Short Story: Don’t Meet Me at the Airport

The plane was descending. Rory felt that slight pull on the back of his skull, that snap, crackle and pop in his inner ear. His face was white. Anyone looking at him would have assumed that he was a bad flier, but it wasn’t that. He was worried.

He better not be there to meet me, was all he could think. He better not be there.

John, who was a tease and a taunter – he called himself and incorrigible slagger – had threatened on numerous occasions, and as recently as the night before, to pick him up from the airport.

“I’ll meet you in the arrivals hall and plant a big, wet kiss on you, ” his smiling voice said over the phone. “I’ll have a sign. WELCOME BACK RORY. Heart balloons. And a rainbow flag. The works. Hell, I might come in drag. Bring some of the boys.”

Rory knew that John was mostly all talk. It was one of the things he liked about him: he talked big, made lavish, elaborate plans, wove shimmering, improbable dreams. But, when push came to shove, he usually calmed down and took the sensible path. Usually. And it was usually Rory who did the talking down, the scaling back.

“The Voice of Reason speaks again,” John was wont to jokingly proclaim.

What worried Rory was that he had had very little opportunity to impress upon John the logic of his not turning up at the airport. To talk John out of one of his notions usually required firm and prolonged nagging, as John called it. They had only spoken a couple of times a week in the last month. And they were catching-up conversations, with very little room for nagging in between their bits of news (I met so-and-so in the Plaza Mayor the other day; I took mother to Galway this morning; it’s wild hot; it’s rained solid for five days). But Rory tried to slip in some nagging anyway.

It wasn’t that Rory wasn’t looking forward to seeing John. It had been almost six weeks. He missed him. He always missed his wild hair, strong back and shoulders and deep brown eyes when he was away. The hum of energy and possibility that accompanied John wherever he went enervated and lifted Rory. Its absence in his life was like a vitamin deficiency, making him feel slow and heavy and dull. Sometimes it was small things that got him: the whiff of John’s brand of aftershave from a passer-by, a song on the radio, a shade of peach or a pair of cuff links that would have set John off.

Rory always took six weeks’ holidays in the summer; had done so since his very first summer in Madrid almost twenty years ago. To get out of the heat of July and August which oppressed and disoriented him. Finding it impossible to sleep for more than a few turbulent hours, he woke up bothered and drained every morning, craving a freshness in the air that wouldn’t be there until mid-September. The heat made his thoughts and actions sluggish, his legs leaden. The very colour of the Madrid sky during those months – a watered-down blue tinged with sulphurous yellow from the pollution – instilled a dread in him.

“Turn on the bloody air conditioning!” John used to bawl at him, but Rory couldn’t conscience running it for more half an hour, not to mention through the night. It was an obscene waste of resources, in Rory’s opinion (that was the science teacher in him), not to mention expensive. He was sure John would have had the thing on full-time in his absence, something that would be confirmed when the electricity bill came. John probably had it running while he wasn’t even in the flat, with windows open, to boot. Trivialities such as electricity bills didn’t bother John.

Or cleaning and tidying. The flat was guaranteed to be in a mess when he arrived back. Not a cup washed or a floor swept or a shelf dusted in six weeks. The only thing John did around the house was the laundry, but that was partly out of selfishness and vanity. John wouldn’t be seen dead in a stale shirt or grubby trousers.

Rory wondered how John had been feeding himself in his absence.

Probably hasn’t eaten in for one single meal, he thought.

John was a good cook, but hated cooking for just himself. He also enjoyed, as did Rory but not to the same degree, the buzz of the summer terraces, with their eclectic mix of clientele – locals, tourists, young lovers, ancient retired couples, hippies and businessmen, scholarly types with piles of books, old ladies with yappy dogs – live music, and cold drinks. There was probably a path worn from their flat to various outdoor eateries in the Barrio de las Letras or La Latina.

John gingerly laid a hand on his belly and confirmed once more that he had put on weight over the holidays. Half a stone when he checked that morning on the old rusting scales in his mother’s bathroom, the faded red hand creeping up past twelve beneath the bubble of cracking and yellowed plastic. Mother’s cooking was just too good to resist. The stews, the fries for breakfast every morning, bacon and cabbage. Roast beef, carrots and parsnips and mashed potatoes on Sundays, stuffed pork, leg of lamb, soda bread, fairy cakes, scones, rhubarb tarts – the list went on and on. He’d have to go easy for a month or two to get the weight back down. Maybe walk to school a couple of mornings a week instead of taking the metro.

With the thought of going back to work, a nervous pang squeezed his stomach and darted up his chest, and Rory became annoyed with himself.

You’ll be fine, like you are every year. You’re at this game a long time now. It’s hardly your first year.

The pre-term jitters were almost an autonomic response, something his body had grown into the habit of doing since summers started to tail into autumns and he and his mother would go shopping for books, stationary, a new uniform and shoes in Galway city. On the bus back to their village his mother’s conversation would be all about Rory’s doing well that term. If he couldn’t be top of the class, then second or third would have to do, but . . .

Twenty years, he thought. Twenty years teaching. Twenty years in Madrid.

If you’d told his teenage self that his middle-aged self would be an established, successful science teacher at one of Madrid’s leading English-speaking private schools they would not have believed you. Even the Rory who graduated from University College Galway with his science degree and higher diploma in education would have been sceptical. He had no interest in Spain, Spanish culture or even travel as a young man. A job at a rural county Galway secondary school would have done him fine. And mother would have been so proud. But it was not to be. There was no work for a recently qualified science teacher in the early 90s. The country was coming out of recession alright but there was nothing for Rory. If he’d come from a better family, one with connections – a bishop for an uncle, or even a priest who would have been on the board of management of a school – but his mother was just a poor widow, scraping out survival in a council house on the edge of a village in the middle of nowhere. He hung on in there for a year, taking scraps of work here and there, until a friend he did the diploma with wrote to him from Madrid: “There’s plenty of work here for English teachers. They’re crying out for native speakers. And you’d like it here, if you know what I mean.”

Rory had deciphered the code easily enough. The underline hinted that being gay over there was not only possible, but fun. And so it turned out to be. Instead of slinking timidly around Galway’s tiny gay scene, one eye always open for neighbours or third cousins who might see you slipping in or out of a certain bar or club, he threw himself into Madrid’s gay universe, as he liked to call it. There was a whole district, Chueca, just off Gran Vía, which gay and lesbians had colonised and made their own and where you could be yourself. No looking over the shoulder or down at your feet. No sneering or mockery or abuse from strangers. Only acceptance.

