Authors: Dianne Warren
For Cody, Travis, and Bruce
E WERE FIRMLY
lodged in a traffic jam in a small Irish town. Gridlock. No way for our rental car to move forward or back. Several tour busesâwhich we encountered wherever we went, even though it was May and not yet high seasonâmade matters worse. It was hard to imagine how the roads could handle any more of them. A policeman was manoeuvring on foot through the mess, trying to direct cars to an opening here and there, but it was impossible. Any opening inevitably led to another jam. A bicycle would have been hard-pressed to get through. People began to step out of their vehicles and walk awayâsurrendering, it seemed, to a hopeless situation.
I could see that we were stopped in front of a churchyard, and that many of the people leaving their cars were heading for the church. It began to make some sort of sense. A hearse was parked in front of the church, the coffin still inside. Attendants in dark suits were staring at the traffic snarl-up.
“It's a funeral,” I said. “That's what has caused this.”
Ian rolled down his driver's-side window and motioned to the policeman, who was now standing close to our car, no longer attempting to untangle the mess. He was staring, like us, at the churchyard.
“What's going on?” Ian asked him.
“It's the funeral,” the policeman said.
“What I mean is, how long do you think we'll have to sit here?”
“A young girl and her tiny baby,” the policeman said, ignoring his question. “Just nineteen years, and the baby a few months. They're in the coffin together. Terrible tragedy. The whole county's come.”
“That's so sad,” I said, still looking at the hearse, imagining the mother and baby.
“It is, yes.” The policeman looked at his watch. “If you walk a quarter mile back the way you came, you'll find a pub or two or three. Have a Guinness and wait it out.”
Then he left us and headed toward the church, and was soon lost among the others arriving from all directions.
“A girl and her baby,” I said. “I wonder what happened, but at the same time, I don't want to know.”
“Can you believe it?” Ian said. “The only policeman in sight just gave up and went to the funeral.”
“Yes, and I like him for it. Never mind if we're late. It can't be helped.”
I couldn't take my eyes off the scene unfolding in the churchyard.
, I thought,
and a baby too.
The pallbearers were lifting the coffin from the hearse. There were so many flowers on top they spilled onto the ground and left a trail as the coffin was carried toward the church steps. I thought,
I lost a baby when I was nineteen.
I was surprised by how easily the memory had slipped into my consciousness. It was something I had not thought about for years.
“I lost a baby when I was nineteen,” I said. “And by lost, I don't mean misplaced. The baby died.”
I watched as the men carried the coffin up the steps and into the church, carefully, so as not to disturb its precious cargo, and the mourners began to follow and I realized what I had doneâspoken the words aloud.
“It was a long time ago. Until now, I've never told a soul who wasn't there. Even my mother and I barely spoke of it.”
“Let me understand,” Ian said. “You had a child? A baby?”
“Yes, and it died,” I said. “Before that, I was married. But not to the father of the baby. That's a different story. I was married before the baby's father, to someone else.”
He said nothing in response to this, stunned into silence, as anyone would be who'd lived with a person for over twenty years and had not been told such a thing.
An old man with a carved walking stick passed by, laying his free hand briefly on the hood of our car. He reminded me of a man we'd met in a pub in Dublin, who had told us he'd once been an actor. He'd used the term “player,” and had said that he'd been on stage many times at the famous Abbey Theatre, a claim Ian hadn't believed. The man with the walking stick turned into the churchyard and fell into line with the people there while we sat without speaking, marooned in the car, the jumbled disorder of vehicles all around us, until a dog began to bark in a yard nearby. When another answered, and then another, and the barking grew into a frenzy, Ian opened his door and said, “I can't stand this. We might as well find a pub. I don't see what else we can do.”
We started back toward the town centre about the time three buses emptied out, the tour directors having come to the same conclusion we hadâthat there was no point in waiting. Over a hundred people were now walking along with us, many of them elderly. Good sports, I thought, with their
arthritic knees and hearing aids. We were soon ahead of most of them, which turned out to be an advantage, since there were only three or four tiny pubs in the town.
