When I was fourteen, my father started on at me about nudity. Men don’t need to hide themselves, he maintained. We’ve all got the same mechanics. No need for locked doors. That’s the trouble with this house, too many locked doors.
He took to walking around naked upstairs. He stopped locking the door when he took a bath. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, he said. But I got around that. I, of course, bathed every morning. Every evening as well, come to that. But my father only ever bathed on Saturday afternoons, the same time every week, with Saturday Theatre on the radio. I just knew not to enter the bathroom at that time.
My father then took to leaving the door open. I didn’t go upstairs after that, not on Saturday afternoons. When my father started calling for tea to be taken to him in his bath, I decided enough was enough. I brought him his tea, then explained that I was feeling all hot and itchy with the weather, did he mind if I just splashed myself from the basin?
Not at all, said my father. Carry on.
I stripped off, splashed some soapy water round my groin, and lathered away, making cooing noises about the lovely cold sensation. My father turned up the volume on the radio. I started towelling myself with the small hand towel, slowly and ever so thoroughly, with my bum stuck almost point-blank in my father’s face.
After five minutes of this, my father said, ‘I think you’re probably dry now.’
And I had no more lectures about nudity.
In the breakfast room, the psychology books were relegated to a higher shelf in the bookcase and the language books came down again. ‘What would you like to do?’ I said to my father over breakfast.
‘Vorrei parlare italiano,’ my father replied. ‘Now let’s try a more difficult question.’
We were back to normal.
Of all our house, with its seven bedrooms, two staircases, sitting-room, dining-room ... all that, only the kitchen, the breakfast room and my own garret bedroom were remotely habitable. Paint cracked everywhere else, tiles drooped from ceilings, there were indiscreet piles of rubble on the carpets. It grieved me of course, the dust, the disorder. But I could only do so much.
When I confronted my father with yet another reminder of all this dilapidation, he looked at me searchingly for a moment, then said, ‘Rubble? What rubble?’
I looked around me. As luck would have it, we were on the main staircase. And the main staircase seemed to have escaped pretty unscathed.
My father was losing interest. I had to think of something fast.
‘The banisters!’ I blurted out.
‘Banisters,’ he repeated. He was making his way down the stairs. ‘I wonder now what’s the Italian for banister?’
‘But Dad,’ I said, following him into the breakfast room, ‘they’re a liability. All you have to do is touch them and they wobble. If anybody put their weight on them –’
‘Banistro? said my father. ‘Sounds unlikely.’
‘I mean used them as a banister, like they’re designed to be used –’
‘It’s the only way to learn.’ He was leafing through a dictionary from the bookcase. ‘To increase your vocabulary.’
‘I mean,’ I said, ‘if somebody ever leaned on them, by mistake even –’
‘Ah!’ said my father. ‘Ringhiera. Noun feminine.’
‘But I mean, Dad, it’s a liability.’
‘Liability?’ He smiled at me, wisely. ‘I know that one. Responsabilità.’ He offered me the dictionary. ‘You can check if you like.’
I took the dictionary, returned it to the bookcase, returned myself to my bedroom. I don’t think my father saw the house and the state it was falling to. I don’t think he wanted to see it. He wandered about, delicately skirting the latest fall of plaster, remembering the Italian for ‘cornice’. It was as though we inhabited different homes.
My bedroom was my refuge. When I looked at my room, with my bed so neatly made, the sheets folded that special precise way nurses use, my pyjamas on the pillow arranged to a perfect symmetrical shape, I could believe, almost, sometimes, that my mother was still alive.
That day was a Sunday. I spent most of it at my table in my room, where I had my jigsaw puzzle. It wasn’t a very big jigsaw, in size. Quite small really, considering it had fifty thousand pieces to it. Every piece was black. Just black. And the completed puzzle was a flat matt black surface, shaped to a square. Sometimes I thought it was the most beautiful object I could ever hope to own. It was finished a year ago. The day my mother died.
I had known all along that my mother was going to die. The crockery on the dresser in the kitchen had told me.
I’d come home from school one evening. My dinner was prepared – bacon, jacket potatoes and cabbage – informing me, if the page-a-day calendar on the dresser didn’t, that it was a Wednesday. My mother and I ate in silence. Not so my father.
‘Rio de Janeiro,’ he said, ‘eighty-four. Nairobi, cloudy but still eighty-three. Tangier . . .’
