The phone was ringing Sunday morning early. Still in bed, I thought about letting it go, but as I was half awake, I decided to pick up. It was her sister. Jo.
“Listen, it’s about Aisling, She’s dead. Got hit by a taxi last night. The funeral’s Tuesday.” She broke off crying as my eyes scanned the bedroom ceiling. Things were going too fast; events, words, consequences.
Turns out Aisling had been on the piss, then back to a mate’s. I caught sight an old photo of us on the dresser; drunk and laughing, then pictured her last moments. Staggering across Griffiths Avenue and not even looking. Screech of tyres. Metal on bone. Screaming. Sirens. Her lying dead on a slab. I told Jo I’d call back.
We should have had a future. Me and Aisling. If she’d stayed we might have. I’d not wanted to get married, ever. Fuck that shit. But she did; proposed a load of times. She only asked me to please her mother. I knew the score. All the time we’d been together she’d acted wild and crazy, but Aisling was straight. Conventional. Residual religion. Pointless holding it against her now she was gone. I bit hard on my bottom lip and felt the tears spurt.
I cried myself out in half an hour, then got organised. I booked my ticket; out early morning Monday, then back Wednesday. In the fridge were two cans of Stella. I closed the door and took down the full bottle of Powers I kept for emergencies. Sat gulping large tumblers of it until my throat burned, staring at that photo. Sent Jo a text telling her when I was due in, then switched off the phone once she’d replied. Kept drinking.
I woke up when it was still dark. Moon and stars crept in through inexpertly drawn curtains. Packed my bag and took a long bath. Shaving, I noticed the crow’s feet, the hair going back; almost a widower’s peak I suppose. I nearly laughed. Aisling would never get any older. She’ll always be 25.
We’d met in the doctor’s waiting room. She’d a frozen shoulder from stacking shelves at Tesco and I was down with raging tonsillitis. She started chatting and I coughed out inane replies, before getting called in before her. When I came out with my antibiotic script, I saw her leave the surgery, run through the traffic and jump on a bus heading for town that had already half closed its doors. I cursed my luck.
Things changed the following Saturday when I saw her in The Oak. She came over with a pint near last orders and forced it on me, saying it would lubricate my sore throat. I crossed my fingers the bloke she’d beaten at pool and kissed full on the lips after leaving him with 5 balls up, wasn’t a boyfriend. I relaxed when he cleared off with a load of mates heading for town. Minutes later Aisling had fallen into step with me as we went out the door at closing time, crossed the road and sat on a park bench talking for an hour.
I suppose I fell for her when she put her arms round my neck and kissed me for the first time. “There better be none of those sore throat germs hanging around.” When we broke, I could feel my pulse throb through my fillings and I sat urging my hard-on to slacken, before we headed off down St. Michael’s Road.
Back at mine, she took me to bed. I didn’t have time to brush my teeth or wash my dick. We lay in until four the next afternoon, fucking and having farting contests, getting up every couple of hours to piss and put the kettle on. I didn’t even ring in sick. At least I’d remembered to do that for her funeral. Annual leave as she wasn’t a relative though. Maybe I should have said yes when she’d asked me all those times.
I closed the door and got in the taxi as the day broke; purple skies as we headed for the airport. The first time we’d flown over was to spend New Year with her family. After 2 years together, they’d finally browbeaten her into showing me off. Nervous, seeking to make a good impression, I’d blown a ton on perfume for her mother and sister. In the house, I’d passed round the atomizers, then cracked the whiskey and vodka. Before the Absolut and Powers were half done, Aisling and Jo had a kind of water pistol fight between Chanel and Guerlain, the mother screaming the room smelled like a whore’s bedroom. All of us laughing. Choking. Eyes smarting as scent dripped from the ceiling and walls.
We spent half the next morning in bed. Fucking. Talking. I’d finally told her the night before that I loved her. She’d been saying it for months and looking expectantly at me for a response. I wasn’t even biting my tongue when I didn’t reciprocate. Looking back, I reckon all that time she’d been fighting the urge to propose, once she realised I’d never ask her. I told her I loved her; that was enough. This was just her way of trumping me. Probably just a stupid urge that was gone as quickly as it came.
Although I never loved Aisling more than in those few days at her mam’s. But it was also the only time I ever hated her. She kept moving the talk on to making a proper commitment to each other. In bed. While the chimes were still calling in the New Year in Harry Byrne’s. At every opportunity. Not just drunk. Not just on the nest. Every time, I pushed her words away. Four months later she left me and not quite two years on she’s dead.
Jo met me at the airport; smaller and skinnier than when I’d last seen her that New Year. Two kids now, neither dad on the scene or even in the country. She couldn’t make the rent on a place round the corner from her mam’s, so she’d had to move back. A defeat.
I bent slightly forward and she stood on tiptoes so we could hug. Stiffly, then relaxed. I nuzzled the cigarette odour in her hair and choked slightly. Her shoulders were razor blades. Fat tears dissolved blue eyeshadow. Through the exit, a chill November wind stung our faces and the bus was barely half full. We took a seat at the back and sat in silence.
