© Ruby Barnes
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To be honest, I’ve had a skinful. I find myself in an area of derelict buildings around the back of Dublin Heuston Station, close to the river. Cloud obscures the moon and stars; the Liffey’s matt waters absorb rather than reflect light. This doesn’t look like the same river I cross every working day. The tide is out and the wide flow has reduced to little more than a stream in places, flanked by bulbous mounds of shining mud. Night dwellers, rats and others, scamper along the bottom of the stone walls. I become disorientated and wonder if this might be the River Dodder or some other tributary of the Liffey. Perhaps I’ve somehow wandered a few miles off course, walking drunk for half an hour instead of a few minutes. It won’t have been a first.
What to do? I don’t know Dublin well. Retrace my steps.
I turn and walk straight into the end of a stick that knocks the wind out of me. Bent double, I can just make out the end of a crutch and a socked foot. It’s the Romanian beggar that I had heated words with on the bridge this morning.
“Ticalos! Bastard!” he growls. “You give me money.”
As I try to catch my breath, there occur to me three reasons why I’m not going to hand over any money. Firstly, lack of politeness. Secondly, I’m drunk and angry at the fucker and, thirdly, there’s nothing left in my wallet.
So, I shove him back. I push the cripple hard in his chest with my clenched knuckles. I know that sounds mean, but I have my reasons.
Well, bad move. His shorter, wizened leg and deformed foot don’t prevent him from discarding the crutch and standing on two feet, albeit in a strange and lopsided stance. And he has fists of iron. They rain down upon me, despite his lack of height, like punishment from the Gods. I block a few punches, mostly with my ears and chin, and even manage a vague counter attack that threatens his peculiar way of standing, but he shuffles crablike around and, shaking off my drunken slaps, hammers at my ribs and head. A roundhouse punch connects with my jaw and, through the haze of alcohol, I feel a tooth loosen. The next blow numbs my shoulder, reducing my defences to one arm.
Two and two come together in my blurred brain. The addict that I read about in the newspaper, he was found beaten to death somewhere around here. Choosing a recent murder scene as your toilet is never a good idea.
A knee in the thigh gives me a dead leg. That eliminates my preferred combat tactic of fleeing the scene and I fall sideways. Death has come creeping behind Heuston Station. My wife is about to be widowed. An elbow, I think it must be an elbow because it feels like a pointed hammer, drives into my spine and knocks me flat to the ground. His snarl is audible, like a dog when you try to take away the bone. I begin to recall childhood events and the first time that I met Jo, then our wedding and setting up home in Ireland together. Most clichés have an element of truth. My life flashes before me. It hasn’t all been shit.
A fist gropes and tangles itself in my hair, lifting me just long enough for another fist to punch the side of my skull with a crunch. He drops my head to the ground and I manage to instinctively turn, taking it on the cheekbone but preserving nose and teeth. Then I see salvation, underneath an old pallet, just within hand-reach. A rusty two-foot metal bar.
His breathing is laboured now, he’s tired. I grab that metal bar from under the pallet and, backhand, swing it hopefully into the black space over my body.
There’s a sound like a rotten floorboard splintering underfoot in a derelict house. I have no idea where that blow landed but he crumples into a heap on the ground and I drag myself sort of upright. Arm and leg are working again and I have no broken bones. I wield the bar in the Star Wars style of a Jedi Knight battling Darth Vader, make a few swishing practice passes through the air and then deal him a series of blows to the body. The bar is heavier than I had expected. Meaning to leave him with one last memento, I swing the bar over-arm and let it land with its own weight on his good leg.
Now, when I say the man yells I mean that all the pain of his life and every demon in hell emerges from his mouth in a scream that splits the air. His shaking hand reaches down towards the socked foot that looks as though it will soon detach itself from the childlike leg. No shoe. How can that be? I look down confused and then realize that I’ve shattered the beggar’s crippled leg. But the screaming doesn’t stop. It just goes on and on and on.
It’s in my power to end it. I swing the metal bar in a high arc over my head and bring it down like a medieval executioner. The base of his skull is my target. Then the screaming stops. Oh, mercy! I drop the bar and lean, panting, against the river wall. After eons have passed I realize that the guy isn’t stirring. Looking at his back, there’s no heaving, no sign of breath being drawn. I move to feel his pulse. The neck is cool and greasy, no pulse. I pull back the eyelid that isn’t pressed to the ground. It reflects back the light of the moon. Pupil fixed and dilated as they say on the television.
Well, what else can I do? Carry him to nearby St. James’s Hospital? Call an ambulance? I throw his body over the wall, onto the mud of the riverbank thirty feet below. The tide is still out.
2. A little about me
When I’m finished you will likely have no respect for me. What not to do with your life by Gerard Mayes. There will be a warm feeling that it happened to me, not you, and that I deserved it. Fair judgment, trust me on this if nothing else.
There are many clichés about the Scots. They’re short and dour. They have sandy hair, ruddy faces, keep their money next to their groin in a hairy purse called a sporran and wear string vests. I personally don’t favour the string vest, otherwise that’s me. Oh, and hard working. That’s another allegedly Caledonian attribute excluded from my portfolio. I’m Gerard Mayes, out for an easy life. Be a pal and call me Ger. One other thing, I adore women and, strangely enough, they tend to go for me. It must be pheromones or something. But that’s not what left me lying amidst a tangle of dead bodies and a pile of cash with the finger of guilt pointing at my head. No, it was penny wise, pound foolish that did for me.
I was brought up to believe that a penny on the pavement belonged in the pocket of the finder. Not that there were any unclaimed coins on the cracked and weeping footpaths of Port Glasgow, alongside those decrepit shipyards and the abandoned River Clyde. If there were, you wouldn’t be able to see for the frenzied bundle of young and old fighting over the Queen’s head. Even a stray Green Shield stamp, stuck to the ground, would have had a gaggle of grannies trying to lick it off.
Charity is central to my story but I never encountered it back home. A supplicant on the streets of Port Glasgow would have had his beggar’s bowl robbed and received a dead leg from the steel capped boots of the locals. Quite right too. That’s the way of thinking I was brought up with.
Then I moved to live and work in Ireland, home of begging extraordinaire. Anyway, let’s take a look at those bodies at a time when they still drew breath.
3. Giving up, giving in
Five people for dinner, an awkward number. All the recipes are for even numbers. That irks Jo, my wife, as she’s not the best at maths and can’t adjust the ingredients, but I’m happy enough because the extra portion usually lands on my plate. And, anyway, there isn’t a dinner guest born who could partner Aunt Mary, our special visitor this weekend. So odd we are and odd we remain.
Tom and Renée are the other ‘couple’. Renée is Jo’s friend from college and Tom is my mountain walking partner. It’s a sort of sport to bring them together. Renée has never had an enduring romantic relationship to my knowledge. Tom had a long-term partner but he died in a car accident about five years back.
There’s an edge to this little gathering that only three of us are aware of. Aunt Mary is our future benefactor - Jo is her only niece and it’s no secret amongst family that she features predominantly in the old bird’s will. Aunt Mary is our meal ticket; it’s just a matter of time. Then, last week, a story started the rounds that an old friend of Aunt Mary’s had left her inheritance to charity. So I had Jo on the phone to her aunt, inviting her down for a few days. Nip things in the bud.
We’re enjoying an aperitif in the back lounge whilst Jo puts the finishing touches to dinner. Our place in Bagenalstown is too big for the two of us but the space is handy for entertaining.
“Not too much for me, Gerard dear. I’ll only get giddy.”
Aunt Mary feigns moderation but gives me a wink and holds her wine glass out a little longer. I pour and try not to look at her pink scalp through the short, thinning curls of her blue rinse. Aunt Mary is a periodic feature at our house and friends regard her as they would a venerable piece of furniture. Antique leather.
“My giddy aunt,” Jo calls from the kitchen. She’s mocking my British turn of phrase.
“Don’t mind them, you’re a treasure.” Tom lays his hand on Mary’s and she giggles like a girl.
“Buried treasure,” I mutter.
I pour Prosecco for Renée, the bubbles fizzing up close to the rim. She concentrates on the wine and I have a brief chance to study her face unobserved. Up close her lips are perfect, slightly parted with just a touch of white teeth showing. Then the glass is overflowing.
“Whoops. Sorry! Here, I’ll get something to mop that up.”
I’m back in a flash with kitchen paper and mopping the floor in front of the easy chair where Renée is sitting, poised, her girlish legs crossed. There’s a splash on her knee and I wipe that dry with my hand, so quickly that even Renée doesn’t realize it.
“Hah!” Tom coughs across the room, choking on his Prosecco.
“Are you alright, dear?” Aunt Mary asks.
There’s a spluttering sound as he clears his throat.
“Yes, fine thanks. I was just laughing at the waiter.”
“Hmm. Yes, he is a little clumsy.”
I look Tom in the eye and his crows’ feet crinkle. He knows what I’m up to. Renée has always been my fantasy fuck.
“So, Josephine dear, your impossible husband thinks I’m buried treasure. Not very Christian. Have you managed to get him to church recently?” Aunt Mary projects her voice loudly towards the kitchen and then rounds on me. “Gerard, you should go with your wife sometimes and listen to a sermon or two.”
“Why leave the house for a sermon when I can get one here and now from you?”
It’s just banter. The old bat and I usually take chunks out of each other in this way.
“The ten commandments are a good place to start. And there are other details, such as respect your elders.”
“I do respect you Mary. I have to respect anyone who has survived as long as you have. Two world wars and all that.”
Aunt Mary laughs as Tom clears his throat.
“I can only agree that Ger needs to improve his manners, but if you do go to the church Ger, don’t expect to see me there. Not after last time.”
“Oh? Why dear, what happened?” Aunt Mary asks.
Jo pipes up from the kitchen. “It was that visiting priest from Dublin, he went on a rant against homosexuality. Said it was an abomination.”
“Abomination,” I mouth to Tom with mock disapproval.
“Chance would be a fine thing,” Tom mutters. “It’s water off a duck’s back to me, but I don’t need their bigotry.”
Aunt Mary stares at the floor. I know she’s thinking of her late companion, Philomena. The church would never have blessed that union.
“Well,” I say, “the last time I went to church was up in Tallaght at Jo’s parents. And it’ll take wild horses to drag me back. The priest was recounting his early years in England and said that the British were fierce unfriendly.”
“But you’re Scottish dear. I mean, I know that’s part of Britain but it sounds like he was really complaining about the English,” Aunt Mary is back with us.
“It’s not who he was insulting that’s important, it’s the fact that the priest could show such a lack of whatever it is, that his own behaviour wasn’t exemplary.” I find myself on a soapbox.
“Such moral rectitude. Truly admirable,” Tom smirks.
Renée has nothing to say on the subject, but stands looking out of the French windows onto the garden. She’s distant, demure. Her allure is tangible like perfume.
“Are you okay?” I ask quietly, moving beside her.
“Sure. You have the garden nice, Ger. It must have taken ages to plant all those bulbs. You have green fingers, don’t you?”
“I’m glad you like it.”
Different coloured blooms are poking up through the grass at the foot of the trellis and archway, others crowding the raised beds. I’ve no idea what any of the varieties are called but I do recall crawling drunk on hands and knees to plant a miscellaneous selection of bulbs, after weeks of Jo nagging at me to get the job done.
“Well,” Jo says above the sizzle of a pan on the hob, “dinner is served. Ger, would you do the necessary?”
I herd our guests into the dining room, open some red wine for the table and help Jo to bring in the plates. The starter is my favourite, goat’s cheese and caramelized red onions on breakfast mushrooms.
“Is this cheese fresh?” asks Aunt Mary. The pungent taste makes her old face pull comically and everyone laughs.
“It’s meant to taste like that. It’s goat’s cheese,” I explain.
“Good Lord! It tastes, well, I don’t know!”
“Ever been downwind of a mountain goat?” Tom asks the table. “Pretty bad, actually.”
Jo disappears off to the kitchen to serve up the main course and I follow her.
“This is Aunt Mary’s and this is for Renée.” I take the two plates from Jo. She kisses me lightly on the lips, like a sibling, and brings two other plates.
It occurs to me that I could just poison Aunt Mary’s dinner and solve our problems that way. But there’s never a vial of untraceable poison to hand when you need it.
Back at the table I pour red wine into the larger glasses at each place setting.
“What do we have here, Miss Josephine?” Tom looks at the tower of food on his plate.
“Sea Bream, pan fried, topped with black olives, bulb fennel and tomato, on a base of crushed potatoes.”
