‘Change given’, a short story by Anne Griffin
‘She . . . says she’s no idea who the mystery woman might be. Says she’ll be having a word’
Weekend Review books April 2015. Hennessy New Irish Writing. Fiction. Anne Griffin [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Lottie came to all my gigs. Squashed up against the windscreen of my red Toyota Starlet. The passenger seat pushed as far into the engine as I could get it, while my guitar and amp, Ed and his drum-kit, squeezed into the back. In the nineties, I was in an eight-piece salsa band called Havana. In my heart, rock and roll was where it was at, but our half-beats and horn section packed out Whelan’s and made the crowd dance in ways that some might’ve described as sinful. The band’s girlfriends were always the first up to move their beautiful behinds as soon as Conor, the lead singer, with his blond floppy hair and Terence Trent Darby outfits sang, Oye Como Va.
We married in ’96. She took my name. She loved it. I remember her repeating it as she lay naked on the bed in our one-bedroom flat in Dún Laoghaire. Lottie Johannson. Lottie Johannson. I lay back against the headboard appreciating how her lips could shape the name my grandfather had brought from Sweden into something so sexy and wondering how the hell I’d managed to get so lucky with this woman.
By the time Sam came along three years later, however, the cracks had started to show. Pudgy, smiley Sam. Babies change everything, don’t they? Late-night gigs, drink, hangovers and the distinct absence of money didn’t suit that world, or so she told me. Bollocks! I said, sure weren’t we grand? I minded Sam during the day while she worked in the bookshop, then I went gigging when she got home. Perfect.
Admittedly, I wasn’t the best at grocery shopping, or hoovering or picking clothes that matched for Sam. And yeah, his nappy might’ve been a little fuller than I’d have liked, sometimes swinging like a big udder when she walked through the door. And she might’ve had a point about the over-reliance on TV to distract him from his teething. But we were happy, weren’t we? At least he laughed and smiled a lot – him on the slide in the People’s Park, or running around naked, all tummy and giggles before being whisked into his bath, or crawling between us on the bed when I thought I was on a promise.
Lottie sat crying, one day, on the Turkish rug we’d picked up in the Vincent de Paul, exhausted by it all. Sam was stuck in the middle of her lotus pose, running his sausage fingers through her hair not even remotely bothered by his mother’s tears. I sat bleary-eyed on the couch after another all-nighter. I attempted to listen to what she was saying by keeping one eye focused on her nose. “Karl!” she kept shouting, whenever I nodded off, my eyes shooting open in panic. Finally, she stormed off to the bedroom and arrived back with a packed bag. She put Sam in his buggy and banged her way through our door and bumped down the steps outside, back to her mother’s.
Two months later he came along. Duncan Crotty. Entrepreneur and wanker. I mean I hadn’t even had the time to woo her back before he was there sniffing around. Surely there was a rule that clearly identified when it was okay to move in on someone’s missus. A cooling-off period in which I had the chance to show her I could change. Not even the job I’d managed to con my way into, writing jingles for adverts, had a chance with that fecker and his Mercedes in her mother’s driveway 24/7. I took Sam every weekend back to the flat, which put paid to the gigging. He’d sit looking at me like Lottie used to, like I was something amazing, while I played maudlin tunes on my guitar. Three miles away Duncan Crotty was already holding his car door open, taking Lottie off to Zurich or Madrid or Amsterdam. My only consolation was there was no fear of her taking his name. Lottie Crotty. I mean, would you?
She never once called the Guards. Not that type
Of course, me acting the eejit a couple of times didn’t help in my efforts at reconciliation. After another night of crying into my pint with Ed, I’d often end up in her mother’s garden swaying under her bedroom window, shouting up, begging her to take me back. It seemed a mystery in those moments that she never seemed inclined. I’d stagger away then, relieving myself in their rhododendrons as I went. She never once called the Guards. Not that type. But on one of those retreats, I’m sure her mother threw a pottery angel at me. I found a massive bump on my head and the broken shards in my pocket the next day but had no memory of picking them up. That’s when I decided to give up the drink.
I became the perfect ex-husband. Always took Sam when it was my turn and more if I was let. Paid the maintenance on time, even when she said there was no need anymore, given how stinking rich they were, not that she used those exact words. Most of all, I never once stopped wanting her. Always hopelessly loving her. Even when Cath came along or the wonderful Harriet, they couldn’t come near being as perfect as her. I knew that if Lottie had phoned to say it had all been one big mistake, I’d’ve left them, then and there.
