The short story, Memory and Desire was originally published by Poolbeg Press in “An Idle Woman” and has been selected for inclusion in several anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction edited by Colm Tóibín and the recent Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, edited by Anne Enright. Now the title story of her new collection of short fiction, you can read it here, but we’d recommend that you buy the whole book for all the stories of course!
The television people seemed to like him and that was a new feeling he found exciting. Outside his own work circle he was not liked, on the whole, although he had a couple of lifelong friends he no longer cared for very much. The sort of people he would have wished to be accepted by found him arrogant, unfriendly, and not plain enough to be encouraged as an oddity. His wealth made him attractive only to the types he most despised. He was physically gross and clumsy with none of the social graces except laughter. Sometimes his jokes were good and communicable. More often they were obscure and left him laughing alone as though he were the last remaining inhabitant of an island.
Sometimes, indeed, he wondered if he spoke the same language as most other people, so frequently were they baffled if not positively repelled. He liked people generally, especially physically beautiful people who seemed to him magical as old gods. Sometimes he just looked at such people, not listening or pretending to listen to what they said, and then he saw the familiar expression of dislike and exclusion passing across their faces and he knew he had blundered again. Now for several weeks he had been among a closely-knit group who actually seemed to find his company agreeable. When the invitation had come he had been doubtful. He knew nothing about television an – seldom watched it. But because his father’s small glass-making business had blossomed under his hand and become an important element in the export market, the television people thought a programme could be made out of his success story, a then-and-now sort of approach which seemed to him banal in the extreme. He had given his eventual consent because time so often hung on his hands now that expansion had progressed as far as was practicable and delegation had left him with little to do except see his more lucrative contacts in Europe and the United States a couple of times a year.
The only work he would actually have enjoyed doing these days was supervising the first efforts of young glass-blowers. Two of the present half-dozen were grandsons of his father’s original men. At a time when traditional crafts were dying out everywhere or falling into strange (and probably passing) hands, this pleased him. He tried to show signs of his approval while keeping the necessary distance right from the boys’ first day at work, but this was probably one of the few laces left in Ireland where country boys were shy and backward still, and their embarrassment had been so obvious that nowadays he confined himself to reports on them from the foreman. It had been different in his father’s time. The single cutter and the couple of blowers had become personal friends of his father and mother, living in the loft above the workshops (kept warm in winter by the kiln) and eating with the family in the manner of medieval apprentice craftsmen. During holidays from boarding school they had become his friends too, gradually and naturally passing on their skills to him, and so listening without resentment to the new ideas on design he had in due course brought back with him from art school and from working spells in Sweden. Gradually over the years of expansion after his father’s death he had grown away from the men. Now since the new factory had been built in Cork he knew very few of them any more.
The odd thing about the television people was that right from the beginning they had been un-awed and called him Bernard, accepting that he had things to learn about their business and that he would stay with them in the same guest house, drink and live with them during the shooting of the film, almost as though they were his family and he an ordinary member of theirs. It had irritated and amused and baffled and pleased him in rapid progression and now he even found it hard to remember what his life had been like before he knew them or how his days had been filled in. Their youth too had shocked him in the beginning; they seemed like children at play with dangerous and expensive toys. The director in particular (who was also the producer and therefore responsible for the whole idea) had in addition to a good-humoured boy’s face an almost fatherly air of concern for his odd and not always biddable family. What was more remarkable, he could discipline them. The assistant cameraman who had got drunk and couldn’t be wakened on the third day of shooting had not done it again. When Eithne, the production assistant, had come down to breakfast one morning with a streaming cold and a raised temperature, Martin had stuffed a handful of her notes into the pocket of his jeans and sent her back up to bed, weeping and protesting that she was perfectly all right and not even her mother would dare to treat her like that.
