A poet, short-story writer and novelist with many books and collections to her name, Mary O’Donnell is in the enviable position of having the respect and admiration of the contemporary Irish literary community as a class act. Curious and compelling, her work does not shy away from controversy, instead embracing real and difficult subjects in the search for truth through the voices of her characters. The original inspiration for this short story came from a personal ad in the London Review of Books, where a ‘pineapple seeks cheese with own stick’ ad caught her attention.
Neither dystopian nor utopian this outré tale is not Mary’s first foray into future-oriented fiction, (see the short story and RTE radio play of The Deathday Party). However, the terrain of The Space between Louis and me moves closer to our present with every year, the narrator a woman prepared to do whatever is necessary to fulfil her need for companionship. The world of her risk-taking present sometimes collides with a past childhood she remembers fondly, but she is entirely at ease with her choices.
The Space Between Louis and me is an arch observation on two diverse propositions, middle-aged loneli-ness and optical technology, and how the latter ‘solves’ the former. Set in a beautifully drawn middle-brow Irish urban landscape, this feisty narrator recounts a richly humorous tale of a somewhat macchiato fantastical love (and I’m not talking about coffee) that will make readers want to re-read it immediately.
Irish Writers Centre
The Space Between Louis and Me
I think of Louis as a decorative essential. He doesn’t do much around the place beyond being there as much as I want. He doesn’t cook or clean up and can’t make a bed to save his life. I watch in frustration as he goes through the motions of holding a book, knowing reading is beyond him. Yet guided by me, conversation is lucid. He is by no means stupid.
Most mornings I’m alone again. He has slipped away although he’s with me until sleep falls through the dizzy mire of my semi-aroused thoughts. Nights are dreamless places where I wallow in oblivion. When I open my eyes, unrefreshed, occasional sunshine hacks through the window-blind, or I hear the swat of a wet westerly on the glass. I am persistently exhausted, though often happy.
At the clinic, a few male colleagues share my secret. The exhausted, prematurely wrinkled bags beneath eyes, and that five o’clock unshaven look at nine a.m. arouse my curiosity. As if they can’t be bothered keeping up appearances with basic grooming that, until recently, drove this city to a crescendo of open nail-bars, high-end barber-shops and massage parlours.
In general, my women colleagues are discreet. There’s no knowing who or what is observed across desks and filing cabinets as we prepare for another day of group-work, as we assemble files, then check our pockets for antacid supplies: Bisodol and Gaviscon.
Birchwood, as the clinic is called, is littered with divorcee social-workers and therapists on the move, shaking themselves free of past lives, attempting reincarnation. Such hurry! Yet apart from the usual sour clichés about that sad fuck and I’ll see him in court again or even bastard needn’t think he’s having the children all summer, there isn’t much talk about what’s happening now. In a way, they are as private as me, too burdened, between caseloads and new admissions, the constant stream of alcoholics, gamblers and narcotics abusers housed beneath the clinic’s ill-repaired roof, to think.
I’ve gleaned from the whispering gallery of the coffee-queue though, that some have quick flings. Others date more cautiously. One or two discovered they were lesbians and are in that vivid state of fresh exploration usually found with first love.
At lunchtime, while the addicts enjoy an energy-optimising lunch, I sometimes walk along the estuary, past gleaming, award-winning bridges, beyond the disused gantry and the giant upside-down question-mark of an orange hook that dangles in the gap between the struts. The air is briny. Blindfolded, you’d think you were on a daytrip to the seaside, but eyes wide open this river is moily, pouring itself like green ink into Dublin Bay. Gulls scream around the few docked ships, metal screeches and groans at a nearby foundry. There’s no chance I’d run into Louis. Impossible, in fact. Boastful though it sounds, his very existence depends on me.
I once observed someone else in the same situation as myself. Near the train station, a man who might have been on his way back to an office, hung around beneath the huge round clock as passengers streamed in and out. At two minutes past two in the afternoon, there he was beneath the black Roman numerals, chatting to himself. The average passer-by might assume he was speaking into a discreet mouthpiece, or that he belonged to the scattering of walking, talking mad who traverse the city. But it was more than that. He adjusted his spectacles, then a tiny ear-piece. Anyone would assume he was near-sighted and slightly deaf.
Working with addicts fucks up the most balanced disposition, although that’s not my excuse. The Serenity Prayer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. Some convince themselves work is the key. They become top sales people or even middling sales people, or they build credits doing self-improvement courses. Others, like me, travel as often as they can manage it. I’m entitled to seven weeks’ holidays plus a week sick leave. Not bad. I once committed myself to evening car maintenance, became quite chummy with the under-the-bonnet fumblers, all male, then gave up. Useful as it is to understand the workings of the average car engine, points and plugs didn’t really sail my boat. Then came wine tasting, sausage making, and a series of art history lectures. All sublimation, the lot of it.
As I can’t spend my entire life with Louis, work at the clinic fills time between breakfast and evening. It pays the bills. Coffee’s good too. I achieve some successes with the depraved and broken, am acknowledged to be kick-ass but not cruel. The only thing that riles me is when Significant Others won’t let go, make excuses, slipping bottles of gin and pick-me-ups that interfere with the work. As a result, I’ve deleted my share of abusive e-mails. Once or twice on the phone, I’ve had to cut off the parent of some pasta-faced heroin daughter or son in mid-rant. An upset, alcoholic pregnant woman once screamed herself hoarse in group, the child she was carrying already a pickled walnut. This is abnormal, but in the circumstances, also normal.
But a heavy caseload doesn’t mean I don’t read and write. Call me an artist manqué, I know how to look, how to look again, how to re-read. I have drawers filled with notebooks bought in galleries around the world. Snap-shut magnetic covers, embroidered covers, lined, unlined, Moleskine, Chinese, Quaderno, wood-pulp, school jotters, filled with wandering words from the bird in my chest. My yellow-bricked apartment overlooking the canal is sanctuary to bird-words, to many necessary fripperies trawled home from the world beyond our island. It satisfies me to wear a moonstone ring and imagine it was given to me, that Louis gave it to me when in fact this would be impossible, because he has no money, no currency. It excites me to warm a chained oblong of tiger’s eye in my hand before draping it on my breast-bone, the chill gone. I imagine his honey-coloured hand warming it, not mine. Sometimes too, I dance before him, in the bedroom, enveloped in a Rose Madder length of silk from the province of Uttar Pradesh.
In India, I managed without Louis. I made a pact with myself for strength in the face of temptation. In fairness, he did not ask to come. Before I left, I enquired casually if he would miss me. Of course I’ll miss you, he replied with annoying equanimity. But self-control is his middle name. This is how he came to me. Poised, quietly confident but capable of submission to my will, my harmless needs. A woman couldn’t ask for more. How much will you miss me, I pressed. He turned with a radiant smile and answered with open arms. I will miss you to the floors of the ocean and the roof of the sky.
Poetic, eh? I continued packing T-shirts and linen trousers. I’ll see you when I get back, I told him. That’s fine Molly. I’ll be waiting. I am all yours. Not what I was used to hearing from men. Despite myself, I looked up and gazed adoringly at him. He is beautiful, from the Semitic tumble of brown curls on his golden neck, to the wide-set brown eyes. I wanted to bite the generous sculpt of his mouth, to softly press teeth close to blood!
One thing I’ve learned in the long, heated therapy sessions, is that women living with men find it all a bit conditional. There’s a great deal of sheet, jeans and towel folding at weekends, toilet-cleaning, and then swanky couples meals to be prepared. The middle-classes can hold their own anytime when it comes to contributing to national addiction stats. Especially at Birchwood. No doubt the chaps feel the same. Resentful and obliged.
I could never have married.
