Exactly a month after Siobhan had been told by a good friend of ours that I was having an affair with a leggy flat-chested doe-eyed singer, I was allowed to move back into the house. In the meantime, I’d been staying at my sister’s, on a mattress in the games room, lying awake all night with the French doors open, listening to the birds in the trees along the river, big sounding creatures I’d never heard before. It was the beginning of another summer. When word came through that I’d been granted a reprieve and could go home, my sister Melissa gave me a lift with my gear which amounted to one bag and my guitar. I suppose I was nervous as hell, my head busy rehearsing all the things I would need to say and do to save my marriage because when the car stopped, I jumped straight out, went to the boot for my stuff and had the guitar on my shoulder before I realised we were actually parked on the street right outside the house we had grown up in.
Would you look at the state of it? Melissa said when I sat back in. Look at the roof. Look at that letterbox—you wouldn’t put a bloody court summons through it. And those are the very same curtains if you ask me. They are.
Our curtains were green, I told her. Big long pale green velvet things. Wee Auntie Lou made them. I remember having to go out to the back shed to get the step ladders to put them up. And remember how scared I was of the back shed?
You were scared of your own shadow most of the time. You were. Melissa lit up a cigarette, holding it out the open window. The houses seemed to have shrunk and the street was as narrow as a country lane. Melissa was parked well up on the pavement. We stared uneasily at our old front door like we were waiting to see ourselves come charging out. It was tilled. No number on it now. A saucer on the window ledge. Melissa ditched her smoke and began her spiel: Listen to me Marc, okay. I just want to say this one thing more to you and that’s all. You’re doing the right thing. You are. I know I’ve said that already but we all think it, all of us, the entire family… but I just wanted to say this one thing more to you, just between me and you so don’t take my head off. But if you need anything, a loan of any money or anything, then you should just ask okay. It’s just money. Don’t be bottling it all up okay. You see what happens when you do? Don’t be driving yourself mad with worry. You were always so useless at lying anyway.
There was a strange thump on the car’s back window. A young woman who couldn’t get by along the pavement with her pram the way we were parked. The child started crying, screaming. Do you hear me, Marc? Melissa said, starting the engine, paying the young mother no mind. She had steered the pram into the road, giving us a die-slow look through the glass as she passed.
Graham will divorce you if he catches you smoking again, was all I could manage. There were many other ways I could have replied, and not all of them would have been kind or grateful for the offer of money but Melissa had taken me in for the last month, fed and watered me, kept the wine flowing and stayed up late with me, even got out her old fiddle one night. Then again, it was around her dinner table, Melissa presiding, that the rest of the family gathered to work out what was to be done with me, all eight of them rolling up in the driveway after work and before lunchtime at the weekends. It was an official family crisis. My marriage needed to be saved. Melissa would report back on her conversations with Siobhan, the shrewd delicate negotiations, and it would be agreed by a vote what my next step should be. And it was Melissa who went to see Greta. Cornered the warbling hippy home-wrecker after a gig, threw the bus timetable for Dundalk at her as I found out later.
Back home again, still unpacked, and sitting at the kitchen table with Siobhan after our dinner, it was me who brought up the idea of getting out of town for the weekend, to do whatever talking we needed to do down the road in Inishowen. Siobhan’s people owned a place down there, right on the coast. Siobhan had bought them out a few years back. We had put a lot of work into it since. Siobhan loved the time away, from the city, from me too I suppose. Anyway, she laughed off the suggestion to start with, saying, You hate it down there sure. You never know what to do with yourself. No? When was the last time then? You haven’t been down there since around last Christmas and that, which didn’t escape my attention, was only because we brought other people with us. All I have to do is mention Inishowen and a look of dread appears on your face. Sure, you haven’t even seen who moved into the big house in front of us, the big house you gave out about for blocking our view to your friends and then never mentioned again since. Strange don’t you think? Well there’s people moved in now full-time. Year round I mean. A middle-aged couple with their children. He’s some hotshot accountant. Or he was.
The weekends are tricky you know, I said.
Really? Why’s that I wonder? She looked at me, her head to the side, suffering in one eye, anger in the other, and then she let me off the hook with, Well, the weekends are all I have, Marc. Will you please try to get that into your thick skull for me? Will you? Whether you like it or not. And it’s not going to change either.
