For the fifth day in a row there had been no rain, and in Dublin, even in June, that was unusual. Hubert Derdon, who worked in a men’s outfitting shop on Grafton Street in the centre of the city, had brought his raincoat with him when he left home in the morning, but when closing time came and he saw the golden evening he thought he might walk all the way home instead of taking that long ride out in the tram. He was a creature of habit. His daily habits were comfortable, but it would do him no harm to miss his tram for once, even if it meant being late for tea. Hubert was always thinking about doing more walking. He knew that for a man in his forties he did not get nearly enough exercise. But there was the raincoat, and having to decide whether to carry it or put it on. If he was going to make a start on walking he did not want to start in his raincoat. And in the back of his mind he had an objection to wasting all that exercise on hard pavements with nothing ahead of him. He thought of mountain paths and tangled woods and narrow roads that ran between green fields. He imagined himself wearing a heavy pullover and walking steadily, but not in the direction of home. All the time he was thinking about walking, he was hurrying to get his place on his usual tram, and in the end he turned his own corner and walked past the neighbouring houses to his own front door and turned his key in the lock at the same time as always.
Thinking about doing all that walking had given him a sense of energy and well-being. He felt in good health and good humour, and contented to be coming home after his day’s work, and he was smiling as he stepped into the hall. There were red glass panels in the side frames of the front door, and he was always aware of the glass and always closed the door carefully. At the same instant that he was hanging his raincoat on the rack, he looked down the hall and saw the kitchen door close quickly and quietly, but not quickly enough to prevent him from seeing that Rose was down there. Her head was turned away from him as she closed the door.
The entrance hall where Hubert stood was narrow. It was no more than a passage, and the floor was covered with linoleum. At the end of the hall there were stairs going up to the bedrooms and, farther along, the three steps down to the kitchen. The hall was dim although it was still bright outside. The kitchen had been lit up, the glimpse he had seen of it before the door closed. There had been only a second of time, and hardly more than a line of light that narrowed to a thread and then vanished. He might as well not have seen Rose at all, but he had seen her, and he wondered if it could possibly have been intentional—to shut the door in his face like that. He considered going down to the kitchen and asking some question, saying something, anything at all, but instead he went along the hall and into the back sitting room and walked over to the window, and turned at once from the window and began to stare at the doorway. But of course it was already too late. By this time Rose should have opened the kitchen door and called up, ‘Is that you, Hubert?’ She must have heard him coming down the hall. You could hear everything in this house. He listened, but he could hear no sound at all. That was strange. He should at least have been able to hear some little noise, teacups and saucers or something, the tea being got ready. He might as well have been alone in the house for all the evidence he had of life near him. He felt that he was alone, and he wished there were someone in the room with him who could give him advice, because he wanted to be told to go straight down to the kitchen, or else not to go down there but to sit down at once and ignore the whole matter.
He wished he had someone to talk to. He wanted the impulse he felt—to go down to the kitchen—to be made impossible by a command that he was bound to obey. But no word came to forbid him and so, although he knew it was impossible for him to go down and speak to Rose, he knew also that it was not forbidden, and he did not know what to do. What he could not do was to sit down. He was too angry to sit down. But he was trembling, and he sat down in his chair, which had its back to the window and was beside the fireplace, where it stayed summer and winter, close to the hearth, with Rose’s low chair across the hearthrug from him. The hearthrug was a dull, warm red, and it was fringed at the ends.
Hubert wished he hadn’t seen the door close. If he had taken that walk home, he would have been very late, and he wouldn’t have seen the door close. But when had he ever walked home from work? Never. Rose had closed the door at the exact moment when she had every right to expect him home, and something in her attitude as she closed the door told him that she had seen him letting himself into the house. The more he thought back, the more he was sure he was right. In the glimpse he had had of her, there had been something hasty, he would even say furtive. Unless he was imagining things. But he knew he wasn’t imagining anything. She was down there now, wondering if he had seen the kitchen door close, and she was frightened, and he wondered what she was thinking about him. She had no right to behave like this. It was intolerable. The whole thing was intolerable.
Then he heard the kitchen door open and footsteps on the stairs. When Rose appeared in the doorway, Hubert felt such dislike that he smiled. He saw the confusion caused by the smile, and he saw her hand fasten on the doorknob as her hand always fastened on something—the back of a chair or her other hand—before she spoke.
‘The tea is ready,’ she said.
‘I don’t want any tea,’ Hubert said.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked. ‘Why don’t you want your tea?’
She was standing stiffly and her face was pink. It was clear that she knew she was in the wrong.
‘I don’t want any tea,’ Hubert said. ‘That’s simple enough, isn’t it? And I can guarantee you this—the next time you shut a door in my face like that I’m going to walk out of this house and I won’t come back. I mean what I say.’
