Hennessy New Irish Writing: December 2017 winning story
The Architect’s House in Summer by Angela Finn
They were in the kitchen. On the yellow walls, there were little blue hens stencilled above the dado rail. Harry stood by the fridge scooping cat food into a metal dish. The kettle came to a boil. He put the empty can and the spoon on the draining board and looked at Meg.
“Hard to grieve those in the ground, harder still to grieve those who still walk around,” he said.
Meg, distracted by the stencilled hens, thought at first that Harry had memorised a quote from the calendar that hung next to the fridge. The calendar was opened on February though it was late July. Harry had been talking earlier about his wife Tess. Months before, Tess had left him and moved in with Pete, their lodger. Meg stood next to the table. The surface was marked with whitish cup rings. A big red, white and yellow dish in the shape of a hen sat in the centre. The glaze was crackled and chipped in places.
“She ought to have taken that with her,” Harry said.
“It matches the stencils,” Meg said.
“Twee,” he said.
“I suppose,” Meg said, though she quite liked it.
She lifted off the lid. There was a solitary egg inside. Meg wondered if it had been there since Tess left. She put the lid back. The squeak of it made her wince. Harry poured boiling water into a coffee pot. A cigarette dangled from his mouth. His upper lip was dry and cracked, a little blood had hardened in the splits.
“We wanted different things,” Harry said. “She wanted...” he gestured at the stencilled hens with his cigarette. Flecks of grey ash floated on to the floor tiles. “She wanted a brood of kids. She wanted chickens running around the garden.”
He handed her a mug of coffee. There were no chairs around the table. Tess had claimed those as her half of the furniture after she left. The chairs were antiques and had belonged to her mother. Meg felt suddenly tired and wanted to sit. She’d spent the afternoon with Harry walking around a hotel building site. With hard hats on, they’d traipsed up and down stairs flights, stood on scaffolding boards, walked in and out of the half-built rooms inhaling concrete dust. Now, her feet throbbed and she slid them in and out of her loafers alternately. Meg, having taken a year out from college, had worked alongside Harry for the past six months. It was Friday and it was her last day working with him. She still couldn’t be sure if a career in architecture was what she wanted.
Meg was drawn to Harry, mostly because he looked like he didn’t belong in the office. He wore a battered leather jacket. He was the only architect in the office who had no use for a drawing board. When he wasn’t out on site visits, he spent much of his time on the phone talking to builders and engineers, often with his feet up on the desk, his black shoes grey with concrete dust. He wore round rimmed glasses, tinted a shade of aubergine due to the fact he was sensitive to bright light. Meg could not see his eyes properly so she focused on his mouth while he spoke. He had the most attractive mouth, she thought. His face had the pallor of someone who fretted a lot and didn’t get enough sleep.
Meg often accompanied him on site visits. On the bus journeys there, they mostly talked about architecture, but lately, since they’d relaxed more in each other’s company the conversation had broadened. They had been talking about books earlier that day. Which ones Meg had and hadn’t read. Had she read Steppenwolf? Harry asked. She hadn’t. You must, he said, I could lend you a copy, which was how Meg ended up in the kitchen looking at the blue stencilled hens.
She leaned against the worktop sipping her coffee, eyeing the row of dust covered Mason jars filled with lentils of various colour, raisins, flour. She had an urge to wipe the dust off.
“We can sit outside,” Harry said.
He unlocked the narrow French doors. A warm breeze wafted through. Meg followed him outside expecting to see some iron garden furniture, an umbrella perhaps. But there was no furniture. Tess had taken that too. They sat on the stoop. The stone was warm to the touch and the heat seeped into her body. She could smell Harry’s sweat mixed with the sweetish tang of hide from his jacket. It was not an unpleasant odour. It made her think of farms in summer. He lit two cigarettes and passed her one. She took it though she wasn’t much of a smoker. The smell of cigarette smoke outdoors on hot days made her think of her father. She’d been hankering after him since she moved to the city to work. He had departed some years before without saying goodbye, had left a short note. The note, addressed to no one, was just a single line of words on a block of note paper. His pen had dug deep into the notepad and his words left an impression five or six pages down.
Tried to be happy but couldn’t, was all the note said. For a long time Meg had searched the house for something else, a longer note, something with a more detailed explanation. She searched in wardrobes and inside drawers, in pockets, under beds and between folded clothes. She turned the place upside down and found nothing.
Harry’s garden was paved with pale granite flagstones. There was no lawn. A few small trees grew from the ground but mostly, the tired looking plants were in glazed pots, all of them wilting, unwatered.
A bright patch of evening sun illuminated the bottom half of the garden. There was a spent Catherine wheel nailed to the fence. Meg stood up and walked over to it.
“From last Guy Fawkes – for Cam,” Harry said.
Meg tried to spin the blackened wheel but it barely moved. She tried to imagine it all lit up, a small boy standing between Harry and his wife, excited by the swirling sparks. Cam, their only child lived with Tess and Pete now outside the city.
