Cold, Cold Heart by Jim Haughey

__________He wasn't sure how long the body had been lying up there. One, maybe two weeks. The smell had settled so thickly in the bedroom that though he lingered there only for a few minutes at a time, he was astonished at just how thoroughly the odor invaded the fabric of his clothes. The smell of organs atrophying. The eye balls turning to small orbs of dull gray jelly.

__________He should have burned his clothes, but he never liked the idea of throwing away anything that still seemed to be in working order. After each visit to the room, he made it a point to change his shirt and trousers and carry them out to the rose beds behind the house where he'd shovel a few layers of topsoil over them , leaving them there over night to let the damp soil do its work. But even after vigorous scrubbings with carbolic soap and warm water, the clothes still retained a faint sour smell.

__________Though it was mid-April, the countryside was still reluctant to shake off the last grip of winter. That morning, he'd been to the cemetery to place some fresh flowers at Robert and Rosemary's grave. Just a few stems of garden roses he'd bought at Green Acres Nursery. Mr. Ludden placed them in a plastic vase but warned that they probably wouldn't last the night as a late frost had been forecast. He didn't care, though. It was the least he could do. After all he hadn't exactly wrapped himself in a robe of grief in the years after their deaths. And it passed the time. It was like work. "Work is all you have in life, George," his father used to say. And even though the old man might have been wrong about a lot of things, at least he'd got that right.

__________He'd been thinking more of his father lately. And his mother. A diminutive woman who stammered slightly when agitated. She was close to forty when she met his father. Robert and he were born barely one year apart soon thereafter. Perhaps it was two years. He wasn't sure. His memory had lately begun to fade in and out like a poor radio signal. Sometimes there was no static, and the reception came in loud and clear. Other times, everything seemed garbled. Dates got jumbled. Names became as incomprehensible as the markings on rune stones. The dead lost all chronology and drifted through his memory like wind-blown spores.

__________His mother fawned over her "wee boys." She insisted on making all their baby clothes herself and decorating their bedroom with homespun quilts cross-stitched with inspirational lines plucked from good-housekeeping books. That was the part he couldn't quite understand . This selfless devotion. While he and Robert dressed in the best finery, she wore long, dull brown and gray matronly dresses with high collarettes and small bows in faded blues and yellows. She kept her hair equally austere, always parting it stiffly down the middle after the fashion of her mother and grandmother before her.

__________It was in matters relating to discipline, though, that his mother deferred to his father. He got his height from his father but not his muscular build. Like his father, Robert had been a school rugby standout, a fact George was constantly reminded of when growing up as the sideboard in the living room teemed with their rugby trophies.

__________With his high vaulted chest, thickly muscled legs and large, powerful hands, his father was a daunting presence in any company. The competitive spirit that made him such a success on the rugby pitch served him well in his career, too, rising quickly as he did to one of the top administrative posts in the Northern Ireland Post Office.

__________Despite the cold spring, he extended the length of his walks along the laugh shore, sometimes walking as far as the marina where he'd watch the sleeker, faster boats bridle their diesel power in observance of the no wake regulations. If it didn't rain, he'd walk to the end of the causeway where he'd sit and watch the cormorants plunge beneath the gray water only to emerge sometimes as far as forty feet away in a small explosion of foam. It was a dangerous stretch of shoreline. "No Swimming" signs were posted for miles in both directions. The sand barges that dredged the laugh floor were long gone now. Gone too were any signs of their work, except for the deep trenches that lay hidden beneath the immediate offshore waters. "The laugh always gives up her dead," the old people said whenever a drowning victim's body washed up, but he knew if you sank into one of those holes you'd never be heard from again.

__________He knew he'd have to do something about the body sooner or later. He couldn't just let it lie up there forever. He kept the door and windows to the bedroom closed at first, but the smell spread slowly through the walls like a silent invader. "This unfortunate business" is how he began to describe it. Sometimes while he puttered about in the garden, he'd catch himself repeating these words. He marveled at how everything had quickly escalated. But life was like that. You'd be motoring along a country road, steering the car cautiously between the lines when a slight jerk of the wheel, a bump in the road, a slick spot on the verge would send the car careening down a hillside. And that was all it would take. One half spin of the wheel and there'd be no more road. No more life safely contained within the roadside margins. That was what his life had become, a seemingly endless car wreck. Everything before now part of a life that no longer seemed temporally attached to this current existence.