Ignoring the No Smoking signs she sparked up. Blowing rings and running her hands through badly bleached hair, she coughed gently. I looked out the window at the exurbs flying past, still sodium lit. We got off at opposite Connolly and headed for an early one in Grainger’s. Sky Sports deafened us as we sat, side by side, with ice cold pints that hurt my teeth. “You need gloves on to drink in here,” she laughed.
The day before’s whiskey was doing me no good at all; I gave her a note for more pints and headed for the bogs. Shit flew out of me and fizzed as it hit the water. I used up half a role cleaning the back of the pan, then washed my hands in cold water. No soap. No towel. Coming back to the table, drying my palms that still stunk of shit on the backs of my strides; I saw her laughing at my discomfort. Even when she laughed, Jo had always looked like she was ready to burst out crying. Aisling’s death wouldn’t change that. We spent the afternoon drinking; outside the windows the day brightened then darkened again. Late afternoon, someone turned Sky Sports over to a blaring quiz programme and Jo sank her drink. “Let’s go.”
When we got out the taxi at her mam’s, the curtains were closed and the street quiet. The house was choked with middle aged women, drinking tea. I shifted my weight from foot to foot and spoke when required. The women, neighbours, relations or friends I didn’t know, filed out, promising to be back in the morning, shooting angry glances at Jo and indifferent ones at me. Aisling’s mam said her goodbyes from the front door, then turned to Jo. “Drinking all day?”
It was an accusation not a question. Face full of hate, she padded up to her room. You could hear her tears and the kids playing in the next room. Stretched out on the sofa Jo lit up and smoked with her eyes closed. “I could murder a pint.” With nothing to say, I fell in to an armchair and stared blankly out the back window.
Maybe half an hour later the two kids nervously crept and crawled in the room. They didn’t remember me and stared guardedly at this intruder. Sophie was about four; worried looking. Like her mother, she’d the furrowed forehead Jo had even while she slept. Connor was just over a year I reckoned. And beautiful. Angelic. His head a mass of soft blond hair that fell naturally backwards. Jo stirred; immediately awake.
“Gorgeous aren’t they?” I shrugged; kids aren’t my sort of thing. Me and Aisling had never even come close to owning one. If she’d managed to snare me into marriage, I suppose I’d have been stuck with one by now, but all that was gone. Jo took them out to the kitchen and started making food. Through the open door I heard her ask me if I wanted anything. Suddenly starving, I said yes and five seconds later, I was cradling a cider. “Food can wait” she pointed out.
Sipping at the can, I spent a while gazing at a framed family portrait, propped up over the fire. Professionally taken, it showed the four of them posing on a long, velvet sofa surrounded by purple drapes. The parents, all garish 80s gear. The dad shifty eyed and grimacing, the mam with a terrible perm, but alive with pride. Aisling and Jo in identical dresses, wearing their hair long. The mother swept in the room and passed me into the kitchen without a word. I sensed Jo at my elbow with a plate of sandwiches.
“The old man was the double of Fred West wasn’t he? Best thing ever was him going. Men don’t hang around this family, the cunts.” She took the photo in her hands, studied it as if about to smash it against the table, then placed on the table, face down. “Sometimes I really hate the past.”
Sad and weak, I sat down and chewed desperately at the sandwiches, simpering an inadequate farewell as the mam took the kids out to play. I really fucking needed a lie down. Jo sensed this and showed me up to a bedroom. Her room. In the doorway she pulled me to her, kissed me wetly and aggressively. I responded, felt bad, pulled away, went back, stopped, felt shame. She balled her fist and softly pulled me into the room, then shut the door. I didn’t resist.
Afterwards, Jo slept immediately, while I crept silently downstairs for a drink. Sipping at the can, I figured I’d finally proved to Aisling her suspicions were right. I was “commitment phobic,” something she’d heard on Loose Women I think. What she’d always been frightened of was that I couldn’t be faithful to her in any situation; in life or in death. A wedding ring wouldn’t have changed me.
I crawled in next to Jo, wrapped my arms round her and was gone. I woke up when the front door slammed. The noise of the kids snapped me alert; I touched the space next to me. Empty. My swollen bladder needed draining and I forced myself out of bed. Post piss I crept downstairs; Jo embraced me stiffly, then ground out a fag on an ashtray. “Good sleep? Get yourself sorted; we’re leaving now.” sensing my anguished despair, she added in a soothing tone; “ I’ve booked a taxi to pick you up in twenty minutes.” A shower, a shave and a sense of shame later, I managed to get my jacket on as the horn sounded outside.
I hate churches; even being outside one makes me shudder. In here, I sat alone, close to the back: sweating, wringing my hands, looking at all the rest of them; standing, sitting, kneeling, singing, reciting, shaking hands and doing it all by heart. Even the young ones. Aisling used to say she was an atheist, but she was only messing. Stress, depression or even a phone call from her mother would send her scuttling back, especially on rainy Sundays when there was nothing on telly. Afterwards though, I’d meet her and we’d get slaughtered on Lowenbrau in The Fenton.
