Sunday 23 October 2016

Fiction: Love letter to an ex in Manhattan

Joseph O'Connor

Published 20/12/2015 | 02:30

Tom Halliday illustration
Tom Halliday illustration

In this specially commissioned Christmas short story by Joseph O'Connor, the narrator, a divorced Dublin teacher in his mid-thirties, reopens communication with a former girlfriend who left recession-struck Dublin for a well-paid job in New York.

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Duane's Hotel,

Inis Mór

Aran Islands

20th December, 2015

Dear Jen,

Just typed out your name and looked at the screen a hundred years. Not sure if you're up for a Christmas hello? How you doing over there? Hope you don't mind me writing. It's midnight and they're hooleying downstairs in the bar. A girl started singing Adele's Someone Like You. And you drifted in on the rainfall.

Good to get your letter, back in April. You said lovely things. Of course I understand, babe. Should have answered before now. Well, I know you asked me not to, but I should have. Couldn't find the words. But you're right; we weren't lucky, or maybe we were. My dad says things happen for a reason. Be great to hear your voice again. Mobile signal's bad out here or I was thinking of giving you a call. But there's no hard feelings, honestly; never could be, never will. I know you had to go.

So what has you busy? I'm here on Inis Mór. Spent a couple of days in Limerick, helping my sister - their house flooded when the Shannon rose. Went out the next morning to help sandbag the neighbour's milking parlour. Only way to cross his fields was in a rowboat. Had to watch for the fence posts and barbed wire. Eerie. Dunno why, when the waters went down, couldn't face Dublin at Christmastime. On a whim came here instead.

I've this room in the guesthouse, small but okay. There's a view of the cliffs. You can hear the terns. Me and my brother had the room across the landing all the Augusts we were here with our folks in the long-ago. It's nice to stir in bed, hear the waves; that roar of the pebbles surging.

The people here are great - you'd love them. Housekeeper Bride Flaherty nursed in London and once met Churchill. ("Of course I shook his hand. Why wouldn't I?") She's 81 but has this encyclopaedic memory, for songs, stories, everything ever happened on the island, when I can't remember what Leo Varadkar said on Morning Ireland today (if anything). Johnny Coyne the barman calls her Tidy Bridie.

Johnny was born a mile out the road here, emigrated to the Bronx, signed up for Vietnam. American eagle tattooed on his arm. I adore him, but he makes Donald Trump seem a softie. Detests the Democrats but the Kennedys were "our own". All other Dems "gun-shy auld women". Mentioning Hillary in his presence has the effect of moonlight on a werewolf. His uncle shot a Black and Tan in Galway train station in 1920. ("Them bastards came out here and killed poor Lawrence MacDonagh, a neighbour on his way to mass.") He sings really touchingly very late of an evening; sentimental old stuff like Sinatra. Voice like anthracite being crushed by a boot. In the wee small hours of the morning - that's the time you miss her most of all. It's actually beautiful. You'd cry. All the visiting English socialists love him and want to apologise to him for the Famine. He reads the Daily Express. Loves bingo.

Hey, I hear him singing now. Let me earwig a sec. How strange, the change from major to minor, every time we say goodbye.

They'd a Christmas disco for the island kids yesterday and it was beautiful seeing Johnny getting taught the Gangnam Style dance. I'd a pint earlier, my first this year. Dunno why, I can't drink any more. "You're gone a divil for the Pepsi," Johnny says.

So all is good. All is okay. I keep thinking I see you. It's the strangest thing. Yesterday it rained when I was down at the cliffs and I could see you taking off your coat that day in the staffroom and the way you draped it over your arm and reached out to shake my hand.

I get up early here, no curtain on the window. Mary Duane, the receptionist, says some stag party set fire to it. (Ah, men.) I've known Mary since I was ten; I remember the night she was born. My folks knew hers when we used to come down here as nippers. Her great-great-great aunt and namesake went to Milwaukee in Black '47. "They don't be going easy on little gougers in Milwaukee," says Mary. "Burn a curtain, they'd shkin the arse off you and clap you in the slammer and if you ever seen a film about an American slammer you know tis no Butlin's Mosney." She's a beautiful sean-nós singer but prefers Imelda May and The Strypes. Has a pierced eyebrow, a boyfriend in Moycullen and another in Luton and she makes me scream (with laughter) (usually) whenever she opens her mouth. Has two Alsatian puppies, "Enda and Joan", and a goldfish named Vincent Browne.

