The Blackwater Lightship

( 8 )

Overview

It is Ireland in the early 1990s. Helen, her mother, Lily, and her grandmother, Dora have come together to tend to Helen's brother, Declan, who is dying of AIDS. With Declan's two friends, the six of them are forced to plumb the shoals of their own histories and to come to terms with each other.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, The Blackwater Lightship is a deeply resonant story about three generations of an estranged family reuniting to mourn an untimely death. In spare, ...

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Overview

It is Ireland in the early 1990s. Helen, her mother, Lily, and her grandmother, Dora have come together to tend to Helen's brother, Declan, who is dying of AIDS. With Declan's two friends, the six of them are forced to plumb the shoals of their own histories and to come to terms with each other.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, The Blackwater Lightship is a deeply resonant story about three generations of an estranged family reuniting to mourn an untimely death. In spare, luminous prose, Colm Tóibín explores the nature of love and the complex emotions inside a family at war with itself. Hailed as "a genuine work of art" (Chicago Tribune), this is a novel about the capacity of stories to heal the deepest wounds.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Ties That Bind

Irish writer Colm Tóibín's spare, insightful novels have won him a wide readership both at home and abroad. Although his novels address gay themes -- his The Story of the Night is on the Lambda list of the 100 best gay novels of all time -- his work neatly transcends such genre pigeonholing. Short-listed for last year's Booker Prize, Tóibín's latest novel is The Blackwater Lightship. On the surface, it is the story of a man dying of AIDS who makes the decision to reveal his homosexuality and his disease to his family and to seek their help. But what makes it such a powerful piece of fiction is the way that the theme of homosexuality -- and, specifically, the ravages of AIDS -- serves as a metaphor for a pernicious condition that was destroying the man's family well before his own troubles become known to them.

In the opening pages of the novel, we meet the protagonist, Helen, who appears to be happily married with two small sons. For a brief period, we witness the calm routines of her life: tending to her children's nightmares, throwing a dinner party with her husband, taking care of her duties as a schoolteacher and administrator. But it isn't long before she receives a visit from a mysterious man named Paul, who is there to tell her that her brother Declan is dying of AIDS. The rest of this book is an intense and unrelenting survey of Helen's journey into the world of her brother's sickness, as she accompanies him to their grandmother's house on a hill over the sea.

Once Helen and Declan, along with their mother, arrive and settle in, it becomes clear that the emergency of Declan's disease is bringing together a family that has been torn apart by mistrust and resentment. Helen bitterly hates both her mother and her grandmother, and we learn that she didn't even invite them to her wedding or inform them of the birth of her children. At every turn, each character seems to have a web of reasons to resent the others; there is little hope that they will ever be untangled. At a few junctures, as Helen nears reconciliation with her mother, she simply shudders and hurries along to her next task in the sick room.

The theme of unhappy families is, of course, well covered in literature -- and recent years have offered quite a few books about AIDS and its impact on the lives of its victims and their loved ones. But the ease with which Tóibín makes the surface story of a misunderstood man dying of a misunderstood disease stand in for the surrounding family breakdown is nothing short of virtuosic. We soon come to see that Helen, her mother, and her mother in turn are cold, distant women. And, in offering a cast of basically unsympathetic lead characters, Tóibín shows us, through flashbacks and painfully direct and telling interactions, how these distances might have come to be created. It becomes impossible to condemn any one woman: Each has been so marked by loss that it would be heartless to hold her accountable for her actions.

In his exact and efficient prose, Tóibín is reminiscent of Jane Austen and Henry James for his ability to reveal, with sometimes brutal directness, the inevitable patterns of human interaction and the misery they can engender. His technique at times is so simple as to be nearly invisible: He often, for example, describes one character watching other characters interact from a distance that is great enough that she cannot hear what they are saying, but close enough that she can get an impression of what sort of exchange it is. In this way, we experience the pain of Helen's family in a cumulative fashion that mimics the actual reality of such a scenario. By the novel's end, a brief word or two can speak volumes about the explosive memories and resentments lurking just below the surface.

The Blackwater Lightship is one of those rare novels that exist on two completely different levels. While some readers will be drawn to its moving portrait of Declan's coming to terms with his fatal illness; others will appreciate its illumination -- in brief but constant flashes, like the lighthouse of its title -- of Helen and Declan's complex and tortured family ties. But it is the connection between these themes that gives the novel its power: The metaphor Tóibín develops between a physical disease that cannot be stopped and a psychological one that is just as ruthless is a rare literary accomplishment, confirming the great promise of his earlier work.

—Jake Kreilkamp

From the Publisher
Francine Prose Elle Beautifully crafted...spare and devastating...

The Wall Street Journal The Blackwater Lightship is the most perfect work on the Booker list...The prose is economical and deft, and the book is rich with entrancing stories.

Jim Marks The Washington Post Book World ...supple, beautifully modulated prose, complex relationships and careful construction...a powerful and absorbing novel.

Mark Levin Men's Journal Tóibín is a superb technician with a brave soul. The Blackwater Lightship is a great and humanizing novel.

Robert Sullivan Vogue Tóibín writes with high-voltage restraint.

Judy Lightfoot The Seattle Times So much is here and you long to grasp it whole...the best new novel this reviewer has read all year.

Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
Short-listed for the Booker Prize, acclaimed Irish writer Toibin's latest details the store of three generations in an estranged family reuniting to mourn a tragic, untimely death.
Library Journal
When Helen O Doherty was 11, her father died of cancer, attended by her mother in Dublin while she and younger brother, Declan, were locked away from the truth in their grandparents house on the Wexford coast. Now in her thirties, the successful school principal and mother of two is still in emotional limbo, and her bitterness toward the adults who made a trap of her innocence lingers. She must, however, confront the past if she is to understand another ever-present tragedy: Declan, who has not officially come out to his family, is dying of AIDS. The rhythm of conversation and argument carries TUibIn s spare novel after The Story of the Night, LJ 5/15/97, which was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize for fiction. Sometimes his thankfully unobtrusive nature unsettled this reviewer; he refuses to heal Helen s wounds completely by book s end and lets her forgive at her own grudgingly human pace. Moreover, TUibIn s lack of ego is admirable, and he creates a realistic portrait of adults acting like children and children acting like adults. Recommended for fans of contemporary Irish fiction. Heather McCormack, Library Journal Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
The New Yorker
Toibin is a sparing, unsentimental writer; he has an innate sense of the formal feeling that follows great pain. His portrait of three generations struggling to accept (and care for) one another is deftly offset by the medical and social formalities of dying from AIDS, and the novel's achievement lies in its depiction of the everyday enterprise of loss.
Elizabeth Flynn
Readers have come to expect as much from Toibin, but The Blackwater Lightship goes beyond his earlier work in its depth and compassion. The novel delivers a graceful and moving meditation on loss, obligation, and the nature of family. In an era of ever-more-rapid change, Toibin's radiant novel reminds us that some things are more constant: love and frailty, and our human need for one another.
Lambda Book Report
Emily Drabinski
Toibin's prose is almost musical in its soft and persistent exploration of what makes a family: secrets, resentments, and, ultimately forgiveness.
Out Magazine
John Freeman
Without ever being heavy-handed, Toibin shows how death can shed light on the morals of individuals as well as entire families. He also illustrates the paralysis that strikes people who have an overwhelming need for approval and love: They are stopped in their tracks in the same way that they might be frozen in the sweeping ray of a lighthouse beam.
Time Out New York
Mark Levine
Toibin writes like a stylistic heir of Hemingway, in spare and brutally insistent prose, and inhabits a domain of silence and inarticulate hurt with utter conviction. His book is a microscopically drawn map of the way families inflict pain on themselves. There's not a cheap revelation or a fake insight to be found in its pages; Toibin's absolute lack of sentimentality and his refusal of easy consolation are the marks of a superb technician with a brave soul. The Blackwater Lightship is a great and humanizing novel
Men's Journal
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743203319
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 6/5/2001
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 367,455
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is the author of seven novels, including The Blackwater Lightship; The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; and The Testament of Mary, as well as two story collections. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

Biography

Colm Tóibín is a literary star of the "new" Ireland, the one -- as noted by National Public Radio's Jacki Lyman -- is short on whiskey and St. Patrick and long on cell phones, personal computers, and a stage set for economic opportunity. This is an Ireland where the people stop to cheer an author, yes, an author, whose latest novel has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, even though its key subject matter is the protagonist's struggle with his homosexuality.

"When I went down to get my groceries, people stopped their car and got out of them and waved at me and looked at me as though I was an athlete and shouted at me, ‘Come on, you can do it. You can do it,' " Tóibín said on NPR's All Things Considered in 2000. "And I basked in the sunshine of Irish approval and love for about three weeks.... You know, sort of -- I keep wondering when this, you know, backlash or something is going to happen, but I'm afraid it isn't going to happen. I'm afraid the country has changed, and being a writer there is actually quite a nice thing these days."

In fiction, travelogues, essays, and newspaper columns, Tóibín has established himself as a writer who can connect both the political and the personal to a sense of place. Though his work has often been informed by the political history of Ireland, he has also drawn on his travels to places like Spain and Argentina to create settings for his work.

