Alejo de Focking Eurotrash by Stephen Douglas

It was already the end of February. Lucy and I had been in Washington for six months. Spring Break’s sudden emergence so soon after Christmas and so long before April had surprised us. The Friday afternoon it began, Lucy and I had taken a rare trip together downtown to the Mall. We walked hand in hand by the Capitol in a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, went on in sunlight into the war gardens, drank coffee and talked for an hour.

What I wish to remember most of that day is the sun’s dazzle – and our delight wandering off along the Reflecting Pool’s fringe, and Lucy’s sigh and gentle caress of the back of my neck as we kissed. But after we’d returned home to Georgetown, our classmate Sylvie Macdonald arrived at our house with a plan. It was jungle night at The Fifth Column. We could be part of her glamorous-sounding friend Alejo’s party. We had to come out this time, she had reasoned fatefully… It was, after all, my last night. She’d be back at nine, she said, to pick us up. And Lucy brightened up like she’d received a present.
Alejo de Focking Eurotrash
Alejo de Focking Eurotrash by Stephen Douglas
 The next morning, I was returning home to Ireland for my cousin’s wedding. I hadn’t intended to go – I’d decided I wanted to avoid seeing my once wild cousin Sorcha marry her passive-aggressive beau and his bright corporate future. Besides, Lucy and I had planned to spend the week of Sorcha’s wedding exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains. But Sorcha had called me up a couple weeks beforehand and insisted. I think it was probably because of all of our shared history. It really seemed to matter to her that I was there. In the end, really, I couldn’t refuse.

I would have been happy not to go out at all that Friday evening. Despite our lovely afternoon together, there was still a residue of ill feeling between Lucy and me. The term paper – Revenge Now – I’d just handed in, was, I had thought, brilliant. Lucy, though normally my greatest champion, had said it made her gag with disgust and she wouldn't be surprised if they kicked me out or arrested me if I submitted it. It was too late to rewrite it, so, basically, I had handed it in, unchanged, this morning. My paranoia about the paper, now, was growing.

Around nine, Sylv returned with a few wraps of what we took to be coke. I was a changed man!

“You’d better not stay away for too long,” Sylvie teased me as she cained the first line. She passed the DVD case and rolled a $20 bill over to Lucy, adding as she did so, “You’re not Lucy’s only admirer in DC, you know.”

“Perhaps,” I replied. “But I am the only one who truly loves her for her mind.” I passed over Lucy’s back with the palm of my hand while she bent over for her line. She let it rest there a moment or two. Soon afterwards, climbing into her black Range Rover, I asked Sylvie when she was dropping.

“I dunno. Guess when we get there?”

“I might now.”

“You’re a monster Jamie.”

“I haven’t had an E in ages,” I whined.

“Go on, then.”

“Best wait,” I reconsidered. “Don’t want to come up in the queue.”

“Stress not, Meister Jamie. We are on the guest list.”

So I dropped. Sylvie started the engine and launched some tunes from the quadriplegic stereo (as I had christened it). Sylvie had recently introduced us to Georgetown Eurotrash’s dealer of choice. Brett lived about half-a-mile away. He did green, coke, x, trips, whatever. We drove there directly through the alleys running behind the houses in which most Georgetown students lived. Sylvie raced into his house and re-emerged with “three whole grams”.

At the doors of The Fifth Column, Sylvie confidently announced we were on the guest list.

Once inside, I remembered something the coke accentuated: I wasn’t really used to being out in such situations with Lucy. Being there sort of made me feel ... I don’t know ... as different from her, as perhaps I, in fact, was. In the classroom, we were equals – aristocrats of the mind and all that. In a posh club, she seemed at home among the beautiful people. Whereas I… I felt something lacking. We bumped into Sylvie’s boyfriend, our fellow classmate Tom. Sensing perhaps I’d appreciate it, after hellos, Tom suggested we peel off from the women for a bit. We arranged to meet the girls upstairs in a while.


“Let’s find our own level,” Tom suggested, guiding me towards a crowd-free space by the mezzanine balcony. Leaning over it, our eyes scanned the heaving crowd on the dance floor below.

Music blinked, beeped and screamed from neat speakers suspended amongst the light rigs. Camouflage netting hung from the ceiling. Lasers sliced up the room into slow, immediate, motive, psychedelic segments.

“Alejo’s such an ass,” Tom said of our host. “He still believes he can win anyone he wants.” Tom showed me an SMS he’d received earlier that day from Alejo: ‘Tonite jungle party at 5th Bring Sylvie Were have a table with champagne and vodka from nine Wear your jungle suit’. “I mean; I don’t have a fucking jungle suit. Who has? And anyways, leave my fucking girlfriend out of it. He only wants me here otherwise Sylv wouldn’t’a come. I’m only here cos if I wasn’t he’d be more over her than he already is.”

“Still… free champagne,” I tried, only half -joking.

“That’s just it. Then he owns you. And your girlfriend.”

We were both looking down at the same exquisitely cool girl. Light hair, tied up in a cone, a black sweatband, like an Alice band, dividing her hair from her forehead. Dimpled left cheek. Black scarf loosely arranged around her neck. I saw Tom smiling the same as me as we took her all in. The exquisitely cool girl slowly made her way through the crowds up the stairs in our direction.

“Looking forward to going home?” Tom interrupted my contemplation of her features.

Lucy was definitely fitter, but that sullen, small mouth… God. Wait. She wasn’t wearing shoes, just puffy white socks, her loose Indian trousers tucked into them. “I’ll miss Lu. But yes. Yes, I am. In a way,” I said finally.

“Seems a bit ready, you going back? Sylvie was, like, ‘Lucy’s so pissed at Jamie for throwing over their plans for Spring Break’.”

“Fock,” I exclaimed. “She was pretty cool about it with me. She really said that? Shite.”

“I’m cool with Sylv going to Jamaica with the Eurotrash crew,” Tom replied. “Sans Alejo, though… See, I’m even talking like Eurotrash now.”

I’d warmed to Tom’s wit and self-awareness in the very first class where we’d met. In Georgetown, argot Lucy-from-London and I-from-Dublin were clearly á priori Eurotrash. Only apparent uncouthness could dislodge Europeans at Georgetown from being so categorised. Sylvie qualified because, although from Manhattan, her aristocratic German mother and casual New York manner identified her as a vrai cosmopolitan. Tom, from Connecticut, and prep school educated, was as high-class an American as you would ever meet, but his appearance and outlook was all-American. He was closer to a jock, than to Eurotrash.

“Why don’t you go to Jamaica, if Alejo’s not going?” I asked. The exquisitely cool girl was closing in on us now. She was definitely Eurotrash. Any Georgetown kid could spot that, from a thousand paces.

“Alejo’s always after something but at least he’s alive,” Tom replied. “A week with the other Eurotrash… I’d die of ennui.” Tom made quote marks as he said ennui. I knew where he was coming from. “Eurotrash,” he continued, “they think all you need for a party is a ride in a private jet to get there. Speaking of Alejo, we should definitely get back to the women,” he said, already moving off. Was he trying to avoid the exquisitely cool girl, I wondered to myself? She was coming right towards us.

I was feeling the first rush from the E as it was about to erupt, tingling through my body. Not even the bad vibes from what Tom had just told me about Lu could dispel the feeling of chemical joy growing over me. “You go, man. I’ll be up in a sec,” I replied.


Upstairs, so I would later read in Lucy’s diary, Lucy and Sylvie had been settling in – seated on a leather sofa before a table littered with champagne glasses, heavy crystal ashtrays, packs of cocktail cigarettes and bottles of European mineral water. Condensation dripped from filled champagne buckets within easy reach. A sign on the table warned it was reserved. Alejo, whose table it was, flopped down with proprietorial familiarity beside Lucy. He leaned towards her, glancing down between her legs, as he poured Cristal into the glass in front of her.

“Thanks,” Lucy said. No gratitude in her tone.

“So Lucy,” Alejo began. “I never see you. Why is that?”

“We are not in the same class, I suppose.”

“That’s true,” Alejo oozed. “You’re in a class of your own, Lucy. I love your name Lucy.” He sort of seeped out Lucy’s name. “It’s so typically, well, London, is your name Lucy. I love London, Lucy.” Alejo offered Lucy a cocktail cigarette. She refused with a slight shake of her head. He lit his. Lucy retrieved hers from her bag.

“I did not mean that. I meant ‘I am doing environment studies’ and you are not,” she said crisply.

“I’m in business,” Alejo replied. “I truly would like to see more of you Lucy. Lucy…” He reached for an ashtray but kept his eyes locked on hers.

“I cannot actually imagine why.” Lucy looked away. She lit her own cigarette.

“You’re going to Jamaica with Sylv? Your boyfriend’s let you down. I might…” Alejo continued.

“No actually. Actually, I am staying in DC. Jamie did not –” The quickness of her reply revealed she was anxious to defeat Alejo’s presumptuousness.

“Well, if that’s true,” Alejo interrupted, “why don’t you come over next week? I cook very well. Sylvie’s told you that, I’m sure.”

“I actually have heaps of work to catch up on.”

“Yes, Sylv said you are very studious. We’ll study together Lucy. I work very hard too. Celice, you know my girlfriend, yes, Celice will ask you,” Alejo concluded without any help from Lucy and slowly stood up.

“Where do you find them, Sylv?” Lucy asked, as soon as Alejo was out of earshot. “Even by your usual standards, this one’s properly weird. It’s like, actually the way you look at me, why look at me like that? He’s properly, properly weird.”

“Alejo’s amazing,” Sylvie replied with her easy grin.

“He can amaze himself,” Lucy said firmly. “I’ll kill you if you leave us alone.”

“He’d rather have us together. Alejo loves ménages.”

“He actually can ménage himself… I would rather be dead.” Lucy arranged her hair as she spoke.

“Wish you could come to Jamaica,” Sylvie said, changing tack.

“I wish I could kill Jamie with his sudden Irish trip,” Lucy replied.

“There’s fourteen of us, already.”

“You said. I’ll be fine. I’ve got heaps of work to catch up on anyhow.”

“Why don’t you… Why don’t you go to Ireland with Jamie?” Sylvie wondered, as if she’d only thought up the idea then and there.

“No one asked me to. Besides, I don’t know his family… I actually wish…”

“That bitch would give up, and realise he’s yours?”

“No, Sylv,” Lucy laughed. “I just wish Jamie and I were spending Spring Break in a cabin like we’d planned.”

“But you said when he first suggested it… ‘Actually, Sylv, help! Jamie is wanting me to spend Spring Break in a hut!’”

“Your English accent’s still appalling, Sylvie.”


The exquisitely cool girl ended up beside me, as I stood there alone, looking over the dance floor. Up close, I recognised her from campus.

“Why aren’t you all dressed up?” she mock mocked me. I was flying. I could hardly hear her above the noise. I must have looked puzzled because she carefully added. “It’s jungle night? I guess maybe your friends wanted t‘embarrass you.”

A guy in a tiger fur suit passed. Then a girl who was dressed, for all I could tell, as Biffo-the-Bear.

“I see,” I smiled. “I thought it was jungle music, not jungle clothes.”

We shared a stoned, giggly moment. “I didn’t dress up either,” she said, changing register. I looked her up and down. She had invited me to. Her hair was swirled exquisitely into a bun. Everything about her looked accidentally perfect. She offered me a cocktail. I nodded. I watched her elegantly thin fingers with their long translucent silver-inscribed nails dance impossibly quickly all around the key pad as she apparently SMS’d our order to the bar. While we waited, we conversed animatedly about what you talk about in such situations.

“I mean, when you’ve blocked off the weather, school, mutual friends, how good the coke is, what are you left to speak about?”

