The phone on my chest woke me: a text from Helen.
‘Pouring here. Worried whether we’ll actually be able to play.’
‘Pity,’ I texted.
She was back straight away. ‘You managing ok? Making decisions about the day? Not drifting?’
‘Fine. You don’t have to keep checking.’
The tone might have been a bit off, but I didn’t have the energy to fix it.
I was lying outside the duvet with my clothes on. It was cold, the wind blowing the light curtains back into the flat. I rolled off the bed and went to make tea. It was Saturday and I was stuck in Dublin for the weekend.
The phone again. ‘Just like to know where you are. We’re disconnected enough already.’ She liked to send long messages, with careful punctuation, proper capitalisation. Before I had time to reply, there was a follow-up.
‘Just an affectionate little thought, that’s all. Getting petrol here outside Galway. Since you didn’t ask. Anyway x.’
I imagined her standing in the forecourt, sheltering from the rainy wind. I hoped she wasn’t texting near the pumps. Just looking at her car, you knew she had teenage kids. But she still got these quick scans from men all the time, even men in their thirties. She claimed not to notice. But of course she did—and she didn’t mind me noticing either.
This weekend, she was taking part in a tennis tournament down the west and the kids were at my parents’ house. I was staying put in Dublin because I had a hard deadline on Monday afternoon and I needed to spend a day in the office over the weekend. Normally, I headed back to Cork on Friday night. Both Helen and I had been solicitors in the same firm in Cork, mainly conveyancing. When the recession hit, the work dried up and I had to look for something in Dublin to keep us all going.
‘Sorry. I want you to have a good time. Please don’t text near the pumps.’
I put down the phone and went around the kitchenette wiping surfaces and jotting down items on my list. My plan was to do a pile of jobs I had been putting off for weeks: get a haircut, do a big Tesco shop, buy new underwear and shirts. And a new kettle: neither of the two I had in the flat was working, so here I was boiling water for tea in a saucepan.
I sent a follow-up text: ‘Going to have a Big List day.’ She would know what I meant.
I was down in the hairdressers in Rathmines, thumbing through the clammy Hello magazines, when a woman came over carrying a black gown for me. Do other people find this strange? The stagy consultation about what exactly is to be done: the hairdresser picking up wads of hair and dropping them again, as if some complex assessment is going on. Then you’re supposed to gather your gown and stumble to another chair to have your hair washed. Finally, onto yet another chair to have it cut, all the time parading around in this camp fashion with the black gown, led by this ill-at-ease stylist.
But the woman I had that morning was new to the salon and she went through the usual motions in an easy, amused way, saying just what was necessary. I had a few passing views of her pale, composed face as she moved about, cutting my hair, looking pleased at how it was turning out. She was tall and somehow familiar. Although she said a few predictable things, hairdressing talk, there were also long silences.
‘Getting away at all yourself?’
‘Hard enough nowadays, isn’t it? So much to do before you go. Nearly takes the good out of it.’
She wasn’t trying too hard. She cut and combed slowly, patting my hair all over, viewing it from different angles. Just an expression of satisfaction with her own work, nothing more. But I felt distinctly included in her approval, grateful to have been admitted into her care, even for this short time, for this mundane task. I would have liked to tell her how good she was at her job, say something a little warmer than usual. But you never knew; she might get the wrong impression. Think I was weird.
‘Thank you very much,’ I said. ‘Great job.’
‘It was a pleasure,’ she said, smiling directly at me, carefully picking stray hairs from my shoulders as I stood there in front of her.
On to Dunnes Stores. I grabbed five basic white shirts before heading over to underwear and socks. The usual bewildering range of boxers and trunks in packs of three, all showing amply-endowed men in their 20s. It felt slightly furtive to be spending so long handling pictures of bulging crotches. When I found the right size, I decided to throw in four packs of three so I wouldn’t have to make this trip again soon. I was a little short of breath and avoiding eye contact as I shovelled the lot in front of the woman at the checkout.
An hour later I was finishing up in Tesco. With an overloaded trolley of groceries and other jobs on my list still to be done—the kettle, the car wash—I suddenly felt dispirited. Halfway up the ramp, I wedged the trolley against the side in order to check my phone, and then I became aware, right beside me, of this huge photographic mural advertising Irish food. It stretched the full width of the store, well beyond the ramp. Despite its scale, I had passed it for months without really seeing it. A glorious, intensely immediate picture of farming countryside. Nine or ten square miles of fields sloping down to trees, the suggestion of a river just out of view. Tall grasses and crops, all blown at a slight angle. Cattle and a halted tractor. Beyond the fields, the greater Irish landscape.
