House for sale

Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín


‘You must be fed up of them. Will they never stop coming?’ Tom O’Connor, her neighbour, stood at his front door and looked at her, waiting for a response.

‘I know,’ she said.

‘Just don’t answer the door. That’s what I’d do.’

Nora closed the garden gate.

‘They mean well. People mean well,’ she said.

‘Night after night,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how you put up with it.’

She wondered if she could get back into the house without having to answer him again. He was using a new tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.

‘People mean well,’ she said again, but saying it this time made her feel sad, made her bite her lip to keep the tears back. When she caught Tom O’Connor’s eye, she knew that she must have appeared put down, defeated. She went into the house and closed the door.

That night a knock came at almost eight o’clock. There was a fire lighting in the back room and the two boys were doing their homework at the table.

‘You answer it,’ Donal said to Conor.

‘No, you do.’

‘One of you answer it,’ she said.

Donal, the older one, went out to the hall. She could hear a voice when he opened the door, it was a woman’s voice, but not one that she recognized. Donal ushered the visitor into the front room.

‘It’s the little woman who lives in Court Street,’ he whispered to her when he came into the back room.

‘Which little woman?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know.’

May Larkin shook her head sadly when Nora came into the front room.

‘Nora, I waited until now. I can’t tell you how sorry I am about Maurice.’

She reached out and held Nora’s hand.

‘And he was so young. I knew him when he was a little boy. We knew them all in Court Street.’

‘Take off your coat and come into the back room,’ Nora said. ‘The boys are doing their exercise, but they can come in here and turn on the electric fire. They’ll be going to bed soon anyway.’

May Larkin, wisps of thin grey hair appearing from under her hat, her scarf still around her neck, sat opposite Nora in the back room and began to talk. After a while, the boys went upstairs; Conor, when Nora called him, was too shy to come down and say goodnight, but soon Donal came and sat in the room with them, carefully studying May Larkin, saying nothing.

It was clear now that no one else would call. Nora was relieved that she would not have to entertain people who did not know each other, or people who did not like each other.

‘So anyway,’ May Larkin went on, ‘Frank was in the hospital bed in Brooklyn, and didn’t this man arrive into the bed beside his, and they got talking, and Frank knew he was Irish, and he told him he was from the County Wexford.’

She stopped and pursed her lips, as though she was trying to remember something. Suddenly, she began to imitate the man’s voice: ‘Oh, and that’s where I’m from, the man said, and then Frank said he was from Enniscorthy, oh and that’s where I’m from too, the man said. And he asked Frank what part of Enniscorthy he was from, and Frank said he was from Court Street.’.

May Larkin kept her eyes fixed on Nora’s face, forcing her to express interest and surprise.

‘And the man said that’s where I’m from too. Isn’t that extraordinary!’

She stopped, waiting for a reply.

‘And he told Frank that before he left the town he made that iron thing – what would you call it? – a grille or a guard on the windowsill there at Gerry Crean’s. And I went down to look at it and it’s there all right. Gerry didn’t know how it got there or when. But the man beside Frank in the bed in Brooklyn, he said that he made it, he was a welder. Isn’t that a great coincidence? To happen in Brooklyn.’

Nora made tea as Donal went to bed. She brought it into the back room on a tray with biscuits and cake. When they had fussed over the tea things, May Larkin sat back and sipped her tea and began to talk again.

‘Of course, Frank thought the world of Maurice. He always asked for him in his letters. They were all great friends. And of course Maurice was a great teacher. All the boys loved him.’

Looking into the fire, Nora tried to think back, wondering if May Larkin had ever been in this house before. She thought not. She had known her all her life, like so many in the town, to greet and exchange pleasantries with, or to stop and talk to if there was news. She knew the story of her life down to her maiden name and the plot in the graveyard where she would be buried. Nora had heard her singing once at a concert, she remembered her reedy soprano – it was ‘Home Sweet Home’ or ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’, one of those songs – and remembered too that she had sung for the British or the Black and Tans during the Troubles, or so someone had told her.

She did not think that May Larkin moved much except between her house in Court Street and a few shops, or to Mass on Sundays.

They were silent now, and Nora thought that maybe May would go soon.

‘It’s nice of you to come up and see me,’ she said.

‘Oh Nora, I was very sorry for you, but I felt I’d wait, I didn’t want to be crowding in on you. So many people thought the world of Maurice.’

She refused more tea, and when Nora went to the kitchen with the tray she thought that May might stand up and put on her coat, but she did not move from the chair. Nora went upstairs and checked that the boys were asleep. She smiled to herself at the thought of going to bed herself now, falling asleep and leaving May Larkin down below, staring into the fire, waiting for her in vain.

‘Where are the girls?’ May asked as soon as Nora sat down. ‘I never see them now, they used to pass up and down all the time.’

‘Aine is in Bunclody. She’s settling in there now,’ Nora said. ‘And Fiona is doing her training in Dublin.’

‘You’d miss them when they go away,’ May Larkin said. ‘I miss Frank, I do, but it’s funny, of all of them, it’s Peggy I think about most. There was something, I don’t know, I just didn’t want to lose her. She promised – you know all this, Nora – she promised that she would come home and stay and she’d find some sort of job here, and then one day when she was just back a week I noticed her all quiet and it wasn’t like her, and she started to cry at the table, and that’s when we heard the news that her fellow in New York wouldn’t let her come home unless she married him. And she had married him there without telling any of us. ‘Well, that’s that, Peggy, then,’ I said. ‘You’ll have to go back to him, so.’ And I couldn’t face her or speak to her, and she wanted us all to look at photographs of him and her together in New York, but I couldn’t look at them. They were the last thing in the world I wanted to see. And he’s dead now too.’

‘Yes, I was sorry to hear that,’ Nora said.

