The pike man rises triumphant on his plinth, marking the men of 1798 and their failed bid for freedom. The shops, still empty at this early hour, glow with an intangible post-hibernation excitement. Local crafts and lotions, freshly clothed mannequins, and a scatter of shoes displayed from one window to the next. John trudges past, up along Pearse Street, named for another failed champion of liberation. The two yawning windows of the bookstore, however, secure keen perusal.
The hotel stretches along the far side of the street, red-faced with white rimmed window frames carved into it. He loves the old building with its grip of times past. Hard to define, it’s there in the mass of the frontage and the size and throw of the rooms inside, the clatter of the timbered staircase and the over-crowded walls. Its pilastered doorway beckons now, with insistent authority. He pulls on his mask, checks the street, and acquiesces. This release from lockdown, has an unpleasant aura of re-incarceration.
Mags is there before him, beavering away at her computer at one end of the reception desk. The fragile rise of coiffed hair suggests the hairdresser had been her first priority. The style underscores her years, which her dress reinforces with its determined functionality. The match achieved with the old-time décor around her is always a source of wonder. She looks different today, though, somehow blooming. He takes up his position before she deigns to acknowledge his presence.
‘You’re back then, despite all your bluster.’
‘Having weighed up the many options available, taken account of the cuts to the welfare, and, yes, big surprise, I’m back.’
‘Full of the cheer of a sunny summer morning too. And, yes, I am very well thanks, and happy to be back where I belong.’
‘I heard you’d got the virus.’
‘Over it now, fortunately, wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It had me wheezing like a worn-out bellows, enough to sap the will to live.’
‘Great for the weight loss, though.’
‘I must try it sometime.’
He switches on his computer and clocks in. Nothing has changed, everything had just been on pause, what was in danger of becoming normal is reasserting itself. He hadn’t believed all that stuff about building back better that they came out with on the news. Still, he couldn’t but harbour some sprig of hope out of it. He marks that down to gullibility, or maybe some despairing need.
‘Do you have a booking, sir?’
The man looks quizzically at him. John stares back, captivated by the gaping nose protruding above the mask, pumping out its potential poisons. The computer, when he can drag his attention to it, resolves the confrontation.
‘Ah, Mr Browne, yes, you’re in Room 12, first floor, same as last time. And all paid up. Welcome back.’
John held out the key card, taken gruffly without thanks. The small holdall, the worn suit, and the jaded resignation mark him out as a salesman. Forced back on the road with the liberation of the ever-exacting economy. John could not but feel some empathy for him, despite the animosity.
‘You can’t treat the customer like contaminated goods, the look on you behind that mask. Mrs. Barry wouldn’t be impressed.’
‘The state of him, with that mask around his chin. How long does it take to sink in? How difficult can it be to learn how to wear a mask properly?’
‘Can’t be going on like that if you’re to stay working here. Though, I don’t know what happened all your big talk of exploring new avenues.’
‘Not much. Everything just slowed down and the energy levels dropped through the floor. I’ve no idea where the time went.’
‘You’re lazy, that’s your problem, it’s what free money does. When you’ve a gift like you have, there’s a duty to use it, not squander it.’
He doesn’t respond. There’s ambition that he can’t admit to, and the flattery disarms, despite its cloak of disparagement. Gradually, the rhythm of the work takes over and engrosses. Thought is not required, just submission, something they both appreciate. Business is brisk, people had been chafing for the start gun to rush back to former lives. The build-up to their release had been insistent, excited retailers talking up their preparations for the onslaught whenever a camera pointed their way. Grasping hoteliers hadn’t missed their opportunity, urging people to stay local if the economy was to be resuscitated.
‘You’re on break first, I’ll cover. Go get yourself some good mood.’
‘I’m going to walk, need some fresh air.’
‘Thirty minutes, don’t be taking up my break.’
‘Would I ever?’
‘Enjoy the shops, a bit of retail therapy will sort you out.’
The street takes him up past the church, where he spends a moment on the narrow bridge to acknowledge the river, flowing strong here. The Feagle had been brutalised in the name of flood control, culverted and penned in by stone-faced concrete for its run through the town. The Big Fellow stands beside it in bronze, watching over the green square where John sits to ponder and grieve. At least Collins had supposedly achieved the freedom to secure freedom in his revolution.
There is anxiety at the re-engagement with real people. Fear freezes the head and churns the insides. He has to control that better, not for the job but for sanity. Trees rustling in the breeze, the ring of dignified houses looking down, and the empty lawn stretching out in the sun allow a calmer perspective. He had been dreading going back, but had not realised how far he had shifted in lockdown. He is struck by how much he could not afford to revert to old routines.