And, even though his current home of Dublin has never made an appearance in any of his fiction, the environs of his youth -- County Wexford -- have been prominent.

The Washington Post, in a 2000 review of The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, which Tóibín edited, called him a "journalist and critic of influence, a brilliant novelist steadily harvesting his own postage-stamp piece of Wexford as diligently as Faulkner worked Mississippi."

"Colm Tóibín has established himself as a major and distinctive voice in contemporary Irish fiction," the Dictionary of Literary Biography has noted. "While his work makes much of the complex associations between people and place, he eschews easy stereotypes of Irishness in favor of the often-contradictory impulses that pull on contemporary lives.

Tóibín was born into a family that had a long history in his hometown. His father, who died when Tóibín was 12, was a local schoolteacher, and his grandfather was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was twice imprisoned by British authorities for civil disobedience against British rule.

Tóibín explored this history as a writer, following four years teaching English in Barcelona, Spain. He began as a features editor but moved to editing a current affairs magazine and joined the Sunday Independent in Dublin in 1985 as a columnist. As an author, he started by writing travelogues on Ireland and Spain before publishing his first novel in 1990. The South, which draws on Ireland's Catholic-Protestant tensions as well as Tóibín's life in Spain, is about an Irish woman who leaves her husband and son and moves to Spain, falls in love with a political artist, and returns to Ireland as an artist herself, once her son is grown.

This novel would establish Tóibín's reputation as a writer with a keen sensibility for characterization ("His novels have been noted for their deft characterizations, particularly of women, as evidenced by the strong female protagonist in The South," noted Contemporary Literary Criticism), but it wasn't until later novels such as The Story of the Night and The Blackwater Lightship that readers would realize his insight into gay characters as well.

"This is not a simple, upbeat story about gay liberation or political activism," Merle Rubin wrote in The Christian Science Monitor in 1997. "Powerfully imagined and tautly written, it is a subtly shaded portrait of a country in transition, a culture beginning to reflect important political changes, and a man coming to a new understanding of himself."

David Bahr, writing in The Advocate in 2000, predicted that The Blackwater Lightship -- now that it had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize -- would finally make Tóibín known outside his magazine's primary readership: "His latest...should finally prove to straight American readers what many gay people have long known: that Tóibín is one of the more honest and subtly powerful novelists publishing today.... Perceptive and moving, The Blackwater Lightship again reveals Tóibín to be the kind of restrained, quiet writer whose prose feels as natural as breathing. His poetic narrative is so understated that its profound lyricism often takes you by surprise, infusing a potentially familiar tale with vibrant new life."

Mixing fiction and biography in 2004, Tóibín penned a novel inspired by the life of Henry James. "Ambitious and gracefully plotted," said the New Statesman. In the pages of London's Observer, a previous Tóibín skeptic confessed he had been swayed. "There's little in Colm Tóibín's previous work, to some of which this reviewer has been immune or even mildly allergic, to prepare for the startling excellence of his new novel," Adam Mars Jones wrote, "The Master is a portrait of Henry James that has the depth and finish of great sculpture."

Moving fully into nonfiction, Tóibín continued to impress.

The New Statesman observed that The Irish Famine: A Documentary was "no arid survey of the historiography of the famine, but a stimulating quest, prompted by a personal and vocational curiosity. And Joseph Olshan, writing in Entertainment Weekly in 1995, awarded Tóibín's The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe an A, not only for its ability to dissect the Church's close relationship with European politics and social order. "[W]hat Tóibín comes back to is the transcendent power of Catholic ritual," Olshan writes. "Indeed, in a very moving centerpiece, Tóibín describes a therapy session during which he relives his father's death and comes to realize that his most profound wish is to bless his deceased parent with the sign of the cross. This is an extraordinary document."

But it may always be the intensely personal moments in his fiction that will always stand out. Susan Salter Reynolds noted as much in the Los Angeles Times in 2000. "There is little reconciliation in Colm Tóibín's novels; moments in which the stage is set for it usually pass," she wrote. "His novels build to these moments, fraught with potential, from which the air goes out with a nasty little hiss, and a new chapter, full of reasons not to live, begins.... It's good to read Tóibín's honest novels, in which human beings fail to forgive, fail to understand. We spend so much of our lives in the dark, shouldn't literature face this as squarely as we must?"

Good To Know

Tóibín's novel The Story of Night is No. 84 on the Publishing Triangle's list of the best 100 gay and lesbian novels of all time.

He counts two books by James Baldwin -- Giovanni's Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain -- as major influences on his work.

Tóibín covered the downfall of the military dictatorship in Argentina in 1985.

He joined such authors as Roddy Doyle in the 1997 novel Finbar's Hotel, in which each of the seven authors wrote individual chapters set in the same 24-hour period at a fading hotel.

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    1. Hometown:
      Dublin, Ireland
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 30, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland
    1. Education:
      St. Peter's College, Wexford; University College, Dublin, B.A. in English and history
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Helen woke in the night to the sound of Manus whimpering. She lay still and listened, hoping that he would quieten and turn on his side and sleep, but when his voice became louder and more insistent and she could vaguely make out words, she got out of bed and moved towards the boys' room; she was unsure whether he was dreaming or awake.

She had left the landing light switched on and she was able to see, as soon as she came into the room, that Cathal had his eyes wide open. He looked at her from the bed, an uninvolved spectator in the scene about to be enacted; he then looked over at his brother, who was crying out hoarsely and fending off some unknown terror with his arms. She woke Manus gently and pulled back the blanket which covered him. He was too hot. Only half awake and rubbing his eyes, he began to whimper again. It took him a while to realise that she was there and the dream was over.

'I was frightened,' he said.

'You're all right now. Maybe you'll go back asleep.'

'I don't want to go back asleep,' he said, and began to cry.

'Will I carry you into our bed?' she asked.

He nodded. He was motionless now, sobbing, waiting to be comforted. She knew that it would be better if she stayed with him and soothed him until he fell asleep again, but she lifted him and let him cling to her. Always, when she held him like this, he became quiet.

Cathal was still watching them.

Helen spoke to him across the room as though he were an adult. 'I'm going to take Manus into our bed so that it will be easier for you to sleep,' she said.

He pulled the blanket over himself and closed his eyes. At six, Cathal was clever enough to know that she was not carrying Manus into their bed for his sake, but because she was prepared to treat Manus like a baby. She wondered what Cathal thought about this, if he were hurt or disturbed — but he would be too proud to let her know, too ready to play the part of the grown-up big brother.

The half-light of dawn had broken through the landing window. She moved slowly into the bedroom. Hugh lay curled up sleeping, his ann across her side of the bed. She stood watching him, wondering at how easy it was for him to fall in and out of sleep. Manus stirred in her arms and turned to see why she had remained motionless in the room. He, too, watched his father sleeping and then turned away and huddled against her. Somewhere in the distance she could hear a car moving. She brought Minus over to the bed.

'Will you sleep on my side?' she whispered to him.

'No, I want to be in the middle.'

'You know what you want, don't you?' She smiled at him.

'I want to be in the middle,' he whispered.

She put him down with his back to Hugh and pulled the sheet over him. Some time in the night Hugh had pushed the duvet off the bed; she left it on the floor, it would be too hot now with the three of them in the bed. She rested her head on the pillow, relieved that Manus was lying quietly between them and trying to reassure herself that Cathal had fallen back asleep in the other room.

They had gone to bed early when there was still vague light in the sky and made love and she was filled now with a tenderness for Hugh and a wish, something which had become a joke between them, that she could be more like him, even-tempered, easy to please — easy to please? he had laughed when she said that — with nothing secret, nothing held inside.

As Manus edged towards sleep he began to pull at her, he wanted her full attention. He did not want her to turn her back on him. 'Come around this way,' he whispered.

She looked at the clock. It was only a quarter to five. Suddenly, she was cold. She reached to the floor, found the duvet, pulled it on to the bed and arranged it over them. They would need to be warm for a while.

When Helen woke again, Hugh and Manus were sound asleep. It was just after eight o'clock; the room was hot. She slipped out of the bed and, carrying her dressing-gown and slippers, she went downstairs, where she found Cathal, still in his pyjamas, watching television, the zapper in his hand.

'I've finished in the bathroom if you want to have a shower,' she said to him. He nodded and stood up.

'Are they still asleep?' he asked.

'They are,' she said and smiled.

'I'd better go before they wake up,' he said.

This was their secret language; they mimicked adults, they spoke to one another like a married couple. Cathal hated instructions or orders or being spoken to like a child. If she had told him to go to the bathroom, he would have dawdled and delayed. When Manus is his age, she thought, I will have to carry him to the bathroom.

They were the first to live in this house, and the first in their estate to build an extension — a large, square, bright room which served as kitchen and dining-room and playroom. Hugh had wanted the house for the beech tree which, through some miracle, had been left in their back garden, and the park behind the house. She had liked only the newness, the idea that no one had ever lived here before.