Martin was very good with uncooperative fishermen, and with the farmer on whose land the original workshop still hung over the sea. A nearby hilly field had recently been sown with oats, and the farmer began with the strongest objection to a jeep laden with gear coming anywhere near it. He had agreed to it during preliminary negotiations, but shooting had in fact been delayed (delayed until more money became available) and that field, the farmer said, was in a delicate condition now. If they’d only come at the right time – Martin it was who finally talked him around with a guarantee against loss which would probably land him in trouble back in Dublin. But Martin (the Marvellous Boy was Bernard’s private label for him) would worry about that one when he came to it and he advised Bernard to do the same about his fear of appearing ridiculous in some sequences. Not even half the stuff they were shooting would eventually be used, Martin said, and anyhow he’d give Bernard a preview at the earliest possible moment. Bernard stopped worrying again. Most of the time he had the intoxicating illusion of drifting with a strong tide in the company of excellent seamen and a captain who seemed to know his business.
The actual process of remembering was occasionally painful, of course. His only brother Tom had been swept away by a spring tide while fishing down on the rocks one day after school, and at first Bernard hadn’t believed any reference to it would be possible when the script finally came to be written. Martin had come back to it casually again and again however, and finally one day of sharp March winds and flying patches of blue sky he had stood with Bernard on the headland near the roofless house.
‘Let me show you what I have in mind,’ Martin said gently, the south Kerry accent soft as butter. ‘It will be very impressionistic, what I’ve in mind, a mere flash. A spin of sky and running tides, a moment.
‘If you’d prefer, it won’t need anything specific in the script. Just a reference to this friendly big brother mad about fishing, who knew about sea birds and seals and liked to be out by himself for hours on end. Maybe then, a single sentence about the nature of spring tides. The viewers generally won’t know that spring tides have nothing to do with spring. You may say we’re telling them about a successful glass industry, not about the sea, but the sea takes up a large part of your own early background and this piece is about you too. I’d write you a single sentence myself for your approval if you wouldn’t mind – just to show you what I think would work – OK?’
‘”These are pearls that were his eyes”- you could end like that, couldn’t you?’ Bernard heard himself sneering and almost at once regretted it. The director actually blushed and changed the subject. In a few seconds it was as if the moment had never happened, but it seemed to Bernard that a kind of bond had been perversely established.
Two days later a spring tide was running and he watched a few sequences being shot that might well be used for the passage he knew now he was going to write. He walked away from the crew when he found he could no longer watch the sort of sling from which the chief cameraman had been suspended above the cliffs to get some of the necessary angles. The whole thing could have been done better and more safely by helicopter but Martin had explained about the problems he had encountered after overrunning the budget for the last production. It wasn’t of course that he wanted necessarily to make Bernard’s backward look a cheaper affair; you often got a better end result (in his own experience) by using more ingenuity and less money: he thought he knew exactly how to do it. The somewhat unconvincing argument amused and didn’t displease Bernard, who thought it more than likely that something less conventional might finally emerge. The the last he saw of the crew was that crazy young man, clad as always when working in a cotton plaid shirt, suspending himself without benefit the cameraman’s sling to try to see exactly what the lens saw.
A fit of nervousness that had in it something of the paternal and something else not paternal at all made him walk the seven miles around to the next headland. He hadn’t thought like a father for five years. For half of that isolated time he hadn’t brought home casual male encounters either because nothing stable had ever emerged from them and more often than not he was put off by the jungle whiff of the predator and managed to change direction just in time. Now he tried to resist looking back at the pair of boys busy with their games which they apparently regarded as serious. The head cameraman was even younger than Martin. He had a fair freckled face and red hair so long that it would surely have been safer to tie it back in a girl’s ponytail before swinging him out in that perilous contraption. Bernard turned his face again into the stiff wind and looked back at the receding insect wriggling above the foaming tide, man and technology welded together in the blasting sunlight. The weird shape drew back his eyes again and again until a rock they called the Billygoat’s Missus cut it off and he was alone for (it seemed) the first time in several weeks.