We chose one and found ourselves a table in a corner. It was an old pub with mud walls and wooden beams and a fireplace burning peat. There were several signed photos of famous pop stars above the bar, and one of them was SinÃ©ad O'Connor. The photo was hanging crookedly, as though no one had paid attention to it for years. The fact that it was hanging there at all meant something, I thought, since SinÃ©ad's famous tirade against the pope had been on television the night Ian and I first met.
I pointed at the photograph and said, “Remember when SinÃ©ad ripped up the photo of the pope? It's a wonder they've kept her picture here. She's always offending Catholics. She was in the news again recently.”
Ian didn't reply.
Which could have meant a number of things.
Several noisy Englishmen were sitting at a table near us, they too having been stranded by the funeral. Two of them looked to be about my age, nearer sixty than fifty, and the others were younger. They all wore hiking boots, and I imagined that they were on a hill-walking expedition of some sort. A hill walk had been on my holiday wish list, but we'd soon figured out how easy it would be to get lost, especially here in the west, where the cliffs dropped to the sea and you never knew when the fog would descend. A few days earlier, we had tried to walk to a hillside that looked to be within easy reach, but in no time we'd found ourselves ankle-deep in a peat bog and had given up.
A waiter came to the table and asked us what we'd like.
I ordered a Guinness, said to cure everything from gout to migraine headachesâat least by people my age. Ian ordered something else. I wasn't paying attention.
“So tell me,” he said once the drinks had been placed on the table in front of us. The label on his read Oyster, which I thought was an odd name for a beer. “Were you still married when you met me?”
Well. There it was,
question, and it was my own fault that it was now being put to me.
I could have said no. It would have been easier, and maybe we would have been better off if I had. But it would not have been the truth, and although there was a part of my life I had never told Ian about, I was not in the habit of lying to him.
“I'm still married now,” I said. “Unless my husband has died, in which case I guess I'd be a widow. That's highly probable. He was twenty-three years older than me.”
And then there I was, with my head between my knees because the room had begun to spin. It was the word “husband” that did itâthe fact I had spoken the word out loud. It was perhaps the first time I had ever referred to Joe Fletcher as my husband. When the room stilled, I lifted myself to upright, and I saw that Ian was looking at me with little sympathy for my vertiginous state.
He said, “You're still married to the first one, or to the baby's father?”
I picked up my glass of Guinness, drank from it, swallowed, and set it down on the table again.
Then I said, to finish what I'd started, “The baby's father was just a boy and we were never married. The husband was a man old enough to be my father. The baby was born too
early and died, which I've already told you. There, now you know everything. These are things I swore I would never tell anyone. I became a different person afterward. But I've told you now, haven't I? And I hope I'm not that other person again. I don't want to be.”
The waiter returned then and asked if we wanted anything to eat. I ordered a plate of chips, even though I wasn't hungry. When he brought them to me a few minutes later, I pointed once again at the off-kilter photograph above the bar and said to him, “I think SinÃ©ad went into a tailspin after that business with the pope.”
“Ah, SinÃ©ad,” the waiter said. “Tempest in a teapot. Vinegar? Red sauce?”
I shook my head. “Neither. Just salt.”
We sat in the pub for another hour, not talking, picking at the chips, and waiting for enough time to pass that we could return to the car. I was beginning to feel ill, wondering what tempest I myself had unleashed, and whether it would fit into a teapot. I'd spoken of things that I could not explain because I had no explanation. They'd happened. I regretted that they had. I knew no more than that. My life had started over afterward, and then it had started over again when I met Ian. I began to fear that Joe Fletcher and all that followed might once again be the cause of sorrow.
