Reputedly, she had the cure. The Major, they called him. Neat as a pin, he sat on a stool at the bar fingering the stem of his whiskey glass. The cut of him. I’ve heard that, said the teenage barman, who tried to be older than his years. He wiped glasses unnecessarily. The air in the empty bar this early in the morning was empty and brown. The smell of disinfectant and perfumed spray, and the radio on, and terrible music. The Major was lonely in the empty bar so early in the morning. Sad thing to happen, he said. Shocking, shocking, said the young-old barman, wiping, agitated. The Major felt the seeds of a conversation swell in the midden air. He said, twitching his old, lined face and the shreds of a white moustache:
I’ve seen some appalling things in my time. I’m sure, said the barman, wiping still. His neck had an acne itch.
As he wiped, he thought of his girl and a modest erection grew in his fading black cord trousers. He hated himself. He was nervous, too. It’s peaceful here, said the Major. Peaceful. Then this happens. Police all over the village, said the barman. He cleared his throat. You have a wonderful country, said the Major. He hated himself for being just a mite tipsy so early in the morning. Alone. It would be the same tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that. Oh, well, said the barman, thinking the Major very silly and old. After what we did to it, said the Major. Long time ago, now, Major, said the barman, in a voice his grandfather might have used, and with a dismissing laugh in it. You had to treat the old Major like a child sometimes. I think you are very tolerant of us, said the Major, considering. Ah, now, there’s nothing to be tolerant of, said the grandfather of the barman in the barman’s voice. A shadow crept over his mind.
The Major finished his whiskey. It made him tired and irritable, however necessary it was. Noisily, he slipped from his perch on the stool, a shaggy bird of a man. Thin, tall, bent. He lived in a cottage outside the village. He grew lovely roses round the doors and windows. On his front gate was a plaque with the inscription, Heurtebise. At Manny’s poetry group, he read the poems of Rupert Brooke and, when he felt very good, one or two of his own. Very well, then. I’m off, said the Major. He tried to sound jaunty. But he was very tired. And bored, of a sudden. Good luck, now, said the barman. He thought of the girl.
Manny waved across the sloping street to the Major.
The Major waved back energetically. Manny was glad he did not cross the street to stop her. She had a special momentum. She worked up to it and it sustained her. It should not be interfered with.
The sloping main street of the village led to the harbour, past Maher’s pub. The top of the street was a door into the greater country and above this, like a hand, a face, an enormous body, sat the mountain, which could see everything. In the old days, small sailed boats had left the harbour burdened with treasures of bolts of cloth and clods of turf and bottles of illegally distilled spirits. Especially at Christmas time. Now the harbour was quiet, save for the singing of lines on a small sleek white private yacht. There was a shop on the harbour which served teas in the tourist time of the summer and postcards of old views of the village. And some of Manny’s knitted coloured scarves. And cheese.
There was rain in the air. Salt sea-rain. There was no light in the clouds and the mountain had turned black.
A smart, fast, Japanese car glided into the side of the kerb. A very young good-looking man called to Manny.
I’m looking for McGuinn’s Bed and Breakfast, he said. He consulted a small printed card. Manny looked at him but his face told her very little. Up this hill and you drive a mile maybe and turn right, she said. Up here and a mile and then right, the young man said, looking up the hill sadly. Manny waited. She was bent down to the open window of the shiny wonderful Japanese car. She had never learned to drive. She envied the young man because he was young and for his car. With sudden courage, Manny said: Where are you from? Smiling as she said it, so’s not to frighten the young man. I’m from a newspaper, the young man replied. He looked up and saw an elderly, hulking, odd-as-bejesus woman smiling at him. With her grey hair ponied-tailed like a girl. She would tell the whole world.
Ah! exclaimed Manny. Because of the poor killed girl.
You’re so far away out here, I’m probably the only one here, said the young man.
I don’t know that, said Manny. It is tragedy, so terribly tragic. Who could have done such a terrible thing to that beautiful child! All she did was help people.
How do you mean, help people? asked the young man.
She had powers to heal and cure, said Manny.
In the hideous cold of the bedroom, he squatted. He shat noisily into an ancient enamel commode. He exhaled. The relief was great. The smell of him rushed through the filthy room, the wallpaper hanging from the damp plaster, the floor linoleum with holes in it. He would have masturbated. But it was habit, not lust. He had not the strength. Not now. Things moved around him. The bedroom was alive. Shapes. Strange exotic colours lurked at the sides of his eyes. He stood up, wiped himself with a rag of newspaper. He shook, vibrated, in the cold air and the shock of alcohol leaving him. Beyond his window the sea wailed and fretted. He emptied the pot in the back plot somewhere, anywhere, with a toss. He made himself a cracked blue mug of pungent tea. He smoked from shivering, quivering fingers. He poured whiskey into the tea. Then he drank the whiskey neat. From the bottle. After a time thinking did not hurt him.
You, he said out loud.
The room he sat in was a bit of a kitchen and a bit of something else, with dead furniture and a crucified Christ on a wall and a picture of the Sacred Heart looking miserable. Miserable the scraps of everything in this room. The odds and ends of himself in this house. He felt sorry for himself. His wife had tried, but she was a whore.
Fuck-fucking-bitch-bitch-whore! He said, punctuating each word with a thump of his fist, hurtingly, on the stained and gluey table-top. He opened his mouth and snarled, imitating a dog. Then he laughed. You’re dead and gone, he said. Then he felt afraid. She was never mine, he said out loud, his mind taking another turn. He pounded his chest with the same fist that had pounded the table. Then he had terrible thoughts.
On the road a few hundred yards from his front door, cars went by very fast. They made him afraid. He wept. Tears, unbidden, burst forth. Aaagh! he shouted at the cracked, peeling ceiling, with its maps of the heavens and the soul carved out in patches of damp. And how do you think I feel, Mister Detective! I told him! If it was your daughter, your only child, and she dead in front of you.
Repeating this phrase in his head comforted him. He put his fingers inside his trousers. Nothing. He thumped his crotch hard. I’ll cut you off altogether! He screamed, his voice thin and high. Like the noise a seagull makes.
This is a nice house you’ve got, the detective said.
Thank you, said Guido. His wife looked on, offered tea.
No, thank you, said the detective. Another policeman moved, without asking anyone’s permission, from room to room, looking, lifting things, reading things. Guido was glad his children were at school, not to see this. Fidgeting, Guido said: Have you any news?
What sort of news is that? said the detective. He was a stout man in a green weatherproof jacket. A fat bald man whose eyes rested on nothing but flitted like tiny accusations around the room, over the furniture, over the photographs of Guido’s dead mother and father, the photographs of his born-in-Ireland children.
About the girl, said Guido.
Oh, now, said the detective. Oh, now.
Guido saw over the detective’s shoulder how the branches and small leaves of the hedge around his house moved and twitched in the wind. And how quickly the low fat clouds moved. The other policeman came into the room.
We have to make our enquiries, said the detective.
Of course, said Guido’s wife. We understand that.
Sorry to inconvenience you, ma’am, said the detective. He had asked so many questions. He’d asked the same questions, over and over, and Guido had given the same, direct, answers.
We’ll not be bothering you any further today, said the detective. Guido’s wife, ever polite, saw them to the door.
When she came back, Guido hugged her for a warmth he needed suddenly.
They make me feel that we did something wrong, she said.
But Guido knew that, understandably enough, they made his wife think that he had done something wrong; but, not to upset him, she wouldn’t say that to his face. In return, he didn’t mention how some people in the village, gossips, looked at him. They always looked at him. To be a murderer or to be thought a murderer – which was worse?