What does she see in him? He certainly doesn’t know. Her mam thinks he must be controlling. Her sister thinks he must be great at oral. Her friends go for pop psychology: he’s the manifestation of her low self-esteem, she doesn’t rate herself high enough to find a fella who’s actually attractive, or funny, or successful in any way. She wants to be wanted and he’s hopelessly needy.
They’re all wrong.
Look at them, sitting together on the bus: he fills a bit more than half of the seat, he’s got a summer cold and keeps sniffing honkily, you can see the roll of belly fat bulging in his blue t-shirt. He yawns, and at the peak of the yawn he also burps. She’s cuddled up beside him hugging his arm, with her blonde dye-job, brown roots, style-statement tilt-cornered glasses. She’s talking in his ear about nothing – oh look, the petrol station’s closed, was that one Maxol, nice new houses there, used to get off here to visit Lisa, did you ever meet Lisa, ah she’s gas, great craic altogether, in Manchester now or is it Bradford. He’s braced against his headache, leaning into the pain: left forehead, left sinus. He kept off the booze last night but at what cost. Trying to be a better man. Which man would that be, then.
They met through her brother Darragh, the one who committed suicide, but you mustn’t think that’s it either: he isn’t a substitute or a thread into the underworld. She never knew Darragh well: he was much older, out of the house by the time she hit her teens, off to New York, off to Spain, so many adventures. And then back home dull-eyed and straight into St John of God, which is where Mark comes in (his name is Mark), because he works there as a hospital porter. This may explain why he drinks. Then again it may not. Darragh and Mark struck up a taciturn sort of friendship, based largely on football results. It did Darragh good; so much good that he rallied, and was discharged, and a week later jumped off a bridge onto the M50 with a bottle of vodka inside him and his wrists slashed just in case. Mark thinks about him often, and he wonders about the wrists and if he cut them before he got to the bridge and if anyone saw him walking there, but it seems Bernadette does not. (Her name is Bernadette.) Bernadette’s mam doesn’t blame Mark for the death. She blames him for everything else.
Here are some things Bernadette’s mam blames on Mark: Bernadette has moved out of her mother’s three-bedroomed semi to share a terraced house on the other side of the city with Mark and his equally awful housemate. She’s left her good job as a doctor’s receptionist and become a cashier in a Centra four days a week ‘so she has time’ (time for what?). She’s bought a guitar she can’t play. She’s taken up Minecraft, because that’s the only thing Mark is into apart from football. She’s dyed her hair. (Actually she dyed it before Mark came on the scene, but Bernadette’s mam has forgotten this.) She’s started contradicting her mother, and she doesn’t always visit when warmly invited to do so.
Today she’s taking Mark out to Howth. He’s been before, of course, but not with her. As soon as she saw the blue sky on a day when they are both off work and nothing else is scheduled, she insisted on it. He finds it easy to be swept along on her energy, though when they get off the bus and start walking there’s a twinge in his knees. But he glances across at her and can’t quite believe what he’s seeing: her smooth skin, the strands of hair tucked behind her ears.
Bernadette isn’t heading for the harbour, the chipper near the yacht club, or even the popular end of the cliff walk. She’s brought them to the other end of the path that goes round the peninsula, the quiet end, and they’re walking through the cow parsley and clover towards the Martello Tower. ‘Look at the flowers,’ says Bernadette. ‘It’s the right time of year.’ She looks around, alert for something. ‘It could be here or a bit further on.’ The path narrows where it reaches the sea-edge and Mark slips in behind her, watching his feet on the stones. Ahead, the headland bulges upwards and forwards towards the sea, the main path running underneath it as an irregular shelf in the rock, but another route turns inland, rising into the back of the hill, and this Bernadette takes.
‘Ages since I’ve been this way,’ says Bernadette. ‘But I wanted to bring you here because it’s where we first met.’ Mark says nothing but Bernadette answers him anyway. ‘I know, you don’t remember. It’s fine, I was only ten – nine maybe – when did yer man do that song, you know, the rollercoaster one, ‘Love is a Rollercoaster’?’ She sings a few phrases in her surprisingly pure, light voice. ‘It was then. Mam brought us out here because she didn’t want to buy ice-cream. She said Marie was getting fat and we could have a healthy walk and a proper dinner. And Darragh was fighting with our Da.’
