by Aongus Murtagh
art work by Damien O'Reilly
Peter’s new life began when a young man halted him as he was about to sit in his car on a hot midday in July. He realised the encounter was significant because the young man addressed him by both his names.
It was a statement not a question. Peter wondered was he about to be arrested. But by a long haired surfer in a trench-coat?
“Yes?” Peter asked sceptically.
The youngster looked up and down the street like a spy. Peter read his face and didn’t find the content particularly convincing. He turned the key in the ignition and felt the car purr to life. It was a new car. He couldn’t really afford it, but he’d wanted it the moment he saw the ad in the paper. It was also his first car although he was nearing forty.
“I have some information which will interest you greatly.”
“That I doubt.”
Peter had had enough. Perhaps owning a good car made him arrogant. But he’d met so many fakes and crazies in his time. It was better to have a car and a family to put into it and to be sane, conservative even.
The younger man was standing too close to the car for it to be driven off safely. As Peter was about to politely, yet forcefully, tell him to get lost, he caught his counterpart’s eye. Something in the younger man’s expression threw Peter, for it was the pained and intent look of a biblical messenger.
Peter squinted through the windscreen at the passing cars whose brake lights reddened on approaching the bend that brought the wide street under the intersection. Noticing a streak of grime across the middle of the glass he clicked the water sprayer. An abrupt squirt of liquid half cleared it.
“It’s about...” The name was inaudible. A brash lady Merc had wedged itself between a delivery van and a motorbike at the bend. The van was forced make an emergency brake. The tyres sounded like squealing pigs.
“You’d better get in so,” Peter said, truculently watching the wiper break up the rest of the muck.
“Drive to the Grunewald, please.”
“This isn’t a taxi.”
The youth’s eyes blinked like a butterfly’s wings. He sighed.
“Ok!” Peter sighed too.
Together they drove under the intersection, then passed through a run-down neighbourhood in silence. The facades of the buildings were crumbling; the immigrant kids played on the streets. They were rougher and wilder than the locals, who mostly despised them. Peter had watched the area turn into a ghetto over a five-year span. The middle class had moved south, the tabloids started pouncing on every little story, the police began entering the side streets only in daytime and without leaving their vehicles, driving slower than personally desired and with visibility impaired by the grating bolted into the windows.
Soon the car reached leafier climes. Peter desperately wished his companion would talk. But the youth sat with his arms stoically folded staring straight ahead. Perhaps he was frightened.
Peter’s seniority obliged him to tackle the subject.
“Could you tell me what’s going on here, please?”
“I told you,” the youth returned immediately, infuriating him.
“You’ll get out of this car unless you start talking!”
He was breaking the speed limit by about thirty kilometres.
“Slow down!” the youth said. He looked a bit pale now. Peter locked him in a perishing glare. The youth knew he was being stared at and got fidgety. Though he was a bit baby-faced, he possessed a noble profile. The space between his eyebrows was furrowed. He was obviously thinking hard.
“It’s nothing to do with me. I was just, you know sent out to talk to you.”
“By the agency.”
“Eh. It’s kind of you know secret.”
If the rapidly nearing lights had stayed red Peter would have jettisoned his passenger and taken off into the anonymity of the metropolis. But they turned amber, then green and Peter sped across the junction. The first trees of the Grunewald were soon upon them.
Peter’s poverty had been terminated three years before when, quite unexpectedly, on departing the mortal realm, an aunt legated him a sizeable sum. He’d always felt ashamed bringing up his children hand to mouth, though they never noticed, but the guilt he felt at being rich was just as bad, albeit of a different hue. Still, his wife could jettison her hated teaching job in a secondary school and return to academia, acerbically lecturing in botany five hours, and writing a PhD on weeds eighty hours a week. She felt a lot less bad about his fate and ridiculed him for the midnight pacing in his new slippers as he pondered his next steps in the uncarpeted world outside.
His solution was to use his unearned, undeserved wealth to help others. It had taken him several months to sort everything out. A school was to be set up, focussing on languages and computers. The majority of students would be fee-paying, either foreign kids staying a couple of months, or locals trying to top up their skills for the job market. But a small number in each class would be on scholarships. These would be young people from difficult backgrounds who’d proved their scholastic ability.
It had all worked out a little differently, but Peter put in the hours and at least wasn’t on the verge of bankruptcy like so many others in the field. What he had become was a stressed-out business man with not enough time for his family. It had dawned on him that the rich were in fact unhappier than the poor, and much lonelier.
“Turn in here,” the young man said.
