They had veered from the tarmacked run of the Glon – where she had asked him twice to slow, to keep an eye out for the left turn – and now faced west onto a slap of backroad. Annette Cafferky straightened in the front seat and squinted ahead. Beyond the glare of the headlights, there was only the polished blackness of November, broken here and there by the light of a square window, of the odd, distant car. She was nearly positive this was the road. The car chugged stubbornly along, its tyres cracking and popping against the clay. It was a biting Friday night; the air weighty. On the bushes and thorns, hoarfrost sparkled in the headlights like pluckable diamonds, and above, the night sky seemed taut, firm. ‘I’m sure this is it,’ Annette said more to herself than her husband. About halfway down they came to a signpost: a network of wooden arrows and warnings for concealed entrances. Squirming a little farther forward, Annette searched and found the name of the B&B from Polly’s directions. She mouthed it – Aisleim Lodge – and then said for Frank to drive on. She settled back again, content now. They were heading the right way. From here, she remembered, could practically recite, it was a straight five-mile drive to the house. ‘It’s only over the road,’ she told him.
Tonight, Annette was going to fuck another man, and Frank was going to fuck another woman. That was what was going to happen. And she was excited, she had reminded herself of this fact throughout the afternoon, the weeks. It was a newly acquired habit of hers: the constant need to remind herself how she should feel. But she was excited for tonight. She was. She crossed her arms and then, feeling rigid, overly formal, snugged her hands between her thighs, laughed to herself. Annette was thin, a thinness hard-earned from dawn sprints, furry healthshakes, Lucuma powder, a thinness which she didn’t fully believe she owned. Moles peppered her arms – where the skin was papery, prone to rashes – and her hair was black, curly, and tossed now over one shoulder. She asked Frank to turn up the heat and he yanked the knob on the vent. Drips of sticky air like a cough from the rear of a hall. She didn’t thank him. A cashmere scarf was spooled around her neck and she widened it and then grazed her hand along the length of her dress. She was worried it was too short. But really, what was considered too short for such an occasion? Between her knees, rolled two bottles of limey-white wine. The gold cap of one unsealed, its label peeling at the corner.
The car stalled suddenly before a crossroad spangled and punched with ice.
Frank’s finger kept time against the wheel and she said, faintly, ‘It’s straight on.’ His face stirred with recognition, but he didn’t acknowledge her. The car lurched forward. As the headlights washed over the ice it was for a moment dazzling, brilliantly colourful, then more like a shard of sunlight against dusty mirror. She noticed that.
Frank had barely spoken two full lines since he had learned about tonight. Throughout the week he had kept things uncomfortably civil, acting jovial rather than stinging her with deliberate silence. To the boys, he had referred to Friday as ‘Mammy’s party’. As if they were all in on the joke. Frank was a big man and like most big men was quick to sulk. The car passed a farmhouse, on her left, its porch light shooting orange shafts across the rutted land. A dog barked. She toyed with the idea of repeating his promise, needling him with the why, with his prominent role in it all. She understood his pride as a softening piece of fruit. She touched his thigh, held it, and tentatively inspected him; the raked nick along his jawline, the piney aftershave, and she looked then at his sleeves, folded as they were above his elbow, exposing woolly forearms. A trait she could never amend, adjust. In the mornings, the taste of sleep vile in her mouth, she would find one of those arms slung over her, groping for a boob or limp and dead. She loved the vaguely threating feel of them around her. Loved how they were awkward, as if they weren’t the right fit for him. In the months she had slept alone she had found herself craving that sensation.
She swallowed her idea. There was no need to strike another nail in his wrist. He was here, that was something. Plainly.
‘It will freeze tonight.’
He tilted his ear but didn’t reply.
‘Frank.’ She stroked his upper arm, his shoulder, and casually pinched his neck. ‘We’ll have fun.’ He gave a nod, a single nod. ‘It will be fun.’ She reached for her white tassel handbag – a gift from the boys and him for her birthday two years back – and opened its inner compartment.
