He notices, because she is ignoring him, grey skies overhead and black clouds to the west. Two magpies; one follows the other across his eye-line. A sudden lift of wind touches rain-kissed daffodils into a frenzied dance on a margin of estate greenery. Other things he is aware of are a fleeting metallic scent of rain, the slow and heavy trawl of traffic in both directions. Thick bad breath of diesel fume. Up ahead, a speed van. A black cat with two white paws waiting outside the closed doors of an Indian restaurant. Driving a blue Nissan Almera a man for whom he had once worked. A car the same make and model and navy colouring as one he used own. Beside him, her strong silence.
They had been walking for a mile, from the bridge over the river, along the main street, towards the rented house they call home, but know that it is not. For something to say he says, ‘It’s going to rain.’
The young woman grunts.
He says, ‘You’ll be grand.’ After his remark fails to elicit a response he adds, ‘We should get a hurry on.’
But she does not quicken her pace.
They are passing the Pakistani’s house; it has slates halfway down its gable ends, resembling to the young man’s mind, a German soldier’s World War II helmet. He remembers saying this to her before and so refrains from mentioning it, and the fact that his mother used to work for Mr Sood – for she also knows this. He thinks that perhaps the problem with them is that each has run out of new things to tell the other.
She says, ‘Don’t…’
‘I wasn’t about to,’ he says.
‘You say it every time we pass that fucking house.’
‘Sometimes you mention it before I do,’ he says.
‘Only to stop you telling me.’
Once had they both worked at a banking call sector. It was where they’d first met, in the staff canteen. Their salaries were poor, but combined it made for fair. In the downturn they lost their jobs, his going shortly before hers. Swamped in debt their home was repossessed, so too his car. Even the baby she had been expecting turned out to be a mirage. It was as though their coming to live together had cursed them. The crash, he corrects himself, it wasn’t a curse – it had to do with the crash. Cunt of a year, 2008. Blame the government – smug Ahern and his go commit suicide to his detractors. Bluff ‘Diddy man’ Cowen and his picture in the art gallery – fair play to the guy who did the stunt. All members of the LLLS – Living Like Lords Society – on their fat fucking pensions – while the rest of us are shit in the loo. No flush.
In the sitting room he turns on the TV and lounges on the sofa, his shoes and coat on.
‘It’s your turn,’ she calls to him from the kitchen.
To make dinner, he remembers. He doesn’t want to cook. She will pick at whatever he cooks. Critique with small sighs.
‘Use the nailbrush – your nails are filthy,’ she says, as she passes through the sitting room to the bathroom.
He watches her, shakes his head. Rubs at the dark stubble on his face.
She’s getting so fucking fat, he thinks, while I’m losing weight.
The doc had told her she needed to have that lump in her left breast checked out. Another entry in a long list of shitty happenings. What is he supposed to say? They don’t tell you that – oh yeah: listen, hug. Comfort. Console How do you manage that with someone who carves you with her eyes? Fill her with optimism, he supposes. Paint her a pretty picture – say she’ll be grand. To think positively. It might be what she needs to hear, even if she knows they are out all of pretty pictures.
‘For…’ she says, emerging from the bathroom. She is biting her tongue, he knows – he should be cooking something.
She is using that antiseptic wash on her hands instead of washing them. And she never washes her hands if she had only peed.
‘Did you use all of the toilet paper?’ he says, remembering that she had a couple of days ago – using the last leaf of bog roll is like taking the last Oreo biscuit on the plate, out and out selfish.
‘Have you got the dinner on?’ she says.
‘Well, I’m not cooking – end of story,’ she says, slouching into the armchair, crossing her legs and folding her arms.
‘What’s left out there?’ he says, then sighs.
Payday is tomorrow. Visiting the doctor had taken up their last fifty euros. Money they’d put by over two weeks to get her to the doctor. They’d applied for a GP visit card, but hadn’t got any word back. She had called the department and been told there was a delay in processing applications.
‘I dunno,’ she says, ‘a can of tuna maybe, pasta.’
She’d been crying too. Fresh tears had fallen a few minutes ago.
‘Oven chips?’ he says.
‘I think so.’
‘Crinkly ones?’ he says.
He only ate those, while she prefers thin cut like you get in Mickey D’s.
‘Thin,’ she says.
‘Beans?’ he says.
Her silence brings his eyes from the TV.
‘Get up off your fucking arse and look,’ she snaps.
‘Why don’t you fuck off with yourself!’ he says irritably but with an added something that is close to bitterness and worse – outright dismissiveness.
Then she goes bawling her eyes out.
‘It might be, what did the doctor say… be… nine, right,’ he says, ‘it could be – you don’t – we don’t know yet. The doctor said it was best to be on the safe side.’
She dabs a tissue to her eyes. He’d never seen her eyes so red from crying. Not even after she’d miscarried.
‘It might be nothing,’ he says.
‘It is something,’ she says in a knowing way.
He stands, considers hugging her, squeezing her shoulder to show that he is there for her. It would be a lie. Of course he would stand by her but the hugging and touching and kissing is stuff of the past between them. He hadn’t realised that until this very moment.
‘I’ll do us egg and chips,’ he says, squeezing her hand.
‘We’ve no eggs.’
‘Beans it is.’
‘Peas, so,’ he says.
