Seán and Deirdre were in their sixties now. He’d taken early retirement from the bank and she no longer gave piano lessons, though she went out to golf with such regularity that an elderly neighbour, Mrs Furlong, could not be dissuaded that Deirdre Brennan had a job.
They were still Mass-goers, but now went to whatever church took their fancy: sometimes it was Belfield, sometimes Booterstown; sometimes they just went up the road to the Saturday evening service: the children’s choir was brilliant. The Brennans had one daughter in Canada, another in New Zealand, and a son God knows where.
Thanks to the golden handshake, they could afford a bit of a lifestyle. On top of the timeshare in Majorca and the tigeen in Donegal, there were the trips related to their new interests: for Deirdre that was genealogy; for Seán, cooking. The beauty of the week they’d booked down in Clare was that it encompassed both: Seán was going to spend his days learning how to do new things with fish, at the school run by the Swiss fellow in Lahinch, while Deirdre drove from graveyard to graveyard photographing the headstones of her mother’s people.
But they never got to Clare. The week before they were meant to go, Deirdre came home early from her Tuesday morning golf. She always stayed up at the club for lunch, so Seán was alarmed to see the green Starlet pulling into the drive, too fast, at a quarter to twelve. He’d been sitting at his worktable in the study examining the foxed pages of a spineless first edition of The Charwoman’s Daughter—book repair was another one of his new interests—but he was in the hall by the time she had the key in the door. Looking pale and cross, she stopped his questions with a sharp hand and rushed up the stairs to the toilet. He followed her as far as the return and could hear her getting sick.
In the kitchen afterwards, wrapping her hands around the mug of chamomile tea Seán had made her, Deirdre explained how it had started.
‘I got a fierce pain in my stomach on the long par three and the next thing I knew I was vomiting between the rocks.’
‘Jesus Mary and Joseph—just like that?’
‘Just like that—out of the blue.’
‘Maybe you weren’t a hundred per cent to begin with, Deirdre. You must have been off your game to end up in the rocks.’
‘I didn’t end up in the rocks,’ she said quietly. ‘In fact, I was dead centre on the fairway.’
‘Then what were you doing up in the rocks, love?’
She took a loud sip of tea before replying.
‘Those magic bloody mushrooms are back, and I wanted to give them a good hack with my five-iron.’
‘Ah Deirdre, Deirdre,’ Seán said with tender impatience. ‘I’ve told you before: leave those yokes to what’s-his-name—Paddy. He needs to put down poison.’
She nodded, but it was her non-committal nod.
‘Maybe,’ he said, ‘you should make an appointment with Quigley.’
Deirdre shook her head, frowning. ‘I don’t need to see Quigley. It’s just an upset stomach. Must have been the chicken.’
‘Yes,’ Seán replied, ‘I suppose it was.’ Though he’d had the chicken too and his stomach was not upset.
‘Besides,’ she said, brightening, ‘this tea is working wonders.’
She kept down a late, light lunch and a decent dinner and that seemed to be that, but the next morning Seán was woken not by the eight o’clock news on Radio Éireann but by the sound of retching coming from the toilet; the alarm glowed 6:35. He came to the door of the bathroom as she was scrubbing her hands.
‘As soon as it turns seven,’ he said, ‘I’m phoning Quigley.’
She turned off the taps. ‘You’ll do no such thing.’
After a moment, he dared to say it. ‘But what if it’s your nerves again?’
Her hands gripped the hot and cold. ‘I know what nerves do to me, Seán. This is not nerves.’ Deirdre turned her head and gave him a bitter look. ‘You’d have me packed off to John o’ Gods before breakfast.’
‘Well, the rest there did me some good,’ he muttered, backing off the threshold.
She’d turned to dry her hands. ‘All I need is a bottle of 7up. Can you get me one when you go down for the paper?’
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘7up.’
She was fine by lunchtime. They got on with their day. It was April and there was a great stretch in the evenings. They went the long way around the park on their constitutional.
‘Anything on the goggle box tonight?’ she asked as they walked past the tennis courts, where there was great excitement over a doubles match.
‘Nothing but rubbish,’ he replied.
‘I wouldn’t mind a good thriller.’
‘There’s a documentary on BBC 2 about cheese.’
‘Or a mystery. Inspector Morse. I love Inspector Morse.’
‘So do I,’ he said. ‘I miss Morse.’
