The man appeared huge in their apartment door, filling the entire frame of it. He had full, sallow cheeks and coarse black hair, the front of which fell across his forehead, curling and wet. His sturdiness made the furniture in Cliona and Ben’s apartment appear flimsy, the cheap paintings and vases a failed attempt to hide the shabbiness of the carpet and curtains, things they couldn’t really afford to replace.

He introduced himself as Leo, shaking their hands. He called Cliona ‘young lady’ and Ben ‘sir’. In neither case did it strike Cliona as patronising or deferential, and she wondered how he did that. His work trousers were wide and at the end of his legs were feet that were surprisingly small. It gave the impression of a stocky man sitting on an adolescent’s shoulders, poorly disguising the arrangement with a long coat.

Cliona guided him through to the bathroom, where she switched on a light to illuminate what looked like several cups of wet coffee grounds thrown against the walls. Leo gasped as he stepped around Ben and Cliona and into their dim and narrow bathroom. The mould was dense and textured in the corners of the ceiling. As it spread toward the shower and toilet, it grew expansive and speckled. The air was humid. It had rained constantly for two days, which had only made things worse. The walls in every room were wet to touch and the paint had started to swell and blister.

Leo rubbed a hand across his stubble. ‘I’ve been doing this for decades, but I think this could be the worst I’ve ever seen.’ Only then did Cliona detect a slight South African accent.

Leo turned around, and as he looked into the kitchen, his face grew almost sorrowful to see the mould had spread there too. ‘Oh, would you look at the state of that. It’s like a Victorian hospital,’ he tutted, stretching his hand towards it.

‘The landlord said it’s because we spend too much time at home,’ Cliona ventured.

Ben chimed in then, apparently encouraged by her lead. ‘Yeah, he said that our breath causes too much condensation and the ventilation system can’t handle it.’

‘Oh, how inconsiderate of you,’ Leo said dryly. He stepped across the hall into the kitchen. ‘Breathing in your own home.’ He reached up to pull away the slotted cover of what appeared to be an air extractor. Behind it was nothing but a narrow hole. ‘I suppose you cook here too. In the place you pay rent to live? The nerve.’ He chuckled, crossing his eyes, severely, as if dumbfounded by the idea.

Ben laughed, slowly. He liked expressive people, especially when it came as a surprise.

This was the second damp expert the landlord had sent out. The first man had obviously been instructed by him to insist it wasn’t all that unusual to find mould growing on your clothes or shoes. It was an old building, what did they expect? Cliona had been defeated and wanted to let it go, but after several chest and ear infections, the landlord eventually agreed to send a second expert to them.

On the phone, Cliona had heard Ben say, ‘A real one this time, not one of your friends you’re paying to fob us off.’ She had been washing up after dinner in the kitchen and the remark made her press a soapy hand to her mouth.

Ben wore his sleek, brown hair in a ponytail and had long lashes and dark, watery eyes. This belied a temerity that made Cliona both nervous and proud. She worried that he would be too strident in his complaints, that they might be evicted. This apartment was good value, with a large bedroom and a separate kitchen and sitting room. They could hardly afford a studio elsewhere for the same rent. When she voiced this fear, Ben criticised her weakness. They’d be alright, he insisted. How though? She pressed. They had already been looking elsewhere and they couldn’t even get a viewing. She knew he didn’t have a plan, just the assurance that he could go back to his parents. Meanwhile, her brother, his girlfriend and their daughter took over her parents’ place. It hurt that he didn’t seem to consider this.

‘I understand that you are planning to pay half the cost while the landlord will pay the rest, yes?’ Leo asked, then. Ben rolled his eyes, reluctantly agreed. This of course had been another point of contention, something Ben was bitter about capitulating to.

‘I’ll get a quote across to you this afternoon,’ said Leo. ‘I imagine it should come in around twelve hundred,’ he said tentatively.

‘So, we’d pay six hundred, then,’ Ben said.

Although he appeared causal, she knew Ben was relieved. Between them they could afford no more than eight hundred. Even then, this expense would use up nearly all of her rainy-day fund. He was a German teacher who also taught classical guitar at the weekend. She had worked briefly in an advertising agency, an enervating yet hectic role she’d hated. In confusion and desperation, Cliona had believed she might be too creative for the job. Not once did it occur to her that she might be too stupid. Now she worked in customer service for a medical supply company and loved it. But their combined salary didn’t amount to much. They split everything as evenly as possible and whatever disposable income left was spent with guilt and care.