Rory found that his story was common enough among Madrid’s ex-pat Irish, the majority of whom were also involved in the English teaching industry. He estimated that more than half the male English teachers were gay and a good percentage of the women lesbians who had fled the confines of conservative, repressed Ireland for the freedoms of post-Franco Spain. These formed a little sub-culture within a sub-culture and, over the years, as members came and went, the hardcore who remained became something resembling a family. They celebrated key dates together – birthdays, New Year’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, Eurovision – helped each other out finding work, pitched in during house moves, and threw parties and soirees for the group. He wouldn’t exaggerate the extent of the solidarity between them, but it was understood that if you were in a fix, something would be done to sort you out. They also adhered to one golden rule: no talk of anyone else to people from outside the group, especially people back home.

It was a constant worry of Rory’s that word would reach back home that he was gay. Although he had moved on so much from the secretive, almost hunted sexuality of his adolescence, he still could not bring himself to be out to his mother, relations, neighbours, pre-move acquaintances and friends. There was only a handful of people living in Ireland to whom he had revealed his sexuality prior to moving to Madrid and thank God that these had kept silent over the years.

He was still careful. He was not out in Madrid except to his circle of friends. For one, his students would make his life hell. They suspected, of course, and there were always mutterings and sly winks and nudges, which was the main reason why he avoided social media completely. A teacher was almost a public figure and prone to as much on-line rumourmongering, abuse and bullying as any Hollywood star or J-popper. Secondly, the Irish ex-pat community was, although large, tight-knit. And gossipy. No matter how much you avoided the Irish bars, Gaelic football matches, official embassy dos, and events such as St Patrick’s Day and Bloomsday, you invariably found yourself mixing with the community a few times a year. All it took was for Séamus, who’d been working for Zeneca in Arturio Soria for years and who had over-indulged in the free Murphy’s Red to point out Rory to Roisín, who was over on Erasmus and a daughter of Paddy and Bridge Mulvaney from down the road from his mother, and mention that he was from county Galway, a teacher and gay and that would be it. Word would travel back in Roisín’s next WhatsApp message and spread like wildfire through the village, eventually finding its way to his mother’s ear.

“Why don’t you just flippin’ tell her? Get it off your chest! Be a man!”

If Rory had a euro for every time an exasperated John had said that. And another euro for every time he had said it to himself.

He knew the answer to the question, though. Knew it all too well: shame.

It was ridiculous, absurd, nonsensical, pathetic – you could throw as many adjectives at is as you liked – but Rory was ashamed to come out. Shame was at the root of years of smiling wanly at relations’ “when are you going to settle down?” probings, of reading books on trains and planes which were carefully concealed behind the dust covers of other books, of sketching a false life in letters and phone calls to his mother, of leading her around a straight mirror image of the city on her annual visit over in April (before the weather got too hot), of leading her up the garden path on marriage and grandchildren and the works – of lying. There was a shame in his heart about who he was, and any amount of talking, therapy, workshops or self-help books would not shift it. It had been sown when he was still in the cradle, nourished through the years of his rearing and schooling, reinforced at every step through his young manhood and it could not be excised. At this stage, Rory accepted it as part of him. He saw his personality as a pie chart with one generous black slice labelled Shame.

“Come out and get it over with. It’ll be a catharsis,” John had urged him.

Rory didn’t believe in catharsis. And who would he come out to and where and when? He was an intensely shy person, hated drawing attention to himself, hated giving away intimate details. If he ever came out it would be flying in the face of another big slice of that pie chart. And if he came out only to his mother, she would be in on the secret, responsible now for hiding it from the rest of respectable Ireland, and his shame would seep into her like a brown smudge on the ceiling caused by a leaking pipe.

No: things would stay the way they were. And he would just get on with life.

Rory looked up from the chairback he had been seemingly studying and scanned the plane’s cabin. There were many familiar faces. The woman from the embassy with her ever-growing brood of loud and giddy children. He would swear that she had been on every flight he had ever taken between Madrid and Dublin for the last fifteen years, Christmas and summer. She was always either pregnant or holding a new-born. Her colleagues at the embassy were either delighted with her perpetual string of maternity leaves (Rory had found her overbearing and superficial in the few conversations they had had) or resentful at the extra workload these implied. There were numerous couples in their thirties and forties with one or two kids, the majority of whom were SWIMs (Spanish woman, Irish man), and the man of which he recognised from previous flights (the women, for Rory tended to blend into one another). There were a couple of young TEFL teachers who were friends of friends, with whom he might have had a drink as part of a large group at a mutual acquaintance’s going away party or the like. These teachers had a short life cycle: they did a few years in Madrid, taking in the nightlife, the food, the scenery and the culture, before returning to the rain of Ireland and regular, nine-to-five work. Only a few ever settled down in Madrid, either because they had found love or a move up the food chain in the English teaching industry.

Rory looked around for a priest or a nun. When he started flying to Spain, you were guaranteed to find a man or woman of the cloth on every flight, as if some government quota system was in operation. You could even find yourself on a flight where a couple of rows were occupied by novices, and with their bull-necked and watchful superior recumbent in business class. On this flight he failed to spot a single collar or veil. What there were plenty of, though, were pilgrims setting out for the Camino. They were instantly recognisable with their brand-new hiking boots, cargo pants and rucksacks which took up far too much space in the overhead baggage racks. The majority were retirees having a final go at finding themselves or, as his mother would say, making their souls.

They don’t know what they’re in for, Rory thought. The heat at this time of year! And the dust!

The pilot made an announcement for the cabin crew to take their seats.

Almost there.

Rory tried to catch a glimpse of the mountains around Madrid through the windows of the rows opposite him (he always chose an aisle seat for easy egress). He saw snippets of parched scrubland, the odd pine or broom breaking up the yellow and dun tones.

Chaparral.

He saw the first little scheme of chalets with their white walls and sparkling blue swimming pools.

Oh, the Madrileños and their chalets!

He wondered if he and John would ever own a chalet. That would be another step in him becoming almost completely Spanish. Instead of spending weekends in the sweltering city, from early May until late October he and John would pack up their little car and join the thousands of others escaping to the mountains. The traffic jams, Rory believed, were epic. A journey which would normally take you an hour could see you crawling up the highway for three, maybe four. He imagined John at the wheel, singing raucously along to the radio tuned to a station emitting the worst kind of flamenco pop and reggaeton, making cutting remarks at the appearance of the occupants of other cars and honking the horn for the sheer pleasure of it. Rory would be one part embarrassed and one part thrilled. They could buy a fixer-upper. Do it up themselves. The rows they would have over the décor! He could picture John with a roller in his hand, slapping some delicate shade of grey onto a wall. Rory would take care of the little garden. He would grow rhubarb, parsnips, turnips, gooseberries, blackberries – all the things he missed from home.

He blinked himself out of this latest reverie. They were now flying over the edges of the city. The four skyscrapers at the top of the Castellana looked like the fingers of a hand welcoming him home, with the nearby hospital of La Paz the thumb.

Oh, please don’t be there, John, he thought.

