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As We Are Now

by John Doorty

    Paula, the doctor’s wife, was busy in the kitchen scullery. She was preparing pizza for later; just two for herself and her student Maura for when they would relax after their evening lesson. She felt invigorated by the prospect. She was removing two small pizzas from the yellow-pack box, opening the cellophane and sticking them in the oven so that all would be ready except to switch on later. She was busy nonetheless. Then she rinsed her hands under the wall tap and wiped the big rectangular enamel sink with the blue sponge. She pulled the plug on the sudsy water, watched it spiral down and waited for the final scream as it escaped. She noticed the bluey, dark-green discolouration where the tap-drip had worn the enamel away. She placed the stopper back in its socket at the left-hand side of the sink, dropping it into the water and dirt that had collected there. She wiped the bottom of the sink and the tiled wall behind once more with the blue sponge. And then she dried her hands.
She leaned over for the cigarette she had left smouldering on the saucer on the window and took another pull, pursing her lips severely for a deep draught. A cat’s eyes penetrated hers through the window. She exhaled into its face, the window clouded over, and when it cleared, she saw only her own reflection. It came to her distorted and remote and surprisingly, a little sad. She didn’t dwell on that aspect of it, but she did pluck out her flaming red hair a bit with her hand. She did not delay. She stood in the door of the kitchen and said,
    “Did you say something?”
    Dr. Morgan, a big man in his forties, sat by the huge coal fire in the grate. He didn’t reply straight away, but then he very definitely said no with a question hanging at the end of it.
    “Well, do you want a coffee then?” she asked, “I’m making one”.
    “Right, so I’ll have one”, he said, shifting himself up in the chair with his elbows.
When she brought the two steaming hot mugs and was handing him his, the coals caved in in the fire with a shuffling sigh and the blacker coals at the edge of the grate, drawn down into the furnace, suddenly began to flash and pop bright like camera bulbs going off in the room.
The kitchen was huge but bare, which gave it the appearance of size. The dining table was beside the window. The floor was tiled. There was one small brown mat in the middle. The walls were bare except for the fire grate. This is the way they had found it. The grate was old-style, if a little unusual. It was deep and the front bars came up in a crescent in the shape of musical notes. A brass draught hood hung overhead, tarnished in the middle by the down draughts of smoke over the years.
    Paula stood over him for a minute, looking down on his head. The hair was carelessly hanging out on all sides with a jagged edge of fringe on his forehead. It didn’t have to be like this, she thought, his hair was still thick enough to brush up and back. He shifted under her gaze and proximity, crossing one leg over the other at the ankles. He sipped the coffee.
“Damn,” she began, she’d forgotten her cigarettes, “I’ll have one more before Maura arrives,” she added, consulting the wall clock.
    “You do that,” he said, rather sullenly she thought, as she moved into the scullery, returning with an ashtray and lighter and cigarette packet. She lifted the coffee mug from the arm rest while she carefully eased herself into a chair by the fireplace. Then she organized everything that she needed on the broad armrests. She settled, easing every muscle of her body into this moment, the moment between inhaling and exhaling. She sighed dramatically. Somewhere high in the house, maybe in the roof, she heard weight shift and lift, the groan of timber as the wind rolled over on the thick slates of the roof. The brass hood on the firegrate rattled slightly. Their eyes met for a moment and then drifted, his into the fire.
“You know when we first came to this house, there was a calmness here that wasn’t in the other rooms. I don’t know,” she continued, “it wasn’t anything frightening, but it was a feeling of some kind of turbulence still hanging in the air.”
    She raised her eyes, expecting to meet his engaging her in some encouraging way. She plucked a piece of fluff from the black sateen of her dress and brushed down the front. He was miles away in the hearth of the fire, but she knew he had heard what she’d said.
“I’m sure the late Canon Houlan wouldn’t like the implication of what you’re saying.”
