A Short Story by Scott Denis McCarthy
Many evenings along the side-road you could hear the crying coming from their back window. In a short time, someone would lift the latch to shut it. The crying was always there, but once the window was shut the noise was adequately obstructed. It was then no longer offensive. It was there but not upsetting in any true sense.
Years before this there was only one real estate business shared between six towns along the immediate coastline within a small strip of businesses by the water, midway between both extreme ends of the settled land. It was only the birthing of community then and so much of the developed land was ugly and the days quite lazy or bloated.
But the estate shop-front was very neat and seemingly hospitable, with clean white paint that did not peel in the winter as the surrounding architecture did. Normally the summer is a bad time for these places. When the weather is too hot or only pleasant or both, people are more content with what they have. We agree that it is easy to live as we are when the days are nice. Many estate agents say instead that summer is the best of times for buying and selling houses. But the old joke states that all the time is the best of times for buying and selling houses if you take estate agents literally.
Along the business strip, two sunburnt men were sitting on wicker chairs on an old balcony, playing cards and smoking. The easterly wind blew the dust from the road and made the air dry and the café tables chalky. The day was quiet but for the intermittent passing of big cars along the road sooting the air with noise and the shop-fronts in fine, hot dust. A young woman was sitting in the shade by the footpath, reading. Her husband was inside, sitting in the estate agency. It was hot, like the world was alight.
The agent was an Italian man, paunch and with small, hairy hands. He applauded the young man’s decision-making and intelligence with great vigour.
‘The place is very fine, sir. It is a very fine property altogether. And the Mrs. – your lady – will like it very well.’
‘We’re happy,’ said the young man.
‘I’m glad for that.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘We’re happy and we’re secure. We’re all right. The four bedrooms and the little garden are all that we saw and that’s enough.’
‘You have great confidence.’
‘We’re not snobs, you see. We have the money saved but we have very few boxes to tick and are not snobs at all.’
‘Che palle, you are not snobs. I did not mean that you were,’ the agent said.
‘I said it only as a joke. Only playing.’
The Italian laughed, ‘Always my clients are so clever. Every time I am the stupid one, see? And you knew that the summer is the best time for houses.’
‘I knew that we needed a house with four bedrooms.’
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘You are planning, yes?’
‘It will be a good home for a family,’ said the young man, pointing outside the window to his wife sitting under the shade of the awning.
Then the agent was looking at the man’s wife.
‘The bump is very discreet,’ he said, smiling. ‘But it is surely there. You are lucky like young people should be. Undoubtedly, that is how you are.’
‘No,’ said the young man. ‘Not quite yet.’
‘Porco dio,’ he said, putting his hairy hand to his head. ‘I am talking improperly again. Every time I am the stupid one, didn’t I say so?’
The man shrugged.
‘I can’t talk,’ said the agent. ‘But you will take this house and be very happy. This is a place where one can be quite secure and happy, you agree with as much.’ He was smiling and his lips bounced with the nodding of his small Italian head.
The young couple moved in nine and one half days later.
The air most of the time by the house that season was stagnant and misty over their tin roof; like an insulating cloud wrapping the walls in old, dead breath. In the early mornings, women pushed babies in prams along the path, before the sun damned the day, and made somewhat of a racket by the bench under the big elm tree outside their front-window, drinking coffee from thermos cups. Some of the time the babies were the offenders, but more often it was the women speaking excitedly; new mothers, still alive to the novelty of it all. But the homeowners did not mind. The young lady was always awake and listening and not upset at all.
‘I hope those babies never grow up.’
‘They won’t,’ her husband said, asleep.
‘Morning time is always so hopeful now,’ she said. ‘Babies have no business growing up.’
‘You’re a romantic girl,’ he said, rolling over to her.
And they were trying themselves then, before the working day and before the heat.
