The Fitzsimonses’ house, about the size of an English manor, was on the middle stretch of Avoca Avenue, surrounded by an acre or two of lawns and trees. Lily’s father had inherited the family insurance business. To judge from his conversation, Issie put his birth date no later than 1750.
Issie’s own house was spacious in comparison to those of some of her schoolmates, who lived in semi-ds or, in one exceptional case, a council house in Stradbrook; but Lily’s house was on a different level. The swimming pool was only five metres short of the pool in Roebuck. The garden was more like a small park. And you could actually get lost in the house itself: there were, Issie estimated, about ten bedrooms scattered around the two extensions that the Fitzsimons had built. Small flights of stairs linked the corridors along the first and second floors of the house. Issie’s favourite place was a window on a landing that looked over the garden and beyond to the semi-ds of Hyde Park Avenue, box after box stretching back towards Mount Merrion Avenue. One summer, when she’d stayed with Lily for a week, she went frequently to this place, taking a cushion and a book, remaining there for hours as the August afternoon refused to concede to night.
They’d known each other since primary school – Issie’s speed, precision, and ability to dream up strange scenarios complementing Lily’s loyalty and long deliberations about the smallest of matters. These differences had been reflected in their examination results through the years, and while Issie expected to be accepted into Modern English and Philosophy at Trinity College, Lily had convinced herself she was looking forward to resitting the Leaving Certificate after a year in a crammer college.
Issie had sat her last exam on Thursday. Now it was Saturday, and Lily’s parents were away for the weekend, and the Fitzsimonses’ house and grounds had been overrun by Roebuck girls, and boys from Blackrock College and Deerpark and other schools in the vicinity. Around midnight, having spent much of the day coordinating visits to three different off-licences by young men and women, armed with their documents of identification, Issie found herself sitting on a deckchair on Lily’s sloping lawn cradling a vodka and Coke on her lap and gazing at the sky. She turned to Chris Bondy and said, ‘As the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for the sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world …’ Her voice trailed off, as her brows crumpled trying to recall the rest of the quotation. ‘How does the rest of it go? Come on, clever clogs. Wake up, it isn’t yet midnight and you’re going to sleep already. You’re such a fader.’
Chris pulled himself up a bit in the chair and looked around, dazed. He searched under the chair for his can of Harp.
She repeated the quotation for him again, with feeling. When she finished, he was silent for a moment and then spoke.
‘What the fuck are you talking about, Issie? Some poxy poem from Leaving Cert English? Thank fuck it’s over.’
‘Chris, you may well be the best wing-forward of your generation, and you certainly are the best-looking boy I’ve ever gone out with, but, Jesus, you can be a pain in the arse sometimes. Look at the night, look at the garden.’
The noise of splashing came floating over the dark lawn, accompanied by the girls’ high-pitched screams and the boys’ rugby chants, which reached a crescendo before they swung one of their number, fully clothed, into the deep end of the indoor pool. One of the boys had half-jokingly proposed skinny-dipping earlier in the evening, and the girls had laughed, then primly proceeded to change into their one-piece swimsuits behind a screen, occasionally peeking over the top at the boys changing into their togs at the other end, one hand holding the knot of the towel, the other foostering underneath it for the jocks, all of them comically wobbling on one foot.
‘Wait, wait,’ Issie resumed. ‘I’ve got it: “She had come a long way to this blue lawn, and her dream must have seemed so close that she could hardly fail to grasp it. She did not know that it was already behind her, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” There it is.’
‘I know, it’s beautiful, isn’t it?’
‘No, Issie. I didn’t mean “Jesus, it’s beautiful.” Come on, let’s go back to the house.’ He moved to get up, but she remained in her chair, regarding him.
‘It is true, though, you are the best wing-forward of your generation, aren’t you?’
Chris smirked and sat down again, puffing out his chest ever so slightly. ‘Yeah, well, I don’t know. That’s what they wrote in the Irish Times anyway.’
‘Right. Good. Well, I was thinking then that you should ask Ryan Devereux over there, who if I’m not mistaken is the best tighthead prop of his generation, if he would go back to the house with you for a while and let you stick your head up his arse, like you boys usually dream of doing.’
Before Chris had time to say anything, Issie continued, ‘Oh, Chris, I didn’t mean it.’ Relief spread over his face, as the prospect of later delight came back into play. ‘No, of course I didn’t mean it,’ Issie said in a purring tone, placing her hand affectionately on his arm, rubbing it gently. Then her face hardened. ‘No, that was just another fucking poxy quote from another fucking poxy poem. You fucking dick.’
