Short Stories

The Crow who Answered the Phone ... very long

Moody and Gay ... very long

Nights of Rhodes ... very short

Jamie O’Neill home
At Swim, Two Boys
Short Stories

Short Stories

Dido Poynings was weighing up the starlings. Saucy little madams, she decided. The sort who gravitate to the back of class, scratch heart signs on their desk tops. Faithless too: filch from their own as soon as from others. Poor sparrows hardly get a look-in. However. She drummed her fingers on her folded arms. She could deal with starlings. Dido Poynings had spent a lifetime dealing with unruly elements. She rapped sharply on the window and the starlings scattered to the far trees. The sparrows, smaller, hungrier no doubt, remained.

She believed she preferred sparrows. They sat near the front, continued their lives with neat constancy. Uninspiring name, though, you had to admit. Sparrow: meaning ... well, sparrow. Starling sounded so much more poetic. That was the trouble with language, with society probably. Made poesy of madams and disregarded the industrious.

She had fed the birds. There was very little cleaning to do because the bulk of her furniture had not yet arrived. Delayed in Hartlepool, the man had said. It seemed an odd place for furniture to fetch up. County Durham, she believed. Shipbuilding and fishing the main industries. No doubt it wasn’t called County Durham any more. Something new, metropolitan.

The village clock was striking the three-quarter hour. Perhaps she should make a pot of tea. Except her teapot was with her furniture. It was difficult to picture Crown Derby in Hartlepool. Blue-ringed mugs seemed far more likely. Am I being uppity? I’ll use a tea-bag.

She was waiting for the kettle to boil when the phone rang. For a moment she felt disorientated, then she remembered the phone was in the hall. Her feet resounded on bare boards. Everywhere in the house was such a long way. She picked up the receiver. She was still unfamiliar with the number, so she just said, ‘Hello.’ Then, ‘Hello?’ But there was no reply. Just before she put the receiver down she believed she caught a whisper from the other end, a breath only. But she couldn’t be certain.

MacNamara visited for sherry the next Sunday. ‘Telephone calls?’ he said.

‘Yesterday’s was the seventh.’

‘And there’s never a soul at the other end?’


MacNamara quaffed his sherry. ‘Hooligans,’ he pronounced. ‘I warned you, Dido. They have the country terrorised. Banjaxed it is.’

He had warned her, it was true. MacNamara had played Cassandra for thirty years in the letters attached to his Christmas cards. ‘More sherry?’ she asked.

‘I will,’ he said. Then, as the sherry was poured, expansively, ‘Settling in, I see.’

At the drinks tray Dido wondered was he being friendly – encouraging, so to speak – or merely ironic. If he were a child, a pupil, she’d point him toward his error. ‘Not settling in, child. I pour from a bottle not a decanter, into tumblers rather than tulips. Powers of deduction, child: sharp eyes sharpen wits.’ But MacNamara wasn’t a pupil. He was a doctor, one of her dearest friends. He addressed her that way in his letters. ‘My dearest friend,’ they began. ‘How are you?’

She delivered the tumbler of sherry. They sat side by side on the sofa. The armchairs were in Hartlepool. ‘It will take a while,’ Dido said, ‘before I find my feet.’

‘Still,’ said MacNamara. He sipped from his glass, then growled a long cough. ‘Good sherry, that. A good thick broth of a job.’

He’s lived in Yorkshire since his college days, thought Dido. His regular pew in the church, own corner in the pub, he’s one of the county’s committee men. Yet not a trace of his Irish has he dropped in all these years. Must be going to night classes. Then again, perhaps it isn’t so odd. I’ve travelled the world, teaching. Don’t suppose my accent’s changed noticeably. Still crisp, professional, BBC orthodox. Received, they used to call it.

Must be nice being Irish, it occurred to her suddenly. You can be educated and successful, and still sound as if you came from somewhere.

There was no fire in the grate – the coalman hadn’t delivered. Two electric fires whined in the background. Dido realised they were staring at a blank wall. The wallpaper, generally faded, was less so in places, where pictures had hung. Other people’s dispositions. I’ll have to re-wallpaper. The house still felt like someone else’s, as if it were waiting for a buyer, under offer, so to speak, and she were the caretaker. ‘Tell me,’ she said, ‘I was wondering: who lived here before?’

‘Before you? The place has stood empty eighteen months or more.’

Damp, thought Dido.

‘A single man had it then. Off-comer at that. Never a good idea. ’Tis a family home. Great big garden. Crying out for children, so it is. Young blood, that’s what the village needs. Och!’ He hit his temple with the mound of one hand. ‘What am I saying? I didn’t mean that at all. Nothing of the sort.’

She would have let it pass, but his compunction insisted.

‘Sure, you’re part of the village, Dido. Of course you’ll be welcome. You taught at the school here for goodness’ sake. Naturally you wanted to come back.’

How very persuasive. She felt she must intervene. ‘And Joyce, of course, was born here.’

‘You’ll have to forgive me, Dido. I hadn’t forgotten. It’s just ...’ He slapped his thigh a few times, unsettling the change in his pocket. He sighed. His hands gestured futility. ‘I’m sorry, Dido,’ he said. ‘Truly.’

He had made her feel mean, visiting her troubles on these village folk. She poured no more sherry.

In the hall, waiting for his coat, he said unexpectedly. ‘Don’t mind about the phone calls.’

Dido stuttered. ‘Well, I wasn’t – ‘

‘Mind you, Giggleswick has changed. Giggleswick? The whole country is banjaxed. On its last legs. Not the same place you left, how long is it now? Getting on. Must be twenty, twenty-five years.’

‘Twenty-nine,’ said Dido.

‘You don’t say.’

He was eyeing her queerly. Dido had the feeling he might be hesitating over a prescription. He was half-way into his coat. His arm had missed the armhole.

‘Tempus fugit,’ he said. Then, ‘You know, Dido, you don’t look hardly a day older.’

His little gallantry. She smiled tinily, watching his back in the hall mirror as he struggled with his coat. He was still the MacNamara of old, though his broad shoulders stooped now with time rather than awkwardness. The banter hadn’t changed, that doctor’s mix of bluster and blunder that came apparently with the bag. How clumsy were his hands, as though accustomed from birth to a nurse’s attendance. Suddenly, she remembered that this dearest friend had never married. Oh no, she disclaimed, not on my account, certainly not. Her smile, which had lingered, went chill with the thought.

MacNamara looked over his shoulder embarrassed. She relaxed her frown especially for him and, confidence restored, he found the armhole.

‘Don’t hesitate to call,’ he entrusted, ‘should you need anything. Company, like.’ His head nodded solicitously ‘ – Joyce and all.’ He donned his hat. ‘God rest her soul.’ He was still dithering. ‘And thanks for the sherry.’