To me, it's the loveliest place in the world, should be appreciated more. But the islanders get done over, again and again. The government tried cutting the flights to here recently, can you believe the stupidity? Now, they want to cancel the ferry. They burble on about tourism, culture, yadda yadda. They know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Hey, why would we be surprised?

Been practising my Irish. "Happy" has entered the language. "Táimid happy out," Mary says. She's the spit of her late grandfather, haughty, vertiginous cheekbones. Talks like him too. Full of ironies. You should have seen her in the goona for the Christmas disco yesterday - a young Sophia Loren, but the hair in gelled spikes - and the bucks of Inis Mór with their tongues hanging out and the dragon tattoo on her nape. ("I'd no more look at any of them pussies than ate off me leg.") End of the night, she danced a step with her father. Amazing man. Courtly, tough, one-time hurler for Galway, the only goalkeeper in GAA history to score a point from a puck-out. ("Sailed the length of the park," Johnny Coyne attests. "Over the bar like a bird. And they shouldering him the seven mile to Barna Pier.") He hauled me out of a riptide when I was eight, current taking the legs from under me - scary. Next thing I know, here's Pauric Danny Duane and he pounding through the breakers with the speed of a shark and his shovel of a mitt on the scruff of my neck and I puking like a Salthill fruit-machine.

Well, how's Manhattan and work? I heard on the radio you'd a hurricane over there. Mind yourself, won't you?

Bumped into your sister in Stephen's Green the day before I left Dublin. She mentioned your news. Well, well. You're the dark horse. Congratulations, babe. You'll be the most beautiful bride New York ever saw. And a new apartment too, right? Sounds amazing. Hope everything works out. You deserve it. I'm told he's a solid sender. I'm only very slightly burningly jealous. Just kidding. Have you honeymoon plans made? Angela mentioned the Seychelles.

Well, what other news? They're singing Silent Night downstairs. There do be a great of lot of students out here in the summertime, and ceilidhs and the courting and sporting. But hardly anyone in winter; they're closing for the season tomorrow. Only two other guests this week, Italian.

This morning I was on the pier when one signorina - a trainee archaeologist - went past in jeans of such tightness that you could nearly make out the number of her MasterCard. "By jaysus," murmured the fisherman beside me, "I'd chew through them Levis."

Mary D tells me she shifted said merman once. A Cortina he has, and a cassette player he robbed off a doctor, and it plugged into the cigarette lighter on the dashboard. "Grand" for a shift but "his paws does be terrible sweaty". He is surely the only Teddy Boy in the Aran archipelago, and he resplendent in the drapes and the slim-jim tie and the Brylcreem duck's-arse hair-do.

He told Mary: "I've only the one cassette, they don't make 'em no more. Tubular Bells. Will we shtick it in?"

Smooth talking divil. Pius 'The Fiddler' Milligan. There's probably a bar on Seventh Avenue called Fiddler Milligan's? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, is estranged from his wife. The former Mrs M lives with her mother in Rosmuc, the pair of them "two-bucket women" says Mary D; and didn't they win themselves a bonanza on a lottery scratch-card and they buying ganzee-loads of Nama apartments in Spiddal for the renting to the tourists, now the economy's upping again.

I saw him tonight - the Fiddler Milligan - iPod earphones on his bouffanted bulbous head, and he staring at the Christmas tree below in the bar, rocking his shoulders to the beat. It was probably a recording of last night's orgy. Either that or Italian for Slow Learners.

Rainstorm roaring up the road like a monster. They're saying it could be a Force Seven yet.

Inis Meain is across the Sound. I've a photograph at home of Mam and Dad taken over there. Dad's in an Aran sweater but Mam looks like Jackie O. "August 1971" on the back in her writing. I know, from being the executor of her will, that that was the month they bought the site. I had the deeds somewhere but when me and Marie-Therese separated there was a rake of paperwork never surfaced again.