She got up from the deckchair and walked towards the pool. When she got there, she dared Lily and the others to throw her in. They screamed happily and emerged from the pool, the water streaming down their limbs, exhilaration in their faces. For form’s sake, Issie put up a bit of a fight, but it was more fun to give in, and within a few seconds she was being swung back and forwards, held by the arms and legs. ‘One … twoooo … threeeeee …’ A half-second floating through the air, the blue water beneath her, the stained fibreglass roof above her, fully clothed and between worlds. Then splash. A new life.
About four hours later she set off for home with Aideen O’Malley. They dared each other to do a drunk test on the gapped line that ran down the middle of Mount Merrion Avenue. Eyes closed, arms outstretched, they ran; on opening their eyes they found themselves nearly at the kerb on the left-hand side, and sat down on the grass verge.
‘We’re probably sitting on five decades of dried dog shit right now,’ Issie said.
‘Well, it’s comfortable enough for my bum.’
Down at the bottom of the avenue, about half a mile away, a car pulled off the Rock Road and swung towards them. They couldn’t hear the gear changes, but they watched the speeding vehicle, mesmerized by the headlights, until suddenly in a rush of noise it zoomed past towards Stillorgan, becoming a ghost.
It was Issie who opened the door to the two guards at a quarter to six, with Aideen standing behind her holding her cup of tea. Their first thought was that something had happened at Lily’s.
‘Good morning, miss. Are your parents at home?’
‘Yes. What’s wrong?’
‘It’s your parents we have to talk to, miss, if you wouldn’t mind. Good morning to you too, miss.’ They nodded to Aideen.
‘Come in then, and I’ll wake them.’ Issie went quickly up the staircase, glancing back once at the two guards standing in the middle of the hall looking around them. Aideen remained downstairs with them, but nobody said anything.
A few minutes later the guards were invited by Declan and Sinéad into the living room to sit down. Issie came in as well, and Aideen stood in the doorway. The guards told them the details of the car crash. When Owen was taken to James Connolly Memorial Hospital in Blanchardstown he was conscious and talking, but he died about fifteen minutes after that. The official identification had been made by one of his friends. They were very sorry.
The sun illuminated the people as they walked through the church gates on Booterstown Avenue. Most of them had waited in their cars for a few minutes to make sure they didn’t arrive ahead of the immediate family. The short distance they walked was shadowed by copper beeches, birches, the occasional palm tree, privets and large rhododendrons, and so, on turning the corner at the granite pillar, they were dazzled by the sunlight for a few moments and raised their hands to their foreheads. Behind them, to the left, was Gleeson’s pub, where some of the men would end up afterwards. The older people wore solid black, but many of the younger people, in their late teens and early twenties, seemed not to have such clothes at their disposal.
It was almost five o’clock and the early evening was still warm. Many felt the summer drawing them; the thought of a few months waiting tables before university resumed, or of two weeks in a French gîte or on a Greek island, or of the marvellous and frightening nothingness of July and August after the exams. Some of them might go for a swim out at the Forty Foot or the Vico later. Most, however, would go back to the Boyles’ house and have one or two drinks and eat a sandwich as they stood around talking in subdued tones, then gradually raising the volume with shouts and laughs, telling stories about the deceased or other things.
Mick Guilfoyle, the recently appointed Minister for Justice, arrived with his brother Seán, chief executive of Hibernia Traktors. Then Hugo Donovan, another new member of the cabinet, for Industry and Commerce. Robert and Eva Poschik and their three children had driven up from Galway earlier in the day to be at the viewing in the hospital. From one side came Declan Boyle’s secretary, Maura Brady, a woman in her late thirties. From the other side came Conor Larkin of Steinman Brothers Cohn, dressed in a suit that was obviously un-Irish. He’d arrived from London the night before, able to fit the funeral in before returning to New York that evening. He found himself in step with Winifred Bridgmuir, née McKenna, and although though the two did not know each other they nodded in recognition of their common destination.
Two middle-aged men emerged from Gleeson’s and stood in the doorway adjusting their ties. They inhaled at the same time, as though bracing themselves for a minor but burdensome piece of business. After some cars passed, they made their way across the avenue, waving at Conor Larkin. To judge by the vagueness of that man’s response, he didn’t know the Coyle brothers, who ran one of Ireland’s biggest construction firms. On the steps of the church, one of them inadvertently got in the way of an elderly couple, who graciously stopped to let the brothers by. The Coyles didn’t notice this politeness and had quickened their pace to a little jog, perhaps in order to get a seat in the pew beside their old friend from America. Niall Falkner and his wife gave the builders a wide berth and then resumed their progress to the church door.
