James Lawless

 

James Lawless

 

(Ireland)

 

 

 

JOLT

 

 

Standing in a soft cotton towel, the night air caressing him like a heating fan, he looks out through the open shutters of the veranda. He hears the waves breaking on the shore to the haunting chant of the muezzin echoing over the minarets and onion domes of the mosques. To the west a huge globe of sun is setting. He looks back at his wife sleeping, her head partly covered by the sheet, a sleeve of her white nightdress sticking out, revealing an arm as if dismembered. He listens for her breathing, not loud as it sometimes is, but gentle now, in harmony with the waves.

Is it sixteen or seventeen years now since they first met at the Galway literary festival? His love of books, her love of singing pubs and craic. She liked to give the impression she was a bit of a bohemian with her loose sweaters and jeans, or ‘off-duty’ denim skirt to replace her starchy nurse’s uniform. Bought him the Faber Book of Irish Verse, which he read to her, said he read beautifully, finding Yeats a turnon, he captured the emotion, the pathos of the poems in what she called his ‘mellow Dublin voice’. She was passionate, demonstrative in her lovemaking. ‘Oh a nurse, is she now?’ Flaherty in the bank had said, ‘they can make you come in thirty seconds flat. A slight puffiness around her knuckles now   –  she uses soap to remove her rings before going to bed.

They had no honeymoon. After the wedding it was back to Dublin. She nursed in the Maternity hospital in the Coombe; he worked in a Phibsborough bank. All their savings and energy were being put into the building of the new bungalow on the half acre of ground that Michael had perspicaciously bought some years previously in Meath.

Two years after they married they had a baby girl, Niamh, the darling of their lives. She grew tall (Michael’s long legs) with dark pigtails (her mother’s hair). During the Easter break of her first year in secondary school, Niamh went on a school trip to Belfast. A bomb exploded in a pub as the tour bus drove up the Grosvenor Road. The bus, its windscreen shattered, careened out of control knocking down a schoolboy before coming to a halt on the pavement. Niamh and two other girls, who were sitting on the pub side of the bus, and the boy who was knocked down, were pronounced dead on their admission to the Royal Victoria hospital.

Kathleen never went back to work after losing Niamh. ‘Could you face it?’ she said accusingly to him. He wanted her to try and go back after months of moping, sitting in her dressing gown at the kitchen table into the late afternoons, smoking cigarettes. It was depressing to commute through the heavy traffic every evening and arrive home to see her still sitting there listlessly in the same position. He avoided kissing her. ‘What did you do all day? ‘I painted my arse red and went mad,’ she said, ‘what do you think I did?’ ‘It would get you out of yourself,’ he said, ‘if you went back.’ ‘What? Go back to all those other babies?’ she said, scratching furiously at the flaky skin on her left arm. ‘No way.’

She drew deeply on her cigarette, soggy between her lips. ‘Before Niamh I mean I could look at those other babies, at their weak chests, their umbilical hernias, their defects, but they were perfect for someone. That’s what a baby is, isn’t it, Michael, a little thing with a defect to be nurtured whole.’ She sighed, lifted a strand of tobacco off her tongue. There we were on the conveyor belt handing the striplings over with their half closed eyes in their little shawls and Moses’ baskets to their doting parents. “A perfect little darling,” I’d say and all the time knowing they were not.’ She was sobbing. ‘Niamh had a hernia, remember? Do you remember?’

Things started to slide, like the cooking, the piling up of unwashed plates; the same happened with her appearance, she didn’t care; her breath smelled; her dandruff returned. ‘Too much heating,’ he said, ‘you always have the central heating on; it dries up your skin. She feigned a shiver. ‘Does it occur to you that I might be cold?’ ‘You shouldn’t stay indoors so much,’ he said. ‘You should circulate the blood.’ ‘You want me to go out, is that it?’ she said irately. ‘I’ll go out.’ She started going to a pub where they sang nationalist ballads, and a bodhrán player thumped out her sorrow.

Michael felt the strain. Damn it, he wasn’t just a reinforcer of another, he thought one evening as he sat waiting for his TV dinner to heat in the microwave. What did she expect of him? Every day coming home tired from work trying to find new ways of consoling her. It was exhausting. There were limits to what a partner could do, could keep doing. ‘You have to put things behind you,’ he said. ‘Things! How can you call Niamh a thing?’ ‘I’m not calling Niamh a thing. Disasters,’ he said, ‘whatever, you have to put them behind you.’ ‘Did you not see the body, the lacerations…? Have you forgotten already?’ ‘Of course I haven’t forgotten, but it’s three years now, Kathleen.’

Three yeas became four and five, and there was no sign of any more children forthcoming. If only they could have another child to prevent the ghost of Niamh from creeping back, from dominating the forefront of her mind, night and day. Were they destined to wallow in a lifetime of sorrow? It wasn’t fair. She was using him merely as a weeping sponge, an emotional turnscrew. Every time the news came on the TV with mention of the North, she broke down. She had a box of man-size Kleenex on the coffee table beside her couch, and she would grab a fistful of these tissues whenever the need arose to quell the flow of her tears and muffle the sound of her wailing.  He told her to go and see someone, but she took umbrage. ‘Is that what you want?’ she said. ‘You want me to go and see a shrink, to be a laughing stock.’

He didn’t pay much heed to the singing pubs that she dragged him to in the beginning of their relationship. What were a few rebel songs? He actually enjoyed tagging along, enjoyed a drink. The songs were harmless anachronisms. Sex was the thing. She’d get high on the vodka and the music. She’d slobber over him. He didn’t mind when it led to something more. What guy wouldn’t? She sneaked him into her room in the nurses’ home, and got naked with the sheets pulled back and the light from the moon through the window painting her thighs silver. ‘Come to me now.’ An order. And when he came she would say, ‘Good boy,’ as if he were a child who had done something wonderful.