Mark finds it hard to imagine Darragh fighting with anyone. He remembers Darragh’s careful way of talking, as though each word was a lego brick that he had to choose and press into place. His slightly stooped posture.
‘They were always going at each other, everything set them off, like, if Darragh wore a t-shirt for a band Da didn’t like, or if Da asked him how his job was going, they’d just start, not shouting, but like digging and digging at each other and not stopping. And Mam would join in randomly on one side or the other, but usually Da’s. Or she’d take it out on Marie. Marie tried really hard but she couldn’t do anything right… I was the good girl. I was the baby, too young for anyone to worry about me, you know.
‘I remember I was obsessed with Evita. Mam had the Madonna film version on VHS and I used to play it and sing along. I desperately wanted to be Madonna as Evita and I’d bellow out all the numbers and get told to feck off out of it. Not that Mam ever used that kind of language, but she’d say would I ever just do it quietly in my room. You can’t be Evita quietly in your room. Anyway I was sharing with Marie. So I decided I needed singing lessons and I needed acting lessons, and I was nagging at Mam to get them for me, like “Mam! Mam! Mam! Mam!”‘ She laughs.
The day is sharp, bright and close: the sun on his head, the knobbly path, grass-seed tickling his shins and lodging in his socks. It’s beautiful and painful, like Bernadette. All the memories of Darragh are dimly lit. They’d sat in the hospital cafe and exchanged stats gleaned from SoccerNet. They could do that for hours without ever having to talk about themselves at all. He’d really thought Darragh would make it. Or perhaps it was more he hadn’t thought either way, because it was a thing you didn’t think about.
‘That day it was worse than usual. I remember Da saying something like “try it, then, but don’t think you can come crawling back to me…” – I didn’t know what they were talking about. I was just angry that no-one was listening to me and it was like I wasn’t even there. Marie was carrying the picnic and she started eating it, first the sandwiches, then the scones Mam had made, and Mam didn’t notice that either. I decided it would serve them all right if I went missing, so I ducked out the back of the line, came up here and did my best to get lost. What a little eejit I was.
‘It’s hard getting properly lost, even if you’re a kid and you mostly leave it to other people to know where you’re going. Like, you can see how on this hill you can go forwards or backwards, or up or down, but if you get turned round you can tell, because there’s the hill, and the backs of people’s gardens, and on the other side of the hill there’s the sea…’
‘I got lost here once,’ says Mark, and Bernadette looks at him as though to say that’s it, that’s the connection, but he carries on ‘doing yokes with Sean’, and then wishes he hadn’t.
They’re at the top of the ridge now, trees and meadows to the left, a steep tumble of gorse and bracken descending towards the bay to the right. Mark feels the breeze catch the sweat in the small of his back. He sneezes. His knees are killing him but the view is amazing, all the way over Dublin to the hills beyond that hang there like layers of blue chiffon overlapped.
As far as Mark knows, he first spoke to Bernadette at her brother’s funeral, which isn’t the greatest way to pick up a girl; and that would have been it, only she found him on Facebook and softened him up with memes until he asked her out for a drink. And now here they were. If it weren’t for her, he’d be in his room right now, with the curtains still closed – the old curtains, not the ones she bought – answering queries in a Minecraft forum or working on his Mad Max world. Probably finishing a takeaway from the night before.
Here are some things that have changed in Mark’s life, since Bernadette: drinking (much less). Vegetables (many more). Underpants (because she threw out all the old ones and replaced them). Friends (because he still sees his mates, but suddenly he is a two, not a one; there is always this vivid, talkative extension. It does change the dynamic). The future (perhaps).
Bernadette picks her way along the sketchy path on the ridge over the rocks and heather, then starts to descend on the sea side of the hill. It’s like a flight of steps, if every step was laid by a different person and none of them agreed on what was the right depth and which way exactly was up.
