But no, she thought, I can’t explain, because it might cut me coming out. For now she was preoccupied. She needed to take a train. With the dog she was always indulgent, but this felt like an emergency; she couldn’t stay in the kitchen alone. Pacing the kitchen and cleaning everything as she had paced and cleaned all day, leaving crockery hot with suds upturned, the baking bowl like a cymbal or some huge prophylactic implement. The block of everblunt breadknives.
She bent down to the dog and said, who’s my sweet little good little boy? She wrote a note for Helen: fed him pm, please feed again am, I will be back Saturday pm, Nina xxx.
The dog was a miniature schnauzer with fur that grew comically conical on his forepaws, like bootleg jeans. He belonged to the woman next door. Nina and Helen took him in when the woman went to Lourdes or Medjugorje or to visit her married son in Galway, where she was just now. Each time, Helen said, this is the last time, Jesus, he’s such a little fucker, what a mess; each time Nina said, oh puppy-uppy, little moondog, you’re alright.
The dog had been frightened the previous night. When the door went, Aidan hammering anguished at two o’clock, the dog didn’t yap or growl or look to Nina for backup—the dog remained rigid on the sofa, coiled in blankets, staring sadly at the floor.
When she had put Aidan to bed Nina sat with the dog for over an hour. She stroked its curly head and sang:
Feel fancy-free to call the
The night had been red-dark, a colour suggestive of fire at the other side of the mountains you could see from the top of the street.
She felt both important and embarrassed, now, in the street. The afternoon was ageing amiably. The all-year plastic Santa bracketed to a chimney on Attracta Road was dusty in soft sun. Whenever they walked past it Aidan smiled and pointed and said, what do you think of that? Or else he said, still there! Today he was not answering his phone, and around midday the phone switched off.
Nina caught the bus into town. A glacé rainshower fell. Two women behind her were having a conversation about a wedding party.
What was it like?
It was boring, you know.
How was it boring?
I just thought it was. The food was a—chicken and mushroom thing. Yeah it was nice but I mean like, I wouldn’t order it? Then we were putting requests into the DJ and he says, I’ve too many requests to play: and I said, not one fucking person has been up to you all night. But the bridesmaids were stunning.
Was it an old couple?
She’s my age. His second wedding. Maybe it was just because of the culchie thing, I don’t know, like a culchie wedding. Wedding was at twelve and we didn’t get our dinner until seven.
You’d be starving!
There was a lad going around with sandwiches. But I’d had nothing. Ronan went out for croissants in the morning but they were like bricks and I was like, I can’t even eat these.
Nina felt the woman had said to the croissants, at once, these are like bricks! That she had complained, several times during the day, well we had these croissants, but they were like bricks. Nina took out her phone and sent a message to Helen, saying, staying at brother’s tonight.
Where is doggo? Helen asked.
Ffs. Well he’ll have to wait.
A moment later, did you talk to Aidan?
No. Nothing more.
When she dismounted the air in the city was still. For days she had felt eerily serene. The pain in her abdomen was constant, turning thinly as a key; her breasts were swollen, aching and egressing against underwear. She was tired and sore and felt pricked-at, in a stone-in-the-shoe kind of way.
Few people knew. She possessed only the moral high ground.
Aidan had drilled low the night before, lying across the bed and saying, why did you abandon me? Abasement thrust her upwards without her consent. Sitting on a swell at the end of the bed, lit with terror and anger, talking to herself, talking to him: what the fuck is this? All of my life, she thought hurtfully, there are these doors closed in my face. Eventually she left him snoring and slipped into Helen’s bed. Helen woke in the morning and, stiff with fright, hissed, Nina, Nina? But when Nina snapped to and checked her room, Aidan was gone.
Prick son-of-a-bitch, she breathed in awe.
He’d soiled the bed with urine. She had to soak the duvet in the bathtub, throw it over the line where it glowed like snow.
There was no sickness yet, only aches and waking up seven times in the night, which was how Helen figured it out. She’d said, I am concerned for you, you might have a UTI.
Actually, Nina told her, I’m really late.
No need to worry yet, Helen said.
