Sandra wore straw hats in summer, because she was American, but in winter she covered her thin straw hair with rainbow coloured woollen hats, not unlike battered tea cosies, and more cheerful than the black ones worn by the bachelors that lived all around the cottage she rented, on the year she graduated from NUI and dreamed of being an artist.
She lived for twelve months there, among the rush-filled sloping fields, among sheep and old men, who rapped her window at dusk, looking for lifts to the village pub in the old Renault 16; a rusting terminal case she bought for £250. Those bachelors cycled bicycles up hills in the rain, their flies were rarely buttoned, and they reeked of piss, but their intentions were harmless, and they sometimes sat in her kitchen, by the dresser, falling asleep from exhaustion or hunger, and waking often in tears they themselves did not comprehend. Sandra absorbed all that with dizzy relish because she was going to be an artist. Or so she thought.
Not that she wore rainbow coloured tea cosies on her head for effect. She just wanted to keep her head warm.
And she was always in the habit of wearing cheerful hats, since her youth in Chicago, where she cycled along the North Shore, near the lake, when the January snow stacked up on the sidewalk like salt mounds, on her way to sociology lectures in the university, before she came to Ireland and met me in Maynooth in 1971.
She introduced me to the writings of Margaret Mead, and she only ate apples, and she had freckled skin, which made her look Norwegian, or so I said to her, apparently, the first night we went into the Blackboard, a restaurant in Dublin, off Grafton Street, with red and white chequered table cloths, that served chilli con carne and which I thought was the most exotic place in the world, though she said it was just alright.
I used to call her Slim Woman, a handle that the Navajo chief Hoskinini had for Louisa Wetheral, a pioneer woman who worked in Arizona in the nineteenth century, and whose adventures came up regularly in sociology tutorials. Sandra wore long purple dresses around campus, and listened to Joan Baez. I’d never been to America. But being with Sandra was like crossing a foreign continent. Her bony frame was rugged. Her high forehead and jawline were freckled and soft. There was something in her blue eyes that suggested she might be a mountain climber on the inside, and she even intimidated the professors who lectured in the melancholic halls of a university that was also a Catholic seminary, and had, in every hundred students, a balance of about sixty boyish but sad clerics, in long black soutanes, incongruously studying anthropology, and other languages not minted in an age of faith.
I did a B.A. and became a teacher. But a Masters in Sociology had convinced Sandra that she should never go back to Nixon’s America. Instead she went west and up into the folds of Cuilcagh Mountain, and tried to become a painter, with wasted hippies and German organic farmers and all the other bohemian losers that were flocking into Leitrim at that time.
She sat all day drawing orchids, and other bits of flowers that she said represented her vagina, while I rented a flat and taught school in Mullingar, and drove up the hills to admire her pictures every weekend.
She said she’d marry me if I got a house with a garden at the back, big enough for a painting shed and a patio. So we married and got a mortgage, and my mother called her, ‘the American.’
‘Does she have a job?’ my mother asked, every year on our anniversary. My mother just couldn’t understand what an American was doing so far from home, without a career. ‘She married me,’ I explained. But that didn’t wash with mother. ‘She has no history,’ mother would say. ‘She doesn’t seem to do anything.’
I didn’t care. I enjoyed being the breadwinner. And of course I loved Sandra. Or at least I loved the way she held pencils in her mouth. The way she got her fingers all charcoal and left charcoal marks on the toilet seat.
By the middle of June each year, the patio in the back garden of our semi-detatched house in Mullingar was always ablaze with red, yellow and purple flowers and we would sit outside drinking wine, with other teachers, and laugh at the elderly couple next door, who thought that drinking outside the house was something only gypsies did.
‘What’s in the shed?’ someone would ask.
I’d say, ‘Sandra is an artist. She doesn’t have a job. So I guess she needs a shed.’ ‘It’s a studio,’ she would say. It was a game. We were only teasing each other. But one day I said, ‘I really don’t know what she gets up to all day long, and no one to mind only herself.’
I didn’t mean to hurt her. The Redmonds were around, with their two boys. It was a completely innocent remark.