May Larkin began to rummage in her handbag. She put on a pair of reading glasses.

‘I thought I’d brought Frank’s letter but I must have left it behind,’ she said.

She examined a piece of paper and then another.

‘No, I haven’t got it. I wanted to show it to you. There was something he wanted to ask you.’

Nora said nothing. She had not seen Frank for more than twenty years.

‘Maybe I’ll find the letter and send it up to you,’ May Larkin said.

She stood up to go.

‘I don’t think he’s going to come home now,’ she said as she put on her coat. ‘What would he do here? They have their life there, and they’ve invited me out and everything, but I told Frank I’d be happy to go to my reward without seeing America. I think though he’d like to have something here, a place he could visit and maybe his children or some of the others.’

‘Well, he has you to visit,’ Nora said.

‘He thought you’d be selling Cush,’ May Larkin said, settling her scarf. She spoke as though it were nothing, but now, as she looked at Nora, her gaze was hard and concentrated and her chin began to tremble.

‘He asked me if you’d be selling it,’ she said and closed her mouth firmly.

‘I’ve made no plans,’ Nora said.

May Larkin pursed her lips. She did not move.

‘I wish I’d brought the letter,’ she said. ‘Frank always loved Cush. He used to go with Maurice and the others, and he always remembered it. And it hasn’t changed much, everyone there would know him. The last time he came home he didn’t know half the people in the town.’

Nora said nothing. She wanted May Larkin to leave.

‘I’ll tell him I mentioned it to you anyway. That’s all I can do.’

When Nora did not reply, May Larkin looked at her, clearly annoyed at her silence. They walked out and stood in the hall.

‘Time is the great healer, Nora. That’s all I can tell you. And I can tell you that from experience.’

She sighed as Nora opened the front door.

‘Thank you for calling up, May,’ Nora said.

‘Goodnight now, Nora, and look after yourself.’

Nora watched her as she made her way slowly down along the footpath towards home.


She drove to Cush in the old A-40 one Saturday that October, leaving the boys playing with friends and telling no one where she was going. Her aim in those months, autumn leading to winter, was to learn for the boys’ sake and maybe her own sake too to hold back tears. Her crying as though for no reason frightened the boys and disturbed them as they slowly became used to their father not being there. She realized now that they had come to behave as if everything were normal, as if nothing were really missing. They had learned to disguise how they felt. She, in turn, had learned to bite her lip, to recognize danger signs, thoughts that would lead to other thoughts. She had come to measure her success with the boys by how much she could control her feelings.

As she drove down the hill outside The Ballagh and caught her first glimpse of the sea, it struck her that she had never been alone before on this road. In all the years, one of the boys, or the girls when they were younger, would shout out ‘I can see the sea’ just here and she would have to make them sit down and quieten. This, she thought, was the last time she would drive to Cush alone. She would not put herself through it again.

In Blackwater, she thought of stopping for cigarettes or chocolate or anything to postpone her arrival at Cush. But she was sure that someone she knew would see her and want to sympathize with her. It would be easy for them. The words came easy: ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I’m sorry for your trouble.’ They all said the same thing, but there was no formula for replying. ‘I know’ or ‘Thank you’ sounded cold, almost hollow. And they would stand looking at her until she could not wait to get away from them. There was something hungry, almost greedy in the way they held her hand or looked into her eyes. She wondered if she in turn had ever done this to anybody, and she thought that she had not. But as she turned right towards Ballyconnigar she realized that she would probably feel much worse if people began to avoid her.

The sky had darkened now and drops of rain hit the windscreen. It seemed much barer here, more wintry than the countryside on the road to Blackwater. She turned left at the ball alley for Cush and she allowed herself the brief respite of imagining that this was some time in the recent past, a dark summer’s day with a threatening sky and she had gone into Blackwater for messages, meat and bread and a newspaper. She had thrown them lightly on the back seat, and the family were all in Cush, Maurice and the children, and maybe one or two friends were with them, and the children had slept late, and they would be disappointed now that the day was so bad, but it wouldn’t stop them playing rounders or messing in front of the house. But if the rain was down for the day, of course, they’d stay in and play cards, and eventually they’d shout and bang the table until the two boys would grow irritable and come to her to complain.

She let herself imagine all of this for as long as she liked. But as soon as she caught a view of the sea and the horizon beyond Corrigans’ roof, such imaginings were no use to her, she was back in the hard world again.

She drove the car down the lane and opened the side gate and unlocked the large galvanized gates in front of the house. Parking in front of the house, she closed the gates again so that no one could see the car. She would have loved it had one of her friends been here, Carmel Redmond or Lily Devereux, who could talk to her sensibly not about what she had lost or how sorry they were, but about the children, money, part-time work, how to live now. They would have listened to her, but Carmel only came in the summer and Lily only came from time to time to see her mother.

Nora waited in the car as the wind from the sea howled around her. The house would be cold. She wished she had taken a heavier coat with her. But she knew that wishing that friends were here or allowing herself to shiver in the car like this, these were ways of postponing the moment when she would have to open the door and walk into the empty house.

And then a fierce whistling wind blew up and seemed as though it would lift the car. Something she had not allowed herself to think before but had known for some days now came into her mind and she made a promise to herself. She would not come here again. This was the last time she would visit this house. She would go in now and walk through these few rooms. She would take with her whatever was personal and could not be left behind, and then she would close this door and drive back to the town, and, in future, she would never take that turn at the ball alley on the road between Blackwater and Ballyconnigar.

What surprised her was the hardness of her resolve, how easy now it seemed to turn her back on what she had loved, leave this house on the edge of the cliff for others to know, for others to come to in the summer, fill the house with different noises. As she sat looking out at the bruised sky over the sea, she sighed as, finally, she let herself feel how much she had lost, how much she would miss it. She got out of the car, steadying herself against the wind.