Go, she urged, and finally he was gone. She bolted the door. They’d known each other since their early twenties, when she was a probationary teacher at the nearby school for girls and he was the young college doctor. Together with Joyce and Joyce’s fiancé they had made a foursome. They’d corresponded down the years, but Dido believed it was at MacNamara’s insistence. If she remembered correctly, he liked to collect stamps.

It came as small surprise that in a man-made world life should be cosier for men. Easier to fall, she granted, but with the corresponding advantage that success was obvious. Had a woman been Grand Artificer her life perhaps would not have changed, but the assumptions regarding it would be less doubtful. MacNamara’s bachelorhood seemed to enhance his standing, made romance of his sporadic failings. Whereas for her, generations of educated girls counted as little against a home-made brat of her own. ‘You’ve kept your maiden name, then,’ the old postmistress had remarked. ‘Still, not too late.’

But how absurd they were when confronted with emotions, like eager dogs in need of a pat. She had never disliked men, or rather, never abhorred them like some of her acquaintance. She believed at one time she might have loved one. Then came Joyce, of course. For a while she had worried that Joyce would fall for a man. But now the idea seemed nonsensical. How could so sparkling a mind as Joyce’s have found anything but irritation in that humdrum creation called man?

There were some good walks around the village and she might take MacNamara with her for company. It tickled her the way he showed off his Latin, as though the botanical names for flowers and things were a masculine mystery. And the peculiar way they had of avoiding your eyes – Don’t show me your soul, as if to say, but anima is the word in Latin.

The telephone calls continued. It was a nuisance more than anything else. Dido might be feeding the birds or watching them feed from the kitchen or sitting-room window and she’d have to drop whatever she was doing and chase into the hall to answer the phone. And the hall was the room she disliked most in the house because – she wasn’t sure why – because the phone was there probably. Many times she promised she’d ignore its ringing, but her resolve was invariably frustrated. She was worried it might be news from Hartlepool, though it never was. There was only silence at the other end, or at most a thin, barely audible breathing.

She was careful not to neglect her own needs. She cooked in the evening – not well, she allowed: but nutritiously. Cookery had never been her subject, although she had taken a class in domestic science for one term. That was in Uganda at the beginning of the bad times. All the teachers had doubled up, and Joyce had taken her through the basics. No, what she really lacked were the finishing touches. A particular spice, appetizing arrangement on the plate, decent plates even. A little grace, she thought at table one evening. She let her fork fall into the mash on her plate. ‘Oh Joyce,’ she said. For a moment she thought she would cry, but no, she didn’t cry. She did the washing-up.

She had Joyce’s picture beside her bed. It was in a silver frame with a dove ascending from the top and trefoils and beading along the edges. Tactually, it was interesting. Often she would hold it in her hands, rubbing a finger along the filigree. From the photograph Joyce looked out, a grin in the eyes that was knowing, impish, as though she had just played a trick on the photographer. How well she knew those eyes. She had followed them from Cape to Gulf, the stretch of a continent. On patios and terraces, across countless tables, in all weathers and hours without end, Dido had stared into those eyes. She had found peace there. She had looked where she loved. Now she gazed at a photograph. The co-ordinates of her life, dates and places, she had at her fingertips. But facts were not what she sought. And though she stared till her vision was blurred and she held the picture till her grip went white, still she felt lacking.

When they had wheeled Joyce back from the theatre, unexpectedly early, they had ushered Dido outside the waiting-room. ‘So sorry,’ they said, ‘but there’s no hope.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Gangrene in the stomach. We can’t operate.’ ‘Yes, but what do you mean?’

What they had meant was that Joyce had to die. It took six hours. They took out most of the wiring and tubes and every half-hour or so they injected Valium into her veins. Her hand went cold, her breathing ebbed, less than a whisper, a mode of the air. Dido would turn to the nurse. ‘Not yet,’ would come the reply. It took six hours.

In the end, like the realisation of night, death was obvious. In Joyce’s eyes was the glassy reflection of a woman stooping. Her own eyes, Dido knew, reflected a corpse. She’s dead, she said and left.

They gave her Joyce’s headphone set, the one she listened to her operas on, some clothes and her toilet bag, then Dido went home. Their bedrooms connected with louvred doors. There was the tumble of Joyce’s clothes on her chairs, on her table the cram of her perfumes, her scrapbook of recipes lay open in the galley. Everything was presented, but senselessly so, as in some ghastly mime of continuance. Dido sat on a hard-backed chair which neither had ever used. This apartment no longer felt home. It was a museum: this is how two women lived in the late twentieth century, expatriates in an oil-rich state, sharing. She went to school the next day, but she could tell they were uneasy. Her eyes kept glazing, she felt they were marbles whose central stripe showed a grey corpse stiffening. The principal drove her home. She waited there. She believed she wanted to cry, but she could summon no focus for her distress. Museums, whose business is the past, are the places in this world least haunted by it.

For the first time in years she slept in Joyce’s bed. By morning the sheets smelt of Dido. She wore her nightdress, but the nurses – gratuitously – had returned it laundered. It smelt of hospital: the clean hygienic smell that contrarily marks illness, suffering, death. She tried Joyce’s perfume, Lily-of-the-valley, but on her wrists the scent was too strong, like a cheap thing, artificial. Nothing was right. Her every pore, breath, heartbeat, every hair that dropped on the pillow, marked a further severance. How the quick vanquish the dead – involuntarily, viscerally, unmercifully. Even the music Joyce had liked sounded wrong: a changed orchestra, a brash young conductor. She needed to hold something, cling something to her. But the evaporation of Joyce was inexorable, like rain from the desert. Soon there would be nothing at all, just sand like the sand in an hour-glass that has slipped through time.

She accompanied the coffin back to England. Joyce’s people were at the terminal. All lined up, thought Dido, like greeters. ‘Pleased ... sorry ... meet again ... trying circumstances ...’ Shake hands, eyes elsewhere, home to England, land of discretion. Then to the store marked ‘Special Consignments’ where they waited for the box. Silence, edged in smiles. But their whirlwind assumption of ‘the arrangements’ when the box slid into view, hissed their vituperation.

How could you let this happen? She was our daughter. Call yourself a friend? Why didn’t you look after her? Get your hands away, you can’t be trusted. Who are you, anyway? We’re blood and you’re water, vapid thinly stuff, under the bridge.

Dido went to the car-hire and arranged her own way north.

Joyce’s father had retired from Giggleswick, where he had been rector, and now lived in a dormitory town the other side of the Dales. The trees in the gardens looked flimsy and shadeless, the borders everywhere were municipally neat – like an expatriate colony, thought Dido. How Joyce would mock. She booked into a guest house.

