It is Saturday evening and below his window Andrew hears his two daughters 59 playing with their friends. They are playing ‘Hospital’ and occasionally he hears the whine of a siren and their pretend voices calling out orders. They are in the ER, like the ones they see on TV, and they rush around the garden tending to patients on trolleys. They race out of the house each day and rush headlong into these other roles.
His room is small and cramped. He has a large drawing board with compasses and squares and pencils lying in the well at the bottom. It takes up most of the space so that he is forced to the edge. Some nights he comes up here to work and he draws the curtains and switches on a lamp, throwing sharp white light down on the paper. Outside the street is always quiet, with all noise enclosed and hushed within houses. His house, too, is quiet; Ann is downstairs and the children are asleep. Some nights he is eager, optimistic—he sets everything up, sharpens his pencils, rolls up his sleeves, his head teeming with ideas. Then at the very point of commencement he loses momentum and his plans slip from him and he stands looking down on the white paper without a thought.
He opens the window and leans out to look at the girls. They have the garden hose out and when they see him they squeal and aim the jet of water up at him. He tells Ruth, the eldest, to water the plants in the border. A neighbour up the street is mowing his grass, starting and stopping, over and back. Andrew thinks of the tiny spindles of grass flying out from the blades, various shades of green, cut clean. Ruth is struggling with the hose. She is serious about her chores. He tells her to straighten the twist and when she does the water shoots out suddenly at her sister. He likes to watch them like this. Sometimes he wishes they would fall over lightly so that he could comfort them. There is always some hesitation in him and the occasions he chooses to hold them often seem wrong. Ann is easier with them, she knows when to talk and play, knows what to say. When he drives into the street in the evenings she is sometimes on the footpath dragging toys and bicycles and children back towards the house, or she is trotting after Ian as he waddles off. They all seem to hang from her and glide with her, like extra limbs she’s been given, her extensions.
Ann comes out of the house with Ian in the pushchair. She is going to Saturday evening Mass. She looks up at him and squints. ‘Do you want to come?’
He makes a doubtful face. ‘What about the girls?’
‘They’ll come if you do. We’ll only be half an hour.’
He shrugs and she says, ‘Okay, Okay,’ and gives him a dismissive wave of her hand before walking on. He watches her go out the gate and along the footpath. Ian, fat and placid, is sitting in his chair looking straight ahead. Ann is tall and slim and she is wearing a new green dress with small flowers, and green sandals, and, for a moment, there is nothing in her back that he recognises. She belongs to the street more than to him, to the milling and spilling of children and neighbours and gardens. She is beyond him completely. She slows, checks her watch, then quickens her pace down the street.
He goes downstairs and takes a can of beer from the fridge and stands drinking it at the kitchen window. Ann had asked him to mow the grass. He will need to go to the shed and take out the mower and the extension lead and the grass box. He hears himself rev up the mower and turn it onto the lawn. It will be an assault. Worms and snails will be mown. He thinks of the neighbour’s grass spindles scattering off and their dispersal saddens him. He goes into the living room and switches on the television. He zaps it to mute and gazes at the screen. He looks at the clock on the mantelpiece every twenty or thirty seconds. In an hour or two the light will fade and it will be night. He gets up and walks around the room, first to the bookshelves, then to the stereo unit. He knows already—it is a feeling he gets—that tonight will be sleepless. It is worse in summer when there is little wind or rain outside. The quietness keeps him awake. He thinks he could easily sleep through a storm, that his sleeping self would know that the elements are at play, getting on with their own business, forces jostling and vying for position, thunder and wind and cloud all in opposition and collision, so that he could retreat from the commotion and fall free into a long unworried sleep. On quiet nights every thing stands still, singled out and set apart, back-lit by the events of the day, and he sits ambushed in the middle of it all, and it is this visibility, this inescapability, that causes his sleeplessness.
He lies on the couch and drifts off. He awakes to the sound of Ann’s key in the front door, then the girls’ chatter in the hall. She will feed the children and put them to bed and then they will sit side by side on the sofa and watch TV and eat supper, ensnared in silence with only the moving images on the screen to join them.
For over an hour he has listened intermittently to Ann’s breathing beside him. His thoughts are profuse tonight, the kind of nervous energetic thoughts he gets from strong coffee and cigarettes. His hands start to shake slightly; there is expectation in his body. He gets up, dresses and goes into the study. He switches on the lamp over the drawing-board. Suddenly he is reminded of Monday morning, the office, the endless cycle of work and home and long nights. It will go on and on. He switches off the lamp, goes downstairs to the living room and turns on the television. It is almost one a.m. He flicks through the channels; music, news, sports. He finds a foreign film with subtitles. A man is walking along a beach in twilight as his thoughts appear on screen. A young boy on a horse passes him; he meets a couple and later a woman walking alone. He walks to the end of the beach, then over rocks until he has run out of land and he is facing the sea.