The door opened on to a tiny hall. There were two rooms on each side, the rooms on the left with bunk beds, a living room on the right with a kitchen and bathroom behind it, and their room at the end, peaceful, away from the children.

Each year in May they came here, all of them, on a Saturday and Sunday, even if the weather was not good. They brought scrubbing brushes and mops and detergent and cloths for cleaning windows. They brought mattresses which had been well aired. It was a turning point, a mark on the calendar that meant the beginning of summer, even if summer was going to be damp and grey and misty. The children, in the years she wanted to remember now, were noisy and excited at the beginning, as though they were an American family from ‘The Donna Reed Show’. They imitated American accents and gave each other instructions, but they soon grew tired and bored and she let them play or go down to the strand or walk into the village. And this was when the serious work began. When the children were out of the way, Maurice could paint the woodwork, the lino on the cement floor could be replaced and she could hang the wallpaper, and for this she would need silence and concentration.

She loved it then, measuring down to the last fraction of an inch, making the paste to the right consistency, and the bright new wallpaper with its floral patterns which would cover damp patches and blemishes and breaks in the thin layer of styrofoam with which she had lined the walls when the damp became too much.

Fiona hated spiders. That was something Nora remembered now. And cleaning the house meant, more than anything, displacing spiders and beetles and clocks and all types of creepy-crawlies. The boys loved Fiona screaming, and Fiona herself, she thought, enjoyed screaming too, especially as her father would protect her with elaborate gestures. ‘Where is it?’ he would shout, mimicking the giant in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, and Fiona would run to him and hold him.

That was the past, then, she thought as she walked into the living room, and it cannot be rescued. The smallness and coldness of the room gave her an odd satisfaction now. There was clearly a leak in the galvanized tin roof because there was a fresh, spreading stain on the ceiling. The house rattled as a gust of wind brought a hard sheet of rain against the glass. The windows, she saw, would have to be repaired soon, as the wood had begun to rot. And who knew how long it would take for the cliff to be eaten away and their house to be dismantled on the orders of the county council? Someone else could worry now. Someone else could repair the leaks and treat the house for damp. Someone else could rewire and repaint this house.

She would sell it to Frank Larkin. Nobody who lived locally would want to buy it; they knew what a bad investment it would be, compared to houses in Bentley or Curracloe or Morriscastle. No one from Dublin who saw the house in this state would make an offer for it. She looked around the room and shuddered.

She walked into the children’s bedrooms and into their own bedroom, and she knew that for Frank Larkin owning this would be a dream, part of a memory of scorching hot Sundays, and boys and girls on bicycles, and bright, open possibilities that maybe buying this house would recover for a while. On the other hand, she imagined him coming into the house in a year or two, back for a fortnight in Ireland, with the ceiling half fallen in and cobwebs everywhere and the wallpaper peeling and the windows broken and the electricity cut off. And the summer’s day all drizzly and dark.

She began to look through drawers, but there was nothing that she wanted. Only yellow newspaper and bits of twine. Even the crockery and kitchen utensils seemed not worth taking home. In the bedroom, she found some damp and faded photographs and some books in a locker and she gathered these to take with her. Nothing else. The furniture was worthless, the light-shades were already dingy and worn. She remembered buying them in Woolworth’s in Wexford only a few years earlier. Everything rotted and faded in this house.

The rain began to pour down. She took a mirror from the bedroom wall, noting how clean the space it covered had remained, compared to the discoloured, dirty wallpaper all around.

At first she thought the knocking was something banging against the door or the window in the wind. But when it persisted and she heard a voice, she realized that she had a visitor. She was surprised because she had thought that no one had noticed her approach and no one could see the car. Her first instinct was to hide, stand out of sight, but she knew that she had already been seen.

She opened the latch and the front door blew in towards her on its hinges. The figure outside was wearing an oversized anorak, the large hood of which was half-covering the face.

‘Nora, I heard the car. Are you all right?’

Once the hood was pulled down, she recognized Mrs Darcy, whom she had not seen since the funeral.

‘Why didn’t you call in first?’ Mrs Darcy asked her.

‘I’m just here for a few minutes,’ Nora said.

Mrs Darcy glanced at the gates.

‘I’ll open the gates for you now, get into the car and come on up to the house. You can’t stay here.’

Once more she noted the hectoring tone, as though she were a child, unable to make proper decisions. She had tried since the funeral to ignore the tone, or tolerate it. She had tried to understand that it was a shorthand for kindness.

Just now, she would have relished taking her few possessions from the house, putting them in the car and driving out of Cush. But it could not be done, she would have to accept Mrs Darcy’s hospitality.

Mrs Darcy would not get into the car, insisting that she was too wet. She would walk back to her house, while Nora drove, she said.

‘I’ll be a few more minutes. I’ll follow you up,’ Nora said.

Mrs Darcy looked at her puzzled. Nora had tried to sound casual, but she had succeeded, instead, in sounding secretive.

‘I just want to collect a few things to bring home,’ she said.

Her visitor’s eyes lit on the books and photographs and the mirror resting against the wall, then she swiftly took in everything else in the room. And Nora felt that Mrs Darcy understood immediately what she was doing.

‘Don’t be long now,’ she said. ‘I’ll have the tea ready for you.’

Nora stood at the door and watched Mrs Darcy walk slowly through the wind and the rain. When she was out of sight, Nora closed the door and put her back to it, as though to prevent anyone else from entering.

It was done. In her all-embracing glance around the room, Mrs Darcy had made it seem real. Nora would leave this house and never come back again. She would never walk these lanes again and she would let herself feel no regret, only resolve never to think about it again, never allow herself to imagine that the ordinary, sweet days of the past could be recovered. It was over. She took up the few things she had collected and went out and put them in the boot of the car.

