The headache was massive. Like some deadly crawling disease, it covered the whole upper part of his body. The radio played a girl-group hit from the 60s. Twenty years on, Boston radio was still the dullest thing in America. Somewhere on the floor lay a scratchy CD of the first Popes album, but his hands were too numb from hangover to pick it up. It was eleven in the morning though it felt like five.
Brendan put the kettle on. Thick black sweat was rolling down his hair, his neck, his white T-shirt. Some drops were trickling down on the kettle which was light metallic with deep grey patches. Each time the kettle was put to work, it looked either dead or dying, coughing up delirious steam and jerking hysterically as if possessed by some wild animal. Brendan’s body craved for tea, for the first time in weeks. Maybe months. Plain black tea that came in a million faceless teabags. Brendan threw one teabag into the cup and squashed it with pouring hot water. This was aunt Hilda’s way. The teabag had to hang onto the inner edges of the cup after which you knocked it down with water. “Make sure it is boiling”, she said. But he never did.
What was it about Brendan and boiling water? Once, back in Malahide, when he was six or seven, he burned his lips in a really bad way. This was Amanda’s birthday party, and he made a fool of himself in front of twenty people who all knew how to drink tea. He cried. There was nothing else to do but cry. As ever, only Katie was there for him. “Your lips”, she said. “They will now be perfect for kissing”. He thought he really wanted to kiss Katie and stopped crying.
Brendan looked into the stained mirror over the kitchen sink and studied his lips. Fingered them, sucked them in, stuck them out. The swelling had long disappeared, his lips looked normal now (awfully average in fact) and his sister was living in London. Last time she called was four months ago, to ask about his crazy lifestyle and his American girlfriends and his numerous agents. And, most importantly, why wasn’t he in April’s New Yorker? Brendan stared into the curtained window. He lied. He lied again. The worst thing about lies was that there were people who still believed you. Katie did.
The day was hot, which added to the sweat. The tea would make matters worse, but worse was good. Worse could save him from his headache and a few painful memories. Although wait. Wasn’t he telling that story, the one about Katie and lips and boiling water, to someone else? Last night, in this very kitchen?
Brendan swept the score sheets away from the chair and sat down. Some of the sheets had his words, notes, ideas on them. Some of them were blank. All disgusted him in equal measure. The tea was awful, all bitterness and no taste, so Brendan snatched a pack of cigarettes from the farther end of the table and searched his naked thighs for a lighter. His thighs were flabby and could not stand any fiddling about. Brendan had no lighter. Which made sense, because Brendan didn’t smoke. He did when he was 14, but then Amanda knocked on the door and said Patsy Flanagan was dead. Brendan had seen death before, but Patsy was different. Patsy was special. Patsy was the first person who told him about sex.
It must have been one of those old school recipes his mother was so fond of. “You know the old lady who lives at the end of Manor Street? Miss Flanagan?” Brendan nodded. He knew, but vaguely. The memory wasn’t kind: Jimmy once pushed his bike there and Brendan had to tell his mother he’d fallen from a tree… Brendan was only supposed to find out about an apple pie but he ended up staying there for six hours. Patsy (second name was quickly dispensed with, and never used again) was over sixty but Christ could she talk. Patsy didn’t have one dull bone in her body. Like everyone else, she liked to talk about school and weather and Irish economy, but her terms were different. Mr. Bennett was a paedophile. Big floods were coming. England had plans to buy Ireland back. Patsy had stories – and she could smoke, too. She smoked incessantly, like her life depended on it. Like Brendan wasn’t even there. Patsy offered him his first cigarette and he accepted. (Patsy never offered tea.) That first time it took him fifteen minutes to light it and then cough his way down to the fag.
