Eternity, a short story by Arja Kajermo
The Out of Ireland summer fiction series continues
Photograph: Getty Images
It was evening. She was sitting looking out the window looking out over the sea. The tide was out and the shifting sands were stretching towards the horizon. She was waiting for the tide to come in, she was waiting for the darkness to fall.
She had brought very few of her belongings to her new shabby-bijou bedsit. Only her silk nightgown, a fur coat, her best carafe and her Venetian glasses. Not that she was expecting company. The thought was beyond ridiculous. There was nowhere to sit, for heaven’s sake, except the sagging single bed beside the gas cooker. No, the only good thing about the bedsitter was the location close to the strand. From my bedsit in 43 I can see the dancing glittering sea, she thought gleefully. Except the sea was out and all she could see was the desert sand.
Eternity along Sandymount Strand is what Joyce called it. Ah, yes, James Joyce, the Irish genius. What does it take to become a genius? Be your mother’s firstborn son and undisputed favourite. Freud said that or some other genius. She had known a few geniuses up close and personal. All mummy’s boys to a man they had been.
She herself had been a child prodigy, a violin player from an early age. She had spent time with a famous teacher in Vienna. Her mother had made great sacrifices to send her there and when she was talent-spotted and taken up with a youth orchestra, her mother’s pride was beyond measure. But she lost interest in her own talent and achievements. Instead, she had committed herself to Austrian wines and love affairs with young male Viennese geniuses.
She had recently met up with her very first genius who had eventually become First Violin with the Vienna Philharmonic. She thought it hard to believe they had been lovers once, that she had broken her heart over him. He clearly found it hard to believe it also. He kept looking sideways at her an muttered ‘Hinten Lyzeum, vorne Museum’ which meant that she had an arse like a convent girl and a face like a museum piece. The cheek of him, she thought, the jowly cheek of him! Or maybe she should have been flattered. She still had a good figure. She could say that for herself, she had slim hips and could still go braless. Couldn’t say the same for him. He told her he still lived with his mother in the big apartment near the Opera. Heavens, his mother must be nearly a hundred now. He used to smuggle her in at night through the servants’ entrance to avoid his mother who was a light sleeper and slept with one ear cocked like an old guard dog. The apartment had been signed over to her when the original owners were deported during the war, and she took her duty seriously. Not that the real owners would ever would come back. Not now. Even so.
Then, one night, mother overheard them and got up, shrieking like a valkyrie and told her son not to let that low-life talentless slut ruin his gift, his career. Before the door was slammed behind her all she heard was ‘Ah, Mutti…” and that was the end of that love story of the century. She had sat in their cafe hoping he would seek her out. She had cried and waited for the phone to ring. But he never tried to contact her again. He always obeyed mother.
She had neglected rehearsals and her stipend hadn’t been renewed, and she started to drift around town. She found a group of Irish musicians in an “Irish” pub where they were playing Irish music. They invited her to join the band as a front woman and she played a little and sung a little and danced a little which really gave the band an edge. She was a stunner. The way she threw her head back when she played her violin and closed her eyes as if in ecstasy and shook her strawberry blond hair had always made her look “promising”. “Promising” had always been the verdict about her. What she promised wasn’t quite clear, something men wanted anyway. They weren’t after genius. They were simply besotted with her and jostled to buy her drink.
But women didn’t see promise in her, they saw right through her.
She followed the band to Ireland where she became quite well known for her unusual style, and the lads in the band said she played well. Ha! She should think so after all those years practising her instrument under the foremost teacher in Vienna!
She got a fridge magnet that she kept in her inside pocket and showed the lads in the band when they got ideas about her. “Rather an old man’s darling than a young man’s fool,” it said. It was her new mission statement. She wanted to live in a big house with a good view over the sea. A big house with a view over the sea and a wine cellar. This time, she wanted to realise her assets to get what she wanted. And who would be more likely than an old man to have such a house? Young men in Dublin seemed to live in overcrowded bedsits and slept under layers of coats.
She picked wisely, and soon she was living with a dear older gentleman in a big draughty house with a wine cellar. She advised Seamus what wines to get and soon she had a cellar filled with mainly Grüner Veltliner. She was a lively hostess with many accomplishments, altogether a good companion for an older gent. They had many a laugh together. Although, if she drank too much Austrian wine, and this happened quite often, she could be a bit over the top.