It was fine, a novelty to have a woman so… so uninhibited until in time, not long into their marriage, he began to grow a little tired of some of those initiatives, like the way she’d always throw herself at him, tearing the clothes off his back the minute they’d get home after work. ‘Oh, the traffic,’ he’d say, just wanting to sink into an armchair and unknot all those snarling juggernauts and complicated accounts from his brain. There was no time (or inclination) for arousal, no time to unwind, no time for anything gradual. That was Kathleen. She cooked fast, would ‘throw’ something on the pan; made love fast, her thick hair wet with sweat, tossed back like a mane, and she in the throes  – ‘There now, good boy.’ To her, sex was like eating a bread roll or chewing gum, just a habit, nothing much to be made of it, but part and parcel nevertheless of what in some unwritten code she was expected to do. A female must service her male, it’s a primeval thing, an irrefutable behavioural pattern of animal attraction.

She sang loudly; the national anthem she stood to attention for, at the end of each ballad session ‘…and Ireland long a province, be a nation once again’. There was a lack of finesse in her, that’s what it was, he concluded cruelly, what distinguishes the human from the primate.

But all those qualms were quashed, knocked on the head, when Niamh was born, and eleven years went by of near normality. They now had an outer object of affection, a repository of unconditional love as they were fused together for one purpose. They decorated and painted their bungalow, took a real interest in their half acre garden. It was formerly just a sweeping lawn, not without its share of thistles and dandelions which Michael felt dutybound to mow whenever its length dictated. But now all of that was to change. Kathleen planted spring bulbs to bloom in time for the baby’s birth. Michael took some time off work  –  free days that were long overdue  –  and built a chain swing and a little sand playground far back from the road. So… so safe. He closed his eyes, damming the incipient flow of a sly tear.

Kathleen in the hospital paralleled the lives of all the babies with that of Niamh. She would look at tiny prehensile fingers and pudgy noses in a new light; tickle under chins to elicit the big chuckle, to get babies to show off their dimples (like Niamh’s) and she’d go singing, ‘Where can the baby’s dimple be?’ She studied every nuance of their child’s development. Sometimes she used the possessive my even in front of Michael, forgetting to say our child, but he didn’t mind; he understood; she was just getting a bit carried away like all new mothers do. She kept records  –   the first golden lock of hair, every cough, the type  –  in Niamh’s pink baby book. ‘Who can tell, but in some future time she may need to know if she had the whooping cough or measles.’

The waves of the Aegean crash on the rocks, indifferent to time, keeping their own time, thinks Michael, as early light streams through a glaucous sky. Someone in a distant room starts up an electric drill. She stirs, turns towards him, yawns.

They were different: rural west, urban east but open, open he liked to feel. No baggage, that’s what he said, and she thought he meant for travel purposes because that was their last topic of conversation before deciding something was needed. ‘A jolt is what we need,’ he said, meaning to her of course. A new environment, a seachange, a holiday, a belated honeymoon, call it what you will, there was a need for such a thing. ‘To save a marriage,’ he said in a final exasperated tone. It was a Sunday afternoon in early spring when he said that, five years after the death of Niamh. Kathleen was still in bed flicking through a glossy magazine. He knew he’d struck home because normally she’d continue flicking irritatingly while he’d be talking to her, his words just flying over her, but this time the flicking stopped. She scratched her head, the snow of her dandruff littering the page. ‘As extreme as that?’ she said.

They chose Turkey, or rather Kathleen chose it from a coloured brochure she picked up in a travel agents in Liffey Street, and Michael agreed. It had an exotic ring: Islam, belly dancers, camels, the desert, Istanbul. The veil over the eastern world. Before they went to book the holiday, they had heard of isolated incidents of rebellion. It was on the news: the Kurds looking for independence. It brought it all back to Kathleen about the North. ‘Maybe we should go somewhere else, Michael.’ Michael sighed. ‘We need to go somewhere far if it’s to do the trick. It’s no good just going to some Costa Blankout to meet your neighbours from down the road in their timeshare apartments.’ And the travel agent assured them, one hundred and one percent safe; those isolated incidents were far away from where they were going.

The flight, a long four hours, was tiring but not enough to assuage their night ardour in a rattly hotel shower. ‘It’s come back,’ he said. It was the travelling, being forced to look out for each other in their high adventure. ‘Did you write the arrival address on the suitcase sticker? ‘Have you the passports?’ A new alertness, a practical caring, distance forcing them out of a former despondency to be mutually dependent. It was something basic, primeval, yes, thought Michael, that is the word  –  and he savoured it on his tongue like a sweet or a good malt whiskey  –  in a land they knew nothing of: different language, religion, climate. ‘Oh Michael,’ she said, as jets of steaming water cascaded down her breasts. ‘This is what we needed, isn’t it, ISN’T IT?’

 

They sit in the breakfast room under huge chandeliers glittering in the early sunlight which is streaming through the high windows. Could they fall? wonders Kathleen looking up at the shimmering crystal. ‘They’re so heavy looking, Michael, what would happen if they fell?’ ‘They won’t fall,’ says Michael. Those fears, he thinks, she never had those fears. Phobias.

