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NUALA NÍ CHONCHÚIR

 

 

 

Nuala Ní Chonchúir in Southword Journal

Nuala Ní Chonchúir is a short story writer, novelist and poet, born in Dublin in 1970 and living in Galway. Her third poetry collection The Juno Charm was published by Salmon Poetry in 2011. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in June 2012. Nuala’s story ‘Peach’, in Winter 2011/2012 issue of Prairie Schooner, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won the Jane Geske Award. www.nualanichonchuir.com

 

 

 

 

 

When I Go Down, Go Down with Me

 

 

 

Her husband’s breath blankets her lips; his hand rests on her stomach. This is an invitation; he has always been tentative. Can I do this? Máire wonders. The last person he slept with was the girl. Máire thinks ‘the girl’ but she is twenty-six, so a woman. But she looks young in that stupid way of twenty-somethings, even the clever onessort of slack-jawed and incredulous. No, she is the girl after all. Her husband props his shin across hers and groans; Máire realises that he is not awake and probably doesn’t know what he is doing. To him, at this moment, Máire’s body is the girl’s body: fresh, plump and yielding. She witnesses a flash of them together, the girl acrobatic despite her heft, straddling her husband and jigging. Jig-jig-jig.

Máire has never been unfaithful, not since they married, and before that it was just a stray kiss with her sister’s boyfriend. There was also the time at the swimming pool where a man had swum up to her and slipped himself into her bikini bottom and she had let him. She recognised him from the TV and now he is dead. But she hadn’t initiated that, so it doesn’t count. No, she has never betrayed her husband.

Except sometimes when they make love she thinks of other men; when they used to make love, that is. While her husband moved over her, she often thought of her friend’s father, the man whose eyes always seemed to be pressed on her, kneading her flesh. His tongue was thin and long, and she was fourteen again and compliant. Her firm buds under his palms. Not the heavy breasts she has now; breasts that fed her daughter and, before that, Brian. Her friend’s father was not easy to banish. He had, she feared, formed her with his stack of porn which was left, she now knows, for her and his daughter to browse. Had that girl been safe in that house? Those magazines were packed with firm bodied, big haired youngsters, pink in all the right places, licking each other with one wrong-faced eye to the camera. Because they always had skewed faces those girls; porn seemed to attract the ugly-pretty.

Other times, as her husband explored her body, Máire found herself thinking of Brian’s friend. Not the handsome one, but the nerd with tender eyes. When he came to the house with Brian – after she had been thinking of him – she couldn’t look at the boy, as if he was complicit in the intimacy. Máire never talked to him those times, bar a hello, in case she blushed or, worse, touched him and set off something terrible.

Máire tries to be exemplary because her kids, like all kids, scrutinise everything she does. She has lapses, of course; no one can be perfect all the time. The children see the tipsy cigarettes she smokes at family parties and hate her for it. Her daughter stares at the fag in her hand, sucking the joy from the moment, so that the cigarette feels like a ridiculous prop. Which it is. Each sneaky smoke, Máire knows, is a small grab at youth or freedom or the past.

Her daughter, if she is honest, looks like somebody else’s daughter. Sinéad has black hair and eyes as pale as Achill marble.

‘How did you get so beautiful?’ Máire says, and the girl looks at her mother and shrugs. She hums with secrets, Máire’s daughter. But it is her son, Brian, who really counts; he is the one Máire loves the most of anyone.

 

Her husband opens his eyes and, when he sees he is draped across her, he snatches himself away and glares at Máire as if she lured him. He pauses, clouded with sleep.

‘Is it? What day?’ He swivels his head to squint at the alarm clock.

‘It’s half six. Too early to get up,’ she says and, in an instant, he is gone, eyes closed, face to the pillow.

It occurs to her that they don’t talk about anything anymore other than his situation; the wars convulsing the globe are not mentioned; the health of their elderly mothers; how the children are getting on at school. Every conversation concerns the girl and him. Him and the girl.

Máire knows that she is not the kind of woman that men fancy; she is dour looking a lot of the time, a thing she cannot help. God or DNA arranged her face in a way that makes people think she is always sad. That one kiss she shared with her sister’s chap might have lead to more because he, unlike other men, found something attractive in Máire. His eyes lingered on her face, daring her to hold his stare, and his smile was always receptive when he saw hera smile that lasted longer than was comfortable for Máire. They kissed once in the ladies loo of a pub and that was it.

