nthposition online magazine

Eugene and his sister

by Seamus Sweeney

[ fiction - september 08 ]

I

Kay was thinking. Not of the thick wedge of six-by-three inch cards in her hand; she was gazing out the window of Mrs Flowers' upstairs flat at Fitzwilliam Square below.

Behind her stood a large whiteboard propped on an easel, with the words "Murder Most Scottish" written on it in black, permanent marker. She riffled through the cards, still looking at the window. In the upper right-hand corner of each card was written a name from the annals of Scottish homicide and infamy: Deacon Brodie, Sawney Bean, Bible John, Madeleine Smith. A detailed précis of the case was written on each, in Kay's tiny handwriting. Each card summarised the research Kay had undertaken for Mrs Flowers' latest project, the successor to Murder Most Irish and More Murder Most Irish, books published under the name Kathleen O'Sullivan.

Mrs Flowers' main source of income, aside from the estate of the late Colonel Flowers, was the series of novels she had written under the name E K Fortune, works which had an astounding commercial success considering how few concessions they made to modernity. They were (in alphabetical order) Achilles, Aegisthus, Agamemnonidae, Alcestis, Alcmeo, Alphesiboea, Amphitruo, Andromeda, Astyanax, Athamas, Atreus, Bacchae, Chrysippus, Meleager, Minotaurus, Myrmidones, Neoptolemus, Oenomaus, Pelopidae, Persidae, Phileocteta, Phinidae, Phoenissae, Prometheus, Telephus, Tereus, Thebais, and Troaides. All were uncompromisingly tragic and serious, written in an elevated tone free from sentiment or humour, and dealt with a classical world more Olympian than human. E K Fortune had recently begun to write about Republican Rome in the woeful tale of Jugurtha, published to the usual restrained but positive reviews - for Fortune was a coterie obsession.

Kay had worked for Mrs Flowers for two months now, and Murder Most Scottish was the first project she had been involved with. Her precise duties were unspecified, and in practice seemed to combine those of personal assistant and researcher. She had spent an enjoyable few weeks photocopying court records in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Mrs Flowers' forays into true crime were intended to be high-minded, magisterial efforts, based on original research and her own unique insights into criminal psychology.

Of Mrs Flowers herself, Kay had seen little. A small woman, always dressed in black, she could be any age between sixty and ninety. Most of her time, since Kay had started working for her, had been spent in various locations in the Americas, attending to business connected with Colonel Flowers' estate. Kay would receive calls from Corpus Christi, Texas; from Portland, Maine; from Montreal and Vancouver, from Panama City and from Mexico City, from Managua and from Havana, from Cordoba in Argentina and Cordoba in Colombia. One day she would appear in the Fitzwilliam Square apartment to give instructions, the next she would ring from New York. The nature of Colonel Flowers' business was as unclear as Kay's job description, but it was certainly extensive.

Each day Kay would admit herself into the flat, in which, as far as she could work out, Mrs Flowers had never slept a night. She would first handle Mrs Flowers' extensive correspondence. Mrs Flowers insisted that all her fan mail receive a personal reply; Kay had noticed quite early on that Mrs Flowers' handwriting and her own were uncannily similar. She would courteously decline the many invitations for Mrs Flowers to address this or that literary society or to attend various functions. The one form of public event which Mrs Flowers would willingly attend was the Embassy Reception.

Kay had found the job advertised in a bookstore. Or more specifically, in a card lodged in an edition of Sappho's poetry among the bargains lining the staircase in Hodges Figgis. Kay had been browsing and picked up the book - she had studied Sappho in college and now felt at liberty to enjoy her work. A small card fell out. It read:

"Author seeks personal assistant. Not especially hard work. Opportunities for foreign travel. Ring 087-6081069."

Kay was working for Diamond Financial Solutions Limited at the time. She was one of their most valuable assets, hardworking, constantly cheerful and helpful to all. She also hated it - the work, her workmates (either boorish or vapid), the grey hiss - some quirk of the plumbing - ever present in the building.

She rang the number.

"Hello."

"Hello, my name is Kay Boyle. I saw a, eh, card with this number. It said you were looking for an assistant?"

"Yes, yes. My name is Mrs Flowers. I wonder could you come up and see me? I live in Flat no. 6 on 69 Fitzwilliam Square. Maybe tomorrow around 6.30? In the p.m."

 

The next day after work she met Mrs Flowers in the Fitzwilliam Square Flat.

"The main thing I'm looking for in an assistant is a sense of adventure. Hence the card," said Mrs Flowers.

"Tell me about the job you have now."

"I work for Diamond Business Solutions, which is a global finan..."

"Miss Boyle, I am not like other employers. I care not for the usual pieties of the job interview. Why don't you relax and treat this as a conversation with your favourite, most indulgent aunt?"

Kay had no favourite or indulgent aunts. She had no aunts, in fact. Nevertheless she took her advice and began to speak candidly.

"Mrs Flowers, it isn't just a piety of the job interview to say that I'm someone who tries to see the good in everyone and make the best of everything. But..." and here Kay felt like she was about the leap off a precipice, since she had told no one, not even her closest friends, what she was about to say "I've come to realise that I've let that go on too long, that I really really hate my current job, and it's doing me harm."

