The New York Times
Cheating at Canastaby William Trevor
A husband sits in Harry’s Bar in Venice, thinking of his wife–lost to him now–whose plea has brought him back to one of their favourite haunts. At another table, a young couple quarrel. “Cheating at Canasta” is the title story of William Trevor’s new collection, his first since the highly acclaimed A Bit on the Side, and/b>… See more details below
A husband sits in Harry’s Bar in Venice, thinking of his wife–lost to him now–whose plea has brought him back to one of their favourite haunts. At another table, a young couple quarrel. “Cheating at Canasta” is the title story of William Trevor’s new collection, his first since the highly acclaimed A Bit on the Side, and its themes of missed opportunities, the inevitability of change and the powerful but fragmentary quality of our memories are entirely characteristic of his unparalleled oeuvre.
The New York Times
The 12 stories of Trevor's latest collection blend an orchestra conductor's feel for subtlety with a monsignor's banishment of moral ambiguity. In "The Dressmaker's Child," a 2006 O. Henry Award winner, the future seems predetermined for rural mechanic Cahal, until the preteen daughter of the village dressmaker runs at his car with a stone in her hand. "Men of Ireland" has the elderly Father Meade being visited by Donal Prunty, 52, a onetime altar boy gone derelict with the years. Father Meade, complicit (or perhaps not) in Prunty's undoing, learns that the erosion of memory extirpates nothing and only compounds one's regrets. The widower Mallory of the title story finds that mortality does not quite do away with the need for role playing and reverse strategies in marriage. And when Mollie of "At Olivehill" is at last goaded by her sons into selling her deceased husband's woodlands, the earthmovers appear with the alacrity of enemy tanks, altering her internal landscape as well. The book as a whole recalls Joyce's Dubliners in making melancholia a powerful narrative device. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Further confirming Trevor's mastery of the short story, the 12 tales in his latest collection reveal the fragile interactions connecting people to one another. Consistent throughout is the suggestion that death-of a loyal pet, an odd child, a boy of 16, a beloved spouse, a sex offender's mother-brings characters together in complex and almost always unsettling ways. Trevor explores how his characters bear their losses to illuminate our own responses to personal damage. Some experience grace by sharing grief with strangers, as does the protagonist of the title story. Others, such as the matriarch in "At Olivehill," keep their sadness close by and are ultimately separated from those who love them. Ironically, in both instances, sharing and keeping memories allow these characters to commune with those they have lost. Trevor artfully maintains this ambivalence throughout this collection, rendering his tales in details and exchanges that brilliantly suggest what is humanly possible in respect to enormous suffering. As one character observes, "Love makes the most of pity, or pity of love, I don't know which" Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ6/15/07.]
John G. Matthews
Of the 12 stories collected in Cheating at Canasta, 7 are set in Ireland, the rest mostly in England. There are lesser stories here, but at least 7, 6 of them Irish, are well up to snuff -- four of which are real knockouts. So much for the census.
"Old Flame," the best of the English stories, is a chilly little number about a woman whose husband's long-ago-relinquished affair has obsessed her throughout the balance of their marriage. Extrapolating from steamed-open letters and eavesdropped phone calls, her relentless, in fact authorial, imagination has built the affair and its aftermath into a fully dramatized story, while her own life withers. This is a story within a story like a worm in an apple.
The New Ireland and the pass it has come to are present in these pages, most pungently in "Men of Ireland." Donal Prunty, a seedy ne'er-do-well and a chiseler, returns to Ireland in stolen shoes after 23 years in England. He cadges a lift to Gleban, his native village, and immediately heads off to the priest's house to extort money, claiming that the old man had plied him with drink and molested him when he was an altar boy. It's a lie; but after protesting against it, the saddened priest finally gives Prunty all the money in the house, knowing with disgust that he has paid for silence and feeling also that he has violated the obligations of Christian charity: "Guiltless, he was guilty, his brave defiance as much as a subterfuge as any of his visitor's. He might have belittled the petty offence that had occurred, so slight it was when you put it beside the betrayal of a Church and the shaming of Ireland's priesthood. He might have managed to say something decent to a Gleban man who was down and out in case it would bring consolation to the man, in case it would calm his conscience if maybe one day his conscience would nag. Instead he had been fearful, diminished by the sins that so deeply stained his cloth, distrustful of his people."
"At Olivehill" dwells on another species of betrayal characteristic of the present state of Ireland. It concerns an old landed Catholic family which had managed to preserve its estate against confiscation under the Penal Laws of the 17th and 18th centuries. All that's in the past, of course, and as the story's main character, Mollie -- wife to James, the head of the family -- muses, "faith's variations mattered less in Ireland all these years later, since faith itself mattered less and influenced less how people lived." Exactly so. But there is another faith rampant in the land, untrammeled by past inhibitions, and its objects are forward movement and gain.