The man from the telly had a big cock, which was lucky – or unlucky? – it wouldn’t have fit inside Máire’s bikini bottom otherwise. He stuck it in and rooted a bit while dabbing at her breasts and staring into her eyes; then he swam away. It was all done in a minute or so, and was as perfunctory as a stranger stopping to pet your dog. Or something. Dead now; a car crash for one. Oh well, she thinks. She had always liked the industrial silver of his hair.

 

The affair is a secret but Máire tells her sister. Tríona’s kitchen is hot and Máire pulls at the neck of her T-shirt and looks out at Tríona’s nodding rose bushes.

‘It’s all hush-fucking-hush, of course’, Máire says. ‘Until he decides what he’s going to do. He begged me not to tell the kids.’

‘Who is she?’

‘The PR girl at Whelan’s. She’s twenty-six. And dough-cheeked, like someone newly pregnant.’ Máire prods at her own cheeks.

‘She’s not pregnant, is she?’

‘Well, she’s a bit of a pudding, so it would be hard to tell.’

Tríona tuts; she doesn’t approve of fat people. ‘And it’s definitely over?’

‘He says it is but he doesn’t seem to know what he wants.’

‘And you?’ Tríona says. ‘What do you want?’

‘Well, part of me would like to go asleep and never wake up. Other times I want to clatter him on the jaw with the iron, for being so fucking head-meltingly inconsiderate.’

Tríona flicks the switch on the kettle. ‘I wouldn’t mind only I was always jealous of you two. You were so together. Unassailable.’

‘I keep that fact strong in my mind. What else can I do?’

Máire doesn’t tell Tríona that her husband wants to go on with the affair as much as he wants to be forgiven, or that she sees him smile when he mentions the girl’s name. The smile is involuntary like a wave that ripples in the wake of a boat. And she doesn’t mention the Chinese lantern her husband and the girl sent skyward together either.

They lit and let it off from the Millennium Bridge. He looked so genuinely moved by the relating of this story that Máire was shocked into a trance of listening. She submitted to the charm of the scene: the two lovers on a bridge; the red lantern glowing and floating; river gushing, revellers rushing. Her husband’s voice rolled over her and his dripping tears even kindled a sort of pity in her.

The girl invented this romantic interlude; the modern version of pinning hope to a rag tree with a scapular or hair ribbon; some innocent, personal object to make one of two. Maybe Máire underestimated the girl’s power. She was clever to use a ritual to settle herself under his skin; her husband was a man for rituals. Yes, how smart the girl was, how young.

‘She has a PhD’, her husband said.

Máire hooshed herself back from her thoughts and stared at him. Why was he telling her this stuff exactly? Oh yes, it was part of the regret. The affair was over – he had finished it – and he was sad and confused. Doing the right thing did not sit as well as he hoped. Máire was amazed at his capacity for ignorance, for selfishness, for causing hurt.

‘Educated’, Máire said. ‘Well.’

Tríona clinks teacups and saucers, lays out a feast of scones and jam. Máire can see that her sister is biting back the bulk of her annoyance. There is a lot she could say.

‘The age of him; he’d want to cop onto himself’, Tríona says eventually, pouring tea.

‘He has copped on. He will.’ Máire heaps sugar onto her spoon. ‘She’s from Donegal you know’, she says glumly.

‘Oh. That accent.’ Tríona sits and stares at Máire, discussion stalled.

 

Máire has found herself, lately, jealous of young people. It is not that she is old – fifty is not old nowadays – but she feels grumpy about the accomplishments of the younger women she sees, about their confidence. Those prodigiously able seventeen-year-olds who turn up on TV talent shows. How do they manage to accumulate all that perfection over such a short time span? What are their parents doing that has eluded her? Máire acknowledges her children as undistinguished, though a little extraordinary in their own way, maybe, just because they are hers. But they are not publicly successful, not point-in-the-street beautiful like the kids on TV, with their quirky faces and amazing voices.

            The jealousy of course is about more than talentit’s about money. These youngsters have so much money. She and her husband, though rarely poor, always seem to lag behind their friends, who can suddenly install a new kitchen, or fly to Australia for three weeks. The most expensive holiday they managed was a week in Corsica and Máire didn’t enjoy it; the kids were young then and they had left them with Tríona. Máire missed them viciously. And Corsica was hot, so cloyingly hot that they were too languid even to make love, so there was no extra closeness to toy with during the day; no anticipation of the night. It put her off foreign countries.

