It was pure luck that Shell didn’t catch me that morning. But I certainly caught her! And boy was I surprised!
It had been a comfortingly unremarkable morning up until that point. No black out. Very little pain. Affect: middling to high. After the school run, and Sergeant Psych and I had enjoyed our customary cuppa chez moi, I decamped to the shed, where I was sorting out tins of varnish and paint and the like. Literally pottering about. Sergeant Psych had told me that he would take any bits and bobs off my hands to distribute among his network of DIY-ing OAPS and so I was testing each vessel for signs of having gone off. There’s nothing lower than giving away mouldy paint to the needy! It was coming up to eleven o’clock and I was thinking of having a cigarette, bun and cup of tea (washed down by Doctor Trendy’s legal opiates). For some reason, on the cobblestone path, midway between the shed and the patio door I took off my headphones and paused, having a listen and a look at my wintertime garden. My gaze may have lingered on some of my favourite specimens — the strawberry tree with its rugged whorls of red bark, the geometrically perfect Korean fir, gun-metal grey cones orthogonal to its branches, the myrtle whose leaves I regularly savour plucking in order to release that wonderful aroma — and I may have been caught smiling indulgently. These living things that I have nursed from sapling to flowering and fruiting tree, I sometimes feel something approaching a love for. I may have instinctively glanced around to check and see if the bird boxes and feeders were in need of replenishing. Or I may have just stopped to listen to the gentle birdsong from the hedgerow behind the rear boundary wall of the property. In that moment I was content, in that body-ticking-over, idle-minded kind of way that can silently steal up on anyone, anytime, anyplace — even on a man with terminal cancer who is more than halfway through his final few weeks on earth.
Then I heard a car pull into the driveway.
I recognised the engine as that of Shell’s. I scarpered — back down the garden path, into the shed — and pulled the door shut behind me. For a few moments I froze, thinking that I was on the brink of being rumbled.
Shell has come to the house on purpose, I thought. Someone tipped her off.
There was going to be an almighty confrontation and it would all come out. The secret life of Shane Ó Diomasaigh exposed! I’d be watched like a hawk for the rest of my days: no smoking, no Ruth, no slow pints with Sergeant Psyche. I’d be press-ganged into having chemo, forced into unwanted survival. The rest of my life lived in the dog house.
When I calmed down it entered my mind that perhaps Shell had come home for some innocent reason. She might have forgotten to bring a folder to work. Her memory stick might have slipped down behind the cushion of her chair. I began to think of how the house inside might be. Had I left any evidence of my secret life lying around? A surge of panic rose in me: had I left my fags on the countertop beside the kettle? I frisked myself, tapping with both hands the many pockets of my sleeveless fishing jacket in symmetrical sequence. I found them. Panic over. Was there anything else in the house out of place? The radio was off. The patio door was closed — but unlocked.
She may not discover this, I thought, if she’s just come home to get something she’s forgotten.
I slowly stood out of my crouch and gingerly approached the window that faces the house. Hanging back in the shadows, half stooping, controlling my breathing in a way I hadn’t done since hide and seek stopped being a thing in our household, I scanned the back windows for a blonde head of hair. After a time, the kitchen light plinked on and I saw Shell moving from the dining area to the sink. She opened the press where the goodies are stored: top shelf hard alcohol; bottom shelf crisps, popcorn, sweets, peanuts. She pulled out a bottle of whiskey. As I was attempting to discern exactly which whiskey (I have a small collection of single malts for special occasions), while also wondering what in the name of God Shell was doing drinking at that hour of the day (a marriage of secret drinkers — how hilarious!) I noticed that she was not alone. Into view appeared a man; about our own age, great mop of jaw-length, curly hair, sloppy knitted jumper. As Shell fixed the whiskey (it was my twelve-year-old Glenkinchie) he put his arms around her waist and nuzzled her neck. As opposed to if I tried this, she did not elbow him in the side, throw the Glenkinchie in his face or deal him a cheek-reddening slap. Au contraire, after handing the whiskey over and watching him take an appreciative sip, she pulled him into a long kiss with a lasciviousness I have not seen in her in many’s the long year.
At that moment I was probably the most shocked man hiding in a garden shed anywhere in the whole world. Shell was having an affair! Shell was sneaking out of work to have mid-morning liaisons with a rugged-looking type. Bowl me over with a feather! And far from being angry, I found the whole thing amusing. Shell, perfect Shell, too busy to give me even a peck on the cheek this morning as she comically high-heel sprinted to her car, was human after all. The ice queen still had passions bubbling away deep under the permafrost. I almost laughed aloud.
The man watched with a fuck-me face as Shell opened a bottle of chardonnay and poured herself a hefty enough glass. They toasted. All smiles and slanty eyes. I decided to join them. I rooted out a bottle of cut-price vodka from my stash (label removed and marked For The Azalia), poured a dollop into a handleless mug and drank to their health. Holding hands, they moved into the sitting room, of which I now had no view and where I imagine they began canoodling on the couch. I pulled up a venerable Fanta crate, left behind by the plasterers and which had served as stool and step since we moved into the house, sat myself down on it and prepared for a long wait.
