He goes out to deliver the letter even though the second round of the 2010 World Cup is about to start. Ghana are playing America. He has a big bet on Ghana to win in ninety minutes. The pre-match build-up is on in every living room he goes by. The hum of it echoes out of open windows as he walks from the couch he’s sleeping on to the house he used to share with Aoife and her friends.
Ghana score after five minutes, he hears it on the radio of a car stopped in the traffic closer to town. He listens while strands of blond evening twist in the warm Saturday air and the shade turns as dark and as warm as oil and crosses the street like a slow tide of it coming in.
There’s a game of cricket finishing up on the grass at Trinity College. The trees around the field tingle under the first drops of night. Students sit on blankets and watch the white uniforms gather and scatter against the plane-striped, navy sky. They drink and smoke and move from the rolling shade, or gather up their stuff to head towards home, or to drink and smoke outside pubs in puddles of leftover sun.
The footpaths are full tonight and glittering with voices, but when it’s quiet the fear hangs around in the weeknight dark between the streetlights, and in the empty shops and in the kitchens of unfinished houses and by the doors of unrented offices. Everyone around his age, 25, is going or talking about going. Aoife is too. He needs to find a job soon so he can quit it and go with her.
Before the crash, he could get any job he interviewed for on the back of his height, his handshake, and the way his voice boomed out from the bottom of his throat. Even when he was fired, they tried to fire the other—much shorter, much quieter—guy first, until they realised that he was the one doing all the work.
South William Street is narrow and crowded. It takes the taxis fifteen minutes to angrily push from one end of it to the other. The pubs have all been turned inside out, with couches, chairs, drinkers, and staff all arranged facing the street like the set of a play. The air is a cocktail of aftershave and hairspray and penny-candle smoke and late-evening sunlight. He used to spend a week’s wages here back when he was sure he was about to be rich, that with time he would move to better and better paying jobs and bigger and bigger houses. He listens to bits of perfumed conversations as he passes, lost to that world now too.
The sky above is wide enough for Harcourt Street to be only half-cooled by shadows. The offices in the renovated buildings are silent, they laze in the heat or sleep in the dark. The tram rings its bell at teenagers coming out of the park, their clothes creased from lying on the grass flirting all day. Further up, smokers finish their cigarettes and take their drinks back inside to watch the second half kick-off on the big screen with Ghana still ahead. The evening sun on his face as he comes out of the shade reminds him of the summer when he was first working after college and everything was aligned just right for him as he walked this way home from work, a large man in a boom economy.
They had started their careers—her as a trainee accountant, him with the online marketing company. He had moved in with her and her friends while he looked for his own place, and he stayed for nearly three years. He got round and jowly on the steak dinners she cooked for him. He bought two sirloin steaks every day as he walked home with the rest of the after-work crowd, his tie loose, his shirt sweaty, his fourteenth or fifteenth cigarette in his hand, kicking out those big wide steps on the same footpaths he walks now and ringing her to say, “Aoife, I bought steak”.
She normally got back first because he put his bets on after work, but she wasn’t the stay-at-home-wife he pretended she was. To his surprise and his terror, she did not fall apart or rely on him or reject the new role society had given to her with all its contradictions. To him, she was choosing the short-term thrill of career ahead of the long-term satisfaction of life as his second in command.
He did his best to stop her growing. He undermined her. He was tortured by her success but he acted unimpressed. He mocked the work she did and accused her of over-reacting to the joke when she challenged him on it. He made her defend her long hours of audits, stock takes, end of year reports, drinks to make contacts, and lectures in preparation for professional exams. He shut down every thought, every new friend, every opportunity; everything which didn’t lead directly back to a life with and under him.
She was unhappy but happy enough to work on it, until, after months of suspicion, she went into their room to confront him one evening in May. He was on their bed with her laptop rising and falling on his stomach. A jogger panted on the street below. She said, “tell me the truth, do you have a job?”.
He had lost his job six months before, in November 2009. All the talk then at parties and in taxis and in the papers and online and on the radio and was of how much we had lost and how much more we had to lose. The country was a carcass being picked clean. Everyone was losing their job or taking pay cuts of 10% or 20% and were prepared to suffer more, and even more prepared to let everyone else suffer instead.
His company were at it too. They called him into the glass office in the middle of the open-plan floor. The others stared at their screens pretending to work, listening like prey. He knew he’d be fine. He filled out a suit well, his was the first hand people shook in meetings. The CEO said, “it’s tough out there, we need you on our team” and they called the other lad in to let him go. He leaned across the table, “me? have you seen his internet history?”.
He had been living his dream of being a professional poker player by playing online all day at work. They fired him with the history printouts still warm in their hands. He had two hours until he was supposed to be home. He stood under a bus-stop as wintry dark blanketed the city and the street filled up with rain through its potholes. When it was time he sat on the couch, itchy and dripping and saying nothing as Aoife fried a steak in the kitchen.
His plan was to get a new job, or, ideally, to have a big enough poker win to turn professional. By May, he was still unemployed. He had been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time by her friends, by his friends, by her landlord, by her housemate’s boyfriend, by her boss, by everyone watching the one o’clock news the day after the IMF was called in, and eventually, by her, when she checked her internet history and saw that he had been playing poker online at home when he was supposed to be at work. “Of course I have a fucking job”, he said, and took the laptop off his stomach and walked out of the room. He came back in, and stood by the window. He watched the people passing below on their way home from work or the gym, and said, “alright I don’t”.