 

Máire sits in the kitchen, mulling over a conversation she had with Sinéad the night before. Her daughter is reactive, headstrong; she collects lame ducks and is always ready to fight for them. These days her father is her cause.

            ‘Why are you so hard on daddy all the time?’ Sinéad said.

            ‘I don’t know what you mean.’

            ‘He asked if you wanted to open a bottle and you snorted. That was your answerto snort like a pig.’

            ‘We’re going through a patch, Sinéad. Things are a bit hard but we’ll be grand.’

            ‘You could try to be nice to him; that would be a start.’

            ‘I’m as nice as I can be at the moment.’

            ‘Huh’, Sinéad said, and stalked off, infuriated, Máire knew, by her calm. If only Sinéad knew.

            We’ll be grand, Máire thinks, sweeping crumbs off the table into her hand then piling them back up. Sweep and pile; a hillock of crumbs to arrange and re-arrange; it could go on for a long time. We’ll be grand, grand, grand, she thinks. Of course we will.

Brian comes crashing through the back door with a face like thunder; he thumps the wall and screeches from deep in his throat.

            ‘Brian! Take it easy’, Máire says. ‘What’s wrong?’ She glances at the clock. ‘Why are you home?’

            ‘I didn’t go to school today, Mam, all right?’

            ‘Well, where did you go?’

            ‘Bray.’

            ‘Bray? I don’t get it. Why did you go there?’

            ‘I was on the hop, Mam, OK?’

            ‘Brian.’ Máire is genuinely surprised. Why is her son, of all people, mitching from school?

            ‘I saw dad there.’

            ‘Dad?’

            ‘In Bray. He was with someone. He was kissing the fucking face off her, Mam, in broad daylight. On the prom!’

            ‘Oh.’ Máire sits at the table and taps her fingers, like someone in need of a song. Brian stamps up the stairs to his room.

            This time her husband has poked a hole in the sacred memories of her heart. They had spent their honeymoon in Bray; two late bloomers giving love a go. The place had a lunar pull on themit was where they went, in sickness and in health, for anniversaries, for birthdays, and on outings with the children. Their honeymoon hotel still faced the bay, its paint ravaged from the wind but still friendly-looking, like a benevolent aunt. Welcome, it always seemed to say, welcome back; I remember you.

For Máire, Bray was the mile-long tip along the promenade; it was the cliff walk to Greystones, arms around each other; it was the shell-dappled trinket box he had bought her to hold her rings in at night; it was a paper twist of salty periwinkles poked from their shell with a pin; it was her first real taste of wine, her first real taste of him. It was kissing on the prom in broad daylight because they were married people and nothing or no one could stop them.

Máire wonders now if the Chinese lantern had actually been launched from Bray and not from a bridge over the Liffey as he’d said. She pictures it, the prom empty at dusk save the two of them, him and the girl; the fumble with matches; the lantern rising up above Dublin Bay, orange and light over the water. The hotel settled benignly behind them, approving, as always, of new beginnings.

They had sworn when they married that if one of them wanted out, the other would let them go easy. There would be no questions or recriminations; no weepy scenes. It was a bargain made in the giddiness of their early days when such a thing was unfathomable. No one would be leaving! Now she tries to remember if the pact was his idea not hers. How foolish we were, she thinks, to make a promise like that; how unrehearsed on the snares of love. No, I will not let him go easy, Máire thinks, I will not let him go at all.

Taking a bottle of wine from the rack and one glass, she sits in the kitchen and waits, wondering if she will do this kind of waiting again, or if this will be the last time. How do you right a toppled marriage? Get it back on its feet and teetering forwards like a splay-legged foal, newborn and unsure. Maybe, Máire thinks, the legs of this marriage are too gnarled and it will never be steady again. She uncorks the wine and pours. Around her the house sighs and creaks, then sighs again, answering itself back.

 

 

©2012 Nuala Ní Chonchúir

 

Author Links

Nuala Ní Chonchúir homepage

Grace Wells review in the Stinging Fly of the Juno Charm

Ní Chonchúir at New Island Press

 

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