Falling in the Garden, a short story by James Martyn Joyce
James Martyn Joyce is from Galway. He has published four books, including editing Noir by Noir West: Dark Fiction from the West of Ireland (Arlen House). His work has appeared in The Cúirt Journal, West 47, Books Ireland, Crannóg, The Sunday Tribune, The Stinging Fly, The Shop, The Honest Ulsterman, The Stony Thursday Book and Skylight 47. He was shortlisted for a Hennessy Award in 2006, the Francis McManus award in 2007 and 2008 and The William Trevor International Short Story Competition in 2007 and 2011. He has had work broadcast on RTE and BBC and has won the Listowel Writers Week Originals Short Story Competition. He won the Doolin Writers Prize in 2014. He was a winner of the Greenbean Novel Fair in 2016 with his novel, A Long Day Dead. His second collection of poetry, Furey, was published in June 2018 by Doire Press.
Anne stopped running where the narrow path came closest to the edge. Far below her the gulls were perched on a craggy stump, a stone fist pointing from the scrub, their faint cries barely registering. Below that again the waves were small and almost silent, but she knew that at sea level they would lash against the cliff face, bruising it, wearing it down.
From this height there was nothing but the wind whistling in her ears, cooling her cheeks, making her eyelashes flutter, stealing her breath until there was only something like fear left behind her breastbone, a little knot, tight, and tight behind her eyes, her tears stinging.
Her face felt swollen now, the first shock of pain going, a dull ache tightening the skin of her skull until she believed she could feel every hair clinging to her head, each one a tiny pull dragging the skin tighter still.
Stephen had given her no warning, the slam of his open hand catching her along the jaw, the light suddenly brighter, her eyes focussed as if until that millisecond she had been, in some way, asleep. He’d closed his fist for the second blow, the force making her teeth grind, the perfect teeth that had cost him so much because ‘no consultant’s wife should be seen with such a crooked smile’.
Anne knew now that it had been foolish to ask him if he would be late again this evening. But he’d been away so much, and the children had asked. So, she’d almost blurted it out: Should she cook dinner for them all, or would he be eating at the hospital?
‘Don’t be such a smart bitch, Anne!’
His roar had shaken her, and his sudden punch had rocked her. What if his shout would bring the children? So, she’d grabbed her coat and run, sliding the patio door shut behind her.
It had been like this almost from the beginning, the threat hanging there, dangling above her, and yet she could not leave. Even on their honeymoon she’d seen a shortness in him she’d never noticed before, his breath held a fraction longer, a pale tightness to his lips. Again and again over the years, she had gone back to the house; the girls were the magnets, and she could not bring herself to challenge him, because she knew that in the long run he would win.
Their first daughter must have been a disappointment to him in some way; he’d never beaten Anne until after Grace was born. He’d wanted a boy, someone to take over, someone to grow the land and offices he’d invested in on the guidance of McColgan, his accountant.
Three years later when Claire had arrived he’d gone missing for a week and she knew then there would be real problems. Her future would be trouble, trouble in her nights and watchful in her days.
Of course, there were still the foreign holidays, all the trophy wives, Anne among them, lying in the sun on some private beach, listening to the other wives, the suitable wives, comparing kitchens, talking up the next ‘great hope’. Who would shine under pressure – and there was huge pressure – and the others who would not make the grade, the ghostly finger of general practice beckoning. And all the time the feeling that somehow a door had closed, a concealed door she never knew was there until she heard the click of the lock way too late and the chance was gone.
Her face would be black for days. She knew the routine well enough by now, stay indoors and read, never answer the doorbell. Be careful with the phone in case friends would offer to visit. Tell the children she had fallen in the garden.
Sometimes she feared that Grace could read her eyes, the way she would smile and stroke her face, never touching the bruise; the way she looked at her father, like he was never fully there, no matter how hard he tried, always drawing her into his conversations, trying to recruit her in some way.
Claire was still too young to understand, but she would come and touch her mother’s face, her fingers wet, circling the bruise, her small fingers barely touching the skin, with a heat off her touch Anne could feel behind her eyes.
When she got home he was already gone, the children were playing with their toys, a cartoon running on the flatscreen. They were almost seven and four now and they were beautiful. They would notice the mark, so she got to the stairs calling as she ran that she would take a shower and be down in a few minutes. The steam eased her bones, the swelling soft under her fingers, a blackening egg moving to her wincing touch. Claire came crying to the locked door as Anne was trying to disguise the bruise with make-up but went downstairs again, whimpering softly.