Mollie has wished to spare the dying James the news that their sons intend to turn the estate into a golf course "in the hope that this would yield a more substantial profit than the land did." The old man dies; the plan is put in train. The fields are savaged, the woods come down, beeches and maples sold for timber. As tends to be the way with Trevor's miscreants, the sons feel no guilt. They, neither fools nor vulgar men as their mother knows, have been swept up in the tide of crass materialism and growth that so deforms Ireland today. Mollie sees the sin as hers. She should have let her husband know what was afoot: "His anger might have stirred their shame and might have won what, alone, she could not. That day, for the first time, her protection of him felt like a betrayal." The story's remaining pages are dominated by Mollie's remorse, her penance, and her full appreciation of this crime against Ireland's past.
Many of Trevor's themes are perfectly realized in "Faith," a story of almost preternatural narrative control. Bartholomew and Hester are brother and sister; she, three years older than him, severe, suspicious, and controlling: "Her bounden duty, she called it, looking after Bartholomew." They are poor, respectable Protestants who have lived with their parents in a cramped apartment on Maunder Street in Dublin. Bartholomew, "the soft touch of the family," is a clergyman in the moribund Church of Ireland, finding fulfillment in working with young people in Dublin. He was engaged to a woman he loved, but that ended, he later understands, because his intended sensed the nature of a future with Hester as sister-in-law.
After their parents' deaths, Hester gravitates towards her brother, intent on making her lot one with his. He succumbs helplessly to her machinations in obtaining a benefice for him in a terminally decaying parish in the country. Though he is miserably aware of his sister's interference in his life, it is Bartholomew's nature to forgive, just as it is to have faith. For years he sees Hester's sway over his destiny as part of some greater intent. And so, "the manner in which human existence -- seeming to be shaped by the vagaries of time and chance but in fact obedient to a will -- became the subject of more than one of Bartholomew's sermons.... That the physical presence of things, and of words and people, amounted to very little made perfect sense to Bartholomew."
Like so many of Trevor's creatures, Bartholomew is in exile from life, somehow adrift from the present. The past, itself not much, is the one thing he has in common with his sister, and so it makes up their life. "As the two aged the understanding between them that had survived the cramped conditions of Maunder Street was supported by reminiscence -- the smell of fresh bread every morning , the unexpected death of their mother, their father's mercilessly slow, the two cremations at Glasnevin. Seaside photographs taken at Rush and Bettystown were in an album, visits to both grandmothers and to aunts were remembered; and hearing other generations talked about were. The present was kept a little at bay; that congregations everywhere continued to dwindle, that no ground had been regained by the Church or seemed likely to be, was not often mentioned. Hester was indifferent to this. Bartholomew was increasingly a prey to melancholy, but did not let it show, to Hester or to anyone." The lean vigor of that passage is typical of Trevor's writing and he moves the entire story along with similar muscle.
Gradually and terribly, Bartholomew's faith, which had given some consolation and meaning to his barren existence in this dying backwater, begins to dissipate. Things are different with Hester. She too has faith, but it is prehensile, it has the resolute clench of certainty, and, indeed, of obliviousness, that made it possible for her to colonize her brother's life without qualm. "Hester noticed no change in her brother, and he had told her nothing. Her own fulfillment, through him, continued, her belief undiminished, her certainties unchallenged. In her daily life all she distrusted she still distrusted. Her eye was cold, her scorn a nourishment; and then, for Hester too when more time had passed, there was adversity."
Hester is dying. I will not say more; the story isn't over and besides, a successful short story, which this is in spades, is in the end ineffable. I will, however, give one further instance of Trevor's powerful economy with words and exquisite mastery of syntax. At the failing Hester's request, Bartholomew picks primroses: "That night they were on her bedside table, in a glass there'd been at Maunder Street." The subtle might of those simple words, their demotic arrangement so expressive of the pair's pitifully inadequate bond, is heartbreaking. Truly, few writers break hearts with such ruthlessness, with such austerity, and with such precision of feeling. This must be what we love about him. --Katherine A. Powers
Katherine A. Powers writes the literary column "A Reading Life" for the Boston Sunday Globe and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“The genius of William Trevor is that he can entice you into his fictional terrain in a handful of pages.”
—Literary Review (UK)
“Trevor invites comparison with the great masters of the short story. Like Chekhov, he has the power of getting into the skin of ordinary, unspecial, even rather dim people and showing the richness of their inner lives.”
—The Independent on Sunday (UK)
- Penguin Publishing Group
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- 4.90(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)
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Read an Excerpt
The Dressmaker’s Child
Cahal sprayed WD-40 on to the only bolt his spanner wouldn’t shift. All the others had come out easily enough but this one was rusted in, the exhaust unit trailing from it. He had tried to hammer it out, he had tried wrenching the exhaust unit this way and that in the hope that something would give way, but nothing had. Half five, he’d told Heslin, and the bloody car wouldn’t be ready.
