As Crowley awaits his wife in this new short story, the contents of his neighbour’s house are thrown in a skip
She walked the kids round to her sister’s. Only two streets away and she was still not back after an hour. Crowley stood in the shower, ironed his shirt and had got the flute ready. He was hoping there’d be a song or two later as he gargled with salt water at the sink and spat it out on to the breakfast dishes.
He flipped the lid on his phone. Debs wasn’t making him wait or maybe she was. Or she didn’t know herself if that was the plan for this morning. She’d deny it.
Might admit to it, angrily. The agenda changed so quickly she couldn’t keep up with herself. What it did mean though was a big rush, fluster and stress, no time to try to enjoy the morning with her now. The chance was gone. Debs and her wit doing her make-up in her great-grandmother’s mirror. The glee her reflection took in shocking him with her coarse secret tongue.
At the front window Crowley, while checking for sight of his wife on the street, discovered there was a skip outside the house opposite, Flaherty’s place. It must have been delivered pretty early because he was up with the kids. Two citizens were guiding a mattress through the front door. First, a short, round red-faced man, and a much younger and taller youth in a Dundalk football strip at the other end.
These two tipped the mattress over the side of the skip and were returning to the house when the thing somehow fell back over the other side and into the road. Only the younger one found it funny. A van was parked beside the skip, grey, new, with a Louth registration.
Flaherty was buried out by the airport three months earlier. A local man, a printer in his time, dapper as they say, a Saturday gambler and a decent hand at the five-string banjo. They had a few sessions together, Crowley and him. The last one, epic, began in the early afternoon and rolled on into the night, and dry too, just tea and a plate of biscuits, tea and music and the light from the fire. The man had a habit of glancing over his shoulder when he sang, over both shoulders, like he was expecting somebody who might arrive from any direction. Debs wouldn’t let her husband into the bed after that last one, refused to even look at him for a few days, and Crowley took the hint. He avoided the man. Flaherty died of a heart attack in the barber’s chair and the blast of a jumbo shook him in his coffin by the graveside. Only six people made the effort, including a priest, Crowley and a Garda inspector with his arm in a sling.
He ought to have been surprised at the appearance of his wife right outside the window and he didn’t know either why he acted as if it wasn’t really her. Or how the way she stuck her hands on her hips and scowled happened to bring him back to his senses and made him open the door for her.
You’ll get a name for yourself lurking there.
They’re cleaning out over yonder didn’t you notice? Have you seen my purse? She was flushed, preoccupied. In the kitchen, he told her the taxi was booked for midday.
Well, sorry to rain on the parade but it’ll just have to wait because I popped into the hairdressers on the off-chance and they can take me right now. Just a blow-dry, don’t worry, I won’t be long. Oh is that a new case? Are you bringing it? The clock was at 11.20. Running her fingernail along the leather of the new case for the flute, she said, quietly, gently, There won’t be any singing at this you know. I really wouldn’t say so. People will want to dance. They’re not that type. You know, they’re more – but you know what? The eyes sprung on him.
Crowley shook his head.
I think I’m going to enjoy myself today.
Good. Great. The weather’s clearing up too.
No, I’m serious. Know why? Me? I feel back in myself. I feel like myself again all of a sudden, I really do. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like. I’m me again. And the gentleness faded from her voice with, So today when anyone asks how I’m doing, what’s the story there Debs, I’m going to be dignified enough to tell them the truth. Well sweetie the scéal isn’t too hot to be honest with you. Shitsville if you really want to know.
You see my hubbie and I separated more than a year ago but he refuses to move out of the house, he just point blank refuses, won’t accept it. Oh don’t worry yourself. Chill the gills. Nobody does. Nobody knows sure. Well he didn’t want us to tell anyone. He asked me to wait you see. And I went along with it didn’t I, waiting for it to sink in. You know, hoping he’d deal.
Debs slid in very close to him. He ogled the darker roots in her hair as she corrected his shirt collar. Her thumb whipped his left earlobe. He could forget everything if she told him to.
Give me half an hour okay, and she laid a patter of hands on his chest. Crowley followed her through the living room to the front door, tempted to grab her by the arm when nothing came out of his mouth, bloody nothing as usual. She hurried away from him up the street, the little elbows kept tight to her body because she knew she was being watched by her bollix of a husband and two muppets with a sofa.
It was likely the sister’s influence. Ever since the woman got herself elected to the council, she had started rezoning other people’s privacy. This taxpayer might well have treated her to some vehement doorstep oratory if the kids hadn’t been there. Instead, he flipped the phone and booked the cab for one on the dot, watching the dust cloud settle on Flaherty’s sofa in the skip. They would be late, yes, but maybe Debs might have calmed down by then; her high moods never lasted. Burning, the two patches of heat on his chest from her drum roll, still burning as he crossed the street.
