Authors: Roisin Meaney
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For Max and Gae Schjerning,
le gach dea-ghuí
our unconnected events took place on the morning of September 21, which fell that year on a Friday. The people involved in each incident were not known to one another at the time, despite the fact that they all lived within an easy walk of Carrickbawn’s modest but beautifully designed public park. All four, however, were destined to meet very soon afterwards.
The first incident took place as Audrey Matthews made her way on foot to Carrickbawn Secondary School, having left her house at approximately twenty to nine. Audrey didn’t normally walk to work, but her usual mode of transport being in the motorcycle repair shop, and her route not coinciding with a bus one, she found herself left with little choice.
No matter: The morning was fine and Audrey strolled along quite contentedly, humming a tune she’d heard on the radio halfway through her second bowl of Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes. With each step she took, the green canvas bag that was slung across her body bumped gently against her well-padded hip, and as she walked she glanced now and again into the windows of the various shops that lined her route.
And entirely without warning, halfway along a short pedestrianized lane connecting Carrickbawn’s two main thoroughfares—a lane she rarely had occasion to visit—thirty-seven-year-old Audrey Matthews saw something that caused her to fall abruptly and profoundly in love. Her heart stopped; everything stopped for a delicious handful of seconds. And when it could move again her pink, lip-glossed mouth formed a soft O of complete adoration.
She approached the shop window and pressed her palms and nose to the cold glass, and her wide, wide smile caused the tiny ragged tail of the tousle-haired brown-and-black pup in the pet carrier inside to wag vigorously as it scrabbled against the grille at the front of the carrier and yapped soundlessly at her.
The second event occurred an hour or so afterwards, in the driveway of Irene and Martin Dillon’s redbrick detached home. In her haste to get to an almost-forgotten dental appointment, forty-two-year-old Irene swung her Peugeot out too quickly and clipped the passenger wing against the gatepost, causing a small but definite dent in the metal, and leaving flakes of dark green paint embedded in the nubby concrete of the post.
Feeling the scrape of the contact, Irene swore loudly but didn’t stop to inspect the damage, deciding instead to make straight for the dental clinic and deal with the car later. She sped angrily down the peaceful residential street, causing her second next-door elderly neighbor to lower his pruning shears and tut in disapproval before resuming his attack on the overgrown rosebushes that flanked his sitting room bay window.
The third happening took place around eleven o’clock, as Polish immigrant Zarek Olszewski, twenty-five, walked slowly from a newsagent’s, blond head bent as he scratched carefully with the edge of a five-cent coin at a silver panel on the little card that nestled in his palm. As each sum of money was revealed—for of course the card was a lottery one—Zarek blew the silver scrapings away.
When there was nothing more to scratch he examined the card for several seconds, running a hand through his hair twice as he did so. Finally he stopped, a delighted grin spreading across his face, and turned and retraced his steps to the newsagent’s.
The last incident took place just before morning became afternoon, as Jackie Moore, twenty-four-year-old single mother, stood in a queue in an art supply store, holding two paintbrushes and willing the customer ahead of her to hurry up and decide if he wanted an A4 or an A5 watercolor pad.
As she waited, conscious of the precious minutes of her lunch hour ticking by, her attention was caught by a small notice pinned to the shelf on her right. She read the short message twice, her face expressionless, as the other customer finally made his choice and moved off.
After paying for the paintbrushes, she returned to the notice and skimmed it again before rummaging in her bag and pulling out a pen. She scribbled a number onto the palm of her hand before hurrying from the shop.
Four separate events, four different settings, four strangers. But for all that, the consequences of these happenings would be significant, and more lives than theirs would be affected within a handful of weeks.
ay God protect the king,” the beautiful man declared, smiling widely.
On the point of making its first mark, Audrey’s pen stilled. She looked up. Such incredibly white teeth.
“Is my name,” he told her. “English meaning of Belshazzar: May God protect the king.”