“What’s your name anyway?”
“Eh. Call me Jan.”
“We can’t park here, Jan.”
“There’s a parking place fifty metres further.”
“Okay. I see it.”
Together they trudged along an overgrown path. It was only on leaving his air-conditioned car that Peter remembered the scorching heat. It always amazed him how quickly the city heated up after the ice of winter vanished. It was like a nuclear device was let off mid-April in a bunker a hundred metres underground. By the end of May you knew something was up; by mid- July you couldn’t pretend anymore your atonicity was caused solely by a benign sun god. The heat plastered Peter’s shirt to his chest. Radiation sickness, he murmured; his fitter companion turned slightly, but Peter’s sober nod made him continue.
Not long afterwards, Peter’s breath deserted him.
“Stop, stop! I need a break.”
Jan stalled and waited patiently eyeing the twittering birds as they dive-bombed from the upper branches, then soared and flitted through their conurbation of wood and leaf.
“Are you feeling better?”
There was compassion in his voice. Peter half-expected him to hold out a hand for him.
“This weather’s difficult.”
“Imagine what it’ll look like in a hundred years.”
So Jan had a brain. Peter grunted. The day he purchased his wheels was the end of environmental contemplations. Jessica had harassed him for days about it, had refused to get inside even for a family outing. Just wait till winter, Peter had stage-whispered to his eldest son.
Remembering this made him want to move. Because now he wondered would there be another winter. He didn’t need his breath anymore. All he needed was the truth.
They came to a point where the way got crooked. Jan solemnly nodded at an incline. They marched up side by side and stopped by a huge oak.
Peter said nothing. The two men surveyed it like experts at a crash scene, Peter rubbing his chin, Jan swallowing frequently. Peter could feel pressure around the rims of his eyes.
“So. Tell me.”
Peter’s voice was high-pitched.
Jan deliberated at length. Peter felt unusually patient.
“He brought her here. They were kissing. She leaned over against the tree. Bent over. He went in from behind. Her screams were echoing around the forest. Anyone could have… He was quick. Maybe because of that.”
Jan stepped up to the tree and pressed his hands into the bark.
“She had her hands like this.”
There was wonder in Jan’s eyes; his face was flushed.
The two men beheld the tree for several minutes.
“How did they meet?” Peter asked finally.
“She had brought her kids swimming and he was swimming and they eyed one another. When they were leaving she asked him for his number. She rang him later and asked him to meet at S-Bahnhof Grunewald. Apparently she was very chatty.”
“How do you know all that?” Peter inquired roughly.
“My agency told me.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“The condom is over there.”
Peter groaned in feigned disinterest but followed Jan to the spot where a stretched red prophylactic hung on some blades of thick brown grass.
“She would have put that in the bin. If she…”
Peter’s voice trailed off. Jan shrugged his shoulders.
“So what happened then?” Peter asked.
“She straightened her dress, slid down the tree and asked him for a cigarette.”
“Aha. I have you now, Jan! My wife doesn’t smoke!”
“Well, she did last Thursday.”
“And what did she chat about?”
Peter decided it was all too ridiculous.
“You’re just after my money. That’s it, isn’t it? Well you can make your own way home.”
“I don’t want any money.”
“That’s a good one. Here. For your agency. Ha, ha, ha!”
Peter extracted some notes from his wallet.
“For the psychiatrist!”
Jan lunged at him when he said this.
“Take your hands off me.”
The two of them wrangled in front to the tree. Their reddened eyes locked fiercely for a moment. Then Jan gave up abruptly and pounded off into the trees.
“You lunatic!” Peter called after him before pocketing his cash and returning swiftly along the path both men had come.
When Peter arrived home with the kids, Jessica came out of her study to greet them. She was wearing her short blue dress and her eyes looked tired. When the children rushed to hug her, she took her glasses off and lobbed them to Peter, who remained on the threshold.
“Hello me darlings!” she cried out when the children’s bodies impacted with hers.
After hugging them profusely, she looked up and blew Peter a kiss. He nodded and attempted a smile. Suddenly he felt claustrophobic and stepped back into the drive.
The kids were raising havoc; it took Jessica twenty minutes to come out and ask was he ok. He had been standing quite still in front of the building watching his shadow’s progression across the drive’s uneven concrete.
“Come in, will you?”
“Are you mad standing out there?”
