THE red and white bus climbed up the hilly roads on its way, through the Dublin Mountains, to the town of Enniskerry. On either side the hedges were so high and heavy that the passengers had nothing more interesting to look at than each other, but after a short time the road became steeper than before. Then the fields that had been hidden by hedges were all bared to view, and slanted smoothly downward to the edge of the distant city.
Dublin was all exposed. The passengers told each other that you could see every inch of it. They could certainly see every church steeple and every tower. But, had they admitted as much, they would have said that the dark spires and steeples that rose up out of the blue pools of distance below looked little better than dark thistles rising up defiantly in a gentle pasture.
The sea that circled this indistinct city seemed as gray and motionless as the air. Suddenly, however, it was seen that the five-o’clock mail boat, looking little better or bigger than a child’s toy boat, was pushing aside the plastery waves and curving around the pier at Dunlaoghaire on its way to the shores of England.
‘There she goes!’ said Manny Ryan to the young man in the gray flannel suit who shared the bus seat with him. ‘The fastest little boat for her size in the whole of the British Isles.’
‘ What time does it take her to do the crossing?’ asked the young man.
‘Two hours and ten minutes,’ said Manny, and he took out a watch and stared at it. ‘It’s 3.39 now. She’s out about four minutes, I’d say. That leaves her right to the dot. She’ll dock at Holyhead at exactly 5.45.’
‘She’s dipping a bit,’ said the young man. ‘I suppose she’s taking back a big load after the Horse Show.’
‘That’s right. I saw by the paper this morning she took two thousand people across yesterday evening.’
‘You take a great interest in things, I see.’
‘I do. That’s quite right for you! I take a great interest indeed, but I have my reasons. I have my reasons.’
Manny put his elbow up against the ledge of the window and turned on his side in the tight space of the scat, so that he was almost facing his companion, who, having no window ledge to lean upon, was forced to remain with his.profile to Manny while they were talking.
‘ You wouldn’t think now,’ said Manny, ‘just by looking at me, that I had my choice to sailing out of Dublin on that little boat one day, and I turned it down! You wouldn’t think that now, would you?’
‘I don’t know so much about that,’ said the young man, uncomfortably. ‘Many a man goes over to Holyhead, for one class of thing or another.’
But it was clear by his voice that he found it hard to picture Manny, with his shiny black suit and his bowler hat, in any other city but the one he had lately left in the bus. So strong was his impression that Manny was, as he put it to himself, a Dubliner-coming-and-going, that he hastened to hide his impression by asking what business Manny had in Holyhead, if that wasn’t an impertinence? He forgot apparently that Manny had never actually gone there, but Manny forgot that too in his haste to correct the young man on another score altogether.
‘Is it Holyhead?’ he asked in disgust. ‘Who goes there but jobbers and journeymen?’
‘London?’ asked the young man, raising his eyebrows.
‘Policemen and servant girls,’ said Manny impatiently.
‘Was it to the other side altogether, sir?’ said the young man, and the ‘sir’ whistled through the wax in Manny’s ears like the sweetest string of a harpsichord, touched with a clever quill.
‘To the other side altogether is right,’ he said. ‘I was heading for Paris — gay Paree, as they call it over there — and I often wished to God I hadn’t turned my back on the idea.’
‘Is it a thing you didn’t go, sir?’
‘Well, now, as to that question,’ said Manny, ‘I won’t say yes and I won’t say no, but I’ll tell you this much — I had my chance of going away. That’s something, isn’t it? That’s more than most can say, isn’t it?’
‘It is indeed. But if it’s a thing that you didn’t go, sir, might I make so bold as to ask the reason?’
‘I’ll tell you,’ said Manny, ‘but first I’ll have to tell you why I was ever going at all.’
He took out a sepia-colored photograph from an old wallet and he held it over to the young man, who looked at it, holding it close to his face because it was faded in places and in other places the glaze was cracked. But he made out quite clearly all the same that the photograph showed a group of young men sitting stiffly on cane-back chairs, their legs rigid in pin-stripe trousers, their hair plastered back with oil, and their hands folded self-consciously over the awkward contours of trombones and fiddles and brassy cornets.
In the centre of the group, turned up on its rim, was a big yellow drum wearing a banner across its face with the words ‘ Mary Street Band ‘ printed on it in large block letters.
‘That was us,’ said Manny, ‘the Mary Street Band. We used to play for all the dances in the city, and we played for the half-hour interval as well in the Mary Street Theatre.’
He leant over.
‘That was me,’ he said, pointing to a young man with a fiddle on his knee, a young man who resembled him as a son might resemble a father.
‘I’d recognize you, all right,’ said the stranger, looking up at Manny’s face and down again at the photograph. Both faces had the same nervous thinness, the same pointed jaw, and the same cleft of weakness in the chin. Only the eyes were different. The eyes in the photograph were light in color, either from bad lighting on the part of the photographer or from the shallowness and pallor of immaturity. The eyes of the older Manny were dark. They held a dignity that might have come from sadness, but, wherever it came from, it was strangely out of keeping with the urgent respectability of his striped city suiting and his very slightly mildewed bowler hat.
