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The Forgotten Waltz

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Anne Enright
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Contents

Cover

About the Author

Also by Anne Enright

Title Page

Preface

Part I

There Will Be Peace in the Valley

Love is Like a Cigarette

Sunny Afternoon

Will You Love Me Tomorrow

Toora Loora Loora

In These Shoes?

Secret Love

Kiss Me, Honey, Honey, Kiss Me

The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)

Dance Me to the End of Love

Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye

Part II

Crying in the Chapel

How Can I be Sure

Stop! In the Name of Love

Money (That’s What I Want)

Save the Last Dance for Me

Paper Roses

Part III

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

The Things We Do for Love

Acknowledgements

Copyright

About the Author

Anne Enright was born in Dublin, where she now lives and works. She has published two collections of stories, collected as Yesterday’s Weather, one book of non-fiction, Making Babies, and four novels, most recently The Gathering, which was the Irish Novel of the Year, and won the Irish Fiction Award and the 2007 Man Booker Prize.

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Published by Jonathan Cape 2011
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Copyright © Anne Enright 2011
Anne Enright has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
This novel is a work of fiction despite the use in some cases of real names which feature strictly as a dramatic device. All characters are the products of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons is entirely coincidental
First published in Great Britain in 2011 by
Jonathan Cape
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London SW1V 2SA
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 9780224089036 (HARDBACK)
ISBN 9780224089043 (TRADE PAPERBACK)
ISBN 9780224094252 (LIMITED LEATHERBOUND EDITION)
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
FICTION
The Portable Virgin
The Wig My Father Wore
What Are You Like?
The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch
The Gathering
Yesterday’s Weather
NON-FICTION
Making Babies
ANTHOLOGY
The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (editor)

Preface

IF IT HADN’T been for the child then none of this might have happened, but the fact that a child was involved made everything that much harder to forgive. Not that there is anything to forgive, of course, but the fact that a child was mixed up in it all made us feel that there was no going back; that it mattered. The fact that a child was affected meant we had to face ourselves properly, we had to follow through.

She was nine when it started, but that hardly matters. I mean her age hardly matters because she was always special – isn’t that the word? Of course all children are special, all children are beautiful. I always thought Evie was a bit peculiar, I have to say: but also that she was special in the old-fashioned sense of the word. There was a funny, off-centre beauty to her. She went to an ordinary school, but there was, even at that stage, an amount of ambivalence about Evie, the sense of things unsaid. Even the doctors – especially the doctors – kept it vague, with their, ‘Wait and see.’

So there was a lot of anxiety around Evie – too much, I thought, because she was also a lovely child. When I got to know her better, I saw that she could be cranky, or lonely; I questioned her happiness. But when she was nine I thought of her as a beautiful, clear little person, a kind of gift, too.

And when she saw me kissing her father – when she saw her father kissing me, in his own house – she laughed and flapped her hands. A shrill, unforgettable hoot. It was a laugh, I thought later, mostly of recognition, but also of spite, or something like it – glee, perhaps. And her mother, who was just downstairs, said, ‘Evie! What are you doing up there?’ making the child glance back over her shoulder. ‘Come on, down now.’

And some miracle of her mother’s voice, so casual and controlled, made Evie think that everything was all right, despite the fact that I had been kissing her father. Not for the first time, either – though I now think of it as the first real time, the first official occasion of our love, on New Year’s Day 2007, when Evie was still pretty much a child.

I

There Will Be Peace in the Valley

I MET HIM in my sister’s garden in Enniskerry. That is where I saw him first. There was nothing fated about it, though I add in the late summer light and the view. I put him at the bottom of my sister’s garden, in the afternoon, at the moment the day begins to turn. Half five maybe. It is half past five on a Wicklow summer Sunday when I see Seán for the first time. There he is, where the end of my sister’s garden becomes uncertain. He is about to turn around – but he doesn’t know this yet. He is looking at the view and I am looking at him. The sun is low and lovely. He is standing where the hillside begins its slow run down to the coast, and the light is at his back, and it is just that time of day when all the colours come into their own.

It is some years ago now. The house is new and this is my sister’s housewarming party, or first party, a few months after they moved in. The first thing they did was take down the wooden fence, to get their glimpse of the sea, so the back of the house sits like a missing tooth in the row of new homes, exposed to the easterly winds and to curious cows; a little stage set, for this afternoon, of happiness.

They have new neighbours in, and old pals, and me, with a few cases of wine and the barbecue they put on their wedding list but ended up buying themselves. It sits on the patio, a green thing with a swivelling bucket of a lid, and my brother-in-law Shay – I think he even wore the apron – waves wooden tongs over lamb steaks and chicken drumsticks, while cracking cans of beer, high in the air, with his free hand.

Fiona keeps expecting me to help because I am her sister. She passes with an armful of plates and shoots me a dark look. Then she remembers that I am a guest and offers me some Chardonnay.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, I’d love some, thanks,’ and we chat like grown-ups. The glass she fills me is the size of a swimming pool.

It makes me want to cry to think of it. It must have been 2002. There I was, just back from three weeks in Australia and mad – just mad – into Chardonnay. My niece Megan must have been four, my nephew nearly two: fantastic, messy little items, who look at me like they are waiting for the joke. They have friends in, too. It’s hard to tell how many kids there are, running around the place – I think they are being cloned in the downstairs bathroom. A woman goes in there with one toddler and she always comes out fussing over two.

I sit beside the glass wall between the kitchen and garden – it really is a lovely house – and I watch my sister’s life. The mothers hover round the table where the kids’ food is set, while, out in the open air, the men sip their drinks and glance skywards, as though for rain. I end up talking to a woman who is sitting beside a plate of chocolate Rice Krispie cakes and working her way through them in a forgetful sort of way. They have mini-marshmallows on top. She goes to pop one in her mouth, then she pulls back in surprise.

‘Ooh, pink!’ she says.

I don’t know what I was waiting for. My boyfriend, Conor, must have been dropping someone off or picking them up – I can’t remember why he wasn’t back. He would have been driving. He usually drove, so I could have a few drinks. Which was one of the good things about Conor, I have to say. These days, it’s me who drives. Though that is an improvement, too.

And I don’t know why I remember the chocolate Rice Krispies, except that ‘Ooh, pink!’ seemed like the funniest thing I had ever heard, and we ended up weak with laughter, myself and this nameless neighbour of my sister’s – she, in particular, so crippled by mirth you couldn’t tell if it was appendicitis or hilarity had her bent over. In the middle of which, she seemed to keel off her chair a little. She rolled to the side, while I just kept looking at her and laughing. Then she hit the ground running and began a low charge, out through the glass door and towards my brother-in-law.

The jet lag hit.

I remember the strangeness of it. This woman lumbering straight at Shay, while he cooked on; the hissing meat, the flames; me thinking, ‘Is this night-time? What time is it, anyway?’ while the chocolate Rice Krispie cake died on my lips. The woman stooped, as if to tackle Shay by the shins, but when she rose, it was with a small, suddenly buoyant child in her arms, and she was saying, ‘Out of there, all right? Out of there!’

The child looked around him, indifferent, more or less, to this abrupt change of scene. Three, maybe four years old: she set him down on the grass and went to hit him. At least, I thought so. She raised a hand to him and then suddenly back at herself, as though to clear a wasp from in front of her face.

‘How many times do I have to tell you?’

Shay lifted an arm to crack a beer, and the child ran off, and the woman just stood there, running her wayward hand through her hair.

That was one thing. There were others. There was Fiona, her cheeks a hectic pink, her eyes suddenly wet from the sheer la-la-lah of pouring wine and laughing gaily and being a beautiful mother forward slash hostess in her beautiful new house.

And there was Conor. My love. Who was late.

It is 2002, and already, none of these people smoke. I sit on my own at the kitchen table and look for someone to talk to. The men in the garden seem no more interesting than they did when I arrived – in their short-sleeved shirts and something about their casual trousers that still screams ‘slacks’. I am just back from Australia. I remember the guys you see along Sydney Harbour-front at lunchtime, an endless line of them; running men, tanned and fit; men you could turn around and follow without knowing that you were following them, the same way you might pick up a goddamn Rice Krispie cake and not know that you were eating it, until you spotted the marshmallow on the top.

‘Ooh, pink!’

