By Mary Byrne
All rights reserved.
I am the black man your mother had expelled from the country because I frightened her and your family when I fell in love with you. Your skin was so pale and transparent I could see your veins through it. With your spectacles and your books you looked innocent, protected, sincere.
It was early 70s Dublin, you were in the city for the first time, away from home for the first time. She just couldn’t let you go, accused me of harassment. Around drafty corridors, you and I talked about Kafka’s Metamorphosis and what it might mean. I said the back of your hair was like an alluvial fan. You had optimistic ideas about racial equality, civil rights was in the air. We went to a disco at the College of Surgeons, full of foreign students. You fell in love with the music of James Brown.
The police told me your mother insisted on coming to the airport to make sure I was really put on the plane. The African, she called me. I spotted her there, thick-heeled and old-fashioned, in a sensible overcoat on a windswept day.
Now, they tell me, you are a 60-year-old spinster. You are very good to your parents, you live at home and look after them. I hope you look after yourself.
I am the former nun. Here in Female II they watch me carefully because they know that when I get going it takes half a dozen men to hold me down.
Last night was the full moon. I threatened the night junior with a broken bottle until she got through the window onto the fire escape and raised the alarm. Male staff rose from their slumber and came running, and the fun was over for another while.
I am the widower. The tax man sent me a bill for hundreds of pounds which I owe, he says, because my late wife’s disability benefit, added to my income, pushed me into some new bracket, over some threshold. So I went out and got drunk and crashed the van on which I still owe thousands. It was my only source of income.
The late Mrs X, was how they put it in the letter. Her death was long, painful, expensive. She was distant yet very much there, barking instructions at me as I hobbled about tasks I wasn’t used to. Women’s tasks. Nurses came and went. I cut down my work to look after her.
It’s not that I want her back as she was then. No, what I want is the smiling girl in the big album of photos that move from black-and-white to colour, taking her through fat and thin, from school uniforms to debs’ balls. That’s what I want back, not the gutted wreck she ended up. It was as if I’d got the chance to live her whole life with her, from 30 to 80, in the space of 3 years.
The late Mrs X.
Personally I think it’s an insult to her memory to refer to her like that, but a friend says at least they got that right. Anyway, I still couldn’t bear to talk about her to a man in an office—not about The late Mrs. X.
The wild man
I am the wild man who tore up tables that were nailed to the floor in Fusciardi’s chip shop, the one you sent the police for. They roped and handcuffed me and took me to the Admission Unit. Staff gathered from all units to help nail me to the floor while the RMS injected me.
Enough to fell a Charolais for 48 hours, I heard them say afterwards.
The old flame
I am your old flame. This morning I came upon you in the supermarket. You were wearing a huge coat, looking larger than I’d ever seen you. Your blonde hair stood up on your head, set—you would no doubt call it—in a private bungalow on the edge of town, on the black, a nixer by the former assistant of the hair-dresser who went bust.
There was a purple tinge to your face, unhealthy creases under your eyes. ‘You’re blonde,’ I said, helplessly.
‘Have to cover the grey somehow,’ you said.
‘How’ye Jeannie,’ you called to a girl I recognized who’d been years behind us at school. She had that same cyanosed tinge, the same blonde hair.
When you shook hands to say goodbye, two of your fingers were curled, around a coin maybe, like an old lady of long ago.
I didn’t look back as I went through the checkout.
I remember her dressed up in a pale blue linen dress, with matching hat, gloves and bag. Then dressed down in the same dress for everyday work around the house, with an apron over it, a Craven A hanging uselessly in her mouth (she didn’t inhale). When she wasn’t smoking, she would sing ‘The Whistling Gipsy’. Eventually she made the blue dress into a big laundry bag with drawstring that came with me to boarding school. Like many another less evocative item, I don’t know what happened to it.
I did manage to keep one evening dress, the one she wore to a dinner-dance with Papa, in green and black brocade with a faint hint of Ponds Cold Cream. It fits me now but hangs in forgotten corners of the house, for no one goes any- where in that kind of dress anymore.
There’s a photo of him as a young man in slacks and blazer, a rifle broken over his arm, in the middle of a field. He examines the photographer quizzically, his head slightly sideways. He was probably a newly married man at the time, but the wild thing is there behind that look, a wildness he later watched for in us all—and sometimes found.
The wild man grows old
I am their father. I am old now but they are still vigorous. They ask how I am doing.
‘You’re doing all right,’ I told them yesterday, ‘if you’re fit to get your trousers on in the mornings.’
Mary Byrne, born in Ireland, is a French-English translator living in France. Her short fiction has been published in Europe, North America, and Australia. Anthologized stories appear in Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories (Faber 2008), Queens Noir (Akashic Press 2008), and forthcoming in Best Paris Stories.
This story is included in Issue #45: About Seeing. Copyright © 2012 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.
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