Summer fiction: A City of the Past, by Kathleen MacMahon

A new short story by Kathleen MacMahon, author of This Is How it Ends and The Long, Hot Summer

Kathleen MacMahon. Photograph: Alan Betson

Kathleen MacMahon. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

It had always been Eva’s intention to go back to the city where she had spent a single, disproportionately dense year as a young woman, but somehow or other a quarter of a century had passed, and she had not done so.

At first, she had imagined she would be back there within a year or two, perhaps on a visit, perhaps permanently. The place had become a part of her, and by breakfasting every morning at the same cafe, and getting to know all the staff in the local library by name, by reading her way into the city’s history and learning the colloquialisms of its language, by growing plants in her apartment and leaving a box of books behind her at a friend’s house for safe keeping, she had made herself a part of it. It was hard to imagine they would be parted for long.

She only came home to complete her master’s, but then the master’s turned into a PhD, and it was while she was writing her PhD thesis that she met Billy. The surprise of a strong man, after all the weaklings she had dated before him; when he asked her to marry him she saw no reason to say no. The years that followed were a jumble of short-term contracts. The purchase of a house. The beginnings of a garden. Even then the penny did not drop with Eva that the path she was taking was leading her away from other paths, and other places. Somewhere in her mind was the possibility that it might still be possible to go back and live another life.

“I’d like to go back,” she told Billy. “I’d love you to see it.”

When what she really meant was that she wanted him to see her. She wanted him to see her sitting at an outside table in the cafe under the stone arches where she always had the same breakfast of eggs scrambled with red peppers. Wanted him to see her flit into the library, exchanging a greeting in perfect Spanish with Jeronimo the doorman, who pronounced her name as “Ava”. This Señora Ava would spend the day in the fall of light from the high library windows, her head bent low over her books. Her regulation pencil scraping urgent words on paper. Eva could feel the cleave of her button-through dress on her bare thigh. The sticky undersides of her feet on the soles of her sandals. The smell of stale smoke on her fingers – unlike her, Señora Ava was a smoker.

Setting out to explore the city, she and Billy might catch a glimpse of this young Ava, with a cloth bag of books slung over one shoulder. Hair long and loose down her back, sashaying along the cobblestoned streets towards the school where she taught. They might stumble upon her in the courtyard of their guest house, curled up in a hammock with a second-hand copy of Dickens. Running through knee-deep rainwater, hair plastered to her head, with her face turned in laughter to some young man, but who? They might cross a square at night and spot her, sitting with her feet propped up on the balcony of a booming salsa bar, a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other and her mouth open, to say what? Eva’s hope was that, in going back to that city of her past, she might somehow meld these two women into one – the woman she was now and the woman she had been then – and present this new, hybrid version of herself to Billy.

But it was a long way, and every year there seemed to be some obstacle to prevent them from going. Billy was either starting a new job, or Eva’s mother was sick, or they had no money to spare. Then the babies came, two in three years, and it seemed a long way to travel with a baby, let alone two. By the time the children were older, they would require a plane ticket each, which was a lot of money. Eva could have gone alone, of course – once or twice Billy did suggest it – but to take such a big trip without Billy and the kids seemed to Eva an indulgence, so she didn’t pursue it. Year followed on year, each one swallowed up by something, until 25 of them had gone by.

But when Eva clambered on top of those two and a half decades, scaling the rickety mountain of stuff she had accumulated over the years, and cleared out and accumulated again – all the winter coats and the chipped pottery and the food-encrusted cookbooks, all the Ikea furniture and the old shoes worn down more on the left heel than the right – when she contemplated the, literally, hundreds of trips to the hairdresser, the doctor’s appointments and the visits to the dentist, all the anniversary dinners and the birthday cakes and the home-made Mother’s Day cards she had felt bound to keep, when she pulled back from the million little pixels of colour that represented the life she had lived between then and now, what she was left with was the shocking fact that a quarter of a century had passed, and she had not once been back.

