Authors: Edna O'Brien
August is a Wicked Month
for Stanley Mann
He has his winter too of pale misfeature,
Or else he would forgo his mortal nature.
HE WEATHER BUREAU FORECAST
sun. It was not mistaken. All day for five days it sizzled in the heavens and down below the city of London simmered. People who had hoped for summer wished now for a breeze and a little respite. Only at night did Ellen feel cool. Watering the garden and then sitting in the stone alcove. Provident stone. It gave back the warmth taken throughout the hot day and she saw it as something human – the mother who reserves love for when it is most needed. She often sat for an hour, caressing the stone, listening for the sounds of her child if he happened to be sleeping in her house, listening anyhow, which is what one does alone at night in a garden hushed by darkness. It was the best hour, sitting there, warmed, and calm, and a little sad. But next day it would be boiling again. The child’s father decided that they would go into the country. They would camp out he said, and make fires and go fishing and do things the boy wanted to do. It only took a day to get the various necessaries and they were ready to leave on Thursday.
In the shade end of the kitchen they sat, drinking tea, she from her mug, he from the blue china cup reserved for guests; hardly speaking. Through the glass half of the kitchen door they watched their child, putting up the tent in the garden. It was already fixed on two poles, a bright blue, flapping back and forth like a flag. The father had done that bit and now the child was putting the pegs in, and giving instruction to George.
‘Well into the ground, George,’ the child said. George was nobody. The child invented him three years before when he was five. It happened that a George came to visit them but very quickly got bored with a child of five and made an excuse about having to go home because of a pain in his head. But the child kept conversing with him after he’d left and held on to him throughout the years.
‘It’s a beautiful blue,’ she said, looking through the glare of the sun as the child pulled on a rope and the canvas bellied out.
‘They undercharged me,’ her husband said, piling sixpences, shillings and two-shilling pieces in separate banks on the table, reckoning what he had paid for the tent, the fittings and the two Lilos. Always slow at adding, he reckoned things up when he got home and for some reason he was invariably undercharged. ‘Because of his contemptuous face,’ she thought, ‘because he frightened shop girls and set them astray in their tottings and possibly one or two of them would think him attractive.’
‘I got away with nine and elevenpence,’ he said.
‘You want me to take it back?’ she asked.
‘Nonsense.’ He despised petty honour, but no longer thought it his duty to correct this or any other flaw in her.
‘Look,’ she said and pointed. The tent had swollen out now and as the child pulled on the last bit of rope it rose like a cone of bright blue towards the sky where the light was fiery.
‘He’s a strong child,’ she said, ‘to be able to do it.’
‘I believe in teaching him these things,’ her husband said, jumbling the various coins together and putting them in the pocket of his jacket which was spread over the back of his chair. Once when visiting her he hung his jacket on a nail and she went through the pockets for clues, reverting to wifedom again. He must have known. He kept his jacket close to him ever since and picked it up and took it with him even on the short journey through the scullery to the outside lavatory.
‘Anything you want for your trip?’ she said, guiltily. No, he’d seen to everything. In the boot of the car there was tinned food, Primus stove, sleeping-bags, seedless oranges, Elastoplast, disinfectant and various medicines which he’d transferred through a funnel from big economy bottles to littler bottles, suitable for packing. He was far-seeing, careful and exigent. There was nothing left for her to contribute but a tin of shortbread.
‘You could come with us,’ he said flatly as she got out the shortbread and assured him untruthfully that it was home-made. Still cowering. She shook her head to his invitation. It needed a less insipid approach than that to bring her back. They’d separated two years before and the child was shared between their two homes. Out of necessity he invented George. They’d got over the worst part; the acrimony when she first left and when he posted broken combs, half-used compacts and old powder puffs in his campaign to clear out her remains. They’d got over that and settled down to a sort of sullen peace, but they talked now as she always feared they might, like strangers who had never been in love at all.
‘He’s calling us,’ she said, relieved to escape. The child was saying, ‘Mama, Dada, Dada, Mama,’ in a shrill and happy way. She went out and raptured over the tent and said what a genius he was.
‘Now you can take it all down,’ his father said soberly. He’d got the child to put it up as an exercise.
‘I’ll help you,’ she said, kneeling down not so much to help as to get nearer to him, to kiss his clean hair and touch his cheek and take full advantage of the last few minutes of contact. He would love her to join them. He would hug her and say, ‘Good old Mama,’ but she couldn’t. Anyhow she consoled herself with the thought that he was happy. If she went there would be gloom and she could not bear the thought of night and her husband appointing their sleeping positions – he and her at either end of the new Lilos, the child in between, tossing and turning in the heat. For the last year of their marriage he avoided her in bed and she did not ever want to re-live that. The days would be testy – no music, no telephone, no floor to sweep, nothing to fill in the hours of treachery between them. She could not go.
‘You’ll write me sloppy letters,’ she said to her son.
‘Not sloppy,’ he said, as he uprooted the pegs, flushed from work and self-importance. Still giving orders to George.