Although it appeared that Leo’s survey of the apartment was complete, he lingered for another fifteen minutes, listening to their complaints of how the mould had affected their life and belongings. It was hard to know when they ought to hold back, whether they might appear ungrateful, if Leo might privately consider them precious. But his shock at their problem was too gratifying to leave alone. They showed him the green and furry mould that had taken hold of their photo frames, the damp that had weakened their mahogany desk and the puddles of water pooling around the window frames. Just wait, they said, see for yourself. If you just follow us through here, it gets so much worse.

After he left, both Cliona and Ben were reinvigorated. There was housework to be done, but theirs was the pent up, unfocused sort of energy that comes with feeling vindicated, so they decided to take a walk instead. It was a wet evening but mild and still bright. In the park near their apartment, the trees were silvery and moist, the branches stark but heavy with nascent unfurling leaves. They both tried not to talk about the mould; it was too dreary to obsess over. But invariably they found the conversation looping back around to Leo. When they ran out of things to say, one would turn to the other and cross their eyes in imitation of Leo in the kitchen.Wasn’t he a decent sort of person, Ben insisted. A decent country sort of person, Cliona, who had grown up in West Clare, added. Yes, they agreed. It was hard to come by, sometimes. It was nice, for a change.


Cliona was forced to take the morning off work for Leo’s next visit. Ben would be in school, teaching until half three. The idea of being alone with Leo made her nervous, not because she felt threatened but because she feared Ben’s absence would make her less inhibited. She worried she might ramble inanely, a nervous habit Ben had identified five years earlier when they first got together. It was then a relief that Leo arrived with two other men, a broad-shouldered young man and an older, soft-spoken man who immediately asked to use the bathroom, the request urgent and anxious. He had small eyes with large, dark irises. He also addressed Cliona as ‘ma’am’. Her amusement at this seemed to perplex him, which she felt bad about.

At first, Leo delayed telling her what they were about to do, asking if she ought to take notes to relay to Ben, later on. He then seemed impressed by her insistence that this was unnecessary, she would understand. Even in the moment, the triumph of winning his approval was a little unpleasant. It was like this sometimes, with men. She had the feeling of being a scurrying rodent, vying for the little piece of cheese or bread from the man’s hand. Yes, you’re happy to be fed but you’re still just a mouse.

First, they would install an extractor fan in the bathroom. Cliona lingered, unsure whether she would need to be consulted. It quickly became clear that the younger man was aggrieved to be taking orders from Leo. He interrupted him several times, contradicting his instructions, suggesting they use a different method to the one Leo had decided. At first, Leo was patient, allowing that, yes, in theory that method was perfectly suitable, but that in his experience, his considerable experience, it just wasn’t quite as effective as his own.

Only when the younger man grew openly frustrated did Leo employ a sharper tone. He instructed the younger man to retrieve a tool, but he could not find it. He had emptied the boxes of equipment and was certain it wasn’t there. He swivelled around, gesturing to the floor, insistent that Leo had forgotten it. There were several tools and pieces of equipment that Cliona could not identify on the carpet, as well as lengths of white plastic tubing. The younger man’s voice grew slightly irate. There wouldn’t be time to drive back to get it—they had another job at two o’clock. What were they supposed to do?

Leo surveyed the equipment slowly, before pointing to the man’s left foot, at something that looked to Cliona like a large, rusted eyelash curler.

‘Well, what’s that, at your feet then, ah?’ he asked. ‘What would you call that? A cream bun?’ He looked at the older man then, who chuckled obediently.

‘Yeah,’ the older man added quietly, knowing whom to align himself with, ‘it’s his lunch, I’d say.’

The younger man bent to pick up the item in question, his face red. It appeared he had taken it from the box, hadn’t recognised it for what it was and discarded it. Cliona pitied him for trying so hard only to come up a fool in the end.

The men worked solidly and noisily for two and a half hours. Cliona offered them tea or coffee, but Leo refused, frowning as if a hot drink would be premature and uncouth. They had managed to install extractor fans in the bathroom and kitchen but would need to schedule another visit to install a ventilation unit in the bedroom. Leo invited Cliona to the bathroom, to see how the fan worked. She hovered at the threshold while he stood by the sink. The bathroom was narrow and cramped. To fit two people in there you would need to close the door.

‘Come on in now, young lady,’ he said. ‘You can close that door. I’m not going to bite.’

Cliona sidled around the door and pushed it shut. The air was close and warm.

‘Now, I’m going to ask you to turn on your shower for me there,’ he told her.

She followed his instruction and soon steam had risen from the shower. The fan began whirring, rhythmically.

He clapped his hands together. ‘Excellent, that’s working away for you now, my girl.’

His expression grew mischievous. He pointed an index finger upwards. ‘You know, I often say it, I have plenty of women, my clients, who claim that when they’re in the shower and they hear that fan get going, the first thing they think of is me.’

