"Couples" by Eddie Stack - A Short Story
A Reading Life Special Event
A Reading Life Special Event
Irish Short Story Month Year III
March 1 to March 31
In an act of supreme generosity Eddie Stack has sent me 22 short stories to post for Irish Short Story Month. I offer him my great thanks for this. I intend to share all of these short stories with my readers. He is a master story teller with a deep understanding of Ireland.
Press comments on his work
Press comments on his work
Praise for Eddie Stack’s writing
"Mr. Stack's fiction is versatile and engaging...a vivid, compassionate, authentic voice...securing (him) a place in the celebrated tradition of his country's storytelling.”
New York Times Book Review
“This second collection of short stories by Eddie Stack has a wonderful sense of unreality, of weirdness among Irish characters and of downright fun.”
“Eddie Stack’s stories jet back and forth across the Atlantic, contrasting small town Ireland and big city US. Every time they land, the author seems to test the borderline of what might and might not be possible in downtown bars, crumbling dance halls and drizzly farms. The result is a remarkably consistent collection of short stories.
Ian Wild, Southword
The sitting room was warm and serene, with a trace of jasmine incense. The radio whispered classical music from Lyric FM, and Mona balanced her checkbook on a beanbag near the fire. In an armchair across the hearth, her husband Rolf frowned at a Picasso print on the wall: War and Peace. He looked preoccupied, a bundle of typed pages on his lap.
“I got a call from Dermot today,” he said quietly, “Kate moved out.”
“Kate moved out. She left Dermot.”
“Jesus Christ! Why didn’t you tell me before now?”
“I was waiting for the right time.”
“But Jesus Christ Rolf, she’s my best friend!”
“When did this happen?”
“Oh my God. This is incredible. I spoke with her on Sunday and she didn’t say anything. What happened?”
“Apparently she met someone else. Dermot never knew. She told him as she was packing.”
“And she left just like that?”
He nodded and went to the kitchen for a bottle of wine.
Mona looked at the small black and white photo on the mantelpiece from a college ball: Rolf and herself with Dermot and Kate. The couples had been best friends since way back then. Kate was shy, Dermot was loose, Rolf was stiff and Mona was somewhere in between. “I can’t believe this,” she whispered.
They had known each other forever, stuck around town after graduating and became part of the arts scene. Dermot worked as producer in a local radio station; Rolf was editor of a community paper and Mona had a small craft shop in a renovated mill by the waterfront. Kate taught creative writing at the university.
“I’m shocked,” she muttered when Rolf returned with the bottle, “Jesus Christ, we never know what’s going on in someone’s life.”
He nodded and poured two glasses of wine.
“But I can’t imagine her with anyone apart from Dermot,” Mona said.
“It seems she was seeing this guy for the last three months. He’s Spanish, a chef in college canteen.”
“They’re moving to Alicante.”
“Jesus! Alicante! What’s the matter with her?”
A few nights later, Dermot came over for dinner. He spilled his heart out and Mona went to bed early, leaving the two men to drink and talk until dawn. He came again the following week, and told them he had received a letter from Kate’s lawyer – she wasn’t coming back and wanted to sell their house. He cried at the dinner and got drunk and conked out on the sitting room sofa. They worried about him, and Mona wrote to Kate through her solicitor, hoping to coax her to her senses. When she received no response after three weeks, she wrote again.
“I don’t believe this,” she said to Rolf, “I mean, I thought we were best friends.”
Through six months of legal ping-pong, Dermot came for dinner at least once a week. They listened and consoled him, gave him heart and support. They read the small print in legal documents and helped him fight his corner. They cajoled him into to going to concerts with them, brought him to the Arts Festival reception and tried to humour him out of his sorrows. It was their idea that he should buy a small apartment down by the harbour when it was all over. Make a fresh start, they said, everything will be fine, you’re a young man in your prime.
After the divorce was finalised and all bonds were untied, he took their advice and bought an apartment. A one bedroom box, with a balcony overlooking the docks, it faced south and had a view of the Blue Mountains over the roofs of warehouses. He moved in on his thirty-seventh birthday, and Mona and Rolf came by with two bottles of champagne to warm the home and celebrate his new age. He didn’t sleep for hours after they left and got up several times to look at the boats in the harbour. In the morning, he sat on the floor and had a breakfast of coffee and cornflakes. He opened the windows and smelled the sea, played CDs of songs from his youth.
As Dermot settled into his new home, he came over to Rolf and Mona’s less frequently, though the two men had lunch together at least once a week. His social life got hectic as summer came to town, and Rolf heard he was living life full throttle, meeting women from Italy, Spain, Poland and Ukraine. There were Americans too, a divorcee from Mayo and an exotic ballet dancer from Birr.
“I trust you’re using rubbers,” Rolf remarked, hearing of a threesome.
“Several,” his friend smiled.