‘Why do these people have to live out in middle of fucken nowhere.’ With his left hand, Frank gestured at the dashboard. His watch jangled. ‘I don’t understand it,’ he said. ‘Why not Keel? The Valley?’
She sensed his eyes pass over her but she wouldn’t answer at once. She retrieved a clutch bag and put it on her lap, faking an interest in its zip before answering, coldly, ‘Honestly, Frank? It’s their holiday home.’ She felt more annoyed than she should. ‘I guess they want their privacy or something. To be near the sea, maybe. Use your imagination.’ She pulled down the visor and stole a glance at him, the thick expression. She sighed. His hand was clutched around the gearstick, she patted it. His chicken-skin knuckles were swollen, bloated furrows from the years of work. He had quit school at sixteen, after his father’s death – struck by a car as he waddled home one night – and from then on worked hard hours. Keeping his mother afloat while building a steady name for himself as a steady man. All leading up to four years ago when he finally signed the deeds for his own garage, a little ways before Castlebar. In theory, Frank was more hands off now, letting the young bucks at it, restraining himself to the books, the orders, and the occasional major job, but most evenings he still arrived home sweated with grease, proud of his discomfort, of the ache in his lower back. ‘Frank,’ she said, grinning slightly, ‘you’ve got to relax.’
‘More money than brains.’ His hand slipped from under hers.
She sighed again and took a lipstick from the little bag, repeating his name under her breath. Frank. Frank. Frank.
He wagged his head. ‘And why do you want to clown yourself?’ he said. ‘You look grand as it is.’
In the small, amber-lit mirror she pressed a thumb against her cheek and frowned at the results. Then she carefully retraced her smile.
She tried to ignore him, she should ignore him.
‘Just don’t overdo it,’ he continued. ‘I’m telling you, Annette.’
The car staggered down a rocky clayway, narrower. Thick grass and dandelions, tawny in the rays of the headlights, lined the centre. ‘What did you promise me?’ she said. She dropped the lipstick into the bag and, craning her neck, made out a chimney. Their chimney. She wouldn’t look at him.
‘OK.’ He shook his head. ‘I know. OK. Fine.’
They were twelve years married. She used to wonder, at the beginning, if it got easier or if you stopped caring as much? She still wasn’t sure what the correct answer was. ‘Thank you,’ she said. When they first met, below in Galway, he was as innocent. Bred on an Island, he announced proudly to her, much rougher than the sticks in your neck of the world. Later, drunker, as their arms absently met, he let slip he was an innocent in every way. She told herself it was love at first touch. That she knew as soon as his brawler hands fumbled about her waist, she knew right then they were cut for each other. She would imagine Frank walking her home to the docks that first night, their fingers tangled. Not presuming he was staying over, not chancing anything, rather only making sure she got back safe and sound.
She told friends and her mother and her sister and herself this story, that he had insisted on walking her home. That it was love at first touch.
During the bad months, she had chained herself to this version of Frank, clung to it like the splintering figure at the prow of the ship. It kept her going. It stressed to her the love between them, a love which shouldn’t be ripped to shreds at the first tear. A love that should be fought for, tooth and claw. She knew what the Island had to say but she didn’t care. It was love at first touch.
You had to scrap for love.
The car rattled now over a cattle-grid. Buttery light spilled from the large front windows and blew across the newly-laid grass. In this glow, the scalps of bogland that surrounded seemed even more stark. They parked behind a jeep. It had an English reg. ‘Typical,’ Frank said. The house was a bungalow, a box, the type littered throughout the Island. The paint on the walls was rain-beaten to a dull, fossil shade. Around the side there were two plastic chairs and an upturned table; a single leg missing, and Annette thought: we own chairs like that. A twisted trunk of dark bog-wood was framed in a paved circle in the middle of the garden. ‘What the fuck is that for?’ Frank asked.
