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May 18, 2014 | by  | in Arts |
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The City

excerpt from The City

Sometimes, I like to go out swimming. There’s no harm in it. It’s the feeling, you understand, of looking out that appeals; that there is nothing past these waves but Antarctica. The wind scatting up a surface blank as a cow’s eye. The edge of the world. Hands and feet reduced to white blurs in motion. I don’t know. A long way from nowhere in particular. Distant, but from what. You’ll understand. All to watch me perhaps an occasional sealion.

The stink of it across the sand. Insects tasting at the delicate skin about its eyes. A spot of blood. You would think that they were clean, they are in the water so much.

There’s not so much else to do, after all that. Mark time. Write up my diary. Wait for something to happen, the wind to turn. The sheep on the hills live out their lives without much intervention by me. Except when it’s lambing. Once a year, the shearing gang comes, and I make scones and take them up to their quarters, because that’s what my mother did. There are certain proprieties. Sometimes I have to shoot a possum that’s got into the fruit trees. I recall the feeling of power in the roar of a gun. I wring the necks of chickens. I perform the necessary acts of life, and people do not find it in themselves to ask much of me.

It’s not as if I’m the only woman alone on a farm now, after all, drawing out a life at a kitchen table. Or women with legless men, men coughing up their guts at night and half-wild children going into the gorse with their father’s binoculars to play at the next war. It’s no concern of mine. I deserve no pity. I demand no pity. I’ve no sons to give to a war, anyway. I’ll wait out what remains of a life until some neighbour finds me dead on the kitchen floor with a black fly crawling my face, and they bury me with a view of the sea and a headstone that says beloved wife of. I’ve never even had the hope of a son.

There’s a great peace on the land, and sometimes when I go out into the grey water, I tilt my head up and feel that everything is so well with the world I hardly have to move at all.

It wasn’t my fault, that’s why. Strange things go wild here, always have, always will. Neat hedgerows of gorse go rich and strange along the contours of the hills. I see stoats on the lawn in the morning, dancing an appropinquation to strange gods across the frost, and they crack eggs for sacrifices, squeezing sinuous bodies through the chicken wire. And people – people are dying all around the tumbling globe. What’s one more or fewer? Who’s to count if there is one more or one less clod of earth? The chickens try to slip away, and make their own little nests in the leaf-mould. I find the eggs, or the stoats, do, and they cluck their way over making their deep broody noises, find it empty, and forget. A hen has life, a hen forgets it. In a few days they don’t sound like a duck any more, they are back to the art of being themselves and scratching up the damp earth in just the right way and running to me for a feed.

Look, they have it right here. They’re fine people, the best in the world, but they don’t like strangers. Let them see a stranger walking by, and they’ll stop talking and roll their eyes like dogs to watch as he passes, take him by instinct for an unamiable liar and an unreliable friend. You have to understand the way it feels, watching the value of the land sink out from under you and knowing that you’re here for life or until the bank gets tired of waiting for its money. Your neighbours, they understand, but some cockatiel stranger?

“God save us from new chums,” my husband used to say. “God save us.”

So we are decent to one another, and we do not expect much of strangers. Good people, I say it again, good people, but. Broad-shouldered men, and women calling in on one another for cups of tea. Scrubbing the table on Friday, laundry on Saturday, and wringing out their souls on a Sunday, or on those Sundays the priest comes. Rearranging the plates if they see him coming up the driveway. Good to one another, and not expecting much of strangers.

I first saw him coming up the road in a black coat on a blazing day. I did not – I did not – go seeking him out, which is what they say now, plotting their absurd social demarcations over the teacups, spreading baseless rumours of false intimacies. He came to me; or, rather, he came to us.

I was, as I often found myself in those days, in my garden. I had, I remember, just seen a bud growing up between and beneath the mat of wandering jew I hadn’t the time to be rid of. I thought, though, that I had been rid of the poppies. They were marvellous, bright blazes of colour, but it was just a feeling that I had. One could hardly grow poppies anymore, or at least not for a small delight in ornament. Save for coat lapels in the early morning on the darkened streets, the people flowing down like a river to stand in silence by the graves and wait for the inevitable sun. I was down on my knees to drag it out, noticing the rim of filth under my fingernails as I reached, and I looked up to see him coming, walking down the centre of the road with small careful steps. I was reminded, oddly, of a cat trying to avoid puddles. At any rate, I felt sympathy. Pity? I don’t know, but I resolved to let him down gently when, he asked – in the shy sideways way of talking such men have – if there was any work going. Maybe I was even intending to offer him a meal before I set him on his winding way; certainly a glass of water. How should I be expected to know; it is hard to remember exactly and with a pure clarity my intentions. They were bad years, I suppose, to set men on the roads again, and to make monsters of women who begrudged them a plateful of scrapings.

But I stood up to watch him coming, shading my eyes from the sun. As he walked by, he nodded his head to me, politely – one could not fault the politeness with which he disregarded me – and kept on. Perhaps there was no reason not to: still two houses past ours before the road ran out, where the sawmill used to be.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, and I wouldn’t have been surprised, had I not already constructed a sort of internal story of my own generosity, and expected the world to conform naturally to my imaginings.