I was jealous of the Redmonds, because they both did honours degrees, taught in posh schools, and had a big bungalow out on the Lynn Road in its own grounds. I couldn’t stand them. But I wasn’t having a dig at Sandra, though that’s the way she saw it; as if I was referring to the empty cot.
The empty cot was in the attic. We bought it a few months before Sandra was due. Someone actually said it was bad luck to buy it before the birth, but there you go.
I suppose it was presumptuous. The baby, Oisín we called him, was as light as feathers when he was born, a bundle of limp limbs and as dead as a doornail.
I put the cot in the loft before Sandra got home the following day, and she never asked where it was and I never said. But after a few more tries, for some mysterious reason, nothing further was conceived. And we began to refer to the situation as ‘the empty cot.’
Slim Woman got slimmer. Her hair got thinner. The bones on her freckled hand began to stretch the freckled skin. And then after another few years we didn’t refer to it at all.
Eventually we stopped inviting the Redmonds for drinks, because it was unbearable to watch their confusion as they tried to relax in the pokey little back garden we had tiled over and called a patio.
One year Sandra took a mad notion to get her hair frizzed up, to make it look less thin. It was shocking, at first, how garish it made her, but I got used to it. She got used to it. Everyone got used to the fuzzy bush, the colour of a sandy beach, like candyfloss, framing her bony cheeks.
Over the years I often got up before she did and stared at her, curled up in middle age, in her own private wound, her frizzy hair gone grey, her muffled voice beneath the duvets, cheerful and sweet, her sleepy pillow voice, not yet disengaged from the world of dreams.
I don’t know when we stopped sleeping together. Her move into the guest room was gradual. She was always too hot, and I was always too cold and we could never agree on the number of duvets to cover the bed.
But there were plenty of exceptions, like the year of the big snow. On the night before Christmas Eve we had a few hot whiskies looking out the window, and then found ourselves sleeping in the one bed. But we just slept. ‘What are you thinking of?’ she asked me, the next morning. I didn’t answer.
I was looking out the bedroom window at a ‘96 maroon Toyota, its windows all white with frost, belonging to an Indian man who lived across the street and had two young teenage girls, who usually wore maroon saris, but had no wife, as far as I could make out. I couldn’t swear he had no wife. But he was rarely seen in public, except for a brief moment at about 7 a.m. each day when he and the two girls got into the car and headed off somewhere. And I often speculated about why they were not in school uniforms. Why they were in saris. Where did they go in their saris?
And I sometimes, no, always, thought of fucking them. I imagined the impossible; the illicit pleasure of fucking two teenagers. I have never fucked anyone in a sari. In fact I had never fucked anyone other than Sandra, but I often thought about it.
From inside the big white duvet she spoke again. ‘Remind me to get wine this afternoon.’
I said, ‘I’ll be going over to Cavan, to see Mother this afternoon.’ She said, ‘Shit, I forgot.’
I went downstairs and made an espresso on the machine she gave me the previous Christmas as a present.
My mother lived alone. I had planned giving her the footstool we bought in Dublin for her, and wishing her a happy Christmas, and coming straight back to Mullingar. With no grandchildren in my house to visit, she invariably drifted towards my brother and his family for the Christmas holidays.
Looking out the kitchen window, I could see a few cars parked up at the rear of the house next door. A light fresh snowfall like salt on the windscreens. The Rattigans had moved in three years earlier when the elderly couple died. They were always fighting. She was a big fat woman who worked in a Gala store somewhere out the country, and he was as bald as an egg. He never moved out of the house from one end of the year to the next. And the television was always on.
Then she’d come home from work, and after a few drinks you’d hear them through the thin walls of the semi-detached house that they bought for maybe three hundred grand, at the height of the boom.
‘Poor fuckers,’ I used to say. I mean it wasn’t their fault that they got locked into twenty-five years of poverty just to pay back a mortgage to a bank, for a house that was crap in the first place.
