I enrolled in a general science course in Cork, if nothing just to get away from home and my mother. We hadn’t a lot of money and she was afraid of being on her own, but either I got out or I’d have gone the way of my old man. Science appealed to me because I had always been curious about how things worked and fitted together, but also because since the age of fifteen I had stopped believing in God. Science was the most subversive thing I could think of doing. I remember the priest in mass one Sunday cackling at how they could tell us we descended from monkeys. He had the congregation cackling too, and I felt like getting up and walking out. But I couldn’t because I’d be noticed and my mother would be told. Later on I realised things like literature and art were subversive too. But at fifteen what the hell do you know about anything?
My mother found me a room for thirty quid a week off College Road, a dingy shithole with dirty carpets and stains all over the walls. A friend of her friend owned it, and she was able to get it for a reduced price. My housemates were a couple of stoners from up the country, and a girl who I never saw but who had sex eight hours a day with some lucky jockey. It turned out most kids in college were dreadful arseholes. I stuck it out until Christmas and then came back home and went on the dole. My old man’s inheritance money had whittled away and we were broke. My mother pulled in just enough money from her cleaning job to feed us both, pay the rent, and get her hair dyed every couple of months.
After Christmas I hung around with some of the boys drinking my dole money in The Anchor. They were good boys, but they’d bring you down as far as hell and they wouldn’t care. They were used to it, the squalor, the boredom, the sitting and watching while life swirled down the jacks. My old man would have cracked me one around the head if he saw the state of me. So in early February I decided to get a job in a factory that made parts for cardiac pacemakers. It was the same factory that everyone around Wine Street went to when they left school. Most did it for a couple of months until they figured life didn’t have to be like this. So they went on the dole where they could scratch their balls in peace all day long. For the others it was a job for life.
I tried to set my mind for the long haul. I hadn’t exactly a range of options. Working the same job ran in my family, so I expected I would do the same. My father fixed telephone lines for thirty five years until he retired and was forgotten and no one ever gave a shit about him again.
They were all smiles as they walked us around the factory floor. They spoke about career progression and rewarding initiative and other such bullshit that didn’t apply to a bunch of adolescent alcoholics and school dropouts. The floors were bright cream and polished and they reflected the row of huge fluorescent lights that ran the length of the factory. There was a constant drone of machinery and huge fans mounted in the walls at either end sucked the fetid air out and the souls of the operatives with it. We nodded to them as we walked by. They all had bad skin and pale gaunt faces and red patches around their eyes like they were dying from the outside in.
‘You should see the ones on night shift,‘ one of the trainees leaned over and said in my ear. ‘Scary shit, man.‘
‘You worked here before?‘ I asked him.
‘Every summer when I was in school but now I’m in for keeps.‘
He seemed happy about this turn of events. The guy had a black teddyboy haircut and sideburns that came down to his mouth. He looked about twenty five but it was hard to tell.
He told me his name was Jeff.
Everyone in the factory was sitting down. They stared into machines or counted things on conveyor belts or wrote in clipboards, all with about as much verve as a Sunday drive to your grandmother’s. The only ones who looked happy were the engineers who wandered around looking serious. They were all clean-shaven and wore ties and nice shiny shoes that clipped neat rhythms on the polished floors.
They brought us into a small room with blinds on the windows and rows of chairs and a television screen in the corner. A woman with enormous breasts was waiting for us. Without saying anything she put a video into video player and stood back and looked down at us. ‘Manual handling,‘ she said. For the next twenty minutes we learned how to lift a box, how not to lift a box, how to carry a box up a flight of stairs. It was all in the legs, they told us. Happy workers were healthy and safe workers, they told us. Bullshit, I thought. Backs were damned expensive things to fix. One time my old man had taken a tumble from a telephone pole in Fr John’s Park, and every day for six months the company had to pay him to lie still on the couch while he watched horse racing on television.
The woman eyeballed us all the way through the video to make sure we were paying attention.
‘Any questions?‘ she asked at the end.
There were no questions.
She made us sign a sheet which said we’d watched the video. Then she handed us another sheet which explained that if we happened to invent anything in the duration of our employment then it would automatically become the property of the company. I read it twice to make sure it wasn’t a joke.
I raised my hand.
‘Yes?‘ she said.
‘I was just wondering if inventions amongst machine operatives were commonplace?‘
You could see her trying to work out an answer.
‘Ahm, I don’t know. Not that I’m aware of.‘
‘I thought so,‘ I said.
‘That’s not to say it couldn’t happen.‘ As she said it her eyes roved around the room and she flicked a quick smile.
I knew then that she was a wicked bitch. It was reinforced by what she said next.