She washed up from the night before and noticed from the kitchen window a breeze flit through the leaves of the beech tree and the fir trees at the edge of the park, and then a sudden darkening in the air, a sense of rain. She turned on the radio — Hugh, as usual, had it tuned to Raidio na Gaeltachta — and found Radio One just as the pips sounded for the nine o'clock news. She would be able to listen to the weather forecast.

As she and Cathal were having breakfast, Cathal engrossed in a comic, the shouting and laughing began upstairs. Manus was squealing at the top of his voice.

'Listen to them,' she said. 'It's hard to know which of them is the bigger baby.'

Cathal smiled at her and took a slice of toast and went back to his comic. They ate in silence as the noise upstairs continued, Hugh shouting something in Irish at Manus, and then both of them shouting at the same time until one of them — she presumed it was Manus — landed on the floor with a thud.

Soon, they both appeared, Hugh in his dressing-gown carrying Manus, still wearing his pyjamas.

'I fell out of bed,' he said.

'We know, we heard you,' Helen said.

His cheeks were flushed, He began to squeeze Hugh's nose.

'Stop that. Sit down and have your breakfast.'

As soon as Manus was seated, he saw Cathal's comic and reached across the table and grabbed it. Cathal tried to hold on to it, but Manus was too quick for him.

'Give it back.' Helen said to him.

'He's finished with it,' Manus said.

'Give it back and say you're sorry.'

He looked at her, calculating what the chances were of her losing her temper. He laughed. 'Don't be silly,' he said.

'We're all waiting here. No one is moving until you hand it back and say you're sorry,' she said.

Cathal sat with his hands by his sides; content to be the injured party, Manus looked at Helen and then at Hugh, who spoke gruffly to him in Irish. Manus sighed and handed the comic back to Cathal.

'And say I'm sorry,' Helen said.

'I'm sorry.'

'And I won't do it again.'

'And I won't do it again.'

'You're becoming a bit of a monster,' she said to him and turned to the sink.

'You're becoming a bit of a monster,' he repeated.

She looked out at the garden and wondered how she should respond; she was grateful when she heard Hugh saying something to him. It was, she thought, her own fault for calling him a bit of a monster. She would leave it, forget about it, feed him his breakfast. He hated being smaller and younger than Cathal. What age would they be, he had asked her, when they would both be the same size? Would it be long? Cathal never hit him or bullied him, but he was always aware that he was at an advantage. Even though Cathal was only two when Manus was born, he had immediately seized on his new role — the one who didn't cry, who didn't have a dirty nappy, who didn't want to be brought into his parents' bed, who didn't grab comics from his brother, who didn't give back-answers to his mother.

When she had given Manus his cornflakes and cold milk and left Hugh to fend for himself — Hugh was more at home in the kitchen than she was — she went out to the line to hang a few dishcloths she had washed. She made a note in her head to find out if there was a good book about bringing up boys, which might make things easier to handle. Once again, as she stood there, the sky darkened. She walked down to the bottom of the garden to take in a deckchair which Hugh must have left out overnight.

She remembered once, perhaps a year earlier, when her brother was in the house and witnessed the boys going to bed. Hugh was in charge and both Cathal and Manus, but especially Manus, did everything to be allowed to stay up, such as clinging to their mother and refusing to do anything their father said. When the house was all quiet and the boys fast asleep, Declan said it was proof, if they needed proof, that boys wanted to sleep with their mother and kill their father.

'They just wanted to stay up late,' Hugh said. 'It just happened that I was in charge.'

'Did you want to sleep with your mother and kill your father?' Helen asked Declan.

'No, no,' he laughed, 'gay boys want the opposite, or at least eventually they do.'

'Sleep with your father?' Hugh asked. His tone was earnest, dead serious.

'Yeah, and have a baby, Hugh,' Declan said drily.

'I still want to kill my mother,' Helen said. 'Not every day, but most days. I cannot imagine anyone wanting to sleep with her.'

She had not forgotten the exchange: Hugh's uneasiness, his innocence, his attempts to suggest to her when Declan had left that talking about killing your parents, or sleeping with them, even in jest, was a sort of blasphemy. She was careful not to seem too impatient with him, aware that she and Declan could without any effort join forces and make Hugh feel that they were laughing at him. Maybe that is what brothers are for, she thought as she walked back into the kitchen, perhaps even now Cathal and Manus are involved in unspoken conspiracies.

'The forecast is for showers,' she said to Hugh, 'and I've worked it out. If it rains, all the tables will fit in here and in the front room and we can put all the drinks in the hall. But we don't have to decide until later.'

It was the end of June, Hugh's end of term; the next morning he would take the boys to Donegal. Tonight, he had invited the teachers from his all-Irish school to celebrate the school's first year in existence, and other friends — musicians, Irish-speakers. Helen had made him invite all the neighbours, including the Indian doctor and his wife and their children who lived at the top of the road.

'No one can complain about the noise if they've just been fed in the house,' she said.

'Half of them looked at me like I was collecting taxes. I bet that guard in the corner house is from Offaly. He has a big, thick accent.'

'Who is that friend of yours who sings "The Rocks of Bawn"? The guard'll have a big, thick accent when he hears him.'

'Mick Joyce. He's loud, all right. Is your brother coming?'

'I haven't asked him,' she said. 'He wouldn't mix. I don't think he likes "The Rocks of Bawn".

'Has he fallen out with us?'

'He's busy. He's doing research full-time.'

'He has plenty of time so.' Hugh laughed.

'My mother says he's in the laboratory day and night.'

'Is your mother coming?' he laughed.

'Imagine what she'd say about wasting all this money!'

'She'd be great on the door, though,' Hugh said.

Hugh spoke Irish to the boys, to his mother and his brothers and sisters, and to at least half of his friends. He insisted that Helen understood more than she pretended to understand, but it was not true. She found his Donegal accent in Irish too difficult, and she made out very little of what he said. Tonight, she knew, she would be irritated by the two or three who would continue to speak to her in Irish, indifferent to the fact that she could not follow, but it was an irritation which would fade easily.

There would be no friends of hers at the patty, nobody from the comprehensive school of which she was principal — she was still the youngest principal in the country — nobody from home, nobody from her schooldays or college days. She had one or two women she knew and liked and saw sometimes, but no close friends.

She had given up a long-cherished belief that she was self-contained, or happiest when alone. She could still shut her eyes and bite her lip at how unexpected it was, this life she had made. Nonetheless, she wanted three or four, maybe more, days alone here now after the party, to sit in the garden or an old armchair in the kitchen and read the novels she had saved in the winter, and do nothing else except go to a meeting in the Department of Education, interview prospective teachers and move around the house knowing that, unless there was an emergency, no one would call her or want her immediate attention. But it was important for her to know too that Hugh and the boys were just away for a short while, she would see them soon.

Tomorrow morning, then, Hugh would take the boys to Donegal in the car and she would follow in a while, catch the train to Sligo or the bus to Donegal town, and even now she could imagine Hugh there to meet her, recognising when he saw her how much she feared her own passionate attachment to him, how much she would hold back for a while. After a lot of difficulty, he had learned, as much as he could, to trust her, even though she knew it was hard sometimes.

When the janitor from Hugh's school, Frank Mulvey, and his son came in a van with the tables and chairs, she had to restrain herself from telling them where to put everything; she wondered, as she watched them, at how blindly they moved, planning nothing, moving forward without direction. She smiled at herself minding so much about this.

She decided to go to the supermarket to buy the food and the beer. Hugh had already collected the wine and the glasses. She watched from the kitchen window as the boys played aeroplanes in the back garden, circling each other, dipping and diving, their arms outstretched as wings. She called Manus and when he ignored her she called again. He moved reluctantly towards her.

'I want you to come with me to the supermarket,' she said.

'Is Cathal going?'

'No, just you.'

'Why just me? Why can't Cathal go?'

'Come on quickly,' she said.

'I don't want to go,' he said.

'Come on, wash your hands, we're in a hurry.'

'I don't want to go.'

By this time, Cathal had approached and was observing them both.

'Cathal is going to help your daddy with the tables and chairs,' she said.

'I want to do that,' Manus said.

'Manus, you're coming with me,' she said.

He placed himself in the back of the car so that he could see her face in the rear-view mirror.

'But why am I going with you?' he asked.

'Do you think you need to get your hair cut before you go to Donegal?' She would have said anything to distract him as she set off for the supermarket.

'I'm not getting my hair cut,' he said.

'No, you decide. I just asked you.'

'Cathal isn't getting his hair cut.'

'It's up to you. You're old enough to decide yourself.'

This was the plan, this was why she had made him come with her; she had thought about it as she lay awake in the night: she would have to stop treating him like a baby, she would have to begin to talk to him as though he were an adult. But it was having the opposite effect.

'Cathal can get his hair cut, but I'm not doing it and that's that.'

She drove in silence through Rathfarnham and parked in the shopping-centre car park.

'We'll have to get a trolley,' she said.

'Can I have a Ninety-nine?'

'After.'

'After what?'

'After you behave. How are you going to behave?'

