Malachi is brushing her hair, long, dark brown and with russet glints. She likes it, as he can tell from her smile in the mirror. It is Bathsheba. As he brushes, the hair takes on an added lustre, sparks of electricity emanating from every single rib, which recklessly he nibbles. He barely knows her, so how can he be brushing her hair.
He wakens with a jolt and sees the range of mauve mountain through the aeroplane window, misted over, as he has so often sighted them on his regular journeys to and from Dublin. The watchful mountain. How he wishes that he were not going home just then, that he could go elsewhere, to steady himself and forget the beguilements of Manhattan. He signals the hostess to bring him another whiskey, though the bar is shut and she disappears, returning instantly and placing a miniature in the palm of his hand. He has had a few since they set out from New York, but intends to sober up at the airport with coffee, and take gulps of air before the drive home, navigating the corkscrew bends. Showers, stray sheep, bushes warped from wind and a few skeleton trees, effigies to a shorn world.
During his six days in New York everything centred on Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s play, which he had transplanted to Ireland and for which there was a workshop in a loft somewhere in SoHo. It was hoped that there might be a production in Providence, Rhode Island, sometime in the autumn. Rhode Island, same name as his wife’s hens, lazying in their dust baths in the summer days.
The company showered him with welcome, a rocking chair no less, Barry’s Gold label tea and a samovar in salutation to their hero, Anton Chekhov. He felt reborn as a writer, after so many years of stagnancy and botched attempts. He was forty-four, exactly the same age as when Chekhov retched into a spittoon, before he drank the legendary glass of champagne and died. They were curious to know why he had transposed the play to Ireland and he said there were similarities in Russian literature, what with run-down estates, crumbling houses, melancholia and madness. At this, Bathsheba smiled. An odalisque in Turkish trousers, the ochre material bunched around her thin ankles, her eyes were dark, deep-set and burnt with a fierceness. She alternated the parts of Sonya and Elena and in both she was electrifying, the besotted, suffering Sonya and the brittle, capricious Elena. She lived in Brooklyn and had a cat. Her ancestors, as she told them, were from Vladivostok, but forcibly emigrated to China and in her possession was an embroidered silk shawl that had belonged to her mother’s mother, Olga. This mother’s mother, having been tortured in a camp in Japan, to which they were later despatched, had chosen to endure her punishment as if caught in the throes of religious ecstasy, and died confounding her torturers. One of Bathsheba’s earliest memories was of Christmas in some distant country, being fed potato stuffing from a spoon, except that the spoon was too wide and unwieldy for her mouth. Fragments and yet enough for him to conceive of a whole history. Surprising them one day, she did a headstand to beguile poor besotted Uncle Vanya and multiple needles fell from her hair. They were, as she explained, from when she had gone to her acupuncturist, a Dr Wong in Brooklyn. Was Dr Wong also enmeshed in those thickets of hair?
When the director encouraged Malachi to tell them something of his own life, he hesitated, not wanting to describe the everyday routine, incessant rain, walking Nestor, his red setter, morning and evening, closeting himself in his study for hours on end and his first whiskey at six, regardless of when clocks changed. He did not mention the recent film festival in the local school and how he and Oonagh had seen some great Italian films, both of them falling for the waif enchantments of Giulietta Masina in La Strada and walking home holding hands, invigorated.
‘There is a story I never wrote,’ he began and they sat on the floor in a circle, quiet, intent, and even the actress who was playing the old nurse in Vanya put her precious knitting aside. He recalled a summer’s day when he set out in search of a story that had puzzled him for many years. It was about twenty miles away, in a district called Ballindubh, so named because the branches of the trees on either side of the road had met and meshed, and in summer it was like a glade under there. The story was of two warring brothers, ending in two gruesome deaths. Feargal, their groom and factotum, was the only person who knew it inside out and knew the motives, but had always kept his silence. Feargal lived in the tiny gate lodge at the entrance to the back avenue and was known to be contrary.
