On the morning of his daughter’s wedding, Colman wakes early. He lies there quietly as the room slowly brightens. Helen, beside him, sleeps on. In time, the radio clicks to life, and after the news the weather is given: it will be dry and bright, temperatures above average for the time of year, warmest in the east. He gets up then, delicately, even though it is an old joke between them that Helen could sleep through World War Three.

Half an hour later he is returning from the Londis, croissants and The Irish Times swinging in his bag. He makes a loop of the trip, out through the lane, home the longer way, by the laundrette, the charity shop, by Little Acorns, whose railed yard is scattered with brightly-coloured plastic toys. There are no children; it is too early. Just as he realises he has stopped walking, his phone rings. He turns away to answer it. ‘Sophie, love.’

‘Am I disturbing you, Daddy?’

‘Not at all, not at all.’ Casually, as if she’s beside him, he walks on. ‘Forecast’s good, did you hear? It’ll be good for the photos. The lake will be amaz—’

‘I’m worried, Daddy. I just don’t want any surprises. Any embarrassment.’

‘It’ll be fine, love. I’ll watch her—I promise.’

There is a pause at Sophie’s end. He knows she is weighing something cutting; it would not be the first time. He wants to say that Helen has not had a drink all week, except it is not quite true. But she has made a great effort, Colman knows that. Only Colman knows the effort she makes.

‘It’s you I feel sorry for,’ Sophie says finally, her voice soft, and this pains Colman deeply, because although he is touched by the gesture, the intent of her words, he also knows her too well. And unlike him, she is a bad liar.

‘Ah, don’t worry about me,’ Colman says lightly. The curtains are still closed as the house comes into view.

‘Two seconds, Dad—’ Someone is speaking to Sophie in the background—there’s a muffled exchange—and he’s close to the gate when she comes back to him: ‘Sorry, Dad. One thing, though…’

Colman stops. ‘Anything, Sophie.’

‘Don’t be mad early, yeah? They’ve no room for hanging around.’

At twenty to twelve Colman finds a place to park close to Mount Street Bridge, and they sit a while. Sunlight off the canal plays on the undersides of the springtime leaves. Helen takes a clamshell mirror from her handbag, opens it at arm’s length to pucker and purse at herself, then snaps it fast when the tremble comes. ‘Just remind me,’ she says, ‘James’s parents are Cita and…?’

‘Liam.’

Colman last met the Flynns on an icy day in November, when they had gathered at the reception venue to trial the proposed three courses. No one had commented on Helen’s absence; instead, they all listened intently to the manager’s patter: how beyond the garden, hidden by hedges, there is a man-made lake, perfect for photographs; how several pairs of mallard ducks live on it, and how—the manager paused for effect—they mate for life. Colman joined with the others in murmured approval.

‘Liam,’ Helen repeats, eyes narrowed on a scrap of litter skittering on the road. ‘Yes, that’s about right. Now—shall we?’

When they round the corner, they see James standing at the gate with Jess, Sophie’s bridesmaid. James waves and comes down the pavement to greet them. He wears a grey suit and his customary big grin. They’ve been together four years, him and Sophie, and while Colman has essentially no idea who the fellow is, he seems a decent sort. He does something in a lab. Gallantly now, James takes Helen’s arm, and she beams with pleasure. Sophie is inside already, he says.

As they join Jess by the gate, she is on her phone. ‘I seem to have lost my husband and daughter,’ she tells them, and rolls her eyes. Colman has known her since she was a shy, slightly scowling child; the mass of russet curls that would shake and spring then are now complicatedly pinned and smoothed. It is amazing to him that that little scowling child has a daughter of her own, the as-yet absent flowergirl. Astrid—as the name comes to him he is touched again by its prettiness. ‘Go on in,’ Jess says to them. She smiles, though clearly she is furious. ‘I’ll be along.’

Colman gives her a gormless double-thumbs-up and follows as James steers Helen into the car park. Close to the doors of the registry office, the Flynns stand next to a gleaming black Saab with a white ribbon in a V from grill to wing-mirrors.

‘Cita!’

‘Helen!’

They hug like long-lost sisters, then step apart to admire each other’s outfits: Cita’s fuchsia-pink suit with matching pillbox hat, Helen’s mint green wrap dress, a darker shawl over her shoulders. A week ago Colman found Helen sitting on their bed in her underwear, and weeping. The dress was in a ball on her lap. ‘It hangs off me,’ she said. He told her she was beautiful, and it was true: the bones of her face would never be otherwise; but it was true too that she had withered her body to something frightening.

