Tak, tak. Zaden, zaden
15 January 2010
Farley is aware of a blur in his right eye. A bauble of light in the darkness. It fills up, then drains off. Every few minutes it does this—as if he has his own little cistern inside his head. A recurring blur. He chances a couple of words: hello, then blur. He tries them again—nothing. He begins to take stock. It’s the middle of the night, he’s in the jacks—one side of his face shoved into the linoleum, right shoulder pressed into the radiator. His nose is a few inches from the pedestal of the toilet, and his body, in an awkward curl, lies in the space around it like a dog that’s outgrown its kennel. He may have fallen and broken something—that could be it. But there’s no pain. There is no feeling at all. He remembers the dark space of a dreamless sleep. Otherwise nothing. It’s as if he was born here, with his face nuzzled into the bowl of this jacks.
The thing to do now would be relax. Just relax. Not to go thinking the worst. Get the mind steady before thinking at all. That would be the thing to do now. Like that time years ago, when he fell off the boat into the Shannon. Young then, not that long after he’d started working for Slowey, in fact. All best behaviour and ‘Can I give you a hand there, Mister Slowey?’ sort of chat. The middle of winter, a sparkling cold day, he’d been dressed in thick jumper and boots, a bit on the woozy side from the night before’s whiskey. Not much of a splash when he fell overboard, down between the side of the boat and the slimy dock wall. The sensation of the water suckling on him. Nobody had been able to believe their eyes when he bobbed back up, un-fucking-drowned, as they had all kept saying later in the pub—unfuckingdrowned!
And why was that? Because he’d refused to panic. He had surrendered to the water, let it pull him all the way down. And then, as if it had just got fed up with him, it had spat him right back up again. Slowey had often mentioned it after; at the Christmas do or other speechy occasions: ‘And from that moment on,’ he’d say, ‘I knew our man Farley was a survivor. Not even the Shannon could keep the bastard down!’
Farley takes in a deep breath. That’s it—relax. He has a feeling he has to be somewhere tomorrow, or—depending on what time it is now—that could be today. Somewhere important. He seems to remember collecting his suit from the cleaner’s anyhow, soft in its cellophane wrapper. And the girl behind the counter with the eyes like a goat. The heat and hiss from the machines behind her. The little moustache of sweat on her lip and how it had crossed his mind that he’d love to lean across the counter and lick it clean. And how shot through that thought had been smaller threads, like was it normal for a man of his age to be thinking that way? And if it was, should he be proud of himself or ashamed? He can remember all that now. But the reason for needing a clean suit?
The dark. The dark still holding the room. Through it he can smell the toilet; layers of old piss-splashes around it. His splashes—it would have to be—no one else had used this toilet in years. It consoles him to know this—he never could bear the stench of the herd. As far as he recalls, the last time a stranger would have used this room was the day of Martina’s funeral. Thirty odd year ago that would have been. A queue halfway down the stairs then. Men only. Ladies had to go to the house next door. A sign on the gate had told them so: ‘Ladies This Way’ with an arrow pointing at the house of—whatever this her name was. Brown eyes she had in anyway. She’d made the sign herself, knocking in first thing to show him, ‘Martina would have preferred ladies to have their own facilities,’ was how she had put it. And Farley, on the morning of his wife’s funeral with rolled-up shirtsleeves, one hand tucked into one half-polished shoe and a blot of tissue on his chin where he’d cut himself shaving and a grin in his eyes from something he’d been listening to on the radio, had opened the door without thinking. For a few long seconds he’d stood gawking at the sign, wondering what he was expected to say. Until Mrs Brown-eyes had finally prompted, ‘Ah, you know what she was like.’ And Farley then duly responded, ‘Oh God, yes I do.’
By the end of the night the sign for the Ladies had fallen on the ground. Slowey’s big brown brogue stamped on it as he stood with Bren Conroy waving a sombre goodbye. As if they weren’t going to sprint down to the County Bar for last orders, the second they got round the corner. Nowadays people don’t hang about at funerals. Nowadays, they say their piece and scurry back to work. Except those with nothing better to do; old folks or garglers glad of the excuse. You’d even see some dressed in tracksuits and trainers. Conroy’s son, for example, a few months ago. Turning up to his own father’s funeral with his junkie pals in tow. The bony hand when you shook it, the old woman’s voice when he accepted condolences, the swivel eye. Better no son than the likes of that.