The lights of the garage were always on because shelves had been put up in front of the windows that stretched across the length of the wall at the back. Abandoned cars, kept for their parts, and cars and motor-cycles waiting for spares, and jacks that could be wheeled about, took up what space there was on either side of the small wooden office, which was at the back also. There were racks of tools, and workbenches with vices along the back wall, and rows of new and reconditioned tyres, and drums of grease and oil. In the middle of the garage there were two pits, in one of which Cahal’s father was at the moment, putting in a clutch. There was a radio on which advice was being given about looking after fish in an aquarium. ‘Will you turn that stuff off ?’ Cahal’s father shouted from under the car he was working on, and Cahal searched the wavebands until he found music of his father’s time.
He was an only son in a family of girls, all of them older, all of them gone from the town — three to England, another in Dunne’s in Galway, another married in Nebraska. The garage was what Cahal knew, having kept his father company there since childhood, given odd jobs to do as he grew up. His father had had help then, an old man who was related to the family, whose place Cahal eventually took.
He tried the bolt again but the WD-40 hadn’t begun to work yet. He was a lean, almost scrawny youth, darkhaired, his long face usually unsmiling. His garage overalls, over a yellow T-shirt, were oil-stained, gone pale where their green dye had been washed out of them. He was nineteen years old.
‘Hullo,’ a voice said. A man and a woman, strangers, stood in the wide open doorway of the garage.
‘Howya,’ Cahal said.
‘It’s the possibility, sir,’ the man enquired, ‘you drive us to the sacred Virgin?’
‘Sorry?’ And Cahal’s father shouted up from the pit, wanting to know who was there. ‘Which Virgin’s that?’ Cahal asked.
The two looked at one another, not attempting to answer, and it occurred to Cahal that they were foreign people, who had not understood. A year ago a German had driven his Volkswagen into the garage, with a noise in the engine, so he’d said. ‘I had hopes it’d be the big end,’ Cahal’s father admitted afterwards, but it was only the catch of the bonnet gone a bit loose. A couple from America had had a tyre put on their hired car a few weeks after that, but there’d been nothing since.
‘Of Pouldearg,’ the woman said. ‘Is it how to say it?’
‘The statue you’re after?’
They nodded uncertainly and then with more confidence, both of them at the same time.
‘Aren’t you driving, yourselves, though?’ Cahal asked them.
‘We have no car,’ the man said.
‘We are travelled from Avila.’ The woman’s black hair was silky, drawn back and tied with a red and blue ribbon. Her eyes were brown, her teeth very white, her skin olive. She wore the untidy clothes of a traveller: denim trousers, a woollen jacket over a striped red blouse. The man’s trousers were the same, his shirt a nondescript shade of greyish blue, a white kerchief at his neck. A few years older than himself, Cahal estimated they’d be.
‘Avila?’ he said.
‘Spain,’ the man said.
Again Cahal’s father called out, and Cahal said two Spanish people had come into the garage.
‘In the store,’ the man explained. ‘They say you drive us to the Virgin.’
‘Are they broken down?’ Cahal’s father shouted.
He could charge them fifty euros, Pouldearg there and back, Cahal considered. He’d miss Germany versus Holland on the television, maybe the best match of the Cup, but never mind that for fifty euros.
‘The only thing,’ he said, ‘I have an exhaust to put in.’
He pointed at the pipe and silencer hanging out of Heslin’s old Vauxhall, and they understood. He gestured with his hands that they should stay where they were for a minute, and with his palms held flat made a pushing motion in the air, indicating that they should ignore the agitation that was coming from the pit. Both of them were amused. When Cahal tried the bolt again it began to turn.
He made the thumbs-up sign when exhaust and silencer clattered to the ground. ‘I could take you at around seven,’ he said, going close to where the Spaniards stood, keeping his voice low so that his father would not hear. He led them to the forecourt and made the arrangement while he filled the tank of a Murphy’s Stout lorry.
When he’d driven a mile out on the Ennis road, Cahal’s father turned at the entrance to the stud farm and drove back to the garage, satisfied that the clutch he’d put in for Father Shea was correctly adjusted. He left the car on the forecourt, ready for Father Shea to collect, and hung the keys up in the office. Heslin from the court-house was writing a cheque for the exhaust Cahal had fitted. Cahal was getting out of his overalls, and when Heslin had gone he said the people who had come wanted him to drive them to Pouldearg. They were Spanish people, Cahal said again, in case his father hadn’t heard when he’d supplied that information before.
‘What they want with Pouldearg?’