She had dreamed herself there many times. Dreams that tinkered with the layout of the city, imposing a bridge where there was none, or a cable car where in fact there had been a ferry; she would wake from those dreams with a stumble in her heart, followed by a seeping sense of longing for the past. For some precious thing that had been lost along the way, a thing tucked into the pocket of a long-forgotten jacket, or a disused handbag. She would jump out of bed with a furious urge to go rummaging through her house, to open up boxes of old letters and turn out stuffed wardrobes, in search of this thing. Standing in her kitchen with a coffee cup in her hand, she would accept with barely a word Billy’s hurried kiss as he left for work. The shouts of the children as they banged the front door behind them; for once she would not rise to the urge to shout after them. In the churning silence of the house, she would stand and stare out the window into the garden, grappling with the feeling that there was in her life a dropped stitch that she could, even now, go back and pick up. That she could just unravel everything, like rows and rows of knitting – this house, these beloved children, this good and decent man she was married to – and go back a quarter of a century to when it was still all yet to do.

Year by year her past was becoming more and more lost to her and she had a great need in her to go back and find it.

*

“I need someone to go to the conference,” said her boss, and Eva rolled her eyes.

She was not a conference person. She had an aversion to wearing a name badge, a horror of participating in group activities. Last year the conference was held in Reykjavik and the colleague who was chosen to attend – who had in fact volunteered to attend – reported back that they were forced to participate in a hugging workshop. Another year there was laughter yoga. The word “role-play” came back, along with the duty-free chocolates that were insisted upon by the office administrator who regarded the conference in the same vein as those holidays you can win on TV game shows: a free flight, a four-star hotel and spending money in the form of expenses. It was the administrator’s duty to process the expenses claim every year, and every year she said the same thing.

“You people don’t even know you’re born.”

“We have to send someone,” said Eva’s boss, when she fell in behind him in the queue at the canteen.

Photograph: Daniel Garz n/VW Pics/UIG via Getty Images
Photograph: Daniel Garz n/VW Pics/UIG via Getty Images

He was looking up at the blackboard to read the day’s specials. Eva reached out to help herself to a prepackaged tuna salad from the fridge. A twin-slice pack of brown bread. A pat of butter.

“No doubt our friend will be the first to put up his hand,” said the boss, with a sideways glance at Eva.

“He’s probably worked out the air miles already,” said Eva, and she noticed how dry she sounded. How mean. She knew this to be the tone she habitually took at work, and one that endeared her to her colleagues, but she heard it now as if she was hearing herself from the outside in, and she didn’t like it.

“I’ll have the chicken curry,” her boss told the young man in the chef’s hat behind the counter, pointing a wavering finger up at the blackboard. The gesture had the effect of indicating doubt rather than clarity, the way a child’s finger wavers over the jars at the sweetshop. For a moment, Eva thought he might change his mind, but he didn’t. He stood and watched with great absorption as the chef ladled the curry over a mound of rice. When he took possession of the plate that was thrust towards him, the curry sauce slopped a little over the side and Eva felt a stab of sorrow for him. She pretended not to have seen and slid her own tray onwards towards the till.

“He’s beginning to think he has ownership over this trip,” said her boss.

“Hmmm,” said Eva, plucking coins out of her purse for the cashier.

They parked their trays side by side at the cutlery station. Eva plucked two knives and two forks, along with a clump of napkins she knew would end up going unused. More salt and pepper sachets than they could possibly need. Two tubes of mayonnaise. Her boss was filling water glasses for each of them from the tap. At moments like this they might almost have been married.

“I’d be tempted to find somebody else to go, just out of badness,” he said, once they were seated opposite each other, on the edge of a long table by the glass wall of the canteen. Outside were picnic benches, empty of people in the rain.

“Where is it, anyway?” she asked him, with only the mildest of interest.

She hardly heard his answer for the clang of cymbals in her head.

“I spent a year there once,” she said, lightly. “I’ve always wanted to go back.”

He paused in the eating of his curry. He was looking at her in surprise, delight even.

“I wasn’t even going to bother asking you. But if you want to go, there’s our solution, right there.”

He bent back down to scoop up a fresh forkful with a one-sided smile.

“Our friend will be raging.”

*

“Of course, you should go,” said Billy.

They were in the kitchen preparing the dinner. He was chopping an onion. She was making the salad dressing.

“It will do you good to go,” he said, moving across the kitchen to the cooker, where he slid the onions into a hot pan.