They meet Hazel and Aubrey, a couple from the North of Ireland who, to Kathleen’s annoyance, plonk down at the same table in front of them. ‘We’re next door to you,’ chirps Hazel and she commences to sing ‘Neigh…bours,’ imitating the TV soap. Michael laughs but his laugh quickly changes to a muffled grimace at Kathleen’s undertable kick. Hazel is pleasantly plump, making her look older than she probably is with a sort of maternal grace. Aubrey’s muscled biceps peep thought his short-sleeved shirt. He is touching on the low in stature with mousy, thinning hair. Hazel is the talker, takes an immediate shine to Michael, and Michael, perhaps flattered, warms to her joie de vivre. He likes the way she doesn’t take offence when a waiter enquires if his ‘mother’ is requiring anything.

‘Mother,’ she exclaims good-humouredly and then with a wink she says, ‘We heard you two in the shower.’

 

‘How could it happen?’ says Kathleen after the couple have left for the beach. ‘Our luck. You’d think it was on purpose. Let’s get out of here, Michael.’ ‘We can’t do that,’ he says, his shin still smarting from her kick. ‘Let’s change hotels at least.’ ‘Every place is booked. It’s high season you know.’ ‘Did you try?’ She’s shaking him, making his muesli regurgitate in his stomach. ‘You’re just saying that.’ ‘Look, Kathleen,’ he says firmly, removing her hands from his shoulders, the same hands that held him in such a different manner only several hours earlier. He looks directly into her distraught eyes. It’s a time to be firm. They had made a decision. He feels he’s playing the psychiatrist, the person she should have gone to see in the first place. Repressed memory, all that sort of stuff; some people carry it with them all the way from early childhood, some thing buried deep, crippling the person, and all for the want of a little aeration. Mulrooney, his analretentive boss is a bit like that, come to think of it; never said anything that was his own. What a psychiatrist could do with him. ‘How is the trouble and strife?’ he’d say which was a handy way of not remembering a wife’s name. Oh for some spark, some fire to drive out fire, he thought. ‘Look, Kathleen,’ he hears himself saying, his voice sharp like a psychiatrist’s fingerclick breaking a trance, ‘they may be exactly what you need.’

‘You do this to me, take advantage of me,’ she is saying as they walk along the plushcarpeted corridor to their room, indifferent to a couple of fair-haired Swedes who smilingly stand aside to let them pass. ‘How am I taking advantage of you? You tell me,’ he says. ‘You are,’ she says, starting to whimper, ‘taking advantage of our being far away from home.’

He knows from past experience the futility of continuing to argue with her when she is like that, totally illogical, he thinks. It would be like rolling out a string with bigger and more entangled knots. He hears her gargling in the bathroom, using the beaker, giving her mouth a thorough rinse. Is it coming back, the thoroughness, the former perfectionist in her? She was never really bohemian except perhaps in the sex. She was someone who couldn’t let go of things. Niamh, the perfect child, moulded into her likeness and then… violently rent, hard to accept, he accepted that.

It was an umbilical hernia, he remembered, Niamh suffered from.

He hears her snapping her toothbrush into its plastic holder. ‘Those people,’ he says through the chink in the door, ‘you can’t blame them.’

 

They are climbing a hill, a goat’s path. It’s early afternoon, the sun vertical in the sky. She is wearing her blue denim shorts. He looks at her as she climbs ahead of him, her milk white legs, never looked quite so pale back home. Three or four goats appear and start following them. They frighten him as they get closer with their horns, bells tinkling. She laughs at him. He’s embarrassed. Kathleen knows goats. They had them on the farm in Galway.

She sheds her shyness in the open countryside. She wants to make love al fresco. There is no one about except for the goats. She breathes in deeply the fragrance of the pines. Lying down on the scorched earth, she loosens her blouse, drawing him into her. ‘Is it possible, Michael? Say it’s possible.’ She stares up at the sky. Blue for a boy.

During the evening meal, however, Kathleen, recidivistically continues her sullen appraisal of Hazel as she banters with the waiter. ‘It’s a communal table, we’ve no choice in the matter,’ is Michael’s whispered response to her complaint about having to sit beside the Northern couple again. ‘Look around you. Can you see any other table vacant. Well, can you? You can’t just get up and walk away.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘You can’t do that sort of thing, Kathleen, and remember what I said to you about them earlier. So just relax, will you.’

Aubrey says nothing. He’s not a talker, she concludes. He smiles in a slightly bored way. World-weary. He orders more wine before the others have finished theirs.

Hazel puts down her fork, the last morsel of sherry trifle impaled on a tine. ‘I enjoyed that,’ she says, dabbing her lips with her linen napkin. ‘It’s not the same,’ says Kathleen argumentatively ‘as the ones back home. The sherry tastes off.’ There is a moment of awkward silence making the background sounds of other people’s voices and cutlery and plates come to the fore. Michael pushes his bowl of unfinished dessert towards Kathleen incriminatingly. Hazel says, ‘I wasn’t always so ….’ The three wait for the sentence to complete itself… ‘so round.’ ‘She wasn’t and all,’ says Aubrey who is scraping his bowl apparently indifferent to culinary nuances. So she was offended by that waiter’s remark after all, thinks Michael, or was it the silence just now that had made her uncomfortable, forcing her to think of something fast to say, even if confessional? ‘Do you ever…?’ says Hazel. ‘What?’ says Michael. ‘Oh no,’ she says, ‘you wouldn’t. Men don’t. Maybe…’ She transfers her gaze towards Kathleen who is in the process of trying to squeeze her napkin back into its silver ring. Michael wishes she would desist. It’s a nervous action. Why can’t she leave it for the waiter to do? ‘Do you ever bingeeat, Kathleen?’ says Hazel. ‘No,’ says Kathleen. ‘Well I do.’ ‘She does and all,’ says Aubrey.