‘The work you do here literally saves lives.‘
This was the nugget they dispensed a dozen times that day, designed to make you hate yourself for hating your job.
It was around that time, at approximately one in the afternoon, five or so hours into my new career, I decided I would try and get out as soon as I could.
Except for a coffee break and lunch and a couple of trips to the bog I was chained to an assembly line for twelve hours a day. Actually chained – with an anti-static strap on my wrist so we didn’t blow the electronic boards to pieces with the charge in our bodies. The boards were the things that controlled the pacemakers, about an inch by an inch-and-a-half and they came fast and relentless all day long. There were eight of us either side of the line and our job was to put the tiny components into their slots. Capacitors, resistors, inductors, diodes, all manner of fucking things we knew nothing about. If you had to go to the bog then you asked the line manager who spent the next five minutes going around looking for a replacement for your part of the line while you agonised over the piss about to run down your legs. If he couldn’t find a replacement then the entire line had to stop while they waited for you to come back. I gained immense satisfaction in the knowledge that the country’s cardiac pacemaker industry had literally ground to a halt for the length of time it took my bowels to move.
Now and then the line would go down. It usually happened when a bad batch of boards came through, boards that were missing parts or had solder splash and such. That was the only chance to speak to the others. Not that they had much to say, but I figured even basic human interaction was better than none at all. The only males on our line were me and Jeff. Some of the girls were good-looking enough, and two in particular always used the chance to touch up their makeup with tiny mirrors they carried in their bags. You could tell they’d pull the tube off you given the slightest encouragement. The uglier girls were better to talk to because you didn’t care what you said to them.
Our line manager’s name was Waters. He had a great pillar of a head that went all red when he spoke and his eyes would balloon up like they were go-ing to pop out of his skull. He shouted a lot and went around looking pissed off all the time. The only thing he cared about was numbers—how many boards had gone through this hour or that hour, like his life depended on it. If the numbers were bad he bawled at the entire line, and if they were decent enough he just sighed and stormed off. I’d met a good few pricks in my time, and usually I didn’t let the likes of Waters get to me. But he did. I let him, and I didn’t know why. For the first couple of months I was utterly miserable.
It was around the middle of April when I began seeing Anna. She worked be-hind the bar in The Anchor where I sometimes went on Saturdays with one or two of the boys. I’d got chatting to her casually about this and that, just small talk. I knew she was interested in me because she laughed at all my jokes. They weren’t even funny, mostly juvenile shit.
One evening when it was quiet she told me she played the piano. I said that was nice but all I could think about was getting her in the sack. Her eyes were dark and exuberant and unpredictable. They were the colour of mahogany and tore across the space between us. They stopped me dead. They were set in a big pale moon of a face on top of which a tower of hair wobbled as she walked over and back behind the bar. I started going to The Anchor on my own, and I’d wait to order until Anna was near. The evening I asked her out I had just lost a tonne on a useless bastard called Doubletree Mutt. It was a good excuse to garner sympathy.
‘I’ve just pissed away a half a week’s wages on a dog,‘ I said glumly as she poured my beer.
‘Oh you poor boy!‘ she groaned and straight away I could feel my cock doing somersaults.
‘I want to take you out for dinner,‘ I said. Just like that, no messing about.
‘Okay,‘ she said, and she smiled and sat my pint in front of me. ‘I like Italian.‘
Next thing she took a pen from somewhere in her hair and wrote her number on the back of a till receipt, put the pen back into her hair and off she went.
I called her the next day and asked if Jimmy Napoli’s was okay. For a second she didn’t know who it was. I could hear a voice in the background, but it could have been a television. ‘It’s Eddie,‘ I said. ‘The guy from The Anchor.‘
I wondered how many times she’d heard that before.
She said Jimmy Napoli’s was fine. She sounded like she was in a rush. We agreed Saturday at eight and she put down the phone.
Jimmy Napoli’s was a chipper really but there were seats in the back and the tables had red chequered tablecloths. I didn’t know anywhere else so it was good luck that she’d said Italian. Come to think of it there was nothing overtly Italian about Jimmy’s except that there was a map of Italy on the wall and they served pizza, which almost every place did nowadays. Jimmy wasn’t even Italian. His name wasn’t even Jimmy, it was Steve but somehow he thought Jimmy sounded more Mediterranean.
Anna was wearing a navy blue polka dot blouse that came up to her neck. She had the palest arms you ever saw, paler even than her face. I poured her a glass of wine that Jimmy had brought us in jug. I’d never done this before—taken someone out to dinner. Romance for me was usually out the back of The Warwick or at house parties where you’d throw the face into the first one who made eye contact.
