He flicked the key and the ignition sparked into life with a growl that filled the small garage. A tiny smile came across his face as he pressed his foot on the accelerator that made the old car roar in defiance. He clutched into neutral and got out to listen to the gradual change of the engine finding its level once again; the battered rust bucket eased into a steady hum, purring like a fattened animal gorging on its latest meal.
A cigarette was reward for his work and he pulled hard on it, enjoying the mixture of smoke and petrol fumes permeating from the car. He would drink those flavours if he could, the potent contrast of the fuel vapours and tobacco. He sucked it all in.
The evening passed as he did his repairs, moving frequently from the top of the engine to underneath the car; a task he was just about able for, considering his body was starting to creak even though he turned only fifty this year. The run down wooden-shack that was his workshop was warm from the little electrical heater in the corner and he was sheathed in perspiration underneath his blue overalls. But it was a good sweat, he thought, sweat worth spilling when the job was done at the end of the night. He peered out the grease-smudged window of the garage toward the house across the gravel pathway. The light shining earlier from the bedroom was switched off now, the heavy curtains drawn.
The draw of the cigarette felt good on his throat, but the real kicker for him was fixing things; always was, even as a young boy. When he was nine, he watched for his parents coming back from the hospital one day because they’d told him they would be bringing home a little brother or sister for him. But his parents were the only people who got out of the car and his mother said that he would have no little brother or sister after all, ‘because her baby-making button wasn’t working’.
He had spent the following few days figuring out how they might fix it.
‘Maybe we could borrow Auntie Marie’s button? She might not need it anymore,’ he later suggested to his mother as she cooked dinner. She leaned over to stroke his face and placed an understanding kiss on his forehead.
‘Every mummy must keep their own button. They can’t be handed around.’ He thought about this for a moment.
‘Can we buy a new one?’
‘No. It’s something very special that only God can give you.’
The mention of the ‘G’ word was enough to end the matter, so he retreated outside to the swing in the back garden and sat still: thinking, thinking, thinking, until a strong summer breeze tickled the short blond hairs of his neck and arms and with a deft twist of his feet, he forced himself into the air. There was to be no brother or sister he reckoned, swinging up and down and catching glances of his mother hanging out washing on the line nearby, and the thrill of his self-made motion soon made him forget about it all.
‘Baby button,’ he laughed, before stubbing out the cigarette in the ashtray and reaching in and turning off the ignition. He looked at his watch: midnight, time to go inside; time to strip down from his overalls and boots at the back door and wash the dirt and the grease from his hardened, granite-like hands. He turned off the heater and light before locking up and walking across the pathway to the house. The night sky felt new as the stars hung low and clear overhead.
It will be a fine day tomorrow, he imagined. Perhaps the two of us can go on a drive; take the old car for a spin and see how she runs.
After scrubbing himself clean, he came into the kitchen and found the fire still aglow with chestnut blocks. He stoked them into a flame and opened a bottle of beer from the fridge. A note was left on the table beside the butter plate: Need to go into town in the morning to get a few things. He sliced some bread, buttered it and turned the note over to show that he had read it. Sitting in the armchair next to the fire, he watched the flame dance excitedly with the flickers of the cold night air travelling down the chimney, the orange flame turning blue. It was quiet in the house and he listened for his wife Lisa’s movement in the bedroom above his head. All he could hear was the faint, muffled drone of her snoring burrowing through the floor and then retreating. He could smell her; he could smell the sweet moisturising cream she applied to her face, neck, chest and hands every night, to replenish what she had lost during the day from the vigorous housework she made her daily business. He hated that smell. It had become a shield to the intimacy that mattered so much to him, intimacy that started to disappear a few weeks ago. First there was the tense, brusque behaviour when it came to the touch, and then she shielded herself from any approach at all with that thick, acrid balm. In their bed one night he went to her but there was nothing, like a light had been switched off, and darkness surrounded them ever since.
Now Michael sits into the small hours most nights with the glow of the fire, and empties his mind into its swallowing flame. Tonight however he was too tired for anything, fit for nothing but sleep.
* * * * *
The next morning was bright and dry, so they breakfasted early and drove into town in the old resurrected car. Lisa said she needed to go to the butchers and also to the small supermarket and post office.
‘How long do you think you will be?’ Michael asked, as they pulled out onto the main road.
‘Oh, I’d say an hour anyway, an hour and a half at most.’