No doubt about it, Siobhan had studied and worked hard since we had made the move home from London. A full-blown cliché like it sounds, she stopped to talk to me one Mayday morning when I was picking my way through an old Kinks’ floor-filler on the steps of a squat near Holloway prison. She’d heard the accent. She came in for a cup of tea. She was easy with everybody. She left for the tube and came back again ten minutes later. She stayed the night. And now she was a solicitor. Right from the start, she said she felt aimless in London, bored, guilty, and she wanted to go home to try to put something back in, to do some good. She persuaded me that it would help my song-writing. Get back to the source, she’d plead with me and soon enough it was the mantra I began to use on myself. In less than a year after meeting her, we were driving up through England and Scotland to the Stranraer ferry with all our possessions, most of them hers, in a car that wouldn’t start again when it was time to drive off at Larne. People got jumpy, they thought it was a bomb, the cops arrived. Siobhan and I were questioned for hours. She threw away a lot of her clothes afterwards.
Back at the kitchen table, I took hold of my wife’s hand and ran my thumb in circles around the underside of her wrist, round and round over those prominent branching blue veins. Come on Siobhan. It’d be good for us. Sea air. Walks. Your garden. The beach. Swimming. It’d be good for us.
Will it now? Will it really? You who never goes near the water.
I’ll be the first in. I’ll wear the wetsuit even. Promise. Come on. A change of scene.
Isn’t this just typical of you—all this sudden haste? These brief enthusiasms. And then you change your mind at the last minute. She was mocking me, and fairly too, but I could see from the way she was blinking rapidly that she was thinking the idea over.
Friday tomorrow. I can get away by two. But you see Marc, if you even so much as—
I’ll have the car packed by two, I said, my right hand up to God.
It was after four, and after a stop at the garden centre for a few bags of compost, before we were on the main road out. The traffic was good. The music was good. The weather looked good. Siobhan had had one of her major soap-opera days, the cops had to be called to remove a man who had chained himself to the railings after being barred from seeing his children. Me, I had been sitting around the house, playing old CDs and reading letters I’d sent to my as-then fiancée when she had gone to New York for those last few months of her brother’s life. I pulled into the car park of the supermarket just before the euro-zone border and asked her, Remember the thunder and lightning on the drive up from Dublin airport with your brother?
Siobhan looked at me—aghast has to be the only word. An empty expression which filled quickly to the brim with rage. The hackles were up. How…? Why would you even…? She couldn’t get the words out. Her neck reddened down into her cleavage. I did my best to apologise as we went up and down the aisles of the supermarket, Siobhan acting as if I was invisible which only made me the more desperate. I was trying to tell her how great it felt to have her back, that I’d missed her, just like when she came home after nursing her brother. She wouldn’t look me in the eyes. With Siobhan, the trick is you leave things well alone. You don’t mention the shit unless there’s a damn good reason. Otherwise you are being negative. I’d touched one of her sore spots and it would be a while before she’d get over it. People noticed us, me anyway, a man blocking a woman with a trolley in the toiletries section, then the tinned goods. We didn’t manage to buy one complete meal. We forgot all the basics. Then she sent me off to buy the alcohol which I took as a punishment. Siobhan didn’t drink much. She didn’t like to go beyond two glasses of wine. Buying the hooch alone meant I was entirely responsible, before the fact, for the amount I would drink that weekend. Three bottles of wine I bought. Once we had packed the car, she put out her hand for the keys. I was relegated to the passenger seat.
There was one other thing that happened before we turned off the main road and headed inland. We had forgotten the bottled gas. We pulled into a garage right on the shore of the lough, the summer ferry on its way across to Magilligan. I went in for the gas. As I waiting for a stoned teenager to open the multiple locks on the cage where they keep the bottles, I noticed Siobhan was out of the car and talking to a man on the forecourt. He was a big guy, darkish, the gentle giant sort, late forties, with a huge Adam’s apple. A bag of shopping in one hand and wiping his mouth a lot with the back of the other like somebody had decked him for no reason. Siobhan put out her hand to touch his shoulder and he took a quick step back, nodded in agreement to something and flip-flopped away toward a green Range Rover, spitting on the ground before he got in. Siobhan, hands on hips, stood shaking her head until the big tank roared out across the cattle grid.
Who do you mean? she said when I asked her a few miles down the road.
Was he one of your clients or what? Your man back there with the bad taste in his mouth.
What? She glanced at me, sighing.
I’m only having a laugh, Siobhan. The man you were talking to. You were seen in close dispute in the parish of Moville with an unknown entity. How do you plead?
It was not. There was no dispute.
Let’s not quibble over words. Will you identify this man for the court or not?
Siobhan flipped down the sun-guard and checked her face in the little mirror. That’s Padraig, she said, rubbing balm on her lips. And Padraig is our neighbour.