‘I never got my singing lessons’, she says. ‘They went mental at me for running off, of course, but it wasn’t that, it was just the idea was so ridiculous it went right past them, it was completely invisible. Though Darragh left home right after that too and I reckon they missed the money from his job, Da wasn’t doing too well himself… What did you dream of doing, when you were growing up?’
‘Footballer,’ says Mark. ‘Or architect. Stadiums.’
‘You could be an architect,’ says Bernadette. ‘You could totally do that, it’s perfect. Minecraft, but real. Maybe with fewer explosions. No, when we get back let’s look it up and see what you have to do to get in as a mature student, because that would be brilliant, it’d be deadly. I’ll look at the music and the drama, though I’m not sure that’s the right way to do it, for me. I’ll get there my own way.’
‘So you will,’ says Mark.
‘I always knew you would believe in me,’ she says with a huge smile. ‘Anyway, we’re almost there now. It was just over that wall. There’s a place where it’s low and you can find a way. I thought if I got over that then I’d be proper lost, because Mam would never climb a wall and trespass on someone’s property. It was exposed, though, because the grass was short – they’d been grazing sheep or something on it. So I decided to go and hide in the shed – there was a shed or a hut in the field, I can’t see from here if it’s still there, can you?
‘I was after scraping my knee really badly getting over the wall, there was blood actually trickling down my leg, but it felt brave, like, heroic. If it hurts you know it’s working. I stumbled my way across the field, it was all chopped up and lumpy under the grass, from hooves or whatever, and I was nearly at the shed when bang! the door slammed open and this lad jumped out. I nearly died.’
They’ve reached the wall now, wading through the shoulder-deep bracken. Bernadette picks her way uphill again in a narrow clear strip by the wall, looking for a place to cross, Mark puffing behind. The best she can do is a messy section where some of the stones stick out irregularly.
‘Give me a boost will you,’ she says to Mark, and he helps her scramble up until she’s sitting on it.
‘So,’ she continues, ‘this lad comes out. He’s about fifteen or so and he’s medium height, dark hair, dark eyes, kind of a pugnacious nose with freckles on -’ she glances humorously at Mark – ‘and he’s really surprised to see me, like a ten-year-old girl was definitely the last thing he was expecting. Probably it was. But he was nice, he didn’t swear at me, he just said “howyeh”. And I couldn’t say anything. So then he asked me what I was doing. And I said I was running away to be a singer. He didn’t even laugh. I mean, how nice was that, a teenage boy to some snotty-nosed little kid. He asked what I could sing and I said I could sing Evita. And then I sang to him, in that field there, and he clapped. I felt like a queen. I don’t remember where he went after that. I don’t remember him coming back over the wall with me. As far as I know he dematerialised or his spaceship beamed him up or -’ she laughs. ‘But I’ve thought of him, on and off, ever since. Whenever I needed to think that I might have something in me after all.
‘Come on then. Get up here and we’ll go into that field and I’m going to sing to you from Evita.’
Mark looks at the wall and he looks up at her. ‘Bernadette,’ he says. His knees contain knives, his back is a lake, and he’s breathing like a pervert in a girls’ school changing room. He is not getting up on that wall.
‘Go on,’ she says. He doesn’t move.
Carefully she pulls her legs up under her, pushes up, teeters into a standing position. She adjusts her balance on the uneven stones. She sings: what’s new, Dublin 13? I’m new, I gotta say I’m just a little stuck on you, you’ll be on me too… Don’t cry for me Baile Átha Cliath! She gets more into it as she goes on, until she’s singing as passionately as she can, balanced on the stone wall between the grass and the bracken, on the steep slope down to the sea.
‘You believe in me, don’t you?’ she asks him, when she’s done.
‘Yeah, I believe in you,’ he says. For a moment, it flashes before his eyes: the jump. The shattering.
‘I’m not going to waste my life,’ she says. ‘I’m not going to piss away my chances like Darragh did, and I’m not going to run after Mam till I die either. I’m going to make it and so are you. We’ve got it in us and I know it. We’re going to make it together.’
‘I believe in you,’ he repeats. But inside he’s saying: don’t fall. Oh, please, my darling, don’t fall.