‘Nothing only the statue.’
‘There’s no one goes to the statue these times.’
‘It’s where they’re headed.’
‘Did you tell them, though, how the thing was?’
‘I did of course.’
‘Why they’d be going out there?’
‘There’s people takes photographs of it.’
Thirteen years ago, the then bishop and two parish priests had put an end to the cult of the wayside statue at Pouldearg. None of those three men, and no priest or nun who had ever visited the crossroads at Pouldearg, had sensed anything special about the statue; none had witnessed the tears that were said to slip out of the downcast eyes when pardon for sins was beseeched by penitents. The statue became the subject of attention in pulpits and in religious publications, the claims made for it fulminated against as a foolishness. And then a curate of that time demonstrated that what had been noticed by two or three local people who regularly passed by the statue — a certain dampness beneath the eyes — was no more than raindrops trapped in two over-defined hollows. There the matter ended. Those who had so certainly believed in what they had never actually seen, those who had not noticed the drenched leaves of overhanging boughs high above the statue, felt as foolish as their spiritual masters had predicted they one day would. Almost overnight the weeping Virgin of Pouldearg became again the painted image it had always been. Our Lady of the Wayside, it had been called for a while.
‘I never heard people were taking photographs of it.’ Cahal’s father shook his head as if he doubted his son, which he often did and usually with reason.
‘A fellow was writing a book a while back. Going around all Ireland, tracking down the weeping statues.’
‘It was no more than the rain at Pouldearg.’
‘He’d have put that in the book. That man would have put the whole thing down, how you’d find the statues all over the place and some of them would be okay and some of them wouldn’t.’
‘And you set the Spaniards right about Pouldearg?’
‘I did of course.’
‘Drain the juice out of young Leahy’s bike and we’ll weld his leak for him.’
The suspicions of Cahal’s father were justified: the truth had no more than slightly played a part in what Cahal had told the Spanish couple about Pouldearg. With fifty euros at the back of his mind, he would have considered it a failure of his intelligence had he allowed himself to reveal that the miracle once claimed for the statue at Pouldearg was without foundation. They had heard the statue called Our Lady of Tears as well as Our Lady of the Wayside and the Sacred Virgin of Pouldearg by a man in a Dublin public house with whom they had drifted into conversation. They’d had to repeat this a couple of times before Cahal grasped what they were saying, but he thought he got it right in the end. It wouldn’t be hard to stretch the journey by four or five miles, and if they were misled by the names they’d heard the statue given in Dublin it was no concern of his. At five past seven, when he’d had his tea and had had a look at the television, he drove into the yard of Macey’s Hotel. He waited there as he’d said he would. They appeared almost at once.
They sat close together in the back. Before he started the engine again Cahal told them what the cost would be and they said that was all right. He drove through the town, gone quiet as it invariably did at this time. Some of the shops were still open and would remain so for a few more hours — the newsagents’ and tobacconists’, the sweet shops and small groceries, Quinlan’s supermarket, all the public houses — but there was a lull on the streets.
‘Are you on holiday?’ Cahal asked.
He couldn’t make much of their reply. Both of them spoke, correcting one another. After a lot of repetition they seemed to be telling him that they were getting married.
‘Well, that’s grand,’ he said.
He turned out on to the Loye road. Spanish was spoken in the back of the car. The radio wasn’t working or he’d have put it on for company. The car was a black Ford Cortina with a hundred and eighty thousand miles on the clock; his father had taken it in part-exchange. They’d use it until the tax disc expired and then put it aside for spares. Cahal thought of telling them that in case they’d think he hadn’t much to say for himself, but he knew it would be too difficult. The Christian Brothers had had him labelled as not having much to say for himself, and it had stuck in his memory, worrying him sometimes in case it caused people to believe he was slow. Whenever he could, Cahal tried to give the lie to that by making a comment.
‘Are you here long?’ he enquired, and the girl said they’d been two days in Dublin. He said he’d been in Dublin himself a few times. He said it was mountainy from now on, until they reached Pouldearg. The scenery was beautiful, the girl said.
He took the fork at the two dead trees, although going straight would have got them there too, longer still but potholes all over the place. It was a good car for the hills, the man said, and Cahal said it was a Ford, pleased that he’d understood. You’d get used to it, he considered; with a bit more practising you’d pick up the trick of understanding them.
‘How’d you say it in Spanish?’ he called back over his shoulder. ‘A statue?’
‘Estatua,’ they both said, together. ‘Estatua,’ they said.
‘Estatua,’ Cahal repeated, changing gear for the hill at Loye.
The girl clapped her hands, and he could see her smiling in the driving mirror. God, a woman like that, he thought. Give me a woman like that, he said to himself, and he imagined he was in the car alone with her, that the man wasn’t there, that he hadn’t come to Ireland with her, that he didn’t exist.