From the bus, Nina began to walk down Talbot Street, and as she walked she had a thought. She thought to begin checking bars. It was Friday evening and there were crowds in the streets, arcades and electricity, the squat man with his soapbox roaring always remember He is a vengeful God! The first place was an over-hot old-man’s cubby, smell of decomposing yeast. Loud snooker on the television and a wreck at the bar who raised his glass and cried, howiya! The next was a tourist spot playing Spancil Hill. Nina pushed to the very back and scanned for Aidan’s head. The third had been remodelled glossily and there were office people in it from the docklands, but none of the suited men with gangs of balayage girls or smartphones open, loaded, on the bar were Aidan, no matter how keenly she wished.
She crossed before Connolly Station with a group of people, edgy and glancing for traffic, running between the two traffic lights. And outside Connolly there was a man. There were many people outside Connolly, dashing up or dripping down the escalators, as the evening dimmed, but also an old man, and he caught her eye—her attention—because he was neatly dressed and gentle-seeming and visibly distressed. He was hanging back before the escalator, wringing his hands, looking about, as if needing directions, and Nina slowed, feeling enchanted or involved. She was, she knew, looking for distractions.
The man saw her slow and called out, excuse me, miss?
In the moment she had chances and options, this twinkling instant, she could dash for the escalators. Helen had told her, you have this stupid belief in fate. Nina stopped and pushed her bag further onto her shoulder. Can I help? she asked.
Oh miss! The man brightened. He gestured for her to step away from the thread of bodies and stand by a column of the tram stop. I am sorry to bother you, he said. I am. He was pained. He had small blue eyes in a pained face. Homeless, he said; three days.
My brother works in homeless services, Nina began at once. I can call him and he knows the hostels and—
No, you see, it is only three days, the old man said. I’ve been sleeping in a place on Ship Street. Let me tell you, he said. I’m sixteen years in a bedsit off Haddington Road and my landlady—a lady, she was, a lady. She died about three months past, may she rest in peace. Her son came around. He put us all out in a week.
That’s illegal, Nina said.
Sixteen years and he gave me seven days. She was a lady, she was a fine and kind lady and she wouldn’t stand for something like that, may she rest in peace, if she were alive.
He just can’t do that. You have rights.
I went down to the citizens’ information, the man explained, but they were closed. This kind of thing has never happened to me. Three days in a hostel I am and I cannot sleep.
The man was meek. He looked at the ground as he spoke.
There are people, Nina said in anger. There is Alone, and the Vincent de Paul, and—well, the guards, actually; the PRTB.
The tenancy board. People can’t just throw you out like that. Your landlady’s son is breaking the law.
She was the best of women, the old man insisted.
But then he asked, what is your name?
Nina felt a squall of alarm. She said carefully, Nina.
A pleasure, Nina. The man put out his hand. Michael, he said. And tell me, do you have a job, Nina?
Well yes I’m an—artist. I sometimes teach and I—make art.
The man’s face broke into a glow of condescension and delight. He shook his head as if marvelling. Well, he said, isn’t that lovely. But I just want to say, Nina, this: always have a job. Stay in a good job. Save your money and never walk away from a good job.
I would hope not to, Nina smiled. Though it doesn’t pay very well.
It doesn’t? Well, you should do something that does. Always have work, Nina, and never walk away from a good job.
Is there somebody you want me to call?
No, here is the thing, Nina. Now that he had her name he was saying it quite a lot; I have a sister, Nina. She lives in the home place outside Cork. She’s married and her children are grown up. But she’s still on the home place, and that’s where I want to go. I am hoping she will let me stay. Until I get set up.
You want me to call her, you mean?
No, no! No. Here is the thing. I want to buy a ticket to Cork, and get the bus out to the home place, myself.
Nina thought: yes, because then she can’t turn you away. She felt a freefall of grief for the man. She thought of an old woman, headscarfed or foam-curled, toeing spaniels from her path in some porch of crucifixes and aerial photographs; opening the door on a dark and windy hillside, whining, Michael, is it yourself?
Okay, she said. So you need a ticket.
And the bus from Cork. And I haven’t eaten.
I could buy you a ticket, I could buy you one inside.
No you see because it’s a bus I must take. I have my bags in a locker in the bus station.
