An Encounter, a new short story by Niamh Campbell
Summer Fiction: A story by the winner of the 2020 Sunday Times Audible award and author of This Happy
I realised on reaching the park that the toilets were shut, so I found a tree poured out like a porch and opened my fly. The sound ground earthily around me with bikes clicking, crickets creaking, children, car engines. The tree felt like a presence. After this I made for the Wellington Monument.
Last year I ran a half-marathon and Clara and I spent the night in a B&B. In the morning, as we waited in the parlour of taxidermy birds, the proprietor came to talk to us – Clara is patient with people – about masons. He had an interest in the reach and depravity of masonic brotherhoods throughout history and published pamphlets about it himself because the publishing industry was controlled by masons. He advised us to watch out, always, for obelisks, since these were a symbol, and the greatest of these is the Wellington Monument.
There were people in the meadow, sitting in picnic groups or kicking balls, but I felt I would be able to spot Tierney easily. I’d been reading his work, his commentary from the communist block in Oradea my colleague Seamus had photographed – Tierney blank-eyed before a stairwell like a ruby oubliette – and I had a sense of a man who would stalk and lurk and turn spontaneously. It was with surprise, then, that I recognised a relatively short guy in cargo shorts standing at the base of the monument and watching a volleyball game with interest.
He shifted quickly, however. He took me in and tilted his chin. When I bowed drolly instead of shaking hands, whatever poise he had melted out and he began to complain in a Dublin accent with an international twist.
“This,” he said, gesturing around us. “All of this. It’s embarrassing.”
“Thank you for meeting me.”
“We’ve met before,” he told me bluntly. “In Paris.”
I was a correspondent from Paris for four years. Seamus and I shared a flat and on the night of the Bataclan, ran into the street craving a crowd to hide in, bursting into the cafe on the corner where nobody had been told and patrons were eating: two waiters wound towards us shouting, pas de réserve! This was before I came back to Ireland and before I met Clara. Although Seamus was a messer, that night I remembered him bent over the laptop, potently focused, as we relayed between Dublin and the embassy; I remember the back of his skull, the well at the base of his skull. We sat up all night drinking and deciding on allegiances.
I knew in the morning that I would come home.
“I’m sorry,” I told Tierney now, “I don’t remember meeting you.”
“You were introducing people. You were,” he paused. “Exuberant.” He smirked. “You were undiscerning,” he said.
“Would you like to get coffee?”
We walked. I’d expected him to be difficult and entertaining. He was rarely in Dublin and only here now because the lockdown had caught him on a visit, he explained, to his father, a “demented” and “derelict” relic in Ballybrack.
“Old rogue used to chase me with a piece of hose,” he said. “But I’m fond of the bastard for all of that.
“And now I have this apartment,” he continued with wonder. “I have a loan of this apartment in Islandbridge. There’s a boardwalk running down the centre of the square, a boardwalk without water. Oh but for these fey little ponds.” I could tell he had thought about fey little ponds. “I opened a press today,” he continued, “and three veneers came off. Sheer off.”
“When Formica is a luxury,” Tierney said, “we’re at a level of degeneration even I can’t comprehend.”
I laughed. At the tea-shack we queued and he stared at the menu, saying at last somewhat concussedly, “Flat white.”
“Would you like to sit?” I asked.
“There’s nowhere to sit,” he accused.
As we walked back towards the Monument I was able to take him in, a lean man with wide-set eyes and dark hair that made him look younger than his Wikipedia page disclosed. He knew all about me – knew about Paris, my debating days, my father on the Labour backbenches – but as he listed these he seemed to sense the pointlessness: I watched him trail off and say with sudden contrition, “I’ve been spending too much time online.”
I said, jogging my shorthand notebook from my pocket, “the release of your latest collection has taken place in lockdown. Has that been strange?”
“No,” Tierney replied simply. “Look at that,” he said. His attention had been taken once again with the volleyball. But a moment later he asked, in deadpan, “What do you think of this monument?”, and “Have you read Finnegans Wake?”
“Apparently it is a masonic symbol,” I said. “The obelisk.”
“Oh definitely.” Tierney dropped his head back to look at it, shielding his eyes. When he lifted his arm there was wiry hair and a sweat stain, a glancing note of body odour. I was wearing a Tencel shirt that Clara bought for me, gauzy and perfect for the heat but still formal. Tierney, as if in still more emphatic contrast, was filthy with tan.