We turned off the coast road and into the interior while she told me a bit more about him. He’d made a packet during the years they call the boom time for some and lost it all again at the beginning of what they call the recession for all. Millions maybe. It was well known he was in big trouble. The lights were often on in the house all night long. And she had overheard a few big rows. But he was nice, she said, he wasn’t the over-privileged sort, he had worked his way up out of nothing, and he doted on his kids. I sang a few lines of ‘Luck Be A Lady Tonight’ as we slowed for the turn just after O’ Doherty’s bed and breakfast. Another four kilometers on a road no more than a gulley between hedges and electric fences before we’d get our first sight of the sea.
Siobhan got straight to work in her dungarees on the vegetable garden after we’d settled in. She would be at it for hours so I tried to relax, to do nothing but just be there. It could take a fair while for me to acclimatise. I tuned the old Gibson Hummer, the very same guitar I was playing when I met Siobhan in London, opened a book about the history of the townland, destroyed the homes of so many spiders I felt sick, cleaned the barbecue, tightened the clothes line, and still only forty minutes had passed. I got back into the rocking chair with the guitar, strumming, listening for a secret between the chords. The main window was a picture of pink-stained sheep in the field and the waves rolling in from the blue fathoms. Along the horizon, the freight tankers like moving targets. A speedboat as well. The sky was nearly pure. And off to the left was the new neighbour’s ranch house. The raw concrete back had eight windows. A short busty blonde woman came out the back door with a bag of rubbish. I saw her turn around suddenly and it was because Padraig was in the doorway, speaking to her. She waved the bag in the direction of the wheelie bin. Padraig stepped outside, and approached her with his hand out. He wanted the bag. He was given the bag. He pointed her back inside and she obeyed. I watched him untie the binbag, inspect the contents, close it again and put it in the bin. For another few minutes he stood there looking at his own house, like it was an animal he was going to take on, or a mountain, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He cast a long range gob of spit towards a rook on the wall. Then he went back inside his castle.
Siobhan and I sat outside to eat that evening, sheltered by the gable from a wind fresh from the northeast. As the cloud moved in overhead, we ate burgers and I drank some wine. Our conversation was mainly about the house, the many jobs needing to be done. Siobhan wanted to extend the vegetable patch. The ground would have to be turned, the stones picked out by hand. It sounded like a job she might allow me to do. The weekend was already mapped out in her mind. She liked to keep busy, especially in the daytime. Up with the birds and to bed after the evening news. Well, it was her way of getting through and it worked. I said it to her, I love the way you get things done. You just go right at them immediately they appear. You don’t put things off the way I do. And that’s brilliant.
Maybe, she said. But I’m a bit of a control freak though, aren’t I? I am.
I hadn’t expected that from her. It was rare to see Siobhan expose her own doubts.
I got out of my chair and squatted down in front of her. I took her hands, turned them over and kissed the blue veins. I’m so sorry, I told her. This is all my fault, not yours. Genuinely.
Maybe our lives are going in different directions, Marc?
I don’t believe that for a second.
How can you be sure? You’ve turned into a liar, haven’t you? And I‘ve turned into this woman who… I’ve never felt so on my own before… I never knew this kind of loneliness even existed.
That’s why we have to stick together, Siobhan. That’s what the world is like. I got it into my head you didn’t really need me anymore. And that I was holding you back. I wasn’t thinking straight.
Am I cold Marc, is that it? I know I’m mad busy and tired to pieces when I get home and just want some peace… but I thought you were happy enough doing your own thing. Your music. The band and all that. Were the signs all there and I just didn’t want to see them? Hell, I feel like such an idiot.
We took a walk down to the shore before it got dark. On some stretches of the road we had to run to escape the swarms of insects. The hedges were almost too ripe with berries and flowers and nettles and a hundred different birds shot out of every space singing and whistling and showing off around us. Only the downstairs lights were on as we passed the neighbour’s house. All the windows closed and the curtains drawn. The Range Rover out front. I thought it was a bit unusual on a fairish evening to see the smoke spraying out of the chimney and I even pointed it out to Siobhan but she was preoccupied with trying to explain to me how the ground had moved under her feet the morning that good friend of ours stormed into her office to tell her what type of man I really was. Further down the road at the bend, I thought I heard footsteps behind us, someone running, and maybe I did see a shadow crossing the road behind us when I looked back or maybe it was only a fox or a clumsy bird.