At the service, Dido bowed her head and muttered with the rest, but inside she was untouched. I don’t belong here, perhaps I should go. They spoke of a daughter loved by her parents, a loving and sadly missed sister. Dido couldn’t but imagine this newcomer rifling through Joyce’s records, her scents, stealing into Joyce’s clothes. How death belittles us, if we become another’s thoughts. Even the coffin looked too small to hold Joyce. In the graveyard, she remained at the rear, while the press of relatives – father and mother, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces – blackened the view. After the prayers, she made to leave, but her movement was misconstrued and charitable backs made a path to the grave. Petals slid between the dirt where they had thrown roses on the coffin. Lilies had been Joyce’s favourite. Didn’t they know? Dido had brought her own posy, silky cream tubes. She sniffed. They had obviously been forced in this English clime, for there was no smell. Or rather, there was no fragrance. They smelt of green things, alive, pushing. She dropped them, turned and left.

The weight of families pressed on her. How jealous they were – of everything in heart-shot, like black holes in space hugging the world to their core. Everything of consequence was done in families. Joyce had started none, so life went back a step: her parents must reclaim her. Look, she wanted to say, I’m here too, touch me and I’ll cry. But no, being only a friend’s, her grief was unofficial. As though the only love worth the name was one that made, or could have made, more bloody families. Drivel.

You’re an only child, she reminded herself, daughter of only children. Don’t be bitter. For thirty years you’ve had her soul. Let them keep the bones.

As she was getting into her car, one of the brothers hurried to delay her. ‘Thank you so much for coming,’ he said.

‘Oh,’ she replied. She stumbled a bit. ‘You must thank your parents for me.’

‘Thank them?’

‘For their help.’ She realised she had put her foot in it, treading on family property. ‘With the arrangements, I mean.’

The brother looked taken aback. Then he smiled – ministeringly, she thought. This must be the one who studied himself for orders. ‘You’ll have to forgive Father,’ he said. ‘Difficult circumstances, I’m sure you understand. She was his darling, you know. He never quite got over her running away like that.’

His darling – how quaint. Then: I suppose they blame me for her running away too.

‘Don’t lose touch,’ he said as she closed her car door. ‘There’s so much we’d like to know. We got her letters, of course, but we never really knew her. Was she happy?’ He asked this through the half-open window.

‘Deliriously,’ said Dido and drove off.

England she hardly recognised. Everyone was suddenly so much taller. Inside, she feared she found them mean, a nation guarding from its bungalows a past as remote as Camelot. She was reminded of those Arab peasants who, haggling in building sites, boasted of Baghdad. Everywhere there were rules: no tea without a bun, buns come with jam. It was as though they had run out of people to be better than: and, still lauding themselves, had only each other to lord over.

Oh, Joyce had been aware of it all, it would have come as no surprise to Joyce. She addressed her letters home, ‘c/o The Country Club, Thatcherite Britain, north-west corner of Europe’. Always the rebel – that true species of rebel who dreams the clock will stop, not jump ten paces forward.

She took to the moors, the sparse expanse of sheep and tree lines. When she stopped at a pub (‘No bar food after two’) she found herself gazing at a landscape on the wall. It was a typical scene: a lonely cottage in a steep vale, the hanging moors encroaching. She was a town-girl herself, brought up in Victorian suburbs which had been drained by the war. But she felt strangely drawn to that cottage – atavistically, as if to an ancestral home. She was not ashamed of her life. She had vied in a man’s world to teach mathematics to girls and had always managed to support herself (and Joyce when necessary) in reasonable comfort. Suddenly, she wondered was it true – or had she been living in someone else’s view? She felt fragile inside, isolated, as though everyone she had known had moved on up the hill. From their vantage point they watched her now, in her quaint surroundings, still part of the scenery, still down in the vale.

She continued on the road, and found herself driving inevitably westwards until, breeching a final scar, she was stopped by the revelation of Giggleswick. She had forgotten she remembered this sight. There was the railway viaduct, the green dome of the school chapel, the old parish church, its tumbled acre. The sun reflected on limestone buildings, the beck meandered through levelled fields. Houses reached up to meet the moor and where they did the wild mountain became Constitution Hill. She walked by the beck and, yes, the ducks were still there and the trees were the same, or gave roughly the same shade. The girls who called from the playing fields called in familiar tones the old cries. And that bench there, that was the bench where she and Joyce first had understood.

A country is never so constant as in the mind of an exile. Shudders and blows await her return. But the rate of change is not universal. Villages that have grown up around old schools seem enhanced by time, like walls with ivy, and not ravaged by its passing. All those school bells ringing the classes, the classes themselves divided into quarter-hours by the tolling parish clock – how odd that so much time, recorded so meticulously, should lead to a sense of timelessness, rest.

She sat on the bench by the beck and, as though preserved in its flow, the memories came flooding. How Hobson, the school padre, MacNamara’s friend, had made up to Joyce and how inseparable they were regarded: Hobson’s Joyce, the schoolgirls called her. Then the tears, which seemed unaccountable at the time, when Joyce told Dido she was engaged. They sat on the bench while evening fell about them. Birds chirped in the hedges, the beck purled on. When the shadows reached them their fingers had touched and when Dido looked into Joyce’s eyes, for the first time she knew that she looked where she loved. They kissed that night in the shade of that oak.

The banns went up. Hobson was cock of the walk for a week. But where was Joyce? She had disappeared. Rumour spread that she had returned Hobson’s ring, and her father, the rector, had locked her away in the rectory tower. The village buzzed with anticipation – and when it was learned that a hidden hand had freed the captive, everyone assumed a secret suitor had intervened. The postmistress awaited a postmark from Gretna Green. But it was months later that news arrived: Joyce had taken ship to Africa. She was in Cape Town, six thousand miles away. Her father denounced her. Hobson damned her. MacNamara shook his head. But how surprised they all were when Dido announced her resignation. ‘But where will you go?’ asked the young MacNamara. ‘Africa,’ she answered blithely.

Everywhere she looked, everywhere she turned, Joyce was just round the corner. There was a house for sale. She didn’t take much notice of it, just decided on the spot that she would buy it. She could settle here, as nowhere else, in the magical village where they’d met.

The telephone rang. ‘Hello?’ she said. Nothing. How bare was the hall without furniture, like a tunnel, a cave, leading nowhere. Outside the starlings were squabbling, the sparrows got on with it, winter lowered. But inside, the world seemed at bay. She realised she had let the phone dangle by its wire. ‘Hello?’ she said again. Still nothing. She replaced the receiver.

It was odd living in a house with so little furniture. However, she refused to buy anything new. Insurance and pensions didn’t amount to much in this new Britain. Besides, the furniture delayed in Hartlepool had been gathered by both of them. Joyce had decorated the edges. Why should she pay for new and silent stuff when she had reverberant armchairs of her own?