“I know,” she replied. “It’s easy when you’re having a bad time. You just get loaded. Drop all conversation and exude, I dunno, an air of being part of it all.”

Our drinks came.

“Fuck conversation,” she said randomly after sucking some of her drink through the straw. “Let’s dance.”

We made our way past a few jungly dressed heads. A throbbing aero-bar bass began, accompanied by a now searing, now building, now dropping, now re-building, now repeating synth riff. Bono’s voice began to cry hauntingly, repeatingly, at intervals, just above the music: “so lonely.” Or was it “Salomé”? Either way, something primal was stirring.

The exquisitely cool girl stopped and turned back towards me. Her loose white top fell from her right shoulder. I’d seen fleetingly the back of her neck as she’d turned. I wanted to touch it just where the hairband was framing her brownie-gold hair. Our eyes met for a second longer than normal. She offered me a powdered finger. She seemed to expect me to, so I took it in my mouth. She tasted of candy.

There were two platforms, just by us, in the middle of the dancefloor with poles running from them between the floor and the ceiling. At each, petite girls dressed in very mini camouflage Miu Miu skirts were dancing, vacant- looking, around and about the poles. I found it difficult not to stare. Obviously too difficult – because the exquisitely cool girl asked which of them I wanted the most.

“Don’t know,” I replied. “They seem underage.”

“Cares? Mine’s on the left,” she danced, hypnotising me, and taking me by the hand, letting go, turning me around before I could properly reassess the-one-on-the-left.

The exquisitely cool girl kept my back to the poles and me looking at her instead. Looking steadily back at me, now deeply into my eyes, now beyond me to the pole girls. The song went mesmerisingly on.


Afterwards, I wondered if the exquisitely cool girl wasn’t trying to make the-one-on-the-left jealous.

“So lonely.”

I held my hands behind my back. Neither of us moved our feet much. We just shook our upper bodies, rocking to and fro. Every time she slipped back away from me, her neck tilted to the right and her jewel nose ring seemed to shine.

Dry ice rose, enveloping us from neat little holes in the dancefloor. Visibility was eventually pretty much zero. Then a seriously weird moment. We almost kissed. It happened like this. I was rushing. She was already somewhere. Our eyes locked. We were all we could see. I reached out as if I was about to put my arm around her neck. She moved perceptibly closer.


I was coming up beyond belief. For a moment we were one. Neither of us looked away. Our eyes locked. All of our power, all of our strength… to stopping ourselves… One move forward and like metal shavings to a magnet we’d… Everything around us slowed. One, two, five seconds… The dry ice disappeared as fast as it had arisen. Within one of those mad seconds our lips touched, and the exquisitely cool girl’s small mouth and exquisite tongue touched mine. But mine stayed where it was, I remember that now, really. And we moved back at exactly the same time, both exchanging glances. She looked away again, first.

Alejo, standing up there on the mezzanine gazing down at us, witnessed the whole damned scene, though I wouldn’t know that till long afterwards. The tune finally ended and she said she wanted to go back upstairs. I followed.

“That’s MDMA for you,” I offered, as I stepped around some kids lolling on the steps with cocktails. We ascended. She didn’t step around. She waited for them to move first. In the face of her shoeless feet and waifishness, they always did.

“More like Special K or Meph, who knows, who cares?” she replied. It was the first time I noticed her accent. Staccato and New York.

“What’s your name, anyway?” I asked.

“Celice. You didn’t know?” She seemed genuinely surprised. “I know totally who you are Jamie Dwyer,” she concluded slowly, looking at me suspiciously carefully.

We halted our ascent on the middle floor, near the stairs.

“Like the song?” I tried to ignore how she knew who I was.

“Which?” she asked, momentarily querulous.

“A-ha’s?” I pressed.

“Yeah, right.”

Some kid, a glam nerd – shirt way too tight, sweater too fluffy, glasses vastly too horn-rimmed, hair enormously coiffed, middle-parted, his wimpy body wrapped up in fake animal skin – offered to dribble icy Absolut from a bottle into her mouth. Celice turned and accepted the dribble.

As I stumbled away from the scene to go find the others, I narrowly avoided bumping into the girl dressed as Biffo-the-Bear. Or was there more than one? Who could tell?


Upstairs, when I’d found her, Lucy said that she’d missed me. She was on her way back from the loo. “What’s been happening?” she asked. We squeezed each other’s hands.

“Nothing,” I replied. I so loved her. What on earth had I just done? I held it together. There’s no way she could know. The dry ice. Anyway, the Special K was a legitimate excuse. It was definitely Special K, for sure. We’d spoken before about “acceptable adultery”. Being faithful to one another was about more than actions. Maybe it hadn’t even happened. “I love you, Lu. I’m focked,” I replied, (I think) without awkwardness. “This place’s mad.”

“Have you noticed it isn’t jungle music they’re playing? Everyone looks like they think they’re dressed like they would be in the jungle.”

I agreed. “Sylvie deserves a proper kick in the arse for not explaining what she meant by jungle.”

“Let’s find her…”

So we made our way over to where Sylvie was sitting. Through the Eurotrash all done up in fitted jungle wear. Through the bunches of kids mad and loaded enough to be tailor-dressed even at one-off parties like this one. Fanning out over the leather sofas at the back of the room were elegant tight girls in little black numbers, interspersed with middle-eastern business studies’ majors and east coast preppies – the types whose lives from afar seemed like Ralph Lauren ads … or was it the other way around? (Everything just then seemed the other way around).


At the sofas, a tanned kid about our age rose to meet me. He’d been watching Lucy striding across the floor in front of him – leering almost. I’d already clocked that. But Lucy just passed right by him, apparently ignoring him, to greet Sylvie. The tanned kid was dressed in olive green Miyake fatigues, tee-shirt and a sleeveless matching photographer’s vest. He presented his hand to me to shake.

“So you’re Jamie,” he said with conviction. “I’m Alejo.”

“Pleased to meet you, Alejo.” I was amiable, guarded.

“I’ve so looked forward to making your acquaintance.”


“For sure, sure. Ever since Sylvie told me you and Lucy are ‘in love’ … Whatever that means.” I could feel something in the palm of my hand as Alejo withdrew his. “Can you tell me what love means?” he asked, looking me in the eyes.

“Ecstasy?” I tried.

“Sure, sure,” Alejo replied. “That’s a very clever answer, my friend.” I don’t think I showed that I was confused. Alejo melted back down into the black leather sofa. “There’s plenty of room just here,” he added, pointing to a space just big enough for me. “But no, not X. 2CBI. You do know what that is?”

I indicated “’course.”

“Well this is the best you will ever taste. Take it. I’ve had 2 already. I’m pleased by everything.”

Lucy came over and sat down. “Watch him,” she said.

“I know,” I replied. “Alejo de Focking Eurotrash,” I added, christening him.

Lucy’s smile showed me she knew what I meant. Then she asked if I would like a drink. Alejo overheard.

“Have some of my champagne Jamie,” Alejo interrupted and pointed to some freshly poured into a glass by a gorgeous black-clad waitress. “Lucy, there’s no need for you to go to the bar. You are my guest.”

“Thank you, Alejo. But I’m in a bar kind of mood,” Lucy replied moving away.

I wondered suddenly had she meant for me to go instead. Oh well! I disengaged Alejo’s pills from the package I’d just been given. I shook one into Sylvie’s palm. I knew Lucy wouldn’t do one. Sylvie looked at me questioningly. With a flick of my head, I indicated Alejo. He looked back at her expectantly. She smiled. And she took it. Picking up a glass of Badoit from the table, I washed mine down without even looking at it.

Alejo asked how long I’d known Lucy. “How long,” he added, “have you known her as a man knows a woman?”

“A lady,” I corrected him gently.

“Ah, her father is a Lord? … This makes sense. I did not know that,” Alejo responded.

“What?” I was puzzled again – me? Him? Drugs? “No. I don’t think so… Not long enough. There any women here who interest you?” As I asked this of Alejo, Sylvie was applying lipstick while Tom was making going-noises beside her. Alejo indicated straight in front of us the exquisitely cool girl and in so doing said with a certain degree of serenity. “Celice is my only proper interest here. That is how Lucy would put it, isn’t it?”

“Celice knows this?” I asked. I was taken aback and confused. I think I disguised it well. Alejo was watching me very carefully.

“She should,” he replied. “She is my girlfriend.” As he said this Celice turned around and smiled that sullen, small mouth at us both. I felt another rush from the X, K and, now, the 2CBI, whatever the fock that was. What a head-wreck. “Celice, Lucy and Sylvie make a fine threesome…” Alejo went on.

“You think?”

“I do. I truly do,” Alejo declared with conviction. He seemed to expect something more from me.

“They’re beautiful, that’s true,” I tried, submitting.

“It’s more than that, Jaime”. I noticed his Spanishy eyes just then, for the first time. “It’s more than that,” he repeated. His brow was knitted as if he was mulling very hard over this matter. “They’re not only beautiful,” Alejo continued, “they’re attractive. Truly attractive. Can you imagine what it would be like to have them all together? I think we should all come together. The five of us.” There was something at once repellent, fascinating and foreign about Alejo’s expression as he said this.

“Maybe,” I concluded, cooly as I could.

“I’ve invited Lucy over next week. You don’t mind. Do you?” He adjusted his feet on the table in front of him as he said this.

“That you’ve invited her?” I responded.


“There’s no law against making invitations.” I wasn’t at all certain I wanted Lucy spending time with him. I felt that even then, even when I was so high.

“But there is one against accepting them? I see. You mind. I understand.”

“’Course I don’t mind,” I said, a little too sharply. I needed all of my powers of concentration to hold the thread. Just the sort of challenge I genuinely loved meeting whilst high.

“Well, my opinion is we must wait till you return from Europe. Both of you can come then. I’m sure Lucy won’t mind waiting de trop. Celice needs me now,” Alejo said finally. He stood up.

Lucy was coming back, managing to hold two drinks in one hand, a pack of fags in the other, while a lit cigarette dangled from her lips. Alejo went to try to help her. Anticipating his moves, she deftly avoided him. She sat down in the space Alejo’s departure had just created. She put her arm around me. She was tight. “What was he saying?” Lucy asked half-nodding at Alejo’s back.

I paused for a moment, before saying I’d tell her later.

“If he gives you any pills, don’t take them,” she said to me. “Okay, darling?” she insisted.

“Uhh … Why? He gave me one just now.”

“You didn’t take it? You’re such a nightmare Jamie,” she replied, perfectly Englishly. “Sylv says he’s got these these things with horse tranquilliser, speed, acid, and ecstasy all in one. You don’t want all that, isn’t it?”

Fuck. “I should’ve asked what 2CBI is.”

“Jamie? You took it. You don’t know what it is?”

“Basically. It’s cool Lu. Everything’s cool. A bit weird. But cool all the same. At least I’ll know what Special K’s about now,” I said referring to a Placebo track she and I both knew well.

“You’re going to be strung out for days and days… I am actually glad you’re going back to Ireland.”


Outside the club, Lucy, Sylvie, Celice, Alejo and I (Tom had left a few hours earlier) made our way through the crowds gathered round trying to work out how, or if, to continue the night.

Sylvie went off to get her car. Alejo remained behind with us. He motioned to one of the bouncer guys, who nodded back at him. The guy sprinted off around the corner. I rubbed the back of Lucy’s neck. We had danced a bit and things had cooled down between us. She had chilled. I was high still. Not astronomically so. Not anymore. I was kind of on edge.