The next morning she said “Seamus?...” and then she fell silent and looked at him and wonder what he was thinking. Those age spots! Did he think she loved him? Did it matter to him if she did or not? Was she using him, or he her? Was it so wrong if it suited them both? It was the kind of thing that one can only discuss with women friends but women were wary of her. Although she had tried to befriend them they just looked at her with their wan smiles and turned away and continued their social caresses amongst themselves. “I adore your dress, love your earrings, your hair is like silk.” So no friends there then, she had to figure everything out for herself. She folded her hands under her chin and looked out over the sea and the horizon. The vastness of it and the feelings it provoked. Was it Fernweh?… the longing for somewhere far away where you had never been. After a long silence Seamus asked her “What?” She said “Nothing”. The house suited her and she was going to stay put. For now anyway.
But she could not let the thought go. She should not think any more about it because how she lived was neither good nor bad, only thinking made it so. Or no, her lifestyle was only good. Why are only some women blamed when they make a living out of being a man’s plaything? A high society woman is admired for it, if anything. Look at Jacqueline Kennedy. She was called elegant, beautiful, so refined. Who paid for her dresses and pillbox hats? Her father-in-law! Bizarre! A simpler woman would have seen such an arrangement as tacky and so would her husband. But the bold Jack just thought it was all okay and off to Paris now.
Something about her doubt seemed to rub off on Seamus. There was no bundle of notes on the hall table the next day. Her “appanage”, as she playfully called it, had suddenly been cut. He called it “housekeeping” but she wouldn’t have that. She made sure that she didn’t do any housekeeping or cleaning. Ludmila and Bianca took care of that. What man adores his cleaner?
So she wheedled and coaxed and made sure that the money would come as a standing order into her account in the future. That meant that her account could go into the red sometimes. She would just show what adorable silk dresses and the La Perla underwear it had been overspent on and she would flutter her immaculate dainty hands in the air and look pleadingly at Seamus and he would laugh and top up her account. He actually enjoyed her foolishness with money and didn’t mind how much she cost him. His pals kept racehorses that cost crazy sums. And they could not even bring these horses to dinner events and concerts to be photographed for society magazines. Magazines that his pals wives would see and show their husbands. “Look at Seamus’s trollop flaunting herself!” they would say indignantly to their husbands. And they would go “hrumph!” and shake their heads and envy him.
“Worth every last euro. Or should I say every last grand,” Seamus chuckled. She was at her prime and it gave him a buzz. She was a mare that would win every race, jump every fence. She had the sheen, the first flush of youth.
Then she woke up very pale one morning. She said it was nothing, it was just that time of month she said. But it wasn’t. She thought she might have got herself pregnant. Not Seamus’s of course. She had been careless with the young American that she carried on with on Wednesday afternoons when she said she went to yoga. Utterly delicious he was, cultured, so refined with a debonair swagger. He would stand by her now that she might be pregnant, of course, so she packed a bag and took a taxi to his mews house in Lad Lane in town. No view of the sea there, but that could be fixed. They could rent a house together by the coast, maybe on Killiney Hill.
He wasn’t keen on the idea. Offered her the fare to a clinic in England instead. Best go as soon as she could, the sooner the better. No, he couldn’t go with her. Previous commitments.
She was stunned. He thought he had an option, the swine! She went to the door and before she slammed it, she shouted “I’m keeping it!”
She walked down Baggot Street and thought about how she had miscalculated. Was she losing it a bit? Had she put her perfect lifestyle at risk? But hey, early days. When she saw a chemist shop she went in and asked for the morning-after pill. The assistant said she had to talk to the chemist and he came out and read her the riot act. Seeming to take pleasure in pointing out “the risks” as he called them. She asked for a glass of water and looked him in the eye and took the pill. Said she felt better already. When she was outside she thought maybe she had been hasty. Maybe she should have taken a pregnancy test first.
She returned to Seamus and everything righted itself to the way it was before. Or nearly like before but not quite. Something had changed. She could not put a finger on it but it worried her. Once when she walked past the large mirror in the hall she caught sight of herself. Or not quite herself. There was something about her that wasn’t as perfect as before. She started spending more time in front of the mirror, studying her own face. Were there fine lines around the eyes? Was there not a little line at the corner of the mouth? Had the bloom gone?
She went for the Botox just to make sure everything would stay in tiptop form. Every batch of Botox was tested on mice. She knew that. It had to be 50/50. Half the mice had to die, half had to live. Then you knew that it was lethal enough to smooth the wrinkles, but wouldn’t leave too much of you paralysed. Not many women know that. Maybe they would too squeamish to storm the beauty clinics if they did. You’d think they would like to be rid of all the mice in the world but people are full of contradictions. One minute standing on a chair pointing at a mice screaming “get rid of it, get rid of it”, next minute going “aahhh, look at his little paws”. The clinic suggesting a little filler in the lower lip also for that bee-stung look that was very popular right now. She went for it.