Most of all she missed her music. She had all their records, Joyce’s and hers, but the gramophone was in Hartlepool. One of their great joys had been to sing together. When they did the housework, their home rang with scales and arpeggios, ever more challenging, more devilish, and they might often conduct an entire conversation recitativo. Now, as she went about the day’s business, she would try a few bars, a snatch of an aria or a chorus they had liked. But the house wouldn’t echo and her voice sounded shrill. She soon stopped.

She telephoned to Hartlepool almost daily, but there was always some equivocation from the other end, some story that never approached an explanation. ‘Madam is insured,’ the man said. But what had insurance to do with it? She needed that furniture, those particular atoms, each one and every one. How else might she enghost this house with Joyce? How else to make it home?

For walking through the village, she realised its magic had not endured. It was as though that first torrent of memories when she sat by the beck had drained it of evocation. Or else her physicality, grossly as it had in the Gulf, killed it. It wasn’t that she could not remember. The way she remembered was different. When she passed the tower-room of the rectory, she recounted facts. That tree was a bush then. Up drainpipe. Abrasion on knee. Knocked on window. Surprise on her face. Handed key. She kissed goodbye. A bi-labial click.

Incidents from her past were no longer points on a line on which she still travelled. That journey had ended; in mid-breath it had terminated with a sudden inexplicable fender in the desert. Our life is a narrative, whose past explains the present. And the memories she had were so happy, so outrageously lovely, they could have nothing to do with the paucity of today. Joyce came to seem like an invention, the confabulation of an unhappy mind.

She began to query details. For instance, one afternoon she replaced the telephone and the question from nowhere occurred to her: why was she christened Dido? Her father had been interested in Roman history, she knew; but to lumber a child with so different a name ... Schoolgirls east and west, black, brown and Caucasian, had nicknamed her ‘Dildo’. Besides, if her father was so interested in Roman history, why was she named for a Carthaginian queen? Or was she? Could it be, perhaps, that she was named for some other Dido, famous in some other field, whereof her father knew but she was unaware? Questions like this vexed her.

At night she still gazed at Joyce’s picture. But she no longer was certain of the face. Sometimes, she caught herself wondering who it was supposed to be. Is that me? Of course, a moment’s recollection brought Joyce’s name, but then she might wonder who was this Joyce-person anyway. Tantalising seconds would pass before the force of truth prevailed.

Joyce, Joyce, Joyce – the confabulation of an unhappy mind. It was a short step to see Joyce not as the product, but as the cause of this unhappiness.

She did not choose to think ill of the dead, but if she was truthful Dido had to admit Joyce’s was a frivolous life. Her flippancy with money, amazing trust in pseudo-scientific books, fads in the kitchen, quasi-mystical therapies based on colour or sound. Frivolity of course is close to joy, and Dido had not begrudged Joyce her enthusiasms. In an odd way it was rather fun to dip into them of an evening. After a day’s trigonometry at school, her fads in the home were like a soft mattress: easing to the back if not strictly wise. Dido had always sought equality in their life. But she could not help doubting if in her efforts that everything should be fair, shared equally, the good and the bad, Joyce never carrying an unequal burden, she hadn’t deprived herself of her own just moiety of pleasure. When she carved the meat her plate held the fattier, grislier slice. She chose for herself the cup with the crack. Her own wardrobe was a dull backdrop to Joyce’s originality. Strangers talked to Joyce in the street, shop-girls indulged her, but nobody noticed Dido. They complimented her soprano, while Dido’s was considered too full, too bel canto. People assumed Dido was the stronger one, but it was Joyce who had willed her that way. God help Joyce if Dido goes first, they used to say. But good old Dido can look after herself. In effect, she had become the uglier straight one who remembered the bills. Instead of affinity, there was contrast. Where she had believed in equality, she had been forced into opposition. It just wasn’t fair. She hadn’t wanted it that way. Why had Joyce done this to her?

At terrible times, she despised Joyce and pictured her as a capricious genius who manipulated souls. Afterwards, she was rooted with guilt. She ached to remember something pleasant, to look at something she loved, but all she could do was feed the birds. The telephone rang, she picked it up, she said hello, replaced the receiver. Joyce, who are you?

She became more and more accustomed to the house the way it was. These were her records: there was no gramophone. This was the guests’ room: nothing in it. This was the master: a single bed. This the sitting-room: a sofa but no chairs. The dining-room was here: six chairs but no table. The names of these rooms lost their descriptive value and became merely epithets divorced from function. Six diners might sit in the dining-room, two on carvers: but no one could dine.

She was brushing her hair one morning when, glancing at her reflection, she saw that the age-old struggle between mirror and heart had ended for her. The face the glass returned was an exact reproduction of the soul inside. My hair is like a German helmet, my face a public yashmak. The kaftan I wear is the chintzy cover of a chair that’s losing its stuffing. She put down the mirror and cut some bread: the birds still had to be fed.

She worried her mind might follow her body, and to keep senility at bay, she took to proving mathematical theorems. A couple a day to begin with, then with practice more and more, figuring the equations in her mind’s eye as physically she counted the birds.

How reliable was science, like an old-fashioned nurse or the Queen Mother. As a child she had wondered where had it all come from, who made the world. God had seemed inevitable then, like her father’s coming home caused tea in the evening. But to the growing scientific mind, his theological innascibility made nonsense of God as an explanation. Though she ceased to believe, she did not consider herself irreligious. As far as she was concerned, the truly religious were those who were driven to enquire of the world: the irreligious asked nothing, merely followed the precedent of family, tribe, country. The cross that Dido bore was the burden all atheists carry: that driven to enquire by religious impulse, she had enquired and found nothing.

Yet she was struck by such eternals as the laws of indices, the transcendental number pi. They were truths to which the world conformed, yet they were not of the world. They came from beyond. As truths they were odd, intangible ... having no actuality, no entelechy, requiring nothing to exist to be counted by them, but existing nonetheless, in a kind of god-like dispassion. They had a wonder about them, the wonder of religion, if not its solace.

At night she watched the stars, tracing the trivial constellations, and recalled Pythagoras’s theorem. She shivered amongst all those shapes to know that before ever there was a triangle, before there were points or planes or units of measure, before even there was a universe in which shapes could exist, that theorem had held good. She muttered it under her breath: the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. She sounded not like the teacher she had been, nor any of the girls she had taught: in her voice was the murmur of devotion.

The Pythagoreans had heard music in the stars. But music was a long time ago now. As remote in time as the stars in space.

Joyce had toyed with astrology; but in her own way she too believed in the stars. They in their space were science’s workshop. But the stars were hard and beneath their rays she felt exposed. For what was love, in scientific terms, but a nursery for the purposeful gene? Was that the answer? Their love was a kind of imaginary number, handy for calculations, but ultimately without substance. How many women have you loved? The square root of minus one.

