Mary O'Donnell

Cocoa l’Orange

­Cocoa l’Orange



Like a crouching battalion, the thirty houses in Heatherbell Way nestle along the incline of the mountain. The McEntee’s long landing window is positioned directly opposite the window of the Kearney’s master bedroom, slightly to the left of its en-suite bathroom.

Since the first lockdown, Jake Kearney has spent more time than usual in both bedroom and en-suite, attending to bodily grooming, or sometimes, slumped on the side of the bed, doing a quick scan of the novels left around by his wife Sasha. She considers reading to be a positive thing. Jake has never bothered with fiction, preferring non-fiction and biographies.

His reading is urgent, he knows that, his eye leaps paragraphs ahead over hundreds of words, in search of the right one, the meaningful one that will explain everything for him, even when he’s not quite sure what the question is in the first place. At the very least, reading adds another segment to the vast, black-hole hours which must be plugged.

Sasha has full working days. She is needed by others to do a specific task, and might wear track-suit bottoms while presenting a blouse and sharply tailored navy jacket to the oblong face of the circuit court judge. Jake, on the other hand, is aimless. He acknowledges this each time he glances out the bedroom window having just trimmed his toenails and treated the mottled patches of his toenail fungus yet again, to find himself staring into the face of his neighbour Ned, whose doleful dark eyes and cockroach brows appear, apparition-like, every few days. Ned reminds him of Fr Stone from Father Ted, the most boring priest on the planet, except Ned isn’t a priest, but a locked-down once fashionable green-grocer whose city centre vegetable and fruit emporium, The Sweet Pea—just off Grafton Street—is closed because everyone is working from home and vegan tourists are a distant memory.

Sometimes Jake nods fractionally at Ned, uncertain as to whether the other man is actually seeing him. He thinks of those suspected propped up corpses the Russian administration was supposed to have used in the days when a powerful prime minister—ancient and ill—could not be seen to have actually died but wasn’t so alive either. Sometimes Ned nods back. They stare into one another’s faces. Then Ned usually turns away and withdraws into the gloom of his landing.

Before lockdown, they rarely did more than glance and wave from car to car—Ned drove an upgraded vintage Rolls Royce that sailed forth magisterially whenever he sat into it. It’s in the garage now, unused. Jake’s Prius Hybrid has cooled its environmental jets, as there’s no place to go and nobody to visit. His business has also folded. Sofia, his Estonian co-worker and the best chocolate maker he’s ever employed, has moved on in search of a means of surviving.

He misses work in the small factory outside Bray. He misses Sofia also because she was a good laugh and an antidote to Sasha’s serious ways, as well as being a reliable worker. She knew how to use the enrober, the truffle- rolling machine and the coating machine. Her chocolate was perfect, heated and mixed just the right amount to form crystals. He could pop out for the occasional half hour for bank business or to hook up with one of the other small business owners in the industrial park, knowing she knew what to do.

He doesn’t understand the fuss about people putting on weight during the first lockdown and then later on in the second one. Whatever those tubbies are shovelling into themselves it isn’t his artisan chocolate, which is gathering mould in the unheated factory where the sun sometimes streams in and turns the air to a broiling stew. He managed to get rid of what was hygienically safe to sell, then resorted to selling bags of broken chocolate to the local kids, who turned up on the doorstep, keen as ferrets once the word got out.

Thursday is Sasha’s self-care day. He can hear the soft but clear voice of her yoga master coming through on Zoom in the next bedroom. ‘Breathe in . . . now hold for 5 . . . and breathe out again, remembering to hold in those abdominals . . .

Sasha is relentlessly maintaining herself, determined to follow the rules and survive. Despite her evening breakouts with the wine, she hasn’t gained an inch of flab due to bi-weekly sessions with a body-coach. That she has a job while he hasn’t, is something that registers as an ongoing siege with his own jealousy. He never says anything embittered, but it leaks out anyway, with a sudden need to pace up and down the hall when she’s chortling easily with a fellow professional on the laptop screen.

Unlike him, she’s always had tribes of friends. She’s part of a cosy little bubble of five, and when they’re not having their TGIF glass of online wine, they’re meeting at a safely maintained distance of two or more metres outside a café. There’s Sasha, Sebastian, Fionn, Cathy and Wynette. The Famous Five, he tells himself cynically. All they need is the dog Timmy and they’d make a complete Enid Blyton of it.