Malachi painted a picture of that scorching day, his knocking on the cottage door and Feargal calling I’m on the lavatory, while a dog barked crazily to be let out. He waited in the yard and watched the midges swarm in off the lake, the water with its dazzling brightness, the yard all neglect, full of weeds, thistles and old defunct machinery, including two vintage cars, mounted on blocks of wood and cement. There was a rhubarb bed in one corner, the big crinkled leaves sweating in the sun. Then Feargal appeared, tying a bit of rope around his trousers, all talk and twinkle. Fine, the finest he said and put his rude good health down to a cup of buttermilk and raw herring every day. Yes, the pheasants were thinning out and the woodcock not right since that disaster over in Chernobyl. By the way he kept talking and shifting, it was clear, as Malachi told them, that he guessed the reason for the visit – a penman with a notebook, snooping for scandal. The small dog, Biscuit, was going insane at the advent of a visitor, so much so that Feargal held her upside down, as he might an old mat, then flung her into one of the motor cars, where she perched on a pile of old newspapers. Once installed, she performed little ballets, as with one paw and then the other, she tapped upon the windscreen. If she were let loose, said Feargal, she would run under the hole in the hedge, head off and get stolen or shot. The countryside, he insisted, was gone to rot, hippies flooding in, thieves, robbers and sharks grabbing sites with water frontage, for half nothing. The bastard developer, his neighbour, had bought the Glebe for a song. It lay empty for years, covered in briars, yet yer man spotted it and was now lord of the manor, even stopped him from bringing home a creel of turf. The problem was an adjoining right of way, a little track that the brothers had given him, except that he had no piece of paper to prove it. I was a right mug he kept saying and recalled the name of a solicitor that he should have consulted at the time. The two brothers, Michael Patrick and Michael John, were known to be inseparable, always seen at Mass together and at race meetings and were horse-mad. On the eve of a big race in County Limerick, Michael Patrick’s horse Rubicon, who was favourite with the bookmakers, staggered as she was led out the stable door, froth spilling from her mouth and within minutes, she collapsed on the cobbles. The investigations that followed were massive, Guards going from house to house and suspicion falling on this person or that. About three months later, the parish priest received an anonymous letter, saying that the writer knew beyond any doubt that the culprit was none other than Michael John, who had been procuring strychnine illegally from chemists in different parishes, saying his lands and his yards were plagued with foxes. From that day on the brothers were at war and never spoke again. Everything in the house was halved and Mrs Boyce, who did the weekly washing, described how cups, saucers, saucepans and cutlery were all divided up. In the big cold hall, with stuffed pine martens in glass cases, a line of blue rope separated each brother’s quarters and each kept to his own staircase, when they came or went to fetch grub from the kitchen. On the anniversary of the fatality, as dusk fell, Michael Patrick stood on the top step of his staircase waiting for his brother to appear, then aimed his shotgun, firing several times. Immediately afterwards he got into his car and drove five miles up the road to a slate quarry, where he took his own life by putting a revolver in his mouth. Locals were shocked at how gruesome it was, how inhuman, brothers who had been bosom friends yielding to such barbarity. Was it the loss of the horse they wondered, or perhaps as young men both had courted the same woman on separate nights in the woods, or maybe the overweening attachment to Mother, whom they always referred to as Mammy.
‘I could see I was getting nowhere with the real story,’ Malachi told his listeners and enacted how suddenly Feargal had changed tactics, all umbrage, saying he hadn’t had his first cup of tea, then hurrying into his cottage and slamming the door.
He described the strange aftermath, his walking up the road to where his car was parked and Feargal running after him, calling his name, then, as they came face-to-face, handing him an armful of rhubarb, saying that since his poor wife died, he had no use for it. It might be in bed at night, that I’d think of them long ago things you’re after, but they’re gone and they’re better gone Feargal said and at that he ran across the fields singing some raucous song, joyously.
‘So I never wrote it,’ Malachi said.
‘Maybe you will,’ Bathsheba said and their eyes met for the very first time and then looked away discomfited.
On their last day, at the end of rehearsals, the company stood formally in a queue to bid him goodbye, bearing little gifts, a mug with a picture of an apple, a key ring that had broadway indented on brass and various picture postcards. Bathsheba stood very still, a rich amber amulet on her throat, held in a wide, black grosgrain band, gaiety and mourning as one. Her card was in an envelope and once out on the street, he opened it and leapt with excitement. It was a photograph of a bunch of rhubarb, tied in a posy, the thin vermilion stalks smothered in swathes of green. There was no message. On a tiny card was her address in Brooklyn and her apartment, 2a, but no telephone number.
An awakened passion in him suddenly extended to all mankind, including his wife and only the hardest heart could begrudge him such recklessness, as he hailed a taxi to take him uptown. At Central Park he leapt out, his heart opening to embrace traffic, fumes, frenzy, hurrying humanity and yes, even the soulless works of art nailed to the railings along Fifth Avenue. Insanely, he smelt orange blossom. It floated in from somewhere and in the garden of a restaurant, where he stopped to have a drink, the changing colour of Campari as the waiter added soda water seemed like a painting in the making. Back at the club for his farewells, he tipped lavishly and signed the visitors’ book in a swirling hand.