“Belshazzar? But I thought you said your name was—” She suddenly couldn’t remember the impossibly foreign-sounding word she’d been about to write. Something beginning with
—or was it
“Zarek, yes, is short name of Belshazzar.”
“Oh, I see.” Audrey positioned her pen for the second time. “Maybe you could spell that for me?”
She wondered if anyone else was going to turn up. It hadn’t occurred to her that she mightn’t fill the class; she’d just assumed enough adult inhabitants of Carrickbawn would be interested in signing up for life drawing. But she’d been sitting alone for nearly forty minutes in Room 6, becoming steadily less confident, before the handsome Polish man had appeared.
Forty minutes gone out of sixty, which left just twenty. What if this young man was it? One person’s payment wouldn’t cover the model’s fee, let alone Audrey’s time. And could you even hold a class with just one student? Was there a minimum requirement?
Still, as long as he was here, she’d better register him.
“And your surname?”
He looked blankly at her.
“Your last name?”
“Olszewski.” He eyed her unmoving pen. “Is better if I write?”
She slid the form across. “Much better, thank you.”
In Ireland since May, he’d told her. In Carrickbawn since the middle of June, having decided after three weeks that Dublin wasn’t for him. Eyes as blue as Paul Newman’s—and would you look at the length of those lashes. A real heartbreaker of a face.
She guessed midtwenties—too young, sadly. Not that he’d be interested in Audrey in a million years, not when he could pick and choose from the pretty young ladies of Carrickbawn. How could a generously built thirty-seven-year-old, not blessed with a particularly beautiful face, hope to compete with a slimmer, younger, more attractive specimen?
Not that she was offering the class in order to find a boyfriend; of course not. Still, you wouldn’t rule it out. You’d never rule it out. The man she was waiting for could be anywhere, so why not here? What was to stop him from opening the door of Room 6 in the next few minutes and walking in?
“Is this the still life drawing class?”
Audrey looked up. A couple stood in the doorway. Sixties, possibly older. The man wore a grey tweed cap and held a supermarket shopping bag from which a long cardboard container protruded—aluminum foil? Waxed paper? The woman stared openly at Zarek, a look of profound distrust on her face.
“Hello there,” Audrey said, smiling brightly at two more possible students. “It’s not actually still life, it’s life drawing.”
The skin on the woman’s forehead puckered. “Is that not the same thing?”
“No.” Audrey hesitated, wondering how gently she could break it. “Still life is drawing inanimate objects, like fruit and, er, bottles and things, and life drawing is, well, drawing the human body.”
They considered this in silence.
“And would that be a real person?” the man asked eventually. “I mean, are you talking about someone sitting there in front of the class?”
“Exactly,” Audrey said. She had to tell them, she couldn’t let them sign up and arrive on the first night not knowing. She crossed the fingers of the hand they couldn’t see. “And in life drawing, the person is normally…unclothed.”
Another dead silence, during which the color rose slowly and deeply in the woman’s face. Audrey wondered if Zarek, who didn’t seem to be paying too much attention, understood the significance of the conversation.
“Well,” the man managed eventually, “I think you ought to be
ashamed of yourself.”
,” his companion added vehemently, her face still aflame. “Bringing that sort of thing to Carrickbawn. Have you no morals?”
Audrey considered pointing out that the nude human body had been drawn and painted by great artists for centuries, but decided that such a defense would probably fall on deaf ears, and might make things worse. She opted instead for silence, and did her best to look abashed.
Another few seconds of wordless outrage followed. Audrey wondered if they were planning to stand there till eight o’clock. What if more potential students turned up—would the couple bar the door? She smoothed a seam in her skirt and cleared her throat discreetly. Zarek continued to make his way slowly through the enrollment form, hopefully oblivious.
“You haven’t heard the last of this,” the man said eventually, and to Audrey’s great relief they gathered themselves up with a series of outraged tuts. She listened to the sound of their footsteps fading along the corridor.
She should have made it clearer, she shouldn’t have assumed that people understood what life drawing was. Come to think of it, confusing it with still life was perfectly understandable. And of course some people would balk at the idea of a nude model; she should have anticipated that too.