He slept on the lads’ couch that night and he’s been on it every night since, falling into their woman-less world of gambling and drinking and smoking and sport, like those men who moved from rural Ireland to London in the fifties and sixties and found no community to compare with what they’d left other than the pub where they cashed their cheques and the bookies where they gave back their winnings. He’d seen them in a documentary. Their apartments were caked in smoke and rotten from never being cleaned, full of old newspapers and calendars from years ago. They were men of the old school, like him, waiting around for a woman to come in and put order on their lives, they waited so long that usually she turned out to be a policewoman or a social worker or a nurse or a cleaner hired by the council to empty out the flat.
He had to clear a month’s worth of takeaway boxes and tobacco and skins from the table this afternoon to write her the letter. It gave her an ultimatum: get back with him by midnight or he’d never speak to her again. He reads over it as he walks on the slim, summery avenues between Rathmines and Rathgar, where rich old people water their colourful patches of garden in the light before dark.
‘The Stranger Song’, by Leonard Cohen, is playing on a radio by a flowerbed. The song is as pure and as sweet as the first taste of fruit and hearing it is like lying down with her in college in the spring term of their first year when they were eighteen and had no idea of how long life could be or how quickly that sweetness comes and goes when you’re tasting it through a song.
He speeds up when the song ends, shaken by a beat or two of chest pain. A park in the middle of a square inhales what dark there is from the sky. The houses overlooking it are that perfect shade of Georgian red to hold the heat, though around the square yellow lights come on upstairs and downstairs in a pattern like a chess board.
The match is on nowhere here. He looks in the front windows all the same to see if there’s a future him inside, putting a glass of red wine on a marble counter, or stir frying with the half nine weather on the radio, or checking himself in the mirror before he goes out, or coming back in from the garden as it gets more properly dark, shivering in the sudden shade of the kitchen. These are settled lives, no one here is afraid of the humiliation of going broke two days before they’re paid. They are fully at home in Dublin.
He’d last been up home in Leitrim last week, for the first game of the county championship. It was an evening like this evening, one of those where he could imagine staying there. The hills behind the goalposts were as green as apples and ripened in the June breeze. The crowd stood in small groups around the pitch like un-knocked bowling pins, their arms crossed thoughtfully over their round stomachs, talking about other things as the ball rose into the thick, red sky. There was hay being cut in a nearby field. The call and response of men working together on a roof rang out in the silences between the shouts and the referee’s whistling. He got a lift back into the village after with lads he knew from school, and spent his dole money for the week in the local pub.
The closest he’s found to a real home in Dublin is this street of rented suburban houses, semi-detached and built in the seventies, where he lived with her and where now a paintbrush slurps along a wooden fence—the last bit of the job being finished in the dark—and a woman with a bottle of wine rings a doorbell and waits for a light to come on inside. The match is on in four or five of the houses.
Through dark windows he sees that America have equalised and the game is heading into extra time. His bet is done. He had wanted to get the letter in the door and be gone with enough time to watch the end of the match somewhere. The lads are back in the flat by now, delighted the game is stretching so far into the night. It seems like everyone watching it across the city is hunkering down together, cancelling plans and putting off going out or going home, getting to the end will feel like an achievement for everyone who’s been watching from the start.
He missed nearly all of it walking here, and he’s still out in the open. He goes towards her house. The cool night lands on his neck like a kiss. A taxi waits, heels rush and stop and get in. A bin lid slams. What breeze there is turns over in its sleep, brushing against the flowers in the baskets hanging by the few front doors where the owners still live in their houses. Here and there barbeque smoke the same purplish colour of the almost night sky rises in spirals; a curl of it rises from her garden. He walks up the driveway as quietly as a man his size can, slips the letter in the letterbox and starts walking back to where they’re watching the extra time and hoping for penalties.
The only light in her house comes in from outside—white hairs of moonlight and the photocopier flash of passing headlights. Her friend finds the letter on her way from the garden to the bathroom. She knows what it is as soon as she sees it. Excited and pretending to be scared the two of them turn off the music and take the kebabs off the barbeque, leaving them half cooked in tinfoil. They run in and, for effect, lock the door behind them. They look out through the white-lace curtains to see if he’s standing there in the orange tinted dark of street.
Aoife reads the letter aloud, tilting it towards the outside lights. Her friend listens with her sunglasses still on her head. She had grown to hate him in the years he lived there. He didn’t pay an equal share of the rent, he never cleaned, he smoked inside, he took up too much space on the couch, he acted like—and called himself—the man of the house. She sees her chance to be rid of him for good. She warns Aoife not to fall for what’s in the letter. In it, he threatens to forget her forever, and begs her to come back to him, or to at least pull away a little slower.
Where it’s busier the concrete under his feet vibrates with stored solar energy. From the bars and restaurants the shrapnel of a hot Saturday night in June—laughter and legs in dresses and biceps in t-shirts and flirting and angry phone calls and rushing and crying and lonely cigarettes—blows out into the traffic. Everyone turns at the noise of a goal being scored. He stops and watches the rest of the game through the sweaty window pane of a busy pub. Ghana win in extra-time.
She sends him the text in the taxi. They turn up the music and roll the windows down to let the possibilities of the night waft in. They walk into a cocktail bar. The barman shakes up their first round of drinks. In their heads they’re already going out in Australia or Canada. The crowd is pumping like its one heart moving blood from body to body. She can kiss the next man she meets. She is 25 and drunk and about to emigrate and she’s never felt younger.
He searches for her but stops, afraid of what he might see. He turns away from the messier streets of town and faces into a new decade of turmoil and a long, ruinous journey back to a normal life. He walks past the lads’ place because he can’t face the smell and their questions, and goes on to where the early morning streets are as blue and as still as an unbroken swimming pool, and it’s no longer Saturday night.