By Vince Barry
Save for the black pig she was walking, nothing struck Aschenbach as unusual about the woman he passed while on his daily constitutional along Maiden Street, careful, as always, to return where he’d started before 9AM when, it being a Wednesday, his ancient Mercedes 300-class, which he’d had shipped up, despite cost and its Bambiyan blue clear coat paint peeling like a three days old sunburn, might be towed away for street cleaning. He’d forgotten, till the woman’s dusted forehead reminded him, that today was Ash Wednesday.
“A black fast day,” Mrs. Garcia called it.
A widow with smooth arms and the idling light of girlhood on her cheeks, Mrs. Garcia ran the erstwhile safe house where Aschenbach resided, till departing, “his feet in agreement,” as they say in Togo or Cote d’Ivoire or some other backwater where he had served as gloomy attaché to the foreign clearance program analyst. But time enough for Aschenbach’s departure, time enough “before the takin’ av a toast an’ tay,” as Mrs. Garcia liked to quote, almost as much as she did, “Women of Ireland, our day will come,” always, of course, in the Gaelic: “Mna na hEireann, tiocfaidh ar la.”
She had assured Aschenbach, Mrs. Garcia had, when he registered, that a body could park forever in Newcastle West, “withoyt fear av bein’ towed away, save Wednesdays.” Save Ash Wednesday, that is, the black fast day on which she invariably bore back from Saint Brigid’s a pinch or two of ashes for her ménage, as Mrs. Garcia referred to her boarders.
How ironic, Aschenbach thought, as he complimented the woman on her pig while taking in her thumb smudge.
For her part, the woman nodded, her thin, livid lips tightening on a grin, her pace quickening. Aschenbach shot an interpretive glance her way, into half-lidded eyes set deep in shaded sockets, and he made a mental note, to be recorded later: “9 AM—Woman with black pig— thickly farded cheeks, sash.” The sash showed a golden sun on a green field rising from behind a white cloud. He’d seen it before but couldn’t remember where. He’d have to ask McArdle about it.
“You never really caught on, did you, As’nbeck?” is what the last of the FCPAs said icily, as he signed the papers for his departing blear-eyed attaché, a man gracelessly engaged in his mid- fifties— effaced-looking, with deep wrinkles, a clouded brow, and dusty lank hair.
After a waiting silence Aschenbach said, “’Scuse me, sir, for asking, but does—” here Aschenbach named the final far-flung station—“what I mean to say, sir, is—well, is it at present considered an— ‘unhealthful post’?”
Was it, both attaché and FCPA knew, Aschenbach would be entitled to extra service credit.
“ESC!” the FCPA said contemptuously. “So that’s what it comes down to, is it, As’n-As’n? — Little wonder, you were-were— stellenbosched!”
Aschenbach had never actually been demoted. He’d just—well, never been promoted.
The FCPA gruffly got up, slewed about archly, and stood hands clasped behind, rocking back and forth and sniffing the air with his short blunt nose, all the while staring fiercely out the open railed window with the splenetic little pig’s eyes of the Ashanti black boar that was grubbing about in the grassy courtyard below.
Aschenbach’s fists balled, and he felt a maddened impulse to stab the sausage rolls at the back of the FCPA’s neck with the bone letter opener resting on the his imperious desktop.
The FCPA grunted something inaudible.
The pig went, “Snork-snork.”
Aschenbach unclenched his fists.
Then he gathered up his papers and headed for Luna’s, where he knew he’d find Trevor Walker, of the British Council, still of tender years and eye-teeth uncut, but already making a career of G ’n Ts.
In the pale violet light of a crackling dusk redolent of clematic and sweet alyssum, Trevor allowed in a low confidential tone that the Brits were looking for a good man to do a piece of work “upland.” Aschenbach, even with a quid of khat in his mouth, knew that meant Ireland, where Trevor and Aschenbach and everyone else knew that the Brits were embroiled in a nasty little war with Irish nationalists. Actively recruiting, were the Brits, for undercover operations in Dublin and parts west.
“Some nondescript bloke,” is how Trevor framed the job requirements, “someone with a keen ear ’n eye and no indoor or lads, someone with an undistinguished past and . . . an uncertain future. Someone with—”
After a wide pause, which passed quickly with the mellow shortening of the Tanqueray, Trevor threw out, “A yank, actually, has been on the tapis.” He didn’t say why.
After temporizing for a bit, Aschenbach asked about the pay.
“What’s in it for this—hypothetical yank?” is how he put it, in a damp and dreary baritone.