Lucy had told me that on a trip to the loo she and Celice had done a line together in a cubicle. Just after Lucy had keyed hers up her nose, Celice had tried to kiss her. I considered for a moment telling Lucy that Celice had done basically exactly the same thing to me. I don’t know why I didn’t – there never would have been a better time to. I suppose I was thinking how amazing it would be for us all to come together. Or that no one would ever find out. Had I, just then, told Lu – everything would have been different all of our lives. I may just be projecting, but I am sure I had that sense even then, even in that split second I dared not to eat the peach.

The bouncer guy Alejo had motioned to stepped out of a black Maserati with a diplomatic number plate. Bouncer guy waited there patiently with the keys while Celice and Alejo seemed to be arguing about something or other. Celice appeared to want Alejo to drive or at least to go with her, wherever she was going. Alejo didn’t look as if he wanted to leave us. He kept looking back towards us, at Lucy mainly, but also to me. Whenever he did this, Celice looked back over too. She smiled at me once, a private momentary flick of a smile. They were then calm with each other, but after another few seconds, they were disagreeing about something or other again. This cycle was repeated a couple of times. I was transfixed, softly sweeping the back of Lucy’s neck. Meanwhile, bouncer guy stood beside them, patiently still. It seemed to be Alejo’s car… I just couldn’t work out what was going on. Eventually, it seemed like they settled the issue and Celice sauntered over to the Maserati. The bouncer guy followed her. When she turned, he was right there just as she seemed to expect him to be. He carefully dropped the key into the outstretched palm of Celice’s hand. She slipped into the driver’s seat. She waited for the bouncer to shut the door. He did. Alejo, then, barely looking at the bouncer guy or the car, tossed a crumpled bill over at him and turned towards us. Bouncer guy caught the money with his two hands and headed swiftly back to the club.

“Jamie,” Celice said from inside the Maserati through the descending window. She flicked open the passenger side door. “I need company.”

I instinctively moved towards her.

“Don’t worry at all about Lucy,” Alejo added from behind. “I can take care of you. Can’t I Lucy?”

I looked at Lucy.

Lucy didn’t say a word.

I hesitated then tried, “I’ll see you there, okay?”

“Where, Jamie? You don’t actually know where she’s going.”

“We’re sticking together, aren’t we?” I replied, turning my head back even as I moved towards the Maserati, passenger side. And I got in. I looked back at Lucy, seeking some sort of acquiescence I suppose.

“I thought we were,” Lucy muttered.

Celice and I were about to take off. Sylvie wasn’t back yet with her car. Alejo was trying to say something confidential, in subdued tones to Lucy. I think he was trying to show her nothing was up.

“Sorry, Alejo… Celice… Wait!” Lucy commanded.

Celice waited and Lucy walked slowly over. She whispered in my ear something that completely stunned me: if I went with Celice right then that was it over between us. I got out.

“Why on earth did you actually get into that car, Jamie?” Lucy asked when I was safely back on the sidewalk. “Did you think you were going to get kissed too?”

I was so focked I didn’t know what to reply. I stayed silent. When we got back to where Alejo was standing, Lucy put her arm around me. I was shell-shocked. I didn’t really know myself why I had gotten into the car with Celice. “What do you think they’re up to?” I finally managed.

“I don’t know Jamie,” Lucy responded, taking the bait and conceding. “Just don’t leave me alone with him.”

“I was only asking.”

“I know, darling,” Lucy replied. She must have noticed how her outburst had shocked me. “I just needed you to get out of that car. You’ve just taken another pill, isn’t it? You probably can’t see what’s going on here. He’s properly creepy.”

“I’m sorry Lu. I am a bit slow sometimes.”

A short while later, after Sylvie had come back with her Range Rover, we took off.

We stopped in a lay-by near RFK Bridge and finished up a couple of lines off the aeroplane-like tables on the back of the front car seats. Celice had gone to pick up some more gear, and as arranged, flashed her lights as she passed right through the lay-by at speed and then back out onto the turnpike without stopping. Within a mile or two, Sylvie had caught up with the Maserati and our two cars ran on in a fast convoy. Outside, the passing lights illuminated the warmth and security that radiated from inside the Range Rover. At the time, I didn’t register Alejo staring at Lucy and me through the sun visor’s green-lit mirror while we kissed. Sylvie just wove in and out of the 4 a.m. traffic through the outskirts of Alexandria onto the Parkway following fast on Celice’s tail. Sylvie’s cell phone began to bleep. The music automatically faded when Sylvie conferenced the call. It was Celice’s voice through the speakers.

“Picked-up,” Celice declared. “Where we gonna’ go do some Horse… Now?” She sounded completely manic.

“We oughta’ go back to Georgetown. I don’t wanna drive around totally all soir,” Sylvie replied.

Alejo interrupted. He suggested Atlantic City, “We’ll get the suite. Gamble. Drink Champagne… Be there by dawn.”

“Dawn?” Lucy replied Englishly. “Jamie has to be at Dulles at 6.30.”

“Dulles,” Alejo repeated. “Okay. Why don’t we do this? My plane’s at National. Let’s drop Jamie. We’ll fly to Jersey. I’ll wake the pilot. He needs to earn his salary for a change. We will be in the air within an hour. Just tell me what to do?”

“Alejo,” Sylvie put in. “My flight to Kingston’s around seven tonight.” She seemed annoyed. He didn’t remember, or something.

“Well, that’s not a problem, Sylvie, my sweet. We can deal with this. If we’re winning and we decide to stay,” Alejo drawled, half looking back at Lucy, “then you can fly back by yourself in time for your flight to Jamaica. You’re flying on the Mortgenthaus’, aren’t you? They’re at National too. Perfect. Celice and I can take care of poor lovely, lonely Lucy. At last, a plan.” He seemed to know better than to look back to Lucy now for agreement.

“I don’t care where the fuck we go,” Celice’s voice came ghost-like through the speakers with a little feedback. “I just wanna’ get wrecked.”

Stemming the debate, Sylvie, now calmly, insisted we consolidate cars at her house first. “Maybe do some lines there and then decide what to do.”

“Okay, Sylvie. You win. For now,” Alejo conceded.

Lucy squeezed my hand. “Alejo de Fucking Eurotrash,” she whispered. I knew exactly what she meant.

“Last one there’s the biggest losa’ of them all…” were Celice’s last words, which came through before a beep ended the call and the music’s volume crept back up. It was Placebo. Nice one, I thought. Special K.

Just as we approached Key Bridge, just before Celice’s black car, suddenly zigzagging, was just about to turn off onto it, an elevated wheeled pick-up truck came from behind us at speed. Overtaking… Just between our two cars now. Foreseeing what was about to happen, Lucy crushed my hand with one of hers, leaned forward and just about covered her eyes with the open palm of the other. She didn’t say a word – none of us did as we silently watched the pick-up attempting to overtake the Maserati, suddenly veering, take it from behind with such force… Such force… Both it and Celice’s car span. They span. Just like a child’s top. Once more, the pick-up smashed into it, but this time, the back of the pick-up hit the driver’s side of the Maserati real hard, bounced back and tossed the Maserati up onto its side. The pick-up smashed into it again. Both cars came to a rigid rest right there. Right there against the concrete sidewall of the bridge’s approach – crushed upended Maserati between the wall and the pick-up.

“What? What?”

Sylvie totalled her breaks and as Alejo leapt out of her car, I noticed the lights of a small boat calmly passing by Roosevelt Island.

By the time I reached what was left of his car, Alejo was already crawling over the ground around it, calling Celice’s name, now softly, now desperately again, and again.

“Oh! My! God!”

Other people were running towards them. All around, cars had stopped moving. Smoke was rising from the Maserati, and the pick-up.

“Are they alive? See if they’re alive? Get them out!”

“Celice, Celice…”

“Don’t fucking touch. Anyone. Wait!”

“Celice, Celice…”

“Can you see them in there?”

“Celice, Celice…”

“Can you reach her?”

“How many people in there? Somebody call a fucking ambulance.”

“Celice, Celice…”

“You okay?”

“Oh. My. God.”

“Celice, Celice…”

Everyone seemed to be shouting. You could hear Sylvie slowly speaking something, sounding sadly somewhat out of place. Lucy caught up with me and said she’d already dialled 911. Her shaking hand was still over her mouth.

“Celice, Celice…”

Alejo was on the ground still trying to find a way into the mess with his eyes. There was no way. The roof of the Maserati was touching where the window used to be. Lucy went to him. She knelt down.

“I’m so sorry Alejo. I’m so sorry...”

“She’s okay. I can feel it. Celice, you’re okay. I’m here for you. I’m here for you. Just hold on. Celice, Celice…”

And her sullen, small mouth. God.

“It’s okay. Alejo. It’s okay…”

“She’ll be okay? Lucy, she’ll be okay?”

“I’m so sorry Alejo…”

Alejo alternately groaning and saying Celice’s name suddenly seemed foreign. I hardly even knew at that point that Alejo was Mexican; he had appeared so slick and prep-school American. But in the panic, in the primal reality we were then facing, he became Mexican again.

Sylvie was speechless. White as paper.

And I was standing back, for fear of being burned.

Couple of guys, one who’d retrieved gloves from his trunk, looked like they knew what they were doing. They were trying to wrench the hood of the Maserati up.

“Careful. Glass from the windscreen.” They ignored me. Eventually they got to the battery and disconnected it. Minutes were passing.

Some other people were around the pick-up. Its front windscreen was smashed and its driver was sprawled inside, like a dead man, stiff. Its engine was still running. No one, it seemed, could reach the keys or find the battery to turn it off. A white man had a medical-looking bag. Smell of petrol. The guy with the gloves and the others now turned their attention to the pick-up.

Cops arrived with red determined faces. Then fire engines. Men leapt out, with giant pliers attached to engines on wheels. They began to cut at the Maserati’s roof, peeling it off like a tin can. They worked very quickly, methodically. Another team started on the pick -up.

“Back. Back.”

Glass was splintering all around.

Alejo remained on the ground, barely moving. Lucy was still there beside him, saying something soothing into his ear.

“Back off. Everyone.”

“Got it. We got it!” shouts went out as the roof of the car was completely removed. The ambulance men brought what looked like a surfboard next to the car. I couldn’t make out the scene inside.

“Stay back. Back.”

“She’s our friend.”

“I’m sorry, sir. Back. Let the men do their work.”

Around the Maserati were maybe ten, maybe fifteen, assorted uniforms. Firemen on the outside. Ambulance people on the inside, around the car, reaching in from every edge. Torchlights flickered all around and everywhere, red sweaty faces. Suddenly, a couple of the ambulance guys stepped down and back from Celice’s car. Some others retreated too. Words exchanged. Heads moved from side to side. Firemen had their surfboard thing ready by the car. Something was said to the cop who’d asked us to stay back. Another ambulance arrived.

“What’s happening? Okay?”

The ambulance man’s expression said it all. “You guys know her? You don’t wanna’ watch this. Take time to get her all outta there.”

“She’ll be grand?” I asked.

“She wasn’t even wearing a seatbelt for Christ’s sake.” There’s no way he meant it badly, just casually. An every-evening occurrence in his life.

Overhearing this, Alejo suddenly stood up. Lucy tried to hold him tight and I moved to stand between him and the now retreating ambulance man. Two cops watching us started moving towards us urgently.

Lucy was pulling Alejo’s arms back.

The cops shouted over. “Calm right down, Sir.” I wasn’t clear if they meant me or Alejo. But Alejo was.

The man from the pick-up was being treated by other ambulance men.

“Alright. He’s alright. It’s alright,” I said, stepping sidewards, my palms raised reassuringly to let the cops through. But then they stopped. “That’s his girlfriend in there,” I added.

“He has got to calm down, Sir,” said one of the cops to me. “You get that?” the other cop said. Now I was sweating.

“He is. Grand. We’re sorry. He’s fine. It’s cool. It’s cool.”