Kathleen is about to ask her why she’d do such a thing, but that is exactly what she wants her to do, she concludes, looking for attention. Isn’t that essentially what bingeeating is all about? So, she won’t bother. Why should she give her any satisfaction?

Hazel, ‘the unflappable’, thinks Kathleen, is talking about a boat trip she saw advertised on the notice board in the vestibule of the hotel. ‘It’s to an island on a lake. Would you be interested?’ Michael, withstanding Kathleen’s withering dart, says, ‘Sounds like fun.’

 

Michael wonders about Kathleen; when will she bring it up about Northern Ireland? It’s only a matter of time before she ignites the fuse, but maybe he’s wrong, maybe she will give these people a chance eventually if he perseveres. He was always on about that, taking people as you find them, although it was hard at times with some of the bank crowd; but when you’d meet people casually, it cost nothing to be friendly. And these Northerners, you can’t tar them all with the same brush, and Kathleen knows that. Tarred and feathered, maybe not the right words. Inflammatory. But at home Kathleen talks vehemently about the North. She always did, even before Niamh, but now she has become pathological. She is an expert on timing devices. She can tell from what range and what angle a bomb is lethal or not.

 

The trip across the placid water  –  glistening azure  –  takes less than an hour. They pay the ventricose boatman who takes visible pleasure in helping the ladies disembark, brushing his hand rather obviously against Kathleen’s denimed buttock.

‘Let’s get a shot first,’ says Hazel excitedly, ‘over by the bougainvillea,’ and Kathleen finds herself sandwiched between Aubrey and Michael, being forced to smile into Hazel’s camera lens. It could be a bomb, the click. She is going mad.

They sit by the lake near a ruined masjid. Hazel opens a wicker picnic basket (the hotel arranged it). Aubrey uncorks the wine. Linen napkins. Tuna salad, oysters on ice. ‘What did we bring?’ whispers Kathleen into Michael’s ear. ‘Relax, we’re guests. Next time, okay?’ Next time? Hazel makes sucking noises with her fingers in her mouth which Michael finds sensuous. A tactile person, he thinks not unlike what first attracted him to Kathleen. ‘What’s the book, Michael?’ enquires Hazel. A slightly worn paperback was jutting out from his small haversack. ‘An Answer to the Enemies of Islam.’ ‘Where did you get such a thing?’ ‘At the bazaar in the town.’ ‘And what does it say?’ asks Hazel. Michael flicks through the pages. ‘It’s not a laugh a minute.’ ‘Tell us,’ says Hazel coquettishly. ‘Well, it says stuff like each century will be worse than the one before until Doomsday.’ ‘Oh no,’ says Kathleen, ‘that’s all we need to hear.’ ‘Good holiday reading,’ quips Aubrey. ‘The writer seems to think,’ continues Michael, ‘that spies are everywhere undermining Muslim belief; but there are some nice poetic bits about the stars leading you to felicity.’ ‘Ooh Felicity,’ pipes Hazel mockingly, ‘who is she? Let me see.’ She moves closer to Michael. ‘For God’s sake,’ says Kathleen, and she looks to Aubrey who, to her dismay, is smiling on.

 

There’s a festival. Lots of fireworks lighting up the night sky. Lots of boom (Kathleen thinking it is the Kurds) frightening the street camels laden with their pots and pans and carpets, and all sorts of market paraphernalia becoming undone, holding up the hooting traffic. ‘Watch out for pickpockets,’ warns Aubrey as they find themselves being pressed by the throng. Kathleen breathing hard, panicking slightly, as her autonomy gives way. Hazel’s reassuring voice. Laughter. ‘You okay, guys? Isn’t this something?’

They are led by a Turk, bearded, turbaned, through a maze of side streets to be shown  carpets. ‘Exquisite designs, all done by hand. Wait till you see.’ ‘Once it’s not his harem,’ says Hazel laughing. They go behind veils into a dark grotto surrounded by silks and coloured cloths of different texture and carpets of course, hundreds of them all rolled up. ‘Which is the magic one?’ enquires Hazel saucily, ‘Ali Baba’s?’ The Turk laughs. ‘Please sit.’ They look for chairs. There are none. An old woman crouched in a corner smiles toothlessly at them. They sit on the ground, balancing awkwardly as they try to bend their legs into themselves in the Turkish fashion. They are served tea in tiny glasses. ‘Irish?’ says the Turk. ‘Yes,’ says Kathleen. ‘Póg… mo… thóin,’ he says proudly and raises his glass.

They return to the hotel on a crowded dolmus. ‘What did the phrase mean that he used to toast us?’ asks Hazel. ‘Kiss my arse,’ says Kathleen venomously, delighting in the opportunity to dramatically direct the translated words at Hazel. ‘Some Irish tourists pulling his leg,’ explains Michael. The Irish women scream as the bus lists to one side when the driver takes a sharp bend at speed. The drop is sheer, straight down to the sea. The native passengers look on in silent resignation, their torsos and heads rocking in sync with the movements of the bus. ‘If we survive this,’ shrieks Kathleen, ‘we’ll survive anything.’ But Hazel is not smiling this time. She is out of her seat balancing herself precariously on the floor of the bus and loudly berating the smiling, uncomprehending driver on his recklessness. ‘Don’t you realise…’ she shouts, ‘I say don’t you realise people could get killed.’

There is the sound of a distant explosion as they unstick themselves from the bus. Kathleen, startled, snuggles into Michael, her beach robe riding up her thigh from the sweaty seat. ‘The end of the fireworks,’ says Hazel (her composure restored). ‘Are you sure?’ says Kathleen. They link arms, the four of them, at Hazel’s prompting, as they mount the steps to the hotel. The strap of Kathleen’s bag, with her piece of bought carpet sticking out, keeps slipping from her shoulder, affording her the excuse to break the chain.