For the first time as in a camera’s framed eye he saw his own room at home. Tidy as a well-kept grave, it was full of spring light from the garden. There were daffodils on his desk. Spangles of light from the rocky pool outside danced on the Yeats canvas that took up most of one wall and struck sparks from the two early balloons which he treasured. Five poplars in a haze of young green marked the end of his garden. Beyond it, the sharp-breasted great Sugarloaf and eventually the sea. The room had been tidy for five years now. No maddening litter of dropped magazines, no hairpins, no shoes kicked off and left where they fell: left for the woman next morning to carry to the appropriate place in the appropriate room because she was born to pick up the litter of other people’s lives, paid for it as the only work she knew. One night in a fit of disgust he had kicked into the corner a black leather clog, left dead centre on the dark carpet awaiting the exact moment to catch his shin. Uncontrolled fits of violence he despised. Recovering quickly he had placed the shoes side by side outside the door as though this were an old-fashioned hotel with a dutiful boots in residence. She had come in laughing later on, both clogs held up incredulously in her hand, laughing and laughing, tossing them finally up in the air to fall where they might before she left the room. As perhaps she had done last night and would do again tomorrow. Wherever she was.
A rising wind drove before it into the harbour a flock of black clouds that had appeared from nowhere, and when drops of rain the size of old pennies began to lash down he sought refuge in the hotel which had been small and unpretentious in its comfort when he was a child. His father’s clients had often stayed here. He had sometimes been sent on messages to them with his brother. Now the place had several stars from an international guide book and was famous both for its sea food and the prices that foreign gourmets were willing to pay for it.
He sat in the little bar full of old coastal maps and looked out at the sea; alone for the first time in two weeks he was no less content than in the casual company of the television people. Their young faces and their voices were still inside his head. As though on cue, Martin suddenly came through into the bar, also alone. The wind had made any more shooting too dangerous for today he said, and the girls had gone off to wash their hair. He had his fishing gear in the boot, but he doubted if he’ d do much good today.
“Have lunch with me, then, and eat some fish instead,” Bernard invited, and was amused to see a flash of pure pleasure light up the director ‘s face. Beer and a sandwich usually kept them going until they all sat down together at the end of the day.
“This place has got so much above itself even since the last time I was down here that I expect to be asked my business as soon as I set foot inside the door,” Martin grinned.
“They wouldn’t do that in late March ,” Bernard assured him. “Neither the swallows nor the tourists have arrived yet, so I fancy even people in your state of sartorial decay would be encouraged.”
Martin took an imaginary clothes brush out of the jeans pocket (too tight to hold any thing larger than a toothbrush) and began to remove stray hairs from that well-worn garment which had seaweedy stains in several places and looked slightly damp. The boy walked with a sort of spring, like a healthy cat, and there was no trace yet of the flab which his pint-drinking would eventually bring. He ate the bouillabaisse and the fresh baked salmon which followed with the relish of a child brought out from boarding school for the day and determined to take full advantage of it. He praised the Alsace wine which was apparently new to him and Bernard decided that one of the great remaining pleasures of money was never to have to worry about the cost of any thing one suddenly wanted to do. Bernard listened abstractedly to a little house politics over the coffee and then at the end of the first cognac he spoke one unwary line about buying all those bandy little boss men for a next birthday present for Martin should he wish it. The sea-reflecting blue eyes opposite him narrowed coldly for a moment before they closed in a bellow of laughter and the moment passed, like the rain outside. The sea was too uneasy, however, in the whipping wind to yield anything, but Bernard remembered one good story about his dead brother on a long-ago trip to Kinsale. Martin made a note in biro on the back of the wrist which held his fishing rod and Bernard knew it would be transferred to the mounting heaps of papers back at the hotel. More and more in the course of the programme he was being his own production assistant.
* * *
Mr O’Connor had carried in a mountain of turf for the fire and Eithne rather liked to listen to the rattle of the rain outside by way of contrast. Her hair was dry by now but spread all over the hearthrug and she swung it back in a tickling blanket over the recumbent John D who was still struggling with the Irish Times crossword.
‘Give that over and sit up,’ she said, fetching her eternal dice-throwing version of Scrabble which she had bought somewhere in Holland.
‘I was just going to work out another angle for that last shot to put to Martin when he gets back.’
‘Martin is probably half way to France by now on an ebbing tide. We’ll find his pathetic little bits and pieces in the morning.’