I reckoned that most of their fights were to do with money issues. They usually had a party on a Saturday night, which was fine because the sound of glasses breaking and wild laughter and loud music was more bearable than the sound of her whining and screaming, and him putting his boot through the door, or whatever he did to make those thud sounds when he was in a temper.
I went upstairs one more time before I left. I sat on the bed and said nothing. ‘Did you not sleep?’ she asked again, her face still muffled by the duvet, in a
manner that suggested she wanted me to join her beneath the big white folds of duckdown.
‘They had a party last night,’ I said. ‘It was out of the ordinary. I heard her screaming.’
But Sandra had drifted away from me again. She didn’t know what I was talking about. I kissed her on the cheek, just above the duvet.
‘I’ll see you this evening,’ I said. ‘We can pick up the takeaway in the morning.’ We had a tradition of not cooking on Christmas Day. We’d organise takeaway from the Indian Restaurant on Austin Friar Street, and sit watching movies all day. Despite our years together, Sandra had nothing to remember. But at Christmas we made an effort, and because we had no children, we developed a way of becoming childish ourselves.
‘You should visit your mother today,’ she said. I kissed her on the cheek again and let her sleep, or perhaps just float out onto that big lake of solitude where over the years she had made her home and on the shores of which I stood, as the bewildered guardian.
And that was it. I got into the jeep and drove down the street, out from Lawnbrook, onto the Ballymahon Road, turned right and headed across town, and onwards to Castlepollard.
When I got to Cavan my mother was in hospital because the lady who normally comes in to cook her a dinner found her on the floor in the toilet.
Mother was eighty-nine and was beginning to have regular falls out of bed. A doctor was called. Then an ambulance, and Mother ended up in the Emergency Room, on a trolley, raging with the girl who had called the doctor in the first place.
She claimed that the girl had effected the entire emergency just to be in the house alone when the ambulance left, so that she could rob her purse.
I assured her that her purse would be fine. I said I’d go over myself and check it. Later I phoned Sandra and said that since my brother and his wife were more tied up with the children and a half-cooked turkey, I’d volunteered to be the one to stay and mind the house, whatever that meant, and visit her the following day in the hospital. Sandra said she’d be fine on her own. I said, ‘But it’s Christmas tomorrow.’ There was a pause. And then she said, ‘So?’
I said, ‘I’d like to be with you.’
‘We’ll have Christmas when you get back,’ she said.
There are two things that mark out Christmas in Cavan town. One is the swim that takes place at Annagh Lake, every year, when dozens of goosey, white-fleshed warriors lunge into the icy water. The other is the feast of casual reunions that occurs in bars and hotels around the town on Christmas Eve.
Linus McDonald had a small bar on Ash Street. It was always crowded by 4 o’clock and every time another shadow darkened the fogged glass of the door, the lounge went silent, as everyone wondered who next would step in from the street.
I opened the door and came face to face with Lorainne Reilly, a plump and jolly woman with a wide smile who now lives in London. She beamed at me and we hugged. Which was stunning, because when we were teenagers I was too shy to even look at her across a large room. Lorainne’s mother was from Calcutta, and at school Lorainne had a slightly English accent, brown eyes and shiny sallow skin. Both her parents were doctors, working in the hospital in Cavan. I lusted in secret, and whispered her name into a pillow.
And now she was going grey, but she beamed back at me. I could smell her breath, warm and blackcurranty, and the hours flew by as we nattered on about old times.
‘It’s been sooo long,’ I gushed.
‘I’m a London housewife,’ she exclaimed, all jolly jolly.
‘Will you come for a swim tomorrow?’ she asked at the end of the night. I couldn’t resist.
It was a frosty Christmas morning. There were dozens of cars. Half the people came to watch. The other half, the swimmers, were already standing by their car doors, in various states of undress. I was part of the cheering crowd, as we watched a long line of white bellies rush into the water.
Wrapped in a warm coat I stood staring at her, the slender girl of my fantasies who had grown into a plump, middle-aged woman.
