The piece is perhaps a landscape, certainly not a portrait or that of a figure, but briefly she imagines she has happened across a corpse in the bathtub, not a painting. Specks of crimson and claret spatter the white enamel, in which an easel looms, its subject flayed and seeping russet, red ochre, raw umber, burnt umber.
She runs the tap until it steams then rubs between her legs with a rough cloth. There is no soap, only a clutter of brushes in a can of turpentine. She cleans her teeth with her finger and stares into the mirror. Her mouth is still plum from the wine they drank. I am a landscape too, she thinks, scratching at the crests and valley of her top lip.
Insects And Grass
Scrabbling for her shoes in the gloom, she cast short glances at the man asleep in the bed. She’d known him to see. The rest of the details were dim—only his hand on her thigh and the winking lights of College Green as the taxi rounded onto Pearse Street and tore through the night towards the docklands.
She had not been this downriver since her father had brought her and her brother to see the tall ships passing through. She couldn’t believe that people lived here now, was bewitched by the reflection of the water on so many new windows and, once inside the apartment, she held her head so she could see the silvery stillness the entire time she was there until she was walking out the door again.
Outside she began to run, looking this way and that for a roaming taxi to take her back into the city or home. There was no urgency, she had no place to be, but she liked the image and how she believed she must look to anyone who might see her—glassy-eyed, sparkle-dressed, a girl running wild in the predawn.
Crossing onto Lower Mount Street she was stilled mid-flight by the copper fur of a fox beneath a streetlight, its green eyes regarding her from amidst a litter of peelings and scraps. She had heard of urban foxes, of the den by the Dáil, how they scavenged for whatever they could get and would eat insects and grass if nothing else were available. But she had never seen one in real life.
What Happened To You Anyway?
In the morning she looked into the mirror and the face of girl stared back and winced when she saw what she had not felt. Her fingertips rose to her cheekbone, beguiled. Her eye was a perfect plum with streaks of black mascara and specks of fine glitter that she washed away. Then, pressing nearer to the glass and considering it more closely, she took in the pretty print of fuchsia, mustard, grass, and periwinkle. Last night’s clothes lay scattered all around.
In the kitchen, her flatmate regarded her from behind a cigarette and a French Press.
I see you got home okay then, she said.
I couldn’t find you. When I got back from the toilets you weren’t on the dance floor.
I must’ve been off looking for you, she said, stubbing out the half-smoked butt.
That’s so weird. I looked all around. I’d got a drink for you.
So you went to the bar or you went to the dance floor?
Jesus, I don’t know. God.
They sat in silence with coffee and an ashtray between them, picking at their little bowls of plain yoghurt and fruit.
What happened to you anyway? asked her flatmate, finally.
Oh this? she said. I’m not really sure.
At work the women in the break room gathered around her. Let’s just say there was a headboard involved, she said, and they all whispered Jesus through their teeth.
Does he have a brother? said Margaret who was like a mother to them. Or a father? And they cried laughing then went back to their desks and thought the day would never come to an end.
Don’t tell mam, she said to her sister on the phone.
I can’t believe he gave you a black eye, said her sister. Who is this person?
That’s the thing, she said, touching her fingers to her face again. She was tired and the night before seemed long ago. It’s everything but black. It’s all these other colours.
Barmen called him by his name and knew what he wanted to drink. He paid for his first drink only but was never without a glass before him. He was not ashamed for a woman to ask what he was having and he stood unconcerned in the face of a round. It was the rare man who interrupted when he was speaking. Often a girl would grab her coat and leave in a hurry, while others would linger until just after he’d left, pretending not to notice him from evening until closing. He was despised by many but repudiated by no one.
There is a man like this in every pub and corner of the country.
And The Thing Is
She’d say to people, I hadn’t even thought about him that much.
Though she wasn’t in the habit of them, she was very understanding about one-night stands: things happened, they didn’t mean anything. Sometime later, though, she had popped into Hogans after work and caught his eye at the other end of the bar. Dublin is a small town—she offered what she thought was a knowing but mollifying smile and expected that to be the end of it, in that she expected him to offer her something similar in return. Rather, he looked at her as though to say, The fuck you lookin’ at me for?