‘Stop that!’ John D was superstitious as well as red-haired. He was nervous about things like that. ‘All right, I’ll give you three games and that’s it.’
‘Nice John D. Did you notice Bernard’s face today when you were strung up over the cliff, by the way?’
‘I had other things to worry about. Is “cadenza” allowed?’
‘It’s not English but I suppose it’s in the OED like everything else – it’s virtually been taken over, after all.’
‘OK, it’s allowed.’ John D formed the word.
‘But no brio or allegro molto,’ Eithne warned.
‘No brio or allegro molto – I haven’t the makings of them anyhow. What sort of look did Bernard have on his unlovely mug?’
‘A bit nervous for you, I think. I think that’s why he walked away.’
‘Arrogant bastard a lot of the time.’ John D swept up the dice after totting his score. ‘Are capitalists human? You should put that theme to Martin some time.’
‘More a Neville sort of line, surely? But I think you’re wrong. He’s shy and he’s only just stopped being uneasy with us.’
‘Just in time to say goodbye then,’ said John D with satisfaction.
‘There’s hardly a week in it, if the weather lifts a bit.’
‘If,’ Eithne said, scooping a single good score. It was her game, her thing, but the others always won. ‘I think he’s lonely, which only goes to show you money isn’t everything.’
‘You can be miserable in much more comfort though. He looks to me like a bod who’d have it off wherever he pleased with one sex or t’other, despite his ugly mug. He has the brazen confidence you only get from too much money.’
‘I think you’re wrong and the death of his brother is still bothering him after all these years. It’s something I just have a hunch about. And then of course his wife walked out on him a few years ago. Prime bitch they say she was too. He came home one night and found not as much as a hair-clip left behind, and his baby gone too.’
‘”Hunch” is not a permissable word all the same. Thirties slang,’ said John D with finality. ‘Why wouldn’t she walk out on him when he’s probably given to buggery?’
‘It’s much more permissable than “Cadenza”. How about to hunch one’s shoulders?’
‘Go and ask Mr O’Connor if he has a dictionary then.’
‘You go. My hair isn’t dry yet.’
‘Your hair is practically on fire, lady,’ John D said, settling himself comfortably on the hearthrug again. A car crunched in the sandy drive outside and Eithne gave a long sigh.
‘Thank God. I couldn’t have borne the smell of good country roast beef much longer.’
‘There’ll be frogs’ eyes to follow.’
‘At worst there’ll be stewed apples, at best apple pie. Doesn’t your nose tell you anything except whether a pint’s good or bad?’
In out of the rain and the early dusk, Bernard was touched all over again by the sight of two apparent children playing a game beside the fire. He came over very willingly to join them when Eithne called and Martin went upstairs to look over his notes before dinner. He would call Evelyn on his way down, he said.
Later they all went out in the pouring rain to the pub and listened while a couple of local Carusos rendered songs like ‘Two Sweethearts’ – one with hair of shining gold, the other with hair of grey – or the endless emigrant laments favoured by local taste. Whiskey chasing several pints made John D a bit quarrelsome and he shouted for a song from Bernard just to embarrass him. To everybody’s surprise Bernard was not embarrassed. He stood up, supported only by two small Jamesons (the second of which he was still nursing) and gave the company a soft-voiced but not untuneful version of ‘Carrickfergus’ which was vociferously applauded by the locals and earned him delighted approval from the team. Eithne thought they ought maybe incorporate ‘Carrickfergus’ into the soundtrack, and John D wanted to know why they couldn’t all move up to Carrickfergus and let Bernard do his party piece with his back against the castle walls. This suggestion was received with the contempt it deserved but Bernard wasn’t discomfited.
That happened only when they got back to the guesthouse and he heard Martin telling Mrs O’Connor that they would almost certainly be finished shooting by the end of the week and would hardly stay over the weekend. The sinking of the heart was like what came long ago with the necessity of facing back to school after the long summer holidays. He felt ashamed of his emotion and unsure how to conceal it, so he went up early to his room. Normally they would hang about for hours yet, reading the newspapers they hadn’t had time for during the day, swapping stories, doing crossword puzzles, discussing the next day’s work. Usually he didn’t contribute much to the conversation; like a silent member of a big family he was simply there, part of what was going on, perfectly content to sit up as long as they did.