‘There was a party of us (the few lads you see there at the back, and the one to the left of the drum) planning on getting out, going across to Paris and trying the dance halls over there — palais they call them on the other side. We’d stuck together for three years, but these few lads I’m after pointing out to you got sick of playing to the Dublin jackeens. I got sick of it, too. They were always spitting out and sucking oranges and catcalling up at the artistes. We heard tell it was different altogether across the water. Tell me this, were you ever in Paris, young fellow? “Gay Paree,” I should be saying.’
‘No, I can’t say that I was,’ said the young man.
‘ Man alive! ‘ said Manny. ‘ Sure that’s the place for a young fellow like you. Clear out and go. That’s my advice to you and I don’t know who you are. Take it or leave it. That’s my advice to you, although I don’t know from Adam who you are or what you are. That’s what I’d say to you if you were my own son. Cut and run for it.’
Manny gave a loud sigh down the back of the lady in front, who shivered and drew her collar closer.
‘Paris!’ he said again, and sighed once more. ‘Paris, lit up all night as bright as the sun, with strings of lights pulling out of each other from one side of the street to the other, and fountains and bandstands every other yard along the way. The people go up and down linked, and singing, at any hour of the day or night, and the publicans — they have some other name on them over there, of course — are coming to the door every minute with aprons round their middle, like women, and sweeping the paths outside the door and finishing off maybe by swilling a bucket of wine over the path to wash it down.’
‘You seem to have a pretty idea of it for a man who wasn’t there!’
‘I have a lot of postcards,’ said Manny, ‘and we were never done talking about it before ever we decided on going at all, myself and the lads. In the end we just packed up one night and said, “Off with us! By the holy God, this is too much to take from any audience!” There had been some bit of a row that night at the theatre, and somehow or other an old dead cat flung up on the stage. Did you ever hear the like of that for ignorance? ‘
‘All I can say is, it’s no wonder you packed your bags!’ said the young man.
‘Is it now?’ said Manny. ‘That’s what I say myself. My bags were all packed and strapped, and what was more, before very long they were halfway up the plank of that little boat you see pulling out there.’
They looked out the bus window, down over the falling fields of the mountainside, to the sea and its vanishing boat.
‘Is that right?’ said the young man.
‘That’s right. My bags were on the gangplank and there was Annie below on the quay, with the tears in her eyes. That was the first time I gave a thought to her at all. Annie is my wife. At least she is now. She wasn’t then. I gave one look at her standing there in the rain (it was raining at the time) with her handkerchief rolled up in her hand ready to wave as soon as the boat got along. The porters were pushing past her with their truckloads of trunks and hitting up against her. Did you never notice how rough them fellows are? Well, with the rain and the porters and one thing and another, I got to pitying her, standing there. I got to thinking, do you know, of all the things we’d done together. There was nothing bad, you know, nothing to be ashamed of, if you understand, but still I didn’t care much to think of her standing there watching me going off, maybe for good and all, and she thinking over the things I said to her one time or another. You know yourself, I suppose, the kind of thing you’re apt to say to a girl, off and on?’
‘I do,’ said the young man.
‘You do?’ said Manny. ‘Well, in that case you’ll understand how I felt seeing her standing there. I felt so bad I tried to get back for a few last words with her before the boat pulled out, but there were people coming up against me all the time and I was having to stand aside every other step I took and crush in against the rails to let them pass. And some of them were cranky old devils, telling me to get to hell out of the way, to come if I was coming and go if I was going, and telling me for God Almighty’s sake to take my bloody bag out of the way. It was jabbing in the legs of the women without my noticing it, and as sure as I pulled it to one side it jabbed into someone on the other side.
‘There was terrible confusion. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that the officials would be able to put a stop to it? But I declare to God they were worse than the people that were traveling. There was one of them clicking tickets at the bottom of the gangway and all he did was let a shout at me to say I was obstructing the passage. Obstructing!
‘“Come on up, Manny,” shouted the lads from up above on the deck.
“‘Good-bye, Manny,” said Annie in a little bit of a voice you’d hardly hear above the banging of cases and the screaming of the sea gulls.’
‘You didn’t go down!’
‘Down I went.’
‘And the boys?’
‘They were staring like as if they were transfixed! They couldn’t believe their eyes. They began calling down to us from the deck above, but the wind was going the other way and we couldn’t hear one word they were saying. Then the whistles began to blow, and the sailors began spitting on their hands and pulling at the ropes to let the plank up into the boat. The train was getting ready to go back to Westland Row. She was going to pull out any minute.
‘“I knew you’d come to your senses,” said Annie. “Have you got your bag?”
‘I held it up.
‘“Your fiddle?” said Annie.