As she was wondering if she should scribble out a clarification notice and stick it beside the list of classes in the lobby, a woman appeared in the doorway. Late twenties, possibly early thirties. Hopefully not offended by a display of naked flesh.
“Life drawing? Am I in the right place?”
“Yes, this is life drawing,” Audrey replied. Still a good quarter of an hour to go, and the student count was up to two. If just three more came, she’d have a respectable class. Five was fine, wasn’t it? Four even, at a pinch. So what if she took home a little less cash than she’d anticipated? She’d never been a big spender.
The woman walked to the top of the room. “I’ve never done it before,” she said. “Not any kind of art, not since school.”
Her dark red hair was twined into a fat side braid that hung over her left shoulder. The frames of her small, oval-shaped spectacles were deep purple. Even in her flat tan slip-on shoes Audrey calculated that she must be six feet tall, or as close to it as made no difference. At five foot one Audrey was used to looking up at people—including, sadly, many of her secondary school students—but making eye contact here involved a little more head tilting than usual.
“Inexperience is no problem,” Audrey told her. “It’s a beginner class, so everyone’s in the same boat, and the pace will be very relaxed.”
As the newcomer reached the desk Zarek thrust his hand towards her. “I am Zarek Olszewski. I am from Poland. Please to meet you. I also take this class.”
Wonderful—a welcoming committee of one extremely attractive man. Audrey couldn’t have planned it better.
The woman looked impressed. “Meg Curran,” she replied, shaking his hand. “Very nice to meet you. I was in Poland two years ago, on holidays. I went to Auschwitz—very sad.”
“Yes,” he agreed.
“But I loved
“Well, when I say loved, I mean it was terribly harrowing, but very well made, don’t you think?”
Seeing Zarek’s look of incomprehension, Audrey decided that the time might be right to hop in. “And I’m Audrey Matthews,” she said. “I’ll be teaching the class.” She passed the woman an enrollment form. “If you wouldn’t mind filling this in for me—”
Soft footsteps sounded behind her. Audrey turned to see another woman approaching the desk.
Around the same age as the others, maybe a little younger. Petite, boyish figure; pale hair cut so short it was hard to define the exact color. Three tiny silver rings pushed through her right earlobe, one above the other. She wore a white top and blue jeans.
Her brownish red lipstick was startlingly dark—and not, Audrey thought, the most flattering color for her. Overall there was a delicate quality to her features, the tidy nose slightly upturned, the small, almost child-like mouth, the pale unblemished skin. Elfin, if you had to put a label on her—and apart from the lipstick, rather colorless. Next to Meg, she looked positively miniature.
“Hello,” Audrey said, smiling warmly. “Have you come for the life drawing?”
The woman nodded. “Fiona Gray,” she murmured. “I’m not late, am I?”
“Not at all.” Audrey took another enrollment form from the stack. Three students, just another one or—
Everyone turned. Yet another woman, who unwound a long, narrow, lavender-colored scarf as she walked past the rows of tables. “This is life drawing, yes?”
“Yes, it is, yes,” Audrey told her—four, she was up to four; wonderful. “You’re very welcome.”
The woman slung her scarf over the back of a chair as she reached the desk. “I’ve been running to catch up since this morning, thought I’d be late for this too.” She wore a black leather shift dress that stopped above her knees, and red patent shoes whose heels were high enough to make Audrey think of stilts. How on earth did she walk in them?
Her musky scent was cloying, her white-blonde hair beautifully, perfectly cut in a bob that slanted from high on the back of her neck to just below her chin. Her voice was throaty, the voice of a theater actor. Older than the others, around Audrey’s age—or maybe even the other side of forty—but looking after herself.
“I’ve never done it before,” she said, “life drawing, I mean. That’s with a live model, yes?”
“That’s right,” Audrey told her, relieved that the point had been made in front of everyone, but anxious to make it completely clear. “We’ll be working with a live,
She waited. Nobody looked shocked.