Annette quickly fixed again the dip of her scarf and scooped up the wine at her feet, bundling the bottles and her handbag under one arm. She decided not to take off her coat and exhaled slowly, hoping to erase any blotches on her face. She wished she had brought gum. By the front door she could already see Desmond Gallagher. She wished for something for her mouth to do. She had encountered them online, exchanging emails, meeting Polly once for coffee – where Polly reminisced over the English finding her birthname Philomena confusing – and then once more for a swiftly boozy lunch in Westport. How simple and painless it was to arrange. Surely, she thought, it shouldn’t have been that easy? It was only this morning that Annette had felt this wriggling in her stomach, had the brief flash to ring and cancel. A glass of wine had helped pour away those worries. Or at least mute them. Anyway, she wanted this. She was excited.
Turning now, she caught Frank gawking at himself in the rear-view mirror. His mouth ajar, the tip of his tongue moistening his bottom lip. He didn’t notice her and for a moment she watched him, saw age. In the pencil-width lines under his eyes, as if slashes from glass. In the tungsten shades which brushed through his temple. In the slight hump in his back. Yet underneath the knocks and belts of time, she could make out that first Frank too, the one she imagined begging to see her again, the one walking her home. She said his name, smiling. The warmth of the car had begun to disperse, the night’s cold leaking in fast, and she believed, despite everything, that she loved this man and the two boys and the life they had securely built together. Love. It was worth keeping.
She leant over and squeezed his wrist. Frank blinked, seemed to remember who she was, what they were, and then took the keys from the ignition.
‘Are we right?’ he said.
‘What took you so long?’ Desmond called as they stepped from the car. He was a slight man with rimless glasses. His hands were half in his pockets. There was an amused simper on his face.
Frank grunted to Annette. ‘Your shit directions, Dessy boy.’ She hid a snigger.
Her arms already outstretched, Polly trotted from behind Desmond. She cried out their names, Annette’s first and then Frank’s, and kissed them both on the cheek, Frank first and then Annette, before linking her arm around Annette’s. ‘We’ve been so looking forward to this,’ she said. Polly’s hair was cut young – a short, claret-coloured bob – and her skin was bronzed, glittery almost. Against Polly’s jeans and navy sleeveless top, Annette was conscious of her dress and heels. Then Polly said, ‘Haven’t we, Des? Haven’t we been so looking forward to tonight?’ In the distance, Annette thought she could hear the sea, this dry whoosh. Mist or smoke hung in the air like talcum powder. She felt herself shrink a little. She grinned.
In the hallway, the two men shook hands. Polly hugged Annette again and stole the wine from her. Desmond pecked a kiss and asked Annette, in mock-ceremony, ‘May I relieve you of your garment, madam?’ Her garment being her purple rain jacket. He had the grace of a school-teacher, rehearsed and stiffly energetic. A man who practised a joke in his head, three or four times, before saying it aloud. For a moment, she imagined darkly his fingers dappled with chalk, but then Polly goaded Annette to do a twirl in her dress. Annette laughed a little too loudly and spun, feeling like a child. The dress hung slightly above the knee and pushed up her freckled cleavage. Polly proclaimed it gorgeous, just gorgeous, asked her where she got it – ‘you must tell me’ – and Desmond, hooking her jacket and scarf onto a chrome stand, whistled.
‘Watch it,’ Frank said and they all laughed and laughed and then Polly clapped, suggested they move towards the kitchen.
Jiggling a bottle in either hand, Desmond pretended to mishear her order of white. ‘Come again?’ he said, chuckling. Annette played along, forcing a giggle, until Desmond poured correctly and clinked the bottle against her glass. Desmond toasted to new friends and to a wonderful evening and they cheered. The wine tasted sour to Annette, but she gulped it back. For a while they spoke of little things – money, weather, plans for Christmas. Desmond told a selection of dirty jokes and Polly floated in and out from the stove, wearing an apron; the phrase I DO More Than Just Cook printed in bold. When Frank began his introductory lecture to Desmond about the garage, Annette allowed herself to drift and examine more closely the kitchen: how the bread was left by the toaster, the unscuffed lino floor, how the fridge held no magnets of The Simpsons or a curvy Statue of Liberty. She was trying to figure how this particular couple worked, how they functioned. She was looking at a calendar – an AIB ‘Great Art’ one, no biroed dates, still stuck in September, and with a swab of cobwebs visible underneath it – when Desmond asked over her shoulder: was Mrs Cafferky perhaps a Russian spy?
