August was heavy with dying bluebottles. They gathered in velvety-blue droves on the window panes and beat their gauzy wings against the glass. They squatted black and languid along the sills. Alice slouched low in an armchair in the kitchen, watching her father’s curious ballet. The bottoms of his trousers, rolled high above his ankles, unfurled a little further with every stumbling jeté. His newspaper carved frantic circles in the air as he struck at the flies.
‘Feckers,’ he shouted. ‘Hoors.’
Maddened, the bluebottles looped like spitfires. They ricocheted off the lampshades and pinged off the cabinets that held Alice’s Irish dancing medals. One came to rest, dark and glittering, on the television. Thwack! and a fly dropped to the floor. Alice stared out the window as the kitchen rang with the crunch of bluebottle on lino.
Outside in the yard, Sunday had stilled the galvanised roof of the bathroom extension, taking away the rattle of passing lorries and leaving instead a dusting of early leaves that settled along the ridges. A stray plastic bag fluttered in the bushes inside the gate. Alice’s father flopped into his chair, flushed and triumphant. He brushed a translucent wing from the front of the Sports Section and turned the page.
‘More tea, Daddy?’ Alice made no attempt to reach for the tea pot. Her father never had more tea. On the table beside him, his pills were lined up in dazzling technicolour. Alice glanced at the clock. Half past ten. At four o’clock her father would catch a bus to West Cork to holiday for a week with his cousin, Olive. His suitcase had been standing in the hall for the past three days. Alice, too, had been marking time, counting the days, giddy at the prospect of having the house to herself. She was forty-two.
On Monday morning, in her first act of delinquency since her father’s departure, Alice hung flypaper from the ceiling. Her father hated flypaper. Soon there was a dead bluebottle twisting overhead as Alice drank her tea. After breakfast, she took the dishes to the sink, leaving them to soak in a pan of scummy water. On a shelf above the sink was a photograph of a reproachful woman in her mid-to-late sixties, hair pulled back in a tightly-wound bun. Her eyes, like Alice’s eyes, were grey flecked with green. A man had once told Alice that her eyes were the colour of a storm at sea, but the eyes that stared out from the photograph were sunken and passive. Poor Mammy.
Alice took a mug of tea out to the good sitting room. She examined her reflection in the mirror. Her time away had brought lines and shadows that deepened with every passing year. She sat on the sofa, its floral print faded from dust and sunlight, and thought about what she might do. A whole week stretched in front of her: a wild west of freedom, waiting for the charge of Alice’s wagon. There came to her then a memory, a fragment of a morning from many years ago: Barcelona with sun angling through a chink of white curtain, the crumbs of yellow madeleines scattered across her plate at breakfast. And afterwards, the city, vast and glorious, shimmering in front of her.
Alice felt hope stir in her stomach, felt it slosh gently with the tea. She wanted to leave her life like a balloon leaves a fairground. To slip from life’s sweaty hand and float away. She looked at her watch. She thought of her father walking the beach with Olive, stepping on bubbles of black seaweed, hearing them pop. Time was ticking. She went over to the window, looked out at the straggle of grey buildings along Main Street and wondered again what she should do with the day until at last it came to her. She would make a batch of queen cakes and take them down to Marian’s.
‘It’s not all romance, you know, Alice. You’re thinking, there’s Marian with her perfect house and her perfect husband and a brand new Fiesta outside the door. Well, I’ll be straight with you Alice, since you’ve asked: it’s not all moonlight and roses.’
Alice was fairly sure she hadn’t asked. Marian had answered the door with the new baby over her shoulder and the toddler around her ankles. Now she was moving in a slow waltz over the kitchen tiles, a tea towel under her foot, mopping up baby sick. With every turn, the baby dripped more vomit over her shoulder.
Through the patio doors to the garden, Alice could see sunlight dancing off the silver cover of the barbeque and warming the varnished oak decking. It highlighted the tasteful creams and taupes of the patio furniture and lingered amongst the late summer flowers that bloomed in terracotta pots. Since Marian had married Keith it was all ‘barbeques’ and ‘suppers’ and stainless steel patio heaters. Alice smoothed down her new sequinned top and waited for Marian to admire it. But today Marian was missing her cues, fluffing her lines. She was more preoccupied than usual with the dribbled demands of the children.
‘Issy good boy? Issy? Yessy issy!’ Marian was hunched over the baby on the sofa, changing his nappy. ‘Toe-toes, toe-toes,’ she said, putting the baby’s pink, dimpled foot to her lips, pretending to eat it. The baby wriggled in delight, gurgled, and Marian nibbled at his toes and laughed back at him. Alice boiled the kettle and searched the cupboard for a clean plate for the queen cakes. She began to arrange them in neat circles.
‘Where do you keep the tea bags?’
Marian took the baby’s foot out of her mouth and looked around, disorientated. It was as if she had forgotten all about Alice. ‘Keith won’t have them in the house,’ she said. ‘Carcinogenic.’