'Impeccably,' he said. It was a new big word he had learned. When he looked at her, seeking her approval, she laughed and that forced him to smile.

'What are we getting?' he asked as they pushed the trolley through the supermarket.

'I have it all on a list. Minced meat, onions, beer, salad.'

'Why do you need me?'

'To mind the trolley when I'm paying at the checkout.'

'It's boring,' he said.

'Do you think we should get large cans or small cans of beer?' Again, she was using an adult tone.

'It's boring,' he repeated.

When she got back, she saw that the tables and chairs were set up in the garden. She checked one of the kitchen drawers for plastic tablecloths. The boys were once more playing aeroplanes.

'If it rains, we'll move everything in,' Hugh said as they both surveyed the garden.

At nine o'clock the first guests, two men and a woman, arrived carrying six-packs of Guinness and a bottle of red wine. The woman was carrying a fiddle case.

'Are we the first?' one of the men, tall with spectacles and curly hair, said. They seemed uneasy, as though they were half tempted to turn and go. Helen didn't know them and didn't think she had seen them before. Hugh introduced them to her.

'Sit down, sit down, we'll get you a drink,' Hugh said.

They sat in the kitchen and looked out at the tables and the long garden. They said nothing. The two boys came in and examined them and went out again.

'An bhfuil Donncha ag teacht?' Hugh began to speak in Irish and one of the men spoke back from the side of his mouth, something funny, almost bitter. The others laughed. Helen noticed how unfashionably long the speaker's sideburns were.

Hugh handed them drinks, and two of them went into the garden, leaving the one with the long sideburns. It struck Helen for a moment that she had interviewed the woman for a job, or she had worked hours in the school, but she was not sure. Hugh and his friend talked in Irish. Helen wondered if she was wearing the right clothes for the party; she watched the woman from the window, noted her jeans and white top and hennaed hair, how relaxed and natural she looked. Helen moved towards the fridge and checked again that everything was in order: the chilli con came would simply need to be reheated, the rice boiled; the salads were all ready, the knives and forks and paper napkins set out. She opened some bottles of red wine.

Just then, another group arrived, one of them was carrying a guitar case and another a flute case. She recognised them and they greeted her. There was one woman among them; Helen watched her looking around the kitchen, as though seeking something, a clue, or something she had left behind on a previous visit. When she went to take the six-pack from the man with the guitar, so that she could put it in the fridge, he said he would hold on to it, and smiled at her as if to say that he had been to more parties than she had. He was too warm and direct for her to be offended.

'If you want more, it's in the fridge,' she said to him.

'If I want more, I'll ask you,' he said.

He smiled again. His eyes were a mixture of brown and dark green. His skin was clear; he was very tall. She realised that he was flirting with her.

'I'm tempted to say something,' she said.

'What?'

'No, nothing.'

'What? Say it.'

'I was going to say that you look like someone who might want more.'

He smiled and held her gaze and then reached into his pocket and took out a small bottle opener. He opened a bottle of Guinness and offered it to her. He seemed somewhat taken aback when she refused it, intimidated.

'It's too early for me,' she said.

'Well, cheers so,' he said and lifted the bottle.

For the next hour she was busy filling glasses and opening bottles and trying to remember names and faces. As it grew dark, Hugh lit the flares which he had stuck into the grass and these gave off a fitful, glaring light. When she brought the food out and Hugh put on the striped apron to serve it, people were already sitting at the tables. Cathal and Manus and several neighbours' children had made a small table for themselves and were eating pizzas and drinking Coke.

'We'd better hold on to a bit of the food,' Hugh said. 'There are a few won't come until after the pubs shut.'

The Indian doctor and his wife had arrived earlier, greeted everyone, accepted a drink of orange juice and left, but their eldest son, who must have been seven or eight, had remained behind and was at the boys' table. Helen had promised that she would walk him to his door and that he would not be too late. The O'Mearas next door — she was unsure what they did for a living — were sitting alone at a table watching all the laughter and good humour around them. Helen knew she would have to go and sit with them; it was clear that no one else was going to pay them any attention. She was glad that the guard and his wife had not come.

'God, we don't have to talk Irish to you, do we?' Mary O'Meara said to her when she sat down beside them. 'I was just saying to Martin that we should have listened more in school. God, I haven't got a word of it. "An bhfuil cead agam dul amach" is all I can remember.'

Helen realised that she did not want them to know that she spoke no Irish either. She was prepared to eat with them, but she was not prepared to join them in being at a loss. She noticed several more people arriving. One of the new arrivals was a friend of Hugh's called Ciaran Duffy who had a case for uilleann pipes with him. Of all of Hugh's friends, he was the one she liked best and found easiest to be with. She didn't think he spoke much Irish either, but he was a welt-known piper and she watched a number of others turning to look at him as he arrived. She liked his boyish self-confidence, his clear, open face. He reminded her of Hugh, except he was bigger, stockier. Hugh guided Ciaran Duffy and his friends over to her table Everybody shook hands and suddenly, she noticed, in just a few seconds, the O'Mearas had lost their forlorn, isolated aura and were busy taking in their new companions. Hugh brought over chilli con came and rice and salads and went back to get drinks.

As Helen went out to close the front door, which had been left open so that people could walk through, she noticed the six-packs carefully placed everywhere, like parcels of territory. It was something Hugh would never do, she thought; he would never be bad-mannered like that and in time, she reckoned, as his friends became older and more prosperous, they would change too.

When she came back into the kitchen, his friend with the brown and green eyes appeared. He stood in front of her.

'It's you again,' she said.

'I was wondering where the toilet was, your honour,' he said in a mock country accent.

'Anywhere between here and Terenure,' she said. 'No, seriously, it's upstairs, at the top of the stairs, you'll find it.'

'Right so. It's a pleasure being in your house,' he said and moved away.

She went back and sat with the O'Mearas. Opposite her, Ciaran Duffy caught her eye and winked, as if to say that he had the measure of the O'Mearas, but he would be saying nothing. She smiled at him, as if to say that she knew what he was thinking. He shouted something to her, but she could not hear it for all the noise around.

Before she served the fruit salad and cream she counted the guests at the tables: there were thirty-seven; they had expected four or five more; maybe some of them were, as Hugh had said, in the pub. Closing time was half-past eleven. It was eleven o'clock now and maybe time, she thought, to take the Indian boy home — she must find out his name. He was laughing with Cathal and Manus and the other boys. She decided to leave them for another while.

The music started in the kitchen while most of the guests were still at tables outside. The man with the six-packs was playing guitar, his friend the flute, and the woman in the jeans and white top a fiddle. Their playing was casual, unselfconscious, almost loose; Helen knew that any move towards intensity would be frowned upon, or indeed mocked. The flute player was leading them, setting the pace; the music had a strange, repetitive gaiety, and the players continued to give the impression that they were playing to please themselves, or each other, but they were not looking for an audience, nor seeking to impress anybody.

Slowly, people began to carry chairs in from the garden; someone turned off the main light in the kitchen, leaving only the light of two lamps to illuminate the room, and others joined in the playing, another fiddle, a mandolin, a squeezebox. Hugh was still busy opening bottles and falling glasses. She knew that he loved the music, the semi-darkness of the room, the company, the drinking. It reminded him of home, of something which was hardly ever possible in Dublin, something that most of his friends here would not be able to manage, being too modest or lazy, too willing to drift and let things happen.

Suddenly, there was silence all around; a woman had begun to sing. Helen knew her, knew that she had made records in the past with her brother and sister and more recently a solo CD which Hugh had listened to over and over and Helen had slowly grown to like. Helen had met the singer on the stairs earlier in the evening and remembered her shy, friendly smile. Now as she stood against the back wall of the room, she sang with ease and authority, and among the guests there was a hush which was almost reverent. The woman did not often sing in public, and if she had been asked to sing — Helen knew the rules — she would have refused, suggesting somebody else, remaining resolute in not singing. Her voice had come from nowhere during a break in the music. Her family, Helen knew, was from Donegal, but Hugh had only met her in Dublin. Her accent in Irish was pure Donegal, but the strength in the rise and fall of the voice was entirely hers, and even the O'Mearas, Helen could see, watched her with awe. When the song was over and the singer sat down, she smiled and sipped her drink as though it were nothing.

The music started again, this time faster than before; someone produced a bodhrán and began to beat it with his eyes closed. Helen went with the O'Mearas to the front door and then remembered the Indian boy and went back in to find him. He was playing around the tables, being chased by Cathal and Manus and another boy who had permission to stay up until the end of the party. As she broke up the game she wished she had secured permission for the Indian boy to stay on as well.

She walked with him up the street to his house.

'Will your parents not be asleep?' she asked.

'My mother will be waiting,' he said and smiled. She wondered if Cathal and Manus could ever be polite like this.

'I hope she won't blame me for keeping you out so late.'

'No, she will not blame you,' the boy said gravely.

As Helen walked back to the house, she looked at the road bathed in the eerie yellow light which oozed from the streetlamps, and the cars parked in the drives or the roadway — Nissans, Toyotas, Ford Fiestas; every semidetached house was exactly the same, built for people who wanted quiet lives. She smiled to herself at the idea and stood outside the house as a taxi, flashing its lights, approached. She watched as the driver got out, an electric torch in his hand.