That morning, as she set up her workspace, Clara had said, “Tell me about him.” I’d gotten into him at school – we all had – passing around the memoir of psilocybin trips, the Balkan wanderings, the sex against a wrecked Europe. I believe this fascination held because when the time came for us to go abroad his writings held up a trick mirror that let us see things glamorously. I told Clara that everything I’d done since college had left a digital trace, but Tierney belonged to the last generation who weren’t being watched by anyone. They had rights to an inwardness that looked like privilege now.
“Well away you go then,” she’d teased. “Off-grid.” Everyone in her department was given a laptop early on. She sat down at nine each day, her hair fair and wet to her waist.
As I moved into my 30s I believed I could see the choice that must happen, to turn towards other people or away from them completely.
Two or three nights later Tierney phoned me on the number I’d given him. I was sitting up, as it happens, correcting the draft of the interview, in shorts and sliders with my chest bare and my own bare-chested impression rebounding back on me from the panels of the balcony door. I stepped outside.
“Something you wrote,” he said, “that I’ve found.”
I knew what it was and I wanted to curse. The square of the complex was dark below, the harsh lights of the Londis on a chapped and hissing bank of yucca trees the management company maintained. The hiss was the night breeze in the strands and bark: soft, constant, ruminant.
“Against Europe,” he read. “Or, Exposing Federalism.”
“Student ideas,” I said. I wondered if he was drunk. I wondered how far my patience was expected to extend.
“I’m not here to come at you over student ideas,” Tierney slurred, “but I wondered. I wonder. Your father –”
“Look, is this something we need to talk about? I have everything I need for the interview.”
“I understand all children rail against their father. And yours is a bleeding heart.”
“Once, perhaps,” I countered. I surprised myself with bitterness. Why was I even discussing this?
“Once?” Tierney was sharp.
“A bleeding heart these days is something more extreme.”
“It’s not about decency,” he agreed. “It’s not about decency any more. It’s about image. Real decency,” he continued, sounding sober in sudden earnestness, “is a condition of individualism. The true individualist understands – you see – the callousness of his position. It hurts to know the individual needs a society, you see, to be individualist against. You understand?”
“I think so.” I did not.
“He must pursue decency to, you see, neutralise his own misanthropy. That’s your father. Perhaps.”
“He left the party when they went into coalition.”
“There you go.”
“He could have made more of a difference staying in.”
“No!” Tierney bayed. “Jesus,” he said. “Even I know better than that. It was a sacrifice. His principles.”
“You could see it that way.” As it happened, I did.
“Then the son has a juvenile,” he paused. He pressed on with insistence: “a juvenile right-wing swing.”
“Have you just been looking up random things about me?”
“Things about everyone,” Tierney hiccupped. “I’m an equal-opportunities sonofabitch.”
“So I’m going to hang up now and forget about this.”
“I thank you,” said the man.
When I turned to my reflection, conscious of the growing strength of the breeze, I felt enraged. And yet it had not been a fight: I thank you he’d said, and the solemnity, the drunkenness, had a flirtatious quality. I felt like he had called to turn me on. I went into our bedroom, where Clara was asleep, although she’d left an audiobook playing, murmuring a murder mystery.
It was hot the following day. I didn’t have my full licence yet but I was registered with Clara’s policy. In the morning she filled up a bag with wine and fruit, the heel-end of some cake she had made, and opened all the doors in the Micra to cool the seats. She asked if I’d like to drive but I said no: after Tierney’s call I had drunk beers in the kitchen alone for some time.
I hadn’t told her about the call because it was difficult to explain. It made no sense. The man had somehow pierced the boundaries between things and spoken right to me as if I were 19 again and mad at my father. There was no more wind and the yuccas buzzed with insects or with electricity: something was buzzing, it felt like the world itself. We rolled the windows down as we drove through the green backroads of Fingal, out to the broken-down gatehouse my parents bought when they retired. We passed between two piers to reach it and drove along the estuary by an old silo like a mammoth in the mist.
“I love it out here,” Clara remarked. She always did. In winter the route was rutted and flooded and my parents usually transferred to their house in Dollymount. They were not so ascetically left-wing as Tierney seemed to assume. They were, now, waiting in the porch at the front of the house, waving, or my mother was – it made Clara laugh with warmth as she pulled up. My father, smaller and more contained, stood behind her with her hands behind his back. In the porch there was wicker furniture, books, and a yippy Pekingese.
“We have these for you,” my mother shouted, tossing out two folded chairs. Each time she tossed she drew back preciously and wrung her hands like a little girl. She looked so thin and antic I wanted to put my arms around her and I felt a pipe of anguish, which I knew she felt as well.