One of the cops stayed staring at us, just to make sure. But the moment was gone. Alejo had surrendered. Lucy crouched down with Alejo, her arms encapsulating his head, which was resting on her. The other cop and the ambulance man were now walking back to the Maserati.

I went over and crouched down on the other side of him and I too put my arm around him. Together we comforted him.

“It wasn’t anybody’s fault.”

“It just happened.”

There were people hanging about. Talking by the cars. Some spectators began to drift off.

“It wasn’t anyone’s fault.”

Alejo’s attention shifted again, back to Celice. But he didn’t look up. Just said her name over and over again. I couldn’t bear to watch. It was turning into the most horrifying operation imaginable around the car.

What a focking mess. The whole thing. Being here. Me. Lucy. Us. Drugs. Death. God. America. Empty. Horrible. Archaic America.

Sylvie came over and took over from me supporting Alejo and she and Lucy held on to him while he seemed to stop sobbing and everyone was silent.

A short while later, four black cars with tinted windows arrived all at once. One of them had diplomatic plates. Two besuited men approached us while others from the cars fanned out to speak to the various guys in uniforms. When Alejo noticed these two coming towards us he stopped slouching, stood up, broke gently free of Lucy and Sylvie. Went up to them.

The guy with the medical-looking bag was by the pick-up, talking to an ambulance man. One of the suits started talking to both of them.

I just stood, fidgeting. Alejo was now standing up straight as he and the two suits conversed. From their body language they could have been talking about, I don’t know, politics or something. I didn’t know what to do. Alejo followed the two suits as they approached one of the other suits.

A minute or two later I went over.

“He’s fine, thank you.”

Alejo flashed a brief smile at me as if to say he agreed he was fine. It was none of my business anymore.

Other guys from the black cars were still with the cops. Another was speaking to a fireman. Several of them were speaking on phones. Still others were taking multiple photographs very quickly. And one was filming the scene. I blinked when their cameras flashed us.

Eventually, two more black limo-long embassy-looking SUVs arrived. Alejo walked towards one of them and, without even looking back at us, slid in. The SUV slunk off even before its doors were completely shut.

“Where the fuck…” Sylvie threw her arms up. “Holy shit. He’s just gone. Can you fucking believe that?” she exclaimed. “Alejo?”

“Who is Alejo?” I asked eventually as the car carrying him disappeared over the bridge towards DC.

“I dunno,” replied Sylvie distractedly. “His family, like, owns Mexico. That is so fucking typical. He leaves us here with all this shit. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”

I could have done with a spliff, maybe even a line. We all could. Suddenly the three of us, now standing together, had become spectators along with the few strangers who were still watching.

A cop asked us to move back along with all of the others. On the crash side of the road, traffic was backed-up.

Two of Alejo’s suits came over to us. They asked for our names, and numbers, and thanked us. For what, we didn’t know.

“How is Alejo?”

“He’s fine, thank you.”

“Where is he going?”


“Mexico?” Sylvie asked.

“New York. Mexico. His father says he’s real grateful for what you’ve done. I am sure we’ll be in touch. Thank you.” And then the suit walked off to confer with one of his colleagues, before they too left the scene.

On the other side of the reservation, cops were transforming three lanes two-ways into three lanes one-way. On our side of the reservation, one lane was opened up and a phalanx of police was laying down traffic cones in a long row to block off the other until, I suppose, they were able to lift the mangled wrecks out of there.

“Whose car is that?” another cop shouted while pointing to Sylvie’s Range Rover. It stood in the way of their impossibly neat and growing line of traffic cones. When Sylvie answered, the cop ordered her to move her car outta the way. She, Lucy and I walked silently over to it.

“Where should I move it to?” Sylvie shouted back over, somewhat tetchily.

“Anywhere. Just get it the hell outta the way. The men need access.”

When she had moved her car, with us now all in it, back off the main part of the road, Sylvie asked me for a line. I took out my house key and from Lucy’s proffered stash carefully spooned a bit onto it. Sylvie snorted and then I took a tip of the key-full. Just as I was taking the last of it up my nose the white guy with the medical-looking bag lightly tapped on the window of the passenger side where I was sitting. He had a sort of concerned look on him. He was on his way back to his car. I looked up.

“Are you guys…”

His expression changed. I sneezed.

“What the fuck are you guys doing? Georgetown kids are crazy, fucking crazy. Your friend’s dead and you’re snorting cocaine?”

And when we were sure he had gone; when we saw he’d gotten into his car; when he’d driven off; Lucy got her line. We all did – Fock him. Fock it. Fock America. Fock it all.

Chapter Two – Happy Days

Exactly six months before the crash, I had arrived in America. My new world. So this is America, I marvelled. Beautiful, beautiful America!

I was twenty-three. I had been sitting away the last afternoons of my youth in my uncle’s constituency office in county Kerry. Finally, long after I had given up hope for it, a graduate scholarship I had applied for during my final year at college came through. Soon afterwards, I arrived to do an MSc in Environmental Studies at Georgetown, a Jesuit-run university in a smart suburb of Washington DC.

At the welcome reception for new graduate scholars, I was chatting to a Dutch nuclear physicist when Lucy appeared. “Wow…” I remember thinking, the exact moment I first saw her slender form swaying through the entrance.

I can still see her standing there, more clear and real than in any of the years in that terrible short moment’s shadow – as if I saw her there that once, then never again. The loose fall of her gleaming auburn hair – that floppy curtain over her face and her dark eyes’ peculiar brightness, bright, even from this distance, as a crush of diamonds. And her mouth… Already, the mystery of her mouth fascinated me. What lay behind those neat expressionless lips? I had to know. She was easily the most beautiful girl I’d yet seen in America. By far, the most attractive. I had been there two days. I could see she wasn’t comfortable. She seemed tentative. She looked as if she was not quite sure whether she was going to commit to staying in the room. But despite that, her whole being managed to project a sort of secure, disciplined and rich elegance. The kind you would want to capture, somehow.

When she’d left, finally deciding to bail, I felt I was in the wrong place straight away. Fock it. Time for a smoke. She might be outside.

So I left. Exited the building. And there she was, suddenly beside me, clutching an unlit cigarette between the fine long fingers of her left hand.

“You look like my best chance for a match,” she announced long before I’d decided what to say. (Later, much later, I would read in her diary she had just then noticed my ‘something about them blue’ eyes.)

“I do. Sure. I do – somewhere.” I fumbled through each of the pockets of my corduroy pants.

“You’re from air. Aren’t you?” she asked Englishly.

I was patting the top pocket of my tweed suit-coat for the lighter’s outline. “Sorry?” I suspended my quest to work out what she meant.

“Air?” she repeated. “A r e y o u a c t u a l l y E y e r i s h ?”

“Air…” I echoed. “Éire. Fock. I thought you said ‘air’. Totally. I am.” I resumed my search, eventually manœuvring a yellow disposable from inside the lining of my jacket. Lucy waited for me to light it. “Your fag’s the wrong way around,” I pointed out. Slight embarrassment made her seem almost vulnerable. As she turned it the right way, she took the lighter from me, playing at being abrupt. I wondered, in as earnest a manner as I could gather, “Czech or Kirgiz… I’d guess Kirgiz?”

“No…” she replied with a strained look. “No. Actually, I’m from London.”

“Really?” I tried to sound surprised. She offered me the pack and I carefully retrieved one while she still held on to it.

“You are joking?” she added slightly more softly.

“Feebly,” I conceded. I began my lighter hunt all over again.

“I see,” she replied inscrutably. But when she returned the lighter with such obviously feigned innocence I felt it’d be cool to introduce myself.

“I’m Lucy,” she responded, and as she did so I noticed she had a peculiarly attractive way of being able to blow smoke out from one side of her mouth and speak at the same time. “I’m so glad I’ve found someone here with a sense of humour. Americans are like, so totally sincere it’s actually not true. So, ah,” she caught up with herself. “You study here?” Between pulls she was slowly twirling a silver bracelet around her wrist.

“Just starting,” I said after a drag.

“Me too. I was just at a reception… Eek! I should have stayed –”

“No, no you’re cool,” I consoled. “You can’t smoke inside.”

“Or out,” she interrupted readily, pointing to a sign which said just that. “What brings you to the land, the land of the free?”

“Dinero, I s’pose,” I said after a moment’s thought. “You?”

“Me? Why, we don’t even know each other.”

“What?” Now I was confused. Touché! “I meant…” She was smiling. How beautiful was she when she did that? “I meant…” I continued haltingly, “I meant ‘did you get a scholarship too?’” She nodded, still smiling. “Oh, which subject?” I was very interested.

“Environment,” she replied.

“Snap. That is great,” I said, certainly. “Me too.”

“I haven’t seen so many blazers since school.” She threw her head derisively, vaguely in the direction of the reception.

“Only guy I’ve met so far’s doing Nuclear Studies,” I offered, meeting her level.

“Great. More Doctor Evils. Cambridge was crammed with them.” She radiated something. Even now – years later, after all that has happened – I still cannot quite touch what it was.

“Speaking of Doctor Evil,” I suddenly thought to say, “I’m sure I saw Henry Kissinger in my hotel lobby this morning.”

“I saw him too,” she said, picking up the baton. “We must be in the same hotel.”

“Georgetown Inn?” I tried.

She indicated ‘yes’. “I’m actually about to go back for lunch.” She was offering, it seemed. But perhaps not. She stepped one of her feet on the cigarette she’d just dropped to the ground. I noticed her sneakers. Something about them made her still quite adolescent. Converse All Stars. Without them the rest of her was too grown up, too elegant: the unapproachable beauty you’d see at an opening of an exhibition. But Converse, coupled with the rest of her, perfectly matched what in reality she was: An American post-grad student with the definite air of an English-In-Tatler-woman.

“What do you plan to do?” she asked, bringing my thoughts back to reality.

“City tour with all the blazers,” I replied. “You?”

“Actually, I saw it on the way in from the airport.”


“Ish.” She paused. “Athens – without the ruins.”

“Yet,” I offered. She smiled. Wow. I resolved to make her smile as much as I could.

A group of name-tagged blazered-students started pouring out of the building past us. I recognised some of the faces from the reception. “Pallas Athena for me then,” I added obscurely. “Still not tempted?” Lucy shook her head and touched her belly to say ‘I’m hungry’. “I’d better not bunk,” I said. I thought it probably was not a good thing to start mitching so soon after arriving.


“As if,” I replied. She cracked me up. And she smiled again. “Let’s meet later?” I suggested.

“Ah, so many people to see…”

London girls. To be expected. I’m here to meet Secret History Americans anyhow. “Right… See you in class, I guess.” And did I blush? Well, I suppose I must have – Lucy’s diary when I read it later said that I had.

“Joke? English humour,” she said with an American accent. “You do give up easily, don’t you? Like, I have anything to do here for, like, the rest of the year.”

“Hotel bar. Eight?” Bollocks. Doing it again. If I wasn’t absurd confidence masked by shyness, I was the other way around.

“Thirst got to you already?” Lucy put on her version of an Irish brogue when she said this. I struggled for a response. “I’ll be seeing you there,” she concluded, with the same lilt, before I’d found one.

As I walked hurriedly after the group, I glanced back at her. She was already lighting another fag.


Later that evening in the hotel bar, we got pissed and had one of those enthusiastic getting-to-know-one-another-for-the-first-time kinds of conversations. You know the type: you share and find out how much you have in common with someone you’ve already decided to become friends with.

It emerged, almost immediately, that we’d charted similar courses through the post-adolescent rites of passage available to bourgeois north-west Europeans:

We’d both gone to boarding schools.

We’d both spent sixth form summer in Europe, with friends. Lucy in Rome. Me in Cap Ferrat.