Mrs Flowers was not interested in her degree in Greek and Roman Civilisation and Philosophy, or her postgraduate Diploma in Business Studies. She was interested to hear that Kay was from Galway, which provoked a monologue on her own happy memories of the City of the Tribes - "The Races, my dear! Such young men! The colour, the pageantry!" She was interested in the last book she read, the music she listened to and more intimate matters. Kay did not especially mind being questioned about her romances by Mrs Flowers, feeling that Mrs Flowers was interested in a younger self to either live through vicariously or to mould. After her initial candour, more seemed little harm. The next day Kay handed in her notice.

Kay now found herself in a job where she was totally unsupervised. She had been a model employee of Diamond Financial Solutions, but she would, for example, surreptitiously make long personal calls from work most days. She would never dream of doing that in Mrs Flowers' apartment. She would take her lunch outside. She had never even been tempted, on a night out, to sleep in Mrs Flowers' apartment rather than make her way to the flat in Rathmines.

One day she had opened a invitation to a school reunion. Only then she realised that Mrs Flowers and herself went to the same boarding school in Wicklow. She wondered, with a certain amount of guilt, whether she had got this job through some complexity of the old girls' network. Then she realised that she had omitted details of her secondary school on her CV - without any intention of doing so, presumably blocking out this grey, lonely period in her life altogether. It seemed inconceivable that the circumstances of her getting the job had been contrived, although she expended some time in daydreaming about Mrs Flowers as a sort of benign Professor Moriarty, the hidden hand behind events.

That evening Mrs Flowers rang from Miami. When Kay told her of the invitation to the reunion, Mrs Flowers, without passion, told her to tear it up and set fire to the pieces, and then moved on to some business point or other.

Kay was now assembling the material for Murder Most Scottish. The previous day by fax she had received new instructions from Mrs Flowers. The fax came from the Marriot Hotel, Rio de Janiero. Whenever she read Mrs Flowers handwriting, Kay felt that she was reading something she had written herself and just picked up after being temporarily mislaid. The fax read:

 

"Kay - Hope all is well. Please ring Louis Donnelly and ask him to send the NKT file to me - he'll know what it means. I would like you to start research for my next book after Murder Most S. Please read all you can about the Foundation of the State of Israel, especially personal memoirs of those concerned, not just political leaders but ordinary people as much as possible. I will discuss this with you presently. Rio is as always delightful but alas the late Colonel F's estate will not allow me to enjoy it to the full. Regards, Mrs F."

Kay wondered if either E K Fortune or Kathleen O'Sullivan would be credited with this opus, which seemed a departure for either. Perhaps she was thinking of embarking on Murder Most Israeli.

In many ways Kay was very happy in her job. She was surprisingly busy, yet not so much as to eat into her free time. It was odd, but nice, to be working largely alone. It was odd, but nice, to be working in a job which involved no jockeying for position, no element of personal advancement. It was also far better paid than Diamond Financial Solutions.

The job was lonely. She would have liked to see Mrs Flowers more. The job interview had been the longest she had spent in her company. Kay's expectation that Mrs Flowers wanted a vivacious young woman to live through or to influence had so far not been borne out; Mrs Flowers was friendly and kindly at all times, yet since the interview had showed no interest in her assistant's existence outside of work. Perhaps this would change after her business in North, South and Central America finished.

Kay, at this moment, was looking out the window, riffling the cards without attending to them, and was thinking of Alan Martin.

 

II

An old lady pulled up outside the post office in a battery powered wheelchair resembling a motorcycle. Eugene caught sight of her, and stopped to observe. She looked for the controls to turn towards the post office's wheelchair ramp, but she had gone slightly too far, and the front wheels of her vehicle rested on a slight slope heading towards the fire exit of a business next door to the post office. Gradually she slid down the slope towards the exit. Frantically she fiddled with the controls to try and reverse, but the battery-run engine seemed to lack enough power to overcome the gradient.

At any stage a simple intervention would have prevented her slow slide down the slope. Eugene did not move, looking on the scene as one would look at a painting or a scenic view. A man leaving the post office came to the lady's aid. Eugene did not notice the backwards look the man gave him and wandered further down the street.

"Spare any change - homeless - sir" a beggar crouched in front of a hair salon muttered disconnectedly. Eugene stopped, turned very deliberately, and stared at him. At first the beggar assumed that Eugene was about to give him some money, and began more hopefully and coherently, "Spare any change, please sir, to buy a cup of tea..." before realising that Eugene did not intend parting with anything.

Eugene always fixed beggars with his full gaze. He was indifferent to their reaction; from the one in Liverpool who assailed him with a torrent of pleading and then abuse ("what goes around comes around, Mister") to the bewildered and crushed, like this gent. Eugene liked to look at their misery, to wonder what brought them to this state. In his imagined narratives, the beggars always amply deserved their fate; he constructed elaborate debauches and epic squanderings, ultimately producing the man who crouched before him.