She was tempted, then, to close the door suddenly and turn her back on the place, but she was not ready for it yet. One more time, she went into the house, stood in each room, closed her eyes, opened them again and prepared herself for walking away from here. In the bathroom, she flushed the toilet one last time and waited there listening to the cistern filling up again. And then she left the house.

Mrs Darcy’s kitchen was warm. She put fresh scones on a plate with melting butter and poured the tea.

‘We were wondering how you were getting on but Bill Parle told us the night he went in that it was full of people. Maybe we should have gone in all the same, but we thought we’d leave it until after Christmas when you might like the company more.’

‘There have been a lot of visitors,’ Nora said. ‘But you know you’re welcome any time.’

‘Well, there are a lot of people who are very fond of you,’ Mrs Darcy said.

She took off her apron and sat down.

‘And we were all worried about you, that you wouldn’t come down here any more. Carmel Redmond, you know, was away when it happened and she was shocked.’

‘I know. She wrote to me,’ Nora said, ‘and then she called in.’

‘So she told us,’ Mrs Darcy said, ‘and Lily was here that day and she said that we should be looking out for you. And I used to love that day when you’d all come down and do up the house. For me, it was the beginning of the fine weather. My heart would lift when I’d see you coming.’

‘I remember one year,’ Nora said, ‘it was raining so hard you took pity on us and made us all come up here for our tea.’

‘And you know,’ Mrs Darcy said, ‘your children have the best manners. They are so well-reared, all of them.’

Nora looked out at the rain. It was tempting now to mislead Mrs Darcy, to tell her how much they loved coming down here and how they were looking forward to it in the future, but she could not do that. And she felt that Mrs Darcy understood her silence, had been watching for some clue, something said or left unsaid, to confirm her impression that Nora was going to sell the house.

‘Now what we decided’, Mrs Darcy said, ‘was that this year we’d do up the house for you. I was looking at it just now, and it could do with some patching on the galvanize, and we’ll be getting that done on the barn here anyway, and so they might as well go down to you. And we’ll take turns to do the rest of it. Now, I have a key, and we could surprise you, but Lily said that I was to ask you, and I was going to do that after Christmas. She said it was your house, and we shouldn’t be intruding.’

Nora knew that she should tell her now, but there was something too effusive and warm in Mrs Darcy’s tone which stopped her.

‘But I thought it would be lovely for you’, Mrs Darcy went on, ‘to come down and have it all done. So don’t say anything now, but let me know if you don’t want us to do it. And I’ll hold on to the key unless you want it back.’

‘No, of course not, Mrs Darcy, I’d like you to hold on to the key.’

Maybe, she thought as she drove towards Blackwater, maybe Mrs Darcy had presumed all along that she was going to sell the house, and realized that cleaning it up would increase its value; or maybe Mrs Darcy had presumed nothing, maybe Nora herself was watching everyone too closely to see what they thought of her now. But she knew she had behaved strangely in closing the gates when she had parked the car in front of the house, in seeming almost furtive when Mrs Darcy called, and in not instantly accepting or turning down her offer to help with the house.

She knitted her brow and sighed. It had been awkward and difficult, and now it was finished. She would write to Mrs Darcy and Lily Devereux and her mother and Carmel Redmond but she would not go back there again. Often in the past, when she made a decision like this, she changed her mind the next morning, but this time it was not like that, she would not change her mind.

On the road back to Enniscorthy, she began to calculate. She did not know how much the house was worth. Clearly, it would be worth more to someone in America who could not see it. She would think of a figure and write to Frank a sealed envelope – she did not want to negotiate with May Larkin – and if he offered less than she asked for, she would accept it as long as it was reasonable. She did not want to have to advertise the house in the newspaper.

The car was taxed and insured until Christmas. She had planned to give it up then, but if she sold the house, she thought, she would keep the car or buy a newer model. The house money would also pay for the black marble gravestone for Maurice that she wanted, and she would be able to rent a caravan in Curracloe for a week or two next summer. With what she had left she could buy some new clothes for herself and the girls. And then keep something for an emergency.

The house, she smiled to herself, would become like the two and sixpence a man had given Conor a few summers earlier. She could not remember which summer it was, but it was before his father was sick and it was before he really understood the value of money. Conor had given the two and sixpence to Maurice to mind for him and then all summer, every time they went to Blackwater, he drew on this money, confidently demanding a fresh instalment from his father. When they told him it was all gone, he had refused to believe them.


She waited for the right moment to tell the boys, and when she began, she was shocked at how concerned they both seemed, how attentive, as though listening carefully could yield something that would have a serious effect on their future, as though this were only the beginning. As she spoke to them about how useful the money would be, she learned that they already knew that she had planned to sell the car, although she had not told them this.

‘Will we still be able to go to the university?’ Conor asked.

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘What made you think about that?’

‘Who will pay?’

‘I have other money saved up for that, or maybe it will be free by the time you finish school.’

The boys remained absolutely still; they watched her intently, and when she went out to the kitchen and turned on the kettle and came back into the room, they had not moved. She had never seen them frightened before.

‘We’ll be able to go on holidays to different places,’ she said. ‘We’ll be able to get a caravan in Curracloe. We’ve never stayed in a caravan.’

‘Will we be able to stay there the same time as the Mitchells?’ Conor asked.

‘If we like. We could find out when they’re going and go at the same time.’

‘Would it be for one week or two weeks?’ Conor asked.

‘Or longer if we liked,’ she said. ‘And we’re not selling the car.’

‘Are we going to buy a caravan?’ Donal asked.

‘No, we’ll rent one. Buying one would be too much responsibility.’

‘Who’s going to buy the house?’ Donal asked.