The lockdown had offered him a turning point rather than the generally anticipated low point. It was his writer’s retreat, enabled under cover of isolation. He had not expected it to be so hard, though, such adversity does not enable imagination. Before he had struggled to find the story to carry the emotion or concern he felt impelled to voice. Suddenly there were stories aplenty in the all-enveloping doom, but fear pressed in to silence him, curtailing the senses he had previously called on with such ease. He stuck at it, made the slow progress, and then there came that rush of creativity, released by the hope in dropping case numbers and surging vaccines.
The embrace of the hotel on his return had been numbing and promised little different for the future. Some form of withdrawal symptoms seems to take hold. He craves that thrill of recognition, when he spots the story that can carry what’s bursting to be voiced. He yearns for the intensity that grips in the careful detailing of a story that convinces. It’s as if he only feels able to grasp for his ambition when it’s snatched away from him.
Mags watches him come through the doorway. She sees the body stiffen, the eyes narrow, the shoulders droop. The reticence aggravates her, there is ingratitude in it. Worse, it feels like reproof. She had worked hard over years to achieve her place here, her fit as an honorary part of the family, if by reputation rather than remuneration. The money doesn’t bother her, the hotel provides the cover to hide from a world grown harsh.
‘That little break cheered you up no end so.’
‘Just went searching for those lost six months, but no joy.’
She sees doubt rather than laziness in him, but has no means to communicate that. When business went quiet before, she would find him, almost in a daze, bent over his screen. She could peer over his shoulder unnoticed and read fragments as they emerged. He has talent to her mind. She is surprised with her irritation at his failure to pursue potential, choose that different path. She had her path laid out for her, no choices, locked in by birth and gender.
She did as bid, compliant and without complaint. Only, the final steps eluded her. The path was booby trapped with two miscarriages, dashed hopes and subsequent tensions, and then bitter separation. She got the job in the hotel, and lost herself in its deadening predictability. She played her role of Office Manager to a point where no one got to see the turmoil behind. The graveyard, with its unmarked plot, was nearby. After work, she could claim exhaustion to avoid the demands of any less structured interactions.
Lockdown, with its eviction from her redoubt, had unleashed crushing loss and dreaded introspection. She only had herself to contend with, but for too much time and without absorption in the demands of work and its desensitising weariness. She found herself to be a troubling and troubled companion, asking questions about the path taken and the costs incurred, questions for which she could find no answer. The grand reopening provided urgent escape with its offer of re-imposed routine.
‘Morning, Mags, good to see you back.’
‘Mrs. Barry, didn’t see you there, was distracted.’
‘John, good to be back in harness eh?’
John stands dutifully to attention, as if caught out in some truancy. Mags rummages around to reassert her industry.
‘Here’s the roster for the week, Mags, can you make sure everyone gets one.’
‘Of course, Mrs. Barry, consider it done. It’s nice to be back.’
‘Hasn’t been the same without you all, Mags. Happy to see you both looking so well.’
Mags appraises the woman as she moves on with her rounds, not without respect, but without warmth. That’s a positive review for any boss to her mind. She sought no more, her theory being that managers were there to be managed, not liked. That had kept her undisturbed by whatever was thrown her way. John, however, still stands ramrod, as if poised on a roof ledge, buoying himself for some death-defying leap.
‘She’s gone, you’re allowed breathe again.’
‘It’s not that, it’s just, I think, I’ve decided.’
‘Good lord, are you going to propose to someone? That takes some preparatory work you know.’
‘Piss off. No. I’ve had it. Did you hear her? I need to get out of here before she has me fully harnessed.’
He takes an envelope out of his pocket, looks at it with an unnerving seriousness, before holding it out towards her. She is hooked by the ceremony in it, and, with equal ritual, reaches out her hand to receive the envelope. He remains motionless, in formal pose, or maybe in some shock of realisation. She looks over at him with concern, but there is no signal of explanation.
‘What’s this then, your resignation?’
‘It’s a story I wrote during lockdown. I was writing, just not what or how much I planned to.’
‘For me? What’s it about?’
‘Yes, for you, a story about my last day at work.’
He perks up visibly with the decision articulated, his mask stretching with the smile behind. As he makes for the door, though, it is determination she sees in his step rather than confidence or conviction. She’s the one left standing shock still, alone in the foyer, unopened envelope in hand. She wonders what the story could be about, what it has to say to her, what it might say about her. She could always sue him. She smiles. Where his indecision had exasperated her before, it is creeping envy at his bid for freedom that leaves her bothered now. She sits back at her desk, opens the envelope, and slowly begins to read.
Niall Crowley is an independent consultant and believer in equality and human rights, working in Ireland and places across Europe. He is part of a prose collective in West Cork, a space that stimulates a passion long forgotten but returning to life. He is author of ‘Empty Promises: Bringing the Equality Authority to Heel’, published by A&A Farmar in 2010, a story of public policy sabotage.