This Must Be The Place By Maggie O'Farrell: Book Review
The seventh novel from Costa-award-winning Maggie O'Farrell, This Must Be The Place is the story of linguist Daniel Sullivan, his second wife, Claudette, their children from both marriages, and what happens when he makes an unwelcome discovery about his first love.
Along the way, it takes in modern celebrity, alcoholism, our obsession with personal journeys, chronic eczma and speech problems.
It's always bemused me that O'Farrell doesn't receive more recognition - not only as a storyteller, but for her use of language (which she does to stunning effect here).
If she was a man, Maggie O'Farrell wouldn't "just" be writing multi-layered novels about relationships, she would be considered literary and praised for her art.
If she was a man, she'd be lauded alongside Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides.
But, no. O'Farrell has the wrong mix of chromosomes.
And so, until pigs fly, she will have to make do with her legions of fans and heavyweight sales, safe in the knowledge that she's better than any of them.
This Must Be The Place By Maggie O'Farrell: Book Extract
THE STRANGEST FEELING IN MY LEGS
There is a man.
He is standing on the backstep, rolling a cigarette. The day is typically unstable, the garden lush and shining, the branches weighty with still-falling rain.
There is a man and the man is me.
I am at the backdoor, tobacco tin in hand, and I am watching something in the trees, a figure, standing at the perimeter of the garden, where the aspens crowd in at the fence. Another man.
He’s carrying a pair of binoculars and a camera.
A birdwatcher, I am telling myself as I dab the frail paper against my tongue, you get them in these parts. But at the same time I’m thinking, really? Birdwatching this far up the valley? I’m also thinking, where is my daughter, the baby, my wife, how quickly could I reach them, if I needed to?
My heart cranks into high gear, thud-thudding against my ribs. I squint into the white sky. I am about to step out into the garden. I want the guy to know I’ve seen him, to see me seeing him. I want him to register my size, my former track-and-field-star physique (slackening and loosening a little these days, admittedly). I want him to run the odds, me versus him, through his head. He’s not to know I’ve never been in a fight in my life and intend it to stay that way. I want him to feel what I used to feel before my father disciplined me: I am on to you, he would say, with a pointing finger, directed first at his chest, then mine.
I am on to you, I want to yell, while I fumble to pocket my roll-up and lighter. The guy is looking in the direction of the house. I see the tinder spark of sun on a lens and a movement of his arm that could be the brushing away of a hair across the forehead or the depression of a camera shutter.
Two things happen very fast. The dog – a whiskery, leggy, slightly arthritic wolfhound, usually given to sleeping by the stove – streaks out of the door, past my legs and into the garden, emitting a volley of low barks, and a woman comes round the side of the house.
She has the baby on her back, she is wearing the kind of sou’wester hood usually sported by North Sea fishermen and she is holding a shotgun.
She is also my wife.
The latter fact I still have trouble adjusting to, not only because the idea that this creature would ever agree to marrying me is highly improbable, but also because she pulls unexpected shit like this all the time.
‘Jesus, honey,’ I gasp and I am momentarily distracted by how shrill my voice is. Unmanly doesn’t cover it. I sound as if I’m admonishing her for an ill-judged choice in soft furnishings or for wearing pumps that clash with her purse.
She ignores my high-pitched intervention – who can blame her? – and fires into the air. Once, twice.
If, like me, you’ve never heard a gun report at close range, let me tell you the noise is an ear-shattering explosion. Magnesium-hued lights go off inside your head, your ears ring with the three-bar high note of an aria, your sinuses fill with tar.
The sound ricochets off the side of the house, then off the flank of the mountain, then back again: a huge, aural tennis ball bouncing about the valley. I realise that while I’m ducking, cringeing, covering my head, the baby is strangely unmoved. He is still sucking his thumb, head leaning against the spread of his mother’s hair. Almost as if he’s used to this. Almost as if he’s heard it all before.
I straighten up. I take my hands off my ears. Far away, a figure is sprinting away through the undergrowth. My wife turns around. She cracks the gun in the crook of her arm. She whistles for the dog.
‘Ha,’ she says to me before she vanishes back around the side of the house, ‘that showed him.’
My wife, I should tell you, is crazy. Not in a requiring medication and wards and men in white coats sense – although I sometimes wonder if there may have been times in her past – but in a subtle, more socially acceptable, less ostentatious way. She doesn’t think like other people. She believes that to pull a gun on someone lurking, in all likelihood entirely innocently, at our perimeter fence is not only permissable but indeed the right thing to do.
Here are the bare facts about the woman I married:
- she’s crazy, as I might have mentioned
- she is a recluse
- she’s apparently willing to pull a gun on anyone who threatens to uncover her hiding place.
I dart, in so much as a man of my size can dart, through the house to catch her. I’m going to have this shotgun thing out with her, if it’s the last thing I do. She can’t keep one in a house where there are small children. She just can’t.
I’m repeating this sentiment to myself as I pass through the house, planning to begin my protestations with it. But as I come through the front door, it’s as if I’m entering another world. Instead of the grey drizzle of the back, a dazzling, primrose-tinted sun fills the front garden, which gleams and sparks as if hewn from jewels. My daughter is leaping over a rope which is being turned by my wife who was, just a moment ago, a dark, forbidding figure with a gun, a long grey coat and hat like Death’s hood. She has shucked off her sou-wester and transmogrified back to her usual incarnation. The baby is crawling about on the grass, knees wet with rain, the bloom of an iris clutched in his fist, chattering to himself in a satisfied, gutteral growl.
It’s as if I’ve stepped into another time frame entirely, as if I’m in one of those folktales where you think you’ve been asleep for an hour or so but you wake to find you’ve been away a lifetime, that all your loved ones and everything you’ve ever known are dead and gone. Did I really just walk to the other side of the house or did I fall asleep for a hundred years?
I shake off this notion. This gun business needs to be dealt with right now.
‘Since when,’ I demand, ‘do we own a firearm?’
My wife raises her head and meets my eye with a challenged, flinty look, the skipping rope coming to a stop in her hand. ‘“We” don’t,’ she says. ‘It’s mine.’
A typical parry from her. She appears to answer the question without answering it at all. She picks on the element that isn’t the subject of the question. The essence of sidestepping.
I rally, however. I’ve had more than enough practise.
‘Since when do you own a firearm?’
She shrugs a shoulder, bare, I notice, and tanned to a soft gold, bisected by a thin, white strap. I feel a momentary, automatic mobilization deep inside my underwear – strange, how this doesn’t change with age for men, that we are all of us but a membrane away from our inner teenage selves – but I pull my attention back to the discussion. She’s not going to get away with this.
‘Since now,’ she says.
‘What’s a fire arm?’ my daughter asks, splitting the word in two, her small, heart-shaped face tilted up to look at her mother.
‘It’s an Americanism,’ my wife says, ‘it means “gun”.’
‘Oh, the gun,’ says my sweet Marithe, six years old, equal parts pixie, angel and sylph. She turns to me. ‘Father Christmas brought Donal a new one so he said Maman could have his old one.’
This utterance renders me, for a moment, speechless. Donal is a ill-scented homunculus who farms the land further down the valley. He – and his wife, I’d imagine – has what you might call a problem with anger management. No impulse control, Donal. He shoots everything on sight: squirrels, rabbits, foxes, hillwalkers (just kidding).