    He spoke in what she recognised as a bored tone, his head to one side, with an ironic smile. He seemed quite pleased with himself, stretching his arms up to clasp his fingers behind his head. She noticed how the large knuckles of his fingers disappeared into the flesh of his hands.
She remembered the fresh-faced cleric with the regrettable flutter of dandruff on his shoulders. She couldn’t imagine him ever creating any turbulence - the gentle soul. He had been a patient of her husband’s, they had become friends, and in his later days he helped them in their efforts to secure the house, while at the same time advising them against it; speaking from experience of its many draughts. She remembered his defeatist counter measures - heavy curtains screened the doors in the sitting room and the study, skirting the ground from the wooden rails with large pommells at either end.
    But they were young then, and draughts were cool beers on summer evenings. And anyway it was what they both wanted, something with character, a little history, a secular choice. Furthermore, outside it was part ivy-clad and this fulfilled a childhood fantasy of hers shared with no one.
All the pieces of her life were falling into place like a nearly completed jigsaw when they first rattled over the cattle grid between the gate piers where two benign silver eagles sat stony sentinel either side, one misty summer morning. When she got her first glimpse from the avenue of the lush ivy, she knew that this was it. She had leaned over and touched him and said so with that look which he acknowledged cautiously, shifting down a gear on the loose gravel.
This was the spot, half-way out the avenue, that with experience they were to find right to let the car free-wheel home. It was exhilarating at first, but Paula regretted how quickly the momentum died as the car crawled, suspensions sagging, the engine knocking as it cooled, the impetus already dying, slowing within them out of control. It was something that belonged to then, like lots of other memories that dazzled out from the past, belonging to the little things, powerfully emotive that there was no way now to speak of, no way at all.
She had kept the little things, like the postcard he had sent her once from Colorado. It showed an artist’s impression of the Grand Canyon and she kept it for this line of his: “during the night I can hear the wail of the freight trains on their way out to Texas”. It came to her then with all the intensity of how he felt, lonely, isolated and apart. It stayed with her over the years. These were the things she kept to remind her of who they were then, in the days before they came to the house.
The turbulence that she found herself speaking of now, how could she describe it, how could she remember it, except in the rushing sensations she felt in her skin and in those half-expectant turns she made for no reason, in the cracked floor boards of the rooms. Something sibilant in the air. Something there and not there.
Of all the memories of her mother and her childhood, the house invoked one unpleasantness. It was a summer’s day on the beach, she was in a red bathing suit with a little frilly-flaired skirt at the waist that made her look elfish. She waved to her mother on the shore before running across the sands. She remembered them somehow deserted, except for the spikey garrulous terns that rose up and heckled and swooped low over her head. She began to run, run back, and to cry, holding her arms over her head. This was the vision she had of her mother then: she was coming calmly towards her, her arms reaching out, then she flung up her arms and the birds flew away. Then she hugged her daughter. She was safe.
Over the years she had come to see herself not as a participant in this memory, but as an observer, as if it might have happened to somebody else.
It was all pressing down on her now from the past. The white sagging doors with tightening at the jambs, the little bureaus with the shuffle of drawers in the study, the knee-high ashtrays by the grey scruffy armchairs in the sitting room, and even in the airiest rooms at the front, all rigid iron beds with their own fastidious agitation; there was no matriarchial sense at all.
Then the smell that was the house, that emanated from its every pore, that hung on its breath like the odourous fermentations on the breaths of the older patients that came to see her husband. Yet she did not find it offensive. It was its unique odour, they would bring theirs in time. They started with the furniture. It migrated from room to room, the walls were painted, the floorboards waxed and the hollow voices echoed through the house again. Then they filled it up with the loud revelry of their friends, friends they had both had since college and friends of friends who came hooting out of the town for the parties they gave sitting on the bare floors in the half light, six packs at their knees. Yes, she remembered the piano, Jack leaning back on the cushioned stool, singing out of tune over his shoulder, his fingers oddly finding the keys and gathering them again in, “if you go down to the woods today…”.