The big soup was coming in fast. The water swelled up under the seaweed, throwing the tentacles high between the rocks. Way out on the cliffs the young gulls were playing their bone whistles. Siobhan and I sat in our usual spot on a bed of soft heather on top of a black crag. Crab shells broke under me as I leaned in close to kiss my wife and got the brush off. I need you to understand what it was like, she said, meaning the month we had been separated, how she couldn’t get the images out of her head of me and some other woman. She went on to describe the scenes in so much detail even I began to forget they weren’t real. I could almost feel them, the wild lovers, hear their salty bodies sliding together. Until they were worn out, their souls, long before their bodies stopped. Of course, I tried to cut in but Siobhan needed to tell me everything, frame by frame, while the sea bulged and bubbled and burst against the rocks. I wanted to tell her the truth, how nothing had really happened between Greta and me because no matter how hard I tried to put it to the back of my mind, I was just too flooded with guilt about what we were doing. Those orgies of passion my wife was meticulously inventing lacked any resemblance to what had actually gone on. Most nights I saw Greta in her B&B on Spenser Road, sneaking up to the room like a teenager, and lying beside her on the plastic-covered mattress and talking about music and books, her own poetry and anything that entered my head to delay the moment when I would have to prove myself. Talking became a way to avoid touching. Words were there to stave off the other words, the real words. Or to cover over the gaps where there is nothing. But Siobhan didn’t want to hear any of that.
One night down here by myself again, guess what I did? she goes to me, biting her lip.
So it was funny then?
You don’t have to tell me, I say which brings on a bizarre fit of laughing.
I want to, she says. To tell you… Okay, I’ll pull myself together. But again she’s laughing and I play the waiting game, watching the bloated seaweed lolling about in the soup.
Finally she tells me, There was this one very bad night, worse than the rest, I felt so poisoned by it all and betrayed and worn out. I dragged myself into bed somehow anyway. And after a while, I got up and opened the window. I lay there just listening to the silence. Not a peep out of the waves or the wind. And there wasn’t a car on the road anywhere—you know how you can just about hear them at night? Even those damn gulls were quiet. Just this total silence pouring in through the window and it getting deeper and deeper and deeper. Like I was on a boat and it was sinking.
You like silence, I said and got shushed immediately.
So that’s how I must have fallen asleep. Okay? But when I got up in the morning what did I find? The front door was open too.
Fuck, you mean somebody broke in?
Again I seemed to have said the wrong thing. She elbowed me. No. You’re not listening to me. It wasn’t a break-in, nothing like that. You know as well as I do that I’ve never left a door open in my life. You know what I’m like about security. I double check everything sure.
There’s a first time for everything, I said.
Jesus, Marc, why are you being so…? I didn’t forget to lock up. I must have got up in the middle of the night and went down the corridor into the living room and opened it in my sleep. Me. And went back to bed. I’ve thought about it and thought about it since but I don’t remember doing it. But I sort of remember the feeling of doing it. Does that make any sense? The feeling of doing it but not really the act itself. I think it was me, Marc.
Whatever it was about what she was saying, and the waves and the seaweed, and the crab shells and the lights of the freight ships on the horizon, I couldn’t take another second of sitting there. The mozzies are eating me alive, I told her and got up. Siobhan told me to go on, said she’d follow me in a few minutes, she just wanted to sit there by herself for a while. I didn’t argue with her. I thought nothing of leaving her. I hurried back up the road. Going by the neighbours, I saw a flash of flame in the car. Padraig was having a smoke. It might have been a pipe. The driver’s door was open. The house in darkness. I waved to the man but it was too dark to be sure if he returned it. As soon as I got in, I was searching for my phone. I took it back outside to under the oak tree, the only spot where you had a chance of a decent signal, and checked my messages. Three from my sister, and one from Xavier in the band saying we might have a gig at a festival. And one from Greta asking me to meet up with her.
I decided to take a bath. It was an excuse to keep by myself. I’d had my fill of talking for one night. The bath, salmon pink and shallow, a made-for-two jacuzzi. Think of a big shell, an oyster shell maybe from one of those Botticelli paintings the round-breasted goddesses hover above. Siobhan and I had dreamed of spending cold winter nights in the bubbles. The thing arrived wrapped in horse blankets on the back of a lorry from Strangford Lough, three dour midgets in the front cabin. I poured in lots of bath oil, watched the foam expanding, replicating itself without sense. When I opened the window I could see Siobhan and Padraig clearly talking together in the vivid flat light from the car’s interior. I shut off the taps, then the light, and waited to hear or not hear what they were saying.
The next morning there was a flower on the pillow.