It wasn’t a day for bikinis. Lorainne wore a one-piece silver grey swimming costume, and a silvery rubber cap. The water rolled off her when she came up for air and the breath from her nostrils made tiny clouds around her waist. I don’t know what I was expecting. I don’t know why I was there.
I suppose I was there to look at her, and her body was even more desirable than it had been when I was a teenager. When she came out to dry, I was standing beneath a bare ash tree and she came over to me, shivering, dripping icy droplets from her silver swimsuit. We stared out on the lake, at the still water, and the forest of pines on the far shore, enveloped in ghostly fog.
‘Well, that’s another Christmas swim over,’ she said.
‘I must be going,’ I said. ‘I need to visit Mother in the hospital.’
She wished me a happy Christmas, and she pecked me on the cheek, and then she walked across the pebbles to her husband’s Toyota Corolla.
My mother’s health improved. She got out of hospital the day after Saint Stephen’s Day, and Sandra and I did all the Indian food and the videos that night. For us it didn’t matter. Christmas was for other people. But we were for each other, guardians of each other’s loneliness. Eating ice cream in our fifties as some kind of compensation.
On the second week in February I saw Lorainne again, by chance, on Grafton Street, in Dublin. She was coming out of Bewley’s and she was laden down with parcels. Fancy white bags from fancy shops. She was wearing a long green wool coat down to her ankles, and a black scarf around her shoulders, and her hair, less grey than it had been at Christmas, was tied in a bun. There was nothing unusual about any of that.
But I was certain that she saw me. It was just a moment, a split second, when we glanced directly at each other, and then instantly and simultaneously we decide to let it go; both of us avoiding the opportunity. She walked on and I walked on, as if we had never known each other. That’s when I realised she must feel the same as I did. And that’s how it all began.
For two months after that we communicated by e-mail, and I lied through my teeth about wanting to visit London, and she kept saying she’d love to see me if I was in the city, which I suppose I took as encouragement. And then the night before my flight, Sandra and I slept together once again, the first time since our moment of intimacy before Christmas, and I kept having agitated dreams that I was murdering her.
I left at 6 a.m., but I didn’t wake her to say goodbye. There was a mess of wasted chip bags and squashed fish outside the chip shop from the night before, and there were broken bottles in the alleyway beside Mojo’s disco, and a girl’s knickers hung from the extended arm of the Joe Dolan statue.
Mullingar is a busy midland town, and on Saturday nights people let their hair down. They get pissed and get thrown out of clubs, and climb lamp-posts, and fall about the streets, and on Sunday mornings there’s not many to disapprove. It’s as if everyone is more agreeable and tolerant nowadays. I saw only one old lady in a red headscarf walking up the street towards the cathedral. She eyed me, and mumbled something to herself. I thought it was an omen.
I met Lorainne near Swiss Cottage, and she looked like she had just come out of the shower in the gym. She kissed my cheek and I could smell soap and other healthy things that made me believe that she felt the same as I did.
Jesus, I couldn’t believe it. My imagination was running wild, with images of the pornographic passion that might be on the agenda. But to be fair, Lorainne did enjoy herself in the restaurant, on three Perrier waters and a Caesar salad, while I got pissed. And then her husband arrived.
I didn’t think her husband was going to arrive. I thought it was just going to be me and her for the night.
I had been walking around Mullingar for weeks, as if I was twenty-five again, with thoughts of me and Lorainne sipping wine, and chatting about old times in a candlelit restaurant, and then going back to her lovely big house where she would confess that her husband was away on business and that actually they were not getting on very well, and I would sit there among the potted plants, the books about India and anthropology, and it would all just happen; our lovemaking would be a quiet resolution to both our lives. A moment of completion and clarity, unhurried and yet expected, as if all the longing of our teenage days had been the necessary pace for two slow burning hearts.
‘Where are you staying?’ she asked. I was caught out. I gulped, and said, ‘I’m going to get a hotel; after we finish dinner.’
There was a nervous moment, but then she said, ‘You can stay with us.’
‘Us?’ I repeated, genuinely surprised, and thinking—shit! shit! shit! Us?
‘Of course. Me and Dermot.’
