The Ffrench’s house is always cleaner than ours. Black and white tiles cover the hall. The air is cool, smelling of talc, undercurrents of permanent varnishing. China plates and porcelain terriers stare down from a high ledge that rims the hall. Underneath, black and white photographs of ghostly relations look out with unsmiling eyes. The house itself feels brittle and unreal. Like one of those period doll‘s houses. Everything echoes. Mr Ffrench appears from the kitchen munching on a biscuit. He is a small thin man with worried eyes. When he sees me he manages to smile and sigh at the same time.
‘Ah Orla, Tim and the orchestra have been practising all morning.’
He flourishes his left hand over my ear and his palm opens to show a fifty pence piece. He does it again with my right ear. Another fifty pence piece appears. Finally he extracts two crumpled pound notes from his pocket.
‘Your fee,’ he pronounces in a posh voice. I return his grateful smile and take the money. Three pounds is what I receive for my services.
It was my mother who first made me come after Mrs Ffrench asked her would I be willing to help her poor son. Mrs Ffrench believes that every man, no matter what his station in life, should be able to waltz.
‘It’s your Christian duty,’ my mother told me, ‘to help those less fortunate than yourself.’
After each visit I swear I won’t come back again. But the money makes me return. Otherwise the summer would be endless, an eternity without the brief joy of records or coffee and cake in town or the bite of Carroll’s Number 1 at the back of your throat.
Now Mr Ffrench pops the last of the biscuit into his mouth and silently points towards the living room. His face carries a whiff of sympathy as if he is a judge passing a sentence. He turns and disappears back into his small study where he corrects the piles of Leaving Certificate exam papers, happy I suspect to have any reason to hide from Mrs Ffrench. Once he used be an amateur magician, famous around the county for appearing at every variety concert. Then he married Mrs Ffrench and the magic stopped. Now he teaches English in the local technical school.
I find the Poor Thing standing beside the fireplace. His bushy red hair is thinning and his face has acquired a rim of fat. His watery eyes are grey. He wears his navy suit with dandruff dotted on the shoulders that makes him look much older than his nineteen years. His eyes wander about anxiously as I enter then they focus on me. The nose and upper lip crinkle. Yellow teeth are revealed.
‘I can smell you,’ he says. ‘I can smell you from here.’
Mrs Ffrench appears on cue behind me emerging from the dim light of the hall like an apparition. Her long blonde hair is freshly brushed and hangs long over her shoulders. A plastic daisy is perched at the parting. Her face is smeared white with make-up and her black eyebrows and red-rimmed mouth burn with colour. The grin drops from the Poor Thing’s face replaced by the normal communion boy expression. He coughs lightly, a rolled fist taps carefully at his chest. Mrs Ffrench bolts to his side. ‘Oh you’re not getting a summer cold, you poor thing,’ she clucks. ‘It’s going around you know. Isn’t it, Orla?’
‘Yes it is, Mrs—’
But she has moved on. Mrs French is not interested in anything I have to say.
‘Well you know what I was thinking today, Orla?’ I shake my head. I have no idea what she could ever be thinking. ‘That it has to be Delia. The moment I saw the morning I knew it was a bright Delia Murphy morning. Don’t you think dear?’ ‘Yes, Mrs Ffrench,’ I say.
The Poor Thing begins his elaborate stretching exercises, raising his hands above his head and then bending his knees. Up and down he goes. Up and down.
‘Agility is the mark of any dancer,’ he says to no one.
Mrs Ffrench unclips the case of the PolyGram and selects the record from the shelf. The syrupy strains of The Spinning Wheel pour out above the gentle crackles of the record. The Poor Thing bows before me. ‘Please may I have the pleasure of this dance?’
I take his clammy hand. His other hand takes my waist. Every finger fidgets like an insect on my skin. He has no smell. His smooth face gleams with effort.
‘Please face the orchestra,’ he says and pulls me towards the Polygram. I stumble immediately. ‘Please,’ he says, ‘let the gentleman lead.’