Cliona couldn’t help but laugh too, his was infectious. She’d been subjected to this kind of thing before, being cornered by a man, at a party or in the office, only for him to say something strange to elicit a reaction, fear or disgust. She felt neither. She didn’t feel tricked or threatened. It was difficult to fathom, because she wasn’t the kind of person to tolerate any innuendo, even if it appeared harmless. Usually, she considered comments adjacent to Leo’s as belonging to the broad base of the pyramid of misogyny, behaviour to be stamped out immediately. For the first time, she could empathise with those women who found themselves taken in by a charismatic cult leader.

Leo suddenly appeared thoughtful. ‘But Jesus, I mean no offence.You know, I have grandchildren now, I’m too old for that kind of thing.’ He lifted his hands, which tremored slightly, as if to dispel the idea. He took his phone from his pocket and flashed a screensaver photo of two toddlers crouched near a murky pond. Cliona smiled to reassure him, but didn’t add to the joke, for fear she might appear coarse and incapable of pulling it off the way he did.


That Friday, they met Ben’s friend Chris and his new girlfriend Lauren at a rundown but trendy Mexican place on the outskirts of town. The tables were lined with benches and the two couples sat across from each other, squeezed between two other parties, bumping shoulders and elbows. This was how it was: Chris had plenty of money, but he liked these cheap, authentic places and knew an unnatural amount about the owners and their staff, which was sometimes welcome but mostly not.

When Cliona and Ben first met Lauren, she told them she met Chris in a bookshop, could they believe that? They raised their eyebrows and drew back their shoulders, subtle gestures that allowed them to have their own wordless conversation, one they would have verbally once they were alone. They would know exactly what the other was thinking in that moment.What Lauren didn’t know is that Chris had first seen her in a café and then followed her to the bookshop, contriving an opportunity to introduce himself.

‘How’s the black mould situation going?’ Chris waggled his eyebrows, looking between Ben and Cliona.

Cliona turned to Lauren.‘We have a bit of a damp issue in our apartment. There’s a lot of black mould sprouting up.’

She returned a half-eaten mushroom taco to her plate. ‘Ew,’ she said softly.

‘Yes. It’s disgusting,’ Cliona said before turning to Chris. ‘But we have made progress. The landlord finally sent somebody decent and it looks like we can get it sorted out now.’ When Cliona described Leo’s charisma and energy, Ben appeared almost as invested in the story at first. Only when she started to describe his diplomatic approach to dealing with his jealous young employee could she sense him disengage.

‘It was nothing to do with ego, you know? He had to put him in his place, but it was for the greater good, so that they could all work together peacefully and with an understanding of the hierarchy.’ Even then, she could see Chris and Lauren were bored but she couldn’t help herself, she couldn’t stop talking about it.

‘Tell them what he said to you in the bathroom,’ Ben suggested, identifying a more interesting thread of the story.

‘Oh yes!’ She was happy to describe the interaction. In doing so, she was careful not to exaggerate anything.

‘How was it that he could do that without making me feel uncomfortable?’ she wondered.‘How did he pull that off?’

‘You’re one of his clients, now,’ was all Chris said. ‘Wait, who’s this again?’ Lauren piped up. Cliona had the impression that Lauren really listened only when Chris was speaking. She didn’t dislike her for this—she thought it wise. Lauren would need to conserve most of her energy for him if she wanted it to work out.

‘Cliona’s falling in love with a plumber,’ Chris told her.

At heart, he was a real snob.

‘He’s not a plumber, he’s a damp expert,’ Cliona said.

‘But she is falling for him,’ Ben added dryly. ‘We’re considering an open relationship.’ He leaned on his elbows and fixed his eyes on Lauren, waiting for her reaction. Cliona had forgotten how much he enjoyed flirting with new women.

‘But seriously,’ Cliona went on, placing a hand on Ben’s wrist to silence him,‘I just think it’s interesting, the difference that body language and implied intent make in these situations, don’t you?’

She looked at all three of them, noting their clear lack of interest. Even Lauren gave nothing more than a polite nod. Cliona felt like she was talking about a long-running but failing research project, a specialised interest no one else cared about.

She also knew she was veering close to Ben’s least favourite topic: the silent conversation between men and women, the daily subtle but pervasive line of communication that varied from lustful to patronising, from insistent to violent. She experienced this almost only with straight men, largely because there was no apparent need for any subterranean conversation with other people. It was fleeting and impossible to prove, yet she allowed it to inform and define the entire interaction. This silent conversation could even be quite intimate, and, depending on its extent, this intimacy could create greater distance between her and the man on the surface, as though they were both ashamed. Sometimes, she perceived impatience and resentment and sometimes she sensed tenderness, affection even. It was the tenderness that confused her and got her into trouble. It led her to obsess over the man and create expansive and improbable stories about him in her head. This was the thing that Ben disliked. Ben didn’t daydream. He took everything at face value. He never let his instinct overcome the bare facts of the situation.

