Fiona’s friends were determined to get her out at the weekend, but she was remaining steadfast with regard to her responsibilities at home.
‘I simply can’t drop everything and just walk out the door,’ she told them as diplomatically as she could possibly manage. ‘He needs me during the evening-time as much as during the day. I prefer to take care of him than have someone else doing it. I know he does too. He’s always been reserved when it comes to strangers. That hasn’t changed in spite of the illness.’
The other women were sympathetic in their attitude – as they were obliged to be – but Fiona couldn’t help feeling a gulf of understanding between them, the same way she’d sensed little differences over the years. How could she possibly explain to those who were not conversant with her circumstances? Unlike her, they had spouses who were still hale and hearty. No, that wasn’t quite true she reminded herself. Angela McCarthy’s husband Jack had just been through a difficult bout of cancer. He had the all-clear now, but there were regular check-ups which caused her friend a good deal of anxiety. Supposing there should be a relapse Angela said in a faint whisper as they talked about him opposite Peter. What kind of uncertain future then she worried. The children were so young. They still needed their father.
‘If Jack were taken from me, I don’t know how I’d go on,’ she confided to Fiona. ‘We grew up together. He’s the only way of life I know. It’s funny to put it like that, isn’t it? As if I depended on him completely. And me the one who’s always speaking up for independent thought and action. I’m quite the hypocrite, aren’t I? No doubt poor Peter would tell me as much if he were able to.’
They both smiled at Peter whose eyes appeared direct and colourless. Angela patted him gently on the hand. Fiona wondered if she saw a frown clotted in his expression. She wished her friend hadn’t badgered her about a night out with the girls in front of him yet again. Doesn’t she realise he can still hear us she thought. And understand equally as well. He’s not an inanimate object all of a sudden. His mind is still with us in the present time. It’s not as if he’s gone away somewhere.
She disliked how Angela and the girls joked about getting her back into circulation. What does that mean she wondered. Are they suggesting I embark on some kind of mid-life fling? Or entertain the notion? Would that amuse them? Would it make them feel better about themselves in some perverse way? Angela and Noirin Murray in particular were remarking on how she was a ‘still much-admired woman’ as they were wont to put it. Fiona recoiled at that particular idea and what it seemed to imply. She was sorely tempted to point out the facts of the situation to them as was fitting. Her husband was still very much among the living. He was not six feet under. The chat she was hearing about evenings out and meeting new people and such things irked her greatly because she felt them deeply offensive to Peter. She wanted to tell Angela and Noirin and the others about the life they still had together in spite of his incapacitation. Several times she’d practiced the same speech to herself or in his presence. She told him how she still heard that energetic laugh of his when a remark or action on her part was a source of amusement. Or how he clucked his tongue when a small annoyance crossed his frame of mind. She saw his eyes warm with abortive tears as a memory was rekindled by a photo or a familiar song playing on the radio. His old mind hobbled a bit slower, but it was still in partnership with hers. She was absolutely certain she could see the glimmer of thoughts behind the veil of that impeded expression. There are a hundred variations of a smile buried in there which only I can make out she heard herself say in what almost sounded like a boast. Refining this language then, she decided to lighten it in tone so that it would not seem too maudlin or self-absorbed. The girls might even enjoy this she imagined casually before again hardening her stance apropos their invitations and inducements. She promised them she’d set some time aside soon, even as she decided against such social interaction. Privately, she realised that she’d always despised them just a little. Especially when it came to their robust opinions and so-called heartfelt entreaties. And God knows there had been many of those over the years. Especially at the beginning of it all.
Fiona remembered how they’d first reacted to her news about seeing Peter. Straight away, they’d brought up the matter of their ages and the considerable difference in this regard. One or two of them pretended not to be aware of this and affected surprise when she confirmed that he was in his late-forties. Which meant, as she freely acknowledged, that there was some twenty years between them.