“Oh,” Trevor said, “I should say about six-hundred pounds per annum,” then after another gulp, “and, mind you, a very generous half of that for a one-off.” He hesitated and gave Aschenbach a sideward look before deadening his voice.
“Take it myself,” he then said, “just to escape the nappies and porridge, y’know, but”—catching again directly Aschenbach’s slate-gray eyes filled with pale distress, “Ruthy, y’know.”
Ruthy was Trevor’s prepossessing wife. She and Aschenbach had once drawn unnecessary attention to each other in the back of the 300. It’d occurred shortly after the young couple had arrived from Durham or Nottingham or some such “ham” ending English city, after one of those airless embassy affairs, that had left both of them squiffy and Trevor snugly palled in a spray of Miss Alice Bougainvilleas.The drink and the khat had made Aschenbach all maudlin and he said a lot of foolish things to Ruthy, albeit agreeable, to her, even charming, but foolish for all of that, and she kept saying, with a cadenced heave of her shoulders, “ O, g’wan, o g’wan,” and he did.
With his hands tied in his nape and a trilling laugh Trevor next said suggestively, “Now, you on the other hand, Ash olde laddie—”
Aschenbach’s mouth fell faintly ajar and his breath failed him for a moment as he sensed for the first time in a long while, perhaps ever, the shifty currents of the world, of his life.
Perhaps it was the effect of the “Cinderella of spirits,” or the green leaves of khat pinched into his mouth, but still….
A wide impatient pause ensued as Aschenbach, the lines of his face hardening, surveyed Trevor’s words and the prospect of rescue from the “dull-eyed melancholy” he chronically felt, owing to the shame of losing a wife to losing a daughter to malaria and, of course, as always, the disappointment of missing out on the war—“his war.”
The mush of khat stored in his cheek together with “flower of paradise” always took him there, in the misty mixtures of memory, after, of course, ranting and raving from religion to philosophy to politics, like a busy bee drinking nectar for flight, until finally lighting upon The Great War that he’d missed—for a heart murmur, no less. But not this time—this time there was no talk of politics or religion, not a word of The War To End All Wars or heart murmurs, none of the obligatory self-recriminations for bringing them out, wife and child, to a godforsaken place of liver-devouring flatworms and blood-sucking mosquitoes and sight-robbing rivers. Not for nothing was it called “The White Man’s Grave,” West Africa. But not a word of it all this time—this time only an opalescent dream of vast, transcendent release, coruscating behind the face of a man whose race has been run.
The waiting silence passed and Trevor resumed.
“Interest you?” he said, a bubble of gin on a lip. Then, “It does, admit it. C’mon. . . . If not you, who? If not now, when? Tell me, I’d like to know. Give me one good reason not you— No; I knew it. Then it’s a go, eh?”
A safe house for undercover operations had gone wrong, that was the gist of it—and, of course, that something had to be done.
Some training, at a “spy school” at London’s Hounslow Barracks, was all that was needed. That and, of course, a cover story, which Aschenbach’s handler, McArdle, gave him once in Dublin.
“Yer roots,” went the cover, with a heavy Scottish accent, out of a mouth too small for its great mulberry of a face, “it was yer roots that brooght ye—tae trace them, ur fin’ them, ur mebbe tae invent them, oan yer mother’s side, ay coorse, spreadin’ nicely, coothie —yer shoods imagine— loch a late summer perennial oan its herbaceoos borders, mebbe e’en within th’ middle ay th’ strath ay th’ Wild Boar,” which was what Newcastle West was once known as—the valley of the Wild Boar.
Sometimes after he and Mrs. Garcia had had casual sex—what she termed gnéas gan choinníol—, and they were sharing a Player’s and Aschenbach was studying the arching, tapered, unringed fingers of the landlady—though she preferred “mesné”—, his mind would slip back to his wife. Often, in fact, it would do so, but not for very long at any one time, like Proust’s poor old Swann, who often thought of his dead wife, but could only bear to a little at a time.
Then there was the question he’d put to the FCPA about having served in an “unhealthful post” that vexed him like an itch he couldn’t scratch. Eventually, Aschenbach came to ask himself, “What difference does it make?” He meant, not whether or not he had so served, but that he should know. What difference would knowing it make? Did not knowing it make? Oh, he was sure he had—he didn’t need any FCPA to tell him that. Still, he was, at the same time, unsure that he had. He believed yet disbelieved; knew but questioned.
“What codswallop,” he’d finally decree in calm and sober moments.