'We're looking for Brookfield Park Avenue,' he said. 'We've found Brookfield everything else. It's the wild west out here.' He flashed his torch at a neighbour's doorway.

'It's here. You're here,' she said.

The doors of the taxi opened and four passengers got out, each with a bag of cans under his arm. 'This is the place,' one of them said. She could not make out any of the faces.

'It's Helen,' one of them said. 'We've been driving around like eejits.'

'I know you,' she said. 'You're Mick Joyce. Is it not too late for you to be out?

'Hold on until I pay this man,' he said and laughed.

When the taxi drove away, she accompanied the four new guests into the party. Mick Joyce had come to the house several times before; he was a solicitor, he had done all the legal work for Hugh's school. He was the best solicitor in the country, Hugh said, he knew every trick, he was a great man for detail, but Once darkness fell — and she had heard Hugh telling the story several times, using the same words — he'd do anything, go anywhere, he'd go to Kerry and back the same night if he thought there was anything going on there. He had a strong Galway accent.

'This is the woman of the house,' he said to the others. They shook her hand. There were no introductions.

'We kept food for you,' she said.

'You're a great woman,' he said.

He walked down the hallway to the kitchen and stood in the doorway as though he owned the place, or was the guest of honour. When the music stopped, several people Shouted greetings. Hugh got drinks for him and his companions and then the music started up again.

Helen noticed that Ciaran Duffy was assembling his uilleann pipes, being watched carefully by several people. It was slow, meticulous work, and she realised that those still playing were overshadowed by these preparations. She watched Mick Joyce going into the garden, finding Manus and lifting him on his shoulders, making him laugh and shout; Cathal and his friend followed them as they moved around the garden. She remembered that each time Mick had come to the house he had sought Manus out and acted as though he had come to see him specially. Manus loved him; he was the only friend of Hugh's he ever mentioned.

Mick Joyce and the boys came into the house when the piping began. Some people had already left, but the kitchen was still half-crowded, and there was a silence now which had been there before only for the singer. Those who had been playing left their instruments down: this was, Helen knew, more than anything a world of hierarchies, and no one came near this player's reputation. They listened, full of respect and deep interest in the technique, the movement of chanter and drone, the sense of control and release. Cathal and Manus had been learning the tin whistle; they sat on the floor listening, Manus making sure that Mick Joyce was sitting on the chair right behind him, and paid attention, even though it was after midnight now, and they should have been asleep three hours earlier.

Helen sat on the floor and relaxed for the first time that evening; she noticed the tunes md rhythms changing, becoming faster, a display of pure virtuosity, full of hints and insinuations, good-humoured twists and turns. The room was half full of cigarette smoke; cans and bottles were being used for ashtrays. All around, people sat or stood and listened to the music. Hugh stood with his shoulder against the wall; he caught her eye and grinned at her.

When the piping stopped, the crowd began to thin out. It was then that someone shouted at Mick Joyce that he hadn't sung yet, and that the night would not be complete until he did.

'I'm too drunk to sing,' he shouted. He stood up and pointed to the man with the guitar and his companion with the mandolin. 'Don't try and join in,' he instructed them. 'You'll put me all wrong.'

'I thought you were too drunk to sing,' one of them said.

'I'll give you singing now, if you want singing,' he said.

He began 'The Rocks of Bawn'; this time his voice was even louder than when Helen had heard him before. Cathal and Manus still sat on the floor, fascinated by the sheer passion in his delivery, his face all lit up by the rage of the song, as though at any moment he would start a fight or burst a blood vessel. A few people who were at the front door, about to go, came back to witness the end of the song:

I wish the Queen of England would write to me in time

And place me in some regiment all in my youth and prime.

I'd fight for Ireland's glory from the clear daylight 'til dawn

And I never would return again to plough the Rocks of Bawn.

When he had finished he lifted Manus up and laughed when the child pulled his ears. He looked at Helen as if to say that he had fooled them all again. Helen brought him a cold can of lager; he opened it and offered some to Manus first, but he refused. Manus didn't like the taste of beer. Cathal put his hand up and asked for some and when Mick Joyce handed him the can he put his head back and drank the beer. He saw Helen watching him. He knew he was allowed to take sips of beer, but he was still uncertain about her reaction.

'He gave it to me,' he said as he handed back the can.

'You'll be drunk,' she said and laughed. 'You'll have a hangover in the morning.'

Helen closed the doors to the garden. The party was nearly over. She remembered Hugh telling her that Mick Joyce knew only one song, and she was relieved about this. His singing could have been heard by the neighbours on both sides, and possibly further down the street. She wondered about Mick Joyce: since he liked children so much, why he didn't have children of his own, and how he managed to pretend, in his manners and speech, that he was in the west of Ireland. She wondered what it would be like to be married to someone like that - the mixture of control and anarchy, the unevenness. She turned around and watched as Hugh began to sing in Irish, his voice nasal and thin, but sweet as well and clear. His eyes were closed. There were only about ten people left, and two of these joined the song, softly at first and then more loudly. She stood there and thought about Hugh: how easygoing he was and consistent, how modest and decent. And she wondered - as she often did in moments like this - why he had wanted her, why he needed someone who had none of his virtues, and she felt suddenly distant from him. She could never let him know the constant daily urge to resist him, keep him at bay, and the struggle to overcome these urges, in which she often failed.

He tried to understand this, but he was also frightened by it, and often succeeded in pretending that it was nothing, it was her period, or a bad mood. It would pass, and he would wait and find the right moment and pull her back in again, and she would lie beside him, half grateful to him, but knowing that he had wilfully misunderstood what was between them. As she watched him now, his voice soaring in the last verse of the song, clearly in love with the sounds of the words he was singing, she knew that anybody else would have laid bare, in the way that he had covered, the raw areas in her which were unsettled and untrusting.

Copyright © 1999 by Colm Tóibín

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First Chapter

Chapter One

Helen woke in the night to the sound of Manus whimpering. She lay still and listened, hoping that he would quieten and turn on his side and sleep, but when his voice became louder and more insistent and she could vaguely make out words, she got out of bed and moved towards the boys' room; she was unsure whether he was dreaming or awake.

She had left the landing light switched on and she was able to see, as soon as she came into the room, that Cathal had his eyes wide open. He looked at her from the bed, an uninvolved spectator in the scene about to be enacted; he then looked over at his brother, who was crying out hoarsely and fending off some unknown terror with his arms. She woke Manus gently and pulled back the blanket which covered him. He was too hot. Only half awake and rubbing his eyes, he began to whimper again. It took him a while to realise that she was there and the dream was over.

'I was frightened,' he said.

'You're all right now. Maybe you'll go back asleep.'

'I don't want to go back asleep,' he said, and began to cry.

'Will I carry you into our bed?' she asked.

He nodded. He was motionless now, sobbing, waiting to be comforted. She knew that it would be better if she stayed with him and soothed him until he fell asleep again, but she lifted him and let him cling to her. Always, when she held him like this, he became quiet.

Cathal was still watching them.

Helen spoke to him across the room as though he were an adult. 'I'm going to take Manus into our bed so that it will be easier for you to sleep,' she said.

He pulled the blanket over himself and closed his eyes. At six, Cathal was clever enough to know that she was not carrying Manus into their bed for his sake, but because she was prepared to treat Manus like a baby. She wondered what Cathal thought about this, if he were hurt or disturbed -- but he would be too proud to let her know, too ready to play the part of the grown-up big brother.

The half-light of dawn had broken through the landing window. She moved slowly into the bedroom. Hugh lay curled up sleeping, his ann across her side of the bed. She stood watching him, wondering at how easy it was for him to fall in and out of sleep. Manus stirred in her arms and turned to see why she had remained motionless in the room. He, too, watched his father sleeping and then turned away and huddled against her. Somewhere in the distance she could hear a car moving. She brought Minus over to the bed.

'Will you sleep on my side?' she whispered to him.

'No, I want to be in the middle.'

'You know what you want, don't you?' She smiled at him.

'I want to be in the middle,' he whispered.

She put him down with his back to Hugh and pulled the sheet over him. Some time in the night Hugh had pushed the duvet off the bed; she left it on the floor, it would be too hot now with the three of them in the bed. She rested her head on the pillow, relieved that Manus was lying quietly between them and trying to reassure herself that Cathal had fallen back asleep in the other room.

They had gone to bed early when there was still vague light in the sky and made love and she was filled now with a tenderness for Hugh and a wish, something which had become a joke between them, that she could be more like him, even-tempered, easy to please -- easy to please? he had laughed when she said that -- with nothing secret, nothing held inside.

As Manus edged towards sleep he began to pull at her, he wanted her full attention. He did not want her to turn her back on him. 'Come around this way,' he whispered.

She looked at the clock. It was only a quarter to five. Suddenly, she was cold. She reached to the floor, found the duvet, pulled it on to the bed and arranged it over them. They would need to be warm for a while.