That was the summer, I told her, I’d pulled my first real girlfriend. Something in her expression suggested my candour rather surprised, perhaps even appalled, her. Why I felt I had to tell her that then, I have no idea – in vino mistakass? But she’d quickly decided to reciprocate so told me that’d been the summer she had first fallen in love – he had been twenty-five, in advertising, with his own Porsche.

We’d both learned Spanish during the first half of our gap years between school and university – me in Barcelona; she in Madrid.

And we’d both spent the rest of our gap years travelling throughout southern Asia. We were there at the same time. But try as we might, we never could ascertain that we’d been within five hundred miles of one another. We did discover, however, that we’d both spent long months travelling alone in places not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet. I silently admired the strength of character it must have taken for Lucy as a lone girl to do so. She told me of that poor class in Kerala she had mistakenly taught erroneous maths to.

“Imagine we’d met there?” Lucy burst out, as she was half-way through her third cocktail. I wished we had.

“It’s mad,” I gushed. I was trying to eke out the last drops of my fifth. I didn’t want her to think I was a boozer. “We both went to Trinity College.” Lucy had been an undergraduate at Cambridge. I had just graduated from Dublin University. We ordered a couple more.

She asked me about where I’d grown up. “In the Dublin mountains,” I replied. “We lived in the yard of a big house which belonged to my family. At night, I used to stare from my bedroom window at the lines and lines of yellow lights strung out across the bay. Stretching all the way from Malahide to Bray.”

“What lovely names,” Lucy said softly.

“It was countryside then. Now it’s suburbs. The big house’s gone. And the yard. And the rugged endless green laurel-clad glen with its old water wheel now all cleared. The river is culverted with concrete and what’s left of the gardens is a public park. It really breaks my heart. Municipal park Sunday walking, duck feeding and rock concerts now… It used to be our own private Eden. My cousin Sorcha and I knew every square inch. Two thousand acres. Years – we spent building our kingdoms. In wood and stone. Tree-climbing. I hate that it’s gone forever. Hundreds of years it took to get the way it was. They destroyed it in three weeks with Caterpillars and JCBs. Such a crime really. Lots of money though. I love my family! Do you still live where you grew up?”

“Kind of. We moved next door, when Mummy died. I was eight.” She played with her fringe. “I have always wanted to visit Ireland. I love Joyce. Molly Bloom’s, ‘yes, yes, yes,’ song of songs was my party piece,” she added quickly. Closing off one subject by opening up another.

“I think he’s shit,” I said.

She just nodded her head from side to side knowingly. “I don’t really know where to start with you, Jamie,” she admitted with an indulgent smile. “You have so much to learn.”

After that we were silent for a moment or two. It wasn’t awkward – we both just lit cigarettes and thought our own thoughts. Lucy then got up to go to the loo. When she returned, I coaxed out of her something of her hectic west London adolescence: she hated all games except tennis. A cello prodigy, who became, by fifteen, precocious with coked-up champagne-swilling City Eurotrash bankers and soon-to-be-former-model friends on Kensington Roof Gardens many weekday nights. The ‘Grey Goose’ days, she called them.

I told her about mine and my comparably provincial backdrops: inseparable from my tomboy cousin Sorcha for years and years, every day an adventure around the grounds. Then the goings away to schools, becoming rugby-playing emo-Cure-head there, eventually chrysalising into a galloping tripped-out magic mushroom party-adventurer with an older crowd at weekend big house parties, high in the mountains of county Wicklow. Well, I was pissed!

Eventually we got onto relationships again. Lucy asked what my ‘relationship-status’ was.

“I’ve just broken-up with someone.”

“Difficult?” Something in my expression must have suggested it had been.

“No way,” I responded bravely. “Been on the cards ages.”


“Yeah. Growing apart. Arguments. All the usual crap.”

“Had you known her long?”




“Ha. Ha.”


“I see,” nodded Lucy.

“This time it is over.” I did try to sound as categorical as I thought I really felt. Lucy anticipated the fun she was going to have whenever she could provoke that sincere expression she just noticed flashing across my lips.

“Oh yeah…” Lucy said sceptically. “Where’s she now?”

“Dublin. She’s an architect.”

“How grown up is that? You’ll get back with her.”

“Fock off.”

“You will.”

“Well, I can’t even imagine you having a boyfriend.”

“That’s a stupid thing to say,” Lucy declared.

“Not stupid.” Truth was, it was stupid thing to say. I dug in more deeply. “You’re, you’re kind of ugly. I’m awfully sorry if my famed honesty hurts.”

“I’ll fame you!” she said.

Before she had a chance to, the bar closed. We left. We made our way together through the wood-panelled lobby to the elevators. Lucy, I would read in her diary later, had resolved never to be kissed by another boy for the first time while she was drunk. But it really might have happened then and there. Kiss centrale! But obviously that wouldn’t’ve been good. I don’t know why though. Some things just are, I suppose. In any event, as she was leaving the lift, Lucy wondered aloud if we shouldn’t go look together at places the following day. She didn’t make it clear whether she meant we might search for somewhere to live in together or merely share the burden of going through the process of finding one.


Next morning we met up early and started to make appointments to see apartments and houses. Lucy had already obtained a list from the Accommodation Office by the time we met. She had underlined a bunch of two-beds. So it seemed moderately clear we were looking for a place to share together.

We ruled Virginia out immediately even though it was just across the river from Georgetown. It promised much more space for the same money. But, we agreed, it was just too suburban. We had similar ideas about what constituted perfection: preferably a house rather than an apartment. Large living room. Tall ceilings. Big rooms. Near campus. And, ideally, a garden.

We spent the day traipsing happily around Georgetown, getting to know it, each other, and the inconsistency between descriptions of apartments and the actuality, a little better. After a couple of shockers, Lucy was losing hope of finding anywhere suitable – especially when one prospective housemate jauntily informed us that having ‘worked for the government’ in Vietnam, he only felt comfortable sleeping on a roll-up mat in the utility room. I, on the other hand, was ever optimistic and I provided what I remember being a steady, welcome litany of funny retorts to Lucy’s equally funny outbursts of despair. We fell thus into a harmonious double act. “This next one’ll be perfect,” I said brightly.

“Let’s have dinner before we see it. I’m starving.”



“Only five o’clock. It’s too early for dinner.”

“Hmm. Let’s have coffee then… Somewhere also does food?” Lucy tried.

“Lard ass.”

“Slave driver.”




“If I’m annoying you, you must say.”


“Jamie?” she spoke in a little girl’s voice. “I must be annoying you?”

“Who’s going to do my homework if we’re not living in the same place?” I replied. “We’ll find somewhere, Lu,” I reassured her. That was the first time I’d tried that tone with her.

Well, I was right. My optimism was justified – the next place we looked at was perfect. The whole house – a dream. Shabby, not un-chic, what with its chipped, half-exposed, purposely distressed pale-blue coloured brickwork. Its black painted metal three-step stoop up to an elevated black front door made of dense, plastic wood. The whole house tilted to the left, which, given what we’d come to Georgetown to study, seemed appropriate.

“Number 49,” read Lucy. “My lucky number actually.”

“What an omen.” I was beginning to see confirmatory signs in everything.

We were the first to arrive for the viewing. Pretty soon afterwards, quite a few people collected behind us. I chatted to a couple of them. Lucy was stand-offish and not very forthcoming. The house only had two bedrooms. I remember Lucy sneezed. The ubiquitous air conditioning had given her a cold. I handed her an un-ironed folded cloth handkerchief from my trouser pocket. “It’s clean,” I assured her.

“It wasn’t that,” she replied kindly, thinking I might misinterpret why she’d hesitated. “My parents met when my father offered Mummy his handkerchief. It’s never actually happened to me before.”

Still more putative tenants were arriving to see the house; the pressure was on. So with all of our youthful and excitingly instinctive trust of one another, we decided we had to have it. We got it. The house’s English owner warmed to us. But the other viewers were also keen to make the deal. With only vague reluctance, and actually quite a bit of relief, we there and then signed a twelve-month lease.

It was a two-storeyed house, with two bedrooms and one bathroom. Lucy agreed to settle for the crimson front room to the right as you went in – provided I’d help her to get the fire working. That meant I got the enormous room, which, along with the bathroom, took up the whole of the top floor.

We’d share the ground-floor kitchen and dining room. And although there wasn’t a garden, there were doors in the kitchen and in the dining room which gave onto an elevated red-coloured hardwood deck, overhung by vastly tall tropical trees, themselves inhabited by an array of wildly coloured chattering birds.

On those first few evenings after we’d moved in, I’d join Lucy in her bedroom (there being hardly any furniture elsewhere in the house) where we pored over the humongous booklet featuring all of the classes available to us. We both chose the same specialism within Environmental Studies – the Environmental Revolutions programme. It was taught by a man known around campus, I gathered from conversations, as The Monsignor. There were a lot of intriguing rumours about him. One had him about to win a Nobel Prize before the Vatican intervened to stop it. Another had him as the disenchanted founder of a group of revolutionaries in southern Mexico. Still another had him as a disaffected liberation theologian who might well become a Cardinal under a different papal dispensation. When I reported all of this to Lucy back at 49 O street, after one of my many curious forays around campus, she mentioned she’d actually read a couple of his books – her psychoanalyst mother had known him vaguely – and that he’d actually been the reason she’d applied to Georgetown.

We also chatted about the books we most liked; our taste differed (Lucy liked George Sand, magical realism, and authors I’d never heard of). But it also coalesced – we both agreed Florentino Ariza was basically a pædo. We’d both brought copies of Hughes’s Birthday Letters with us to DC. We both knew ‘The Waste Land’ practically off by heart. And among our favourite novels were The Secret History and A Handful of Dust. I had brought Season Two of Arrested Development with me. We agreed it was the best TV show ever. Omen central. Basically.

We talked about what we most wanted to do when we’d grown up – Lucy said deciding for her was a process. I wanted, I told her, to help unite Irish people.

She just wanted to be happy. “I’ll be happy if I’m happy. Does that make sense? It’s actually how I feel,” Lucy concluded. There was something so English, so perfect about the way she said some things. Like crystals, if you know what I mean.


A couple of days afterwards we had our first class with the allegedly nearly en-Nobel-ed Monsignor.

In a windowless and fluorescently lit seminar room, ten moulded plastic school chairs had been arranged closely together around a long plain grey table. When we walked in, two others were in there already. One boy and one girl. They were talking animatedly, as if they knew each other well. Before our teacher arrived, we introduced ourselves.

Sylvie Macdonald was from Manhattan and very pretty. Tom Buchanan, from Long Island, was properly well built. He sported a red Irish-looking friendly face. They were both final year undergraduates. They were also, we found out afterwards, off and on lovers.

Sylvie had just pointed out how grey the room was when the Monsignor, smiling, opened the door. Lucy and I discussed afterwards how we had both noticed that by the time he had properly entered the room, Sylvie had altered her expression. She somehow now projected appropriately proportioned degrees of sweetness, solemnity and seriousness, just by sitting there.

The Monsignor examined each of us closely. He was sixtyish, tall, with an ascetic brown face and beautifully brushed white hair. He wore a russet-coloured shirt with a priest’s collar – otherwise he was in black. He instructed us to call him Monsignor and the serenity with which he’d entered the room evaporated as he started to write on the board with extravagant strokes and a black marker.