‘Do you hear about St Teresa of Avila? Do you hear about her in Ireland?’ Her lips opened and closed in the driving mirror, her teeth flashing, the tip of her tongue there for a moment. What she’d asked him was as clear as anyone would say it.
‘We do, of course,’ he said, confusing St Teresa of Avila with the St Teresa who’d been famous for her humility and her attention to little things. ‘Grand,’ Cahal attributed to her also. ‘Grand altogether.’
To his disappointment, Spanish was spoken again. He was going with Minnie Fennelly, but no doubt about it this woman had the better of her. The two faces appeared side by side in his mind’s eye and there wasn’t a competition. He drove past the cottages beyond the bridge, the road twisting and turning all over the place after that. It said earlier on the radio there’d be showers but there wasn’t a trace of one, the October evening without a breeze, dusk beginning.
‘Not more than a mile,’ he said, not turning his head, but the Spanish was still going on. If they were planning to take photographs they mightn’t be lucky by the time they got there. With the trees, Pouldearg was a dark place at the best of times. He wondered if the Germans had scored yet. He’d have put money on the Germans if he’d had any to spare.
Before they reached their destination Cahal drew the car on to the verge where it was wide and looked dry. He could tell from the steering that there was trouble and found it in the front offside wheel, the tyre leaking at the valve. Five or six pounds it would have lost, he estimated.
‘It won’t take me a minute,’ he reassured his passengers, rummaging behind where they sat, among old newspapers and tools and empty paint tins, for the pump. He thought for a moment it mightn’t be there and wondered what he’d do if the spare tyre was flat, which sometimes it was if a car was a trade-in. But the pump was there and he gave the partially deflated tyre a couple of extra pounds to keep it going. He’d see how things were when they reached Pouldearg crossroads.
When they did, there wasn’t enough light for a photograph, but the two went up close to the Wayside Virgin, which was more lopsided than Cahal remembered it from the last time he’d driven by it, hardly longer than a year ago. The tyre had lost the extra pressure he’d pumped in and while they were occupied he began to change the wheel, having discovered that the spare tyre wasn’t flat. All the time he could hear them talking in Spanish, although their voices weren’t raised. When they returned to the car it was still jacked up and they had to wait for a while, standing on the road beside him, but they didn’t appear to mind.
He’d still catch most of the second half, Cahal said to himself when eventually he turned the car and began the journey back. You never knew how you were placed as regards how long you’d be, how long you’d have to wait for people while they poked about.
‘Was she all right for you?’ he asked them, turning on the headlights so that the potholes would show up.
They answered in Spanish, as if they had forgotten that it wouldn’t be any good. She’d fallen over a bit more, he said, but they didn’t understand. They brought up the man they’d met in the public house in Dublin. They kept repeating something, a gabble of English words that still appeared to be about getting married. In the end, it seemed to Cahal that this man had told them people received a marriage blessing when they came to Pouldearg as penitents.
‘Did you buy him drinks?’ he asked, but that wasn’t understood either.
They didn’t meet another car, nor even a bicycle until they were further down. He’d been lucky over the tyre: they could easily have said they wouldn’t pay if he’d had them stranded all night in the hills. They weren’t talking any more; when he looked in the mirror they were kissing, no more than shadows in the gloom, arms around one another.
It was then, just after they’d passed the dead trees, that the child ran out. She came out of the blue cottage and ran at the car. He’d heard of it before, the child on this road who ran out at cars. It had never happened to himself, he’d never even seen a child there any time he’d passed, but often it was mentioned. He felt the thud no more than a second after the headlights picked out the white dress by the wall and then the sudden movement of the child running out.
Cahal didn’t stop. In his mirror the road had gone dark again. He saw something white lying there but said to himself he had imagined it. In the back of the Cortina the embrace continued.
Sweat had broken on the palms of Cahal’s hands, on his back and his forehead. She’d thrown herself at the side of the car and his own door was what she’d made contact with. Her mother was the unmarried woman of that cottage, many the time he’d heard that said in the garage. Fitzie Gill had shown him damage to his wing and said the child must have had a stone in her hand. But usually there wasn’t any damage, and no one had ever mentioned damage to the child herself.
Bungalows announced the town, all of them lit up now. The Spanish began again, and he was asked if he could tell them what time the bus went to Galway. There was confusion because he thought they meant tonight, but then he understood it was the morning. He told them and when they paid him in Macey’s yard the man handed him a pencil and a notebook. He didn’t know what that was for, but they showed him, making gestures, and he wrote down the time of the bus. They shook hands with him before they went into the hotel.