‘Grand. I have to call into the bank and if you don’t mind I’ll pop into Brannigan’s while you do your bits.’
Lisa stared impassively at the sloping road ahead and did not respond. Michael smiled at the way he still framed his sentences with a permissive quality, even after ten years of marriage.
‘Will we have the radio on?’
‘Do you mind if we leave it off? On the way in anyway; I want to listen to this old brute, just to make sure there is nothing strange or out of the ordinary.’
She folded her arms tight, a small gesture of discontent, but he did not notice: he was concentrating on the workings of the engine as he shifted up and down the gears as they drove along the winding, deserted road.
* * * * *
Lisa followed her usual route through the narrow streets of the town but today she felt different: unable to think straight, as though floating or detached from her body. For a guiding hand, she searched her bag for the list she always made before a trip to the shops. It was then she noticed the creased brown envelope sticking out of the inside zip-pocket. It came in the post a few weeks ago. The letter detailed the results of her recent breast screening: a growth was found and they would have to operate as soon as possible, it said.
She had not told Michael any of this; she didn’t know how to break the news to him. In her mind, it was like a glass placed on the edge of a table, destined to tip over and smash any time soon – and she would have to watch it happen, in horrible slow motion, shattering their world. But even now, she was content to let it wobble perilously back and forth.
The day of the scan, he drove her to the hospital but she told him it was a routine appointment. ‘It’s only to get my blood checked by the nurse. Drop me off and get your dinner in the hotel. I won’t bother with cooking this afternoon.’ She remembered watching him drive off in another one of his restored bangers, oblivious, and how she was there, waiting, when he returned, happy as a lord and chatting with great gusto on the way home about the new value menu. ‘That was some packing, a great tightener’, his favourite phrases when it came to food. She smiled and said they would have to go together next time. Later, when they got home, Lisa went straight to bed. She did not eat, claiming tiredness from the visit to the hospital.
In her heart she hoped that once under the duvet and with the curtains drawn, the world might forget about her somehow, and in the morning she could carry on living as before. With the sheets pulled over her head, she whispered a small prayer: just loud enough for her to make things real, she thought, yet soft enough to be scattered with the leaves being blown around by the autumnal wind outside.
She had never forgotten her list before. ‘I’ll get the meat anyway and come back in for the other things,’ she declared to herself and walked towards Ryan’s butchers. The old widow Sheila Ryan was behind the counter along with her middle-aged son Padraic. He was the worker in the business, while she took care of the front of the house.
‘Hello Lisa,’ the widow said, with a welcoming smile. ‘How are you keeping this weather?’
‘Grand thanks Mrs Ryan, and yourself?’
‘Well, I’m still here anyway, and sure isn’t that all we can hope for.’
Lisa forced a smile.
‘You’re looking well anyway,’ the widow went on, ‘If you don’t mind me saying, it looks like you’ve lost a bit of weight.’
‘Hah! Away with you at that, maybe it’s because I’ve not been in here for a couple of weeks,’ she tried to say lightly. ‘Michael is working at another old car of his and sometimes it’s hard to drag him away from it, even just for the messages.’
‘You better feed him well then, if he’s burning the oil hard. Will you have the usual package?’
‘Yes, please. But with a couple of extra on each, in case I’m as long getting back to you again. You know what men are like when they get stuck into something.’ Lisa and Mrs Ryan giggled in a girlish way: an acknowledgement that they knew this and something more, but something that would never be spoken between ladies such as themselves.
An elderly woman entered the shop and was greeted fondly by the widow, and before long they fell into a deep, hushed conversation, allowing Lisa to retreat towards the wall. She enjoyed the feeling of the cool tiles against her back as she heard the drowsy hum of the meat cutter come to life. Now and again it shrieked, as the butcher expertly guided the sheave of the cold blade cleanly through the pink, succulent joint. It reminded Lisa of when Michael would cut metal in the garage at home: she would watch the sparks fly upwards through the little window and picture his goggled face full of concentration.
‘Is that all you want cutting today Mrs Gallagher?’ asked the butcher.
* * * * *
The rain was coming down heavily as Michael sat in the car waiting for his wife, but it was not long until he sighted her in the rear-view mirror, walking briskly with her shopping bags. He always thought of her as cat-like when he first courted her all those years ago, with her coal-coloured, narrow eyes and feline movements. Lisa’s figure hadn’t changed much down the years: her curves could be seen through the dress and cardigan she was wearing, her bodylines sketched by the rain, which was laying siege to the cotton.
