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The night he heard the car stop outside his house, he was writing in his living room. He’d been working on his ‘Introduction to Business,” for three years. He might have finished if not for the dilemma of having his name on the cover. Since he’d moved he’d gone by his middle name ‘William’. His landlord was the first person he gave that name too. Their initial meeting took place two miles from the house in the village café that smelled of fried food and smoke.
The landlord was an older man with tired eyes and impatience bred in every word. He’d rented the house without much question, not surprising since it was an old house with need of work and the man who was wished to rent it was willing to pay six months up front. “William,” he’d said his name was, and later he wished he had more imagination or had given more thought to what he should be called. His wife was not a stupid woman. She might see ‘William Neary’ on the cover of his book and know exactly who it was. She had always loved his middle name. She’d said William suited him much better than John. There was an air of dignity to it, she’d said.
He had not moved far. He’d thought of the States or London, but his daughter lay in the county where she’d been born, and Donegal was as far away as he could go from her. Sometimes he’d drive the two hours to the cemetery and find himself incapable of getting out of the car. There was a photo of his daughter on the grave stone, and he told himself that he couldn’t bear to see her face, to be reminded of everything that had been stolen from him. But he knew as he fled from the cemetery that he was afraid of walking through the gates and finding his wife.
“Do you really think you came back for her,” his wife would have said, “It’s me you cannot leave.”
He lived on a quiet road a half a mile from a small town in Donegal. His elderly neighbor, Tom Gillespie lived a quarter mile away. Tom’s wife died two years ago. The sickness had already taken hold of her when they’d come to welcome William to the area. He had not wanted to see or talk to anyone. There was the grief and self-disgust, and of course the fear that seemed to run through him like blood, a fear of being seen for who he was. In the weeks after the accident when he couldn’t look his wife in the eye; he’d thought she might tell him that he was as guilty as her. It terrified him that this blame would tie them together. He’d gotten away. He’d sought privacy, and then there’d been the elderly couple knocking and making him move from the dull shadowy light of the kitchen.
“Why answer?” his wife would have said, “They don’t know you’re here.”
She would have disliked Ann Gillespie from the start, with her stooping shoulders and pale skin, and wringing hands. His wife would have said Ann was weak. She would have thought Tom gruff. But she would have softened Tom. She might have sat beside him and got him to talk about the farm he had sold, or the furnisher he as making in his shed at home. She had many different faces, his wife.
William had led the Gillespie’s through the dark hall to the kitchen at the back. The window was filthy. The draining board looked rusty in places. He’d been relieved when they sat without taking off their coats and didn’t offer tea, but he’d asked if they wanted some cake. “No I baked it for you,” Ann had said.
She was terribly skinny. Her cheekbones looked as if they would break through skin. Her eyes were milky. She’d told him in a low voice about selling the farm. “No children,” she’d said, but her smile seemed to suggest that it was only half the truth. She seemed on the verge of saying something more.
Maybe if she’d been alone she would have carried on, she might have told him about the illness that was eating her and how angry her husband had become because of it. The husband had sat back on the chair. There was an air of malice to him, but his gaze was still and focused. He’d been regarding the new-comer with narrow eyes and whe’d asked, “Where did you hail from,” his voice was commanding.
William told him he’d taught in Dublin for years and then decided he’d had enough of the city. He didn’t say anything about the town in S_ that he’d just come from, skipping the seven years that he’d lived there. When he made up a different past to the grey haired couple, he’d hoped that in time he might believe it too.
Ann had been dead two years when the headlights swept across the living room curtains and stopped. The last time William had talked to Tom was at the funeral, and then it was one of those indiscernible mumbles between men. It was hard to imagine Tom Gillespie seeking him out. There was no natural ease between them. William rose from his seat. From the living room window, he saw the roof of the idling car, and the headlights reaching into the dark country road. Tom Gillespie would not sit still in his car. He would not waste the battery or petrol keeping the engine and lights running.
The realization was sudden. William felt as if he’d crashed down from a great height. He was off balance, and his stomach turned inside him. For a moment he thought he would get sick. Afterwards he’d wonder how he’d known it was her so quickly. Was it the headlights? He knew she hated being in the car at night, she’d often said that she never felt the darkness crowding in on her like she did in a car alone.
He felt the tightness under his skin and the motion of his heart as if it had become a solid fist inside him. He slipped away from the window. There was no rush upstairs. The alarm was too deep and unsettling for rashness. His bedroom was small and sparsely furnished with a narrow bed and a dresser. His clothes were neatly folded inside the drawers. His shoes, a pair of hiking boots and one pair of dress shoes, lay against the wall. Without turning on the light he went to the window. He could make out a still figure in the driver’s seat. It was easy to imagine her hands clutching the steering wheel. She would still be wearing her wedding ring. It had gotten tight in the seven years they were married, her already thick fingers had become swollen when she was pregnant and she’d gotten the ring enlarged because she’d refused to keep it by the sink.
“This is who I am now,” she’d said, “Your wife.”
In the four years of his absence, she would have remained his wife. He had not asked for an annulment of a divorce. How would she describe herself now, he wondered, an abandoned wife, a childless mother.
He visualized her staring straight ahead and thought this was the reason she kept the headlights on, not to keep the darkness at bay, but to remain still and focused. He was sure she was aware of his gaze. She was probably smiling slightly, a small lift of her lips that would go unnoticed. She’d be getting a kick from being watched.
The night was still and he thought he could hear the sea in the background but it must have been the thumping his head. Any minute she could emerge from the car. Her small solid figure would drift towards the gate. In times like this her movements would be measured, each one carefully thought out. Other times she could appear frivolous and flighty, but she was always aware. His front door was not locked. He thought of this and saw himself running down the stairs, he could hear the click of the latch but he couldn’t move. It was like keeping his eye on a wild dog. While she remained in his sights it was impossible to look away. He wondered what she was thinking. Was she waiting for him to come to her? Was she waiting for some sign, the light to go on his room, his figure to take up the window? Was she trying to prove his cowardice, his need to hide before she stepped into the open?
She would not glance in his direction. She would walk as if he wasn’t there. Then she would knock. It would be a brisk knock, one that held no question or doubt. Her hands would drift to the handle within seconds and she would step into his house. He imagined her in tights and a dark skirt. Her thick confident calves would still inside the door. She would call his name “John”, as if the last years hadn’t happened.