“It can’t be easy, all this,” Meg said.
“I get to see him every other weekend,” Harry said.
There was a stump of a rose tree with blackened diseased looking leaves next to the fence. It depressed Meg to see plants neglected like that. It had been such a dry summer.
“Should I throw some water on the plants?” she said.
“Nah, don’t bother,” Harry said. “There’s bound to be a downpour soon.”
The sky was cloudless. Meg sat back down on the stoop and shut her eyes for a while. The faraway traffic sounded like sea waves. The patch of evening sun had shrunk to a sharp little triangle by the fence. Meg felt hungry and cold suddenly.
“I should probably get back now,” she said, stretching out her legs, though she didn’t have much to get back to. Harry took off his glasses and looked at her. His eyes were bloodshot. The skin beneath was puckered and puffy looking. He put his hand on her arm. His skin was warm and sent a little current of heat into her body.
“Stay a while, we haven’t even found Steppenwolf for you – I’ll get us something to eat,” he said.
Back in the kitchen Harry took off his jacket. There were chalky sweat marks on his black shirt that made her think of efflorescence on brickwork. He opened and closed cupboard doors, found a can of soup and held it up.
“Vichyssoise?” he said.
“Sure,” Meg said, though she’d never tasted vichyssoise.
He heated the soup and poured the lot into one large bowl and took two spoons from a canister on the draining board. He laid out some crackers on a tray. They climbed the half flight of stairs to the sitting room, a shady high-ceilinged space. They sat together on a small sofa overstuffed with feathered cushions. There were flattened circles in the carpet opposite, where a larger sofa once stood.
The branches of a large ficus tree in a blue pot near the window were practically bare. Shrunken leaves littered the carpet. The few leaves that clung to the branches were and yellow and sick looking. Meg ate the soup awkwardly from the bowl on the tray. She noticed a toy telephone on the floor. It had orange wheels. With her free hand, she reached out for its length of blue string and pulled it towards herself. It croaked and the eyes moved up and down comically making her laugh. She’d had one exactly like it as a child. She’d sit on the bottom stair pretending to call her father at work. They’d finished the soup when Harry’s cat came in through the open sash window. She jumped on to Meg’s lap and kneaded the soft pads of her paws into Meg’s bare arm.
“I should really go this time,” Meg said stroking the cat and yawning.
“Why don’t you stay,” Harry said. “You could sleep in Cam’s room.”
Cam’s room was up another half flight of steps in the middle of the house. Harry turned on the light. White clouds were sponged on to a sky blue background.
“She wanted it to look like the kid’s room in Kramer versus Kramer,” Harry said.
“It does, kind of,” Meg said.
“Pete’s handiwork,” he said.
There was a single mattress on the floor. The duvet cover was pale yellow with brown bunny rabbits. Aside from a pile of folded clothes on a small chair, the room was almost bare. The look of it saddened Meg.
“I’m not sure I could sleep here,” she said.
Harry held out his hand and she took it. The heat of the day had gathered in his bedroom at the top of the house. There were no curtains on the windows. He opened one of the sash windows. Two Anglepoise lamps stood either side of the sleigh bed, like the ones they used in the drawing office. Silhouetted by the streetlight, they looked like leggy birds. She sat down on the bed and ran her hand over the leopard print coverlet. It felt synthetic, cold to the touch. Tawdry, Meg thought.
“Nice cover,” she said.
“Tess would never let me have that on the bed,” he said.
He’d held on to it since his bachelor days. Meg slipped off her loafers and lay down. Harry took off his shirt and trousers and lay next to her. She turned her head towards him. The pillowcase under her head smelled unwashed.
“Do you miss her,” she asked.
“I miss Cam,” he said.
“That’s not what I asked,” she said.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know anymore.”
He lit a cigarette, took a long drag and exhaled. She lay there quietly listening until she heard him snore softly. She reached for the cigarette and put it to her lips before squashing it between her fingers. She wanted to feel something, anything just then. She got up, put on her shoes and pulled the leopard print cover over his body. She crept downstairs, past the room with the sponged on clouds, past the room with the toy telephone, past the kitchen with the stencilled hens. She took her bag and her jacket from the coat stand in the hallway and opened the front door. The weatherboard dragged sluggishly across the deep carpet. She closed the door, gently. As the latch engaged, Harry’s cat appeared, back from her night prowl. The cat stared at Meg with lit-up eyes, a mouse tail dangling from its mouth, and sprang from the garden wall on to porch roof, squeezing back in through the open sash window. It had started to rain. The smell of warm earth soaking up water soothed Meg. She walked to the end of the street, crying softly. She did not look back.
Angela Finn has had some of her writing published in the Fish Anthology, New Planet Cabaret and Hennessy Irish Writing Today magazine. In 2014, she won the Swift Satire Battle of the Books competition and was shortlisted for the 2012 Francis MacManus short story competition