 

He found himself at the baggage carousel surrounded, ring-a-ring-a-rosy style, by the embassy lady’s children, who were playing some sort of game of tag. He had been on his own, texting his mother to let her know he had landed safely when, all of a sudden, he felt the breeze of them darting around him, and caught dark peeks of their darting movements in the corner of his eyes.

“Sorry,” said the embassy lady, setting herself up beside him, “they’re hyper. I think it’s the pressure. It does something to them. Once they get down on the ground and their ears pop, they go nuts.” She paused, acknowledging polite Rory’s smile with one of her own. She sighed. “Anyway, that’s the end of the holidays for another year. Back to the grindstone now. Jesus, is it ever worth it? Hauling them up on to a plane for a couple of weeks in the shaggin’ rain. Going up the walls at your folks’ place with nothing to do and only six TV channels. Thinking of things for them to do. Pony rides, Tayto Park, Seaworld. The zoo. Jesus. Then dragging them back on to another plane at the end of it all, more frazzled than when you left. And broke, to boot. I’m glad to be back, I’m telling you. I need the rest.”

Rory ended up feeling sorry for the woman and found himself waiting with her until her bags appeared and lifting them from the carousel on to a pair of trolleys he had rustled up. She had six pieces of bulging luggage. After placing his own modestly sized case on top of the trolley that he took, he led the way towards the arrivals hall, with one of her eldest kids, a bony girl of perhaps eleven, struggling with the other trolley directly behind, and the embassy lady marshalling the other kids at the rear. He had to pause several times to allow the others catch up and make sure the little convoy stayed together in the busy baggage hall. By the time they had snaked through customs and passed beyond the double automatic doors into the arrivals hall, he was too frazzled to be worried about John being there. The kid had clunked him a couple of times in the heels with the trolley she was barely managing, and Rory was sore and certain he was bleeding. She hadn’t even noticed what she had done, not to mind said sorry.

He found a spot beyond the seating area where they could regroup and plan their next move – finding a taxi large enough to take the family and their luggage home. Rory didn’t know where to find such a taxi – he always took the metro home – but the embassy lady had “done this millions of times. There’s a special queue outside Terminal 1 for minivans. I’ll lead the way.”

Their party went outside, and Rory was knocked back by the heat. Even though it was almost nine o’ clock it must have been over thirty-five degrees. The woman lit up a cigarette and they followed its scent along the perimeter of the long terminal until they reached the noisy and bustling area reserved for taxi pickups.

“We just wait by the little kiosk over there until the next minivan thingy comes and we’re sorted. Shouldn’t be long.”

Rory nodded. He was sweating and his arms ached from pushing the heavy trolley. His fellow trolley-pusher looked as fresh as a daisy – and did not have aching heels.

“I’ll stay with you,” he said. “Help you with the bags.”

“Ah there’s no need. The taxi driver’ll do that. You toddle off.”

“Sure?”

“Sure. Thanks for your help. You’ve been fantastic. See you at Christmas!”

 

Rory was glad to be back in the air-conditioned terminal. He’d gone to the bathroom, where he’d checked his heels (only scuffed, no broken skin) and splashed cold water on his face. Now he was on his way to the metro station at the far end of the airport. With any luck he’d be sitting in a carriage in ten minutes and home in half an hour. He checked his shirt pocket once more for his rail card as he stepped off a moving walkway.

It was then when he heard a voice behind him say: “Hey, handsome – wait up.”

He turned around and saw John’s beaming face.

“I was so intrigued by that little scene of domesticity, I didn’t want to interrupt,” said John. “So I spied on you from afar.”

“That was my good deed of the day.”

“And there was I thinking you’d a secret family.”

Rory laughed at the ridiculousness of it. He did a quick mental calculation: it was fifteen, no twenty minutes, since the bags had come out. More than half an hour since they’d landed. There’d be no one from the flight left in the airport. It was safe. He held out his arms, inviting John into a hug and, as the two of them embraced, said “I’m glad you came.”

Posted in Fiction, Madrid, Short Stories, Spain | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sandals and Socks

I saw my first sandals- and sock-wearing specimen of the summer season last weekend. It made me groan and smile at the same time.

It’s not a good look, the aul’ sandals and socks (S’n’S). Sandals are worn to keep your feet cool. Socks are to keep them warm. So . . . why? Isn’t it a bit like turning on the central heating and the air conditioning? Doesn’t one cancel the other out?

I severely doubt if the S’n’S brigade are worried about this great paradox of our times. Or fashion. The men (because they’re always men!) who sport S’n’S are well beyond caring about fashion. At their stage in life (late middle- to old-age) it’s all about comfort. You want your feet to breathe – hence the airy, lacuna-filled footwear – but you don’t want your little tootsies to catch a draft, which is where the insulation represented by the comfort mix (80% cotton, 20% acrylic) socks comes in. For the over 50s male, drafts are up there with prostate cancer and cholesterol on the scale of health worries.

The sandals in question are usually leather and of the “sensible” variety: none of your sporty abominations, chunky hiking gear or trendy beach sandals, thank you very much. Absolutely nothing that looks like it could be worn by a footballer swaggering off a team bus. Many sandals sported by the S’n’S brigade have been chosen by the wife*. As have the socks, which are never hipsterish, and at their most flamboyant may display “tasteful” and demur braiding. In fact, the whole of the S’n’S man’s “look” has been chosen by the wife, from the pastel sweater that comes down nicely over his pot belly, to the matching summer slacks, which boast the precise amount of linen content to allow the legs to breath while not creasing up, even in the wake of the most humid of sea breezes.

The S’n’S look is the source of much mirth in Mediterranean countries, which see hordes of Northern European men descend upon their beach resorts each summer and where the S’n’S is augmented by another s – shorts. Not only are us Northern European men boorish, overweight, red-faced and generally unattractive and slightly pathetic as we toddle around half-delirious from the sun and heat and half-cut from the cheap sangria – we also have no fashion sense. You can see the Spanish, Italians and French pointing bemusedly, and with that grating sense of Latin superiority, at poolsides and beaches packed with beer-bellied, bare-legged, sunburnt S’n’S men. You catch snippets of the lingo: ridículo, horrendo, abominable . . .

I would make the case, though, that Latin men of a certain age have no reason to feel superior to their Northern European counterparts. And my case rests on three words: loafers without socks (LWS). You see them when you go abroad – swarthy men with shiny, sleek-backed hair, pot bellies every bit as ripe and drum-tight as those of their Northern European components, Miami Vice suits, lots of jewellery and loafers without socks. Eek. The loafers are tight-fitting but airy, dotted all over as they are with tiny holes. Sometimes the holes are fancy stars or diamonds. Eek. Mediterranean Man is more adventurous with colour. His loafers can be any shade on the spectrum. Variations of burgundy, rust and olive are especially favoured. Once more: eek.