‘It’s very private now. If I told you, you couldn’t tell anyone, but I think that May Larkin’s son who’s in America is going to buy it.’

‘Is that why she came here?’

‘I suppose it is, yes.’

She made tea and the boys pretended to watch the television. She had, she knew, unsettled them. Conor had become all red-faced and Donal was staring at the floor with the face of someone who was awaiting punishment. Anything she said, she knew, would make things worse. She picked up a newspaper and tried to read. She knew it was important to stay in the room, not to leave them, despite an urge to go upstairs and do anything, empty out cupboards, wash her face, clean the windows. Eventually, she felt she would have to say something.

‘We could go to Dublin next week.’

They looked up.

‘Why?’ Donal asked.

‘For a day out, you could take a day off school,’ she said.

‘I have double-science on Wednesday,’ Donal said. ‘I can’t miss it, and I have French with Mrs Duffy on Monday.’

‘We could go on Thursday.’

‘In the car?’

‘No, we could go on the train. And we could see Fiona, that’s her half-day.’

‘Do we have to go?’ Conor asked.

‘No. We’ll only go if we like,’ she said.

‘What will we tell the school?’

‘I’ll send in a note saying that you have to go to the doctor.’

‘I don’t need a note if it’s just one day,’ Donal said.

‘We’ll go then,’ she said. ‘We’ll have a nice day out. I’ll write to Fiona.’

She had said it only to break the silence and to let them know that there would always be outings, things to look forward to. But it made no difference to them. The news that she was selling the house in Cush seemed to bring home to them something which they had been managing not to think about. In the days that followed, however, they brightened up again, as though nothing had been said.


She laid their good clothes out for them and made them polish their shoes and leave them on the landing. When she tried to make them go to bed early, they protested that there was something they wanted to watch on the television, and she allowed them to stay up late. Even then, they did not want to go to bed, and when she insisted, they went back and forth to the bathroom and they kept turning on and off the light in their room.

Finally, she went upstairs and found them fast asleep, the bedroom door wide open, their beds tossed. She tried to make them more comfortable, but when Conor began to wake she withdrew, quietly closing the door.

In the morning, they were up and dressed before she was. They brought her tea, which was too strong, and toast. When she got up, she managed to throw the tea down the sink in the bathroom without them noticing.

It was cold. They would drive to the station, she told them, and leave the car in the Railway Square. It would be handy when they came home that night, she said. They both nodded gravely. They already had their coats on.

The town was almost empty as she drove to the station. It was half-dark and some lights in houses were still on.

‘Which side of the train will we sit on?’ Conor asked when they got to the station. They were twenty minutes early. She had bought the tickets, but the boys refused to sit in the heated waiting room, they wanted to walk over the iron bridge and wave to her from the other side, they wanted to walk down to the signal box.

Again and again, they came back to ask if the train was coming until a man told them to watch the signal arm between the platform and the tunnel, and when it dropped, it would mean that the train was coming.

‘But we know it’s coming,’ Conor said impatiently.

‘It’ll drop when the train is in the tunnel,’ the man said.

‘I’d say if you were in the tunnel and the train came, I’d say you’d be mincemeat,’ Conor said.

‘Begoboman, you’d be found in little bits all right. And, you know something, all the cups and saucers rattle in the houses when the train goes under,’ the man said.

‘They don’t rattle in our house.’

‘That’s because the train doesn’t go under your house.’

‘How do you know?’ Conor said.

‘Oh I know your mammy well.’

Nora recognized the man, as she did so many others in the town; she thought that he worked in Donoghue’s garage, but she was not sure. Something in his manner irritated her. She hoped that he did not intend to travel to Dublin with them.

Just before the train came, and the boys had once more gone down to the signal box, the man turned to her.

‘I’d say they miss their father all the same,’ he said.

He searched her face for a response and narrowed his eyes with curiosity. She felt that she needed to say something quickly and sharply to prevent him speaking again and, more than anything, to prevent him sitting with them on the train.

‘That’s the last thing they need to hear at the moment, thank you,’ she said.

‘Oh now I didn’t mean to …’

She moved away from him as the train came and the boys ran excitedly down the platform towards her. She could feel her face reddening, but they noticed nothing as they argued over which were the best seats on the train.

Once the train started, they wanted everything: to view the toilets, to stand in the precarious space between the carriages where the ground could be seen as the train sped along, to go to the restaurant and buy lemonade. By the time the train stopped in Ferns, they had done all of these things, and by the time it reached Camolin, they had fallen asleep.

Nora did not sleep; she glanced at the newspaper she had bought in the station, and put it down, and watched the two boys slumped back in their seats sleeping. She would love to have known just then what they were dreaming of. In these months, she realized, something had changed in the clear, easy connection between her and them, and perhaps, for them, between each other. They had learned to hide fear and not to show pain, and she felt that she would never be sure about them again.

Conor woke and looked at her and went back to sleep with his head resting on his folded arms on the table. She reached out and touched his hair, let her hands run through it, tossing it and straightening it again. When she turned her head, she saw that Donal was watching her, his calm gaze suggesting to her that he understood everything that was happening, that there was nothing he did not fathom.

‘Conor’s fast asleep,’ she said and smiled.

‘Where are we?’ he asked.

‘We’re nearly at Arklow.’

By Wicklow, Conor had woken and gone to the toilet again.

‘What would happen if you flushed the toilet in a station?’ he asked.

‘It would all go on to the tracks,’ she said.

‘And when the train is moving, where does it go?’

‘We’ll ask the ticket collector,’ she said.

‘I bet you wouldn’t ask him,’ Donal said.

‘What harm would it do to the tracks in a station?’ Conor asked.

‘It would be all smelly,’ Donal said.

The morning was calm, the clouds on the horizon were grey and the sea beyond Wicklow the colour of steel.