But they were becoming rarer, those cooler, clear-headed, au fait times, while the foolish and gloomy preoccupation with his service grew more frequent, more subverting, until just below the surface of his consciousness hardened a disconcerting doubt, a kind of radical skepticism that left him at once trusting and distrusting the reliability of his own senses.
He blamed it all on the khat and worried what he’d do when the stash he’d brought up in the 300 ran out.
“Do you,” Aschenbach said distantly to Mrs. Garcia, as he emerged from the brown study of his post-coital tristesse, his sleep-heavy eyes in a hazy, melancholy mist gazing through a chain of improbably perfect smoke rings, “d’ever feel you know, but wonder too?” He could have been talking to himself in cathinone-induced happy lassitude.
“Ah!” broke from Mrs. Garcia, quickly, earnestly, with a head toss and a smile wrinkling a straight nose above a wide mouth, “de eternal tension twixt certainty an’ doubt.”
“Ex-actly,” Aschenbach said with the mincing precision of a mellow alcoholic, and he felt the warm embrace of a kindred spirit.
Then nothing but inscrutable murmurous silences, as squashed butt ends mounted in the Sunburst Flag pattern ashtray inscribed: Tiocfaidh ár lá.
And they plunged on, into the forgiving warm darkness, unaware of the yellow flannel fog rolling low just outside the Estrella del Mar.
Estrella del Mar—that’s what she called called her ménage, Mrs. Garcia did, always careful to say “Estreyela,” the influence of her late husband’s Castilian heritage, but with a heavy Celtic brogue that bespoke a greater influence. “Star av de sea”—that, too, she sometimes called it, which puzzled guests since, as far as anyone could see, Newcastle West was not a seaside resort of any sort. Their befuddlement wilted as if under the weight of the sapped sigh of a beleaguered schoolmistress, and a practiced syllogism:
“’Tis on de River Arra, yer see.” Newcastle West Mrs. Garcia meant. “Whaich flows into de River Deel,” she’d go on, “whaich itself flows into de great Shannon, whaich—” here emphatically,— “after turnin’ dis way an’ dat, empties into the mournful Green Atlantic.” And then,with a rhetorical flourish that bespoke Q.E.D, “Nade oi say more?”
The spare, stoop-sholdered Aschenbach had made no such inquiry when he cautiously bent over to register, his stained teeth set over an invisible cigarette poking out of a barricaded face with a spurt of eyebrows.
Mrs. Garcia regarded him for a time. Then she thought, “‘E’s de ’abit, an’ is tryin’ ter keck it.” She meant her habit, not to be loved, not cigarettes.
For his part, Aschenbach took in Mrs. Garcia through the lowered lids of his pale extinguished face. She reminded him of pictures he’d seen of Maude Gonne, the Irish revolutionary—a tall, voluminous woman, with an evenly, charmingly chiseled face and dense, wavy hair piled high—only moonless black, was Mrs. Garcia’s, not fiery red like Maude’s. He couldn’t say, though, whether Maude had the same pointy breasts and puffy nipples—he hadn’t read enough Yeats. His wife had though, such breasts. Had she read enough Yeats? He couldn’t say. Had Ruthy—pointy breasts and puffy nipples? He couldn’t remember.
Then, he said, “Nyota samaki.”
Mrs. Garcia inquired as to its meaning. “German, innit?” is how she put it, meaning “Aschenbach.”
“Swahili,” said Aschenbach, then translating, “Starfish.”
From her an apology: “You’ll ‘av ter excuse me, sir,” she said, “but oi love me words.”
From him, “A real epeolatrist,” muttered between teeth.
From her, turning his words with a deprecating laugh,“Naw, naw, sir, ’twud be words Oi’d be likin’, not feet.” And then, with a shrewd, inquiring gaze of her quick, black eyes, “D’they ever call yer ‘Ash’?— yer friends Oi mean.”
Aschenbach’s thin lips moved perceptibly before he said faintly with a solemn nod, “They do—did,” and from her, “Oi tart as much,” and from him with a foggy voice, under, as always, the influence of the khat pinched between cheek and gum, “‘Stream of ashes,’” and then, “‘Aschenbach,’” and she said, her teeth uncovered, gleaming white beneath generous lips, “Ah, so dat’s waaat it’d be meanin’. Oi’d ’av nare guessed.” Then, appending with gentle implications and an elfin grin, Mrs. Garcia said, “‘Ash’—Oi like dat,” and bent a curious and intent look upon him.