After a satisfying inspection of misery, Eugene continued to the Alpha-Beta Diner, where he was to meet his sister Kay for lunch. As he arrived, he received a text message from her saying she would be late, so Eugene ordered two hamburgers. Kay was going through a vegetarian phase, one which Eugene confidently predicted would be finished within a month.

 

III

"Why don't you complain?" Eugene was saying, half an hour later. Kay had arrived, and refusing the offered hamburger ordered a bean burrito.

"Well, it is largely your fault," replied Kay.

"Nevertheless, it is nearly an hour since you ordered your vegetarian thingy, whatever it is. Why don't you complain?"

"They're very busy, and it's only been forty-five minutes."

"I know why you won't."

Kay affected amused tolerance of Eugene in these situations. "OK, tell me Eugene, why won't I complain?"

"Because the waiter is black."

"What do you mean?"

"Poor nice Kay, so prim and proper and nice. So afraid to seem racist."

"Don't be ridiculous, if I wanted to complain I'd complain. Anyhow, I'm not hungry."

"Don't you realise how racist you are being? You'd complain in a flash if that was a white person."

"No I wouldn't."

"So you're judging black people by a different standard to white people. By definition racist."

"Oh, shut up." Kay aimed for a tone of good-natured exasperation, she achieved exasperation more than good-nature.

"No Kay, how do expect our friend..." he looked at the carbon copy of their order on the table, "Tungu, if I have the right pronunciation, to grow both as a waiter and as a man, without fearless feedback."

But Kay did not complain.

Later, as Kay finished her vegetarian burrito, Eugene broke the silence with "I've given up on women. Or, at least, the women I know."

"I think you'll find the women you know have largely given up on you."

"Meaning?"

"The whole Teresa Claffey and Mary Woods thing. Didn't exactly win you friends."

Teresa Claffey and Mary Woods were both in Eugene's Commerce degree course; the former had died of leukaemia around the same time the latter had died in a car crash. Eugene had disliked both, and made no secret of this - either before or after their deaths.

"Look, we've been through this before," began Eugene, and indeed this was very familiar territory, "everyone hated them before. Getting cancer or being in a car crash isn't this moral blank cheque in my book. They were obviously both little..."

"Don't say it, Eugene. And there was no need to tell Mrs Claffey that at her own daughter's funeral."

"What can I say? In this valley of tears is there another honest man but me? And all this stuff about their deaths being tragic. Tragedy is catharsis through pity and terror, as Aristotle says."

This was a new approach for Eugene, Kay thought.

"There is nothing tragic about either death by that definition."

"Don't be such a prig. I presume you read something about Aristotle in FHM or Maxim, which are hardly reliable sources. And no one hated them like you seem to think. People just put up with your badmouthing them to keep the peace. And what about me? Did you ever consider me? What few friends I had from school weren't exactly overfond of the sister of the guy who was badmouthing their best friend."

Eugene ignored this. "Another thing everyone says," he continued, "is that Mary Woods didn't deserve to die in a car crash. Does that mean that some people do? She didn't especially not deserve to die in a car crash, if you ask me."

"Look, all you had to do was not badmouth them for a bit."

"I don't believe in lies."

"Don't be so melodramatic. You were disliked before. After the funerals, you were more hated than..." Kay tried to think of a suitable name, was about to say "Hitler", when Eugene pressed on nevertheless.

"As I said, I don't believe in lies."

"It isn't lying Eugene, it's ordinary human decency. And stop this martyr-for-truth business, OK? What great cause are you fighting for? The holy cause of upsetting dead girls' parents?"

"I stand, " said Eugene, "and fall by my principles"

 

IV

One night Alan and Sorcha, who had been going out for three years now, went to the cinema. The film was a long family drama, in which the secrets kept over generations led inexorably to hatred and mistrust. A fearsome patriarch ruled the family with an iron trust, and only on his death did honesty and sincerity break out among his progeny. With tears in his eyes, Alan watched. The film crystallised a nagging thought that had been bothering him. He even thought to himself in exactly those words - "this has crystallised a nagging thought that's been bothering me." Alan wrote, as a sideline, film reviews for a free listings guide and, as he watched a film, began to phrase his words of praise or blame. Alan's eyes dried before the credits rolled.

Afterwards Sorcha, who didn't like the film much, made a rather snappy comment about it, expecting agreement from Alan. She turned expecting his supporting wisecrack, to see her boyfriend looking serious.

"What's wrong?" she asked

"We need to have a talk," he said.

"What about?"

"A serious talk. Watching that film has crystallised a nagging thought that's been bothering me."

They went to the bar in the cinema. En route, Sorcha persuaded herself that she was about to receive her first marriage proposal. She had hoped, as they watched the film, that the redemptive climax of the wedding would put the idea into Alan's mind. She wondered how best to handle the matter. She wanted to marry Alan, she felt certain, although she would have preferred a more glamorous setting for her first proposal. On the other hand, she was actively contemptous of slushy, ostentatious romance.

