Flynn’s mother doesn’t recognise him. He has to tell her who he is and it’s been like this for two years. She’s sitting by the window, watching the rain. He fills the bowl on her locker with mandarins from Spain, lays bananas alongside, and leaves a large box of Roses on her lap.
‘Happy Mother’s Day,’ he says.
‘What are these for? Did I win something?’
‘It’s Mother’s Day. They’re for… cos you’re a mother.’
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Open them so, will you? But don’t ate them all mind. Leave some for your father for when he gets home.’
Flynn pulls the flap, takes a caramel, leaves the Roses back. His mother roots, pulling out sweets and saying the colours of the wrappers out loud. Flynn sits on her bed, unfolding the Sunday World he’s borrowed from Madigan’s.
‘Red. Is that purple? Yes, purple. Orange. I likes the orange ones.’
Her talk puts Flynn in mind of his children when they were young, when they were learning to paint, when Margo had spent hours teaching them to read, spell, add, subtract.
‘What time is it now?’ his mother asks, unwrapping a sweet.
Flynn looks at his watch, ‘Four a clock.’
‘Four, I’d better soon start the tae so. I think your father said he’d be home around five. He was in Clonmel today.’
‘Dad died, Ma.’ ‘What?’
‘He died, five years ago.’
‘Oh,’ she says, like he’s just called to say he’ll be late home, ‘I won’t bother so.’ She puts the sweet in her mouth. ‘Unless you want something?’
‘No, I got something in the pub.’
‘In the pub?’ she asks, chewing.
‘They had Yorkshire pudding with the beef today. It was good.’
‘On Main Street there, beside…’
‘I know where Madigan’s is,’ she says, annoyed, ‘sure didn’t I work in it long enough. And a right blackguard that auld fella is, I can tell you, a right lad after the women he is.’
‘Aye,’ Flynn says, having decided a while back that if he can’t see the humour in all this he’ll just have to stop coming.
‘You know he tried it on with me one time, don’t you,’ she carries on, ‘but I told him to hump off with himself. And the wife is no better, a course, with her skirts and only half a bra on. Would Margo not cook a dinner for you?’ she changes.
‘What?’ Flynn says. He was reading the league tables, trying to remember if Man United were top last week as well.
‘It’s far from Madigan’s you were reared. Has she given up cooking or what? And she never visits, does she?’
‘Margo died as well, Ma.’
‘She’s dead too?’
‘Three years now.’
‘Oh. And I suppose there’ll be no one left in the minute only meself, in this bloody place.’ She looks around the ward. ‘Where are we?’
‘We’re in a hotel.’ ‘
‘Yea, St John’s Hotel. We’re on holidays.’
‘In St John’s?’ She says it like she’s trying to remember why the name is familiar. Then she smiles, ‘So, tell me, have ya a girlfriend yet?’
‘You do?’ She looks around again. A nurse wheeling in a commode says hello to Flynn. He says hello back. His mother whispers, ‘Never mind that one, she’s only after a sweet, so she is. The fat bitch. Now, tell me, what’s her name?’
‘Who?’ Flynn says, trying to read the top scorers.
‘Your new girlfriend.’
‘Kalina,’ Flynn says again.
‘Kalina? What sort of a name is that?’
‘Like Pope John Paul.’
‘The same as the Pope. I suppose that’s alright then, so long as she was baptised and all.’
‘You’re sure, now. You can’t be too careful with them foreigners.’
‘She was. She likes Christmas and Easter and all that.’
His mother roots for another sweet, saying Kalina, Kalina, Kalina to herself, and she’s done this since Flynn first told her. Then she changes, ‘Tell me, how’s Margo keeping? God, you know, I haven’t seen her in ages. And sure the lads’ll be soon starting school, won’t they. That’ll be a big change, I can tell you. I remember the day you started school. Cried your eyes out, so you did, like a big baby you were, and I thought you’d never come to anything after it. Ah, an orange one. I likes the orange ones.’
‘Margo is dead, Ma,’ Flynn sighs. He flicks until he finds the horoscopes. ‘Right, here’s the stars. Diya want to hear what’s in store for this week?’
‘In store? Ha, that’ll be the day. And your father doesn’t believe in them stars now either, so don’t let him see that when he comes in. Stars? Stars how are ya?’
There’s a long stretch of road between Youghal and Dungarvan, and it’s here Flynn picks up Kalina the next evening. He pulls in on the hard shoulder, a rundown bungalow not twenty yards off the road to the left, some windows smashed, weeds as tall as the windowsills in the garden. He watches her in the side mirror as she grabs her shoulder bag and runs to him. She opens the cabin door, climbs in with a big smile, her teeth still in braces, but almost perfect teeth now, like the braces will soon be coming off.
‘Looking for a ride?’ Flynn shouts.
‘Yes,’ she says, closing the door when she’s in. ‘Thank you, Mr Flynn.’