He stepped out of the car to take the bags.
‘The day has taken a turn.’
Lisa nodded as she got inside. She pulled down the mirror on the passenger side and shook the raindrops from her long black hair and adjusted her fringe. After placing the bags in the boot, Michael returned to the driver’s seat. He smelt the damp, steamy air of the rain rising from his wife’s body and started the car. It chugged for a moment, stalled and then died. He tried again but with the same result.
‘Bloody thing,’ he said looking at Lisa, but she stared impassively out her window. He turned the engine over once more and this time it kicked into life, so he revved it hard and turned it over until it ran evenly.
‘Now we have you,’ he said quietly, as they pulled out to take the road home. He knew he’d have to look at the engine again tonight, but never mind.
‘You got all that you needed?’
‘I forgot my list, would you believe it? I’m useless without my list, so I only got some food shopping until I get in again. Can you take me in tomorrow perhaps? I know I’m taking you away from…’
‘No problem,’ Michael interrupted. ‘Sean Russell came into Brannigan’s and was looking for a part off me, so I can drop it in to him instead of his coming out to the house. I’ll ring him later when you decide what time you want to go in.’
The road was still quiet and the rain departed as quickly as it arrived, like some fleeting visitor whose only trace of calling was a light smudge on the ground. The day lurched its way back into itself, with the reawakened sun burnishing the glistened surface. Lisa switched on the radio to a station playing classic pop tunes and their warm familiarity padded out the peacefulness. The sluggishness of the car worried Michael though; he could feel it in each movement.
‘It doesn’t sound too healthy Michael,’ said Lisa. ‘Will it get us up the road even?’
‘Ah yeah,’ he said casually, trying not to betray his thoughts, ‘it’s only because of the oil change I gave it last night. It’s working through, that’s all. We’ll be grand.’ He knew rightly though; the car was torpid.
* * * * *
Lisa had just changed the dial for the afternoon news headlines when it happened.
First there was a heavy, clunking sound lasting little more than a minute; the car then jolted along the empty road before fighting its last with a wheezing splutter and Michael used its momentum to steer in tight towards the ditch. The old beast’s metal heart had suddenly given up.
‘What is it?’ asked Lisa, ‘can you tell?’
‘I think so. I’ll take a look first and then ring Sean Russell; he’ll probably have to come out for a tow.’
He pulled a small lever underneath the frayed, leather-lined steering wheel, got out and dialled his phone. He lifted the hood and started talking down the line.
‘I’m praying you’re not still in Brannigan’s oul stock…’
Michael laughed at the voice coming down the line.
‘We’re in a bit of bother,’ Lisa heard him say and then his voice became muffled as he bent down to take a closer look at the engine. He popped his head around the bonnet, ‘Spot on, good man’, and gave her the thumbs up sign.
Such a simple, yet pure, sign of assurance caused all her heartache to rise to the surface, like sunken treasure washed up in a storm, as she watched her husband walk up and down the side of the car, chatting amiably on his phone. The ground that had been purposely filled with the heavy cement of distress for several weeks – stirred thick with estrangement, bitterness and jealousy – was being torn violently open again and she started to cry.
Michael saw her tears and ended the call to get back in the car.
‘Hey, what’s the matter? There’s no need for tears, no need to panic,’ he said with a smile and squeezed her hand for reassurance. ‘I spoke to Sean and he’ll be out to us as soon as he can. It’ll be an hour before he gets here as he’s on another job, but sure there’s nothing can be done about that.’
‘It’s not your fault; I’m just being silly. Things have got the better of me today for some reason… Well, for quite some time now actually, not that I need to tell you that. You’ve had to live with it.’
Michael lowered his head and let the remark pass before speaking.
‘At least we’re dry and it’s not cold. Why don’t we just bide our time. It’s not as if we’re in a rush for anything.’
A popped, childlike laugh burst from her before giving way to a bitter sweetness in her stomach.
Lisa lifted his hand into hers and then put it to her lips, before using it to wipe away the dark tracks of her tears. She looked at the years of work mapped out through the strong, thick veins and felt the callous marks on the skin, from a life forged from nothing.
‘We should talk to pass the time, Michael,’ she said softly. ‘Let’s talk.’