The moon rose. In Africa they had taken the moon for their cynosure. As their periods came together, Joyce had called it a sign from the ancient goddess herself that their union was blessed. But Dido did not remember Africa: instead she counted the seconds for the moon’s reflected light to reach the earth. One two three four five ...

A leaf fluttered from a tree by her terrace as she paced one morning, and she watched fascinated its intricate flight till it landed precisely on the tip of her toe. She was certain she could have felt nothing physically, yet its fall hit her with the force of revelation. So banal an encounter – leaf on shoe – it must happen a thousand times each day. Wherever trees are deciduous, in every temperate zone, leaves fall, feet move. Yet if she recounted the twists of cause and effect that had led to this rendezvous her mind must swim with the improbability of it. Why was she here, why had she chosen this morning to pace her terrace? Why this garden, this house, why England? Why was she born a European? Why had mankind come down from the trees for leaves to fall on their toes? So many causes, so many effects. And the tree itself – who planted it, when, why there? How many false starts, stops and goes, before nature hit on the notion of trees losing leaves in winter? The wonder of it was staggering. And was it all planned from the beginning, from that first explosion sixteen billion years ago when the constituent parts of nothing – an equal infinity of positive and negative – exploded into matter and time began? Time governed by the eternal rules, a ceaseless line of cause and effect, that decreed a galaxy and a sun on its rim, with a planet that circles at a temperate distance and on that planet and on this day, at this destined time, on this inevitable morning, Dido Poynings shall walk on her terrace and a leaf shall tip on her toe?

It was all so marvellous, so wondrous, all so utterly pointless. Who cares? she screamed, Who cares, who cares, who cares?

Only the innocent scream out loud. In the throbbing garden the sole noise was the distant ringing of the phone.

An ugly dream recurred in her sleep. In this dream her world was shattering – not figuratively but literally. Her horizons were like glass pictures and the glass shattered. The shards did not fall, but disappeared into nothing. And with her horizons went the feelings of things: love, hate, history, everything – all disappeared with the shattering glass. And when all the glass had gone, she stood alone, not on the earth but on a planet that circled a sun, and it would do so till it didn’t.

When she remembered this dream a panic would come. There was a buzz behind her eyes, an interference, as from an untuned television. Her head ached, and she felt not flushed not chilled, but in between; not good not bad, but stopped in the exact mathematical mean. She feared for her identity, the I who willed the self. She didn’t walk, but was walked, didn’t sleep but was slumbered. There is no passive voice to the verb ‘to be’, but that was how she felt. Experience without agency, effect without cause, Dido minus Joyce: once I was but now I am been. She felt as though she was still in that waiting-room, waiting six hours, as they pulled out tubes and injected Valium, waiting for Joyce to die.

It helped if she kept busy. That’s why she was so diligent about feeding the birds. It even helped just answering the phone.

One evening, the telephone rang when she was half-way up the stairs, on her way to bed. This was unusual. The hoaxer had never phoned at night before. On the other hand, it could hardly be news from Hartlepool. The phone kept ringing, but it might stop at any moment. She trembled between decisions. Her body was directed up the stairs, her face looked back over her shoulder. This is ridiculous, she chided. She frowned, then padded down the stairs. She found the switch in the hall, lifted the receiver. But for once she did not say anything. She waited.

There was nothing at the other end, only the usual breath. Not quite a wheeze, she decided, though the voice struggled for air. Dido waited, holding the receiver pressed to her ear. The church clock struck an hour. There was something different about the breathing. It sounded almost familiar. Suddenly Dido was struck with the certainty, more than a certainty, or rather worse, it was like a terror, a terrible certainty that the voice at the other end was about to speak. She didn’t know what, and she couldn’t tell why, but she slammed the receiver down on its stand. She stood, gripping herself, stock-still. The hall felt unbearably cold. Her cheeks were flushed like pokers. She remembered she was in her nightdress, on the bare boards, under the bulb. She closed her eyes, but she could not let go. The breathing had sounded so familiar, so unutterably familiar. ‘Oh Joyce,’ she said finally. She bit her lip, but this did not stop the tears.

‘Oh, Joyce, my Joyce, my Joyce!’

The ugly dreams ceased after that and the meanness of science had gone.

Some weeks afterwards, she was returning from the village bakery, when she noticed that her side gate was ajar. She was incensed. Someone had crept down the ginnel, violated her domain. Worse, the sneak had left the gate open. The birds, she thought, they might have escaped! She calmed herself. This was silly. She looked in. Brogues, corduroys, tweed jacket: it was MacNamara. He was peeping through the kitchen window. The gate creaked as Dido closed it.

‘Och, there you are,’ said MacNamara.

‘Good morning,’ said Dido testily.

‘I was passing and I thought I’d call, like. Feared I’d missed you there.’

All so pleasant, affable, as though he hadn’t been caught trespassing. ‘I can’t invite you in,’ she warned. ‘There’s rather a rush on this morning.’

‘Not to worry.’ They stood facing each other on the terrace. ‘The thing is, there’s a hockey do on at the school Saturday next. Senior team versus an old girl get-up, that manner of thing. Ah, sure being the doctor they expect you to show your face. I was thinking you might fancy a visit yourself. Back to the old school and all that. Might have a bite to eat afterwards. What do you say?’

‘Do you mean this coming Saturday?’ She shifted the weight of the parcels in her hand. If she edged towards the hall window, might she still catch the phone if it rang? Get rid of him, she resolved.

‘If you’ve nothing planned, of course. Tell you what, I’ll give you a tinkle nearer the day. By the by, I’ve had a thought about the hooligans.’


‘The telephone hoaxers, of course.’

‘Oh.’ The birds were complaining in the holly tree. They must be hungry.

‘Did you ever think of having your number changed? That’d fox them. That’d put a short end to their larking.’

Dido relented her ill-humour long enough to consider the suggestion. ‘Actually,’ she said, ‘the calls have stopped. Yes, I haven’t had a call in over a month. They must have tired of the joke.’

‘Glad to hear it,’ said MacNamara.

‘Sorry, but I will have to get on.’

‘I’ll give you a tinkle, so. Towards the weekend.’


‘About the hockey.’

‘Yes. Do.’

To Dido this exchange held the finality of farewell. But MacNamara made no motion of leaving. He rubbed his hands together. ‘Wintry weather,’ he remarked, then took a liberal lungful of the garden air. He gestured to the vista before them. You could see the old school chapel on its gritstone hillock peeking through the bare trees. ‘Still,’ he said cheerily, ’tis a grand garden you have.’

Garden, thought Dido: lawn, shrubs, trees, sky on top. Birds expecting their feed.

