Art Kavanagh

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A short story

Once the mourners had dispersed, Aoibheann went back to the house to start clearing it out. She was perturbed to find that her mother was coming with her. It would be Claudia’s first visit. Aoibheann herself hadn’t spent more than 20 consecutive minutes in the house since Eddie had gone into hospital. Claudia at once noticed the separate sleeping quarters, as Aoibheann had been sure she would. “We didn’t always manage to keep to our own rooms.” Aoibheann was startled to hear herself say this aloud. She and her mother did not talk about sex, least of all in circumstances like these. Aoibheann believed that the reticence was more on her side, but Claudia had never seemed to have any trouble respecting it.

Claudia took her cue from her daughter’s unusual frankness to deliver a short statement which she’d carefully prepared: “He wasn’t your father. I’ve always known that.”

Why is she telling me this now? Aoibheann wondered, at first to herself, then transmuting the question into agitated air.

“Because it’s the truth. That’s all that’s left to us. It’s what you deserve. I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time.”

It struck Aoibheann that there was no urgent need, not now, to decide whether she believed what Claudia had said. She had trouble imagining that even her mother could deliberately tell just this lie, at just this moment. It was likely that Claudia was saying what she wanted to be true, giving herself the benefit of a persistent but tiny residue of doubt.

Aoibheann shrugged, opened the top drawer of Eddie’s desk and took out a handful of papers, which she dropped in a haphazard, sliding pile in the rectangle of clear space to the left of his computer. There was no point in saying any more. Of the few things that Aoibheann and Claudia had in common, the first was their terror of the force of Aoibheann’s anger towards her mother. Long before the child had reached her tenth birthday, they had arrived at a tacit accommodation: Aoibheann would keep her rage in check, Claudia would always do her best to avoid going too far. Neither of them could imagine having to deal with the consequences of a breakdown in the truce. Now, nearly twenty-five years later, it held.

So shaken had Aoibheann been by her unexpected attraction to Eddie that she had wondered if she wasn’t mistaking something else for desire. Trust perhaps — he had been recommended to her as someone who could help her to resolve a disagreement with her agent. Envy (mixed with admiration, to be sure) of his gentle, unshowy way of asserting himself? Delight in his wit, or wonder at what she took to be his erudition and was at least self-assurance, if of a curiously unostentatious kind? Was some biological urgency attempting to trick her into mistaking her reaction to these qualities — to some combination of them — for an oddly euphoric, almost soothing variety of lust?

Conscious though she was of the danger of trusting her own emotional response, Aoibheann couldn’t see any good reason to avoid Eddie’s company — to turn down his invitations, first to dinner, then (nearly a week afterwards) to the theatre. The following week it had been the cinema, a few days later, just drinks. There hadn’t been an explicit invitation to bed, more of a shared anticipation which had clearly always been going to be fulfilled. To tell the truth, Aoibheann had expected and would have liked to have got to the sex a bit sooner but she attributed the delay (which was not so protracted as to make her doubt that she was desired) to the fact that Eddie clearly belonged to an earlier generation, one that had been accustomed to take things more slowly. And she was well aware that she was worse placed than most to criticize others for their reticence.

The couple talked about moving in together but did not feel it immediately necessary to do anything about it. Sometimes they stayed together on consecutive nights for weeks on end, at other times each was happy to have his or her own place to go to. As far as Aoibheann could tell, Eddie’s solitary moods matched her own. She couldn’t remember any time when either’s wish to be alone had caused disharmony.

They talked about the difference between their ages and what kind of future they could expect. She would soon be thirty; the description of him as being in his “early” fifties had recently, sadly and almost unnoticed, slipped out of date. When she was the age he was now, he’d be — well, dead, quite probably. She wasn’t yet ready for children though she thought she probably would be someday. Eddie was confident that he had no offspring and, therefore, no particular reason to be complacent about the quality of his sperm which, in any case, was certainly not improving with age. Maybe they should have some embryos made and then freeze them? They were unsure whether this could be done in Ireland but thought it unlikely; it might be necessary to go the the UK, perhaps for an extended stay. It was then that Aoibheann got her first inkling that Eddie’s lifestyle (though he’d never have called it that) consumed enough of his material resources to discourage anything in the nature of long-term capital expenditure. The freezing of the embryos was deferred but the project was not abandoned, merely put in abeyance.

