As I walked into Heuston Station and over to the ticket machine, I felt a twinge of guilt. I hadn’t visited my parents in months. Since Mark arrived in Dublin I’d been spending so much time with him that without ever meaning to, I’d let other people in my life slip out of it. The train fare had increased again. Even when I was a student I’d thought that almost €20 for not even an hour’s journey was taking the piss. Now that I didn’t get the student fare anymore, every train home involved a three second fervent prayer in between entering my PIN and the “authorisation successful” on the screen. I wasn’t really comfortable, deep down, with Mark paying for everything. I always let him decide where we’d go and often that would be somewhere too expensive for me to pay for both of us, and when he paid for us both so often I felt it would be petty for me to say “I’m paying – but only for me.” I don’t know if his paying all the time bothered me on principle, or if it just made me feel insecure.
“Amy’s home,” my mum told me, and I nearly choked on my pasta. “What?” “Saw her in Anthem yesterday. She isn’t looking too well. She was saying she hadn’t seen you in a long time.” “Well I’ve been – busy,” I said, not wanting to own up about Mark just yet. I knew that my parents would be happy for me, but I also knew they’d want to know all about him. And he was still a blank canvas in so many ways. We talked about music, and politics, and things that were happening in the world around us now. Nothing much was happening to either of us and because he had disclosed so little about his past, I hadn’t opened up to him either. It’s funny that I needed to be counties away from him to realise that for a relationship that felt so right, there was a lot wrong, or at least missing, about it. I was still protective of it though, and I didn’t want to see the look of doubt in my family’s eyes as they asked me question after question about the man I’d been spending so much time with to hear me bleating, over and over again like a broken record, “Ehm – don’t know. Not sure.” Mark’s job? Where was he from? Had he family? How old was he? The questions I could answer wouldn’t have made for good dinner table talk. “We mostly listen to music and talk about books and politics so we can bond without ever swapping facts about each other.” “We spend a lot of time having sex. He’s really good.” “He has a lot of money but doesn’t tell anyone what he does.” “We met on a tube in London. We got talking cos someone killed himself and the tube got stuck.” I could have told my family about how when we had a date I would wake up really looking forward to seeing him, and how that excitement would get me through work, and how good it felt to be together, how I loved how his eyes lit up when he had an idea are probably not that interesting to anyone else. I could have mentioned how his eyes would soften when he smiled, but only when he smiled at me, and that sometimes he’d smile with half of his mouth for no reason, again only at me, as if we shared in a special secret.
We finished dinner and sat down in front of the fire to peacefully watch people being murdered on the television and I felt at home. None of the flats I’d ever rented in Dublin, or even Mark’s place when I was with him, had ever felt like home in the way this place did. I realised that I was looking forward to not having sex that night. I could curl up in my old single bed in my pjamas with a hot water bottle and a book and just enjoy being able to go to sleep when I wanted, and to organise my limbs how I wanted without having to arrange myself to fit around another person. I could wake up when I wanted and do what I liked. I’d been spending so much time with Mark recently that it was nice to have some time to spend with my family, and when I went to bed, to spend with me. Since my dad had picked me up from Portlaoise Station, I’d left my phone in my bag and had no inclination to take it out again, not even to see if Mark had texted or called.
She still hadn’t texted back. To any of his eleven messages. Maybe he should call her. No answer. Maybe he should call her again in case she didn’t get to the phone on time the first time. No, he realised, maybe he should stop. The funny thing was that it wasn’t unreasonable to send eleven text messages in an hour. In fact, he often sent her far more. The only thing that made the difference between sweet and creepy was whether the girl was texting back. Which wasn’t that big a difference, really. Besides, she always replied straight away, except for when her boss was delivering what they now both referred to as his “rousing speeches.” For a second he wondered if something horrible had happened to her, like a train crash or a road accident or a lost phone charger. Why else was she not texting him back? They always texted each other back unless they (well, she, really) had some reason they couldn’t.
Maybe she has some secret boyfriend or girlfriend down there in – where was she from again? – Laos? Funny, he used to think Laos was a country somewhere around Thailand, turned out it was a county in Ireland. Maybe she had a tall, athletic, virile young sportsman down there and right now she was on her knees giving him the best blowjob he’d ever had and that the real reason they had only had sex three times last night was that she was saving herself for the sportsman and not because she was tired. And he had cuddled her anyway and told her it was alright, and she was probably laughing about that now with Paddy the hurler or Michael the gaelic football player or whoever he was. Mark wondered what Irishmen said when they came. Probably something to do with the local football team. When they were recording Bollocks, one of Mark’s mates had come over and dragged him out to a game of “Irish soccer.” Mark had expected to be bored, as he always was by sports consisting of hordes of illiterate and probably illegitimate men chasing a bit of synthetic dead cow around a field, but he had to go cos Baz sold the best crack in town, and besides, Mark was a bit scared of him. The two men had left the match completely mystified as to why the ref hadn’t blown the whistle on a single handball when there was a handball every few seconds, why people shouted abuse at the team they were supposedly supporting, and why, when someone got injured the paramedics were overtaken by the priest, the woman who made the sandwiches, and a man whose only function seemed to be to carry a sponge but was revered for that responsibility. The Irish people were passionate about it to an extent that it was frightening though and Mark could well imagine a rural Irish sportsman in the throes of passion shouting “And his grandfather couldn’t hit a barn door either!” or “Couldn’t score in Coppers!” as he blew his load.
Old age hadn’t blunted his jealousy. It did, however, help him to recognise it and he tried to quash it, telling himself he had no reason to suspect Marianne of any infidelity. Apart from the fact that the first time they’d tried it on he – wasn’t going to think about that anymore. They never mentioned it. And besides, it had been in more than perfect working order since, thank you very much. And the fact that he was roughly twice her age. No, he told himself, he had every reason to believe Marianne was genuine. She was smart and independent so probably not in need of a father figure. And she wasn’t quite sophisticated or confident enough in herself to offer sympathy shags. She spent far too much time round at his for it to be a passing, casual fling, or for it all to be in aid of some ulterior motive. She’d never asked him for money and he wasn’t exactly newsworthy anymore.
Hang on though, why was she always coming round to his? What was her place like? He went back through all of their dates in his mind and realised that he had never been back to hers. In fact, he wasn’t even sure he knew where she lived. Why? Was there some reason, something, some one that he couldn’t know about? He checked his phone. She still hadn’t replied to any of his texts. It had been at least ten minutes since he’d last checked. He was getting antsy because he was…bored. Without her, there was just nothing to do or think about. A loud shrill cut through the air as smoke billowed out from the oven. The entire pizza was black and hard as pumice, but Mark contemplated eating it anyway. None of the knives in his flat would cut it. He picked the pizza up and banged it against the counter. It didn’t break and he burnt his hand. He was going to put it in the bin but he decided to just leave it there and flop down in front of the TV. There was nothing on. His bad mood at Marianne’s secretiveness about where and with whom she lived wasn’t helped by the guilt that had been creeping up on him lately. There was so much about him he hadn’t told her, either. Like most of his adult life. He was always about to tell her – just never now.