As her sister’s life was brought to an administrative close, Jo kept turning round to look at me, eyes narrowed in concern and curiosity; just to show who had the upper hand I guess. Her territory. Dissociated from the prayers and responses, stealing glances at the coffin and family in the front row, I knew they could be my family.
Afterwards, we filed out and headed for the burial up in Glasnevin. Aisling had taken me up there that New Year’s Day to see her father’s grave. Now she’d be buried in the plot next to him. Stood at the back of the knot on onlookers, I felt low. Aisling was dead and I’d never given her what she wanted; the chance to be my wife. Although I’d never wanted that, maybe I should have given in. Nearly all the other women I’d known before her meant fuck all, even if our last months together were shite.
She’d moved in with me once the lease was up on her place. She was convinced my feelings were as strong as hers and that was enough at first, but then she wanted more than I could give or even pretend to give. I’d thought that, but she said it and I knew I didn’t mean what I’d thought. That New Year proposal in Harry Byrne’s that I couldn’t accept and tried to make a joke about fucked everything. She seemed furious with me and I felt trapped and helpless. That’s why I slept with her sister the same night I suppose.
We came home early in January. The weather was terrible for months. Skint and sullen, we stayed in five nights a week, listening to the rain smack against the windows, brooding in front of a film or soap opera. She was sullen and I was hopeless. We exchanged Valentine’s Cards, but nothing else. At the end of February, we went to an engagement party for one of her mates from work. We got pissed and had a decent time; in the last slow one of the night, Aisling dragged me to the dance floor and whispered a proposal again. I said nothing. Broke away. Left her there and hit the bar for last orders. Pints. Shorts. Shots. When we’d met, she’d been a laugh; not like this. Sure I still thought the world of her, but I couldn’t handle it. Afterwards, climbing out the taxi at the end of our street, I grabbed her by the wrists and shook hard. “Why the fuck do you need to marry me? Why can’t you accept the fact I love you? Isn’t that enough?”
She slapped me hard on the cheek and ran away. I caught up with her on the doorstep as she fumbled with the key. She shrugged my hand from her shoulder, then turned and slapped me again. I opened the door and escorted her in, ignoring the sobs and the rage. She broke free and ran upstairs to our room. Curled in a ball, howling; I tried to comfort her, but she kicked me away. “You don’t fucking understand me. You don’t care about me. I fucking hate you.”
Numb, I slept on the couch. The following Monday I came in from work and she’d left. Everything she wanted she’d taken. A note said she’d gone back home and would phone when she’d sorted her head out. We spoke a few times, exchanged texts for a while, but I never saw her again; it had been Jo who’d kept in touch. Now Aisling’s coffin was being lowered next to her old man’s and I stood huddled with her sister. Both crying. When Aisling had left me, I’d thought she was just like dad, clearing off because he couldn’t get his own way; dead a year later with the drink. Except, I was the one who’d driven Aisling away. Everything was my fault.
Jo and I slipped away from the graveside and got the bus down to Artane for the parting glass, walking the last bit in silence. She was shivering in her thin jacket and black cotton dress. People looked at us, but no-one spoke. Stray dogs forgot to bark as I ran my arm across her back and rested it on those thin shoulders.
We found the pub; the lounge half full, but loud. Mourners, some drifting quickly away, were outnumbered by casual drinkers as evening arrived. The jukebox sprang to life and pool balls clacked. Shouts and laughter from nearby tables and the bar next door. Brief gusts of iced air chilled our faces when the door swung open and closed. My eyes burned from the smoke blown in. Eventually Jo turned to me; “let’s go.”I got the carry out on the way.
In the house, the old girl was in her room and kids were asleep on the sofa. Jo kissed them lightly, then carried Sophie upstairs, while I did the same with Connor, marvelling at the perfection of his features and clarity of his skin. We placed them in the spare bedroom and came back downstairs for an uncomfortable hug.
I broke the tension by opening some cans, chasing them with Powers for me and Absolut for her. Drunk for the third day running, I could feel the poison fall out of my skin and sticky forehead. I took off my jacket and lay on the sofa, my head on Jo’s knees. Some shit wildlife programme about snakes. After a while, I had to take a leak.
When I came back, the screen was blank and Jo stood in the centre of the room, cradling a glass and biting her lips. “We need to talk. You can’t walk out on me, the way she walked out on you or my dad walked out on us or Sophie’s dad did. I need you. Connor needs you.”
I understood. I knew Jo was daring me to leave, but also offering me the chance to find redemption. Aisling brought Jo and I together; alive and dead. You see, it isn’t the person you love the most who matters; it’s the person you needs and who needs you that really counts.
“I have to leave tomorrow you know, but I will be back. Promise”
Jo closed her eyes, smiled for the first time and folded her arms around me. She exhaled deeply.
“Let’s go up.”
She took my hand to lead me and I stood to follow, but let her go, gently. I needed to finish my drink.