It seemed to Aoibheann, when she reflected on it later, that it was because they’d postponed a decision about children and remained content to keep separate households that they had felt obliged to mark the long-termness of their relationship by introducing Eddie to her mother. Claudia had, of course, met some of Aoibheann’s previous men but this would be the first formal introduction. At the time, Claudia was living alone in a small house between Kilkenny and Waterford. From Dublin, they’d taken the train to Waterford and hired a car. Aoibheann had wanted to go early on Sunday morning so there could be no question of having to stay the night but Eddie had persuaded her to give in to her mother’s insistence that they come on Saturday. So they’d carried a small backpack which contained enough for an overnight stay for both of them and placed it on the back seat of the hire car when they’d got to Waterford. Aoibheann drove, having been to the house often before. After she’d parked the car, Eddie had taken the backpack and followed her up the short path to the front door.

Aoibheann saw the sudden recognition in Claudia’s eyes just at the same moment as she heard an alarming change in Eddie’s breathing, immediately behind her right shoulder. Almost instantly, she could see her mother’s shock change to something which included amusement. Claudia had always been one for quick recoveries.

“Welcome, Eamon, it’s been far too long. I see you’ve found your daughter.”

Aoibheann felt dismay seep up through her, beginning somewhere around her bowel. As it rose it was met with two conflicting waves of unwanted emotion. The first taunted her that dismay was not remotely an adequate response to the catastrophe she’d just walked into. What did she think she was doing, standing as if paralyzed, consumed by a futile attempt to will herself out of existence, to pulverize her own bones using only the power of her mind? At the very least some rending of garments was required. The second wave was the familiar, now almost instinctive, injunction not to let her rage be directed at Claudia. She’d done it again, destroyed everything, comprehensively and irreparably this time, so that containing the fury might at last be too much for Aoibheann. Turn it towards herself, inwards, that was the answer. Lacerate herself for the pathetic disproportion of her dismay to the disintegration of her life.

By the time Aoibheann was able to turn around to look at him, Eddie was 200 metres down the road, with the backpack still slung over his shoulder. She was to find him the next day, sitting on a bench beside the river, wet from rain and shivering in the wind and looking lost and numb. He still had the backpack, which was soaked right through. She put Eddie in the car and drove them both back to Dublin, forgetting the return halves of their train tickets.

But first, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Claudia had taken her into the house, sat her in the kitchen, poured a brandy and put it in her hands and finally made tea. She didn’t say very much but some measure of exposition was clearly needed. Aoibheann’s present state was such as to deprive her of the ability to work out how she’d got into it.

Claudia and Eamon (as she’d known him) had lived together for nearly four years in the 70s, a cohabitation which had ended, as far as Claudia could now remember, a little more than six months before Aoibheann’s birth. She must already have been pregnant when they’d split up, but she hadn’t yet started to show. She hadn’t seen Eamon since and had never told him she’d had a daughter.

Aoibheann had to admit that the story made a grotesque, sickening kind of sense. From the start, she’d been puzzled by her attraction to him. She had a few friends who routinely went (“like guided missiles,” in the words of one of them) for men a full generation older. She’d never been like that. For her, Eddie had not been part of a pattern. At least, as she now saw, not that pattern. But she thought she could discern the traces of a different one.

A full sibling is the closest thing in existence to an exact genetic copy of oneself. A parent or child has only half as many of the same genes but that’s still a lot more than anyone who isn’t related. Take away the unrelieved familiarity, boredom, close-range sniping, corrosively gritty friction, resented authority and the innumerable other annoyances of early family life, and somebody “just like me” could be the most attractive person imaginable to a certain kind of personality. She had no difficulty believing that hers was a personality of that type.

Aoibheann extracted a little consolation from the discovery that what she’d been seeing in the things about Eddie that she loved had been her own pleasingly distorted reflection. His intelligence, his assertive gentleness, his ease in the world: these were traits that she’d known she had too, just well hidden, crufted over by the prickles and scales she’d had to extrude to protect her inner essence from its hostile environment.

Maybe it was a little strange that neither of them had already recognized his or her own qualities in the other. Definitely strange, she now thought, that he hadn’t seen any of Claudia in her. Their clashing temperaments notwithstanding, the mother and daughter were physically alike, though naturally Aoibheann had always done her best to hide the resemblance. While Claudia never wore her dark hair shorter than shoulder length, Aoibheann preferred a spiky elfin crop and, unlike her mother, she would never consider wearing contact lenses, instead going for glasses with frames the tiniest bit thicker and larger than she felt she could get away with.

Driving back to Dublin, she’d turned the heater up higher than was comfortable, because of Eddie’s wet clothes, but not so high (she hoped) that it would make her drowsy. They didn’t speak. Though Aoibheann would have liked Eddie to have said anything at all, if only to stop the chattering of his teeth, she couldn’t think of a word which might draw an acceptable response from him.