‘What is going on?’ I say. ‘You’re keeping a firearm in the house and –’
‘Gun, Daddy. Say gun.’
‘– a gun, without telling me? Without discussing it with me? Don’t you see how dangerous that is? What if one of the children–’
My wife turns, her hem swishing through the wet grass. ‘Isn’t it nearly time to leave for your train?’ Next chapter
I sit behind the wheel of the car, one hand on the ignition, the cigarette from earlier gripped between my lips. I am searching my pocket for an elusive lighter or box of matches. I am determined to smoke this cigarette at some point, before the strike of noon. I limit myself to three a day and, boy, do I need them.
I am also shouting at the top of my voice. There’s something about living in the middle of nowhere that invites this indulgence.
‘Come on!’ I yell, secretly admiring the volume I can produce, the way it echoes around the mountain’s lower reaches. ‘I’m going to miss my train!’
Marithe appears unaware of the commotion, which is commendable in one way and irksome in another. She has a tennis ball or similar in a sock and is standing with her back against the wall of the house, counting (in Irish, I notice, with a ripple of surprise) and with each number – aon, dó, trí, ceathair – she thwacks the socked ball off the wall, dangerously close to her body. I watch, while shouting some more: underarm left, underarm right, between the feet, over the shoulder right, over the shoulder left. She’s pretty good at it. I catch myself wondering where she learnt this game. Not to mention the Irish. She is home-schooled by her mother, as was her older brother, until he rebelled and enlisted himself (with my clandestine help) in a boarding school in England.
My schedule is such that I often spend the working week in Belfast, coming back to this tiny corner of Donegal at the weekends. I teach a course in linguistics for the university, coaching undergraduates to break up what they hear around them, to question the way sentences are constructed, in manner in which words are used, and to make a stab at guessing why. I’ve always focussed my research on the way languages evolve. I’m not one of those traditionalists who lament and breast-beat about how grammar is deteriorating, how semantic standards are slipping. No, I like to embrace the idea of change.
Because of this, within the extremely narrow field of academic linguistics, I retain an aura of the bad-boy maverick. Not much of an accolade but there you are. If you’ve ever listened to a radio programme about neologisms or grammatical shifts or the way teenagers usurp and appropriate terms for their own, often subversive use, it will probably have been me who was wheeled in to say that change is good, elasticity is to be embraced.
I once said this in passing to my mother-in-law and she held me for a moment with her imperious, mascaraed gaze and said, in her flawless Parisian English, ‘Ah, but no, I would not have heard you because I always switch off the radio if I hear an American: I simply cannot listen to that accent.’
Accent aside, I am due, in several hours, to deliver a lecture on pidgins and creoles, based around a single sentence. If I miss this train, there isn’t another one that will get me there in time. There will be no lecture, no pidgins, no creoles, but instead a group of undergraduates who will never be enlightened as to the fascinating, complex, linguistic geneology of the sentence: ‘Him thief she mango’.
I am also, after the lecture, due to catch a flight to the States. After extensive trans-Atlantic pressure from my sisters, and against my better judgement, I am going over for my father’s 90th birthday party. What kind of a party may be had at the age of ninety remains to be seen but I’m anticipating a lot of paper plates, potato salad, tepid beer, and everyone trying to ignore the fact that the celebrant himself is scowling and grumbling in a corner. My sisters have been saying that our father could shuffle off his mortal coil at any time and they know that he and I haven’t always seen eye to eye (to put it mildly) but if I don’t come soon I will regret it for the rest of my life, blah, blah. Listen, I tell them, the man walks two miles every day, eats enough pulled pork to depopulate New York state of pigs, and he certainly doesn’t sound infirm if you get him on the phone – never does he find himself at a loss when pointing out my shortcomings and errors to me. Plus, with regards to his much-vaunted potential death, if you ask me, the man never had a pulse in the first place.
This visit – my first in over five years – is not, I am telling myself, the reason for my stress, the explanation for my brain-bending craving for nicotene nor for the jittery twitch of my eyelid as I sit waiting. It has nothing to do with it, nothing at all. I’m just a little edgy today. That’s all. I will go to Brooklyn, I will visit with the old man, I will make nice, I will go to the party, I will give him the birthday gift my wife purchased and wrapped, I will chat to my nieces and nephews, I will stick it out for the requisite number of days and then I will get the hell out.
I crack open the car door and scream, ‘Where are you? I’m going to miss my lecture,’ into the damp air, before spying a crumpled book of matches in the footwell of the car. I disappear down for it like a pearl-diver, resurfacing triumphant with it in my hand.
At this moment, my wife yanks open the door and commences strapping the baby into his car seat.
I exhale as I strike a match. If we leave now, we should catch the train.
Marithe scrambles into her place, the dog squeezes in and over the seat, into the trunk; the passenger door opens and my wife slides into the car. She is, I notice, wearing a pair of man’s trousers, cinched round the waist with what looks suspiciously like one of my silk neckties. Over the top of this is a coat that I know for a fact once cost more than my monthly salary – a great ugly thing of leather and tweed and straps and loops – and on her head is a rabbit fur hat with elaborate ear flaps. Another gift from Donal, I want to enquire, but don’t because Marithe is in the car.
‘Phew,’ my wife says, ‘it’s filthy out there.’
Into the backseat, she tosses a wicker basket, a burlap sack, something that looks like a brass candelabra and, finally, an ancient, tarnished eggwhisk.
I say nothing.
I slide the car into first gear and let off the brake, with a peverse feeling of accomplishment, as if getting my family to leave ten minutes late is a major achievement, and I draw the first smoke of the day down into my lungs, where it curls up like a cat.
My wife reaches out, plucks the cigarette from my lips and stubs it out.
‘Hey!’ I protest.
‘Not with the children in the car,’ she says, tipping her head towards the backseat.
I am about to pick up the argument and run with it – I have a whole defence which questions the relative dangers to minors of firearms and cigarettes – but my wife turns her face towards mine and fixes me with her peridot stare and gives me a smile of such tenderness and intimacy that the words of my prepared speech drain away like water down a plughole.
She puts her hand on my leg, just within the bounds of decency, and whispers, ‘I’ll miss you.’
As a linguist, it’s a revelation to me the number of ways two adults can find to discuss sex without small children having the faintest idea what is being said. It is a testament, a celebration of the adaptability of semantics. My wife smiling like this and saying, I’ll miss you, translates in essence into: I’m not going to be getting any while you’re away but as soon as you’re back I’m going to lead you into the bedroom and remove all your clothes and get down to it. Me, clearing my throat and replying, ‘I’ll miss you too,’ says, yep, I’ll be looking forward to that moment the whole time.
‘Are you feeling OK about the trip?’
‘To Brooklyn?’ I say, in an attempt to sound casual, but the words come out slightly strangled.
‘To your dad,’ she clarifies.
‘Oh,’ I say, circling my hand in the air, ‘yeah. It’ll be fine. He’s ... er, it’ll be fine. It’s not for long, is it?’
‘Well,’ she begins, ‘I think that he–’
Marithe might be picking up on something because she suddenly shouts, a little louder than necessary, ‘Gate! Gate, Maman!’
