Sitting in front of the window, she watched the night invade the avenue. Her head was leaning against the window curtains, and the smell of dusty cretonne was in her nose. I was tired.
Few people passed: the man from the last house walked by on his way home, heard his footsteps clatter on the concrete pavement, then heard them crunch on the gravel driveway in front of the new red houses. Before there was a field there, in which 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 sisters. However, Ernest never played: he was too big. Their father used to drive them off the field with his wild plum stick; but usually little Keogh was the one who kept watch and warned when the father approached. Despite everything, they seemed to have been quite happy at the time. His father wasn’t so bad then, and besides, his mother was alive. That was a long time ago. She and her brothers and sisters had become adults; the mother had died. Tizzie Dunn was dead too, and the Waters returned to England. Everything changes. Now she was getting ready to go too, to leave her home.
Your home! He looked around, going over all the familiar objects that for so many years he had cleaned of dust once a week, while he wondered where all the dust had come from. Perhaps she would never again see all those familiar objects, from which she would never have expected to be separated. And yet, in all those years, he had never found out the name of the priest whose yellowed photo hung on the wall, above the broken old harmonium, and next to the colored engraving of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque. The priest had been his father’s schoolmate. Each time he showed the photograph to his visitor, he added in passing:
-He is currently in Melbourne.
She had consented to go, to leave her home. Was he prudent? He tried to weigh all the implications of the question. One way or another, in his home he had shelter and food, and the people he had known throughout his life. Of course he had to work a lot, both at home and at his job. What would they say about her in the store, when they found out that she had gone off with a man? They might think she was a fool, and her place would be covered by an advertisement. Miss Gavan would be glad. He had always had a bit of a dislike for him and had shown it especially when someone listened.
“Miss Hill, can’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. Then he would 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 over 19 years old, she sometimes felt in danger from her father’s violence. She knew that was what had given her palpitations. While they were children, her father never mistreated her, as he used to do 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 his mother. And now she had no one to protect her: Ernest was dead, and Harry, who decorated churches, was mostly in some distant part of the country. In addition, the invariable disputes over money on Saturday nights were beginning to annoy her greatly. She always put up all her tickets – seven shillings – and Harry sent what he could without fail; the problem was getting something from his father. He accused her of wasting money, said she was brainless and would not give her hard-earned money to throw out on the streets; and many other things, because he was usually very bad 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 had to run out to do the shopping, clutching her black bag as she pushed through the crowd, only to return home late and weighed down under her load of groceries. It had been a lot of work for her 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 as regularly. It was hard work-a hard life-but now that he was about to leave it didn’t seem like 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 waiting home. She remembered very well the first time she had seen him; he had rented a room in a house on the main street; and she used to pay frequent visits to the family who lived there. It seemed like only a few weeks had passed. He was standing at the gate, his peaked cap pulled down on the back of his neck, his hair falling over his tanned face. That’s how they met. He used to meet her at the exit of the store every afternoon, and he would accompany her to her house. He took her to see La Niña Bohemia, and she felt deified when she sat next to him in the most expensive seats in the theater. He was very fond of 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. He knew stories from distant countries. he had started out as a cabin boy for a pound a month on an Altan Lines ship bound for Canada. He named the ships he had worked on and listed the various companies. He had sailed through the Strait of Magellan, and related anecdotes 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, 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 on her lap was fading. One of the letters was for Harry. His father had aged lately, he had noticed; I would miss her. Sometimes he was very good. Not long ago, when she had been in bed for a day, he had read aloud to her from a ghost story and made her toast over the fire. Another day, when her mother was still alive, they went to picnic on Howth Hill. He remembered his father putting on his mother’s hat to make the children laugh.
Time passed, but she continued to sit by the window with her head resting on the curtain, breathing in the smell of the dusty cretonne. Far down the avenue he could hear a street organ. I knew the tune. It was strange that just that night he came back to remind her of the promise she had made to her mother: to take care of the house while she could. He remembered the last night of his mother’s illness; she was in the dark, closed room across the hall, and had heard a melancholy Italian song outside. They gave the barrel organ sixpence to go away. He remembered his father’s exclamation when he returned to the sick room.
Damn Italians! They won’t even leave us alone here!
As he meditated, the pitiful vision of his mother’s life traced its imprint into the very essence of his very being; that life of inconsequential sacrifices that ended in the final madness. She shuddered as she heard her mother’s voice repeat over and over again, with stupid insistence, the Irish voices:
-Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!
He rose to his feet with a sudden impulse of terror. Escape, I had to escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, maybe love too. But he wanted to live. Why should she be miserable? He had the right to be happy. Frank would take her in his arms, hold her in his arms. I would save her.
He was in the middle of the moving crowd, on the pier at the North Wall. He was holding her hand, and she knew he was talking to her, saying something insistently to her about the passage. The pier was full of soldiers with brown backpacks. Through the open doors of the sheds, he caught a glimpse of the black mass of the ship, motionless by the dock, its portholes alight. Did not answer. Her cheeks felt 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, tomorrow she would be at sea, with Frank, heading for Buenos Aires. Their tickets had been reserved. Could she turn back, after all Frank had done for her? Anguish nauseated her, and her lips continued to move in silent, fervent prayer. A bell rang, making her heart tremble. She felt him take her hand.
All the seas of the world rippled around her heart. He was leading her towards them, he would drown her. He grabbed the iron gate with both hands.
Nope! Nope! Nope! Impossible. Her hands clutched at the iron, frantically. From the midst of the seas that agitated his heart, he uttered a cry of anguish.
He rushed behind the barrier and yelled for her to follow him. People yelled at him for him to keep walking, but Frank kept calling out to her. She turned her pale face toward him, passive, like a helpless animal. His eyes gave her 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 which did not find a publisher for its publication until 1914.
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