‘When will the tunnels start?’ Conor asked.

‘It’s a while now,’ she said.

‘After the next station?’

‘No, about three stations. It’s after Bray.’

‘This is too long,’ he said.

‘Read your comic,’ she suggested.

‘It’s too bumpy.’

At the first tunnel after Bray, the boys covered their ears against the rushing noise, vying with each other in mock fright. The next tunnel was much longer. Conor wanted Nora to cover her ears as well, and she did it to please him, because she knew how little sleep he had had, and how irritable he could be, and how easy it would be to upset him. Donal was already bored covering his ears, but he moved to the window when the train came out of the tunnel and there was a sheer drop into the rough waters below. Conor now had moved to the side of the table closest to the sea but tried to stay near her.

‘But it could easily fall over,’ he said.

‘No, no, the train has to stay on the tracks. It’s not like a car,’ she said.

He kept his nose up against the window, fascinated by the danger. Donal, also, did not move from the window even when the train came into Dun Laoghaire station.

‘Is that the end?’ Conor asked.

‘We’re nearly there,’ she said.

‘Where are we going to go first? Are we going to see Fiona first?’

‘We’re going to go to Henry Street.’

‘Yippee!’ Conor shouted. He was trying to stand on the seat, but she made him sit down.

‘And we’re going to have our dinner in Woolworth’s,’ she said.

‘In the self-service?’

‘Yes, so we don’t have to wait.’

‘Can I have a Coca-Cola with my dinner and no milk?’ Conor asked.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You can have whatever you like.’

They got off at Amiens Street and walked through the damp and dilapidated station. They moved slowly along Talbot Street, stopping to look into shop windows. She forced herself to relax, there was nothing to do, they could waste time wherever they wanted. She gave them ten shillings each to spend, but as soon as she did, she felt she had made a mistake, it was too much. They examined the money and looked at her suspiciously.

‘Do we have to buy something?’ Donal asked.

‘Maybe we’ll get some books,’ she said.

‘Can we get comics or an annual?’ Conor asked.

‘It’s too early for annuals,’ Donal said.

As they approached O’Connell Street, they wanted to see where Nelson’s Pillar had been.

‘I remember it,’ Conor said.

‘You couldn’t. You’re too young,’ Donal told him.

‘I do. It was tall and Nelson was on top of it and they blew him into smithereens.’

They crossed O’Connell Street, alert to the several lanes of traffic, cautiously waiting for the lights to change. Nora was aware as they walked into Henry Street that they must seem like country people. The boys managed to take everything in and, at the same time, keep everything at a distance. They watched this world of strangers and strange buildings out of the sides of their eyes.

Conor had become impatient to go into a shop, any shop, to buy something.

‘Would you like to look at shoes?’ she asked, figuring that when he said no, he would be pleased that he was the one who was deciding where they would go.

‘Shoes?’ He wrinkled his face in disgust. ‘Is that what we came to Dublin for?’

‘So where do you want to go?’ she asked.

‘I want to go up and down an escalator.’

‘Do you want to do that too?’ she asked Donal.

‘I suppose so,’ he said glumly.

In Arnott’s in Henry Street, Conor wanted Nora and Donal to watch him going up the escalator and then wait for him and watch him coming down. He insisted that they not come with him and not move. He made them promise. Donal was bored.

The first time, Conor kept looking back at them, and they waited while he disappeared at the top and then reappeared on the escalator coming down. He beamed at them. The second time, he grew brave and took some of the steps two by two, all the while holding on to the rail. The next time, he wanted Donal to come with him, but insisted that Nora still wait below. She explained to him that this would have to be the last, that maybe they could return here in the afternoon, but three times up and down the escalator was enough.

When they came down, she saw that Donal had become animated as well. They explained to her that they had found a lift further over and they wanted to go up and down on that.

‘One more and that’s it,’ she said.

She moved away and began to look at umbrellas, noticing fold-up ones, small enough to put into your handbag, which she had never seen before. She thought that she would buy one in case it rained and she moved over to the cash register with it. As she waited to pay, she watched out for the boys, but they did not appear. She concentrated for a moment on dealing with the cashier. When she had paid, she walked back to their meeting point, and then to the place near a side door to which the lift descended.

They were not there. She waited between the two points, looking out all the time for them. She thought of going on the lift herself, but realized that this would only add to the confusion. If she stayed here, she thought, she would be bound to see them.

When they found her, they pretended it was nothing, that the lift had merely stopped at every floor. When she told them that she had thought they were lost, they gave each other a furtive look as though something had passed between them, or had happened to them in the lift, which they did not want her to know about.

By three o’clock, they had seen all the Dublin they wanted to see. They had been to Moore Street and bought a bag of peaches, they had had their dinner in the self-service in Woolworth’s and had been to Eason’s where they bought comics and books. The boys were tired now as they sat in Bewley’s waiting for Fiona. Nora believed that the only thing keeping Conor awake was the idea that you could take as many buns as you liked from the two-tiered plate.

‘You have to pay for them,’ Nora said.

‘How do they know how many you’ve taken?’

‘Most people are honest,’ she said.

When Fiona arrived the boys became excited and bright again, wanting to talk at the same time. To Nora, Fiona seemed thin and pale as she sat opposite her.

‘Do you want to hear a Dublin accent?’ Donal asked her.

‘We were in Moore Street,’ Nora said.

‘Get the ripe peaches,’ Donal said in a sing-song voice.

‘Look at my “buke”,’ Conor added.

‘Very funny,’ Fiona said. ‘I’m sorry I’m late, the buses all come in twos and threes and then you have to wait for ages for the next one.’

‘I want to go upstairs on a double-decker bus,’ Conor said.

‘Conor, let Fiona talk for one second and then you can talk,’ Nora said.