‘And ’tis no accident ’tis grand. The man who had the place before you took a keen interest in the garden. He had a gardener, even. Young fella. Lived in. Leastways, we all took him for the gardener. Turned out though – only on his say-so, mind – that he was a mite more than any gardener you or I might employ.’

Why is he telling me this? wondered Dido. It was December and the days were far too short for prattling about nothing.

MacNamara persisted. ‘I’ve no wish to speak out of turn, especially as regards the dead. For the man died, do you see, the man who owned the place before you. But the young fella maintained they were – how shall I put it? On terms a good deal closer than anyone suspected. Och, it was the talk of the village.’

‘Well?’ said Dido. Her toes tapped on the flags.

‘Well, there was nothing in the will about it. What could anyone do? He had to pack his bags and off he went – with something of a flea in his ear. Och, sure no relative would be pleased to be told a thing like that. After the death and all. However. Trouble was this young fella kept pestering the relatives. He couldn’t accept the loss, you see. Couldn’t come to terms with it. You know the pond below?’

He was squinting at the far corner. ‘Pond?’ said Dido.

‘Down below.’

‘There’s no pond in my garden.’

‘Exactly,’ said MacNamara. ‘But there’s a hole there where a pond should be.’

He seemed delighted with his logic. ‘I really don’t see – ‘ said Dido.

‘Turns out he had started a pond, the young fella had, and he wanted to finish it, do you see. Kept pestering the relatives to let him return. For what is a pond without water? A contour of the ground merely. It’s still there, if you care to look. Or rather, it isn’t. There’s a vacancy in the ground where he wanted to build a pond. A memorial, do you see, to his friend. Became an obsession with him. Couldn’t let it go. There’s a word for it. Mourning syndrome, it’s called.’

So that was it. Dido remembered that this trespasser was, by profession, a doctor. That was the purpose of this talk: delicately, genially to offer help.

‘The death of a loved one affects different people different ways. Some folks can handle their mourning quite well.’

‘They can?’

‘Yourself, for instance.’

Dido surveyed the doctor, his profile only, for his face was still lapping up the garden view. You know nothing, she thought. I’m a mass of assumptions on your part. You look at me and you think of female disorders. You don’t know that I couldn’t cry. That now with the phone calls I don’t need to. You don’t know that I was losing Joyce, but now the phone rings every day. What do you know? You don’t even know that I’m late for the birds.

The panic was returning. She needed to close her eyes. She needed to be busy. If only MacNamara would leave.

But no. ‘They do these things better abroad,’ he was saying. ‘Funerals, I mean. Well, I don’t know, but maybe you’ll have seen it for yourself. On your travels, like. Out there, it’s a piece of theatre. A public display of grief. Catharsis, to use the technical phrase. They have their big day, they’re the centre of attention, and the bereaved – wife or mother, children, what have you – she – well, I mean he – they get it out of their system.’


‘Societies, you know, less developed in our sense of the word, but closer, do you see, to maybe what’s inside of them.’

How very thoughtful of him, thought Dido, to lecture her on social anthropology at this hour of the day. At any moment the phone might ring and she’d have this Irish oaf nosing into her onions.

‘This country,’ he said, ‘I still feel we’ve a lot to learn.’

‘Doubtless,’ said Dido.

He faced her directly. ‘It’s not easy for – well, a friend, I know that. Just to let you know there’s help available, should you need anyone.’

Go help the young fellow, Dido told him after he had gone. I have my birds.

As soon as she got inside she checked that the phone wasn’t off the hook – she’d tipped it over once by accident and it had been off for three-quarters of an hour before she’d noticed. Then she went outside and deposited chunks of bread. She bought the bread specially now, good brown wholemeal stuff. Five loaves a day, the bakery kept them for her. Half a loaf at a time, which meant the birds had ten feeds a day, staggered through the daylight hours. It kept her in harness. The chunks were roughly one-inch cubes. She had arrived at this size through trial and error. It was just too heavy or awkward for the birds to fly away with in their beaks, just too small to occasion too much of a squabble. Consequently the birds could feed in relative peace while she could watch over them peacefully.

Once the chunks were dispersed, she hurried into the hall to keep watch through the window. She loved the hall now, with its walls and ceiling, and could not imagine why it had chilled her before. The phone was there and the garden window might have been specially designed for a conscientious governess. She had dragged the sofa in from the sitting-room. Nearby whined the electric fire. The phone gleamed on the floor beside it. How cosy was her nook. Home at last.

She picked up the receiver to listen to its purr. The dialling tone gave pleasant assurance. Then she watched out the window the squawking starlings, the apprehensive sparrows.

Sometimes another bird might intrude on this dichotomy. A crow might swoop: its giant shadow barely had time to form on the flags before it had lifted again, an entire chunk in its beak. Or it might actually land. Then it would stalk up to its chosen morsel, fix its claw imperiously on its centre, daring the slightest misrule. But Dido Poynings knew about crows. With her mortar-board and her black academicals she’d ruled over many a class, swooping on malcontents, corvine. I am Dido Poynings, she said, a crow who answers the phone.

She was so busy – an entire school in her garden – she felt light in her head. I’ll float away one of these days, she told herself. At the same time, she was gripped by a physical happiness, a euphoria so strong she shook in its power. The weather was marvellous – sumptuously cold! And the rain when it fell was uniquely wet. The wind blew with the bitterness of fruits. The sun shone like a dozen moons. Was there ever a winter to match it? And at any moment the phone might ring. She trembled in premonition of its call.

Panic was kept at bay, but only generally. In moments, it sortied through her defences. Then, her every extremity would numb, while her mind buzzed with interference. If she waited long enough, she was returned to her dream. Everything was glass, shattering into nothing.

Feeding the birds might hinder this panic, but only the telephone calls could truly confront it. They were special. They came to her only. In coming they made her special.

The phone rang, not regularly but reliably. Dido lifted the receiver, pressed it to her ear. She didn’t answer it any more, in the sense that she said hello or gave her number. She merely listened. And as soon as she was certain that the voice at the other end was about to speak, utter distinguishable sound: then she slammed the receiver down. On these occasions she was truly alive. She felt intemperate. Either she shivered with cold or she sweated with heat.

Sometimes she wondered why she didn’t speak. At times she childishly dared herself. ‘I am Dido Poynings,’ she might say, ‘a crow who answers the phone!’ But in her heart she knew this was impossible. The world she inhabited had changed with the phone calls. She had found the secret door, and her garden was not driven by blind laws of science, but by the human power of desire. This was the world of mystery and sympathy, wound through subtly with magic, where actions became rites, whose observance alone ensured its continuity. Should she falter one inch in her step, alter one jot of her behaviour, the spell would shatter, and she would stand on a planet, alone as in her dream, circling a nearby star.