‘By God, if I hadn’t left the fiddle above on the deck! Would you believe that? We started shouting up at the lads. Timmy Coyne — that was the little fellow with the moustache sitting next me in the photo — Timmy put his hands up to his mouth like he was playing a bugle (it was the piano he played in the band, by the way) and he shouts out “Wha-a-a — at?” like that, drawing it out so’s we could hear it.
‘“The fiddle!” I shouted. And “fiddle” isn’t a word you can stretch out, you know. No matter how slow you say it, it’s said and done in a minute after all. “Fiddle.” Try it for yourself. “Fiddle.” It’s a funny sort of word, isn’t it, when you say it over a few times like that? Anyway, Timmy didn’t hear me.
‘“Ca-a-a-n’t—hea-ea-ear!” says he.
‘A couple of people round about me began to shout up too. “Fiddle.” “Fiddle.” The boat was pushing off from the pier. Suddenly one real game fellow that was after putting a fine young girl on the boat, and after kissing her too in front of everyone, ups and pulls off his hat, and crooking it under his arm, like it was a fiddle, he starts pulling his right hand back and forth across it for all the world as if he was fiddling a real fiddle. Timmy takes one look at him and down he ducks and starts rooting around on the deck. The next minute he ups and rests the fiddle case on the rails.
‘“Catch!” he shouts.
‘Across comes the fiddle, over the space of water that was blinding white by this time with the foam from the boat.
‘“It’s into the water!” shouts someone.
‘“Not on your life!” shouts our boy on the wharf, and he leaping into the air to catch it. But you know how slippy them wooden boards are with that green slimy stuff on them? You do? Well, to make a long story short, down slips your man, and down comes your fiddle on one of the iron stumps they tie the boat to, and fiddle and case, and even the little bow, were smashed to smithereens under my eyes. You should have heard the crowd laughing. I always say it’s easy enough to rise a laugh when you’re not doing it for money!’
‘What did Annie say?’
‘“It’s the hand of God,” she said.’
‘What did you say?’
‘Sure, what could I say? I just went over and gave a kick with my foot to the bits of wood and put them floating out on the water, along with the potato peels and cabbage stalks that were just after being flung out of a porthole in the bottom of the boat.’
Manny looked down at the gray feather on the horizon that was all that now remained of the mail boat.
‘Whenever I see that little boat,’ he said, ‘I get to thinking of the sea and the way it was that day, with all the dirt lapping up and down on it and the bits of wood from the fiddle looking like bits of an old box. Walking back to the train, we could see the bits floating along under us, through the big cracks in the boards. I never can understand why it is they leave such big spaces between them boards anyway. And just as we were going out the gate to the platform, what did I see, down through the splits, but a bit of the bow. And here’s a curious thing for you! You could tell what it was the minute you looked at it, broken and all as it was. “Oh, look!” you’d say, if you happened to be passing along the pier, going for a walk and not knowing anything about me or the boys. “Look!” you’d say to whoever was with you. “Isn’t that the bow of a fiddle?”’
‘Did you ever hear from the boys again?’ asked the young man.
‘We changed our address,’ said Manny. ‘I heard they broke up after a bit. Maybe they wrote and we never got the letter. After we got married we went to live in King Street, over the shop. We opened a shop, you see, in King Street. You know King Street? Our shop is down at the further end, along past the Gaiety. The shop took up pretty near all our time on account of us knowing nothing about business. We never get a minute to ourselves. Look at me! I’ve been out since early morning trying to get to hear of someone that would deliver eggs to the door. That’s what I ‘m doing now, too, going up here to the Sallygap to see a man I was told about by one of the dealers in Moore Street. The dealer gets them from him twice a week, and I don’t see why he couldn’t bring us in a couple of dozen at the same time. If he does, we’ll put up a card on the window saying “Fresh Eggs Daily.” The Dublin people would go mad for a fresh egg. Did you ever notice that?
The conductor came down the aisle and leant in to Manny.
‘We’re coming near the Sallygap now,’ said the conductor.
‘Is that right?’ said Manny. ‘Give a touch to the bell, so, and get him to stop. Anywhere here will do nicely.’
He turned to the young man confidentially. ‘I have to look for the place, you see.’
‘I hope you find it all right, sir.’
‘ I hope so. Well, good day to you now. Don’t forget the advice I gave you.’ Manny pointed with his thumb in the direction of the sea, and then he stepped off the bus and found himself on a country road alone, for the first time in so many years you might leave it at that and not say how long.
He found the house he was looking for easily enough. The farmer promised to send in the eggs twice a week, and three times if the orders got bigger. He wanted to know if Manny ever tried selling chickens or geese. Manny said his wife took care of the orders. The farmer asked if he would mention the matter to his wife. Manny agreed to do so.
Manny didn’t want chickens or geese. Manny wanted a drink. He wasn’t a drinking man, but he wanted a glass of beer, just then, to take the thirst off him. He remembered that they had passed a public house a while before he got off the bus. He started walking down towards it.