“Now,” he said. “Tell me in a sentence what you expect of this class?” Just as I was preparing something to say in the pause that followed, the Monsignor began to speak again. “Or I will tell you – perfection. Always. For make no mistake, my students,” the Monsignor continued in a tone which was both tender and firm, “to be accepted by me as my very last students is a great honour. A greater honour I very much doubt you shall ever experience. Unless, of course, you pay attention always in my classes. If you do that, you will be drowned by honours.” There didn’t seem to be any irony in his voice as he said this. He appeared deadly serious. “Drowned,” he repeated. It was true though; each of us had had to fight off reputedly enormous competition to win our space in his classroom. I, however, had never doubted that I would be one of the chosen few, or that Lucy would be too. “You have a sentence. Lucy Anstey? What a lovely name!”

“I want to work in nature conservation. Your work in that area is fascinating,” she announced simply, looking at the Monsignor. There wasn’t any hint of shyness or self-consciousness about her now as she said this. The Monsignor held Lucy’s gaze. I was so distracted by this new Lucy I forgot I had to come up with my own sentence.

“So Lucy wants to change the world,” the Monsignor summarised. “Sylvie?”

“Everyone says you’re the best teacher at Georgetown and I, well, the same as Lucy.”

“Mister Buchanan?”

“I haven’t ever thought much about the environment. It’s time I did.”

“Good. Okay. Mister Dwyer? Your sentence, please.”

“I think most governments are corrupt,” I replied. “I suppose that’s what interests me – how to protect the environment from also being corrupted.”

“Well,” the Monsignor began again. “Thank you all for your honesty. You’re probably all in the right place. Probably. I have little tolerance for dishonesty however. If I suspect you of intellectual flippancy, I shall stop teaching you. The post-modern times we live in see value in inconsistency. I don’t. So how,” the Monsignor reverted to pedagogical mode, “have we managed to get from a civilisation living in the jungle in scattered communities in which everyone either ate or starved together? A civilisation in which no one being stood above another – rock, insect, human, animal, river or flower… And most importantly… how do we get back there again? How? Through revolutions, that’s how. But what kinds of revolution? That is the question. Jamie?”

“I… I… I’m not sure there’s an always-ever answer to that question,” I stammered.

“Not sure? Of course you’re sure. That is the correct answer,” the Monsignor continued. “My purpose, Jamie, as you well know is not to embarrass you.” I was embarrassed. I was certain that by now, Lucy was beginning to doubt the sincerity of someone – me – who had spent the last week being admired for the rigour of his convictions. More times than I cared to remember just then, she had said things like “I wish I had your discipline, Jamie – do you think I’m terribly weak?” And now it seemed the Monsignor had exposed me for a fraud.

Then, with a long sigh, the Monsignor’s expression changed into an alternative mode we would all get used to.

“I’ve been teaching at Georgetown on and off now for a total of twenty-five years, two hundred and eighty-two days precisely. How do I know this? Why am I telling you this? Well, this very morning I received in the mail my first ever pension payment. When I finish teaching you, God willing, in nine months’ time you will have been my very last pupils. But does that explain why I should then hang in the refectory?”

We all seemed to calculate that this was a rhetorical question and we stayed silent. The Monsignor continued almost immediately after holding my eye for a second.

“Indeed. I don’t wish to be remembered in oils. I want nothing at all to do with oil. My image, I trust, shall live on in my students’ heads. In what you all do in your lives and, more importantly, in what you don’t do. In what you refuse to do. I just want to rest and tend my garden. I am like one of those indigenous people who feels put upon by all these outside forces. They all – you all – you all want a piece of me. Well, you are the last class who shall have a piece of me. Thanks be to God.”

Lucy was writing down in shorthand every word the Monsignor said. I started to write them down in longhand but couldn’t keep up. Sylvie chewed her pen for most of the class. Tom looked attentive. He occasionally noted stuff, but mostly sat there looking non-committal.

“Right. So what have we learned today?” the Monsignor started in again. “The powerless have the most to lose in a revolution. And the powerful have the most to gain. Or is it the other way around? I don’t know. What I do know is that you are not going to turn your backs on the powerless. Are you? I am going to see to that.

“When the conquistadors arrived in the Americas, the Aztecs had a choice, and they chose to collaborate. The result? Decimation. The Maya, on the other hand, revolted. They were also decimated. Lessons for us? I don’t know.”

I was beginning to work out the Monsignor’s rhythm, or so I thought.

“Your first week’s reading is Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution. Good. Now, have a good read, a good think and, by God’s grace, we’ll see each other next week.”

As the others left the room, I hung back and asked whether there were any particular aspects of the book I might focus upon.

“You shall see,” was the Monsignor’s impossible response. “Oh, Mister Dwyer,” he called to me just as I was out of the room. I re-entered and stood by the door. “I scanned the manuscripts sent with your applications.”


“Yes, I read them with interest. Lucy’s, of course, is better realised. But your idea is much cleverer.” I didn’t let the Monsignor see I didn’t know exactly what he was going on about. He seemed to think that maybe Lucy and I had applied to Georgetown together.

“Normally, as you know,” the Monsignor continued, “to pass this course you would need to do an internship in an environment-related organisation. I have considered your stated desire to be excused from this requirement very carefully. I think, if you spend your time profitably instead, turning that paper you sent with your application into an article for a prestigious learned academic journal, Jamie, we will have no problem finding you one in which to publish it”.

“That’s amazing. Thanks very much.”

“Right. See you next week.”

When I arrived outside the building into the large open red-bricked square – known as Red Square – (where Lucy and I had had our first conversation less than a week before) the end of summer heat hit me. I was going to have to ditch the tweed jacket. Lucy, Sylvie and Tom were standing there smoking.

“Sylvie thinks you’re going to be teacher’s pet,” Lucy said as I approached them. Sylvie started, and seriously too, to deny this. “Did you ask our teacher for some extra homework?” Lucy continued unabashed with a mischievous grin I hadn’t seen before.

Tom was chortling.

“No, I told him I thought you’re not, well… You’re completely sure you’re up to this level? I don’t want you falling behind.”

“The finest leaders always come from behind,” observed Lucy.

Chapter Three – Homes

After the torchlight, red on sweaty faces. After the crash and the frosty silence in the car going away. After the words with the police and the formal statements. After the guy with the medical bag had put the police on to us. After they found and confiscated most of our stash. After Sylvie’s call to her parents in New York. After her father’s lawyers made their play. Half an hour afterwards, we were free and the detective apologised for being over the top – Be careful y’all – Sorry, he said, for our grief – We wouldn’t be hearing from them again. Somehow the half an hour in the cells became all part of the dream that was that evening.

All red torchlight and sweaty faces, in my woozy, wonky memory. What a dark, dark day. Only it was such beautiful weather.

But then, the agony and all of the too answerable questions:

‘Could we have stopped it?’

‘Was it me, should’ve died?’

‘Lucy, baby, you saved me.’

‘What does it all mean?’

Nothing. Nothing at all.

After the song lyric stopped replaying hour after hour on the brim of my awareness… ‘Death is abroad this day and I don’t feel like dying.’

After that lot, and the light flashbulbs red on our tired suddenly sober faces.

After the journalist torture and sitting in the dark away from it all in a hotel suite downtown at The Biltmore. Sylv had called Tom from the station and quick-thinking Tom had sent us there. We just didn’t know what to do; where to go.

After a bit of Bourbon, which didn’t work anyway…

Not to forget, never to forget, she who was living now is dead…

And after all, after that, we left the hotel: none of us could sit still.

We stopped by the formal garden of Dunbarton Oaks, as soon as it opened, and lightly tripped through the faintly humid orangery, out into sunlight and onto lawns. Just adjusting to life again. We’re alive, Sylvie cried. That worked for a moment or two. We settled on the grass, amongst the Saturday morning easy busy families with their young children, drinking coffee; jogging parents pushing their flesh in large wheeled pushchairs.

Next, we wandered along the avenues amongst the specimen trees.

And, after all we had just been through, invisible to everyone around us, we caught parents envying our debauched appearance; half-dreading, half-wishing their children might become so free-seeming, golden future-bound Georgetown students like us, or perhaps regretting the day when they once were too.

She who was living is now dead.

Us, so evidently in the midst of such pregnant and glamorous lives.

In the midst of life, we are in death, et cetera.

Sylvie corrected me; it wasn’t the Smiths – it was Saint Paul the Apostle. Was he a sociopath? Lucy said no – She should know. One of her old schools was named after him. Saint Morrissey’s? No, Stupid. Saint Paul’s, Brook Green. Stupid tetchiness didn’t, couldn’t, stop the lyric running around my head. I mouthed it sometimes. That much I did know. In the midst of death, we are in life, et cetera. Or was it the other way around?

We began to walk together silently, Sylvie, Lucy, me. Tom arrived to join us, hugging us each in turn.

We left Dunbarton Oaks and walked, still silently, through the 11 a.m. Saturday streets, muttering retreats, reluctant feet… Busy families piling into Scandinavian cars, going to soccer and off to do shopping; students’ jogging… The diner full on O… Familiar faces… A couple of odd looks here and there. Strange bliss of a crispy blue-sky Western Saturday morning. Dean and Deluca for more coffees. Almond croissants. We left them uneaten for the swans by the canal.

And Celice’s sullen small mouth haunting all of us, chip, chip, drip, in different ways… Each of us remembering something. She who was living is now dead. Damn, a new lyric to replay endlessly, dancing around the body of my awareness. She who was living is now dead. In the midst of life, we are in death, et cetera.

Midday, by the time we finally made it back to Sylvie’s house. Difficult to know how to react to what had just happened. Lucy went upstairs where she tried to sleep for a bit. Couldn’t. For one thing: the drugs… Sylvie found her old stash. Lucy swore she’d been able to flake out on a gram in the past before. We did a line. I felt this pain in the back of my head.

“When you’re tired, you’re tired.”

“Well, I’m not.”

Tetchiness. Hardly surprising, when you think about it. Trying not to think about it.

Lucy ate two jam muffins. I ate nothing. Lucy made some for all of us. I forgot to eat mine. And Sylvie said she wasn’t hungry. Lucy said she wasn’t either. She just knew, she said, she ought to eat. I refused to be persuaded to eat, or to do anything. No one was hungry or sleepy. We finished the coke.

We played cards – patience, and solitaire incessantly. Repeatedly. It was something consoling, clear. Seven o’clock in the evening and we were all of us still, still in Sylvie’s basement thinking: let’s go back to The Biltmore. We’ll drink highballs and talk for an hour. How would that look? Tom was right. We wanted to be everywhere at once and not somewhere alone. He hadn’t even asked what exactly had happened. Tom and I sat beside one another on a futon, playing pontoon. Near to us, Lucy and Sylvie were conversing quietly.

The day had passed us by – thank God. It was almost completely dark outside. It was dark in Sylvie’s basement – bright lights did not seem appropriate. No one felt like switching them on. It would be twelve hours, Sylvie calculated, before her parents would send for her if she hadn’t arrived in Manhattan. It was twelve hours already. Who would her father send for her. Knock, knock at the door…

One of Lucy and Sylvie’s conversations turned out to be, as Tom and I spoke of thesis, antithesis and synthesis as an ongoing never-ending dialectical process, about the question of bed.

They’d come up with a plan. Sylvie had to drive Tom back to his apartment so he could get stuff to write his term paper, which was late, and while he gathered his shit Sylvie would drop Lucy and me home. Once home, we’d go to sleep and first thing in the morning Sylvie would come by and drive me to the airport.

“Only, Jamie, you’re not ready to come yet. Are you? Stay here, and come back when you’re tired.”

I told Lucy I wanted to go home with her (copycat). I knew that if Lucy left to go home without me I would immediately regret that I was not with her in bed. Thus I chose to go with Lucy. But the way I told her this was, frankly, odd.

I communicated it by saying “listen-to-me-okay-?” without speaking – I merely virtually, violently shadow-clasped Lucy’s cheeks and then said intensely (far too intensely), “I only want to be with you”.

The effect was completely ridiculous.

Lucy told me not to freak on her.

