Martin awoke naked and confused. He took in his immediate surroundings. The digital clock on the bedside table blinked from 7:42 to 7:43. He recognized the objects beside the clock: the framed picture of his mother; the souvenir bowl from Paris that contained an assortment of loose ends and buttons; the bedside lamp; the familiar print of the wallpaper; white sheets and pillowcase. He thought for a moment that Aine had departed in the night but then felt the warmth of her body, though they weren’t touching.
What would happen next? He was sure there was a protocol to follow but didn’t know what it was. Should he slip out of bed and make breakfast? Should he remain still until he detected movement from her? Although he’d known of her for most of his life he knew little about her. Was she a late sleeper? Was she grumpy in the morning?
He lived alone in this house now. His mother died over a year ago. That was still hard to think about, but it was reality. It conveyed freedom, a license to take control of the space as he’d never contemplated before. Strange to find himself trapped in his own bed.
Aine was certainly an attractive woman and very smart. They’d discussed the wisdom of embarking on a romance over several dates. He found that process to be very American, an outgrowth of her life there and the counselling she’d gone through with her then-husband. She’d been sly about getting him to share his feelings, things about himself and his mother that he’d never said before. Only after listing the pros and cons and carefully weighing them had they agreed on the final step, this plunge into sexual intimacy. It had been far beyond his previous couplings. There was a tenderness that he’d never experienced and more energy, too. Was that passion?
7:57. He wasn’t used to lying on in the morning. Even on weekends he was up and about within minutes of waking. There were chores to tend to, but they weren’t pressing. Since his mother’s passing he’d simplified things. The livestock were gone. That hadn’t been his source of income for years, but she’d always wanted chickens, sheep or cattle.
When his dad died twenty years earlier dairy cattle paid the bills. Taking over the operation at the age of seventeen, Martin had experienced a steep learning curve. With only Mam and an older sister to assist the stress of keeping the dairy going was too much to handle. They’d gone to beef but had too little land to make a go of that. His sister got married and moved to Sligo.
He took a part-time job as a mechanic at Dooley’s Garage in Rathruin, Martin Dooley being his namesake and Da’s best friend. Martin liked working with engines, getting his hands greasy, and being around the people that dropped in to the garage. He switched to full-time when the opportunity came.
Mam had continued with sheep and chickens, and he’d always helped her before going to the garage in the mornings and after coming home at night. To the end of her illness she’d kept chickens. “You can’t buy a fresh egg,” she used to say when he’d suggest that they were more trouble than they were worth. They were gone now, too. Only Buster, the dog, remained; he was old, slept a lot, and required little attention.
8:06. He didn’t remember it but knew he’d met Aine at St Mary’s Church. She grew up in Rathruin, but he hadn’t paid more attention to her than any of the other girls in the area. He and she were unique in that they were from small families. Aine’s father had gone to Boston not long after she was born and that was the last they heard from him. Her mother never remarried, and they’d lived with Aine’s grandparents above their grocery on the main street.
Aine went to college in Dublin and news of her occasionally reached Martin. She’d married and had a child. They’d moved to Chicago. Her grandparents passed, and her mother kept the shop going, still living in the rooms upstairs and buying eggs from Mam.
Then Aine’s mother learned she had cancer and closed the shop. He’d heard that Aine had returned to tend to her.
One day a strange woman came into the garage with car trouble. “I’m so sorry about your loss, Martin,” she’d said. “I know you miss her.”
Only after recognizing the car did he place her. “Ah, Aine. Thanks for that. It’s nearly a year, but it’s still a hurt.”
“I can imagine.”
He turned his attention to the tapping noise. She stood at his side, closer than most customers. He found he liked that. All these years, had she moved permanently back to Ireland from the States? Then he remembered her mother. He straightened and banged his head against the bonnet.
“Oww!” she cried, touching his arm in concern. “Are you all right?”
“Aye, right as rain,” he said, rubbing his throbbing head. “It’s just. Well, I’m sorry about your Mam, too. How’s she doing?”
“Well, the doctors are still sorting out the medicines.”
“That takes time all right.”
“But your Teresa didn’t have cancer. Mam said it was something else.”
“Her heart. Wore out in the end.”
“It’s so sad.”
Martin felt himself tearing up and turned back to the engine. He concentrated on the noise, blocking out everything else. It was external, a missing bolt probably. He felt under the alternator.
“Here it is,” he said, twisting to look at Aine. “Loose connection. Turn off the engine, and I’ll tighten things up.”