 

When Alan said "It's something I've been meaning to say to you for a long time." Sorcha felt confirmed in her belief. She smiled, said "I know", and immediately regretted saying it, or showing any sign that what was about to happen was a surprise. But Alan hadn't noticed her reaction. In tones of the confessional he told her that he had often lusted after other women. He had been entirely faithful in deed, but had occasionally wondered what would happen if he had succumbed. He had occasionally felt slight resentment towards Sorcha, for reasons he didn't specify.

This is an unusual build up to a proposal, thought Sorcha. Alan was saying "you deserve so much, so much, my dear" and Sorcha thought he was, at last, back on track. Then he was saying "you deserve faith, in act and thought" and it struck her that Alan was lapsing into the Biblical tone he sometimes used talking about his work as an administrator with a Third World development agency, a turn of speech she had always found a rather charming affectation. Then he paused, and Sorcha expected to hear what else she deserved. Instead, Alan said that he couldn't give her that faith, not absolutely, and he understood if she never wanted to see him again. Then he walked off.

Alan's phone was still turned off since the movie, and he drove home, went to bed and lay in bed, unsleeping. Alan believed that decisive action in human relationships, as long as it was motivated by authentic emotion, was always right. The next day was Saturday; turning on his phone again, he was informed by the impersonal genie of the mobile that he had three messages. All were from Sorcha, in increasing levels of distress. He rang her back, told her that he felt strongly about her, but didn't feel the devotion that he felt she deserved. He was firm on this. Sorcha cried, she cursed him, she told him that the least he could do was talk about whatever difficulties he had and work on them, but Alan stood firm. A clean break is for the best, he told her, rather than letting things fester. "Let's not let mistrust grow between us. I hope we will still be friends." Sorcha hung up at this point.

The weekend was difficult for Alan. As was his first week back at work. But by the end of the week he was sleeping well again, and then he had the unexpected tonic of an earthquake in the Philippines which filled his workplace with busy life. He did miss Sorcha, her warm presence, her funny, breezy jokes, her respectful listening to his thought on the state of the world, but at least he knew he had acted authentically. She hadn't tried to contact him.

 

V

Eugene and Kay's father had died suddenly of a heart attack two years before. They had been told that they should have a check up for heart disease. Kay had passed easily. Eugene however, as well as being a smoker, had high cholesterol and blood pressure. Dr Small, the family GP, told Eugene he really should go on medication and stop smoking. Eugene refused to even consider either. Dr Small confined himself to saying that he really should stop smoking, and asked Eugene to come back in six months. Eugene did so, and the same performance was played out twice more. Dr Small, once he had made his token protest on behalf of medication and of non-smoking, didn't believe in pushing things. Eugene began to rather enjoy these trips to the doctor; they gave him a pleasant sense of importance, and once he had the preachy part out of the way Dr Small was really quite funny. In any case, his blood pressure returned to fairly normal levels, and he refused any more blood tests for his cholesterol.

One day when Eugene came to the clinic Dr Small was on holiday. His wife had taken early retirement, his receptionist said, and they had decided to spend a year travelling the world. For the next year a locum would be in his place. Dr Fay was a much younger GP who believed in the assertive promotion of health. On looking at Dr Small's epigrammatic notes "Continues to smoke. Refuses fasting lipids. Refuses medication", she emitted a snorting, humourless laugh.

"Smoking," she began, "will kill you."

"How do you know?" said Eugene.

"A lot of research says so, there is no doubt, no doubt at all, that smokers die younger."

"But how do you that smoking will kill me? As opposed to anything else."

"It takes years off your life."

"Apparently so."

"And it isn't just your own health. Other people suffer because of your smoking."

"I know."

 

Dr Fay was enraged by Eugene's attitude. Having suggested various tablets, patches and gums, she gave up on the smoking front and reached into a drawer of the desk. She thrust a waxy lump from the drawer at Eugene.

"This," she announced, jabbing at the lump, "is what a kilo of fat looks like."

It was a hefty bit of sweet-smelling rubber. "It smells nice" said Eugene. This was a completely sincere statement. It looked and felt beautiful, like the wax drips from candles but bigger, softer and cooler. "Can I keep it?"

Dr Fay wrote a prescription for an anti-smoking drug, despite Eugene's protests that he didn't want it and had no intention of using it. She put it into his hand as he departed the way elderly relatives used to push folded banknotes on Eugene as a child, despite his parents' protestations that really there was no need (protestations that Eugene deeply resented.)

Outside Eugene looked at the prescription. The one point against smoking, in his view, was the increasing cost. In truth the pleasure he derived from the habit was small. At times he had considered giving up, but then considered the forces arrayed against smoking and decided to continue.

He also felt there was something impressive about being "on medication." It gave one a cachet, an importance. In the office he worked an older man was on various drugs, some of which he took with great ceremony at lunchtime. No doubt what was surely an anti-smoking placebo wouldn't hurt.

After an enjoyable hamburger and fries, and what he melodramatically described to himself as one last cigarette, he walked to the pharmacy.