‘Hubert, I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she said. Hubert said nothing.
‘Will you let me bring you up a tray?’ she asked.
‘Never mind about the tray,’ Hubert said. ‘I don’t want your tray. If you’d only get out of here and leave me alone.’
Hubert watched until the door was shut, and then he leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees and began to study the red hearthrug. He began to hum softly:
‘She is far from the land where her
young hero sleeps,
And lovers around her are sighing,
He sighed and lay back in his chair and was silent. He wished he had followed his original plan and walked home. Then he would not have seen the door close. If only he had not seen it close—but he had seen it, and having seen it he had to take a stand. It was partly the fault of the house, which was much too small. Any house would have been too small, but this one was much too small. There wasn’t a corner in it where you could hide without causing questions—those silent questions that were not questions at all but reproaches.
There was no possible way for Hubert to ignore what went on in the house. He would have liked to be able to shut his eyes. Then he could control his temper. Rose was not ashamed that she had closed the door against him; she was only frightened because she had been caught closing it.
He wished he had had sense enough to go down to the kitchen and have it out with her the minute he saw the door close. He felt he was walking along a path that was separated from another identical path by a glass wall so high that it went out of sight. The path he was following was full of mistakes that he recognised, because they were all his own, but while every mistake was familiar to him, every mistake came as a shock, because of the different intervals of time that elapsed between one mistake and the next. Just when he felt fine and imagined everything to be all right, there was another blunder. There seemed to be no escaping the contentiousness and disagreeableness in this house. And all the time he was making mistakes and tripping over himself, he could see through the glass to that other path that was also his own. On that path there were no mistakes, and he did only the right thing and did it at the right time, and he knew how to deal with everything, and he walked like a man who was in command of himself and his life. Sometimes it seemed that only a trick of light, nothing at all, stood between Hubert and the place where he would know how to conduct life in accordance with its meaning, which he understood perfectly.
Nothing in his life made sense. But once you had said that you had said it all. Hubert could hardly march out of his house and down onto the main road and stop some stranger and say, ‘I understand nothing.’ To do a thing like that would be—it would be the action of a madman.
If he had been on his own it wouldn’t have been so bad, but a wife makes a man conspicuous, especially if he doesn’t amount to much, and at this moment Hubert felt he amounted to nothing at all. Poor Rose, he didn’t blame her, but by her presence in his life she showed what he had tried to do and that he had hoped, and by her behaviour she showed what his hopes had come to. He was ashamed of her. Without her, who knows what he might have done. And then again he might have gone through life invisible, but anything would have been better than being held up to ridicule in his own house. Anything in the world would have been better than being held up to ridicule to himself. He felt uncomfortable in his chair, and angry. It was not that she was demanding or extravagant. She asked for nothing. The reason he grew irritable when the time came to hand her the housekeeping money every week was that she always took it apologetically, and on the few occasions when he had forgotten it, reminded him timidly. Of course, he grew irritable once in a while with her pretences, and no one knew how many times he restrained himself when she irritated him nearly beyond endurance. He could not stand the way she ate, or to know the amount of food she ate, which was a good deal more than he ever felt inclined to take. The word ‘appetite’ embarrassed him, and the knowledge he had of her appetite, which was so much greater than his own, made her mysterious to him, but not in a way that aroused his interest or affection. He thought her appetite was something to be ashamed of, and he did not want to think about it. He did not grudge her the food, but he thought she attached too much importance to it. He dreaded to see her eat, because he could not keep his eyes off her, and there had been times when he saw her turn red and swallow quickly when she caught him watching her. He always had his breakfast by himself, and he had his dinner in town in the middle of the day, so there were only teatimes and Sunday dinners to be got through.
Sometimes as they sat at tea Hubert told Rose about incidents that had taken place in the shop during the day. These anecdotes dealt mainly with the customers, and often the point they were working up to was the customer’s discomfiture, which Hubert found funny, or the customer’s ignorance, which Hubert also found funny. Some of the men who came to the shop were so dense that they did not know they were making fools of themselves or how they were laughed at after they left the place. They were the men who were too tall or too short or too fat or too thin for the patterns they preferred and for the cut and fit they decided upon. Hubert derided the dense customers, not because they looked ridiculous, but because they did not seem to know how ridiculous they were. Hubert could forgive any man for looking like a fool if he played the fool and showed that he could laugh at himself and take a joke, but he had no mercy on people who believed, or pretended to believe, that they looked just like anybody else. Outside the shop Hubert could call attention to people’s shortcomings and so test their sense of humour, but at work he naturally had to restrain himself, and it used to drive him nearly mad to see all those posturing fellows get away without knowing they had been observed by a man who had a sharp and humorous eye and a great gift for cutting people down when they got above themselves.