My father used always go through this routine at dinner. From the evening paper he’d choose the three highest temperatures from yesterday’s readings. Then he’d turn to us, with only the faintest speck of an accusation in his eye, and tell us, as if we didn’t already know, the weather reported for Dublin.
This time he said, ‘And poor old Dublin could only muster forty-three with D for drizzle.’
My mother took away our plates and cups. Idly I watched her through the door washing them at the kitchen sink – when there was only the three of us, we always dined in the breakfast room. She dried them, returned them to the dresser, returned herself to her sewing. But I was no longer following her movements.
My eyes were fixed, aghast, on the dresser.
The cup from which I’d drunk my tea, which my mother had washed and dried so convincingly ordinarily, was there blatant as a public sin for all the world to see: she’d returned it to the dresser with its chipped side showing.
‘Second-hand Citroën,’ my father read from the classifieds. ‘Now there’s a thing. It’d be nice to have a foreign car.’
I turned slowly to my mother. She was busy with her needle. She had her hair tied back in her ribbon, but, unusually, stray strands had fought free. They were tickling her cheek and chin. She pretended not to notice. But I could feel myself their prickly irritation. She had her celeste cardigan on, buttoned to the throat against the chill. Her attitude was – I thought – desperately normal.
She must have caught the vehemence in my stare. She looked up and smiled. But her smile was weak, I could tell, resigned – as though aware of her enormity but unable to act.
I stood up jauntily, assuming a returning air of nonchalance, and quick as a swat at a fly, I flicked the cup round to its proper position. The chip was concealed. I went quickly to my room.
Sometimes, when I stared at my completed jigsaw puzzle, I would remember things like that, about my mother. I did that Sunday, in the refuge of my bedroom, when my father had his first, minor, heart attack.
The stroke itself, it transpired, wasn’t serious. A flutter in the pulse, he’d hardly have noticed it. If he hadn’t at the time been standing on the stairs, that is.
He reached for support, half-leaned on the banister and, as in some awful classical Nemesis, the handrail gave way, and my father fell crumpling to the ground.
His foot was in plaster for a month. I brought his language books up to his bedroom, but he was listless, uninterested in them. When he was up and walking again, the first place he visited was church. And it was Mass every morning and rosaries every night after that.
I was fourteen then, and my father in his late fifties. Of course he already was, always had been, a Catholic. I attended the local Presentation Brothers’ school. We were a Catholic father and son. But this was a different story. My father intended us now not only to be Catholic, but to be religious with it.
I gritted my teeth, persevered. Morning Mass was irksome, but not impossible. The church was near to my school, so with my father driving there every morning, the journey time was cut to a third. In other words I didn’t have to get up any earlier. It was the rosaries at night that annoyed me. Television was switched off at nine, we had a good half-hour of praying. After that it seemed – even to me – impolite to turn the telly back on. I went to bed, untired and unsatisfied.
Morning Mass was given by an odd, oldish priest, Father Mulcahy. He had a rough, gruff voice, chesty from too much smoking, I presumed. He was always in a hurry, as if he had far larger affairs to attend to. Watching him was like watching a man in a silent movie, everything jerky, speeded up. The congregation had great difficulty keeping pace. We’d still be on a response while he was way down the bottom of the page.
My father had a maddening propensity to choose the front pew, as if he wanted the best seats. We were never early, we were rarely on time. This meant we had to march all the way up the aisle with all the heads turning, muttering at us. Worst of all, with no one in front to give me the cue, I found I couldn’t work out when, exactly, to stand up, sit down, kneel down, stand up. My father was no help. He was always on his knees in church, his face buried in his hands, and his hands burning redder and redder, as if already licked by the flames of hell.
It was embarrassing.
After Mass one morning, I said to my father, ‘That priest sure is in a hurry.’
He looked at me puzzled. ‘Hurry?’ he said.
I could see immediately that he hadn’t been paying any attention. ‘He goes at it like a dog at its dinner. You can hardly get a response in edgeways.’
My father shook his head quickly, as if clearing it. His eyes narrowed as he made quick spurting calculations. ‘Of course he’s in a hurry,’ he said. He jammed his car into gear. ‘It’s the twentieth century.’
He was dropping me off at school. We got into a traffic jam and he had to stop. An unmarked van pulled up alongside us. The man inside – he had a beard and black eyes – wound down his window. He beckoned to us.
‘Don’t!’ I said to my father.
‘Open the window!’
My father made a smirking movement with his face. He wound down his window.
‘Ballsbridge,’ called the man with the beard and the black eyes. ‘Am I doing right?’ He had a country accent.