Farley regrets. What? He isn’t quite certain. It could be that he hadn’t thought to turn on the light before stepping up to the toilet. It could be something more distant. But he can see all he wants to see for the moment by the light of a lamppost outside; looking in at him like the cold eye of heaven.
The outline of the bathroom around him; the hump of his dirty laundry; the dressing gown, ghoulish on the back of the door. The murky long mirror. And what good would a full 60 watt be to him now? What could it show him? Ancient bottles of shampoo and other squirty stuff that’s been lying there for years? His reflection in the bottom of the mirror? A wall of white tiles like a cul de sac to the imagination? At least the dark allows him to wander.
His headache resumes. He feels it like a red-hot bulge in the corner of his head. His thoughts return to Mrs Brown-eyes. He wonders why. Why he should keep thinking about the oulone next door? A woman he hasn’t seen these years. Not dead though, not so far as he knows. But in a nursing home someplace. The house let out by her grown-up children, to foreigners. He realises then, it’s not the woman he’s been thinking of, but the house she lived in. The house next door. Ah right.
For a moment Farley can see her kids. Three of them; standing on his doorstep with cards in their hands, looking to be sponsored for something or other. Plain little, timid little things, rigid in their clothes, always looked like they were coming from Sunday Mass. He’d had a few jars on him, tried being friendly, saying the sort of things he thought you were supposed to say to kids. About school and Santy and how old are you now?
Pardon? They’d said pardon a lot.
Martina used to love buying them presents. Pencil cases in September, masks at Halloween, selection boxes at Christmas. Seasonal stuff. She seemed to get a kick out of doing that. He’d never say, but he’d often felt it made her look a bit needy.
He tries to remember the man next door. The father of the three little stiffs. The husband of Mrs Brown-eyes herself. A little chap. Tight arse running for the 79a bus, holding the button of his jacket into his belly. He can see the most of him, the knob of his elbow, his little shoes rising and falling as he trots along, his little grey suit even. But the face?
His own father comes into his mind then. Face unfortunately clear. Died of a stroke, or six months after a stroke, though the stroke was the cause of it. A surly bastard anyway, who hadn’t time or a word for anyone. A snarler. He’d snarl at his newspaper, snarl at the radio, snarl if you spoke to him while he was having his dinner. Yet anything like the crowd at his funeral. Standing room only. People his mother had never seen or even heard of before. Back in the house one of them made a speech, clipping his whiskey glass for order! Order! Farley and his brother left looking at each other. It was like he was talking about a man they had never met—a raconteur. A wit. A great family man. An honour to have known. A pleasure to have worked with. A fly-fisher.
Farley listens to the beat of his heart. The only thing of movement or sound in the bathroom. A good strong beat, not too fast, maybe a bit on the slow side. The headache has subsided again. Not gone, just taking a little breather. He pictures it like a big thick tongue, hanging over a rock, heaving.
His father had worked as some sort of court clerk, a runner for a judge or a barrister maybe. Farley never knew much about his job, beyond the fact that he’d hated it. And he only knew that because any chance his father got, he reminded them of the fact. No matter what childish gripe you’d come up with; going to school in the rain, or out to the shed in the dark for the coal, he’d come right back at you with his—and what about me? How do you think I feel? Do you not think I’d rather be elsewhere, doing elsewhat? Instead of going into that kip every day. I hate that bloody job. Hate it! Hate it! But then his father had hated most things. Except for fly-fishing. ‘The love of his life,’ his mother used to call it, with a look on her face Farley had never quite been able to read.
He’d be gone for the day. Sometimes a weekend. Loading up his fishing gear first, wrapping up sandwiches he’d made himself, while Farley looked on and tried his best not to whinge; ‘Ah Da, you promised me, you did.’
Farley sees his young self for a moment, clutching the bars of the garden gate, with his brown hair and sticky-out ears, like a little monkey in short pants, bawling his brains out. The sound of the old Morris tittering off up the road, rods sticking out the rear windows, wobbling goodbye. And his mother waiting with a biscuit in one hand and the corner of her pinny in the other, ready to wipe his eyes. ‘Ah, he’ll bring you another time. Didn’t he promise he would? There, there now, you’ll be grand.’
Back in the house, she would sigh into the kitchen, a warm sunny sound, pressing her hands down on the draining board.
The love of his life.
His brother had been indifferent to it all; what do you care where he goes or what he fishes? And he didn’t care, not really. He’d just wanted to see what his father was like, happy. And the sandwiches of course. He was curious to see what sort of sandwiches a man like his father might make. By the time he was eleven he’d stopped asking to go. By the time he was twelve the promise had slipped from everyone’s mind. Soon enough after came the stroke.