__________And to think it all began with a cold sore. Was it really four years since Albert set foot outside the house? Or five? Again, he couldn't remember. He'd come home early from work that afternoon and found Albert staring into the bathroom mirror while trying to lance what appeared to be a painfully dark red boil on his neck.

__________Later, when the boil receded and a crescent-shaped rash appeared, Albert refused to venture outside, and he had had to call his friend Aubrey to tell him that Albert would no longer be working as a mechanic for Avery's bus fleet. It was a humiliating experience. He had gone to a lot of trouble to get Albert that job in the first place and this was the thanks he got.

__________Even when the rash gradually faded, Albert refused to leave the house, and the mention of doctors only triggered further waves of anxiety.

__________"You think I'm mental, don't you?" He told George. "You just want to get me locked up. Throw away the key. Just like you did to my mother."

__________There was nothing he could have said that would have made him or Albert feel any better, so to avoid further conflict, he accommodated his nephew's self-imposed house arrest. He arranged for a barber to come every month or so to trim Albert's hair. He applied for disability benefits. He had a doctor who was a friend of one of his fellow lodge members come down and sign the necessary paper work confirming that Albert suffered from some sort of nervous disposition. "An abnormal hypervigilance" is how the doctor described it.

__________Taking care of Albert gradually consumed all of his spare time. At first Albert had been fairly selfÂÁ sufficient He cooked his own meals and washed his own clothes, but then he gradually began to let himself go. He stopped shaving. He'd go for days without getting out of his nightgown. Finally even the confines of the house became too big. Trips to the bathroom lay beyond his range. Was it any wonder that George soon found himself waking up in the middle of the night hoping at first light that he would find his nephew stretched out stiff between the bed sheets, the eyes fixed in a polar glare at the ceiling.

__________Even before he had become Albert's keeper, his few love entanglements had been fleeting affairs, most of which foundered when he felt his private, separate life threatened. As age slowly transformed his lean physique to a soft, rubicund paunchiness, the only women he seemed to attract now were widows more preoccupied with long-term commitment, but even they didn't want to live in a house with a raving lunatic barking from an upstairs bedroom.

__________He tried to trace exactly when his car left the road. When exactly it had strayed beyond those thin white lines. It wasn't when the bed-wetting started. He'd put up with that disagreeableness for months, turning the mattress over every morning to air out the briny odor. Perhaps it was an accumulation of things--the constant burden of being responsible for someone else's basic needs. Answering every beck and call. Bringing up the papers. Fetching glasses of Lucozade. Killing wasps in the window sill. Opening and closing doors. Emptying the commode. He could barely look after himself never mind being somebody else's nursemaid.

__________The noise was the worst part. Some nights Albert would shout for hours on end. Most of it made little sense. Just a stream of invective aimed at the world. One night he swore he'd tape Albert's mouth if he didn't shut up.

__________"You killed my mother," Albert roared. "You killed her. She couldn't go on after you abandoned her. You oul' heartless bastard. Now you're trying to kill me. Don't think I don't know what you're up to. You're trying to poison me. Murderer. Murderer."

__________The words kept assailing George's ears long after Albert howled himself to sleep. Not for the first time had he been struck by the irony that he was in the insurance business. But dealing with strangers' accounts was one thing: he owed them nothing. They paid for his help. What he hated was being freighted down by family obligation. It wasn't fair. Just because he'd never married himself or had children didn't give others the right to assume that he could carry everyone on his back. He wanted no more extra responsibilities, no more straying beyond the ruled lines of the balance sheet. He was determined not to share any more of his life or time with anyone else.

__________When Albert stopped eating, George knew it wouldn't take long for the whole "unfortunate business" to play out. At first he would sneak in and set the tray at the bottom of the bed while Albert dozed but quit when he could no longer justify all the broken crockery.

__________Some days he wished that what was left of his memory would self-erase altogether. That was what he wanted. A blank tape. But the unsavory memories crowded out any recollection of happier times with their willful bleating. Some days he blamed himself. Other days he felt he was the victim.

__________After all it wasn't like he had made their choices for them. Of course he hadn't helped. He may not have held their heads under the water, but he hadn't thrown them a life preserver either.

__________Heaven knows he'd warned Robert that marrying a Catholic wouldn't be well received, but Robert didn't care to listen. In some ways he envied Robert's disregard for what others would say, but he seriously doubted whether he could have done such a thing. Still, he had helped them book their honeymoon in Portrush. At such short notice it was the best he could do.