‘Colman, how are you?’ Liam is tall and thin, beaky-nosed.

Colman takes his hand. ‘Good man, Liam,’ he finds himself saying. ‘Good man.’

‘You were unwell.’ Cita says this softly to Helen as they climb the stone steps, and gravely Helen admits she was, she was.

The plates for dessert remain. On Helen’s, the once-dainty pyramid of four profiteroles is in ruins; Colman took the topmost for her, to make it respectable; the others have simply been moved about.

Further down the table, standing under a glare that makes him balder than he is, Brian is delivering his best man’s speech. ‘Speaking of, of unrequited love,’ he reads, turning a quaking page. ‘A few words must be said about James’s long—longstanding, ah, affair with Femore Gaels GFC.’

Around the room, there is laughter, and nods of rueful agreement. Colman no longer hears the words, but he nods and smiles and even laughs along, a beat behind. His eyes follow a teaspoon that is loosely gripped in Helen’s fingers.

As Brian elaborates hoarsely—famous victories, and defeats, with final-whistle results not left out—the spoon hovers and pecks, a birdlike thing. It touches the profiteroles, the table’s edge, the folded place-name, with the words Mother of the Bride there in Colman’s flowing script. ‘Would you do them, Daddy?’ Sophie had asked. ‘You’ve such lovely handwriting.’

‘Another time,’ Brian perseveres, dabbing a red napkin to his bright forehead, ‘we hired this, this minivan for the away leg…’

Earlier, when the waitress poured the organic Malbec, half the room watched Helen’s glass fill; it was refilled a second time and is empty now. In the last year Helen’s tolerance has been unpredictable, erratic: an entire bottle might have no effect one day; on another, all it took was half a glass, and then, simple as a door opened, or closed, it hit her and she would suddenly be far gone.

Someone was sick in the minivan and Brian is not saying—‘I’m not saying,’ he repeats—that it could have been James. This gets a few weak laughs that ramp up suddenly when Brian drops to his seat and everyone realises that that, in fact, was the end of the story, the end of the speech. The room applauds, Colman too, a beat late again, and Helen too, once—mercifully—she has put down the spoon.

Towards the centre of the top table, heads questioningly lean forward and back. Brian hauls himself up again. ‘Sorry, I forgot, it’s Jess now. So, everybody—Jess?’

The room’s faces shift aim with scattered volleys of applause. On the far side of Sophie and James, Jess stands. Her hands flap in front of her as she thanks Brian.

‘I’m not one for speeches,’ she says. ‘I didn’t even write anything down, I’m so bad. So, I’m just going to say, Sophie, you look amazing, you are amazing. Jimbo, you’re on to a good thing here; I just know you’ll be very happy together. So, okay, before I start crying and everything, I’m going to sing. Right from the start Sophie said she wasn’t going to have one of those weddings where all the women just sit there smiling while the men do all the talking, so this—this is my compromise because I’m really not a speech person. Okay, so, no more blather from me. Here’s an old song, you’ll all know it…’

She takes a sip of water, closes her eyes. The room watches. Her hands join behind her back. ‘My young love said to me, my mother won’t mind…’ By little sighs and chair-creaks, the room surrenders. ‘And my father won’t slight you, for your lack of kine…’

At the ceremony, Colman had noticed the swathe of rosaceous pimples on the backs of Jess’s arms; he had felt a dart of pity, knowing it was a thing she’d tried to treat after the dress was chosen. Sophie had snappishly told her not to be silly, that no one would notice. As children, it was Jess, being bigger, who dominated, even bullied, Sophie. He never intervened, never raised it with Helen. He steered clear, because once—just once—Jess’s fluting voice had reached up from the patio to his curtained study. ‘He’s a bit funny, isn’t he, your dad?’ He had not caught Sophie’s answer.

It will not be long love, till our wedding day…’

Beside him, Colman senses Helen respond to the song, sway a little in her seat. She has always loved music.

She stepped away from me,’ Jess sings, beaming at Sophie. ‘And she moved through the fair…’

Colman tries to focus on the lyric, the way he thinks others must, but when it finishes he still feels like he has missed some essential point. Everyone else seems to get it, though: the applause is loud and long. Colman applauds too, but also holds back a little, so that Brian might not feel too bad. As the clamour dies away it is pierced by the sound of glass being tapped commandingly with silverware. Colman’s eyes shoot to Helen’s hand, but there is nothing there, and the shrill ringing continues.