If there’s one name I can’t stand it is Dermot. Every Dermot I’ve known has always been a competent man in the scratcher. A real bit of meat. Not a bull. Not a big generous ball of testosterone, but a lethal whippet. Dermots are not funny. Not romantic. Not bullish. They just fuck well.
In the kitchen of their house, near Finsbury, we had an animated discussion about Ireland, and how priest ridden it had been in the past. Dermot was English. He came over occasionally he said, for the fishing.
I tried to steer the conversation away from priests, Catholicism and all the other blemishes, abuses, and ignorance generally associated with the country I had spent my life in. I tried to steer Dermot, who worked in computers, towards a conversation about the Muslim world, since the veil was in the news at the time.
For example did he think young girls ought to be allowed wear the hijab in school? He was living just around the corner from a Mosque so surely he must have a view. He did, and so did she. Both of them apparently were very much in favour of individuals being allowed do what they wanted—which in their view meant allowing women to wear the veil in any situation, whether it was in a school or at their workplace.
‘Well, well,’ I said, ‘that seems like you disapprove of sexual repression in Catholic Ireland, and support it in Muslim cultures.’
Dermot didn’t get my point, and Lorainne took the wine glasses off the table and started filling the dishwasher.
The following morning I couldn’t resist visiting the Mosque across the road. It was a dry March day and I crossed the park and went up the steps and met a good looking man from Africa in his bare feet, who agreed to show me around the building.
Upstairs was a large hexagonal room in dark wood panels. There was a place for the teacher to sit; a carpeted floor on which one man was sitting and, I presumed, praying. He was near the window, where shafts of sunlight broke into the empty space. I asked my guide would it be permissible for me to pray. He said yes, if I prayed like a Muslim.
I said, ‘I am a Christian. So I thought maybe I could pray like a Christian.’ He said, ‘No, not quite. Only as a Muslim can you pray here.’
I said I might leave that until later. I said I needed to think about it, which was a mistake because he then gave me lots of little books, which explained the faith of Islam in simple English. He obviously thought I was on the threshold of converting.
On my way out of the Mosque I noticed a stairs leading down into the cellar. And on the wall was a notice, Sisters this way. I was almost delighted, and couldn’t wait to get back to Lorainne. She was, of course, horrified when I told her. I suppose I was still trying to prove a point. I still felt insecure. But as I said to Lorainne on the mobile from Dublin Airport that night, when the plane landed, the afternoon had changed everything.
‘The afternoon changed everything for me,’ I confessed.
And I thanked her for an unforgettable adventure; for the banquet in the restaurant, the boozy night of banter in her kitchen, the stunning monkfish she cooked for lunch, when I was over at the Mosque, and especially, oh yes, especially, for the afternoon of love beneath her duvet when Dermot was at the office of some software company, discussing satellite technology for Mongolia.
I remember standing in her bathroom, after we had reached a competent though slightly middle-aged climax, and I was looking at myself in the mirror. I was astonished that the pot-bellied, spindly-limbed carcass before me could possibly have succeeded in doing what I had just done with her. And Lorainne came in behind me and caught me in that moment of bleak self-absorption, which made me guiltier than the actual sex, because Sandra and I had a life long habit of sharing the bathroom.
In the early days we’d bathe together, and then make love. Later I would go first, then she, and then we would make love. Finally it was only about bathing. I would go first, then she, and we would both lie in the bed, hot and damp and sad.
Lorainne led me by the hand from the bathroom back to her bed and we chatted for an hour or so. I was still naked and she was still in her blue silk pyjamas. What overwhelmed me about her was not that she was a goddess. She wasn’t. She was an aging woman.
But the thing about her was that she had a life, and she had a memory. She had been abroad. She had gone to London when she was eighteen. She bubbled with sophistication. Each year she returned to India with her husband, and travelled the length and breadth of it, and walked barefoot on the dusty streets of all the villages her ancestors had lived and died in. She had endured trains that crawled from New Delphi to Bangalore. She had seen the sun rise above Mumbai. She had endured long tedious hours as she moved through an ocean of suffering. And she could remember so much of it, all of it, and she could tell every bit of it to me as if it were happening before her eyes as she spoke.