The day I hit 44, I left Lottie to her Sandycove mansion. Off I went with my sobriety and inheritance from my father’s will to buy a semi-d in Enfield. Enfield! Half an hour from Dublin, which if you’re planning on driving at three in the morning is totally accurate.
I still live my life around Lottie and Sam, not putting a foot wrong for fear this precious length of spider’s web that I’ve been hanging on the end of for years might finally snap. Sometimes, when I pick up Sam on a Friday, and Duncan’s away, we share a drink. A glass of wine for her, a cup of milky tea for me, sitting on her over-sized couch, in her living room that’s as big as Busáras and she tells me how this writing game is the best thing that’s happened to her. Lottie’s a writer now. Literary magazines.
I’ll love you till my dying day
“You wouldn’t know them,” she said, when she’d started to have a bit of success.
“Try me,” I replied, with a laugh that said, I’ll love you till my dying day.
God, how I wanted to know all those magazines, but as she listed them and I realised she’d been right, I’d heard of none of them, my enthusiastic smile, like her love for me all those years ago, faded. But that didn’t stop me going home and googling those I could remember, asking Sam the names of the ones I’d forgotten and ordering them to read every word of her stories.
Restless Reckonings, by Lottie Johansson.
Sky, Land, Fall, by Lottie Johansson.
I searched each line for some tiny clue, some hint that maybe she still loved me. I continue to buy them in case another of her treasures appears.
“You know you’re pathetic, Dad?” says Sam, when he sees a new one on my kitchen table.
Sam still comes to mine on a Friday to play guitar with his auld lad even though he’s nearly 20. He calls me a loser so much now that I’d miss it if he ever stopped. I like to call him “cackhead”. Because that’s what his brain is full of, cack music that no self-respecting musician should ever play. Philo is turning in his grave as the fruit of my loins strums away on his guitar, vomiting out sickly ballads from his perfectly manicured beardy mouth.
“Seriously,” I say to him, “what are you young guys at these days with jeans that cut off your circulation one end and can’t cover your arse the other? Not to mention your poncy hairdoos. Where’s the heart, son, the grit, the rock and roll?’
“In the museum, where your chinos should be, old man.”
Sam still has sausage fingers, jumbo ones now, but the boy can play – much better than I ever could.
My jingles career has had its moments, but in latter years I’ve spread my talented wings elsewhere. Like to the toll booth on the N4. My little kingdom. The throne on which I sit watching the cars advance out of the darkness, waiting to stick my hand out the window to take their €2.90. The graveyard shift. Not a whole heap of traffic at that hour but more than you might think. It’s amazing what the night attracts.
So sure that I was no threat to him from the get go
A couple of month’s back, Duncan’s Mercedes pulled up to my booth. I tugged my cap down further on my head as I saw it slow. I couldn’t face the smugness of him if he realised where I’d ended up. I even put on a Cork accent. I needn’t’ve bothered my arse. See, that’s the thing about Duncan. So sure that I was no threat to him from the get go, he barely ever spoke to me. And if he did, I knew he wasn’t listening to anything I said in reply. One evening when I was stood at their front door, I told him he was a tosser, tucked it neatly on the end of a sentence about the latest Spar advert I was writing a piece for, never got that gig in the end, but anyway, the guy replies:
“Good job, Karlser. Good man.” And slapped me on the back before going inside to get Sam.
When he pulled up that first night to the tollbooth, he had his hand on this one’s leg in the passenger seat. Didn’t even look at me, just handed over the €20 note. His fingers moved up and down her thigh as I counted out the change into his other palm and Nathan Carter whined on his stereo.
Three times he’s pulled up since. Always a Thursday, and always with her and her long legs. Too thin for my liking. Lottie’s are petite and shapely.
I decided to sleep on my unwanted dilemma, should I tell Lottie or not. Weeks ran into months as I pussyfooted around trying to figure out what to do. Could barely look her in the eye on a Friday. I avoided going in for a drink, just got Sam and legged it. Until tonight that is, when she hauled me in. Sat me down in front of her, looking at me all serious with her hands in her lap.
“Karl,” she asked, “why have you been avoiding me?”
I swallowed hard.
“It’s okay if you’ve met someone, you know. I was fine with Harriet and . . . the other one.”
“Yes, Cath. Sorry I don’t know why I can never remember her name.”
“Denial can do that to a person.”
We’re way beyond that kind of stuff now, Karl
We laughed. And then she took my hands. And it felt magnificent. Jesus, I just wanted to pull her to me and kiss her right there on the mouth, so deep and long that I might’ve fallen over with the effort.
