My contemplation of the keys was disturbed by a woman's voice and a hand on my left shoulder. I looked up and around. It was Sarah. She smiled down at me. She held a tray in front of her containing a bowl of soup, some granary bread, a cup, a glass and a bottle of Evian. She sat down occupying the place vacated by Breege.
'Hello, handsome. Doing some slumming or are you trying pick up another student?'
'Ah, the lady vanishes. You know how it is, kid. Like Chinese food. You eat it all up and half an hour later you want some more. How're yeh?'
'Fine, thank you very much. You really know how to pay a compliment, don't you.' I couldn't tell from either her tone or facial expression whether she was serious or continuing the banter. She sat down facing me.
This afternoon her hair was tied back in a thick pony tail and her unmade face had the ruddy healthiness of someone who has taken a brisk walk on a windy day. She wore a bottle green felt jacket with imitation horn toggles up the front and a red cotton roll neck top tucked into the same black 501s she had worn the night before. She looked at me expectantly. It was, it seemed, my turn to initiate conversation. I said nothing.
She sprinkled some pepper on her soup and mixed it in slowly with her spoon. Then he broke off a lump of bread split it with a knife and spread butter thickly on both fragments. I followed the actions closely. They might be clues.
'I'm sorry I had to leave this morning. I had to get home. You were sleeping so soundly I didn't want to wake you. By the way, you snore like a drain.'
'So do you, wee girl.'
'I do not.' She paused and then 'I don't really, do I?' Her face reddened a degree further.
'Indeed you do, but it's a very feminine class of snoring.' She giggled a little and smiled. She lifted a spoonful of soup to her lips, blew on it lightly and then swallowed.
'That's an oxymoron, isn't it? Feminine snoring? Like military intelligence or British justice.' It was my turn to smile. She took a bite of the buttered bread and another spoonful of soup.
'I wouldn't worry about it. Sooner or later, everybody snores and everybody farts. They get runny noses and have bad breath in the morning. Their shite stinks and they leave stains in their jockeys. Women bleed once a month and men's feet stink all the time. It's never stopped people fucking though.'
I sipped my coffee. She continued to eat. I was struck by the mixture of elegance and robustness in her table manners. She moved the spoon away from her into the bowl bringing it back to her mouth in clockwise motion. She sipped from it delicately without slurping. She did not nibble at the bread, though. Rather, she attacked it, tearing off bite-sized lumps with small white teeth.
'Are you trying to tell me something? Is this Ulick Butler's guide to relationships?. Beware the imperfections of the flesh.' She hesitated slightly between my Christian name and surname as if she was unsure of the latter and had to think about it. I couldn't recall mentioning it the night before.
'Not beware, just acknowledge and learn to live with them. Human perfection is just a fantasy.'
'Are you sure you were never an altar boy?' I laughed and shook my head.
'I was not. My folks weren't such good Catholics. Or at least , they weren't as good at imposing it on me as the priesteens would have liked. By the time the Brothers really got their hands on me I was too tainted with the stain of modernism to take all that hell and damnation stuff seriously.'
'I wish I could say the same. The nuns did a good job. I have the catechism hard-wired into my lower brain. I still worry about not having enough sins to confess, even though it's years since I've been.'
'Did you do that, too? Make up sins to confess?'
'Oh did I not? Everything from covetousness through petty theft to impure thoughts. Lies were always a good one, too. They have you every way don't they? If you've done nothing, you have to lie and pretend you have so you can get absolution. I gave up going the week I committed my first grown up mortal sin. It was weird. I felt good about it and at the same time was too ashamed to admit it to the priest. I sort of excommunicated myself after that. Mind you, it was years before I owned up to my mum that I'd stopped going to mass.'
'And what was the sin to prompt this?'
'Oh you know. The sort of thing we got up to last night.'
I said nothing and took another sip of my coffee. I found myself unable to look her in the eyes and my own gaze shifted to an old fashioned enamel sign advertising Bovril on the wall just above her left shoulder.
'Do you have a problem with last night?'