‘Are you having a nice day out?’ Fiona asked.

Fiona’s smile was shy, but her tone, Nora noticed, was adult and confident. She had changed in these few months.

‘Yes, but we’re all tired now and it’s nice to be sitting here.’

Neither of them seemed to know what to say next. Nora realized that her answer to the last question had been too formal, as though she were talking to a stranger. Fiona ordered coffee.

‘Did you buy anything?’ she asked.

‘I didn’t really have time,’ Nora said.

Nora noticed how briskly and efficiently Fiona had ordered the coffee, and now she noticed her looking around the cafe, her eyes sharp, almost critical, and then changing her expression as she began to talk to her brothers, becoming sort of girlish again.

‘We’re selling the house,’ Conor said to Fiona suddenly in a loud voice.

‘And are you going to live on the side of the road?’ she asked, laughing.

‘No, we’re going to rent a caravan in Curracloe,’ he said.

Fiona looked at Nora.

‘I’m thinking of selling the house in Cush,’ Nora said.

‘Nobody mentioned that to me,’ Fiona replied.

‘I didn’t decide until recently.’

‘Decide? I thought you just said you were thinking of it.’

Fiona had never spoken to her like this before. Nora sipped her coffee and did not answer. The boys did not move or speak.

‘Does Aine know?’ Fiona asked.

‘I told you that I’ve just decided.’

‘So you have decided?’

Once more, Nora did not reply.

‘I was hoping to go there in the summer,’ Fiona said.

‘I thought you were going to England in the summer.’

‘I am, at the end of June, but I finish at the end of May. I was going to spend the month of June in Cush.’

‘You had it all planned,’ Nora said drily.

‘So did you, obviously.’

Nora brought Conor with her to find the toilets. And when she came back she ordered another coffee. Fiona’s attitude as she sat down was almost hostile.

‘Who are you selling the house to?’

‘I’ve had an offer, but it’s private at the moment.’

‘I know,’ Conor interrupted.

‘You don’t know, Conor, and that’s enough,’ Nora said.

Donal nudged him and put his fingers to his lips.

‘In two years’ time, I’ll be earning a salary,’ Fiona said.

Nora felt that Fiona’s efforts to talk and argue like an adult sounded like a sort of mimickry.

‘I need the money now,’ she said.

‘You told me only a few weeks ago that you had enough,’ Fiona said.

Nora realized that she should not have said that she needed the money.

‘I have enough,’ she said, ‘but there are things I want to get, and I want to have some for a rainy day as well.’

‘So you don’t need the money urgently?’

‘I don’t think this is the time or the place to discuss my personal finances.’

Fiona sighed in exasperation.

‘I need to know – do you or don’t you need the money?’

‘I’m selling the house and I don’t want to discuss it.’

‘I don’t think you can make decisions like that without consulting anyone.’

‘I’m afraid it’s my house, my decision.’

‘And we’ve gone there every summer since we were small and it has nothing to do with us?’

‘Fiona, you’re the one who used to get fed up in Cush and you used to complain – God, I remember how hard you were to put up with – about how there was no one to play with and nothing to do.’

‘That was years ago,’ Fiona said.

They said nothing for a few moments. Nora wanted to go, take the boys back to Henry Street.

‘When are you going to sell it?’ Fiona resumed.

‘I don’t know yet.’

‘Well, I think it’s a mistake and I think you’ll regret it in a few years’ time.’

Nora stopped herself saying that she couldn’t bear to go there any more and could Fiona not understand that. She would not be able to say that in front of the boys, it would sound too emotional, it would give too much away. She would keep her reasons to herself, and if Fiona believed she was behaving capriciously, then it was a pity, but there was nothing she could do about it. They were, all of them, too young to understand.

She stood up to go.

‘How do you pay here? I can’t remember.’

‘You have to get the waitress to fill out a docket,’ Fiona said.

‘And you have to tell her how many buns you’ve had,’ Donal said.

When they walked out to Westmoreland Street, Nora wanted Fiona to leave them. She had spoken as though she were her mother’s equal, but she was not her equal, Nora thought, she was starting her life, she could live where she liked, do what she liked. She did not have to get the train back to the town where everybody knew about her and all the years ahead were mapped out for her.

‘We’re going to walk around to Henry Street by the Ha’penny Bridge,’ Nora said.

‘But that’s really going out of your way.’

‘Are you getting a bus?’ Nora asked her.

‘I was going to go to Grafton Street.’

‘We’d better be off,’ Nora said.

As soon as she walked away, she regretted not having said something kind to Fiona before they left her; like asking her when she was coming down next, or if she needed anything, or offering to go to a shop with her. But she knew that Fiona would have made herself disagreeable.

It would have been better, she thought, if she had just spent the day with the boys. Fiona, she imagined, must have her own problems being away from home. It might have been better to have seen her separately.

In Talbot Street, on the way to the station, the boys spent the rest of their money on Lego, arguing over which colour bricks to choose, heatedly discussing whether to buy windows or doors or roof tiles. Both of them wanted her to arbitrate, and although she was tired, she listened, paid attention and offered suggestions. But each of them had consulted her only to have his own views confirmed, or the other’s preferences dismissed. She could easily have walked away and they would not have noticed, they were so totally preoccupied. She smiled at the cashier as they changed their minds at the cash register and went back to exchange one box of Lego for another.

It was dark now and becoming cold. They sat on broken plastic seats in the small café of the station. When Nora reached into her shopping bag to find her purse, she discovered that the peaches that had seemed so fresh and firm just a few hours before had become all soggy. The paper bag had split open; she lifted the peaches out one by one, knowing that there was no point in trying to take them home, they would only rot further in the train.