Anne never minded when Stephen was away. She knew that he would be at his club, or in some hotel, leaning on the bar, creating himself anew to the women there. And there were always women, women like himself, looking for some small adventure, some dalliance. She often smiled at the word. She found him once by accident, not long after Grace was born. She’d gone for lunch, arranging to meet up with her sister, Tessa, in a city centre hotel, never thinking he would be there at the small mahogany bar, tweed sleeve to the polished wood, looking into the eyes of some coiffured women far older than himself.
He didn’t see her; he was bent in whispered conversation, the woman’s kohl-eyes never leaving his, his hand resting on her arm. Anne had approached him, called him Stephen, intent on saving him in some way, telling him ‘Tessa’s coming’, and he had taken the woman’s arm and guided her through the archway to reception, turning left to the gilded elevators and the bedrooms beyond.
She regretted nothing later when he hit her, spinning her around before the fireplace, her spittle flying, her cry a shock even to herself, his shout of ‘Never again, Anne! Never!’ ringing off the walls, his sharp finger digging in her breast.
The girls were sitting quietly when she finally came down. Coco Pops littered the carpet, Claire sucking her thumb and watching the television. Grace ran to her immediately, her face crumpling in tears, her thin arms hugging her waist, her snuffles lost in the folds of her dress. This cannot go on, she told herself, this can not go on, but it would, her ball and chain hugged her tighter, the children were her jailers. He could have her declared an unfit mother if he really tried.
She thought again of Hugh, she felt her throat tighten and the tears gathering, Grace brushing them away. Claire had been just over a year, still almost an infant, when they met at the university. Not that she was studying there – she liked to walk in the quiet grounds, mingling with the summer influx of students, listening to their many languages, their halting English.
He was there beside her one day on the rough bench, reading, until Claire had started to cry, and Anne prepared to leave.
‘It’s fine,’ he’d said, smiling, ‘I have four little brothers all noisier than that.’
It was that simple in the end, no plan, they met on a few occasions afterwards until it became almost routine, their conversations getting longer, growing more personal, and their lives on parallel lines of instability and change. He was on a postgraduate year studying Yeats, but then ‘Who isn’t?’ he’d said. A successful thesis would get him a very junior lectureship in some lesser American college. He could travel, maybe write a novel, get away from his father who still thought the church would come again and sweep away the wider world and all its sins.
Then she met him for coffee on the day her friend Lily took the children. Just for coffee, she’d told herself, just for coffee. But they both knew. Yet there was no hurry as they walked beneath the oaks by the canal and he quoted Larkin and she almost cried. They had grief enough for themselves.
They made love, a shared whispering in the quiet glow of his darkened room, the heavy curtains softening the calls of the local children playing in the street. Afterwards she cried, and he stroked her face, his body cooling to her light touch. They knew the trap was sprung, they were held in their shared days when she would come happy to his touch and their hours together grew into autumn and the gathering dark.
Stephen had found out. He told her afterwards how some junior doctor who had met her at a charity event asked if his wife was doing classes at the university, and Stephen had waited well, checking her out, asking no-one until he was sure and then he had pounced.
She remembered leaving the flat on that final Thursday, her shoulder bag swinging as she turned towards the canal, noticing the man by the railings, a long coat hiding his form until he turned, and it was Stephen, and she thought about running, but where? In his eyes she saw it was way too late for that, so she stood there in the inhaled evening, stillness holding her, her shoulder bag grounded on the fractured path.
He didn’t hit her then, instead he told her there on the footpath how he would take the children, her children, how she would never see them again, how she would be alone, and then a week later he called her to the phone just after dinner and it was Hugh. He sounded broken and confused, the university had terminated his study post and they’d given no reason. He’d asked and then he’d threatened but they’d told him that any protest would be futile. He was moving on.
A year later she was present at the ceremony when her husband announced his funding for a new extension to the medical library, further support guaranteed from some obscure American foundation, McColgan smiling at his side. At the dinner her husband leant close and whispered how easy it had been and how Hugh was now teaching English in a comprehensive somewhere in Greater Manchester, his studies ‘on hold’ for the moment.
The children would have to be readied for bed soon; Claire sat on the soft carpet, her thumb in her mouth, her eyelids sinking shut, her head drooping. Grace was colouring a picture at the table in the corner and every so often she would catch her mother’s eyes and smile. She was a greater comfort than she knew now, growing day by day and too soon she would be gone. Anne didn’t want to think what life would be like when the children grew up and moved away. How was she to cope when they would share the house alone? She couldn’t think, her head buzzed, and her face hurt, she needed sleep.