When Helen woke again, Hugh and Manus were sound asleep. It was just after eight o'clock; the room was hot. She slipped out of the bed and, carrying her dressing-gown and slippers, she went downstairs, where she found Cathal, still in his pyjamas, watching television, the zapper in his hand.

'I've finished in the bathroom if you want to have a shower,' she said to him. He nodded and stood up.

'Are they still asleep?' he asked.

'They are,' she said and smiled.

'I'd better go before they wake up,' he said.

This was their secret language; they mimicked adults, they spoke to one another like a married couple. Cathal hated instructions or orders or being spoken to like a child. If she had told him to go to the bathroom, he would have dawdled and delayed. When Manus is his age, she thought, I will have to carry him to the bathroom.

They were the first to live in this house, and the first in their estate to build an extension -- a large, square, bright room which served as kitchen and dining-room and playroom. Hugh had wanted the house for the beech tree which, through some miracle, had been left in their back garden, and the park behind the house. She had liked only the newness, the idea that no one had ever lived here before.

She washed up from the night before and noticed from the kitchen window a breeze flit through the leaves of the beech tree and the fir trees at the edge of the park, and then a sudden darkening in the air, a sense of rain. She turned on the radio -- Hugh, as usual, had it tuned to Raidio na Gaeltachta -- and found Radio One just as the pips sounded for the nine o'clock news. She would be able to listen to the weather forecast.

As she and Cathal were having breakfast, Cathal engrossed in a comic, the shouting and laughing began upstairs. Manus was squealing at the top of his voice.

'Listen to them,' she said. 'It's hard to know which of them is the bigger baby.'

Cathal smiled at her and took a slice of toast and went back to his comic. They ate in silence as the noise upstairs continued, Hugh shouting something in Irish at Manus, and then both of them shouting at the same time until one of them -- she presumed it was Manus -- landed on the floor with a thud.

Soon, they both appeared, Hugh in his dressing-gown carrying Manus, still wearing his pyjamas.

'I fell out of bed,' he said.

'We know, we heard you,' Helen said.

His cheeks were flushed, He began to squeeze Hugh's nose.

'Stop that. Sit down and have your breakfast.'

As soon as Manus was seated, he saw Cathal's comic and reached across the table and grabbed it. Cathal tried to hold on to it, but Manus was too quick for him.

'Give it back.' Helen said to him.

'He's finished with it,' Manus said.

'Give it back and say you're sorry.'

He looked at her, calculating what the chances were of her losing her temper. He laughed. 'Don't be silly,' he said.

'We're all waiting here. No one is moving until you hand it back and say you're sorry,' she said.

Cathal sat with his hands by his sides; content to be the injured party, Manus looked at Helen and then at Hugh, who spoke gruffly to him in Irish. Manus sighed and handed the comic back to Cathal.

'And say I'm sorry,' Helen said.

'I'm sorry.'

'And I won't do it again.'

'And I won't do it again.'

'You're becoming a bit of a monster,' she said to him and turned to the sink.

'You're becoming a bit of a monster,' he repeated.

She looked out at the garden and wondered how she should respond; she was grateful when she heard Hugh saying something to him. It was, she thought, her own fault for calling him a bit of a monster. She would leave it, forget about it, feed him his breakfast. He hated being smaller and younger than Cathal. What age would they be, he had asked her, when they would both be the same size? Would it be long? Cathal never hit him or bullied him, but he was always aware that he was at an advantage. Even though Cathal was only two when Manus was born, he had immediately seized on his new role -- the one who didn't cry, who didn't have a dirty nappy, who didn't want to be brought into his parents' bed, who didn't grab comics from his brother, who didn't give back-answers to his mother.

When she had given Manus his cornflakes and cold milk and left Hugh to fend for himself -- Hugh was more at home in the kitchen than she was -- she went out to the line to hang a few dishcloths she had washed. She made a note in her head to find out if there was a good book about bringing up boys, which might make things easier to handle. Once again, as she stood there, the sky darkened. She walked down to the bottom of the garden to take in a deckchair which Hugh must have left out overnight.

She remembered once, perhaps a year earlier, when her brother was in the house and witnessed the boys going to bed. Hugh was in charge and both Cathal and Manus, but especially Manus, did everything to be allowed to stay up, such as clinging to their mother and refusing to do anything their father said. When the house was all quiet and the boys fast asleep, Declan said it was proof, if they needed proof, that boys wanted to sleep with their mother and kill their father.

'They just wanted to stay up late,' Hugh said. 'It just happened that I was in charge.'

'Did you want to sleep with your mother and kill your father?' Helen asked Declan.

'No, no,' he laughed, 'gay boys want the opposite, or at least eventually they do.'

'Sleep with your father?' Hugh asked. His tone was earnest, dead serious.

'Yeah, and have a baby, Hugh,' Declan said drily.

'I still want to kill my mother,' Helen said. 'Not every day, but most days. I cannot imagine anyone wanting to sleep with her.'

She had not forgotten the exchange: Hugh's uneasiness, his innocence, his attempts to suggest to her when Declan had left that talking about killing your parents, or sleeping with them, even in jest, was a sort of blasphemy. She was careful not to seem too impatient with him, aware that she and Declan could without any effort join forces and make Hugh feel that they were laughing at him. Maybe that is what brothers are for, she thought as she walked back into the kitchen, perhaps even now Cathal and Manus are involved in unspoken conspiracies.

'The forecast is for showers,' she said to Hugh, 'and I've worked it out. If it rains, all the tables will fit in here and in the front room and we can put all the drinks in the hall. But we don't have to decide until later.'

It was the end of June, Hugh's end of term; the next morning he would take the boys to Donegal. Tonight, he had invited the teachers from his all-Irish school to celebrate the school's first year in existence, and other friends -- musicians, Irish-speakers. Helen had made him invite all the neighbours, including the Indian doctor and his wife and their children who lived at the top of the road.

'No one can complain about the noise if they've just been fed in the house,' she said.

'Half of them looked at me like I was collecting taxes. I bet that guard in the corner house is from Offaly. He has a big, thick accent.'

'Who is that friend of yours who sings "The Rocks of Bawn"? The guard'll have a big, thick accent when he hears him.'

'Mick Joyce. He's loud, all right. Is your brother coming?'

'I haven't asked him,' she said. 'He wouldn't mix. I don't think he likes "The Rocks of Bawn".

'Has he fallen out with us?'

'He's busy. He's doing research full-time.'

'He has plenty of time so.' Hugh laughed.

'My mother says he's in the laboratory day and night.'

'Is your mother coming?' he laughed.

'Imagine what she'd say about wasting all this money!'

'She'd be great on the door, though,' Hugh said.

Hugh spoke Irish to the boys, to his mother and his brothers and sisters, and to at least half of his friends. He insisted that Helen understood more than she pretended to understand, but it was not true. She found his Donegal accent in Irish too difficult, and she made out very little of what he said. Tonight, she knew, she would be irritated by the two or three who would continue to speak to her in Irish, indifferent to the fact that she could not follow, but it was an irritation which would fade easily.

There would be no friends of hers at the patty, nobody from the comprehensive school of which she was principal -- she was still the youngest principal in the country -- nobody from home, nobody from her schooldays or college days. She had one or two women she knew and liked and saw sometimes, but no close friends.

She had given up a long-cherished belief that she was self-contained, or happiest when alone. She could still shut her eyes and bite her lip at how unexpected it was, this life she had made. Nonetheless, she wanted three or four, maybe more, days alone here now after the party, to sit in the garden or an old armchair in the kitchen and read the novels she had saved in the winter, and do nothing else except go to a meeting in the Department of Education, interview prospective teachers and move around the house knowing that, unless there was an emergency, no one would call her or want her immediate attention. But it was important for her to know too that Hugh and the boys were just away for a short while, she would see them soon.

Tomorrow morning, then, Hugh would take the boys to Donegal in the car and she would follow in a while, catch the train to Sligo or the bus to Donegal town, and even now she could imagine Hugh there to meet her, recognising when he saw her how much she feared her own passionate attachment to him, how much she would hold back for a while. After a lot of difficulty, he had learned, as much as he could, to trust her, even though she knew it was hard sometimes.

When the janitor from Hugh's school, Frank Mulvey, and his son came in a van with the tables and chairs, she had to restrain herself from telling them where to put everything; she wondered, as she watched them, at how blindly they moved, planning nothing, moving forward without direction. She smiled at herself minding so much about this.

She decided to go to the supermarket to buy the food and the beer. Hugh had already collected the wine and the glasses. She watched from the kitchen window as the boys played aeroplanes in the back garden, circling each other, dipping and diving, their arms outstretched as wings. She called Manus and when he ignored her she called again. He moved reluctantly towards her.

'I want you to come with me to the supermarket,' she said.

'Is Cathal going?'

'No, just you.'

'Why just me? Why can't Cathal go?'

'Come on quickly,' she said.

'I don't want to go,' he said.

'Come on, wash your hands, we're in a hurry.'

'I don't want to go.'