They had nettle soup followed by salmon drenched in leek sauce with choppings of carrot and kale. The salmon was a little burnt, gritty shavings roughening the skin, and Desmond mentioned this on three separate occasions. In the hour they ate, two bottles were polished off. At one point Desmond rose and plucked two more bottles from a railed shelf. Said, ‘There’s no fear of us going thirsty, folks.’
Thankfully the wine started to talk for Annette and soon Polly was swatting away her words like wasps. Annette’s head lightened and she was obliged, she felt obliged, to constantly rearrange her legs – crossing and uncrossing, uncrossing and crossing. From across the table, she noticed Frank had become more animated, his language cruder. His frame sprawled in his chair as he rooted out bits of salmon in his teeth with his baby finger.
No dessert. ‘We’re sweet enough,’ Polly shouted in from the kitchen. Annette had clapped at that.
Then Polly circled with a pot of coffee and a dish of After Eights while Desmond rasped his chair nearer to hers.
As Polly filled his cup, Frank, his hands behind his head, motioned his chin towards Annette, ‘Pour herself a big one while you’re at it.’
Annette waved Polly away, but Frank spoke over her, ‘Don’t mind my wife. She’s not used to this drinking. She’ll have a coffee.’
Annette smiled at Polly and then Frank. Low orchestral music had been playing from somewhere but she couldn’t hear it now. ‘I’m well able to mind myself, Frank.’
‘I’m just saying, love.’ He met her stare, winked. He messed with the strap of his watch and said, ‘I’m only looking out for you.’
Polly hoisted the pot higher, shook it, and glanced at Annette sceptically: ‘Well?’
Annette lifted her cup. ‘Thanks,’ she heard herself say. ‘Thank you.’ Holding her breath, she shovelled sugar into the muddy liquid while Frank went on. ‘She’s not able for the wine. That’s all. Not used to the big drinking.’ She sank her teeth into her cheek and took a sip that burned the roof of her mouth.
Desmond spoke to her with an arm over the panel of his chair, swinging effortlessly. He had moved from the subject of rejigging electrical feeds to the arduous process of building a deck. ‘The problem is getting the foundation to stick. Not to give under any great weight. You understand?’ He paused, wrinkled his nose, waited for her to murmur recognition, to understand. ‘The soil here is like shit, you see.’ He wasn’t exactly handsome, she thought. His face was lean, waxy in texture, a butty chin, and on one cheek a shrivelled pink wart. She suspected Desmond was a man who was overly diligent in bed. Who would be inquisitive after every touch, who’d say sorry throughout, treating her and every woman like they were his virgins. Not like Frank. The fang-marks on her neck. The thumb-bruises trailed on her arms which she’d only discover in the shower. These acrylic purple spots. She felt a foot rub hers.
‘Will we make tracks to the living room?’ Desmond drank the last of his wine.
She sat on a leather couch, glass in hand, in front of the turf-fire. Candles lined the stone mantelpiece, above which was a framed painting of a farmer and his wife praying over a desolate field – Annette recognised the painting, from a postcard or a book, but she couldn’t place exactly where. There were no photographs. She could find no photographs.
Desmond asked did she want a top up. Without waiting for a reply, he filled her glass to the brim. ‘Just a tipple,’ he said.
‘Would you leave her off,’ Polly shouted, bursting into bray-laughter.
Annette sucked up the wine to stop it from spilling. She felt roasted. ‘I’m no good to you passed out,’ she said with a shriek and felt shy.
Polly roared laughing.
‘And a drink for you, sir?’ Desmond asked Frank.
Frank held out his glass. The back of his hand was a liver-spotted map. From them, she had always gathered the whiff of cars, or what she believed was the true scent of cars: petrol and dried motor oil and ink and cold steel. Frank supped his drink, not bothering to sit. ‘There’s a freeze promised tonight,’ he said, and lumbered towards the curtains.