‘Such a beautiful couple,’ Mrs Ffrench says in a whimpering voice. ‘You would grace the National Ballroom of Parnell Square.’
She sighs with a strange happiness and leaves for the kitchen. The Poor Thing mumbles as we twirl around the room moving fractionally faster every time. Vases, photographs, watercolours slip around us.
‘Young ladies should always sit with their knees together. It is polite to give your seat up to a woman bearing parcels. One should always remove one’s hat whilst passing a graveyard.’
He holds me tighter. I feel his prick pressing into me.
‘Yes,’ he exhales, ‘decorum and decency are the measure of any society.’
Three Lovely Lassies follows Courtin’ in the Kitchen follows The Irish Rover. I can take it no longer and as My Bonnie Irish Boy finishes I pull away from him. He stares at me with surprise. ‘God ensures that bodily areas of privacy are covered with hair to denote their modesty,’ he whispers.
He draws a breath and his eyes smear me with a dirty look.
‘Tell me, Orla,’ he whispers, ‘Does John Boland hold you the way I do?’
I shrug my shoulders. His tongue touches the centre of his thin lips.
‘Tonight will you walk with me, Orla, to the end of the lane?’
Every week he asks me this. I look into those grey eyes, bloodshot and already too old for his face.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I will.’
He steps away from me, the limp hands grappling together.
‘Oh Orla,’ he whimpers.
The door slides open with a screech. Mrs Ffrench sweeps into the room holding a tray of tea and porter cake.
‘Oh I hope he’s behaving himself, Orla,’ she laughs. ‘Don’t mind him whatever he’s saying.’ She leans over and ruffles his hair. ‘The Poor Thing.’
John Boland presses his tongue into my mouth and I suck on it until my lips are sticky and numb from contact. ‘I love you,’ he says.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I love you as well.’
He grins and I press my nose against his ear. He smells of meat from his father’s butcher’s shop. My tongue touches his ear lobe. ‘That tickles,’ he says but he doesn’t stop me. It is July, a month for kissing. For going with John Boland about the lanes and down by the river. For inhaling cigarettes and feeling dizzy. For your body feeling cool underneath sheets with the hiss of the radio drifting across the night air.
I used go with Frank Brown. Someone told my mother and she came down to the bridge and found us together. She pulled me by the hair and gripped my bare arm so roughly that she left a long red burn. Frank Brown just stood there, so terrified and frightened that I swore I would never talk to him again. Now I go with John Boland.
From the corner of my eye I watch the river pass, the midges dancing about the purring water. The wind blows through the mountain ash trees above us. The air is cool on my bare legs. John Boland doesn’t talk as much as Frank Brown. Nor does he like drinking coffee or going to the cinema or listening to the radio to see what’s number one. He likes cars and motorbikes. He likes talking about going away to join the merchant navy; getting away from their sleepy butcher’s shop with its black flies lying dead in the window like loose pieces of tar.
He looks towards the trees. ‘I need a fag,’ he says. ‘But I don’t have a rex.’
He bends down and picks up a stone and throws it at the abandoned ambulance that lies like a squat animal beside the river, leaking its contaminated colours into the damp, rutted ground.
I sense the anger in him. Sometimes I like his anger. Like when he put a hook in a piece of bread and caught a seagull by the mouth. He pulled the bird behind him like it was a kite and I followed him laughing at the sight of the creature flapping stupidly. It was an empty Sunday afternoon. We had no money: my three pounds from Mr Ffrench long used up. But it felt like we were doing something.
I nuzzle in the crook of his neck and for once he responds and pulls me tighter.
‘I love you,’ I say and I think I might mean it.
All of a sudden there is a call from the bridge.
‘Hands off her, you corner boy,’
I know that voice and my heart sinks. It is the Poor Thing. I stand up, unable to hide my embarrassment. He shouts out again in his plummy voice.