“What I mean is, if you’ve found someone that you want to settle down with you can tell me. We’re way beyond that kind of stuff now, Karl. And I want you to be happy.”
Her hand stroked my face and I thought I was going to cry. Seriously, bawl my eyes out right there on her cream couch. Instead, I managed to laugh again, gently pulled my head away and got up.
“Listen, Lottie, thanks and all, but I got to go. Traffic.” My finger attempted to point in the direction of the N4, which from Sandycove is quite a feat, so it just kind of wobbled in the air for a second as my other hand dug in my pocket for my key. Which wasn’t there either.
“Are you sick? Is that it, have you got cancer or something? Karl?”
I’m not sick, Lottie, and I’m not in love with anyone
My head bent in concentration on getting the hell out of there. My hands frantically hopping from one pocket to the other.
“Because if you . . . if it is something, I have a right to know. There’s Sam to think about.”
Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! I looked down to see the key sitting on the couch. I grabbed it and raised my head to say my goodbyes and that’s when I saw the worry, the concern, the, dare I say it – dare I have hoped it – the love.
“I’m not sick, Lottie, and I’m not in love with anyone,” (technically a big fat hairy lie). I just . . .”
She took a step towards me and held my hand again, this time with the key in it.
“It’s just I’ve a lot on. A big job. Vodafone. I don’t want to feck this up, you know, not after Spar. This could be it, this could be the big break.”
My eyes darted to hers and there it was again – the pity. I’d just handed the same old Karl to her on a plate – the dreamer, the pathetic dreamer. And all for him, for that loser. That’s when something gave and I pulled her to me and kissed her. Okay, so it was only on the cheek. But I lay my head against hers for just the briefest of seconds and closed my eyes holding her sweet smell tight inside.
“I’m grand,” I said into her ear. And then, as much of a surprise to me as it was to her, I wrapped one arm around her waist and with my other I took her hand. My key sitting happily between our palms, I began to move her to my humming of the slowest version of Oye Como Va the world has ever known. Tentatively, she gave way to my lead relaxing perfectly against my body. She laughed into my shoulder and me into her ear. And it was pure magic. When she finally looked up, these are the words I should have said: I love the bones of you. And that fucker is making a fool of you. And it’s not much but my semi-d in Enfield has a box-room where you could write.
But I bottled it.
“Sam,” I called, instead, as I let her go for fear of what I might do next. “Let’s hit the road, buddy.”
I teetered on the edge of putting everything right
Outside, I opened the driver door as Sam put his guitar case on the back seat then got in the passenger side. But I stalled for a second, tapping the key on the roof of my car and looked out at the darkness hanging over the Irish Sea, wondering should I go back in to talk. Not about Duncan but about me and her and Sam and 19 years of waiting. I looked behind and saw that she was at the door, watching me, all concerned. I teetered on the edge of putting everything right. That’s when Duncan pulled up alongside, his passenger window lowering sleekly, I could almost hear my ’02 Golf weep.
“Karlser,” he called.
“Still got the Golf, I see. Amazing the life in them. How’re the jingles coming? Lot tells me Spar was another no.” Chatty fecker all of a sudden.
“That, yeah, had to pass that one up. Something bigger came along.”
“O’Flaherty’s garage in Mullingar, what?” How he laughed as I inhaled sharply through my gritted teeth, considering every last second he had had her and I had not. And that’s when I strode over to his pompous face and leaned down to his ear.
“You’re quite familiar with the N4 yourself these days, Duncan, I see. Every Thursday. I was just talking to Lottie about it there. She found it awful strange. Says she’s no idea who the mystery woman might be. Says she’ll be having a word.”
For once in his successful life he had nothing to say, just looked up at me, then at Lottie still at the door, arms folded.
“Take her handy, Duncan,” I said, banging the top of his 18-D Mercedes twice.
‘Dad, come on,” called Sam, his head sticking out of the passenger window that had squeaked as he rolled it down.
I would wait for her until my last breath left me
I saluted in his direction then turned back to Lottie. Standing with my hands in my chino pockets at the bottom of her driveway, I held her eyes. She waved her beautiful hand and I smiled the smile that told her everything, how I loved her and how I would wait for her until my last breath left me.
And then I walked away.
“Sam, my boy,” I said, as I got into the Golf, “let’s get the fuck home and play a few tunes.”
- Anne Griffin’s debut novel, When All Is Said, will be published next January by Sceptre