Short Fiction ~ Brian Kirk
One of them always calls when I’m busy. Either I’m in the bath or sitting down to a supper of smoked mackerel and brown bread when the phone bursts into life. From the moment I answer I can tell that they want to ring off. I often consider telling them it’s okay – I’m okay – that I feel the same, but I never do. They would be horrified, as much by my lack of maternal feeling as by the knowledge that I fully understand their haste to end the conversation.
‘How are you, Mom?’ they ask.
‘Fine. I’m fine,’ I say.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, I’m sure.’
‘I just worry about you, that’s all. Off on your own, miles away from everyone you know.’
‘I like being on my own.’
‘And anyway, I’m not always on my own; I have friends here too.’
‘But it’s not the same since you moved.’
‘Of course, it’s the same. I’m just further away.’
But I don’t mind the phone calls too much – they never last long. And I always make it easy for them to extricate themselves: I have something in the oven, there’s someone at the door, my show is starting on TV. To be honest, I don’t watch much TV at all. Once – just for mischief – I kept my son, Jamie, on the phone when I knew he was in a hurry to be somewhere else.
‘I suppose I should go, let you get on with things…’ he said.
‘How are the kids?’
‘Oh, same as usual, wrecking everything they touch. Anyway, it’s late, so…’
‘You know who phoned me last week?’
‘Go on, guess!’
‘We could be here all night, Mom. Just tell me.’
‘You’re no fun at all, Jamie!’
‘Sorry, Mom. Was it Breda?’
‘Breda! Your old friend who showed up at Dad’s funeral.’
‘No, not her! Anyway, she’s not a friend of mine.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘She was more a friend of your father’s.’
I knew Jamie was processing the import of that information. I sensed he wanted to ask me more about her, but he resisted the impulse. I should have put his mind at rest, I suppose. Derek wasn’t one to have affairs, but there was no doubt he enjoyed female attention.
‘Well who then? Please tell me?’
‘Am I keeping you from something, Jamie? You don’t have a few spare minutes to spend chatting with your old mother?’
He laughed, but I could hear embarrassed anxiety in his voice when he finally replied.
‘You’re not old, Mom.’
‘Ah, here we go! Flattery will get you everywhere – you learned that from your father too.’
There was a muffled noise on the line then.
‘Sorry, Mom, I have to go. Jutta’s at yoga and the kids are climbing up the walls – literally. I’ll call you at the weekend, okay?’
He hung up before I could answer.
Perhaps it was more malice than mischief on my part on that occasion – I can be like that sometimes. It’s so easy to summon guilt, to make them feel that it is they who have abandoned me when it’s actually the other way around. Anyway, I never got to tell him about Martin, Derek’s work colleague, who called the other week. His daughter lives a half an hour away and we met for lunch in the village to catch up. I like him. He’s natural with me. We talked easily about our lives, about ourselves. Derek’s name didn’t come up.
Jamie and Rebecca don’t understand why I moved here. They worry that I’ve made my life more difficult than it needs to be, separated myself from a network of friends and a supportive community. They know very little about my life, while I know all about theirs. It would have suited them, of course, if I’d stayed in the suburban family home, close enough to allow quick visits that would keep their minds at rest and their guilt assuaged. But no, I had to come here, to a secluded cottage three hour’s drive from the city where they live, work and study.
Rebecca is completing her Masters. She doesn’t drive, but her girlfriend Paula does. She thinks that I don’t know about them, and that I wouldn’t understand if I did. It is a characteristic of certain young people that they cannot imagine that older people were young once. Jamie married straight after college and has twins with his German wife, Jutta. He is something in software development and she works for a PR company. The twins, a boy and a girl of around 18 months, are permitted to see them at prescribed times in the day in the manner of royalty. I shouldn’t sneer, I know. To be honest I admire Jutta. She resents the time Jamie wastes coming to visit me and I agree with her and constantly encourage him to use his limited free time to attend to his parental duties.
It’s funny, when I was young, time was the one thing I had in abundance. After Derek and I married, my degree barely achieved, I stopped looking for work and spent huge swathes of time in my own company. We were living in London then, and the world seemed different and full of possibility. It afforded me countless opportunities to read and dream while he was out at work. I walked the city with my camera and took photos of people and places. I didn’t know what I was doing, but Derek was indulgent if not exactly encouraging. It never came to anything and I mislaid those stacks of photographs over the years.
Within months of moving back to Dublin I was pregnant with Jamie and then the dreaming stopped. The real world crowded in around me. I lost something then, but I don’t regret it. How could I? I missed the freedom of those days before the children came, of course. I look at Jamie and Jutta now, and I pity them. I know Jamie would not approve of me saying it, but I think everyone should have some free time in their lives. Perhaps that’s what I’m doing now, attempting to get that back, to get back to myself.
I walk the roads regardless of the weather and talk to anyone I meet. I cook every evening and drink a glass of wine or two each day. I’ve recently begun to smoke again, a filthy habit I gave up with great difficulty when I was carrying Jamie, but those two or three cigarettes every day, in the evening, after dinner, are like a ceremony or celebration at the end of the day.
In recent weeks, Martin’s calls have become more regular. I no longer wince when the phone buzzes on the countertop. I have to make an effort to hide my disappointment when it’s Jamie or Rebecca on the line. With Martin I am happy to stay chatting for ages and he seems equally relaxed. When I hang up, I realise that I am smiling. I sit in the conservatory, which sounds much more impressive that it actually is, and I light up a cigarette.
‘Can I see you?’ he asks.
‘I don’t know, can you?’ I say.
‘You know what I mean,’ he says. ‘Could I visit, maybe we could go out for a drink or a bite to eat.’
‘Are you asking me on a date?’ I say, knowing that my question is superfluous. He is asking me on a date. I realise that I am flirting.
‘We could call it a date, if you like,’ he says.
‘It’s a date then,’ I say.
We went on like that for ages, to and fro, swapping meaningless phrases like moon-eyed teenagers. I felt weightless, overcome by a sense of great freedom from everything, after we hung up. It was so casual and so heartfelt at the same time.
The first time Martin called to the house he brought his little grandson with him. The small boy poked around my cottage without paying much attention to me or his grandfather. I was dismayed, seeing the child as a kind of tether that Martin had brought with him to ensure he maintained a connection to his old life. I was finished with my old life; I wanted to be cut off from it and everything about it. I hoped he understood how I felt from our many conversations. I coaxed the neighbour’s cat with a tin of tuna and sent boy and cat out into the back garden to play together. I pulled a sally from the hedge and showed the boy how to taunt the animal with it, to trail it slowly through the grass at first, then pull it away before the angry paws could grasp it.
I left them to it and returned to where Martin waited in the living room sipping tea. I took the cup from his hand, placed it on a coaster on the coffee table, and leaned down until my lips touched his. His body shivered, from the cold I’d brought with me from the garden or the electricity that passed from me to him. He stood up awkwardly, our mouths still touching, and put his arms around me. I had a sense of his breathing becoming laboured; I felt his hands move to my breasts. The boy’s whining erupted like a siren then and we bustled out into the garden. He’d misplaced the sally and took to using his finger as a lure instead. A bright red bulb of blood oozed from the perfect line of the scar while the cat looked on impassively from the vantage of the garden wall.
Inside, after washing, disinfecting and much sobbing, the tears finally subsided. Of course, yes, of course, I understood. The child must come first and all that. Goodbye. Goodbye.
Next time we met in town on neutral turf. No child, thank God, but still no privacy. Polite chat over lunch and a drink in the hotel lobby followed by a walk up through the town’s main street, all charity shops and take-away restaurants still closed in the afternoon.
‘I’m not afraid of getting old,’ he announced as we walked past groups of uniformed kids on their way home from school.
‘And why would you be?’ I asked.
‘I just never thought about it when I was younger. About getting older. I’ll be sixty next month.’ He stopped and looked at me. He looked sixty, I thought.
‘Sixty is the new forty,’ I said. ‘You don’t look it at all,’ I lied.
‘What about me?’
‘Are you worried about getting older, now that you’re on your own?’
‘I’d be getting older, regardless of whether I’m alone or not,’ I said.
‘But you know what I mean?’ he said.
I thought about it for a moment.
‘No, I don’t know what you mean, Martin. I don’t mean to be evasive or anything but I’m happy the way I am now. The kids can’t understand it at all, but I thought you would.’
‘I do,’ he said after a moment. He looked very old just then, like he’d mislaid something that was just out of reach. ‘I do know what you mean,’ he said. ‘There’s great freedom in being solitary, only it doesn’t suit everybody.’
We walked on. I didn’t speak. I watched the girls from the secondary school, huddled in groups, laughing and talking, oblivious to their own startling vivacity.
‘I was never happy after my marriage ended,’ he confided. ‘I wasn’t happy before it ended either, mind you.’ He laughed quickly.
‘You have the children, and your grandson now,’ I said, not sure of the point I was making.
‘As I do too,’ I said.
We were back at his car by now and he looked at me before we got in.
‘I’m glad we met up like this, Anna.’ He laughed again. ‘I don’t mean here, for lunch today.’ He made a vague gesture, which could have indicated the street or the town or the whole wide world. ‘I mean, glad that we met up now, at this stage of our lives.’
I was mortified. To say such a thing! I didn’t know where to look or what to say.
That night when Rebecca phoned, I asked her about Paula. After a brief hesitation she told me they had moved in together and were planning a holiday for later in the summer after she handed in her thesis. Then I asked her about Jamie and Jutta and the kids, I wanted to know if they were happy. I could tell I was making her uncomfortable, so I let the conversation draw to a close. The next morning Jamie phoned before I’d even eaten breakfast.
‘Is everything okay, Mom?’
‘Yes, why wouldn’t it be?’
‘I just got off the phone with Becca and she said you sounded strange last night.’
‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘To be honest, Jamie, I’m more worried about you and Jutta and the kids.’
‘We’re fine, Mom.’
‘Are you sure? Because you married so young, and there’s nothing wrong with that I know, but the kids came very quickly. You never had much time for each other.’
‘Mom! We’re fine. It’s what we want, okay?’
‘Okay. If you say so.’
‘I do. I phoned to see if you were okay. I can come and visit Friday evening if that suits.’
‘There’s no need, son. I’m fine.’
‘Okay. Rebecca was worried about you, that’s all.’
‘Did she tell you what we talked about?’ I asked.
‘Well, no, not really. She just said you didn’t seem like yourself.’
I laughed quietly.
‘And who is that? My self?’ I asked. I regretted my words immediately.
‘Mom, I’m worried about you. I never wanted you to move away. Why don’t you come back? You can move in with us while you sell your place and we’ll find you a lovely home, a neat and compact place, an apartment maybe, near the city and beside the sea. The kids would love to see more of you. We all would.’
I didn’t say anything.
I ended the call then and turned off my phone.
That Friday Rebecca arrived with Paula in tow. It was like an official state visit from a country whose nations had been engaged in a cold war for some time.
‘This is Paula,’ Rebecca said stiffly.
Paula offered her hand, but I embraced her instead. She was small and compact and pretty with mid-length brown hair, blue eyes and a slightly upturned nose. She seemed nervous, but genuinely pleased to meet me.
‘Your house is beautiful, Mrs. Wall,’ she said.
‘Oh, call me Anna, please,’ I said.
I took her by the arm and showed her around the house and garden, realising as I did so that the place was falling apart. Rebecca followed silently in our wake. I had the impression of her sulking, as she sometimes did when she was a child, when she believed that Jamie had received preferential treatment.
Over dinner she was quiet while Paula and I chatted about music and books and places we’d visited on holiday. As it was getting late, I invited them to stay over, but Rebecca said she had to make an early start, so I didn’t press the matter. I imagined them driving home; Rebecca silent, Paula chatty, saying how lovely her mother was.
Martin called over again today and we went out in his car. We drove to the coast and walked the empty beach. The sea was almost still and the sky blue with spots of cloud. As we walked in silence, I watched the water shimmer. Far off boats crawled across the horizon and some twenty yards away a seal’s head rose out of the water. My immediate urge was to grab hold of Martin’s arm to show him, but I didn’t. I kept walking, watching the seal until he disappeared below the surface again. On the way back I scoured the water for sight of him, but he didn’t appear.
Later we visited an old Georgian house which is now a museum. I had no wish to see the inside of the house and so we went for a walk in the gardens instead. The weather was mild after recent rain and everything seemed to be growing and blossoming as it does at this time every year. Spring is always a surprise to me. I think my moods are led by the seasons, as is the case with a lot of people I suppose. In winter I shut down, close in on myself, hibernate and wait for the first shoots to emerge. The cherry blossoms were blowing in the late April breeze and the sun warmed my face as we walked side by side in the walled garden. There was the inevitable café so we had coffee and shared a slice of carrot cake.
‘You like living on your own then?’ Martin asked out of nowhere.
‘I don’t have much choice.’ I smiled to show that I didn’t mean to sound sorry for myself.
‘I suppose the kids would prefer if you lived nearer to them.’
‘Perhaps.’ I didn’t want to talk about them. ‘What about you?’ I asked.
‘Me?’ He looked surprised, as if no one ever asked his opinion on anything. ‘I’m used to being on my own. Don’t get me wrong, I love to see my daughter and grandson now and then, but I like going home also.’ He laughed lightly.
‘I’m still getting used to it, but I’m coming to realise that I enjoy my own company,’ I said.
‘I enjoy your company too,’ he said, looking me in the eye. He reached across the table and rested his hand on mine.
It was a harmless enough thing to say and do. A kind of flattery, or flirting I suppose, but the moment he said it, the moment I felt the weight of his heavy hand, I felt that he was no longer himself and I was no longer myself. We were acting out parts prepared for us; the lonely widow and the single man. I didn’t say anything, but I’m sure he must have noticed how the climate changed in an instant. Our day out was over. He dropped me home and I thanked him for a lovely day when he parked outside my house. I didn’t invite him in.
That night I ran a bath and left my book balanced on the window ledge within easy reach if I wanted to read while I soaked. I undressed in the low light of a table lamp. I took off the expensive underwear I’d chosen earlier and wondered had I really considered spending the night with Martin. Part of me yearned for intimacy, but I was happy to be alone now. I thought of Jamie and Jutta and how little time they had for each other and I thought of Becca and Paula, relieved that they had each other. I waited until the bath was almost full and then I put out all the lights and lowered myself into the fragrant water. I let the water cover me completely. The dark house disappeared into itself and I became the animal I am, something other than wife, widow, mother, lover.
Brian Kirk is a poet and short story writer from Dublin. His first poetry collection After The Fall was published by Salmon Poetry in 2017. His poem “Birthday” won the Listowel Writers’ Week Irish Poem of the Year at the An Post Irish Book Awards 2018. His short fiction chapbook It’s Not Me, It’s You won the inaugural Southword Fiction Chapbook competition and was published by Southword Editions in 2019. His novel for children The Rising Son was published in 2015 He blogs at www.briankirkwriter.com.