When I was a child, our farm fed eleven of us. But the barrage of cousins, aunts, uncles, the annual births, the smell of plastic mugs, the metal buckets of steeping nappies conveyed a message to me. It was carried by a bird that dived into my chest like a kingfisher into a pool, one night as I leaned out over the window-ledge at the age of thirteen, listening to a cow lowing in the byre, smelling the cold manurey air, thinking that if I could fly in a straight line over the hills, I’d be in America, and would end up in Los Angeles, where the real stars glowed. I absorbed the bird-message, heard the high-pitched whistle of Never! Never!
That feathered little creature has never deserted me. I imagine a small, Byzantine bird not from the world of nature at all, but art. Now I am fifty and feel the downturn of my life, the change that comes when you know the high days have passed but the cleated warmth of the afternoon is yet to be absorbed. Now I really need art.
The only one who understood how I felt was Roza. I’m proud of her, the abstract painter whose husband pushed her to sign in for six weeks’ detox. She arrived into the group – puffy-skinned and sullen – but gradually open. She was able to utter the words and mean them, the flaky sentence every stand-up comedian jokes about. ‘My name is Roza and I’m an alcoholic.’ Most clients glare into the middle distance and mutter it quickly, but she held my gaze. After detox, she underwent the full programme, then returned home to Cork to try her luck.
We stayed in touch, had relieving telephone conversations late at night about our situations. Hers, married and too wealthy for the good of her art. Mine, single and perhaps too comfortable and intolerant for the good of my heart, and I don’t mean cholesterol. Somehow, I never met the right man. Now. I’ve uttered it, that vile, old-fashioned phrase!
What’s to do, Roza used to say in despair. There must be something, I’d reply with a sigh from my king-sized bed, smoking weed. By this stage, the professional distance necessitated by her stay at the clinic had long dissolved. Face it girl, she’d reply, we’re up the creek without a paddle, we’re gettin’ old. Her accent made it all seem much more desperate and tragic. Sometimes, I wept with frustration. Life stretched ahead, filled with more art and more travel, with superficial encounters, with the admiring looks of Middle Eastern men, of Indian men, of any men who think a blonde Irishwoman rides for Ireland and I don’t mean horses.
In this city, women outnumber men. But young women have the chutzpah, and until recently they had the money to pick and choose, despite the imbalance.
We’ve got to do something radical, I suggested. Like what, Roza drawled cynically. Leave it with me, I said. Wicked, she replied.
We didn’t communicate for a few weeks. I think Roza had given up, that she had almost decided to live the entente cordiale that was her uninspiring marriage, to imagine some kind of passion for the sake of her art.
Being an intensive Sunday newspaper reader turned the situation around. It takes up most of my day, whether in bed, or later in Café Lumière, near the canal bridge where the swans throng. The café door is open regardless of the weather. In winter, I muffle up, newspaper supplements spread, a large coffee steaming to my right. At other tables, couples and young families are out for a lazy breakfast. The usual fry-up, or waffles and honey. Outside, greedy swans close in, frothing on the grassy bank, heads rising and dipping. I perused the Personals page for a few moments before zooming in on something. I spent a good few minutes reading and re-reading. It wasn’t the usual smarty-pants approach (Cobalt blue eyes, bronze hair and a heart of gold, but also nerves of steel! M, 50) that tries too hard (Pineapple seeks cheese with own stick. F, 33) to impress (Reactive lady, 41, seeking generous physics man to 50).
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I followed it up, and so did Roza. It’s more difficult for her. How often can she have a new lover right there in the house with an observant husband already on her case? Going out can be awkward in her suburb where even the dogs in the street would notice something amiss and go arf-arf! in their best Cork accents.
The people at Rel-aid, assessed our requirements. They listened on skype, they observed and they matched. I paid for both of us by credit card. Dissatisfied customers are refunded in full. What arrived by Fed-ex courier more than met my wildest imaginings. Roza had no complaints either, has created a routine that works for her, mostly in her studio, surrounded by acrylics and sand-paper.
I had no idea how closely I could observe Louis as I used The Virtual Rel-aid superfine goggles and minuscule ear-piece. Every pore of his skin, every small hair behind the shells of his ears, his beautiful neck, his startling golden-brown eyes were real. I programmed him to respond to his name, after a young travel writer I admire. To refer to ‘programming’ is to defile him. But certain basics are required.
Louis will age as I age, keeping pace, seeing me as ever-young without actually thinking about it. He can never observe my delicate pink pallor, the gradual dissipation of my once-serene skin, nor the little cloven hoof-print of my cunt within its silvering fleece. And although I can’t say he actually brings me breakfast in bed on a Saturday morning, he does stand by my shoulder when I’ve arranged everything on a tray. The chartreuse-coloured coffee-cup, saucer and plate. Lemon-toast and one croissant. A fill of steaming Java. Vitamin E.
Then he moves up the stairs ahead of me as I bear tray to bedroom, always in my field of vision. He must be straight ahead of me, or slightly to the right or left. Once I move ahead, he vanishes.
As I eat, he stretches out beside me. He is weightless, languid, like a feather, despite his toned body. It looks as if his limbs are sinking deep beside me on the bed. But when I remove the goggles, the duvet is as smooth as ever, unmarked by the heft of his shoulders and the curve of his bottom.
I wish I could introduce him after work, in the wine-bar, where I don’t drink wine, but tonic and cranberry with ice. The goggles aren’t all that different from ordinary spectacles and I don’t look like a fire-fighter or someone entering a nuclear meltdown zone. The controls are subtle. Even so, I recognised them on that man outside the train station. Those in the know – vulnerable, even ashamed – are on nodding terms. At work, a colleague from what we call the Dice Room chats as if he has known me for years. The recession. Gambling gossip. The boss’s latest staff restructuring scramble. Health cut-backs, indigent gamblers. Back to health cut-backs.
Louis understands the mathematics of a broken economy. There, there, he says, reaching for my hand (although he’ll never touch it), things will get better darling, Tokyo is improving my love, and the Nasdaq’s on the rise. You’ll feel better tomorrow. What he fails to grasp is that although the economy might improve in a few years, and the paranoid addicted recover, things will not change between him and me. We are defined by the space between us. We can never, ever, touch.
He cannot know that when I lie back, fascinated and wild at the sight of a Pre-select-for-Size erection, imagining his touch as he sits on a canary-yellow linen chair opposite my bed, that I need to believe his lustful and loving endearments, the quiet sibilance of what he enjoys most. But despite my best efforts, I’m doomed to an atheism which cannot blindly accept the myth-like advantages of modern solitude. From the bed, beyond Louis’s head, I see the canal, frowning and purple in the wind, the swans snowy, and a trail of pedestrians hurrying home to their mysterious lives. At such moments, I sometimes remember all eleven of us children in the house on the farm – the rooms in apple greens and tropical sunset reds, painted by our crazy mother, the outhouses kept distempered by our practical father. Eleven was a community. We would kneel during Lent for the Rosary, always together, secretly fooling our way through all those Hail Marys. Then our parents would suddenly forget, opening a bottle of stout or a new novel (or both), switching on the television, and gradually we’d be back to our fairly secular, un-rosaried domestic habits. Eleven, then. Now I am one. I am not even one of two.
I think I love Louis. I permit myself to love the presence of an absence. Provided I keep the goggles on, he’s with me, night and day. But they often slip off in the dreamless night. No amount of strong elastic keeps them on. Come morning, I am alone again. There will always be that space between Louis and me. But the next time I travel, he’s coming too. I will wrap the goggles in a blouse and place them deep in my luggage. He will exclaim at the India I know, will soak up, in his way, the intense blue of the houses of Jodpuhr viewed from Meherangahr Fort, he will fear for the children of Mumbai, and he too will move on, on, always slightly ahead, through the crowds, past the starved cows, pausing as I pause beside a kneeling astrologer in saffron-yellow who will tell my future.