The boys had not realized that it would be dark for the trip home, and as the train began the journey south, the window was covered in condensation. They opened the Lego and played with it, but they could not agree, so Donal read and Conor moved over to her side of the table and fell asleep against her. She noticed as she looked across at Donal that he would need to start shaving soon.

‘We’re going to school tomorrow, aren’t we?’ he asked.

‘Oh yes, I think you should,’ she said.

He nodded and looked back at his book.

‘When is Fiona coming down next?’ he asked.

Her words with Fiona in the café, she knew, would work quietly on his mind. She wondered if there was one thing she could say which would stop him worrying and brooding over this.

‘You know, Fiona will love the caravan,’ she said.

‘She didn’t sound like that,’ he said.

‘Donal, we have to start a new life,’ she said.

He considered her statement for a moment, as though he had a complex piece of homework in front of him. And then he shrugged his shoulders, as if to say that it was all too much for him, and went back to reading his book.

Nora gently moved Conor aside while she took off her coat in the overheated train. He woke for a second, but did not even open his eyes. She made a note that she must ask about caravans in Curracloe, she must write to Aine and maybe to Fiona as well and she must write a letter to Frank Larkin.

In her mind, she stood in the house in Cush again, and she tried to picture the children on a summer’s day, taking their togs and towels from the line and going down to the strand, or herself and Maurice walking home along the lanes at dusk trying to keep the swarms of midges at bay, and coming into the house to the sound of children playing cards. It was all over and would not come back. The house lay empty. She pictured the small damp rooms in the darkness, how miserable they would be. Inhospitable. She imagined the sound of rain on the galvanized roof, the doors and windows rattling in the wind, the bare bed-frames, the insects lurking in the dark crevices, and the relentless sea.

As the train made its way towards Enniscorthy, she felt that the house at Cush was more desolate now than it ever had been, or ever would be.

When Conor woke, he looked around him and smiled at her sleepily. He stretched and lay against her.

‘Are we nearly home?’ he asked.

‘Not long now,’ she said.

‘When we stay in Curracloe,’ he asked, ‘are we going to put the caravan near the Winning Post or are we going to the caravan park up the hill?’

‘Oh near the Winning Post,’ she said.

She knew she had answered too quickly. Donal and Conor earnestly considered what she had said. Then Conor glanced at Donal, watching for his reaction.

‘Is that definite?’ Donal asked. As the train slowed down, she managed to laugh for the first time all day.

‘Definite? Of course it’s definite.’

They studied her uneasily for a moment as the train shuddered to a stop. Then slowly and methodically, they gathered up their belongings. As they made their way to the door of the train, they met the ticket collector.

‘Ask him now about the toilets,’ Donal whispered as he nudged her.

‘I’ll tell him that you’re the one who wants to know,’ she said.

‘Would this little sausage like to come to Rosslare with us?’ the inspector shouted, making as if to pick Conor up.

‘Oh no, he has to go to school tomorrow,’ Nora said.

‘I’m not a sausage,’ Conor said.

The inspector laughed.

As she drove out of the Railway Square she remembered something, and she found herself telling the boys what had come into her mind.

‘It was when we were married first, and it must have been during the summer holidays, and didn’t we drive to the station one morning to find that we had missed the train by one second. It was gone and, God, we were very disappointed. But the man in charge that morning was not the usual station master, he was a young fellow, and he was taught in school by your Daddy, and he told us to get back into the car and drive to Ferns and he would have the train held for us there. It was only six or seven miles away, and that’s how we caught the train that morning and that’s how we got to Dublin.’

‘Did you drive or did Daddy drive?’ Donal asked.

‘Daddy drove.’

‘He must have driven queer fast,’ Conor said.

‘Was he a better driver than you?’ Donal asked.

She smiled as she answered him.

‘He was a good driver. Do you not remember?’

‘I remember he drove over a rat,’ Donal said.

The streets of the town were empty and there were no other cars. The two boys seemed alert now, ready to talk more, ask more questions. When they got home, she thought, she would light the fire, and they would tire quickly after the long day.

‘But why didn’t you just drive to Dublin and forget the train?’ Donal asked.

‘I don’t know, Donal,’ she said. ‘I’ll have to think about that.’

‘Can we go to Dublin some day in the car?’ Conor asked, ‘and then we can stop where we like.’

‘Of course we can,’ she said as she pulled up in front of the house.

‘I’d like to do that,’ he said.

Soon she had the fire lit, and the boys were in their pyjamas and ready for bed. They had become quiet and she knew that they would fall asleep as soon as the light in their room was turned off. She wondered if anyone had called that evening, and she pictured someone approaching the house in darkness, and knocking the front door and getting no answer, and standing there and waiting a while before walking away. She was glad she had missed them, whoever they were.

She made herself a cup of tea and came and sat in the armchair beside the fire. She turned on the radio but they were reading sports results and she turned it off. On going upstairs, she found that the boys were sound asleep and she stood watching them before closing the door and leaving them to the night. Downstairs, she wondered if there was something she could watch on the television. She went over and turned it on and waited for the picture to appear. How would she fill these hours? Just then she would have given anything to be back on the train, back walking the streets of Dublin. When the television came on it was an American comedy. She watched it for a few moments but the canned laughter irritated her and she turned it off. The house was silent now except for the cracking of wood in the fireplace.

She had bought a book in Dublin, a paperback, something that had looked interesting but she had known nothing about. She could not remember what had made her buy it. She went out to the kitchen and searched for it in her bag. When she brought it into the room, she turned on the reading lamp and turned off the main light and relished the shadows and soft light which made the room seem more cosy and comfortable. As soon as she opened the book she left it down again. She closed her eyes. In future, she thought, she would learn not to answer the door. In future, once the boys went to bed, she would have the house to herself. She would learn how to spend these hours. It would be better like that, no more visitors, and slowly, she thought, in the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 2 Spring 2001