As he walked along he thought of the boys again. It was a long time since he had thought of them. The boat put him in mind of them. And the young fellow he was sitting beside was just about the age he was himself in those days. That must be why he told him so much. He was a nice young fellow. Manny wondered who he was, and he wondered, just as idly, what hour he’d get a bus going back to Dublin.
But it was nice enough, mind you, walking along the road like this, he thought. He didn’t care if the bus was a bit slow in coming. It was not as if it were raining or cold. It was a nice evening. He often heard tell of young lads from Dublin coming up here on their bicycles on a fine evening, and leaving the bicycles inside a fence while they went walking on the roads. Just walking, mind you — just walking. He used to think it was a bit daft. Now that he was up here himself, looking around and listening, he could begin to see how a quiet sort of chap might like this class of thing. Manny looked at the hedges that were tangled with wild vetches, and he looked at an old apple tree crocheted over with gray-lace lichen. He looked at the gleaming grass in the wet ditch, and at the flowers and flowering grasses that grew there. ‘They all have names, I suppose,’ thought Manny. Could you beat that!
Walking along, he soon came to a cottage with dirty brown thatch from which streaks of rain had run from time to time, leaving yellow stripes on the lime. As he got near, a woman came to the door with a black pot and swilled out a slop of green water into the road, leaving a stench of cabbage in the air when she went in. It was a queer time to be cooking her cabbage, thought Manny, and then he chuckled. ‘For God’s sake,’ he said out loud, ‘will you look at the old duck!’
A duck had flapped over from the other side of the road to see if the cabbage water made a pool big enough to swim in. ‘Will you just look at him!’ said Manny, and, as the road was empty, he must have been talking to himself. And he was giving himself very superfluous advice, because he was staring at the duck as hard as he could. After a minute a geranium pot was taken down from inside one of the small windows of the cottage, and a face came close to the glass. ‘They don’t like you stopping and staring, I suppose,’ thought Manny, and he moved along.
His thoughts were on the smallness and darkness of the place for some time. He wondered how people put up with living in a little poke like that, and the thought of his own rooms behind the shop in King Street seemed better to him than it had for a long time. After all, they had a range. They had gas. They had the use of the lavatory on the upper landing. He was pleased to think of all the many advantages he had over those people that were peeping out at him. He used to feel that the rooms in King Street were terrible and that he was doomed to live in them all his life, while men no older than he went here and went there, and did this and did that, and some of them even went, off to Paris. But at that moment he felt it was a fine thing after all to have a place of your own to keep things in, a place where you could lie down if you were sick or worn out. And it was within a stone’s throw of the Pillar.
He didn’t get out enough — that was the trouble. If he got out and about more he’d have the right attitude to the house, and maybe to the shop, too. No wonder he’d be sick of it — never leaving it except like this, on a message. He should take an odd day off. Man! What was he talking about? He ought to take a week. He ought to run over to Paris and look up the boys. Then, as if aghast at the grandeur of his revolt, Manny gave himself an alternative. He should go over to Liverpool, anyway, for one of the week-end meets. With a bit of luck he might make his expenses, and that would shut Annie’s mouth.
The public house came into view just then, and very opportunely, because Manny went in with the high head of one who contemplates a sojourn in distant lands.
He ordered his drink. There were two or three locals leaning against the counter, and a large man, obviously a commercial traveler, stood cleaning his spectacles and asking questions about the village. The locals were looking sheepishly at their empty glasses that were dowdily draped with scum. The traveler gave order for them to be filled up again. He looked down the counter at Manny as if he would like to include him in the company, but there was a repelling air of independence about Manny, due perhaps to his bowler hat, which sat selfconsciously upon the bar counter.
Manny listened to the talk at the other end of the bar. Once or twice the locals mistook the traveler’s meaning, but Manny felt a warmth in his heart for them. Their dull-wittedness created a feeling of security. He felt a great dislike for the talkative traveler. He hoped that they would not be on the same bus going back to the city.
Just then the sound of an engine stole into the stillness outside. The bus was coming. Manny drank up, and put out his hand for his hat. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the traveler buttoning his overcoat. He heard his jocose farewells to the locals, who were already leaning back with greater ease against the counter.
Manny went towards the door. The traveler went towards the door. In the doorway they met.
‘I see you are taking this bus, too,’ said the traveler. Manny had, of course, intended going back on that bus. He had no idea when there would be another bus. But a great revulsion came over him at the thought of journeying back with the large, talkative man.
‘ I’m waiting for the next bus,’ he said, impulsively.
‘I’m sorry!’ said the traveler. ‘I should have been glad of your company. Good evening.’
‘Good evening,’ said Manny, and he stood back from the dust of the bus.
When the dust had blown into the hedges, Manny stepped into the middle of the road and doggedly faced the way the bus had gone. He would be walking for a long time before another bus caught up with him, but he did not care. A rare recklessness urged him onwards, and when the night came down swiftly over him the feeling of recklessness was deepened.