The remainder of that sunny afternoon in the Powerscourt Shopping Centre was like a cross-examination as far as she was concerned. She tried to take it in as good humour as possible. Yes, he was quite a bit older than her, but she was optimistic about how they might fare. No, she wasn’t sure whether it might eventually involve settling down and having a family. They had no immediate plans except to keep on seeing each other and take it step by step. She even resorted to one or two clichés as she explained this. One day at a time was wheeled out for good measure. She also remembered saying something about being more comfortable with an older man because of the experience and knowledge he brought to a relationship. The others availed of the opportunity to poke fun at this. A few mischievous comments were passed. Fiona made sure to laugh and smile at the appropriate moments. It really didn’t matter whether or not they understood it she told herself. She was happy. She cared not a jot if the whole world couldn’t get a handle on that.
Two years earlier she’d joined the company in which he was a senior manager. She was 25 at the time and had just moved from her home in Mooncoin, County Kilkenny. Peter’s firm had embarked on a recruitment drive that same summer and Fiona was among its new employees. A new job and a change of address involve a certain amount of upheaval and she found it difficult at first to settle into her new environs. Not quite an ingénue, she nevertheless felt rather weighed down by her lack of familiarity with Dublin and its people. The city was quite an impersonal place to her mind. Everything felt so frenetic compared to the country. There was an intensity to the most commonplace of routines; in the way the inhabitants moved, their gestures and the inflections to their voices. When she paused on a busy street, Fiona noticed how it seemed a great inconvenience to those who hurried past her. The energy was practically kinetic in nature. It did not have a great liking for the side-tracked or the stationary. She felt as if she were both of these things standing there like a silly creature with no direction in which to go. The mutters and grumbles she drew informed her of a place which was very alien to her own background. She doubted she would ever find it endearing. It was not home, but, all the same, she determined to make the best of it for as long as she could.
She encountered him on her first day in the office as the new recruits were welcomed by the various heads of department. He was not unappealing in appearance, had firm jaws and skin that was only just beginning to feel the tug of gravity. She soon observed his lively eyes and how he appeared to move in an atmosphere which was different to that of the other members of management. He was one of the few who left his office door open all day and, as a consequence, she picked up on smatterings of conversation as she went by on the corridor. On personal calls, she heard him make recommendations about books he’d read or films he’d recently seen. Their respective roles in the organisation did not bring them into very much contact with each other, but she liked the names he alluded to and the titles he endorsed. Sometimes, she caught him looking at her furtively in the canteen downstairs, or raising his head expectantly as she passed his door. He smiled at her fleetingly, but was always careful then to shift his gaze elsewhere. She wondered if he liked her or was somehow aware of her sly eavesdropping.
Following a charity book sale in the office, which she took charge of, she began to realise how she was looking at him with a different kind of eye. He bought a second-hand copy of Brideshead Revisited and explained how he’d lost a copy of the Evelyn Waugh classic he once had. She grinned as he went into concise detail on the matter, hoping her expression indicated more than that of just polite interest. He clucked his tongue and shook his head as he reasoned how he’d managed to throw it out by mistake when cleaning the house. Laughing at this, she wished him a pleasant reunion with Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte. He promised to do just that the approaching Friday evening. It was then that she wondered if he was lonely, if he came from a large family, how he spent his free time. As for herself, two years in Dublin had brought with it a steady upturn in her social activities and general friendships. And yet she was bored by it all; longed to be free of inane chat and routine goings-on. The young women of her age in the office mapped out the same programme for Friday and Saturday nights whilst she hoped for something more settled, something more harmonious. She recalled how her older sister Anne often joked as to how she was – in point of fact – the more mature of the two of them.
‘You were born much older than I was,’ Anne told her at such moments of certainty and honesty.
More and more, Fiona had found herself agreeing with this statement. She was jaded by the same frivolous laughter that circled their group. She seemed to be struggling in contention with herself, felt as if she was moving through it with no more than a fixed and weary smile. The thought of balance and rhythm was the only thing which excited her as she listened to their bright monotones. Somewhere on the edge of her mind hovered a quiet determination. She would speak to him when a suitable occasion next arose. There would be no suggestion of mere coincidence about this. She would ask. She imagined he would likely say yes.
The opportunity presented itself as an old associate of the firm was retiring. After speeches and attendant ceremony were dispensed with, the office moved on to the more informal surroundings of The Long Hall on South Great George’s Street. Using the pretext of their previous conversation on the subject, Fiona spoke to him during the evening telling how she’d re-read Brideshead in the meantime.
Peter asked if she’d seen the television series based on the book.