In the very early morning, just after half past one, Cahal woke up and couldn’t sleep again. He tried to recall what he’d seen of the football, the moves there’d been, the saves, the yellow card shown twice. But nothing seemed quite right, as if the television pictures and snatches of the commentary came from a dream, which he knew they hadn’t. He had examined the side of the car in the garage and there’d been nothing. He had switched out the lights of the garage and locked up. He’d watched the football in Shannon’s and hadn’t seen the end because he lost interest when nothing much was happening. He should have stopped; he didn’t know why he hadn’t. He couldn’t remember braking. He didn’t know if he’d tried to, he didn’t know if there hadn’t been time.
The Ford Cortina had been seen setting out on the Loye road, and then returning. His father knew the way he’d gone, past the unmarriedwoman’s cottage. The Spaniards would have said in the hotel they’d seen the Virgin. They’d have said in the hotel they were going on to Galway. They could be found in Galway for questioning.
In the dark Cahal tried to work it out. They would have heard the bump. They wouldn’t have known what it was, but they’d have heard it while they were kissing one another. They would remember how much longer it was before they got out of the car in Macey’s yard. It hadn’t been a white dress, Cahal realized suddenly: it trailed on the ground, too long for a dress, more like a nightdress.
He’d seen the woman who lived there a few times when she came in to the shops, a dressmaker they said she was, small and wiry with dark inquisitive eyes and a twist in her features that made them less appealing than they might have been. When her child had been born to her the father had not been known — not even to herself, so it was said, though possibly without justification. People said she didn’t speak about the birth of her child.
As Cahal lay in the darkness, he resisted the compulsion to get up in order to go back and see for himself; to walk out to the blue cottage, since to drive would be foolish; to look on the road for whatever might be there, he didn’t know what. Often he and Minnie Fennelly got up in the middle of the night in order to meet in the back shed at her house. They lay on a stack of netting there, whispering and petting one another, the way they couldn’t anywhere in the daytime. The best they could manage in the daytime was half an hour in the Ford Cortina out in the country somewhere. They could spend half the night in the shed.
He calculated how long it would take him to walk out to where the incident had occurred. He wanted to; he wanted to get there and see nothing on the road and to close his eyes in relief. Sometimes dawn had come by the time he parted from Minnie Fennelly, and he imagined that too, the light beginning as he walked in from the country feeling all right again. But more likely he wouldn’t be.
‘One day that kid’ll be killed,’ he heard Fitzie Gill saying, and someone else said the woman wasn’t up to looking after the kid. The child was left alone in the house, people said, even for a night while the woman drank by herself in Leahy’s, looking around for a man to keep her company.
That night, Cahal didn’t sleep again. And all the next day he waited for someone to walk into the garage and say what had been found. But no one did, and no one did the next day either, or the day after that. The Spaniards would have gone on from Galway by now, the memories of people who had maybe noticed the Ford Cortina would be getting shaky. And Cahal counted the drivers whom he knew for a fact had experienced similar incidents with the child and said to himself that maybe, after all, he’d been fortunate. Even so, it would be a long time before he drove past that cottage again, if ever he did.
Then something happened that changed all that. Sitting with Minnie Fennelly in the Cyber Cafe´ one evening, Minnie Fennelly said, ‘Don’t look, only someone’s staring at you.’
‘Who is it?’
‘D’you know that dressmaker woman?’
They’d ordered chips and they came just then. Cahal didn’t say anything, but knew that sooner or later he wasn’t going to be able to prevent himself from looking around. He wanted to ask if the woman had her child with her, but in the town he had only ever seen her on her own and he knew that the child wouldn’t be there. If she was it would be a chance in a thousand, he thought, the apprehension that had haunted him on the night of the incident flooding his consciousness, stifling everything else.
‘God, that one gives me the creeps!’ Minnie Fennelly muttered, splashing vinegar on to her chips.
Cahal looked round them. He caught a glimpse of the dressmaker, alone, before he quickly looked back. He could still feel her eyes on his back. She would have been in Leahy’s; the way she was sitting suggested drunkenness. When they’d finished their chips and the coffee they’d been brought while they were waiting, he asked if she was still there.
‘She is, all right. D’you know her? Does she come into the garage?’
‘Ah no, she hasn’t a car. She doesn’t come in.’
‘I’d best be getting back, Cahal.’
He didn’t want to go yet, while the woman was there. But if they waited they could be here for hours. He didn’t want to pass near her, but as soon as he’d paid and stood up he saw they’d have to. When they did she spoke to Minnie Fennelly, not him.
‘Will I make your wedding-dress for you?’ the dressmaker offered. ‘Would you think of me at all when it’ll be the time you’d want it?’
And Minnie Fennelly laughed and said no way they were ready for wedding-dresses yet.
‘Cahal knows where he’ll find me,’ the dressmaker said. ‘Amn’t I right, Cahal?’
‘I thought you didn’t know her,’ Minnie Fennelly said when they were outside.