Later Patsy would tell him about her sexual experience. Brendan found it easy to listen to the details that would scare and embarrass him the moment he left the house in Manor street. She was single and lonely and not especially attractive – even if you considered the few old pictures scattered about her fireplace. Still, she had done it all, and it was these stories that Brendan would remember during his first year in America. Then everything was shattered to pieces the moment Amanda burst into their house and told them the news. Patsy had died at night, in hospital, of lung cancer. This time, too, Brendan cried. Was there something wrong with him?.. Mother sighed, Katie pulled a long face and Brendan ran into his room, threw himself on the bed and tried to reenact in his mind one of those rainy nights in Dublin which Patsy spent with a drunken sailor. “The bugger”, she said wistfully, “hadn’t slept with a woman in years”. Then he ran outside to smoke, but the fingers were leaden and the lighter misfired again and again. Brendan had secretly visited Patsy in hospital, and it looked as though the slim sickly figure was now standing behind the tree. He threw the whole pack into some wild bush and went back home.
So why were the cigarettes on his kitchen table? Why was the pack half-empty?
Brendan finished his tea, grabbed a few random sheets and left the kitchen. There was nothing to do. His latest poems were no good and rejection letters kept piling up in his dustbin and under his bed. Together with dozens of empty bottles, they created some kind of paper-and-glass monster that could bite his hands off the moment he tried to get rid of him. And to think that twenty years ago New Atlantic couldn’t stop running ecstatic features on him. Praising his idiosyncrasies and his raw sense of humour. That’s how George found him.
“Do you work with me because I’m Irish or do you really like my poems?”
George was here two months ago. He looked around in shock and disbelief as if seeing it all for the first time. The sheets, the bottles, the small shreds of Persian carpet underneath the mess. George stooped down and picked up a paperback copy of Dubliners. Famously, this was the only book Brendan had on him when the pretty but humourless airport girl asked him what he had to declare. Nothing. Not even his genius which he never believed in. Not even a collection of Yeats’ poetry. George picked up the book as if it was some sort of rare jewel in a pile of rubbish. Which was true in many ways. According to George, Brendan’s apartment was the perfect showcase for a bohemian lifestyle where the artist had long lost all sense of taste or proportion. And it smelled of bad American whiskey and equally bad debts.
Unconvincingly, George said he was supposed to run to the office and only had a few minutes to spare. No tea? No wine? (Brendan didn’t have any.)
“I know it’s been a dry season lately”.
Dry? Brendan thought. Fucking barren. For five years he had to live off debts and nonexistent royalties from his first collection of poetry. Inexplicably, Shipping Poems was still doing all right.
“Brendan, what I’m going to say won’t turn around any fortunes. I don’t promise anything. They don’t promise anything”.
They. Always they. They wanted him to write a poem about Ireland for some sort of historic event. Two years ago this could send him prancing across the room, but presently it was early morning and Brendan felt too numb and old to feel anything. Could he do it? He felt he could, but there was so little to go by. There were no faces, no images and no memories.
“This might, just might, do something for you”. George again, already at the door. “But it should be good. Really good”.
“George, I swear…”
Having seen enough disheveled Irishmen in his life, George did not even protest. Because every time he did protest, he looked like a sickly Englishman on a grisly farm in southern Cork. He took a crispy hundred dollar note out of his jacket and passed it to Brendan. Brendan accepted. Crispy hundred dollar notes were the best, because they looked unreal and seemed to ease Brendan’s conscience.
“It’s for the art, George”.
George nodded and left. The money wasn't for the art. They both knew it.
In the next few weeks, Brendan tried to write. At times, he really did. The Great Irish Poem, his very own “Song Of The Wandering Aengus”. It was an idea this country had a name for. They called it The Great American Novel. Brendan admired the disarming pathos if that. He sat at the piano, its lid closed, and wrote words and rhymes and broken lines. Then he crossed out the words, sabotaged the rhymes and the lines, crumpled the sheets and threw them on the floor, on the kitchen table and on his bed. He didn’t get far. He only got to the point where all his little ideas would be abandoned as soon as real inspiration came along. George phoned a few times (for some reason, the phone still worked) and reminded him of the deadline. What deadline? Somehow deadlines still existed and the hundred dollar note kept slipping away through his shaky, scrawny fingers.