‘Ah, so this is unscheduled, I know…’ At the far end of the table Liam is standing, drained glass in one hand, some utensil brandished in the other. He clears his throat; once, twice. ‘Sophie, you’ll forgive me…?’

Colman sees only his daughter’s gesture, her hand giving Liam the floor. As the recitation begins—the names of people being thanked, the departed remembered—Colman is slow to notice that Helen has begun re-testing her spoon against her water-glass, soundlessly at first, then less so.

‘Helen,’ he whispers, his tone pitched uselessly between a plea and a demand. A woman in brown nearby—some Flynn aunt or other—is watching now too, and frowning. Instantly, Colman withdraws.

‘We are so delighted, too,’ Liam continues, ‘that our new friends, Helen and Colman, are both able to be with us today.’

Colman controls a wince, nods his acknowledgment to the eyes that come his way. Helen does not acknowledge anything. The spoon is arrested, but her fingers tighten. The woman in brown gives a good hard stare.

Liam’s litany of names is long. Every so often, to break the rhythm, he inserts the words all the way from before counties, townlands, parishes. After each of these, Helen’s glass chimes, a little louder every time, until one by one all of the guests are aware of it.

‘Helen, please,’ Colman hisses.

Liam ploughs on; then, during a pause, the glass rings again, loud and long, a pure note in the room. He turns to see what will happen next, to see if it is safe to continue.

Colman is in agony, but then Helen simply puts down the spoon and leans close to him. ‘I don’t feel well,’ she says. ‘I think maybe I should lie down…’

What happens next is not entirely clear to Colman, neither in the moment nor after the fact. As Helen unsteadily pushes back her chair, she stumbles—Colman rises too then, and tries to catch her elbow—but she reaches out for the table, and somehow lifts the tablecloth with her, and then it is Colman’s untouched Malbec that topples first—slowly, it seems, to begin with; in a red arc it sails over the white linen edge, with cutlery, crockery, a full water jug and the pink-and-white rose display following after it.

Oh, for God’s sake,’ says the awful woman in brown.

Up in their room, Colman’s ancient, tan leather bag sits under the window. Helen’s purple case is on the bed. Taking the grained handle, Colman moves the case to the floor, leaving two wheel-shaped depressions in the pale green coverlet. In the en-suite, Helen is being sick, and Colman knows better than to ask if he can help. Carefully he opens one of the long-necked bottles of sparkling water on the side table, controlling the gas escape. He hears the toilet flush and then there is a singing from the pipes in the wall as the tap runs. She will tidy herself, wipe the porcelain, but he will look for red specks. At Christmas there was an episode; nothing, mercifully, since. But the walls of her oesophagus are weak; bleeding, they’ve been told, is a risk.

Colman half-fills the glass: the bubbles seethe, dampen his hand. He sits it on a folded tissue on the table on her side. Helen comes from the bathroom, closing the door but leaving the light and the extractor at work.

‘I think it was the hake…’ she says, sitting on the edge of the bed.

On one knee, already undoing the clasps of her shoes, Colman agrees it might have been.

‘… or the cream in the dessert things.’

Colman pauses as if to consider this; then says, ‘Ready?’

Helen lowers herself back as he swings her feet up; her heels come to rest, almost perfectly, in the dimples from the case.

Oh, that’s better.’

He takes the mat from the bathroom, lays it beside the bed. He places the wastepaper basket there too. It is wicker, but plastic-lined. She does not look, but after a moment says, ‘All the way from the real capital!’

Colman smiles, sits by her outstretched shins, and when he dares to pat them, lightly, the skin is cool and thin as film over the bone. ‘This is unscheduled,’ he attempts to mimic, nose in the air.

Sophie, you’ll forgive me?’ she says. ‘Oh, she will alright…’ Her laugh comes out constricted by her horizontal position. ‘Little he knows her!’

For a moment, with rueful smiles, they let their daughter’s nature linger.

Careful not to rock the mattress, Colman raises himself and goes to the window. It gives onto a tarmac area of overflow parking, a half-dozen cars lined up next to several large container-style bins. Idly he remembers the view from the high-ceilinged rooms they’d toured in the main house: the lawns and raked gravel and stone urns. He sees it as a wintry scene, as it had been then.