It was countryside that seemed really familiar—maybe East Cork, South Tipperary or West Waterford. Up this close, it felt as if I was standing in the nearest field. I was flooded with emotion as I traced the details: hundreds of crows at random in the stubble of a freshly cut field; an almost hidden one-lane road; a rusted but serviceable gate; people working here and there on their own land. The sense of an ordered existence, of plenty. A picture of how things are, in some realm, perfect. And, all of it, offering itself up.
I had abandoned my list for the moment and brought a cappuccino and croissants back to the flat. I looked out the window at the military barracks. I’d spent a lot of time staring at these bleak spaces in the last few months. I used to think my time as a student in Trinity would give me a connection to the city, that I would feel at home here. But my old contacts had not amounted to much in the end: a few rounds of golf, two dinner invitations. The trouble was I was always back in Cork at weekends when things were on in Dublin.
I put my coffee on the bedside locker, lay down and thought back to the Scholars’ Dinner in Trinity last Monday. I had been invited as one of the ‘Scholars of the Decades’, since I had won my scholarship in 1983. As a Scholar, I had lived on the north side of New Square. Arriving in Front Square last Monday as the light faded, I felt I was truly back home. Privately, I have always thought that being a Scholar was my earliest, and probably greatest, success as an adult. Helen made me buy a dark grey Canali overcoat for the occasion, something of an indulgence given our finances. She said I must arrive looking the success I am. Ha. At the end of the evening, full of wine and good cheer, I put on my Canali and began walking home to the flat. Near Fitzwilliam Square, I stopped to text her.
‘What an evening. So sorry the invitation didn’t include you. It would have been worth coming up for. Love the Canali.’
I realised I had been swaying slightly and set off briskly again. A woman in her mid-to-late twenties was crossing the road towards me from beneath the trees. She was tall, wearing something like sports or hiking clothes. She had a slim, shiny, out-of-the-shower look, with lank, slightly curly blond hair. Someone’s sister.
‘Are you looking for business?’ she said faintly as she passed close by. I paused and she swung around. She said it again, more distinctly this time, standing about ten feet away, blushing slightly as she met my gaze. Looking properly now, I saw she was fairly dishevelled, her face exhausted. She had a small scab below her left eye, the index and middle fingers of her right hand stained with nicotine. An addict.
‘Ah no, I’m grand,’ I said, feeling foolish.
There was something wild and vigilant about her that I was no match for. She didn’t seem crazy or vindictive or anything, but I didn’t want to think about her chaotic life. I felt exposed for a moment, a dart of anxiety. There might well be someone else around, a man she was working with. She must have seen that there was something marginal about me, something I thought was well disguised: that I was on my own, looking boozy and flushed, wearing this ridiculous Canali overcoat, obliviously texting away.
Once I was on Leeson Street, I recalled the things I had noticed. A collar opened wide at the neck and a slim bust. An attractive mouth, regular lips, no lipstick. Ankle-length suede boots, very worn. Her left foot turned inwards. Her mouth closed, covering up a missing tooth maybe. Presenting her best self even in this odd encounter.
I phoned Helen as I walked up through Rathmines. She had been asleep and she allowed long silences develop as I tried to explain what it was about the brief exchange that had made such an impression on me.
‘It’s not anything exciting,’ I explained. ‘Or erotic or sexual. It’s the intimacy and connection.’
‘I am glad you didn’t get excited,’ she said drily. ‘I would have expected nothing less from a Trinity man.’
‘I didn’t choose it,’ I said. ‘It just happened. It’s not that I feel flattered. Of course, she made exactly the same approach to the next male passerby, irrespective of age or appearance. I’m not stupid.’
A group of teenagers were drinking cans near the fire station in Rathmines. I crossed the road, phone to my ear.
‘I think you need to go to bed, Jack. It’s midnight. Go home so I can stop worrying about you wandering around Dublin. I have four highly-sexed teenagers here to keep in check.’
‘Ha ha,’ I said. ‘I’ve drunk nothing. One glass of white and three red.’