__________They used to go there themselves. He and Miriam. He hated the crowds, though. Especially the throngs at the Blue Pool and the South Pier. He always made reservations at the Northern Counties Hotel, and while Miriam collected shells along the strand, he'd spend the mornings at the local links. Sometimes they walked round Ramore Head stopping occasionally to watch the elderly men and women in their bleach-white linens bowling at the Recreation Grounds. They liked to eavesdrop on their conversations, sprinkled as they were with details from the local obituaries and the trivialities of small town gossip. There was something graceful about their sideways talk as they bowled on the fastidiously maintained Cumberland turf. Their lives all privilege, worlds away from hardship and despair.

__________There had always been an unspoken rivalry between them. He envied Robert's movie-star good looks and cavalier disregard. His sense of adventure. When Robert returned home after working for several years as a croupier on the P & O's far-eastern routes, he noticed how friends and family revered him as though he were some kind of returning explorer. That was before the war. He himself never felt any urge to travel abroad. The uncertainty of it all scared him. And so he had to tolerate his brother getting all the attention, like some exotically colored butterfly, alongside which George saw himself as an old, dust-speckled moth.

__________Coulter's public house lay at a rural crossroads a few miles outside Moira. With the war on, they often rode out there on their bicycles after petrol rationing began. A converted barn, even in the summertime a fire often roared in its black hearth, and the white-washed interior pooled with loud talk and the intermittent static buzz as someone dialed through the airwave frequencies on the radiogram. Above the chatter, cigarette smoke hung in thick blue folds among the rafters. American soldiers drank there frequently, and even during the blackout, heavy muslin shades were drawn and bottles of beer popped by guttering candlelight.

__________It was Christmas and Coulter's was crowded with holiday drinkers and soldiers enjoying a night's pass. Catholics and Protestants often mingled freely there, and with the war on, old tensions were further sidelined by the war and speculation about when the expected Allied push would come.

__________Nervous with the rumors that some of them would be shipped out to Italy soon, the soldiers couldn't see the bottom of a beer bottle quickly enough.
__________Doreen Coulter was there that night helping out behind the bar as usual with her mother, Winnie. George had had his eye on Doreen for some time now. With her violet eyes and shoulder-length brown hair, Doreen's schoolgirl looks belied her maturity. She had sensed George's interest in her but had grown impatient with his boyish reticence.

__________With few women in the bar that night, the soldiers flirted with Doreen, teasing her about her homeÂÁ knit pink cardigan. One soldier, a stocky kid with a thick New York accent, caressed Doreen's hand every time she handed him back his change. The other soldiers laughed as he winked conspiratorially back at them.
__________"C'mon now, babe. Don't be shy. Let me read that cute little paw of yours," he would say as he spread Doreen's hand out, feigning interest in examining the lines on her palm.

__________Though she pretended to ignore the soldiers, George could tell she was offended. Robert just shook his head.

__________"Don't bother your head. They're only fooling. Probably the last chance they'll get to have a bit of fun."

__________George sat there drinking quietly, saying nothing.

__________Later in the evening, the soldiers were joined by three girls Robert recognized from the factory. They appeared to know the soldiers quite well, and extra chairs were commandeered as the group formed a circle close to the fire. George watched the stocky soldier intently. He hated everything about him. His white, even teeth. His constantly shifting eyes. His weasel-like furtiveness. The way he lit a cigarette and extinguished the match with a flamboyant wave of the hand. The placing of his broad hands on the women's shoulders, his head bowed close to their ears as though he couldn't hear what they were saying.

__________Each drink seemed to magnify his resentment. How he hated the Yank's booming voice. The way it laughed at its own jokes which he thought were more vulgar than witty. Several other local men sat at the bar observing the soldiers also. They raised and lowered their glasses, every so often swapping glares of sullen hostility.

__________At closing, the young stocky soldier got his arm round one of the factory girls and whispered something in her ear. She rocked backward, giggling.

__________"Where are you goin' with your wee hooer, Yank?"

__________It was one of the local men. He slid off his barstool and stood up, his hands stuffed into his coat pockets. Threats were soon exchanged as friends of both men gathered round. The soldiers were asked to step outside. As Robert tried to reason with one of the local hotheads, the stocky soldier pointed a finger.