Renée laughs but not unkindly. “You sound exactly like the menu in that pretentious new restaurant in town. Doesn’t she?”
“I’ll be glad when this fad for putting the mash under the meat, fish, whatever, is over,” I complain, sliding my double helping of fish off the mound of potatoes.
Someone gives me a sharp little kick in the ankle but I can’t tell who the culprit is. It has to be Tom or Renée, they’re both in range.
“Well, if it tastes as good as it looks, Jo, then I think you have a great future as a chef,” Tom says. I guess he kicked me.
It does taste good and there’s little conversation as we tuck in. Aunt Mary manages to find the only bone and starts to choke. I pour some water into a glass and hand it over, but she’s too busy coughing to take it. Then things go worryingly quiet with Aunt Mary. Jo looks at me and I give a nod to say she’s your aunt, you save her. Jo gives Aunt Mary a flat-handed slap on the back which knocks the offending bone out onto her dinner plate, together with her lower false teeth.
“Thank you dear,” she says, replacing the dentures as though nothing has happened. Cool as a cucumber is Aunt Mary.
I offer the water again and this time she sees it and takes a deep draught.
“For a second there I thought we had lost you, Mary.”
“Wishful thinking, Gerard.”
“Last week’s sermon was interesting,” Jo says, too obviously changing tack I think.
“What was that, dear?”
“Well, the priest read out a letter from the Bishop on the subject of charity and giving money to people on the street.”
I throw a warning look at Jo. We do need to know Aunt Mary’s position on the subject but this is a danger zone. The discussion mustn’t sound too manufactured.
“And pray, what did the Bishop have to say?” Tom prompts.
“He said that the congregation should only donate to charities that are run by religious organizations. And that we shouldn’t give to people that are begging on the streets.”
“Not give to beggars?” Renée asks. Her profile is so perfect from my angle. “What reasons did he give for that?”
“If I remember correctly he said that,” and Jo puts on a pious tone, “it is society’s task to care and, furthermore, giving to people on the street undermines the structures that are designed to support the needy.”
“But surely it’s an individual’s decision whether or not they give money to someone who holds out their hand? I think I can judge if somebody is in real need of my charity.” Aunt Mary is very discerning when it comes to handouts. That’s why she’s wealthy. Mean and wealthy. Give it to us, Mary.
“Well, I personally disagree with the Bishop’s letter,” Jo says and then turns to face me. “I don’t appreciate being dictated to about my few small acts of charity.”
“Well, the reason I try to stop you from giving to every beggar in Carlow and Kilkenny is that most of them are tricksters,” I reply.
Tom picks up the local paper from the seat of the empty chair next to him.
“There was a piece in here last week that said gangs of beggars are coming in by train and car to capitalize on the volume of tourists. And pickpockets working with the flower sellers. It’s a business. No-one should give money to these people, that’s for sure.”
“What about registered charities?” Aunt Mary asks.
“No, it’s an industry. Young do-gooders on their gap year, driving SUVs into the jungle, delivering a wet feed to villages that need livestock and electricity, not vitamin-enhanced porridge.” Tom can be very forthright.
“But what about Oxfam, Concern, Trocaire, Bothar and the others?” It sounds like Aunt Mary has been looking into the subject, right enough.
“Sir Bob Geldof?” I suggest.
“Mary, if you read any recent book on Africa, you’ll get the same story. Michael Palin’s Sahara, even Sir Bob’s own book. They’re unanimous in their view of the ineffectiveness, inappropriateness and futility of the charity industry. Those countries need good government, not food handouts. Food donation is a solution for famine relief, but these countries end up reliant on the large charities as a social welfare system.”
I’m impressed by Tom’s memory of my Africa books that are on the shelf behind Aunt Mary.
“Bring back the Commonwealth, the Empire,” I throw in, to universal condemnation. Always guaranteed to get a rise.
Aunt Mary seems thoughtful.
“But there are people begging that are poor and hungry, aren’t there?” Renée says. “You must have seen them in Dublin, Ger, when you get your daily train. Right?” She gives me an eager look that needs pleasing. Please, please me.
