irish Times.
‘Fancy randomly bumping into you here,’ he says.
‘I work here. This is not random. But it is a little early, no?’
‘And this is yesterday’s paper?’
‘I want to see what was in the news the day I got married.’
‘That is a lovely idea,’ says Chloe.
‘And I don’t know what else to do.’
‘I have known all along, or suspected at least, that I am destroying her life. I’d undo
it all. If I could. Or reverse it.’
Chloe turns the colour of beef, looks at her feet and his, observes the bleary gleam of the river outside and slowly, stunned that she is doing so, says what she has been thinking all along.
‘Are you sick?’
‘I was. Cancer of the something. I’m clean now. You could serve breakfast on me. But that’s why we’re here. Because of the was.’
Thinking he was dying, Bill wanted the wedding to be something: a kind of settlement. He couldn’t die without offering his devoted girlfriend something first, and he thought the wedding would help him find, if not a cure for the cancer, which eloquently cured itself, then at least the something missing neither of them could find once they had checked out of the hotel in Montreal.
‘Without having any interest in making this any more significant than it has to be,’ he says. ‘I am now both not going to die and married to someone I don’t love.’ Chloe sees the old fisherman walk down the path towards the jetty. He is taking his time, carrying a cool box that in the darkness resembles a bell. She can only look at the fisherman so long. There is absolutely no question of responding to Bill Disk’s queries, of where she is from, what she plans to do when she leaves Ireland, what she dreams of, or who.
‘I don’t know,’ she says.
Her thoughts on the matter, that, even as employee of the month, she is still defeated and out-thought by this country, do not make her want to go back to Nimes or follow Joao to an inappropriate house in Portugal, another reason why she cannot answer Bill Disk’s questions or return his gaze. Only then does it occur to her that she has already met his gaze, earlier, just then, the day before, when they first met.
Bill Disk goes for a walk by the river. Because guests expect to see her at breakfast she clears tables and resets them, making sure at least to create the illusion that she is not simply waiting for him to return. There is a call for her at reception and she arranges to meet him in a pub a mile from the hotel.
She orders a Fanta and waits for twenty, thirty minutes. Places like this mean very little to her. She supposes Bill Disk has returned to the bridal suite or perhaps he is on his way to the airport. Both bring on a kind of euphoria. It is like she was drowning and has escaped through the floor of the riverbed, only to drown again in an underwater ocean; which brings its own euphoria.
Bill Disk wanders in holding a cigar stub, a wayward but persistent look in his eyes.
‘This is dried out. It’s driftwood. Can I assume it won’t be on my bill?’
She considers where they are and does not feel the need to reply. Soon her shift will be over. She offers to explain the situation to Marion Bishop.
‘I suppose it’s the least someone can do,’ he says. They decide that Bill Disk will hide until Marion Bishop has gone
Marion Bishop is very calm. Not pleasant or particularly reasonable, but calm and committed to the situation, like a cop absorbing information, amassing it. Chloe says someone saw Bill Disk board a bus bound for Galway. This needs no explanation as far as Marion Bishop is concerned. She listens as if she has heard it all before. Chloe feels mysteriousness and mirth, as if all this has nothing to do with her.
She invites Marion Bishop to stay another night free of charge. She wonders about about what she will do if the offer is accepted, she wonders about the blank truth of a twelve-hour marriage, she wonders about doubt, the inescapable doubt that comes from successful relationships as well as failed ones. It’s as if she has all the answers at the same time as not caring what they are. She watches Marion Bishop pack the last of her things, new bathing suits wrapped in tissue-paper, enormous necklaces wrapped in scarves. She walks Marion Bishop to the taxi, which she decides will be paid for by the hotel. At the car, they cordially discuss airlines and airports and she wonders what she can do with Bill Disk, now that the coast is clear. It is like she can fly the plane by just closing her eyes.
Bill Disk makes himself at home in Chloe’s room. Expectations take hold of her, like pins and needles or a yawn, it is one thing to respect another’s privacy but another altogether to be the centre of attention. She has never been in a situation like this, she loves the embarrassment, the drawn-out flush, as complicated as lacework.
She sits on the edge of the bed, and there, towards afternoon and evening, they have conversations that she can’t quite understand, just like all the other things she can’t understand. She does not want anything more to do with this man. She does not know what she was thinking. Bill Disk falls asleep with one of Joao’s books open on his chest and she notices something and though she cannot quite tell where it has come in she sees that a bat is unhappily scrabbling around her room.
She waits a few moments before waking Bill Disk who puffs out of bed and throws whatever he can lay his hands on—cups, jewellery, a towel—at the frail and hysterical bat. A shoe hits Chloe in the face, Joao’s gloves, clock and books fill the air. Bill Disk shrieks when the bat collides with him and Chloe stuffs wet tissues into the hole in the ceiling, not because she wants to divert any bats but because she is trying anything to make Bill Disk inaudible. His time is up.
‘Did you get rid of my wife?’ he says.
‘Kaput,’ says Chloe.
‘Kaput? Kaput-kaput? I knew you were impressive but I didn’t know you were an
assassin. No offence, but let’s go somewhere we can see some proper horses.’
Bill Disk’s voice rings out and reverberates into nothing and not even aware that this is what she is doing, quietly she catches him by the arm and pulls him to the door where they stand until a silence tells her that the bat is gone and her bedroom is free from intruders but ruined.