He checks his watch. She’ll be finished in half an hour, he reckons, by which time it will be his turn to have some kind of dinner underway. He ponders the question of what they might eat and makes his way downstairs. There’ll be time enough tomorrow to stare back at. He reckons they’ve found a rhythm, and admits to some slight release in staring at another man in the same boat as himself.

It’s all in a look. Each stares into the face of the other, observes, watches, traces the blank misery, the despair, the tamped down maleness of the other. At least, he hopes Ned feels the same. The truth is, the virus might as well have caught them both by the balls and twisted hard. It’s a wonder he isn’t speaking in a falsetto.

He opens the fridge and scans the shelves. Smoked salmon no, eggs no, he pulls out the meat drawer to find the usual unused packs of bacon and sausages. He wonders why they both avoid having a damn good fry-up, as if bacon and sausages alone raised cholesterol. In his case, the cholesterol lay in ‘the widow maker’, the cardiac man at the south city clinic informed him. Maybe twenty percent build-up in that left anterior descending artery, or the LAD, he joked. Jake’s hunch is that Sasha’s is elevated because of the wine she consumes. What is it now, half a bottle a night? When he raised the matter with her, she became defensive and told him he was trying to control her. He sighs as he contemplates an aubergine and two red peppers.

He continues to peer into the fridge, regarding a stack of cholesterol-lowering dairy drinks. Then, unbidden, an image of his finest chocolates floats to the surface of his mind, crushing him. Glossy, buttery, Tir na nÓg mouthfuls of ecstasy. Straight from the Land of Youth in the old legend in which Oisín and Niamh of the Golden Hair rode on a mighty white horse. He used to call Sasha his Niamh of the Golden Hair, when her hair was long and fair. Tears begin to prickle in his eyes as he recalls the weekly cargo flown fresh to New York, Boston, Chicago and LA.

Completely steamed up now, he slams the fridge door shut and rummages in the freezer. Finds two pieces of seabass, solidly frozen. Picking up pace—it’s 5.30 and Sasha will appear soon—he finds a platter, shoves them in the microwave to thaw, then grabs the single aubergine and the two peppers before gathering potatoes from a bucket near the sink. Garlic, he thinks, where’s the fucking garlic? A single clove lurks at the bottom of the vegetable basket. He unpeels it and starts to chop fiercely, forehead perspiring.


            ‘Thanks, I’m starving.’ Sasha glides into her place at the table in calm post-yoga demeanour. Having prepared and cooked the meal, he feels slightly calmer.
            ‘Yumm, amazing!’ she murmurs, spearing a fragrant red pepper piece on the end of her fork and slipping it hungrily between her lips. Mollified, he smiles.

He’d consulted Rick Stein’s Secret France for the recipe. The aubergines were sliced and salted for half an hour before he fried them in virgin olive oil with the peppers, after which he added a tin of crushed tomatoes and the miserable squidge of garlic clove. Then seabass, fried gently, and seasoned boiled potatoes, garnished with a dash of horseradish. He considered it a tasty, basic meal.
            ‘I’m out tomorrow with the gang,’ Sasha remarks.
            ‘Walking. Again?’
            ‘Yes. Why?’
He murmurs quickly ‘I just wondered. Didn’t mean anything.’
            ‘Menlo Forest is open, thank Christ.’
            ‘Coffee afterwards in that café?’
            ‘Outside it.’
            ‘What if it rains?’
            ‘I’ve checked the weather app. Grey but dry tomorrow.’

He senses she’s as fed up with him as he is with her. After months of fairly civilised getting along, collaborating on this and that domestic project—though in truth, collaboration meant capitulation to Sasha’s ideas on everything domestic, not that he’d say as much. On impulse, he reaches across and catches her gently by the wrist. She looks up, surprised.
            Even the snappy sound of the ‘t’, the half-annoyed frown on her brow, irritates him, but he persists. ‘I just wanted to hold your hand, that’s all.’ There were no words to cover the terrain of wobbling emotions and future uncertainties. Those available to them might, he suspects, be vicious.
            She relinquishes her arm and eases her palm against his. ‘I guess we don’t do enough of this.’
            ‘You know we don’t.’
            She squeezes his hand lightly, forking a piece of fish towards her mouth with the free hand.
            He observes her chewing, her brows slightly dipped as if concentrating either on the eating or on thoughts of what’s happening between them.
            ‘The truth is . . . I suppose . . .’
He knows what’s coming.
            ‘ . . . I do get a bit exasperated with you.’
He waits.
            ‘You’re a good man, a great man in fact, but you drive me fucking mad, right?’
            He’s amazed at how casually patronising she can sound. ‘You grind my gears too,’ his reply emerges, a calm statement.
            Her eyebrows perk up. He nods again. ‘That’s the truth,’ he holds her stare.
            ‘What the hell have I done?’ She snaps her hand back from his.
            ‘Nothing specific. I mean, neither of us has done anything—’

