by Brian Kirk
There is a vibration in the air. I feel it like the wing beats of large birds, but when I look at the sky I see nothing except low heavy clouds and occasional shocks of blue. Out on the placid lake water a handful of swans are scattered. I can hear waves break on the rocks in the distance. On an island the sounds of the sea are never far away. I must cut a peculiar figure, stopping beyond a maze of low stone walls to gaze up at the dim sky for a moment too long. I feel self-conscious and have lost all momentum. When I left the house this morning I set myself the challenge of walking the ash-sheltered loop by the lake and on over the narrow wooden bridge that leads to home in one hour. I am already behind schedule, and annoyed because of it even though I know it’s of no real consequence.
I’ve been working on a story about poor deranged Artaud’s brief time spent in this place almost eighty years ago, but I haven’t written a word in weeks. Last night I told Mark to leave, and he did for a while, but I heard him come back late in the night. I know he was there when I left this morning. Part of me wants him to be there still when I return. And that part wrestles with the other part of me that never wants to see him again. The lake shimmers, indifferent, and I try and fail to focus my thoughts on my story; these walks often produce new ideas or offer fresh insights on my work. Not today. My thoughts come and go, disjointed, scattered. Something about absence, and how that cannot ensure forgetting. To undo it all, that’s what is needed; for him never to have been, that’s what I desire. But how can that be? I know he will remain with me always; his ghost will live on in that house forever.
I can feel my phone resting against my thigh. I’m not sure why I brought it with me. It has stopped ringing at last; the battery must be dead. Most nights I leave it charging by my bed, but last night I left it on the kitchen table. During the night I could hear it buzzing into life from time to time, but I ignored it, knowing that it was him. I tell myself that I’ve become accustomed to silence and seclusion here, but I know that’s not strictly true. On the contrary. For a long time I have lived for those occasional weekends when I take the ferry to the mainland and spend two days jabbering endlessly with people I was only too glad to leave behind five years ago.
I took the city back to live with me when I invited him to share my life. I never guessed he’d stay so long. I should’ve known. I knew what he was like; I’d seen the way he lived up close during our college days, but assumed he’d changed in the intervening years just because I had. I understood that his arrival implied his inevitable departure, but from the moment his feet were planted underneath my table I dreaded his leaving me. In our intimate coupling I sensed our eventual separation. Still I clung to him, pitifully. In his avowed love for me I saw only a poorly disguised dislike, in his overt fidelity I sensed his inevitable betrayal.
I am ambling now. I want to delay the moment when I reach the cottage. I know it doesn’t matter if he’s still there. I pass the neighbours’ houses along the lane; the drawn curtains of the blank-faced bungalow recently built on the site of an old roofless hovel, the converted outhouses belonging to a large farmhouse that dominates the lane. The cottage I rent looms amid wild bramble and climbing rose. I think of the word tenant, loaded as it is in this part of the world with centuries of implication, and realise that’s what I am. There are no bailiffs, but I know that, even though he is the visitor, I will be the one compelled to leave.
I try to imagine living in the city again, dragging myself from fretful rooms to busy workplaces day in day out, suffering the passive cruelty of the commute and the ritual inanity of office talk. My heart sinks and my pulse races as I pause before the door and turn my face once more to the sky, feeling the early morning September sun—what little there is of it—wash over my face. I open the door at last to find him sleeping on the battered sofa in the open kitchen. For a moment I imagine he is dead, but his nasal breathing sets me straight. And then I see an opportunity. If I bludgeoned him with one of his dumbbells he might never wake at all. What would that mean for him? Would his senses have time to register the final shut down or would a sudden curtain fall on his flickering dreamscape, never to be raised. When I was a child I strayed into a slurry pit on a friend’s farm one day when we were playing hide and seek. I called and called but no one heard my cries and my struggles only sent me deeper into the stinking pile. I prayed, I remember, as the foul slime rose to my chin and time did actually appear to slow down and I could see the mundane details of my small life pass before my eyes just like the cliché has it. When the farmer threw me a rope I was confused. Standing, almost naked, in the cold yard being hosed down like an animal, I felt peculiar, as if I had been cheated somehow.
He stirs now as if he senses my approach. I know I will not hurt him, but it is satisfying to know I could. He moves his body slightly on the narrow couch, but does not wake. I want to take a shower but am reluctant to remove my clothes while he is here. All around the cottage the paraphernalia of my one-time solitary life—my books and notebooks, my pens and laptop—lie tainted by his presence. He leaves his laundry everywhere, his wax coat and hat permanently on the back of a chair in the kitchen. His slim phone, those garish magazines he never reads, those ugly weights he lifts each day, the plastic jars of supplements he takes to make himself even bigger; these things beset me when I am alone. I can no longer work in a house where he resides, where the trappings of his vanity—and my sad attraction to his vanity—are all on show.
