by Brian Kirk
This morning the sky was scattered with gulls, hanging from dense clouds like mobiles over a baby’s cot when a stray hand sends them reeling. The house was situated on the side of a wide valley, which acts as a kind of a wind tunnel between us and the sea. I stood looking out over the fields, marinating chicken breasts in lemon juice, wondering how we would ever see the week out. John was standing outside the back door smoking a cigarette, killing time, waiting for something to happen. I thought about saying something, something about how we have to make our own lives now without work as our focus. But instead I read out the weather forecast from my phone.
In the distance a machine whined into life and John rushed into the kitchen.
‘Did you hear that?’ he said.
Before I could reply he threw open the front door and disappeared. By the time I got outside, there was no sign of him. The machine had stopped and all I could hear was the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves. The whining noise started up again. I checked my pocket to make sure I had the key and pulled the door after me and made my way in the direction of the noise.
It was supposed to be a holiday, a pre-cursor to our retirement, a trial run at being rural, having lived almost all our lives in the city. From the moment we arrived I could sense that John wasn’t happy, although he said very little. We’re not used to each other’s company all day every day and we both know this is something we needed to address before we quit our working lives for good.
After a few minutes I reached the edge of a small wood. I picked up a perfect white feather that lay on the roadside and put it in my pocket. There was an ancient wooden stile, which I crossed gingerly and stepped into the shade of the trees. The machine’s roar was getting louder, but still I could see nothing through the dense screen of trees. At last I reached a clearing and there John was, bent over a huge log holding a chainsaw, gripping it tightly in gloved hands as the blade ate its way through bark and bole. Blue smoke and sawdust rose all around him as he manoeuvred the machine through the final cut. He turned and smiled at me as I approached, and it was only then I noticed another man with him, standing behind him half hidden in dense foliage.
They seemed to know each other, seemed so comfortable in each other’s company. He introduced himself as Anthony.
‘Do you not need to be trained to use one of those?’ I asked.
‘Probably,’ Anthony replied, ‘but he made a good fist of it, didn’t he?’
I nodded. John smiled, pleased like a child, at the both of us.
‘Sorry for the noise so early in the morning,’ the man went on.
‘That’s okay,’ I said. ‘This is the country after all; the day starts much earlier here.’
‘Yes, it does,’ he said. ‘You’re above in the cottage, John tells me. Are you buying?’
I looked at John and his eyes opened wide.
‘I didn’t know it was for sale,’ I said. ‘We’re just here for the week.’
‘Sure, why don’t you come over for dinner. My wife would only be delighted. That’s our place there,’ he said, pointing further up the valley at a lonely yellow house.
It wasn’t far as the crow flies, but probably a twenty-minute walk on these narrow twisty roads. ‘Tomorrow at seven then?’ he asked.
‘That’s very kind of you, Anthony. We’ll be there,’ John said.
That was typical of John to agree to something like that on the spur of the moment without discussing it with me first. I know I’m partially to blame. Over the years I’ve gotten into the habit of deferring to him on most subjects. Being a barrister, he always comes across like an expert. Sometimes it feels as if we’re more like roommates than a couple. We pass each other silently in the kitchen each morning before work; evenings, one or the other of us might be meeting friends after work or, failing that, we might sit in the living room, me reading my book and he flicking through the TV channels or scrolling through his phone.
Of course, we still share a bed, but I can’t remember the last time we had sex. It wasn’t something we fell out over, it just seemed to peter out. It wasn’t the case that one of us was demanding intimacy and the other withholding it. Like so many things in our life, it seemed to happen or discontinue, more accurately, through a mutual disregard. But I can still remember the ferocity of our appetites when we first met. How we would leave dinner parties early, making up fatuous excuses, so that we could race home and put our hands on each other. John was very jealous in the early days. He’d fly off the handle if he found me talking to any other young men in the bars or cafes around the campus.
We fought a lot too in those first years before we were married. Perhaps we weren’t meant to be together at all. Losing our son as an infant brought us together and kept us apart at the same time. After baby James died, we never tried to have a child again. It was another non-decision, each of us retreating, taking solace in work, immersing ourselves in our careers. Now, years later, it’s impossible to imagine any other life but the one we’ve lived together and somehow separately. But some days you can’t stop wondering. What would James be doing now? What age would he be? Would he be married? Would he have any children of his own?