Oh right. Nina paused. She could not walk to the bus station; she could not be so paternal and stern. I would need, she said, to give you just the money then.
And I haven’t eaten. God bless you, but a little extra, so I can eat.
Of course: how much do you need?
The ticket is twenty, and five for the food maybe.
I’ll give you fifty, Nina decided.
The old man’s eyes shone at her. He said, thank you.
I will go to the cash machine in the station. Can you wait?
Oh yes. Oh, Nina, you are a good girl. I will pray for you.
There was nothing she could do. Dizzily, she walked to the cash machine underneath a small television screen. People had left coffee cups stacked and grubby on the top. Fifty euro was not something Nina could casually spare. She returned to the old man, riding the elevator slowly, and gave it to him. He was wiping his eyes.
You are a lady. He embraced her. She allowed him to, laughing.
Will you be okay?
Can I have your address? he pressed. And then when I’m settled and back on my feet, I will send you the fifty back?
Oh. Nina reddened. No. Please keep it. I have to go.
Are you sure, are you sure about that?
I am—I have to run now, for my train.
Of course, of course!
Good luck. I hope you get back on your feet.
I will pray for you, Nina.
Forty minutes out: past the estuary, fleshcoloured in pinkish dusk, and the county landfill with its mother lode of gulls. From the train she saw the white wand of the lighthouse first and then the lights, in warmly parallel pans, on the harbour water.
Have no expectations in life, she thought suddenly: that is the road to repose. It was like advice from the inner Mother Superior.
She responded to herself: shut up.
The Victorian stationhouse had been rammed through by a cube of glass. Through the turnstiles Nina walked down bleached steps to the voice of Aidan saying fuck sake Nina this is not pretend. This is real. Is it, really? I don’t want to speak to you, she said to Aidan in her head. I wish you would die. Quite die.
She walked. It is not a big deal, she thought.
I am very frightened, she realised. There was the sound of a horn and Rory drew up to the pavement next to her, waving as she pulled at the passenger door, then holding a finger up—wait—before stretching out sideways to open it.
Child lock! was the first thing that he said.
Grand. Nina slid into the passenger seat.
Would you like to put that bag in the boot?
Oh no, it’s grand, it’s not heavy. Thanks.
She had phoned their mother. She had lain on the couch in Cabra when the house was hard and empty, wrapped in a blanket. She had said, Mam, I am in trouble, almost being funny about it: her mother asked at once, is it money you need? Nina was taken aback.
I’m pregnant, she said.
Oh sweetheart, her mother replied.
How are you? Rory asked now.
I am alright, Nina lied.
Glen is making dinner at the house for us.
He’s such a pet, she said.
They drove out of the town: they crossed the country bridge, along the high-walled railway line. The house he had bought at the start of the year was a shade of toilet paper peach between two fields of onion drills. These fields were now hazily late and behind them was the sea.
Glen was standing before the oven in the kitchen when they came in: he was long-limbed and mild and always made Nina think of a kind but psychologically absent priest. Rory had returned to work recently; he’d been signed off for months after a resident self-immolated in his quarters of the Regina Angelorum wet shelter. It had been worse, Rory confessed, than the resident he found stiff-blue and with a needle sticking out of his exposed groin. Worse than being chastised at the inquest for removing this, for shaking the man’s underwear back on.
Glen smiled at Nina now and put out his arms.
Well, she said as they detached, it’s really coming along, the house, isn’t it?
There is a lot more work to be done. Glen was looking at Rory with tolerance. But tell us—to Nina—all of your news.
Ha! Nina said. That smells lovely, she redirected.
I can show you your room, Rory said.
Oh wow, I have my own room? She followed him into the long spine of the house.
For the night.
I might move in.
You won’t be moving in.
I just, she said, I have to pee.
Her fingernails were duck-egg and chipped. In the bathroom she scanned grooming products and a mould pattern constellating over the bath. Even after she’d voided her bladder she still felt a sharp need. This was painfully distracting.
She had walked to Ashtown a week before because she didn’t want to be seen to buy a test in Cabra, and went into the café, pop music effervescing, to drink coffee with a half-carafe of tapwater. In the bathroom she aimed badly and so the test showed: negative.