‘The meteorologist.’ Desmond winked at Annette.
Polly called Desmond awful.
Frank didn’t acknowledge this comment. With one hand, he peeled apart the curtains and instantly, moonlight glazed his face sleet-white. There was a sheen on his lip, like he had dribbled. Annette looked again at the fire. Embarrassed by him, for him. ‘It will frost bad tonight,’ Frank said. ‘They’d want to be out early in the morning with the salt. The council. Be treacherous otherwise.’
Polly brushed Annette’s knee and slid in beside her. Beneath the coffee table, Polly straightened out her legs, tensing her long skinny legs, before folding both under her body, so that she was at a slant. Polly raised her brows and Annette smiled, pretended to yawn as she discreetly rearranged her cleavage.
‘They’ll need the salt anyway, that’s for sure. The roads will be no good,’ Frank continued. ‘A real wintery night.’
‘Frank, will you ever sit down,’ Annette pulled a face. Why did this annoy her? What harm did it do? ‘You’re making us all nervous.’
‘Would you give us a break,’ he said under his breath.
The curtains closed.
She took a sip of wine, rolled her eyes and tutted as if this was a part of the act. Polly adjusted herself on the couch. Frank drained his glass and then pressed it towards Desmond.
‘The meteorologist requires a refill,’ Frank said.
They talked. Punchline monologues, gossip, interjected jokes, and a lively discussion about a murder case in the news. Long-winded, long-ago stories were then shared, with Polly explaining how she met Des. Annette barely listened, a smile frozen across her face. The television was on, though the volume was off, and her eyes lingered on the screen as Polly droned on. The evening blew into late night.
Later – an hour, two hours? – Desmond declared he was going to sneak out for a cigarette. Frisking his pockets, he asked Frank if he smoked.
‘Gave ‘em up. But.’ Frank shifted in his chair and she pretended not to notice. ‘But I might head out with you anyway.’ He stood, looked at no one. ‘Fresh air might do us no harm.’
‘Do, do.’ Desmond waved the found lighter and stroked a hand along her collarbone before leaving. Frank badgered out after him, tugging at his belt.
‘Will they ever grow up?’ Polly said as the men left, throwing her eyes to the ceiling, sniggering to herself. ‘How do we do it at all?’ Polly leaned forward, reached for the wine, but her grip was clumsy about the bottle’s neck. Knocking it. Recoiling, Polly sniggered some more and then finally lugged the bottle up right. Wine flooded across the coffee table. Polly went again to pour; her hands stable this time. She whirled the bottle towards Annette. ‘More?’ she asked.
Annette nodded. Drops of the wine wept onto the cream carpet. Annette felt woozy, the wine smelt now almost antiseptic. She stifled a hot desire to down the glass. To snatch the bottle and down that too. Her fingers played with her necklace as she watched wine melt into carpet.
He was out there sparking a fag, she knew that. Another promise bent and broken. She took a drink. To give up a habit that started when he was fourteen was another way, he had told her, to prove he was willing to change. To be better. To better himself. In front of her and the boys he made a show of cutting his last pack in two. ‘That’s it,’ he repeated. ‘Last of the buggers. That’s it gone now.’ Yet she still tasted tobacco on his teeth; the gone-off acridness hairy to her tongue, and sniffed it hushed on his collar, and one morning, before heading for her run, she had found beaten packs stowed in the van, stashed between CD cases like a magpie’s nest. She had confronted him about it and in response, he had calmly lied. The other lads smoke in work, he was only minding the packs for one of the bucks – lies that could be skinned. But Annette didn’t battle back. Wouldn’t. Rather she consoled herself that this was the whole truth. Love cannot be culled upon discovering the first stray threads. Love. It had to be mended and stitched. That’s what she was doing; with blooded fingertips, she was stitching them together.
She pointed at the spilt wine. ‘Polly, watch.’
‘Oh, God,’ Polly moaned.