__________"Any time shit heads. Any time."

__________The words had scarcely been uttered when a beer bottle grazed the stocky soldier's head. Curses and screams punctuated the rumble of boots and clatter of breaking glass as men slipped and fell among the overturned barstools and card tables. In the middle of the melee, the silver gleam of a knife pierced the fabric of Robert's coat, and a dark, arterial crimson stain quickly soaked his chest. As Robert fell, the brawl melted into a diorama of broken images. Voices blended together in a shrill choral wave of sound. George shoved his handkerchief into the wound to try and stanch the bleeding, but the cut was too deep.

__________The picture-making mechanism in George's brain preserved these memories like long-lost negatives. Robert's bloodied under-vest on Dr. Dowey's surgery floor. The dark wine-colored blotches on his trousers as he lay lifeless on the table. The fingernails still black with the soot and cinders from cleaning out the fireplace that morning. Dr. Dowey's nurse, Mrs. Gracey, guiding Rosemary into the waiting room and holding her hands.

__________The next morning, as the falsetto cries of children playing hopscotch echoed from the front street, George wheeled the bicycles round the back of Robert's house.

__________As the weather grew warmer and the trees threshed into full foliage, he felt strangely animated. He wasn't sure what the source of the impulse was, but he welcomed the unexpected energy. He couldn't wait to get out in the garden. The only thing his father ever showed any interest in growing was gooseberries. He remembered the old man explaining how if there were too many shoots, the bush would produce smaller berries with poor flavor. How careful pruning helped the shoots form more permanent fruiting spurs. And yet, despite all the care his father heaped on his gooseberry bushes, he never picked the berries when they ripened and forbade anyone else from picking them, either. Instead, he would just sit by the kitchen window and watch the birds plunder the fruit and the sawfly caterpillars attack the leaves till the delicate branches were bare and what was left of the berries rotted and fell to the ground.

_________He drove out to the new shopping center and bought a pair of shears so that he could trim back the shrubbery. Then he weeded out the bedding plots and the flowerbeds at the back of the house and along the driveway and raked in bag after bag of potting soil. When the flowerbeds were finished, he spread potting soil round the base of the pear trees . Later, at Green Acres, he sought advice on what to plant and where, and over the succeeding days, he put in dozens of Magnolias and Enkianthus, established rose bushes along both sides of the driveway, and filled the space between each bush with small Campanules. Along the front of the house, he replaced the creeping mint with mixed borders of Cowslips and Peruvian Lilies and planted Crocuses and Tulip bulbs for the following spring.

__________The following weekend, he climbed the ladder and hammered lines of steel wire into the gable walls for the Clematis and Virginia Creeper and staked a row of pine saplings at the bottom of the garden to serve as a future windbreak. When he got tired, he sat on the back step and surveyed the garden. Sometimes he ate his lunch there while listening to his portable radio, tuning into Radio Four whenever he got tired oflistening to all the fuss being made over these so-called Civil Rights marchers.

__________"What was your father like?" Miriam had asked him on their second or third date.

__________"My father?" he said, unsure of the intent of the question and surprised by its direct line of enquiry. "Yes. What was he like ... as a father?"

__________This was another habit he had acquired recently. Re-imagining conversations with the dead. In the two years that he and Miriam were together, it always took several drinks to erode his usual reticence and distrust of intimacy. But eventually he seemed to be aware of it: as though he was observing himself through a camera.

__________Miriam was a widow, but unlike the other women he had dated, she shared his reluctance to commit to anything more than friendship. She'd been a high school English teacher in a former life. Married to a librarian who showed more interest in maintaining the card catalogue than their marriage. He died from a stroke.

__________"Just keeled over while re-shelving books," she said. "They found him on the floor with a volume of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire still in his hands."

__________In their two years together, George had developed a certain fondness for her. A feeling not quite unlike love. He wondered whether she felt the same way about him but never asked. Later, he would remember this moment and wonder what would have been had he met Miriam thirty years before. The unborn children. The empty photo albums. The never-to-be bought Christmas ties and after-shave. All the non-years that couldn't be undone.

__________One thing he found odd about her at first was that she loved country music and was a big fan of Hank Williams. Like many of his unexamined prejudices, he'd always equated that sort of music with a lowbrow sensibility. Music for those with no discriminating taste. Unlike the classic pedigree of Debussy or Sibelius whose music he often listened to on The Third Programme. Yet the more he listened to these songs about broken hearts and lost highways, the more he began to suspect that he only listened to classical music because it projected a certain degree of urbanity that he may not have possessed at all.