Funny seeing it now. Rowed over the other day. It looks picturesque through binoculars at sunset, like all ruins seen from a long way off. Close up, a different story. The gable's collapsed, roof beam's broken in two. Piles of burnt beer cans from the Gilmore-for-Taoiseach era. When I rummaged in the rubble, found a couple of bits of broken delft. Beautiful grey in the willow pattern - the colour of your eyes.

I remember when I was nine, Dad got planning permission - he'd architect's drawings, everything - but it lapsed because it wasn't used. My brother reapplied during the Tiger lunacy but got told no. They're gone iffy about outsiders building. If you're not from Connemara, or at least a native speaker, there's little chance of you getting the nod. I suppose you could pitch a tent on it in summertime, although you probably wouldn't bother. There's no water or electric, no septic tank, nothing. There was supposed to be a source - there must have been, once - but nobody remembers where, and most of the people who ever knew are long gone. I asked Mary if she'd want the place. But she plans to live on the mainland. The winters are too hard now all the young people are moved away. Pauric says you'd need a rock-breaker to sink a well, and there isn't one on the island, and you'd need the salary of a senior IFA executive to afford to ferry one in. I'll probably just leave it for the terns and the wildflowers. It's a nice picture to have in your head in Dublin.

My brother Peter has a new partner, Osman, lovely guy, doctor from Pakistan, geriatrician. He's over here working in St Michael's in Dun Laoghaire. They're together a year now, getting married in April. Pete would send you love if he knew I was writing.

Dad mentions you often. Besotted poor man. "So tall," he's always saying. I'm living with him now. We mullock around the house like Statler and Waldorf, and I drive him down to Lidl of a Friday. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in February. It was Osman twigged it first. But we're good. Staying strong. He talks about my mother a lot. Says he loved her. He's brave, and his pals at the walking club are terrific. Tough generation; I guess they saw everything. We're keeping him at home as long as we can.

My Leaving Cert class did well. They're great kids. Punchy. I was offered promotion in April but said no in the end. Keeping an eye on the stress.

I was seeing someone, colleague in school, geography teacher, she's separated. Went to Barcelona for Easter - her nephew's wedding - and got ossified and staggered homeward down the Ramblas laughing every step of the way. Wandered into nightclub called La Paloma - it only opens at two in the morning - and tangoed to the dawn. Ay Caramba. Agreed on the Ryanair home that we had no more future as a couple than do Conor McGregor and a Carmelite nun, but no one got hurt and we came out of it pals.

This morning, saw a 19th century tall ship out in the Atlantic. Johnny says the sea-scouts use it for training. A 747 descending into Shannon was the only sign of the 21st century. Near the rocks below me, seals and cormorants. The seals would floor you, their eyes are so human. I wished you were here. Am I allowed say that?

Hey - you know that day in the staffroom? The day I met you. When you took off your coat and looked at me with the rain in your hair? Someone was saying: "This is Jennifer, she's here on maternity cover, Music, English, R.E." I'd this feeling I would always know you. It wasn't only that you had the gentlest smile I'd ever seen; it was something more elemental. Like weather. All those people coming and going, I couldn't see them.

So anyway. It's raining hard. There we are. What else? I'm still struggling with the weight. Afraid to go swimming in case I cause a tsunami. There's an old mirror behind the bar downstairs, it alleges "Guinness is Good for You", with a picture of a puffin or some remarkably Irish creature like that. Saw myself in it last night - GOD ALMIGHTY. I've re-joined the gym, but apparently you have to go there occasionally; the direct-debit payment doesn't actually evaporate the flab. "You're gone prosperous," Johnny Coyne says. He riots in tact. "Them tracksuit bottoms suit you."

I'm seeing a bereavement counsellor. Old sceptical me. Find it hard to talk, but came to understand it wasn't an option not to. She'd have been five this Christmas. My Keelin. Feels close to me out here on the island. I don't know why.

This morning I was skimming stones with Mary and her niece, Aifric, who's seven. She's messing, saying: "Can you skim one across to America?" Just something in the way she put it, I saw you crossing Fifth Avenue and 42nd, swinging a bag-for-life full of books.