Oonagh is talking a mile a minute. The Clancy fella has been and blasted the rocks on the bit of field beyond their garden, so they would soon have a larger vegetable patch and her best hen, one of the Rhode Islands, had gone missing. Ownie, their neighbour’s boy (a simpleton), had searched with her, high and low, calling and yodelling, but with no luck. Had he noticed the dahlias on the way in, and weren’t they a sight to see, their blaze outdoing all the other flowers in the various beds. She had to know what the actors were like, how rehearsals went and if the director had approved of the adaptation they had done. She said they because she too had a part in Vanya, consulting with him on the different drafts. At times they acted it out together in the winter evenings, donning hats or scarves or stoles to emulate this or that character. One evening, as a celebration, Ownie and his mother were invited over for a surprise performance and Ownie had sat rigid throughout. Afterwards, the mother asked if the drunk Dr Astrov in the play was modelled on their local doctor, while Ownie wept helplessly, asking why everyone in the story was so unhappy in love.
‘Did the two main actresses get on?’ Oonagh is asking and suddenly Malachi is afraid, afraid of her wife’s antennae.
‘Of course they got on, they’re professionals,’ he said, that bit too snappy.
‘You’re a bag of cats, Malachi,’ she said turning away, refusing to open the package in which there was a lace blouse that Bathsheba had helped him choose in an antique shop in Greenwich Village.
‘I’m sorry . . . I’ll sleep it off,’ he said appeasingly, but then, just at the stairwell, she called after him to say they have been invited that evening to supper at Ewart’s house. ‘Creep.’ Ewart, the reigning literary swell, whose star rose by the hour, while his fell. Ewart jetting in from some festival in Rome or Paris or Barcelona and, as always, throwing a bash. He could just picture it, the oak door held open with a boulder for the rustic effect, champagne in pewter cups on the hall table, big arrangements of shop flowers, scented candles, along with framed testimonials that Ewart had accrued from all over. He hated him for that and for the way he ingratiated himself with the local ladies, his smarm, the soft voice, the gifts, crystals specially chosen to complement each woman’s astrological sign. That and the donations he gave for local lads who volunteered to be stretcher-bearers for the halt and the lame in Lourdes.
‘You won’t find me there,’ he said and continued on up.
Not long after Oonagh had left, he came down, poured himself a large whiskey and went through the kitchen, into the garden. The night so still, deep stillness and ‘a foliage of stars’. Wasn’t that what Joyce had the wily Giacomo called him in his hour of temptation. Malachi would send Bathsheba his first novel that had the best of himself and of the haunted landscape that had shaped him. He thinks of her hands turning the pages, her feelings melting into his and before long, he is carried away, up there all alone, in the old schoolhouse that Oonagh and her brother helped him renovate. A muse had entered his life, the very elixir that he needed to write again. Oonagh had done so twenty-five years previous, with her hushed voice and skin so white that the veins on her chest were as fine as filigree. It was at a Bloomsday celebration in Dublin, after he had been given an award and guests were imploring Oonagh to sing. Suddenly she stood up, the scarlet colour running zigzag on the column of her neck, the voice tentative, then not, soaring, so much so that the cut glasses on the dining table trembled to her breath. You could hear a pin drop. When she came to the line that Joyce himself would have known – Oh Gregory let me in – every man at that table wanted her. It was how they met.
‘I love you both,’ he called out to the sweet-smelling meadow and the folded flowers, and having said it more than once, his conscience was at ease. He felt exhilarated, renewed, and with a confounding logic said that all was well now in the best of all possible worlds. He fetched another drink. His mind is made up. He will return to Providence, Rhode Island, for the three weeks of rehearsal, come home and be a good husband again. He hears Bathsheba’s voice calling his name across seas, that and the music of her silvery bracelets, tinkling the air.
Things were normal but wintry. He was full of consideration, whistling merrily, his whistles saying, Observe how contrite I am, carrying in enough logs for a month, insisting on making a bouillabaisse from a very complicated recipe. It was the evening he decided to light a fire in his study that things erupted, as he knew they must. The chimney still smoked. Had he not told her the evening before he left for the States to get the chancer back from Mullingar and say all was not super-duper, that the hundred euros he had forked out was a waste and to please return and sweep it properly. Then she tells him that her sister Siobhan, always a bone of contention, was accompanying them to the Leonard Cohen concert at the end of the month. No way. Siobhan’s very presence would mar it, her non-stop gabble, her dirndl skirt, her boots and cowboy hat, her vulgarity.
‘I can’t stand her,’ he said.
‘’Tis mutual,’ Oonagh replied and asked if he ever stopped to consider the effect he had on others, so caught up was he in his own superiority.
