The door opened and he came back in. I saw him glance first of all at the chair where I’d been sitting then look up at where I was standing by the window. He had that perplexed expression on his face again as if he couldn’t work out how I’d moved from the chair to where I was now.
You’ve moved, he said.
Just having a look out the window, I said.
He nodded. And he sighed. As if I’d betrayed yet again some trust he’d placed in me. Then he sat down in the chair I’d been sitting in and I went across to the bed and sat in the other chair. Now we faced each again across the bed only on opposite sides.
He put his hand through his hair, a gesture that struck me as strange.
The priest’s on his way, he said.
What priest? I asked him.
Our parish priest, he said. Father Madden.
I don’t know him, I said.
Why should you?
No reason, I suppose.
He’s been parish priest for a good few years, he said.
We were talking now and it was starting to become easier. I wanted to carry on and sensed that he did too. Our voices occupying the spaces in the room, the gaps and hollows that lay in wait for us. Traps to trip us to the nether world.
Did he phone the hospital?
The priest. Father…
Father Madden. Did he phone…?
How do you know he’s on his way?
I just saw him. Downstairs.
So he’s here.
Yes. Downstairs. I just said I just saw him.
What’s he doing downstairs?
He’s having a cup of coffee. I went to get a cup of tea from the machine and he was there. He said he’ll be up in a few minutes.
That was a coincidence.
Yes, I suppose it was really.
His eyes flicked past me to the window and he seemed to see something there but it couldn’t have been the gulls because they were gone.
Screaming tumbling. Falling. A piece of a soul-ghost.
Why didn’t he come up with you? I asked him.
He was having his coffee, he said. He said he’d be up in a few minutes.
When he’s finished his coffee.
He heard the tone in my voice as I meant him to hear it though it wasn’t called for, was not appropriate, not at that time and in that place, and he didn’t react, I’ll give him that, and the tone in his voice remained unchanged.
He’s been up all night. He told me. With someone who was dying. He came straight from there. His landlady phoned him at the place where he was so he came straight from there. He hasn’t been home. He just wants a cup of coffee and then he’ll be straight up.
He unclasped his hands and leaned forward, stooped.
I thought he was going to reach across and ruffle.
Someone else was dying, he said.
Then again, not just the tone this time but the words too, speaking themselves through me, that was how it felt, coming up from somewhere cold and fathomless, hard and brittle and icy-tongued. A mouth behind glass, torn open with rage and fury pulling her face apart and something horrible writhing in the darkness beneath it, her hair spread like a nest of snakes on the pillow. Vengeful. It spoke the words.
What is? he said.
How the dead communicate, speak to us. Vengeful.
Dying, I said. It happens all the time.
He looked at me then glanced past me again, his eyes coming to rest on something there, behind, beyond me, spoke not to me, but to that.
And only once.