Written by: David Butler
The last of the visitors had left. I was reaching for my coat when I felt Rita’s hand stay my arm. She waited for the front-door to click. ‘Jack,’ she murmured, though the house was now quite empty. ‘You were his best friend.’
A foreboding of what was to follow made me look past her, to where light glimmered off the dark mahogany.If that was true, it was a sobering thought. Earlier I’d stood long at the coffin, emotions as inert, as finally improbable, as the waxen features inside it. I hadn’t seen Ronnie Walsh in the four years since their marriage. Although I’d been best-man, we’d both known that honour was already an anachronism.We’d been close in school, less so in university.
With the guests gone, shadows had begun to inhabit the living-room. The furniture had taken on the disturbing quality of an orphaned shoe or glove.‘Jack, I have to know.’ She’d moved to the head of the coffin, her fingers not six inches from the lurid forehead. She was looking down, her face impossible to read. ‘What exactly happened on the stag? He’d never say.’
In that instant four years were abolished. I was back in St Malo, two in the morning, under the great ramparts, Ronnie sitting in the wet sand, his back pressed to the city walls, face bloodied and shirt torn open.
I shook my head. ‘Nothing happened.’
‘All I know is, when he came back he’d changed.’ Her voice turned an accusatory edge. ‘He was never the same Ronan I’d known, after.’ She poured two careful drinks, advanced deliberately,pressed one into my hand.‘You have to tell me. Please.’
‘Rita…’ I again looked toward the black carapace in which was laid out the suicide, if that’s what he was.The Guards ‘weren’t looking for anyone else in connection with the death.’Ronnie’d had what they term ‘history’. But what autopsy can disclose a state of mind?
I took the gin-and-tonic in one go, but held it long in the mouth before swallowing. I then slapped the glass on the piano, wanting to be the hell out of there. ‘There’s nothing to tell.’
She placed her drink, untouched, beside the empty glass. The manoeuvre allowed her to block my path to the door. ‘Was he with someone, is that it?’ I didn’t answer, but a sound escaped, halfway between a gasp and a guffaw. Instantly her fists struck hard at my chest. I grabbed them, astonished at the fury with which her eyes flashed. ‘I know he was with someone! Christ!’
For the briefest of moments, it seemed the corpse might overhear us. ‘Rita for God’s sake…’ Then I released her wrists. The eyes, black-lined, aged and terrible, remained fixed on me. ‘Ok,’ I said.Though it was not ok.
That trip to St Malo had nearly fallen through. As best man it had fallen to me to organise the stag. But the names on the e-mails Ronnie passed on were largely unknown to me, and the few I’d recognised I’d long since lost touch with. In the end there were only five of us.
There’d been a lot of drinking all afternoon, and that raucous camaraderie that springs up between strangers thrown together for an occasion. Ronnie talked up the misadventures we’d had, I reciprocated, the others too, all of us aware that it was a pretence. In the restaurant there were toasts, jokes,execrable French, and lewd songs,each more boisterous in proportion as the place emptied and the waitress’s smile grew brittle. We were the last to leave.
Outside we wandered the old citadel, getting lost, stopping at this or that terrace, tossing off another round of Jupiler or Ricard, laughing, exaggerating. The night was warm, even as the last bars began to shut. Somewhere near the cathedral Fitz, who was a cousin, took me firmly by the shoulders. ‘Lap-dancing à la mode!’ he demanded, ‘Monsieurle Best-man will have sussed out where…’
I removed his hands in time to see Ronan’s young work colleague hunch double to splash chowder over the cobbles. ‘I haven’t. Desolé.’ A simple statement of fact. I tried unsuccessfully to catch Ronnie’s eye, to see what his intentions were. I’d no desire beyond bed. ‘Fortunately,Monsieur,’ Fitz brayed, raising the fallen colleague, ‘I’ve a nose for these things. Allons-y…’
Somewhere near the Grand Port the group separated. I’m unsure if it was I or Ronnie who’d nudged the other and made the equivocal gesture. We ducked through an archway, crossed an empty square, came out somewhere on the far side, descended a stone ramp. I recall a damp forest of timbers sunk into the sand, a glint on the black water. He squeezed my shoulder. ‘This must be a terrible bloody bore for you.’
‘Course it is. I appreciate it. I mean all of it.’ He turned a lop-sided grin. ‘You don’t think much of Rita, do you?’
I broke from him. ‘Kinda question is that?’
He was after me, laughing. ‘Wait.’ He drew level. ‘Stop, would you?’ I did so. But I’d no intention of letting him repeat the absurd question. ‘Ronnie, I’ve scarcely seen you since…’
His hands were up. ‘I know. I know. My fault.’
‘It’s no-one’s fault. It’s life. You know,life?’ Then it struck me he may have misunderstood my ‘since…’ to mean ‘since the breakdown’.From our earliest schooldays he’d been prone to anxiety, and in the year of our finals, panic attacks led to a sojourn in John of Gods. There’d been talk of self-harm. ‘Since you and Rita began seeing each other, guess we’ve left each other alone. It’s par for the course, no?’ I met and held his eye. In school he’d rarely allowed anyone besides myself to do that; a trust that impressed the teachers. ‘I was glad when I heard you’d found someone.’
His eyes flitted from mine to an imaginary spot to my left, a trait I recognised of old. A tangential line of thought was coming. ‘The Greeks had the same word for soul as for butterfly, you know that Jack? Psyche.’ His eyes interrogated, desperately. ‘Why a butterfly?Why not… a bird or something? Hunh! What d’you see when you think of a soul?’
‘Jesus I don’t know.’