And the question opened what had been closed, revealing a space that a part of her rushed to inhabit. And this left its own space and that, too, generated a void. And this accounted for the shame and longing that emptied and filled her as she waited to pay for her drink, and the thirst with which she drank it, and the apparent nonchalance with which she ordered another.
And later, during a chance meeting on the stairs in which words were exchanged, she was so relieved by what she now assumed had been her own misunderstanding that she did not object to him pulling her into the ladies’ bathroom and pressing her up against the wall.
I’m On My Way
Pale blossoms followed the bright berries of winter and fell away, too soon. The shimmering mirage of summer: diaphanous rain. The days and months moved on and she imagined she moved in pace with them. But here we see her in September, a barman is calling last orders please and she is saying goodnight to friends and waiting for a message that asks is she around. She is. She is always around, or can be. She is in the same place. The place that answers I’m on my way. It is the same night as the first night, the same night as the last. A hundred and one one-nights. The light and the breeze and the blossoms bend around her as they press on.
She enjoyed the sensation of stepping into a museum or gallery—parquet floors announcing her arrival and passage from room to room where high ceilings amplified all things, from the tickle in her throat to the timid stirrings of her soul. It was a small joy, available to anyone, and costing nothing, which was perhaps why they were so often very empty and she herself had only thought to pay a visit once she started sleeping with the painter on a regular basis.
Sleeping with an artist was different than she thought. She had pictured so many sketches of herself, scattered in a light-filled place: reading a book, stepping into a bathtub, removing an earring, seated, standing. She imagined what it would be like to pose for him, saw him lean in to fix a falling hair, moving her this way and that, though she supposed he did in his own way.
Still, she hoped they might sometimes do other things together too, but she didn’t know how to invite him to join her without giving the wrong impression. She wanted it to be clear that she understood their situation. So she would only sometimes mention that she was thinking of going to such and such exhibition, and she would never say that she had been—unless to say she had been there with a friend—so that he wouldn’t think of her as someone who was often alone.
Sometimes she thought of herself alone in those long, tall rooms, her face raised to the rows of gilded frames, and it was beautiful. She liked this unexpected life. Her eye fell upon new shelves in bookshops and she sought out others in the library. She began to acquire a new vocabulary and way of seeing things; yet this, too, presented a problem. Having finally found something she might say to him, she found she could not say it. A sudden allusion to Caravaggio might strike him as peculiar. Pentimenti is an awkward word to work into a sentence when somebody has an idea of who you are already.
Whatever happened to your painting? she asked into the dark.
Why? he said, after a few seconds.
I was just thinking about it, she said.
It’s late, he said.
A few minutes later he sighed, turned on the lamp and left the room. When he came back with the canvas under his arm she sat up and clapped and he shook his head. He climbed back into bed and set it between them. It had not changed much since the first time she had seen it. Her fingers hovered over it.
Don’t touch, he said.
I know, she said, though she did want to place her hands on it and feel the thin scratches and depressions that textured the surface. Several times, she could see, he had painted a layer, then waited for it to dry before taking to it with something rough. In a few trace places he had scratched through the deep browns and iron reds to reveal the canvas beneath. Dark mottling suggested rocks in a fallow field but it was not discernibly of anything.
She looked at him and smiled through sudden tears.
Is it finished? she said.
No, he said. He picked up the painting and set it on the floor. First you lay down the dark layers and then you add light. It can take a while. He switched off the lamp and turned away.
Her eyes adjusted again to the gloom.
Hey, she said.
What? he said.
Her Sister Said
What happened to his teeth?
And she said, What do you mean?
He’s missing two of his teeth, she said. She tongued her top and bottom teeth, counting and thinking. It’s like this one, and this one, she said, placing the curled tip of her tongue on one tooth and another.
I don’t know, she said. I never noticed it.
She said she would look the next time she saw him but the next time she saw him she forgot to look.