When we finally got back to the car, we found that the traffic had cleared out. The churchyard was deserted and there were no signs of the funeral save for the flowers that had fallen when the coffin was removed from the hearse. It was now possible to manoeuvre around the few remaining cars and tour buses, and we left, several hours behind schedule, concerned about the promise we'd made to a
bed-and-breakfast owner named Mr. Burke, who'd asked us if we could manage an early arrival because his day was going to be complicated.
“Maybe we should have phoned from the pub,” I said.
“He's got no reason to give our room away,” Ian said. “It's paid for.”
“Still, just to be courteous.”
“We have a long drive ahead of us. Plenty of time for you to tell me quite a lot more than what you've told me so far.”
The highway, when we found it, was narrow and winding. Ian drove as though he was trying to make up time. I asked him to slow down, and when he did, I said, “You're the one who gets annoyed when people expound on things they don't know much about. Politics. The stock market. Genetically modified food. This is a bit the same. I can't explain what happened a lifetime ago. I was barely out of high school.”
“What I'd really like to know,” he said, “is why you told me at all after twenty years.”
“I don't know,” I said, “but I did.”
When we arrived at Mr. Burke's West Country Inn, our host seemed to have forgotten all about his request that we come early. We still had a room for the night. All was well, at least in that regard.
English climbers we'd seen in the pubâseven of themâwere also staying that night at Mr. Burke's. When the climbers acknowledged us in the parking lot, after Ian and I had returned from a painfully quiet dinner in a village up the road, it seemed right to speak, and we shared stories about the traffic bottleneck. Before we all retired to
our rooms, the climbers asked us if we'd like to accompany them on a hill walk the next dayâa relatively easy walk, safe for beginners. I said yes and Ian said no at the same time. The man who appeared to be the group leader said, “Just meet us in the breakfast room at six o'clock if you decide to come. Bring a daypack. We'll bring lunch. Wear layers and walking shoes. That's it. Nothing else.”
Once we were alone in our room, Ian said, “I'm not going. You do what you like.”
I set the alarm and opened a bottle of wine and poured myself a glass, which I drank sitting by the window and listening to the ocean below while Ian had a shower. Then we went to bed.
We were lying in the darkness when he said to me, “Stop it. Whatever you're doing, stop it.”
It took me a minute to realize he was referring to my fingers, which were tapping madly on the cotton duvet, an old habit. I rolled onto my side and shoved both hands under my pillow, the way I used to when I was a child.
When I fell asleep, I dreamed I
a child, wearing a dental retainer. I was with my mother in the grocery store in my old hometown, and when her back was turned, I removed the retainer and hid it under a head of lettuce in the produce section, thinking that if it were lost, I would never have to wear it again. But the store clerk, who had been watching me, retrieved it and held it out to me as though she were holding a dead cat, and I woke up with a start.
It was not a dream. It was a memory, because it had really happened, and this was unsettlingâto be dreaming about memories. I remembered my embarrassment that the clerk had seen me put the retainer under the lettuce, and
my mother saying, “It serves you right, Frances. That was disgusting.”
When I went back to sleep I dreamed that Mr. Burke's inn was falling over the cliff into the sea below, and on the way down I was shouting over the sound of the waves, “Are we good now? Ian? We're good?”
The alarm buzzed.
I quickly turned it off and slipped out of bed and got myself ready for the hill walk. Before I left the room, I sat down on the edge of the bed beside Ian and wondered if I should wake him and ask if he'd changed his mind. I didn't suppose he had, but I bent and kissed his bare arm anyway. He twitched as though he were flicking away a bug, and he opened his eyes. I could see their colour, green, in the morning light.
“I'm going now,” I said. “On the hill walk. I don't think they said what time we'd be back. Are you sure you don't want to come?”
When he didn't answer I assumed he meant no and I stood to leave, but he reached out and grabbed my hand.
“I'm going back to Dublin today,” he said.
“Dublin? Why?” I didn't understand. I thought he was telling me that he was going for the day. We were scheduled to fly home from Dublin in four days' time. Driving there for the day made no sense.