Healy’s voice faltered as the woman with the dark hair moved down the aisle. His fingers tightened on the edge of the lectern, their fleshy pads seeking a sharp edge, a screwhole, a splinter. Instinctively, they sought a stab of pain to give a voice to the confronting scene of her departure. His fingers pressed nothing but bland chipboard. He internalised, slowed his words and drew out each sound to mask the disconnect. It was a thin stratagem, exposed by the silence that sank from the end of his sentence as the heavy auditorium door slid its way towards shut. The sound of the mechanism clicking closed echoed in dissonant punctuation through the ghost of his last syllable. She had sabotaged him. His wife had sabotaged him. It was a minor lapse but heads turned nonetheless, following his static eyes to the back of the room. Healy roused himself and continued reading, pushing uphill now towards the end of his composition. His charged eyes gave a last sweep of the half-filled auditorium, urging the faces there back into the story. But it was done and his performance damaged.
The ending pawed its way out onto the air, weak and exposed and lost of context. It died a death. A pause, then applause broke like glass and he stepped back from the podium. A painful smile barbed his face as he masqueraded appreciation with something between a bow and a nod. The compère emerged onstage clapping through a limp A4 sheet and explained again that the author unfortunately had not the time for questions today but he could be reached, as ever on his blog. The smile had tightened on his face, full of fang by the time he stepped behind a curtain and stalked through the backstage area hounded by the diminishing clapping. Outside, he planted his hands against the bare blocks of the theatre wall and he drew his leg back to kick at nothing in particular. His foot hovered in space, full of inert energy before he returned it to the ground propelling the word ‘Bitch’ through his lips. Despite the cold terseness that had grown, slow and sly as crystal between them these last few months, Deirdre’s act had appalled him. Her exit had accomplished what she was best at. She had degraded him in public and caused his words to become grasping, embarrassing things.
Healy barely had time for a cigarette before people began coming out into the foyer. He could see eyebrows raising and lowering as they discussed the minor scandal in hushed, delighted voices. In the foreground, a stack of his books sat arranged on a stall. Hardback copies propped each other up, the gloss of the fly covers reflecting the hard electric light in ripples. Insistent and tawdry.
He swallowed the last of his smoke, pushed in through the glass doors and took up his position behind his publications. He was anxious to be away and up town. It was Dublin Writers’ Week and the venues around the city were buzzing with events and discussion and enjoyable pretension. All the local publishing houses were out showing their wares and the theatres and libraries were hosting readings by big names and new names and middling, respectable names such as Healy’s own. He had no stomach for it now.
A modest crowd mobbed the stall and he was deflated further to recognise half of their faces. Patrons of the writing class he hosted on Thursdays in a basement off Mountjoy Square. He ended up, as he knew he would, fending off benign comments and scribbling insipid dedications. He worked hard in his ire to put a few jagged edges on his disappointingly plain script.
“That was marvellous, Gerald,” said a middle-aged country woman, worrying the beads at her neck.
“We’re off to see Deirdre now. She’s reading over on Dawson St. isn’t that right?”
“That’s right Vicky,” Healy said.
“I saw she came in to give you some support earlier,” the woman continued.
Healy smiled wildly into the book as he scribbled. A flash of fang. He couldn’t tell if he was being needled.
His wife Deirdre had certainly attended. She had taken up her position, in full view. Imperious.
“That's right,” Healy said again shortly.
The woman made to move off.
“We might see you up there, Gerald.”
“Right O, Vicky,” he said without looking up. He was trying not to indulge an image that grinned somewhere in his cerebellum, of himself striding in to his wife’s reading with a flaming newspaper in his fist, putting all to flight. The more he chewed on it the more he saw premeditation in his wife’s act.
“Which one will you read?” she had asked him the night before. They were in bed and she was idly thumbing the pages of her new collection. He had taken the bait, saying, “You know which one, Deirdre. The best one.”
“Which?” she asked again, her face a mask of insouciance and her eyes focused on the page.
She had replied with a mild, ill-defined sound, a little ‘humph’ that spoke a thousand words and he turned over instantly, his mouth biting itself small.
The reading had been going well until Deirdre's little manoeuvre. She had waited for the pinnacle, the part where it all turns. At that moment she played her hand. She shuffled about in her seat and aimed an exaggerated look at her watch before gathering up her coat and performing her exit, just when he could feel the audience reaching ripeness. It was a declaration of war.
In the foyer, the crowd had dissipated, leaving a few hopeful lurkers eyeing him for a conversation. Healy made for the toilet but slipped out the back door, heading east towards his wife's poetry reading with action on his mind.
It was not going to be enjoyable. She had been writing about France lately. As had he. It had come around again full circle, their ever repeating conjugal drama. Their lives together were regulated by it, surfacing and submerging to the rhythm of some undecipherable calendar. And they reacted to its capricious cycle in their predestined way, like tin figures on a town clock. After years of peace hostilities would recommence as they fired across each other’s bows, hurting each other with the past and rooting out the old defect upon which they had built their marriage. Almost twenty years had passed since Deirdre’s scholarship from the Sorbonne took them both to France. They had come home marked.