It came to her now, too, why the parties had stopped. It was as if they all left one night or early morning to take on the responsibility of their age, to regenerate and never return. It seemed like so now, she thought. But she knew in fact they had dwindled. They reassured each other now when they met, that these were the wildest parties, the wild times.
Was there one last time when they both stood together on the steps and at the gate waving, white woolly mist no higher than the walls, visible in the fields; then there was one final tidy indoors as they moved silently through the house collecting empty bottles, emptying ashtrays, turning off the lamps before meeting in the kitchen? That she would have liked to remember, because she was sure it happened.
These days they lived alone, seldom seeing anybody in a social way at home. He had developed an interest in local history from the thorough chats he had with his older patients. They liked him, he was popular, their own ponderous speed. He read books on archaeology and attended medical conferences. At night they sometimes watched television, but more often than not they sat in the kitchen after their evening meal, as they were now, in this odd corner of the house, their lives marginalized at the back.
Paula sipped her coffee slowly her fingers pressed against the rim of the mug. She continued to gaze wide-eyed into the fire, the hottest part, and quickly reminded herself of the trust and schedule of the lesson with Maura. They would work through the text of The Tempest; she would get Maura to write some character sketches, identifying maybe with the character, “Miranda”, and then she would set aside time for some revision and casual discussion at the end. One hour was the agreed time, but Paula invariably found herself going over. She felt vigorous at the prospect, as she had felt right from the start. She didn’t like the word ‘grind’ and rarely used it, but when Maura’s mother, a big flauncy woman she met once or twice who sounded breathy and urgent on the phone, asked if she could help Maura get ahead, she had used it. There were other disparaging remarks made about Maura’s teachers, which Paula as a one time member of the profession chose to ignore. Paula outlined how out of touch she was, how she would have to familiarize herself with the texts on the course, and finally that she would ring her back. She phoned some friends, got a course syllabus and their recommendations, and then she located her old textbooks and notes still in the unfileable heap on the bottom shelves of the library.
In the days that followed she had spent them on the library floor, the glass doors of the shelves that had once housed the hardback collection of the late Canon Houlan flung open, sifting through notes and spine-cracked paperbacks that had replaced them, she found all sorts of unrecogniseable things she had no memory of; even her handwriting then seemed odd and open. It brought back some of the pain and struggle of those undergraduate years. It was a bitter-sweet time in her life, and time and distance had preserved the sweeter moments of her first meetings with a young medical student.
When she was sure she could do it, when she knew she wanted to do it more than she wanted to give up cigarettes, which he had wanted her to do for so long, she told him about it. They were in the kitchen as they were now, except he was standing, his tan cardigan open and sagging at the pockets; he was poking the fire, the brass fire-iron in his hand. He wasn’t very enthusiastic, she got the drift of that from his tone, but the poking stopped for a moment and the fire-iron stayed in the heart of the fire.
    “I suppose you know what you are letting yourself in for,” he had said, and she took this as a very favourable response. There was no further discussion on it, but she saw that the fire-iron in his hand was white hot with a hilt of ash. It was on the tip of her tongue then to add a salient tone of finality to the conversation with the suggestion “to strike while the iron is hot”, but she thought better of it and didn’t. Her mind was made up anyway.
Maura was a slim sixteen, though she tried to look and act much older. She wore short black skirts that hugged her hips and thighs and low flat black shoes with little white stripes on the side. Her face was curiously pretty, Paula thought, despite the strange dark bridging eyebrows which gave her a shy, childish, pleading appearance; a sooty mascara on her eyelashes didn’t help. She came clutching to her chest a folder covered with bright-coloured stickers and marker drawings, with an expression of feigned eagerness to learn that Paula recognised straight away. It was what one droll colleague in her teaching years identified as the “dead herring act”.
Paula decided on her approach right from the start. It was based on first name terms. They sat side by side at a table in the library, surrounded by an atmosphere of books to create, as she thought, or stimulate the learning environment.
Maura was particularly pleased by the familiarity and the closeness; Paula noticed that she used her name more often than was necessary in the course of the lessons. She asked questions, too, and she told tales out of school.