How did Annette do it? Twelve years. She took a drink, wisely, and rubbed the rim of the glass against her cheek. It felt refreshing. She thought of Ursula Storan. Her lank red hair with lines of tin, her knifed cheeks, her body that was at least a decade older than Annette’s own. She liked to picture Ursula’s life. How pathetic it must be. How pointless. Liked to ask herself if Ursula had really loved Frank, if it was a compulsion, or if it was just the heat that was in it. From time to time, Annette even wondered about what would have happened if word hadn’t got out – if he would have had the balls to run off with her? Would Ursula have been happy then?
Polly asked her something now. Question, statement – Annette didn’t process it, only watched Polly stumble from the room. The coolness of the glass spread through Annette, and she allowed the scene to form in her mind. She had pieced it together countless times, never granting herself permission to fully crumple it. Why do we replay, restage, the very moments we wish had never occurred? It was Sunday and the house was clogged with the odour of grassy football boots. She was in the kitchen, a fried-egg and toast on for Cormac, when Frank jostled through the backdoor. A furling lily, her favourite flower, paperclipped to his shirt pocket. Her chest sank, already bitten before the bite. He told her then. His words barely registering beyond a sound and rhythm. It was a mistake. The biggest of his life. It was only a kiss. One kiss. He was drunk. He was worried over the garage. Pressure. Money. A stupid mistake. A kiss. That woman was a stupid mistake. Annette was his everything. He promised. He loved her and the boys and their life. Together. Love. He promised. Didn’t they have a good life together? He would do anything. Do anything she wanted. Please. She let the two eggs fizzle to scummy brown, listened to the spring of the toaster without stirring. Love. When Cormac had stuck his head in, asking for his brekkie, she had screamed at him to get away from her.
From others, she had heard that it had been more than a kiss. They phoned with their theatrical sympathies, their displeased tutting, before telling her it had been going on for a long while. Right under your nose the pair of them had been at it. They had been hungry for it right under your snout. Annette pulled out the cord of the phone. Took a week off work and another after that. She went to London for a bank holiday, talked to strangers and felt only sickness. Then a month later, while pushing a trolley through a noon-hectic aisle in Sweeney’s, she had met her. Ursula. She wore a too-large khaki jacket, held a milk carton and she looked at Annette for a long time before walking over. Her voice snappy as a zipper as she asked how Annette was coping. Those milling around watched, a woman squeaked out a comment. Ursula shrugged the perspiring milk to her chest, and said, how are you coping, Annette? Silence and then Annette’s voice croaked out that she was fine. Myself and my family are fine. Thank you very much. Glad to hear it, Ursula said, I am glad to hear it. The words passed were sincere and that made them worse, that’s what barbed them. She touched Annette’s arm, regarded her for a moment longer, and then she moved on. Ushering all noise along with her. Annette gripped the trolley. Her throat glued itself shut.
Inward, she saw the true gulf between her and Frank.
She decided then what truth to believe. Love was not to be spat out when it grew mean, she reasoned, that’s when you’ve got to scrap and bite and kick to keep hold of it. To maintain it. She chose to believe Frank and the something that they had together. Love at first touch. And she drove to the garage and asked him to swear, again and again and again, that it was only a kiss. One drunken kiss. That was all.
She watched Polly wipe the countertop. Dragging the paper in tight circles. Soaking away the wine but leaving smudgy, greasy marks. She wanted to reveal everything. Tell Polly about all of Frank’s faults and failures: his uncanny ability to forget every single anniversary and birthday, tell her of the time he passed out at her sister’s wedding, of his fear of rats. But also tell her of his kindnesses; the newspaper wrapped in a plastic bag in the morning before work, how he makes her feel when he wants her, the laughs, the way he and the boys playfight in the living room. Her runny eyes followed after Polly as she discarded the soiled paper into the fire.
‘Actually, it’s good that the boys are gone.’ Polly said. She stepped forward and back from the fireplace. ‘I wanted to show you something. I need your professional opinion.’ Polly smoothed down her top, waited a second, and then pulled it up. Revealing plump breasts and a black bra with a small maroon bow at its centre and a webby design around each cup. ‘Do you think he’d like this? I have others. But this one sort of sprang out at me this morning.’