 

They take a trip to Ephesus  –  a long journey on a coach provided with a knowledgeable, Turkish courier with impeccable English. The best preserved city of the Roman eras. Better than Rome. The great city, the famous library, the tunnels up to the brothels, the cobbled streets still intact, the commerce, the shops. Michael tries to imagine the hawkers of the ancient world, the traffic, centurions and slaves and of course Saint Paul. ‘The Virgin,’ the courier says, ‘retired to a place near here.’ ‘They don’t believe in her,’ Kathleen murmurs, referring to Aubrey and Hazel. ‘They don’t either,’ Michael retorts curtly, ‘they’re Muslim remember, but they still relate the story.’

Someone asks the courier about the explosions and the Kurds. He lowers his voice even though he is still speaking into the microphone. ‘Yes, there were explosions. Those people…’ he hesitates… ‘they are being denied their ethnic rights. Hunger strike.’ Kathleen nudges Michael. ‘Ask them what they know about Bobby Sands.’

Her mood swings like a pendulum. No, she cannot deny that they appear nice people, but everybody is nice on a holiday. It is fine; everything is fine when the subject is roses. There is a jollity, a universal merrymaking de rigueur. But the dark side keeps returning to her, the cold side as it does now forcing its way through like a cloud, a blemish in the searing sun and heat of a Turkish summer. Forcing its way through the pale blue sky, the colour of the Virgin’s cloak.

Water spills from her plastic bottle which she had left down on a pillar of the great Alexander’s library, the water frizzing into nothingness in a matter of seconds. ‘Fry an egg on the stones. An Ulster fry,’ quips Hazel. ‘She means an Irish fry,’ whispers Kathleen into Michael’s ear. ‘I bet she says Londonderry too instead of Derry.’ The heat rises as if it has muscle punching them in the face. An elderly man in the group faints. People are burning up. They are applying and reapplying high factor sun creams to pink flesh. How did people work in such a climate? It is unrelenting. No shelter. Ephesus ruins. How did such a city throb with life?

 

They are put up in a hotel in Pamukkale in the interior of the country  –  the trip too long to return the same night. The mountains look snowcovered but it’s the lime, and the pools’ hot springs which sprout up all over the place have medicinal qualities. Old people with folds in their skin are gently swimming.

The four of them swim or rather float, for the water is so full of salt and lime and minerals, it is impossible to sink. It is a solemn place where, according to the courier, people concentrate on healing their bodies’ ills. ‘Just the body?’ says Kathleen. ‘What?’ says Michael, but talk is drowned out by Hazel’s squeal as she splashes in the water. She is wearing a dress swimsuit with navy polka dots, and a little frilled canopy covering her wide haunches.

 

They make love with the shutters open to the light of the full moon. He laughs as she says she was at sixes and sevens in that foursome.

‘That makes seventeen,’ he says.

‘Stop making fun of me, Michael.’

‘What about the goats?’

‘They’re Unionist.’

‘The goats?’

‘Michael.’

‘They’re okay,’ he says.

‘How can you say that? They torment Catholics.’

‘How do you know what they do?’

‘Their names.’

‘How can you make such insinuations?’ he says angrily. ‘Ask them. Have it out with them if you must.’

 

‘Mind, ’shouts Hazel, pulling Michael back onto the kerb as they make their way down to the beach the following morning. The dolmus whizzes by. ‘They don’t even slow down.’ She looks deadly serious. ‘Fucking buses,’ she exclaims, the sudden profanity jolting Michael.

The beach  –  a small rectangle of dark sand  –  is as crowded as the streets. Kathleen rummages in her carrier bag for her suncream, and her hand brushes against the little leather purse  –  more like a case for rosary beads it is so small  –  a birthday present from Niamh. She always carries it with her even though she uses a bigger wallet to hold her passport and traveller cheques. The little pouch for Mammy, bought with her own pocket money. Her last year… how did Michael put it? ‘before she was shuffled off this mortal coil.’ Eleven years. She was boasting she was now a teenager in Irish, aon bhlian déag: déagóir. Strange, the Gaelic precocity over the English. In some things. Niamh was a good Irish debater. She won the best speaker for ‘Peace is coming through’, about the North of Ireland. She practised her speech on her mother. She talked about the dove, vulnerable like white paper on an ocean wave, and she would look up from her notes from time to time, as she had been instructed, seeking eye contact with the audience. Pick someone to focus on, and she picked out her mother sitting proudly in the front row. And Kathleen took the photograph which she is looking at now  –  always kept in the little purse  –  of her daughter standing as team captain in her wine uniform with the silver cup in her hands (a silver chalice, she thinks religiously for a moment). The North of Ireland. The irony of it. She was so sweet-tongued, her Irish words were like honey on her lips. Kathleen felt so close to her, closer perhaps than she was even to Michael. Was she fooling herself in that regard? Would it have been different when she became seventeen or eighteen? But Kathleen liked to think that she would have been able to take all of that on board, whatever changes were to be. She would have been vigilant. She would have anticipated like Michael does or tries to do on most things. We were so close, she ponders, tears welling. She steals another look at the photograph (Michael is busy reading). The pigtails tied with white ribbon and the dazzling blue eyes. Her eyes almost, although hers were more grey, but certainly not Michael’s. The smiling face; the long summer-tanned legs with the white ankle socks under the school skirt, growing too short already. The local boys beginning to give her the eye. Oh, she noticed. The beret slightly too small for her womanly brow. All beginnings. A little shudder.