The more Cliona drank, the harder she found it to stop talking about Leo. Even as they ate their ice cream, she found herself prompting Ben, saying things like,‘But isn’t he wasted in his day job? Shouldn’t he be on stage or television?’

‘Doing what?’ he asked, no longer willing to be complicit.

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘He could negotiate hostage situations. Or host one of those shows where he communicates with the audience’s dead relatives.’

At this, Chris snorted:‘Oh, they’re all full of shit.’

She shook her head, but knew not to say anything else, at last. Sometimes it was like this: she failed to explain her thoughts properly.


It was surreal for her to learn, soon after, that of course Leo wasn’t wasted in his day job, that he had a full life besides that. Cliona discovered through googling his name, while drunk after the dinner with Chris and Lauren, that he also ran a charity, a stream of counselling services that ranged from addiction support groups to marriage mediation. The website included a biography that was lengthy and personal. His daughter’s life had been ravaged by addiction and mental illness. She eventually recovered as an adult, but as Leo noted, there were few supports for her, or their family, something that he believed hindered the healing process. He’d found help from community groups, resources he felt were underfunded. In his early fifties, he retrained as a counsellor (it tugged at Cliona’s heart to imagine him as a mature student, earnest and nervous). Alongside two other therapists, one who specialised in bereaved adolescents and another in trauma and crisis management, he ran his services out of a renovated parish hall. Why hadn’t she thought of looking him up earlier? Possibly because she felt embarrassed by the extent of her fascination with him while sober.


It was the following Saturday before Leo returned, this time alone, to install the final ventilation unit in their bedroom. Because Cliona was now slightly more familiar with him than Ben was, she could feel the plane of their dynamic tilting, so that much of the conversation darted back and forth between her and Leo. Leo tried to include Ben, by praising his perseverance with the landlord, saying that a man like that just wants to make as much money as possible, that’s all he cares about. Ben only shrugged, his dark eyes indifferent and remote.

Leo began heaving the unit through the sitting room and into their bedroom, one leg dragging slightly behind the other, leaving muddy smears on their linoleum. Cliona mouthed to Ben:‘Help. Him.’

‘Do you need a hand with anything, Leo?’ Ben called into the bedroom.

‘No, no, I have everything here now,’ he replied, breathless.

Ben turned around and angled his face to Cliona, as if to say, Happy now?

It took Leo less than forty-five minutes to finish the job. The bedroom carpet was coated in flakes of paint and chips of wood. He told them that once they painted over the mould, it shouldn’t return. This time, when Cliona offered him a cup of tea, he accepted it. In the kitchen, Leo pulled out a chair from under the table and sat down. Cliona leaned against counter while Ben hovered near the door frame.

After an extended silence, Leo cleared his throat.‘If you don’t mind, I’m about to pay you both a compliment,’ he began carefully. ‘I can tell, from the limited time I’ve had with you both in the last couple of weeks, that the communication between you is strong.’ He made a fist with his free hand.

He looked towards the fogged-up window. ‘I’m killed telling people this, really, but the line of communication between a couple is the backbone of a relationship. It has to be clear, and it has to be mutual.’ He took a loud gulp from his cup and turned back towards them, shrugging modestly. ‘I moonlight as a counsellor. I only do it part-time, but I do have some idea what I’m talking about.’

Ben’s laughter was abrupt and incredulous.

‘I know,’ Leo said, calmly. ‘You wouldn’t think it, looking at me.’ He gestured to his frayed work trousers and scuffed boots. Leo sat back and squinted. ‘I mean, I work with couples—mediation, reconciliation—and the people I help, it’s really only a 50 per cent success rate. It all depends on what they want to do, obviously.

‘But I have a good feeling about you two,’ he went on. ‘There’s just something about the way you are together. It’s a quiet sort of thing, but I’d say it works, doesn’t it?’

He looked at them expectantly and waited for their confirmation. It came slow and shy. They’d never talked about the quality of their relationship before, only that of those they came in contact with.

‘Look,’ Leo said blithely, placing the empty cup on the kitchen table.‘ You might not think it now, but you’ll probably get married and have kids, at some point.’