She’d turned away from him. As Peter stepped into the playroom to engage with the children like a good father should, the tremors of anguish and excitement brought him out of his role. It was too much like being a teenager. He was sure his wife had not betrayed him and yet, similar to during puberty, he felt himself drift into an ocean of anguished emotion. He sat on a small wooden children’s chair and regarded his offspring with that friendly, bleary look he had when they weren’t running amok.
His middle son was half-deaf, the eldest was hyper-active; his youngest was perhaps being slightly neglected. Still, they were healthy and, unlike adults, their bouts of unhappiness lasted little longer than half an hour.
Jessica was asking him if he’d remembered the nappies. He hadn’t.
“I’ll cycle down so.”
“Don’t go Mama!” the oldest cried. The middle son cocked his ears.
“No, I’ll drive to the supermarket,” Peter offered.
Jessica walked angrily to the kitchen. Peter followed. It was a typical pattern.
“What have I done now?”
“They should be able to accept me leaving for five minutes. You reinforce their dependence,” she scolded.
“Ok. Go so.”
While there was something reassuring about their argument, it also seemed slightly unreal to Peter. He was watching her as intently as in the weeks they’d first met over a decade before.
Jessica left without saying goodbye to the kids. It wasn’t like her to forget. They screamed all the time she was away. Peter wondered was their relationship over as he cooked the spaghetti. He wondered was he soon to lose his house and children. Already, things had changed.
They got the children to bed without any major incident. Jessica immediately returned to her studies. She had a small study with a computer, and a sofa in which she’d recline whilst poring over her notes. Her glasses sat low down her nose when she read and in the very hot weather she would sometimes wear nothing as she sat at the table furiously typing. The work had to be handed in by early September. She’d taken to ordering Peter around and had on occasion snapped when he entered her study unannounced.
Later in bed Peter timorously pulled himself over to her side for hugs. Non-forcefully he pressed his hard-on into her lower back. Jessica took umbrage and told him she wanted to sleep now.
“Is everything ok?” he whispered hoarsely.
“What are you thinking of?
“I’m thinking of weeds, Peter.”
After her breath thickened, he stole out to the bathroom, almost crippling himself when he tripped over a toy fire engine. Luckily the siren’s battery had not been replaced since three days after the previous Christmas.
The white tiles made everything brighter. Peter stood as he masturbated. In the middle of it he stopped. It had been getting painful lately. The thought struck him that he had been doing this every night for well over a year. He felt very lonely and sat on the rim of the bath where he sobbed unhappily three or four times. Then reluctantly and filled with self-hatred he finished the job, just so he could sleep.
Over the next few days Peter visited places in his head he had never wanted to return to: realms where the daggers of separation, betrayal and self-doubt flashed before his eyes. He constantly wanted to broach the unhappy subject with his wife, but he couldn’t. Jessica was a woman who prided herself on her honesty and reasonableness. If the whole thing was a sick joke, she’d shrivel his body and mind with her vindictive scorn. It would also mean he had an enemy somewhere, a person, or force that wanted to destroy his peace of mind for no reason he could fathom.
If the episode had taken place, it was clear she didn’t want him to know. Perhaps she’d promised herself to bring this secret to the grave. She would deny it detachedly, perhaps turning it into a counter-attack and leaving him even more distressed. A worse fear was her coming to him, perhaps as they lay side by side in the fetid darkness, and confessing her betrayal, putting the ball in his court, asking him what he wanted to do: to separate or to accept her one-off behaviour. He imagined her voice as being remarkably clear at this moment.
“Peter, we need to talk.”
It was Thursday. He felt faint. His heart pounded. She brought him by the hand into her study, sat him on the sofa, looked him squarely in the eyes like a woman in some administrator’s office.
“There’s a new way of dealing with childhood deafness. I read all about it on the Net. It’s still in its experimental stages, but…”
Over fifty printed-out sheets were held before his eyes. Her hand was shaking. Her little boy’s disability was something she’d never been able to deal with.
In the intervening days the messenger whom Peter never saw again had taken on the lineaments of an angel. At times Peter felt very close to this person, but also within him lay murderous hatred. Driving home one evening he saw a youth resembling this man at the lights and was almost about to swerve over and bounce him across the roof.
This youth was clearly the lover. Unless he was crazy: there was of course no agency. Perhaps Jan felt guilty; maybe he couldn’t sleep with the shame. It could have been his first time with a woman, perhaps the experience had sent him over the edge. Maybe he had stalked Jessica and watched her dutiful husband pile the kids into the car for their respective summer camps. Usually men felt little compassion for one another, but they could feel hatred for a woman they’d been with and want that woman brought to her knees.