He walked along, looking from side to side, and in his heart the night’s potent beauty was beginning to have effect. He felt a happiness and richness that confused his mind. The dark hills and the pale silk-shining sky, and the city pricking out its shape upon the sea with starry lights, filled him with strange feelings of sadness and joy mingled together. And when the sky flowered into a thousand stars of forget-me-not blue he was strangled with the need to know what had come over him. His heart was all confusion. And, having no thoughts to meet and stem the flood of desolating joy that began to swell so suddenly within him, he ran down the road the way he used to run on the roads as a young lad, and as he ran he laughed out loud to think that he, Manny Ryan, was running along a country road in the dark, hardly knowing when he’d run into a hedge or a ditch.
Yesterday, if anyone came to him and suggested that he’d do such a thing, he would have split his sides laughing. And tomorrow, if he were to try and persuade Annie to take a walk out in the country, she’d look at him as if he were daft. The Dublin people couldn’t, tell you the difference between a bush and a tree. Manny stood to recover his breath. That was a fact. All the Dublin people were good for was talking. They’d talk you out of your mind.
He thought of his wife with her yellow elbows coming through the black unraveled cardigan, as she leant across the counter in the dismal shop, giving off old shaffoge with any shawley that came the way with an hour, or maybe two hours, to spare. He thought of the bars filled with his cronies talking about the state of the country for all they were fit, men that never saw more of it than you’d see from the top of a tram. He thought of the skitting young fellows and girls outside Whitefriar Street after late Mass on Sunday, and he thought of the old men standing at the pub ends of the streets, ringing themselves round with spits. He thought of the old women leaning against the jambs of their doorways, with white crockery milk jugs hanging out of their hands, forgotten in the squalor of their gossip. He thought of the children sitting among the trodden and rancid cabbage butts on the edge of the paths, whispering over again the gossip they had heard when they crouched, unheeded, under some counter. He thought of the young and the old, the men and the women, and the pale frightened children, who were shuffling along kneelers in churches all over the city, waiting their turn to snuffle out their sins in the dark wooden confessionals.
It seemed as if the cool green light of day scarcely ever reached those people — or the night-shaded lights of evening. The only wind that blew into their streets came out from their own drafty houses thickened with the warm odor of boiling potatoes. The loathing he felt for the city years before when he first came to Dublin stole over him again as it had come over him one night long ago in the little theatre in Mary Street. ‘Dublin jackeens!’ he muttered.
‘Dublin jackeens!’ he said out loud, the jibe coming forth from some dim green corner in his mind where the memory of a buttercup field, and a cobbled yard prickled with grass, gave him the right to feel immunity from them. Once more he longed to get away from Dublin. But this time there was a difference. He wanted to get away from Dublin, but not from Ireland. He didn’t want to go away from Ireland, he thought, with anguish; not away from her yellow fields and not away from her emerald ditches — only to get away from the stuffy Dublin streets and people that walked them. Even to get away for an hour, like this, would satisfy him.
Wasn’t it well, after all, he hadn’t gone away to Paris? Things turned out for the best in the end. If he had gone away he would never have come up here to Sallygap. And he would never have found out that peace was not a matter of one city or another, but a matter of hedges and fields and waddling ducks and handfuls of stars. Cities were all alike. Paris was no better than Dublin when you looked into the matter clearly. Paris was a wicked place, by all accounts, even if they did have a rare time there at night, with the lights and the bandstands.
Who ever heard of the boys since they went? Where were they? God alone knew where. They were playing, maybe, in some cellar done up with striped tablecloths, like in the pictures, with smoke cutting their guts, and women with big thighs and dresses torn open down to the waist sitting on their knees and cracking the strings of their sinews with the weight.
A sweat broke out on Manny, and he had to stand in the cold road to let the vision fade and the winds cool his burning face. He was damn glad he stayed at home. What was the need in anybody going across seas when all he had to do, if he got sick of himself, was take a bus and come up to a place like this? As long as a fellow could come up to a place like this, what was the need of going further?
‘I’ll come up here again,’ said Manny, ‘upon my word I will.’ He had found at last his real escape from the sordidness of the life he led, and perhaps in time the seed of sensitiveness that had lain sterile in his heart through his bleak and unnatural spring and summer might have had a rare and wonderful winter flowering. There are gentle souls who take nothing from their coarse rearing and less from their chance schooling, but who yet retain their natural gentleness, and sometimes it flowers, as Manny’s did, in the hills.
‘I’ll come back again,’ he said. ‘I’ll come back again all right.’ He turned to look at the hanging hills before he went round the last bend in the road, where the houses and shops of Rathfarnham would hide them from view.