It was not a success. Seamus said that people would think he had given her a biff on the mouth. He told her not to leave the house until the swelling had gone down. That would be six months in purdah, she sneered. She wasn’t having it. “Get some sense into your stupid head,” he shouted at her. “I’m not deaf, you stupid old bollicks,” she said.
He said she had a mouth on her like a fishwife. She said he had the mind of a used-car salesman. It was a draw. They continued the battle. She didn’t like it. It was as if they were married, as if they were too close now. It was not like it had been before when she had been on a pedestal and autonomous. When she had been free.
She had to get away from this before she suffocated. She left with a small bag.
Walking out at the spur of the moment turned out much more difficult than she had anticipated. She had found a tiny bedsit but it had taken most of her money as down payment for three months’ rent in advance. At least she had a view out over the sea to rest her eyes on. Money was now a problem. She had called on her former American beau in the mews house. She had asked for money. He had gone white in the face and tight around the jaw and had opened his wallet and given her a wad and said that was it, he could give her no more. He looked as if he meant it so she didn’t think it would be worth her while to call in again. The only thing left was to apply for social welfare but she couldn’t understand how anyone could live on that measly amount .
She sat lay down on the bed and uncorked the bottle of white wine she had bought in the supermarket. Far from Grüner Veltliner it was bottled. She had planned to save it for the evening but why wait for the evening? She might as well have a glass while she waited for the tide to turn. She mellowed a little after the first glass and after the third she felt a bit weepy, so she put the cork into the bottle and had a snooze on the sagging bed. When she woke up it was dusk and she had forgotten where she was and it took her a while to get her wits together. She lay there looking at the low ceiling. She remembered then that she was in a bedsit and not in bedroom in a grand Victorian house. She remembered that she had no man in her life, which seemed unbelievable, because she had always had a man in her life. A man and a spare actually. How things change and how quickly too. She did not like this kind of change and she was not going to put up with it.
It was getting dark outside and it was time for her evening walk. No time to lie and look at the ceiling. She put on her fur coat and picked up her handbag. And then she put it down again. She didn’t need a handbag where she was going, for heaven’s sake. She poured herself a full glass and drank it in one go. Nice glass, she thought, now empty. She paid a fortune for that set of Venetian glasses once.
The promenade had only a few stray people on it. The power-walkers had gone home for their suppers of salad leaves and mineral water and the dog-walkers were hurrying home with their mutts. She kept walking at a brisk pace and when it seemed she was the only one left on the promenade she stopped and looked left and right. Not a soul about. She walked down the steps down to the beach and then onto the sand towards the water. And when she reached the water she took a deep breath and walked into the waves. It felt strange to walk into the cold water in her shoes. The water was very shallow and she had to keep walking on and on before the water reached her knees and the hem of her fur coat. It was silly really, to drown herself wearing a fur coat. The whole thing was stupid. She didn’t know what she had expected. That she would float away like Ophelia? The reality was much harder, more of a struggle because the water was shallower than she had expected and she was getting cold in spite of the fur coat. And her will to die was faltering. Still, she pressed on. The fur coat was getting heavier. She was like a half-drowned rat. She tried to lie down in the water but it really was too shallow for her purpose. So she got up and just kept walking and walking with her teeth clattering. She could see the Pigeon House power station and kept steering towards it. When she got nearer she could see the lights on in the watchmen’s hut and there were people in there.
Then one of the men looked up and saw here coming out of the sea. And all of a sudden they were running towards her. They grabbed her by the arms, walked her out of the water, making soothing noises. They took her fur coat off her back and put a donkey jacket over her shoulders and led her dripping into the warmth of her hut. They sat her down on a chair and a puddle formed around her. They had been drinking Polish vodka and offered her a glass. “It will warm you up,” they urged. As if she needed urging. After the first glass that she downed in one go she held the glass out for more. She felt better.
They told her that they understood that she hadn’t really meant to drown herself even though it looked like it. They understood that she had just felt sad and that she mustn’t feel bad about yielding to despair. It was only human. We all feel like that sometimes. She held her glass out again. They have kind faces, she thought, what would it be like to be kind? They found a blanket to wrap around her and offered to drive her to hospital.
“Home,” she said, “it’s not far.” She told them to get rid of the drowned fur coat.
So they took her back to square one, to her bedsit. They told her to have something hot to drink and wrap up warm and not to think badly of herself. Or not to think at all. Just rest. They looked around them at the state of the bedsit, not knowing what else to say or do so they left then.
Tomorrow , she thought, tomorrow is another day, another tide.
- Arja Kajermo is the author of the novel The Iron Age (Tramp Press, 2017) and the cartoon collection Dirty Dublin Strip (Ward River Press, 1982). She was born in Finland, raised in Sweden and lives in Ireland. She started working as a cartoonist for In Dublin in the 1970s and draws the strip Tuula in the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter