It is Jim Brennan's birthday. He wakens on this humid August morning, startled by birdsong echoing across the garden outside and, for a long time, he stares in confused remembrance towards where the swelling orange sun is burning the faded floral wallpaper across from his tumbled bed.
'It's my birthday,' he finally realises. 'I'm seventy-six today. Where did it go?'
Climbing painfully from a sore mattress, standing in striped pyjamas by the window, Jim stares gardenwards. There's much too be done. Later. Much later. These days it's all weed killing, backache and wishes. Outside in the sunrise garden roses are already awake, clematis climbs like a growing child and all the border marigolds are on fire.
'It's my birthday.'
Next door's dog barks. A cat scales a glass sharp wall and drops beside its shadow under an apple tree, stalking anxious sparrows with the first sun. Under the broken birdhouse a mouse plays with a nibble of yesterday's bread. Shadows shrink in bright shyness against all the garden fences and the last star melts into dawnrise. There's heat in the breathless August day already.
Jimmy Brennan, seventy-six, sitting in his kitchen. Silent. The house, holding its breath around him, the roof heavy and oven baked. Jim's thick veined hands brush toast crumbs from the plastic tabletop and when he moves his faded slippered feet dust dances giddily on the sun patched carpet. He listens to the awakening of the new day: the clock on the dresser ticks hurriedly and the letter box snaps awake.
Jim walks to the hall and picks up bills and ads that promise discounts and holidays abroad. Jim has never been out of Ireland, never crossed the sea. His tired eyes examine the envelopes at arm's length. There are no birthday cards to sigh over - these days who would know?
Returning to the familiar kitchen he slides a knife along his letters, slitting out their folded information. It's better than nothing. Even if the electricity is red and overdue. At least, they keep in touch. No longer absorbed in his letter opening task Jim looks at the sunlight shining blindly on his glazed, brown teapot and then, laying the bad news aside for later, he pours more lukewarm tea. He sits and thinks about birthdays back then. Cakes and ale, songs and celebrations and the long dead who cared. Back when.
'Time flies,' he says.
He's talking to himself most days - who else will listen? Up in the still shadowed parlour a clock chimes the hour and Jim rises tiredly and prepares to face the day. When he turns on the wireless the news assaults his soul. The world is littered with dead children and pain. Bad news amuses while the ad men slip in a jingle. The world has gone mad with cruelty and nobody seems to have noticed. He turns a dial and foreign voices cackle urgently in the ether. Talking violence in tongues, telling of the rapes of children, no doubt. The media loves abusing the innocent with their excited updates and urgently breaking stories. It was different back then. It seemed quieter and children could play on the streets. Back when.
Ring- a- ring- a- rosy!
Jim smiles and finds Mozart and the morning is saved by Cherubino. Then he dresses and walks, cane and cloth cap, to the front door and checks the windows and the bolts and all's secure. When the nighttime house creaks with its own age, Jim thinks of burglars and imagined violations and trembles in case they invade him.
What a world!
Jim swings open the front door and sees Ellen Kelly stands there, smiling like sunlight.
'Happy birthday, Jim.'
No longer astonished, Jim smiles back and sighs because Ellen isn't really there.
Ellen Kelly, fourteen last week. He's been seeing Ellen a lot lately. She walked behind him all the way to the hushed library yesterday and when he sat to rest in Carolyn Park she was standing under a tree, waiting in its shade.
'I didn't forget,' Ellen says.
'I know, I know.'
'Will you come out to play?'
'I can't Ellen. You're dead.'
The sun slides down the street and settles on Jim's house and Ellen fades like a startled shadow.
'Poor Ellen,' Jim whispers sadly. 'My poor dead darling.'
Jim avoids the supermarket. It's too complicated. Grim checkout people urgent to get home. Kids breathing asthma. Babes bawling immediate needs. Bald headed young men pushing forward, rings in their ears, rape in their shiftless eyes. Never stare back. Girls demanding more. Car parks cluttered with stress earned money. Housewives hurrying, car exhausts, liberated women with little freedom. The exhaustion of super markets and too much choice. Too big, too modern. Too lonely for Jim.
He goes to smaller stores, chats with familiar people and gets milk and eggs and a small loaf of fresh bread. Further along, outside the charity shop, Mrs Barret from number twenty-nine nods an inquisitive greeting.
'How are you keeping?' she asks, looking past him at the bargains in the window.
'Grand, thank God. Yourself?'
'Couldn't be better.'
Life is strangled with polite lies.
Jim walks home through the heating streets towards sanctuary at seventy six.
In his armchair in the parlour looking out on the road. Hearing the parlour's ten time chime and the long day stretching ahead like a dreadful eternity. The terror of ten a.m. Nothing to do and outside bright girls hurry through the morning, sun on their heads, time on their hands. Feet clattering, black tights, skirts just short of sin. Making promises.
I'm glad I'm not young anymore.
Jim despises this time of day. Already too hot for the garden and nothing to fill the mind until making something at lunchtime. Light sustenance for the long afternoon lengthening drearily ahead like an empty road going nowhere. Jim tries to read but even in glasses the words are a blur.
'Ellen,' he whispers and her name rings in his head like a tolling bell.
Ellen Kelly, Kelly Ellen, Kellen Nelly.