Eva stared at the empty space where he had been, and for the second time that day, she had a sensation of being outside of herself. She looked around her kitchen and saw the wooden cupboards painted a shade of grey that she had chosen only after trying out 20 other colours. The blue tiles she had settled for because they were on special offer, over the green tiles that she wanted, which weren’t. The open shelves over the counter were cupping under the weight of the mismatched glass jars she had collected over the years for pasta and rice and grains and beans. She saw the heap of dirty washing that spilled out over the top of the wicker washing basket, and the kitchen bin with a runnel of pasta sauce trailing down the side of it, and it looked to her like someone else’s kitchen, not hers. Not for the first time, she felt like a stranger in her own life.

Billy looked back at her over his shoulder.

“Don’t worry about us,” he said. “We’ll be grand.”

“What’s going on?” asked Jack, coming into the kitchen. An air of disarray about him, as if his limbs were not attached to his torso but loose appendages, like the football boots he strung by their laces from his schoolbag.

“Are you going somewhere?” he asked.

Eva told him.

“Aw,” he moaned, and his body buckled under the injustice of it.

He was thinking of ancient ruins, she knew. Of rainforests, and rivers, and all manner of strange beasts.

“I won’t be anywhere interesting,” she said. “I’ll be stuck in a hotel, in a boring old city.”

“Still, that’s so jammy,” said her daughter. Fourteen years old, and full already of a desperate yearning for adulthood, Lindsay expressed her frustration at its delayed onset in a raw, green envy for every other living thing. Bored to the point of torture, like someone waiting for a delayed flight, she squandered her time on Instagram, envying other people their clothes, and their boyfriends, and their happy beach holidays. She envied her mother this work trip.

“I’ll be spending a night in Miami,” said Eva, and she saw a spark of self-interest appear. “You might want to do some research, so I’ll know what to get you.”

With what almost amounted to haste, Lindsay stirred herself off the couch to go in search of the iPad, and Eva wondered, is this all I am to her? Hardly a day went by but Lindsay needed Eva to procure some item for her – new knickers, or Tampax, or the loan of a credit card to book tickets to a movie.

“I’m not even a mother to her any more,” said Eva to Billy, that night in bed. “I’m more of a personal shopper. A driver. Someone whose make-up to pillage.”

To Jack she was no more than a one-woman audience for the facts he was so voraciously accumulating. This week’s fascination was bats. Another week it might be volcanos, or blue whales.

“He follows me around the house telling me all this stuff.”

“He does like to talk,” said Billy, mildly.

“But it’s the effect it has on me. I feel like he’s sucking the life out of me.”

How to explain it. It was as if her children were harvesting her personality. Building their own from her spare parts, until there was nothing left of her but an old chassis.

Of all the Spanish she once spoke, Eva could summon hardly a word. All the novels she had ever read were lost to her now, but for their cracked spines on the bookshelf. All the places she’d been; she could barely remember a single detail, save the fact that she’d been there. When Eva looked in the mirror these days she saw only the dry husk of the person she had somehow become.

“I swear,” she told Billy. “I can hardly remember who I used to be.”

But Billy seemed to see in her all of her previous incarnations, just as she saw in him not just the ageing academic but the long-haired kid up from the country, who bought a bashed-up Datsun Cherry and used it as a place to sleep, rather than rent a room in digs, because at least with the car you could drive west any time you wanted, and pitch your tent on a beach, and look out at the Atlantic.

“Come on,” he said, threading his arm through the gap between her elbow and her waist and sliding his knees into the space behind her knees, as if they were both moving parts of the same perfectly oiled machine. “You’re the girl who took a bus across Mexico when all the other students went to Cape Cod. You’re the girl who stood on a chair in the Trocadero and sang Chiquitita in Spanish. You’re the girl who sat her finals in an ostrich feather dress.”

Eva touched her lips to his arm. He was so hairy it was like being in bed with a giant bird.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you for that.”

“Now go,” he said, tightening his wing around her. “Just make sure you come back.”

  • Kathleen MacMahon is author of This Is How it Ends (2012) and The Long, Hot Summer (2015). Her short stories have been published in Image Magazine and the Stinging Fly
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