The simple truth about me which Siobhan would never admit to for her own mysterious reasons was that somehow or other I had basically become a kept man. Siobhan kept the roof over our heads and the kitchen table from losing its purpose. Greta was actually the first person to say it to me. Her and me deep in the gloaming of another one of those off-side palsied bars we had to use to hide ourselves away from scrupulous eyes. Another evening of talking about the band as a means of not talking about anything else. The evening she said to me, I don’t think you really want me. The small red ink stain on the hem of her denim skirt. Long dark silky hair getting caught in the corners of her mouth. I think you want to want me but you don’t really. After we’d had a few, and I was probably rehashing my theories of what had gone wrong in my life, of what was stopping me making a real go of things, Greta came right out and said I sounded as bitter as a kept man. That’s what other people say about you too, she added, taking my hand. We had a bit of an argument about it. I denied it. Refuted it. Annihilated it. Then I sort of broke down. She put her arm around me, whispering, You’re not trapped Marc, you’re free. There’s no children involved. You can do what you want. Make music. Just let yourself be free. I hadn’t broken down in a long time, not like that, crying in front of somebody. Head in my hands, elbows on the table, and Greta lying across my back, talking through the options. So when I looked up and saw three angels across the table it seemed right, a show of mercy and I bowed my head. Greta did the talking. Three women in angel costumes, wings and wigs and wands and ballerina tutus, collecting money for some addiction centre. How was I to know a good friend of my wife’s was among them? A week later, after doing some cute intelligence gathering, the woman’s duty was clear to her.
You’re what, a kept man? Siobhan frowned like it was old news. I had jumped out of bed that second day and told her I was going to get my act together once and for all. I was sick of feeling ashamed of myself, of holding her back, us. I would wise up and pull my weight and take that offer of guitar teaching in the arts centre. Siobhan seemed more interested in the taste of her coffee. Only a bra on under the dungarees. I stood there in my Sex Pistols boxers.
We’re partners, Marc. Partners. Things will work out. Trust me.
It was a gorgeous morning. A warmish breeze cleared the mist from the fields and then the hills behind us. I brought out the old guitar and played a few of her favourite songs while she chopped up the earth. She was in good form. She sang along with me on some of the tunes, shook her booty around to our own Kinks song, and slowly the rocks and stones filled the wheelbarrow.
I was at the back of the house, using the stones to repair the loose sections of the low dry wall. Out of nowhere, a Garda squad car rolled down the lane and parked outside the neighbours’. The blonde woman, the mother, came out and ran towards the car to embrace a boy who got out of the passenger seat. Padraig stood in the doorway with his arm around a teenage girl. I went inside to tell Siobhan. She was flicking through one of her gardening books.
Oh good, was all she said.
Oh good what?
They found him. He ran away or something or…
Whatever boys do.
Did he tell you that, Padraig, I mean?
She nodded like it was obvious he had. Then she said, He’s done it before loads of times. He’s a bit of a handful it seems. Not fitting in and behavioural problems. Rebellious.
Rebellious? The word sounded wrong to me. There should have been a different word. But all I said was, You didn’t tell me.
Tell you what?
That some kid was missing.
What are you on about now, Marc? Why the big concern? It’ll probably happen again next week. Padraig’s enough to worry about by all accounts. He’s lost everything he had. Do you know what that means? Hell, the bank are after the house now too.
I don’t care about his bloody house.
What? Why not? No, actually forget it. I don’t want to know. And sure they found him now anyway. He was probably in the town somewhere sniffing petrol or whatever they do. You’re getting all stroppy about something that didn’t even happen. What’s the matter with you?
What? Because I didn’t tell you, is that it? Did I keep it a secret, is that what you mean? That I lied to you. Huh?
Later on that afternoon, the squad car gone as suddenly as it had appeared, the two of us went for a long walk. I’d fallen asleep on the sofa for a while and woke up groggy and irritable from a bad dream. The road took us high over the ridge and down steeply to a small cove of white sandy beach. It was a small oasis on that hard-hearted coastline. Few people knew about the place. We had it all to ourselves. Siobhan, as per usual, wanted to get into the water straight away but I wasn’t bothered. We sat on the sand together for a while, her teasing me about never going in. She stripped down to her black swimsuit and I watched her running down the beach, from the white sand to the wet sticky sand and splashing into the whitest foam and I thought, what the hell is wrong with you kid and stripped off myself. I bombed in after her, bollock-naked as they say. It was freezing but we played about together along the soft ledge where the floor took a nose-dive. I managed to get her swimsuit off, headed in toward the shallows with it in my jaws thinking she was chasing me. She had swam way out instead. She was a strong swimmer. Siobhan swam every morning in the leisure centre and was home before I was awake. I ran up the beach, started getting my clothes on. The wind had lost any warmth. I was bored as soon as I had my shoes on. I was never mad about beaches. The sight of this group of lads with a ball and Frisbee and an icebox of beer must have given me the idea what to do next, where else could it have come from? Because when Siobhan had swam back in and waved to me as a sign to bring her swimsuit down, I waved back to say I was going to join in the football. My wife swam off again. I really didn’t know how far I would push it before I gave in and brought the swimsuit down to her, the tiny scrap of sleek black skin. When she came back in again about ten minutes later and waved again, and might have slapped the water in frustration, I decided to make her sweat for another few minutes, just for the laugh. The ball was kicked high and bounced on the wet sand near some driftwood and a crow lifted off. Reluctantly, one of the lads went after the ball. He was taking his time about it. Then he seemed to have stopped dead. Siobhan was coming out of the sea, first topless and now completely naked, and with her head held high she did a stunning walk up the beach towards me. She put out her hand for the swimsuit. The lads cheered.