 

VI

Sorcha had worked in Collins' Pharmacy for a year. After graduation, she had worked for two years and made an exceptional amount of money. Then she decided to treat herself, and embarked on a round the world trip with Alan, whom she had met a year before. By the time they reached Bangkok, she tired of the routine of the backpacker life, of the constant disappointment and sense of anticlimax, of the cheerless backpackers competing with each other in not enjoying anything. Everything seemed mediocre, nothing like what it should have been. On her return, she had dutifully trooped around with a camera with an undefined notion of being a photographer, but none of her photos ever seemed any good. She returned to the pharmacy. At least I still have Alan, she had thought, but soon he too was gone.

As he walked into Collins' pharmacy, he looked with dulled aversion at the beauty products, the cough preparations, the herbal remedies and the other miscellaneous over-the-counter debris of the pharmacy. This is the real thing, he thought as he sidled up to the dispensing counter. All that stuff is just clutter. I wonder do they make much money from it, or is mainly all about the dispensing? There was no one behind the counter, so Eugene pressed four times on a bell on the till. At the fourth ring, Sorcha came out from among the white shelves of medications.

It was Eugene's habit to press bells or buzzers continuously, not just until someone responded but until they were directly dealing with him. But when Sorcha emerged, he stopped. He experienced a moment of pure intensity, an egoless moment. Sorcha was undoubtedly the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. But his reaction was more basic than that. It was the instinctive reverence one feels in the presence of something great, or something holy. A man whose thoughts were usually engaged in contemplating his own misery or the failings of others, this instant of self-transcendence was the closest he would ever come to a spiritual experience. It would stay with him to the end of his life, beyond the reach of this story. Over the coming years Kay and others would notice a tempering of the noxious aspects of his personality, a capacity for inoffensiveness, for kindness even.

Holding the prescription out limply, Eugene said nothing. As Sorcha returned to the warren of tablets, he thought of Sorcha in a more physical sense. Her beauty was extreme, yet nothing about her appearance was exceptional. She was a brunette, with a face more handsome than pretty. But for the character, the robustness of her face, seemed to light the beauty of her whole person.

One of Eugene's recurrent fantasies was seducing a woman in her workplace. This had never happened. Often he would entertain these lurid imaginary rompings when confronted with a particularly attractive shop assistant, but with Sorcha he found himself unable to indulge in these. There was something relentlessly spiritual about her, something that precluded purely carnal observation.

Sorcha returned with the tablets, and stuffed the Drug Refund Scheme form with them into a paper bag. She had not noticed Eugene at all. "Here you go", she said as she handed him the paper bag. "Thank you. Thank you very very much." Eugene said this with a wide, surprised smile. A pause. For the first time Eugene registered with Sorcha; she thought "how happy he looks!" Then he left, and Sorcha continued her train of thought when Eugene had appeared, ruminating on how unhappy she was.

 

VII

The single life did not suit Alan. Since the age of sixteen he had always had someone willing to listen to his opinions, to agree with his diagnoses of society's ills. And since the age of sixteen there had been an unbroken line of succession - generally he had broken up with his girlfriends, in a spirit of utter frankness and honesty, with a new one waiting in the wings, indeed these women were the cause of the break-up, since Alan was suddenly compelled, by a force unknown, to realise that his feelings for the new girl were becoming stronger and stronger, and it wouldn't be fair on either himself or his girlfriend to continue going out, and his soon to be ex girlfriend would always be a very dear friend to him. A short while after being dumped, his ex-girlfriends would realise that they were entitled to feel aggrieved at Alan, but at the time his earnestness, his rock-like belief that he was always in the right that made so many believe he was always in the right, managed to produce the opposite effect; more than one girlfriend apologised to him during the dumping process.

One day, browsing in a second hand bookshop whose ostentatious avoidance of publicity had made it the best known in town, he saw a tall girl, clad in a long grey mohair coat and wearing a purple beret, with a striking face of such high cheek bones that there was something Inca or Aztec about her. The hint of the exotic, the artistic clothing, the Sartre paperback she was holding, the overall intensity of her presence - all suddenly drove Alan into a passion of longing and regret - a regret not for any individual, but for the whole series of breakups as a whole, the sum total of rejected love over the years. This was the first moment of self-doubt Alan had experienced in ten years.

He followed her with his eyes around the bookshop. She picked up books - and, Alan noted, the right books - in each section that Alan would have gone to - Politics, History, Literature, Poetry. Alan formulated a line and an approach. He would stride up to the Inca goddess, point casually at a book (maybe the Bukowksi, maybe the Lorca), and say "Great book." Then, he hoped, his natural confidence would take over operations.

What a stupid idea, the previously unknown voice of self-doubt said. No it isn't, said Alan's more usual ego, and he tried to think of refinements to the approach "Two great books", perhaps. The girl approached the cash desk, handed over the books, and Alan watched as she paid and left.

Now, for the first time in thirteen years, Alan had no readily identifiable successor to the role of consort. His activist friends, used to Alan's nameless girlfriends (none of whom they had ever met, not even Sorcha) noticed a change in Alan; an indifference, a diffidence. On discovering the break-up, they happily ascribed the change to this.