Dermot came over for a barbecue on the August holiday weekend. A god-sent balmy evening, they lingered outside and finished four bottles of Aldi wine before the night chilled. Back inside, Mona lit a token fire in the sitting room and made Irish coffees. Late into the night, Dermot gave a dramatic recitation of the ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’. Rolf corrected what he said was a misquoted line and that somehow led to an argument between them. Voices were raised. Mona ordered Dermot to cool down.
He looked at her with hurt eyes, walked out and banged the door.
Then he stuck his head back in and shouted,
“You’ve become fucking yuppies!”
The couple talked about the incident in the morning and Mona said Dermot owed them an apology. Rolf said, “Look, the guy was drunk. He was just letting off steam...he’s been through a lot. Let’s pretend it never happened.”
Dermot and Rolf didn’t have lunch the following week, or the week after that. August rolled on without contact and Mona said, “You should write to that jerk and demand an apology.”
“Actually I was wrong, I looked up the poem. He was correct. If anything, it’s us who owe him an apology. I intend writing to him.”
“But he called us fucking yuppies, Rolf.”
“Look. Forget it. It’ll sort itself out. Ok?”
In late September they went on holidays to Greece. Rolf hated the resort, a noisy seaside town in Lesbos, packed with British and German tourists. They had a studio apartment in a large complex at the edge of town, and he was unnerved by young Greeks on motorcycles whenever they walked to the beach. The sand was littered with cigarette butts and drinking straws. The sun was merciless and Rolf brooded in the shade of a rented umbrella.
The Dermot issue followed them to Greece, and when Mona raised it one night at dinner, Rolf snapped. “For Christ’s sake Mona, can’t you forget the bloody thing while we’re on holidays?”
“I just want to resolve it.”
He was boiling and she thought he was going to explode like an over-inflated balloon. She pulled back from the table in alarm. He called a waiter and ordered a brandy and a cigar. For the rest of the evening they ignored each other, and when she got up next morning he was gone. An unsigned note left on the table read: I’m taking off for a few days on my own.
At first she was furious, and spent the day sipping brandy frappes outside the Lazy Fish taverna on the waterfront. That bastard won’t spoil my holiday, she resolved. Greek youths passed like golden godettes. A flush of freedom lulled over her: singledom in the sun. Siesta sex. No, no, she couldn’t do it. But it would be good enough for him, and the thought warmed her. After that she tanned in the sun by the pool in the apartment complex and dreamed of sin, over ouzo and coke.
Two days before they were due to leave for home, Rolf returned. It was late afternoon and the plaza by the pool was crowded and smelled of chlorine and body lotion. He picked his way around sunbeds until he spotted Mona sitting under a canvas parasol. She was chatting to a tanned Euroman with bleached hair. Rolf stopped, he saw them clink cocktail glasses. His mouth dried up and he turned away quickly.
Later that night they were both drunk when they met in the apartment. He called her a whore and she slapped him across the face and said he was a wimp. They stared at each other, breathing heavily like animals. No more words were spoken. Rolf backed away and spent the night on balcony, sleeping on a sun chair.
Their journey home was silent. Autumn had set in and Mona lit the sitting room fire and turned on the central heating at night. For a week they barely spoke and then one evening at dinner she said,
“Look, I’m sorry I went on about that incident with Dermot. Maybe we should try and patch things up with him. . .maybe I should call and invite him over.”
“Why? Do you want to fuck him?”
He stared so hard at her that she dropped her cutlery and fled from the table.
They slept apart after that, and the house didn’t lighten until Rolf went away for a few days. When he came back, he stopped using the sitting room and went straight to bed in the evening. Every Friday night he came home drunk and Mona found him asleep at the kitchen table on a couple of Saturday mornings. By Christmas she was seeing a therapist.
Dermot partied most weekends and the carpet in his apartment was stained, and the door to the shower was buckled. A French woman he took home refused to leave for two days. The following week his Mayo lover dropped by when he was entertaining someone else, and the two Donnas fought on the floor like cats until security men arrived. He drank and cavorted at full belt, seeing no end to the party. He was a free man and he was going to taste every fruit in Paradise. But fate had other plans. Dressed as a one-eyed pirate for the Arts Ball, he stumbled down the steps of the Silver Bay Hotel and cracked his ankle. He was out of work for a month and came back with a cane. That brought a cooling period and a time of forced reflection.
He was resting up one night, mindlessly watching the news on television, when Rolf arrived unannounced. His face was flushed and he extended his hand in friendship. Dermot shook it and invited him inside.
“Well it’s good to see you, Rolf,” he said, taking two cans of cider from the fridge.
“Sorry it took so long. . .”
“I often meant to call, but you know the way life goes.”
Rolf nodded with a smile. He eased back on the couch and said, “Well I come with good news. I’m in love.”
“What? What did you say?”
“I’m in love,” Rolf beamed.
It happened in Greece while he was away from Mona. He was drinking alone in a beach club, watching a few women dance. One of them in particular held his eyes — a tall dark-haired lady in tight white jeans and orange t-shirt. She magnetized him and he got up and danced beside her.
“Christ Rolf, I can’t imagine you discoing.”
“Well I did….beside this beautiful woman...I invited her to have a drink and we got chatting.”
Catriona was from Paris, and married to a mathematician, she told him almost immediately. She was a photographer, on the island on assignment for a travel magazine. When the club closed, they strolled along the shore. A blue moon hung over Turkey, a gentle sea lapping at their feet. They talked for hours and walked back to her hotel at dawn. But she declined to take Rolf inside or even kiss him goodbye.
They met again next evening and went for a meal at a taverna in a small mountain village she knew. There was singing and dancing by old men with proud white mustaches and women with red scarves. Surrounded by feta cheese and olives, Rolf felt the spirit of old Greece through wine and ouzo. He melted into the most wonderful night of his life.
“I fell in love. And we didn’t even kiss.”
“Jesus. Does Mona know?”
Rolf shook his head, drank from his can.
“Not yet,” he said, “anyway, it gets better. I arrived home smitten by Catriona. I had her business card and wrote to her, but she didn’t reply. I phoned a few times but only got her voice mail. I left messages of course, but she never returned my calls.”
After a month Rolf flew to Paris and went to her address. From a bench down the street he watched the apartment. Occasionally he glimpsed blurred bodies behind lace curtains. When it got dark he saw her silhouette on the shades, saw her husband’s silhouette. Saw the light go out.
“I can’t express how emotional I felt,” he told Dermot, “On top of everything, I was ashamed of myself for snooping on her.”
Next morning, some distance from the apartment, he approached Catriona as she walked to work. She was bewildered to see him and agreed to have coffee, even though she was running late. He bared his soul and she lit a cigarette and sighed, “Look, you’re a lovely man, but I’m in love with a lovely man already. Please leave me alone.”
Rolf went back to Ireland brokenhearted and a few weeks later he returned to Paris. He approached her on the way home from work but she refused to talk with him and threatened to call the police. Rolf pleaded with her but she ran away, shouting in French. Back at home he wrote and apologized, promised never to bother her again. After that he was overwhelmed by sadness and loneliness.
“And why didn’t you say something?” Dermot asked.
“I couldn’t. There was nothing to say. Until two weeks ago, that is — I got a letter from her, a note really. She just wrote Are you there?”
Rolf’s eyes glinted like crystals in the sun.
“I’m in love,” he said, “and I wasn’t even looking for love. I’ve just been to Paris and Catriona and myself had a magical time together. I’m divorcing Mona.”
“Jesus! I’d take it a bit slower if I were you.”
Rolf nodded patiently and said,
“I have never been more certain about anything in my life. We’re meant for each other and we’re in love.”
“Well, congratulations…I’m flabbergasted.”
“There will be some to-ing and fro-ing between here and Paris for a while. Then Catriona will probably move here.”
Winter winds and hail attacked the harbour town and Dermot’s apartment was like a ship’s bridge in a storm. Fishing boats were tied four deep at the quay and the clinking of cables against masts, kept him awake half of the night. Constant gale warnings, the days never seemed to brighten beyond stone grey. He called Rolf at work a few times but he was away. Then he received a postcard from Paris; Rolf was helping Catriona pack her stuff and move to Ireland.
On a wet March evening, as Dermot walked home from the radio station, he met Mona outside McFadden’s Supermarket. Hidden in a dark heavy wool coat, a fur Cossack hat down to her eyebrows, she was ashen-faced.
Did you hear?” she asked, with eyes full of hurt, “He left me.”
Dermot hugged her and patted her back. She shuddered into sobs and he linked her to a doorway, out of the path of shoppers and homegoing workers. He held her while she cried on his shoulder. He whispered that he understood, he understood. She sniffled herself together and said quietly,
“Thanks Dermot, I’m fine now.”
They went into Neylon’s Bar and sat in a small private snug that had a blazing turf fire. Dermot ordered hot whiskeys and Mona told her story. They had another drink.
“He just walked out,” she muttered, “he told me to keep the fucking house . . .I hear they’re renting a place in Ballyboy.”
“Christ, I’m sorry Mona.”
“Well you know what it’s like, you’ve been through it too.”
They fell silent. A clock ticked solemnly somewhere in the pub. The fire murmured up the chimney. From the bar came quiet mutters of conversation, clinking bottles, clunk and hiss of beer pumps. A smoker’s cough. Coins being counted on the counter. The clock chimed eight. Dermot gently put his hand on Mona’s.
“Would you like another drink?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said with a tear-eyed smile, “why not?”
End of Guest Post