Siobhan said, And you know what was strange about it, well, unexpected anyway, for most of it I could only see myself from above. If it was exciting for me at all, that was the memorable part of it.
We were on the road back, at the crest of the ridge. We were holding hands.
Even the gulls were cheering, I said.
Seriously, Marc, I was looking down on myself for most of it. You know, I could see every detail close up, every face but it was like an aerial view. And you know what I was thinking as well? About the splitting of the atom. Seriously. All those male scientists. You know, in some ways it actually felt more like a kind of out of body experience than a…
Not for me and the boys it didn’t, I said and Siobhan pulled her hand free as though she was angry and marched ahead.
She stopped, turned round and she was smiling. She was as beautiful as I had ever seen her and as I walked slowly toward her I wished I would never reach her. And when I did finally stop in front of my wife, she put her arms around me and kissed me, deeply too, a very deep and intense and salty one.
I was still feeling the thrill of that kiss hours afterwards. I was outside at the table, footering with some song lyrics in the notebook. Trying to put the warm energy to some good use. Capture the moment. The grace. That was the intention but the dream from earlier kept distracting me and I gave in and thought writing the damn thing down might shift it. How in the dream I’d been watching Siobhan out in the water and a boat comes along and slows down beside her and she is talking to whoever is on board. Then I see her pulled right out of the water like a big fish and the boat speeds off round the headland with her. The beach is empty. Vast. White like a desert. I get the panic, run for ages through hot sand clouds until I see one of those lifeguard towers. A face looks down at me and it’s nothing like him but it’s Padraig. I try to explain what happened but he is very suspicious of me. He doesn’t believe me. Call the police, I shout up to him. He points out at the water and says, The police can’t help you out there, lover-boy. His saliva drenches me. Then he wants to know about the boat, what kind it was, and that’s where it all becomes unbearable because I can’t describe it, I can’t find any word other than boat. Just the one word, boat. Boat. Boat. I was trying to write this down, to do it justice when the man in question came walking across the field toward our house, the real Padraig walking through the real pink-dyed sheep who refused to get out of his way. Wearing a suit like he was going to work, and wellies, he was carrying something which might have been a television aerial. I put a stone on top of the notebook to keep the wind from blowing it away and went to meet him at the wall.
She’s not in, I said, right at him.
He nodded meekly. A dollop of foam on his earlobe. A whiff of aftershave on the breeze. He was a bad colour. Tired blue eyes that wouldn’t meet mine.
She’s away to get some seaweed for the garden, I said next, deciding to give him a chance. She lays the stuff down as a fertiliser. It’s full of minerals, supposedly. I shrugged and rolled my eyes like it was all beyond me, these women and their attachment to their gardens.
I waited for him to join in. What he did was turn toward the shore and say, The sea will have it all back again if we’re to believe the environmentalists. It’s where we all came from in the first place, supposedly.
Well we escaped, I said, and science or no science, I’m not going back. I like it up here on terra firma.
It’s all about survival, he seemed to agree.
For the laugh, I said, I don’t know about that. I’m not at all convinced the best are the ones who have survived. The fittest for what anyway? Power and destruction? Greed. Waste. Murder.
He did more of the wise nodding. Somedays, yes, you’re right Marc, it does look like the bad guys have won. You’re right. But what is it they want in the end? What’s the long-term plan? He put the machine on the wall between us and wiped his mouth. It was some kind of strimmer. The sheep went on eating and the tide went on going out. Him and me hadn’t even been properly introduced but there we were philosophising in a field. He was looking up at the skies now, the broken cloud moving fast. Just then the bathroom opened. I could hear Siobhan humming a song, the Kinks again. If Padraig noticed, he didn’t let on.
I hear your wee lad went walkabout? I said, maybe to distract him from the obvious.
They’re too young to understand. I try to tell them how much I love them. But you can’t explain to them what love is. How deep it goes. What you wouldn’t do to protect them. Boy, they’re that keen to shed their skin and change they don’t want to know about love.