I notice an almost empty whisky bottle on the floor beneath the table. I’m sure it wasn’t there this morning. I reach in and remove it, accosted by the reek of liquor that has soaked into the worn stone floor. He must have dropped the bottle before he passed out. I wonder should I feel grateful that he went and drank himself into a stupor because of me. Standing over him, I prod him firmly with my index finger. Nothing. So I go and take my shower.
I was a fool; I who thought myself so different from the others. I was flattered that he noticed me at all. A man I was fixated on at university. When we met again he never mentioned the time we slept together years before after a particularly drunken student party and I assumed he simply did not remember the occasion. How could he be expected to remember one plain girl among a long list of lookers? I never mentioned it either, never told him of the subsequent weeks I spent wondering and waiting for a call that never came. Of course, I was different then, young and stupid, pretending to be someone I was not. Sometimes it feels as though I’m still pretending; I think that’s why I am a writer, so that I can be unlike myself or I can be my many different selves at once. I couldn’t stop thinking about him back then, and still can’t now, knowing he is downstairs while I soap my naked body. I run my fingers across the marks he made; some freshly black and purple, others older, yellowing, all making a music of their own, different notes on the scale of pain. I know I was not stupid, not really. I was clever. That was the problem. Far cleverer than he would ever be, but it made no difference; he was always the one who had the power. I was the artist, pretending to be so much more and less than what I really was. I cannot explain it. I allowed him to seduce me, to influence me; I acquiesced in his presence even as I knew I was his superior in every way. In restaurants I deferred to him when ordering. Among friends I let his worst traits pass without a comment. I saw the way they looked at me sometimes, as if to say: I thought you were an intelligent person, why do you let him treat you the way he does?
Those so-called friends must have never lived alone I guess. After a few years on an island you learn to compromise just so you won’t be on your own. When he came here first it was idyllic. We would run or walk every morning before breakfast and then I would write and he would take the ferry to the mainland. Sometimes he’d be away for days at a time, but that was alright; I was used to my own company and it only made his return all the sweeter. At first I never thought about what he was doing when he wasn’t here. Why should I, I told myself, it was how we got along when we were together that mattered. But over time that changed. I needed to know more about him and his life.
The hairdryer seems too loud so I towel dry my hair as best I can. I hope that he is sleeping still – or better yet, that he has woken and has left for good. Either of those two eventualities I can live with. But if he is awake and waiting for me, waiting to talk to me…I can’t bear to think of that.
It was the talking that undid us. Or more specifically, my talking. I asked too many questions and the more I asked the more he withdrew. And then there were the phone calls he received, late at night usually. He began to stay away for longer periods and when he returned he hardly spoke at all. He drank more and when I asked him what was wrong, he blamed his work, the economy, and the way I constantly harried him and nagged. The alcohol loosened his tongue and I regretted all my questions. He took to sitting up late on his own drinking when I retired and when he finally came to bed he’d wake me just to pick a fight. I’d listen to his heavy footsteps on the stairs with dread.
The kitchen is empty when I come downstairs. I’m not sure whether to be relieved or annoyed. I am not hungry but I make a mug of instant coffee and sit down at the table and open the laptop. I scroll down through the text of my story to the last line, where it has been untouched for weeks, and find there are new words. I have done this sort of thing before when wrestling with a particularly difficult piece—gotten up in the night, still half asleep, and typed up some text—and this new entry has all the hallmarks of the automatic typing of the somnambulist, all lower case, no spaces or punctuation.
It reads: IknowyoudontknowwhatyourdoingsoIforgiveyou
It takes me a moment to unravel the words from each other and extract the meaning. The word forgive emerges from the text in all its peculiarity. I laugh out loud like a madwoman, but stop suddenly, realising that I haven’t laughed in months. He has unwittingly expressed my own incoherence. I sip my coffee and try to breathe evenly the way my yoga teacher recommends, but still I think about him; about the way he spoke to waiters and shop assistants, about the way he talked about himself constantly, telling me all about the things he’d said and done; and how he never asked about my work, not once in all these months together. He made me less than what I am, and I let him. And I know that I will have to leave this place I’ve grown to love because of him. I may never stop thinking about him, but I will never say his name again.
I hold the backspace down until his words have disappeared. And I keep the key depressed until the document is blank. I’m not sure what this means, but I know that it means something.
Brian Kirk is an award winning poet and short story writer from Dublin. He was nominated twice for Hennessy Awards for fiction and shortlisted for The Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2014 and 2015. His first poetry collection After The Fall was published by Salmon Poetry in 2017.
He blogs at www.briankirkwriter.com.