The S’n’S and LWS demonstrate the principle of convergent evolution – where nature arrives at the same design through different processes in two different ecosystems. Both modes of footwear aim to achieve the same goal of maintaining the foot cool, but not too cool (those drafts are deadly, you know!). There’s also an element of concealment at work in both cases. Only the young and beautiful have presentable feet. What could be worse than a septuagenarian in S’n’S, after all? A septuagenarian in flip-flops – corns and bunions on view for all to see.

 

*Unless the S’n’S wearer happens to be a priest. Members of the clergy are disproportionally represented among the S’n’S brigade. Wearing sandals makes them feel closer to Jesus, probably the most celebrated sandal wearer of all time.

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The Hand-me-down Kid

I’ve been experiencing extremely vivid dreams lately. It might be the time of year, or the lockdown birdsong, or just the lockdown . . .

The other night I awoke from a dream in which I was wearing a T-shirt which was one of my staples throughout my late teenage/early adulthood years. Perhaps for five years I wore it a couple of times every month until it got too raggy – even for me! The T-shirt was a shade of purple that a boy wouldn’t feel off wearing, dipping its toes as it did in manly indigo. It was round-necked and had three wooden buttons, the top one of which I liked to suck when I was reading or studying. The fabric was coarse – a type of ribbed cotton. Very cool in summer. It was very 90s. When I wore it, I felt like the lead guitarist of one of my favourite shoegaze bands, or Billy Corgan. You could have imagined Kurt Cobain wearing something similar. The most important quality of the T-shirt was that it was a hand-me-down.

Which got me thinking: a heck of a lot of my childhood clothes were hand-me-downs. I am the youngest of two brothers. He is three years older than me and has always been four to six inches taller and maybe a foot wider. Whatever clothes got handed down would be at least three years out of date (and possibly more until I grew into them) and stretched for shoulders and hips far broader than mine would ever be. Everything I got was dated, sloppily loose, and not my look. I rarely remember getting anything with that “wow” factor, nothing that made me feel good putting it on. Nothing that you’d want to parade in front of your friends or girls you wanted to impress. But, no matter how much I wanted to set fire to my brother’s castoffs, resistance, as the expression goes, was futile. Money was tight. It was either accept being the hand-me-down kid or become the short-leg-and-sleeve kid. Clothes were far more expensive relative to income than they are now. You just didn’t go up town buying new outfits all the time. Maybe for Christmas, Easter and the summer, but that was it.

The hand-me-down experience was therefore unpleasant. Until, that is, shoegaze and grunge came along. All of a sudden, in the new decade of the 90s, English bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Slowdive, and American bands such as Nirvana and Pavement appeared on the scene wearing sloppy jumpers, oversized lumberjack shirts, tops with sleeves that came down long past their wrists and T-shirts that hung off them and arrived down past the knees. Anything that looked like it had been pawned off on you by a much larger older brother was suddenly in fashion. You could imagine my delight. Suddenly it was OK to be me and there was a group of teens all around the world with whom I could feel a bond – something very important for a small-town misfit.

I look at my own daughters now, separated by a couple of years. The eldest is much broader than the younger one, just like when I was a kid. They are way more fashion conscious than I ever was as a young teen. How is the whole hand-me-down thing with them? To begin with, there’s much less of a need for it: clothes are cheaper. The choice is better than it ever was. With internet shopping, a literal world of fashion is available to them. On top of this, they have a wide extended family on my partner’s side by whom they get showered with presents of clothes. The girls also buy clothes with their own money – something I would never have done at thirteen years of age if there was a Cure album or a Douglas Adams book to spend my money on. All of this adds up to the fact that their use of hand-me-downs is strictly optional. If girl B likes one of girl A’s old tops or sweatshirts, she’ll wear it – if not, it is cast aside. The grunge look has yet to make a return, but if it ever does, I imagine the clothes will be purchased on-line or from Bershka, H&M or, lord help us, Primark.

Posted in Childhood, Life | Tagged | Leave a comment

Come Hell or High Water, Chapter 16 of 16: The Longest Day

I’m nearly too tired to kill myself, I think, and erupt into a wave of giggles and sniggers. I can see each convulsion of breath adding to the fuzz of condensation on the car’s windscreen. The whiskey fumes (with strong peat overtones) bounce back at me from the glass and I begin to laugh again. I am tipsy, although I have only had about two shots of my airport-bought Jura.

All I feel like doing now is falling asleep.

It’s been a long day. I hadn’t taken into account how tiring travel can be. For a man in my condition the trekking through the airport, the flight and the driving have been exhausting. I have been parked on this shore for over an hour. Resting, mainly. It is the first beach I have come across after driving north west out of Glasgow in my bottom-of-the-range rented car. The strand has a satisfyingly Gaelic name Barnacarry — Bàrr na Carraigh, the top of the rock.

I decide to have a cigarette. Being the polite, considerate and house-trained man that I am, I exit the car to do so, although it is not the most pleasant of nights to be outside. It is lashing rain, a bone-freezing, malicious rain. The thermometer on the car told me earlier on that it was four degrees. I’m sure the temperature has dropped since then. The wind, from the north, is so strong that I am forced to retreat into the car to light up. Looking down onto the beach I see an angry sea. The waves, tall as a man, crash into the sand and make a rumbling that fills me with fear. I curse the supermoon for giving me ample light to contemplate my fate.

I don’t fancy wading into that sea, although the ultimate effect of my doing so will be the same even if the North Channel were as calm and inviting as a Bahaman lagoon. Each swollen drop of icy rain that hits my head as I suck on my soggy Marlboro tells me how Arctic my final moments will be. My exhausted body is rejecting the idea of hardship that squelching across the sand and struggling through the freezing waves presents. All it craves now is warmth and sleep.

My body is chickening out on me.

And there you have it.

I wish I had brought a hose — one I could attach to the exhaust pipe and lead into the car to carry the fumes from the engine to me. That would be a comfortable death. Warm, easeful, painless. It is the pain I am fearing right now. The shock of the icy wet, being tossed about by those giant waves, banged against a sandy and possibly rocky bottom. It will be like a tumble drier in there in the midst of those waves. I wish I had thought this through some more.

I need to get drunker, I think to myself.

Back in the car, I turn the engine on and put the blower up to full blast. I haven’t had the engine on up until now because of the daylight running lights. There is no way to turn them off when the engine is going. Before, I was worried about drawing attention to myself from passing motorists or across the bay, but having been stopped in the beach’s little car park for almost an hour now and only having seen a handful of cars pass I am not worried by this anymore.

The windows begin to unfog and the chill to leave my legs and arms. I put the blower down to a level where I can hear the radio. I scan for music channels. Surprisingly, I find the Irish station to which I am a regular listener.

Sure, we’re only a few miles from Ireland here.

My favourite night-time music show is on and I am oddly comforted by the familiar songs and the pleasant humour of the DJ. I put the chair into lounging position, kick off my shoes, and swig away on my whiskey. I could be back in one of the bedsits I lived in before meeting Shell. After a while I am beginning to have a good time. I join in singing the songs I know and like and even find myself air-drumming and head-banging. I am almost immune to the cold and wet the next time I step out for a cigarette and my mindset is far more positive on the old walking-into-the-sea front.