Hazel and Aubrey are disrobed and in the water splashing about noisily like children. Kathleen, wakened from her reverie by Hazel’s highpitched scream, says, ‘You’d think they’d act their age.’

Michael frowns but says nothing. He had put his book down and is happily looking out at the swimmers, sharing in their jollity. He does not want another argument, especially not in public. He looks around the beach. Homer, Heraclitus, the courier spoke about them, said they lived around the area. Imagine them as your next-door neighbours. Life, a permanent flux. Couldn’t be more true. Knew what he was talking about, that guy, Heraclitus, with all the babel of noise and multi-ethnic toes and naked breasts practically touching strangers on a beach. And in the middle of it all two dark skinned guys throwing a frisbee.

Kathleen, wriggling the sand under her towel, hands her Nivea 15 to Michael to do her back. ‘Do it evenly,’ she says.

She settles bellydown with her magazine, occasionally adjusting her white cotton sun hat which appears too small for her head. The frisbee strikes her arm. An apology in a strange language. ‘No damage,’ says Michael. The guys  –  in their twenties perhaps  –  smile and resume their play. She looks at him. ‘What do you mean, No damage?’ she exclaims, rubbing her arm. The coolness between them is still there from the night before. ‘Well?’ ‘Well what?’ ‘Why don’t you say something to them?’ ‘It was an accident.’

 

That night she does not make love to him; she is tired; her arm is hurting. She is still peeved. The tap on the arm leads to a diatribe against Turkish men. The way they treat their women, their harems, disgusting the way the women have to go around all covered up in this great heat. Those grids on their faces like the man in the iron mask.

‘Burkas,’ he says.

‘What?’

‘That’s what they call them.’

‘Cruelty is the proper name.’

He glares at her. ‘You’re so negative. Why did you choose Turkey if you feel like that? It was your choice, remember?’

‘Oh Michael,’ she says softening, ‘what are we doing, tearing at one another like this?’

‘You’re doing all the tearing.’

‘Stop it, will you?’ She is shaking his shoulders. ‘Can’t you see it’s those two who are doing this to us?’

 

Mid-morning finds Hazel and Aubrey sitting at a table by the bamboo-canopied pool bar. They are drinking from tall slender glasses, domed with red cocktail stick umbrellas. Hazel’s arms have a smooth even tan, her sallow complexion adapting comfortably to the sun. They wave as Kathleen and Michael appear. ‘Do we have to go over to them?’ ‘It would be rude not to.’

‘We were down in Galway,’ Hazel is saying. ‘We had come down a few days early to do a little sightseeing before our flight out from Dublin. We like Galway, don’t we Aubrey?’ ‘Aye, we do,’ says Aubrey. ‘We stayed in a wee hotel in Ayre Square,’ says Hazel. ‘You know Ayre Square?’ ‘No, we don’t,’ snaps Kathleen.

 

‘Condescending that’s what they are,’ she says later. ‘We love Galway.’ ‘She didn’t say that. She said they like Galway.’ ‘And coming down to Dublin to save on their sterling. They’ll be taking over the country next, those Northerners. Just look at RTE.’

Their lovemaking is suffering. Excuses for avoidance are more common now. Is it possible after such a short time? Maybe if they took a break from Hazel and Aubrey for a while. Maybe if she confronted them, as Michael suggested, spoke directly to them about her feelings, about Niamh. Would they listen?

They go out for a candlelit dinner, just the two of them. An expensive restaurant near the harbour. Lights from the yachts illuminate the inky surface of the ocean. A figure-hugging black dress subdues her sunburn, and her shampooed hair, shining auburn in the candlelight, smells so clean. She smiles lovingly at him. It’s as if she has been hoovered out, he thinks. Her mind cleared of all the petty thorns that pricked it in the past. She holds his hand, plays with his fingers, his wedding ring, rotating the gold. The perfectibility of the world veiled by candlelight. And he thinks of the women veiled. And wonders is this the only way the world can work, soft focus reality. They talk gently, the wine bubbling inside them. Purring sweet sounds into each other’s ears. They play footsie, her espadrilles thrown off, her toes caressing inside the leg of his chinos. Her hand goes under, fingers dancing along his thigh. It had all been a misunderstanding, the whole thing. The polite cough of the waiter. ‘Will there be anything more, sir?’

That’s when Hazel and Aubrey arrive, just at that moment when the waiter makes his enquiry. ‘Great minds,’ Hazel says, hugging each of them in turn (Kathleen remaining rigid), and then, as if remembering herself, adds, ‘You don’t mind?’ They pull up chairs without waiting for a reply. ‘What have you ordered?’ They order the same grilled sole. ‘And the wine?’ She lifts the bottle to read the label. ‘We’ll have that too.’ ‘Jesus Christ,’ Kathleen whispers audibly.