Farley decides to stop thinking about his father. To concentrate instead on a plan. A strategy—that’s what he needs. He knows he can’t move. That every bone, every inch of his flesh is locked into the floor and that he’ll have to rely on his voice. He’s confident that there’s plenty still in there. It just needs a bit of a rest, that’s all. The thing to do would be to wait. Allow the energy to recharge of its own accord. Let it gather and thicken. That would be the thing to do now. When it gets bright, or almost bright. When the young one from the house next door goes to take her bike out of the shed. That’s when he’ll let it go. Then.
The house next door. The youngone living there now. The tenant. That’s right. An early riser, thankfully. A busy, early girl. Off every morning to work in the fish market except Sunday and Monday. He often wonders how she survives down there with her pointy face and dainty ways, in among all those targers. Sonya—was that her name? Sonya or Sofia maybe. Silvia, that was it. From Poland anyhow, or one of those places.
The minute he hears her, whatever strength he will have managed to save up by then, he’ll muster it up, give her a roar. He wonders how many times he’ll need to call out? A few times, probably. He’ll have to ration himself so, not throw it all out first go.
He imagines her now, unclenching her bike from the other bikes in the shed, and drawing it towards her. Then pushing it a little way up the garden path, a strip of white polyester from her overalls showing under the hem of her green tweed coat. Her wellies in the basket, the Fagin-style gloves on her hands with her little pink fingers poking out. He imagines her stopping just before the side entrance. Cocking up a delicate ear—what? what was that?—reversing her steps and the wheels of the bike. She’ll frown. Then listen again. She might think she’s imagined it. In which case she’ll have to call on her housemates for verification. Three Polish blokes coming out to the garden then; tall, high-arsed, fairish. A touch of the Luftwaffe about them. ‘What?’ they’ll say. ‘What?’—or whatever the Polish equivalent would be. ‘Where? Up there? I can’t hear no thing. Are you sure? Are you certain?’
He’d have to be ready for round two then, just at that precise moment to collect, aim, and fire: ‘Help…’
And she’d go, ‘Now—hear it now?’
‘Ah wait now—yes. Yes, yes.’
‘Tak,’ they might say. (He thinks that could be Polish for yes). He seems to remember she told him one day across the back garden wall. Tak is for yes, Zaden—was it? Zaden means no. Or maybe it was the other way round.
Farley knows that it must be freezing. A sugary frost on the window-pane, a scrap of old snow on the sill. He should be freezing all over. He should be able to feel the radiator like a block of ice behind him. But he can’t. Only on his left side can he feel anything, where the cold is lifting the skin from his flesh. The right side doesn’t even notice. It’s as if half of him has been cut away and moved to another room. More than anything else—the headache switching on and off; the recurring blur in his eye; the refusal of his voice to come out of its box—it’s this uneven distribution of cold that gets to him.
He brings himself back to the matter on hand. The Polish bird—yes. She leaves around six. Unless it’s a Sunday or Monday when the fish market is shut. But it can’t be Monday if he collected the suit yesterday because the cleaner’s doesn’t open on Sunday. But it could be Sunday, in which case he’s fucked. But he won’t think about that, it could be any day as far as he’s concerned, except Sunday or Monday. So—she’ll leave around six. And she’ll hear his call and she’ll bring the Luftwaffe out to the garden. The Polish blokes, being blokes, will be reluctant to intrude. They’ll have to stand in a circle and have a discussion. They’ll probably have to have a cigarette to help the discussion along. Tak, tak. Zaden, zaden. Should they call the police? Should they kick the door in? Get a ladder and look in the window? They won’t want to involve the police. One of them might ask if she has a key to his house. Then she’ll have to explain herself. At this point he could try sending down another shout.
Tumbling ashes. Soft grey light hatching out of the darkness. Farley notes the sudden rush of wind outside, the swish of the trees. He listens for sounds of traffic from the Kylemore Road. A squawk of a near empty bus, the infrequent snore of a car, a motorbike’s buzz. In between, the long silence. For a minute he thinks he’s in his grandmother’s house, the house where he spent so much of his childhood. Bang up against the wall of the Phoenix Park. When he was a boy the silence never seemed complete. You’d always hear something. Owls or other nocturnals, horses neighing from the army barracks up the way. Even the night sounds from the animals in the zoo. A lonely sound that. It used to make him fret, the thought of an animal howling alone in a cage, no one to heed or help it. He used to have to go to sleep with his pillow over his ears. But he’s in a different house now. The house of his adulthood. Another area altogether. For all he knows they’re still howling in their cages.