‘It’s this coffee-shop psychobabble,’ he said, stung by her effrontery.
‘People feel ill at ease with you Malachi . . . you are so above them all.’
‘They talk bullshit.’
‘They can’t help it . . . they don’t know any better and you’re no Chekhov . . . if you were you would see into their poor hurt souls and their poor hurt selves . . .’
‘Why haven’t you said this before?’
‘To be the good little wife,’ she said, then laughed shrilly, adding that when he came into the pub people shied away to avoid him.
‘Brendan doesn’t think this,’ he said.
‘He’s too nice to tell you.’
‘But you’re telling me.’
‘Yes I am . . . You’re not the author you set out to be . . . You’re embittered . . . You’d sell your soul to appear in print.’
He asked her to retract it, which she wouldn’t, and then he struck her a hard, hating blow across the cheek and he struck her a second time and could hear her laughing, goading him as he lunged, striking her anywhere, everywhere, and then a crash as she tripped over a chair, gripping the edges of the table to find her way around it and escape him. At that very moment the door was pushed in and he heard the ridiculous startled clucking of a hen. As he steadied the overturned lamp, he saw that the shoulder of her pink camisole had got torn and half of a gold chain snagged on her brazier.
‘Darling . . . you found her,’ she said to Ownie, as fondly as if nothing untoward had been happening.
‘She was under a big black pot in the field between the knackers and us,’ he said and together they let the hen down on the floor, where idiotically it began to peck at the small grains of rose crystal that had got ground in the frenzy. The first car was pulling up outside in the yard and there were friendly beep-beeps, as the group arrived for her monthly book club. It was followed by a second car, then a third, voices calling across the yard in the dusk, guests carrying plates and dishes and bottles.
‘Tell them to fuck off out of here,’ he said.
‘Malachi,’ she said quietly, shielding the child from his obscenities and it was at that instant he freaked. He pulled Ownie from her, lugged him out the back door and told him to look up at the sky and the Milky Way and for all of his life to remember that the Milky Way was the scar left by Phaethon’s mad passage in his father’s chariot.
There were no stars. There was no Milky Way.
In his study, their laughs, their voices, galled. He walked to the window, then to the sofa bed, then changed into his wellingtons for the impending journey. In the rucksack that he kept there, he searched to make sure his toothbrush and shaving kit were in it. It was always packed for when he went to Dublin every two weeks, to take a writing workshop at the university. He had to go somewhere, but where. His brother lived further north with a shrew of a wife, both of them teetotal and dinner at six o’clock, but Christ, his brother was his brother and he’d go there.
All mankind might have died as he trudged home under a hazed moon, the field a swamp, his boots aswirl with water, and in the distance a donkey braying piteously.
The house was in darkness, the key under the bit of slate, as he knew it would be, and he let himself in quietly, or as quiet as a tall, inebriated man could. Oonagh would be asleep, so he plumped for the downstairs room, the domain of Siobhan, where her toiletries clogged the window ledge. He was awake long before breakfast, clutching the letter he had written to Oonagh: I know that I am a cunt at times and that you are the only person I can tell.
‘I better get some grub going,’ he said as she appeared in the kitchen.
‘Suit yourself . . . I’m not hungry,’ she said and as she bent down to get the dog’s bowl, he touched her neck gently, contritely, and she flung his hand off as if it was a branding iron. He was unslept, remorseful and fed up. Taking a scone from the batch that had been brought the previous evening, he retreated to his study, intending to stay there and let things simmer down.
As if by clairvoyance, he went to his desk and pulled the drawer open, already trembling. It was where he kept things, mementos, conkers from some desultory boyhood walk, the acceptance letter for his first short story, his grandfather’s clay pipe and the black Mass card for their child, who would have been called Isabella, had she lived. He would never forget that time in the hospital, Oonagh begging to be left alone with her little mite, whom she placed naked across her naked heart, insisting that once they touched, she could instil life back into it. She was unhinged with grief and the drugs they had given her, but ever afterwards she swore that it did happen, that for an instant, the small fingers wrapped themselves around her thumb and clung, clung. He had gone out to have a smoke when the nurse came for him and how well and how ineradicably he recalled the hush of that night, pigeons in a line along the turret, cooing softly, the warm smell of their droppings and the hopelessness in the nurse’s expression. For a long time, Oonagh withdrew into herself, barely speaking and once when he asked her, begged her, to open up to him, she said it would be wrong, it would be a profanity.