I stop the car. My wife snaps off her seatbelt, shoves open her door, swings her legs out of the car and slams the door after her, exiting the small rhombus of the rain-glazed passenger window. A moment later, she reappears in the panorama of the windscreen: she is walking away from the car. This triggers some pre-verbal survival synapse in the baby: his neurology tells him that the sight of his mother’s retreating back is bad news, that she might never return, that he will be left here to perish, that the company of his somewhat scatty and only occasionally present father is not sufficient to ensure his survival (he has a point). He lets out a howl of despair, a signal to the mothership: abort mission, request immediate return.
‘Hey,’ I say, using the time to retrieve my cigarette from the back of the dashboard, ‘have a little faith.’
My wife is unlatching a gate and swinging it open. I ease up on the clutch and ease down on the gas and the car slides through the gate, my wife shutting it after us.
There are, I should explain, twelve gates between the house and the road. Twelve. That’s one whole dozen times she’ll have to get out of the car, open and shut the damn things, then get back in again. The road is a half a mile away, as the crow flies, but to get there takes a small age. And if you’re doing it alone, the whole thing is a laborious, sisyphean toil, usually in the rain. There are times when I need something from the village – a pint of milk, toothpaste, the normal run of household requirements – and I rise from my chair, only to realise that I’ll have to open no fewer than twenty-four gates, in a round trip, and I sink back down, thinking, hell, who needs to clean their teeth?
The word ‘remote’ doesn’t even come close to describing our house. It’s in one of the least populated valleys of Ireland, at an altitude even the sheep eschew, let alone the people. And my wife chooses to live in the highest, most distant corner of this place, reached only by a track which passes through numerous livestock fences: hence the gates. To get there, you’d have to really want to get there.
The car door is wrenched open and my wife slides back into the passenger seat. Eleven more to go. The baby bursts into tears of relief. Marithe yells, ‘One! One gate! One, Daddy, that’s one!’ She is alone in her love of The Gates. The dashboard immediately starts up with a hysterical bleeping, signalling that my wife needs to fasten her seatbelt. I should warn you that she won’t. The bleeping and flashing will continue until we get to the road. It’s a bone of contention in our marriage: I think the hassle of putting on and putting off the seatbelt outweighs the benefit of not having that infernal noise the whole ride; she disagrees.
‘So, your dad,’ my wife continues; she has, among her many other talents, an amazing ability to remember and pick up half-finished conversations. I don’t know how she does it. ‘I really think–’
‘Can you not just put it on?’ I snap. I can’t help it. I have a low threshold for repetitive, electronic noises.
She turns her head with infinite, luxurious slowness to look at me. ‘I beg your pardon?’ she says.
‘The seatbelt. Can’t you just this once–’
I am silenced by another gate, which looms out of the mist: she gets out, she walks towards the gate, the baby cries, Marithe yells out a number, etcetera, etcetera. By the penultimate gate, there is a dull pressure in my temples that threatens to blossom into persistant dents of pain.
As my wife returns to the car, the radio fizzes, subsides, crackles into life. We keep it permanently switched on in the car because reception is mostly a notion in these parts and any snatch of music or dialogue is greeted with cheers.
‘Oh, Peter! Peter!’ an actress in a studio somewhere earnestly emotes, ‘be careful!’ And then the connection dissolves in a crackle of static.
‘Oh, Peter, Peter!’ Marithe shrieks in delight, drumming her feet into the back of my chair. The baby, quick to catch the general mood, gives a crowing inhale, gripping the edges of his chair, and the sun chooses the moment to make an unexpected appearance. Ireland looks green and pleasant and blessed as we skim along the track, splashing through puddles, towards the final gate.
My wife and Marithe are debating what Peter may have needed to be careful of, the baby is repeating an ‘n’ sound and I am thinking that it’s early for him to be using his palate in such a way as I idly turn the dial to see what else we can find.
I pull up at the last and final gate. A Glasweigian accent filters through the white noise, filling the car, speaking in the straitened, self-consciously serious tones of the newsreader. There is some geographical blip that means we can, on occasion, pick up the Scottish news. There is something about the upcoming election, a politician caught speeding, a school without textbooks. I twirl the dial through waves of nothingness, searching for speech, panning for a human voice.
My wife gets out of the car, she walks towards the gate. I watch the breeze snatch and toy with hanks of her hair, the upright, ballet-dancer’s gait of her, her hand in its half-mitten as she grips the gate lock.
The radio aerial strains and picks up a female voice: calm but hesitant. It’s something about gender and the workplace, one of those issue-led magazine programmes you get in the middle of the morning. A west-country octogenarian is speaking about being one of the first women employed as an engineer and I am about turn the dial further as it’s the kind of thing my wife will be avid to hear and I am really in the mood for some decent music. Then a different voice comes out of little, faceless, perforated speakers near my knee: the dipping, vowel-lengthened accent of the educated English.
‘And I thought to myself, my God,’ the woman on the radio says, into my car, into the ears of my children, ‘this must be the glass ceiling I’ve heard so much about. Should it really be so hard to crack it with my cranium?’
These words produce within me a deep chime of recognition. Without warning, my mind is engaged with a series of flashcards: a cobbled pavement indistinct with fog, a bicycle chained to a railing, trees dense with the scent of pine, a giving pelt of fallen needles under foot, a telephone receiver pressed to the soft cartilege of an ear.
I know that woman, I want to exclaim, I knew her. I almost turn and say this to the kids in the back: I knew that person, once.
I am remembering the black cape thing she used to wear and her penchant for unwalkable shoes, weird articulated jewellery, outdoor sex, when the voice fades out and the presenter comes on air to tell us that was Nicola Janks, speaking in the mid-1980s.
I slap my palm on the wheel. Nicola Janks, of all people. Never have I come across that surname, before or since. She remains the only Janks I ever knew. She had, I seem to recall, some crazy middle name, something Grecian or Roman that bespoke of parents with mythological proclivities. What was it now? Persephone or Ariadne, something of that ilk. How could I have let it slip from my grasp? I am recalling, ruefully, that it’s no real surprise that things from that time might seem a little hazy, given the amount of–
And then I am thinking nothing.
The presenter is intoning, in that straitened, delicate way that can only mean one thing, that Nicola Janks died not long after the interview was recorded.
My brain performs a series of jolts, like an engine about to stall. I look instinctively for my wife. She has swung the gate open and is waiting for me to drive through.
There is the sensation that a window somewhere has blown open or a single domino has fallen against another, causing a cascade. A tide has rushed forward then pulled back out and whatever was beneath it is forever altered.
I gaze back at my wife. She is holding the gate. She leans her weight against it so that it doesn’t blow back against the car. She is holding it, trusting that I will drive the car through, the car that contains her children, her offspring, her beloveds. Her hair fills with the Irish wind like a sail. She is searching the windscreen now for my face, wondering why I am not driving forward, but from where she is standing, the glass is opaque with the reflections of clouds. From where she is standing, I might not even be here at all. Next chapter
The train pulls over the border, in an easterly direction, slaleming in and out of rain showers. I sit with the newspaper my wife bought me rolled in my hand like a baton, as if I am on the brink of guiding an invisible orchestra through a symphony.
It’s been ten years since I did the reverse journey, on a pilgrimage of sorts. I’d never been to Ireland then: it had simply never occurred to me to come. I am not one of those Irish-Americans coshed by a sense of Eiresatz nostalgia, filled with backwards-looking whimsy about a country that our great-grandparents were forced out of in order to survive. I was alone in this within my family: my Brooklynite sisters all wore Claddagh rings and listened to music laced with fiddles and went to St Patrick’s Day parades and gave their children names with tricky clusters of ‘d’s and b’s.