Now, below, bonnets and windscreens turn gilded, the dropping sun reflected from somewhere unseen. He unhooks the swag of curtain, takes its weight in his hand, and as he does so a child runs into view on the grass behind the cars. She falls, laughing. She rolls on her back, eyes closed against the bright, sending her gurgling laughs up and up and up…

You monkey!’ says an adult voice, somewhat muffled by the glass. The girl squeals, and Colman recognises Jess’s husband, Rory, as he appears, and only then, by association, does he know Astrid. Her frock is different, yellow now. The earlier one was cornflower blue. As if a bystander to himself, Colman can never tell, much less control, where his thoughts will go.

‘Come on, monkey.’ Rory half-heartedly pulls a white-socked ankle. There are more squeals. ‘Now, come on!’ The tone alters, the foot is dropped. Colman registers the girl’s confusion: adult unpredictability. ‘Up,’ Rory barks. ‘Mum’ll skin you if you get grass on that dress.’

‘That Jessica Peart, though,’ Helen is murmuring. ‘Such a lump, and then this voice of an angel out of her…’

Astrid and Colman study the small body for punishable grass. A moment later, hand in hand, father and daughter exit Colman’s frame.

‘But that song,’ Helen continues. ‘At a wedding? More inappropriate you could not get.’

Colman agrees vaguely; on the grass an image of Astrid falls again, skirt upturned, and there is a waking stir in his penis.

Then a car pulls in, sun-flare dazzling in its turning glass.

‘The afters are arriving,’ he says, feeling again the heaviness of the curtain. ‘Open or closed?’

‘I mean, I could have told her—but does anyone ask muggins here…?’

Colman lets the curtain fall; the room goes dark.

‘… No they do not,’ Helen says. ‘No they do not.’

On the lawn it is still mild. Guests in twos and threes, drinks in hands, throw long-limbed shadows. There are fairy lights on the gazebo, violet clouds in a peach-coloured sky. A jasmine plant somewhere releases its night-scent. Colman has made it through the crowded lounge. ‘I’m looking for Sophie,’ he’d said, fending off small-talk, well-wishers. Liam had discovered him in a corridor and, once it was certain Colman would be alone for the evening, invited him to ‘help orchestrate the cake-cutting business.’ Together they’d looked in on the dining-room, where tables were already reconfigured, fresh cups inverted on saucers, napkins neatly tented, no sign now of the fallen Malbec. The name-cards, too, occurred to him; in a bin somewhere, he supposed.

He drifts through the lawn-drinkers. One by one the new arrivals will have learnt about the excitement, and one by one they will have misunderstood. A figure is hailing him and absently he moves that way.

‘Mr Quinn, hiya. Oh—’

Rory drops to one knee to receive Astrid at full tilt. He scoops her up, wields her at his shoulder.

‘Mr Quinn—sorry, stop that, Astrid—I hear you’re looking for the bride?’

Astrid glowers, and Colman smiles, head to one side. She’s tired, crankiness in blotches on her face. Another version of her tumbles on the grass outside his window. In this version Colman is not interrupted, every detail already sharpened, savoured, ripe for playback.

‘I am, I am,’ Colman sheepishly admits.

Rory re-hoists the burrowing Astrid, blows a mouthful of curls from his face. ‘They were last seen heading for the lake.’ His eyebrows arch. ‘For a moment’s peace, apparently.’

‘Ah, magic, thank you. Now, this one…’ Colman’s fingertip doesn’t quite touch the pudgy calf—he has never so much as laid a finger, ever. ‘She’s been amazing.’

Colman follows a meandering, high-hedged path, the deep gravel sliding underfoot. He takes the long way around, so that he can regain composure.

At the edge of the lake there is a bench where Sophie sits, facing the water, her long pale nape bare beneath her pinned hair. Jess is standing; she hides something behind her back as Colman appears.

‘Oh, Mr Quinn,’ she says, and a cigarette is revealed. ‘I thought you were Astrid there.’ She wears a wine-red shawl around her shoulders—a pashmina, some inner echo of Sophie or Helen corrects. He’d comment, admire it, only the skin complaint seems related and he would not like to draw attention.

Sophie turns. ‘Are you the search party?’ She looks tired and very beautiful. ‘Are we gone that long?’

‘No, no—you’re grand.’ He waves a dismissive hand. ‘So did you see these famous ducks yet?’

They say they didn’t think to look. All three gaze out at the gleaming, glinting surface. Jess blows a slow blue plume, and when it breaks apart Sophie asks: ‘Is she coming down?’