‘Such public displays of intimacy coarsen our society. You should have more respect for yourself, Orla. Frankly, I’m disappointed.’
John Boland is about to roar back at him but another figure appears. It is Mr Ffrench.
‘Jesus. Now it’s Harry Houdini,’ John Boland says underneath his breath. But he stops speaking. Mr Ffrench is his teacher.
‘Father,’ the Poor Thing says and points at John Boland, ‘that young man needs to play more football. He needs to use up some of his energy.’
‘It’s time to go home, Tim,’ Mr Ffrench says.
The Poor Thing turns away in a sulky manner. Mr Ffrench looks down at us and in his blank face I sense disapproval before he moves away without saying anything more.
For a moment we say nothing. Then John Boland stands up. I watch him warily.
‘Fucking Harry Houdini,’ he says.
He picks up a stone and smashes it against the windscreen of the abandoned ambulance. It splinters like a spider’s web. I join him and together we throw stones until every splinter of glass is broken and the shards lie glinting in the mud.
I follow the Poor Thing out through the kitchen to the scullery. There is the smell of burnt dinner. The electric cooker clicks. A radio is playing graceful classical music. There is a flickering sacred heart light. He does not walk to the back door as I expect. Instead he stops and opens a tall cream-coloured cupboard. On his tiptoes he reaches up, his arms straining against his tight jacket.
‘Aha,’ he says, taking something from a shelf. He turns to me holding a top hat.
The black fabric has lost is sheen and there are fingerprints of dust on its side. But I have to laugh when I see it. His other hand holds the black stem of a long wand with white tips at either end. The plastic casing is cracked and the grain of wood can be seen through it. Carefully he puts the top hat on and holds the wand out in a dramatic pose.
‘I will follow in my father’s footsteps,’ he says. ‘I will become the greatest magician that ever lived.’
Then he reaches again into the cupboard and takes out a tailcoat jacket. It is ripped under the left arm and two of the front buttons are missing. It is made for the dapper Mr Ffrench and barely covers his heavy shoulders. He takes a step back and bows to me, taking off the hat with a flourish as he does so. He hungry eyes stay on me all the time.
‘Orla, you shall be my glamorous assistant. Oh yes.’
He reaches back into the cupboard and produces a long golden shawl. It is finely woven with faint glitter gleaming within its threadbare fabric.
‘Please put this on.’
I take it from him and wrap it around my shoulders. He stares at me and his hand languidly touches his forehead and for a moment I am afraid that he going to faint. Then he breathes deeply and his bloodshot eyes seem to water.
‘Now we shall walk, my beautiful assistant.’
He offers me the crook of his arm.
‘Thank you,’ I whisper.
When I get home from the river my mother is standing at the door, waiting for me.
‘What’s wrong?’ I ask.
I don’t even see her hand winding upwards as she slaps my face. She does it hard and I feel the nick of her engagement and wedding rings, a little ridge of hardness that skins my cheek.
‘You were hanging around with that gurrier John Boland,’ she says. She grabs me by the shoulders and pulls me into the house. The door is slammed shut. We are in the darkness of the tiny hall. She squeezes my arm so hard that it feels like the skin might come away with her withered hand.
‘That fool was here again. He’s going around town talking about you. He says that you need more supervision. He says that I don’t give you enough attention.’
Her voice is gathering anger and now she is screaming, shaking me like a doll. I can see the temper in her won’t burn out for hours. She spins into a fit, pulling coats down, knocking over the thin-legged table that spills dead flowers everywhere. Now she can’t find anything more to knock over so she strides into the living room, slamming the door behind her. I stand in the grey darkness. If she comes back and I’m not here it will start again. The tears have formed a little sticky patch below my chin. Then I hear her voice screaming in the darkness.
‘You are nothing but a sin waiting to happen. A sin waiting to happen.’
The Poor Thing told her. He came here and told her about me and John Boland.