I was working at Berkeley, somewhat uncomfortably as part of the cognitive sciences department. My marriage had just ground to a halt; I was living in the apartment of a friend who was in Japan on a sabattical; my soon-to-be ex-wife had morphed from a reasonable woman into a deranged harpy who had decided I must make enormous contributions in maintence in exchange for minimal contact with my kids; I was pouring my entire salary into fighting this new development; I was having ill-advised affairs with two different women and preventing their mutual discovery of each other was causing me undue complications and evasions.
In the middle of this brew, my ninety-eight-year-old grandmother died and, according to the surprising instructions in her will, was cremated. The usual familial disagreements ensued as to where we should scatter her ashes. My aunt favoured an urn, and in particular an antique Chinese ginger jar she’d seen on sale, my father wanted to go ahead with a burial. An uncle put out the suggestion of the family plot; another was keen to go the way of some kind of woodland, wicker-coffin deal. It was a cousin who said, shouldn’t we put her with Grandpa?
We all looked at each other. It was the end of the wake: the priest had left, the guests were dwindling, the room was filled with crumpled napkins and crumbled cake and wreaths of cigarette smoke. My dad and his siblings lowered their eyes.
The truth came out, as truths are meant to do at funerals: no one quite knew where Grandpa’s remains were. The story was that, thirty years previously, he and Grandma had taken what everyone agreed was their first vacation, to Ireland. Grandpa had retired from the business, and they had never seen the country of their grandparents, all their friends had been, they had a little bit put by, etc, etc. Fill in for yourselves the usual reasons why people go on vacation.
They flew to Dublin, they saw the Ring of Kerry, then looked around Cork, the Dingle Peninsula. They saw the famous dolphin. For some reason – no one knew why – they ended up in Donegal, the forehead of the dog, that slice of the country squeezed in next to the British annex. Did one of their ancestors come from Donegal, I wanted to know, or perhaps the Protestant North, but this latter suggestion was shouted down. They, and we, were one hundred per cent Catholic Irish, my uncle insisted. To suggest otherwise was a dire insult.
Ancestry aside, my grandparents were staying, for a reason that will never be known, at a B&B in Buncrana. My grandmother was filing her nails at what she would later always refer to as an ‘armoire’ – my father was very clear on that point – when my grandfather turned around from the window and said, ‘I have the strangest feeling in my legs.’
She didn’t look up. She would regret this. Daniel, she would say to me later, always look up, if someone says that to you, always. I can confidently report that no one ever has. In the event, she did not look up. She kept on with the nail filing and said, ‘So sit down.’
He didn’t sit down. He fell down, right across the carpet, knocking over the nightstand and an ornamental bowl that my grandmother had to pay for before checking out. A brain haemorrage. Dead in an instant. Aged sixty-six.
I have the strangest feeling in my legs. How’s that for your last words?
Long story short: my grandmother was of the generation that didn’t make a fuss. Didn’t create waves. They just swallowed down whatever bitter pill life dealt them and got on with it. It would never have occurred to her to have the body of her husband flown back to the States, to be honoured by his numerous offspring. No, she didn’t want to put anyone to any trouble, so she had him cremated the very next day, with the local priest in attendance. She did the deed, she checked out and she came home. She had to pay an excess baggage fee to bring home his suitcase, a detail which always sent my father overboard with rage. But what happened to the actual ashes, nobody quite knew.
For obvious reasons, my long-deceased grandfather’s plight touched a raw nerve in me. I left the wake in a frenzy of disgust: it was somehow very typical of my family, to go to the trouble of lugging home the clothes of a dead man but overlook his actual ashes. To have never asked my grandmother for the specific location of his last rites. How could his remains have just been forgotten about, consigned to some lonely purgatory in a country where none of us had ever lived, alone, abandoned? No doubt I was imagining my own ashes being left to moulder in some faraway place, my children never collecting them because they had only been permitted to see me once a fortnight, between the hours of three and five pm, at a place of the mother’s choosing. Because every time their father turned up for this paltry, unjust amount of time, the mother cracked opened the door to say the children were ill / out / had a test and couldn’t make the contact that day. Because the legal system is irrevocably tilted towards the female parent, no matter how unstable or vindictive or unfaithful or paranoid she is. Because, however hard the father tries –
After I got back to San Francisco, I got hold of the names of all the crematoriums in Donegal and, in between fielding calls from my lawyer, attending court appearances at which I might as well have thrown several thousand dollars into a metal bin and dropped in a lit match, attending separate liaisons with my two lovers, covering my back so that the two lovers didn’t find out about each other, trying to find a new apartment where I could live when my colleague returned from Japan (an eye-wateringly expensive three-roomed place because the lawyer said it was crucial to give good evidence I was ‘willing and able to provide a home for the children’), I called them. I would sit at the kitchen table at three am, holding on to the end of a joint as if my life depended on it – and perhaps it did – and dial so that my phone reached its arm across the Atlantic to an unfamiliar pulse of ringing. Then I would listen to the soft, cushiony vowels of the reply: ‘Hello’. Said more like hellouh: the closing sound elongated, the tongue lowered, further back than it would have been in the mouth of an American. There was no ‘how may I help you?’ follow-up either, just a matter-of-fact hellouh.
It took me a while to get used to.
So I would sit there in the dark, in my colleague’s kitchen, surrounded by crayoned drawings by children who weren’t related to me, insomnia raging through me, and I would ask: can you help me, can you tell me, did you cremate a man called Daniel Sullivan twenty years ago, on a day in late May? Yes, to add to the surrealism of the situation, my grandfather and I have the same name. There were times, in the dead of the San Francisco night, when I felt as though I were trying to track down the ashes of my former self.
At my question, there was always a momentary pause and, after a scuffling, a few interchanges that I was convinced were often in Irish, the thunk-swoosh of a filing cabinet or two being opened then shut, the answer was always: no. Said nooooo.
Until one day, a woman (girl, perhaps – she sounded young, too young to be working at such a place) said: yes, he’s here.
I held the phone to my ear. I’d been in court that day, where I was told I had no further recourse, there was nothing I could do to ensure I could be part of my son and daughter’s upbringing, that, in the words of my lawyer, ‘we’d come to the end of the road’. At which I roared, in the domed vestibule of the courthouse, so that everyone in the vicinity turned towards me then quickly away, all except my ex-wife who walked steadily to the exit without looking back and even the swish of her ponytail was triumphant: ‘It’s parenthood, there’s not supposed to be an end of the road.’
For something to come right, to have someone say, yes, here he is, seemed an impossibility, a tiny sweetener in all the oceans of bitterness in which I was currently drowning.
‘You have him?’ I said.
There was a slight pause, as if the girl was taken aback by my emotion.
‘Yes,’ she said again.
‘Well, where is he?’ I’d heard that crematoria dispose of ashes if they are not taken away by relatives. I wanted to know where he’d been scattered, so I could tell the family and we could decide what to do with Grandma.
But instead of saying, we chucked him out the backdoor, into the sea breeze, into the nearest rose bush, over a convenient cliff, she uttered the unbelievable sentence: ‘He’s in the basement.’