In fact, it wasn't the break-up as such that had disturbed Alan's sense of self; it was the realisation that he had no idea whatsoever how to approach the opposite sex. He was far from shy, but up to now his relationships had developed imperceptibly, without any obvious move or, until the final stages, any particular desire on his part. The next girlfriend would emerge by natural selection, at around the time Alan's tremendous honesty compelled him to finish with the current girlfriend.

Alan and Kay had been in the same philosophy tutorial group in college. Alan was as he was now, an intensely serious figure happiest when drafting a petition or writing a letter of protest. He privately deplored the shouted slogans of public protest, preferring the well-crafted phrase of outrage. His other notable habit in college was his chairing of the University Literary Group, in which capacity he wrote nothing but carefully demolished the undergraduate poetry of its members. Kay had no interest in the politics of statement and gesture, although she longed to find a political party she could join and support without embarrassment or qualification. She attended one meeting of the ULG, and left soon at the break halfway through, fleeing its atmosphere of aggressive pretension. Alan's overall pomposity and self-regard were the precise opposite of the qualities that Kay liked in a man - an insouciance, a light-heartedness that overlay an essentially good natured selflessness

For all this, Kay found Alan uncomfortably attractive. This was partly because he was a genuinely handsome man, but as college had gone on Kay had found that the on the whole, in men insouciance overlay callow indifference. By the time she came to be in Mrs Flowers' employ, she had not seen or even heard from Alan since graduation, yet he was much on her mind. Every so often Kay would read some pulp psychic paperback, and when the author, as they inevitably did, cited the allegedly common occurrence of thinking of someone only to meet them immediately afterwards, or for them to telephone, as an example of everyday psychic powers, Kay gave up. If that was true, Alan Martin would have appeared to Kay most days since graduation.

On Thursday whose highlights were the receipt of a book in the post about Bible John, the killer who stalked Glasgow's dancehalls in the 1960s, and a fax from Mrs Flowers reminding her to attend to the annual registration fees for Flores Limited, the company which was, essentially, Mrs Flowers in her commercial aspect, Kay was again looking out the window, thinking of Alan. Colonel Flowers' business interests seemed infinite, and Kay sometimes wondered if "Mrs Flowers" was an elaborate fiction, if she was the victim of an elaborate metaphysical practical joke.

Kay kept nine to five hours, with an hour long break from one to two, with the same conscientious sense of duty that kept her taking advantage of Mrs Flowers in any other way. At five to five, the phone rang.

"Mrs Flowers?" said Kay. None but she had ever rung the phone.

"Mrs Flowers?" said a male voice, instantly recognisable to Kay.

"Hello!" she said.

"Mrs Flowers, I'm glad I got you."

"Sorry, this isn't Mrs Flowers, this is Kay Boyle."

"Sorry"

"Kay Boyle"

"Who?"

"Kay, remember? From UCD. Your tutorial group. Kay Boyle."

"KAY BOYLE," said Alan, with what struck Kay as feigned enlightenment, "Kay Boyle. You. It's been a long time."

"Yes, yes it has. What are you doing?"

 

Alan fluently explained his role in the charity organisation that he was working for. As a fundraiser for the following Christmas, they were planning to publish a book length version of the game Exquisite Cadavers. Each author would write a chapter, and the author of each succeeding chapter would have the final paragraph of the previous to work from. They were interested, naturally, in Mrs Flowers, under one of her pen-names, contributing a chapter.

Kay helped as much as she could, explained that Mrs Flowers was rarely present and generally left no contact number while about her business interests. But Kay promised to discuss the project with her. She was sure Mrs Flowers would agree to take part. Perhaps they could meet for coffee and catch up?

 

Kay didn't plan to say that, it came unbidden from the natural flow of the conversation. Alan paused, then agreed. The following Saturday, at two. Fine with you? Yes, yes, very good.

When she put the phone down Kay felt a rush, a simultaneous elation and fear - fear of embarrassment, of finally confronting a beloved daydream.

 

VIII

Over the next few weeks Dr Fay was amazed at how motivated, how courteous and how compliant Eugene was. Was this the same man whose casual indifference had so enraged her? She congratulated herself on her victory, on this brand plucked from burning, and Eugene agreed to take anti-cholesterol agents, not one but two antihypertensives, asked shyly if he needed to be taking aspirin and, after confessing to near-total insomnia, was prescribed sleeping tablets.

Thanks to the drug refund scheme Eugene's habit did not cost him overmuch financially, and thanks to a well-placed figure 1 converting Dr Fay's request for four or five repeats to fourteen or fifteen (a 2 would be pushing it, he thought), Eugene saw Sorcha each week and accumulated a lot of medication. Every so often he would ask at the butcher's for nearly rancid meat, and they were happy to get rid of it at a token price. Later he would first stuff as many tablets as possible into it, and then throw it over the wall of a garden where one of his former teachers, a noted dog lover, worked. The rest he would serenely drop down the toilet, smoking a cigarette as he did so, keeping only the anti-smoking tablets which he took as a mark of respect for the unknown god of pharmaceuticals who had brought him face-to-face with his destiny.