Her Old, Dear Friend
Her old, dear friend set his glass on the table and kicked at the legs of the stool she was sitting on across from him.
What the fuck? she laughed, but his eyes did not return her smile.
You’re always looking over my shoulder, he said.
When we’re out. When I’m talking. You’re always looking just past me.
No I’m not, she said. Am I?
He’s not even here, said her friend and picked up his drink and looked away.
They sat like this for what seemed a long time, looking around the room and into their drinks. Finally, she kicked at the legs of his stool and made a sad face to see if he would smile.
For a third week the rain was preventing him from working. For money he painted houses and nobody had their doors or windows done in this weather.
Fuckin’ rain, he said. What could he do?
She asked him about the insides or other odd jobs, bar work maybe.
Sure nobody’s the money to be painting their kitchens every five minutes anymore, he said, taking a long drag from a joint and passing it to her. They’re stuck with their fuckin’ persimmon now aren’t they?
She supposed so.
C’mere to me, he said.
In the morning, before she left for work herself, she set two tens between the teabags and the sugar. She thought to leave more but this way he might think it was his own that he’d forgotten. Either way, he never mentioned anything about it.
A couple of weeks later he was shy of his rent.
It’s not like he asked me for it, she thought, licking the envelope. He was just talking and I was just there.
Thank you thank you thank you, he said.
She spoke to her father whose mother’s house was sitting idle. It might sell quicker if they had a bit of work done—she had a friend who could start right away.
She thought of him in his paint-spattered overalls in her nana’s old kitchen, listening to the small, portable radio, milky tea pouring from the teapot, so familiar.
Her sister sent her a message when she was at work. Dad was going mad. Globs of paint and plaster were ground into the floor. The sink was clogged with the stuff. There were dirty dishes on the counter, brushes and rollers stuck to trays of dried paint. He’s not going to pay for this crap, said her sister.
I’ve already paid him, she wrote back. I’m on my way.
She called him from the taxi and tried to explain things from her father’s point of view. How it was his mother’s house, and what that meant to him, so it was hard to see the place just left that way. He said he was sorry, he’d planned to go back and clean it up but had got a call about another job and couldn’t turn it down.
You know what it’s been like, he said. What could he have done?
Her father and sister had cleaned the house and gone by the time she got there. She let herself in and stood in the small kitchen, transformed completely from her memory of it. The windows were bare of their faded net curtains. The grimy wallpaper had been stripped spare. He’d filled in the parts in the walls that had crumbled, painted them a delicate colour she would never have thought of. It was brighter and more open, as she’d hoped. It was good work.
On George’s Street, An Encounter
She wandered into Dunnes and placed in the basket the makings of a meal: stewing beef, onions, carrots, russets, crusty bread and butter, wine. She tried to picture his kitchen, what might or might not be in it, but could only see her hand around a glass and the cold tap running in the middle of the night. She picked up a box of salt and considered it then replaced it on the shelf and walked away. She returned the wine and chose a different bottle then went back for the salt and noticed, on the way, a large pot on sale that got her thinking about utensils.
Standing in the checkout line, she composed a text but was called to pay before she could send it. Out on the street, she fumbled with her bags and phone when he appeared through the arch of the old shopping arcade and down towards her. A girl was walking with him. He touched her hip and steered her across the traffic to the other side of the road.
On the bus home, she looked down at her boots surrounded by paper bags filled with dresses and books and thank you cards and chocolate and something for her sister and all of the food for dinner and the big pot. And she felt a little sick from the fumes that come from the engine under the back seat but it is also warmest there and it was the beginning of winter.
An uncommon snow fell in November, softening steeples and iron railings, pillowing cobblestones and filling the cracks. Low clouds leached into rooftops, grey as the gulls that screeched from deep within them, displaced. They skittered on the air, wanting to settle but wary and resentful. The intricate expanse of streets and alleys was from afar a frozen lake, sighs and speculations echoing from its fissures.