“Perfect.” Clara and I pushed the bag of offerings towards them with our feet across the grass.
“Oh lovely,” my mother said. My father still lingered behind her and smiled.
We sat, all of us, in two groups of two, to chat.
“Your reporting on the – cultural impact of the pandemic,” my mother said, “is so excellent, love.” She sounded as though she might have been reading this out.
“It’s more like musings,” I qualified.
“Yes.” My father had swept up the dog and was scrubbing its head. He could go from watchfully sedate to tactfully active in an instant: it’s an intelligence thing. My father was a terrible politician because his manipulations were too quick for people to follow and understand they were being pandered to. They would think he was acting superior – which, of course, he was – although they would not see the act of the politician who ramps up a regional accent to condescend nasally at a photo op. In the ’90s my father called one kind of political animal pig farmer and another kind Pére Duchesne.
Clara adored him. He could flirt with Clara mercilessly. His yes was falsely pondering, as if it had bothered him too.
“Why,” he asked, “do you think they do not have you doing reporting?”
“Well the quota is filled,” I told him.
“For the HSE daily conferences,” Clara explained. “There’s a limit on how many they let in.”
“So you write about culture.”
“He interviewed a bit of a rock star the other day.”
My father did not know who Tierney was, and it was embarrassing to explain. He winced and nodded blankly and as he did this he let the Pekingese go – the dog simply slipped from indifferent arms that had gone limp in a pose of despair – and let it dash towards us, around us, and away to the strip of firs at the end of the garden, which stewed with flies.
Clara did not really know who Tierney was either, she hadn’t read him in her life, but as she explained with her sweet and insistent optimism she glanced at me every few seconds, for support. I found myself staring blandly back at her and giving no support, barely holding the obscure anger together, knowing this was brutally unjustified, so that Clara finally stopped speaking and cocked her head at me curiously, this motion coming as close as Clara comes to aggression.
“I just do what they tell me,” I said.
“You would do well,” my father said, “to ensure you are not left out of proceedings at the government formation talks. That will be interesting.” Free of the dog, he was able now to lean forward on the wicker chair beneath him and begin to explain and dissent on established Civil War positions as if none of us knew this already which, I suppose, may have been fair to say of Clara.
Or not. Clara was brighter than he thought. The problem was she could not be persuaded to stop voting Green. Usually we made a joke out of it.
My attention wandered out of wild appetite. It needed something, anything, else. The firs, which stewed and smelled slightly rotten in the heat, marked a boundary between the garden and a stretch of grey-green waste that eventually became marshy and mouldered into the estuary. The silo in the distance seemed to have been forgotten and teetered bulkily and looked beautiful, in the way water towers are beautiful, and I thought of the Wellington Monument in its idiot thickness, I thought of Tierney slight and manic in comparison.
When my parents first bought the house I became briefly fascinated by the area, which is flat and full of towers, a dull and dilatory, eternally-late-afternoon, kind of place. The house itself had aristocratic fatigue. The big house that was – levelled in the ’70s, flooded all the time apparently – left behind boxes of documents and photographs donated to the county archive.
Early on an old woman who had been a retainer or something hobbled by and left my father with another box he passed on to the archive although, first, we looked into it. There were photographs of late 19th-century people in bustles and top-hats riding a gig in Connemara or ranged on seats in the garden, in a garden now submerged, or in the doorway to the big house that was, nameless and moustached and extinct. There were other strange papers in the box, deeds and what looked like wage rolls for staff, headed paper from hotels in London and Bath, a letter impossible to decipher but for where the writer finished up paragraphs with what looked like a drunken flourish slanting and swelling in a right-hand direction: oh what a time we had, oh what a time it was!
I thought of this now not in a general way but because of an acute point of interest I liked to return to. There was a series of photographs of a teenaged girl dressed like a Pierrot, in full ruff and pompoms and flapper make-up, standing barefoot on the lawn like a Cecil Beaton portrait with her hands on her hips, her leg extended, turning into a twirl, always a dead expression of utter boredom preserved on her face.
She looked incredible. Against the wholesome lines of smiling women, feathered hats, lawn chairs, nannies and top hats – she looked like someone dangerous, someone who died young. She was, as far as I knew, in the county archive now.
When I sent in Tierney’s interview I called his work of the old world and the old guard, a nostalgia trip. After this I waited for him to call or come for me. I waited to be lambasted, or for the fight. As of now I am still waiting, but he’s probably gone back into Europe, and it’s entirely possible he hasn’t seen it yet.