Here is another story from ‘The Great Brutality’
The Sound Of Sleet
He wanted to climb it. It struck him as he looked high and it wouldn’t shake and so he had to leave its sight.
Mark sat in the cafe and sipped at stewed tea, the second cup from a small tin pot. The image of the church tower was still vivid in front of him even though he faced away from it now and there were many buildings between them. The three women complaining about the soup, wanting to see the chef to explain the proper consistency distracted and annoyed him. He got up to pay before all the staff were embroiled in the mess.
He stepped out on to the road and paused at the pedestrian crossing, pushing the button lightly. There were no cars coming and there was no real need for him to cross but he stood there and waited for the beeping and flashing of the green man before traversing at a slight angled amble. He walked along not paying all that much attention to his surroundings. When he did finally take a look away from all the closed down shop facades he saw through a gap in the buildings, made by the back-seated hospital, the top quarter of the tower again. He didn’t stop and he continued looking at it until it disappeared, obscured by the buildings regaining formation. He felt he still wanted to scale it and he quickened his pace so as to get to the corner and gaze on the full body of splendour the tower gave to Dun Laoghaire.
He was not to be disappointed. The sun shone on the flecks in the granite and the stone looked warm and inviting. It looked as though it had been designed for the expressed purpose of climbing, every few feet there was a window or shelf that looked wide enough to hold or even stand on. Gaping openings where the bells were housed looked like cosy resting spots. He looked beyond the tower, out to the harbour, where he could see the east pier, speckled with people as always at lunch time. He imagined how Scotsman’s Bay and the forty foot would look from up there and the clean lapping water broken by playful dolphins or porpoises, barely visible from the height. As he ranged his view back to the tower he saw some tourists standing on the raised shelf where the door was, taking pictures and he realised the scale fully for the first time. The shelved and windows were much further apart than he had first imagined and by the look of it even the first part of his proposed climb was much too high for him to reach even with a running jump. The desire to climb was still present but he knew that it was going to be harder now.
He looked around a little more at the general area. It was a busy street with a bus stop full of people across the road from the tower and a long taxi rank running along beside it. Some alcoholics or junkies, he wasn’t sure which loitered at the wall of the new church building set a little off the tower. A cloud crossed over the sun and Mark felt the chill in the air immediately.
At home he ate slowly and quietly with Jolene. She noticed the quiet in him but she was tired and sensed that it wasn’t anything that troubled him too deeply. The dinner was long and delicious. When it was finished and they began to clear up the dishes, Mark sprang in to life, kissing her on the back of the neck as he scootched by her. It tickled her and she pulled her shoulders up to her head. They smiled and looked at each other.
‘Why does the church tower stand out on its own in town?’ he asked suddenly, still smiling.
‘The old part burned down. The tower is the only part that survived.’ He thought for a moment and thought how silly it was that he hadn’t figured that out. The church was quite modern but the tower had a much older look to it. Still it would have made sense to join them up in the rebuilding he thought, vindicating himself slightly.
‘Why do you ask?’ she said glancing fleetingly at him. He shrugged his shoulders for her benefit though the glance was already over by then,
‘I was just looking at it at lunchtime today.’ The conversation was left at that.
The evening was a pleasant one and his body warmed hers as they lay in bed. When the lights were out he was aware of the flashing, silent, blue light of his mobile phone, in his trousers on the floor, the indicator of some new event, a call or a message. He ignored it and when he slept he dreamed of himself at the top of the church tower at night and it had a flashing blue warning light which required him to wear sunglasses to shield from it.
Mark woke to a skewed sense of other worldliness as the first glimmers of the simulated sunrise on the bedside locker gloamed in to life. He picked up his phone and saw that he had a missed call. Automatically he deleted it without checking to see who it was from. He left Jolene sleeping soundly as he knew that the light would wake her in half an hour. He kissed her shoulder and as he looked at her before leaving he was so glad that she was well and healthy.
Car windows were covered in ice as he walked, compulsively quickly, towards the DART station. It was so cold that even the individual drops that made up the mist of his breath seemed ready to turn to icicles and drop, smashing on the path. The image flashed of him falling from the tower. The treacherous surface almost had him on his back a few times and with the last one he felt a jarring pain in his hips. He slowed and began to be more careful, he was going to have to be in tip top shape if he was going to achieve his goal.
The DART felt warm and humid, sickly compared to the fresh, sharp chill outside. It was half filled with people who were alone and silent. The train came to a standstill and remained stationary for some time before a voice told them that there would be a short delay. Mark had been in ‘short delays’ before and the shortest so far had been forty minutes. As he sat he looked around the carriage and his eyes were drawn to a long web filament hanging from above one of the doors. It swayed from side to side, caught between breezes that squeezed through the frame of the doors and the rubbers between them. It looked like a hair and h wondered if she was getting treatment and if her hair would fall out. When he thought of this he remembered the phone call from a few days previously.
There was small talk in a call made from a busy pub. Mark was confused as to the purpose of the call, normally if Adam called drunk it wasn’t for small talk. Had Adam been drunk though?