Brendan sat at the piano. The piano was another thing that didn’t seem right. What was going on here?
It was the lid. The lid was open, which was not the way it was supposed to be. For twenty years now he used the closed lid as his writing desk, and some of his best poems, so often unpublished and rejected, were written here. This time, though, the lid was open and he tried to remember why. The more he thought about it, the clearer it became that something strange and unplanned happened last night. Why the tea, the story, the cigarettes, the open lid? After all, the little he could play he had long forgotten. Still, blood rushed to Brendan’s fingers and he tried to do it from memory. He thought he played all the right keys but the sound wouldn’t come. Clearly this was not the sound of that night when he saw her playing at some college party in Dublin. What did she play? He no longer remembered, but the music beguiled and transfixed him more than anything he had heard, read or seen before. Not even that recital party in Galway where he first heard Chamber Music. Timid and pale, he sat on the edge of a chair and listened. Concerned that he was sick, someone asked Brendan if he needed a glass of water. They should have asked about whiskey.
College party in Dublin. And it was that girl, again. Amanda. He hadn’t seen in her in a while. In fact, not since the day she burst into their house with the bad news. Today, with black hair covering half her face, she was good news. And later, no amount of cheap alcohol and poetic breakthroughs could make him remember how it happened that he saw her home. He only guessed that there had to be questions – about her playing so well, about her studying in Dublin, about her being at the same party.
And then, later still:
They kept saying that for a few minutes, neither knowing how to end the evening. He liked to repeat her name, aloud or to himself, because it felt American and exotic. Saying that name was like kissing her full on the mouth, with his tongue and his teeth. Which he did in the end, like Katie promised and Patsy made sure he would.
It was great while it lasted, and it did last. For two years at least. They spent that summer with aunt Hilda in Whitley Bay and then an offer came to fly to America. Not New York. Not Los Angeles. Not Boston. He was an Irish boy, as simple and talented as they came, and for him there was just America. There were no states and no cities. It was this giant, excessively friendly monster that glistened and attracted and kidnapped. Mother said he was a fool and refused to leave Malahide, never mind the country. Katie was happily married and in London. So that only Amanda was standing there, her hand in his hand. Before he even had the chance to board the plane – it felt like she was 2000 miles away... He promised he would get a piano once he settled in America. The same colour and the same type she played at that Dublin party. He fulfilled his promise, spending all the money he got for his first public reading. Would she come in two, three, four months?.. She never promised him anything. Which was a relief in those initial months when there were hoards of girl fans in thick-rimmed glasses, all named Rachel, ready to blow him after each rhyme that worked.
There was no calendar anywhere in the house, but Brendan knew the deadline was today. The deadline was this hungry werewolf you felt when its breath got too close to your neck. Also, he couldn’t stop thinking about last night and how it was all starting to make sense. Even the sheet on the easel of the piano whose lid he now slowly, carefully closed. Because there was something that connected these stories and memories. Ireland, poetry, yes, but also a girl. The girl. Her full red lips, her love of strong black tea, her piano playing that night, her black hair, her smoking. The way there was a sudden knock on the door and he opened. And saw her standing there, soaked through on a dry night in Boston. She came to save him. Amanda...
Because the truth hit him and Brendan realised. There was no need to stand up from the chair and enter the bedroom. There was no need to write anything, because the poem, his last Irish poem, was lying on the easel of the broken piano with its lid firmly shut. The poem must have been written at night, after a drunken bout of memories, in what Samuel Beckett once called ‘a frenzy of writing’. He only noticed it now. The sheet looked like some great work from the past, written by a great composer, waiting for the right moment, ready to be played. However, the room was too small. And the piano was out of tune. So unlike the telephone that rang in well-timed, perfectly pitched flashes.
He would not pick it up. He wanted to sleep but that would mean going into the bedroom and admitting to himself that last night, amid the passion that wasn’t and the rain that didn’t, he killed Amanda.