People walked as though for the first time, hands stretched to steady them, ready to slide. Delighted at first, strangers smiled at each other in mutual commiseration. They laughed nervously or were quieted with wonder. The air was still and time appeared to stop but when life continued to make demands of them they became impatient and anxious for salt to arrive from Europe. They soon remembered the last year’s unexpected cold snap. You’d think we’d have learned something, they said.
From desire, she murmured beneath her breath, her fingers following the small font across and down the soft, translucent page of an aged dictionary. From the Old French, desirrer: wish for, long for. From Latin, desiderare: long for, wish for, but also meaning demand, expect. Her eyes hovered over the words then continued down the page. Original sense was perhaps ‘await what the stars will bring’, from the phrase de sidere, ‘from the stars’, from sidus: star, constellation, heavenly body.
She set aside the heavy tome and scanned the article she’d been reading. She couldn’t remember the sentence she’d paused upon, her reason for needing the dictionary in the first place. Distracted, she couldn’t say how she’d got from there to here, not in so many words.
When she left the reading room, the clock in the front square struck the quarter hour. It was hardly past six but so dark as to seem deep night. It was strange to see that the day was not nearly done, that she had more time than she thought. She walked across the cobblestones, illuminated by the lamps in the arches of the college chapel and the campanile. She had not a single idea but that Dublin was loitering beyond the gates, waiting for her. Passing through the wooden entrance of the west door, she ignored the noticeboards overflowing with events fliers and invitations to various clubs and societies, and stepped out into the city and nowhere in particular.
The Coach & Ferry
There was nothing to be done. He would have to go to London. His flatmate had asked him to leave, a rancorous end to what had been a friendship. Sides had been taken in Grogan’s and The Cobblestone: he owed everybody something. Twice he had moved back home but he couldn’t be himself—they knew him too well. Where else can I go like?
You could stay with me but you know what my flatmate’s like, she lied. She took him out to dinner and, later, lay in the crook of his arm, face pressed to his bony ribcage, rising and falling to the dull rhythms within, lulled to sleep by a long list of betrayals that thankfully didn’t include her.
She did not know where he spent his last days and nights in Dublin. She had given him some little things for fun but they seemed foolish now when she thought of him on the coach and ferry—a string bag of chocolate coins in golden foil, and a small box of paints and a set of postcard-sized watercolour paper. She wrote her name and address on the first one and asked him to send her a little painting from somewhere better. When the postman came, and there was nothing for her, she was relieved to have been so soon forgotten.
I Am Here For You
She was the kind of girl that people unburdened themselves to while waiting for a bus. She found it difficult to extricate herself from the recounting of a grievance and often she settled into her seat, accepting that she was here till the end of the line with this one. She became frightened of being old. Women shared more resentments and men tended towards regret, though not remorse.
One night, a man stumbled up to her and asked if this was the stop to Rathmines; he thought he was staying at a Travelodge there. He didn’t need to tell her he was on a stag weekend from England—a short-sleeved shirt on a winter night said it all and she hoped he would wander away again but he leaned against the wall beside her.
It was a rare night out for him, he said, and she smiled politely but looked away, waiting for the bit about the ball and chain. He was a night watchman at a hospital, he continued, and she commiserated about the strange hours, surrendering to being sucked into his life for a while. The hours were strange, he agreed, but he had chosen them. He was avoiding his family, he told her, a lovely wife and a daughter.
He loved them in his head, he said. He knew he did. But he felt nothing—nothing. Not even when the girl was a child. He knocked back a couple of cans every morning when he got home and slept into the evening. He didn’t know what else to do. She didn’t know what to tell him.
When the bus came he preferred to stand but he looked her way every few minutes until she nodded that this was his stop. He looked in through the window as the bus pulled away, as though to say now what? She pointed straight ahead, on your left and watched him follow her finger up the street of a place he didn’t come from.
She wakes in the dark and lays there. A thin light flits and shrinks below her door as her flatmate makes her way to and from the bathroom. Outside, the suburbs groan but rise obedient. Taxi lights blink on and off—a new day for some, a winding down for others who see bright yolks spitting in the pan and mopped up with bread before bed, or second jobs. In town the streets are dark still but expectant; lights beneath bridges bleed into the river; the clinking chorus of steel kegs on the cobblestones. And far beyond the city, in a country field, a single ray of light slips between a crack, creeps a darkened passageway, and is greeted in a tomb by reverent gasps.