He zaps the television off and sits back with his arms folded across his chest. He remembers the dead horsefly that’s lying on the windowsill of his study. He came upon it earlier in the day and left it there, its legs up in the air, its thin wafery wings lying flat. The heat of the sun will dry its body outright. He thought he could smell its deadness earlier, that and the smell of warm dust that never leaves that room. He thinks it’s his own dust that he smells, that his shedding has begun and it’s his dust that rests on the shelves and the windowsill and on the spines of books. He thinks that he’s desiccating particle by particle, atomising into a fine dry dust, and he is getting a preview of his own dissolution, little by little each night.
He gets up and lights a cigarette and inhales deeply. He forgets to turn off the TV and returns to his study and sits in the dark. In the rooms around him Ann and the children sleep. She sleeps like a corpse, flat on her back and immobile all night. She moves incessantly by day. He can hardly remember a time before this life, this house, this marriage. These recent years and these people all seem to have toppled in on him. He remembers a moment in a science class years ago. Something funny had made him laugh and he couldn’t stop and the teacher, a young woman whose name was Pearl, grew angrier and angrier, and he laughed more. And then, suddenly, she raised the textbook she had in her hands and brought it down on his head. Thwack, thwack, thwack. And he laughed on. He looks around the office some days, at his colleagues, searching for telltale signs in them, of worry or malaise, of some slippage in their lives, but he sees none. There are days when he feels Ann and others are watching him, waiting for the breach. He puts his head in his hands. There are twenty years of this life left. Lately this is what has hit him. All new worlds of possibility have closed off, utterly. He fears a loss of faculties. He thinks he has already lost some foresight or insight, that he has become enclosed in a huge diaphanous skin. He knows it is happening and that he is beginning to shed, and that the dust particles are visible only to him.
At work some days he falls into fantasising. He dreams of detention, of being held in solitary confinement. He knows it is a common fantasy of middle-aged men. He would request his music, his books and his drawing materials. It is the routine that appeals, the freedom to merely think, without duty or responsibilities, to live inside a ridiculous luxurious daydream. He has lofty thoughts of being locked up—he is certain he would be prolific, that his designs would be grand—it is something he knows—he sees his buildings of steel and glass with water as their backdrop, he sees them lauded. The small confined space of a prison cell would force him to create, to break boundaries. And he would sleep too, long sound sleeps, bedded down among the howls and raging furies of criminals, and he would wake each morning and slop out to the rhythm of his dreams, his designs, his lengthy hopes.
Suddenly Ann is standing at the door, indistinct at first in the dark. She says ‘Andrew?’ and walks over to the window and starts to close the curtains. ‘No, leave them open. Please.’ She is wearing a dressing gown and she sits on the armchair opposite him. ‘Can’t you sleep either?’ he asks.
‘Yeah, I slept. I’m dead. Why don’t you put on the light?’ She reaches across to the lamp. The sleeve of her dressing gown comes down a little below her elbow and he wants to take her arm and lead her to their bed but it is an arm of task that she reaches out, an arm of labour and brisk doing, a mechanical arm of purpose with an end. It is not an inviting arm.
‘No, don’t,’ he says and she withdraws. ‘Why did you get up?’ She shrugs and curls her feet up under her and yawns. ‘You never got up before,’ he says. ‘I know.’ She lays her head back against the armchair and looks at him and smiles.
Suddenly he likes having her there, likes to hear the sound of her voice. A soft hope spreads over him. He might suggest making tea and toast. He has an image of the two of them sitting at the kitchen table, talking, till the sun’s rays break over the back wall and sneak in under the blind. Then tomorrow she’d be tired and red-eyed but content that she’d broken through to him.
‘Andrew, this is going on too long. You need to see a doctor.’
He shakes his head slowly. ‘You know what a doctor will do. More sleeping pills, or Prozac, like before—and I’ll become a zombie.’
‘You need to get some exercise—that would help you sleep,’ she says. ‘You’re worrying about something. What are you worrying about?’
He remembers something a colleague told him. He looks at Ann and thinks about it. ‘You remember Brian Sinnott? From the tennis club?’ he starts.
She shakes her head slightly, looking vague.