‘Listen, I’m afraid I have some bad news about someone you know very well.’ Mark had frozen upon hearing this as names and faces hurled through his mind making his stomach jump. It turned out to be none of the people he had thought of. His ex-girlfriend had cancer and it was terminal. The call ended with him thanking Adam for letting him know and he thought that he hadn’t seen her for seven years and it was probably ten since they had spoken. The train shuddered and began to move, the voice apologising for the delay.
The sky was pink when he got out of the station in Dun Laoghaire. He had hoped to see the tower in darkness while the streets were still quiet. As he looked about he decided that it wouldn’t be so dark anyway with all the street lights around and then he noticed that there were light on the tower itself also, so it would never be in darkness. The thought depressed him a little. What had they even talked about that last time they spoke?
Work was a normal day and at lunchtime Mark went to the sandwich shop across the road from the tower. The pink promise of the morning was now mottled, thick grey clouds, bunching and growing and filling the empty spaces above. When served he took a seat outside, the cold of the steel seat shocking him as he sat. He looked at the tower and the setting seemed all wrong. There was concrete everywhere and buildings and it was so wrong to his eyes. The tower should be surrounded by greenery, Kiliney head, in place of the witches hat, came to mind as perfect.
How many times had he thought of her as being a witch? We were outside that shitty bar where her new boyfriend was playing a gig when we last spoke! He remembered. He hadn’t wanted to talk to her that night.
He had seen her at anniversary masses and heard from time to time what she was doing with herself but it slowly became nothing to him but background noise. The time that they had spent together felt wasted and he resented her for that. Things were fine when she was with Shaun before him, why couldn’t they have stayed together? The resentment too had grown weaker over the years.
A flick wind sent his napkin flapping to the ground. He picked it up and used the weight of the cutlery to hold it in place. It was getting darker and colder and it was time to go back to the office.
The tower did nothing but stand there while he was gone and when his eyes rounded the corner to meet it again it made no indication that it even noticed him. The whole afternoon in the office had been abstract to him as he went through the motions even as his eyes were drawn to the wall through which only he could see the welcoming bells of the tower. It had been raining and the car lights gliding along the glistening black of the road brought a new dimension to the whole area beneath the tower. ‘Imagine looking down on this’ he thought. He saw a couple looking up at the tower and pointing. They took a photograph and looked at it on the display screen, nodding in satisfaction. ‘Soon people will be looking up and pointing at me up there and taking pictures of me.’ He knew that he would never be able to climb it while there were people around but he let himself be taken away with the fantasy anyway and he smiled as he walked down to the station.
On the train he found himself wondering again. Was it possible he had ever felt the way he remembered, was he remembering at all? What could he have done then? What can he do now? When they first broke up he wanted them to be friends and, maybe in the back of his mind, someday more, but now that they were strangers who would know each other to see, all he wanted was that they had never been together at all and he refused to let guilt change his mind! And there it was, guilt, that’s what was going on. What did he have to be guilty about? Their story ended long before any of this ever happened. And yet the guilt was there and it wouldn’t seem to lift.
The next day was Saturday and he went to Dun Laoghaire again, not for work but because he was drawn there. He looked at the tower for a while and then let his feet wander and take him away from it.
The screeching thunder underfoot was a coke can he had unknowingly stood on. It had adapted to the shape of his foot and cling on as he took his next step. Lifting his foot to remove it he noticed that he was at the bottom of the steps that led up to that awful statue of suffering. He climbed the steps and walked along the broad path, glancing at the seemingly never used bowls lawn. He passed the usual drinkers huddled at a bench and then the large pond, its top green with scum with only a few islands of clear water showing through. He came to a stop outside the Maritime Museum, his intended spot. The building was an old church that had been given a new job but it had been closed for a few years now. He glanced at the buildings shape, nooks and crannies. It looked altogether too easy to climb, even only as a practice building for the real thing. The tower on this building was not even worthy of the name.
He felt despondent with the failure of his idea of a practice run and again he walked on autopilot around the town. He bought an extendable aluminium ladder and paid for it with his credit card and was carrying it on his shoulder before he knew much about it. All the while he was thinking ‘Was she afraid of heights?’ He couldn’t remember. Silly things like Frizz-eze and Linda McCartney vegetarian sausages popped in to his head but a fundamental fear remained elusive. He felt guilty again for not knowing. He left the ladder on the ground behind the tower and went home.
He woke in the middle of the night and he felt that he had to go and climb the tower that instant. He dressed loosely and went out into the freezing night. He got a taxi to the tower and when he got out he saw that the ladder was just as he had left it. He looked up at the full height of the tower from its base and determined adrenaline coursed in him. He bent down to pick up the ladder and at that moment all his hope and optimism drained in to the freezing aluminium. He stood up straight again and cold sleet began to fall, some of it dissolving in the hot tears that fell from his scrunched up eyes. He looked at the tower and shook his head ‘I’ll never make it’ he thought and the after a pause said out loud ‘and neither will she.’
As the rest of the town lay sound asleep, he trudged in resignation as he listened to the crunching under his feet and all around him the sound of sleet.
When he finally got home, Jolene was still in bed asleep. He ran the hot tap over his cold hands and dried them before sitting on the bed and taking hold of her hand, wishing that he had never held any other in his life before.