‘He’ll like it, won’t he?’ Polly asked again.
‘Oh,’ Annette said. She clenched her stomach. ‘He’ll love it.’
Polly nodded, exhaled, finally shrugged down her top. Mouthed, thank you. Annette had the notion that maybe she was expected to show her bra now. Tit for tat. But she resisted and gazed at the wine, its ripples, feeling her cheek blister.
Sitting once more, Polly hummed to herself before saying, ‘You do need the couple of drinks the first time. It was the same with myself and Des. Makes it less, I don’t know, stuffy. Is that the right word? But we’re getting on so well, aren’t we?’ Polly slipped off her flats. With her middle finger, Polly picked lightly at her forehead – the very centre – and spoke again, ‘He’s a big man, your Frank. He’s built like a bear or something. I know that’s silly. But he’s really boyish too, in a sort of crude way.’ She rested her chin on her palm and turned to Annette. ‘You’re excited, aren’t you?’
Annette heard the clatter of the back door. She held the stem of the glass between her fingers, deliberately, and answered, yes, of course. She was excited.
‘Did you miss us?’ Desmond had a whiskey bottle. His face was redder, he had ditched the glasses. He laughed, seemed keen to emphasise his own laughter.
Frank threw himself into the far chair. His breathing was a little haggard. Off him she could smell the wind and smoke and the clean frost that must be brittle by now, that would crunch mechanically under foot.
Frank raised his chin at her. Rubbed his face then.
Desmond switched off the telly and Polly scooched to allow him to sit in the middle of the couch.
His hand was ice on her knee.
‘Wait.’ Annette was surprised by her own voice. ‘Wait.’ By the sureness of it. ‘We never got to tell you about how me and Frank met? Earlier?’ Polly pulled an encouraging face, pursed her lips.
‘Did we?’ Annette pushed down the hem of her dress, looked at Frank.
Desmond poured some whiskey into his wine glass.
‘Do you remember, Frank?’ Annette said. He creased his forehead. ‘Well, it was in Galway. You remember that much, surely?’
‘I do,’ Frank said. ‘Are you feeling alright, love?’
‘Do you want some water?’ Polly asked.
‘No, I’m fine.’ Her voice was shaky for a moment, a radio marooned in static. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. ‘We were both in Galway. That’s right. I had started in a property management company and I was living by the docks. My first taste of the real world. It was a Friday and a couple of us decided to go for drinks.’ She sat forward. Eyes focused on the fire, its last licks. ‘It was a boring night. You know how you can never talk about anything but the job when you’re out with the work crowd? But then I noticed this lump at the bar.’
Polly let out a cackle.
‘Did you know even then?’ Desmond laughed. His gaze was watery.
‘Somehow I think I did,’ she paused, considered. ‘You should have seen the state of him though. A shirt that didn’t fit him, these baggy boot-cut jeans. But there was something in that I liked.’
‘Where you going with this, Annette?’ Frank said.
‘I’m telling them how we met,’ She smiled at him. There was no going back. ‘Why don’t you explain why you were in Galway?’
He studied her, his mouth open, tongue moving. ‘I was down working in a garage in Bohermore.’ He spoke slowly.
‘That’s right. Well done,’ she said. ‘We got talking anyway, me and Frank. Well, I got talking to him. He was a shy lad, you see. All tongue-tied around women – if you can believe that one.’ Polly squeaked. ‘I kept at him, trying to get him to open up, to talk, even if I thought it was only for a laugh at first. Something to keep me from lease agreements. I remember his accent was tough as anything, like he bit into the words. But soon he started giving as good back and before I realised what was happening, I was holding his hand under the table.’
‘That’s sweet,’ Polly said. ‘Isn’t it, Des?’
‘I’m not finished.’ Annette took a deep breath. ‘What happened next, Frank?’
‘Annette,’ he said. ‘Look, will we go home?’
She turned to him. ‘What happened next?’
He cleared his throat. ‘We kissed.’