‘Back up,’ said my father, jerking his thumb, ‘You’re going the wrong direction.’
‘Thanks now,’ said the man, and he swung his van into a dangerous U-turn.
‘Don’t you ever worry’, I said when I’d recovered a shadow of my composure, ‘that a man like that might pull a gun on you?’
He looked at me with concerned puzzlement.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Quite frankly, I don’t.’
‘Don’t stare at me,’ I said. ‘Keep your eyes on the road.’
He started brooding again. I wondered what it was that so occupied him the whole time – in church, while he drove, any time and anywhere. He had a lot to brood over, true. After all, it was he who had killed my mother.
I found it embarrassing. But I gritted my teeth, persevered. My father’s fads never lasted too long. Soon, I knew, we’d settle back into the in-between mania of naming things in Italian. There were signs indeed, after two weeks, that his religious craze was already flagging. One morning, he slept late. We missed the bulk of the Mass. I thought that might be the end of it, but unfortunately that evening my Uncle Frank came to visit.
‘How’s the raving Trotskyite?’ he said to me privately.
Trotskyite? ‘The mad monk, you mean,’ I replied, grinning.
I liked my Uncle Frank. He had a swimming-pool in his garden in the shape of an N and a shower separate from the bath. When I visited them I stood in the shower, hours on end. My Aunt Agnes never complained. She was a Methodist, and cleanliness came next to godliness.
They had an argument that night, my father and his brother. I couldn’t hear what about. Only snatches. But after an hour or so, my father came steaming out and told me it was time for the rosary. My uncle shrugged as he passed me, circling his finger around his temple, nodding back in my father’s direction.
‘Loco,’ he said. ‘Get me Grange Gorman.’ He was referring to our local lunatic asylum. Though he was a full half-hour younger than my father, he could talk about him in this way because he was a businessman, a successful businessman, with a house on the hill in Killiney and a swimming-pool in the shape of an N.
‘We’ll make him see sense. And sure if he won’t see sense, we’ll have to certify him. Must think I’m made of money, the joker. Get me Grange Gorman,’ he said again, and chuckled to himself all the way to his car.
After rosary, I went to my bedroom. I stared a long time at the jigsaw. Sometimes it was more grey than black, sometimes it was blacker than midnight. Tonight it was just ordinary.
In the back of my mind, I knew, I was fiddling with something close to a madness. I had a notion to tamper with the jigsaw. Just, say, a quarter of a quarter of a corner of it. The idea was outrageous. Disrupting all that beautiful symmetry. My fingers were tingling with the mere conception.
It was dangerous territory. I turned away sharply. The notion had been horrifying, and yet, at the same time, like a late horror film on television, it was fascinating, seductive even. It had all the attraction of a criminal deed, done in the dead of night, that could never ever be discovered.
I sat on my bed. To engage my errant thoughts I reached under the mattress to check the sheet-folds. They were reasonable enough. A nurse would be satisfied, if a matron perhaps wouldn’t. I wiped my glasses. I decided the only thing for it was to venture down to the bathroom, splash cold water on my face. I didn’t get to the bathroom, however.
On my way to the door, inching past the table with the fifty-thousand-piece matt black jigsaw laid out squarely in the middle, my hand dashed out and, before I even knew it, my fingers had tugged on the bottom right-hand corner.
A tiny segment came away. I worked feverishly. It was a close-run thing, but in the end, after seven anguished minutes, I had the jigsaw completed again.
I wiped my glasses and caught my breath. I had a feeling of vivacity. I was vital, potent. It was dangerous territory, all right. You never knew what might happen with savage outbursts like that.
I decided it was high time I went to bed. I cleaned my teeth in the bathroom. In the shadows on the landing outside I fancied I could see a new chunk of masonry dangling from the ceiling. ‘Another year of this carry-on and I won’t have to demolish it at all,’ my uncle might have said to my father. ‘It’ll go like the rest of the street and fall down on its own.’
My uncle called around again the next evening. He had the same raging row with my father.
When he came out of the breakfast room, he caught me at my perch on the stairs landing. He beckoned to me secretively. I followed him out the front door, through the garden, to the street.
‘Let’s take a walk,’ he said. ‘Just you and me.’
I wasn’t too sure about this. I didn’t like our street. Our street made me nervous. It sort of depressed me. I never spent a moment longer in it than was absolutely necessary. It was full of low cottages without gardens. The front doors led straight on to the street. Sometimes they left the doors open. And then you’d have to see wallpaper and things, smell other people’s cooking. I could do without snatches of these neighbours’ lives. They were the sort of places tradesmen-like people lived in.