By this time, Cathal had approached and was observing them both.

'Cathal is going to help your daddy with the tables and chairs,' she said.

'I want to do that,' Manus said.

'Manus, you're coming with me,' she said.

He placed himself in the back of the car so that he could see her face in the rear-view mirror.

'But why am I going with you?' he asked.

'Do you think you need to get your hair cut before you go to Donegal?' She would have said anything to distract him as she set off for the supermarket.

'I'm not getting my hair cut,' he said.

'No, you decide. I just asked you.'

'Cathal isn't getting his hair cut.'

'It's up to you. You're old enough to decide yourself.'

This was the plan, this was why she had made him come with her; she had thought about it as she lay awake in the night: she would have to stop treating him like a baby, she would have to begin to talk to him as though he were an adult. But it was having the opposite effect.

'Cathal can get his hair cut, but I'm not doing it and that's that.'

She drove in silence through Rathfarnham and parked in the shopping-centre car park.

'We'll have to get a trolley,' she said.

'Can I have a Ninety-nine?'

'After.'

'After what?'

'After you behave. How are you going to behave?'

'Impeccably,' he said. It was a new big word he had learned. When he looked at her, seeking her approval, she laughed and that forced him to smile.

'What are we getting?' he asked as they pushed the trolley through the supermarket.

'I have it all on a list. Minced meat, onions, beer, salad.'

'Why do you need me?'

'To mind the trolley when I'm paying at the checkout.'

'It's boring,' he said.

'Do you think we should get large cans or small cans of beer?' Again, she was using an adult tone.

'It's boring,' he repeated.

When she got back, she saw that the tables and chairs were set up in the garden. She checked one of the kitchen drawers for plastic tablecloths. The boys were once more playing aeroplanes.

'If it rains, we'll move everything in,' Hugh said as they both surveyed the garden.

At nine o'clock the first guests, two men and a woman, arrived carrying six-packs of Guinness and a bottle of red wine. The woman was carrying a fiddle case.

'Are we the first?' one of the men, tall with spectacles and curly hair, said. They seemed uneasy, as though they were half tempted to turn and go. Helen didn't know them and didn't think she had seen them before. Hugh introduced them to her.

'Sit down, sit down, we'll get you a drink,' Hugh said.

They sat in the kitchen and looked out at the tables and the long garden. They said nothing. The two boys came in and examined them and went out again.

'An bhfuil Donncha ag teacht?' Hugh began to speak in Irish and one of the men spoke back from the side of his mouth, something funny, almost bitter. The others laughed. Helen noticed how unfashionably long the speaker's sideburns were.

Hugh handed them drinks, and two of them went into the garden, leaving the one with the long sideburns. It struck Helen for a moment that she had interviewed the woman for a job, or she had worked hours in the school, but she was not sure. Hugh and his friend talked in Irish. Helen wondered if she was wearing the right clothes for the party; she watched the woman from the window, noted her jeans and white top and hennaed hair, how relaxed and natural she looked. Helen moved towards the fridge and checked again that everything was in order: the chilli con came would simply need to be reheated, the rice boiled; the salads were all ready, the knives and forks and paper napkins set out. She opened some bottles of red wine.

Just then, another group arrived, one of them was carrying a guitar case and another a flute case. She recognised them and they greeted her. There was one woman among them; Helen watched her looking around the kitchen, as though seeking something, a clue, or something she had left behind on a previous visit. When she went to take the six-pack from the man with the guitar, so that she could put it in the fridge, he said he would hold on to it, and smiled at her as if to say that he had been to more parties than she had. He was too warm and direct for her to be offended.

'If you want more, it's in the fridge,' she said to him.

'If I want more, I'll ask you,' he said.

He smiled again. His eyes were a mixture of brown and dark green. His skin was clear; he was very tall. She realised that he was flirting with her.

'I'm tempted to say something,' she said.

'What?'

'No, nothing.'

'What? Say it.'

'I was going to say that you look like someone who might want more.'

He smiled and held her gaze and then reached into his pocket and took out a small bottle opener. He opened a bottle of Guinness and offered it to her. He seemed somewhat taken aback when she refused it, intimidated.

'It's too early for me,' she said.

'Well, cheers so,' he said and lifted the bottle.

For the next hour she was busy filling glasses and opening bottles and trying to remember names and faces. As it grew dark, Hugh lit the flares which he had stuck into the grass and these gave off a fitful, glaring light. When she brought the food out and Hugh put on the striped apron to serve it, people were already sitting at the tables. Cathal and Manus and several neighbours' children had made a small table for themselves and were eating pizzas and drinking Coke.

'We'd better hold on to a bit of the food,' Hugh said. 'There are a few won't come until after the pubs shut.'

The Indian doctor and his wife had arrived earlier, greeted everyone, accepted a drink of orange juice and left, but their eldest son, who must have been seven or eight, had remained behind and was at the boys' table. Helen had promised that she would walk him to his door and that he would not be too late. The O'Mearas next door -- she was unsure what they did for a living -- were sitting alone at a table watching all the laughter and good humour around them. Helen knew she would have to go and sit with them; it was clear that no one else was going to pay them any attention. She was glad that the guard and his wife had not come.

'God, we don't have to talk Irish to you, do we?' Mary O'Meara said to her when she sat down beside them. 'I was just saying to Martin that we should have listened more in school. God, I haven't got a word of it. "An bhfuil cead agam dul amach" is all I can remember.'

Helen realised that she did not want them to know that she spoke no Irish either. She was prepared to eat with them, but she was not prepared to join them in being at a loss. She noticed several more people arriving. One of the new arrivals was a friend of Hugh's called Ciaran Duffy who had a case for uilleann pipes with him. Of all of Hugh's friends, he was the one she liked best and found easiest to be with. She didn't think he spoke much Irish either, but he was a welt-known piper and she watched a number of others turning to look at him as he arrived. She liked his boyish self-confidence, his clear, open face. He reminded her of Hugh, except he was bigger, stockier. Hugh guided Ciaran Duffy and his friends over to her table Everybody shook hands and suddenly, she noticed, in just a few seconds, the O'Mearas had lost their forlorn, isolated aura and were busy taking in their new companions. Hugh brought over chilli con came and rice and salads and went back to get drinks.

As Helen went out to close the front door, which had been left open so that people could walk through, she noticed the six-packs carefully placed everywhere, like parcels of territory. It was something Hugh would never do, she thought; he would never be bad-mannered like that and in time, she reckoned, as his friends became older and more prosperous, they would change too.

When she came back into the kitchen, his friend with the brown and green eyes appeared. He stood in front of her.

'It's you again,' she said.

'I was wondering where the toilet was, your honour,' he said in a mock country accent.

'Anywhere between here and Terenure,' she said. 'No, seriously, it's upstairs, at the top of the stairs, you'll find it.'

'Right so. It's a pleasure being in your house,' he said and moved away.

She went back and sat with the O'Mearas. Opposite her, Ciaran Duffy caught her eye and winked, as if to say that he had the measure of the O'Mearas, but he would be saying nothing. She smiled at him, as if to say that she knew what he was thinking. He shouted something to her, but she could not hear it for all the noise around.

Before she served the fruit salad and cream she counted the guests at the tables: there were thirty-seven; they had expected four or five more; maybe some of them were, as Hugh had said, in the pub. Closing time was half-past eleven. It was eleven o'clock now and maybe time, she thought, to take the Indian boy home -- she must find out his name. He was laughing with Cathal and Manus and the other boys. She decided to leave them for another while.

The music started in the kitchen while most of the guests were still at tables outside. The man with the six-packs was playing guitar, his friend the flute, and the woman in the jeans and white top a fiddle. Their playing was casual, unselfconscious, almost loose; Helen knew that any move towards intensity would be frowned upon, or indeed mocked. The flute player was leading them, setting the pace; the music had a strange, repetitive gaiety, and the players continued to give the impression that they were playing to please themselves, or each other, but they were not looking for an audience, nor seeking to impress anybody.

Slowly, people began to carry chairs in from the garden; someone turned off the main light in the kitchen, leaving only the light of two lamps to illuminate the room, and others joined in the playing, another fiddle, a mandolin, a squeezebox. Hugh was still busy opening bottles and falling glasses. She knew that he loved the music, the semi-darkness of the room, the company, the drinking. It reminded him of home, of something which was hardly ever possible in Dublin, something that most of his friends here would not be able to manage, being too modest or lazy, too willing to drift and let things happen.

Suddenly, there was silence all around; a woman had begun to sing. Helen knew her, knew that she had made records in the past with her brother and sister and more recently a solo CD which Hugh had listened to over and over and Helen had slowly grown to like. Helen had met the singer on the stairs earlier in the evening and remembered her shy, friendly smile. Now as she stood against the back wall of the room, she sang with ease and authority, and among the guests there was a hush which was almost reverent. The woman did not often sing in public, and if she had been asked to sing -- Helen knew the rules -- she would have refused, suggesting somebody else, remaining resolute in not singing. Her voice had come from nowhere during a break in the music. Her family, Helen knew, was from Donegal, but Hugh had only met her in Dublin. Her accent in Irish was pure Donegal, but the strength in the rise and fall of the voice was entirely hers, and even the O'Mearas, Helen could see, watched her with awe. When the song was over and the singer sat down, she smiled and sipped her drink as though it were nothing.