I left the two of them together in the woods to finish what they started and went home to prepare lunch. I took the perfect feather I’d found and put in my handbag to keep it safe. Perhaps it was because of his years working in the courts representing unsavoury people, but I considered it to be very unlike John to trust someone he’d just met. And yet they seemed so comfortable together even though Anthony was half his age at least. Nevertheless, I fully expected him to change his mind about the invitation to dinner. He didn’t. He drove to the nearest village the next morning and bought two bottles of expensive wine and flowers for Anthony’s wife. I was amazed and, in all honesty, more than a little put out. I can’t recall the last time he bought me flowers.
The following evening at six thirty we set off walking, he armed with his spoils. The wind had finally dropped and there was a pleasant low evening sun, which carried the first promise of spring heat. The fields and the hedgerows were coming to life with new growth and birdsong. John talked more than he had all week; about the countryside, about nature, about all the things we’d missed out on over the course of our working lives. I wanted to argue with him, but the words stuck in my throat. I felt duped by the natural world, the whole deceit of its annual death and rebirth. Not everything came back to life every year. Some things died and were gone forever. By the time we reached the house my head was thumping.
Anthony’s wife, Pamela, was beautiful. Not in the magazine sense of the depiction of beauty, but in her friendliness and her natural love for her life and family. Before dinner she let us hold her little ten-month-old baby girl. It was too much for me. She could see that I was upset, but John and Anthony were oblivious. The food was excellent, and John was in top form all evening, telling stories of his time representing all classes of people in the courts while at the same time making it clear that he would be glad to be leaving it all behind him soon.
Anthony and Pamela were very interested in how we proposed to spend our retirement, wondering would we not miss city life. John continued to be effusive about the countryside, saying how he wished we hadn’t wasted so much of our time living with pollution, noise and clamour all these years.
‘You should try and keep the cottage,’ Pamela said. ‘Anthony knows the son of the owner, he could arrange a long lease for you or maybe you could even buy it.’
‘Would you mind?’ John asked.
Anthony smiled. Of course, it was not a problem.
And then the child began to cry, her voice forlorn and distant over the baby monitor. Pamela scurried off to see to her.
‘She never cries usually, to be fair,’ Anthony said.
‘Still, it must be hard for you and Pamela,’ John replied, taking another mouthful of wine.
‘Not at all, not all.’
And then Pamela came in with the child in her arms, whispering softly into her tiny ear, kissing the fleshy softness of her face. Soon she was calm again.
It took a few moments before the others realized I was crying. I sat with my hands resting on the table either side of my plate and the tears running freely down my cheeks.
‘God, Angela, I’m so sorry,’ Pamela said, standing up from the table, taking the child back to her room.
‘What?’ John said, looking around the room. That was all he said: ‘What?’
He sat there with his mouth open staring at me as if he was trying to remember who I was. I got up and found my coat and bag and mumbled an apology. I staggered out the door, not waiting for John, and made my way along the narrow track that led up to the road.
It was a cloudy night, almost pitch black, so I rummaged in my bag to find my phone so that I might use it to light my way. The battery was dead. I stumbled over the rough ground and fell against a bank at the side of the road. I dropped my bag and all my worldly possessions spilled out onto the road: a tiny mirror, lipstick, eyeliner, an old diary from a previous year, a biro, the white feather of a seabird and all the other useless bric-a-brac I had accumulated over the years.
The leaves were whispering in the night breeze. I could hear John above them, lumbering up the track towards me. His breath coming fast and heavy. He was calling my name, panic in his voice. All I could do was sit in the dark and wait for him.
Brian Kirk is a poet and writer from Dublin. His first poetry collection After The Fall was published by Salmon Poetry in 2017. His poem “Birthday” won the Listowel Writers’ Week Irish Poem of the Year at the An Post Irish Book Awards 2018. His short fiction chapbook It’s Not Me, It’s You won the Southword Fiction Chapbook competition and was published by Southword Editions in 2019.
He blogs at www.briankirkwriter.com.