Five minutes passed. Ten. There was no re-emergence into view of the amorous pair. They were either engaging in some serious foreplay on the couch, had decided to get down to business there and then, disturbingly using the family couch as a nuptial bed, or had moved operations upstairs via the sitting room’s far door. I very was tempted to sneak out of my hidey-hole, inch open the sliding door, stick my head into the kitchen and have a listen to what they were getting up to.
Were Bit O’Rough’s attentions getting any sound out of Shell? I wondered.
In our early days she was a screamer. After a night of lovemaking, my housemates would shoot knowing looks in my direction over breakfast and sometimes make a wry but half-admiring comment. Shell would scream “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” as she arrived towards climax and pull me closer and closer to her until she released that final, drawn-out, high-decibel blasphemy. J-e-s-u-s. Over the years the Jesuses grew quieter and quieter, especially when the kids came on the scene. Now, the odd time we get around to doing the bold thing, she shushes me as things build up a head of steam, fearful of the girls being woken.
I also wondered how they are doing it. Not out of jealously, but human interest. Along with volume, Shell’s sexual life has lost variety. Her foreplay has withered and contracted; imagination and zest are severely lacking. She has gone off oral sex, both as a giver and receiver. I am barely allowed to touch her “down there”. And she will rarely stomach anything but the missionary position these days.
Are she and Bit O’Rough engaging in Hollywood sex in there?
I was on my third shot of vodka and dying for a fag by the time I saw movement beyond the kitchen window. Bit O’Rough appeared at the sink and set about washing the whiskey tumbler and wine glass. He was dressed, thanks be to God, but when Shell emerged into view she was wearing nothing but a towel around her hair, as if recently out of the shower and allowing her body to air dry. This nudism was definitely a side of hers I hadn’t witnessed for a decade. In our early years there were whole weekends when we wouldn’t leave the house, and spent the entire time not wearing a stitch of clothing. This liberation from one of the symbols of civilization put each of our bodies in the front window for the other and meant that a spontaneous sexual act was on the cards at any time, even during the most mundane of domestic chores. Shell prancing around in front of Bit O’Rough was an invitation for him to admire her physique and take advantage of it whenever he wanted. It also showed how comfortable she felt in his presence. Whatever they had got up to away from my prying eyes was not merely some awkward, ashamèd fumblings.
I found myself feeling happy for Shell. She had found someone who brought her back to the old Shell. Someone who for an hour could make her forget about her high-octane job and her mission to have perfect kids, husband, house, car and all the rest of it. In a brotherly way I hoped the guy was not an asshole. I hoped he wasn’t into Shell just for the sex and free Glenkinchie. I prayed he was single, so that when I was gone she didn’t have to sneak around to get some loving. Maybe Bit O’Rough would be the perfect counterbalance for Shell’s controlling ways and materialism. He looked like a creative, outdoorsy type — a sculptor or a tree surgeon. A free spirit. He looked strong enough to tell her to go fuck herself when she started with the keeping-up-with-the-Jonses shit. A stronger man than me.
After he had dried the glasses and Shell left the room to get dressed, Bit O’Rough slid open the patio door, stepped outside and lit up a cigarette. My heart thumping, I ducked down below the level of the window and became all ears. I heard the slow, scraping of footsteps of a man surveying the scene as he took his time over his post-coital cigarette, to and fro and back again along the damp and puddled patio. But when I heard the crunching of his feet along the pebble path that wound around the garden and whose terminus was the shed I quaked.
What if the fucker decided to have a peek inside?
There was nowhere to hide in there. The footsteps grew closer. I could smell his smoke. I could hear him humming. A song I couldn’t place. Perhaps something by Tom Waits. Or maybe Duke Special.
Then Shell saved me.
“Ciarán,” she called, “come on. We’re leaving.”
“OK, honey bear,” he answered half sarcastically.
Bit O’Rough’s voice was deep and manly, and he had the accent of a countryman. As his boots clomped towards the patio door Shell warned him to dispose of his cigarette butt carefully.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll destroy the evidence!”
I did not see what he did with the butt. The first thing I did when I heard Shell’s car pull out of the driveway was light my own cigarette. Wobbly enough already from the vodka and the medication, the nicotine hit me like a hammer and I found myself stumbling over to plonk my backside on a nearby bench. I didn’t care that the bench’s surface was sodden, I just needed a stable centre in a spinning universe. When the dizziness passed I had myself another cigarette, which I this time enjoyed. Afterwards, I found that I had been locked out of the house. Shell or Bit O’Rough had locked the patio door. I let myself in using the spare key I have hidden under a stone in the rockery.
The living room smelt of sex. Upstairs the vapour from Shell’s shower had obliterated that particular aroma, but the mattress of our double bed was still warm from their bodies. At least there was no damp patch. Thank God for small mercies. I was sure that Shell had been very thorough in removing all traces of Bit O’Rough, but I nonetheless looked for long, dark hairs on the pillows and duvet. Nothing.
I wondered how often Shell enjoyed these little escapades. Once every two weeks? (I had been home for almost this period of time.) I would have to keep an ear out in future as I mooched about the house, be ready to scurry into hiding at the sound of a car’s engine powering down in the driveway. There was now an extra frisson of danger to my double life.