‘My God,’ I said to her, ‘you have such memories; such wonderful memories.’ Miles and miles of shantytowns along the railway track, people getting out of sleeping bags, out of canvas tents, or out from under sheets of corrugated iron. Women stumbling around a tap with toothbrushes had gazed at her. Men urinating on the railway tracks had stared back at her. She had even been to Bollywood, where her husband had been employed by a digital sound company to do workshops for film technicians. And she remembered every detail, every single juicy second.
Not that it was possible for me to know, to really understand, what she was talking about, or to know India. That is, not until I went there myself.
And I did, the following Christmas, to see for myself, and to experience it all, at last. Pali Naka, where the shopkeepers have white coats and the shop interiors are of dark wood with wall-to-wall drawers all full of exotic spices. Where the counters are spread with baskets of dried fruit; black and red and purple fruits. Where the shops sell delicate homemade Punjabi cakes. Stalls on either side of the street, decked with vegetables and chickens in cages, a telephone shop and a queue of black and yellow taxis, a dairy selling fresh yogurt and a magazine stand selling second-hand copies of Time, Newsweek and India Today.
I even saw a statue of the crucified Jesus decked with saffron paper flowers, and I thought, yes, Jesus too has travelled. It’s wonderful to travel. That was the thing that struck me, when I walked around Pali Naka, on Christmas Eve, in cream pyjamas, with Sandra on my arm, flip flopping, almost bald, confused in her sunglasses, her memory decayed into a mush of incoherence, but trusting me still.
Car horns honked aggressively behind us as we walked along the street, sweat pouring down our backs and making my underpants as wet as a child’s nappy.
As we passed through it all on that first wonderful evening, I felt like a hero, and later, I watched Sandra in a wicker chair and straw hat, on the balcony, gawking at the plume of smog over the city, listening to the hum of its suffering. She looked at me sometimes as if she could see through me, and in the next moment she would forget her name, or try to work out who she used to be in Chicago long ago, and where her parents might be now, or if she had any. And in lucid moments she asked me why I wanted to take her for this ultimate Christmas experience, this mad Indian takeaway, as I jokingly called it. ‘Why not?’ I said.
We stayed in an apartment block on its own grounds, surrounded by high walls and gates and guarded at all times from the poor and unwashed, so that those who lived within could enjoy tranquillity when they returned home in their Japanese jeeps at the end of each long day working in their offices.
A young Muslim boy in a khaki uniform too big for him washed all the cars and jeeps with a hose each morning. And there was an old woman, slightly stooped, who came to the apartments each day and swept the floors with her twig and washed the dishes and cleaned the toilets and the kitchens and the showers and made our bed.
‘How did you find this place?’ Sandra wondered. I told her the truth. I said that an old school friend of mine, the one who lives in London, found it for me.
‘But why now?’
‘It’s something I always wanted to do,’ I said. ‘To come to India, and make love to someone in a sari.’
One day we went to the market, and she got the sari and the veil and we made love when we returned. It was not a brittle or sterile effort, but easefully, in the heat, sweating, like young lovers who might have their lives yet to live.
‘Are you glad we came out?’ I asked, as we lay on the floor of the lounge.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘But why did we not do this thirty years ago?’
The long lounge had sliding glass doors that opened onto a veranda. Below was a sandy tennis court, and huge trees for shade, and in the near distance, the Indian Ocean, just a five-minute walk away. The waves were turquoise and the evening sun, a gigantic ball of crimson, floated like a Chinese lantern just above the horizon. ‘This is Bollywood,’ I said to Sandra, as if to explain everything. She took off her sunglasses, and said, ‘I never felt so real in my life.’ And it was real. It was all real.
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Let’s go for a swim.’ I took her hand, and led her down the stairs, and across the tennis court, through the wire perimeter fence, and into the sand where the beach began. She flip flopped in her sandals, and held her straw hat against the breeze, as I led her out towards the ocean.