Jim plays with her. His eyes close. He becomes delirious with dreaming and hears distantly the brass handle under the Brassoed letterbox clattering once. Jim shuffles down the hall and when he cautiously opens the wide door Ellen is there, fifteen and lovely, framed in the sun like a miracle. Ellen Kelly, budding with womanhood and childfresh happiness.
'Will you not come out to play, Jim?'
From behind, a different ghost in the dark hallway, Jim's mother, smiling.
'He's got to do some shopping for me, Ellen dear.'
Jim, sixteen, between women, inter Ellen's, adolescently happy.
'I'll come along with you, then,' Ellen, always agreeable. 'We'll go to the shops together. If that's all right?
Mother agrees, loving neighbour Ellen like the daughter her grey age longs for.
'Of course it's all right with me, darling.'
Jim and Ellen walking down the path with mama at the door, waving like a mother, waiting until they are beyond the gate, forever worrying about crossing roads and unsuspected illnesses. Tuberculosis, Pneumonia. Polio. Measles. Mumps. You name it. Young people often died young back then.
Jim and Ellen, heads tilted, magnetic affection drawing them closer, talking, laughing, a pair apart from others. In love. Ellen's raven hair curling around her tiny, elfin ears. Ellen, quiet and reliable as the moon.
'Will you love me forever?' Jim asks.
'Forever and ever,' Ellen assures, squeezing his hand.
On the way back they short cut thorough the August woods. A long short cut. Still talking, their words tumbling like thistledown on the hot butterflied silence. In the deep green they settle in shade and kiss among fernleafs, innocently. They kissed like that for years.
Life, a summer holiday until seventeen. Then. Jim goes to Cork with his father. A business trip. Magnificent Cork and boat bobbing, cathedraled Cobh and then the Metropole Hotel. Swanky. Dinner and desserts. Black ties, brown cigars. Gin and tonic with a twist of lemon. Now Cork is always dry gin and a twist in Jim's fading memory. Bitter lemon.
Jim with father's friends. A party and the talcum smell of sex. Dad leaves early with a friend. Dad feels only half married. Winking a man's signal. Permission to sin. A bird in the bush.
Jim dancing until dawn with necklace and pearls. Back at her oak roomed upstairs house she says her parents are away and Jim is still not sober.
'Let me help you to bed,' he says, learning the rules of the game and when to cheat.
Sixteen Ellen smelled of love and roses. This girl is twenty and slick with gin. Pearls in her ears, stones in her heart. Bath naked she drips rich. Jim falls into her and is devoured. Ellen, sweetest sixteen, gave him everything except that. Her tended flesh is reserved for the marriage bed. Jim wanted more. Pearls before swine.
Mea culpa, Ellen -mea maxima culpa!
The blonde one came to Dublin with the snow, passion pursuing Jim all grown up and knowing. Blood on snow. Seventeen Ellen, discarded, like a toy wound down, broken and useless.
'Don't you want me anymore?'
Tears on Ellen's bitten lips. Eyes red with pain. Soul seared. Ellen goodbye.
'No. I don't want you.'
Jim brave and final, cruel as winter. Abandoned Ellen, quietly waiting for him to mature.
Next year he took the pearly girl away. Holidaying. Not even saying goodbye to pale Ellen, eighteen and alone with sickness teasing her young pink lungs, her heart dark with love. Ellen's innocence like petals blowing on grass, dancing redly away. Crowns of thorns for Ellen's virgin bridehood. Veils of tears.
On Jim's return his mother greets him with rubbing, folded fingers. Wet cheeks.
'Poor Ellen,' mama whispers. Respect for the dead.
Jim matures. Instantly.
Ellen's black blood on her spitting lips. The flowers on her grave stiff in frost. Brown leaves tumbling, flying wildly in the frozen air, reburying her. No more warm kisses and a heart soaring with love. Ellen nineteen, never twenty. Mama behind the coffin, mama in her own maternal grave. And rain for fifty long years and more, after that.
My darling gone for evermore!
Clock chime. Ding. One. Ding. Two. Et Cetera.
Jim struggles from a dream speaking her name into the listening shadows.
The pitch dark shadows silent as lovewords from dead mouths. Marble graveyard lips, cold as stone. Ivy and moss. Memories haunting his present. Jim shivers and steps into the window sun. Rubs his thick veined hands. Prays. Then he makes lunch. Tomatoes and ham. He dreams the evening away - half out of life. On the radio a woman sings Four Last Songs. You don't have to know the language.
Such sweet sorrow. Who said that?
Later, a seat in the garden looking towards the singing sunset. There is nothing to see except blackbirds and sparrows; nothing to hear except the noise of butterflies' wings.
Even later, the clock in the parlour chimes twelve heartbeats. Night comes hot and bothered.
Climbing into an empty bed, Jim turns off the sidelight and watches the shadows huddling against the floral wallpaper. Stars look in at his greying face. A hot August moon in the open window. Soft as silence, quiet as apple blossoms falling, gentle as Ellen's dimpled smile. Ellen's same sad glad smile standing there by his bed. Faithful Ellen, waiting.
'Do you want me now?'
Yes! Dear sweet God - yes!
He says 'I can play now, Ellen, If you like. I'm finally, properly dead.'
'I'm glad. I've been waiting for such a long time!'
Jim rising from his bed, leaving his seventy-six years between the laundered sheets. Soaring through the moonlight with Ellen in his arms, the pair of them shooting like comets into Eternity while the clock in the parlour stops.
Forever and forever.