I shook my head from side to side and struggled to maintain a bland expression on my face. I felt uncomfortable with her directness. Actually I did have a problem, but I wasn't sure quite what it was. It could have been the residual catholic remorse that always follows casual sex, it could have been something to do with Linda, it could have been something to do with Sarah herself. It was probably a cocktail of all three. I felt insincere and shifty. Internally I struggled to regain some composure and failed badly.
''Cause if you do, I don't' she went on. 'It was nice and if it happens again that would be good, but I'm not going to lose sleep if it doesn't.'
'What can I say to that?'
'It's not up to you to say anything except what you feel. I don't need male bullshit but I would appreciate honesty. As I said last night, I might fancy you, but I don't know if I like you. And I don't know you well enough even to consider if I trust you. But if you can't be honest now then don't say another word.'
'Do you fancy going for a drink?'
She looked at me almost reproachfully and shook her head slowly. Her gesture hinted at patient exasperation. I imagined the sequence of her thoughts; men; bloody men; bloody Irish men. Then she smiled suddenly and mischievously.
'Why not? It's Friday afternoon. The weekend starts here and I've nothing on for an hour or so.'
'It's as good a place as any.'
As we left the Everyman I noticed that the boy with the MacDonald's cup had vacated his pitch. In his place stood a woman in her sixties. She wore two overcoats fastened with string and a felt hat secured with a pin. Wisps of grey hair emerged below its brim. On the floor was a selection of plastic carrier bags. I could see the top of a large brown cider bottle protruding from one of them. The others seemed to be filled with rags and newspaper. She didn't look at us as we passed, but she did begin a litany of swearing murmured just above her breath.
'Whore, shit, pig, cunt. Whore, shit, pig, cunt. Bastard, bollocks, fucking tinker's get. Whore, shit, pig, cunt. Whore, shit, pig, cunt. Bastard, bollocks, tinker's get.'
For all the obscenity, it was directed at no-one in particular and she recited quietly with the innocence of a child repeating a nursery rhyme. As we walked towards the Irish Centre her chorus echoed in my head to the rhythm of our stride and I wondered which of her curses applied to me at that moment.
A clock somewhere was striking the half hour as we entered the centre. Happy hour didn't begin until three and the place had largely cleared of lunch time imbibers. There was a group of retired subbies sipping pints of stout and studying the racing form around a table in the far corner. Mary the day barmaid stood in quiet conversation with the single customer leaning at the bar. In the background Daniel O'Donnell blandly crooned some country and Irish ballad I couldn't recognise and would have been ashamed if I had. I walked Sarah to a large sofa beneath a framed print of fishermen on Inis Mór. She sat down and I remained standing.
'What will you have?'
'Half a Guinness would be nice. I can't drink much in the afternoon. It does things to me.' She giggled.
'And what things would those be?
'It makes me want to go to bed' she said, and then as an afterthought 'To sleep.'
'Ok. Glass of Guinness it is then.' I turned and called down the bar. 'Mary. Pint and a glass down here please.'
The grey haired woman in her early sixties turned from her conversation across the long wood bar and walked towards me. She stopped at the Guinness pump nearest to her and took two plain glasses from the shelf above and began to pour the pint. I leaned on the counter one foot resting on the polished brass rail that ran its length six inches above the floor.
'I'll drop it down when it's ready, U' Her accent was the same as it was the day she left Longford.
I sat next to Sarah on the sofa, reclining into a corner. We had positioned ourselves to form two sides of an almost equilateral triangle. Our head and upper bodies were as far away from each other as the upholstered seat would allow, but our feet were almost touching beneath a low table in front of the couch. Daniel continued to croon, something schmaltzy about Donegal. Like every other one of his recordings it seemed to me.
'What we're we talking about?
'You weren't talking about anything at all. In fact you were avoiding talking as I recall. But you needn't say anything if you don't want to. It really doesn't matter that much to me.'