She had brought her bedding down from the master bedroom and she slept now on the sofa in the hall. Less comfortable, perhaps, and yet, with the coalman not delivering and the electric fire on the day long, it did make sense. Besides, it being January and the days growing longer, the birds of course were rising earlier. She didn’t have time for traipsing up and down stairs. They needed breakfast. If she slept in her clothes it guaranteed an early start, and she could watch through the window the dawn reach over the garden trees, she could hear the chorus chirm its thanks.

She noticed that her gait was stiffer. Her knees didn’t bend, her toes pressed against the roof of her shoes. She shuffled on the balls of her feet, as if she should be wearing slippers. When she looked at her legs she laughed. Calfs should grow into cows, she thought, but mine have turned into spindles. In the village she was consumed by a craving to shout out to everyone, to be known, to proclaim: ‘I am Dido Poynings, a crow who answers the phone!’ But the words came out as ‘Five loaves of bread, please.’

Hartlepool no longer bothered her. Indeed, in her mind, it had become an exotic, forbidden place, far more inaccessible, improbable even, than any of the polygonal corners of the world where she had taught. When she thought of her furniture the details had faded. She had pictures, of course, but she could not picture them. If she tried, an image came of a cottage on the moors, the toppling hills encroaching. Panic lay that way. Better off by far with the faded patches.

There was so much to do. People didn’t understand. She was leaving the bakery one morning when somebody called out her name.

‘Dido! Is that you, Dido?’

She turned, but she could not recognise any of the faces. Flitting between the people she caught the shape of a woman. She knew that shape. Oh yes, unmistakable. In her Gossard Wonderbra, the eternal Sweater Girl. There you are, she said. She raised her hand in gentle salute. I’m over here, Joyce, shan’t be long. But unaccountably Joyce wasn’t there any more. Joyce? Panic struck through the chink. Joyce! Joyce? Bread spilled on the pavement. She collapsed in its midst. Joyce? Oh Joyce.

A hand touched her shoulder. She jerked her head wildly.

‘Dido! You know I’d hardly recognise you. What have you been up to? You look the wraith of yourself.’

It was that man again. ‘Oh,’ said Dido. Oh dear, Oh dear.

‘Here, let me help you.’ The giant gloved hand reached under her shoulder and raised her to the human position.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said.

‘Not at all, not at all,’ said MacNamara. ‘The roads are fierce slippery this time of the year. They don’t seem to salt them any more at all, I don’t know why.’

Salt? No, that would be bad for the birds.

‘Tell you one thing. I was a mite concerned the last day I visited. Is it coming together for you now?’

She tried to look round his shoulder, then wondered why. Was she looking for someone? Who was it now?

‘Glad to hear it,’ said MacNamara, though she did not believe she had spoken. ‘And you’re looking after yourself? I trust so, anyway. Looking a mite pale – round the edges, like. Are we feeding ourself proper?’

She was waiting for somebody. Who was it again?

‘The vittles are vital, as we say in the trade.’ He had picked up the bread. ‘Staff of life and all that, but don’t neglect the protein. One cooked meal a day, at least. Do you hear me?’

She nodded quickly. MacNamara looked at his watch. A signal he would go? No. He leaned closer. He had secret information to impart. ‘You’re still missing Joyce.’

Joyce! Of course! But what did he know about Joyce? Any moment the phone might ring and here he was delaying her in the street. Her brain buzzed. She wanted to tell this man that she was Dido Poynings and that she was a crow who answered the phone. But her tongue insisted on some trite rationality. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I think you’re right.’

MacNamara straightened again. ‘Time’s the great healer. I could prescribe any amount of pills, but time’s your man. You’ll see.’

‘Yes, that’s right. Time to go.’ She adventured a smile.

His face looked doubtful again. ‘Tell you what. There’s a concert on at the school.’

Here we go.

‘Sunday next. School choir, you know the way it is. Don’t say anything now, yea or nay. I’ll telephone during the week. But think on. ‘Twould do you the world.’

‘Thank you,’ said Dido.

‘Shame about Christmas and all.’


‘Maybe next year you won’t be so busy.’

Oh dear, won’t I?

‘Silly, two old friends spending the festivities alone like that. So think on.’

‘Yes, I’ll certainly think on.’

‘Anyway. I’ll have to be on my way. Love to chatter and all that. But – something of a rush on. Half the county’s in the surgery with the ‘flu. As though I had some magic potion. I’ll phone.’

‘Phone, yes.’

He was already half-way down the street. He had a stiff arm raised in farewell. As though he was supporting something, she thought.

She hurried home, back to the cosy nook in the hall. She fed the birds. The phone would ring. In touch.

The explosion came one Friday afternoon.

Dido had fed the birds, she was supervising them through the hall window. The starlings were up to their tricks again and she’d just rapped a warning when the phone rang. She was momentarily divided – the birds required her every vigilance – but only momentarily: the call of the phone was undeniable. She lifted the receiver.

Just as she did so, there was an almighty screeching and chattering outside that ended as suddenly as it had begun and a sharp thin silence stung the air. Dido strained to see what was happening. There wasn’t a bird in sight. The bread lay scorned on the flags. Then suddenly, so fast she barely had time to register it, a hawk crashed into the holly tree, swept out again, all in one movement, all of a piece, except when it swept out, it had a sparrow in its beak.

Dido was shaking. She did not know how to feel. She had lost one of her birds, but it had been a magnificent sight. The poor sparrow. And now she had hawks to contend with. How should she accommodate hawks in her garden? Questions and quandaries surged through her mind. She wanted to wrap her face in her hands, dam this turbulence, when in doing so, she realised that one of her hands still held the telephone. It was pressed against her ear. And there was a voice at the other end, and the voice was speaking, making distinguishable sound. She closed her eyes. Oh my God, she thought. This is unbearable.

‘Russell?’ said the voice. ‘Is that you, Russell? Russell? ... Russell ...?’


She exploded. She cried. She stamped. She did human things. She shouted out how cruel they were. They had taken her Joyce, the love from her life, they’d taken her memories and half of her years, they’d even taken half her furniture and lost it in Hartlepool – damn them to hell, but they’d stooped so low as to steal one of her sparrows: now they must take her telephone calls. It was beyond cruelty. I am Dido Poynings, a crow who answers the phone! My home is Jerusalem, centre of the world! Except it wasn’t true. All along it had been some piddling mistake. There was an idiot abroad giving out the wrong number. His name was Russell. What was wrong with him? Was he mad? Some sort of maniac, giving the wrong number. It was enough to make your blood boil. Enough to make you cry salt tears. No, no, no! She would not suffer this. It was too too much. She would suffer this no more ...