I’m nearly ready, I say to myself.

Mirroring my own uplifting of spirits, the rain is even beginning to ease off. The high-wattage moon allows me to pick out features in what is clearly a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. There are high cliffs facing me, about a mile to the other side of the bay. One village nestles to the right of these, another to the left. The twinkling of street and house lights allows me to follow the coast’s contour either side of Barnacarry strand. There are deep gashes in the mainly low line of the shore — estuaries, and coves I would guess — and dark stains inland where no light dances. These are woods.

I feel a connection with this littoral. It may be the smell of seaweed, heather and sand dunes reminding me of summers spent in the Gaelteacht. Or the rasping and sucking of the waves. Or seeing so many Gaelic place names that I could make sense of on the drive from Glasgow. Or maybe the shape of the place just pleases me. All I know is that I’ve chosen a good place to die.

At least it’s not some sweltering, stinky hospital ward.

I have three cigarettes left. I decide that I will smoke the pack and then do the necessary.

Like a condemned man.

I’ve downed a third of the bottle of whiskey. I’m wobbly when I go out for my third-last cigarette and have the hungries when I get back into the car. Luckily, I’ve thought of everything. From a petrol station outside Glasgow where I stopped off for a piss and provisions there sits in the back seat a plastic bag full of Mars bars, mints, crisps and the like. There is even a Scottish version of the breakfast roll stuffed with square sausage and a couple of other oddities. This is what I go for now.

I feel even better about the world with a full belly. My fit of the willies of earlier on is fully banished. Dutch courage! I grow reflective. I wonder what Shell and girls are doing right now. Shell is probably out of her mind with worry at my disappearance, but has hidden this so successfully from the girls that they have gone to bed thinking I’ll be in the door any minute. The fact that my phone has been left on the kitchen table and my car is in the driveway will have set alarm bell ringing in her. She has probably phoned friends and work colleagues to see am I with them and grown even more concerned upon learning that no one has news of me. There is one man who could give her a lead — Sergeant Psych. After dropping the girls home this afternoon he would have stuck around until Shell arrived home from work. She surely would have quizzed him regarding my no-show and the phone on the table and the car on the driveway, and he surely would have had his suspicions. The question is: would he have shared these with Shell? Would he have spilled the beans on my cancer and decision not to treat it? I have never doubted Sergeant Psyche’s discretion, but today his tomb-like silence with the outside world vis à vis my condition and attitude to death may have been broken. He would have felt compassion for Shell and concern for me.

I continue lashing into the whiskey. I sit with my eyes closed now, feeling the music and thinking. Thinking. My thoughts are not maudlin. I have had months to get all that out of my system. Since I suspected I might be dying I’ve done all the reflecting on my childhood and remembering my passed-away loved ones that one could care to do. I’ve given me and Shell’s relationship a forensic analysis. I’ve let loving thoughts linger over my daughters, spent hours going through baby and toddler photos (mainly at work!). In this car, minutes from death I think of silly, small things such as who is playing bass in the current song being played. Or I think happily of summertime; digging in the warm soil and planting trays of herbaceous border plants. I think of great gardens I’ve visited — Garnish Island, the Monet Foundation in Giverny. Kew. In my mind’s eye I walk the pathways of these places appreciating and learning from how the pros combine colours, shapes, sizes and texture. I can smell the magnolia, the dianthus, laburnum. Sweet, rich perfume. I rub my hand along barks, rough, smooth, spongy, unyielding. I see Edinburgh’s giant heather beds. Dublin’s arbutus. New York’s planes. Madrid’s black pines.

All of a sudden there is a knock at window. When I open my eyes I am blinded by light. I am frightened and confused — have I died already? — until I realise that someone is shining a torch in my face. The knock comes again. It is reassuringly gentle, so my fear abates somewhat and I roll down my window. The person holding the torch directs its beam of light on themselves, revealing from the waist up a late-middle-aged police man, a sergeant in fact. He has a soft, kind face, the nose and cheeks of a whiskey drinker and wears an expression of curious concern as he addresses me in the kind of burr Mel Gibson would have died for.

“May I ask you, sir, what you’re doing parked here of an evening?”

“Drinking whiskey and listening to music,” I answer.

I imagine he’d figured that out for himself. He may have been watching me for quite a while. I don’t know how long it is since I last opened my eyes.

“Have you been driving under the influence?” he then asks.

“No, um officer,” I say. “I drove up here from Glasgow this evening. Parked up and cracked open this fine bottle of Jura.”

I wiggle the bottle at him: exhibit A.

“You’ve had quite a few drams,” he wryly observes. “Are you intending to drive in the state you’re in?”

“Oh, no,” I assure him. “I’m here for the night.”

He doesn’t answer, seems to be mulling over what to ask me or what to do next, so I fill the air with babble.

“I’m here for the night, alright. Chilling out. Listening to some sounds. Having whiskey. Having the odd cigarette. I’ll be off to sleep soon.”

“You’re not from here, by you accent,” he says.

“Irish,” I tell him. “Over for a wee trip. Checking out the scenery. Having some whiskey.”

“And you’ve no accommodation booked?”

“The thing was spur-of-the-moment. But don’t worry. I’m grand sleeping out here. Just for one night it won’t hurt.”

There is another long silence from the sergeant. I get the notion to have a cigarette. Not to startle him, I give him warning of my intention.

“By all means,” he says. “Step out and have a cigarette.”

I cork the whiskey, stand it in the holder intended for less intoxicating drinks and, because I suspect I am quite drunk, step out of the car as gingerly as an old man with dodgy hips. It has stopped raining, lo and behold, and the wind has died down sufficiently for me to be able to light my cigarette. I offer the sergeant the remaining cigarette in the pack, something which will spoil my plan of having a last smoke before wading into the waves, but he refuses.

“Not while on duty,” he answers.

I scuttle as steadily as I can to my usual position at the front of the car, plant my bum on the wet bonnet and puff away into the raging waters of the North Channel. My lips are stinging from the peated whiskey’s phenols and the cigarette smoke arrives to my taste buds with more than a hint of turf. I am reminded of my boyhood, spent on rugs beside peat-burning hearths. I remember the heat of the brickwork around the fireplace of my childhood home and how Tayto bags would shrivel to doll-sized versions of themselves if placed in a corner of the firebox away from the flame. My brothers and I would often try to rescue the bags before they withered away to nothing and we would proudly present them to our sisters. Barbie or Ken could then be fed crisps! I remember the epic battles involving Star Wars figures that my brothers and cousins choreographed in the dancing light of the fire. The fireplace was often used as a prop in these conflicts, with various units of goodies or baddies deployed to the mantelpiece or hearth. I still feel the horror with which we all watched as an AT-AT commander fell from his perch and landed face down in the hottest part of the fire. Even though my older brother was lightening quick in rescuing him with the tongs, the commander’s grey uniform had singed black and the poor man’s face was a disfigured freak show of bubbled and melted plastic. My alarm was all the worse because it was I who had set up the commander, and because it belonged to my cousin. Even though my brothers and I tried to convince him that the fire damage enhanced the commander’s appearance, telling him that the figure was now authentically and uniquely “battle damaged”, my cousin demanded compensation. After a lot of horse trading, we swapped, so that the AT-AT commander became ours at the cost of a rebel soldier in Hoth battle gear.