Such were the soft chitchat and gentle implications on first meeting of tenant and landlady of the erstwhile safe house. And something more: half revelation, half invitation, from her, that should he need anything, “anythin’ at al’,” her bedroom lay just below his.
Not long afterward Aschenbach sought it out, and they started having gnéas a bheith agat.
It was while carrying out her trimonthly mattress-turning ritual that Mrs. Garcia came upon Aschenbach’s journal.
As if with the arms of a stevedore and a back to match, Mrs. Garcia turned and flipped the bedding, shaking free, by chance, from its fitted white waterproof cover an owl embossed Bombay brown leather journal with gold leaf pages—a useful prop, compliments of McArdle. Mrs. Garcia instantly and correctly recognized it as “a bleedin’ diary.”
Brushing away a soupçon of inwit like a sliver of dust, she read a bit or two, written in pen in a careful hand, always on one side of a page, and did the same three months later, and again thereafter, only at two month intervals. Then, caught up, she read monthly, then weekly, then finally whenever Aschenbach was out on his daily constitutional along Maiden Street, or just plain out and about. She read and she read, always standing, so as to permit a speedy retreat should she hear ascending the wooden staircase the unmistakable footsteps of Mr. Aschenbach.
Ordinary things, she read, hum-drum things, everyday things, this and that, and that and this, “verbal snapshots,” McArdle’s term, of a wayfarer, albeit an acutely observant one—
“th’ jottings ay a common man’s uneventful life—things ’at onie sic’ man coods hae written. Thes repair, ’at scran, thes ur’at film, sic’ as ’at.” Then he handed Aschenbach the journal, together with a magnificent maple burn fountain pen for black ink entries to be written in a steady hand, all undistinguished, as far as Mrs. Garcia could tell, but for one regular credit entry.
On the first of each month, an anonymous payment, which appeared on the statement simply as “Transfer,” from an unnamed bank, to an account ending with the digits 92041.The sum in sterling was always the same: 50.00.
Shocked out of herself Mrs. Garcia instantly recognized them— “Transfer,” unnamed bank, sum—as the same as she’d discovered among her husband’s personal effects and had, naturally, reported to Iníonacha na hÉireann, the radical women’s organization founded by the feminist revolutionary nationalist Countess Markievicz. And she was swept into her own thoughts.
Then the sum of £300, that knitted her brows.
On the reverse side of the same page she encountered with startling abruptness words, written in pencil in a shaky hand, words that easily could have been written by someone quite unlike the pensive, roots-seeking man who enjoyed her favors— more like a man with a guilty hunger and nerves on a hair trigger, a man who lacked the vitality to ward off the sentimentalism of regret:
“‘Something’s happening!’” is what she she read, then, “‘been crying and pacing . . . .’” And then, “‘The deadly horrors of remorse.’”
“Ah,” she said, with a heaving bosom, imagining a distraught man wringing his hands with schwarmerei, “so dat’s waat Oi’ve been ‘earin’ atop me noggin at noight, back an’forth, back n’ forth, loike a fart on a curtain poll.” Then, in a low tone, “‘De deadly’orrors av remorse….’”
Things like that she read, and then, what gave her pause: “Grá,” she said gravely, then “Gra mo chroi,” “love of my life.”
The tip of her tongue worrying her lips, Mrs. Garcia flumped on the edge of the mattress and said with a slackened voice,“Wid al’ de cripplin’ sadness, an’-an’ ‘de deadly ’orrors av remorse . . . an’de love av me life. . . , ” and she sank into thought.
Then she fixed a kindling eye on the £300 entry and said with a sigh in a tenebrous way, “That’ll kill yer.”
And as she did, the thought of her husband gradually returned to her, of his body discovered somewhere along the road from Limerick to Tralee, between Rathkeale and Abbeyfeale, with a Webley revolver in his hand.
Then she slipped the diary back under the mattress, but not before staining its cover with a tear.
“‘My Paddy’s gone and killed ’imself,’” is what she told Aschenbach she told the Gardai when they told her, and the Gardai said, she said, “‘Moya ter dat!,’” then, “‘An’ why wud yer ’usban’ be toppin’ ’imself, tell us dat if yer can?’”
She couldn’t say, she told Aschenbch she told the Gardai, and got from them: “‘Well dare yer go den, don’t yer?’”
“Imagine,” she said to Aschenbach with hissing scorn.
“What did they mean?” he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders and said, “‘Maybe de six pack become too ’eavy a load for ’imself ter bear,’ ’s whaat Oi towl dem.”