‘It stars Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews,’ he explained, a little curled smile shaping itself on his face, ‘our own Niall Toibin has a small part in it as a priest.’
Fiona admitted that she hadn’t seen it. She asked him some questions. Was it faithful to the source material? How did it rate as a period piece? She moved on then to other shows and media entertainments. They talked for a while about films currently in the cinema and plays which were being performed. With just a little skill, and no small amount of tenacity, she arrived at the principal inquiries she wished to put to him. Quite soon he expressed amusement at the quasi-like interrogation as he called it.
‘Are you always this curious about your fellow workers?’ he asked.
Flushing red like a berry, she pretended to act contrite for this, but resolved to reach the conclusion she had in mind.
‘A lot of them I couldn’t care less for,’ she admitted in a strategic whisper, ‘but your company is different. You’re very easy-going Mr. Carroll. I prefer people who are comfortable in their own skin,’
Appearing manifestly gratified by this, he insisted she call him by his first name.
‘Peter was my father’s name as well,’ he added as a point of detail, ‘my parents believed in retention as opposed to casting off. I suspect they would have had me baptised as Sarah if I’d been a girl.’
He amplified this latter remark telling her he was an only child. Both of his parents had passed on. He now lived in the house he’d been raised in. It was situated on Vernon Drive in Clontarf.
He asked her about her own family and the kind of life she’d led before coming to Dublin. Noting how her accent had a pleasant cadence to it, he also remarked on the contrast between the urban and rural. In many ways it was quite stark he said. He paid close attention as she told him about her early experiences in the city. How she’d laboured with the numbers initially; why it had taken her so long to become accustomed to the sense of detachment the capital had about it.
‘I had to accept that people here are far less interested in you because many of them only ever clap eyes on you one time,’ she elaborated, ‘and even if they see you more than once, they forget you. I suppose it’s only natural where there are droves of people. Down home, it’s the other way round. Mrs. O’Callaghan is not the least bit shy about asking you what you had for your breakfast. Meantime, Mrs. Barry up the road wants to know if you have a boyfriend or not. The two of them get together and they have the precise details of your diet and social life. It’s like a fine art with them.’
With only the charade of a pause, she carried on talking about herself appreciative of the way he listened intently, of how he avoided listless replies and hackneyed observations. The only moment of discomfort which took place between them occurred when she finally dared to ask him out for a drink. His mouth took the shape of a small O of surprise and his voice dropped to that of a low conspirator’s whisper.
‘I’m very flattered,’ he said, ‘but I’m not what you’d call the makings of an exciting evening. A few pints is the height of it for me.’
Assuring him that a chat in the pub was good enough for her as well, she suggested a few venues close to the city centre. They settled on Kehoe’s of South Anne Street agreeing that it was one of the very best in town. As he left, he told her how he looked forward to it, but also sounded a note of carefulness.
‘Like I said, don’t be expecting a barrel of laughs,’ he warned in a gentle manner, ‘my repertoire of jokes and stories is a bit limited at this stage. It comes from doing the same old things far too often.’
His face was gleaming nervously a week later when she found him in the busy watering hole.
‘I’m sorry for insisting that we meet here,’ he said, ‘I would have felt just a little bit uncomfortable if we’d left the office together. People talk as I’m sure you well know. I prefer not to provide them with their gossip.’
He bought them a round of drinks and was adamant that he buy the next one, and then the next one after that.
‘It’s the least I can do after all the secrecy,’ he said sniffing through his slightly thick nose, ‘you’ll have to forgive me for being fairly lamentable about it. I hope it’s not too odd a thing to do.’
She told him it wasn’t and they moved on to other topics of conversation for the next hour or so. They talked about a whole range of subjects, but principally those which held the greatest interest for them both. She told him about the book club she’d joined the year before. He recommended a number of black-and-white films she hadn’t yet seen. Presently, they returned to a matter which he said he wanted to discuss as it was of no little importance.
‘I may be assuming things just a bit here,’ he said shuffling forward with it warily, ‘but hasn’t it occurred to you that there’s more than a few years between us in terms of age. I wanted to bring it up because it’s been on my mind. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about it.’
She replied that she had some thoughts, but that they caused her no difficulties or uncertainty.
