When he woke up from his dream they were still in the room: the priest, Marianne, and his Serbian neighbour whose name he couldn’t pronounce. That he had fallen asleep in the presence of guests would have usually embarrassed Marianne, but they were all so exhausted from the day, the week, that she didn’t acknowledge it, let alone castigate him.
Gerry willed himself up off the couch. He stood and felt dizzy. The cadaverous priest—bible clenched to chest for fear of sinning—was smiling, attentively nodding as Marianne spoke to him. The Serb was sitting on the settee watching a Mancunian soap opera while wolfing down an egg sandwich (there was a mountain of them in the kitchen: an Irish Everest few could conquer). The Serb had moved into the estate only a few months earlier. He possessed little English, but Marianne had taken a liking to him and he’d helped with some odd jobs about the house, which Gerry either wasn’t equipped or bothered to address himself.
Gerry didn’t speak with him often; the most the Serb could manage in way of conversation was ‘Late Late Show – crap’ and ‘Welfare – crap. Not good. Man work for money. Destroy.’ (Gerry enjoyed an Eastern European saying the word destroy, even though destruction was something he’d never craved.) The Serb had lent a hand with prepping the house for the post-funeral gathering—which had all but dispersed—and he had taken Gerry’s hand on numerous occasions, shaking his head while muttering moje saučešće.
Then Gerry remembered the merciless present and a tremor of emotion swelled within him; a forlorn gush experienced by a boy crushed by the ruthlessness of first love. He could have shuddered, whimpered, but instead he left the room without excusing himself.
In the narrow, candle-lit hall Gerry took a deep, remedial breath. He placed a hand on the glossy wooden banister. From the other side of the door he heard the priest say, ‘Eóin possessed an immense joy; it was always in his expression.’
The tears in Gerry’s eyes held on like a stubborn child to its mother. Eventually one managed to plunge to the carpet below. He sucked it in—It being Life—quenched his eyes shut and with circular lips released a long exhale.
He still felt dizzy, and feverish from the heat which had bullied him all day. Water—he needed a glass of water.
He opened the window-paned kitchen door and rushed to the sink, taking a glass and twisting the tap, releasing the splurge of water.
Head back, eyes towards the ceiling, his gulps were reassuring heartbeats.
“What was it he said, at the mass? Didn’t he say something about Cain and Abel?”
Gerry placed the glass in the sink and looked at the kitchen table to his right. A group of three was sitting at it: an old man who’d asked the pressing question, a middle-aged woman whose face spoke of pent-up trauma, and a red-headed boy of seventeen. The old man was Gerry’s father, Martin; his elbow-skin features were blackened by the shadows from the flat cap on his head. The middle-aged woman was Gerry’s sister, Nuala; her eyes were a series of lies, she had never looked at him for longer than a second or two. She was smoking a cigarette. The red-headed boy was her son; he sat patiently with his cupped hands resting on the table. The dangling light directly above them illuminated the scene. Gerry felt as if he was looking at a picture hanging on the walls of the National Gallery; purposeful colours and cracked paint.
“I thought you’d left?” he said.
“We couldn’t leave,” said his sister, looking down at the ashtray on the table as cigarette smoke escaped her nose and mouth like smoke billowing from a burning building. “How could we leave with what’s happening?”
“You can’t stay,” said Gerry. “What good would that do anybody?”
“You can’t be on your own, not today,” said Nuala.
“I’m not going to be on my own. Marianne is here, and the Serb, what’s his name . . .”
Nuala looked at her father—a reanimated cadaver—who looked down and shook his head. She stubbed out the cigarette, stood up, and approached Gerry. The merry clicking of her heels on the tiled floor was an affront to the mood of the scene. She reached out her hands and cupped Gerry’s chin in them.
“My poor brother,” she said, and rested her face on his chest.
Gerry tentatively placed a hand on her back and looked at the boy. As his eyes lingered on the teenager he felt an internal contradiction.
“Your boy,” he said. “He’s grown. He’s much bigger than the last time I saw him. Too big.”
His sister spoke into his chest, a muffled response.
“Well it has been three years, Gerry.”
Gerry took her by the head and looked her in the eyes. She looked away.
“I only saw you a couple of months ago. At the play. Remember?”
She looked at him again. This time she kept her stare on him. There were no lies now; only a searching honesty in them.
“My heart breaks for you,” she said.
He heard an exchange in the hall. He opened the door and saw Marianne talking with the priest. The priest acknowledged Gerry, and Marianne beckoned her husband with her hand.
“Father O’Brien is on his way,” she said. “Were you on the phone?”
“No, Dad . . . and Nuala.”
“Nuala left hours ago, Gerry.”
“But . . .” He pointed to the kitchen which was now in almost complete darkness; the opened door displayed the moonlit sink. Water droplets escaped from the tap every few seconds.
He looked at the priest.
“Father,” he said. There was fear in Gerry’s eyes. “I don’t believe in any of it.”
“Perhaps you’re not meant to believe it, Gerry. Perhaps you’re just meant to live it . . . We’re here for you.”
The priest turned to Marianne, nodded his head, and left. Marianne shut the door behind him. The candles in the hall flickered with the closing of the door. Marianne put a hand on Gerry’s shoulder.
“Are you okay? You need to sleep. You haven’t slept properly in days, Gerry.”
“We knew this would happen, but now that it’s happened I can’t believe it.”
Marianne nodded. Her sympathetic eyes rested on his and she brushed his forehead with her hand.
“You’re sweating,” she said.
“It is. The candles . . . The heating: I’ll turn off the heating.”
“I need to use the bathroom,” he said.
He turned to the stairs and began to climb them. The farther he climbed the darker each step became.
