Authors: Christine Dwyer Hickey
âThey shook hands!'
âBut what did they look like?'
âWell, like people on the television. You know, all bright and confident and expecting everyone to be happy to see them. The mother looked older up close. The daughter younger. Serena is the mother's name. Patty the other.'
âThey only stayed a few minutes. Refused an offer of tea. They wanted to know if we could recommend a good doctor, a dentist, a dry cleaners. Then they wanted to know about the local facilities for teenagers. Facilities for teenagers? My mother's face! “I'm not sure what you mean by facilitiesâ¦?”
â“You know,” said the mother, “where they socialise? What there is for them to do?”
â“Socialise! To do? Well. I suppose, there's the stables, if she likes that sort of thing. And the Shillmans play tennis in a club somewhere. They drive there or take the bus. When Elaine is better, I'm thinking of sending her.”'
âReally?' Agatha asks.
âFirst I heard of it.'
âShe wants you to make new friends.'
âYou could come too.'
âI don't think so.'
âWhy not? Of course you couldâ'
âNever mind all that â get on with the story.'
âMy mother thought they'd never leave so she could get on the phone to Martha.'
â“I know you're probably going out, Martha,” she saidâ¦'
âWhen is Martha ever staying in?'
â“I won't keep you a minute. But guess what? You'll never guess what? They were here. Yes, yes, I'm telling you â came up the drive and knocked on the door. That's right. On the door. And, well, very nice actually. Not at all what I expected. She said, We just called to introduce ourselves. Yes, I know. It probably should have been the other way around. But well â wait till you hear this â this explains everything. They're from New York, Martha. Yesâ¦ yes, that's right.
. Well, that's just what I think â it all makes sense now, doesn't it.”'
Agatha sighs. âOh the relief!'
âYou could hear it in her voice. We could all rest easy in our beds now. These new people were't going to harm us. They weren't dangerous at all â they were from America, that's all.
. They simply couldn't help the way they were.'
Elaine's mother raps on the door. âDon't waste your youth on that phone,' she says.
âI'll just be a minute.'
âWe don't want you wearing yourself out â do we?'
âOh, for God's sake, I'll be a minute, I said!'
âYou know I'll be staying with the Shillmans again this weekend?' Agatha says as she brings her ear back to the phone.
âThe Shillmans? No, but why?'
âA colleague of Ted's is getting married or something.'
âBut you can stay here.'
âNo, it's fine.'
âReally, I can ask.'
âDon't, Elaine. Leave it.'
âBut why not? I'm sure if I askâ'
âYour mother doesn't like me.'
âThat isn't true! She does, I know she does. It'll be lonely for you. Rachel won't be home from school for another few weeks andâ'
âI'll be fine. I've stayed there a few times before, they're nice.'
âIsn't it odd staying there without her?'
âNo. It's fine. Really. I don't mind.'
âBut, Agatha â'
Her mother's face appears around the door, hissing a whisper through two big, red, furious cheeks.
âI'm not sure your father's going to approve of you being locked away in here with all those confidential papers.'
âI'm not touching anything and he won't care anyway.'
âReally? Well, he may have something to say when the phone bill arrives.'
âNo, he won't. He won't say a word. He never says a word. About
I'M REALLY MISSING MY
The compact silence as I draw near to the city when the streets seem that much closer, the sky that much lower and it feels like I'm wandering through the empty rooms of some vast interior space.
I miss the whiff of danger on the night air, the unidentifiable shadows â is that a tree or a man in the distance? Is that a nun's body floating downriver or a billowing length of riverweed?
I miss the way the sounds in my head are gradually softened by the beat of my footsteps. And the sense that I am the one in control somehow.
The dog beside me, toddling along; squirting, squatting, sniffing: undemanding and yet very much alive. I miss moving with him through the various shifts of darkness.
But â by order of the vet â the dog needs to take it easy now.
Exercise should be gentle; damp and cold, at all costs, avoided.
âHe's an old guy,' was how he put it, as he chucked the dog under his silvering chin, âand us old guys, we need to take it handy â don't we, fella, hey? Don't we now, don't we?'
The dog, I believe, is relieved.
I hear him plodding up and down the stairs at intervals, or taking a turn about the hall and in and out of the downstairs rooms. If Lynette leaves my father's door ajar, he'll step in for a moment, sniff around for a bit but won't loiter. It seems the dog prefers me to my father and I can't help being pleased by this and then a little uneasy: it's as if the dog is me, somehow, and I have turned into my mother.
He stands outside my bedroom door, noses it open and shyly peeps in. If I'm lying on the bed reading, he comes over and studies my face. If I'm sitting in the dining room watching television, he lies at my feet for a while before getting up, pottering around then heading to the door, where he sends me a last backward glance. He is telling me how the life of an old dog should be: a waddle around a warm house; a little tour of the back garden whenever he goes out for a wizz; a dozen short naps in the daytime. After that, a long night of sleep, uninterrupted. On a fine day,
a stroll as far as the shops or around the estate â instead of all this being dragged around in the dark and the cold at two in the morning: night-walking for fuck's sake â I mean
âI get it,' I tell him, âyou're an old guy and all that.'
It's been almost two weeks but I know he still sleeps in dread of my step on the stair, the icy shiver of his chain in my hand.