She said, in a whisper while perched on the seat, bullshit.
At home she found a small glass under the sink. It was patterned with characters from the comic strip Astérix. There were all kinds of odd ware in the rented house. She pissed in the glass. Her urine was brown with caffeine and warm as bathwater. She let the second test sit in the glass for ten minutes, rinsing her hands in the sink; it was positive this time. She stared at it, frozen, in the kind of pose she knew a woman would stand in, meaningfully, in a film.
So this, she thought. This is it.
Well-well, she’d said out loud: well-well, well-well. She texted Aidan. I need to see you.
Well make yourself free. Glimmer Man, 6pm.
She waited all day. At six she rode her bike to Stoneybatter and waited some more because he was twenty-five minutes late. He came from work sober and superior, smelling good.
What’s the problem, he asked.
Nina, I thought we had been over all of this.
I mean, hello to you too. She looked at the barman, who was levering a stout, and said, let’s sit over there, it’s private. Above the snug there was a picture of manacled hands and a green-white-orange Ireland. Aidan glanced all around and bent over the pint.
You are drinking again then.
Nina. He looked up. Do you want something?
At this point Nina figured she had three choices—to tell him kindly, to tell him cruelly, or to refrain from telling him at all. His conduct had made a familiar fury rise within her, extending explosively, like a mushroom cloud.
I am pregnant, she said.
Aidan put the pint down and said, serious?
Yes. I’m sure. Not long though. Five weeks or so.
Nina. His expression had not changed. You’d better not, he whispered, be fucking with me.
I’m not. I’m pregnant. It’s fine. It’s okay. We don’t have to go through with it.
I can go to England or I can get pills. It’s really early. It’s less than five weeks. It was the morning Helen was away—the day after the swimming. It had to be.
What? He asked again. He was staring at her. His expression still hadn’t changed.
I can buy pills, she explained, on the internet.
Are you talking about an abortion?
Of course I’m talking about an abortion.
You, he said, would abort our child?
There was dizziness then. There was a sensation of spilling and sinking; a heat at the back of her head. The impact had her shrink back and cross her arms against her ribs, fixing either elbow in place with a palm. Her mouth went dry. He was looking at her urgently as if he were going to hit her. The way he said: you would abort our child, in warning, in terrible warning, as if he would hit her or punish her—where did this thought come from?
She felt fearful: the feeling was fear. I have tripped into something, she thought. This is a new black place in the earth.
Would you do that? Aidan demanded again.
I, she said. It’s an option, she said.
It’s an option? He raised his eyebrows now. Expression of shock and dismay. Shake of the head and glance around the tepid bar, too early for a crowd. He was acting now. She’d seen this before.
I can’t believe you, he said. I didn’t think you were like that.
What the fuck, Nina had recovered herself, made you think that—I’ve been marching to legalise it for years! I’ve a fucking—sticker on my window.
You’re insane, Aidan said.
I have a literal sticker saying Artists for Choice.
I need another drink.
After that he stopped answering his phone during the day, but at night it flashed furiously and sometimes Nina answered. He was either too pissed to make out the words or pleading, saying, I will kill myself if you go ahead with it.
I haven’t decided yet, she said
It’s not only your choice, he barked.
You’re a whore, he said. You are unnatural.
Nina blocked his number and visited the family planning clinic. The nurse was in late middle age and seemed thinned out by nonspecific rage. She let a heavy sigh as she swivelled from the sink. Well it’s positive alright, she said.
Okay. Nina sat with her hair tugged into a bun. She’d slicked and pinned it maliciously. She was wearing make-up for once. She held her handbag on her knees.
You can get a scan in a private place in Castleknock.
I don’t want a scan.
The nurse narrowed her eyes. Tell me, she instructed, about the father.
Well he called me a whore and he lives with another woman. The nurse looked skeptical so Nina added, we’ve known each other since May. This was an accident. He drinks a lot.
I don’t think so. I mean, I only noticed towards the end—he drinks a lot.
Right. Well I can’t, she brayed to the space behind Nina’s head, give you information since it would be against the constitution, but I am sure you know how to use the internet.