When I look away from the sea and over to the sergeant, who has accompanied me to my perch I am mightily confused. He is now not a police officer, but Sergeant Psych.

“How did you do that?” I ask him.

“Do what?” he says.

“Know that I was going to be here?”

“I saw the lights from across the water. There’s usually not a soul out on these roads in this kind of weather.”

“What’ll you tell Shell and the kids?” I ask.

“Shell is your wife?”

“I don’t know anymore. You know that. I’ve bent your ear about that enough.”

“She doesn’t know you’re over here?”

“Nope. It’s been all Walter Mitty stuff. From start to finish. From the fags, to the cancer to this.”

I’m starting to feel very strange. To be sure, to be sure, I took a fistful of Doctor Trendy’s opiate mind bombs, perhaps half an hour ago. Between them and the Jura I am having something like a waking out-of-body experience. I gaze up at the supermoon, which, now that there is no rain to obscure it, seems to shine with a greater intensity than Sergeant Psych’s torch. Except when I turn to look at Sergeant Psych it is no longer him, but Ruth.

“Jesus,” I say. “Ye’ve all followed me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Come on, Ruth,” I say slowly. “I’m not that drunk. I’m not slurring that badly. Listen up!”

“Is that Irish you’re speaking?” she says.

I look across at her. She’s wearing her yoga pants and a tight, black singlet I’ve seen her in a couple of times. Her bottom looks great squooshed up against my wee car’s radiator, and the smooth, white skin of her shoulders glows in the moonlight.

“Jesus, you’re a fine looking woman,” I say.

“I think we need to get you somewhere safe,” she says.

I begin to regret my drunken frankness. I shouldn’t have let her know how I feel about her. Everything will change between us now.

“I’ll be back in a tick,” she says.

I watch her perfect bottom bounce as she walks to her car, which is parked beside mine. I’m confused.

How the fuck did Ruth drive here?

And then I remember she doesn’t have a car. Or did Sergeant Psych drive her here. But how? Did they take the ferry. And where is he now?

My cigarette is suddenly not in my hand anymore. I open the box and take out the last Marlboro.

“Last one,” I shout back to Ruth, as I showily scrunch up the box and let it fall to the gravel beneath my feet.

“Litterbug,” I call myself.

I light up and lower myself down onto the beach, taking the little boat ramp. Down on the sand, the crashing sound thrown out by the waves is much more intense. I feel the sound viscerally, like the bass drum of a marching band. I go right up to the frothing water’s edge. The foam seems lit from within, giving out its own light, independent of the supermoon above. I scoop up some in my free hand and bring it up to my face to study it.

Mousse de limón,” I say in my best French accent.

I let the foam slide onto the sand and begin to walk along the water’s edge. It is suddenly important for me not to be seen by Ruth or Sergeant Psyche. They mustn’t know what I am about to do. I hurry into the shadows, away from the beams of light behind me that rival that of the supermoon. A minute or two later, taking a puff of my half-smoked cigarette, I stop and squint back at the parking lot. I see a shape outlined against my little rental. It’s not Ruth or Sergeant Psyche: it’s the policeman they’ve brought with them. He’s shining his torch this way and that. Its beam, limp and dull, zigzags around on the sand below the cars. It won’t penetrate to as far off as I am, but I keep walking anyway.

But he’ll see the light from your fag, an inner voice tells me. Cup your cigarette or he’ll be able to follow it.

I cradle my cigarette in my hand like a behind-the-bicycle-shed teenage smoker and continue my journey up the beach. After three or four more puffs there remains only filter, which I flick into the water.

“Litterbug,” I call myself again.

“Now, it’s D-day,” I say to myself after staring out to see for a moment. “It’s time to save Private Ryan!”

The water is shockingly cold against my shins. Soberingly so.

“Oh my God!” I say to no one in particular.

Even in less than a foot of water I can feel the pull and push of the tide, like there are invisible hands under the turbulent water snatching at my ankles. I walk in to above my knees and stand taking stock. For how long I don’t know. Time has stopped meaning anything since the combination of Jura and painkillers has taken hold. The cold of the North Channel is seeping into my bones. My teeth chatter and all the muscles of my body begin to spasm. I turn my head towards the parking lot. I do not see the shape of a man against the cars’ headlights, nor the flashlight’s bouncing beam. I wonder where everyone is.

As I wade out to waist depth I wonder how Sergeant Psych and Ruth got to Barnacarry. How did they know I was coming here? How, if they followed me on the flight, did I not see them? How did I not get the sense of being followed driving out from Glasgow? Or when I stopped at the petrol station? Did I imagine their presence up there in the car park? Were they hallucinations?

Were Ruth and Sergeant Psych real to begin with?

The waves are now pummelling me. Even planting my heels in the pliant sand, I find it hard to stand up. I know that if I go out any further, I’ll be knocked over.

I shoulder myself forward. I am now entirely soaked. The assault of the waves against my chest sends water flying over my head. I cannot describe how cold I am.

“Cold as the tomb,” I shout, and laugh.

I see light play on the waves around me. It must be the policeman — or Ruth or Sergeant Psych or whoever it really is — searching the water for me. I don’t want to turn around to look: any move now and I’ll lose my footing. And that will be it. And I’m not quite ready for it. I inch forward with exquisite care until it’s only the tops of my shoulders and head that remain above the waves. I’m struggling to stay on my feet now. I look up at the moon, over at the cliffs, at the lights around the little bay. This is it.

It’s time to close my eyes and lift my feet from the bottom. I am tossed and buffeted, and my initial reaction is terror. I flap and flail my frozen limbs and I imagine I cry out. But then a calmness overcomes me. I ignore the sensation of being pulled and whirled like a rag doll, forget about whether I am above or under the waves, close to the shore or irretrievably far out. I squeeze my eyes shut and enter a dreamlike state. The numbness from the icy wet is now almost a pleasant glow, the pains that have been nagging away at me for the last few weeks gone, and all the troubled thoughts that have been flitting through my mind are banished. There’s just comforting, weightless black.

