I Can See a Better Time
Christmas Eve, 2017
It was hours after the pubs closed and hours before the shops would open. The night was an empty ocean. Driving across the dark to his house on the far side of town the ditches rose like waves in the headlights and disappeared in their wake. The radio replayed the afternoon programmes. The Christmas songs and the ads and the out-of-date news came through the night like signals from a hidden mainland. White rain washed up against the windscreen. A dog or a fox set off a sensor light and made an island of a country house. Shoals of Christmas lights snagged on hedges and bobbed in the current of the wind. When they stopped outside his parents’ house it was silent apart from the tick of the wipers and the drone of another distant engine following its headlights home across the swollen night.
The hallway smelled of holly. Someone had washed out three bottles of Budweiser and left them on the kitchen sink. The perfume of a candle blown out hours before floated on the air like a stray hair. Ham boiled on a low heat. They tip-toed upstairs by the white light of her phone and had sex in his single bed. It was not the acrobatic, porn-inspired stuff they’d done ten years before. They were quiet and slow. They rubbed against each other, skin on skin, like there were no cameras watching. They talked after. Their words hung like smoke in the dark above his bed.
“Chills,” Leja said.
“Worth the wait so?” Graham said.
“I wasn’t waiting…you were?”
Two Weeks Before Christmas Eve, 2017
Leja had come into December still on her feet, and, though she had been weakened by blows of sickness and had black eyes from not sleeping and was reeling from the concussive impact of unexpected bills and was dizzy from sidestepping an eviction and wobbling from the one-two punch of being broke and broken-hearted, she staggered towards the new year like a boxer heading for the corner after the bell.
She got a job working nights in the post office for the two weeks before Christmas. She had planned to spend it at home in Latvia but instead she would stay in Athlone with her cousin and her cousin’s kids. She had been away for twelve years, since she first moved to Dublin to study, but she still felt adrift, like she was orbiting Latvia, being pulled for years around the same loop by its gravity.
She worked from seven in the evening until four in the morning, and the night got into her blood quickly. She meant to go to bed as soon as she got home, to get up early the next day to make the most of the photocopied daylight, but she was so electric, when she finished her first shift, with the feeling of being set free that she could hardly sit down. She stayed up until nine in the morning. The birds in the undecorated trees got louder the tighter she closed her eyes. After her second shift she woke at three in the afternoon with work already bearing down on her like old age, and the dark, like a loose tarp, blown in early over town by a storm that threatened snow. After her third shift, she stayed up until eleven in the morning and woke at half six in the evening with the gable wall across from her window black from the rain and the Christmas trees blinking in silent sitting rooms and people on the street walking bent over in the dark like it was half six in the morning.
They usually stopped for lunch around midnight. She would sit on flimsy kitchen chairs under the double-barrelled fluorescent lights. Everyone else wanted to talk about the bad luck and the mistakes that had led them there. It reminded her of AA. She would look out the window. The fields around the post office were bleached with frost and had turned the colour of dead coral. Closer in, the cars parked in the shelter of the lights sparkled from the extra lick of cold. For something to do, she flirted with Graham again. They had worked there before, before Graham went to Australia and before Leja went all over—Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Laos, Peru, Chile, Korea, London, Amsterdam, Iceland, Norway, Latvia, Dublin again, Athlone again.
Two Weeks Before Christmas Eve, 2007
She sat in that same staff kitchen in 2007 and felt the economy collapsing around her. The wrinkled front page of someone else’s paper showed a queue outside a failing bank. Everyone there eating with her had seen their jobs disappear unexpectedly like a lake in a drought. When her cousin drove her into work they went by hundreds of empty, unfinished houses, brand new and already looking old and abandoned.
Sitting there, among the white fields, she used to shiver like when you’re at the beach in the sea and a dark cloud passes between you and the sun and you feel suddenly cold and terrified for no reason, and you run out of the shadowy water and wrap a towel around yourself for the few minutes you hope it will take the cloud to pass. She waited. She finished in the post office the day before Christmas and travelled the world waiting, but that cloud was the first sign of an economic storm that would darken her life and his for the next decade.
As she travelled she would sometimes think back on the two weeks she spent with him in 2007, working together and talking. She would remember how they went out into the morning on their last night and got a taxi to where he was staying, those new apartments by the river where The Ritz cinema used to be. They’re eyesores now but they looked good for a few months.
He made hot whiskeys and they drank them on the balcony, looking over the grey river at the grey castle. They kissed on the leather couch under the recessed spotlights and had sex against the white wall by the marble island. It was sex that was typical of the posturing of young people, learned from porn and the exaggerations and outright lies of their friends. They did it not just to do it but to give the morning meaning as it got greyer and people crossed the town bridge below, hurrying because it was freezing and Christmas, carrying shopping bags as blocky and off-white and disposable as the apartment she fell asleep exhausted in.
Ten years on now, when she tries to remember her twenties, it’s like trying to remember the plot of two or three mediocre films as if they were one. Looking back on it her life seemed structureless—all middles and beginnings and endings, out of order and unconnected to each other. There are moments though, louder now that she’s not drinking, when the atoms of her life collide and the distance closes and she can suddenly hear a note that was struck years ago and is still ringing.