Inside the church, people talked quietly. Here and there a kerfuffle broke out between a parent and child, usually a boy, who was then yanked back into the pew, whimpering at the unfairness of having to wear a white shirt and tie and sit in a church in the middle of the week, looking at a box with a corpse in it, somebody he’d never met. There were two infants in the church who would not be hushed by their mothers, and their voices filled the vaulted space above the mourners. Gradually and unconsciously the people began to talk a little bit louder, and then there was a sudden hush when the three priests emerged from the sacristy. All rose. The priests, in densely woven embroidered cloths, stiff with ecclesiastical decoration, nodded to the congregation that they could now sit down again.
The last mourners were filing into the back of the church: Pez Driscoll, Mick Guilfoyle’s political advisor, accountant and bagman; Liam and Helen Creighton; Declan’s two cousins from Ardnabrayba, who hadn’t been at the viewing, having driven straight to the church from Galway and got lost in Sandyford on the way; Declan’s solicitor and his accountant; friends of Sinéad, some of whom she knew only by their first names; and the younger people, so many that they couldn’t fit in the church and spilled out the door, gathered for the unusual occasion of the death of someone their own age.
Slowest to resume their seats were the immediate relations in the first two pews on either side of the aisle. Sinéad’s sister Marie had taken the name Bridget for her decade as a Carmelite nun, but reverted to her given name when she left the convent in New Jersey to take up a job as a social worker in West Philadelphia. She was standing beside her younger sister, Fiona, Fiona’s husband Bryan Cooper and their five children. Beside them were Sinéad’s parents, Belinda and Malachy Grogan. Declan’s sisters, Mella and Frances, with their husbands and, between them, five children, were on the other side of the aisle. Catherine Boyle, too infirm to leave the nursing home, was not present. Issie, flanked by her parents, watched Patrick Sutherland stride across the altar. He took up a position behind the microphone and welcomed everybody. There would be no Mass, only some readings.
After the short service, the afternoon’s blue skies and light summer breeze seemed almost an affront. Issie, just short of six feet tall, had a good view of the crowd spread across the car park. To one side there was a small meadow, surrounded by white railings, and to another the foster home, freshly painted and as cheerful as Catholic institutional architecture could be. Beyond, on all sides, stretching to the distance, were estates of semi-ds, relieved by greenery at least twice the houses’ age.
There were so many people she knew, or half knew. Most of the girls in her year at school, she reckoned, and most if not all of the Deerpark boys who had come to their house over the years and many more who hadn’t. There were the Poschiks, whom she hadn’t seen in years. That must be Kasimir, without a tie. She couldn’t remember the daughter’s name. Janek, the one in the beige jacket, leaned towards his sister and said something to make her smile.
It seemed strange to Issie that people were able to smile. It seemed strange to imagine that she would smile again for a good long while.
Her father turned to say something to her mother, and Issie looked ahead unseeing, her arm still tightly grasping his sleeve. Fifteen teenage boys in Deerpark blazers were standing in formation across from the church door. Some were stocky and short, others rangy and slight; three taller boys stood at the back. Fr Sutherland, Declan’s old schoolmate, came over to the Boyles to tell them that this year’s Deerpark Junior Cup team, which had got to the semis, wished to offer their condolences. As the priest gestured towards the boys, all of them bowed their heads an inch. Her father walked over to them and their captain came forward and they shook hands.
The boy, so similar in stature to her dead brother at that age, was another strange phenomenon. She observed her father talking to him, his tall figure stooping slightly. Was the captain explaining how, when he was eight or nine years old, he’d seen Owen play in the Junior Cup final? Issie had been there in Lansdowne Road, on a Tuesday afternoon in March. Deerpark were up against Blackrock College, who routinely picked up the trophy. She sat with her parents in the West Stand, the Deerpark boys on the right and Blackrock on the left. Blackrock had five cheerleaders with megaphones spread out along the bottom of the stand, and placed strategically among the rows of seats were tall young men, probably from the Senior Cup team, with their backs to the field, staring up at the rows of younger boys’ faces, shouting at them as hard as they could to make them sing louder, louder.
When the final whistle blew the Boyles leapt in unison, along with all the other Deerpark supporters, while the Blackrock boys sagged back into the seats in disbelief. As the Deerpark team were filing back down in euphoria, after they’d accepted the trophy, Issie was able to lean out and catch Owen by the neck and give him a kiss. She adored her brother, her protector and entertainer.
Now, this other, newer captain stood across the church probably saying words like ‘condolences’ and ‘on behalf of the whole team’. Her father nodded his thanks. When he turned back to his family, she saw the tears streaming from his eyes.