Her feet are on the floor now but the rest of her is slow to follow. Where is there to go? Without standing, she bends forward and draws the heavy drapes. The white wall flutters and sways with leaf shadows and the lighter shadows of the spaces between leaves, like some pacing piebald creature. She reaches out to pet it and it is gone.
There are two versions of The Lute Player by Caravaggio. One is in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg; the other is part of the Wildenstein Collection in New York City. In both versions, what looks like a child—doe-eyed, pink lips slightly parted, thin fingers strumming on the strings. On one of them, some fragments from a madrigal on the lute player’s sheet music say: Voi sapete ch’io v’amo. Vostra fui. You know I love you. I was yours. The other does not.
He was not long coming back on the boat. He called her. Poles had got there first, he said. Better the shambles you know. London is a joke. He hung up and texted her the address of the place he was staying.
She stared up at the steel door, its rusting hinges and bolts, standard delinquent scrawl, and a keyhole where a handle might ordinarily be. Shivering in the grey light, waiting for him to come down and let her in, she saw that she had not broken any of the habits she thought she had: they had only, briefly, been impractical to keep. Two men crossed the road and whistled through their fingers at another up the street. She held her handbag tight. She stood her ground as they sauntered on by.
Dark stairs led to a small flat. In the hallway, his painting rested against a wall with a couple of black bin bags, a pair of work boots, and a bicycle frame. She thought to say something but his head was already bent low and away from her, focused on his tins and rolling papers.
The painting had changed since she’d last seen it. He had introduced a middle ground with a distant mountain range, folds of auburn and vermillion shadows. Above them, clouds hovered low in a pumpkin sky—soft, curved strokes of cornflower, rose, pale lilac, lavender. If the intent had been to add depth, the effect had fallen flat. The original dark foreground dominated the eye, the bright sky imparting not perspective or a counterpoint to the darkness, but seeming torn from another painting altogether.
C’mere, he said.
She turned towards him and saw the painting sitting in the hallways of many places to come.
I read that Degas practised cloud formations with a crumpled hanky held up against a lamp, she said.
Just come here, he said.
He was stretched out on a low windowsill, smoking. In the street below, a kid balanced a football on his knee and an older youth restrained a pit bull. He offered her the dregs of the joint he was smoking.
I have to go to back to work soon.
Suit yourself, he said, and looked away down at the boys and the ball and the road and the dog. He rested his hand on her thigh and she let him so he moved it in between her legs and rubbed at her jeans with his thumb.
Don’t, she said.
He arched his hips and pulled his pants down around his thighs.
I have to be back at work soon.
Then what the fuck are you here for then?
A Light In The Darkness
They come every year, the last days of January—tall ships, passing through. So much that was sworn has already been forgotten, so much that was promised abandoned. Still, there is a chance again, at least, to wander on up to Merrion Square and take a look at Turner’s watercolours, stroll through the park and make a day of it.
The paintings were known as a light in the darkness and she thought of them that way though she had never seen them. She thought of them trembling gold in their dark cabinet the year long, their whispers building to delirious song, pining for that month when light is at its lowest and they would be released. She approached them as a bright assurance, the room aglow with glass and spotlights. She had been waiting for this day too.
The shipwrecks, then, the looming cliff faces, grey-green squalls, and blue coldness of so many scenes struck her as bleak, and she moved through these paintings quickly, seeking the warm sunsets and rises of her expectations. She liked those landscapes that were mere suggestions of a thing and not too much the thing itself. She did not want detail or reality. She only wished to dissolve into the faint washes of peach and rose reflected in still waters.
Soon she had completed a circle of the room and seen everything she had come to see, glanced over the rest. It had not taken very long. She looked around to see what other people were looking at and lingering on, wondering what they were seeing that she had failed to appreciate. She did not want to leave yet, to go back out there.
Is this it? she asked, sinking and rising on the answer.