It was a quiet winter afternoon in Monaghan’s Corner. It had been quiet most of the day in fact, however it was not by any means empty. The only pub this side of Glasgow to offer authentic Irish ale and homemade, pride infused fare, it drew people in off the dusty streets like a mother’s embrace. Sales workers, marketing assistants, cashiers and analysts, soul spent and needy, sat huddled together at round wood tables and polished booths, relaying their days to each other, stranger or friend, nourishing in turn with soft laughter, soft words, and the comfort of concern.
It was here, to their favourite pub and perpetual meeting place, which Charlie Fitzgerald, thirty-four years old, honest labourer and father, had been invited for a drink with his dear friend, Mike Butler. They took up a booth by a square paned window, all the colours of the street blurred to a festive, milky glow by condensation. The slow swell and release of a mourning accordion played quietly on CD through a speaker near the bar; the kind of painfully major dirge which seemed to speak invariably of longing and childhood and the green hills of home. Or occasionally a man’s loss of a woman, realised too late was the one he loved.
Charlie took a long pull on his beer.
“Ah, I can’t believe this. You. Buying me a drink. I seriously owe you one.”
“That you do”, Mike smiled faintly, “I spoil you rotten.”
He laughed softly and gazed dreamily at nothing in particular, savouring this moment; marvelling at the bond he shared with the friend beside him. He took another sip of his beer and drew the back of his hand across his lips. There was a beat of silence. Mike stopped halfway through raising his bottle, pausing. The corners of his mouth sharpened up as his own lips formed a thin line, his eyes heavy and downcast.
Charlie scratched the back of his neck, absent minded.
There was another beat, longer this time. Something stirred. Charlie smirked and elbowed him playfully with a wink.
“You’re not going to propose to me are you?”
Mike took a small sip, holding the liquid in his mouth a few seconds before swallowing.
“I’m dying, Charlie. I’m going to die…It’s come back.”
Charlie made no sound. The accordion had long since faded, and the conversational buzz of their fellow drinkers had begun to ebb. He looked straight ahead with dry eyes. After a few seconds he took a long, slow pull and exhaled.
“Damn it, Mike. Damn, damn…”
He hung his head, one hand holding the beer between his knees while the other slowly pushed backwards through the flecks of grey in his hair. He covered his face with the same one and felt his shoulders gently shake. Mike placed his hands palms down on the table and stared at them. Charlie snapped out of something and sat up; a swell in his chest and tension in his jaw. He inhaled sharply, audibly, and seemed to stumble out of the pub, leaving the door to swing shut behind him. Mike closed his eyes, slowly brought both hands down his face and sank backwards into the cushioned chair of the booth.
Ellen Fitzgerald had been daydreaming for some time now; a thought which struck her as the sound of her husband’s creaking return jolted her awake. She found herself slumped in the living room armchair, her dark hair dishevelled and her lipstick smeared from where her palm had cupped her chin. She let out a sigh, rubbed her shoulders and stretched herself anew; an attempt to breathe life back into her sluggish body. Wandering through the house to greet him, she wrapped her dressing gown tighter around her slender frame, protection against the early evening chill, and made a mental note to turn the heating up a notch. She realised Charlie hadn’t yet switched the hallway light on, and met his eyes in the dimness. Despite the poor light, she sensed a heaviness in his face.
“Hi, you OK?”
He didn’t look up immediately, and instead curled his lower lip inwards and fiddled with the keys in his hands. He looked at the carpet, the wall, then finally, his wife.
“I’ve missed you, Ellen. I’ve missed you.”
Something shuddered in her chest and she pulled her husband near. She kissed him, smelling the beer on his breath and the lingering chill in the roughness of his stubble.
“What’s wrong? What’s happened?”
Charlie felt himself melt into her. He longed to discharge the agony he’d left Monaghan’s Corner with; the wound in his heart that had struck deeper than he’d ever imagined possible. He fought with himself; wrestled in his mind with the blackness he’d held stamped down. He framed her sweet face in his hands, gazing into large brown eyes that had adored him for so long. She implored him to unburden, and his lips parted. When he spoke he found his throat had become painfully swollen.
He closed his eyes and felt a tear spill down one cheek.
“He’s dying. At Monaghan’s…I…he.”
She pulled him close again and tightened herself around his shoulders. She’d always loved his bulk; a hardness honed from years of his trade.
“Mike is a good man. I’m sorry.”
They stood like that for several minutes together, his chin resting on the top of her head as he quietly wept. She kissed the recess where his jaw met his neck, and willed his pulse to slow and beat in time with her own. He seemed somewhere far. A moment passed and he kissed her crown and held her before him. He knew it was time.
“Ellen. Can we sit down?”
Something cold lurched in her stomach. She pushed down the dread she felt climbing to her throat.
“Yeah, let’s go through.”