Only recently had he began his plan of campaign in earnest. After a couple of weeks of hushed reverence, he began to make small talk. One day, when Sorcha was wearing a lower-cut top than usual, he absently picked up a leaflet while trying to avoid gazing at her cleavage. Later he took it out of his pocket; it was called "How to Make Your Medication Manageable" - reading it, he first conceived what he thought was an elegant plan of approach to the seduction of Sorcha. On his next weekly visit, he engaged her in the first prolonged conversation they had ever had.

"I wonder could you help me?"

"Yes." Sorcha was always curious about her customers. She took antidepressants herself, so thought no less of Eugene for that reason. Eugene had presumed she might, and had seen it as the main obstacle to his campaign. This plan, he felt, solved that problem as well as creating the image of Eugene as a kindly, caring man.

"I get these medications for my father, and I have to give them to him each day. I was giving him little envelopes each day for morning, afternoon and night, but the poor man gets confused. I was reading this leaflet, and it talked about this pill pot business. Do you have one?"

The pharmacy did have one - not just one but a whole range of types, from simples matrices of perspex boxes with each day of the week and the various phases of the day inscribed on each box to automated ones that made various whirring noises before the tablets emerged. Sorcha enjoyed this kind of thing tremendously. Any engagement with the customer beyond the transitory exchange of prescription for medication for money excited her.

 

Each week Sorcha asked Eugene how his father was doing. Subtly, Eugene found out where she lived, what she did at the weekends. Sorcha tended to go for long walks, which put off Eugene not a bit. Eugene did as little exercise as possible, but a couple of weeks later began promenading at weekends along the seafront at Bray, where Sorcha lived. Eugene only went at certain times, determined not to overplay his hand.

 

IX

The next Saturday Kay and Alan met, in a coffee shop beside the bookshop where Alan had failed to make any attempt whatsoever to win over the Aztec princess. Alan arrived fifteen minutes late, and finally remembered Kay just as he walked into the coffee shop.

"Alan" Kay rose, and went to embrace him

"Umm... Kay," Alan replied, embracing awkwardly.

"Great to see you."

"You too"

"How are things?"

"OK."

Silence. Kay again: "What have you been up to since?"

"Since college?"

"Yeah."

"I worked in Burundi for a year."

"A year."

"Yes, a year." Pause. "The poverty in Africa, its unbelievable."

"Really?"

"Yes. Unbelievable. Things you wouldn't believe."

Silence. "And then?"

"Travelled around Asia and Australia, and New Zealand, and South America, and Central America, and back to Africa."

"Must have been great."

"It was. It was fantastic."

"Where did you go?"

"All over. All over the place."

"Amazing."

Silence. Alan restarted: "You?"

"Me?"

"What did you do?"

"Oh I... didn't do much."

"OK."

Alan was prepared to accept that Kay hadn't done much. He was wondering why he was so tongue tied, so stupid. Why did I say the poverty in Africa is unbelievable? As if she didn't know that?

Kay came back with various names from college, and they had a reasonable conversation for an hour, with only the occasional silence. At the end they exchanged phone numbers and emails.

After a week, Alan sent Key a text asking would she like to go out for a drink with him. Kay, having confronted the subject of her daydreaming, had lost one illusion and gained another. Alan, she realised, was no longer the self-assured future Great Man she had remembered. Now she saw him as a future Great Man who had somewhere lost his way, become adrift. It was in the long pauses, the anxious eyes he had cast on her, the need to impress, the seriousness that never rose above the level of platitude. The old Alan Martin would have discoursed on the savage beauty of Africa and how we in the West had plundered it to fund our wasteful lives. The lost Alan Martin mumbled things about poverty in Africa being unbelievable.

She readily accepted. There was an intensity in Alan from the second they met, in a sweating bar where they had to lean close to hear each others awkward conversation. The intensity of desperation, Kay recognised, but being the opposite of the insouciant swagger of the men she usually ended up with, she felt drawn in. Alan felt uncomfortable, sweating so that he presumed Kay was repelled by his odour. After a couple of hours of loud talking at close quarters, they went out into the night. In the colder air Alan felt some confidence return. As they walked down the cobbled street, he slipped his hand into hers.

 

X

Over the weekends Eugene was amazed to find himself beginning to enjoy walking. He liked the wind on his face, liked the blank feeling he got from walking, the purposeful sense of forward motion without thinking. He would look at the mass of Bray head, on some days clear, on some days lost in misty drizzle, and think how satisfying it all is.

Four weeks into his programme, he came across Sorcha. He saw her from far off, and prepared to greet her from a good distance away. But as he, smiling, said "Hello, Sorcha", she walked past. Eugene felt no pang - Sorcha had the look of a woman in a reverie, mouthing the words of some song on her Walkman. He walked a little bit further, turned and saw Sorcha striding along, reaching the end of the promenade. He walked on towards her, and as she finally reached the end of the concrete she turned, and began walking towards him. . He waved tentatively, and he saw recognition, even at a distance, on Sorcha's face.

"Hello, Sorcha"

"Hi there!" Sorcha was broken from her reverie.