After an age, I feel gentle hands on my cheeks and I open my eyes. I am deep underwater, closer to the sea bed than the surface. But despite this, it is as bright as day down here. The supermoon beams through the turbid water above, scattering its generous, lambent light on a floor which looks like the finest garden I have ever visited. The wracks and sea grasses, of every colour from crimson to fluorescent green, shimmy and weave in the current. There are flower-like structures that draw the eye, as mysterious and beautiful as orchids. It is a dense and lush canopy down here, wild, but not disordered. I feel I am somewhere good. Fertile, beneficent. Right.

And it is Shell who is down here with me. Shell who is cradling my face in her soft hands and smiling at me with all the love I have ever known to come from her. I try to form words to tell her how beautiful this place is, how beautiful she is, how much I love her, but it is like my lips are stitched together. So I just return her smile and hold her to me tightly.

When I close my eyes again, the light of the supermoon burns through my eyelids.

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Come Hell or High Water, Chapter 15 of 16: The Last Supper

To write notes or not to write notes, that is the question. I am very tempted to pen an explanation/exculpation/vindication of my actions to my nearest and dearest and pop them in the post when I land in Glasgow. But it’s just not very me. In spite of the fact that what I intend to do tomorrow is impregnated, electroplated and modified-atmosphere packaged with drama, I have never been one of those people who likes drawing attention to himself or enjoys the spotlight. But, but, but . . . after I am gone I don’t want certain people thinking the worst of me. Although they probably will anyway.

“He just upped and left to Scotland and topped himself,” they might say. “Just went nuts. Just lost it.”

Or: “Selfish prick. Left his family in the lurch. Two young girls who needed their father. Coward.”

So, who’s in for a note? Who’s on my macabre mailing list? Shell and the girls, of course. Might Sergeant Psych and Ruth get a note? Perhaps. After her performance (or lack thereof) the other night I am beginning to think Ruth doesn’t deserve one. But maybe just to put her reading skills in Irish to the test I may pen her a few wee lines.

I’m going to tell them all the same thing, essentially. I’ll water the language down for the girls, naturally. Sanitise and simplify. But the message will be this: I was diagnosed with cancer; the odds were it wasn’t treatable; I didn’t want to put myself or those around me through needless suffering; so I hung on in there for a few months saying goodbye to people and places in my own way; and then walked into the sea in Scotland.

I will tell the girls that I love them and that I am sure they will turn out to be wonderful adults. I will not tell them that I will be watching over them as they make their way through life, or that my spirit will be present every time they see they a starling or a robin. I refuse to put mawkish tripe in my notes. I will go easy on giving them advice. I will tell them to find something they love doing and attempt to make a living from it. To maintain the closeness they have now. To love big, keep their friends close. Find a real community to live in. And drink lots of water and use sunscreen.

I will tell Shell the truth about how our saw our relationship. That I used to love her with the strength and single-mindedness of a Kerry Blue terrier, but that the fire went out over the years. I will not put the guilts on her. The loss of ardour was as much down to my weakening grip on passion, vitality, enthusiasm and energy as the changes brought about in her by maturing into a serious, ambitious and responsible adult. I will express regrets that we could not keep our relationship in that place where it seemed we couldn’t live without one another, couldn’t spend a moment apart, and spent hours every day exploring each other’s bodies and minds. I will tell her to go and enjoy life, forget about me. I will not tell her that I know about Bit O’Rough.

My note to Sergeant Psych will consist of a short thank you. For steadying my ship during these past weeks. For giving me perspective, strength, wisdom. And friendship. I will tell him I enjoyed his company, his stories, his attitude to life. I will tell him I admire his cheerful grit and his taking of life’s hardships on the chin.

 

My last night at home is a curious affair — from my vantage point. The other members of the family no doubt consider it a normal school night and will do so until they begin to pick over details of it from the perspective of knowing what they will know in a few days.

I collect the girls, with Sergeant Psych as chauffeur. After getting them a snack upon arrival at home they set about doing their homework. The radio plays, set as always to a pop music station, while they pencil answers into workbooks or compose little paragraphs in answer to questions. I owe my familiarity with the hits of the day to this hour or so, with Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, Sia, Ed Sheeran and all the rest of them forming the soundtrack while I prepare our evening meal. I have elected to cook one of the girls’ favourites this evening — tortellini. As I roll and cut the dough, an expression of my father’s comes to mind: it is far from tortellini I was reared. This is true. I did not even know what tortellini were until midway through college, when I picked them almost at random from a menu at an expensive Italian restaurant I had gone to with a girl I was trying to impress. I got a liking for them and, later on when I began to cook, learned to make them so that they became part of the regular dozen or so staple meals in our household.

I open a good bottle of wine to mark the evening that’s in it. Just as with whiskey, I have been collecting a stock of wine to be opened on special occasions. Under the stairs, at the very back, deliberately out of easy reach, where the upright plank of the first stair rises from the concrete, and far, far away from temptation, there nestles perhaps the best part of a thousand euro worth of Ribera del Dueros, Riojas, Corton-Charlemange and the like. I crawl past shoes and shopping bags and long-forgotten toys and shine a torch over the dusty labels. Some of the bottles have been under here for ten years. There are a handful of Grand Reservas from each of the years of the girls’ births, which are intended to be opened on occasions such as their eighteenth or twenty-first birthdays. I choose a wine which is not among these — a Teso la Monja Toro. Bull’s blood. Somehow apt.

I try to time the meal for Shell’s arrival. Most days there is a round or two of text tennis at this time of the evening. She gives me advance warning that she may be late. I answer OK. She will then tell me that she has fifteen minutes to go — she’s just finishing such and such an account. I send her a thumbs-up. She tells me when she’s leaving. I send her another thumbs-up. I might then get a message alerting me to the fact that she’s stuck in traffic or that she’s had to drop someone home or pull in for petrol, to which I might send another OK. At this stage, having timed the meal for her appearance in ten minutes’ I will start to take things off the heat; she won’t be in for another twenty perhaps. Sometimes, Shell being delayed will mean soggy broccoli or crumbly potatoes or slightly leathery Cajun chicken. Or a father who has had a couple of glasses of wine too many as he says to himself “what the hell” looking out the window into a rain-soaked garden.

Tortellini are easy in this regard. After closing the dough around the filling, they require only ten minutes in boiling water before they are ready to eat. I won’t put them on until Shell is in the door.

After the Toro has breathed for twenty minutes I pour myself a glass and mooch between the kitchen and sitting room. The girls are stuck in one of their Disney series. I might as well be a ghost. A couple of sips into the glass, I am dying for a cigarette. I decide to take the risk and have a couple of sneaky puffs out the back. It is a clear night, extremely cold. My exhalations fill the garden while I study the almost full supermoon that is rising to the south east. The radio and newspapers have been dripping with pieces explaining the phenomenon, but I have not been interested until now. The moon is indeed huge. Ripe. Swollen. It will be full tomorrow night. Its light will witness my last moments on earth.