The young lad in there, my eldest, you know what he says to me? I’m pulling carpet and notice it’s gone quiet above. Too quiet. And I get one of those shivers down the spine. An ice-cold shiver and the hairs on my arms do that weird feckin blowing in the wind, the man said, showing Crowley both his arms by the low end of the skip. Wisps of cobweb on the freckled skin. A black half thumbnail. I go out for a listen at the bottom of the stairs and what do you know there’s a crowbar hanging over the banister, just hung there waiting for me. That’s how it looked. Like it was feckin made to be hanging there right there and then. And I don’t know which is worse, that there’s still no sound at all from up above or touching it. The crowbar I mean.
The man fell silent, overwhelmed, and seemed relieved at the sight of his son with an armful of clothes. Anyway, the sooner we get this done and gutted the better. You’re the musician or something am I right? Piano is it? Socks, so many socks, trousers, vests, even the dead man’s underwear clinging to the furniture in the skip. A bucket of postcards and shoes. A banjo with its neck broken and a burst nerve bag of ties for all occasions.
Didn’t you play something at the mother’s funeral? We were just back from a holiday in Cadiz, Crowley replied. We were literally just in the door when we heard about it. But by the time we got to the cemetery in Clondalkin the service was over. We were so annoyed.
The man excused himself, cleared his nostrils. So, you being a neighbour like, one fine day my mother falls down the stairs to her death then, accidentally, what’d you make of all that? Crowley shook his head.
Exactly. And the bastard got away with it too – that’s the tragedy.
I barely knew him.
Well for a minute or two there I thought the rat was disturbed from his lair. Gripping a crowbar I ascend those stairs after him and what do I see, what’s all the silence down to, the young lad gawping at that pile of crap, gesturing toward a box of what looks like old porn. But Da, he says to me, Da we could get money for that stuff on the internet. There’s people out there who’ll pay money for it, Da. Collectors. Vintage it’s called nowadays. I thought that meant something to do with old wine. But now it means the age of old wank mags. Aged in a feckin crisp box on top of a wardrobe in Dublin for 20 odd years of – damn the money, you know that, I’d sooner flatten the place, he said and plunged back into his father’s house.
Crowley loitered by the skip a few minutes longer. He took the steps on his own staircase one at a time. The clock in the girls’ room beeped on the hour. Midday.
Across the city, the big bells were late. In his wife’s room, a stranger, a thief, he stood by the side of the double bed where she had laid out her clothes. The short black dress. Heart-shaped around the cleavage. The slightest satin straps for the shoulder she’d had to put a stitch in after that night in Cadiz, the air heavy as the pink sea, the taste of fireworks in the crumbling squares, after what happened in the alleyway. They were walking, drifting, strolling as they say, after watching the chirigotas, the cabaret choir on the beach between the two illuminated castles.
They hadn’t even known there would be a carnival on. Debs stopped in the darkness under a balcony and he thought at first she was scared to go any deeper into the barrio. Then she turned to face the wall, put her hands against the wall without a word. The strap nipped as he took a hold of her braid, as he pulled her head back more and some more again until he could see her eyes under him and she was arched into a new shape, the strap must have got snagged in his fingers, and her eyes broke open.
And when they got home the next day, and they heard Elsa had died, she threw on the same dress and they hurried out to Clondalkin in a cab. A man was fixing the bucket of the digger at the grave when they got to Newlands Cross. Eventually, after a few phone calls, another cab took them to a pub in the village. Debs, for most of the night she wouldn’t budge from behind the table because she had got it into her head the dress was too short. Crowley had sand in his shoes. Later on, when the singing started, she alighted on a stool at the front of the crowd. His wife, his first love. She held her glass between her knees to clap, her legs still greased with sun cream. How many was it, four or five tunes in, a Pecker Dunne number which had them out of their seats, when the row flared and the two sons dragged old Flaherty into the jacks. And Crowley played on, a straight back and the hole warming under his lip, and his wife sat serenely on through the uproar with her eyes fixed on him, the strap hanging loose again from her shoulder.
Across the street now, the Flahertys must be turfing glass into the skip. They would strip the place to the joists and never find the beginning. A killer rattles in his sleep under the flight path to the sun. A wife, curlers in her hair, concocts her escape in a warmed-up mirror. And a man, Crowley, pulls a tie from his trouser pocket and inspects the length of the polka-dot silk in the light from the window.
He picks some dirt, a bit of cobweb maybe, from the expensive saddle stitching and threads it through his collar. His shadow falls across the dress on the bed as he makes his knot and tightens it at his throat.
Sean O’Reilly is the author of the short-story collection Curfew, the novels Love and Sleep and The Swing of Things and the experimental novella Watermark. He lives in Dublin and is working on a new novel