Noticing Ben’s expression changing, Leo regarded him gravely and carried on. ‘Believe me, you think it won’t happen.’ He paused and stood up. ‘But it does. And when it does, you’ll need each other. You’ll need to keep the line of communication open. Remember that—keep it strong and clear.’

He moved to gather the tools he’d brought with him. Both Ben and Cliona walked with him to the elevator, carrying the few things he couldn’t manage. Once the chrome doors slid open, he held a boot against it, preventing it from closing prematurely. He looked around a final time at the balding carpet and dented concrete walls. When he spoke, he looked directly at Ben.

‘And the next time you move, find her somewhere nicer than this, would you?’ He grinned then conspiratorially at Cliona. ‘You’re not students anymore. If comfort doesn’t matter to you now, it will soon.’

They walked silently back to their apartment. Cliona was afraid to say anything in case Leo heard her through the thin walls. Once the lock was turned in the door, Ben pressed one eye to the peephole, to make sure he hadn’t come back, having forgotten something.

‘What a load of shite,’ he hissed. ‘My head is wrecked listening to him. Imagine going to him for counselling. A 50 per cent success rate? What good is that?’

It wasn’t necessary for Cliona to respond. He was aggravated, off on a tangent, and didn’t require any reinforcement in order to continue.

‘Also, anyone could tell you that communication is important. Easily the most clichéd advice I’ve ever heard about relationships.’

Meanwhile, Cliona wondered why Leo assumed they’d get married and have children. Ben seized up with displeasure whenever she told him about a friend getting pregnant.‘That’s their life over’ was all he’d say, as though they had received a terminal diagnosis that he’d been lucky enough to avoid. This had seemed like something that might eventually change as they got older. Now, she felt stupid for her earlier hopefulness. Why would he ever change? And they were both thirty-two, almost thirty-three. What was going to happen, exactly? She’d been too afraid to ask, in case she was told that this was the most he was willing to offer. Would they just tumble along, as they had for the last few years, until one of them decided they had enough? She thought about some of her friends with children, whom she had previously believed she pitied. They couldn’t up and leave and start a new life at the drop of a hat. But when would she do that either? She didn’t even want a new life.

In the hours after Leo left, she began to understand more thoroughly why it was that his assessment had bothered her: he’d been wrong about them as a couple. He’d assumed that they were compatible and equally invested in a shared future, which wasn’t true. There was an imbalance that left her with less power. It was disappointing, not simply because it forced her to acknowledge an unhappy truth about her relationship, but also because it made her lose faith in Leo’s wisdom.

Surely they would have to talk about this. Ben would start to think about it too when he calmed down, he’d have to. The implications of Leo’s advice would start to dawn on him. They couldn’t just ignore it and carry on as they had before, wandering aimlessly through life together, only tenuously attached. She took a shower and washed her hair, an activity that helped her in overwhelming moments. The fan began to whir and, yes, she thought of Leo, but it was he who planted the idea in her head. Probably he’d made it up and the only reason he came to anyone’s mind in the shower was because he’d already created an earlier association. It was a psychological trick, something difficult to prove either way.

Even after they painted over the mould, it would return. They learned too late that it had nothing to do with the circulation of clean, dry air. The extractor fans and ventilation unit whirred uselessly, driving their electricity bills up but doing nothing to improve the damp conditions. It was the insulation, the single-paned windows, the poor infrastructure. The whole building was riddled with damp, and the only way to fix it would be to tear through the rotted walls and start all over again. They could either learn to live with it or leave. The landlord would find other tenants, poorer than Ben and Cliona, who would be satisfied with a roof over their heads.

Rebecca Ivory

Rebecca Ivory was born in 1993 and is a writer based in Dublin. Her short fiction has appeared in The Stinging Fly, Banshee, Tangerine and Fallow Media. In 2020, she was awarded a Literature Bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland. ‘Settling Down’ appears in her debut story collection, Free Therapy, published by Jonathan Cape on 14 March 2024. Copyright © Rebecca Ivory 2024.

About Settling Down: Almost every house or apartment I’ve lived in in Ireland has been plagued by mould or damp. I don’t know if that’s because of the general building standards in our country, or if my particular presence is more prone to drawing out moisture from within the walls and window frames. When I wrote this story, I was a little bit obsessed with mould, in the same way that Cliona finds herself intrigued by Leo. I think she likes that he is practical and kind, and that he seems to present a straight-forward solution to her problems, which go beyond the damp-riddled walls of her apartment. What she fails to consider is that her problems are caused by larger issues and a personal and financial insecurity I feel she avoids facing. Eventually, she sees that much like the damp and mould in her apartment, the problems run deeper within the infrastructure of her home and life. Ultimately, there is no straight-forward fix, and these are problems that she will just have to learn to live with.