Jesus, barrelling down now, a serious gale. The creaks and groans of the roof - like the masts of a shipwreck. It's quarter to four in the morning. How did that happen? Why am I asking you questions? Reaches quietly for Pepsi.

Babe - I'm in trouble here. I know we're broke up. I wasn't supposed to write. Boundaries, I know. But there's something I need to say.

I'd really hate to lose you, even as a pal. Well - I don't mean as a pal; not going to bullshit. If that's happened already, then it's happened. It's just when Keelin was dying - she's been on my mind lately - I remember the surgeon coming out of the operating theatre and saying to Marie-Therese and me: "I'm sorry. We've done everything. But it looks like she wants to go." I was so broken, I actually commiserated with them: the nurses, the orderlies. Shaking their hands like a fool. I went in to say goodbye.

It was a humid night. They'd set up a fan. I wetted the edge of a facecloth and just touched it to her forehead. And she stirred and I held her hand. And she went. Her fingers were around my thumb. And then, suddenly, they weren't. Then, weeping in the hospital chapel, Marie-Therese and me. Those were months I'd never want to think about again. And there was one thought in my head after everything burned away, that I'd never waste another chance if it came. And if there's no chance with you, babe, then I understand - I do - but I can't bear the idea of never telling you I wanted you back. Because I'd regret it every second of my life.

I see you rolling your beautiful eyes, I know I'm making you angry, but it's something I have to say or I'm the biggest liar ever lived. It's complicated. I know. You've a bond. He's a good man. Anyone you'd choose would be a prince. But there were things in your letter I can't forget. Sometimes people separate. My parents had to do it. Me and Marie-Therese, too. It hurts and it hurts; maybe it never stops hurting. It's horrible luck but we've only one shot and I'm shooting in your direction and you know the reason why. You're the one. Always will be. Nothing I can do. And if you don't feel the same, there it is, I'll get over it. But when you wrote to me, you kept saying "if things had been different". We could make them different. There's nothing laid out. I didn't mean to come on so heavy. It's something about Christmas. It gets under the skin. Like you.

I'm thinking of the laughing and the walking and the eating and doing nothing together. I'm thinking of that Christmas morning we were lazing in bed and Father Ted came on and we were crying with laughter. I'm thinking of how I had this imagining we might even have a kid, how beautiful and funny and grubby she'd be. And of quarrelling with you and making up and knowing you when you're old and caring for you. I'm thinking of how I realised you were the noblest person I ever met, and how wanting to make you happy for the rest of your life would be a privilege to fight for every day. I know I'm making it sound like a shampoo advert. You're right, things change. But to feel you clicking on like a light in my head, to know I'd be sleeping beside you that night. There's a word for that feeling. You know what it is.

Could I come to New York? Just a coffee. Half an hour. You know Little West 12th Street? Just a conversation on the sidewalk. A goodbye, if we must; no terms and conditions. If we have to be exes, I'll wish you happy exmas. But if there's any way of seeing you - I'm asking a chance. And if I'm overstepping marks, and you're having conniptions, there's no need to answer. I know I've left it late. And I've absolutely no right, not even the tiniest, and the invitations are sent and you'll be a sensationally beautiful bride, and he's the coolest, handsomest guy in all New York, not some divorced overweight teacher who can't say anything he means. And you're honeymooning in the Seychelles. And the train's left the station.

So here I am without a safety net. I'll take the fall, doesn't matter. I can't stand the thought of never telling you. There hasn't been one hour when I didn't regret not asking you to come back. Knowing you was the greatest blessing and honour of my life. Everything about you gave me courage. You're the absolute best of me. Give me a last chance to deserve you?

I know it would cause hurt. I know. And I'm sorry. It wouldn't be easy, not even for a minute. And you can't stand to hurt. It's one of the reasons I love you. I've a hundred thousand more, enough for a lifetime. If I could skim every one of them across the Atlantic, I would.

So it's coming on for dawn. I see the fairy lights in the windows.

Let me row across your fields. Okay? Just one chance? It's Christmas, right?

I'm rowing.

Joseph O'Connor's novel 'The Thrill of it All' is shortlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award. He is McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick.

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