He stopped the car outside the post office in Dalkey, crossed the street in the rain to the mailbox. It was an early Friday afternoon in November. The three letters would arrive on Monday morning, to his wife, their son, their daughter. It still wasn’t too late to change his mind. But this was the crossroads moment.
The sun came out from behind a cloud. He dropped the letters into the mouth of the box.
Afterwards he took a walk, down Castle Street, past Finnegan’s Pub, down the winding, leafy lanes to Coliemore Road. For a time he looked at the island and the millionaires’ houses. A cruise boat bobbed past; by some strange trick of the water he could hear snatches of the commentary. This was ‘Ireland’s Riviera’.
Back in the car, he drove to County Clare, then out to the Cliffs of Moher. In the car park of the interpretive centre, he took off his jacket, not because he was warm but because he knew it would soon be too hard to take it off or to move coherently.
He took out the card of sedatives he had brought, opened the bottle of vodka he had purchased in Doolin. Turned the radio to Lyric FM.
He had come to wonder, in recent years, if ‘grief’ was the word for it and felt ashamed of the thought that it might be. No one had cancer. No one had died. People all over the country would give anything for his problems. He simply hadn’t been lucky.
You had to test your luck and take your defeats. Sometimes the other side won. Gerry Whelan had told these things to his children, had always believed them to be true. He still believed them now and they ate at him.
A raging fury and sorrow. Crippling fits of envy. There were times when it seemed to him that he was having a breakdown, so vicious were the waves of self-hatred. Late at night, he would find himself weeping at the laptop in the kitchen at home, googling tomorrow morning’s newspapers or listening to playbacks of the radio news, composing angry letters to editors that he would delete before dawn as he heard his wife getting up to use the bathroom.
People like him were the enemy. How had that happened?
He took to sleeping in their son’s old room. His clothes began to feel tight. There were mornings he didn’t wash or shave. Strange daydreams shimmered up at him: the fanlight in the tenement house in which he had been born, the long, shadowed corridors of Francis Street Christian Brothers School. A day when he was six or seven and his father had been on strike and his mother, having no money for the rent, had sent her daughters out to beg. He had resolved that day, with the furious purposefulness of a child, that it would never happen to him or his.
Grief? Maybe. It depended how you saw it. If your wife set out the dishes for breakfast and you wanted to smash them, stamp them into the ground, maybe you could call it grief. She would enter the living room scarcely looking at his face. She was afraid of his moods, it slaughtered him to admit it.
The strangest thing was how he grew to despise the building itself, with a fierce, passionate, invigorating hatred he soon realised he needed to in order to feel alive, to make sense of anything now. He hated it for the folly it had revealed in himself, the stupidity and weakness and desire for false consolation, the thing it had become fashionable to refer to as ‘greed’ despite greed having little do with it.
What had happened when you looked at it? He hadn’t murdered anyone. For thirty years he had owned and run a garden centre in Dun Laoghaire, a small enough outfit, but he was trusted and liked. There was never much profit, but it had bought a house on a 1970s estate in Deansgrange, put his boy and girl through college, bought a yearly holiday in Connemara. In the boom years he closed the business, demolished the offices and greenhouses, borrowed heavily from the bank, and built a development of seventeen apartments on the footprint. Four months into construction, the crash had unleashed itself, bankrupting the builder he had hired. Most of the apartments were unfinished.
He had called the development ‘The Breakers’. Another word for waves. The name had been suggested by his daughter, who was studying English at UCD. He put one apartment in her name, another in his son’s. To be able to give them something, the pride. The remaining apartments would be sold, he and his wife had no pension. No one had given him anything and he had never asked. You had to look after your own.
He would walk the empty corridors, the rooms in the empty apartments; the empty penthouse on the top floor with its webs of electric cabling protruding from the plasterwork in the kitchen. Glass doors meant for the showers, still in their cardboard boxes. An expensive Italian fireplace that had never been installed, leaning in its shrink-wrap against a rusting cement-mixer. It was his habit to switch on and off the lights in the living rooms. Strange, the small consolations we find. But one morning he realised the electricity had been cut for non-payment. The post stopped being delivered. In a way, he was glad.
From the balcony there was a view of the sea and the distant promontory of Howth. He would watch the airplanes banking low for Dublin Airport, early in the mornings. Soon even the planes appeared more rarely. Builders’ cranes vanished from the skyline.