__________This was what he'd liked about Miriam. Her self-honesty. Her tastes were formed by what brought her joy, not affectation. She knew who she was and what she liked and didn't like. For a time he wondered whether she knew him better than he knew himself. Whenever she bought him gifts, he could tell that they had been chosen with considerable forethought. Except for the time she gave him that terrible novel for his birthday. He wasn't fond of fiction, but he had read the book so that he would have something to say if asked. He preferred history and biographies and found the book tough going in places. He was particularly disturbed by the behavior of the emotionally repressed main character and wondered whether Miriam's giving him the novel was her way of making some sort of statement about his life.

__________The night she pressed the questions about his father, he remembered feeling somewhat conscious of his attempt to assume an air of garrulity, the sort of demeanor he observed in other people who he regarded as chirpy conversationalists.

__________"Oh, he was always a very busy man, you know. Very busy. But he still took time when he had some to be with us."

__________That was what he had told Miriam, or words to that effect. Yet he remembered that look on her face as though she sensed that his voice lacked the appropriate degree of conviction. The moment passed though and the rest of the conversation quickly dissipated into aimless chatter about health matters and the weather.

__________On another occasion as they walked along the beach at Tyrella, she asked again about his father. He chose his words carefully. Even though the old man had been dead for years, his authority still reached beyond the grave. He couldn't recall one moment in their relationship that wasn't constrained by the authority of that archaic moustache or the formality of those starched collars.

__________"Oh, anything really," Miriam had said. "Tell me what you remember about the place. What was it like?"

__________Somehow there had been a slip of the tongue about Fallowfield. But what could he tell her? That it was a boarding school for boys? Boys alleged to have emotional and behavioral problems? Yes, his father had sent him there because he believed it would straighten him out. Those were his very words. "Straighten him out."
__________"Why did he think you needed straightening out?" Miriam had asked.

__________He was in the garden again. The spade heavily caked with mud. He leaned over on the handle and watched as a beady-eyed magpie stepped gingerly along the garden path, its black and white coloring incongruous to its leafy green surroundings.

__________"He thought I was always getting into mischief," he said to himself. "You see because he was ... he was away at work so much, when he came home, he got regaled with all the little things I'd been up to. So he must have thought I was becoming a bit of a mischief maker."

__________He laughed at the thought of it--as if his childhood antics could in any way be equated with the mayhem caused by the long-haired louts he saw running round the streets these days with their angry signs.

__________Of course there had been that incident where the rear window of Mr. Browne's car got broken and a constable arrived at the front door.

__________"Mr. Noble, we believe your son George has been in a bit of bother," the policeman had said. George stared at the spade. But it was an accident. And for that he was sent away.

__________He stepped into the bedroom with the tea towel pressed firmly against his nose. The body seemed to have recessed further into the mattress. He could see the tip of the head, the forehead colored with a purplish hue. He pulled the bed sheets back. The pajamas hung looser now and blotches of a mold-like substance formed colonies here and there on the exposed chest. He had read that the terrible smell was due to the release of gases. The lungs putrefied first. Cells simplified. Proteins broke down. Enzymes ate away at skin tissue. He studied the face for a moment, etched as it was with a look of profound sadness as if all the indignities of life had suddenly registered themselves in one glare.

__________He had just started work at the office in Belfast when he first clapped eyes on that face. Back then it belonged to a little boy of not more than two or three years of age. It was probably the first time Rosemary had ever traveled to Belfast on her own. All that morning he had wasted time mentally mapping out the route she would take to his office. Train to Great Victoria. Cross the Grosvenor Road. Directions to Castle Street. Down Howard Street. Left on to Donegall Square. The tall, gray office buildings blocking out the sunlight on the side streets. City Hall. Clang of trolley buses. The Great Hall, the Banquet Hall, the Courtyard, the Greek and Italian marbles dusted with the gray grit and grime of wartime neglect. The high squat statue of Queen Victoria, her heavy-lidded,
gelid eyes peering purposelessly at the passing trams.

__________Then down Donegall Place past Robinson and Cleaver's to Castle Junction. High Street to the right, Castle Street on the left. The usual crowds milling round the City Transport Kiosk. Schoolboys ogling the latest beach wraps and telescopic swim suits in the windows of the clothing stores. Royal Avenue and beyond that York Street's broad thoroughfare with the scorched support walls of the firebombed linen mill.

__________With his father's connections he landed a job with Crawford and Gillespie, Insurance Agents, in a second floor office at the top of a semi-lit, narrow staircase. He remembered shifting in his chair, trying to assume the appropriate authoritative pose as he awaited her arrival, looking resplendent in his tailor-cut blue suit, his hair heavily oiled, his whiskerless jaw redolent with after-shave as if posing for a portrait. Everything about him bore the marmoreal tidiness of a monument.

__________He could see it all as if it were only yesterday. The wisps of cigarette smoke curling from his ashtray. The typescript of a heavily annotated legal document lying on the desk sprinkled with curlicues of pencil lead.

__________She remarked about the noisy soldiers on the train, and he said something about the Yanks slapping Red Biddy into them and jitterbugging at Lavery's. As he spoke, his eyebrows wrinkled theatrically in mock disgust.
__________He noticed that she was staring at the picture on the wall above his head. It was a photograph of him standing alongside the Prime Minister, Lord Brookeborough. Dressed in duck-hunting gear, the group posed with hunting rifles cradled in the crooks of their arms.

__________"So, what can I do for you?" he asked. But he knew what she wanted.

__________She told him how hard the last seven months had been and how Robert's pension was barely enough to make ends meet. She didn't mention the growing copper stains above the cistern, the brown, shiny earwigs that emerged from the cracks round the kitchen sink or the street front window sills which sprouted little burred clusters of moss. The other morning, as she swept the floor of the larder, she noticed mice droppings mixed in with breadcrumbs and blue-gray tufts of lint.

__________While Rosemary spoke, his thoughts were swept up in a flurry of self-pity and regret as he searched to justify what he was about to say. When she first telephoned him to say she was corning to see him, he briefly entertained the idea of setting up a trust fund for her and Albert, but after further reflection, he realized that this was not possible. His hands were tied.

__________Rosemary was only nineteen when she had Albert, and the subsequent furor over having a child out of wedlock triggered a vicious round of gossip among the more genteel families of the town.
Mortified that their son Robert had brought shame to the family name, the parents vainly wasted the energy of their last years trying to reestablish their social pedigree. They held lavish dinner parties. They became more active in their church. They donated money to all the proper charities. But they were never able to reconnect with their old-moneyed friends who maintained a genteel distance.

__________When she was finished, he straightened out the folds in his waistcoat then reached over and picked up a small silver porringer that an ink stand partially obscured from her view. He turned it over in his hands as though he were an antiquarian looking for an engraving that might reveal its place of ongm.

__________He looked up at Rosemary. When he spoke, his voice quavered as though he hadn't spoken in weeks:

__________"Have you looked for a job yourself?"

__________"Aye, but with the ways things are, there's not much to be found. I work three mornings a week in
Murray's bakery but sure that's only a few shillings." He breathed heavily through the dark embrasures of his nostrils.

__________"Times are hard all over, Rosemary."

__________"Well, I was wondering whether I should move." "Where would you go? Belfast's hardly safe."

__________"I know. I know. Maybe Lisburn. I was wondering whether you could help me find a job there."

__________"Well as you know, times are hard all over. I'm not sure I'll be able to help you there. Do you have any secretarial skills? Typing?"

_________She nodded. She'd left school at 16 to work as a hemstitcher sewing the seams on handkerchiefs but quit when she got pregnant with Albert.

__________There was an awkward silence. He offered tea. She bit into a bun, licking the trace of powdered sugar from her lips.

__________"I was wondering whether you could put me to work here. I could do messages and clean up the office."

__________As she spoke, her eyes surveyed the room, taking brief inventory of what could be done to brighten up the antiseptic surroundings. He lifted his cup to his lips, took a sip then delicately placed it back on its saucer. When he opened his mouth, he knew the words would tumble forth in well-rehearsed order.

__________"We've had to cut back here ourselves. We've four other office workers besides me and Mr. Gillespie and to tell you the truth we can hardly afford to pay them. Just last week there we had to let our invoice typist go. People are more worried these days, Rosemary, about where their next meal's coming from than buying life insurance, I can tell you."

__________She stared at the partly chewed bun on his plate. The wafer-thin crust had caved in, and the cream wedge lay exposed.

__________"I don't need a whole lot, George. Just a steady wage. That house is too big for us and Robert's pension only goes so far."

__________He looked into her eyes. They were red-rimmed and tired from hours of sleeplessness and tears in a lonely bedroom. He wanted to do something for her, but he knew the situation. Besides Albert there were other considerations to be made. What would his district lodge say if he hired a Catholic? It was true. He couldn't really afford to take on another employee, but if the situation had been right, he could have made allowances.

__________"What about your own people?" he asked.

__________She told him how they kept to themselves now. How they crossed over to the other side of the street whenever they saw her. Her father had died the year before from emphysema. All those years at the linen mill had finally caught up with him.

__________George gave her his handkerchief and then stared out the window at the office building across the street, his eyes scanning its gray stone facade as though he were looking for a previously undetected architectural fault. There would be no Twelfth parade in the city that year. It had been suspended for the duration of the war.

__________But the situation was impossible. Robert was his brother, but he had been out of touch with local realities. Those years with the P&O may have changed him but sure where did that get you round here? No. The war was going to end soon and things would get back to normal. He had to be mindful of the future. He shifted the legs of his chair sharply on the smooth parquet floor. He had no time to embroider his remarks with false assurances.

__________"Look, I'll see what I can do. I have a lunch meeting with a client in a few minutes so I'll have to go. Oh, I almost forgot."

__________He opened a drawer and pulled out a blue velvet bag sealed with a small, braided gold rope.
__________"Here. Here's a wee something for the child. I've been saving them. Maybe you can take him to Bangor for the day. Tell him not to be buying too much rock. Rot his teeth out."

__________He laughed awkwardly. When she made no immediate move, he pushed the bag of coins to the table's edge till she grabbed it before it fell into the folds of her coat. He reached over, lifted her limp hand and shook it weakly then stepped round the desk and opened the office door.

__________"When will I hear from you?" She asked.

__________"Let's wait till the July holiday is over. Now I can't promise you anything." "Any help at all George, please."

__________"Well, I'll see what I can do. Check with Joan when the next train for Lurgan is. Cheerio now."

__________He avoided making eye contact with her as she got up to leave. When she looked back, the phone rang and he waved as he picked up the receiver.

__________In the distance, over the tops of the reeds and the choppy water, he could barely make out a thin wafer of land: Toland's Flats, a small island inhabited only by roosting wildfowl. Local birders said it was a good place to see Great Crested Glebes, but without his binoculars, he could see nothing but the faint trace of land on the gray horizon.

__________That night he sat at the kitchen table and tried to compose a letter. He scribbled down a few sentences only to score heavily through what he had written before tearing the page out. He didn't know where to begin. All he had was facts. Rosemary dead in London. A cold, damp flat in Kilburn. Prescription bottles lining her bedside table. Albert found her face down in the bed sheets. Choked on her own vomit.

__________Outside, the summer sun dipped below the curve of the earth. There was a gentle thrumming on the kitchen window as a solitary moth beat its wings against the glass. Its eyes two bright red nubs.

_________ By mid-morning, the garden hummed with the shrill of insects among the flowerbeds and shrubbery. Despite all the work, he noticed that his mood was turning increasingly introspective. The past intruded more and more. He was no longer sure that he could trust his own memories: Fallowfield with its Elysian fields, his overbearing father, the eclipse of his ambition, the curious absence of grief over the break-up with Miriam. She had booked a holiday for two in Crete, but he couldn't go because of commitments at work. It was round about the time President Kennedy visited Dublin. He thought of the postcards he'd never send and the beaches they'd never share. The sunsets they'd never linger over. In the following days, as he took stock, he suspected that his life had been a charade. That what he had lost had been unappreciated and that was why it had been taken from him.

__________The man who cut Albert's hair phoned wondering why he hadn't heard from George recently and he'd had to conjure up a weak lie about Albert not wanting any visitors at the moment. As he set the receiver down, he sensed that his explanation had been less than convincing. Thank God there were no relatives to drop in unannounced, and the nearest neighbor was a good half-mile up the road.
But "this unfortunate business" chafed him. Something had to be done and soon. He couldn't continue to shutter off a wing of the house. And questions would be asked. Disposing of the body wasn't the problem. The problem was how to explain. A bedridden invalid didn't just disappear.

__________He'd waited too long now. He knew that. He had hesitated because he knew the coroner would pronounce the cause of death as due to starvation. And now with the flesh withering away on the bones, what else was there to conclude? Why would a man let his nephew's dead body solder itself on to the bed sheets? There seemed to be no way out of this mess.