In a short while, they were in danger of becoming skittish, and for Paula it was as if all the confined tension of the house had been administered a strong emetic in those moments.
Jack, she could see, wasn’t really listening now. He appeared to relax, stretching and all that, but she knew he was over-compensating for something he was working out in his head, playing out the scenes of some encounter like the rehearsal of a play in his head. It wasn’t a time to press him, she knew, and anyway, there wasn’t time; Maura had arrived. She was wearing a sickly-looking make-up on her face. After exchanging a few pleasantries with Dr. Morgan, they went through to the library, Paula carrying an unfinished coffee, and left him to ponder on unregarded.   
Maura read in an I-hate-Shakespeare voice from a heavily underscored copy of The Tempest; there were lines in blue and red ink marking important passages of the text, and fluorescent yellow had been added since Paula had last seen it.
“Is this important, Paula?”. She stopped in mid-sentence and re-read the passage,
    “…the ivy which had hid my princely trunk, and sucked my verdure out on it.”
    She sat poised with the fluorescent yellow marker.
Paula heard the phone ring in the hallway and she waited. She heard it ring again and then the feet strode out. There was a murmur of conversation, maybe even laughter, but she did not hear what was said. A light went on in the room across the hall and lit an oblique patch at the front of the house, and just as quickly went out again. Paula heard the front door close thickly and rattle in its frame. They both waited for him to pass outside. Maybe he would wave to them through the window, Paula thought. She hoped he would. He would see them, she imagined, as they were now, but not looking out; a little vignette of a mother and daughter perhaps, in a chipped white panelled room, their heads angled away, their eyes converging at one point on the book; his eyes would be inextricably drawn down to the feet underneath the table, where a careless shoe hung from the sole of a foot. This above all would hold the mood of the moment. And he might wonder as a stranger would.
He came into view at the window oblivious to them. He stopped to put on his coat. The light caught the outline of his features. They both saw the deep lines of the jaw, his brown hair had been brushed up. And as he walked broad-shouldered out of the light towards the car, his feet lightly touched the gravel as if he moved to music.
Paula felt something well up in her chest like a weakness, the blood quickening in her ears. She felt her mind strange to her as she heard herself saying out loud,
    “Do you fancy him?”
    It sounded like a voice not hers in the room, a nervous statement in public. It shocked her as she heard it over.
Maura was not shocked.
    “Oh yes! Everybody does! You’re so lucky, Paula,” she said; then realizing she had said something she shouldn’t, she clapped her hand over her mouth and looked up shyly at Paula. Their giggles and the laughter that followed quickly diffused the moment through the house. Paula heard the car engine fire, and then she saw light move through the darkness. Gone.
“Than attend’st not,” Paula heard Maura resume the reading, but she couldn’t listen. Everybody does. She wanted to enquire, “who is everybody?”, to stop and pursue it with Maura, but her sense of dignity prevented her. She tried to imagine ‘everybody’ but she could imagine nothing more than the teenage crushes of Maura’s school friends. And somehow, anything else made no sense of the picture she thought that he had of how they were.
He was still an attractive man obviously. She had kept herself well, too. They were not unhappy together. But Paula felt diminished in some way by the realization of what she was thinking.
She became aware of Maura once again drawing a yellow streak through a passage in her book. Maura was highlighting a new period in their life. A shoe slipped quietly to the floor, Paula stooped blindly to pick it up, groping with her foot and hand. When she found it, she got up and slowly carried her thoughts towards the window, and without thinking drew the curtains together on the night. It came to her then how hateful the house was. It had devoured them. It had left her barren and childless. Why on earth, she asked herself, had they come here? Why hadn’t they listened to advice? Why on earth had they stayed? She shocked herself with the realization and the panic of what she was thinking. She didn’t think she would ever say it but she was thinking it now. She had always prided herself with resilience in most things. Over the years she had worked at waiting.