I’m twenty-seven, Nina said softly. I’m not young.
We have women coming in here are forty-five and having their first child. If that’s what you’re worried about, said the nurse, put that right out of your head.
I don’t think I love him anymore.
The nurse snapped: alright. She seemed to consider this the only indecently intimate thing Nina had said.
It was less than true.
Aidan was a compulsive person with a gleeful degree of comfort around death. He told Nina early on, in passing, of an experience he had when ultra-running in the Maamturks, which captivated her.
Ultra-running meant running with a deathwish competitively. Having passed over twelve hours in motion broken only by electrolyte and open-air toilet breaks, tailed by an ambulance, Aidan, amidst the Maamturks, on some elevated lane around which glacial valleys had been whipped up like frozen symphonies he, Aidan, amidst the Maamturks experienced an abrupt transcendence of the flesh and for that shivering instant, he explained, was the mountains and valleys and the grit of the road, the pale sky, the gurning gorse and distant spots of white excrescence on the Maamturks; was the substance of the universe.
When he returned to his body he collapsed and had to be revived by the paramedics, who were there for that purpose, who tailed ultra-runners with adrenalin and thermal blankets.
You nearly died.
Nah. It happens all the time. But that’s the only time, he said ponderingly, I saw, you know, the afterlife.
On this afternoon, however, Nina told the nurse she did not love him anymore then thanked the nurse and left and vomited in the patch of park across the street. There was a statue of a gunman, kneeling bluntly on a plinth with rifle cocked. A pathway ran beneath an arcade of trees in full, most final and absolute, bloom. Nina thought of visiting the studio but it seemed like a ridiculous proposition and anyway she needed to see to the dog—this obligation was blessedly frank: the dog, the dog, the dog.
And that night at two o’clock Aidan had come hammering, moaning like an animal, as the dog sat in its blankets staring frightened at the floor like a human child.
Nina dried her hands in the bathroom now, Rory’s bathroom, and tossed the towel over the bath. Sea-slush and coolness carried through a window crack. On inspection it seemed as if the window wouldn’t shut. She had to be calm; she braced herself.
In the kitchen Rory was laying out candles in jars. Glen lifted a tray of tinfoil from the oven with an even smile and did not say anything.
Thank you. Nina crossed her hands over her heart.
They sat down to eat and her wrist trembled with hunger as she raised a fork. There were glasses of apple-white wine. Nina partook without dwelling on it. The food was perfect and proud and conspicuously skilled. She felt that no amount of praise could really balance the scale of Glen’s earnestness and praise at this point seemed hollow anyway.
They were silent and engrossed in eating for a minute or two.
I met this old man at the station, Nina remembered suddenly. She seized onto its banality with relief.
At Connolly, today. On my way out to you. She told them the story of the old man, putting across, with emphasis, the old man’s humility and shyness, and the sweetness of his accent. When she’d concluded Glen said, oh dear, he’ll drink it all.
What, the fifty?
Yes, said Rory. He probably made it as far as that pub on the corner—what’s it called? Grainger’s.
Grainger’s is hip now, Nina corrected, pretending to be playful but feeling faint; feeling uncomfortable. It got a whole refurb. But, she said. Do you really think he was lying?
Who knows? Glen clearly thought the old man was lying.
I believed him, she said. I did. No, seriously—he was too authentic. He was telling the truth. He’s going to Cork. She paused for a moment. I believe him, she repeated.
When they had finished eating Rory rose too quickly from his seat and began collecting their plates, carrying these to the sink.
I really thought, said Nina, he was going to Cork.
You might be right, said Glen.
No I probably wasn’t. I was probably taken in.
No oh well, she said in anger. I’m such, she said, a fucking idiot. She felt as though she had advanced into a narrowing tunnel for fun but suddenly realised, with certainty, that she had to turn back. She had felt this first that evening with Aidan in the bar, when the whole thing stopped being jaded shadow play and became at once unfathomably actual, when she was afraid.