He was back that night, sooner than I expected, and when he spoke I noticed how white his teeth were. He was wearing a tatty bush shirt, and he didn’t seem to have a coat, I remember, but his clothes were scrupulously clean: there was no hint of dust or dirt. It was this, I think, that decided me. I looked him over once more, head to toe.

“So, how do you come to be here, Mr ––?” I asked, in a sort of half-parody of sincerity. “I’m travelling in the margins of the country”, he said, “having a looksee at whatever there is to be seen.” I said, perhaps a bit more bluntly than I intended, “So you’re not looking for work?”

“Well”, he said, and paused. “I am looking for a place to say.” He smiled, again, perhaps in acknowledgement of his slip, perhaps in gentle toleration of my blunt clumsiness, my failure to play the game. “Stay, I mean.” His gesturing hands (long-fingered, pale, elegant) seemed to wave away my hovering and unspoken jellyfish doubts. He looked at me looking at him, and said “Of course, if you wanted, I could give you a hand about the place. Are you alone out here?” “No,” I said, “I am never alone.” I could see him gauging the risk, until he decided to take the chance. “Well, in any case, I could, I suppose, pay, if that’s what you’d prefer,” he said. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said. “Come in and be welcome.” He smiled.

I was certain he hadn’t a cent to his name. “Our name,” I said, with an obscure need to bring my husband into it, “is Sinclair.” He didn’t take his cue; as I remember it, he was looking at the mud on his boots.  Considering my husband’s condition, I thought, knowing that I was rationalising in a way I hadn’t for the benefit of other men, there were of course plenty of useful jobs for him about the place. And such a nice man. It would do my husband good to have someone like him about, rather than forcing those unpleasant encounters with his friends who would come and stand awkwardly in his darkened bedroom, or by his old armchair, shuffling their feet uneasily across the uncarpeted floors with the air of schoolboys called to the front of the class, with nothing to say. They would stand about uneasily for the length of time they took to be decent, and no longer, and then – when they turned to go – would leave in a rush, as if wounds and unhappiness were contagious, hardly speaking to me however much I might have longed for a conversation when they crossed the kitchen. Not of course, that they had much to say. Philistines all.

If I wasn’t there, they would pour whisky down his throat and tell incomprehensible stories about the war, and that night I would have to deal with a dreamer whose dreams were made more vivid than the living, a restless shuffling and turning, a sweat that smelt of faded and unmistakeable alcohol and fear. It’s no good to watch someone else’s memories and stories playing out an eyelid away, it is no way to live, to wipe the brow and pretend no morning memories.

“Dear,” I called through his door, “the new man is here.”

“The new man?” “The one to help you with the heavy work.” “What new man?” “I told you. He’s here to help you, you know?” “And who decided that I needed the helping?” “Dear,” I said, “don’t be like this. I do hear you at night, you know.”

There was a touch on my shoulder, and the inevitable smile. “If I may?” Then he was past me, and through to my husband’s room. The bedroom. I ought to have protested the intrusion. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Then he paused, and I imagined a look of grace and commiseration. “The war?” “The war.” “Ach, it’s a terrible thing.” “You saw it, then?” “In another country’s army, I saw it.” “And came out in one piece.” (Said with implications.) “More or less. A few scars, an added few ounces of metal.” “Ah so,” my husband said, “a lucky man then.” “We were all the lucky, or the dead.” “But some of us were luckier than others. And – forgive me – I think you know Ireland.” “You hear it in my voice? I am surprised. We didn’t – Yes.”

I guessed that this was a dangerous set of questions to embark on asking, and moved to intervene. “You should hear some of my husband’s stories. About the war, I mean. Such stories.” Though he hated to talk about the war.

“You can’t,” said my husband, “trust a word that she says. No stories worth the telling.” Or maybe he meant no story’s worth the telling, I’m not sure. “My parents were Irish, you know. I’ve never seen the country myself. I do not think that you could call it a lucky country.” “Ay,” said the stranger, “well, there are few valleys as green as this. It is a country worth the seeing. A pity…” he trailed off, waving one hand in a small hopeless gesture that reminded me of the flop of a dying fish. I always thought how they must have thought that with one more smooth push of muscle, the water could be flowing over them again. “Small countries far away,” he said, as if this was supposed to mean something.

“As I understand it,” said my husband drily, “pity is not a quality much in evidence there, just at this moment. But as you say, it’s a small country far away, and it’s a cold night. Did my wife” – a slight emphasis on that word, no more pronounced than the exaggeration of the stranger’s intonations when he thought my husband might be calling him Irish, a warning – “offer you anything?”

My husband rarely said so much. I understood that the stranger had passed a test, but I was still unsure of the moment it had happened, and I felt that rather a lot had been said, not that I didn’t understand, but that was outside the limited bounds of my experience. It was that feeling of being a child with my mother and her sisters gossiping away while they did something in the comfortable warmth of the kitchen, the men in the other room with a bottle of something and drifting lines of blue smoke from their cigarettes, me sitting there disregarded shelling peas or peeling potatoes and their voices over my head:

“But of course, she would say that.”

“She never.”

“She did.”

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