The sun had shown great promise earlier in the morning, resting just behind the thin clouds, but now as your father’s white Ford van pulls close to the grand Georgian terrace of Montpelier parade, it has yet to show itself fully. Your father’s hands falling across the steering wheel like a lazy riverboat Captin.
The brothers said he drives a car like some country mucker drives a tractor. And that a thumbless bricky was like a prickless playboy. You watch his thumbless hand negotiate the gear stick; it is not smooth and it is not graceful and you see how his rough shaven skin is falling off the bone. His strength is fading, right now, as he pulls off the Monkstown road. His white Ford is a leaking boat, sinking into the wet tarmac, but slowly.
Still, once your father threw the steel of a shovel into the earth his whole body moved with a single purpose; here in the physical landscape he became himself and finally he made sense. It was true that men decades younger would try to keep pace and fall aside, silently watching; sometimes in awe, sometimes envy. Even the brothers would give that much.
It’s just nine o clock and you feel sick from the heavy lifting. You carry the tools from the car through a narrow alleyway into the back garden. Everything you touch is wet and cold, refusing to surrender the last night’s weather. You want to rest, close your eyes a moment and feel warm. You’re worried you might faint and imagine him, mortified, standing over you, pushing your body with the heel of his boot.
“Get a mix on,” he says as you round the corner into the garden holding the final bag of Portland cement, straining not to seem strained. He stands looking over the broken garden wall; red bricks litter the grass and a cast iron gate hangs to one side, knocked by the high winds some weeks back. A fisherman and his son had been drowned off Dalkey Bay when their small boat had capsized. Their bodies lost, washed out to sea. It had been in all the papers.
The shovel feels enormous in your hands. You try to mimic your father’s rhythm. With the ease of an alchemist he can bring the sand, cement and water together. But you can not. You can feel his eyes on you and know that he’s only waiting to finish his cigarette before he takes the shovel.
“Give me the bleeden thing,” he says finally. “You look like you’re having a fit.” You stand back watching; outside the house you are free to admire him.
It’s late morning before you find a rhythm; it’s not his but it will do. Your body has warmed itself, and as you gather the red bricks into a neat pile, the world is silent, save an occasional songbird; the wet scraping of your father’s shovel like the gentle ticking of the day, laid out before you, slow and wide.
“Who lives here?” You ask. His shoveling quickens. You watch him like it’s a performance.
“Who lives here?” You ask again. He stops shoveling and his breaths come quick as he leans his hip against the shovel, searching the sky above, his gums showing.
“The people who have a broken garden wall live here,” he says. “Do you want them for something?”
“I do.” You say,” I want to buy the place and give us both a day off.” He smirks and that’s lovely. He puts a fresh cigarette to his mouth; there’s a blue Bic lighter dwarfed in his hand — he sparks it, then shakes it a few times and it takes. Gray smoke comes out his nose.
“It’d be some penny now, that house.” He says, looking over the three floors of pale sandstone, the perfect windowpanes, six up, three across.
“It’s big.” You say.
“Big alright, but big and all as it is you can only be in one room at a time… no matter how much money you have.”
But you wanted to know. A family, you guessed. A family that moved from day to day, inside the solid walls, clean and kind and funny as if they occupied the same space as one of those American telly shows.
All but a single window on the top floor is barred over with heavy fabric. The ground floor has closed wooden shutters. But the longer you look the more decay begins to show itself. Thick green moss along the line of the gutter. The plaster is cracked and you can see into the exposed innards under the sill. The whole building suddenly seems to be rotting with neglect.
“Must be eleven?” He says. The question drifts and was not for you; his weight shifts and he makes a decision. “Go on and get the sandwiches.” He says and you find yourself about to run to the car, but you hold fast and walk like somebody who’s body is heavy.
You sit almost side by side on the red bricks that you stacked, unfolding the tinfoil, biting roughly at the sandwiches.
“You think she’d throw out a cup of tea.” He says, his voice low, still chewing.
“Who?” You ask.
“That rich bitch.” He says, but you don’t think he means it. “You’d think a house like that, she’d spare a few tea bags and some feckin hot water.” You don’t answer.
“Feck it.” He says, throwing his bread back into the silver casing. He stands and walks along the little path to the back door. His fist on the wood like two gun shots, then three. Someone moves past the upstairs window, but it might be your imagination. Then you hear a woman’s voice muffled from inside.