The agitation she was experiencing now was with her hands, trembling slightly, searching for a cigarette. She needed one now, but she knew she wouldn’t because she never lighted up in Maura’s company. She tried to see Maura ten, twenty, thirty years further on; physically, she imagined her a fuller figure in a white factory coat and hair net, mentally, she hoped she would know herself sufficiently in life to be happy. In the meantime there was Shakespeare for them both.
She was sitting in his chair, smoking steadily when she heard the car rolling on the gravel; he had cut the engine, maybe not to wake her. She looked at her watch. It was late. The front door opened and the house breathed out. She heard the tear of velcro padding on his coat and shivered. She didn’t move until she heard the footsteps coming down the hall.
He avoided looking at her. He was busy taking off his shoes. She noticed they were wet with little bits of grass stuck in the stitching. He placed them by the grate and stood in his socks.
She threw the end of a cigarette into the white ash of the fire breaking the surface with a puff.
    “Maura gone?” he asked.
    She nodded. They were standing quite close. The features of her face were bony and set. He was preparing to leave, she could see that.
“We’ve got to decide, Jack,” she said quickly, stalling for time, and fumbling for a cigarette.
    “It’s your decision, I’d just as soon stay here if it makes any difference,” there was a faint smile and shrug that exacerbated her. She aimed herself to a chair to sit. He frowned, he was tired. He didn’t want a long session. They had talked and talked it over and over.
He took in the bare walls and the high ceiling and the cracked tiles between his feet.
“They don’t make houses like this anymore, it wouldn’t take much.”
    He had said this all before, about twenty years before. Even the exact same words.
“But it hasn’t happened,” Paula interjected, without bitterness, but with the soft reality of it.
    “How much is it worth?”
He shook his head.
    “I don’t know, who’d want it now, wouldn’t they be mad?”
“Weren’t we?”, she said, without regret. He looked at her gravely and didn’t answer.
    “Look,” she continued, “we can cut our losses here, it is not too late to start again.”
    She lit a cigarette, watching him closely through the flame.
    “Its just that we’ve got to do something.”
He looked at his watch and rubbed one foot over the other.
    “Alright, what? Move somewhere else?”
“If that’s what you’d want,” she said.
    Her husband nodded and said nothing more, only looked at his feet.
She could see herself driving down the country roads, passing the isolated farmhouses, taking a new look at the bungalows, the ones commanding discreet views of the sea. The thought held out great prospects for her. She wet her lips. She tried to think of having a house like that. She tried to think with her eyes closed. In silence she could hear only the high pitched drone from the fridge in the scullery; she tried to anticipate the moment, any moment now she thought, when the switch would trip and the machine would rattle to a halt, but it kept on churring.
“It is whatever you want, I don’t know,” he said, his voice trailing off in the scullery.
“I don’t know, either, but I was thinking of some place small.”
    She moved in the chair. She heard him run a bolt home in the back door.
“It would be different then”, she said when he returned.
    She watched him wander about the room. He plucked an open letter from the window and aimlessly looked at the address and post mark. He flicked the edge with his nails before returning it to the sill, standing it on edge. He came to rest behind a chair, leaning his elbows on the back, his hands gripping the arms as if he were about to sweep it over his head.
“It might be the same,” he said, facing her, “don’t you know that?”
Paula shook her head.
    “Even so, it will be all right.”
    She crossed her arms and tried to think straight.
    “And anyway, it won’t be the same as we are now, don’t you know the difference?”   
“I see,” he said softly. He looked down into the cushion of the chair, letting his head hang low.
Outside, a moth struck the window pane with force and slid down the glass. Paula shuddered and felt cold. It was late. Her hands began to tremble as she held the cigarette to her mouth. She shut her eyes, but she could still see him as he was now. She pressed her head back into the chair and tried to think beyond it, until it seemed as if it was happening long ago.


Taken from ‘Roughly Speaking’ (1991), pages 107-114.

© Copyright John Doorty

John Doorty

Cleaning the Graves