‘Tea bags?’ ‘Yes, even the organic ones. Would you believe it?’
Marian put the baby wriggling on his back in the playpen, then scooped the toddler off the floor and set him down next to the baby. She made a pot of loose leaf tea and sat down opposite Alice.
‘Thanks for the muffins.’ It was always muffins with Marian these days. Marian never said queen cakes anymore, now that she was married to Keith.
‘Daddy’s away this week,’ Alice said.
‘I thought I might as well do something.’
Marian picked up a carton of milk, splashed some in her tea. ‘Like what?’
Alice shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Meet someone.’
Marian sighed, mopped up cake crumbs with her finger, popped them in her mouth. ‘You mean a man?’
‘The trouble with the men around here, Alice, is that they all know you.’
‘I thought I might go up to Dublin,’ Alice said. ‘Maybe answer one of the personal ads?’
Marian shook her head. ‘Too dangerous.’
‘Too many time wasters.’
Alice felt the morning’s hope begin to curdle in her stomach. She tried again. ‘I could go to a night club.’
‘On your own?’ Marian was talking with her mouth full.
‘There’s a lot expected of a girl nowadays.’ She gave Alice a meaningful look. ‘Stuff you’ve never even heard of.’
Marian, Alice thought, was talking as if she was the only one in this town who ever had sex. Talking as if she knew all about Alice. Alice wanted to tell Marian that last night she had made love out the back of the Town Hall to a sound engineer from somewhere foreign, tattoos all over his body. She hadn’t of course. Last night Alice had fallen asleep in an armchair and had woken cold and cramped in the small hours, a mug of stale tea on the table beside her. The truth was that Alice had not slept with a man in four years. And Marian, like everybody else in this town, really did know all about Alice.
Alice had reached the bottom of her teacup. She was afraid to look in case a pattern might form amongst the leaves. She was afraid she might have the gift. Poor Mammy had the gift and much good it did her. Instead, she looked across the table at Marian, at the dark circles beneath her eyes, the greasy hair, the baby-sick on her cardigan. She saw with sudden clarity the desolate wasteland of her friend’s ruin and, just as clearly, saw it mirror her own. She felt the sun wane, felt the evening and the kitchen closing in.
A whole day had slipped away from her. ‘Does Keith have any friends?’ Alice felt a fragment of queen cake lodge in her throat at the mention of Keith, that beige, insipid man. The children were wailing now and Marian was back at the playpen, a grizzling baby over her shoulder. The toddler began to choke and Marian stooped to take a plastic cow from its mouth. When she straightened up again she said: ‘There’s a couple of new guys on the soccer team. They’re coming over tomorrow evening for a barbeque. You could drop by, see what happens.’
She sat down opposite Alice again with the baby on her knee. She stood the plastic cow, still glistening with spit, on the table between them. ‘These are young lads up from Limerick,’ she said. Her eyes left the soft fuzz of the baby’s head for a moment and fixed on Alice. ‘They don’t know anyone around here.’ She looked away then, out through the patio doors to the garden where a breeze was buffeting the flowers in the terracotta pots. ‘All I’m saying is play your cards right. There’s no need to go telling them your age. No need to go telling them anything.’
Not counting the babies, there were six people at Marian’s barbeque. Marian and Keith were on the decking, arguing over raw sausages. One of the lads from the soccer team had brought his girlfriend, a whippet-thin girl of about eighteen with a piercing in her tongue. Alice sat at the patio table with a man called Jarlath, watching a wasp drown in a jam jar. Jarlath was in his late twenties, thirty at most. His hair was beginning an early retreat from his temples. He had no baggage, at least none that Alice had been able to establish. It was unlikely, as Poor Mammy might have said, that there had been any great rush on him. He was not the best looking man in the world, nor the most eloquent. Still, he was broad shouldered and tall and Alice liked the way he blushed when he spoke to her.
‘So,’ Jarlath said. ‘Marian told me you used to be an Irish dancing teacher.’
Marian, Alice thought, had no sense. It might seem harmless enough, but Alice knew from experience that it was just a short hop, just a skitter of vowels and consonants, to why she was no longer a dancing teacher. Alice knew there was no bolt to slide across her past. The past was an open door and the best that could be done was to hurry by on the corridor. She sighed and dragged her chair closer to Jarlath’s so that their thighs brushed. ‘Enough about me,’ she said.
Earlier that afternoon, Alice’s father had telephoned from West Cork to remind her to put the bin out and to sign on, even though she had been signing on for years now. At the end of the evening, Jarlath didn’t ask for her phone number but Alice wrote it on a paper napkin and gave it to him anyway.
For the next two days, Alice sat in the kitchen, drank tea and waited. Corpses of flies multiplied on the fly papers. She got a cloth and dusted her mother’s photograph. Poor Mammy. She had gone downhill very quickly while Alice was away, everyone had said so. Alice had come back to a straw woman. Pneumonia, it had said on the death cert. It might just as well have said ‘Alice.’