For a mad moment, I had an image of Grandpa pottering about in a low-ceilinged but pleasant space, dressed as he so often was in slacks, a mustard-yellow shirt and a bow tie, spending the last twenty years rearranging storage jars or setting up a ping-pong table or sorting nails in toolboxes or whatever the hell it is people do in basements. We thought he was dead, I would shout! But he’s just been in your basement all this time!
I cleared my throat and tightened my grip on the phone. ‘The basement?’
‘4D,’ I repeated.
‘When do you want to come and collect him?’
The question took me by surprise. It had never occurred to me that Grandpa would need to be fetched, like a child from a birthday party. I realised in that moment that I hadn’t really expected to find him: the whole thing had been a distraction for me during the lowest point of my life thus far. To have found him was discombobulating, unexpected, unreal.
Ireland: I pictured damp hillsides of vivid green, stone bridges arching over silvering streams, women with an abundance of auburn hair running their fingers up the strings of a harp.
‘Next week,’ I almost shouted, ‘I’ll come next week.’
Which was how I ended up alone, in the middle of rural Ireland during spring break, fifteen years ago, alternately drinking myself into oblivion or eating takeaways in a series of B&Bs with slippery bed covers and single portions of milk.
I say ‘alone’, when actually I was accompanied by my grandfather, who was sporting a small, taped cardboard box and occupied the passenger seat of the hire car. He and I got along very well, which is not quite how I remembered it when he was alive.
‘Remember that time you spanked me with a hurling stick for sassing you at table?’ I would say as we bowled along the Irish countryside, which looked surprisingly close to how I’d imagined it, hump-backed bridges and all. Lots of sheep, though: more than I’d ever thought possible.
Or: ‘How about that time you told my sister that no decent man would have her, because she ate a lamb chop with her fingers?’
Grandpa kept his counsel. He didn’t even complain when I ground the gears on the stick-shift or wavered to the wrong side of the road or ate only potato chips and Guinness for lunch or fired up a joint when it was way past my bedtime.
Then, one day near the end of my allotted fortnight, I was driving from the coast in the direction of the border. Grandpa and I were discussing whether or not we would head elsewhere to check out the scene – Galway, maybe, Sligo, or over the border to Ulster – whether we’d had enough of Ireland (I was pretty sure he had). I was just rounding a bend when I caught sight of a child at the side of the road. Just crouching there, his chin in his palms.
There was something about him that didn’t seem quite right. I hit the brake and backed up, slowly, lowering my window.
‘Hey, kid,’ I said in my friendliest voice. ‘Everything OK?’
He stood up. He was barefoot, about six or seven years old, and was dressed in a weird, padded jacket thing that looked as though it had been made by free-spirited people under the influence of something fun.
He opened his mouth and the beginnings of a sound came out. It might have been ‘I’ or possibly ‘my’. It was followed by silence. But not any kind of silence: a terse, freighted, agonising silence. He stared intently at the ground in front of him, his jaw locked, his hands balled into fists. I could see his little chest struggling to draw in breath. He looked in my direction, then away. He was covering for himself pretty well, something I always find just heartbreaking: the bravery of it, the struggle, the small ways kids find to cope. The boy glanced skywards, in imitation of someone deep in thought or giving what he might say some consideration but I wasn’t fooled. I had, a long time ago, been a research assistant on a programme for stuttering and I was remembering all those kids we worked with, mainly boys, for whom speech was a minefield, an impossibility, a cruel requirement of human interaction.
So I took a deep breath. ‘I see you have a stutter,’ I said, ‘so please take as much time as you need.’
He flicked his eyes towards me, and his expression was incredulous, stunned. I remembered that, too. They can’t believe it when you’re so open about it.
Sure enough, the kid said, in the rushed diction of a long-term stutterer: ‘How did you know?’
He didn’t sound Irish, I wasn’t surprised to hear. He looked like a blow-in, a white settler. I’d heard there were English hippies in the area.
I leant on my car window and shrugged. ‘It’s my job. Sort of. Or it used to be.’
‘You’re a sp–sp-’ and he stumbled, just as I knew he would, over the term ‘speech-therapist’. Ironically, it’s a phrase almost impossible for a stutterer to say. All those consonant clusters and tongue-flexing vowels. We waited, the kid and I, until he’d got out an approximation of the term.
‘No,’ I said, finally, ‘I’m a linguist. I study language and the way it changes. But I used to work with kids like you, who have trouble speaking.’
‘You’re American,’ he said and, as he did so, I realised his pronunciation was more complex than I’d originally thought. There was English in there, mostly, but something else as well.
‘Are you from New York?’
I took out a cigarette from the glovebox. ‘I’m impressed,’ I said. ‘You have an ear for accents.’
He shrugged but looked pleased. ‘I lived there for a while when I was little but mostly we were in LA.’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘Is that right? So where are your mom and dad right now? Are they–’
He interrupted but I didn’t take it the wrong way: kids like him have to talk when they can, whether it’s in a gap in the conversation or not. ‘We had a house in Santa Monica,’ he blurted, not answering my question at all, ‘it was right on the beach and Maman and I went swimming every morning until one day the men showed up and Maman took the flare from the boat and she – she – she –’
He came to the end of this intriguing burst of articulacy and began to struggle in silence, cheeks red, the volatile confederacy of his tongue, palate and breath dissolving into chaos and strife.
‘Santa Monica is beautiful,’ I commented, after a while. ‘It sounds like you had fun there.’
He nodded, his mouth shut tight, not trusting himself to speak.
‘So you live over here now? In Ireland?’
He nodded again.
‘With your mom? Your ... maman?’
‘And where is she? Is she ...’ I wondered how to put this without sounding threatening, ‘... nearby ... or ...?’
He jerked his head behind him.
‘She’s back there?’
‘Th-th-th-the ... t-t-t-tyre ... bur-bur-burst.’
‘Ah,’ I said, ‘OK.’ I pulled up the handbrake and got out of the car. I smiled at him but didn’t get too close. Kids can be jumpy and rightly so. ‘You think she could use some help?’
Dog-like, he dived into the bushes and reappeared on a track I hadn’t noticed before. He grinned and set off, zig-zagging the track one way, then the next. We went round a bend, then another, the kid shinning up a tree and down again, turning around every now and again to regard me with amusement, as if it was a great joke that he had procured my company like this. At the approach of another bend, he dived again into the undergrowth. There was the sound of a rustle, a giggle, and then a woman’s voice: ‘Ari? Is that you?’
‘I found a friend,’ Ari was saying as I came around the bend. Next chapter
Up ahead on the track was a van, raised up on one side with a jack. A woman was crouched beside it, tools spread out around her. The sun was so strong, she was just a silhouette and her hair was of such a length that it brushed the ground.
‘A friend?’ she said. ‘That’s nice.’
‘Here he is,’ Ari said, turning towards me.
The woman jerked her head around and rose up from the ground. At this point, I could only register that she was tall, for a woman, and thin. Too thin, her collar bone standing out like a coathanger from her chest, her wrists a circumference that suggested to me she might not possess the strength required to wield those tools. She had a mass of honey-coloured hair and a mouth screwed up in a displeased pout. She was wearing a pair of overalls, filthy, patched, rolled up over a pair of mud-encrusted wellingtons. She was not at all my type. I remember consciously forming this thought. Too skeletal, too haughty, too symmetrical. She had a face that seemed somehow exaggerated, as if viewed through a magnifying glass: the features excessive, the eyes over-large, widely spaced, the top lip too full, the head disproportionately big for her body.