Now that we were alone together we didn’t know what to say to one another. It was easy in the pub when she was flitting between customers. I knocked back the wine, hoping that the alcohol would get some kind of flow going. Before it had the chance, Anna was first out of the traps.
‘I’d say you were a cute baby.‘
‘Jesus, what makes you think that?‘
‘Dunno. Just a guess.‘
‘Well, I wouldn’t know,‘ I said, ‘there are no pictures of me from back then.‘
She thought I was trying to be funny.
‘Of course there are.‘
I shook my head. ‘Nope. One or two on my communion day where I looked constipated but that’s about it.‘
She was genuinely concerned. ‘Didn’t your parents have a camera?‘
‘Oh they had a camera alright. They just didn’t like to take pictures of me.‘
I topped her glass up even though she had only taken a few sips.
‘That’s so sad,‘ she said.
The waitress came down with plates of pasta in some kind of sauce. She wore pigtails and looked cute. Jimmy had a knack of picking them.
Five minutes later Jimmy came down to check if everything was alright. Not that he cared or anything. If you said it tasted like dogshit it wouldn’t have made a difference.
‘It’s grand, Jimmy,‘ I said. Jimmy smiled and stroked his little pencil moustache and topped up our wine glasses. He looked at Anna, then at her breasts and nodded. He threw a cloth over his shoulder like you’re meant to do and walked away.
Straight away Anna began to eat. It was like she hadn’t seen food in a week. Then again I thought that about everyone. I preferred to drink rather than eat.
We made it through to dessert with the regular banal conversation you’d have with your next door neighbour, and I was losing hope. I’d got this one wrong. She was pretty and smart but my god, it was like picking stones in a fucking field. The waitress asked if we’d like coffee and I said no thanks, the booze was fine, but Anna said she’d have one. That’s when she turned to me and said she had a kid.
I smarted up quickly.
‘His name is Fred.‘
‘That’s lovely,‘ I said.
‘His father left just after he was born. That was four years ago. I felt I had to tell you.‘
There was the hiss of a coffee machine. Plates clinking from the kitchen. There was only one other couple at a table by the door and they continued eating as if nothing had happened. I realised I was still sitting in the chair. I hadn’t upped and left. This came as a surprise to both of us. To be honest I didn’t know what to do. In fact I felt sophisticated all of a sudden. Here I was about to get a fully blown mother into the sack. The things a boy could learn!
She said that she and Fred lived in a one-bedroom flat on Fort Hill. It was basic but at least they were together. I told her that sounded like a dream—a place of your own. I talked about the factory and how I was going to get out of it. How work was for mugs and such. She laughed at that for some reason.
The conversation began to flow. It became beautiful and effortless. As if the wall between us had crumbled and fallen away. The more we got sloshed the more beautiful it became. We drifted on to music and books and her eyes lit up. She said she liked Chopin, and that when Fred was in bed she liked to play the nocturnes on the old piano her grandmother had left her.
It had grown dark outside. We walked slowly through town. It was awkward because I didn’t know if I should hold her hand. I decided not to. It was warm for April. The smell from the river clung to the night air. Alcohol was burning in my head. I felt great. Anna was drunk too. Her arms glowed white in the dark. We got to a square where teenagers whizzed around on skateboards. They all wore black and looked miserable. I was only a couple of years older than these kids but they felt completely alien to me.
I brushed away the birdshit from a bench and we sat down.
‘You must play for me some time,‘ I said.
‘You’re just saying that,‘ she said.
She chewed her bottom lip and her eyes grew big and I leaned over and kissed her on the lips. She didn’t pull away. She was so beautiful. She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever been drunk with.
We walked back through town, over the bridge to Wine Street and then turned up Fort Hill. We kissed again outside her flat. She didn’t ask me in. The babysitter was from around here and she might say things.
On my way home I stopped into some dive on Duke Street and had two beers with some old guys who were talking about how everything had changed, and then I went home.
In the factory it was noise and smell and boredom. The tang of solder lingered in my nostrils and gave me headaches. The days seemed to last for weeks. Waters was bothering me more than ever. My world had been constrained to a few square feet of factory floor, the canteen and the bog. The dogs in the fucking street had more freedom than I had. The boards just kept coming down the line, even in my dreams I still saw the fuckers, and my hands would work away under the sheets, picking up the hot boards, turning them over, sticking in phantom components. Thinking about Anna got me through the day.