This feeling had the shaming force of one of her earliest memories: returning from tap-and-jazz class with a cloud of girls and one of the mothers, a context which placed her personally at five; they crossed the canal and part of this trip involved crossing a cement bridge. In the memory Nina ran ahead to reach the bridge and trup-trup over it, hearing her footsteps ring like the song, trup trup a chapaillín. When she emerged still singing from the bridge she turned sharply into the green space and almost tripped over an elderly man in town style—flat cap and tweed suit—lying under one of the trees.
He had no teeth. He raised his sunken face to her in fright.
She’d twisted on instinct and raced back to the boxy bridge and met the cloud of others and mother chattering and circled them, swinging and singing tunelessly, and dared not look over her shoulder and never recounted this encounter to anyone.
Nina, Rory her brother said. He had no reason to say it and it contained no question or admonition. It was simply her name. He said, Nina. He asked, sweetheart, are you alright?
He said: we don’t want you to do it by yourself. We will pay for you to go to England.
Not yet. Nina closed her eyes. She tried to laugh. Not yet, she said. Please, later.
Before Nina dessert, a black ganache, was sinking.
Did I tell you, she said, that I’m minding the dog?
Oh that little prick! Rory cried with grinding cheer. Glen was asking, what dog is that?
He is a prince among animals. There is this little, like—I don’t know, fucking Chihuahua or whatever—on the road, its face is like this. Nina pulled a grotesquely bright, idiot smile. Its face is stuck like that. Anyway it kind of trolls the dog, when I’m walking him; it walks behind him, slowly, with its face like this, and the dog goes berserk every time. It cracks me up.
Is he still barking at night? Rory asked.
Sometimes, but I go down and sing to him.
You have him ruined.
He is my little pal you see.
On Monday afternoon Nina walked the dog along the canal, where he stopped and sat down in defiance and looked at her. She said, silly-billy, I’ll carry you. She carried him, humming, over the blasted pathway by Broombridge. It was gummy with flies. A man with a terrier stopped her and said, he should socialise with other dogs and get used to it. It’s for the best, you know?
He’s not mine, Nina apologised.
At the ruined distillery a tattooed man was squatting over another terrier, soaping the animal with suds from a 7Up bottle. When the dog had been lathered the man shouted, go Johnny go! At this the dog leapt nimbly into the canal, swam a circle and splashed as the gulls scattered, keening uncivilly in protest; the man shouted, here Johnny here! The dog swam to the edge and scrambled out, shaking himself dry. Nina dragged her own animal away from this, unnerved by it, and returned home.
Along the last of the canal, she passed the two bright boatlike swans that stretched their necks to snap with pointless vehemence at passing bikes. The dog shrank back and walked wide of them fearfully. Site sounds carried: bucket diggers, resistance.
The dog also panicked when the pill hit and she began to throw up violently, deaf to her own crying through the ringing in her ears; he ran in circles and barked, then broke for the kitchen, like Lassie from the accident site.
An image which remained with her afterwards, years afterwards, branded in: a stack of library books, Ted Hughes and self-help and a hardback account of the Profumo Affair, lurching towards her as she put out one wide open hand in which the bones were visible as a fan. The soft collision of the ball of her hand with the library books; the toppling of the library books, the fawn carpet, a dustball in an architectural crevice of the valence. The pain like death and a personal certainty, a personal acceptance, of death. Nina began to crawl towards the door.
She came around on the floor of the bathroom. It seemed her head had missed the edge of the toilet seat by inches. Afterwards this would look like intervention, fifty euros of karma, or a blessing.
The animal made such a clatter on the landing Nina sat up heavily on her arm and began to run the taps of the bath, breaking up and washing away the pelt of brownish puke. As water rattled she felt her soul swell and contract again, swinging sickeningly, but soon it beat itself steady—it was a winged insect. When it was clean she let the dog in. He whined with relief and began to snuffle furiously about the tight space. He checked the dusty gap behind the toilet stem, the recess where a veneer on the bathroom panel had collapsed, the corners still spattered with landlord paint and bare where a slice of spare linoleum had not settled in. When the dog was sure order had been restored he left her, his attention wandering, and she listened to him thump warmly and frankly down the stairs.
She’d left the door to the garden open; there were trampolines pranging and push-mowers rowing and buses crunching over the speedbump outside. It was like any other day of life.