She put her arm through his. They were entering the woods now. Behind them there were groans and a cry of let.
The next morning, at 6:35 on the dot, she was throwing up again. This was Thursday, not only a golf day but the day of the Lady Captain’s Prize. About eight o’clock, she asked him to bring up the phone and rang her partner to make an elegant apology. Seán eavesdropped on the landing. He couldn’t remember the last time Deirdre had missed the Lady Captain’s Prize. She’d played in the event even when she was low.
Going down for the paper, and more 7up, Seán met little Kitty Furlong coming up from the shops, trundling her trolley behind her. The contraption reminded him of something you’d see in a cowboy film. Normally he liked to stop and have a chat with Mrs. Furlong. Her scored face and grey bob—Deirdre insisted it was a wig—reminded him that he was not that old.
‘And how’s Deirdre?’
‘It’s just that I notice she didn’t go out to work this morning.’
Seán knew that it was futile to fight this delusion. He shook his head. ‘No, no, you’re right, she didn’t.’
Mrs. Furlong’s face became a mask of desiccated pleasure, as if she had just won a small sum from the Lotto. ‘Ah, she was let go.’
Seán’s hand itched for the Irish Times, rolled into a baton.
‘Trevois,’ he growled.
The ancient face under his face tilted inquisitively ‘A foreign company, was it?’
‘No, Mrs. Furlong. Your trolley reminds me of a yoke the Indians used. I’ve been trying to think of the word for years, but now all of a sudden it’s come back to me. The trevois. They used it to drag their baggage.’
And with that he walked on.
The repetition was upsetting: Deirdre was fine by lunchtime, in good form Thursday evening, and sick again just before Morning Ireland on Friday. This time Seán put his foot down: no more 7up: Quigley or nothing.
‘You don’t want to be sick on your holidays, love.’ They had it planned perfectly—they were booked in to one of the cottages on the grounds of the cookery school for the week, starting Sunday night.
‘Fair enough,’ she said, with great reluctance, he could tell. Nevertheless she made the appointment herself—the doctor could fit her in at half ten—and then wouldn’t hear of Seán driving her. To occupy himself he decided to get on with restitching the signatures of The Charwoman’s Daughter. Next thing he knew the electronic Angelus was ringing up the road, and no sooner had the last blurred tone died away than the Starlet was pulling into the drive. Deciding to play it cool, he stayed put. Eventually she came into the study, holding aloft a bag from the chemist’s.
‘Antibiotic,’ she announced. ‘I don’t think I need it but he gave me an antibiotic.’
‘Take it now, Deirdre,’ he intoned, swiveling back to his stitching.
‘Of course I’ll take it.’
‘And finish the course.’
‘You know I’ll finish the course, Seán. I’m always telling you that.’
The way she said it was almost flirtatious.
That afternoon they went to Stillorgan shopping centre for bits and pieces they needed for the trip. On the way to Dunnes Stores, Deirdre stopped in front of a mirrored strip between two shops and dabbed her scalp. ‘My hair is a holy show,’ she said, though it was up in a bun and there was not a strand loose as far as he could see.
After Dunnes they went upstairs to the coffee shop; Seán had a cappuccino and Deirdre a Ballygowan. They sat at a table overlooking the sculpture of the fiddle-player and the ring-around-the-rosy children.
‘I think we should leave early on Sunday,’ he said.
She didn’t respond, just looked solemnly at the bubbles rising in her glass.
‘We can get Mass on the way down. Mass and lunch.’
This time she nodded, but as if she were listening politely to the details of someone else’s schedule.
‘Perhaps in Portlaoise.’
Suddenly she was passionate.
‘I can’t stand Portlaoise.’
He tried to make a joke of it. ‘What’s wrong with Portlaoise?’
‘The prison gives me the willies.’
‘Well, you can avert your eyes when we pass by. The soldiers won’t mind. We have to go through Portlaoise, Deirdre! How else are we going to get to Clare?’
She scowled at him. ‘I don’t have to go through anywhere, Seán.’
‘Of course you don’t,’ he answered calmly. ‘But, if that’s your attitude, I suppose we’ll have to cancel.’
He said that expecting her to protest; after all, there was a deposit to be lost. But all she did was say, ‘Suit yourself,’ and stare out the window.
Now he really wanted to cancel: there was something seriously wrong; it had to be her nerves. He reached across the table and touched her hand, which retracted like a creature in a rock pool.