On Thursday afternoon, the phone rang. It was Alice’s father telling her to order a piece of back bacon from the butcher for Sunday, nothing too big and not too much fat. There was still no word from Jarlath. On Thursday evening, Alice put on blusher, lipstick, and her lowest-cut sequinned top and waited outside the soccer grounds. When Jarlath saw her he froze. For an excruciating moment it looked like he might keep walking, but instead he came over, stood silent in front of her, and Alice did the rest.
In the semidarkness of Jarlath’s bedroom, Alice lay on her back. She saw a large amoeba-shaped stain on the ceiling and on top of the wardrobe, an orange traffic cone. Downstairs, the two young men that Jarlath shared the house with had turned the music up louder. Jarlath lay next to her, his jeans still around his ankles. The music stopped downstairs and for a while there was silence except for the sound of a car going by on the street outside. Alice was overcome by a deadly urge to talk.
‘I was away for a while.’
Jarlath’s fingers paused in their downward descent along her body and rose to wait in a holding pattern above her breasts. ‘Holidays?’
Alice rolled onto her side to face him. ‘Jarlath,’ she said, ‘have you ever done something you’ve really regretted?’
Jarlath shrugged and said nothing.
‘Once,’ Alice said, ‘when I was still a dancing teacher, I fell in love with the father of one of my pupils. He lived in one of those big houses across the river. His wife lives there still.’
The muffled sounds of late summer filtered through the curtains: the high-pitched barking of small dogs, the splutter and drone of lawn mowers, the shrill mating calls of teenagers.
‘I thought it was love,‘ Alice said. She laughed but the laugh bounced off the walls of the bedroom and boomeranged back at her. ‘He took me to Barcelona for a weekend.’ She raised herself up on one elbow. ‘Have you ever been to Barcelona?’
Jarlath shook his head. He had moved almost imperceptibly away from her in the bed and had started to pull up his trousers.
‘You should see it,’ Alice said. ‘It’s beautiful.’ She watched Jarlath struggling into his jeans, fumbling with the zip. Earlier, during sex, she had surprised him with her vigour. Marian would have been impressed. ‘When he tried to end it,’ Alice said, ‘I panicked. I told him I would tell his wife.’
It was getting late, the room edging closer to darkness. Jarlath sat on the bed, lacing up his boots. Every word that bubbled up onto Alice’s tongue seemed to swallow a little more of what light remained but she could not help herself.
‘Of course, I would never have told his wife.’ Her eyes followed Jarlath as he bent to pick his shirt from the floor. ‘But he believed I would. He gave me ten grand to keep quiet.’
Jarlath stopped buttoning his shirt. ‘Ten grand?’
Alice nodded. ‘I took my mother to London to visit her brother, I changed the car and I bought new lino for the kitchen. Then I asked him for more.’
‘Did he pay?’
‘He kept paying for two years and then he went to the Gardai.’
Jarlath was standing by the foot of the bed. Behind him on the wall was a ragged-edged poster of Radiohead, defaced with the graffiti of a previous tenant. Alice noticed how here in his bedroom, with his face flushed and his hair damp with sweat, he seemed much younger than he had at the barbeque.
‘So what happened?’
‘I went to jail,’ Alice said, ‘that’s what happened. It was all over the newspapers. Poor Mammy took it very badly; Poor Mammy thought I was still a virgin.’
Jarlath shuffled his feet on the carpet and looked away. Alice felt sorry for him.
‘He left his wife anyway,’ she said. ‘That first summer I was away, he disappeared with a Portuguese woman who came to work in the hotel.’
‘Where did they go?’
Alice shrugged. ‘I never heard,’ she said, ‘but I always imagined some place far away.’
Jarlath came round to the side of the bed and stooped to give her a hug. It was a safe, compassionate hug, the kind of hug her cousin, Olive, might give Alice’s father when she put him on the bus home Sunday morning. He touched her bare shoulder. ‘Take care of yourself,’ he said.
Alice watched Jarlath putting on his jacket, getting ready to leave his own house. She knew that she had said too much, knew that Marian would roll her eyes and be furious, but there was no stopping now. She sat up in bed, clutching the sheets to her breasts. ‘I’m forty-two,’ she said.
Her father’s suitcase is back in the hall, waiting to be unpacked and stored beneath the stairs for another year, or maybe another couple of years. Alice has taken down all the fly papers. ‘Tea, Daddy?’ She pours a cup of tea for her father, sets it down in his saucer with a fistful of coloured pills. But her father is on his feet, prowling the kitchen with a rolled up newspaper. ‘Hoors,’ he shouts, ‘feckers.’ There is a stirring in the folds of the curtains, a murmur in the clammy air of the kitchen. And all along the window panes, the bluebottles, dark and velvety, rise up in a last frantic salute to life and summer. And they buzz and ping and beat their gauzy wings against the glass.