We were silent for a minute or two. The horizon was extremely busy with traffic. Could he not have heard Siobhan drop her brush in the sink? Glancing at him, I saw the dollop of foam blow off his ear.
Moderation in the service of the survival of as many as possible, was his next thought aloud. That’s the binding myth from what I can figure out and what’s the alternative? Sure. But there’s always a part of us, hidden sure, secret sure, which doesn’t want to listen. Which wants something else completely. It doesn’t sing along with the choir. You know what I’m talking about, Marc. The grass is never greener, is it?
I looked at him, wondering.
He spat into the field behind him, wiped his mouth. But try telling all that to a teenager eh, Marc? He tapped the machine lying on the wall and set off across the field. About halfway he stopped, turned round and shouted, Give that to herself from me. You can hold on to it.
What happened later that night, I didn’t even tell the police properly. Neither did Siobhan apparently although we never discussed what we would say or not. We didn’t try to get our stories straight. They interviewed us separately, then together, a few days later in the front room of our house in Derry. A joint force of plainclothes PSNI and Irish Gardaí. Somehow our stories must have matched enough. Maybe the reticence, the years of native suspicion of any type of uniform, saved us from any foolish notion of getting involved. Then again, there’s stuff you just don’t want to tell the cops, any cop, whatever it is that has happened. Private stuff. How could I possibly have told them what went on between Siobhan and me for the rest of the evening and into the night? Like the weird way she started to look at me, staring at me like she was hypnotised, unblinking, the colour drained from her face, miserably almost, as we had our dinner that evening, and how I thought she had heard me say something to Padraig or that she had changed her mind altogether and now couldn’t find it in herself to forgive me anymore, to give me that second chance. How she stood speechless in front of the oversized fireguard, shivering, while I begged her to tell me what was wrong, what I had done? All she could do was shake her head. She had gone mute, the way she gets sometimes if she’s hurt. Tell me to go then and I will, I shouted at her, shaking her by the shoulders. And how we’d begun to kiss and make love right there in front of the fireplace, and on the floor, the sofa and all over the room, you can’t tell that to the cops. Particularly because it was a different kind of love-making than what we were used to. They’d want to know exactly what you meant by different and you’d instinctively know you don’t talk about your wife like that to anybody, never mind the new ambitious detectives of the PSNI. How it was cold and fierce and rough and loud and extraordinarily tender and nearly violent and like worship and acting and fighting and what was said and what was broken and it seemed to have no end, there was this unique deepening fear behind it all that it mightn’t ever stop, it could go on and on.
I told the cops I had chatted meaninglessly with Padraig at the wall when he gave me a loan of a strimmer and I hadn’t seen him again until the next morning when they were putting him into the squad car. I didn’t mention talking to him under the oak tree which had to have been before he did what he did. I was out for some air, a breather. The half-moon was up. The wind silent, even up in the branches. My hands trembling—I had a glass of wine with me—and the muscles down the front of my legs wobbling like stretched rubber. I suppose I was trying to collect my thoughts about what we had been doing to each other inside, what it meant. Suddenly, and it scared the life out of me, the phone went off in my pocket. Greta texting to tell me she was seeing somebody else. The screen cast a spooky pool of light around me and when I heard someone clear their throat and spit on the other side of the trunk I used the screen-light to find the figure of Padraig standing above me.
You know, he began, I never had a musical bone in my body. The whole lot of us were the same, the ten of us. Tone deaf is not the word for it. Now I look at my own two and they’ve instruments lying about all over the house. You’re tripping over them on the stairs. Trumpets, violins. Portable pianos. You name it. They’re just naturals at it. It’s just in them. Some of us, however, have to work hard at everything just to keep going. Naturals.
It comes and goes, I said. And all they want to be is DJs these days. Loads of kids have talent but it just gets lost.
Exactly. They can’t concentrate, he said. The phones, the computers, the TV, all the distractions. The temptations. Buy this. Buy that. They don’t see the fight going on for their minds. And the wife, she takes their side too much. They’re the image of her too. They’re a unit. A team. I don’t stand a chance against them sometimes. They look at you as if to say, who the hell are you when you’re at home? Even when I met her, she was well out of my league I thought. Boy, I didn’t think she’d look twice at me. Her parents weren’t too happy either. She’d been off abroad to university and there’s me only an articled clerk with an agricultural outfit on the wrong side of the border. They’re long gone now too. I’d no ambition either though. That was my problem. No dreams. It was her who made me go for it. Made me believe in myself. Some men are nothing without the right woman.
Too true. We all need a bit of straightening out. Ask Siobhan in there sure.
Sure, he said. It’s easier to ask her forgiveness than her permission, isn’t that what they say. We’ve all heard that one.