Her dismissal made me pause. I knew I felt uneasy about the night before, but at the same time there was something about this woman which made me want her to like me. Made me want her to think I was a decent man. I didn't want to draw her into some unconscious game I might be playing with myself. Whore, shit, pig, cunt. Whore, shit, pig, cunt. Bastard, bollocks, tinker's get. The old woman's metre came back into my head.
'Fair play to you, then. If honesty is what you want honesty is what you get. I honestly don't know if I have a problem with last night. I know I think you're ok, but that's a superficial thing, an initial impression. I can always be wrong. And as for trust. I'm not a big man in that department. I expect the worst from everyone and hope the world will prove me wrong. So far it hasn't. These days all I know is that the only things that matter are staying up late and drinking at lot of beer. Everything else is just wasted energy.'
My monologue was interrupted by Mary's arrival at the table. She placed the large and the small glasses carefully down on beer mats. The pint in front of me, the glass in front of Sarah. I looked up at her.
'Ah thanks, Mary. You're a darling.' I reached into my pocket for some money.
'Leave that money where it is until three o'clock, U. It's only a few minutes and it'll be cheaper then.' She retreated behind the bar to continue the conversation with the solitary drinker.
'Where was I?'
'You were doing an 'I'm cynical, what's your name' routine for someone's benefit. You romantics are all the same' she went on 'You got tombs in your eyes but the songs you punched are dreaming.' It was a line from a song I recognised but couldn't place.
'Joni Mitchell' she said. 'But Morissey or Costello are probably more up your street, I guess. Male romanticism always hides as cynicism.' She raised her glass to sip from her Guinness.
'So what does the female version mask itself as, then?'
'It doesn't mask itself at all. That kind of romanticism isn't part of our emotional equipment. We either go mad or get on with things as they are. But women have always been more practical. You leave us very little other choice with your behaviour.'
'Now who's being Ms Cynical?'
'Not cynical, just accurate.' I conceded the point mentally and went on.
'Ok, look. You said you didn't want to mess me around. All I'm saying is the same to you. We met. We fucked. It was nice. No problem. What happened happened and, as Doris Day put it, 'qué sera, sera.'
We remained silent for a few moments, sipping at the drinks. I really wanted a cigarette during that interval but I never carried my tobacco outside the house these days. Eventually she broke the silence.
'Alright. That's the mandatory period of mutual disclosure over with. Can we start shitting each other now or is small talk something else you have a problem with.'
'Not at all, not at all. Hasn't my own small talk won design council awards for its microscopic dimensions? What would you like? My specialities are the weather, curious facts about the famous, and TV programmes of the 1970s. Beyond that I can usually muster up enough banalities to wing it with most topics. You choose.'
'Let's go back to mortal sin. That's where we started.'
I shook my head and simultaneously breathed in slowly between my teeth making a kind of hissing noise.
'I'm not too sure about that. I've committed the odd one or two, but I'm not sure I know you well enough to say which ones. How about we warm up with the venials for now?'
The clock behind the bar struck three and I rose to order some more drinks. While Mary prepared them we exchanged anecdotes about our mutual experience of catholic mortification. I paid for both rounds when they arrived and we continued chatting. She was witty and sharp. She made me laugh as she poked fun gently at me and herself. I got the feeling I was doing more than just amusing her. Suddenly she he looked up at the clock behind the bar.
'God, is that the time? I have to be somewhere shortly. Thanks for the drink.' She hastily gathered up her coat and bag and started towards the door. She walked a few steps backwards facing me.
'Am I still on for dinner Saturday?' I had forgotten the tentative invitation of the previous night. She hadn't.
'Do you eat meat?'
'Now and again, but only white meat.'
'Ok. Saturday about eight. Bring a bottle, but the management accepts no responsibility for fussy eaters.'
'Great, see you then, then. Bye.' She turned and almost dashed for the door.
I sat there contemplating the possibility of another pint. Since three o'clock the bar had started to fill up with a mixture of students and alcoholics seeking cheap beer to start the weekend. None of my regular drinking cronies had landed yet. I decided against another drink in my own company and for a trip down to Tom's