‘Yes, yes. A small port, of course. It’s Trinity. You know the score. I gave away the dessert wine.’ I took a deep breath. ‘Here is someone who is prepared to allow you into their ambit. When you’re on your own a lot, you know…’ I knew she would be grimacing at the other end. ‘The fact that, however remotely, they would entertain the idea of you. In that way. Even if it’s for money.’
‘Anyway, I found it… moving,’ I said.
‘Ah come on. Don’t pretend you don’t understand.’
After a moment, she said, ‘I have to sleep.’
‘I like you when you’re sleepy,’ I said.
‘So phone sex is out of the question?’
‘That’s for Christmas, if you’re good. Listen, Jack: why don’t you go back to Harold’s Cross and imagine me tucked in in the bed behind you. That’s what I am going to do here anyway.’
‘Night,’ I said.
‘Night darling. Watch your phone.’
Turning up Leinster Road, I began to think about Helen herself, how she had been the first few times we went out together. Helen Doyle. Really dark hair and eyebrows, pale, pale creamy skin. Doyle. Ó Dubhghaill. Dark-haired foreigner.
Something had woken me. As I tumbled off the bed, the bell downstairs buzzed furiously. No one ever called here. Most of the students in the other flats were gone for the weekend. I went down quickly. Helen was at the top of the steps with a weekend bag.
‘Surprise, surprise,’ she said, throwing up her hands a bit nervously. ‘I had to ring twice.’
‘Oh great,’ I said, my heart thumping. ‘Surprise is right.’
I was so taken aback, I forgot to kiss her. I led her up the stairs.
‘Maybe I should have texted first but I didn’t want to spoil…’
‘… the surprise,’ I said. ‘Of course.’
She began a tense, studied monologue. ‘Couldn’t leave you in Dublin for a whole weekend like that, as well as the Monday to Friday. Your phone call about the hooker the other night clinched it. Ha ha.’
‘So the tennis thing in Galway was all a cover?’
‘Yep,’ she said. ‘Yep’ was not a word she normally used.
She was breathless and a bit panicked by the time we reached the open door to the flat. We embraced rather woodenly before entering, as if I were meeting her off a plane.
‘I feel like I’m intruding,’ she said, taking a few rushed steps ahead of me into the room, then wheeling around. We kissed in a perfunctory, embarrassed way. Estranged relatives at a wedding.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘The place looks pretty sordid. But you gave me no notice. I haven’t even put away the groceries.’
‘I tell you I had a bad moment below there at the door,’ she said.
I couldn’t help noticing her Cork accent. Posh Cork.
‘What if I have totally misread you, and you actually have some Latvian beauty hidden away here,’ she said. The tone was uneasy, striving for a kind of: ‘We’re best friends here, right? We can say anything to each other. Sure it’s all a big laugh anyway.’
‘Obviously, you see me as an exploitative middle-aged gent.’
‘But it’s what you’d really like, isn’t it?’ she said, jumping in. ‘Someone young. Okay, just challenging enough to be interesting. But hanging on your every word.’
She laughed in what she clearly intended to be a good-humoured way. ‘Admit it. That’s what you really want isn’t it?’
I knew that she was saying all this in spite of herself. In normal circumstances, she would see it as letting herself down.
‘Nothing compares to you,’ I said.
‘You’re actually doing ironing?’ she said, ignoring this banality. She was looking at a pile of shirts on the board.
‘I like the smell of freshly ironed shirts,’ I said. ‘It’s homely. Reminds me of special occasions. Getting ready to go on a school tour. I iron just one or two things each night. For the atmosphere.’
She looked appraisingly at me while I made this little speech, as if I were a candidate for a job.
The bed was huge in the middle of the room, beige and joyless. She swung her weekend case onto it. I began tidying the duvet and pillow. There was a terrible silence for half a minute while she struggled to unzip the case. Everything inside was neat and compressed. Womanly.
‘You obviously don’t want me here,’ she said, not looking at me.
‘I’m delighted you’re here, ‘ I said. ‘Delighted. I’m just a bit in shock, that’s all. You look fantastic.’ I glanced around at the flat. ‘And all of this looks seedy.’
She abandoned the case and began to move my MacBook off the kitchenette counter and on to the bedside table.
‘There’s no room on the counter to unpack the groceries,’ she said. She got down on her knees, grunting as she tried to find a socket to plug it in. ‘Just moving your stuff around like this feels like intruding.’
Things were dying fast.
She went to the window and looked wildly out. ‘This could be great. It’s all what you make of it.’
I could almost hear her mind racing. She turned back to the room and threw herself down on the bed.