She tilted her head, she spoke, she gestured: she did something, I don’t remember what. All I knew was that the next moment, she looked perfect, startingly so. This would be my first experience of her protean quality, the way she could look like a different person from second to second (a major reason, I’ve always thought, that cinematographers loved her). One minute, she seemed too thin and kind of bug-eyed, if I’m honest; the next she looked flawless. But too flawless, like the ‘after’ illustration in a plastic surgeon’s office: cheekbones like cathedral buttresses, a mouth with a deeply grooved filtrum, pearled skin with just the right amount of freckles across the impeccably tilted nose.
I’d later find out that she’d never darkened the door of a plastic surgeon, that she was, as she liked to say, one hundred percent biodegradable. I’d also find out that the muddy overalls concealed a pair of stupendously pneumatic breasts. But at the time, I was thinking that I preferred women with a bit of curve on them, women whose bodies welcomed yours, women whose beauty was flawed, unusual, held secrets of its own: a touch of orthagonal strabismus, incisors which had never seen the inside of an orthodontist’s office, a nose as ridged and stark as that on a Roman coin.
The boney Botticelli bent down, picked up some kind of wrench and brandished it at me.
‘Hold it right there!’ she shouted.
I stopped in my tracks. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said and I almost followed this with, I come in peace, but stopped myself just in time; could I be just a little bit stoned still? It was possible. ‘I mean you no harm.’
‘Don’t come any closer!’ she yelled, waving the wrench. Jesus, the woman was jumpy.
‘It’s OK,’ I said, soothingly, holding up my hands. ‘I’ll stay right here.’
‘Who are you? What do you want?’
‘I just met the kid out on the road. He said you had a flat tyre and I came to see if I could help. That’s all. I–’
She half-turned, still keeping her eyes on me, and let off a long speech, to the kid, in French. Ari replied and I noticed that he didn’t seem to stammer in French. Interesting, I caught myself observing. Non, Ari kept saying, in a slightly exasperated tone, non, Maman, non.
‘How did you find me?’ she shouted to me.
‘Who sent you?’
‘What?’ I was confused now. We seemed to be stuck in a bad spy novel. ‘No-one.’
‘I don’t believe you. Somebody’s put you up to this. Who is it? Who knows I’m here?’
‘Look,’ I said, fed up now, ‘I have no idea what you’re ... I was just passing and I saw a kid all on his own at the side of the road and I just stopped to see if he was OK. And then he mentioned the flat tyre and I thought I’d come and see if you needed any help. By the looks of things,’ I gestured towards the car, ‘you’ve got it covered so I’ll head off.’ I raised my hand. ‘You have a good day.’ I turned to the kid. ‘Goodbye, Ari. It was nice to meet you.’
‘G–’ he tried, ‘g–g-g-’
I looked him in the eye. ‘You know what you can do if you get tripped up by the first letter of a word?’
Ari looked at me with the trapped, ashamed gaze of a stammerer.
‘Substitute it for something easier, something that launches you off on a different sound. I’ll bet,’ I said, ‘that a smart boy like you can think of lots of other ways to say “goodbye”.’
I turned and headed off down the track.
Behind me, Ari shouted, ‘See you!’
‘Perfect,’ I thew back over my shoulder.
‘Hasta la vista!’ he shrieked, jumping up and down. ‘You got it,’ I said.
I turned and waved. ‘Take care.’
I got around the first bend before I heard feet behind me. ‘Hey!’ she called. ‘Hey, you.’
I stopped. ‘Are you coming after me with your monkey wrench? Should I be scared?’
‘What’s that you’re carrying? Is it a camera? If it is, I want you to take it out and remove the film, here, in front of me, so I can see you do it.’
I stared at her. My main thought was for Ari: should he really be living with someone so totally loco? No wonder the kid had challenges with his verbal fluency, living with someone suffering such extremes of paranoia, such delusions, such fears. A camera? Remove the film? Just for a moment, though, as we looked at each other, something flickered across her face that looked familiar: the slight dipping of her eyebrows into a frown. I’d seen that expression before. Hadn’t I? Did I know this woman? A disconcerting notion, when you are in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles from home.
‘Is it a camera?’ she insisted, pointing at my hands.
I looked down and saw, to my surprise, that I was holding Grandpa’s taped box. I must have reached for it as I got out of the car. He’d always liked a little air, had Grandpa.
‘It’s not a camera,’ I said.
She narrowed her eyes, for all the world like a police interrogator. ‘What is it, then?’
I gripped the now-familiar cube of cardboard, taped over its planes, slightly softened at the corners. ‘If you must know,’ I said, ‘it’s my grandfather.’
She screwed up her mouth, raised her eyebrows: a minuscule arching inflexion of her face. Really, it was too strange. Her face was so familiar, that expression so known: where had I seen her before?
‘Your grandfather?’ she repeated.
I shrugged. I was not, I felt, bound to provide her with any explanations. ‘He’s been feeling a little under the weather lately.’
‘Seriously? You carry him around with you?’
‘So it would seem.’
She passed the monkey wrench from one hand to the other. ‘Ari tells me you help children with speech impediments.’
I winced. ‘The term “impediment” is generally considered to be a little pejorative; you might try “challenged”.’
A diva-ish sigh. ‘Speech-challenged, then.’
‘Well, I did. A long time ago.’
Her extraordinary eyes – I’d never seen eyes like them, pale green they were, with darker circles around their edges – flicked over my face, assessingly, desperately. Her exquisite, porcelain face acquired an expression of vulnerability and it was easy to tell that it was not an arrangement to which her facial muscles were accustomed. ‘You think he can be cured?’
I hesitated. I wanted to say I didn’t like the term “cured” either. ‘I think he can be helped,’ I said, carefully, ‘he can be helped a great deal. As a post-grad, I was involved in a research programme to help kids like Ari but it’s not strictly my line of–’
‘Come,’ she said, in the imperious manner of one used to being obeyed. I half-expected her to click her fingers at me, like a dog-owner. ‘You can hold the jack while I tighten the wheel and you can tell me about this programme. Come.’
I thought: no, I won’t come. I thought: I won’t be bossed around by some hoity-toity madam. I thought: she’s used to getting what she wants because she happens to possess the face of a goddess. I thought: I will not come anywhere with you. But then I did. I steadied the jack while she replaced the wheel. I told her what I could remember about the dysfluency programme while she turned the bolts. I looked away, with effort, when the hem of her shirt got separated from the waistband of her overalls. I did what a good man might do: I helped, then left.
Later that night, I was lying on the bed in the B&B, contemplating the remains of my dope stash which wasn’t, I was realising, going to last me until my return. How could I have neglected to bring enough with me? I didn’t stand a chance in hell of getting any more around here. Would weed even grow in Ireland, I mused. Wasn’t there just too much damn rain?
There was a knock at the door and my landlady, a Mrs Spillane, a woman with hair that stood out around her head like dandelion down and an apron surgically attached to her front, stood there. I had hastily stubbed out the joint and done that pathetic, paltry smokers’ wave in front of me – why do we do that? – but the expression of her face was that of a woman who knew she was being robbed but couldn’t yet prove it.