__________The house was in County Fermanagh, and it took the better part of a day to drive over there from Belfast. He had had this image in his head of a draughty old workhouse. But it couldn't have been anymore different. In its heyday, Fallowfield had been a high-walled country manor with its marble entry and carved staircase leading up to the second floor. Out front, two tall monkey-puzzle trees dominated the plush front lawn.

__________Sure, some of the boys had problems, but many of them had been dumped there by rich parents who didn't really want to be parents. The music teacher Miss Trenier had been a dancer in her younger days and told the boys stories about the famous people she'd performed for at the Metropole Ballroom in Dublin. It all sounded so exotic. She was exotic, too, in her floral gowns and beaded necklaces. Every afternoon as the boys kicked a ball on the front lawn, they could hear her playing the piano up in the music room. The notes tumbling out through those large French provincial windows.

__________At the end of each class, she always reminded them that they were her boys. That's what George had liked most about her. She didn't treat them like they were abnormal.

__________They kept scrapbooks, and every Friday she had them cut and paste pictures that they found interesting from magazines or newspapers and write poems about what they saw. Sometimes when the weather was bad, she'd call them all up to her study, for there were only ever about twenty of them at the most, where she would tell them stories about her travels.

__________His father saw the scrapbooks during George's summer break and told him to put them away. "Poetry is a waste of time," he said. "You have to deal with the real world, not write poems about it." Not long after, George wrote a letter to Miss Trenier. He wasn't sure what he hoped it would accomplish. Perhaps he hoped she'd "straighten" his father out. But she never did. She had suddenly taken ill and had to move to England to stay with relatives. He would never hear from her again. Fallowfield, he liked to imagine, had been a happy parenthesis in his life after which a procession of heavy curtains had fallen.

__________The day after Rosemary visited him in Belfast, he took the train to Lurgan. He wasn't sure why, but the false promises he'd made the previous day weighed on his mind. The train rattled along the track expelling blossom-white bursts of steam in its wake. Fields floated by. Hedgerows crisscrossed the landscape like undulating lines of thread. Small white-washed farmhouses shone like tinsel paper from sycamore clusters.

__________When the train stopped in Lisburn, he saw a woman pushing an infant in a pram along the platform. An older child trailed behind her trying to guide a hoop with a stick. The woman's stockings looked new, and an exotic-looking black mantilla draped over her head and shoulders. She waved and blew a kiss from her plum-red lips to someone boarding one of the forward carriages. A man's voice shouted back: "I'll write soon, Marie." A brief look of incomprehension flushed over her face before an eager smile spread across her cheeks. She tried to shout something back, but her words were carried away by a crescendo of hissing steam.

__________In Lurgan, he made his way through the town center, past the Church of Ireland's tall gray spire. It didn't take long to reach her address. He followed the numbered doors till he came to hers. A small houseplant sat on the windowsill, its potting soil saturated. He stood there for a few moments deciding whether to knock then turned slowly away.

__________The porter walked down the platform slamming the carriage doors shut with a syncopated stroke. He watched him wave his flag, and then the train began its slow, sidling motion. Lurgan's narrow streets receded. Heavy cloud rolled in and the afternoon sky turned gray.

__________From the next carriage, he could hear loud , boisterous American accents. It was the usual Friday parade of Gis off to Belfast for the night. Lurgan was full of them. They were stationed at the Castle, and they drilled in the park and tramped the country roads round the town handing out chewing gum and chocolate to the children and stockings and mostly empty promises to local girls.

__________Near Lisburn, the train crossed a steep embankment. Down below he saw mottled-brown cows standing in shallow-gray water at the edge of a rush-choked marsh. He must have nodded off for a few minutes for the next thing he knew the train was speeding past Milltown Cemetery. He thought about all those headstones engraved with names that some day no one would remember, and for a moment he thought of Robert and the past stretched out behind him, lost and infinite. How much of his own life would he soon forget? How much of Robert's did he ever know? He propped his head against the window and watched as his breath slowly clouded the glass.

__________He thought of the garden on his way to the lough. It wouldn't be long now till the roses opened their tightly folded buds, and next year the Clematis and Virginia Creeper would edge ever higher on the gable wall. But all that was yet to pass. As he approached the shore, he saw sunrays sparkling through the high branches of the monkey-puzzle trees and heard the twinkling keys of a piano, the notes drifting over the fields before settling in the grass of the cold earth.

-- Haughey-2008

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