There are certain things that are very difficult to do in summer. People are most repulsive when it is hot and when you must love someone in the heat you can almost melt into one another and it can be a very unpleasant thing. You can only try with sufficient passion to overcome the terrible presence of one another. And they tried sincerely to do it.
But the summer passed and the fall was waiting afterwards. It is a time of great expectations. You can believe that promises, even of a metaphysical sort, will animate and fulfil themselves when all of the elm leaves die and melt in the warm rain, naked and alone on the road. You believe it because the leaves and all the shrubbery come back. All season you are watching it die and knowing it comes back and in spring it happens. You are watching it die in the fall but still it is more hopeful than spring because it is lovelier watching death than the rebirth if the rebirth is an inevitability. You see it and feel quite sentimental. And they did feel very sentimental at times.
But fall passes too and winter murders the hope and then spring’s resurrection and summer again. Always and again the hope in fall. Always their hoping and watching the leaves slush in the gutters. Always the southerly fronts afterwards and the wind all through their brick home and the empty bedrooms; the rain on the tin roof and empty and cold; the hours and the years of hands clasped and trying again and tired and empty, empty, empty. Their youth marred by the actuality of things. The time always going and the shape of loneliness etched into the red brick.
One night coming home drunk; scratching at the lock with the key; old scratches all around the keyhole; the taxi driving away, in the rain. And the living room dusty and the hallway dark and quiet before keys thrown on the table, cupboards open and the bottle opened, cap on the table with the keys.
He poured them both a drink.
‘Cheers,’ she said, laughing.
They were sitting in the living room, her sprawled on the couch, him sinking in the old armchair. Rain was coming, hard, down the windows.
‘They are a lovely people,’ she said.
‘And the little daughter. Wasn’t she lovely, too? What was her name?’
‘Winnie,’ he said, and drank.
‘It was one of those very rare names,’ she said. ‘Very rare like you don’t hear it very much anymore.’
‘What did I say?’
‘Whatever her name was, she was just –‘
‘She was called Winnie,’ he said. ‘Didn’t I just say she was called that?’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I was rambling, wasn’t I darling?’
‘It’s not all that rare anyhow,’ he said. ‘Not really.’
‘O.K.,’ she said, staring out the window to the street. ‘It’s not that rare. You’re right, it’s not really rare at all.’
‘But yes, they’re good folk.’
‘Yes!’ she said. ‘And daughter Winnie – isn’t that how they called her? Daughter Winnie?’
‘I don’t know. I was drunk.’
‘Well,’ she went on. ‘She was just so so so lovely. Just like – huh? What’s a lovely thing she’s like?’
‘She’s a swell kid.’
‘Doesn’t this happen all the time? If I try to think of things like that then I can’t think at all,’ she said. ‘Go on, what’s a lovely thing like Winnie? Anything lovely or nice at all. I can’t think –‘
‘Jesus, what the hell,’ he said. ‘Get something to read or another drink. You’re chewing my ear off.’
‘I just can’t think is all.’
‘It looks that way,’ he said. ‘It does look like that.’
‘You’re doing it again.’
‘I’ll get you another drink,’ he said, finishing his own.
‘I’ll have more ice in mine this time.’
He filled her tumbler to the brim with ice, then the rum and some water. All in the house was quiet. The electric light above the kitchen-counter was humming but it was still quiet all around. He took the past day’s papers and the drinks back down with him.
‘This is a lot of ice,’ she said, drinking, starting again. ‘Oh! Remember when the ice in the pail had gone slush at the party and so they sent Winnie for more from their big ice machine and from the dining table we could hear the clinking of the new, hard ice in the pail coming from down the hall? Clink, clink, clink, that’s what it was like. And she being so little, the pail bigger than her head! Don’t you remember that?’
He went on reading.
‘Don’t you remember when the pail –‘
‘I’m reading the papers,’ he said, not looking up. ‘Can’t you see that?’
‘Yesterday’s,’ she said. ‘All of it is old, old, old; boring, boring –‘
‘Get yourself something to read, won’t you?’