At eight each evening I clocked out and walked down the hill through the housing estates along with a tide of blue factory coats. Some of them would hit the pubs on Wine Street for one or two softeners before going back to their families. When I came home my mother was usually watching the television. We rarely spoke more than a few words. We hadn’t a lot to say to each other in any case. We’d argued one evening about me leaving college, about how I could waste my life like that, what my father would say if he were here. That last bit seemed to send her into a depth of sadness.
But still my dinner was always wrapped in cling film on the kitchen table, and I’d put it in the microwave for two minutes and eat it alone with a glass of water, then read for an hour. Then I’d go to bed.
The evenings Anna didn’t work we’d meet in town, and then walk out to Fitzgerald Park. Fred liked the playground so we’d sit by the pond and watch him. It was weird at the start because here I was kissing his mother, groping her tits on a park bench while he played twenty feet away. I realised after a while he didn’t care much what we got up to.
Sometimes I’d play with Fred, helping him up the steps of the slide, watching that he didn’t snag his trousers on the way down. A couple of weeks of going to the park and I was making sure the other kids included him from their games of chase or whatever the fuck they played. I was even calling him Freddie now, saying things like ‘Thatta boy‘ and rubbing his hair and such. There were sudden lucid moments when I said to myself, Jesus Christ, what am I doing? We’d been doing the cute family thing for about three or four weeks now and I was beginning to think it wasn’t just to get the knickers off her. One evening in the middle of May Anna suggested we do dinner again.
‘Jimmy Napoli’s?‘ I said.
She looked at me. ‘I was thinking my place.‘
Oh Jesus. I still hadn’t been inside her apartment, let alone her bed.
‘Okay,‘ I said. ‘How about tomorrow night?‘ I was like a greyhound eyeing up the mechanical rabbit.
‘I’m working, remember?‘ she said, smiling. ‘How about next Friday night?‘
It was one of those days when the boards just kept coming and no one talked. The noise robbed the thoughts out of your head and your life was robbed of a day and fed it to the system, whatever that was. Waters wrote the totals in his clipboard and huffed, but at least there was meaning in it for him.
When I got home my mother was in the kitchen flicking through a magazine. Her face was humourless and I could tell she had been crying. I asked her if she wanted some tea and she didn’t answer. I hummed a tune as I filled the kettle. Seeing Anna later had put me in good form.
‘I know about her.‘ Her voice was without tone.
‘It’s always the whores.‘
‘I want you to stop seeing her.‘
‘Don’t call her that.‘
‘I’ll call her any damned thing I like.‘ She swung her head towards me.
I flicked on the kettle.
‘A barmaid! A cheap barmaid whore!‘
I felt like hitting her. When I was eight I’d seen my old man hit her. I remember wanting to beat the shit out of him. I hated him, hated his guts. I hadn’t seen him all day and she’d been crying about something, crying and crying and she wouldn’t stop. So he hit her. Square in the jaw, clean and crisp, with the back of his fist. She stood silently for a long time and then went out the door. My father sat in the kitchen for two hours drinking a bottle of whiskey. I didn’t see my mother until the following morning. She was at the cooker frying eggs. She was wearing the same clothes and one side of her face bulged slightly.
‘I’m going to bed,‘ I said.
‘Cavorting around the town like—‘
‘You’re not well, ma,‘ I said.
‘You’re throwing everything away!‘
‘You want me to stay here with you, is that it?‘
She put her hands to her eyes and began to sob.
‘I want you to be happy, Eddie.‘
I looked at her for a long time. I felt sorry for her. She didn’t know what it was to be happy. I’d only ever seen her miserable.
I went upstairs. I took a book down from the shelf and lay in my bed. I tried to read the words but they wouldn’t go in. I could hear my mother crying through the ceiling. At nine I went out to meet Anna.
The flats on Fort Hill were lost in darkness. Out the front a couple of African guys were smoking and laughing about something. I rang her doorbell and waited. I was holding a bag of cans and a bottle of wine tucked into the crook of my arm. The idea of dinner had worn off me long before, and I wanted dearly to just sink the booze. After a few seconds I heard footsteps coming down the stairs and then Anna opened the door and said to come in. She was wearing a shirt unbuttoned at the top and her hair hung loosely over one shoulder. I waved the wine and she took it from me, smiling.
The flat was on the first floor. It was tiny and smelled of cooking, not fresh cooking, but as if it had been absorbed into the walls over many years. I noticed the piano in the corner of the living room, to the right of the window.
Fred’s toys were all over the floor—dumptrucks, lego blocks, plastic dinosaurs, books with the pages torn out. There was one picture on the wall of Anna and Fred, like it was taken by a professional.
‘Dinner’s chicken and stuffing, is that okay?‘ she said as we walked into the kitchen, which was really just an extension of the living room.