“Yeah” Your father says. “Yeah… I just wanted to get in and make a tea… a cup of tea.” The salt is gone from his mouth, his head is bent forward like he’s talking to the door and you guess if he ever went to confession, this is how he’d look. “Good enough, yeah…good enough.” He nods at you as he walks back across the path and sits back on the red bricks. “Jesus, you’d give a stranger a cup of tea.” His voice is low, satisfied. “That’s how they are this lot, they’d walk all over you if you let them, that’s how they hold on to the money.” He digs his heavy boot into the earth and turns the heel.
You pick at dead skin on your hands, hoping to find a callus or a good cut. There are none, but red dust from the bricks lines the underside of your nails.
A latch clicks on the other side of the door and you and him cock your heads like stray dogs. The door opens slowly and a woman trying to balance a tray in her hands and open the door with her foot slowly emerges. “Go on and help her.” He says and you feel his elbow hit your arm. You stand attentive, but that’s all. She comes toward you along the little garden path, her eyes fixed on the tray. “Billy, I’m so sorry, but I got a late start today.” She says. She’s English.
“That’s alright, mam.” He says. “But for the sambo’s get a bit dry without it.” Her fair hair blocks you seeing her face, but you already know the smile rich people give when they talk to someone they think is stupid. He stands up as she comes closer. “Take the tray.” He says to you; but you don’t, you stand mute with your arms tied to your side. She raises her head and without meaning to, you leave your eyes on her face as if she is a picture.
She isn’t old at all, not in the way you’d expected; it surprises you, but she is not young either. She is beautiful, but so beautiful. The kind that makes you almost weary because you become so tiny in front of it. “Oh.” She says, not expecting to find someone other than your father. Her eyes are tired, like she’s watching from a room behind them.
“And who is this?” She says to your father, her voice like a newsreader.
“Oh, that’s the lad.” He says and his stout figure is transported to a market day out west, standing in the mud and shit, tipping his hat to a passing carriage.
“Hello lad.” She says with a faint smile, “I’m afraid I’ve not brought you a cup.” She says
“That’s alright, mam.” Says your Father. “He’s fine without.”
” Are you fine without?” She asks, looking at you now; her green eyes flash across your face.
“Yeah.” You say, quick to agree. She steps toward you, passing the tray, her smile lines still showing, and for a moment you know how she smells.
“There’s a few biscuits there — not the good one’s I’m afraid, I’ve not been out… em.” She lowers her head and searches around her feet.
“Oh, thanks Mam.” He says, then stares in silence. She pushes her hand into the pockets of what you assume to be a man’s bathrobe. Sizes too big, worn and tartan; the kind old men wear in hospitals. You can see the flesh of her hand through a hole in her pocket, where her finger had scratched from the inside a thousand times and broken through.
“How’s the work going?” She asks.
“Good now, Mam. Won’t be long getting done.” She looks at the wall a moment, the way you look at a jigsaw puzzle you’re never going to do. “Great.” She says, and there’s more silence. She looks at you again, this time in a lazy way. “Good of you to give your dad a hand today.”
“Oh, he’s a good one alright, smart too, not the building for him. He’s a good job up in O’Mally’s butchers during the week after school. Smart alright, get a trade indoors.”
You can’t look at her now. You can feel a burning across your face. Shut up, shut up, shut up, you thick culchy bastard.
“It’s a good profession.” She says simply and without interest, and turns and glances at the back door.
“Good alright.” Says your father without the same eagerness.
“Well, I’ll leave you two to it.” She says.
“Good enough, Mam.” He sits back on the pile of red bricks.
“Oh,” she says. “If you need the toilet, it’s through that door, up the stairs and… ” She pauses. Her hand flutters in the air. “Yes… first door on the landing to the right.” Her smile lands in the middle of you both. And silently her footfalls carry her along the little path and back inside.
“Stop gawking like an eegit.” You hear him say. “Pour that tea and sit.” He is annoyed suddenly; annoyed at you, her or himself; you don’t know.
The tray is oak, smooth and lovely to touch. You set it carefully on the grass and pour his tea from an old fashioned teapot. Your father fingers through the biscuits that sit on a small plate that seems to be from the same set. He picks one up and holds it under his nose, then flings it back on the plate with such force it skips off the tray.
“She didn’t kill herself with that spread, did she?” You say nothing, but leave the biscuits untouched even though you want one.
“Weak piss.” he says after the first sip.
The blue sky only holds until late afternoon, but even then, when the clouds come dark and low, they kindly keep their rain to themselves. On the hour you hear the coast train stopping at Salthill, before moving on toward Howth or Bray. Your father says nothing; you watch him carefully, he takes off his shirt and uses it to wipe under his arms and neck. Packed sinew and muscle moving beneath his skin, sallow and scarred.
The workday is ending when you hear him hum a faint, nameless tune. It lifts your mood. He tells you to start cleaning up. You know his internal clock is set to two hours before the bookies close and now he is in a hurry to leave.