‘I wouldn’t have asked you out if I had doubts,’ she said, ‘but there’s a condition I’d like you to keep to if you don’t mind.’
He asked her what that was.
‘Let’s not talk about the difference in our ages again,’ she said. ‘It’s of absolutely no consequence to me and I’d like for you to feel the same way.’
He looked at her with an expression verging on ineffable joy.
‘You’re an incredibly direct person,’ he said. ‘I’ve never met anyone quite like you. The only thing I’m sorry about is that it took two years.’
‘I feel just that way too,’ she replied.
On the occasion of their second date, she returned with him to his house in Clontarf and spent the remainder of the weekend there. On Saturday morning they walked to one of his favourite spots in Dublin as he described it – the base of the statue of the Virgin Mary on Bull Island. It was here, gazing down the breakwater which ran out to the lighthouse, that he first told her about magic hour.
‘It’s that time of day when the light is such a way you can’t be sure whether it’s just after sunrise or before sunset.’
She interrupted him immediately.
‘How would you not know?’ she asked. ‘You’d have a watch surely. You’d know if it was earlier or later.’
He smiled tenderly and pointed towards the sky.
‘See how it’s redder now and a good deal easier on the eye than at other times,’ he said. ‘That’s what magic hour is. I like it because it has the rich colour without the glare. If I could control the heavens, we’d have it all day long.’
She poked him playfully.
‘Is there anything else you’d like to have all day long?’ she enquired.
They walked back to his house at a much quicker pace than before.
She was aware of how much she wanted him again and wondered if it was patently obvious to all those they walked past. Can any of them guess how I’m feeling right now she asked herself. Are they conscious of my desire for you?
She glanced at him surreptitiously, hoping that he knew. The grip of his hand steadied itself and then enfolded hers more completely. She felt both protected and desired. The state of mind was a pleasing one. She imagined it was a magic hour of the heart.
She began to live for those slow, lingering weekends when she could become more enveloped in his world. Time did not matter very much to either of them. Peter was very different to anyone she’d ever been intimate with before. Fiona considered how a man her own age might still be playing mind games or having occasion to drop innuendo as if it were an obligation. She liked how he was past all of that, had nothing to prove. The only source of anxiety was his reticence about making their relationship public knowledge. Then he was somewhat guarded, jokingly tentative. He mentioned the lyrics of a song from The King and I which she’d never heard of.
‘The couple in that one are in a similar boat, albeit in a different time and place,’ he said with a slight laugh. ‘They sing about kissing in the shadows and hiding from the moon. I’m only sorry that I don’t have it on vinyl so that we could listen to it together. I think you’d see the funny side of it.’
She chided him gently about this, but was careful not to make a very big deal of it. Figuring that word would get out someway eventually, she absorbed the many recommendations he made to her about books, about music, about films. In his large living room were countless volumes which looked read and reread. The record player crackled as a backdrop to their afternoons of leisurely perusal. The evening-time was firmly devoted to old black-and-white movies. He put on famous titles from Hollywood of yesteryear. Sunset Boulevard and Rear Window emerged as two of their personal favourites. They imagined how it might have been if someone other than Cary Grant had been cast in North by Northwest; or Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. They seldom went out during the day and gave the external world a wide berth after 6 p.m. There was always another classic they should watch or an extract which he suggested might be of interest. Once established, the ritual was both familiar and of no small comfort. Fiona’s friends called leaving voice messages, but she never bothered to return them. Tired excuses became commonplace at the office on a Monday morning. The girls demanded to know how she was spending her time and in whose company. It was her turn now to be elusive and oblique with the facts.
‘He’s an absolute gentleman who I’m very lucky to have met,’ she told them confident that they would never suspect. As he passed them by in the canteen, she slipped him the faintest of kittenish smiles. She delighted at how all and sundry were oblivious to this, but also fretted at how he might want it to remain this way forever.
Am I someone you would prefer to keep a secret she wondered. Must we remain under wraps for as long as you think appropriate? It would be nice to have some say in the matter. It would be good to stop hiding it just a little bit.
Quite soon after this she got her wish in a way. They were spotted in a café by a temporary member of staff who, in turn, innocently enquired about how long they were going out and how many years separated them in terms of their age.
