I remember the sun jumping on the wall, above the files. Feeling a kind of unease as though I was needed somewhere else. The light coming towards me through the leaves outside.
The Boss dropped in on his way.
— The parting of companions, he said cheerfully.
He was right. We were leaving one by one. People transferring, people resigning: that lard-arse Blake died of a heart attack while he was sitting a couple of yards from me. He fell head first, his mouth slightly open and his eyes bulging. An undignified death. You won’t care about dignity when you’re dead, will you? After all, though, I have a (foolish) desire for a respectable death.
— Are there many left here? said the Boss.
— Three, I said.
— Martinu, Singh and Blood.
He pursed his lips.
— You’re drowning in space here, he said. You don’t need a lot of space, of course. Some snug little nook.
He waved goodbye to me with the light dancing behind him.
A postcard waiting for me at home. Mangrove trees and crocodiles on it — the second card I’d gotten from her. I wouldn’t go to those parts. The heat would kill me.
I have no companion except for a cat, a shaggy thing that gets half its food from the neighbours. Books and gardening are how I pass the time. I can read Chinese, which I learned so that I could understand someone else’s misfortune. I don’t travel.
I left that card in a drawer. But her voice settles in my head, a voice I’d heard for the first time six weeks before. I was making my supper when the phone summoned me.
— I’m your daughter, she said.
My daughter. Old memories burst up like indigestible, bitter dregs; every injustice I’d ever done to anyone else.
— Are you there? she said.
— Indeed, I am, I said. What is your name?
— Dearbhla, she said. I’m travelling the country. I’m in Queensland at the moment.
She’s coming from the north. I went on preparing the potatoes. My daughter. A fit came over me: a fit of rage or affection.
I didn’t ask after her mother. What use when her mother was astray in the far country? I tried hard to remember her name, a useless attempt. On my way to work I was studying the faces with hope and fear, looking for her features — features I wouldn’t recognise now, perhaps, if I saw them.
The three who were working next to me weren’t long to go. I was working on the accounts, verifying debts or cancelling them. While the demons danced at the back of my head.
On my way home one afternoon I dropped into a place I’d not frequented for many years: Il Gelsomino.
— Latte, please, I said.
— Is that you? said a man sitting behind me.
— More or less, I said.
A face I recognised with the decay of age encroaching on it. Gouros. Him in the flesh and looking fierce.
— I haven’t seen you for twenty years, I said. I heard you were dead.
He was taking about the old days, taking non-stop. Intelligent. A man who would get on splendidly, we used to say; but he was missing something. The talk ran dry; I didn’t know what I should say. I was looking at the waitress, a girl who was flying gracefully between the tables, and thinking of another woman.
— I have to go home, I said.
— What brought you here? said Gouros.
— My feet. They have their own memory.
— Will we see you again?
I shrugged my shoulders.
— Bye, I said with my face to the sunset.
I had a dream that night. A girl coming towards me on a river bank, one of my children. (I had a big family in the dream.) She had a nimble gait like the waitress and her face was a weather-worn stone. She smiled at me. While the black river went quickly backwards into the mouth of night.
— I’d given up all hope of you, I said.
Her smile and her body crumbled, and the bank itself; streaming away in the dark quick stream. I woke and was a stranger there. Who owns this room, this house? I sat up and looked at the clock. Five o’clock. No matter, I always was an early riser; I hung my legs out over the edge of the bed, seeking the solid surface of the earth.
I looked at myself in the mirror. A worn out look, stubble thick on my cheek. I decided to let the beard grow; perhaps I’d recognise myself again.
The Boss dropped in on me a couple of days later while I was working. My appearance probably disconcerted him. His eyes darting aside.
— Have you been in the Department long? he said.
I thought about it. Thirty years. And fated to stay there until the day of my death.
— The long road, he said.
I occurred to me then that I should go on the tinnies; but I’m not a drinker.
Another postcard arrived. Herself drawing near from the north.
The next day I couldn’t find my workplace. I was wandering the long corridors, trying to find the way. The Boss explained.
— Number twelve on the fourth floor. A snug little nook! he said with satisfaction.
A narrow, dilapidated place with the sun making a bright square on the wall. I took a small bottle out of my pocket and hid it in a drawer. It was only a trial, since I’m not a drinker. At midday I got to Il Gelsomino. Gouros was there before me.
— You look different, he said. A change for the better.
We called for a drink and another. I thought for a minute that I saw the Boss himself at the back of the room with his foot up on one knee..
— Keep your spirits up, brother, said Gouros.
He was right. We’re brothers. I drank the remainder.
My little bottle was emptying. A couple of sips per day. The Boss came in one day.
— You’re behind in your work, he said.
— A little, I said.
— Do your best then.
— I do.
— This place isn’t permanent, of course, said the Boss with the light darkening over his head. I had to move myself. It never ends. There’s little that outlasts us.
I examined myself in the toilet mirror: bedraggled clothing, dishevelled hair, beard growing without restraint. The very man. That night I got the Chinese book down off the shelf. Poems, solitude in them, the solitude of the mountain. I took to the hills in my innermost mind with no desire to return to this life.
I sat out in the garden that night with the crickets singing around me. I heard the doorbell; the stars darkened and a quiet came over everything. I would’ve liked to speak but the words wouldn’t come. Who would I speak to?
I opened the door. It was her, a thin, dark-haired girl, wearing a blue cotton dress. Part of myself. And I thought of her mother, a woman cast adrift.
— I’m really tired, she said.
— Your bed’s ready, I said.
We talked a while about the weather, about her travels. She went to bed and I sat in the stillness of the kitchen. My mind was empty of thoughts and a cricket was singing in it.
She was still asleep when I went to work in the morning. Her limbs sprawled out and the cat a lump at the bottom of the bed. I touched a lock of her hair, a soft, living lock. What might happen to her? I didn’t have the power to protect her from the loneliness of the road.
When I got to the place where the office should have been there was only a deep hole. I looked into it, a pointless view. Then I went on.
Il Gelsomino again. I called for spirits and asked after Gouros. I was told he’d long been gone to his eternal reward. I was drinking slowly, thinking of the stranger still sleeping at home. I went out with the summer retreating before me.
Out in the night I reached home and she was gone. Her bed made tidily and a dusting of dream on the pillow. When I got to the kitchen I saw the note on the table. The words slipping away from me. (Who wrote those words, what news did they carry?) I looked out at the garden, at the apple tree, at the loneliness of the moon.
The days are passing and the beard is down to my waist. I read Chinese books and prune the shrubs. Thinking deeply, the demons coming and going, insignificant things. I’ll die in the garden one summer night, the bats twittering around me. I have the winter to get through yet, the cat looking for its food. I’ll wait for the last card, with the words of my redemption.