‘I’m exhausted,’ she said, as she tucked her hands behind her head.
I could tell she already regretted lying down.
‘It’s bound to be a bit awkward initially,’ she said in a loud voice, her elbows flapping like wings as she tried to settle herself. ‘We have hardly been alone together for half an hour in three years. Well, except for sleeping. Now we’re suddenly stuck together in the middle of the day.’
‘You look stunning,’ I said, staring down at her from the end of the bed. Which she did. ‘Desirable,’ I added, probably a little less certainly.
‘Jesus,’ she said, jumping to her feet. ‘Creepy.’ She threw her hands in the air as she turned her back. ‘Don’t touch me.’
I felt a bit breathless.
After a second, she resumed unpacking. I watched her, feeling as if something was about to happen. It was like a long sequence in a French film. Then she noticed the Dunnes bag behind the door.
She got down on her knees, rifling through the packets of new socks and underclothes. This was the second time she had been on her knees in as many minutes. For an odd moment she looked like a stranger, less familiar to me than the hairdresser or the drug addict.
‘All this stuff?’ she said. She was scattering images of crotches on the floor.
‘What?’ I said.
‘Just,’ she said.
After some more rummaging, she picked one up and began to read aloud. ‘Large, to fit waist 36-38 ins. Grande, Para La Cintura 92cm… There’s tons of it here. Like some serial killer’s stash. I only got here in the nick of time.’
‘I won’t even dignify that,’ I said.
She was relieved to have got a handle on things, an emerging theme. Standing behind her, I saw that she had new high heels on, the soles barely scuffed. And the skirt: I couldn’t remember her wearing anything that short in years. It made me feel protective about her, seeing how much effort she had made. I caught her glancing at me as she scrambled to her feet. She had noticed.
‘Lighten up. It’s a joke. I’m trying to lighten things up.’ Then she added: ‘They’ll all have to go back, though. You should be wearing Canali or Calvin Klein.’
We were heading into town by taxi. She had suggested making a day of it—going to the National Gallery, doing some shopping, wandering around. She said we needed to escape the ‘suffocating intimacy’ of the flat. I thought ‘suffocating’ was a bit much. She rolled her eyes as we got into the taxi. It smelled sour and unhappy, the interior stifling and junky.
I texted her: ‘Am I imagining it, or is the taxi speeding up and slowing down in an odd way?’
‘It is. It’s making me feel car-sick.’ She looked quite pale.
It seemed easier to text her like this, more intimate than talking. That’s just for the moment, I told myself.
We sat in silence. It was a strange pleasure to hear her breathing quietly beside me as she went through her voicemail. Of course, we were together in Cork every weekend. But to have her here beside me in Dublin was something else. I desperately wanted to reach across and take her hand tightly. But my previous efforts had failed so badly.
‘Who are you texting?’
‘The kids,’ she said, passing me the phone with a questioning smile.
He’s in a state of shock. Like I caught him with his hand in the till. Horrific squalor. Fraternising with hookers and transients. Speech and cognition just about threshold functionality. Wouldn’t be surprised to see Paddy O’Gorman outside with a microphone and a radio crew. Be careful. Mum x.
‘Don’t send that, Helen, please. It’s over the top.’
‘You’re not hurt surely? It’s a joke. A joke. Totally harmless.’ She looked punctured. ‘They understand my sense of humour. I actually thought you’d like it.’
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Go on. Go on, send it off. The Paddy O’Gorman thing is clever.’
She pressed Send and then started going through her email.
‘I wonder if we should both switch off our phones,’ I said.
‘Jesus,’ she said. ‘Goody, goody. It’s not some kind of personal indulgence. I’m a mother.’
She turned it off, looking like she could have said a lot more.
In Trinity, I pointed out the window of my old room in New Square.
‘You remember the exact one?’
‘You don’t forget something like that,’ I said.
We looked at the faint greyish squares appearing on the grass where the marquees had been dismantled after Trinity Ball. There was a fair bit of construction noise in the square, so we moved across to the cricket grounds and sat on a bench.
‘So, tell me about her,’ she said.
‘You know who. Your hooker, of course. What did she look like? What was it about her that got you going?’
This felt like a trap.
‘I told you—it was all about connection and intimacy. Not what she looked like.’
‘Jack. Just get on with it. What did she look like?’
