The new room with its modern shape. Clean rectangle you walked its length, her green chair by the fire again, his matching alongside, slightly staggered, big window Venetian blinded. The nights spoke through the breeze block walls, war, politics, car doors slamming on city streets far away, the sea then, fog-horned sea; it all spoke as she adjusted the fire, selected and placed the coal lumps by tongs like a duchess adding sugar to her tea.
Or the space was an envelope, business-sized, not the compaction of billets doux. Their life an ease of folded length inside a generous warranty—that was what the room intended, and no fault to it if not fulfilled. Under yellow light bulbs she hugged her fire, eternity soaked them up.
The boy lounged in his father’s chair. He could hear her out in the kitchen, running water, slotting plates and saucers onto their metal rack. He drew up his knee, sandal bold on the cushion, his two arms splayed over the curved wooden arm rests, flopping the bent leg side to side, waiting for the afternoon to move towards something, out of its deadpan anything, held in a grey lassitude infusing the room.
The phone rang, that was something. He moved quickly to get to it before her. Hello?
He heard her turn off the tap to listen.
No, the boy said. He’s at work. After a pause he said: Yes. Alright, hold on, I’ll get her.
She was in the room before he could yell. Her frown demanded, who is it? The boy shrugged, handing over the receiver. She indicated for him to get her her cigarettes. Hello? Oh, yes. How are you? Yes, that’s right. I’m not sure, I expect him when I see him.
The boy set her up with her cigarettes, lighter, and the pale blue saucer ashtray she usually carried from room to room with her. She sat down by the phone and the boy resumed his place on the armchair to observe her.
Her head bent towards the phone in its shallow corner, the management of her cigarette, the cautionary flicks of imagined ash from her crossed knee, long silences as she listened, responses then, harmonious, insignificant to him, only the rhythm of sound on breaths, exhalations short and long, smoky or pure he dwelled in, with her preoccupation taking her further into the corner, even as she looked at the boy, coolly, as she listened, as she smoked, not seeing him but registering the entity of him across from her.
Light was fading but she didn’t seem to notice. The visitor had a beard and silver-framed glasses that interested the boy: the way he would shove them up the bridge of his nose with a stretched index finger. To make a point, the boy thought. The voice was low but loud, Dublin accent like a bus man might have. When she offered the visitor a cigarette he leaned forward out of his chair to take it from the box. She lit his and then her own.
They were waiting for the boy’s father to come home. As usual. The house was always waiting on the father to turn his big old car into the driveway.
She didn’t put the light on. They became insubstantial, fading into the room, with the open spaces of the Venetian blinds darkening between the slats. Their talk had substance though. Politics: boring to the boy, all they ever talked about, the adults. The left they were always on about, as against the right, which was bad. At some stage he crawled under the low wooden coffee table that ran along the big window, lay on his back looking at the underside above his head. A few words were scribbled there in another language, factory note probably, and a five digit number—meaningless but meant all the same: a sign not to be seen that always intrigued him.
She was not that long returned to them. She’d been in hospital. The boy didn’t know for how long but it seemed a big distance separated their life in the new house from her breakdown in the old one, when she had gone away. Twice, if he thought of it, she had gone away. There had been a day, prepared for with a great clean-up of the new house, which had fallen into chaos in her absence and told of the despair that had moved in. His older sisters, his father, stuffing dirty clothes under the beds, rubbish over the garden fence into the field beyond. *Because she was coming home. *His father driving off in the car to collect her. His eldest sister sending the boy out because he was *useless and no help but a hindrance. *
Hours later the car pulling in again with that familiar sound, a final cadence of thrum and the engine switched off. He was idle in the garden, gathering dry clay from between the paving stones. The car drove up beside him. They did not get out. She in the front smoking, looking at him standing in the grass, his hands pouring sifts of small fine-grain stones onto his bare toes in the sandals. She had dark circles under her eyes. She spoke to his father, in the driving seat next to her. He could see her mouth moving behind the rolled-up glass. Looking at the boy, smoking, looking, speaking, dark-eyed, thin-faced, speaking what could not be heard.
The hall door of the house opening, his sisters emerging, excited, unsure, coming to stand with him. She mouthed something important. To them, not to their father, that’s how they saw it, shaking her head slightly; her lips pressed together was a sign that said a lot. His father starting the car again, twisting to look over his shoulder as he always did, with that sound his breath made at the pressure on his big frame, backing out of the drive, twisting as he did, the sound he made the boy imagined. Backing out, the shift of gear a pullback in eternity, then forwards and they drove away.
The light was going but she didn’t seem to notice. She reached for her packet of cigarettes and matches in their place on the mantle ledge, opened the box, slid up its row of pristine soldiers and offered one to the man, which he took, leaning out of his chair.
She lit her own cigarette then his, blowing smoke as she continued her conversation, relaxing back.
