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.
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.
the late Canon Houlan wouldn’t like the implication of what
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
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
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
“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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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?”
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
“Its just that we’ve got to do
He looked at his watch
and rubbed one foot over the other.
“Alright, what? Move somewhere else?”
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.
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
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?”
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