‘Mr Sullivan,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I said. I even pulled myself straighter, as if to withstand and refute accusations of getting high, alone, in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles from home.
‘This came for you.’ She was holding, I now noticed, a small parcel, wrapped in a calico bag.
‘Thanks.’ I put out my hands to take it but she pulled it away.
She glanced up and down the corridor, as if checking for the presence of the FBI. ‘She wants to see you,’ she whispered.
‘Who does?’ I replied, noticing that I, too, was whispering. It appeared to be catching.
Mrs Spillane examined me at our new proximity. I wondered for a fleeting moment what she saw: a large American man, starting to grey at the temples, the whites of his eyes scribbled with red calligraphy. Could she read, in its runes, my jet-lag, my long-term insomnia, a dope habit and unassailable paternal grief? Hard to tell.
‘She does,’ my landlady said, leaning forward, attempting what seemed to be a wink.
Dope makes most people paranoid but I couldn’t blame on the drug my ever-present sense that the world was against me: I’d had it even before I started out on this bender. What was she saying to me? Was I missing something?
‘I’m sorry,’ I began, ‘but I have no idea–’
She thrust the package into my hands. For a moment, I had a mad notion that my ex-wife had somehow caught up with me and was sending some noxious parcel: excrement, the semen of her new lover, the severed head of the dog.
Then I looked down at the familiar blue tape bisecting some cardboard. It was Grandpa.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘How did–?’
‘You left it beside her car. When you were helping her.’
I clutched Grandpa to my side. I remembered placing him to one side in order to winch down the jack but how could I not have remembered to pick him up again?
‘Sorry Grandpa,’ I muttered.
‘God rest his soul,’ Mrs Spillane said, setentiously, crossing herself.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘thank you. Well,’ I reached for the door, ‘I think I’ll turn in and–’
Mrs Spillane put her hand on the door to stop it from closing.
‘She wants to talk to you.’ She was whispering again.
She sighed, exasperated. ‘She does.’
‘You mean the ... the woman with ...’ I had, in my dope-addled state, to concentrate hard so as not to say the great rack, ‘ ... the hair?’
Mrs Spillane put her face close to mine. She was frowning, examining me as if she had been considering buying me but was coming to the conclusion that I had too many defects.
‘Do you know how to find her?’ she whispered, with another glance over her shoulder.
Mrs Spillane hesitated. ‘You don’t know?’
‘Should I?’ I said, wondering how long she and I could go on conversing in questions.
‘She didn’t tell you?’
I was floored for a moment but then came back with: ‘Why would she?’
Mrs Spillane said, ‘Hmm,’ thereby breaking the spell. She turned, abruptly, and said: ‘I need to make a telephone call.’
I was left there, with Grandpa, standing in the doorway. I shut the door and leaned my head into its glossy wood. Something about seeing the water-flow grain of it at such close proximity made a decision rise in me like sap: I’d had enough. This cryptic nonsense was my breaking point. Enough with the rain, the dope, the evenings alone, the carting Grandpa about. Instead of igniting the rest of that joint, I was going to to pack and drive to the airport. I’d get an earlier flight home: I’d got what I came for and I couldn’t take the surreal turn to the minds of the people here. I was a fish not so much out of water but way up the shore and over the beach road. I would leave Ireland and never come back. I would go home and try to repair what was left of my life.
I pushed myself upright. I crossed the room and flipped open my suitcase and started tossing things into it. I was just dithering about how Grandpa should travel, carry-on or hold, when there was another knock at the door.
Mrs Spillane stood in the corridor, as before: the apron, the hair, the crossed hands.
‘She’ll be expecting you tomorrow,’ she said in a hushed, sepulchral tone, ‘the crossroads at ten.’
‘I told her breakfast would be finished by eight-thirty so you could come earlier but Claudette said ten suits her best.’
‘Hang on a second–’
‘I’m to give you directions to the crossroads. I’ll have a map for you at breakfast.’
She disappeared, stage right, and I was left staring at an open door.
Typical, I thought, slamming it. A woman like that would have to have a pretentious name.
‘She couldn’t be called something like Jane or Sarah,’ I ranted to Grandpa as I hurled books into my case. ‘No, nothing like Amy or Laura or Clare. It would have to be something foreign and fancy like Claud–’
Halfway through uttering her name for the first time, something gave way and it was if the bricks and timber of an edifice were falling all around me. I suddenly saw, I suddenly remembered where I’d seen her before. She had been a dancer. Or was it a doctor? I’d seen her as an amputee, a murderess, a detective, a nanny. I’d watched her be French, Spanish, Italian, Persian. She’d escaped death and she’d died of cancer, car accidents, pneumonia, tiger attack. She’d killed and been killed. I’d seen her be fifteen, I’d seen her be sixty. She’d fought, punched, stole, lied, cheated, saved lives, given birth, given head, shot, swam, drowned, danced, dressed, undressed, over and over again, for all of us.
To apply the word ‘famous’ to her wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Fame is what she had before she did what she did; what came afterwards went beyond, into a kind of gilded, deified sphere of notoriety. She was known these days less for her films than the fact that, right at the height of her career, she had vanished. Poof. Ta-da. Just like that. Thereby making herself into one of the most-speculated-about enigmas of our time.
I don’t know if she thought that ducking out like that would lessen her fame because it only had the opposite effect. The press don’t tend to take that kind of temerity lightly and the celluloid geeks – those oft-bearded types who will recite entire scripts at the drop of a hat, swap continuity errors, spot background cameos by pre-fame actors or memorise the crew list on seminal indy movies – even less so. She was still, however many years on, the subject of much debate. They were always wondering how she had done it, why she had done it, where she had gone, who might she still be in touch with and would she ever come back? They were forever trying to track her down, posting possible sightings of her on the internet, complete with smudged and grainy shots of someone who bore a passing resemblance to her. I’m not much of a movie-goer but even I knew the contours of her story: her relationship with that director, their controversial collaborations, her tempestuous reputation, then her disappearance. Hadn’t she attacked some journalist or photographer? Didn’t she walk out in the middle of making some movie, causing some major studio to go into receivership? Something like that. Whatever had happened, she had pulled off that thing which people of her ilk must dream about all the time: she’d exited her life, she’d pulled the plug, she’d disappeared.
And I had found her. Next chapter
There is a man at a desk.
His head is bowed, forehead resting in his hands. The computer screen casts his hair, his clothes in a cool, leucistic glow.
There is a man at a desk and the man is me.
I sit there, in my office, head propped in my fists. I see: the edge of my desk, the nap of my trousers, the heels of my shoes, far below, a parallelogram of orange departmental carpet. I am still wearing my coat, still toting my bag. There is a vague smell off me, of offices, of crowded trains, of places I try to avoid. My bag jostles beside me in the chair, neither on nor off the ergonomically moulded arm, as if fighting for its share of space.
From beyond the door comes the sound of students, rolling along the corridor, chatting, complaining, shoving each other. The click-clack of heels. An electronic plop of a phone receiving a message. Someone saying, who would have believed me, anyway in a cross voice.
The lecture is delivered. The words have been spoken, the sentence deconstructed. The students have been enlighted as to the difference between pidgins and creoles. They have the theory and geneology of creole grammar, hopefully, tucked into their heads. I stood in front of them for an hour. I moved through the lecture. I gave eye-contact. I allowed time for questions. I did what I came here to do.