He puts the truck in gear, eases off, a container full of toilet roll bound for Tralee weighing them down. From time to time he glances over, and apart from the money he can’t imagine how a man his age would interest a girl like her, but it doesn’t bother him now as much as it used to. She was twenty-one last January, has bobbed, black hair, wild looking eyes, and today she’s wearing brown leather boots zipped up to the knee, tight blue jeans tucked into them. She takes off her leather jacket, leaves it on the bunk-bed behind. She pulls a mirror from the bag, touches up her lipstick, perfume, and from the first time he picked her up she’s gone through this routine, and he’s heard that she does this for other drivers too.
‘Nice today,’ Flynn says.
‘Do anything strange the weekend?’
‘I was with my girlfriend,’ Kalina says, ‘in Cork city.’
‘Oh? Business or pleasure? Or both?’ Flynn glances over to see if she’s smiling.
‘We booked a flight home,’ Kalina says, turning to Flynn, her braces showing. ‘I’m going home, Mr Flynn.’
‘Oh, that’s nice,’ Flynn says. ‘How long you going for?’
‘For good, Mr Flynn, we’re going home for good.’
Flynn thinks he’s misheard her, ‘How long?’
‘For good,’ Kalina says, ‘or, how else you say it? For ever.’
Flynn drives slowly until the road widens. After twenty minutes he takes his foot off the accelerator, brakes and changes down gear, veering in on the hard shoulder. He pulls off the main road onto a dirt track that leads to an old council yard. There’s rusty machinery scattered about the place, piles of stones with weeds as tall as himself growing from them, prefabs covered in graffiti, the windows smashed. When Flynn parks, Kalina draws the curtains on her side—across the passenger window and her half of the large windscreen—and climbs behind onto the bunk.
‘Wait,’ Flynn says, quietly, but Kalina doesn’t seem to hear and when she’s settled she starts unzipping her boots. He kills the engine, turns on the cabin light, and by the time he has the curtains drawn on his side Kalina has her boots off and laid neatly on the seat beside him.
‘Why didn’t you say you were leaving?’ Flynn asks.
‘What?’ Kalina says, lying back.
‘Why didn’t you say you were going home?’
‘Well, I have always planned to go home, Mr Flynn,’ she says, unbuckling her belt, unzipping her jeans, ‘I’ve told you this before. But I was never sure when. I’m here two years now, and I only come to work for Tesco’s, imagine that. But now, I think it is time. I have enough money to study, and I miss my family, Mr Flynn. I miss my Mama and my Papa and my older sister. I talk to them yesterday with Skype, they were having a party, but it’s not the same, Mr Flynn. It’s not like they are here, with me.’ She folds her jeans, places them neatly across her boots.
‘I’ll miss you,’ Flynn says.
‘And I’ll miss you too, Mr Flynn,’ Kalina smiles, unbuttoning her top. ‘I’ll miss our little rendezvous every week. I look forward to it, you know. I tell my girlfriend this only today. I say, “I’m meeting Mr Flynn today, and I am really looking forward to it. He is such a nice, gentle man.”’
Flynn closes his eyes, and when she places her top beside him he breathes slowly through the nose, trying to memorise her scent. He’s tried this before, and knows that up until Thursday or so it will stay in his bunk, and when it’s strong he’ll go to bed early. But then, come Friday morning, it will be gone, overcome by his, and he won’t be able to remember it until the following week.
He opens his eyes. Kalina has neatly folded her underwear across her jeans and top. He turns and watches her, lying naked on his bunk, tummy down, eyes closed. This is just how he likes to start.
‘When are you leaving?’ he asks.
She doesn’t answer.
‘Kalina, when are you leaving?’
‘It’s the twenty-second, I think. Yes, the twenty-second, from Dublin.’
‘The twenty-second of this month?’
‘Yes, of April.’
Flynn looks at his watch, ‘That’s not far off.’
‘No, not far. Eighteen days only.’
‘What day is it?’
She smiles, ‘Today is Monday, Mr Flynn.’
‘No, the twenty-second, what day is that?’
‘Ah, it’s Friday,’ she says.
‘We leave on Good Friday.’
Flynn looks at his watch again, ‘Diya want a lift to the airport?’
‘I can drop you up, you and the girlfriend, if you want, like.’
Kalina opens her eyes, ‘Really, Mr Flynn?’
‘Sure, yea.’ ‘You’re serious about this?’
‘Yea, sure why wouldn’t I be?’
Flynn has never met Kalina’s girlfriend, though he’s imagined what she looks like, and he once even asked if he could meet her. But Kalina had said then that her girlfriend didn’t like Irish men that way, and it might be easier if they never met.
‘We could go up on the Thursday, the day before,’ Flynn suggests, ‘and maybe stay out near the airport. We could have a few pints to send you on your way?’
‘On the Thursday?’ Kalina asks.
‘Yea, I could give you a lift to the airport then in the morning. That way you wouldn’t have to be hauling luggage on and off a bus, and the bloody taxis up there would cost you a fortune.’
Kalina seems to think about this and the longer she does the more Flynn looks forward to the break. Then she sits up, and for as long as he’s known her she’s looked older in the dim light of the cabin than in daylight. Her body is the same shade all over, pale, no birthmarks, and though he hasn’t kept track of how many times they’ve met, he’s never got tired of touching her, of massaging her, and he believes that he never would. She reaches out, and when her hand finds his cheek, he closes his eyes again. ‘We fly very, very early, Mr Flynn. It’s too much trouble for you to drive to the airport, and I will be working that Thursday. Come now, Mr Flynn, lie with me.’