‘Pete and I used to play him and his friend sometimes, go for a drink afterwards. He was a bank manager in town. Pete knew him from way back. He was a nice guy—is a nice guy, he’s married with a couple of kids.’
‘What about him?’
‘He lost his job.’
‘God. What happened?’
‘Fingers in the till.’
‘Pete told me. And the bank’s going to take a case.’
‘Jesus… Why do people do that? How old was he? What kind of guy was he?’
‘He was normal. Mid-forties. Just… flipped.’
‘God, his poor wife.’
They are silent for a while. They are looking at each other, and her face is full of mercy and he wishes he could reach out and affect her with his touch so that she would close her eyes slowly and dreamily. He thinks it is strange to see her without a child attached. He wonders what she thinks about and if, as she moves about her kitchen at night tidying up, emptying the dishwasher, she harbours odd wandering thoughts and fantasies, secret and unspeakable yearnings, guilt.
‘We should talk more, Andrew.’ He gets up and stands at the window. He is wracked from tiredness. His back feels weak, collapsible. ‘What d’you want to talk about?’ ‘I don’t know, anything… Tell me what you think about here at night. Tell me what you do.’ He shrugs and sits down in the armchair again. ‘Nothing, I don’t think about anything.’ ‘You must think about something.’
He presses the heels of his palms into his eyes. Then he gets up suddenly and goes down to the kitchen and returns with two beers. He thinks it strange to find her there in the dark and he smiles—a stolen woman, captured and snuck into his room.
‘Do you drink all night? Is that it?’
‘No. Never.’ He hands her a beer and goes back to his position at the window. She sniffs the open bottle.
‘Sometimes I work. Or I read, or try to anyway.’
He stops and faces her.
‘I walk around the house and check the kids. Some nights I look at you.’
She looks down into her hands.
‘Other nights I leave the house, drive around.’
‘You leave the house? Where do you go at that hour?’
‘Just around the city.’
‘Where to? Do you go into the city?’
‘Sometimes.’ He turns his back on her again and stares out the window and there is a long silence. An upstairs light goes on in the house opposite. He supposes a baby needs to be lifted and fed. He is glad their children are past that. He remembers nights of dragging himself, half-sleeping, to lift a crying child. There would be the sad wail as he’d enter the room, then the perfect weight of the child in his arms, and the sobs slowly subsiding as he held the flushed face against his neck and stood there rocking in the dark.
‘One night I drove into town. It was a warm summer’s night last year, late last summer. I was so alert, so… wakeful as I drove out of the estate… it was like going to work early. There were lights on in houses along the way and cars and taxis on the road. It was a Saturday night, Sunday morning…’ His voice is low. He is remembering the hum of the car engine. ‘I was driving slowly. The night was balmy. There were girls in short summer dresses and young men in T-shirts, all laughing and swaying into each other as they climbed into taxis. I slowed outside a restaurant where I could see people clustered around small tables. I kept driving round and round. The city is different at night, bright and moving, animated… and there’s an edge… I don’t know… I can’t describe it… I remember passing Fitzwilliam Square and a few girls stepped out of the shadows at one corner. Then I was driving along the south city streets towards home and something strange happened. I was stopped at a red light and I began to search for a station on the radio and the guy behind me hooted. Then just as I was pulling off I noticed this girl in the next lane, staring at me, you know, a fixed stare, as if she had been doing that all the time. I pulled away and the same thing happened, again, at the next set of lights, the same stare. So I followed her. We raced each other to the next set of lights, and the next. Then she turned left. A couple of streets away she stopped outside a house and I pulled in behind her. She stayed in her car so I got out. And the first thing she said was “I knew you’d follow me.” She looked ordinary. She was wearing dark clothes, serious clothes. I stood at her car door looking down at her. I thought it was a very daring thing she had just done and I said so.’
He stops talking and looks at Ann. ‘For me too… it was daring.’
Ann stares at him with a new face. He thinks, Who are you? Who are you with that hard face? And then, I don’t know who you are.
‘I said that to her, I said that she was brave. We stood there talking, just a little. She was a cop, a detective in the Drugs Squad. She asked me into her flat but I didn’t go. I didn’t. I couldn’t bear the thought of sitting at a kitchen table under a bright light trying to think of something to say. So we drove. She moved over and I drove her car out of the city, through the suburbs.’
He remembers her sitting in the passenger seat as he eased the car out of her street, so at ease, as if she were a wife beside a husband when all they were was complete strangers.