‘Well, one of the things… she had her shirt collar open wide, showing her neck and the top of her rib cage. Lovely and flat. And then the suggestion of softness below that, under her anorak. Just something that stuck in my mind.’
We looked at the seagulls prancing on the grass.
‘You’re much more lyrical about her than you ever are about me.’
She was the one who had insisted on getting into this.
‘I’m worried about the flat chest, though. Three years on your own in Dublin. Are you sure this was a woman at all? A lot of them are men.’ This was self-consciously jokey.
‘Trust me. She was a woman.’ I mentally checked back over the signs: throat, voice, wrists, the foot turned inwards. I couldn’t actually recall any curves.
‘Well, you were confessing on the phone the other night to having inappropriate feelings for a young woman. Now he sounds more like a courier from Doneycarney, with dirty fingernails.’
‘I confide in you, something private and…’ I was struggling. ‘And this is your reaction.’
‘It’s just that I’d hate to see you deceived. In that way.’ She looked down towards the Pav. ‘I know how important she is to you.’
‘You’re such a bitch,’ I said, turning her face around and making her kiss me. She kept her hands resting on her handbag. Her colour was improving.
‘Well here we are at last,’ she said, her eyes flashing across my face for an instant. ‘Like a date.’
We had decided on a late lunch. It was the first time we had sat face to face. I felt a bit of a thrill that she was avoiding my gaze. I loved the way her front teeth overlapped slightly, how she composed her lips to accommodate them. It gave an intensity to her presentation of herself.
‘Do you mind if we sit at one of the tables outside instead?’ she said. ‘I have a terrible mind for a cigarette.’
She smoked a single cigarette a few times a year, always when the kids were safely out of sight. Outside, she lit up awkwardly, looking up and down the street all the while. When the wine arrived, we both took urgent gulps. She picked up the bottle and stared at the label.
‘Montepulciano,’ she said. She went on looking at the label.
I took the bottle from her.
‘13.5%,’ I said. ‘Not too bad.’
She turned her phone on. There were texts from all four kids. The messages were scrupulously even-handed, supporting me, subtly praising Helen, discreetly pushing us together.
‘God. We have such an attentive audience in Cork,’ I said. ‘Aware of…’
‘They’re so civilised.’ Her face was super serious, which meant she was holding back tears.
‘They’re being so parental,’ I said. ‘Makes me feel irresponsible.’
‘Glad they can’t see me then,’ she said, blowing smoke away from our table.
It had grown cold, but we liked where we were. We didn’t want to break the atmosphere.
‘What was that thing you were saying there earlier, about the Merries down in Douglas?’ she said, still not looking at me.
‘The Merries was the very first place that we spoke, when we were only fourteen.’
She knew this, of course. But she wanted to hear what I had to say. She listened without interruption. I went on for a while.
‘When your friend Susan went over to talk to her Dad that time, I walked up to you and said “You’re Dekka’s sister.” The first words I ever spoke to you. “Yes,” you said back to me. “And you’re in Dekka’s class.”
‘Neither of us spoke the other one’s name. I said that I had seen you in the bumpers. You said that Susan thought I was going to ask you to go in the bumpers. “But it’s only what Susan thought,” you said.
‘And then we ran out of things to say, but you looked straight at me, like I was meant to be there. You just stood waiting, as if I was entitled to look. Your eyes and face, your arms stretched straight down in front of you, your white socks and perfect shoes. I had never seen a more perfect girl.’
Helen inhaled, her eyes half closed.
‘I liked that you were so serious.’ She blew out a long, slow line of smoke. ‘I wanted to be really, really nice to you. Really nice.’
‘I’m worried about your smoking,’ I said.
‘Jack, will you just go on,’ she said. ‘You’re ruining the story. One isn’t going to kill me.’
‘Anyway,’ I said, ‘do you remember Susan running back and saying “Helen, my Dad has to go. He says there’s room for Jack if he wants to come.”
‘“He does want to come,” you said, looking at me. “Don’t you, Jack?” “Yes,” I said. “Helen.”’
There was silence for a moment. Helen was feeling the cold. I could see goose pimples on her arms.
‘You’re a sly one,’ she said. ‘You come up with something sweet like this every… I don’t know… ten years? Wasn’t I such a great kid, so sensitive? I’ve always looked out for you.’
‘The idea of being entitled to you,’ I said.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘I know.’
She leaned forward and kissed me lightly. I loved the wine and smoke on her breath.
‘Are you looking for business?’ she said, her face still close.