“Good,” the blonde repeated. “Should be fun. Does it matter that I’m a total novice?”
“Not at all, it’s a beginner class,” Audrey said, handing her an enrollment form.
“We are all in the same ship,” Zarek told her cheerfully.
The woman looked at him with interest.
“I am Zarek Olszewski.” He stuck out his hand again. “I am from Poland.”
She laughed. “You don’t say.” Letting her hand linger in his, which of course they all noticed. “Irene Dillon,” she told him. “Charmed to meet you, I’m sure. And…?” Turning to the two other women with, Audrey thought, a noticeable lessening of interest.
As they introduced themselves Audrey began distributing the materials list. “As you know, it’s a drawing class, so your requirements are relatively few—unless, of course, anyone would care to add color, in which case that’s absolutely fine; and while you could stick to pencils for the drawing, I thought charcoal would be a nice—”
She stopped. A man had appeared at the door, his head covered in a black woolly hat. “Sorry to interrupt,” he said in a soft Northern accent. “I don’t know if you’re full, or…”
He took in the handful of people. One man who didn’t look Irish and four women, the largest of whom seemed to be in charge. He decided this was probably a mistake—what did he know about life drawing, what interest had he ever had in any drawing that wasn’t technical?
He’d wanted to enroll in intermediate French, to back up the CDs he’d taken out from the library the previous week, which were already helping him resurrect the words and phrases of his schooldays. He wanted to bring Charlie to France next summer, so she could start learning it too—at her age, she should soak it up. He hadn’t ruled out moving to France at some stage. These days he wasn’t ruling anything out.
But according to the handwritten message pinned to the notice board in the college’s reception area, intermediate French had been canceled due to the tutor becoming ill.
“Can’t you get someone else?” he’d asked the man behind the glassed-in cubicle, but the man had apologized and said he was just the janitor, and he had no information about tutors. So James had returned to the notice board and studied the other Tuesday-evening options, and had not been inspired.
Computer programming, Pilates, or life drawing. Not one of those remotely appealed to him. He used a computer at work and hated it—who would have thought an estate agent would have to spend so much time on a damn computer?—and he had no intention of having anything to do with them in his spare time.
He had a vague idea that Pilates involved stretching out on a mat and doing exercises of some sort, which approximated pretty much his idea of hell. Rowing was the only exercise that he’d ever taken any sort of pleasure from, and that was firmly in his past now, like just about everything else he used to enjoy.
Of the three choices, life drawing seemed the least offensive. He had endured more than enjoyed trying to reproduce the collections of objects his art teachers had assembled at school, but he supposed this might be different. Life drawing was people, not things, wasn’t it? Might be marginally more interesting—and who cared if he was utterly useless at it? He certainly didn’t.
He had to choose one of the Tuesday classes, because Tuesday was the only evening he could make his escape, and he needed an escape, so life drawing it was. He made his way to the room where the enrollment was taking place—and as he walked in and drew attention to himself, he realized that he’d made a colossal mistake.
What had he been thinking? Who said he had to sign up for any evening class at all? Couldn’t he sit in a pub for a few hours, couldn’t he go to the cinema if he wanted a break from home once a week?
As he opened his mouth to say thanks but no thanks, the large woman beamed at him.
“No, we’re not full,” she said. “You’re very welcome. Do come in.” She took a step towards him, putting out her hand. “I’m Audrey Matthews, the teacher. Come and let me introduce the others.”
And she looked so genuinely happy to see him that he found himself ridiculously unable to disappoint her. He stepped forward, his heart sinking.
“James Sullivan,” he said.
The name felt odd, but he’d get used to it.
This was going to be a laugh. Irene signed the enrollment form with a flourish. Talk about eye candy, when all she’d come for was a bit of fun, something different to do on a Tuesday night. Pity the Pole wasn’t stripping for them—now that would be interesting. Bet he had some body under that tight black T-shirt and faded chinos.