At exactly four minutes to three they set off. She looked down at her watch to appear practical. The sun had gone behind a cloud and the sunshine fell in a spray over the grey motor as they drove away with the child in the back seat squeezed in between a lot of luggage. His father always put him in the back seat in case of accident.
‘Goodbye, goodbye,’ the small hand on the window delivering kisses. The fingers on the glass tapping. The face wrinkled up because it was embarrassed and might also cry.
‘Goodbye, goodbye.’ She could hardly keep her eyes on them.
She came in the house, picked up the underpants and vest that the child had peeled off, held them, looked at them, smelt them, and finally washed them and hung them out to dry. Then she sat at the kitchen table, and put her face on her arm. The sandals he’d discarded were on the table. A prong missing in the buckle of one. His father said to keep them, they might come in useful. They might or they might not. She sat there, feeling, out of habit, for the missing prong, her head on her arm, her arm wet from crying, darkness coming on again. The silver fish that had got in with a grocery order were darting over the floor in search of crumbs and spilt sugar.
‘Goodbye, goodbye.’ They were a long way off now; they might even have pitched tent and settled in for the night, the child fast asleep, the father sitting outside, breathing and gratified, a tarpaulin spread on the grass, because of the dew. He liked the country and was a very light sleeper.
WEEK LATER SHE
could afford to laugh at that night of monstrous loneliness. As she said to herself, leaning over the garden wall, ‘Something always comes, out of the blue.’ A taciturn male companion stood next to her and the interlude would have been perfect except that the loose sand along the top of the wall grazed her bare arms. They had been there for over an hour now and she was weary of holding herself straight, which was why she resorted to leaning at all. Different for him because his jacket sleeves protected his elbows. At regular intervals either one put a hand up and rescued the rug that they shared from slipping away. They wore it as a shawl over their shoulders because he said there was dew falling. It seemed beneficent as he said it, the dew that they could not see falling softly upon them, like mercy. There would be dew in Wales falling upon her husband and son. They got there. She’d had one card. The child wrote the greeting, the father the address. The greeting said ‘We are in a field with cows,’ and there were a lot of kisses and not enough room left for his name so that he only signed three letters of it. The cows would gather around the tent, she thought, and stare in at them. The after-grass would not be too high either, because of the cows keeping it cropped. And milk easy to buy. In the dark the cows would settle under the trees coughing and wheezing, and the child would fall asleep to that unfamiliar soothing sound and the watchful father would keep watch. Very early in the morning he might even dreg a mug of illicit milk for their breakfast before the farmer came to round up the cows for their real milking. The milk would be warm in the mug at first but cool by the time he had boiled the kettle and made the tea. The child loved tea and took three spoons of sugar, and dipped his crusts when there was no one authoritative looking.
It was the first evening that she did not miss them desperately. But that was because she had company.
From her back garden they stood and looked at the lights reflected in the River Thames. The river ran by at the end of the garden. An enviable position. Cloaked by the rug and close together they looked in exactly the same direction, towards the water at three sets of lights: silver lights forming six silver pipes in the water, their shadows behind them and a little to one side, then in the centre were the gold pipes of light like golden pillars in a church, and to the far right were black-green ones, the colour of porter bottles. There were many other things to be seen in London that night, Bovril signs and a moon and the bulky outline of a round gasometer, but they chose to look only at the pipes of light that swooped in a half-circle from left to right at that point where the river curved and went on towards distant Battersea and possibly created other images for other intending lovers.
‘If it were a painting we would try to explain it,’ he said.
‘We try to explain everything,’ she said.
In fact he talked less than anyone she’d ever been with before. They both said so little that they heard every sound, even the preparatory flaps of a duck before it took off in flight.
‘A duck has been molested,’ she said. He sighed. Was he bored?
‘No, I breathe shallowly. I sigh all the time.’
‘Which must be beautiful for those near you,’ she said, and then apologized for the train noise going by. She’d become used to it. He did not mind.
‘Our frog is making progress,’ he said. A frog was on its way to the pond in the centre of the garden. It had come out from under the unwieldy hedge a while before and its moves though sudden were barely perceptible, and these moves and his shallow breathing and the river going by and the dew – she had to take his word for this – falling, gave a slowness to the evening as if every second was being lengthened and they were aware of everything going on. The whole day had been slow like that and perfectly so.
‘He’s almost there,’ he said. He had turned round to observe the frog’s progress and now he faced the river again and gave the rug a little pull so that it was secured again. She felt him moving nearer and then their hips touched and they stayed like that, not agitating each other, just getting closer as they looked across the river and downwards at the pipes of light. In time their arms locked and their shoulders rubbed as if they were witching one another. His hand came around her waist and the rug began to slip because they put their remaining hands – her two and his one – to love uses, tracing each other’s faces, touching, lingering, drawing away, feeling a lip’s thickness, finding out. She was glad now that her arms were bare because his touch brought them to life with one sort of move, then another.