A seasonal short story by Joseph O'Connor
Pat Duignan was walking Dun Laoghaire pier when the phone in his pocket rang. It was new, a milestone birthday gift from Grace, and he was still slightly uncertain as to answer it. The ringtone - a jangling, atrocious gabble - was so loud that two passing yummy-mummies stared, as did his dog. On the screen he could see his daughter's name. Grace had punched in some important contacts but as he stabbed at the 'answer' icon with his wet graceless fingertips, her call was clicked to voicemail - so a new icon informed him - and he resolved to continue his walk.
It was a late December morning in 2017, a golden-lit, enlivening, reassurance of a morning, made only more inspiriting by the water. Ireland was coming out of the recession. Buoys bobbed by the yachts, a curious number of which advertised themselves as For Sale. It amused him to think about the boat's names - Jalapeno, Black Sheep, The Provider, Naughty Boy - and then about the owners, who had advertised themselves thus. What was being asserted and for whom?
A little truck trundled officiously along the pier's lower level, its driver side not a yard from the lip where fishermen sat on bollards, their radios contentedly burbling classical light or the news. Why did the driver ply so close to the edge? For what was he searching in the purple-blue water? Litter, perhaps. Parcels of drugs? A seal poked a head up by the RNLI lifeboat.
Grace would be at yoga now, just arriving for her class, one of three such she took every week. He pictured her emerging from her Qashqai in the Killiney Castle Hotel car park, whistling as she endearingly did. At 50, she was two years his younger. Their marriage had survived two children, his drinking, sometimes hers, his weight, sometimes hers - she said a family always weighed the same no matter who was dieting - his varicose veins, debt, bank managers, the Celtic Tiger, marriage counselling, and had come, scathed but intact, to the uplands of mutual benignity, blinking in the light from time to time, but at least there was light for it to blink in. Which was more than some couples had.
The ozone-coloured holiness of the sea and its air, the calls of the guillemots and oystercatchers and gulls. Through his binoculars, he saw, out past the bald tip of Howth, a many-portholed cruise liner gleaming in its unforgivable majesty. Perhaps Grace and he would go on a cruise some time. Up to Iceland or the Hebrides. He had seen such trips advertised. To steam around the Orkneys in the crispness of winter, all tweeds, peaty whiskey and blankets on deck, a nice fat biography or two, the nightly game of cards, sympathising with the Brits over Brexit.
His phone rang again. He managed to answer.
- Dad, hi. It's Elaine.
- How's my pet? I'm on the pier, it's a bit noisy with the wind.
- How's the water?
- Mighty altogether. How's yourself? How's New York.
- I've fantastic news, Dad. Can't believe it.
His heart gave a whomp that made him remember his son's basketball bouncing out on the road on summer nights, and he realised he knew what she was about to say. And he realised, as the connection clicked off, that he had lit a cigarette. So hard to take a phone call without one.
When she came out of yoga, he was waiting by the treadmills, towel and bottle of water in his hands. The TV screens mounted to the walls were all showing the same programme, one of those shows on which ugly people shout at each other about their infidelities. 'My boyfriend slept with my transgendered dad', the flashing headline announced.
- I was early, he said. I thought I'd drop in. How was class?
- What's up?
She knew by his smile, then by how he hung his head, pinching the bridge of his nose. Yoga students came and went. A teenage girl in trackies. The odour of whatever it was they used to disinfect the handles of the weights machines, and the alleluias of several hoovers.
- Elaine rang from New York, he said
Teasing, he refused to answer.
- She's news.
- What is it?
- You're going to be a granny.
- How long?
- She didn't say.
- What do you mean 'she didn't say'? You don't mean to tell me you didn't ask?
- Sure of course I didn't ask.
- Why not?
- That's none of my business.
- You're joking.
- Don't look at me like that, for the love of God.
- I can't believe you wouldn't even ask!
By the time he got home, she was in the kitchen, chopping tomatoes she'd fetched from the greenhouse. Lyric FM was on. A lid clicked furiously on the rim of a saucepan. The window by the garden was clouded with steam and the cat was staring up at the Christmas tree, rubbing her back against his shin.
Like all married people, they knew how to end a spat. He opened the fridge, poured himself a glass of milk.
- What are you doing, he asked?
- Spaghetti alle vongole.
- Leave me alone.
He moved to the window, fingertips carving tracks in the condensation. The two obese pigeons that haunted the garden were sat on the rockery like statues. Too bloated to fly with ease, usually they walked, a fatboy's cheerless, pitifully affecting waddle, rarely rising anywhere higher than the electricity cable over the oak.
- You don't put tomatoes in spaghetti vongole, he said.
Ignoring him, she lit a cigarette he didn't know she had, on the element of the toaster, and sat weakly in to the table consulting a book that turned out to be by Elizabeth David. The venetian blinds glowed, there was a puff as the central heating chugged on. She went to the cooker, genuflecting and wordlessly cursing as she hauled open the oven door.
He felt the wash of heat, heard the gush-and-whirr of the fan. She slotted the loaded tray into place. By now, he had been 15 minutes in the kitchen but still she had not spoken to him or looked at him. She washed her hands and dried them quickly on the folds of her apron. Other things could happen now. He wondered if they would. But she turned from the room, car keys in hand. He heard the front door slam.
Rain was falling as she crossed the little humpback bridge into Shankill. Her hands on the steering wheel felt weary as anchors and a headache was coming on. The Bluetooth wouldn't connect so she pulled over by a chipper and tried the number again. Her son's answering-machine message was brief and smart-arsed - 'Hi, it's Jamie, speak now or forever hold thy peace' - but the signal bleeped and died before she could get a shape on her words, and in a way she was glad, it was better that way.