The news filtered around the office as soon as reports were corroborated and fragments of the story pieced together. It suddenly made sense to those who had noticed nothing and divined even less. Naturally, this was the reason for the bounce in Peter’s step of late. His fellow managers ribbed him about the conquest he’d made among the younger legions. Peter the Great they dubbed him for a short time. Fiona’s friends conferred on her no such accolades. Instead, they were muted around her, offered neither approval nor criticism. For her part, she decided it was time to tell her parents and sister about Peter. They travelled down to Mooncoin a few weeks later.
Her father was friendly to the man she introduced to them. Her mother was stand-offish, but Fiona consoled herself with the thought that she’d always been this way. After dinner that Sunday, they dried dishes in the kitchen as Peter and her father took a leisurely stroll. Taking the opportunity to broach the subject, she observed how quiet her mother had been over the weekend.
‘It’s not like you to have no more than a few words to say,’ she remarked. ‘Do the men that Anne brings home provoke such silence as well?’
Her mother pointed the toe of her shoe into the floor, as she was prone to do, and shook her head vehemently.
‘Anne has a steady boyfriend now,’ she said with no little emphasis, ‘and she never brought men home in that crude way you’re suggesting. Anne always had a head on her shoulders about such things. She never let herself get…drawn.’
Somewhat taken aback at this, Fiona laughed uneasily.
‘Oh mother mine,’ she said, ‘I can see how your mind is cogitating on this particular issue. That look has been frozen on your face since Friday. You’re not happy with him because he’s older than I am, isn’t that it? You think I’m making some kind of monumental mistake. Well let me tell you something – I’m not. I’m happy. For the first time in my life, I’m truly satisfied. I wish you could see that. I wish you could see past your own small-world view just to get a glimpse of it.’
Her mother rolled her head in exasperation at this.
‘You’re right about one thing,’ she replied, ‘the age difference between you was a surprise to me. Your father as well if you must know; only he’s able to disguise his reactions better. I’ve nothing against that man otherwise. In fact, he seems a very decent sort. But you’re not being honest Fiona. With him or with yourself. You’re determined to have this head-in-the-clouds involvement no matter how it might end or who might get hurt. I feel sorry for your friend Peter in that regard.’
In as discreet a fashion as she could possibly muster, Fiona reminded her that he was more than just a friend.
‘No matter,’ her mother responded, ‘I feel sympathy for him nonetheless. He’s in this thing under false pretences which aren’t of his own making. I can see how you initiate everything between you – the holding of hands, the way you run your fingers through his hair. Everything with you has to be on display, doesn’t it Fiona? You overstate the simplest of gestures for the sake of effect. You’ve never done the conventional because you think yourself above it. The everyday thing just wouldn’t do for you. Your boyfriend, as you call him, is like a novelty to you right now I think. But what happens when the sheen disappears? Which it will do and soon. Will you find fault with him in a hundred different ways or just one? And how long will that go on for? One day or for the rest of your lives?’
Driving back to Dublin that same evening, Fiona grumbled about her mother, but she did not divulge everything that had been said. Peter summoned a faint supportive smile as he listened. He laughed when she described the imperious finger her mother summoned at such moments. His good humour fell away though when she said she would not call her mother for several weeks.
‘That would be a huge mistake for you to make,’ he advised with a firm note of caution, ‘and one you might live to regret. You’ve only got the one mother Fiona and I’m not going to be the reason for you to fight with her.’
Fiona drifted back into her abridged account of the quarrel.
‘She talked about Anne as if she’s some kind of paragon,’ she said. ‘Her memory is short on that score. Anne is no angel…at least she wasn’t back a few years ago. I once saw them almost come to blows on a Saturday night when she wanted to go out. Now it’s as if she was level-headed all along. In fact, she said as much. If I was driving, I’d turn the car around and go back to tell her a few things. All weekend she was looking at me as if I was a silly schoolgirl. You’d think twenty years hadn’t passed at all.’
With one eye clamped on the road ahead, he hooked his arm around her neck.
‘Maybe they haven’t for her,’ he suggested, ‘maybe she’s finding it difficult to give them up. You’re her baby girl after all. A parent isn’t supposed to let go so easily.’