He hates peas, especially mushy. He wants to say this, but she is sick. If not with cancer then from the worry of possibly having it, and so she doesn’t need to hear him bitching about little stuff.
He is glad to be in the kitchen and away from the sight of her misery. Would murder to have money for a couple of pints. He wonders if she’s told her parents? Not over the phone – it would have to be a sit down job. Probably at their place – he wouldn’t be present. She wouldn’t tell him she had broken the news until she had it done. They owe both sets of parents a lot of money. Hand outs for this and for that to pay bills, and had long exhausted those sources of revenue. Draining their resources, so his own had given as a reason for refusing. While her’s said she should move back in with them – her bedroom was there. For her. So without saying a bad word about him they had managed to cut his feet off at the ankles. Her mother never liked him – her father likes no one.
No chips. Croquettes. Bought cheap from Tesco’s. After they’d eaten she says she is going out for an hour.
‘Where?’ he says.
‘Mam’s,’ she says.
She has no money for a bus and her parent’s house is a long walk.
‘Do you want me to go with you?’ he says quietly, half-hoping that she doesn’t.
‘No, Mam is collecting me,’ she says.
Later, she sends him a text to say that she is staying over. He retires to bed shortly after midnight. He misses her. Even if there is a divide in the bed and they had taken to sleeping back to back, it had always made him feel good to know that she was within touching distance.
He feels empty without her. Unable to sleep he returns to the sofa and watches a DVD she had said they’d watched before – he’d insisted he had not. Minutes into the movie he remembers its middle and ending. She is so often so right about things, while he misses the mark.
Texts her goodnight with an x and waits for her response. But there’s no reply.
In the morning the cold awakens him. He checks his phone to see if she’d messaged him and shakes his head on his way to the bathroom: Jen never fails to answer his texts. If she didn’t text she would ring or send a ‘call me,’ message.
The toilet paper holder is empty. If she was here he would be angry with her; now that she is not, he finds her inconsideration somewhat endearing. He knows himself well enough to understand that his mood is tempered by the notion of his money waiting for him at the post office. Usually they stroll there together and afterwards treat themselves to lunch in ‘Cake K’ before doing the weekly shopping. Rent and electric and gas bills are all overdue but he tries not to think about them. Messages her to say he will meet her at the PO at the usual time. Other things he does not dwell too long upon: his mother’s birthday; a score he owes to a friend for a spot of hash; his car, toilet paper. Her sickness.
His father had called him last week to remind him of his mother’s birthday. A couple of scratch cards, son, a birthday card, son, eh – so I won’t have to listen to her whinging. He can stall his hash friend for another week. His mother will get over the disappointment. She will not show her hurt so as not to cause him any. As always. Fuck the recession and the whole shower of bolloxises that led us there – we need to go fucking mental like the Arabs. The only fuckers here that you hear whinging up a mighty fuss are those about to lose their slice of fucking cake…farmers and…
He waits for her outside the post office in the mall. There is no sign of her. He joins the queue, hands over his welfare card, signs the docket and collects his money. There’s a dance of coins in the slip tray. Several times he had looked back at the queue to see if she had joined, hoping to see her smile, a tiny wave, hand busy then in the handbag for her card. A plastic card she hates.
He buys credit for his phone, feeds it, then calls her. No reply. Next he dials her parent’s landline. Her father answers like he’d been expecting his call.
He says, ‘ Tommy, son. she’s staying with us for a while, yeah, until she gets these tests done.’
‘I’ll be round,’ he says.
‘No. Leave it for today, don’t call – until tomorrow, how’s that?’
‘I did nothing on her, Mister O’Leary– it’s not my fault. Why is she running out on me now?’
‘She’s terrified. Let her be with her mother for a day or so. It’s a woman thing, yeah?’
Her old man had been pleasant to him. He hadn’t expected that. But she hadn’t wanted to speak with him and that hurt. He considers ringing back to ask her dad to remind her what day it is, but she won’t forget. Money isn’t something you forget when you have none. He lunches in a cafe they had not eaten in as a couple, so as to lessen his pining for her.
Afterwards he buys toilet paper, good quality sort and not thin stuff as you might as well use naked fingers, a six pack of beer and crisps, tells himself to hold off spending more until she is with him. They had made shopping a social occasion.
Walking home he thinks of yesterday, how the wind had disturbed the daffodils into a dance, how she’d refused to talk, and when she did she’d been short with him. How quiet she had been, quiet among the thorns of her tears. Making today for him unlike any other.
Martin Malone is the author of six novels, a short story collection and a memoir. He is a winner of RTE’s Francis MacManus Short Story Award. His novel, ‘The Broken Cedar,’ was IMPAC nominated and shortlisted for the Hughes & Hughes Irish Fiction Award. His first novel ‘Us’ won The John B Keane/Sunday Independent Literary Prize and was shortlisted for the Kerry Irish Fiction Award. New Island Books will publish ‘Us’ as part of their modern Irish classic series in 2015. His work has been widely published and broadcast. He has also written for TV and stage. A second collection of short stories, ‘Deadly Confederacies & Other Short Stories,’ appears in May. He is the recipient of several Arts Council of Ireland Bursary Awards for English literature, including the CD Lewis Literary Bursary.
–Foreground Art by Lisa Griffin
–Background Art by Sarah Hardy