“Bring that tray back in to her.” He says. He’s standing stock still, looking at the great house. Turned from you he puts his shirt back on. “Go on.” He says.
As you bend and pick up the tray you see a string of tiny ants leading from the grass along the tray, ending at the untouched biscuit. “I’ve got to use the toilet.” You tell him; he looks at you and exhales. “Just go behind that that wall there, like I did.” You feel your shoulders shrug.” Take your shoes off before you go in there, be quick about it.”
When you get to the granite step you dip and pull your boots from the heel. Your socks are wet, gray white, and a blackened toenail is exposed on one side. You use your shoulder to push open the heavy door and from the first step inside the cold flagstones chill your feet. Narrow splinters of afternoon light find their way past the gaps in the shutters, finding here and there the contours of the kitchen. You find an old Belfast sink and unload the tray into it, putting the biscuits aside. You wonder if you should put them in the bin or smuggle them out in your pockets. You put them into the bin and then think about her finding them.
In the hallway strong light comes in through stained glass panels above the main entry door, a patchwork of amber, red and blue inch across the floor. The walls are high, the cornices seem to float, and the pictures on the walls are not pictures of the pictures, even you know that. The sound of your own movement up the stairs disappears into the carpet. You find the bathroom following her directions, top of the stairs, first on the right.
Once locked inside, you finally admit to yourself you don’t need a piss. You are here to discover her, as if, in the stacked white towels, the rising pile of books on the floor, or the assorted toiletries, both gilded and plain — she could be found. There is an ink drawing on the wall, without a frame, just hanging from a single thumbtack. A large woman, naked from behind, her head turned, her eyes find you. Your fingers trace the outline of the ink, every curve, every curve. You wonder if she is still home or if every room in the house is like this, empty and full of her at the same time.
You know you’re out of time so you flush the toilet and run the tap; you don’t wash your hands, instead you watch how the slow rising steam fogs the mirror, just a little — just enough to blur your reflection, just that much.
The lock makes a steel popping sound even though you take great care to be quiet. You’re surprised to find the landing deserted, silently unchanged. Pat, pat, pat down the stairs without a whisper. You know the way to your father is back through the kitchen, but in the hallway, off to the left, a door is open. You stand completely still in the hallway, comforted by the fullness of the silence; it settles around you like water in the bathtub.
A few easy steps and you are there, standing in that room, watching her. She sits on a worn blue couch, facing into the room, her elbows stuck to her knee and her head resting in the pocket of her hands. Not reading or sleeping or even allowing her shoulders to rise with her breathing; just staring, like watching a telly somewhere unseen.
Without remembering your place, you ask, ” Are you not feeling well?” At first she doesn’t move, then she lowers her ear a bit towards your voice, until finally she turns and you can see one eye and she laughs a little, but just with her breath. Keeping the same half smile she says, “I feel fine.” There’s a joke in there but it’s only for her.
You wonder if she had heard you come in and could trace your journey throughout her own house, your nosey stops here and there. “I don’t want to be a butcher.” You tell her, only because you have no choice. You rub your fingers together and they are numb.
“No.” You say.
“What do you want to be?” She says, as if the conversation has been ongoing.
“I don’t know.” You say, “I want to go away, leave here… Ireland I mean, leave Ireland.”
“Where would you go?” She asks and you hear the sudden blaze of a car horn outside and you know it’s him, missing the 4:10 at Cheltenham.
“I don’t know.” You say, and feel suddenly ridiculous for not just picking somewhere, anywhere.
“Maybe Barcelona.” You say then, because — in case she asks – you know that it’s in Spain.
“Well.” She says, “Maybe you can move to Barcelona and become a vegetarian.” You look away, unsure. The car horn again, longer this time.
“You have a beautiful face.” She says, but you don’t think she’s trying to be mean. Your face feels suddenly hot.
“There’s a painter called Botticelli, do you know who that is? I think he’d have been quite taken with you.” You don’t and later, when you try to remember his name, you can’t.
“I think that’s me da.” You say.
“I think so too, good luck.” She says, turning back into the room. Her hair spills forward and shows you her white neck. You want to lean over the blue couch and kiss it; that feels right to you. But you step backwards, out the door, through the hallway, across the kitchen and outside into the still light garden. Running towards your father.
— Karl Geary was born in Dublin, and moved to New York City at age 16. He works as a script writer (“Coney Island Baby”), actor (Michael Almereyda’s “Hamlet”), and more recently adapted and directed Dorothy Parker’s “You Were Perfectly Fine” for the screen. This is an excerpt from his novel “Eve In Dublin.”