It was a simple fix, and she was on her way. He thought that would be the end of it, but she called him one evening three months ago to say that her mam was doing well with her new medication. She felt confident enough to venture out for a meal in Donegal town and wondered would he care to join her. It became a weekly date, a meal and conversation. He found himself thinking about her often, especially at night at home with Buster snoring in the corner.
8:13. I can’t take this much longer, he thought. He felt movement and flinched. Her hand went to his shoulder.
“Did I wake you, Marty?”
“No. I’ve been awake.”
She pulled her body against his. He felt her chest against his back, her middle against his bum, and the tops of her thighs against the backs of his. It felt comfortable.
“You’ve been worrying, haven’t you? Afraid we’ve made a mistake?”
“I was wondering should I get up and make breakfast. Surprise you, like.”
“I’ve been wondering if I’ve done the right thing.”
“You were quiet about it.”
“You were, too. I thought, he’s a farmer, he’s surely an early riser, but you seemed asleep. I thought maybe you’d overdone it last night and needed your rest.”
He turned around to face her. “There was some exertion.” He smiled and noted her smile, a very nice smile. He’d grown to like it a lot. They kissed. She pulled away.
“I hope you’re not set on more.” She lowered her eyes. “I’m a little sore.”
“Aye, well, no.”
“I should go.”
“Would you like some breakfast?”
“Just coffee. I can help.”
They got up. Martin pulled on his pants, and Aine put on his shirt. It just covered her modesty. She had very good legs. Solid. They’d covered many miles and would cover many more.
Aine and Martin walked to the kitchen, holding hands when the house allowed dual passage, which wasn’t often; it was a small house. Buster roused himself from his bed in the corner and trotted to the door. Aine opened it to let him out. Martin filled the kettle with water. He thought she was unusually quiet.
“Feel free to call your mam, if you wish.”
“No. Well, okay.” She used the phone in the kitchen. It was a very short call.
“She’s okay, then?”
“Yes. She’s a little excited.”
“Us. She’s been cheering us on. I told you.”
It sounded so strange. His Mam had occasionally made reference to available women, but he took offense at her meddling. He’d be suspicious when women invited him out. Had she put them up to it? He knew Mam sometimes did. Eventually, she gave up the idea that her son would be providing grandchildren.
The kettle whistled. He took the jar of coffee out of the press.
“No, not instant.”
“Is that the only coffee you have?”
“Let’s have tea, then. All right?”
“Fine.” He pulled down the box of Barry’s and fished out two bags.
“Sorry. I’m a coffee snob.”
“Fine by me, either way.” He poured water into the mugs and carried them to the table. “You’re sure this is enough? Toast? I’ve biscuits.”
She stood beside him. “Which chair is yours?”
“What? They’re both mine…”
“Your morning routine. Where do you sit? What do you eat? You said you gave up the full Irish a long time ago.”
“Aye, well, Mam had to.” He trailed off for a moment, then added, “I sit there to look out the window. It’s usually toast and jam or a biscuit. What do you like in the morning?”
“Strong brewed coffee and a sweet roll when I was on my own. Mam likes her porridge.”
She walked around him to sit in Mam’s chair. Was it now her chair? Would he always think of her as taking Mam’s spot? She looked up at him, a troubled look on her face. He wondered what kind of expression she was reading on his face.
“Will you sit?”
He sat. She faced him. He tensed. Something was coming.
“I’ve lied to you already. I’m not sore. It’s that, morning sex was an issue between my ex and me. He wanted it, demanded it. It was one of many issues, but, well, you should know. Were you disappointed?”
“You were hard.”
He blushed. “Aye, well, that comes and goes.”
She smiled and looked at her mug. She dowsed her bag up and down several times. What was she thinking? Her mind was racing as his was, he guessed.
He said, “It was nice, last night.”
“Yes, it was. And this morning?”
“This is nice, too.”
“You seem awkward. Are you cross that I’ve lied to you?”
“No. I’d rather that than a big resentment from you straight away.”
She pressed the water out of her tea bag and dangled it in her left hand, watching it spin.
“Just drop it. You can’t hurt this table.”
She dropped the bag as instructed. She pulled her arm back, curled her hand into a fist and put her chin on top. Her gaze never left the swirling tea in her mug. He extended his right arm across the table, palm up.
“It’s bound to be strange for both of us. Everything’s new.”
She put her hand in his. He felt his heart race.