Colman sees for an instant the curtained bedroom. ‘No, I don’t think she will, no.’

‘Good,’ Sophie says after a moment. She glances towards Jess, who holds her cigarette-hand at arm’s length, fingers up, as if trying to decide about an imaginary ring. Without returning Sophie’s glance, she nods.

‘Do you know,’ Sophie continues, ‘do you know, I don’t even care.’ She looks at Colman meaningfully. ‘I’ve said it before, it’s you I feel sorry for.’

‘Ah now, don’t…’ Weakly his hand dismisses again. The red specks were there in the bowl when he looked, under the rim. The day is coming when he and Sophie will meet many of the guests again and accept their condolences. When that happens Sophie will not mourn, nor will she later, when it is Colman’s turn. She has feared him for too long, never knowing why.

‘So, Jess,’ he says, rousing himself with some difficulty. ‘That song, your performance of it, it was just stunning. Just, just stunning.’

‘Ah, thanks, Mr Quinn.’

Voice of an angel, he hears again Helen saying, and he has the urge to repeat that now, to feel the closeness of her words. For Colman, no one knows music like she does, and when it comes to such things he has always relied on her. It goes back to their earliest days together, and that one particular afternoon when he was waiting for her in a café off Dame Street. He’d found a rare free booth, and music was playing. More than half a lifetime later, every detail is vivid: how the upholstered leather creaked under him, how the smell of fresh and burnt coffee mingled sweet with acrid in the air. It was hot, and he’d worn a shirt and tie and could feel himself sweating. His whole life, he’d known what he was, had known and been terrified by it. But lately, desperately, he’d decided to live, to try to live, trusting that the change could follow. He threw himself into it, he went for drinks after work, he talked to women, and he met her. But it was no use, nor was it fair, and he knew—he knew—he had to end it… Except then the bell over the door jangled and she was sliding in across from him—the luck of a booth! her eyes seemed to exclaim. He began to speak, in utter confusion, but she reached across the table and touched her finger to his lips—

‘Shush a sec—I haven’t heard this song in years…’

He still felt the shock of it: the blood-warmth of her touch. At first he could only pretend to listen; his thoughts were reeling. Then he could hear it—jaunty, twanging, familiar to a point. Boom-chicka, boom-chicka. As the chorus came around again she was smiling. She mouthed along, chin low to match the gruff American singer, and when it faded out she laughed at her own silliness. A new tune began immediately.

This!’ she groaned. ‘How can they follow that with this!’ She leaned out to see the counter, as though to express her complaint.

Colman had no earthly idea why the first song was so much better than the new one, but he knew this much: that she knew, and that she could show him; and that she was young and clever and beautiful, lit with the spark of life, and that somehow, for some reason, she liked him, and because of that he could change for her, change his whole life—

‘You’ve the voice of an angel,’ he blurts out now to Jess, but the closeness is not there; he cannot call it back. ‘Someone was saying that just now.’

Jess laughs, drops her cigarette and toes it out. ‘Ah, you’re too kind, Mr Quinn.’

Helen knew. She knew because a wife would know; because for half a lifetime their pillows touched. She knew, and yet she doubted. Together they had fought to keep that doubt alive the way others fought for love.

‘He’s a bit of a charmer, your old man,’ Jess says to Sophie.

‘Ah, here,’ Colman lightly objects. ‘Less of the old.’

They turn to go. Sophie takes Colman’s arm, but after a few steps he frees himself and goes back to the water’s edge. I’ll watch her, he had promised, only that morning, but it was she who had forever watched him, and that had taken its toll. When she began to drink, he let her. And he had let Sophie hate her. If he could change one thing, it would be that.

The women look on as he sinks to one knee. He takes one of the table’s red paper napkins from his jacket and picks up the scorched and flattened cigarette-stub. He examines it for embers, then wraps and pockets it and slowly stands. ‘The ducks,’ he explains, mock-wounded. ‘You wouldn’t want to see one left alone.’

‘The mallards,’ Sophie corrects as she comes and re-takes his arm.

‘Ah, the mallards,’ Jess says, as though under that high violet sky there could be no greater romance.

That night, as Colman lies down next to Helen, as the music bumps distantly through the floor, and he tells her about the lake, Helen says sleepily: ‘But that’s not right at all—you’re thinking of swans or geese. Mallards are seasonal.’ They hold hands then, as they do every night. ‘Or,’ she says, and in the dark Colman can hear her smiling, ‘it’s just some lie they tell all the couples.’