I chilled. Slightly. Just enough.

Raw nerves all round.

Celice? Damn.

So, after an hour of no knock, knock on the door, Sylvie left us home to 49 O.

There we were sitting on Lucy’s bed, now. Lucy drew me into her arms and gently sobbed. That made me cry too. Lay there an hour or two. Hugging one another. Then she got up – we had, she said, to get ready for bed. Lucy was so together. She said it was because her mummy had died when she was young. And so, we bathed and lay down, again, together.

My arms around her. She reassures me, in response to my question “do you mind?” She does not – mind, that is. She insisted my head be below her shoulder. I snuggled into her body but I couldn’t sleep. My only desire to be with Lucy had been granted – what now? Why did I still feel so odd?

In a few hours, I’d be flying to London and on to Sorcha’s wedding in Kerry. Leaving Lucy for a whole week – our longest time apart since we’d met. I’d thought about not going. But why? Lucy would go to New York with Sylv. Jamaica was off. Sylv’s parents had summoned her. And she wanted Lu to go with her, for cover. Sylvie’s parents were grand with that, if they even knew already. Fair enough.

While Lucy slept, I shifted and lay on the bed, my knees upwards, on which rested a book filled with words – mere words. I got dressed in sleepy black, wrote, smoked, breathed, moved – prepared myself for this absence.

I gazed upon her sleeping form, drunk in the moments slowly passing; absorbed her scent; watched her thinking, listened to her breathe… Watched the girl who snoozed gently, with those two silver earrings in her left ear; snuggled up so thinly within the enveloping folds of her dark blue eiderdown. Laid out, her beautiful head and drifty, gleaming hair scattering itself across her pillow. The scent of a candle burning in a star-shaped earthenware container. Beside a pile of books on her bedside table. The crimson walls of her room.

While I’m in London… “I’ll go to meet your nanny, Lucy. Grand.” I shall go to see your nanny in London Lucy. I shall bring Nanny her birthday present from you, my darling Lucy. I shall deliver it to Nanny myself, Lucy. I will pass muster – Lucy said ages ago Nanny’d know whom she ought to marry the moment Nanny met them…

While Lucy slept softly, her lily-white feet sneaked sweetly outside the eiderdown. US college kids: we’re in one of those mid-eighties’ movies: I’m Andrew McCarthy and Lucy’s pretty, pretty in whatever.

I woke her at 5 a.m. today, in that way of mine… I endeavoured to engage her in caresses, which although unreproved, did not seem so very desired. I pressed on. Flushed and decided. Lucy hangs Frida Kahlo prints on her crimson chamber walls. And then to sleep, again. What was left of the night, and the fucking (again) of the early day, melted into one, and it was time for me to get to the plane. Sylvie arrived. She took us to Dulles. We said our goodbyes. Everything desultory. Sad to be separating? I boarded. It all felt too weird.


I arrived in London and connected with my flight to Kerry immediately. That’s grand, isn’t it. Adjusting to Irish me through the accents of my fellow passengers.

Walking across the tarmac, through the brisk Kerry air. Almost dark (again) already. A whole day had passed between when Celice was alive and now, when she is not. And I am not. Only partially. With a little patience. Rain or drizzle? That’s hard to say now. That’s what you’d miss about Ireland: so few words, so many types of rain. DA. So much wetness. Customs. Dia duit Ireland. I love Ireland.

Inside the terminal, there was my sister Siobhan. Adjusting my grip on my suitcase, I just caught her face changing from a (probably false) warm anticipatory smile to a troubled frown. I should have shaved. Bourgeois-niceties-land.

“There you are.” I kissed her on her offered cheek as I said it.

“Nice to see you.” Cool greeting. “Good flight?”

“Cool, cool. A little tired…” I replied.

“I can see that,” she muttered.

We walked outside. Mountains looming. Twilight. Brisk pace.

“Same car, I see,” I tried.

“You’ve only been gone six months.”

“Feels like longer. I feel more grown up now. Don’t know why.”

We sat in. “I don’t know why either,” she replied. “When exactly is it you’re going to grow up?”

“Don’t start. I’m feeling shite.” I moved the seat back. Shiv started the car.

“You look it. You know if you hadn’t cut it so fine you would have been here when that crash happened?”

“Good reasoning sis. But, just maybe, there would have been a crash here if I had. When Allah says it’s time to go…”

“I don’t really understand why you bothered to come.”

We pulled out of the airport car park and onto the dual carriageway. A large sign welcomed us to The Kingdom. I gazed away, sure the rain was merely drizzle.

“You were all at me,” I started to explain why I’d come. “To sign those focking papers. And Sorcha particularly wanted me here. I couldn’t really let her down.”

“If you’ve decided not to sign, why bother coming back? Why’s Sorcha so special? You let the rest of us down without a second thought.”

“I don’t want to fight sis.”

“Then don’t come back here looking like you’re on drugs again. Are you?”

“You’re not making things easier at the moment, you know? I’ve been awake for 48 hours. I can’t get the crash out of my head.”

We were driving along the new bypass. Night had fallen. Rain drummed on the roof. In the distance, other lights twinkled across the dark speckled mountains.

“Jamie, I’m too annoyed to sympathise… There’s no good in it. You’re a mess, you know that, don’t you?”

“Things are going great over there. Lucy and…”

“Jamie? Your friend was just killed and you’re telling me things are going grand? Hello?”

“I just need a shower and a shave,” I replied.

“Your eyes are on fire. What’re you on, Jamie?”

I pulled down the visor. I examined them. “I’m tired, that’s all,” I concluded. “When did you say Mum was arriving?” I asked, trying to change the subject. Bad move.

“If you ever phoned her you’d know…”

“Sis, she focking told me. I just wasn’t listening. You’re such hard work today.”

“How upset will Mum be when she sees you in this state? It’s like, like you’re back to the bad old days. Am I the only one in this family who isn’t falling apart?”

“No sis. You’re the only one who’s being a perfect bitch.”

“You’re also speaking like you’re English or something? What’s with the posh voice?”

“Please tell me when Mum’s arriving,” I replied. “I will listen to everything you say from now on. If you would just focking tell me that. Sis?” It suddenly seemed very important I had a chance to sleep before seeing Mum. Perhaps Shiv was right. I was in a terrible state. I felt focking awful.

“Around nine. Later. She’s coming down with Iseult’s mother,” Sis said finally. Izzy was, apart from Sorcha, my oldest friend. I remembered why America had seemed like such a very good idea. Home could be so tricky. So many people to see.

“Great,” I exclaimed, thinking about four hours’ kip between then and now. I would be straight with that.

“Not ‘great’, unless you tidy yourself up,” Shiv said as she turned in off the narrow country road we were now driving on. We pulled up to some large white wrought-iron gates. Paint was peeling off them. To the one side trees, to the other a gate lodge. Smoke rose from its chimney. Lights on. “Have you sorted things out with Izzy?” Shiv asked.

I undid my seatbelt and opened the car door.

“You don’t have to…” A policewoman appeared from the lodge and opened the gates. “Uncle Joe’s back in,” Sis explained.

“’Course. I forgot. That’s grand, isn’t it?”

“Not really,” Shiv said. “He’s been taking a battering. He’s too old for it.”

“Ah, he’s grand. I’m just glad I don’t have to get out in that.” We drove in through the gates, through the rain, and waved thank you to the policewoman as she shut the gates behind us.

“Have you sorted out things with Iseult?” Shiv asked again. “You were so close last year. What’s the story? Don’t fuck that one up Jamie. You hardly know this English one.”

“We spoke about the crash last night,” I answered. “We’re grand. I’m glad… Really glad she’ll be here.”

“Mum was so upset when she heard. Her very first reaction was ‘Jamie’s on drugs again, I just know it’. Were drugs involved?”

“’Course not.”

“Dad also wants to see you as soon as you get back to Dublin.”

“I’m planning to stay here all week. I don’t really fancy Dublin.”

“You’re not exactly flavour of the month around here either Jamie.”

“Uncle Joe told me he understands.”

“We have agreed you’re making the biggest mistake in your life. Just don’t get bloody sanctimonious about it again with Mum or with Joe.”

“I’ve decided Sis. Just leave me be.”

There was silence for a bit. We continued driving along the winding, bumpy several miles’ long drive. A couple of times Shiv had to slow the car almost to a stop as she negotiated a pothole.

“You’d think uncle Joe would sort this drive out.”

We shared a comfortable family look.

My phone rang. It was Lucy. She said the crash made all the DC papers, and the New York Times. The drug thing too. Fock. Not a bad time to be in Ireland it had to be said. But would they hear here? Fockin’ hope not. Journalists had been phoning and calling at our house in DC. Lucy was staying with Sylvie at her parents’ in Manhattan. They were planning to go to her summerhouse in East Hampton, as soon as Sylvie’s parents had finished bawling Sylvie out. Sylvie’s dad’s lawyer was taking care of the whole thing from a legal point of view. Lucy needed to fax a form for me to sign giving him power of attorney to deal with libel or defamation stuff or something arising from certain articles about the crash. At that point, though, it was like the crash, and Lucy and America were a million miles and several world’s away. I said I’d phone her back as soon as I got into the house. I didn’t mention anything about us all being in the papers to Siobhan beside me in the car. Nor about the fact the papers were making a fuss about Georgetown students and drugs and the crash.

That was the time I needed my sister to be my big sister most, I think. She was angry, and not, I now see, for any selfish reason, as I suspected then. She was just worried that my desire to sever my relationship with our family trust fund meant, also, that I wished to sever my relationship with my family. I didn’t. It was just pretty complicated, the whole thing.

My father, you see, had been a councillor from the age of twenty-three, for an area within central Dublin where our family garage business was situated. At the very top of the property market, during the Celtic Tiger boom, my father finally accomplished what he had always wanted to: the rezoning of our five acres of dilapidated sheds, derelict houses and old abandoned buildings from industrial to residential use. Suddenly, a piece of land built up over several generations and covered in sheds and forgotten corners, lilac and Georgian tenement ruins which had been worth, at most, a few million, became worth around three hundred million.

For my father though, who had worked hard over twenty years buying up bits of land here and there, this wasn’t free money. Unfortunately, at practically the last hurdle after the rezoning decision went through, and after the land was all sold, Dad got busted for allegedly bribing two of his fellow councillors. He was sent to jail – a total scapegoat for all the other shenanigans going on in Ireland at that time. However, as the land had belonged to a number of family members, none of whom it could be shown knew about the so-called bribes, only dad’s share was forfeited. I had been younger than eighteen when my share was bunched up with the others’. Now it had been decided to cash in, and transfer the money to Grand Cayman in one tranche. It needed the whole family’s agreement though.

Instead of selling the site for ‘development’ in the first place, I had lobbied hard in the family to have the land, or most of it, dedicated to a large park in honour of our great grandfather, one of the founders of the Irish republic. The others looked at me like I was special or something. I was only seventeen, they said. They were having absolutely none of it and since I didn’t have the legal power to stop it anyhow, the land was sold. And here we were a few years later, with an unbelievably huge whack of cash and the plan to place it offshore, far from any tax authority. Years later now, when nothing still has been built, and much torn down on that site, and the money largely dissipated, and my money completely gone, I still regret that that land’s not a park.

Still moving slowly along Uncle Joe’s drive, jungle-thick red flowering rhododendron bushes flowed either side, filling in every visible space between the tall poplars.

“I should’ve stayed in DC… This is gonna be a whole hassle.” I was getting nervous. My sister was freaking me out about my appearance. Mum would go nuts if she thought I was getting stoned again. I cleared away the condensation on the windows with the open palm of my hand. Finally, after a sharp corner, my uncle’s house appeared suddenly in all its faded, unostentatious grandeur. Granite, double-fronted, Georgian, huge. Placed between great mountains and the ocean. I smiled as I remembered all the times I’d turned that corner before. I love Ireland.