So there it was, in the serviette that he had taken from a restaurant in Greenwich Village, the draft of the letter that he was writing to Bathsheba, although her name did not appear on the page. Oonagh had been in there, he knew without knowing. She had read some of the idiocies he had put down: O shining city, city full of dreams (from Baudelaire) and his own dream in which he was nibbling her hair. He asked what were her favourite flowers and wondered if he might send her wood violets, with the clay hanging off the stem.
‘I never touched her,’ he said as he stormed back into the kitchen.
‘Poor Malachi,’ she said, her face ash-white.
‘Nothing happened,’ he said.
‘Everything happened,’ she replied.
‘I’m not going back to America . . . I’m not going back . . . I swear.’
‘It doesn’t make a whit of difference . . . we’ve lived a lie for too long.’
‘Trust me,’ he said, pleading with her.
‘A time will come when I’ll thank her for getting her claws into you,’ she said.
‘She is a beautiful and wounded woman,’ he said bluntly.
‘Oh really? She must give you the limelight, or maybe she’ll give you the child I failed to.’
‘Maybe she will,’ he said savagely and he saw her lower lip quiver uncontrollably and then she shut up, as if throttled. But she had not finished, she had not said all the cruel things that were in her heart.
If she had not left at that moment, what would have happened? But she did leave and he was glad of it. He walked through the downstairs rooms, talking, shaking, shouting, he kicked things, waste-paper baskets, her shoes, her cardigan and a velvet panel that had slipped down from one of the tall window shutters. What he did then he knew to be desperate. He pulled out the drawer, had to wrench it to free it completely, and emptied the contents onto the floor, including the letter he had meant to give her, to make a fire. Yet he did not go into the kitchen to fetch matches. Instead, he sat down, staring at these things and wept, wept for his own increasing isolation, for his wife’s broken trust and for the woman he would never see again.
From the bonfire in the garden, hours later, furls of ash rose and scattered and the smell in the air was redolent of autumn.
A warm Saturday six weeks later and Malachi sat in the kitchen with a chair to the open door, Nestor in Sigmund Freud mode, ears cocked, letting out mewls of anticipation, already guessing that Oonagh was coming. In a dark suit with a white collar, he felt like a schoolteacher about to give his estranged wife a geography lesson. The map in its goldish frame was already on the table, to demonstrate to her. It was an old map, buff-coloured and rare, which he had bought years before in a second-hand bookshop. All the towns and townlands and rivers and bridges and churches of Ireland were marked in it, alongside scenes of battle and the places of massacre and the places of pilgrimage, each with its own perfectly executed image.
The crunch of her high heels on the gravel made him jump, even though he was the one who had asked her to come. She had moved further north and the address she gave him, while she sorted things out, was above a paint shop in a small town in Longford. One night, very late, he drove there just to see it, but all was in darkness and he drove home again.
She looked drawn and sat stiffly as a visitor might, Nestor licking her ankles through her stockings and her hands folded sedately.
‘I have decided,’ he began, hoping there was nothing in his voice of the preacher – ‘I want us to tour Ireland with Uncle Vanya . . . I want it done here . . . not there.’
‘You can’t afford it,’ she said.
‘I can. I’ve talked to Brendan . . . he’s going to approach people . . . the local council, the Arts Council . . . he’s certain he can get the funding . . . we’ll bring Chekhov to all the little towns where people are crying out for it.’
‘They’re not crying out for it,’ she said wearily, ‘they play bingo.’
‘I want to give something back,’ he said, then blurted the names of small towns to which they would travel – Ardstraw, Ardbeg, Ballybough, Ballymoney, Ballysadare, Benlettery, Bengowan, Killybegs, Magilacuddy, Sneem, Schull – then suddenly put the map back on the table and also sat.
‘In Yalta,’ he began, the voice high-pitched and near hysterical, ‘Chekhov wrote to his future wife Olga in Moscow and said, It is nine o’clock of an evening and I am as lonely as a coffin.’
‘And what did she write back?’ she asked wearily.
‘We don’t know,’ he answered, then pleadingly, ‘Will you do it, will you bring Chekhov to those poor wretches who have never heard of him?’
She did not reply.
They sat in silence, the sun coming and going in glancing shafts and not a word was said, and no knowing what was lost or what might yet be salvaged.
‘Oh poor Malachi . . . you’re mad. . . stone mad,’ she said and he saw that her eyes were filling up with tears, but that she could not speak. He knew now that it was a yes, she would come with him and a strange, overwhelming tenderness befell him.
They would cast their bread upon the waters and in one of those sleepy, forgotten towns, someone young or old would be quickened into life at encountering Chekhov for the very first time.
Photograph © Gueorgui Pinkhassov / Magnum Photos