The Dinner Guest

Nelson watched Chloe twirl about the kitchen. She moved between the stove and the fridge as though part of a foreign, exotic dance. She was kind enough to pretend she didn’t notice him staring awkwardly. Or maybe she just tolerated him because he was her husband’s friend.

Then again, he mused, she may not even know I’m looking at her.

It didn’t matter, he decided, because here she was before him and he was spellbound. Tonight, she wore a simple black dress. A long, brightly patterned bohemian scarf was knotted behind her neck to keep it out of the way as she cooked. Her feet were bare. They weren’t small or even dainty, but they moved gracefully, tapping out a pleasant rhythm as she crossed the floor.

The light in the kitchen was low and soft. Jazz guitar drifted from the stereo, gilding the edges of the moment. Nelson felt warm, comforted and safe. There was nowhere else he would rather have been on this night, or any night.

If I talked to her, he thought, it might force my mind to focus on other things. It might free me from this trance.

He cleared his throat and began to tell her about the music he had been listening to. He’d discovered a new artist at the shop around the corner from his apartment. Immediately, his mind was transported into the stories he was recounting, the stories of artists and songs and notes. He relaxed into the sweet release that came with thinking about music. He allowed himself to inhabit the details of his descriptions, to walk around between the words and images that came to him. This was the way his brain worked. He had never really considered it to be any different from the way other people thought.

He didn’t notice that he was rambling; he never did. Somewhere in the back of his mind he imagined that she was as interested in the stories as he was.

* * *

Chloe frowned and tried to concentrate. She was sure she was forgetting something.

She was aware that Nelson was looking at her, or at least, looking towards her, and this distracted her. She wondered what he thought of when he stared into space like that. She wished he would go to find her husband, talk to him about the music he so loved. At least David knew more about music and could take part in the conversation. Not that it was easy to interrupt the monologue.

No, that was mean. She felt sorry for Nelson; he lived alone, and she was happy enough to have him over every now and then. But she couldn’t handle the awkwardness or the talking. She didn’t really know how to respond and anyway, she couldn’t concentrate on cooking a meal with all those words coming at her.

* * *

David could hear Nelson chatting to Chloe in the kitchen. He smiled, happy that his old friend and his wife got along so well. His wife liked stories and his friend liked to tell them. It was a perfect, easy way to spend an evening.

David continued to pour over the plans for his client’s house. He wanted to make sure they were just right before he sent them off. Only then would he be able to relax and enjoy dinner. As he double-checked everything, he breathed in deeply, delighting in the aromas wafting up from the kitchen.

* * *

“That was nice,” said David, more to himself than to Chloe, as he closed the front door. She had already cleaned up in the dining room while he and Nelson had finished off the evening listening to music in the living room. She was just turning off the lights in the kitchen.

“Did you have a nice evening?” he asked.

“Mmm,” she replied. He didn’t notice that she kept her gaze and her tone subdued.

“Thank you for dinner. It’s always so great to see Nelson. I’m glad you two get along.”

This time, she looked up to meet his eyes. She was ready to say something about how awkward things were with Nelson, but when David smiled at her, all she could do was smile back.

“I’m glad you had a nice evening,” she said.

 

 

She had the Walk of a Queen

Plunkett’s Cottages off Sandwith Street, Dublin, 1913. Source: Derelict Dublin 1913

I hadn’t been able to sleep that night. I never could when I worked at the factory. Instead, I stood in our low-hung doorway, looking out into the gloom. The narrow cobbled back streets at the heart of Dublin darkened quickly back then, before there were electric streetlamps, before they brought light to the tenements. It was the stone walls, too; they stood close together, squeezing out any of the light that might have reached us from the main road. And most of the residents would have retired or gone out by then, extinguishing their candles before they did. Anyone moving through the warrens at that hour did so in almost complete darkness.

Several men were huddled together further on, the embers from their pipes bobbing faintly as they spoke. Liquid sloshed in a bottle as one of them tipped it up, then down again, and passed it on. Hoarse voices and raucous music drifted up from O’Mahony’s place at the bottom of the alley. It seemed a fight was brewing.

While I lingered, too awake to return to bed, the shadow of a woman fell across the top of the laneway. In the flickering of the distant gas lamps, it seemed to dance up the walls. Sensing a presence, everyone else stopped moving and turned to look. The place fell silent.

The fog that had rolled down the River Liffey from the sea swirled around her so that she seemed to be rising from it, like a goddess. She towered, tall and stoic, in a high-necked cloak and a blaze of red hair, her feet anchoring her dancing shadow. Even from that distance, I could see the pride and defiance in the way she held her head.

Though time seemed to stop, she must have paused only briefly. The tamp-tamp-tamp of two sets of police boots were clunking up the road somewhere behind her. She turned her head slightly to glance back before plunging into our world.

The footfalls slowed to a stop as her pursuers were brought up short, unwilling to follow. They lurked just beyond the walls for a moment before their footsteps could be heard receding, grudgingly I imagine.

She glided, unflinching, between the narrow stone walls of the alley. Light seemed to emanate from her as she greeted all who lived here: labourers, weavers, dock workers, factory girls like me, and the rest of the wretched among us who had emerged to see the great lady. As they tipped their hats or bowed their heads, murmuring “Ma’am,” she nodded and smiled, enquiring after those she knew. Despite the late hour and her recent escape from the authorities, she took her time, discussing evictions, the food situation and promising to “keep working for Ireland.”

Perhaps she didn’t see me, standing as I was in the shadow of the doorway, but she passed just in front of me – so close, I could feel the air move. It stirred my hand, drawing it after her. I felt myself reaching out, daring to touch her rustling cloak. The sensation at my fingertips was soft, vibrant, electric.

When someone cleared their throat nearby, I jumped, snatching my hand away and sinking back against the door. A gravel-gargled voice asked, “Madam Gonne, were those men bothering you?” So it was her!

There was laughter up and down the tenements; everyone knew that the authorities watched her, aiming to catch her at some subversive act or other.

Maud Gonne smiled and I swear she winked. “Oh, not really,” was all she said before she slipped from view, turning the corner down by O’Mahony’s.

They used to say she walked with the gods, but they don’t say that anymore. They say other things instead, things I’d rather not believe. What I do know is that she was Ireland’s heroine–our goddess–and that once she passed by here, right past my own house, so close that I was able to reach out and touch her.

.

In her autobiography, A Servant of the Queen, Irish revolutionary, Maud Gonne, lightheartedly describes the creative ways with which she frequently evaded the Dublin Castle detectives sent to watch her.
“And she had the walk of a queen” is the final line in W.B. Yeats’ play about Irish nationalism, Kathleen Ni Houlihan. Maud Gonne, Yeats’ life-long muse, played the title role in 1902.

Tramontane

This place is your world. The shock of it – glaring, blaring, pungent, abrasive, all of it too sudden – drives me away again and again.

For you, I will always return, though I can’t say for how long. But I will never stay.

 

The Grey Dawning

Grey Dawn by Stuart Apsey at pixdaus.com

The Dawn’s radiance was cloaked in grey as, solemnly, She snuffed out the night’s lights.

One by one, the stars flickered, while my hopes faded behind a curtain of shifting shadows.

I tried, but could find no beginning in that pallid ending.