I really want a cigarette now. Fiona’s children have never seen one, she told me – Megan burst into tears when an electrician lit up in the house. I pull my bag from the back of the chair and idle my way across the threshold, past Shay, who waves a piece of meat at me, through rain-bleached tricycles and cheerful suburbanites, down to where Fiona’s little rowan tree stands tethered to its square stake and the garden turns to mountainside. There is a little log house here for the kids, made out of brown plastic: a bit disgusting actually – the logs look so fake, they might as well be moulded out of chocolate, or some kind of rubberised shit. I lurk behind this yoke – and I am so busy making this seem a respectable thing to do; leaning into the fence, smoothing my skirt, furtively rooting in my bag for smokes, that I do not see him until I light up, so my first sight of Seán (in this, the story I tell myself about Seán) takes place at the beginning of my first exhalation: his body; the figure he makes against the view, made hazy by the smoke of a long-delayed Marlboro Light.

Seán.

He is, for a moment, completely himself. He is about to turn around, but he does not know this yet. He will look around and see me as I see him and, after this, nothing will happen for many years. There is no reason why it should.

It really feels like night-time. The light is wonderful and wrong – it’s like I have to pull the whole planet around in my head to get to this garden, and this part of the afternoon and to this man, who is the stranger I sleep beside now.

A woman comes up and speaks to him in a low voice. He listens to her over his shoulder, then he twists further to look at a small girl who hangs back from them both.

‘Oh for God’s sake, Evie,’ he says. And he sighs – because it is not the child herself who is annoying him but something else; something larger and more sad.

The woman goes back to scrub at the gunk on Evie’s face with a paper napkin that shreds itself on her sticky skin. Seán watches this for a few seconds. And then he looks over to me.

These things happen all the time. You catch a stranger’s eye, for a moment too long, and then you look away.

I was just back from holidays – a week with Conor’s sister in Sydney, then north to this amazing place where we learned how to scuba dive. Where we also learned, as I recall, how to have sex while sober; a simple trick, but a good one, it was like taking off an extra skin. Maybe this was why I could meet Seán’s eye. I had just been to the other side of the world. I was looking, by my own standards, pretty good. I was in love – properly in love – with a man I would soon decide to marry, so when he looked at me, I did not feel afraid.

Perhaps I should have done.

And I can’t, for the life of me, recall what Evie looked like that day. She would have been four, but I can’t think how that would play on the girl I know now. All I saw that afternoon was a child with a dirty face. So Evie is just a kind of smudge in the picture, which is otherwise so clear.

Because the amazing thing is how much I got in that first glance: how much, in retrospect, I should have known. It is all there: the twitch of interest I had in Seán, the whole business with Evie; I remember this very clearly, as I remember the neat and indomitable politeness of his wife. I got her straight off, and nothing she subsequently did surprised me or proved me wrong. Aileen, who never changed her hair, who was then and will always remain a size 10. I could wave to Aileen now, across the bridge of years, and she would give me the same look she gave me then, pretty much. Because she knew me too. On sight. And even though she was so smiling and correct, I did not fail to see her intensity.

Aileen, I think it would be fair to say, has not moved on.

I am not sure I have, myself. Somewhere up by the house, Marshmallow Woman is laughing too hard, Conor is elsewhere, Aileen’s paper napkin, in a tasteful shade of lime-green, will soon leave shreds of itself on Evie’s sticky skin, and Seán will glance my way. But not yet. For the moment, I am just breathing out.

Love is Like a Cigarette

LET’S START WITH Conor. Conor is easy. Let’s say he has already arrived, that afternoon in Enniskerry. When I go back into the kitchen he is there, lingering and listening, having a good time. Conor is low and burly and, in the summer of 2002, he is my idea of fun.

Conor never takes his jacket off. Under the jacket is a cardigan, then a shirt, then a T-shirt and under that, a tattoo. The wide strap of his bag is slung across his chest, keeping everything tamped down. He is on the mooch. This man never stops checking around him, as though for food. In fact, if he is near food he will be eating it – but neatly, in an intelligent, listening sort of way. His eyes keep travelling the floor and if he looks up it is with great charm: he is caught by something you have said, he thinks you are funny. He might seem preoccupied, but this guy is always ready for a good time.

I loved Conor, so I know what I am talking about here. He comes from a line of shopkeepers and pub owners in Youghal, so he likes to watch people and smile. I used to like this about him. And I liked the bag, it was trendy, and his glasses were trendy too, thick-rimmed and sort of fifties, and he shaved his head, which usually annoyed me but it suited him because his skin was so brown and his skull so sizeable. And his neck was large, and his back bulged and sprouted hair from the shoulders down. What can I say? Sometimes it surprised me that the person I loved was so fantastically male, that the slabs of muscle were covered in slabs of solid fat and the whole of him – all five foot nine, God help us – was fizzed up with hair, so that he became blurred at the edges, when he undressed. No one had told me you could like that sort of thing. But I did.

Conor had just finished a Masters in multimedia, he was a happening geek. I was also in IT, sort of, I work with European companies mainly, on the web. Languages are my thing. Not the romance languages, unfortunately, I do the beer countries, not the wine. Though I still think the umlaut is a really sexy distortion, the way it makes you purse your mouth for it, and all those Scandinavian ‘o’ and ‘u’ sounds give me the goose bumps. I went out with a Norwegian guy called Axel once, just to hear him say ‘snøord’.

But I went out with Conor for the laugh and I fell in love with him because it was the right thing to do. How could this be possible? That, in all the time I knew him, he never did a cruel thing.

There was no big decision to buy a house, it just made sense. Australia was our last fling, after that everything was salted away for deposits and mortgage insurance and stamp duty and solicitors’ fees – Jesus, they wrung us till we squeaked. I can’t remember what this did to the love we were supposed to be in. I can’t recall the nights. Ours was, anyway, a daytime kind of love; Conor took up windsurfing out at Seapoint, and came back smelling of chips and the sea. On Saturday afternoons we tramped around other people’s houses – three-bed semi, Victorian terrace, penthouse flat. We looked at each other standing beside thirties’ mantelpieces, and sort of squinted. Or we wandered into separate rooms where we could imagine ourselves in the space more easily, with a wall knocked, or a smell gone, or the place less uninhabited.

We did this for months. We got quite good at it. I could walk into some kip and slap a tobacco-brown leather sofa up against the longest wall, on sight. I could dangle a retro lampshade as soon as you said ‘fifties semi’, and stick an Eames chair under it, and switch on the light. But I didn’t know what my life would be like in that chair, or how I would feel about it. Better, no doubt. I was sure I would feel serious-yet-playful, grown-up and happy, I would be somehow fulfilled. But then again, as I said to Conor.

‘Then again.’

There was, when we made love at the end of these long Saturdays, a sense in which we were reclaiming ourselves for ourselves, after some brief theft.

You walk into a stranger’s house and it is exciting, that’s all, and you are slightly soiled by it. I could feel it, in the second-hand, abandoned kitchens, and in my Sunday-supplement dreams. I could feel it drain away in the moments after waking, when I realised that we hadn’t bought, we probably never would buy, a house with a sea view. It didn’t seem a lot to ask – a house that would clean your life every time you looked out of it – but it was, apparently. It was far too much to ask. I did the figures up down and sideways and I never could believe the bottom line.

The bottom line was the place we had started out from, before we lost the plot. The bottom line wasn’t so much a house as an investment; somewhere to swing our cat, that was not too far out of town.

So we found exactly that; a townhouse in Clonskeagh for three hundred grand. We were the last in, bought off the plans, drank a bottle of Krug to celebrate – all one-hundred-and-twenty euros’ worth.

Krug, no less.

It was nice.

I loved Conor then. I really did love him, and all the versions of him I had invented, in those houses, in my head, I loved them all. And I loved some essential thing too; the sense of him I carried around with me, which was confirmed each time I saw him, or a few strange seconds later. We knew each other. Our real life was in some shared head space; our bodies were just the places we used to play. Maybe that’s the way lovers should be – not these besotted, fuck-witted strangers that are myself and Seán, these actors in a bare room.

Anyway. Before our lives became a desolation of boredom, rage and betrayal, I loved Seán. I mean, Conor.

Before our lives became a desolation of boredom, rage and all the rest of it, I loved Conor Shiels, whose heart was steady, and whose body was so solid and warm.

The weekend after contracts were exchanged, we went into the unfinished house and looked around. Then we sat on the concrete floor and held hands.

‘Listen,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘Listen to the money.’

The place was going up by seventy-five euro a day, he said, which was – he did the calculations under flickering eyelids – about five cents a minute. Which didn’t seem like much, I thought. Which seemed almost piffling, after all we had been through. Still, you could almost feel it, a pushing in the walls; the toaster would pop out fivers, the wood of the new-laid floors would squeeze out paper money and start to flower.

And, for some reason, we were terrified.

Don’t tell me otherwise.

The house fitted Lego-like with its neighbour, which had the basement and split the middle floor, and this threw me a bit, the fact that it was only half a house until you went upstairs. It was like the place had suffered a stroke.

Not that this was a problem, or at least not a problem you could identify. I just hadn’t expected it. And I still dream about this house, about walking up those steps and opening the front door.

The day we moved in, Conor was inside in among the boxes, sitting at his laptop like a demented organist, cursing the internet connection. I didn’t complain. We needed the money. The next few months were all about work and there was something frantic and lonely about our love in that little house (don’t get sentimental, I tell myself, the sockets moved in the wall every time you stuck in a plug). We clung to each other. Six months, nine – I don’t know how long that phase lasted. Mortgage love. Shagging at 5.3 per cent. Until one day we decided to take out a couple of car loans and get married on the money instead.

Vroom vroom.

It was the silliest thing we had ever done – either of us – and it was surprisingly good fun. It happened, after much fuss and diplomatic incident, on a lovely day in April; church, hotel, bouquet, the lot.

About seven hundred of Conor’s cousins came up from Youghal. I’d never seen anything like it: the way they stood their rounds of drink, fixed their little hats in the mirrors, and checked the weight of the hotel cutlery when they picked it up to eat. They treated the day like a professional engagement, and danced until three. Conor said it might as well be your funeral; he said they hunt in packs. And my mother – who had, it turned out, ‘always been saving for this day’ – led a seasoned troupe of the Dublin middle classes, many of them old, all of them entirely happy, as they chatted and sat and sipped their peculiar drinks: Campari, whiskey and red, Harvey’s Bristol Cream. We were just the excuse. We knew it, as we went upstairs to change out of our duds and ride each other rotten against the back of the bedroom door. We were beside the point. Free.

My mother is there in the photograph album (five hundred euro, bound in cream leather, now mouldering under the kitchen counter in Clonskeagh). She wore a lilac-grey suit and a fascinator, no less, in grey and mauve, complete with face net, and those funny black feathers that arc out, stripped to bobbing dots of black. She is there beside me. Tiny. Her hair a kind of mystery; she had it caught up some way at the back. My mother’s favourite film was Brief Encounter, she knew how to cry under a veil. And she always spent money on her hair. Even when she was skint, she had a way of convincing people to make her look beautiful, that it would be possible, and they did their best by her. When it comes to the hairdresser’s, she used to say, it pays to leave your moods at home.

She wouldn’t give me away, refused point blank, fixed me up instead with my father’s brother; a man I had not seen since I was thirteen years old. I thought we might meet the day before, at least, but he turned up on the morning, fresh from the airport, and when everyone went off in the first car, we were left in the front room looking at each other, while the driver idled outside.

It was the strangest moment of a very strange day. I stood trembling at the window, in my pewter silk Alberta Ferretti with a mad Philip Treacy yoke (you might even call it a fascinator) stuck to the side of my head, and every time I made to move, this guy checked his fat watch and said:

‘Make them wait. You’re the bride.’

Finally, at some mysteriously ordained moment, he crossed the living room carpet, took me by the shoulders, and said, ‘You know who it is you remind me of? My own mother. You have her lovely eyes.’

Then he offered me an old-fashioned arm and conducted me out to the car.