He falls silent as a new wave of despair washes through him, and her face freezes over to contain the emotion which is surely agitating her. It’s a face known to him for more than twenty-five years, one which has radiated the kindest of signals and signs, the most ecstatic too, when on holiday and they were free, a face cool and dispassionate in the courts, but which could break with hilarity at the casual suppers they used to throw. This face was his unwritten language, but somehow he can no longer quite translate it. He puts down his fork, swallows quickly. His throat has seized up as if he’s about to cry. Again? The virus. That bloody virus, that microscopic ball with the little cartoon feet, that invisible bauble has ruined everything.
            ‘Well,’ she rationalises, ‘you’ve lost a business and it has affected you more than you’ll admit.’
            Now a gear-change, soaring ahead beyond fourth, to fifth, into overdrive.
            ‘Eh—I didn’t ‘lose’ the business. It’s not something I, like, actually tossed away—’ he counters.
            ‘Fuck’s sake Jake, you’re so literal! That’s not what I meant—’
            ‘Ned next door is in the same boat, I’m not the only one—’
            ‘What the hell did he expect? A fucking green-grocers was always going to take the hit, just like a chocolate shop!’
            He draws a breath inwards, then exhales gradually. ‘It was an enterprise, a chocolate enterprise.’
            ‘Oh big fucking deal. I’m telling the truth if you’d only listen.’
            ‘I never stop listening. I want to make you happy.’
            ‘Actually, this isn’t about my happiness, Jake. It’s more about yours.’
            ‘Happiness? My happiness, is that it?’ His shoulders shake as he laughs bitterly. ‘I never think about happiness these days, you know.’
            ‘We could have it worse,’ she adds. ‘At least one of us can work.’
            ‘Yes,’ he admits.
But she goes on, as Sasha always does.
            ‘If it weren’t for me we wouldn’t have a roof over our heads, you realise that?’

Now she’s done it. Now he feels like swearing. Using the C-word, which she absolutely detests. On it goes for a while, the snapping and snarling like two enraged curs. Opposite them, the television is on mute as the world plays out its filmed day. The eager, expressive face of the news reporter in Washington reporting on the despot’s latest response to the ‘China virus’. Then the home stories. Teacher unions, doctors, front workers. A vox-pop of cantankerous people blaming Christmas overseas visitors, who partied and spread the new variant. The calm but concerned faces of the men in charge asking people to stay at home.

By the time the bickering ceases, they are both following the television even though it’s on mute. Sasha has drained her second glass of wine. Jake sips water, more to relax his throat and prevent him from screaming than from actual thirst. He’s just told her that if she’s finding it all too much, she should draw up the divorce papers.

‘Feel free!’ he shouts, without really meaning it. ‘Anytime! We can head off into the blue with all the other silver splitters!’

Sasha ignores this, her expression inscrutable, the way it is when she’s in court. They sit sullenly until she shoves an opened pack of bitter orange Tir na nÓg in his direction. He accepts, breaks off two squares and slips them into his mouth. The chocolate melts slowly along the inside of his cheeks, all around his tongue.

There will be no divorce. Neither wants it. Sasha clears up after the meal and Jake stretches out on the sofa, tries to concentrate on a book about corvids which she gifted him at Christmas.

The night darkens, deepens. The entire road is silent, each house locked in a thin fog. Somewhere a dog barks, then stops. A front door slams shut. Jake and Sasha decide to sleep separately, mainly because of her snoring. They both blame it on eating late. He blames it on the wine but doesn’t say so. Sasha tells him that tomorrow on the forest walk, Wynette and Fionn will bring coffee and rolls, then they’ll sing together beneath the high conifers near the lake, and Cathy will certainly embrace a few tree-trunks. Mad, isn’t it, she whispers in a conciliatory way before he heads into the spare room, but whatever takes us through, right? He nods in agreement, pecks her on the cheek. How good she smells, he thinks, automatically drawing her closer, waiting until she raises her arms to embrace him too. They stand like that outside the spare room, rocking one another, her head relaxes and she lets it rest against his shoulder. They say good-night, slowly, without kissing. This is enough, he thinks, not quite ready to touch his lips to hers.