‘A walk?’ I said.
‘Just you and me.’
He seemed to think it was a treat. I gritted my teeth. ‘All right.’
We walked along. I noticed he had his hands in his pockets. I did the same.
‘Your father,’ he said.
He sounded depressed. ‘Yes,’ I agreed, equally depressed.
‘I mean of course I love him and all that. He’s my brother. My twin brother. We were always close. Very close. Well, twin brothers usually are. Close, I mean. Nothing remarkable about that. Come to think about it, maybe we weren’t all that close. I mean, particularly. Maybe we were only close in the normal run of things. Nothing special.’
His talk was beginning to annoy me. He seemed to be contradicting himself left, right and centre.
‘But that doesn’t explain why he’s suddenly turned into a – a –’
Now I was with him. ‘Lunatic,’ I said.
He gave me a baffled look, the kind my father was always throwing at me. ‘No, no, no. I mean this sudden socialist nonsense.’
‘Socialist?’ This was a new one on me. Did it tie in with Trotskyite, I wondered, rehearsing in my mind my uncle’s greeting of the evening before.
‘All this carry-on. Homes not offices. What does he want me to do? Homes not offices, I ask you.’
I had no idea what he was talking about. ‘Homes not offices,’ I scoffed, copying his sardonic tone.
‘I knew I could rely on you,’ said my uncle. ‘I mean, look at this street. Who in their right mind’d want to live here?’
I followed his gaze down the long line of red and green front doors. Half of the cottages were empty now. Their windows were either boarded up or smashed in, or they had grimy curtains drawn against the light. At the end of the row stood our house. Our house wasn’t too enormous. It only had two storeys, three if you counted my bedroom in the garret. But it stood gigantic against the tradesmen-like cottages. There was smoke coming out of our chimney. The sight of it pleased me, reassured me somehow.
Further along, there were vistas of other things, wasteland and walls, a power station in the distance, houses. But my eyesight the way it was, I could discern little beyond the perimeter walls of the old perfume works, where the weak sun glinted on the jagged bottle glass set on top. Cheval-de-frise, my mother had called it. The street ended abruptly at the bricked-up works entrance. There was an air of futility everywhere, like the street, bereft of anywhere to go, had lost all sense of purpose.
My uncle was still going on questioning the sanity of anyone who would actually choose to live here.
‘Yes,’ I agreed solemnly, ‘it’s only fit for tradesmen-like people.’
He stopped in his tracks. ‘Tradesmen-like people, did you say?’
‘What d’you mean by that?’
I stumbled for words. How else was I to describe them? After all, it was the phrase my mother had used.
‘These people,’ he said with the air of an appreciative man on a pleasant country walk, ‘there’s no cause to turn your nose up at them. They’re the salt of the earth, sure, these people.’
I didn’t know quite how to tell him it wasn’t their salinity that I questioned, merely their proximity to my home.
‘My father, your grandfather, built these cottages. For the workers.’
‘What workers?’ I asked.
‘The perfume factory beyond. Don’t you know anything of the family business?’
I believed I did know. But somehow – it’s difficult to explain – sometimes, what with one thing and another, I sort of neglected to remember these things.
‘But that’s all changed now. I’m all for looking after the workers. Of course I am. I’m a Labour man, myself. I’ll see them all right. Naturally I will. But not here. Not in these shambles. Sure, they’d have me up for rack-renting, housing a miserable mongrel in this old street. No matter what your father says.’
I still had no clear idea what he was getting at. But I gathered my father was against him. And that, certainly, was a point in my uncle’s favour.
‘Yes,’ I said, shrugging hopelessly, hoping to please him.
But he didn’t even notice. ‘Well,’ he continued on, ‘he can say what he likes. I’ve bailed him out enough times now. I’m not made of money. I’ve played banker to his follies long enough. The deeds are mine. Call it underhand he may, but that’s business. It’s a prime site this.’ He was climbing into his car.
‘Homes not offices,’ he said again, chuckling away sardonically. ‘I’ll be back soon.’
He drove off. He had parked his car by the bricked-up entrance to the perfume works at the end of our street. It meant I had to walk all the way back home on my own. A hundred yards of those ugly cottages.
I’d feared I wouldn’t make it. And I was right. Mrs Houlihan stepped out of her front door. I was trapped into speaking with her.