These barkings endured for an interval, a period of time that could be measured in hours, multiples of seconds, themselves arbitrary units conventionally measured by the movement of heavenly bodies, or as at Greenwich by the earth’s rotation around the sun, or most ingeniously of all by the frequency of radiation emitted by caesium as its atoms decay. Time. It passed. And when it had, she was no longer in the hall. She wasn’t anywhere really. She stood not on the earth but on a planet that circled the sun. It would do so till it didn’t. The panic approached, but her last defences had fallen, and it did not come to her as panic, but as a generous victor, bringing end. Entropy was general, in fulfilment of thermodynamic law.

That noise, that was the phone ringing. When you picked it up, you said hello.

‘Dido?’ came the voice from the other end.

‘Hello,’ she said.

‘Ah, there you are, Dido. MacNamara here.’

She waited.

‘Er – sorry to trouble you this late. I called around, but there was no answer. Yet I saw a light was on.’

Light, she thought. You saw it tonight, but in a year someone six billion miles away will watch it pass.

‘Only it’s about this concert. You know, the school and all that. On Sunday. I wondered if you’d made up your mind at all.’

Mind: that which thinks, knows, feels, wills. Apparently you could make it up.

‘Whether you wanted to go.’

She’d been going all her life. Never faced up to trouble really, never squarely. A curt retort and you never heard of me again. But that was all over. She need never go again, never move from this hall even. Finished. Terminus in Latin. QED in maths.



A sigh of relief. ‘I thought you’d gone.’

‘No, still here.’

‘I wouldn’t trouble you, only there’s a question of tickets.’

The things this man could be troubled by. She troubled herself with a response and said, ‘No, afraid I’m rather busy on Sunday.’

He sounded strangely jealous. ‘I know you’re busy, Dido. Your line’s forever engaged.’

‘They’re not for me. They’re calls for Russell.’

‘Russell? Who’s Russell?’

She was about to tell him it didn’t matter, but he interrupted.

‘Now, there’s a thing. The man who had the house before you, his name was Russell. Fancy that. Russell something or other.’

She finally understood. It’s the young fellow, of course. It was the gardener phoning all along. He’s looking for his friend, his lover who died. Two years, my God, and he still – and he still – he phones because he can’t let go. It’s the mourning syndrome.

‘Wait a minute, wait a minute.’ MacNamara was smelling a rat. ‘Are you still getting those strange telephone calls? I thought you said they’d stopped?’

‘They have now.’

‘Dido, are you all right?’

‘It really doesn’t matter.’

MacNamara mumbled on. How worried the man sounded. ‘Look, about next Sunday. I don’t want to insist, Dido, but it really is a shame. They’ll be singing some of those old Purcell songs we all used to sing. Our party piece, remember?’

Was this man never to be satisfied?

‘Of course you remember. From Dido and Aeneas. It was your mother’s favourite opera. You used to say she named you for it.’

Dido and who, did you say? Dido and what?

Then, to her surprise, there came down the phone a warbling of poetry. ‘Shake the cloud from off your brow ...’ MacNamara was singing!

Dido and Aeneas. Yes, there was something about that music. It had been their party piece. She had sung Dido’s part, of course. Joyce was Belinda. Poor old Hobson with his squeaky voice had to battle with Aeneas’s bass baritone. Kettle’s on the Hobson, they had called him. And MacNamara had sung – no, he hadn’t sung at all, but had pranced about in front of them, pretending to conduct. If she tried, she could picture them now. All four walking down the lane, Hobson squeaking determinedly, MacNamara waving his hand in front, Joyce with her hand in Dido’s pocket, and the feeling of her smiling beside her. ‘Ah, Belinda,’ she heard herself sigh. ‘Ah, ah, ah, Belinda ...’

I am pressed with torment,’ sang MacNamara, ‘not to be confessed.’ He had taken her sigh for his cue to continue. ‘Peace and I are strangers grown ...’

How silly he sounded, thought Dido, cranking out his absurd falsetto over the phone. And yet considerate, too. The music, when she remembered it, was light and at the same time sad: no wonder it had been their favourite. Who would expect so purely mathematical an art so nearly to fulfil our emotions? Listening to his singing, she could almost see the music in front of her, and in its progressions she read the bones of life: a measure of prediction, a measure of surprise. She really didn’t want this to happen, she really wanted it to stop. But the music had caught hold of her mind and everywhere she turned she faced the determined fugue, the accidental sharp. Stop it! Stop it! I don’t wish to go on. But it wouldn’t stop, no matter how she tried, because she loved Joyce and Joyce had loved to sing. Suddenly, she wanted too to sing, to let go finally her voice in the air; and to her wonder she heard the strain of her soprano echoing down the line: ‘I am anguished till my grief is known; yet would not, yet would not, yet would not have guessed it.’

Grief increases by concealing,’ sang MacNamara in return, taking Belinda’s part in the recitative.

Mine admits of no revealing.’ She was only half-singing, the rest was stutter and breath. And yes, it was true. Grief does increase with concealing. It came to her suddenly that was what this famous mourning syndrome was all about. You can’t let go, because nobody knows you have it.

‘Dido, if I called round at seven, we could drive to the school. It wouldn’t do any harm.’

He sounded so kind, he was making her cry. ‘It’s true,’ she said. ‘It does increase with concealing.’

‘I know,’ said MacNamara. ‘Shall I call, Dido, at seven?’

‘Please,’ she said before she could interrupt herself. ‘Yes please.’

Dido Poynings strolls through the garden. The day is beautiful. She does not believe she can remember a morning so rare, the air as crisp as the earth beneath her, the sun almost bursting so brilliantly it shines. There is a wild patch of woodland towards the bottom, and there snowdrops and crocuses and daffodils wave on the banks. Earlier she watched the sun glint on the squat green dome of the school chapel, visible starkly through the trees. It has disappeared now, within hours, hidden behind foliage newly unfurled. Spring is everywhere.

A crow caws above and she stops to watch the rookery. For a while she believed she was a crow. A healthy dose of insanity, MacNamara calls it. That too makes her happy, for no one goes mad because they did not love. All this business of science and God. Nature is what is, not what should be. And if there is a God, then love – which alone transcends the inches – then love is holy. That settles it. She has loved and has looked where she loved and knowing this she knows she is special.

As she walks up the lawn towards the terrace and the kitchen door, she can hear the telephone ringing inside. She knows who it will be. And she knows what she will say. She’ll explain her provenance, ‘My name is Dido Poynings,’ and she’ll speak about the garden. For what is a garden without a pond? Even with a pond, she’ll need someone to care for it. If she can, she’ll help the boy with his grief.

She smiles to herself. If you wanted, you could write it like a sum:

present + purpose = future.

She’s worried momentarily. By transposition, that would mean that the present equals the future minus a purpose. Does that make sense?

Silly maths, she thinks. Silly me.

She is still smiling when she picks up the phone.

© Jamie O’Neill.