Sitting by the window, she watched the night invade the avenue. Her head was leaning against the window curtains, and she had the smell of dusty chintz in her nostrils. She was tired.
Few people passed: the man from the last house passed on his way home, heard the patter of his footsteps on the concrete pavement, then heard them crunch on the gravel path that stretched out in front of the new red houses. Before there was a field there, where they used to play with other children. Then a man from Belfast bought the field and built houses on it: bright brick houses with gleaming roofs, and not small and dark like the others. The children of the avenue used to play together in that field; the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, little cripple Keogh, her, her brothers and her sisters. However, Ernest never played: he was too big. His father used to chase them out of the field with her wild plum cane; but usually little Keogh was the one who stood guard and called out when his father approached. Despite everything, they seemed to have been quite happy at the time. Her father wasn’t so bad then, and besides, her mother was alive. That was a long time ago. She, her brothers and sisters had become adults; her mother had died. Tizzie Dunn had died too, and the Waters returned to England. Everything changes. Now she was getting ready to go too, to leave her home.
Your home! She looked around, going over all the familiar objects that she had dusted once a week for so many years, wondering where all the dust had come from. She might not see all those familiar objects again, from which she would never have supposed to be separated. And yet, in all those years, she had never found out the name of the priest whose yellowed photo hung on the wall, above the old broken harmonium, and next to the color engraving of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque. The priest had been a schoolmate of her father. Every time he showed the photograph to his visitor, he added in passing:
-He is currently in Melbourne.
She had consented to leave, to leave her home. Was she wise? She tried to weigh all the implications of the question. One way or another, she in her home had shelter and food, and the people she had known throughout her existence. Of course she had to work a lot, both at home and at her job. What would they say about her in the store, when they knew that she had left with a man? They might think she was a fool, and her place would be covered by an advertisement. Miss Gavan would be glad. She had always had a bit of a dislike for him and she had shown it especially when someone listened.
“Miss Hill, don’t you see these ladies are waiting?”
“Show yourself awake, Miss Hill, please.”
I wouldn’t cry too much about having to leave the store.
But in his new home, in a distant and unknown country, it would not be like that. She would later marry; her, Evelyn. Then people would look at her with respect. She would not be treated as her mother had been. Even now, and although she was already over 19 years old, she sometimes felt in danger in the face of her father’s violence. She knew that was what had caused her palpitations. While they were children, her father never abused her, as he used to with Harry and Ernest, because she was a girl; but then he had begun to threaten her and say that he cared for her only because of the memory of her mother. And in the present she had no one to protect her: Ernest was dead, and Harry, who decorated churches, was almost always in some distant part of the country. Besides, the invariable money fights on Saturday nights were beginning to annoy her badly. She always put up all her income – seven shillings – and Harry would always send what he could; the problem was getting something from her father. He accused her of wasting her money, he said that she had no head of her own and that he would not give her the money that he had earned with difficulty so that she would throw it on the streets; and many other things, because he usually behaved very badly on Saturday nights. He ended by giving her the money and asking her if she wasn’t going to do the shopping for Sunday lunch. Then she would run out to do the shopping, while she clutched her black bag as she pushed her way through the crowd, only to return home late and weighed down under her load of groceries. She had given it a lot of work to take care of the house and to make sure that the two children who had been left in her care went to school regularly and ate with the same regularity. It was hard work – a hard life – but now that she was about to leave she did not find it an altogether undesirable life.
I was going to rehearse another life; Frank was very good; virile and generous. She would go with him on the night boat, to be his wife and to live together in Buenos Aires, where he had a home that she was waiting for. She remembered very well the first time she had seen him; she had rented a room in a house on the main street; and she used to make frequent visits to the family who lived there. It seemed like only a few weeks had passed. He was standing in the gate, his peaked cap pushed back on his neck, his hair falling over his tanned face. That’s how they met. He used to meet her outside the store every afternoon, and he would walk her to her house. He took her to see La Niña Bohemia, and she felt godlike sitting next to him in the most expensive seats in the theater. He had a great fondness for music and sang quite well. People knew they were in relationships, and when he sang the song about the girl who loves a sailor, she was always pleasantly confused. He jokingly called her “Poppens” (poppy). At first it was exciting for her to have a friend, and then she started to like him. She knew stories from distant countries. she had started out as a cabin boy for a pound a month on an Altan Lines ship bound for Canada. She named the ships she had worked on and listed the various companies. He had sailed through the Strait of Magellan, and related stories of the terrible Patagonian Indians; he was lucky in Buenos Aires, he said, and had only returned to his homeland to spend the holidays. Naturally, her father found out about her and strictly forbade her to continue such relations.
“I know those sailors…” he said.
One day her father had an argument with Frank, and after that she had to secretly meet her crush.
The afternoon was darkening on the avenue. The whiteness of the two letters that she had on her lap was fading. One of the letters was for Harry. His father had aged lately, he had noted; he would miss her. He sometimes behaved very well. Not long ago, once when she had had to stay in bed for a day, he had read a ghost story aloud to her and cooked her toast over the fire. Another day, when her mother was still alive, they went to picnic on Howth Hill. She remembered her father putting on her mother’s hat to make the children laugh.
Time passed, but she continued to sit by the window with her head against the curtain, inhaling the scent of dusty chintz. Far down the avenue, she could hear a street organ. She knew the melody. It was strange that just that night she came back to remind him of her promise to her mother: to take care of the house while she could. She remembered the last night of her mother’s illness; she was in the closed dark room across the hall, and she had heard a melancholy Italian song outside. They gave the barrel organ sixpence to go away. She remembered her father’s exclamation when he returned to the sickroom.
Damn Italians! They won’t even leave us in peace here!
As he pondered, the pitiful vision of his mother’s life made an imprint on the very essence of his very being; that life of inconsequential sacrifices that led to final madness. He shuddered as he heard again her mother’s voice repeating over and over again, with stupid insistence, the Irish voices:
-Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!
He stood up with a sudden surge of terror. Escape, she had to escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, maybe love too. But she wanted to live. Why did she have to be unhappy? She had a right to be happy. Frank would take her in her arms, hold her in her arms. He would save her.
He was in the middle of the moving crowd, on the dock of the North Wall. He was holding her hand, and she knew that he was talking about her, that she was insisting on something about her passage. The pier was full of soldiers with brown backpacks. Through the open doors of the sheds, she caught a glimpse of the black mass of the ship, motionless by the dock, its portholes illuminated. She did not answer. She felt her cheeks pale and cold and, from an abyss of anguish, she begged God to guide her, to point out her duty. The ship blew a long mournful blast into the mist. If she left, she would be at sea tomorrow, with Frank, heading for Buenos Aires. Her tickets had been booked. Could she turn back from her, after everything Frank had done for her? Her anguish nauseated him, and she continued to move her lips in silent, fervent prayer. A bell rang, making her heart tremble. She felt him take her hand.
All the seas of the world churned around her heart. He was leading her toward them, he would drown her. She took hold of the iron gate with both hands.
Do not! Do not! Do not! Impossible. Her hands clutched at the iron, frantically. From the midst of the seas that stirred her heart, she cried out in anguish.
He rushed behind the barrier and yelled at her to follow him. People yelled at him to keep walking, but Frank kept calling her name. She turned her pale face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love, or goodbye, or recognition.
This story is one of the fifteen stories by James Joyce that are part of his book Dublinerswritten in 1906 and that did not get a publisher for publication until 1914.
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