And now? I am meant to be leaving for the airport. I should be collecting up my things, getting my desk in order, answering a few final emails.
Instead, I am unable to do anything else besides sitting at my desk. My mind zig-zags from Brooklyn to Nicola, unable to settle on either one. My father, this goddamn party and now this.
I raise my head. In the searchbox of my browser are two words. They have been there since I got back to my office, half an hour ago.
‘Nicola Janks’ my screen tells me, tiny pixellations arranged to form the characters of her name. I don’t think I’ve ever typed her name before, predating as it did the arrival of computers in my life. A strange thought, now, those years in which we existed quite happily without their constant presence.
The cursor, next to the ‘s’ of Janks, flashes on and off, awaiting instructions, my tap on the return key, a faithful hound, reading to do my bidding, to retrieve whatever I request.
I’ve been sitting here all this time, debating whether or not I want to know. Whether or not I should hit that key. What will happen if I do, what will happen if I don’t. Would anything change, either way? The thought which swirls like flotsam on the surf my mind is: please. Let it not be that year. Let it not have been then. Let her have died in the late eighties, the early nineties. Let her have made it into her thirties, comfortably so. Let her have had an accident, been hit by a car, knocked off her bike, fallen down a cliff. Let her have contracted some rare, uncurable disease. Above all, let her have died quickly, painlessly, in the company of people who loved her. What more, after all, can any of us ask?
Just let it not have been in a forest, alone, in the velvet dark of dawn. Please.
When I was a kid, I used to love doing those puzzles where you get a page scattered with seemingly random dots. You have to connect them, number by number, with a pencil line, drawing form out of chaos, eliciting sense from mess. The part I liked best was about halfway through, when you could look at what you’d done, and what was to come, and try and guess what it was. A rocket? A tractor? A palm tree, a sailboat, a dinosaur, a beach? It could be anything. The best ones were those that misled you. You thought it was going to be a railway engine but it resolved itself into a dragon with smoking nostrils. You thought you saw a cat but all along you were drawing an iguana.
That feeling of dislocation between what you thought you were doing and what you actually did, envelops me as I sit there, as I press my elbows into the surface of my desk. All along I’d thought my life had been one thing but it now seems as though it might have been something else entirely.
I unloop the bag from my neck and let it fall to the floor. I reach for my cigarettes, I loosen my tie, I twist my chair around, I shift some papers from one side of the desk to the other and then, quickly, before I can stop myself, I turn my chair back round and I hit the return button. I hit it hard. My finger joints throb from the impact.
The timer icon appears, tiny grains of electronic sand slipping through its waist. It flips itself, once, twice. Then a blue list appears. Library catalogues, mainly, from universities. Numbers and codes for academic papers by her, a link to a textbook she co-edited, a mention of the radio programme I’ve just heard, with an option to download the podcast. This, my eye sees, has a link for a biography so I click on that and it unscrolls before me, the short life of Nicola Janks.
A novena of birth, nationality, schools, degrees, teaching posts, publications: how strange it is to be distilled in this way, as if we are in essence just geography, coordinates, output. Is this what will be left of us all – computer coded facts?
The four numbers at the biography’s end slide into me like a cold blade. That the year of her death is indeed 1986 seems at once devastating and inevitable. Of course, I think to myself, of course it was then. I knew it already, I find. Perhaps I always did.
Five minutes later, I am moving across the grey concrete slabs which separate the university from the rest of the world. I need some air, a walk, a change of scene, I need to find a cab. Something like that. I cannot stay in that box of an office with my screen staring back at me. I have three cigarettes rolled inside my tin and I intend to smoke them one after the other, before I go to the airport.
I am moving along a bridge, the traffic grinding in contraflow along the pavement edge. There are roadworks up ahead, a vat of boiling tar giving off a choking stench and great clouds of black. The river beneath is brown and swollen with rain, lapping oily waves at its banks.
When I reach the other side, there is a bench. I sit myself down on it. I start searching my pockets for a lighter. I have time, I tell myself, taking a snatched glance at my watch. Plenty of time. I am just going to take a short moment, to steady myself, and then I am going to press on.
The bench is in one of those small urban parks – marooned green spaces that fill an empty lot on a street and you wonder, in this city, what might have happened there, what crisis could have occurred to clear this space of buildings. And it seems to me, as I sit there, among the ornamental hedges and genuflecting chrysanthemums, as I spark my lighter with a shaking hand and inhale the smoke, that my life has been a series of elisions, cover-ups, dropped stitches in knitting. To all appearances, I am a husband, a father, a teacher, a citizen but when tilted towards the light I become a deserter, a sham, a killer, a thief. On the surface I am one thing but underneath I am riddled with holes and caverns, like a limestone landscape.
A taxi, I am intoning to myself. I need to find one, then get a flight to Brooklyn and my sisters and my dad. I need to get on a plane and spend a few days there, I need to be at this party – and then? Then I come back here. Then I get on with the life in hand. Then I do not start poking around, finding out whatever the hell happened to Nicola Janks, going off on a tangent to rootle out the truth about that. It is over and gone. The woman is dead. Twenty years or more have passed. I am not to start dropping myself down, like a speleologist, into those holes and caverns and start poking around. I have to keep myself on track, above ground, stay with the here and now. I have to focus, have to stop this trembling, to slow my galloping pulse, have to put Nicola Janks on a shelf for a while, get myself to the airport and get my head around spending the next few days with my dad and –
There is a movement to my left. A man and his child, a girl, are sitting themselves down on the bench. I glimpse a pair of scuffed trainers, the ones with flashing lights on the soles, trousers with the hems rolled up. The phrase room for growth floats unbidden through my mind as I turn to look at them. There is the girl, there is the father.
It is the child who draws my gaze. She is standing, one arm outstretched. I see that the arm is twisted and held out like that because she is scratching, in the desperate, driven, focussed way only an eczema-sufferer can. She is tearing at her inner elbow, fingernails clawed and intent, seeking relief, seeking to feel something, anything, other than the torment of her condition. I see the grim determination of the child’s gaze, concentration under suffering.
Here, then, is another hole, another cavern in the life of Daniel Sullivan. Perhaps the largest, the most devastating of all. I have to push myself from the bench, to move, to force myself away, so great is the grief that has torn through me. I step one foot in front of the other, again and again, putting distance between me and the pair in the park. I have my gaze focussed on the road. I am treading carefully, as if the ground beneath me is not as firm and sure as it looks, as if it is riddled with underground rivers, as if at any moment a sinkhole may yawn open under my shoes. I am looking out for the lit sign of a cab. I have lost or dropped my cigarette somewhere along the way. The sensation which begins at my feet and trembles all the way through me is akin to the beginnings of a seismic event.
Before I leave the park, I will permit myself one last glance at the child by the bench. I tell myself this as I move away. I see a cab, I signal and it slows down. Just before it reaches me, at the kerb, I turn. The girl is still crying; the father is bent over his bag, searching for a cream, a lotion, anything. I crane my head to see and the movement causes something to poke me in the ribs. I feel inside the pockets of my jacket, my palms sliding along the silky, slippery lining. My fingers encounter the surprising, reassuring rectangle of my passport. Folded into it will be my ticket. A flight to the States, my first in five years, a return to the house of my father. There it is, in my breast pocket, directly above my thudding, tripping, treacherous heart.