Outside the light has faded and the Poor Thing and I stride through the gate of the house into the lane. He still wears the badly fitting jacket and the top hat and holds the wand aloft. He rubs the back of my hand his fingers dance across my skin. The lane smells of summer. The leaves of the overhanging trees rustle in the light wind. There is the husky smell of pollen and meadowsweet. A late bee drones by.
‘The love of a man and a woman is the building block of society,’ the Poor Thing whispers.
The darkness gathers under the trees. Insects rise like a question mark into the air. Dog roses are just visible, white marks that glow in the inky air. I can hear his breathing. And then to my surprise he begins to hum an air, one of those Delia Murphy songs, The Blackbird. Outdoors it doesn’t sound so bad. We walk on, in perfect step and for a moment I almost forget everything that has happened.
‘Oh yes Orla. I have dreamed about this intimacy many times,’ he murmurs.
And then from behind the stone wall, a figure appears, climbing onto the moss covered stones. For a moment the shadow stands on the wall towering over us, a long bruise against the fading sky. It jumps down in front of us. It is John Boland.
‘Leave her alone, you pervert,’ he says.
I pull my hand away from the Poor Thing’s arm and take a step back. The Poor Thing looks at me and then at John Boland in shock.
‘You should not raise your voice like that?’ he says in his whimpering voice. ‘It is quite uncouth.’
But John Boland snarls and grabs the wand from his hand. He lifts it high and hits him with it across the head. There is a painful crack and the top hat goes flying into the hedgerow. The Poor Thing is too surprised even to call out. Pathetically he hunches down using his puny arms to protect him. He whimpers.
‘You’re nothing but a pervert,’ John Boland is saying, ‘you handicapped fucker.’
He whips the wand again. The Poor Thing is on his knees now. There is a line of blood on his temple. The stupid tailcoat has slipped off his shoulders and is caught tight on his forearms so he looks like his hands are tied.
‘Orla, please stop him,’ he says.
I am shaking. The world is spinning around me and for a moment I almost weaken. But I throw the shawl to the ground and bend down, staring into the Poor Thing’s face.
‘You shouldn’t have told my mother. Never go near her again. And if you tell anyone about this I’ll say you tried to touch me and the Guards will come for you and cart you off to the prison in Portlaoise. Do you hear me?’
His raw face creases and then jolts as John hits him again with the wand, leaving a red mark on his cheek. The tears flow from his eyes.
‘Please make him stop. Please make him stop.’
I look at John Boland. His darkened face is striped by the shadows around us.
Slowly he raises the wand again.
‘Will I give him another one?’ he asks.
And suddenly I find that I cannot speak to him. The words refuse to come. I take a step away and before I know it, I am running. John Boland calls out to me. But I don’t stop. I run onto the road sprinting along its dark curve, passing over the bridge and the thin membrane of water that runs underneath. The night sky prickles with stars. The wind moans in my ear and the trees agitate around me. No other sound except my heart, pulsing with a faint ache that I fear is regret. I turn the corner at full speed, past the derelict hotel and find myself showered in the orange tainted street light of the town. The sullen shop windows stare out and from one of the pubs in the distance there is the beat of music. I stop and try to catch my breath and as I do my mind suddenly focuses, burning with the intensity of a match that flames and dies instantly. My mother is right. I am a sin. Waiting to happen. For a moment I think I might actually cry or get sick but I stand on the empty street unable to move or fully breathe. The minutes pass. A door opens and bangs shut and a tottering couple leaves O’Malley’s Bar. They cackle with an ugly laughter that punctures the airlessness around me and at last I breathe in the odours of the place, that strange combination of earth and car exhaust that hangs like a plume over its intersecting streets. I have nowhere to run or hide and so I turn towards home.
In these furtive seconds I plan as always my survival. Tomorrow I will tell my mother that the Poor Thing presses too tightly against me and that I no longer feel safe with him. I will tell John Boland that I don’t want to go with him any more. Then I pray this summer will soon end and that autumn will come and quench its bitter soul.