‘Poor lamb,’ she said. ‘How’s your Da?’
Normally I would have told her to mind her own business, but I was shocked that my father’s state of mind was common currency with these salt-of-the-earth people.
‘He’s all right,’ I said experimentally.
‘’Tis a shocking waste,’ she continued. ‘All these lovely cottages. After all of us being laid off from the works, too. A bitter blow. And your own big house with it.’
I twisted the corners of my mouth up, uncertain where all this was leading. Mrs Houlihan had huge gold-coloured rings dangling from her ears, two in each, the sort you’d pull a bull by. She leaned against her cracked wooden door, with the fringes of her shawl catching and pulling on the splinters as she breathed. I didn’t know her very well. My mother had rarely spoken to the neighbours – except to complain, of course.
I wavered between saying something rude and something complimentary.
She thwarted me. ‘Still,’ she said, ‘your Da’s a fine man. Your Da’s a decent fella. Handsome with it. Your Da’ll see us right.’
There was an unattractive linger to her look. Her eyes were sparkling and she was smiling. She seemed to have all the time in the world.
‘And that was your uncle you were talking to. Your Uncle Frank. He’s a businessman. A right oul’ businessman. And he’s wrestled the works from your Da, so he has. These poor cottages, too.’
‘Wrested,’ I said.
‘Rested? Who’s rested?’
‘The verb is “to wrest”. Not “to wrestle”.’
‘You want to rest, poor lamb, is it?’
I had the feeling that everybody these days, as soon as I opened my mouth to speak, took on an immediate expression of puzzlement. My father, my uncle. Now, it transpired, even these tradesmen-like people from the cottages in our street had caught the contagion.
I decided it was time to go. I began moving off, walking backwards.
‘Hold on a sec,’ she said. ‘Tell me, how’s the jigsaw?’ Her look of puzzlement creased in a second to a smile that lingered mawkishly in the drizzle. I could work out no recognizable reason for her good nature.
‘The jigsaw?’ I repeated. Then I remembered. Of course, it was she who had given me the jigsaw in the first place, when my mother was dying. She’d said it would take my mind off things. She’d been wrong about that. The jigsaw had been the greatest torment of my life.
‘The jigsaw’s all right,’ I said. I was sick of the street and anxious for home. ‘I have to go now.’
‘Okey-dokey,’ said Mrs Houlihan. ‘Tell him we’re all praying for him. Tell him we’re all up there with him.’
I thought about Mrs Houlihan while I checked on my jigsaw that night. Perhaps I was wrong when I called her a tradesman-like person. She looked more like a gypsy.
Because my uncle laughed at my father’s religiosity, my father naturally redoubled his interest in the Church. One Saturday, after early Mass – unusually, it had been given by the parish priest, more orthodox in his tempo and ways – my father didn’t take me home but instead led me off to the priests’ house.
‘What are we doing?’ I asked.
‘What?’ he said, as if really it had been my idea.
The housekeeper opened the door.
‘I wish to speak with the parish priest,’ my father said.
‘Father Mooney is busy now,’ said the housekeeper, importantly. ‘With parish affairs.’
My father was flustered momentarily by this. ‘Busy?’ he repeated. He had a concentrated look on his face, as though he was trying to remember the Italian for ‘busy’. ‘Is there someone else I can see, so?’
The housekeeper obviously didn’t like the look of my father, because she said, ‘No.’ She was unfortunate in this, however, because from behind her another voice called out, ‘If it’s them bastards collecting, Mary, tell them there’s no one home.’
‘No, Father Mulcahy,’ the housekeeper called back, ‘it’s someone after himself who’s busy.’
‘Who’s after him?’
‘Who are you?’ said the housekeeper to my father. But she didn’t give him time to answer. ‘It’s some man with a boy with him,’ she said.
‘I’ll be down so.’
There was a long heavy thud on the stairs inside. The housekeeper opened the door wider, and gave us a look which said, ‘You’re in for it now and don’t blame me.’
It was the usual morning Mass priest, the one who always careered through his service. Except, this morning, he didn’t look at all like a priest. If anything, he had the look of a tramp about him. His dog collar stuck out one side of his shirt at a difficult angle. It looked like someone had tugged him there in a brawl. His clothes were all creased, like he’d slept in them. His face too. ‘Who are you?’ he said. Then he belched. ‘Hard night. Never mind that now. What d’you want ?’
My father looked at him and at me. He shuddered. ‘My son wants to be an altar boy,’ he said, and walked off, leaving me behind.