He pulled himself up one final time, hand gripping the banister. He reached for the light switch for the bathroom on the wall and clicked it on. He took a breath as he steadied himself. He looked at the door of the room to the right of the bathroom: Eóin’s room. How could he ever step foot in there again?
He lowered his eyes to the floor and opened the bathroom door. He shut it immediately behind him and rested his face against the door, releasing a long breath. When he turned he found Eóin standing at the sink, looking in the mirror.
Gerry said nothing. The scrawny, pretty eight-year-old was standing on the step-ladder his father kept in the hot press. He was shaving. The boy was applying creamy white foam to his cherubic face.
Still, Gerry stood in silence.
“Hello, Daddy,” Eóin said chirpily without turning away from the mirror.
Gerry smiled and denied the release of tears.
“We dressed you in your favourite kit today,” he eventually managed. But he blinked, and after he blinked a grown man was looking at himself in the mirror. The shaving cream was almost gone, and the handsome man rinsed his face and patted himself dry. He turned and casually said, ‘All right, Da.”
Gerry stood, speechless. The man reached for the handle and opened the door, passing his father.
“Eóin?” Gerry said. He followed Eóin—who must have now been in his late twenties—into the bedroom.
“Thanks again,” said Eóin, sitting on the bed, pulling a cream t-shirt over his head. “For letting me crash with you until I find a new place.”
“You’re so big. So much bigger than I would’ve imagined,” said Gerry, open-mouthed.
“The weights help . . . Are you all right?”
Marianne stood on the landing, as Gerry idled in Eóin’s pitch-black bedroom.
“I saw him,” he said, confused. “Older.”
“So did I,” she said. “All the time. But I stopped.” Marianne approached Gerry and took his hand in hers. “He’ll be as he is, always. Isn’t that something amazing? Isn’t it? You could say that’s a gift for us—he’s our Peter Pan.”
Gerry couldn’t muster a response. He shook his head and pushed Marianne away; she reached for him, but he rejected her hand.
“I need to sleep,” he said. “Tell the Serb to go home.”
He fumbled his way into their bedroom, opening the door and shutting it firmly behind him. After he pulled himself from the door he dropped onto the mattress like a heavy bag he’d been carrying for hours. He pulled the covers to his chin and gripped them tightly. He shivered as he inhaled. He was alone in bed. He’d never felt more alone in all his life.
He couldn’t remember when, but eventually he drifted off to sleep.
The door opened and Gerry’s eyes opened at the same time. He turned and looked around. The landing light had been switched on and now it invaded the room. He couldn’t make out who was standing there; his eyes were sore, and he squinted and rubbed the sleep from them.
He whispered ‘Marianne,’ but the figure kneeled beside the bed and revealed itself to be his sister.
‘Nuala,’ he said.
The bright light behind her made it difficult for Gerry to see her face. She looked older, he could make out that much.
“What are you doing back here?”
“I told you like I do every day: I can’t leave you on your own, can I?”
“Where’s Marianne?” he asked.
A figure appeared behind Nuala. He was a tall, spindly man in his sixties.
“Who’s this?” Gerry asked uncertainly.
“Has he forgotten me again?” the man asked.
Nuala raised her head and looked at the man. That honesty was in her eyes.
“Well, you know. They say it’s mostly short-term memory that he struggles with,” she said. “You’ve only been around a few months. I’m sure in time he’ll remember you.”
She rose to her feet and the two people stood side-by-side—two portraits painted by Lucian Freud, looking down at Gerry.
“You’ll remember his name eventually, won’t you, brother?” Nuala smiled.
Gerry’s expression didn’t communicate the fear he felt inside. The light behind Nuala and this strange man was like a blazing fire.
“I don’t know if he’s taking any of this in,” Nuala said.
“Marianne?” said Gerry.
The stranger looked at Nuala.
“His wife,” said Nuala.
“What happened to her?” the stranger asked.
Nuala lowered her voice, but Gerry could hear her.
“She left him not long after their boy died. Some Serbian that lived on the street. I haven’t seen her in a long time. Neither has Gerry.”
“Does he take anything in?”
“He does. He does.” She lowered herself next to the bed again. “You do, don’t you, brother?”
Gerry didn’t respond. His wide eyes took in all of Nuala. How old she was. How? How could she have aged so much?
She stood. The stranger assisted her. She kissed her fingertips and pressed them against Gerry’s forehead.
Her fingers felt cold.
The two figures—the Freud masterpieces—turned and ambled out of the room, their bodies distorted, twisted. The door was pulled shut, most of the light disappeared, and Gerry stared a wide-eyed stare. The remaining light that delineated the door disappeared with the flick of a switch. He heard feet descend stairs. He lay in the darkness. He pulled the bedsheets to his chest. His stare remained; he couldn’t make out the ceiling, but he stared at it as if he would die if he didn’t.
In the darkness he eventually entered another darkness.
The ruffling of bed sheets and the kicks against his legs woke him.
Again, he thought. The boy’s at it again.
He instinctively placed a hand on his sleeping wife’s arm, and he manoeuvred his leg so his son could wrap his arms around it. In the darkness, he looked at the bedside clock: red digits told him it was just after four in the morning. He felt good about this. He felt good because he needed rest, and he was sleeping with his wife and his boy, and he knew, too, that it was the weekend. In a few hours his favourite time of the week would be upon him. He would sit up in bed after Marianne had made tea, and they’d both read, and Eóin would sit between them and ask questions. He liked questions, because from a child they were mostly easy ones, and he enjoyed the curiosity of children, a curiosity that shouldn’t disappear. He didn’t know that the questions his boy would ask would become more difficult sooner rather than later. But he did know that he had another few hours of sleep to enjoy, and that he would wake up to a beautiful morning.
Image by Dil on Unsplash.