Was that the creepiest bit? Taking the slow march down the aisle on the arm of this old geezer, who hadn’t expressed an emotion, by the look of him, since 1965? I don’t know. The local church, which does a good line in cherry blossom, also has a very peculiar crucifix suspended over the altar. A huge thing, made of wood. The figure of Christ, which isn’t especially gory, hangs not just on the front, but also on the back of it – this for the people who end up on the other side of the altar. And it distracted me throughout the ceremony, the way it used to distract me as a child, this double Jesus, back to back with His own reflection. Standing there, in two-hundred-and-twenty euros’ worth of underwear, never mind the dress, I wanted to say, ‘What were they thinking?’ This just a milder version of the things that used to flash through my head in this church – the shapeless obscenities that plagued my school years, and which started, at a guess, at my father’s funeral when I was thirteen. All grown-up, I stood where his coffin once lay (his ghost drifted, head first, through the small of my back), and I regretted my choice of basque over Spanx, while the priest said:

Do you take?

And I said:

Yes. Yes, I do.

And Conor smiled.

Outside, the sun shone and the photographer waved, while the shiny black cars nudged each other in the yard.

We had a great time. The seven hundred cousins from Youghal, and my uncle in from Brussels. We had, Conor and myself, enormous amounts of sex on the strength of it, and a holiday in Croatia (cheap after all that excess), and we woke up back in Clonskeagh one morning; hungover, giddy and unafraid.

The next year, the next two years, I was as happy as I have ever been.

I know this. Despite the bitterness that was to follow, I know that I was happy. We worked like crazy and partied when we could. We fell into bed, most nights, after a hard day and a quick knock-back of whatever: I was beyond Chardonnay by then – let’s call them the Sauvignon Blanc years.

Conor had a sudden jump of money when he hooked a travel company who wanted to get online. He was working with other people by then, you might even say he was working for other people, but I don’t know if he cared. The internet was made for Conor: the way he was always interested but could never settle on any one thing. He spent hours – days – at the screen, then he was up and out of the chair; walking into town; cycling over to the Forty Foot where he swam, in cold seas and warm, with much splashing and whooshing. Everything was slightly too much, with Conor. He wore too many clothes, and when he was naked he heaved large sighs and rubbed his chest, and farted hugely as he stood in the bathroom to pee. And I ended up not believing it, somehow. I ended up – this seems a peculiar thing to say – not believing a single thing he did; thinking it was all gesture and expostulation, it was all air.

Sunny Afternoon

BUT THIS WAS later. Or perhaps it had happened already, perhaps it was happening all along. We might have run along these parallel tracks, of believing and not believing, for the rest of our lives. I don’t know.

Because we were also flying along, myself and Conor, we were happily, sensibly, married married married. The next time I saw Seán, I had forgotten all about him. It was 2005. We were stuck at home for another summer, clearing the costs of buying the house, so we went down to Brittas Bay one bank holiday Monday, to see Fiona.

She was there for four or five weeks with the kids while Shay came down when he could – which was to say, when it suited him. You have to understand that Shay was coining it at the time, so not only did they have a house practically in the country, which is to say in Enniskerry, but a few miles away, thirty minutes in the car, they had a site in a posh mobile home park by the sea. This was – I don’t know – a hundred, two hundred grand’s worth of tat on a caravan site by the beach. It is not something I would normally be jealous of, except that I didn’t have two hundred grand to throw around like that, and nothing makes you jealous like something you didn’t actually want in the first place.

We got up early and drove down the N11, Conor with his windsurfing gear, and me with a couple of bottles of red and a load of steaks I grabbed for the barbecue. I offered the meat to Fiona when we arrived; a bulging white plastic bag that was stained on the inside with blood turning brown.

‘Ooh!’ she said.

‘It seemed like a good idea, in the shop.’

‘It was a good idea,’ she said. ‘What is it?’

‘It’s an arse in a bag,’ said Conor. Which was exactly what it looked like, dangling there.

‘Leg of lamb steaks,’ I said.

My niece, Megan, started to laugh. She must have been nearly eight, and Jack, her little brother who was five, ran in shouting circles. Conor went after him, hunched over with hands waggling, until he caught the child, and threw him on the ground screaming, while Conor went (something like), ‘Har har, I am the arse, har har.’

I thought Jack was going to vomit, that this would be the end of us as a Happy Bank Holiday Family, but Fiona just gave the pair of them a steady look, then said, ‘I hope I have room,’ before clumping up the little wooden steps and going into the caravan.

When I followed, she was on her knees, pushing the meat like a pillow into the bottom drawer of the fridge. There was a pile of salad and vegetables beside her on the floor.

‘God, this place.’