She helped him into his flat, made sure that there was food, coffee and alcoholic drink, then left him. She drove to her own place, mentally listing her priorities: a shower and a change out of yesterday’s clothes, return the car to a Dublin branch of the hire company, do some essential shopping, and sort and clean the contents of the sodden backpack. Then food or sleep, whichever she could manage.

She forced herself to stay away for three days, though she was worried that Eddie might have caught his death. She didn’t just turn up either, but phoned before. That was new. She was pleased if a little puzzled to find him in good spirits and not suffering from a cold or worse. She was even more relieved that he seemed glad to see her.

“Obviously we have to talk,” were his first words of substance, once she’d established that his soaking hadn’t left him with pneumonia.

They talked, he more than she did to start with. Claudia’s surname, which Aoibheann had been given at birth and retained ever since, was not particularly common; but Eddie, having no suspicion that he was a father, never made the connection. He was thrilled to learn that he had a daughter and wanted to get to know her in that role. He’d been feeling for weeks, probably months, that he loved her. Now that feeling was stronger than ever, but he’d been mistaken — deceived — about the nature of his love for her. It was paternal, not — as, in their ignorance of the full facts, he’d understandably taken it to be — sexual.

Aoibheann did a good job of suppressing a snort. It had certainly seemed sexual, as recently as last week in the next room. The image of their bodies, naked on the bed with legs intertwined, was unusually clear and sharp in her mind. She was surprised — and, admit it, relieved, happy — that it did not disgust her. How was it possible that Eddie could seem to have so easily recategorized those months as a former error which they had now put behind them?

Eddie continued the oration he’d repeatedly half-rehearsed over the previous three days. The gist of it was that now that he knew he had a daughter he felt as if he’d found something fundamental that he’d been been missing but hadn’t known he’d been looking for.

I wasn’t looking, consciously or otherwise, for a father, Aoibheann thought sourly. One parent was more than enough and had been for most of her life. But then, she hadn’t been looking for a lover either, yet had been very happy to have one. Mightn’t Eddie surprise her again, in a different role? For a moment, Aoibheann really wanted to believe this but couldn’t persuade herself that it was a realistic possibility.

“You’re not my father, not emotionally. That’s not how I met you, how I got to know you. It’s not how I fell in love with you. I can’t think of you like that and I haven’t the slightest doubt that I don’t want to learn how.” But Eddie’s crest had fallen so sharply at her denial of his parenthood that she couldn’t bear to repeat it. He didn’t want to lose her as a daughter and she agreed that she didn’t want to lose him either, though emphatically not as a father. As what then? Was it really necessary to define it? Was it even possible? Unable to resolve the conundrum either way, they continued to meet, several days a week. They met in his flat and talked. They went for meals (and talked). They went to the theatre and talked afterwards or for a drink and failed to find a pub quiet enough for any intimately meaningful conversation, so they smiled at each other and drank up.

Eddie wanted them to give up their separate flats and buy a house together. Aoibheann was doubtful.

“Father and adult daughter in the same household? Wouldn’t that be a bit of a regression for both of us?,” she teased him.

“You have to allow for the highly unusual circumstances. In our case, the father didn’t even know he had a daughter till she was nearly 30. We’d be making up for lost time. Besides, you don’t think of me as your father. From your point of view, we’d just be housemates.”

Aoibheann, of course, continued to have misgivings. She was uncomfortably aware that she was no more capable of looking at Eddie as “just” a housemate than she was of accepting him as a parent. And what exactly were his intentions? He knew that she hadn’t had a boyfriend since the destruction of their relationship as lovers. He possibly suspected — though she certainly hadn’t told him, not in so many words — that she had no desire to be or intention of becoming involved with anybody else. She might expect to remain unattached, but what did it mean that he apparently shared that expectation?

The last thing she wanted was to talk to him about her sexual future but the subject was unavoidable if they were going to live together.

“Nobody wants to see his daughter go off with another man. I don’t think my position in that respect is really all that different from a normal father’s. It’s certainly no reason why you shouldn’t own a house with me and live in it for as long as that suits you. You’ll own half and, after I die, the whole house and you can move out or back as you want or need to.”

Once they had bought the house — further from any coast than either of them would have liked to have been able to afford — Aoibheann began to see that the misgivings she’d overridden had been as much about her own intentions as about Eddie’s. It was true, as she’d told Claudia, that they hadn’t always kept to their own rooms. What she hadn’t said was that the boundary between those rooms was breached only rarely. The morning after the first time, she had woken alone in Eddie’s bed and her first conscious thought was that she oughtn’t to be there. She’d found him in the kitchen, hunched over a bowl of Fruit’n’Fibre, exuding dejection. Aoibheann had not needed to be told what the problem was. He was tormenting himself with guilt.