Once the children were safely in bed she made some tea, sipping it at the sitting room window, the broad sweep of the drive before her curving away towards the gates. He would not be back tonight, and he was on duty in the morning. Maybe he would stretch it to the weekend and play golf, she no longer cared. There was so much here that she loved, the roses clinging to the old walls, her carefully tended beds, the summer seat where she would sit and read and all of it provided by the earnings of her husband, the most successful consultant in the city, the perfect medical god.
She must have stood there for a long time, lost to everything but her own thoughts. When she looked again it was dark, the curve of the drive no longer visible, the trees darker patches against the sky and the man almost pressed his face to the windowpane before she was aware of him. She screamed, her flailing hand sending the cup flying from the sill. He held his hands up in a calming gesture and pointed towards the front door, it was only at that point that she noticed the uniform.
‘I’m sorry to trouble you so late. May I come in?’
She felt it even before he spoke to confirm her identity. She could see it in his face, the tautness around his eyes and a gentleness used to dealing with pain.
It had happened on the sweep into the country to the south going towards his club. The policeman had the car registration and the model, they’d pulled it from the forest, the driver and his passenger still inside. Neither had survived. They’d made a positive identification from his wallet; another policeman was even now telling the husband of the other victim. He mentioned a woman’s name. Were they family friends?
‘No. No, I don’t know the name.’
She saw him take in the bruising around her eye, moving to cover the black, stammering something about falling in the garden and looking away.
‘Will you be all right?’ He was trying so hard to be kind.
‘Yes, yes, I will have to wake the children; they will have to be cared for. But I’ll call my sister first, she lives across the city. She can be here in half an hour, she will care for them.’
‘Okay. If there is anything I can do?’
‘No, I’ll call her now. You’ve been very kind.’
She guided him towards the hall, his steps awkward on the carpet. At the door he turned and shook her hand, his eyes taking in the bruise again.
‘I’m very sorry.’
She thanked him and eased the door shut; she stood and listened to the crunch of his footsteps receding along the drive. She should phone Tessa now and then wake the children.
She turned into the darkened lounge, the curtains swinging closed at the touch of the switch. She opened the well-stocked drinks cabinet and took out a bottle of brandy. The seal wasn’t even broken, and she snapped it quickly, pouring a full measure into one of his best glasses. She walked to the fireplace and eased herself into the fireside couch, sinking down into the deep cushions. She placed the cool brandy glass against her swollen cheek, rolling it over the bruise before sipping slowly and letting her head loll against the soft rest. Above the marble fireplace her husband’s eyes surveyed the room, his red riding jacket black in the gloom. He did not look amused.
Suddenly, a giggle shook her frame. She shouldn’t laugh. She shouldn’t. Another giggle burst from her, she sipped again and placed the glass on the low table. He looked angry now astride the sweating horse, the short whip in his right hand. He looked positively offended.
She couldn’t help herself, she had to laugh. She giggled, at first, a guilty giggle. Then it burst from her in a great wave as she pressed her hands to her tender, swollen face. Great rolls of laughter grew in her as she slipped to the carpeted floor, lying on her back before the marble fireplace. She laughed and laughed, kicking her legs in the air, until she felt a warm, pleasured feeling and knew she’d wet herself. She lay there, tears streaming from her eyes, wheezing gasps filling the quiet room until she was exhausted and at rest. Then she phoned her sister.
For the duration of the mourning period she was the perfection of the grieving wife, her position bolstered by the fact that he had been with another woman at the time of the accident. At the graveside people pressed her hand, the children confused and lost, mystified by the circling crowds.
McColgan shook her hand, his eyes reflecting his great loss.
‘We have to talk, Anne.’
‘I’m in mourning now, Mister McColgan, but phone me next week when you have an exact figure. John Finch will need to check that everything is as it should be, he’s my solicitor. You do know Mister Finch?’
His eyes narrowed slightly but he said nothing; without her husband his work was virtually at an end. Finch would dig and probe and build a complete portfolio for his new client. For McColgan this would not be pleasant.
She stood by the open grave. Her sister had taken the girls back to the car as the mourners drifted away in the encroaching dusk. The rain was not far off, but for now the gulls circled on the updrafts from the sea, their wings spread wide, their cries echoing. In the years that followed she would often think of that awful time and always the burning memory was of lying on the deep carpet smelling of the best brandy, kicking her legs high in the air, her laughter ringing off the walls.
© James Martyn Joyce