“I’ve seen some of them, right enough, around the station. Addicts. You could drop a stone in the cup and they wouldn’t notice the difference. Spaced out. I think it’s totally irresponsible to give them money, just so that they can get another fix or a can of cheap lager. More wine anyone?”
“I’ve seen them too, Gerard,” Aunt Mary adds. “Some are in a trance, that’s for sure. But others hang their heads in shame. It’s a terrible predicament that they’re in. Perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt.”
“No Mary, you’re wrong. Addicts don’t need money, they need treatment.” Tom speaks like someone who knows.
Rather than let him start to discuss his recreational cocaine habit with Aunt Mary, I decide to throw in another perspective.
“What about buskers? Anybody have a view?”
“They get what they deserve. If it sounds good I always give. I’m a big fan of live music, aren’t you?” Renée’s smile beams around the table. “Go on Ger, play a tune for us and we’ll see if you deserve payment, shall we?”
I look at my guitar, hooked up on the wall, but Jo gets in before I have a chance.
“Don’t encourage him, Renée.” We all hear the beeping of the oven timer. “Anyway, dessert is ready.”
Jo heads off to the kitchen with the dirty plates, accompanied by Renée. I stay put this time.
“Gerard Mayes, I do believe you have a mean streak in you. I’ll wager that you’ve never given any money to anybody on the street.”
“You’d win that bet, Mary. Not a penny, except a busker, and then rarely. Most of them can’t hold a tune. As for the junkies who sit on Heuston Bridge and the gypsy types, well, I have no problem passing them by.”
“It’s not right to walk past these people without it pricking your conscience in some way,” Aunt Mary scolds me. “It’s not Christian. These are people in need, Gerard, even if you don’t agree with what they’re doing about it.”
I’m saved from further embarrassment by the return of Jo and Renée with the dessert, a blueberry pudding.
“You’re right, Mary. Ger doesn’t have a charitable bone in his body.” Jo serves from the steaming dish that she has placed in the middle of the table. “I’m used to that but it doesn’t stop me wanting to give. When I see those people on the street, so desperate that they’ll ask complete strangers for money, no, I can’t believe that it’s an industry. Some of them must collect just a few cents an hour.”
“If I’m honest,” and I rarely am completely honest, “I think it’s a sop when you give to someone on the street.”
“What do you mean, a sop?” Aunt Mary sounds a little indignant.
“I mean that throwing a few cents in someone’s begging cup is a way of easing your conscience, but it doesn’t deal with the real issue, that the person is forced to beg because of their circumstances. Society should support people in need like that, should help address their circumstances.”
“Good Lord!” Aunt Mary exclaims. “Gerard agrees with the Bishop! Well I never.”
“There, you see. I reach the right conclusion on my own without even going near a church.”
Jo shakes her head and I give Renée a smile.
Aunt Mary excuses herself and heads to the bathroom.
Renée pipes up.
“Changing the subject Ger, I’ve bought a new home theatre system but I haven’t a clue how to set it up. Your wife has agreed to lend me your services tomorrow, haven’t you Jo?” Renée’s hand descends on my thigh under the table, her expression all innocence.
“No problem. It’s just a question of the right plug in the right socket.”
“Well, it might be a little more than that. The wires for the speakers need to be run around the skirting boards and everything. No, it’s too much to ask, isn’t it? I’ll get a man in.”
“Listen, it doesn’t matter if it takes you the whole day Ger, because I’m away on my cookery course. He’s all yours Renée. Be gentle with him.”
Renée’s face takes on a warm pink colour, like a young girl after exercise. Her hand is still on my leg below the table. Tom’s foot cracks my shin again and I yelp.
“Sorry mate, my foot slipped,” he says quietly.
“Apology accepted.” But it still hurts.
“Well it’s time for my beauty sleep,” Aunt Mary announces on her return. “So I’ll bid all you young people good night.”
We endure a round of wet kisses and Jo gets a big hug before Aunt Mary clops up the bare oak stairs to the guest room. Renée decides to take her leave and Tom offers her a lift home. I’m surprised when she accepts, because Tom is definitely over the limit, another bad habit of his. Tom has his own rules.
“Around ten in the morning then, Ger?” Renée kisses me on the cheek. Oh boy.
“Have the kettle on. I’ll bring my toolbox.”
I shake Tom’s hand.
“Okay, captain?” he asks.