"Taking the air, I see."

"Yes, yes, you?"

"Taking the air too. I love this walk."

"So do I. So do I."

Sorcha seemed a little flustered. Eugene felt the moment was right.

"Would you like to go for a coffee?"

 

XI

"She's wonderful" said Eugene.

Kay couldn't remember when Eugene had ever called anything "wonderful".

"How did you meet her?"

"She works in the pharmacy."

"And how did you meet her there?"

"I get my medication from her."

"What medication are YOU on?"

Eugene hadn't discussed his repeat prescriptions with Kay at the tense lunches they occasionally had, at which she had noticed a new lightness in Eugene.

"Quite a lot. Quite a lot actually." Impelled by a previously utterly foreign impulse - the desire to confess all - Eugene told Kay how he came to be his father's keeper.

 

XII

"That, even by your standards, is the most terrible thing you've ever done. How could you? How could you?" Kay was close to tears.

"I lo..."

"How could you? Using Daddy like that. How could you?"

"I lov.e."

"You're a... liar. There's no good in you at all. At all. How could your behaviour be so... be so inappropriate" As she said the word, it sounded stiff and legalistic, yet an instant before she was sure it was the right one. The thought of its oddness gave her pause.

Eugene took advantage of the pause to finally complete a sentence. "I don't care. I love her."

This was new territory for Eugene, both in terms of the infamy of his lie and his being in love. "Really?" Her voice showed the first softening in many minutes.

"Yes. Yes I do."

"Ok. Fine." Kay paused. A tense pause. The thought of Alan, of her own happiness, came to her. "I won't say anything to her, Eugene. All you have to do is tell her that our father's dead."

 

XIII

Kay and Alan agreed to meet early the following Monday evening in the same coffee shop as their first meeting. Alan, his underground lake of self-assurance refilled, was planning to have The Opening Conversation. This was the monologue he delivered at the start of each relationship, which largely concerned the need for absolute openness and trust. He would discuss his previous relationships (now quite a catalogue), give his candid opinion on what went wrong and why, and pledge "my ongoing respect and honesty, if I have your ongoing respect and honesty." The first few times, he had said "undying" rather than "ongoing."

Kay happily agreed. It was all so formal, almost legal. So serious, so suitable for a man doing great, noble work in the world.

They parted as boyfriend and girlfriend, taking their separate buses home, Kay sending text messages all the way while Alan leafed through poems. Each week he conducted what he called the Poets Circle in the seaside suburb he lived in. He had long felt that all literary activity should be local, should spring from an informal conclave of equals. The Poets Circle subsumed literary ego in the collective. Alan Martin was the founder and, by natural right, leader.

The meetings were held in the Masonic Hall on the Promenade, a building with nothing much to do with Freemasonry anymore. Each week Alan read out poems anonymously submitted at the end of the previous weeks meeting. It was the same principle as the ULG in college, except with ego more strictly suppressed. Although everyone knew who had written what, it was considered bad form to identify oneself.

Tonight there was an unusually mediocre selection, Alan had thought on his busride, so he brought along one of his own works, written during his last months in Burundi. The usual six were there, in the functional upstairs room that was surprisingly well heated by a single-bar overhead heater.

Alan began by reading "Friends: False and Few True" a rhyme-laden work by Mrs Herron, who stoically endured the inevitable pasting her verse received. It was far from the radical cry of the anguished people that Alan aspired to hear from the Poets Circle, but Mrs Herron was the only member who had lasted more than three months.

 

As he finished to poem, the door opened. All turned, glad of the pause. It was the girl from the bookstore, the Inca goddess, the Aztec princess. "I'm sorry, is this the Poets' Circle?" she asked.

"Yes, yes, come in," said Alan, feeling the stirring he felt in the bookshop.

As she introduced herself - Jane Ni hEochaigh from Spiddal, recently moved to Dublin - Alan, among other swirling thoughts, thought of the Closing Conversation. A nagging thought that had been bothering him began to crystallise.

 

XIV

It was a solution Eugene was proud of. Kay had never specified that he tell Sorcha that his father had died two years before. He would tell Sorcha that his father had died suddenly, and as it was so early in their relationship he would nobly tell her that it was unfair to expect her to be there at this difficult time, and that perhaps they should take a little break.

Eugene told her all this with dignity shining through his tear-speckled eyes. Sorcha cried, said that Eugene was a lovely lovely guy, and very good to be so considerate, but it was no problem at all for her to be there for him. But Eugene was firm:

"You deserve so much, Sorcha, not funerals and grief and sadness. You're too young for that. Not now. In two months, let's meet again, and see how things are."

 

Two months later, they met again, and Eugene was glad to see the look of devoted solicitude in her eyes he expected. She asked him about the funeral, about how he felt, about how his sister felt. After two hours they stood up. He put his arms around her, and in the quiet corner of the coffee shop, the same one where Alan and Kay had met for the first time and had the Opening Conversation, they kissed.

 

As they left, holding hands, Sorcha turned to Eugene and said "On Saturday, I'd like to visit his grave."

 

THE END