With the first shops and the first beginnings of the city, with its dazzling tramlines, its noises, and its shoving crowds, Manny felt the tiredness he had not felt in all the enchanted miles of rough road he had walked. His feet burned. His thighs were heavy, his back weighted down with the knapsack of weariness. He took a bus and sat on the edge of the only seat that was vacant, his light weight joggling with every motion, and the elbow and hipbone of a fat woman on the inside of the seat nudging his ribs with the insistence of inadvertency. Smells of gas and oil sickened him. Broken lights strained his eyes. But most of all a dread of returning home came over him as he remembered that Annie had told him to hurry. The sharp strokes of Annie’s voice sounded sudden and loud in his ears, and it seemed impossible that he had forgotten what she said. He felt like a little boy who had blotted his copy, a little boy who had lost the change, a little boy who creeps in under fear of the whip.
The fear of her whipping tongue hung over him all the way along the suburbs. When he reached home and saw the closed shutters of the shop, his hand was so stiff and cold he could hardly find the string in the letter box by which the latch of the door could be pulled back from outside. His hand clattered the letter box for a long time, and then he pulled the string and the door opened. He went in. He groped around empty packing cases and felt for the knob of the kitchen door. He didn’t see that the door was wide open because the room was dark and the fire was only a powdering of red ash among gray. Annie was sitting at the fire. His eyes became used to the dark, and after a minute the room was clear before him, the customary position of things supplementing the eye, where it failed, in enabling him to reach the fire and sit down on one side of the range, watching Annie on the other side and wondering when she would speak.
She said nothing. The truth was that she had been so excited at his unusual absence that she was left unfit for any emotion at his eventual return.
Marriage had been an unselfishness on Manny’s part. He had married Annie because he thought that was what would make her happy, and he was weakly content to give up his freedom for that object. She, however, had not thought of marriage as anything but a means of breaking the monotony. But she had found it a greater monotony than the one she had fled from, and, unlike the other, it had no anteroom of hope leading to something better. Manny accepted her so complacently from the first day that he bored her in a week with his monotonously kind manner. Soon she began to show an artificial irritation at trifles in the hope of stirring up a little excitement, but Manny was kinder and more gentle on those occasions than he was before. Gradually her irritability and petulance became more daring until they could scarcely be classed as such venial sins. And soon, too, what had been slyly deliberate became involuntary, and the sour expression of her face hardened into the mask of middle age. She sought in the throbbing pulse and rippling flux of anger the excitement she had unconsciously hoped to find in her marriage bed. But her angers too were sterile, breeding no response in Manny. He was the same always. It seemed that she would never believe this, and she tried from time to time to break the strength of his weakness and she fought against his kindness as if it were her enemy. And so, in an obscure way, it was.
Annie Ryan’s nature was too fierce for the quiescent passions of love and motherhood. She wanted the flaming face, the racing anger, the temper that raised red weals on the skin, and the heat of two bodies crushed together in a rage of wrestling. And this need of her nature had never been satisfied except vicariously, leaning over the shop counter listening to the whispered stories of other women — stories of obscene blows given in drunken lusts, stories of cunning and cupidity and red flashes of anger and hate that rent the darkness in tenement hallways around the block when she and Manny were asleep for hours.
‘Ah, woman dear,’ they said to her, ‘sure you know nothing at all about life.’ And then, as if she were to be pitied, they rolled up their sleeves indulgently and showed her scalds, and scabby sores, saying, ‘Take a look at that!’
And sometimes, standing at the hall door in the dark at night after the shop was long shut, she would hear a scream in some room high up across the street or round the corner, and then dull thudding sounds and children’s voices sounding as if they were frightened out of their wits. Or sometimes a neighbor would come down the street sobbing loudly, linked on either side by her children, sobbing softer and asking her in high childish voices not to mind, not to mind. Not to mind what? Annie wondered. Which of the incentive words and gestures she had heard the neighbors tell about had provoked this woman to hysteria? She used to draw back a bit into the doorway while they were passing, and sometimes, pressed sideways against the wall so they wouldn’t see her spying on them, she used to catch a glimpse of Manny sitting in the kitchen with his stocking feet up on the cooling range while he read the paper. Her eyes would flicker with hatred and resentment, and she would have an ignoble impulse to be revenged on him by going in and poking the range, sending clouds of ashes over him till he had to get up and go out.
This day, when he did not come back at the usual time, she set her mind on planning some taunt for him as he came through the shop. If there were customers there, it would be so much the better. One time she wouldn’t have risked a row before the customers, but she soon found it helped trade more than it hindered it, particularly when Manny never answered back or made trouble. But, as the evening wore out and there was still no sign of him, she began to think better of him. She began to think that in his weak way he was defying her at last. Maybe he was getting his temper up with drink. He wasn’t a drinking man, but there was always a time to start.
A wild elation welled up inside her, waiting for a torrential release in singing or loud shouting. She had battered in his patience at last. He was going to try to get even with her. She was ready. She went into the kitchen and left the door into the shop half open while she knotted her hair as tight as she could, and when she came back the pricking pain on her neck, where the hair was too tightly caught, gave her a foretaste of the fight she would have, and made her eyes glitter. She let the customers go without giving them their usual bit of chitchat. She put the shutters up before the time. Where was he? It was getting very late now for a timid man like Manny. And he had no dinner. She lifted the saucer that was covering his plate on the range. She ought to let him get a bite of food into him before she started the row. Where was he?