‘What a day,’ Hazel says, laughing into the candlelight, ‘and here we are now finding you.’ As if it’s a reward, thinks Kathleen who is becoming increasingly irritated by Hazel’s constant billing and cooing with her husband. And touching  –  too often has she touched that arm of his. That’s a wife’s domain, her domain. Is that how these Protestant hussies carry on? Have they no respect for the sacrament of marriage, or for themselves? They could be swingers, wifeswoppers, the way she made that lewd reference to the shower. She looks at her husband. Oh Michael, you’re a lamb for the slaughter. Her Michael, hanging on that tease’s every word. What is she talking about? Some inanity, some triviality. Bingeeating! She would stop at nothing to get her way. There she goes flashing her false eyelashes at him. She has to admit Michael is handsome, but she never told him of course. It’s not a thing to do. You don’t tell a grown man a thing like that. Might lose the run of himself. Handsome in an ascetic sort of way; the chocolate brown eyes, the high cheek bones, and svelte figure; never had a weight problem, Michael, the same waist measurement every year when she buys him the new slacks for his birthday. Maybe she could have varied the present an odd year, come to think of it now, but Michael never complained. The way that hussy is looking at him, she could swear she’s giving him the come hither. It’s blatant. She looks across at Aubrey, at his bloodshot sclera. He is helping himself to another glass of wine without, she might add, offering to pour for anyone else. What does he make of it, all this canoodling? He has to notice. Is he a man at all? Hazel is squeezing Michael’s arm, pretending to make a point. Kathleen tries to console herself with the hotel waiter’s words that she looks like his mother. Old, old, ha, she smiles. But she’s taking a better tan than her. Damn her. In the candlelight she looks… she looks almost attractive.

‘Oh, the things that happened to us today,’ Hazel is saying, her fat jowls moving. Could it be goitre? Kathleen wonders hopefully, all that flesh underneath her chin? ‘We were having such fun. We got a taxi. A safer driver than last time, wasn’t he, Aubrey?’ ‘I’ll say,’ says Aubrey. ‘We got out at a quiet beach. I mean let’s face it, the beach we were at the last day was…a bit crowded.’ ‘A bit!’ says Kathleen, unable to restrain herself, ‘it was like a sardine tin.’ ‘Oh, and the statue; remember the statue, Aubrey,’ says Hazel. ‘Aye,’ says Aubrey, ‘Ottoturk astride his horse.’

‘I never saw the sea so blue,’ says Hazel, ‘turquoise.’

‘It was turquoise,’ says Aubrey.

‘And the beach, loads of room,’ says Hazel looking towards Kathleen, ‘beautiful silvery sand, and guess what?’ she says with a twinkle.

‘What?’ says Michael.

‘No, guess. We went up the beach. Guess what we stumbled upon?’

‘A tortoise,’ says Kathleen.

Hazel bursts out laughing. ‘A tortoise.’ She pulls at Michael’s sleeve ‘Your wife, Michael, she’s … a hoot.’

Kathleen glares. How dare she…how dare she refer to her as Michael’s wife, as if she… were not even present.

‘A nudist colony,’ says Aubrey, putting an end to the charade.

Hazel clasps her hands. ‘Could you believe it? I mean could you believe it?’

‘You joined in, I take it?’ says Kathleen sarcastically.

Hazel stares at Kathleen. A puzzled look. Michael feels uneasy, wants to say something.

‘We started to swim across a little channel,’ says Hazel resuming. ‘The current was strong, but the Swedish couple helped us. They waded in, didn’t they Aubrey?’

‘Aye,’ says Aubrey.

‘They’re beautiful. The Swedes.’ She smacks her lips.

 

Night evokes more sexual ardour from Kathleen, as if her passion is restored, or maybe she was turned on by the story of the nudist colony, or maybe she just feels the need to make it up to him. She had been a bitch. Her own words. ‘It was nice of you,’ she says, stroking his hair. ‘What?’ ‘To pay the bill.’ ‘We owed them.’ There was no need, she agreed, to take her dislike of the couple out on him. Michael is right, we carry baggage in all our dealings with people. There’s no such thing as a clean slate, so we have to work on these things. ‘Michael.’ She opens his trouser belt, feeling a suffusion of love towards him. She straddles him on the wicker chair in the veranda. Michael wonders will the chair support the weight of both of them. He feels uncomfortable; he feels it could collapse at any moment. Something is catching at his left buttock  –  the silver belt buckle  –  but he can do nothing about it. Grin and bare it, as they say. She groans under the black starless sky to the hum of cicadas and the spray of the watering hoses. Just the little wall light to see by. ‘Where has the moon gone? Tell me the poem, Michael. Recite it to me about the moon,’ she says rocking him, her exposed breasts bouncing. He supports her by the hips, balancing her. ‘Tell it to me, Michael.’ ‘Pluck,’ says Michael, ‘till time and times are done…’ ‘Don’t stop. Don’t stop.’ ‘…The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.’

 

But in the morning Hazel and Aubrey are like intestinal worms eating into her. ‘I blame you,’ she says, ‘we were doing fine on our own until they came along. We were having a private dinner. Why didn’t you tell them to go away?’

‘Because I didn’t want to, okay? You don’t talk to them. You just sit there and find fault.’

‘Find fault?’

‘Yes.’

‘You’re asking me to talk to them? They’re godless. You saw the way…’

‘How do you know what they are?’

She looks at him, tears in her eyes, pleading with him for understanding.

‘I’m sorry,’ she says. She reaches out to him, touches his hand.

‘Look…’ he says, but adds nothing.

 

In the evening they walk down the darkening streets, she linking him, hugging in close to him. They stop to throw coins in a little begging girl’s bowl.

‘See her fingers,’ she says, ‘Michael, they’re in a cast.’

She stoops down to the girl to examine her fingers. ‘What happened to you, girseach?’ The girl grins, her teeth radiant through the dark skin.

‘She’s probably a Kurdish child, Michael,’ she says as he draws her away. ‘Her parents could be dead.’

‘They break the fingers by stomping on the hands. I read that.’

‘Oh Michael.’ She nestles into him clearly troubled by the young girl’s plight. ‘These are the things, Michael. These are the things.’

She rushes back to the girl and places paper money neatly folded into her bowl.