“Thanks,” I say.
They head out of the driveway in his big Mercedes.
Whilst we’re getting ready for bed, Jo quizzes me.
“Gerard Mayes, were you flirting with Renée?”
She has a twinkle in her eye that I don’t often see these days.
“Listen, it’s you that was offering your husband out to the highest bidder.”
“Well, whet your appetite where you have to, but eat your dinner at home.”
That’s Jo code for all systems go. I make sure to brush my teeth a bit extra, freshen up the unspeakables and dab on some aftershave, like a trail of crumbs in the forest.
Jo and I have been trying for kids for a while now, without any luck. Apparently my little sperm fellas are mutants, some double headed, some without tails. Not good for the libido on either side. So, when a bit of unexpected passion arises like this, we both leap at it. Not that my appetite for Renée’s surround sound system installation is in any way diminished. On the contrary, a man’s sexual greed is infinite.
4. The handshake
My father’s appetite for handshakes was infinite. A first memory is of standing in pyjamas, little black dogs on sky-blue winceyette, and shaking his big, cool hand. And my baby brother David, not yet able to sit up unaided, having his hand shaken as mum held him up for the ritual.
Mum did kiss us, on the forehead.
Our goodnight handshake was physically the closest I ever got to my father, except for a series of punches when we had our first teenager-versus-adult confrontation over a table-tennis ball.
Hmm, I hear the Freudians amongst you. Problems with intimacy and emotion. That wouldn’t be entirely accurate. As we grew into little men there was intimacy. Hours spent together down in the shed, working all kinds of wood into different shapes. Dad knew that young hands would struggle to work hardwood with hand tools, so he started us on balsa softwood and then we moved on to white deal and pine. Whilst other kids were swinging in the playground, David and I were in full attack across our quarter-acre garden. My Saracen’s scimitar whirled against his sturdy Crusader’s sword, blades as sharp as wood can be.
“Re-sharpen, re-sharpen,” David would call when our finely-honed edges became dented.
No doubt the neighbourhood of retirees was annoyed to hell by our noisy antics as David and I were the only kids in the street. Mum and dad had moved the family to an affluent retirement area, a zone of natural wisdom. Next door Dennis, a retired bank manager, was building the concrete hull of his dream boat in a garage. He built it too wide to get out of the garage. How wise was that?
We played sports, but never with other kids. Just us and dad, at weekends. Dad had good eye-to-hand coordination, as did we, but what he didn’t have was two functioning legs. As a child he had contracted polio and his right leg was grotesquely withered. This led to a strange gallop when he had to run, and a tendency to lunge with his weak leg. According to him, this had lent itself to fencing and boxing at university. No team sports.
The surgeon’s remodelling had reshaped his foot many years earlier but the result was continuous wear and tear due to an unnaturally high instep. He was always at his foot, scratching and peeling the dry, hard skin from the ball and heel. That gave me a phobia of other people’s bare feet. Unless they belong to a beautiful woman.
But dad’s interest in one-on-one sports made sense to me. I could see how he would have had to defend himself from bullies throughout his life.
The first week in high school I found myself under attack. A tall, scruffy boy named Daly spat all over my new school blazer as it hung in the sports changing rooms. The gap between his front teeth was perfect for spraying spittle and he had all the lads laughing at my expense. Daly was bottom-of-the-barrel and looking for someone to exchange places with.
“After school, Daly,” I said.
When sports period was over, the tough guys tried to get us to fight in the classroom but I resisted. Daly looked slightly worried.
“Let’s forget it, Mayes,” he said.
I shook my head. The insult had to be paid for.
At the home bell I followed him down the field to the school buses and, just before he tried to board his bus, I kicked him repeatedly in the thigh until he went for me. Then I pulled on my black leather gloves and went to work.
Daly hadn’t a clue. I danced around him, in the lopsided style of dad, and let fly with clinically accurate punches, mostly at eyes and mouth. The exchange was almost soundless and he didn’t land a blow. It felt so very good.
5. Joking Jo
A voice in my head is telling me that I will never manage to change Ger. I still think that he’s made of good stuff. That first time, in the pub in Killarney, when he appeared out of the myopic mist and kissed Mam’s cheek on first introduction, I knew he had the husband makings. But somehow I lost the recipe.