“Six pack” was the IRA’s preferred way of dealing with grudge-bearing members—six well-placed shots, a pair in each of the ankles, knees, and elbows. Mrs. Garcia thought it odd that Aschenbach didn’t inquire as to its meaning. Instead she got from him a bland, “What did you say?”
“‘Pish!’” she said with a lowering countenance. . . .“‘Or maybe de Provos decided ter complete de job,’ dey said—de pasty-faced feckers.”
“Provos”— the Irish republican paramilitary organization.
It dimly flashed into Aschenbach’s khat-addled knot of consciousness why McArdle said Garcia had come over. For its part, Mrs. Garcia’s nimble mind was putting together the bank entries and the question unasked.
Then, with startling abruptness, Mrs. Garcia shared with Aschenbach the legend of the great black sow of Muckdah, that, possessed of an evil spirit, ravaged South Donegal till chased down by some bavehearts, through Sligo and Lenadoon, and slain at Enniscrone by the seaside.
“Imagine tinkin’ aboyt a tin’ loike dat at time loike dis,” she said of the startling incongruity from a choking throat, as she wiped her eyes with the back of a hand. Then she said heavily through closed lips, and as if dressed in widow weeds, “De stoney broke soul.”
Aschenbach, his temples throbbing and eyes befogged, thought she meant her husband, but then she rasped, he thought, “de both av yer.”
The way she said it—the way he thought she said it— drawing away under closed lips, “de both av yer”— well, it made the hair on the back of his neck tingle and spread a slight suffusion over his face when she repeated, he thought, with more than a shade of asperity, he thought, “De stoney broke souls,” her eyes pricked with tears.
Then a throbbing silence fell over the matter, leaving Aschenbach’s mind awash with swirling thoughts of his wife and daughter, Trevor and Ruthy, Mrs. Garcia and her dead husband— and, of course, McArdle, who had to be informed.
Taking her toast and tea, Mrs. Garcia said aloud, “Aye, dat wus de worst av it,” and again, “dat wus de worst av it,” and— She went on as if praying the rosary.
What she meant was hard to say, perhaps even to her. The deadly horrors of remorse? her husband’s fate? Aschenbach’s treachery? Or perhaps it was “De whole feckin tin’,” as she was wont to say.
In time Mrs. Garcia might have come to realize “The worst is not/ So long as we can say/ ‘This is the worst.’ ” Conceivably she might have—had she not taken the zigzag path through a hole in the wall, as they do in Rabat or Khartoum or some such station where Aschenbach had served and the windows are smeared with ashes. But at present, taking her sempiternal tea and toast, Mrs. Garcia just said, “That’ll kill yer,” like somone who knew about such things.
Ashenbach recognized on the instant the stain on his diary for what it was, and wasn’t—a tear, but not his.
Aschenbach never cried while making entries, though tears often brought him to make them. The discovery that someone— Mrs. Garcia certainly— was reading—well, it neither angered nor unsettled him, nor in any way made him feel violated. Not that he received it with imperturbable indifference, mind you. On the contrary. More like a person, it was, who upon entering a crowded room turns at least a single head, catches at least a single pair of eyes and is, thus, singly acknowledged, if not understood or appreciated.
Thereafter Aschenbach always wrote with the tear in mind, and Mrs. Garcia always read with the stream in mind.
And so it went, he writing, she reading, occasional programmed love interspersed, each seemingly grateful for the attention, neither acknowledging the watchful waiting cat-and-mouse game being played in and out of the bedroom— until that aforementioned Ash Wednesday Aschenbach was taking his daily constitutional along Maiden Street, while Mrs. Garcia was setting an ash-stained thumb atop a page Aschenbach had earlier dusted purplish white, careful to follow McArdle’s precise instructions for handling the aconite.
Thereupon resounded throughout Estrella del Mar an aspirated sound, half a gasp, half a keen,“Women’s bane!”—monkshood, she meant, tooth of the wolf, the devil’s helmet.
Mrs. Garcia fell silent across the bed.
The young woman hurried on with her black pig.
Aschenbach turned the ignition switch of the 300.
About the Author:
Vincent Barry’s affection for creative writing is rooted in the theatre. More years ago than he prefers to remember, his one-act plays caught the attention of the late Arthur Ballet at the University of Minnesota’s Office for Advanced Drama Research and Wynn Handman at New York’s The American Place Theatre. Some productions followed, as well as a residency at The Edward Albee Foundation on Long Island. Meanwhile, Barry was teaching philosophy at Bakersfield College in California and authoring philosophy textbooks. Now retired from teaching, Barry has returned to his first love, fiction.