Mould and mushrooms sprouted eerily on the walls of the storage rooms in the basement. Weeds appeared in the underground parking spaces. He bought a toolkit in Woodies in Sallynoggin and began trying to fix things himself, but it was impossible to keep on top of the encroaching decrepitude. Broken shuttering here, cracked paving slabs there, the water tank leaking, the dead seagulls on the balcony, the vandalised windows, the ripped-out copper wiring. He continued leaving the house every morning, driving over to The Breakers, but only rarely did he try to fix things any more.
He put a camp bed in the empty living room of the penthouse apartment and slept there during the day, or listened to the radio. If the weather wasn’t bad, he would sit in a deckchair in the non-existent garden. The soil was too stony. Nothing had grown but the loosestrife. Builders’ helmets and lump-hammers still lay around on the low walls. It was as though some kind of terrible missile had wiped out the people, leaving the buildings or what was begun of them.
A demonstration of local socialists gathered outside the compound one Saturday morning. ‘Developers Out’ said the placards. He recognised their leader, a boy of nineteen who had been to Belvedere College with his son and whose mother was an orthodontist in Monkstown.
It became his habit in the evening to drink alone in the town and drift down to Dun Laoghaire pier after the bars closed.
‘Speculator scum,’ a kid shouted at him one night. ‘It’s the likes of you fukken ruined the place.’
For a year, there had been a man, a truck-driver, he thought. They had never made it completely clear to one another what they worked at. He was a small, slightly overweight man of Gerry Whelan’s own age. John was his name. He spoke with a Wexford accent and was married.
Tuesday midnights, he would be on the pier, and often on Thursdays, but not always. Once, they spoke briefly of a hurling match. But usually there would be no conversation beyond a remark or two on the weather and whatever words were needed to offer a cigarette or a light. Then they would step behind the pier wall, into the darkness.
Afterwards, nothing at all would be said about what had happened. It was understood that there was to be no acknowledgment of any kind. Tuesday would come again, and so might Thursday, and again the conversation would be of sport or the price petrol was gone. One Thursday, John didn’t turn up. Tuesday came and went. Whatever it was, was over.
Not long afterwards, the letter came from the bank’s solicitors. They had no option but to move against the family home. They would do so ‘aggressively’, the letter said. Time had run out. The bank had obligations. They’d be met.
Gerry Whelan wrote three letters, to his wife, their son and their daughter, mailed them in Dalkey and drove to County Clare. It took less than three hours, the new road west was so good. In the old days, going to Connemara with the family, the drive had taken a day. Now, you put on two CDs and you were there.
There was a packet hidden behind a book in his den at home containing four thousand euros in cash. His will was at the solicitor’s. He was sorry, he loved them, was at the end of the road. These years had been a mystery, he had lost his way. It was nobody’s fault but his, he was fiercely sorry for his failure, for letting them down. There was only one solution now. The bank would not evict a widow from her home.
Odd pictures came into his mind as darkness fell. His father and mother, in their teens, scrubbed and innocent as apples, on their way to a dress dance in the Gresham. His son at the age of five, clutching a hurley. His daughter on the night of her debs, at the Killiney Castle Hotel. His wife in her graduation photo, as a mature student at DIT.
On the drive, he had listened to an interview with Joe Duffy on the radio, about a man who had disappeared from his family. It was believed he had been sleeping rough in Luton in early 2010, then in Birmingham, where he was hospitalised for a time. Discharged, he had lived in a derelict garage before it burnt down and the West Midlands police moved him on. A man matching his description spent part of the winter of 2012 in Rowton House, a shelter for the homeless in London. He may have been on the emergency housing list in Coventry in 2013 under an assumed name. Enquiries through the UK Social Services and the police had yielded nothing more. His family had tried the prisons, the psychiatric hospitals, the charities, parish priests, the radio programmes and newspapers aimed at the Irish community in Britain, every living relative they had, the cemeteries. But nothing had been found of this father, this husband. All they had of him now was a couple of wrinkled photographs, a handful of the boxing medals he won as a kid, and his childhood crayoned drawing of the tenement house in which he had been born.
Gerry Whelan felt close to the homeless man as the sun went down, a burning golden coin to the west. He wasn’t in any way religious but he uttered a prayer for him, hoped he’d somehow found peace. Drivetime came on, then the seven o’clock news. He had given up smoking up a few years back, but now he smoked.
Around eight, he stepped out into the wind, which whipped at his shirt and the flaps of his trousers. It took a moment to realise he was weeping, that his whole face was wet.
He took another drink, drained the bottle to its dregs. He was thinking about his son’s first day at school, the elderly nun, the smell of chalk. The darkness around him felt watchful, inhabited; closer than he had ever imagined.