Three days after that, Mr Durcan left his pre-war Riley in because the hand-brake was slipping. He’d come back for it at four, he arranged, and said before he left: ‘Did you hear that about the dressmaker’s child?’
He wasn’t the kind to get things wrong. Fussy, with a thin black moustache, his Riley sports the pride of his bachelor life, he was as tidy in what he said as he was in how he dressed.
‘Gone missing,’ he said now. ‘The gardaı´ are in on it.’
It was Cahal’s father who was being told this. Cahal, with the cooling system from Gibney’s bread van in pieces on a workbench, had just found where the tube had perished.
‘She’s backward, the child,’ his father said.
‘You hear tales.’
‘She’s gone off for herself anyway. They have a block on a couple of roads, asking was she seen.’
The unease that hadn’t left him since the dressmaker had been in the Cyber Cafe´ began to nag again when Cahal heard that. He wondered what questions the gardai were asking; he wondered when it was that the child had taken herself off; although he tried, he couldn’t piece anything together.
‘Isn’t she a backward woman herself, though?’ his father remarked when Mr Durcan had gone. ‘Sure, did she ever lift a finger to tend that child?’
Cahal didn’t say anything. He tried to think about marrying Minnie Fennelly, although still nothing was fixed, not even an agreement between themselves. Her plump honest features became vivid for a moment in his consciousness, the same plumpness in her arms and her hands. He found it attractive, he always had, since first he’d noticed her when she was still going to the nuns. He houldn’t have had thoughts about the Spanish girl, he shouldn’t have let himself. He should have told them the statue was nothing, that the man they’d met had been pulling a fast one for the sake of the drinks they’d buy him.
‘Your mother had that one run up curtains for the back room,’ his father said. ‘Would you remember that, boy?’ Cahal shook his head.
‘Ah, you wouldn’t have been five at the time, maybe younger yet. She was just after setting up with the dressmaking, her father still there in the cottage with her. The priests said give her work on account she was a charity. Bedad, they wouldn’t say it now!’
Cahal turned the radio on and turned the volume up. Madonna was singing, and he imagined her in the get-up she’d fancied for herself a few years ago, suspenders and items of underclothes. He’d thought she was great.
‘I’m taking the Toyota out,’ his father said, and the bell from the forecourt rang, someone waiting there for petrol. It didn’t concern him, Cahal told himself as he went to answer it. What had occurred on the evening of Germany and Holland was a different thing altogether from the news Mr Durcan had brought, no way could it be related.
‘Howya,’ he greeted the school-bus driver at the pumps.
The dressmaker’s child was found where she’d lain for several days, at the bottom of a fissure, partly covered with shale, in the exhausted quarry half a mile from where she’d lived. Years ago the last of the stone had been carted away and a barbed-wire fence put up, with two warning notices about danger. She would have crawled in under the bottom strand of wire, the gardaı´ said, and a chain-link fence replaced the barbed wire within a day.
In the town the dressmaker was condemned, blamed behind her back for the tragedy that had occurred. That her own father, who had raised her on his own since her mother’s early death, had himself been the father of the child was an ugly calumny, not voiced before, but seeming now to have a natural place in the paltry existence of a child who had lived and died wretchedly.
‘How are you, Cahal?’ Cahal heard the voice of the dressmaker behind him when, early one November morning, he made his way to the shed where he and Minnie Fennelly indulged their affection for one another. It was not yet one o’clock, the town lights long ago extinguished except for a few in Main Street. ‘Would you come home with me, Cahal? Would we walk out to where I am?’
All this was spoken to his back while Cahal walked on. He knew who was there. He knew who it was, he didn’t have to look.
‘Leave me alone,’ he said.
‘Many’s the night I rest myself on the river seat and many’s the night I see you. You’d always be in a hurry, Cahal.’
‘I’m in a hurry now.’
‘One o’clock in the morning! Arrah, go on with you, Cahal!’
‘I don’t know you. I don’t want to be talking to you.’
‘She was gone for five days before I went to the guards. It wouldn’t be the first time she was gone off. A minute wouldn’t go by without she was out on the road.’
Cahal didn’t say anything. Even though he still didn’t turn round he could smell the drink on her, stale and acrid.
‘I didn’t go to them any quicker for fear they’d track down the way it was when the lead would be fresh for them. D’you understand me, Cahal?’
Cahal stopped. He turned round and she almost walked into him. He told her to go away.
‘The road was the thing with her. First thing of a morning she’d be running at the cars without a pick of food inside her. The next thing is she’d be off up the road to the statue. She’d kneel to the statue the whole day until she was found by some old fellow who’d bring her back to me. Some old fellow’d have her by the hand and they’d walk in the door. Oh, many’s the time, Cahal. Wasn’t it the first place the guards looked when I said that to the sergeant? Any woman’d do her best for her own, Cahal.’