Sure, he’s gut-bustingly funny at times, especially in company. I can see that from the audience’s reaction. And there’s nothing sycophantic about their mirth. Ger doesn’t attract sycophants, quite the opposite. All my friends know he’s a disaster. I think that’s why they don’t judge me over the Ciaran thing.
Look at Ger’s work situation, wallowing in a job that’s more suitable for a school-leaver than a man who should be raising a family. It won’t last. None of his jobs ever do. He’ll fall out with the new boss, this Deidre woman. One to three years is all he ever manages and then it’s a new start at the bottom of a ladder somewhere else.
This house here in Bagenalstown, bought on the promise of future earnings and built to accommodate a tribe. What a waste. We could have stayed small and lived a good life, a childless couple travelling the world whenever the mood took us. That’s what Ger says and I hate him for the truth of it.
I’ve spent the years thinking that a child would make all the difference to Ger. That he would finally grow up and settle down. Now I’m not so sure of it. There’s still a chance, despite his *mutant sperm* as he calls them. But I no longer laugh along with the guests at our dinner parties. Ger doesn’t even notice that.
It was Ger’s idea, that I should take up some new, body-enhancing sport activity. I’ve seen the way that he looks at Renée with her bird legs and wasp waist.
“No, there’s nothing feminine about her,” he said one night after sneaking glances at her all evening in the pub. The feigned disinterest was just a tactic, he was looking for a shag off me at the time. And in typical Ger fashion he tried to switch the subject from his lust to my insecurities. “Hey, if you’re so hung up about your figure, why not try something new? Yoga or something like that.”
I know he would just love to get to grips with her bones. There’s no chance that I would ever have Renée’s figure, not even if I starved myself. To be honest, I like my curves compared to that anorexic look, and I know Renée has a reason for her figure that no-one would envy.
But a little trim-and-tone never goes amiss.
Pilates was advertised in the local free paper. *Call Ciaran now to enrol*. Twenty women working up a sweat, on their backs on padded mats in the school hall, as Ciaran circled on his carved-from-solid legs, adjusting our postures. He managed to keep an asexual attitude during the classes. I even thought that he was gay for the first few weeks until I saw that his car had child seats.
Ciaran’s face seemed familiar. Then he brought his kids to school one morning and I remembered that I had seen him, on occasion, there in the playground at delivery time. Nice looking, unremarkable until Pilates had revealed how long, toned and flexible he was.
“I hope you’re doing your moves at home,” he confided in my ear as he passed me that day in the playground. There was a flutter in my stomach that I hadn’t felt for a long, long time.
The next week we had a girls’ night out at the tapas wine bar in Kilkenny. The second glass of Rioja started to loosen tongues and the husbands came in for a lashing. Domineering, controlling, lazy, sports crazy, brains in their pants.
“Well, I think you’re very lucky to have Ger,” Ella said. “He’s just so funny and, well, uncomplicated. I love his accent.”
I saw Renée’s eyes drop demurely to the table.
“It gets a bit wearing after ten years,” I said. “Sometimes I wish he would go away for a while, then I might appreciate him more when he comes back.” And I meant it.
“What about Ciaran?” Jill asked.
“How do you mean?” I felt the heat rising under my polo neck.
“Come on,” she said, “we all see the way he looks at you when you do the pyramid.”
There were nods in agreement. Me included. I picked up a wine mat and fanned my flushing face with a laugh. Renée’s eyes caught mine and narrowed.
Did we make an unspoken bargain at that moment? They’ve been circling each other in a mating dance ever since the first time that Renée met my husband. Shouldn’t I be more possessive, protective, jealous? Does it mean that I don’t care? It has a necessarily limited lifespan, if they do start a liaison. I don’t feel threatened by it.
Ciaran is caring, passionate and divorced. He brings me to a sweat in minutes, in a way that Ger never has. We make love to the same tantric music that he plays for the ladies at Pilates. Last week I even came in the class as everyone was touching the ground behind their heads with straight legs. No-one noticed, except Ciaran. We’re great together. It’s just sex. But Ger had better shape up or he’s toast.
6. Surround sound
I arrive to install Renée’s home-theatre system. Her home is on the outskirts of Bagenalstown, a two-story modern townhouse with no front garden. Feeling conspicuous, I approach the door with my toolbox.
