Maria McManus

Charm

Maria McManus

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‘…who do you think you are?

Spit breached the space between them. If he’d spat at her deliberately, he’d have gotten her face rather than the collar of her coat. She was at point blank range.

Relieved she had her back to the door, saying nothing and feigning nonchalance Mirjam avoided direct eye contact and turning sideways on, left the bar. Her friends were ahead. They’d seen and heard nothing, busy chatting among themselves. Freddie and Joce were excited to have made the trip. Enthralled by the silhouette of the Twelve Bens, under the clear night sky and January’s moon, they talked about the scale of the landscape, and their own pleasure at feeling both dazzled and diminutive. They were fresh to Connemara, charmed by its self-possession.  Connemara was equally solemn and melancholic, but they didn’t notice.

Intuitively Mirjam had always kept Filter at a distance. This morning she’d thought she heard a stone clod the doors of the living room. She feared it was him - another spontaneous appearance. It wasn’t him, which was a relief. A small bird had perished flying into the glazing. It upset her but she couldn’t resist examining it fully, spreading its wings and tail feathers, gazing with fascination at the different colours in its plumage.

Her coolness and reserve towards Filter never deterred him. He turned up  recently uninvited, unexpected and unwanted in the night.  His ‘nuisance index’ was on the rise.  She’d had guests. Paying guests. While the house was settled for the night, at least she wasn’t entirely alone. As hostess, she didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that someone was prowling around the grounds, but being an outsider in the community herself, she didn’t want conflict with the locals either. Small towns have their own tolerances, their own means of calibrating who’s who and subtle choreographies to determine what’s what. Besides, things are different for a woman alone and different again for an incomer. She kept cool. ‘The response is, no response’.

She’d heard his footsteps. She’d traced his movements round the house. She’d matched him, pace for pace, indoors but keeping her distance, taking care not to appear at a window, keeping the lights off. She didn’t dare call out and the dog, young and all as it was, stayed focused on her. It didn’t whimper. It didn’t bark.

She’d half expected to hear a window shatter or a lock forced. He’d been smart enough to park beyond the bend in the avenue. The car was out of sight among the trees, but a single dim parking light, located it. His gait, his build and shape, was easily recognizable even in the darkness.

Until then, her nights had been for dreaming. Nighttime had been for imagination, for sleep. The dark had been a friend and the winter, a welcome break from work outside.

The remoteness of Lough Inaghree had been freeing. Oslo was distant in every sense. In Oslo, the weather determined the signature of the day, but nature never seemed to go into deep rest here at Inaghree. Not the way it did in the far north. Things were slowed, but they didn’t stop. The arc and the soundscape of each day, was still marked with birdsong, even in winter. While the leaves were gone off the trees, the landscape was still a lush green. That sustained hard cold she associated with home, never burnt the grass into dull submission here at Inaghree. Snow when it came at all was a novelty, a flirtation that usually dissipated by lunchtime. Bitter coldness was half-hearted, damp and wind-scuffed, by comparison.

The earth in the paddock was still scorched where ragwort had been burned in June. That’s how Filter had been at the house by invitation. She’d gathered a posse, to pull the weeds by hand. Weeks later, when the weeds had dried she’d burned them. He’d been part of that gang. He’d come round often afterwards, offering to do odd jobs. Cash jobs.

‘See what needs to be done, and do it. That’s me’, he’d said.

She’d been tempted to rely on him. Inaghree was a big undertaking. The management committee all had a view of how things should be done – but this was Ireland. Not Norway. They weren’t here. She was. She consulted them and took their advice and guidance, mostly. There was an art to managing the management committee.

She was anxious to impress them, demonstrating she was capable and up to the job. She wanted to be seen as visionary, as someone who could turn the place around and break-even, at least. None of them had lived here in any sustained way. The house and the project had always been run remotely and managed  ad hoc, on a season-by-season basis – a grand project with grand ideas but no-one permanently on site. It had always fallen somewhere between an ideal and a dream, and stumbled and suffered on inconsistency and fragmented interventions. Inaghree survived on haphazard injections of cash on a crisis-by-crisis basis.

Mirjam wanted to change all that.

Filter inveigled his way in. He tried to make himself part of the plans. 

‘A latch. See here – that needs a hinge.  Dead wood taken out. Putty on. Preservative. Weed killer. Grass cut. Pruning cankerous branches off apple trees. Wire?... oh, just chicken wire. Bolts. Primed, painted. Dug. Filled.  Gates fitted.’

****

Yes Mother. No Mother. Three bags full Mother.

New York was distant. He’d been away. He’d gotten out; left but couldn’t stay away.  His father’s illness was a welcome foil – a good reason to come home. It was face-saving. Duty. Staying home was doing the decent thing.

It gave him the out he needed. It was a chance to tidy up his life, get the feet back on the ground. Slow down. Cut out. Cut off. Besides, there was nothing he could get in New York that couldn’t be gotten at home, if he wanted it.

Yes Mother. No mother. Three bags. A wrap. As and when.