The music started again, this time faster than before; someone produced a bodhrán and began to beat it with his eyes closed. Helen went with the O'Mearas to the front door and then remembered the Indian boy and went back in to find him. He was playing around the tables, being chased by Cathal and Manus and another boy who had permission to stay up until the end of the party. As she broke up the game she wished she had secured permission for the Indian boy to stay on as well.

She walked with him up the street to his house.

'Will your parents not be asleep?' she asked.

'My mother will be waiting,' he said and smiled. She wondered if Cathal and Manus could ever be polite like this.

'I hope she won't blame me for keeping you out so late.'

'No, she will not blame you,' the boy said gravely.

As Helen walked back to the house, she looked at the road bathed in the eerie yellow light which oozed from the streetlamps, and the cars parked in the drives or the roadway -- Nissans, Toyotas, Ford Fiestas; every semidetached house was exactly the same, built for people who wanted quiet lives. She smiled to herself at the idea and stood outside the house as a taxi, flashing its lights, approached. She watched as the driver got out, an electric torch in his hand.

'We're looking for Brookfield Park Avenue,' he said. 'We've found Brookfield everything else. It's the wild west out here.' He flashed his torch at a neighbour's doorway.

'It's here. You're here,' she said.

The doors of the taxi opened and four passengers got out, each with a bag of cans under his arm. 'This is the place,' one of them said. She could not make out any of the faces.

'It's Helen,' one of them said. 'We've been driving around like eejits.'

'I know you,' she said. 'You're Mick Joyce. Is it not too late for you to be out?

'Hold on until I pay this man,' he said and laughed.

When the taxi drove away, she accompanied the four new guests into the party. Mick Joyce had come to the house several times before; he was a solicitor, he had done all the legal work for Hugh's school. He was the best solicitor in the country, Hugh said, he knew every trick, he was a great man for detail, but Once darkness fell -- and she had heard Hugh telling the story several times, using the same words -- he'd do anything, go anywhere, he'd go to Kerry and back the same night if he thought there was anything going on there. He had a strong Galway accent.

'This is the woman of the house,' he said to the others. They shook her hand. There were no introductions.

'We kept food for you,' she said.

'You're a great woman,' he said.

He walked down the hallway to the kitchen and stood in the doorway as though he owned the place, or was the guest of honour. When the music stopped, several people Shouted greetings. Hugh got drinks for him and his companions and then the music started up again.

Helen noticed that Ciaran Duffy was assembling his uilleann pipes, being watched carefully by several people. It was slow, meticulous work, and she realised that those still playing were overshadowed by these preparations. She watched Mick Joyce going into the garden, finding Manus and lifting him on his shoulders, making him laugh and shout; Cathal and his friend followed them as they moved around the garden. She remembered that each time Mick had come to the house he had sought Manus out and acted as though he had come to see him specially. Manus loved him; he was the only friend of Hugh's he ever mentioned.

Mick Joyce and the boys came into the house when the piping began. Some people had already left, but the kitchen was still half-crowded, and there was a silence now which had been there before only for the singer. Those who had been playing left their instruments down: this was, Helen knew, more than anything a world of hierarchies, and no one came near this player's reputation. They listened, full of respect and deep interest in the technique, the movement of chanter and drone, the sense of control and release. Cathal and Manus had been learning the tin whistle; they sat on the floor listening, Manus making sure that Mick Joyce was sitting on the chair right behind him, and paid attention, even though it was after midnight now, and they should have been asleep three hours earlier.

Helen sat on the floor and relaxed for the first time that evening; she noticed the tunes md rhythms changing, becoming faster, a display of pure virtuosity, full of hints and insinuations, good-humoured twists and turns. The room was half full of cigarette smoke; cans and bottles were being used for ashtrays. All around, people sat or stood and listened to the music. Hugh stood with his shoulder against the wall; he caught her eye and grinned at her.

When the piping stopped, the crowd began to thin out. It was then that someone shouted at Mick Joyce that he hadn't sung yet, and that the night would not be complete until he did.

'I'm too drunk to sing,' he shouted. He stood up and pointed to the man with the guitar and his companion with the mandolin. 'Don't try and join in,' he instructed them. 'You'll put me all wrong.'

'I thought you were too drunk to sing,' one of them said.

'I'll give you singing now, if you want singing,' he said.

He began 'The Rocks of Bawn'; this time his voice was even louder than when Helen had heard him before. Cathal and Manus still sat on the floor, fascinated by the sheer passion in his delivery, his face all lit up by the rage of the song, as though at any moment he would start a fight or burst a blood vessel. A few people who were at the front door, about to go, came back to witness the end of the song:

I wish the Queen of England would write to me in time
And place me in some regiment all in my youth and prime.
I'd fight for Ireland's glory from the clear daylight 'til dawn
And I never would return again to plough the Rocks of Bawn.

When he had finished he lifted Manus up and laughed when the child pulled his ears. He looked at Helen as if to say that he had fooled them all again. Helen brought him a cold can of lager; he opened it and offered some to Manus first, but he refused. Manus didn't like the taste of beer. Cathal put his hand up and asked for some and when Mick Joyce handed him the can he put his head back and drank the beer. He saw Helen watching him. He knew he was allowed to take sips of beer, but he was still uncertain about her reaction.

'He gave it to me,' he said as he handed back the can.

'You'll be drunk,' she said and laughed. 'You'll have a hangover in the morning.'

Helen closed the doors to the garden. The party was nearly over. She remembered Hugh telling her that Mick Joyce knew only one song, and she was relieved about this. His singing could have been heard by the neighbours on both sides, and possibly further down the street. She wondered about Mick Joyce: since he liked children so much, why he didn't have children of his own, and how he managed to pretend, in his manners and speech, that he was in the west of Ireland. She wondered what it would be like to be married to someone like that - the mixture of control and anarchy, the unevenness. She turned around and watched as Hugh began to sing in Irish, his voice nasal and thin, but sweet as well and clear. His eyes were closed. There were only about ten people left, and two of these joined the song, softly at first and then more loudly. She stood there and thought about Hugh: how easygoing he was and consistent, how modest and decent. And she wondered - as she often did in moments like this - why he had wanted her, why he needed someone who had none of his virtues, and she felt suddenly distant from him. She could never let him know the constant daily urge to resist him, keep him at bay, and the struggle to overcome these urges, in which she often failed.

He tried to understand this, but he was also frightened by it, and often succeeded in pretending that it was nothing, it was her period, or a bad mood. It would pass, and he would wait and find the right moment and pull her back in again, and she would lie beside him, half grateful to him, but knowing that he had wilfully misunderstood what was between them. As she watched him now, his voice soaring in the last verse of the song, clearly in love with the sounds of the words he was singing, she knew that anybody else would have laid bare, in the way that he had covered, the raw areas in her which were unsettled and untrusting.

Copyright © 1999 by Colm Tóibín

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2005

    Half Empty or Half Full?

    The Blackwater Lightship is a sad and lonely tale about family history. Unfortunately, it offers the reader little history to fall back on...but it remains quite difficult to put down. Most of the characters seem to appear from thin air and develop from there, with little background information, which sometimes makes it hard for the reader to relate. But this book is also woven with several deeply personal stories, some of them so detailed and intricate that they are capable of moving the reader to tears. It is the book's storytelling that compels the reader to sympathy and even empathy, but I still found some parts to be empty and difficult to grasp. Overall, though, The Blackwater Lightship is interesting and enjoyable, short and easy to read. It's worth a look for the hidden treasures within.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2004

    Intense and personal

    An intense drama by an author who knows people well. An unsentimental look at the complexity, pleasure and pain of family ties. Perhaps too internalized at times, as slow as real life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2003

    Emotionally Rich

    I'm not sure I'd call 'The Blackwater Lightship' fast-moving, as another reviewer did. It's not very long, and you can read it quickly, but the atmosphere is one of time passing with little or nothing to do -- the atmosphere, essentially, of the waiting room. But it is a deeply emotional book, and the relationships among the characters -- some pre-existing, some that begin and grow in the course of the novel -- are rich and complicated, with all the paradoxes and contradictions of real, human relationships. They shift, like the sands of the strand that is a potent symbol in the novel. I found it a very satisfying book, one that stays with me, and leaves me feeling like I've really READ something.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2001

    excellent read...

    what a fast moving story of family love, fear, illness, friendship, and strength!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2000

    A WELL WRITTEN MULTI GENERATIONAL STORY

    tHIS IS ANOTHER FINE RFFORT, ALTHOUGH SOMEWHAT PREDICTIBLE AFTER A WHILE. pHILADELPHA STYLE PATHOS WITHOUT SOMEONE ON WHICH TO FOCUS OUR HATE AND FRUSTRATION

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    Posted October 29, 2008

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    Posted May 26, 2012

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    Posted December 19, 2008

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