How do you mean? My neck was sore looking up at him.
Sure, he said, wiping his mouth, ignoring me. But you know some women will never forgive you, not really. Not deep down. They pretend to alright, and go through all the motions. But they’re just waiting. Nobody hides a thing like a woman. Then one day you can’t imagine life without them. Boy, you reach that day and there’s no hope for you. You have to protect them. That’s love now, that’s what we were talking about earlier. Hell and back. Once it gets a grip on you it can grow completely out of your control and take you over until you feel the pain of it with every breath. Like you’re breathing in fire. That’s love for you, Marc. And if you’re lucky, very lucky, one day you might get the chance to show them it… Do you mind?
As he took the glass from me, I smelled oil or petrol. He downed the rest of the wine, handed me back the glass and walked away quickly. I heard him clear his throat again and spit in the darkness. Don’t miss your day, he called back to me. I think I went back in almost straight away. I had something to say to my wife. She was drinking the wine, lying out on the sofa in her robe, and she had a CD playing loud but I sensed a commotion in the room, like she was pretending, like she had thrown herself on the sofa when she heard me come in. Maybe she had been dancing. She just stared indifferently at me again when I told her I had been having another barmy talk with Padriag outside, stretched out her arm and her near empty glass and ordered me to fill it. I played along. There were a few other funny orders before we were back in the bedroom again.
I heard the first shot and laughed. The second shot, maybe a minute, maybe ten minutes later, filled me with a sudden burst of energy, like a shot at the start of a race. The third came like it was an echo of one or two of the others, maybe real, maybe not, and I’m sure Siobhan heard it too because as she was sitting on me, sweating, gasping, amazing, she mimed being shot in the back by something delicious, and there were no more shots I heard. I didn’t hear any sirens at all. Maybe I have a memory of flashing red lights but that could be just gap-filling after the fact. I couldn’t tell you anything but what was going on between my wife and me and that same dream again with the lifeguard and I wake up choking for air and there at the window is a guard in a peaked cap, his black gloved hand thumping on the glass.
Padraig Griffin had shot his wife and his two children. He used a shotgun. A quantity of petrol was found at the top of the stairs but it had not been used. After the shootings, the boy was first, followed by the daughter and lastly the mother, and before he was supposed to put the shotgun in his own mouth, and a match to the petrol, Padraig had a sudden change of heart and called the guards. He said to the guards, he didn’t want to go to hell. Not only was he bust but it came out later that he thought his wife was going to leave him.
Siobhan did what she does and went very quiet about it all. She’d get into one of her rages if I tried to talk about it. Every day she had her swim and left for the office and came back late. She carried on as normal. I barely left the house for a few weeks. I was afraid to get in the car because I knew where I would end up. One night I forced myself out of the house to show my face at a friend’s birthday party and there I kissed Greta again. I told Siobhan the next day, that it wouldn’t happen again, that it was like a goodbye kiss. Siobhan accepted what I said very calmly. We were both very relaxed about it, the way it can be when the truth is out in the open. We were in the kitchen, a Saturday evening. I was making a stab at telling her that not much had ever gone on between Greta and me anyway. She was listening to me this time. Look, I’m just glad it’s over with her, she said and it was then I asked her something about Padraig.
Why do you keep going back to it? she shouted, banging the table with her fist.
Back to it? We’re not even allowed to bring it up. Back to it?
All you do is go on and on about it. What good will it do?
I haven’t said a fucken word about that or anything to you in weeks since it happened. And all I was asking you was, did you tell Padraig about me and you?
What? About me and you what?
I didn’t tell Padraig anything, she said. I didn’t tell Padraig anything about bloody anything.
What? She went appalled. What did you say to me?
You heard me. Siobhan, right, he seemed to know a lot more about me and you than some total stranger if you know what I mean. All those weekends you spent down there by yourself?
Are you serious?
Well you knew him better than I did.
He was depressed.
What? You think there was nothing wrong with him?
Of course I do.
I didn’t know what I meant anymore.
But what, Marc? You see you don’t even know. You need to get yourself a job you know that. Get out of the house more. She left the kitchen. The bedroom door slammed.
I waited downstairs. I fell asleep on the sofa, drunk, hours later. I woke to hear the stairs creaking and Siobhan coming down. I wanted us to make love, roughly, to grab her and push her into a corner. But she didn’t come in. I got up and opened the living-room door and saw her fiddling with the chain on the front door. I called her name and her body seemed to stiffen. Siobhan, I locked it, I said. It’s locked. She kept her back to me, then turned round, pretending to yawn, a slight smile maybe, and she goes to me, I was just checking.