She was on her way out to the door to look up the street when she saw the silhouette of the poorhouse hearse, the Black Maria, passing the door. Supposing he was gone for good? The little skunk! That would be just like him, to go over the river wall, like a rat in the dark, and never be heard of again. She would be cheated in this like everything else. Then the darkness lifted a little in her heart and she began to consider other possibilities. Maybe he skipped off to better himself somewhere and give her a miss? Fear beat throbbingly in her breast, but it faded out as she remembered that he wouldn’t have any money. Thanks be to the Almighty, and to her own good sense, she hadn’t given him the money for the eggs. She wondered if he got them. Did he go for them at all?
One after another, then, pictures of horror came into her mind. She saw a sodden corpse, white and hideously swollen, being curried in across the shop, and dripping water from muddy clothes upon the thirsty wooden boards. She saw herself at the wake, moaning and rocking from side to side at the fire, fanged with the yellow teeth of remorse and mauled by memories.
He wasn’t a bad sort, the poor fellow, always wanting to take her to the Gaiety when the opera was on. He wasn’t to blame for being so weak. His hands always went dead when he was cold. His face got a terrible blue color in frosty weather. She thought about the peculiar habit he had of sleeping with his feet outside the bedclothes. And she began to feel uneasy about the past as well as about the future. She walked up and down the dark room.
Once in a while she went into the street and looked up and down. She did that in an effort to anticipate the terror she felt was coming nearer every minute, rounding each corner more rapidly than the one before. But the evening winds were cooling the air and breathing their clear sweet peace into the streets. The lights were lighted, but their rays were not yet drawn out from them because the day had still some brightness of its own. They kept their gold carefully folded inside their glass globes, against the hour when their light would be needed, and it seemed as if they had no other function than to decorate the streets with gilt stars. The trams too were lit up, and they sailed like gilded galleons down the evanescent evening blue. The noises of trucks and drays sounded singly in the stillness and seemed to say that they were going off as fast as they could and that soon the city would be given over to the revelry sounds of cars and taxis traveling to gaudy cinemas and theatres pearled with lights.
The city evening was so fair and so serene, so green and blue and gilt, that she disliked looking out at it, for it threatened to rob her of all her dreads and deluge her fears with the sane waters of hope. She preferred to sit by the whitening fire and imagine that the city that lay outside was dark and vicious as she had often seen it to be, crossing it late on winter nights—a place of evil shadows, with police standing silent in the alleyways, and its shops shut down and barricaded with boards like coffin lids, and all the private houses fortified with battered ashcans lined up along the path, and, dreariest of all, the Green with its padlocked gates and its tree-high railings, through which you heard the agonies of a thousand cats wailing out from the dark greenery.
She did not know which of her black forebodings she felt to be the more likely, but the ones that brought their terror without robbing her henceforth of the object of them were the ones that most appealed to her, and so she more or less expected a living Manny to be brought home to her — but one in whom some latent mutinous instinct had at last done its work and set up a tremorous twanging of chords that would echo throughout the rest of their lives and put reality into their relations. She waited for his coming with more eagerness than when he was coming to court her.
But the instant she heard his footfall she knew he was the same old Manny. She knew he was all right. She knew he was sober. Her fears faded out in widening ripples, leaving stillness and stagnation in her heart once more. When he put his head inside the door she knew by his hesitation and his apologetic cough that not even his own pleasure had kept him out so late, much less a high-riding, spur-jabbing revolt. She didn’t even want to know what it was that kept him, because she knew it was some pale and weedy shoot from the anæmia of his character, and no sudden bursting into leaf of unsuspected manliness.
She sat by the fire without moving.
Manny was drained of thought by her silence. He was driven to break it with words of his own.
‘Did you keep my dinner?’ he said, going over to the range, stooping his head as he went to avoid the slapping of wet sheets and towels that hung across the kitchen on a piece of string. He opened the door of the oven and looked in, bending down. There was nothing there, and he shut the door quietly and stole a look at Annie. She was sitting scratching her head with a hairpin she had pulled out of the tight knot.
‘Get up out of that!’ she ordered him tonelessly, and, pulling a damp cloth off the line over their heads, she took a hot plate from the top of the stove and went over to a pile of rubbish in the corner of the room.
‘Light the gas,’ she said, pulling out a square of brown paper from the pile of rubbish and setting the plate down upon it on the table. The nauseous smell of gas roamed around the room in streamers that soon ran together into one thick odor. The green light took away the only dignity the room had — its darkness. Manny sat down to the dinner set on the brown paper. It was a plate of meat flanked on two sides by tallowyellow and a mounded pile of cabbage that still held the shape of the fork that patted it into place on the plate. Meat, potato, and cabbage were all stuck fast to the dish by a caking of dried gravy that the heat had crusted into a lacy doily of brown scallop and flutings to within an inch of the plate edge.