Desmond offered the whiskey to Frank, who swirled it and tanked some. He roughly stroked under his jaw with his knuckles. In his own proud manner he was begging. But they had come too far. Already too much had been said. ‘We kissed,’ he repeated.
‘We kissed and then what happened?’ she asked flatly.
‘Annette, for fuck sake.’
‘What happened next, Frank?’
‘We went back.’ He held the bottle in front of him like a prop. ‘The pair of us.’
‘My digs.’ He shook his head. ‘Out in Shantalla.’
‘And what happened?’
‘You stayed over,’ Frank said. ‘You stayed over. And I had to kick the other bollox out of the room so that we got some sort of privacy. You stayed over. And about halfway through your man knocked on the door. Looking for his glasses. That’s what happened next.’
She closed her eyes. ‘And were you a virgin?’
‘Oh, Christ,’ Frank gasped. ‘Annette, please. Will we just go?’
‘Were you?’ she said.
‘Yes,’ he shouted, ‘yes, I was.’
She started to laugh. Polly nervously joined in. ‘It was love,’ Annette said, ‘Love at first touch.’ She tipped the rest of the wine into her mouth. Tasted nothing. ‘What do you think?’ she said, laughing still. ‘Real romantic, no?’ Frank slugged his whiskey when she caught his eye. She was excited. She grabbed Desmond’s arm, ‘Can you remind me where the bathroom is?’
She twisted on the hot water. She hadn’t been this drunk in years. She bowled water in her hand till it began to prickle her skin. Then she let it collapse. She hit the other tap and wrapped her lips around it. She let the water fill her gums and spat it out in shoots. Then she dropped onto the toilet.
Her head was pounding. Her breath was laboured. Rasping. She thumbed down her underwear. Feeling the elastic pang into a slacker shape. Despite all of Frank’s faults, and by Christ there were many, she knew that she loved their life. Knew that she loved him and the boys and their life. It was their life. She pressed her forehead into her palms. Her heels slid before her on the tiles. Him and the boys were her life and she needed only reassurance. She needed only to let the venom dull a little. It will make them stronger, tonight. Make them even.
The black lace thong, stringed with tiffany flowers, was stretched between her ankles. It had cost her forty euro. Meant to arouse. Show who was in control. She rose from the toilet, steadying herself on the sink. What had kept her going? With her heel, she pared her left leg from the thong and shook it altogether off the right. Does it get easier? Vapour had fogged the oval mirror, and she studied her reflection as if watching a woman across the street: the woman who was carrying too much shopping, the woman who was younger, the woman who resembled an old acquaintance. Annette picked the underwear off the tiled floor. She looked at herself, the balled thong, and threw it into the toilet.
The Gallaghers were huddled on the couch. Frank was in his chair. Talk ceased as she entered the room. The candles had run down, corkscrew smoke swirled from their tips. The curtain had been messed with again, the right cloth not quite centre. Between this gap, she saw how the frost had settled hard on the front garden. This expanse of white.
‘How you feeling, love?’ Frank stuttered to his feet. She went to him, held his hand, and kissed him – his tongue nettley and unaware. She felt for the pulse in his jeans. She took it, groped it, and with her other hand light on his shoulders, shoved him back into his chair. ‘Love?’ he blinked up at her. She roped her hand around Polly’s elbow and led her to Frank’s lap. Polly giggled.
Annette tucked herself in beside Desmond. He grinned. With the ball of his thumb, he strummed her upper arm. She looked again at the print on the wall, the one of the couple in the brown field. A basket was by her feet as she prayed, a pitched fork by his as he wrung his cap.
Desmond’s fingers skimmed along her shoulder and slipped under the strap of her dress. ‘You’re feeling better?’ The strap fell from her shoulder. He was enjoying this, she could tell. ‘I thought I lost you.’
He positioned her hand on his leg.
Her eyes darted once as fingers treaded further along her back.
‘You’re not nervous?’ he spoke into her ear. The words warm, clammy.
‘No,’ she said, ‘I’m not nervous at all.’
Photograph © Daniel Schwen