He withdrew his hand, but continued with his efforts to sooth.
‘Deirdre, you’re not a hundred per cent. And there’s no point in going if you’re not feeling up to it. Holidays are for enjoyment. When we get home I’ll phone the Forge and ask yer man if he’ll give us credit for a different week. What do the Yanks say? Take a rain check.’
As she was responding now with small but definite nods, Seán was beginning to think that everything was under control, but when he added, ‘The Christmas course is meant to be good,’ she looked scandalized, as if he’d suggested she play golf during thunder and lightning.
‘But it’s in early December,’ he said, rushing to reassure her. ‘We’ve nothing going on then.’
She shook her head, looking grimly disappointed with him. ‘You may have nothing going on in early December, Seán, but don’t speak for me.’
He had another go at offering comfort.
‘You’ll be better by then, love.’
‘It’s not an illness,’ she replied confidently.
He didn’t know what to make of that. Wasn’t that something her own mother used to say? Maybe John of Gods was the best place for her; it had done him a power of good.
Seán stared down at the bronze sculpture. The fiddler’s back had become very green over the years.
M. Hélier could not have been nicer: of course they could apply the deposit toward another week, which one were they considering? Seán said he’d get back to him about that soon. That evening they had a nice walk around the park, though there was no intertwining of arms. After the news they started to watch an Al Pachino film.
As soon as they saw the streets of New York, Deirdre tutted and said, ‘Seen it.’
‘No,’ said Seán, ‘you’re thinking of that other one.’
‘We saw this in the Stella.’
‘No. It was the other one we saw in the Stella.’
Deirdre was on her feet and marching to the door. ‘You always have to be right about everything,’ she said. She didn’t slam the door behind her, but closed it so firmly that he felt sealed in, and sealed off.
When the first shots were fired he realized this was the film they’d seen up at the Stella. He went up to her. She was fast asleep. Tonight he left her alone.
The next morning neither of them mentioned the little row. He’d turned off the alarm and she slept until almost nine o’clock, waking with a calm stomach. He brought her breakfast in bed. All quiet on the western front.
Around noon Seán was reading the paper in the drawing-room. Doonesbury had put him in good humour and now he was looking at the television highlights. The door opened and Deirdre spoke as soon as she stepped into the room.
‘I need you to go back down to the shops.’
Resisting an impulse to mention 7up, he asked, ‘What do we need?’
‘A pregnancy test,’ she replied, as blandly as if they were out of bread.
For a moment he thought she was making a bad joke, but only for a moment. He put the paper aside.
‘Sit down, love, sit down,’ he said softly, gesturing to the couch. And she did sit down, on the far end.
He leaned forward. ‘You know that would be impossible.’ And shook his head. ‘I feel like an eejit even saying it.’
‘So that’s what you think I am?’ she snapped. ‘An eejit? A madwoman?’
‘No, no—of course not. I just think … you might need a rest.’
‘I’ll tell you what, Seán. If I’m wrong about this, then I will go to John o’ Gods. I’ll book myself in.’
‘It may not come to that!’ He tried to hold out reasonable hands, but they trembled. ‘We’ll see what Quigley says.’
‘Feck Quigley! And feck you too, Seán Brennan, if you won’t do me this favour!’
He got to his feet.
‘Calm down, Deirdre! I’ll go. But not down the road. And not till I’ve had my lunch.’
And, very calmly, she stood up, smoothing out her skirt. ‘I’ll put some rashers on then.’
He collapsed back down in his armchair.
At the door she said, ‘And Seán?’
‘Yes?’ he answered weakly.
He intended to drive to the chemist’s in Donnybrook—that would be far enough—but before he knew it the car was going over Leeson Street bridge. Behind him he could hear the gleeful groans that going over the hump always produced.
Past the canal the traffic was awful, but Seán wasn’t bothered. He hadn’t gone through town to get to the northside in years, not since they’d built the East Link. On Gardiner Street he remembered being in the back of a taxi on the way home from the airport (he’d been in Frankfurt on bank business) and chuckling with the driver at the sight of the local kids dressed up for Halloween—all those cowboys and princesses and Draculas—out collecting already though it was still broad daylight. Was it that night the Guards came to the door because of the bangers thrown through the letterboxes?