‘The streets were fairly quiet by then, except when we passed shops and fast-food joints where people leaned on a counter or slumped against a wall waiting to be served. I remember everything clearly—the taxis, the litter on the streets, couples on the footpath, the amber streetlights, and then further out—the road narrowing, the hedgerows, the foothills…
‘It was dark countryside before we knew it and we were climbing. We weren’t talking at all, at least not much, and when I looked at her I thought maybe she’s frightened so I said we could go back if she wanted. I didn’t want to frighten her. We skirted a forest of tall pines and firs… I thought of you and the children asleep here, of how you might wake up, register the empty place beside you, go to the bathroom, and then slip back, unworried, into your deep sleep again. I thought of the way you sleep, so calm, so oblivious…
‘We stopped at a clearing and looked down on the city. It was… magnificent. I could see the lights on the coast road to Howth, and the lighthouse beacon, and a ship’s lights out on the bay. We got out and walked to the top. The moon must have been out too because the place was so bright. There were old ruins with beer cans and litter strewn on the ground. She said that kids from the city came up there for cider and drug parties. It was a strange place, eerie and bright and silent… ‘We talked. I told her stuff, about my life, about you and the kids, my job. I don’t know why I told her… except that she was a stranger. I knew she’d be walking away. I knew I’d never see her again…’
He remembers what he told her. Things he had never told another soul, things he had only thought about. Fantasies and fears and mistakes. She had listened, and nodded lightly at times. She spoke only when he asked her something. She asked him nothing, just looked at him as he talked. Her lips smiled faintly a few times. Her eyes never strayed from darkness, remained deep and hollow as if their ability to reflect light had been removed or used up, as if they were merely recording now. He talked like it was his last chance at speech, that he would soon lose this faculty too, that time was running out. These nights, these sleepless nights, he thinks about her a lot, out there at work in the city, driving around in her dark clothes and emptied-out eyes.
‘She drove the car back down to the city. She said nothing at all going down. By the time we got to her neighbourhood the sky was lightening and there was hardly anyone around. She said she wanted me to come with her somewhere and she drove past her own street towards the canal and then parked the car. We walked through a warren of narrow streets to a complex of run-down flats. There were old cars and junk lying about. As we were walking she pulled out a dark hat or a beret from her bag and put it on and she put her arm through mine—she was going into disguise, I think. We walked through an archway of a block of flats into an inner yard and through more small yards beyond and there were three or four clotheslines with children’s clothes hanging on them. There was graffiti on the walls and half the doors and windows were boarded up. There was an atmosphere. I felt tension, I felt under threat, or that we were being watched. We went up a stairs littered with cans and cartons and stinking of urine and there was a young girl sitting on a step halfway up, smoking. She was pale and barefoot, with long hair and a syringe lying beside her. At the top of the stairs a door opened into some kind of service area or boilerhouse and this huge unshaven guy with tattoos stood there looking out as we passed. On the third floor she took out a key and let us into a flat.
‘She was working—some kind of undercover stuff. She picked up a brown envelope from the floor inside the door and then went into a back room. I just sat on a chair. The door was half open and I could hear her talking on her mobile phone. Then she laughed and moved to where I could see her. When she caught my eye she kicked the door lightly to close it. I got up and stood at the window; there was some vehicle, like an old milk float from years ago, driving into the yard below and the sun was coming up. I was so weary, I could have lain down and slept. But I kept thinking I have to get out of here, I have to get out of here. So I did. I walked out and hurried down the filthy stairs and through the deserted streets until I came to my car… When I got back here you were still fast asleep…’
Ann’s face is pale. It is a face he has never seen before, with shadows passing swiftly over it when she stares at him. Her chest is rising and falling rapidly. Thoughts passing across her mind that he would like to read, silent intense thoughts and fears.
‘Did you kiss her or…?’
‘Did you see her again?’
Her voice is thick and deep.
‘I saw her in Grafton Street, in the distance—I think it was her—a few months ago.’
He sits down and shivers. ‘It’s cold… Are you cold?’
‘What was her name?’ ‘Patty. Patricia, I suppose.’ He puts a hand out to her. She slaps it away. ‘Shit, Andrew, why are you telling me this? What’s wrong with you? What are you doing to us?’ He feels the breakage in her.
He gets up and stands at the window again. His answers, if he had any, would be of no consequence. He thinks he should go down and make them tea and toast. He pictures them at the kitchen table.
‘Why are you like this?’ she says into the darkness. ‘When did you grow this cruel?’
He wonders what time it is, and how much of the night there is still left to kill. He thinks of time like a small worm crawling across the earth. Then in a soft voice he tells her she should go to bed.