‘It’s lovely,’ I said.

‘Bedsit sur mer.’

‘Well,’ I said – because it was hard to know what to do with it. I looked around. The plastic partitions had a sort of inbuilt wallpaper pattern, and everything shook a bit when you walked. But it was nice, too. A toy house.

‘The woman three down has wooden blinds.’

‘It’s not supposed to be real,’ I said.

‘Oh, you have No Idea,’ she said.

Shay, it turned out, was thinking about a proper summer house near Gorey, or they might look on the Continent, probably France. This Fiona said later, after too much sun and wine, when there were more people to hear. But in the morning, kneeling in front of the little fridge on a floor made slithery with sand, I felt sorry for her, my so-pretty sister, who would always be outdone by the woman three caravans down.

The weather improved through the day. The clouds headed out to sea and their shadows moved, sombre and precise, over the water. It was better than the telly. We sat outside in our big sunglasses, and waggled our painted toes, turquoise and navy blue. Fantastic. I should have brought our mother along, she would have liked it, but it hadn’t occurred to me. I don’t know why.

Conor was out on the central green, throwing frisbee for the kids, treating them like dogs.

‘Fetch!’ he shouted. ‘Fetch!’

‘They’re not dogs, Conor,’ I said, as the children stuck their faces in the grass and tried to lift the frisbee with their teeth.

‘Sit!’ shouted Conor. ‘Paw!’

It wasn’t the children I was worried about, it was their mother. But she gave another of her measured looks and said, ‘Good ploy.’

There was some code of practice here, and I never quite knew what it was.

Another child arrived. She and Megan jigged briefly in front of each other, then she too ran after the frisbee, over and back, jumping up in a doomed sort of way.

‘No, here. No here. No give it to me.’

And she tripped on her flowery flip-flops and cried. Or yowled, actually. It was an interesting noise, even in the open air. It cut out as she stopped to inhale (or choke, perhaps), then it started again, even shriller than before.

Conor, to be fair to him, did not run over to tickle her while har-harring about arse. This was a substantial child, both round and tall, and it was hard to put an age on her. It was hard to know if those were small breasts or largish amounts of fat under the cross-over cardigan – the very pinkness of which insisted she was still a child.

A woman walked across the grass and spoke to her quietly, then waited and spoke again. Which only made things worse, as far as I could tell. Megan and Jack looked on, in a state of uneasy, furtive delight. They loved a crisis, that pair. Made them shiver. Which, in turn, made me wonder how much shouting and mayhem they saw at home.

Fiona was half-out of her chair, but she seemed unsure. Even the child’s father hung back. They had been on their way from the car park when she ran ahead and he stood apart, waiting for the fit to subside. I remember feeling that someone should be grown-up about this; effect introductions, offer drinks. So I waved. And he shrugged and came over, and for a moment, it seemed as though the rest of the world had gone into slow motion, leaving us outside and free.

It was Seán. Of course. More handsome than I remembered, with a tan and longer, curly hair. A bit cheeky, actually, from the front; a bit too ironical. As though he knew me, which, I was keen to tell him, he did not. Or not yet. So we had got to, ‘Your point being?’ before the seat of his trousers had touched the stripy cotton of the fold-up chair.

I am surprised, as I remember all this – the immediacy of it, the copulatory crackle in the air – that it took almost another year before we did the bold thing; before we pulled the houses down around us; the townhouse and the cottage and the semi-d. All those mortgages. Pulled the sky down too, to settle over us like a cloth.

Blackout.

Or maybe he was like that with all the girls.

I have to backtrack a little, and say that there were other things that could have happened with our lives. We might have done it all in secret, either. I mean, no one had to know.

But, back in the daylight of the caravan park, Evie was still baying, Aileen was murmuring in a firm and even tone, while Fiona turned to Seán, like a fool, and said, ‘Would she like an ice-pop, d’you think?’

Seán winced. Our children, whose selective hearing could beat bats’, came running across the grass, and Evie limped after, whinging in a half-hearted and hopeful sort of way.

‘I’m afraid Evie doesn’t eat ice-pops,’ said Seán. ‘Do you, Evie?’ She stopped, her flip-flops clutched to her chest, and after a long and horrible pause said, ‘No.’