Now there was something symbolic about hearing the murmur of their voices downstairs. The script had still to be written and there would be consultations in Dublin about it, hopefully with Martin, but (give or take a few days from now) the thing was over. Next week they would all be busy taking somebody else through his mental lumber-room. The little family would reform itself around another fire, and it would have nothing to do with him. And soon it would be April, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire. Time perhaps to go away; he had promised himself a few weeks in April. On the other hand, why not stay on here?
He let down the small dormer window and looked out over the water. This house echoed, in almost exact detail, that other, roofless, house; the murmur of voices, even, was like his sisters’ voices before they settled down for the night, all together in the big back bedroom.
His own small room above the harbour used to be shared with his brother. The rain had stopped now and there was almost no sound from the sea and he wasn’t surprised when Martin came to his door to say the weather forecast had been very good for the south-west and they might get in a full day’s shooting tomorrow.
‘Come in and have a nightcap,’ he invited, and Martin said he wouldn’t stay long but happily didn’t refuse the brandy when it was taken from the wardrobe.
‘What will you do next?’ Bernard asked, just for a moment unsure of how to begin.
‘A bit of a break before I join Current Affairs for a short stint,’ the boy smiled. ‘Yours is the last programme in the present series. No more now until next season.’
‘You mean you’re going to take a holiday?’ He strove to make his voice sound casual, although he was suddenly aware of the beating of his heart.
‘Unless something untoward crops up, yes.’
‘Why not join me in Greece, then, since that’s where I’m heading next week or the week after? The place I have on Ios needs to be opened up after the winter and there’s plenty of room, I assure you. Also two local women waiting to cook and clean for us.’ Bernard saw the refusal before it came; it was only a question of how it would be framed, how lightly he would be let down.
‘It’s a tempting offer, and there’s nothing I’d enjoy more, all thing being equal. Never been further than Corfu as a matter of fact. But my wife has organised a resident babysitter for the two boys and we’re off on a busman’s holiday to Canada as soon as I’m free. Laura is Canadian you know. I met her when I was training in London with the BBC. When we get back, maybe you’d come over for supper with us some evening? Laura’s an unpredictable cook, but you’ll agree that doesn’t matter too much when you meet her. Is it a deal?’
He drained the glass and got up off Bernard’s bed with the same catspring, which was noticeable also in the way he walked.
‘It’s a deal. Many thanks. And maybe you’ll both join me some time in Greece?’
Martin made the appropriate noises and didn’t go at once, but started talking about a painter called Richard Dadd who (somebody had told him) had probably given Yeats his Crazy Jane themes. He hadn’t seen the paintings himself at the Tate but Bernard had, so this kept them going until the door closed behind him, and on his youth, and on the hollow promise of knowing him as one knew every line of one’s own hand. There was a lot of the night left and, fortunately, a lot of the brandy too.
The weather behaved as the weathermen said it would and the rest of the shooting went without a hitch. During this couple of weeks the year had turned imperceptibly towards summer, primroses in the land-facing banks, sea-pinks along the cliffs and an air about the television people that Bernard had seen before and couldn’t quite place. Only when he went with them for the final day’s shooting did he pin it down; a fairground the day after the circus. The television gear was more easily moved, of course; no long hours were needed for the pull-out. But the feeling was the same. They didn’t believe him when he said he was staying on and they seemed shocked, which amused him, when he determinedly heaped presents on them the morning they were going: his Leica for Eithne who (incredibly) had never owned a camera of her own, a sheepskin jacket for John D because his own was in flitters from the rocks, a silver brandy flask (circa 1840), a cigarette lighter and a gold biro scattered apparently at random among the rest. The vulgarity of the largesse amused Bernard himself because such behaviour was not usual and he didn’t entirely understand his impulse. But he understood perfectly why he gave Martin his signed first edition of The Winding Stair, a volume which for a year or more had lived in the right-hand door-pocket of his car for no better reason than that he liked to have it there. He had bought it somewhere along the quays in Cork.