‘Will you leave me alone!’
‘Gone seven it was, maybe twenty past. I had the door open to go into Leahy’s and I seen the black car going by and yourself inside it. You always notice a car in the evening time, only the next thing was I was late back from Leahy’s and she was gone. D’you understand me, Cahal?’
‘It’s nothing to do with me.’
‘He’d have gone back the same way he went out, I said to myself, but I didn’t mention it to the guards, Cahal. Was she in the way of wandering in her nightdress? was what they asked me and I told them she’d be out the door before you’d see her. Will we go home, Cahal?’
‘I’m not going anywhere with you.’
‘There’d never be a word of blame on yourself, Cahal.’
‘There’s nothing to blame me for. I had people in the car that evening.’
‘I swear before God, what’s happened is done with. Come back with me now, Cahal.’
‘Nothing happened, nothing’s done with. There was Spanish people in the car the entire time. I drove them out to Pouldearg and back again to Macey’s Hotel.’
‘Minnie Fennelly’s no use to you, Cahal.’
He had never seen the dressmaker close before. She was younger than he’d thought, but still looked a fair bit older than himself, maybe twelve or thirteen years. The twist in her face wasn’t ugly, but it spoilt what might have been beauty of a kind, and he remembered the flawless beauty of the Spanish girl and the silkiness of her hair. The dressmaker’s hair was black too, but wild and matted, limply straggling, falling to her shoulders. The eyes that had stared so intensely at him in the Cyber Cafe were bleary. Her full lips were drawn back in a smile, one of her teeth slightly chipped. Cahal walked away and she did not follow him.
That was the beginning; there was no end. In the town, though never again at night, she was always there: Cahal knew that was an illusion, that she wasn’t always there but seemed so because her presence on each occasion meant so much. She tidied herself up; she wore dark clothes, which people said were in mourning for her child; and people said she had ceased to frequent Leahy’s public house. She was seen painting the front of her cottage, the same blue shade, and tending its bedraggled front garden. She walked from the shops of the town, and never now stood, hand raised, in search of a lift.
Continuing his familiar daily routine of repairs and servicing and answering the petrol bell, Cahal found himself unable to dismiss the connection between them that the dressmaker had made him aware of when she’d walked behind him in the night, and knew that the roots it came from spread and gathered strength and were nurtured, in himself, by fear. Cahal was afraid without knowing what he was afraid of, and when he tried to work this out he was bewildered. He began to go to Mass and to confession more often than he ever had before. It was noticed by his father that he had even less to say these days to the customers at the pumps or when they left their cars in. His mother wondered about his being anaemic and put him on iron pills. Returning occasionally to the town for a couple of days at a weekend, his sister who was still in Ireland said the trouble must surely be to do with Minnie Fennelly.
During all this time — passing in other ways quite normally — the child was lifted again and again from the cleft in the rocks, still in her nightdress as Cahal had seen her, laid out and wrapped as the dead are wrapped. If he hadn’t had to change the wheel he would have passed the cottage at a different time and the chances were she wouldn’t have been ready to run out, wouldn’t just then have felt inclined to. If he’d explained to the Spaniards about the Virgin’s tears being no more than rain he wouldn’t have been on the road at all.
The dressmaker did not speak to him again or seek to, but he knew that the fresh blue paint, and the mourning clothes that were not, with time, abandoned, and the flowers that came to fill the small front garden, were all for him. When a little more than a year had passed since the evening he’d driven the Spanish couple out to Pouldearg, he attended Minnie Fennelly’s wedding when she married Des Downey, a vet from Athenry.
The dressmaker had not said it, but it was what there had been between them in the darkened streets: that he had gone back, walking out as he had wanted to that night when he’d lain awake, that her child had been there where she had fallen on the road, that he had carried her to the quarry. And Cahal knew it was the dressmaker, not he, who had done that.
He visited the Virgin of the Wayside, always expecting that she might be there. He knelt, and asked for nothing. He spoke only in his thoughts, offering reparation and promising to accept whatever might be visited upon him for associating himself with the mockery of the man the Spaniards had met by chance in Dublin, for mocking the lopsided image on the road, taking fifty euros for a lie. He had looked at them kissing. He had thought about Madonna with her clothes off, not minding that she called herself that.
Once when he was at Pouldearg, Cahal noticed the glisten of what had once been taken for tears on the Virgin’s cheek. He touched the hollow where this moisture had accumulated and raised his dampened finger to his lips. It did not taste of salt, but that made no difference. Driving back, when he went by the dressmaker’s blue cottage she was there in the front garden, weeding her flowerbeds. Even though she didn’t look up, he wanted to go to her and knew that one day he would.
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