‘That’s fine,‘ I said.
‘I’ll put him to bed once the potatoes are cooked and then we can reheat everything.‘
I sat with the bag of cans on the couch and watched Fred playing. He asked if I wanted to build a bridge with lego and we could drive the trucks under it. ‘Hey buddy, maybe tomorrow, huh?‘ I said.
I reached for a can and cracked one open and all the while he watched me.
‘I’ll wake you up,‘ the boy said.
‘Then we can play.‘
I swallowed a mouthful of beer and nodded.
Just then Anna came out of the kitchen. ‘Right come on, Freddy, it’s bedtime. Give Ed a kiss.‘
The boy immediately got up and walked over to me and planted a kiss on my left cheek. ‘Say goodnight,‘ his mother said.
‘Goodnight,‘ he said. ‘See you in the morning.‘
‘Goodnight, buddy,‘ I said.
I could hear them inside the bedroom talking in low muffled voices. I opened a can of beer and I walked over to the piano and pressed a key, then another. It was very out of tune. I played a dozen or so keys in sequence, moving higher through the notes. I could never understand how anyone played musical instruments.
Ten minutes later we were sat at the table eating dinner. This was the first time since Jimmy Napoli’s we‘d been alone together.
‘You know, Fred’s starting to like you,‘ she said.
‘I like Fred. He’s a good kid.‘
It seemed the right thing to say.
‘He’s been pulled around a lot, poor guy.‘
‘Kids can cope with all that,‘ I said. For all I knew the opposite could have been true. In fact the more I thought about it, yes, the kid probably was fucked up.
‘He thinks you’re funny,‘ she said.
We ate the food and we drank the wine. After dinner we moved to the couch and watched television for a bit but it was just the usual inane shit.
I asked Anna if she would like to play me something on piano.
She seemed unsure, almost embarrassed. ‘I’ve never played for anyone before.‘
‘You’ve played for teachers, surely?‘ I said. ‘Go on, I’d like to hear something.‘
‘What will I play?‘
‘You like Chopin. Play Chopin.‘
She got up and went over to the piano and sat down on the seat. She tested the pedals and they creaked and made pumping sounds. Her hands hovered over the keys for a few seconds, as if she was sensing they were there or something. Then she closed her eyes for a brief moment and began to play. She played two or three notes rapidly and then her whole body moved like she’d been caught up in a sudden wind. I’d seen the virtuosos on television doing that but I always thought it was for show. I recognised the music. I didn’t know where from, maybe a movie I’d once seen, but it was slow and sombre and somehow the notes sounded better, as if together their oddness had been cancelled out. Anna was bent over the keys and every now and then she opened her eyes and looked down and closed them again. Her fingers raced delicately up and down the piano. I stared at her. I was hypnotised. I’d never heard anything so beautiful.
When she finished she just looked down. As if the music had taken everything from her. We were silent. Words wouldn’t have meant anything.
What was I doing here?
I could never give this woman what she wanted.
She got up and came over to me and took me by the hand. We walked to the bedroom. Inside in a small bed in the corner I could see the blankets rising and falling where the boy lay. Anna put her fingers to her lips and led me over to her bed. She tripped over something on the floor. Next thing she began taking off her clothes. Then she sat on the bed and pulled me towards her.
‘Won’t he wake up?‘ I whispered, but she didn’t answer.
She was all over me, kissing me on the neck and the face and she was feeling me through my jeans.
I kept looking over to where the boy was but he hadn’t budged. Still the same slow movement of his breath.
She tried to take off my shirt and was feeling for the buttons of my jeans.
I took her hand.
‘Give it a minute or two in case he’s not fully asleep,‘ I said.
We lay down on the pillow and she put her hands through my hair for a long time, whispering something to herself.
Then she started snoring softly.
I lay there for around twenty minutes staring into the dark empty space.
I got up and felt around for my shirt and put it on. I went into the living room and found my shoes. I walked around the boy’s toys and stepped lightly down the stairs. I was careful not to let the door bang on the way out.
There was a bluish light in the street and my breath smoked against the cold air. A rind of a moon slipped in and out of the clouds, poised as if to cut the night in two. I liked to walk in town at night. When it’s quiet you can almost hear the sound of the thoughts in your head.
I wound my way through the streets. When I got there it was the same old boys sitting at the bar. Talking about the same things. The barman was watching a television. I sat and listened and quickly got drunk. I thought about leaving, about going home and holding her and telling her that I loved her, that I was sad for her, so sad. That life was lousy, but it was like that because we let it. And sometimes it gets all too much. I called for another beer and then she went out of my head again.