Aoibheann felt guilty too, though not about the sex itself. Hers was a sort of secondary guilt at being part of the reason for his. She knew it was pointless to try to argue with his emotions but she couldn’t help making the attempt.

Through no fault of their own, the situation they were in was utterly impossible, she told him urgently. There was no ideal solution, nothing they could do that wouldn’t be wrong in some sense. In those circumstances, the only path open to them was to do as little harm and damage as they could. It was their responsibility to minimize the hurt they might cause — and not least to each other! The only absolute imperative, the essential unbreakable rule, was that they mustn’t have a child. If they could avoid that, their other transgressions would be excusable, even insignificant.

She was so glad, now, that they had never made any embryos. It would have been too cruel to have had to destroy them. She was almost amused to note the paradox that, for the first time since she started using it, she felt perfectly sanguine about contraception. She’d been fortunate enough never to have had a real pregnancy scare but, at the back of her mind, she had always worried about whether she’d go through with an abortion if and when it came to it. Now, there was no room for doubt. Eddie, surely, would not raise any difficulties — or would he? How could she know him so well and not be sure about the answer to that question?

Eddie was willing — more so than she’d hoped — to be persuaded that their present living arrangements could continue. He told her not to worry, he would learn to ignore the guilt that was eating at him. He was to find that more difficult than either of them expected. Sex between them remained infrequent. This was acceptable to Aoibheann — what would have been unbearable would have been to abjure it forever more. Her feelings of guilt abated but if Eddie’s did likewise it was happening too slowly to be perceptible.

Eddie had talked about retirement when they moved but in fact worked harder than ever, only now he did it from home. A commute to Dublin would have been entirely impractical. Aoibheann missed the city but adjusted to working from home with just a little more difficulty than Eddie had. Suddenly he was ill and then less suddenly, though mercifully without any drawn-out suffering, dead.

And here was Claudia, telling her that the deprivations they’d submitted to had not been necessary after all. The children she might have had would not have been the inbred mutants who’d populated her nightmares. Now that it was too late to do anything about it, Aoibheann thought she could continue to accept her own childlessness, even knowing that it had been dictated not by necessity but by a cruel trick. What kind of mother would I have been anyway? she asked herself. She felt a curious mix of frustration and relief, each competing for emotional space with the grief she felt for Eddie. The notable absence was any anger at her mother. This time, Claudia had gone far beyond anything which might be met with anger. Aoibheann, to her own astonishment, felt no fury, but also no love. Had that been the point of the fury all along — to protect her from the love of this dangerous woman?

But could she be absolutely sure, even now, that her mother was telling the truth? She asked for proof, without believing that any existed.

“The words were out of my mouth, ‘you’ve found your daughter’, before I was fully conscious that there was a literal sense in which he could take them. And when he did, I thought ‘typical!’ Always the tragic hero, narcissistically wallowing in his suffering, that was Eamon. He enjoyed his pain and I was ready to give him what he needed. But I never wanted to hurt you — only him. He’d been so oblivious up to the moment I opened the door. It had never crossed his mind to notice how like me you are. It was as if he’d forgotten that I exist. He got a sharp reminder.”

“Why did you never tell us — tell me — before?”

“When did I get the chance? I haven’t seen him since, and you’ve hardly given me many opportunities. Besides, I was sure that the first thing the two of you would do would be to get a DNA test. Why didn’t you?”

Aoibheann shrugged. Expense, naturally. Everybody assumed that Eddie should be rolling in it. Herself, she was relieved he’d left enough to cover the hospital and the funeral. Also, there was that fatalistic conviction that the test would inevitably confirm the worst. Better not to be absolutely certain that their relationship was an indictable offence.

Aoibheann stopped sorting papers and sat down on Eddie’s chair. Her head dropped forward but she stopped it before she slumped onto the desk. It was true that she’d never felt that he was her father but at the same time she hadn’t doubted the biological relationship. How else to explain her uncharacteristic attraction to a man so much older? She attempted to pose this question in terms that would make sense to her mother.

“Evie,” Claudia said. Evie! The woman solely responsible for her risible misdescription of a forename was now the only one she knew who didn’t use it. “The two of you were drawn to each other, not because you were his daughter, but because you’re mine. You are just like I was. The characteristics that attracted him to me, and those that made me love him, were all passed on from me to you.”

Aoibheann thought that her mother was exaggerating their likeness. If she was wrong about that, it was probably all for the best that she was never going to have a child.