Hand in hand, they shuffled to the sofa, still neither suggesting that they turn on a light. Night was quickly falling. She looked into his face again, this time noticing the feathered lines about his eyes, the greying hair at his temples. He was a well worn man. But he had a good heart. This she had never doubted.
“I love you. So much Ellen. I always have.”
Her heart glowed, recalling the first time she had heard him speak these words.
“I know. I love you too.”
Charlie’s mouth was dry. His skin felt dry. Everything in the room felt too crisp; too highly defined. He reached up a hand to wipe sweat from his brow. Then his voice came.
“I love him.”
The room seemed to shift slightly and he felt off balance, gripping the edge of the sofa with the back of his thighs.
“What?! What the fuck?!”
She was shaking, her eyes dancing. She wore the look of a creature who, reeling and desolate, no longer feared death.
“FUCKING TELL ME!”
She leapt from the sofa, repulsed, and stood over him, every nerve in her body tingling and aflame; an orgasm of fury.
“I don’t know! Since school! Please Ellen!”
“YOU MARRIED ME! I HAD YOUR BABY YOU BASTARD!”
He flinched, thinking she meant to smack his face, but she instead grabbed his wrists as he raised them in defence. Anguish bled from her as her whole being loosened. She slowly lowered herself to her knees before him, her entire frame wracked by tearing, spasmodic sobs. Their tears mingled in the moonlight as they remained in position; a tableau of the tarnish of a thousand memories. After a while, Ellen grew quiet and slowly rose to her feet. They helped each other stand, remaining connected until she found her bearings once again and snatched herself from him. She refused to look at him, a shadow in her face.
She uttered the words softly; two syllables crisply formed but barely given breath. Charlie inhaled and shuddered. He knew where he had to go.
Mike’s house appeared lonelier in the moonlight; emptier somehow. He had lived alone since moving out of his parents’ over sixteen years ago. He’d never needed anyone, it seemed. Mike just got on with life; in the calm, contained manner with which he handled everything before him. This was just one of the reasons why their friendship meant so much to Charlie. There was a kind of reassurance about having him near; as though nothing, however extreme, however unnerving, could ever happen in his presence that he couldn’t somehow cast in hope.
The tracks of his tears had long since dried, and he made his way up to the front door of his dear friend. It felt like coming home after years in a dark, precarious place. All he wanted now was to feel that safety he’d always wanted; had felt certain he’d find in Ellen, someday. After a while he’d just given up trying, resigned and imprisoned; too sick with guilt to entertain forbidden thoughts. The loss of his chance to tell Mike everything, to lay down his love for him at last, was too desolating a thought for his mind to give shape. Now was the time. He would embrace the final months he now had left with him, however few.
He stood facing the door, a brown leather holdall bulging at his feet, and pressed the white button bell. He waited. A silence echoed in and through him. After a beat, he pressed again. The light on the hall table glowed yellow through the door’s tempered glass. He strained his ears, wondering if Mike had gone to bed early. However, it wasn’t yet nine and he rarely did. He listened, wondering and waiting, the thin evening breeze trailing softly in the chill. He sighed, sensing their meeting would have to wait until the next day, and made to turn around and leave, perhaps for his sister’s sofa, for the night.
Just then, something rectangular caught his eye; an envelope, small and white, lay on the front step. On closer inspection, he saw his own name, written in black in Mike’s sloping hand. Something quivered in his stomach. He leant down slowly and took it in his hands. There was a letter inside, again in Mike’s unmistakable, curling characters. He sat down on the step to read:
I don’t know when exactly you’ll find this, but I guess it probably won’t make any difference. I know you’ll be here soon. I can’t believe I have to go. I’m so sorry. Had I any idea this bastard would come back like this, so aggressive and strong, I’d have done so much more with my life. I’d have followed my heart (cheese alert).
The prospect of dying does funny things to us. I’m so scared. I just can’t imagine closing my eyes and not seeing the light again. What it’s taught me though is this: nobody gets forever to jump for their dreams. At the end of this mad race, we all go home in the same direction; dust to dust and all that shite. Strange as it sounds, this comforts me greatly. What reason is there not to live in freedom?
What I have to tell you is this. You have my heart. I love you with everything I am. Truth is, I’ve loved you every day for twenty-four years.
I hope you can forgive me for leaving this way, and with such a memory. Try as I might, I just couldn’t say it. I couldn’t let my last weeks drag me out any longer without saying something, and to do that to you and Ellen would be unforgiveable. Ellen is a great girl, and you’re all set. I’m proud of you and your life.
Charlie. You made everything mean something. Every minute with you was another worth living. But now I just need to be free. I’ve taken a good handful of the doctor’s finest (washed down with your favourite from Monaghan’s, haha).
Somewhere further down the street, the door of a house opened, spilling yellow light out onto the pavement. A smile spread across the face of a young man shivering outside. He was welcomed into warmth by a young woman holding a bright eyed child. For a few moments, they wrapped themselves around each other, then turned in together to close the door.