Fair and foul are near of kin
And fair needs foul,’ I cried,
‘My friends are gone and that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied
Learned in bodily lowliness,
And in the heart’s pride.
A former owner had marked that with a small star in the margin, and Martin smiled slightly as he read it aloud in gratitude when the book fell open.
‘I often have a disturbing feeling when I finish a job like this that I know-‘ he searched patiently for the words he wanted and his hesitation seemed to Bernard like comfort consciously-given for some loss he could understand. ‘That I know almost enough to begin all over again. Properly.’ He didn’t smile at all when they shook hands so that the handgrip seemed warmer. ‘Until soon, in Dublin,’ were his last words, a rather childish farewell which would have left a pleasant glow behind if Bernard had not known by now that they would not meet again. The vanful of technology went on ahead of the boy’s unreliable little red sports car, and watching from the drive of the guesthouse, Bernard had the feeling of the fairground again after the circus caravans have rolled away. It was peaceful, though, with the blue sea breathing quietly all around him and a few mares’ tails of cloud slowly unravelling in the sky.
He was leaning over the wall considering how he would fill his remaining time when the guesthouse owner strolled by, indicating the blue boat which bobbed at the end of its mooring rope below them.
‘You could take the aul’ boat out fishing any day you had a fancy for it, Mr Golden. You’re more than welcome to her any time though I wouldn’t recommend today, mind you.’
‘I’m much obliged to you, Stephen. I have all the gear I need in the boot of the car so I might do just that. But why not today?’
‘She’ll rise again from the south-west long before evening,’ his host said positively. ‘And she’ll blow herself out if I’m not mistaken. It would be a dangerous thing to go fishing out there today.’
‘The weathermen last night didn’t mention any gales blowing up.’
‘The weathermen don’t live around this Hook either,’ O’Connor said drily. ‘I’ve caught those same gentlemen out once or twice, and will again with the help of God.’
‘You might be right at that, I suppose. But if I do go out, I’ll only fish for a short while, I promise you.’
A pleasant man, Stephen O’Connor, a retired Civic Guard with an efficient wife to make a business out of the beautiful location of their house and her own hard work. Bernard remembered him vaguely from childhood, pedalling wet and fine around the coast roads, stopping here and there for a chat, missing nothing. It was he who had brought the news that Tom’s body had been washed ashore somewhere near Kinsale. It was he who had in fact identified it. On remembering this Bernard toyed for a moment with the idea of having an actual conversation with this kindly man whose memories touched his own at one black juncture. The moment passed, however, and Stephen made a little more chat, lingering with natural courtesy just long enough for a guest to make up his mind whether or not further company would be welcome, and then he ambled contentedly in the direction of the greenhouse for the day’s pottering. Old man, old man, if you never looked down again at a drowned face of my father’s house it would be time enough for you. Forgive me, Stephen O’Connor.
The first warm sun of the year touched Bernard’s eyes and he smiled, sitting up on the sea wall. No more Aprils, no more lilacs breeding out of the dead land, no more carnal awakenings. He felt peaceful, then a little surprised that the image behind his closed eyelids was not of his brother or of the young Martin or even of the caravans pulling out. It was the small wilful face of his daughter in the act of breaking away when one tried to hold her. He didn’t know where she was, or even how she looked now, whether she still mirrored her mother in every gesture. He had a perfect right to know for the mere trouble of enforcing it. He hadn’t done that, at first put off by the refusal of maintenance, by the eternal sound of the phone ringing in an empty flat and by two or three unanswered letters. He hadn’t made a very energetic effort to keep in touch. As one year became two or three and now five, it had always seemed too late, but it would be untrue to pretend he greatly cared. It was just that, not being able to understand why the child’s face should be so vivid in his mind, he was bothered by it as by some minor irritation, a door that slammed somewhere out of sight, a dripping tap. It wasn’t until he was actually aboard the boat starting up the engine in a freshening breeze that he realised why he couldn’t rid himself of his daughter’s face today, of all days.