The front door opens before my finger can press the bell button.
“Right on time, Ger. You heard the kettle, didn’t you?.”
Renée beckons me in.
I had intended to kiss her on the cheek and linger, perhaps get a full kiss, drop the toolbox and, well. But she’s virtually hiding behind the door as she opens it. So I decide to go for plan B, which is to play the role of rough and ready workman – hopefully seduced by randy householder.
“Morning Madam. Sound system installation at your service. Right then, show the dog the bone.”
She gestures with a delicate hand towards a far corner, as the front door opens right into her living room. I carry my toolbox over and make as though examining the Japanese branded cardboard boxes piled there, although I’m aware of Renée’s fluid movements in closing the front door.
“Tea or coffee?” she asks, leaning against the kitchen door jamb in attempted nonchalance.
“Tea please. Any biscuits?” I know she has bought some specially, I saw them on the kitchen counter as I passed.
Renée brings a big steaming mug of tea and some dark chocolate biscuits on a plate. I’m huddled over a pile of wiring at the rear of her television but I sense her within my personal space. As I straighten up to take the tea my back protests and I groan, a hand reaching for the ache. Like an old man.
“Don’t overdo it Ger. Jo won’t thank me if I send you back damaged, would she?”
Renée hands me the mug and puts the biscuits on the TV unit. Her blue jeans are painted-on tight and the T-shirt above them is too short to reach the waistband. A glimpse of flat stomach like an athlete and a navel that would hold a diamond. She pauses just long enough for me to catch a sense of musky warmth.
“This shouldn’t take too long. There might be some shouting and swearing though. Bad habit of mine when I’m doing DIY.”
“Well, shout away, I won’t disturb you. I’m going upstairs to get a shower, hope you don’t mind?”
Her grins disarms me, I’m all a-fluster.
I unpack the home theatre units from the box. Footsteps patter across the floor above. She’s light on her feet, walks on her toes like a ballerina, but these houses are so flimsy that I hear every move. I close my eyes and imagine that she has undressed, clothes on the bed. Then she pads over to the shower and switches it on. This fantastic creature is naked and getting soapy just a few feet above my head.
The tangle of wires and equipment on the floor looks like an insurmountable challenge and I feel a hot sweat building on my chest and back. I have to get this job done or she’ll finish up her shower and go out shopping or something. I spread the instructions out flat and look at the various components. Then, whilst scanning the room for likely spots to place the speakers, I see that there are already sockets installed in the four corners of the room. Either the builder or a previous occupant has ready-wired the place. That’s good news, but I don’t have all the necessary wires to use those sockets. So I’ll have to make a quick, temporary installation and come back another time with extra cables and connectors. That suits me fine.
I place the DVD unit in the TV cabinet and soon have everything connected, with the four speakers and the bass unit in makeshift positions around the room. Almost no shouting and swearing involved. The sound of the electric shower is still coming from upstairs. Just to test now with a DVD. I pick one at random, which turns out to be *Austin Powers – The Spy Who Shagged Me*, and place it in the unit. A fiddle with the remote control and the picture comes up on the TV. Then sound explodes from the speakers, causing me to shout in surprise. I had the volume up nearly full.
“Ger? Are you okay?” Renée’s voice calls down the stairs.
“Yep. It works. It works.” My heart is thumping.
“Can you do me a favour? Come up and get my towel, I forgot it. In the hot press, the big blue one, can you?”
“Sure, won’t be a second.”
I bound up the stairs and look for the hot press, or linen closet. There are five identical doors off the upstairs landing. One of them is ajar, presumably Renée’s bedroom. I find a box-room office, two guest rooms and a bathroom before finally locating the linen closet, grab a big, fluffy, light blue towel and stand uncertain by the open door.
“I have your towel,” I call through the crack.
“Thanks. Just, well, wait a minute will you?”
The door yields slowly with an agonizing creak as I push it a bit further open, hoping to catch a glimpse.
“Listen, Ger. Not being funny but would you cover your eyes when you hand me the towel?”
“Sure, no problem.”
I’m standing in her bedroom now and can smell the shower gel that she’s been using in the en-suite. Fruity and exotic.
THE RISE AND FALL OF GER MAYES is complete at 92,000 words