The rain became a thrum of hail as she drove up the hill and into Bray, where a Christmas parade was taking place in the streets: children dressed as pool balls or Pokemon characters or Roman legionaries were marching rowdily towards the car park at the back of the church, sentried by a dj on a flatbed truck booming out U2's Pride.
Suddenly she saw him - an impossible coincidence. Her son on the pavement with his boyfriend, a fellow teacher. She touched the tab to lower her window, called out his name, but the music was too loud, he didn't hear her. They were brandishing fizzlesticks and sparklers as they stewarded the children, the pucking, beefy boys, the sequined, glittered girls. An ache of longing gnawed her. She realised she was weeping hard, dabbed her eyes with a cuff, and that was the moment when, across the street, he noticed her, delight in his grin, his beckoning wave, across the river of marching rag-a-bag children, through the din of boomed surf-guitar and tub-thumping bass and blusterbursts of black market bangers.
In the name
What more in the name of love.
As the rose of his smile bloomed, his eyes were on hers, he was bolting. Through the children, the pilgrims, his boyfriend confused. A horn blared behind her, in the mirror a bus-driver's purple rage. The smash of shattering glass and the skreek of metal on metal. And now the children screaming.
Almost six now. He wondered where she was. At Audrey's, he supposed, or in town, at a play. Sebastian Barry's new one was supposed to be good. He had heard the ad on the radio earlier.
He picked up the remote, blipped around, throb-eyed. Soccer, cricket, a chat-show in German, sports cars, archery - archery? On TV?
The doorbell sounded. She must have misplaced her key again. Yes, there it was on the hallstand. Drizzle wetted his face as he pulled open the door. The security light flicked on.
The garda, a young Chinese woman, had on a wet hi-vis. Her shoulder-radio uttered a crackle she ignored.
- Mr Duignan?
- The same
- May I come in for a tick?
- What's wrong?
- It's your wife. There's been a minor incident.
He stepped back a pace, felt the punch in his gut. But she didn't come in, turning instead and beckoning to her colleague who was seated at the unmarked Audi's wheel.
- It happened in Bray earlier. She's not seriously hurt. OK? I want you to breathe for me, Pat. Nice deep breaths. The car is a write off, she's in Loughlinstown for observation overnight.
- Hospital, yes. Your son is with her.
- But how?
- She apparently went to Bray to visit your son. That's when the accident happened. She's shaken up and shocked. The wheelbag deployed. They think she's whiplash too, they tried to call you, is your phone off?
- It's out of power, yes, can I go see her?
- Of course. Come on, we'll run you.
- I'm grand to drive.
- You've had a shock. Let us take you.
- I'll just get my jacket, thank God she's all right.
- Do you want to throw a few night things in a bag for her?
The ward had recently seen a Christmas party. Balloons on tinselly strings ascended from some of the bedposts, plastic cups lay about on trestle tables with glass jugs of juice. A handpainted banner with happy-face emoji announced in drippy scarlet and overassertive purple MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE.
There was no doctor or orderly he could see, but immediately on crossing the threshold he noticed his wife, who was standing at the furthest end of the ward's many windows, in the catty-corner, looking out at the rain.
You couldn't have called the facial expression she gave him a smile but it wasn't far from that; it had the gentleness, a cross-hatching of mildness. As her eyes moistened, he realised he was holding her, that he didn't care what anyone thought about that. Her chin fitted the gap above his collarbone, as it had for 40 years. His fingertips caressed her oloroso-coloured hair, which smelled lemony, as though she had recently showered.
- What's the book?, he asked.
- Nigella Does Christmas.
- I told you my deal would work, she said. I just didn't know how.
- You were right.
- I'm sorry about the car.
- Who cares about the car.
- I gave Johnny a terrible fright.
- He's had worse.
- I got her an hour ago, in New York, she was over the moon.
- Sure course she is, it's brilliant.
- The baby's coming in July.
- We'll go over.
- You didn't happen to see a coffee machine on your way?
One Wednesday night last year, he had come home late from work to find her mixing a Christmas cake. In September.
He remembered the richness, the currents and fat raisins, the golden stickiness of the muscovado, the glossy egg yolks, the vanilla, and the steady quiet interplay of their fingers as they stirred the heavy bowl she had inherited from her grandfather, a baker in a small midlands town. The radio was playing quietly - John Prine, Johnny Cash - and the dog was asleep by the fire. Fat squares of marzipan bedecked the kitchen table; she asked him to do the rolling, he was "methodical", she said. "It's not every man can do it right."
The hot, floury air, the red sundown beyond the venetian blinds, the way she blew, suddenly, to move her fringe from her eyes. It was the night she told him she was going to stop drinking, had made a deal with God, would go back to attending the meetings. She would drink no more and Elaine and Rob would be given a child; the IVF treatment, after all this time, all this hope, would work.
- They've been told it won't, he sighed.
- It will.
It was the moment he had felt closest to her in all the years of their marriage, the moment she had refused to believe. Absence was a presence. Faith was a kind of doubt. It comes back to him now, in a hospital corridor, near Christmas, sipping coffee from a paper cup with the only woman he's ever loved. They look out at the lights of the M50, hazing in the rain, yellow and gold, almost beautiful.
Joseph O'Connor holds the Frank McCourt Chair of Creative Writing, at the University of Limerick. Professor O'Connor also runs the UL/Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School, Glucksman Ireland House, NYU.