Kathleen holds tightly onto Michael as they make their way through the crowds, the sound of the hooting cars and buses only now becoming audible, only now entering her consciousness. She shivers despite the great heat. That little girl would only have been Niamh’s age.

 

A crescent moon is shining through the open shutters as she slips from under the bedsheet. The crescent moon, she remembers Michael saying, the cross of the Muslim.  She looks over the veranda, the moonlight striking silver on her nightdress. She glances back into the room. He is sleeping. He turns slightly, perhaps sensing her absence  –  a vacancy in his dream.

She will talk to Hazel, have it out, is that what Michael said? She will tell her about Niamh, make her know, make both of them know that Northerners’ troubles can spill over other people’s lives.

She walks along the corridor, or rather glides ghostlike, soundless, barefoot on the plush carpet. There is singing  –  the last hoarse notes of the night  –  rising from the bar below. What time is it? She has no idea. Is it too late to call on them? Maybe she should go back, talk to them in the morning, but she feels a compulsion in herself now, that she knows she may not feel tomorrow. The door of their room is ajar. Had they forgotten to close it? Were they too drunk? Most likely. A shaft of golden light shines out through the crevice of the door. A sound of sobbing. She thinks of knocking. Instead she pushes the door gently forward. Aubrey, with his bare back to her, is sitting on a sofa, cradling Hazel in his arms.

‘I’m sorry,’ says Kathleen. They look around. ‘I couldn’t sleep. I…’

‘It’s all right, come in, come in,’ says Hazel, sniffling. The rims of her eyes are red. A side of her hair is matted, and a beard of cream rests on her chin. ‘The door…’ says Kathleen. ‘We left it open because of the heat,’ says Aubrey, who is dressed only in his wine-coloured pyjama bottoms. Hazel taps the sofa seat on her free side. ‘Sit here beside us.’

She sits down nervously, conscious of Hazel’s sweatmarked nightdress fallen now from her shoulder, exposing an ample breast. In front of them is a low table covered with cakes and sweets and sweet wrappers and  –  the subject of their gaze  –  a framed photograph of a young boy, perhaps eleven or twelve with dark brown eyes in a maroon school uniform.

‘Your son?’ says Kathleen. She’s about to say, what a fine looking boy when Hazel starts to sob again.

‘A holiday is no good,’ sniffles Hazel. ‘We try. How we try. You have seen us trying, haven’t you, Kathleen?’

‘Yes,’ says Kathleen, not quite clear what she is affirming but anxious nonetheless to empathise with another’s sorrow.

Hazel dabs a tear with a large tissue. Aubrey looks at her solicitously, and pulls another tissue from a box and wipes the cream from her chin. He kisses her on the forehead. She reaches for an éclair and swallows it whole.

Kathleen sits with them, staring at the photograph in wordless vigil and, to the sound of the waves crashing on the shore, she touches Hazel’s chocolate-stained hand.

 

 
 

THROWING THINGS

 

 

When dust storms descend it means people are dying in Afghanistan.

A hundred people were killed tonight  –  a good strike by the Yankees.

We’ll hit the bivouac areas, our six million dollar shots will obliterate

their two dime tents. They hit on some workers, comforting comrades,

dying Afghans, humanitarian workers from the UN, they got’m.

The young men hang around with hunger-look waiting for a sign

a star in the sky, a missile from the US, to follow whichever way

they will towards their destiny, readymade, their short lives.

The Yankee planes are out of range of the anti-aircraft guns,

destroying army, perfect strike, the body counts, the Taliban flag in rags.

Time out for the team to thank god, to cross themselves,

the game is working to their advantage.

How could they loosen their tightlipped resolve?

He who is not with us is…. other religions, other climes:

Loyalists taunting children going to school in Northern Ireland,

the sign of the cross, the incantation of religion.

Where are they going, those great crusaders with their swords and their cross?

The six million dollar question. There can be no questions.

They have right on the money side of their street.

He who is not with us… It’s written in the sand.

When the sand storms descend it means people are dying in Afghanistan.

The nights are cold, nights of crying, people dying,

people cowering in fields, famine victims eating grass,

children’s cries, the silent despair of the aged shaking from the blasts,

lights from the flashes making them run in circles like dazzled rabbits.

The airman at the button smiles.

The Yankees are driving the young men to their own deaths  –

they are loading up in frenzy, jumping into cockpits without sense or reason

like maddened animals prodded by the darts;

they will fly into the darkness, into a world, lunge at destruction.

Two polarities. Each will never know the clothes the other wears,

will never pronounce the names. He who is not with us

Twelve more civilians dead, their women wailing.

There can be no discussion.

Throw the bombs in the food handouts

and all the silver dollars from the children of America;

let them rain down in shining silver over Afghanistan;

throw them all down to cover the graves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

____________________________________________

 

BIO

 
James Lawless’ poetry and prose have won many awards, including the Scintilla Welsh Open Poetry Competition, the WOW award, a Biscuit International Prize for short stories, the Cecil Day Lewis Award and a Hennessey award nomination for emerging fiction. Two of his stories were also shortlisted for the Willesden (2007) and Bridport prizes (2014). He is the author of five well-received novels Peeling Oranges, For Love of Anna, The Avenue, Finding Penelope and Knowing Women, a poetic meditation Noise & Sound Reflections, a book of children’s stories The Adventures of Jo Jo, a poetry collection Rus in Urbe, and a study of modern poetry Clearing the Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World for which he received an arts bursary. His books have been translated into several languages. Born in Dublin, he divides his time between County Kildare and West Cork. You can read more about the author at www.jameslawless.net  or check out his books at

http://www.amazon.com/James-Lawless/e/B001JOXD96/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

 

 

 

 

 

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