It was something we did for a while when we were kids, sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and wander around the estate like ghosts on the edge of the world. My idea, as I recall: the one adventurous streak in an otherwise cautious nature. Rachel, myself, Brendie Caudwell occasionally, although she whined so much we tended to leave her out. The boys now and then. And Agatha. Until Agatha fell in love and stopped coming out. She claimed it was too tiring for her, but the truth was she wanted to wait by her window for the tap of his coin, or his keys, or whatever it was that he used to announce himself.
Mostly these nights were uneventful â eventful nights would come later with the arrival of Patty. Although, once, we did meet Maggie Arlow. She was on her way home from a horsey function and had abandoned her car a few miles back. The road kept rising to meet her, she said â even when driving with one eye shut. She had no shoes on; her dress had split at the side; her face was scuffed with mascara. She linked me on one side, Paul on the other. She kept rubbing the side of her face on his shoulder like a cat and saying, âI tell you, if I was ten years younger, or you were ten years older.' Once she got mixed up and said it the other way around. âI tell you, if you were ten years youngerâ¦'
Rachel was furious, snapping at Maggie before stomping off â âHe'd be a seven-year-old, then, and you'd be an even bigger, drunker, more disgusting pervert than you already are.'
I wanted to go home with Rachel that night â I was already scared enough of Maggie when she was sober. But Agatha had tugged on my sleeve three times, which was the signal to say she really,
wanted to stay and so that's what we did.
Maggie invited us into her house. Dog hair and cat hair all over the chintzy sofas. A week's worth of rancid ashes piled in the fire grate. Limp rosettes pinned to the wall and a shelf of tarnished cups and trophies. A photograph of a woman dressed in old-fashioned riding gear, sitting side-saddle on a big bay horse. âMy mother,' Maggie said, raising her glass to the photograph, âwherever the fuck she may be.'
She gave us musty sherry which I pretended to sip before pouring mine into Paul's glass. Maggie began telling a funny story, could hardly get it out she was laughing that much. Her hands shielding her face. They were all laughing then, except me. Laugh, I kept telling myself, for God's sake, why can't you just
Through the gap in Maggie's hands, I could see her grimaced mouth.
It was Fat Carmel who put the night-walking idea back in my head, a fortnight or so of sleepless nights after I first came back here.
There had been a funeral service earlier that day. A woman who lived in the cul-de-sac â âYou must have known her surely?' Carmel seemed surprised, even irked, when I'd said no.
You'd never set eyes on her in daylight, Carmel went on to explain, âIt was like she could only see in the dark. She would go walking all hours, in all weathers â you had to wonder if she'd been quite right in the head.'
From the flat above the shop, Carmel had often seen her setting
off, this woman and her dog, just as she herself had been going to bed after a late night of stocktaking or cooking the books. And there'd even been times when, lifting the early newspapers from the pavement, she'd actually spotted the woman returning from her rambles, as if the poor creature had actually walked through the night. âAlways she wore a scarf on her head and carried a stick. The dog â a border collie. Put you in mind of the queen, she would, the whole shape and make of her. Although not so much toward the end, the flesh walked off herself: a skin-and-bone scarecrow and not much else really. Surely you know who I mean?' Carmel had almost implored.
I said â âShe probably moved here after I left. In which case I wouldn't have known her.'
But no, she was an old-timer, Carmel was certain. âYou could always tell the old-timers,' she said, ânever
ude exactly, but then again never overly friendly; more closed into themselves â don't you see?'
I said â âI haven't a clue who you mean.'
It was, of course, Karl's mother, Mrs Donegan. Mrs Donegan pounding the highways and byways. Mrs Donegan, year after year, mile after mile, trying to walk the poison out of her system.
And so, I simply substituted myself and my dog for Mrs Donegan and hers and, for a while, these night walks â until the vet ordered otherwise â were to become the best part of my life.
An Indian summer. The dog had seemed fit enough then, still up for the distance, although this may have had something to do with the little red pills I'd been told to mix into his dinner â steroids, I would later discover.
Each night we would leave by the back road, avoiding the village and the sentry box that was Carmel's first-floor window, and walk down into the neighbouring village, there joining the river shortly after it skulks out of Arlows' land. We stuck to the tow path, walking until my legs grew heavy, my mind light and my sense of awareness at once blunted and strangely heightened. This was the sensation I was after. It made me forget myself â who I was or where I had been. I was somebody else now: somebody young, more carefree and maybe even cared for.
On the way back I often found myself nursing the girlish notion that my father would be waiting in the hall for me, arms folded â âAnd just where do you think you've been at this hour of the night?'
Even though â apart from that one exception â he had never done any such thing in his life.
In my mind, my home then had still been New York. I was going home any day soon. As soon as my mother's affairs had been settled. As soon as I'd settled on a suitable nurse for my father. As soon as he'd settled into his new routine or when his old housekeeper had come back from her trip to Australia and settled back into hers.
All September, I kept telling myself that. All September I'd been telling Diana, long-distance. I used the word âsettled' a lot.
At first, she was all understanding, small gushes of sympathy coming down the phone: âListen, sweetheart, if you need to stay, then you stay. But let me say, if you're still interested in selling your share of the business, I got people here pounding on the door.'
âI don't remember saying I was interested.'
âWell, if you are. You know it makes sense.'