On Friday evening Peter was in Jessica’s study watching her as she worked. They had been discussing next week’s schedule and despite his discomfiture in her presence he lingered silently for longer than usual. Suddenly she coughed.
“Smoker’s cough!” Peter piped up spontaneously.
Jessica rubbed her eyes languidly, and with her finger in her mouth compared her notes to the text shimmering on the screen. Perhaps she hadn’t heard. Soon after, an altercation started in the playroom and Peter ran out to mediate.
Rain had been promised for the weekend, but didn’t show. On Sunday Peter proposed they undertake a long walk in the forest. Everyone was against the idea, but he was adamant that the trees would afford adequate shade and that they’d be home long before the mosquitoes awoke from their slumber. He told them it was a treasure hunt and that the treasure would be edible and made of chocolate. The children needed no further persuasion, but Jessica reckoned she’d prefer to use the time to study.
“You study all week!” Peter retorted.
She hastily filled two bottles with water.
Peter drove them to the place he’d parked with Jan, and led his increasingly protesting children into the intensely hot forest, though a responsible father might have driven further, to the lakes and to ice cream. At first he tried to be chatty with Jessica, but she was quite taciturn. She shouted unnecessarily at the children on a number of occasions.
They just reached the spot when the eldest mutinied. Peter threw some chocolates into the undergrowth.
“There’s something glittering over there. What is it?”
The kids fell upon the treasure with shocking intensity.
“I’m just going for a piss,” Peter muttered to his wife.
He quickly clamoured up the incline, pulled out his penis and urinated against the tree. As he did so he kept Jessica in view. There was no recognition on her face; she was wearing the blank look she had when the kids had tired her out, wearing it like a frayed garment that fit better than anything new.
On the way home the kids were impossible and Peter felt quite depressed. He kept trying to catch Jessica’s eye. She reacted angrily towards him when he tried to address her. His oldest hit the smallest child quite fiercely for no reason. Jessica lunged forward and smacked him across the head. It was the first time any of their children had been hit.
“You don’t have to slap them!” Peter shouted in her face.
She glared at him, face blanched, eyes bulging. He reckoned there was so much she wanted to say right then, that all she could do was keep her mouth shut.
It was a difficult evening. The children didn’t get to sleep until two hours after their regular time. Peter and Jessica stood in the hall glowering at one another.
“If you hit him again…”
“Fuck off!” Jessica interrupted and went to her study where unfortunately she slammed the door, waking the youngest, who began wailing. Neither of them went to him for a good five minutes. Then Peter went in to him. He was quickly asleep.
Jessica was still in her study well after midnight. Peter lay alone in bed. He’d tried to get through a book till eleven. When he’d started it he’d enjoyed it immensely, now it held no meaning whatsoever. In his mind he continuously replayed Jessica’s vapid look as he pissed against the tree. He’d seen that look a thousand times. And yet… no there was nothing there – the mask was pasted on so tightly it had become her face. Pulling the duvet over his head he felt her nightclothes roll against his knees. He swiftly brought the pants to his face and inhaled her vagina’s aroma with the passion of a glue sniffer.
Later he wondered if she hadn’t escaped through her window for a rendezvous with Jan, her rage and lust blinding her to the probability of being discovered. Although surely that was what she now wanted? There was a full moon, the sky was clear; maybe she was gone for good. Bracing himself for the heartbreak of a deserted study and clutching his loose pyjama bottoms, Peter went down the hall.
Jessica was asleep on the sofa in the bright spotlight of the overhead lamp. Her right leg crooked over the curved wooden arm and her left heel was folded underneath her bum. The blue dress she’d been wearing all week was half way up her tummy. Her notes had fallen onto the parquet floor and had slid to the furthest ends of the room. Near her table, various species of weed were lain out in a crescent, carefully labelled with a purple felt-tip pen. Peter looked for a moment at her pubic area. Moving into the room he could clearly view her neatly rimpled clitoris. Its skin was a darker colour than the rest of her body. Peter hadn’t noticed this before. He wondered should he eat, for it was several days since he’d been able to. Then he wondered who the woman before him was. He had never seen such beauty, such sexuality. He suppressed a whimper; it was unbearable to spend another moment in the house. He dressed speedily, took his car keys from their hook and went outside.
It had begun to rain at last. He drove the city streets at moderate speed. He was looking out for Jan. They had to visit the tree one last time. Peter needed to hear the words uttered from her lips: the despair, but also the lies and vindications. Then he’d grab Jan from behind and suffocate him, as the rain clattered down and the summer was ended.