The sky was moving towards dusk and a light rain had begun to fall. She felt herself grow less bellicose as his tapering fingers stroked the ends of her hair. Closing her eyes, she decided to sleep for a while. Soon they would be back in Dublin. The following week she was moving in with him in Clontarf.
‘You’re precious to me,’ she told him. ‘It annoyed me that my mother didn’t understand that, that’s all. Do you mind if we stop talking about it now? My eyes are heavy. I think I might doze for a bit.’
‘Of course,’ he replied. ‘Go right ahead. I’ll get us home safe and sound.’
They were married a year later when she was 28. The wedding was low-key at her insistence and she knew how he was glad of this. Two more years passed before they learned they could not have a family together. The physical impediment was on Peter’s side. He apologised profusely for it sounding as if it were something he’d deliberately caused. Fiona told him it wasn’t his fault. She accepted it and didn’t wish to hear about the options or alternatives open to them.
‘We have each other,’ she said to him, ‘that’s what’s important.’
She began to try her hand at creative writing and short stories over the years, entering into competitions whenever she could. Twice she placed third and another occasion saw her take second prize. They both listened keenly as her three-thousand-word effort was read aloud on Radio 1. Afterwards, however, she noticed how he grew sullen in himself, contemplative in a troubled way.
‘Your story was lovely,’ he told her as she pressed for a reason, ‘but like so many of your others it’s about people from similar backgrounds who are of the same generation, roughly of the same age.’
She told him she did not understand his apparent broodiness for this.
‘It’s not broodiness,’ he replied, ‘just concern, just lingering anxiety. I worry about how I may have taken away your best years from you. Not even been able to give you children. I’m worried how I might take even more from you before I’m through. I’m afraid of the day coming when you’ll hate me for that. I’m afraid of an illness just for that reason. Because of how it would affect you more than myself.’
He stared sadly ahead then as if seeing some grief-stricken time in the future. She thought about what he’d say; how it was one of the most fiercely personal things he’d ever told her. And pitiful as well.
She did not feel pity in the present time now as she watched her own father push Peter around their garden in that terrible wheelchair of his. The emotion was something she had not been expecting. It was slight irritation at this very scene; a modicum of anger as she perceived it. Both her parents were still alive and in fine health; they were, of course, just a few years older than Peter. She recalled the day after his retirement and the plans they’d made for his free time. The strokes he’d suffered a few months later had put paid to all that. Best-laid plans she thought. I hate that phrase so much. It implies a future and it reeks of a false promise. The universe played a horrible trick on us. Why did this sickness have to happen to you now? Why couldn’t it have waited for a few more years? Soon those same thoughts in her head became even more deplorable. She pictured him suffering another stroke, only this time succumbing to it. There would be freedom for her then. She wondered what it might entail at this stage of her life. Fifty was not so very old. Might she be able to re-invent herself as her friends seemed to suggest? Did she have a life outside of all this which was worth revisiting? For over twenty years now it had really just been the two of them and she realised how they’d failed to make a contingency plan. Whose fault was that she asked herself. Hers for never having imagined such a scenario? Or his for not encouraging her in this regard? She remembered again that time when he’d been in low spirits after hearing her story on the radio. He’d been fearful of a debilitating illness and now, indeed, it had come to pass. But was that all he’d done? Wished for it to never happen? Hoping he might live to a ripe old age?
A terrifying fog of sickness and silence had crept into what had once been their near-perfect domicile. She found it increasingly difficult to abide his steady gaze. His face appeared puffed with preoccupation. She began to oppose it with a stonier attitude. She hated how he’d lapsed into such an interminable muteness; hated herself even more for not having adequate conversation for them both. In the beginning, she’d tried just that, but it seemed utterly inane, without purpose. She was acutely aware of a dull anger rising in her mind. Mostly, it was antagonism towards herself for allowing such feelings to flourish and fester. From what dark recesses of my mind is all this coming from she wondered. How can I conceive of things so twisted? What causes them to repeat over and over?
She visualised suffocating Peter with a pillow and chancing the cover story that he’d died of a further stroke. She would pass it off in her own mind then as an act of kindness; a final act of love because she could no longer stand to see him left this way. She heard the words she would use to tell him in advance of what she was planning to do.
‘It’s so that you won’t suffer any longer. It’s because I want to end your pain.’