‘I don’t read,’ she said. ‘I can’t read anymore. Our books are too sad.’
A quick gust threw the rain on the window like small pebbles on the pane.
‘Oh, but darling,’ she went on, ‘couldn’t we be drunk together and talk all about that fabulous house tonight and their strange paintings and the big long driveway all lined with little-big trees I didn’t know the names of or –‘
‘Look, now –‘
‘— even the brightness! Wasn’t it so bright and warm in their place? Even with the rottenness outside. Very good bulbs, I was told, but I didn’t believe it,’ she said, stopping to breathe. ‘It was a real adult place. That’s what I was thinking when we were drinking champagne in the billiards room. But we drank slowly, like gentlemen, didn’t we? I don’t even know what billiards –‘
‘Look,’ he said. ‘You’re getting all excited. Look at yourself, you’re all worked up and too excited now.’
‘I do it when I can’t think,’ she laughed. “I’ve had too much champagne and I can’t think at all at all.’
‘And I don’t mean to antagonize –‘
‘Never, never, never!’
‘Would you stop?’ he said, looking up at her.
‘Let’s both not read,’ she said. ‘Let’s be drunk, just like we really are.’
‘Let’s ask big drunk questions,’ she said. ‘Like: what’s the loneliest you’ve ever been? Maybe not that one, but even still. And if the answer is sad we can kiss and make it all fine for each other. Put the papers down, would you?’
‘Look,’ he said, putting the paper on his lap, picking his tumbler up from the stand. ‘I found a fellow who’ll sell us that cat you talked about.’
‘Oh, you have!’ she said, standing up, drinking her rum, water, and ice.
‘Sure. Didn’t I just say it?’
‘I’m so happy I could laugh and laugh,’ she said. ‘What sort of a cat? Is it like the really clean and grand ones I showed you before? Or the handsome ones I wanted so badly in the store we walked by that day in the fall?’
‘It’s a cat. The guy said it’d be healthy.’
‘Oh, I don’t even care if it’s the dirtiest, most rascal cat in the whole world!’ she said. ‘I’ll give it one of the spare rooms and spoil it with lots and lots of cat luxuries. Those exist, don’t they?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘A whole room for a cat! That will make it a really really really grand, royal cat, even if it is a rascal breed.’
‘And if it’s a boy I’ll call him Prince and if it’s a girl I’ll call her Queenie to be very monarchical about it. And we’ll have a nice little time in its palace-room during the day-time,’ she said, thinking. ‘Sometimes we’ll lounge around all day and I’ll become very cat-like with her. But when you get home I’ll be me again so I can be close to both of you.’
The wind was still throwing the rain onto the window and the tin roof in big blows. Under the light of the black lampposts out front the night looked like static on a black, dead television screen.
She went on, ‘But what was I talking about before?’
‘I don’t know. Nothing. We were always talking about the cat.’
‘That’s right. It is such a pretty thing to think about,’ she said. ‘All drunk and I say I can’t think but now, look, all I’m thinking of is the cat and the cat-palace; me and royalty and us three at the end of the day.’
‘I have re-read this paragraph three times now.’
‘Sometimes it’s like we really can have the whole world. I was ashamed by the loveliness of that house tonight and all the luxurious people and daughter Winnie being so lovely. I was ashamed only from jealousy, but that’s still a real shame, isn’t it? But if you think about it, we really can have –‘
‘Hell,’ he said. ‘I’m getting another drink before bed.’
‘O.K.,’ she said. ‘Maybe me too, please. I need to be calmed, don’t I?’
‘Sure. And maybe you do.’
‘Less ice this time.’
‘Really, though,’ she said, finishing her glass.
‘You’re too damned particular about things.’
Scott Denis McCarthy is a young Irish ex-pat living in Victoria, Australia. His favourite writers are Bukowski, Dostoevsky, and Emily Brontë.