Flynn raises his hand, touches the back of hers. It’s warm, smooth, and her tiny bones are slim and fragile. He opens his eyes. ‘Can I have something before you go?’
Kalina smiles, like she’s embarrassed, ‘It depends on what you have in mind, Mr Flynn.’
He hesitates, afraid she’ll think him crazy. ‘Your perfume,’ he says, ‘can I have your perfume before you go?’
‘I’ve always loved the smell of it, and, well, I think it would make a nice present, you know.’
Kalina smiles again, her braces dull in this light, ‘Of course you can have it. Please, give me my bag.’
‘No, it’s okay. I can get it the next time.’
‘No, I insist, Mr Flynn. I give you the perfume now so I won’t forget. I have more at home.’
Flynn reaches over to where her bag is and hands it to her. She searches carefully, and he knows that as well as keeping her perfume, wallet and make-up in there, she also keeps a toothbrush, toothpaste, Listerine, a towel, a bottle of still water, a change of underwear, condoms, tissues, and a can of pepper spray.
‘Here,’ Kalina says, handing over the perfume.
When Flynn opens it he breathes slower.
‘Now,’ Kalina says, ‘you will always remember me, yes?’
‘I’ll try,’ Flynn says.
After he leaves the perfume on the dash, Kalina takes his left hand and leans forward. He feels her braces on the skin of his finger, then her warm tongue. For a moment he closes his eyes, until Kalina gently pulls on the ring, twisting it, easing it over the knuckle, and she wipes it in the blanket before handing it to him.
‘Thanks,’ Flynn says, placing the ring beside the perfume.
‘Now, you will come lie with me, yes?’
She lies tummy down again, closes her eyes. Flynn puts on Crowded House. Track one, Weather With You, begins. He’s never been into pop music much, but he found this in the truck one time after a service, and he’s liked it ever since. He watches how she breathes, as if to the music, following the slope of her back down to her small feet, and if he didn’t know better he might think that she was asleep right now. Then, for some reason, he wishes that she was.
Sunday, after dinner, Flynn helps his mother to the car, the nurse telling him he’s not to let her out of his sight, not for one second, and she checks that he still has the card with the number to call if there’s trouble. His mother talks about how she’s looking forward to getting home at last. She asks him stop at the shop for milk, bread, biscuits and a tart, because the lads are coming over tonight after Madigan’s for a game of forty-five and she won’t have time to bake.
‘How’s the rhubarb coming on?’ she asks.
‘Fine,’ Flynn says, buckling her in.
‘There’s a nice smell in here,’ she says, ‘reminds me of lilac.’ Then, when the nurse leaves, she leans over and whispers, ‘That was the one that ate all me oranges, and I caught her eating sweets on me too. A right gob on her for sweets, she has. The fat bitch.’
Flynn starts the car, pulls off, drives to the pond. He’s brought a bag of stale bread, and because it is a place they visited when he was a boy, he knows her talk will be gentle when they arrive, and there’ll be little to annoy her.
‘We had the Pope for Mass this week,’ she says.
‘A lovely man, and he even gave out communion.’
‘A Polish man he is.’
‘Just like your Kalina.’
Flynn slows down, looks at her, ‘Like who?’
‘Kalina, from Poland.’
‘That Pope is dead, Ma.’
‘What?’ ‘He died five years ago. Same year as Da.’
‘So who was the Pope saying Mass then?’
‘Pope Benedict, I suppose.’
‘Benedict? Is he from Poland too?’
‘No, he’s a German.’
‘A German Pope? What good ever came out of Germany, tell me will you? And they after killing all the Jews, and what they did to the Polish as well, sure. Your father won’t vote de Valera since he signed for Hitler, you know. And neither will I, I can tell you. They even bombed Campile, so they did, down the road here. I mean, for God’s sake, like, how many Jews are there living in Campile now, ha? Ha?’
‘Shut up, Ma, will you?’ Flynn shouts. Then, quieter, says, ‘Stop, will you, please? We’ll just go to the ducks now, right. So no more talk now, right.’
People make room for them on the bank and there are times when Flynn’s mother talks as if she’s normal. She tells the younger ones where to throw their bread, not to be scared of the swans, and to be sure and learn how to swim as soon as they can. She tells Flynn not to stand so close to the edge, and then asks why Margo and the children didn’t come.
Later, Flynn brings her back to the home in time for tea, drives to Main Street, parks outside Madigan’s. He opens the glove compartment, takes out the half-empty bottle. After unscrewing it he breathes slower, and while he hopes Kalina will make it home safely, and forgive him for not keeping the next two appointments, he’s prayed since that she’ll forget him for what he was to her, for what he paid her to do.
He checks the clock, screws on the cap, leaves the perfume back. He picks up the Sunday World, just in time for the second half, but he sits there a while, still trying to remember how Kalina looked when she seemed asleep, how it felt when he touched her, when she touched him, and what town it was she came from.