Shell arrives home, just a little later than usual, and kisses each of the girls on the forehead, not that they notice. They are engrossed in a programme called Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir, about a pair of teenage superheroes who wear garish skintight costumes as they battle an evil so incompetent that each episode is guaranteed to end in their victory. There is no kiss for me; Shell bustles out of her shoes and coat and rushes upstairs to our bathroom. Kiss and piss; that’s her routine when she lands home.

When she has relieved herself she comes into the kitchen, sees the open bottle of wine and pours herself a glass, something that is out of character for her. She usually likes to keep a clear head for the few hours’ work she will be doing after we eat.

“I need this,” she says to me after her first sip. “It’s been a rough day.”

I nod comprehendingly. She puckers up her mouth a little.

“It’s strong,” she says. “Harsh. What is this?”

She picks up the bottle and studies the label.

“It’s from Lidl,” I lie. “Plonk. I wouldn’t get it again.”

Shell knows very little about wine. It is one of the few topics she defers to me on. In company she will even make a big show of insisting that I pick the wine for the table. This embarrasses me: it was also far from wine that I was reared! She picks an olive from the bowl I have laid out on the table and then takes another sip.

“Actually, It’s not that bad with an olive. Masks the flavour.”

I am loving the wine. Well worth the small fortune it cost. It has everything one would want in a Toro: body, intensity, hints of berry, jasmine and liquorice.

Shell tells me all about her day while I cook the tortellini. Standing close by, facing me, backside against the kitchen counter, in her comfy home socks and taking the odd sip of Toro, it feels a bit like the old days. Normally she would be studiously answering emails or paying bills on-line; doing anything but sharing her news with me. The details of her complaints wash over me. She is having some tussle with a government body concerning a tender her company lost and the whole thing is threatening to become legal. I make sympathetic sounds at regular intervals as she spills her frustration over the steaming pot.

“If everybody did their jobs,” she says. “This would never have happened. We’re in this position because of incompetent government pen-pushers.”

This is a theme that runs through Shell’s conversation. Incompetence and lack of commitment and hard work are responsible for much of the woes of the business world — indeed the world in general. I would never make it with Shell as my boss. My lackadaisical attitude, the going through the motions that has characterised my last ten years at work, would have me on her hit list as fast as you could say “P45”. She regularly culls her “team”, ruthlessly firing those who she deems to be dead wood.

As I stir the tortellini I wonder what she talks to Bit O’Rough about. It is all business talk, as it mostly is with me these days, or does he bring out the human being in her? Does she talk about the biggies with him — her passions, her hopes and dreams, her thoughts on life?

Shell keeps up the chatter during the meal — my last supper. She brings the girls into the conversation, asking them about their days and their opinions on her “situation” at work. It is one of the liveliest meals we have had in a while. And it’s all down to her. In spite of her work worries, she is in great form; bubbly and funny. And it’s nothing to do with the wine. She is happy. Shell is happy! I study her as she smiles across at the girls, laughing at their little jokes or expressing shock at their gossip about teachers and classmates. Her eyes have a twinkle in them that has been missing for years. The mouth is turning up instead of down. Her smile tests the elasticity of her foundation (which does not crack, by the way). Bit O’Rough has made her happy. Perhaps she is even in love with him. More than ever, I feel like I will be doing her a favour by stepping out of the way tomorrow.

Shell surprises me even more by pouring herself a second glass of wine while we tidy up. She’s still all talk. Even turns the radio on to an oldies station. And hums along while she bounces from the table to the fridge and back. I ask her what’s come over her, a gentle feeler.

“Oh, nothing,” she says. “Just happy and relaxed for a change, I suppose.”

“That’s great, Shell. I’m happy for you. I really am.”

 

I tuck the girls into bed for what will be the last time. The older one, who takes after me in being a bookworm, will read for a half an hour after this. The younger one will be asleep before I reach the bottom stair. I debate with myself whether to give them a little speech or not. My note to them covers everything I wish to say, but . . . I am finding this moment hard. I kiss them on the forehead and tell them I love them — something I regularly do anyway — and linger at the door for a while looking at them. Their bodies seem so tiny and fragile in the reading lamp’s wan light. Long shadows are cast on the soft cheeks I have kissed a million times, the hair that smells so sweet and pure, the duvet-covered curves and lumps and bumps that I know as intimately as the hummocks and dips in my garden. The love between the three parties in the room is unconditional and will endure all the travails of existence, even death. They will still love me after my death, however angry or confused they may be, and, more importantly, will continue loving one another, no matter what silly rows crop up between them. Holding back tears, I tell them to look after each other no matter what. They don’t answer.

I am astounded when I arrive back down to the sitting room: Shell is neither on her laptop nor phone. When I express this surprise she tells me that she is taking a break tonight.

“I’ve done enough today. I just want to chill out. I think I deserve to put my feet up once in a blue moon.”

“Never a truer word spoken,” I reply.

We watch TV together — together — for the first time in an age. There is conversation, mainly comments on the current affairs programme we have chosen to watch. Nothing spectacular or earth-shattering, but not the usual stony silence that hangs over the sitting room of an evening. There is even laughter from Shell’s armchair and we finish the bottle of wine off between us. She has been so different this evening that I am having pangs of conscience about some of the things I have written in my note to her. And, indeed, I am mulling over whether to postpone tomorrow’s date with the waves.

Don’t be weak, I tell myself. You’ve got to go through with your plan.

I study Shell slyly as she watches the TV. She has that tipsy look — eyebrows slightly raised, squinty eyes, goofy half-grin — and perhaps because of this looks more like the young woman I fell in love than she has for a while. I wonder how Bit O’Rough sees her, not having known the woman she was, just judging her on her present self. I have a go at putting myself in his shoes.

He sees a woman who is very together. Tough. Independent. No-nonsense. Successful. And not bad-looking for her age. Leggy, thin, a thick head of hair. She can talk at any level. Her job has brought out that skill. She can do small talk with secretaries and delivery boys. The faux-profound water-cooler stuff with equals and superiors. The Sunday Business Post bullshit at staff dos, family get-togethers and weddings. All that superficial plámás that is necessary for one to be considered good company. I’m sure, not matter what Bit O’Rough is — tortured sculptor, craft brewer or drain cleaner — she can pull out some sort of genuine-sounding conversation to keep the man interested and entertained. She’s obviously showing a bit of her long-buried wild side with the man: the mid-morning drinking and sex. He must see her as fun.

The whole package isn’t bad, really, whether the man cuckolding me is in it for the sex and free whiskey or love.

It is a pity that the new Shell isn’t enough for me, or me for her. But that’s all water under the bridge now.

 

When the credits flash up Shell announces that she’s off to bed.

“Me too,” I say, and these are the final words I say to my wife on our last night together.

I take our wine glasses to the kitchen and rinse them out. When I go upstairs Shell is performing her ablutions in the en-suite. I change into my pyjamas and when she emerges I perform my own. She is asleep by the time I have finished. I land a final kiss on her cheeks and go to sleep myself.

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