Then his eyes were back to the left. ‘See, we let our lives grow hard around us.Husks and habits, dead-end jobs. Relationships that cool into crusts…’ He began staring into his palm as if some wisdom might be written there. ‘I don’t love Rita.’
‘Not the way she means the word.’
‘Does she know you don’t?’
The glance he threw in reply was something from the back of the classroom.
‘Then why in God’s name marry her?’
Eyes left. ‘Habit is armour. I guess as we grub through life, there’s nothing better. Nothing we can choose, you know Jack? Don’t tell me you’re any different! So life becomes a cocoon we crawl inside. Comical, isn’t it? But just maybe, all the while,inside, the soul’s pupating. Course we don’t see any wings. We know nothing about it. Nada.’ He was grimacing. ‘Know what death is? The armour cracks open, and we fly the cocoon.’
It had grown colder. ‘I don’t get it. You’re looking for a routine, is that it? Jesus, you’d want to tell her if that’s all you’re after. Because believe me, she…’
‘What I’m saying,Jack,’ he all but spat my name, ‘if our lives have any beauty at all, we know nothing about it. Maybe God or someone sees it.’ Then his hands opened, as if letting the thought go. ‘She wants kids. Hey, that’s fine by me. A kid would…solve a lot of things.’
‘What d’you want me to say to you, Ron? You want my blessing, is that it?’
Suddenly he had me in a headlock. We began a crazy dance over the sands, the sort of rough horse-play I’d grown to expect when we were in school. That night it didn’t feel like horse-play. The grip was fierce. All at once we were scrapping. I banged my head painfully off one of the stumps, hurled him against the wall. He came back at me like a rabid animal. Then, as quickly, his fury was spent. My clothes were wet and sandy, my head hurt. I was in no mood for his antics. ‘Where you going?’ he called.
I was halfway up the ramp when I felt him tug my arm. ‘Please, Jack.I’m going crazy here. There’s no-one I can talk to.’
‘How about Rita? God’s sake, look at you!’ He really did look a sorry state, jacket lost, shirt torn, eyes watery and blood scabbing under his nose.
‘Ten minutes, Jacko. That’s all I’m asking.’
We returned to sea-level. His back against the damp wall, he slid down and ploughed his feet through the sand like a drunk. ‘She’s seven years older than me,d’you know that?’
‘You told me.’ But he hadn’t. I squinted down at him. ‘Is it seven?’
‘I imagine I told you three.’
‘So then she’s…?’
‘Forty, December.’ He was laughing again. ‘I only found out yesterday. Get this. I’m looking for my passport, yeah? Rita’s at work. Normally she looks after that end of things. For the life of me I can’t remember if she’d said she left it out. So I’m going through where she keeps stuff and I come across her passport. All these years, I’d never seen it. And that’s when I find out. December ’73.’
‘But…so she’d lied to you?’ Silence. ‘All these years, she’s lied about her age.’
‘What’s a lie?’ His eyes were shut, now. ‘She never lied. I mean, she knew I thought she was three years older. One time, I’d guessed ’77 and she’d sort of gone along with it. Let on to be mad with me that I’d guessed.But she’d never actually said it.’
‘Still, Ronnie, not to clear it up…’
‘Course the irony is, the whole bloody thing about getting married was the body-clock thing, you know? At thirty-six she simply wasn’t going to have time to find someone else and start over.’ His head was thrown back against the wall, his eyes fixed on a distant gleam on the sea: a ship; a lighthouse. ‘Guess we’re closer to midnight than we thought.’
‘So… you’re going to tell her.’
He looked up at me, surprised to find anyone there. ‘Tell her what?’
‘That you found out how old she is!’
‘And the wedding?’
‘I can’t … be alone.’
And that was it. The entire story.Was I supposed to tell it her?
Rita had moved over to the blinds and was peering at the streetlight. Her shadow reached into the gloomy interior, though not quite as far as the effigy which, however I might try, I couldn’t square with my old school-friend. Looking about the vacant furniture I tried to imagine their four years together. If his death had been, as they say,‘doubtful’, at what point had all this become unbearable? When children were no longer feasible? Or was it the old anxiety, those butterflies that no routine could quiet?
Finally, he was alone.
I assumed they’d tried IVF. Rita was nothing if not methodical. But wouldn’t the truth of her age have come out then? Or had she managed to conceal it, even as she’d taken charge of all the paperwork at the time of the wedding? Perhaps there’d been tears. Confessions.Who knows, a reconciliation. Perhaps he’d admitted he’d known all along. But had Ronnie ever told her his cold truth:that he didn’t love her, had never loved her, in all likelihood could never love her, not in the way she intended the word?
I looked at her back, hunched against the next thirty years.
‘The night of the stag,’ I began, ‘we brought him to this lap-dancing club…’
David Butler is a multi-award winning novelist, poet, short-story writer and playwright. The most recent of his three published novels, City of Dis (New Island) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, 2015. His second poetry collection, All the Barbaric Glass, was published in 2017 by Doire Press. His 11 poem cycle ‘Blackrock Sequence’, a Per Cent Literary Arts Commission illustrated by his brother Jim, won the World Illustrators Award 2018 (books, professional section). Arlen House is to bring out his second short story collection, Fugitive, in 2020. Literary prizes include the Maria Edgeworth (twice), ITT/Red Line and Fish International Award for the short story; the Scottish Community Drama, Cork Arts Theatre and British Theatre Challenge awards; and the Féile Filíochta, Ted McNulty, Brendan Kennelly and Poetry Ireland/Trocaire awards for poetry. His radio play ‘Vigil’ was shortlisted for a ZeBBie 2018. David tutors regularly at the Irish Writers Centre. https://davidbutlerauthor.wordpress.com/
Read in Serbian HERE.