The jet lag hit.
I remember the strangeness of it. This woman lumbering straight at Shay, while he cooked on; the hissing meat, the flames; me thinking, 'Is this night-time? What time is it, anyway?' while the chocolate Rice Krispie cake died on my lips. The woman stooped, as if to tackle Shay by the shins, but when she rose, it was with a small, suddenly buoyant child in her arms, and she was saying, 'Out of there, all right? Out of there!'
The child looked around him, indifferent, more or less, to this abrupt change of scene. Three, maybe four years old: she set him down on the grass and went to hit him. At least, I thought so. She raised a hand to him and then suddenly back at herself, as though to clear a wasp from in front of her face.
'How many times do I have to tell you?'
Shay lifted an arm to crack a beer, and the child ran off, and the woman just stood there, running her wayward hand through her hair.
That was one thing. There were others. There was Fiona, her cheeks a hectic pink, her eyes suddenly wet from the sheer la-la-lah of pouring wine and laughing gaily and being a beautiful mother forward slash hostess in her beautiful new house.
And there was Conor. My love. Who was late.
It is 2002, and already, none of these people smoke. I sit on my own at the kitchen table and look for someone to talk to. The men in the garden seem no more interesting than they did when I arrived - in their short-sleeved shirts and something about their casual trousers that still screams 'slacks'. I am just back from Australia. I remember the guys you see along Sydney Harbour-front at lunchtime, an endless line of them; running men, tanned and fit; men you could turn around and follow without knowing that you were following them, the same way you might pick up a goddamn Rice Krispie cake and not know that you were eating it, until you spotted the marshmallow on the top.
I really want a cigarette now. Fiona's children have never seen one, she told me - Megan burst into tears when an electrician lit up in the house. I pull my bag from the back of the chair and idle my way across the threshold, past Shay, who waves a piece of meat at me, through rainbleached tricycles and cheerful suburbanites, down to where Fiona's little rowan tree stands tethered to its square stake and the garden turns to mountainside. There is a little log house here for the kids, made out of brown plastic: a bit disgusting actually - the logs look so fake, they might as well be moulded out of chocolate, or some kind of rubberised shit. I lurk behind this yoke - and I am so busy making this seem a respectable thing to do; leaning into the fence, smoothing my skirt, furtively rooting in my bag for smokes, that I do not see him until I light up, so my first sight of Seán (in this, the story I tell myself about Seán) takes place at the beginning of my first exhalation: his body; the figure he makes against the view, made hazy by the smoke of a long-delayed Marlboro Light.
He is, for a moment, completely himself. He is about to turn around, but he does not know this yet. He will look around and see me as I see him and, after this, nothing will happen for many years. There is no reason why it should.
It really feels like night-time. The light is wonderful and wrong - it's like I have to pull the whole planet around in my head to get to this garden, and this part of the afternoon and to this man, who is the stranger I sleep beside now.
A woman comes up and speaks to him in a low voice. He listens to her over his shoulder, then he twists further to look at a small girl who hangs back from them both.
'Oh for God's sake, Evie,' he says. And he sighs - because it is not the child herself who is annoying him but something else; something larger and more sad.
Reprinted from The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright © 2011 by Anne Enright. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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