The old house had hung on the severity of her nineteen-fifties’ beauty with its austere rationing of space and permanent cold. The old house of their marriage aspired to, but never occupied, the state of wifely satisfaction. It had furniture that seemed important to her then, suites of mahogany carefully polished, double beds both coy and servicing. She took to her marital bed like a mood takes hold, in for the long haul.
Alien nation, the man said.
His socks, the boy noticed from his eye-line on the floor beneath the table, were striped. Thin horizontal red lines against a dark grey ground. His father would never wear socks like that. But this man was younger than his father, and his mother. He noticed the socks when the man pulled them up. The crossed leg first, and then, uncrossing, the other one. Pulled them up although they were fine, not in any need of adjustment. The boy thought that, caught himself thinking and repeated the thought: not in any need of adjustment. Where had it come from, such a thought? It was like the glasses, the boy understood, the socks, done for emphasis as he talked loudly, filling the room. Class war, he boomed, pushing the glasses up this time.
At first the new house had resisted her return. Its shapes, its open plan against the tight corners of their marriage. She had not wanted to go back to her old life but could not find herself in this new one either. Going through her husband’s suits to search out his true self then. She found it in dockets, bills, bailiffs’ notices, folded unevenly and taking the shape of his body in the breast or hip pockets.
Surplus value, the boy heard, according to Marx.
She laughed a little. What were they talking about? The boy could not follow. He felt uneasy as he often did when she was talking to men. She was annoying him; he wanted to tell her to shut up. Shut up woman, he wanted to shout out at her from under the table.
As though she had heard his thought she glanced over at him. Her blue eyes in the murk were like the sea, lonely. She looked away. The boy bent up his bare knees so that they pressed against the underside of the table. The feel of the wood through his kneecaps was cool and solid. The pressure he was exerting felt good. Because her laughter was not good, it made him anxious. He was angry with her but shameful for her too. With her crossed legs, pink slipper hanging, her pleasurable cigarette cocked in her ring-finger hand, and the gaps from her missing teeth showing when she laughed at the man’s jokes, her head thrown back and her teeth gone and this man watching her from behind the silver-framed glasses.
The boy pushed his pelvis forward slightly so as to take the weight of the table onto himself. He’d returned from school the day she went missing from the old house. His granny there instead. When she had never even visited their house before, not liking them, his mother said, because of taking her son away. His panic then, where are you? Screaming it, running through the small rooms downstairs, upstairs. No one would tell him where she was.
Stretching his arms above his head, his hands against the wood, he tipped his hips forwards again. The table lifted a fraction, balanced between his knees and hands. He lowered it, raised it again. The heavy press of the long low table, the balance he achieved with its layer of objects, the big cut-glass ashtray, the pile of newspapers, a teacup, all safely suspended by his efforts, lifted and lowered imperceptibly by the movements of his pelvis from the floor, were satisfying against her irritations.
Stop that, she said sharply.
The man was surprised, as though he’d forgotten about the boy and didn’t know what her clipped command referred to. He’d been explaining reproductive labour. She’d seemed to be following.
Doesn’t look as if he’s remembered, the man said, reaching across to stub his cigarette in the ashtray on the table above the boy, looking down at him as he did.
Any second he could arrive, she said. Have you far to go?
In a certain sense his father was always not there.
*Not too bad—meeting a few comrades down in The Old Shieling. *He pushed up the glasses again.
The boy rolled out from under the table, went to lean behind her green armchair by the fireplace, draping his arms heavily around her neck and looking at the man, who had sat forward in anticipation of making his departure.
She removed the boy’s arms from her, as expected, leaned forward to tap her cigarette ash into the blue saucer. He held the back of her chair instead. The room was like a charcoal sketch of itself, with the cloudiness of dusk swirling around, objects seeming to phase in and out of distinct shape as though you were seeing their molecules in movement and they might become anything at all.
*Revolution has to start somewhere. *
After a few pints, she said. The man laughed and she didn’t.
The new house had resisted her return to them; its light, its open plan tending to maroon her.
He’s probably just delayed in the traffic. You know what it’s like this time of an evening.
It might be raining for weeks on end, lashes against the big picture window, gusts flattening the fire flame, drafts under the doors. The bird has flown, he thought he heard her say.
The boy tipped her chair back, suspending her slightly as she spoke, her feet dangling off the ground, slipper slipped off.
He’d seen her getting ready earlier. Her cigarette idling smoke in the saucer as she penciled in her eyebrows, backcombed her hair in front of the bathroom cabinet with its speckled mirror.
Stop it, she snapped. He tipped it a fraction further.
Out, she shouted. He let the chair fall back forwards with a bump.
Tell him I’ll phone him later in the week. The man took his opportunity to stand.
The room would be wasted by her death in a few years. The boy a young man studying architecture in New York, just in for the funeral, standing by the window. Glaring monotony of light through the blinds, he was thinking, savaging the mourners in their blacks, standing around murmuring.
The man with the silver-framed glasses, he remembers, as the light went down between them, with the stripy socks and all his adjustments against her far-from-shore eyes. And her laughing.