Mirjam had started showing up in his dreams; fragmented at first. A cheekbone. A lock of auburn hair, a smell – exotic oil, laced with limes. Vanilla. Sounds. Erotic sounds, base and primal. A swagger. Inner thigh. Cutaway jeans. In that way, she’d landed, elite and entitled. She’d laid claim.

In other scenes, she was conserving bees, lifting her veil as the bees clustered on her face, concealing her features. She lay down for him among the wild flowers, her head tilted towards the sun, singing something that coiled around them in gold viscous light: a seductive invocation to the morning.

Often, in sleep, he’d see twelve Goldfinches skewered on bamboo spears that pierced a circle in hot, dry, dusty ground. Their shadows cast a melancholy sundial. Their wings were spread and nailed wide open and their heads flopped forward in perfect symmetry to the right. The row of tail feathers patterned neat, regular, inverted V’s. The birds’ small charming heads hung like a string of bright red beads, amplifying the sense that they were crucified.

On days like that, morning arrived like a drill in his head. His balance was off and he felt like he was on a boat. He was coming down, nauseous and slightly seasick. At other times, he woke from an image of himself, screaming with his face pressed up hard against thick solid glass, his hands slamming against it. No one was hearing him – the roar in him, trapped in his throat.

When Filter wondered anything, he wondered if all small towns were freak-shows, inhabited by people with no choice to be elsewhere, or no volition to leave. Were small towns a warp of the left-behind, the limp, the holy-holy, the prim, the weak, the blinkered, the deluded, the nudged-aside, the tidy and those belligerent enough to attempt to shrink-wrap the way of things into impenetrable constancy?  

Life was too close and simultaneously, at some strange remove. Filter felt grateful to be in the slipstream. A voyeur in his own town, he didn’t exist to those people going to the newsagents, buying bread and cigarettes, setting about their banal tattling about the state of things, water, the weather, ruinous politics, who had and who hadn’t, mongrel dogs scuttling the margins of the road, like old men tearing to the bookies before the ‘off’, children on their way to school, women wiping the condensation off the inside of the windscreens of their cars, applying their make-up in rearview mirrors, deliveries of gas bottles, meat, potatoes, briquettes, kindling, beer kegs.

Minnie Haran, the miserable, pious old bitch, and her cranky umbrella with the buckled spindles, her missal clutched tight to her buttoned-up–to-the-neck nylon blouse. ‘Paddy-the-Bug’ bracing himself against the bitter wind, his hood pulled over his greasy hair with one hand and scratching compulsively at the sheughs of his arse with the other. Paddy keeps up a sequence of finger signaling he does to passers-by, mouthing the registrations of the cars, swaying and shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Vincey Feathers limping down the street in his cowboy hat and boots. His shuffling gait makes him look as if he might fall over at any minute – he’s seventy-odd, trapped without dignity, somewhere between channeling the Sundance Kid and a squinty Clint Eastwood – the ringtone on his mobile phone is the theme tune from, ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’. He sings Elvis songs when he gets drunk. ‘…go cat go.’

Filter could go on. The cast of characters includes Ms. Sweetman. She might be righteous but she still pitches shovelfuls of dog-shit over the wall from her own dog and her own garden, to her neighbours. She thought she wouldn’t be seen. She was. The shit was pitched back. Filter fixed that, but otherwise the world nudged him back into his one defensible, unchallenged spot on the planet; life punctuated by one numb weekend after another. The continuation of nothing, continued.

******

A slit of light from the landing has cast a thin strobe across the bathroom floor. The skin on her hands is puckered and her body feels stiff. The water has become too cold and the comfort she’d experienced at first, is dissipated. Her brandy glass isn’t quite empty; though she hasn’t slept as such, she’s managed to sooth herself and get far away. Tea-lights splutter their last comforting flames. Her head throbs as she reaches to pull the bathplug. The sound of the water draining and slugging away is more noise than she can bear, but she lets it go, hefting the weight of herself upright. She wraps herself in a towel, keeps her eyes closed, crosses the landing on tiptoes to her room. It’s her darkened room trick – she gets straight into bed, towel and all, and waits to dry off and warm up, no lights, no sound. It feels safe and comforting even if sleep doesn’t come. She pulls the quilt up over her head. Filter hadn’t laid a hand on her and she still feels deep shock, the metallic taste of fear lingers in her mouth; her limbs are heavy and ache as if she’d run for miles, too agitated for sleep.

He crossed the line. He went the step too far.  

The moon is still bright in the sky but lower. The night is still. Mirjam gazes at the dead bird lying on her bedside table. There were so many – a charm of Goldfinches at Inaghree. When she found it this morning just outside the French doors, she’d thought it just too beautiful to part with. Joce said something about reflections of the garden on the glass, something about illusion.  She hopes death was instant. She hopes it didn’t suffer.


Maria McManus


Maria McManus is a poet and playwright. She based in Belfast.  Publications include Reading the Dog, The Cello Suites and We Are Bone, all published by Lagan Press. She is currently in receipt of an ACES Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.



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