Seán ended up driving all the way to Swords, where they didn’t know a soul. The woman in the chemist’s was very nice. She pretended his request was no stranger than Disprin. As he put the bag and the change in his jacket pocket, he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror behind the counter. There was only one way to describe that face, and it was by using a line that had been used on him one Christmas forty-odd years ago by a drunken cousin of his mother’s who’d found Seán too serious: You look like a fella who’s got a girl in trouble.
He avoided town on the way home, by driving half way across Meath, stopping off for a scone in Ashbourne. It was dusk by the time he got home; the porch light was on. Inside the house the lights were still off and the curtains still open.
She was waiting for him in the hall.
‘I thought you’d left the country.’
‘Sorry I’m late for dinner.’
‘That’s what hotplates are for. Did you get them?’
‘I did, Deirdre, I did,’ he replied coolly, reaching into his pocket.
She snapped the bag out of his hand. ‘Go inside,’ she said, nodding at the drawing-room door. ‘I’ll be down to you when I’m down.’
‘Are you sure this is a good time?’
‘There’s not going to be a better time, Seán. I’ve been drinking tea all bloody afternoon.’
He sat in his armchair and stared at the dead television. After only about five minutes he heard her coming down the stairs. Surely these things took longer to work their magic. Had something gone wrong? She came into the room brandishing the two white sticks in a V-shape. Their little windows were turned toward her face, which was defiantly neutral. She’d freed her hair from the bun, perhaps to fill those ignorant minutes, and looked almost girlish.
As if strong-armed by attendants, he found himself rising from the chair and moving to meet her. They met under the unlit chandelier. His hands hovered over the sticks, as if they were dandelions surrounded by nettles, then plucked them from her hand.
Turning them in tandem, he saw green verifying green.
‘Mother of God,’ he muttered.
Later they sat in the dark.
‘I don’t understand,’ he said.
‘It’s not a question of understanding, Seán. It’s a question of coping.’
‘I suppose,’ he sighed ‘I suppose it is. And looking on the bright side, we still have time to travel.’
‘I’m not going to England,’ she said, her indignation shining through the gloom.
Sweet Jesus, he hadn’t been thinking about that. Had he?
‘I didn’t ask you to go to England,’ he replied, hearing the sulk in his voice.
Neither of them spoke for the best part of a minute. Then Deirdre asked, ‘What will we tell the girls?’
He grunted. ‘What will we tell Mrs Furlong?’
She laughed; he sobbed.
‘Ah Seán,’ she said with husky affection. ‘It’ll be all right. We’ll just get on with it, and it’ll be all right.’
The emotion went out of his chest and into his words. ‘What do you mean, it’ll be all right? Deirdre, have you forgotten your sums? We’ll be in our eighties by the time this child is in college!’
In response she was at first silent and then sensible.
‘Well, there’s no guarantee he’ll get into college, Seán. He might not have the points.’
‘Oh God,’ he groaned, raking a slow hand through his thin hair—‘the Leaving. I’d forgotten about the Leaving. And repeating the Leaving.’
‘Don’t think about school, Seán. We’ll put his name down for Canisius; the Jesuits know their business. Think of the baby. The baby that’s coming into this house.’
‘It’s the baby I’m thinking of, Deirdre. And I tell you: I don’t have the energy for it. For the croup and the nappies and the teething. To go through all that again …’
He felt so helpless he wanted to send up a flare. Why didn’t people come equipped with flares?
Deirdre was sounding more determined every time she spoke.
‘You will have the energy, Seán. For bringing him to Shamrock Rovers and going to Blackrock to see the motorboats and making up all those stories about Finn McCool. You’re so good at the stories, Seán.’
He let out a little hiss. ‘Finn McCool. A lot of good he did.’
‘That’s right, Seán. Tear it all down. Tear everything down.’
He leaned forward in his chair, though it brought him no closer to her. ‘I’m not trying to tear anything down. I’m just trying to tell you that I’m not able for this.’
The silence purified the dark air before she replied, ‘I am.’
‘You must be some class of saint, then,’ he blurted back. ‘I’m not. This is beyond me. Utterly beyond me.’ He was on his feet now. Where he was going? He didn’t know. Out of the room. Out of the house. To the pier. To the pub. To John o’ Gods. To bed. ‘I can’t go through it all again, Deirdre. I just can’t.’
But early the next morning Seán went up into the attic and, piece by precious piece, brought down the crib.