Once in the bedroom, he strips to his underwear and throws himself beneath the duvet, then stares at the ceiling for a long time. The pressure of the day subsides. He can still smell Sasha in his arms, a signature skin odour, her delicate musk.

By mid-morning on Friday she has gone to the forest. A wintry sun shines and he has the house to himself. Still in his underwear, he connects to Spotify, checks out his various collections before settling on Moods Upbeat and Even. The Kinks, Genesis, Velvet Underground, Ultra Vox, Tom Waitts. The house pulsates with sound. He’s feeling creative and intends to do something with chocolate. As usual, he’s not certain what the outcome will be, but chocolate is an art-form, although Sasha, predictably, views it solely as business. He stares into the copper bain-marie on the gas hob and lets three drops of intense orange essence and a hint of chilli fall into the chocolate, which gradually melts, the aroma sweet and comforting, hitting his olfactory receptors. Cocoa l’Orange, he decides, his favourite.

He rummages in a high cupboard and retrieves a set of moulds. Diverse shapes, ranging from butterflies to hearts to flowers. Again, he checks the copper bowl. The chocolate is fully melted, bubbling slowly like the warm muds of Rotorua in New Zealand. He’d like to sit into a pool of either warm mud or chocolate right now, to cover his legs, his bollocks, his chest, all the way up to his neck, and rest there until he was a coated, cleansed, saturated chocolate man. Instead, he goes to the hallway and studies himself in the mirror, bowl in hand. He dips his fingers into the chocolate, rubbing fingers and thumb together as if to get a sense of his medium. Then, a dark brown line down his nose. He looks primitive. He looks like a horse in a Cubist painting. The mix is viscous and does not drip. Now a dense curve darkens the path from temple to temple across his high forehead. Two smears on the outer edges of his eyelids, more like dots really. He continues with chocolate lines moving out from the corners of each eye, as if he were in a Chinese opera, then the long downward curve towards his jawline and along the chin.

Already, the chocolate is firming like a mask. He almost laughs but suppresses it so as not to crack the chocolate, which is so smooth, so dense and reddish brown. Monarch of all I survey, he intones between his teeth, monarch of all I survey. Then suddenly, another fit of weeping surges, and he is like the crying clown in a circus, as the chocolate cracks and splinters down onto the wooden floor.

Get busy, man, get busy! he urges, gulping, catching his breath, wiping his face of chocolate and tears in the downstairs bathroom. When he has tidied up the hall and removed all traces of chocolate, he returns to the kitchen, gets out the bain-marie again and melts a new mix, adding extra orange essence, but slightly less chilli. Carefully, he pours the finished mix into the moulds, wondering briefly if such moulds are a bit too feminine. He might have opted for blunt squares, triangles and rectangles. Too late. The chocolate is cooling. Quickly, he slips it into the top shelf of the fridge and tidies up again. He’s done three trays.

An hour later, he has changed into a loose muslin shirt and clean jeans. He enters the en-suite. He is carrying one mould of fresh chocolate pieces set onto a golden ceramic plate, usually kept for Christmas. The air is still damp from Sasha’s earlier shower, and the odour of a drying towel rises from the radiator. The scent of her shower gel—something slightly Scandinavian and outdoorsy—rosemary or birchwood, permeates the air. He places the plate on the edge of the wide sink, then turns towards the window.  

Ned is there, his sad eyes boring across the space between the two houses. Jake takes up position and gazes straight back, focusing on the eyes, which are probably a mere twelve feet away if he were to measure it. What a face, he thinks, drinking it in, a grey face with grey eyes and a strong brow, one he knows yet does not know, whose subtle semiotics are his to untangle and explore.

At first, he wonders if the frosty sunshine is creating a glare, if Ned isn’t actually seeing him. But then, recognition creeps along the other man’s face, which for a time remains morose, before it twitches in a minor yet perceptible way. He meets Ned’s expression. It’s all in the eyes, the skin around them crinkling a little, as if with suppressed laughter.

And when the other man slowly raises his hand in what could be a wave or an attempt at reaching out, Jake raises his too. He stretches back to the plate, turns and elevates it with both arms before the window. The sun strikes the golden surface and a series of prismic rays dance across the space between the houses. Finally, Ned nods again. Jake sees him swallow. Although the sun threatens to soften the chocolate, they stand, transfixed by light, by the golden rim of the platter, its centre dark eye of Cocoa l’Orange.


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