‘It looks good,’ said Manny appeasingly, ‘and it smells good.’
‘It smelled better four hours ago,’ said Annie, cleaning a knife on her apron and putting it down beside the plate.
Manny wondered if the reference to keeping the dinner hot was intended as an opening for him to say where he had been, and what had kept him. He looked at Annie and decided on saying nothing.
He ate his dinner in silence and tried as best he could to keep the food in his mouth from making noise, but the sounds of chewing seemed so loud in his own ears that he began to swallow dowm the coarse lumps of beef unchewed. Soon the silence became so terrible he could eat no more. He pushed aside his plate and sat staring at the ring of grease it left on the absorbent brown paper. He thought of the paper he had used the night before his wedding to get the grease out of his sleeve. Reading in bed used to get his clothes all candle grease, because he used to hump up his clothes to raise the candlestick higher beside the bed. That was a long time ago. The past was coming back into his mind all day. He used to hear his mother say that you relived all your life in your mind before you died, but he hated all those ignorant old pishogues. This silence was enough to make a man go mad.
He turned around in the chair and deliberately drew down the lash of her rage by saying quietly, ‘I went up to Sallygap to get the eggs, but I missed the bus and walked home.’
‘From the Sallygap?’
He had expected a vicious answer. He looked at her. She was picking her teeth with a bit of the brown paper she tore off the table.
‘Gets in your teeth, doesn’t it?’ he said in a faint-hearted hope that there was not going to be any row.
‘Are you finished?’ she said.
He looked at his plate.
‘Finished,’ he said. ‘All except my tea. I’ll wet the tea myself if you like.5
‘The tea is on the pot,’ she said, and as he poured the spluttering water into the teapot she got up and went over to the dresser and took down a cup and saucer. She put them on the table.
The cup had not been washed since it was last used. There was a sandy sediment of moist sugar in the bottom of it, and down the outside were yellow streaks of tea.
‘This cup is a bit dirty,’ said Manny, moving over to the sink.
‘It’s your own dirt, then,’ she said to him. ‘It was you had it last.’
He stood irresolute, and then he said he’d like a clean cup.
‘There’s a quarter pound of sugar in the bottom of that cup,’ she said, and then she snapped at him suddenly with some apparent relevancy in her own mind between the two sentences, ‘What did you do with the return ticket?’
He rooted in his pockets and took out the half a ticket. She snapped it up and looked at it closely, and then she stuck it down in a jug that was hanging by its handle on the nail of the dresser.
‘Is he going to send the eggs?’
‘Give me that cup,’ she said and went over to the sink, where she ran the cold tap on it. She clattered it back on the saucer, wet. Cold drops splashed on to his hot hands from her wet hands. She stood looking down at him.
‘It’s a queer thing when a man disgusts to himself!’ she said.
Her eyes were greener than ever. They used to remind him of the sea at Howth, where they went walking while they were courting. They were the same color still, but they reminded him suddenly of the still green water under the landing stage at Dunlaoghaire. And as that sticky sea was one day flecked with splinters of a broken fiddle, her eyes above him now were flecked with splinters of malevolence.
He used to be afraid of her sharp tongue, ever since their first quarrel. But it had been the fear of a timid soul. Now, looking up into her silent eyes, he felt the immature and childish fear fall from him, and instead of it there came into his heart a terrible adult fear, a fear that came from his instincts, from his blood. He thought of all the talk he had heard at different times in public houses, talk of morgues and murders, and he remembered what he said himself up at Sallygap about the people of Dublin — that they were ignorant people with clogged pools in their blood that clotted easily to unjust hate. They held their hate. He thought of Paris, with its quick flashing lights and its quick flashing hates and its quick flashing knives; its women with quick hands slapping the face at an effrontery, and banging the door as they went out into the streets, their red lips glossy with temper. And the dangers of Paris seemed suddenly fresh and vital compared with the dead man’s danger of the sullen and malevolent eyes that were watching him. Desperately he thought of the hills, but the thought of them gave him no refuge. The happy hills were falling into forgetfulness already. He would never seek a sanctuary among them again.
For there was no sanctuary from hatred such as that he saw in Annie’s eyes, unless it came to him from behind some night, when a raised hatchet crashed down on his skull, or from a queer taste in the mouth followed by a twisting in the guts. She had him imprisoned forever in her hatred. His little fiddle had crashed on the pier the day he gave up all his dreams for her, and it had floated in splintered sticks on the water. He thought of it for a moment and then he thought of nothing for a while, but just sat watching her as she went about the room.
Then suddenly he remembered that she had said something to him when she clattered down the wet cup on the saucer in front of him a little while before. He tried to think what it was she said. He couldn’t remember what it was.
But he remembered, distinctly, thinking at the time that it was true, whatever it was.