He would not respond of course, but his eyes might well up with tears as the understanding sunk in. Would this mean happiness or horror on his part? Dread or relief? She berated herself for having these ideas. Surely, they were perverse, sinister even. The vacant yet somehow pointed expression she saw in his face set her thinking that he knew what was running through her mind. Vile notions which were utterly despicable. There were no words strong enough to condemn her for having these contemplations. He certainly could no longer speak to say them. More and more, she was saying even less herself.
One Saturday morning she lost her patience with him as he began to dribble his food again.
‘Have it your way!’ she said scolding him ever so slightly, ‘I can’t be doing everything for you!’
She noticed how he flinched at this and then looked away. A terrible droning sound communicated an agitation. His eyes blurred with strain, his mouth twisted into a regretful shape.
Fiona hugged him then, telling him to never mind about it as gently as she could. After a few minutes, he came around and was in better humour. She proposed a drive that afternoon, followed by a walk down Bull Island.
‘I know exactly the spot you’d like to go and at what time of the day,’ she told him, ‘I can still read you like a book. You always had your fondness for that place.’
Peter received this with the best enthusiasm he could muster. Giving her hand a feeble squeeze, he appeared to fix his eyes on dreaming distance. He nodded to himself in a pensive but cheerful way. Fiona felt a touch of sadness as she regarded this. She knew that his voice, if it could sound, would be vehement and happy.
It was a fine summer’s day with the sun blazing above them in the sky as they looked out over Dublin Bay. There was a lapping subtlety to the incoming tide. The edges of nearby rocks glistened like quartz. A tentative puff of wind trailed in from the water, chafing Peter’s face ever so slightly. He did not mind, but instead basked in the sun’s warmth and radiance. Waving delicately to some of the boats which appeared to be making for shore, he no longer looked tired or troubled. His mouth shaped itself into that familiar small O as a crewmember returned his wave. The moment passed and he resumed his happy contemplation of thoughts coming to mind; a previous part of his life claiming him again.
Fiona stared at him until she dropped her eyes, abashed. She felt so sorry for what had taken place earlier, questioned what she had said to him and her own behaviour. It will not do to act like that again she told herself. He needs me. I’m his wife, his support, the one who must sustain for as long as is required. I must persevere. I must withstand for us both.
She gave him a hazy and hopeful look to which he responded with a nod of appreciation. The recollection of former scenes passed between them. She remembered that evening in The Long Hall when she had asked him out. He harked back to that first time he saw her in the office, gratefully gulping in a mouthful of sea air as he did so.
She knelt down beside him and took his hands in hers. He smiled softly as she rubbed and blew them in a playful gesture. A single word came to his lips, but the paralysis impeded its delivery. Good was more than a fitting way to describe this moment. It defined her. It defined them.
They both knew how this light would soon be growing thick and coloured. Night would come down gently, followed by deep shadow. Fiona thought about a few thousand nights before when Peter had first held her. His arms were strong then. There was a promise in his embrace; it said it would never let her go.
She thought of the past, sadly reflecting on how they both still longed to hold each other, to cry, to swat at the sea air, to scream with excess of emotion, and to laugh perpetually as they used to do. The sudden hush that had fallen on his soul made this impossible now. His body was not accommodating; it could no longer be of service in such an act.
Fiona felt this as her eyes blurred with tears. The thick rim of sun bulged against the seascape. The brightness would fall out of the day before long. Life itself would dim down and soon flicker towards extinction. Peter’s body would go limp with his spirit as the heavy pall of death descended. She understood how her own life would enter a new period then. Good or bad, it would be without him. But such things were for the future she told herself. Live in the present now as if every day might be his last. As if today might well be his last.
Brightening a warm smile in his direction, she allowed a pleasant inflection to slip back into her speech. Her voice was a paragon of gentle control as she drew closer to him, pointing towards the light, drawing his attention to the sun which was prominent and bold.
‘Magic hour my love,’ she said whispered in his ear. ‘Magic hour.’
Accepting this detail by detail, a pleased expression flickered across Peter’s face. There was welcome in his eyes. Generous tears streamed down his cheeks. The vast tract of sea extended before him. It glowed as he supposed it might do in some far-off place. He rubbed his hands in a faint paroxysm of delight; nodded at the wisdom of a decision she had yet to convey.