One Week Before Christmas Eve, 2017
Older, well-travelled, and diminished by so much moving around, they ended up back where they started, working in the post office before Christmas. They talked, again, to pass the long hours of the night shift. It was the kind of job where you could. They talked over the sound of the conveyor belt as it sorted the frozen bricks of post coming in off the vans, and over the pallet trucks whirring around outside on the yard where the floodlights scorched the tarmac. They talked as they walked the express letters and the priority parcels over to the baskets where the vans were waiting, and they talked as they put the kids’ letters to Santa into a separate bag to be replied to by someone in head office. They whispered, for an hour or two, in the computer room where they looked at scans of letters the machines couldn’t read—because of bad handwriting or ink smudged by rain or one-line addresses—and they whispered at lunch, and again as they clocked out at the beginning of the second week, when he whispered “do you want a lift?” and in the car they talked as loud as they could as soon as they were away from the post office.
That night he dropped her back to her cousin’s and she was so high from breathing the private air of the front seats with him that she painted until the morning alarms went off in the other bedrooms of the house. She was an artist and she had paid a big price for it, in lost time and lost money. She was in debt to the bank and her landlord in Dublin, and she owed it to her younger, more ambitious, self too to keep painting. On good days, like that morning, she felt like the cellist of Sarajevo, fearlessly playing on among the rubble as the bombs pulled up the city. On bad days like most of the year just gone she felt like the people the bombs fell on.
It was a relief to even think about giving up. The idea of never painting again filled her with a feeling of freedom and led to her best work in years. It was like the relief she felt when she stopped talking to men, stopped going out, stopped dressing up, stopped listening to herself messing up sentences in pubs.
She had met a lot of people her age travelling, in their mid-thirties, still living that life, still pretending it was broadening their minds. The only thing worse than getting old, she told herself, is pretending you aren’t, going for another spin around the track and lapping yourself on the way as you fall further behind the people your age with mortgages and families and real careers.
She had no family other than the one she started with, her parents and her brothers. She had spent the first thirty years of her life trying to get away from them—locking her bedroom door, staying out late, moving to Dublin, working in Dublin, travelling, going back to Dublin. Those friendships she thought would be a new family were only held together now by the loose stitching of WhatsApp groups and the odd, nostalgic dinner as they passed through each other’s lives. She was desperate to get home to her parents to make up for all the years she was away.
Like everyone who was scattered, she talked about ‘going back’ instead of going home, as if she could redo those lost, wandering years, as if she hadn’t split herself in two the day she left Latvia, as if she could dodge the mistakes and the bad luck that had led her to Athlone again on Christmas Eve, jet-lagged from working nights, lonely for home and a drink; as if she wasn’t displaced.
Christmas Eve, 2017
In his single bed, with their weeks in the post office over and the money hopefully on the way into their accounts, they talked until the morning.
“It’s nearly bright,” she said, to end it, “I should go before your parents wake up.”
“Here—text me, if you want, but I probably won’t be back here again,” she said.
She got a taxi into town. The shopping centre looked new and temporary, like it was made of plastic. Everyone rushed along towards the big shutdown of Christmas day. The locals took their hands out of their coats to say hello to each other. They reminded her of her parents and her neighbours back in Latvia. They had lived together in the same place in a way she never would. They knew each other from the street and from school, from their first jobs, from pre and post-natal classes, their children like them had gone to the same school, and their children had left home at the same time, they knew where they were and what they did there and the ages of the grandkids, they knew each other’s family illnesses—mothers in homes, husbands recovering from minor strokes, sisters with lung cancer, aunts with dementia, they’d been to each other’s weddings and retirements, and they would go to each other’s funerals. They were the last generation to have lived like that, so close to each other, and they were going out together.
She bumped into him on Church Street. It was getting dark. The Christmas lights, sagging between the shops on either side of the road and running along the edges of window sills, came on and burned so brightly against the sky that she forgot the cold for a minute.
“All set?” he said, pushing his hands deep into his pockets and moving from foot to foot.
“Almost,” she said.
Cars packed with food and presents and grandkids went by.
“Are you out tonight?” he said.
“Ha, oh yeah.”
The night like a black fog rolled in over the street from the alleyways and the church graveyard and the closed shops. The three or four pubs along the street were getting busy. The Christmas songs were starting.
“When are you flying?” he said.
Behind the new shopping centre, a train pulled lights first into the station and more people got out. Friends met for the first time in a year and went into the heat of the pubs.
The cold went around them like shrink wrap, but she still couldn’t end the conversation. Through opening and closing pub doors she saw a couple kissing after a stressful year, they pulled away and sang along when the song got to the part where the man sings I can see a better time, when all our dreams come true.
“What will we do?” she said.
“Don’t go on the 27th,” he said.
“Stay,” he said.
They hugged like they were catching each other from falling.
Her cousin drove her home through the twinkling, dwindling light. The song came on the radio. She sang along to herself at certain parts. She’d been in Ireland so long she knew the words. She suddenly recognised everywhere too: the potholes filled with rainwater; the Christmas trees in the hallways; the grey driveways where a football game had just finished; the dark clouds rushing over the streetlights; the brown fields and the browner trees; the children being called inside; the warmth of the terraced houses; the doorway goodbyes; the arms crossed against the cold; the kettles boiling in yellow kitchens; the half-closed half-lit supermarket. It was Christmas Eve and she almost felt at home. Her legs were wobbling and her stomach was adjusting to not being alone. It was like the feeling when you’ve been on a boat in a swell and you have to get used to solid ground again.