His headache is back, in full form now, pushing to break its own record. Farley feels the bulge rise and expand, rise and expand. A little stronger each time, a little hotter. Lava.
He opens his eyes, the light has lifted again, and he thinks he may have passed out for a while and if so, wonders where to and how long he’s been gone. Then he wonders about the state of his pyjamas. Whatever way he has fallen, the top has risen and rolled under his arm. He knows this. But he can’t remember when he last changed the bottoms and hopes the brown streak up the inside is a memory from a different pair, on a different occasion.
A day last summer comes back to him. The Polish girl hunkered down in the garden, hacking something out of the ground. He’d been busying himself in the shed, keeping an eye on her through the little window. Her dress had been flowery, her shoes made of rubber and he’d been thinking to himself how old-fashioned these people are, with their vegetables in the back garden and their cycling everywhere and their knitting and their second-hand shops where they buy their flowery frocks. Nothing wasted. Like people you’d see years ago. Or people during the war. When he came out of the shed, she had looked up and smiled at him. Then stood and came over to the wall for a chat. She was going later to have a picnic in the Park, near the Furry Glen. And that had seemed so old-fashioned too, a picnic in the Park, something he hadn’t seen anyone doing in years. She’d been picking radishes to bring. ‘Look,’ she had said, holding the bunch up, fresh clay dribbling out of it. ‘Everybody, they bring something. I have also a bread I make this morning and chocolate I buy in the new Aldi store.’
He had liked that she told him all that.
Then she had asked if he had plans for the weekend himself and for some reason the question had embarrassed him. ‘Ah you know,’ he had shrugged, ‘just the usual.’ And she had cocked her head at him as if she expected more. As if she expected him to explain what ‘the usual’ meant.
‘Well, good luck now, enjoy the picnic,’ he had said and began to walk off, afraid that she might think he expected, or even hoped to be asked in for a taste of her bread.
She had called after him. ‘I just wanted to say, if you want you could. You know, give me a key, in case maybe there is ever—’
‘In case you have. Or you need. If I have your key then I can? In my country is usual when an old person is a neigbour…’
For some reason the suggestion had winded him. He hadn’t been able to think of a way to respond, so he just looked at her. And then began to step back.
‘Does that mean you don’t want to give me the key?’ she asked, her face colouring up.
He turned his back to her and kept walking until he was inside the house again, the door closed behind him. He’d been offended. But more than that—he’d been hurt. Hurt and even humiliated. Why though?
Because he had looked over the wall at an old-fashioned girl and liked what he’d seen? Because the truth was he’d had a little smack for her? Not that he would have expected or even wanted anything to happen. He had just liked having the possibility there on the air over the wall, between the two houses. Not that it had made him feel any younger, just a little less old.
Almost light. He can see more clearly now, the rusty bolt that fixes the toilet to the floor, and the white porcelain rise of the bowl’s exterior, like a dowager’s throat. He can see the pallor of the tiles on the wall, the faded beige folds of his dead wife’s dressing gown on the back of the door. And the architecture of himself in the bottom of the full-length mirror on the wall beside it. He follows the curves and angles; the sole of his foot to the cap of his knee, above it a length of thigh. The bottom of his pyjamas are slightly down, flap wide open. It takes him a moment to understand the grey fleshy bloom lolling over his groin and inner thigh. He draws his eye upwards, sees an elbow, part of a grubby vest, the tip of one shoulder. The jaw then, which looks broken and twisted off to one side. The view from the mirror shows one eye. It blinks at him, then blinks again.
Farley listens. There’s a click from the side gate of the house next door. Footsteps. Then the thud of the shed door. The rattle of a bicycle being pulled from the tangle. And Sofia, or Sonya or Silvia down there, unravelling the lock from her bike, standing in a moment to wheel it down the path towards the gate. In a few moments she could be standing right here, in this room. Standing above him, looking down. At him curled like a dog around the toilet, bollix hanging out of his dirty pyjamas. Drooling gob twisted off to the side. One weeping eye.
He opens his mouth, then closes it. It seems uneven, the lips not quite meeting. He goes to open it again then changes his mind. For some reason the dry-cleaned suit comes into his head. He searches for the colour, the texture of cloth. The pinstripe navy? The charcoal grey? Or was it the black—funeral black?