Lights in all of the giant paint-chipped sash windows. Fifteen across. Four down. Shiv scored the gravel deeply as she turned and stopped her car in front of the library.

“You get out,” she ordered. “I have to bring it round the back.” We shared a smile. Uncle Joe’s rules. “Don’t be caught on the mobler inside either. It’s still no mobiles in the house rule.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…”

“Ach Jamie, it’s not me. You know it’s not me. Why make out I nag the whole time?”

I pushed open the giant oak front door. I heard echoing noises from the kitchen. The pleasant whining of a piano and a clatter from deep within. Big vase of flowers. Scent. Fock. Nectar already on my nose and lapel. I need Sellotape.

Beyond, in past the glass porch door, I saw, just coming down the stairs, Uncle Joe, the man himself, Prime Minister of Ireland. Beside him, striving to lobby him on some very important matter, strode my youngest cousin, one of his six daughters. She was seven and the moment she spotted me, she suspended her protests and ran over quickly. I’d dropped my bags down on the paved stone hall floor just in time.

“Jamie, Jamie!” she cried. “Socks!”

“At dawn.”

She giggled, as I knew she would. “Fight. In a sec,” she said, skidding down on her knees and pulling up my trouser legs. Her father looked on, halfway between amused and surprised. “They match,” was her disappointed diagnosis.

“Didn’t when I put them on. Look again, Mouse.”

She looked more closely and pinged them a couple of times.

“They still match,” she looked up at me sternly, sceptically. “Gorilla legs. I can do the police in different voices. Do you wanna hear me?”

“Leave the poor man alone, for heaven’s sake,” interrupted Uncle Joe. “You’re in the attic. Yellow room, I’m afraid Jamie. But we’re very glad to have you. Full house, for obvious reasons. Only family though. So we’ll be comfortable enough. Come on down quickly, will you? You’re just the man to keep Uncle Tim sober while I take care of some business.”

No sleep for me then.

I galloped up to the attic, installed myself in my room and while I undressed I spoke to Lucy. It didn’t look good; they’d found actual heroin in Celice’s car. Jesus. I didn’t know she was into that. “Like I did?” Lucy replied.

“I wasn’t accusing you, Lu,” I said. “Alejo de Focking Eurotrash!”

“I don’t think that’s very helpful Jamie. You can’t blame Alejo for everything. Celice made her own choices. Anyway, darling… The media has all of our names, except Alejo’s. They’re in all the papers.”

“Seriously? Fock.”

“Sylvie’s family is doing their best. They know the papers’ owners. As her father said, if we can’t kill the story, no one can.”

There had even been a reference to our being foreign scholarship students abusing American freedom. “Georgetown Eurotrash Crash” screamed the headline in The Post. And a New York Times investigation into the Eurotrash scene at elite schools. Feck it, at least no one here should find out.

After I’d shaved, I went down and through the varnished double doors into the library.

The rustle of the day’s Examiner being rapidly folded and a tall portly man stood up to shake my hand. “It’s grand of you to come all this way to see us.”

Uncle Joe came in furtively just after me, and shut the door quickly behind him. “Yes, Jamie we’re very happy to have you here,” he agreed with his brother.

“Wouldn’t have missed Sorcha’s wedding for the world,” I answered.

They asked me about the crash and we spoke of it for a bit.

Meanwhile, I was only half there… I was drifting off… Thinking… The library looked exactly the same as it always had. Being home so suddenly after being in DC. The juxtaposition. The familiarity…

That set of ivory elephants a long dead knighted relative had brought back from India parading across the tops of those same-filled floor to ceiling bookcases. Ancient bound Spectators. Punch. A 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. Sorcha and I had learned more from that than anyone now could easily imagine.

All this coursing through my mind, and more, spaced, pacing through my awareness as my uncles and I spoke of matters political, the crash, and soon no doubt, all of that cash. The torn lampshade. The growing number of souvenirs on the marble fireplace – each marking a family member’s trip abroad. Fock. I hadn’t brought one. Would have to find something. The worn leather sofas; that sofa behind which Sorcha and I hid many a time, listening to the grown-ups. Trying to come up with ways of monetising knowledge gleaned from the political discussions we’d secretly overheard. We’d even once written an anonymous letter to a newspaper. The half-closed thick red-velvet curtains dragging across the worn wooden floor. The giant lapis lazuli vase on a stand in the middle of the room, with the long dead plant spilling over its sides. The still-hanging-in-there aspidistra. A spitting log fire in the large open grate. The sofa, facing it, Uncle Tim had been sitting on. And the armchairs, none of which seemed to match the room or the sofas. Arranged, so that the whole effect was cozy, inviting and relaxed. Perfect for late-night discussions. Many of the behind-the-scenes deals which caused the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger had been made in this very room.

“I respect your right to make the decision you have made Jamie,” my uncle started. “Neither your father, mother, nor I, understand what’s going on in there.” I smiled as Uncle Joe indicated his head theatrically. “When you have children,” he continued, to educate and to feed, you will look back at this moment and say to yourself, ‘I’m an idiot’. You must change your mind Jamie. All it takes is a signature and you will be rich beyond your wildest dreams. I will say this now and never again will I say it: you know I always hoped you would continue our name in politics. To be elected you will need money, Jamie. That is why I advise you not to divest yourself. The secret of life Jamie is: don’t change queues halfway through. It might seem attractive to you now. The Irish rural dream. Wattle hut and daub, and all that malarkey. Even poverty. I’ve never been poor. I wouldn’t know. I do know that in ten years you will regret this. You will come to me and you will say: “Uncle Joe, you were right. I’m an idiot.” It’s lives lived like yours which were the ultimate dreams of your ancestors, of everyone’s ancestors, even of most of your contemporaries. Your freedom. Don’t ever forget you’re what they fought and died for in Ireland. Your life-stream must justify their blood sacrifice. Think further about this Jamie. We are meeting at McVeigh’s Solicitors, Kildare Street on Wednesday at 10 a.m. If you’re there we’ll say no more about any of this. There I’ve said it. So…”

Uncle Tim suddenly perked up from under his paper. “Tell us about Georgetown, Jamie.” He stood up and wandered over to the drinks’ tray. “Environmental politics, isn’t it? With all of your schtudying, you could probably teach Joe here a thing or two, I’d say, about politics.”

“I often wish I had time to study politics,” answered Joe.

“You’re not missing much, I don’t think. It must be great to be back in,” I congratulated Uncle Joe.

“Ah, you know, it’s grand. Never thought I’d have another crack at it really. It’s a gift. There’s a different feel this time, though. We are going to get things done.”

“He always says that,” Tim said as he handed me a drink, slugged back some of his own and sat down.

“First rule of politics is optimism. Do they teach you that in your American university? I hope they’re not turning you into a capitalist Jamie.” Joe was standing. He rarely sat down or stayed still.

“A paper I’ve written is being published in an academic journal.”

“I hadn’t heard that Jamie. Congratulations. You are a chip off the old block. What is this paper about?”

“About revolution, really,” I said after a pause during which I tried to gauge how much detail to give him. I’d guessed right. Keep it thin. Keep it real.

“Best be watching our backs then, wha’,” Uncle Joe boomed proudly.

My aunt entered the room.

“Darling, have you heard Jamie is about to become a published author? He has a very important paper appearing in a renowned academical journal, isn’t that it Jamie?”

I kind of nodded.

“Joe, would you ever cop on? I told you this a month ago. Jamie, we are so proud of you,” she said. We hugged warmly. She was great my aunt. Always on my side. “Joe,” she continued, “we really have to get to the hotel. We were supposed to be there half-an-hour ago. Jamie, when will you go to see your father?” she asked.

“I wasn’t definitely planning to,” I replied.

“Ah Jamie. He’s desperate to see you. You need to speak about the trust thing. He doesn’t want to speak about it on the phone. He’s feeling so powerless in there to influence you. Joe? Hotel…”

Joe looked to us conspiratorially, and raised his eyebrows. He was led out of the room. Unexpectedly, he popped his head back in around the door almost straight away. “Jamie,” he said. “One more thing – Cousin Enda will be here tomorrow direct from Columbia. I understand he is looking forward to seeing you. Peace process or no peace process, Cousin Enda will end up in jail, from what I hear. Do you follow what I am saying, Jamie?” He then left the room without waiting for a response. I knew exactly what he was saying. But politics couldn’t have been farther from my mind at that point. There was no need to worry.

The fire crackled. For a moment, I wished there wasn’t to be a party, or a Georgetown, or an anything. I just wanted to sit there with the fire just the way it was. Ten logs and the sound of Messiaen from a piano somewhere. All that said, I was looking forward to seeing Iseult, and in a strange way also to watching Sorcha marry.

Meanwhile Uncle Tim and I were chit-chatting about the idea which I then favoured, of countries becoming again totally self-sufficient. Whereas my uncle took the conventional view of free trade and all that. We had a couple more drinks. Sis came in. We got onto the subject of violence as a political strategy.

“I don’t entirely disagree with you, Jamie. But I wouldn’t necessarily say as much.”

“If it’s true, I can’t see what the world gains by staying quiet about it,” I said, referring to the moral bankruptcy of Tim’s Grand Inquisitor argument.

“Ergo you don’t have what it takes?”

“’Course I’ve got what it takes. I just refuse to prostitute it.”

“Same difference.” Tim was maddening. I loved arguing with him. Especially now when I could at last get the better of him.

“Jamie,” Shiv interjected. “You’re getting obstreperous.”

“He’s not. He’s grand,” Tim replied.

“You’re just trying to get a rise out of him,” Shiv insisted, this time of Tim.

“I am not.” Something in the tone of Tim’s denial suggested the opposite.

“It doesn’t matter,” Shiv demanded pointedly of me.

“Idealism’s endearing in a child. It’s a waste in a talented man.” Tim ignored her.

“At least I’m going to deal with my resentment without ballsing-up the world.”

“That’s your privilege, Jamie. Just remember who the guardians of it are.”

“It’s not you politicians anyhow. All you’re guardians of is… is… is rubbish.”

“When you leave all that Marxism behind you’ll be just like me and Joe. I’ll remind you of this conversation then.”

“I’ll never be like you and Joe.”

“You already are, Jamie. You already are.”


Back in Manhattan, Tom, Lucy and Sylvie had driven to the beginning of Celice’s Shiva. He let them out around the corner and went to find a parking valet. Turning from Madison into East 63rd street, Lucy and Sylvie heard shouting. A group of well-dressed people had gathered around the entrance to the synagogue. As they got closer, both Sylv and Lu experienced a certain frisson. There was shouting. Just as they were about to walk into the lobby they noticed Alejo. Three stocky men in black puffa jackets flanked him. They looked like they were escorting him out. Lucy and Sylvie froze outside, decoding the scene. Alejo was too absorbed in his predicament to notice they were there, as he was practically pushed through the doors back onto the street past them.

“She was my girlfriend,” Alejo said back at the building, only half caring. “I have a right…”

“Please leave. Please go. You have no rights here. You’re not welcome here,” a man following the puffa jackets was saying, sotto voce.

A few people, obviously on their way in, had collected outside. From inside they could hear sobbing. A handsome middle-aged man inside the lobby was being restrained by two besuited men around his own age.

“You killed my only daughter,” the middle-aged man was telling Alejo. He pointed towards Alejo whose back was now turned away from him.

“Shush Dan. Shush. Shush. He’s going. He’s gone.”

“My God he killed my child and he wants to pay his respects? He has no respect.”

“Shush, it’s okay. Dan, it’s okay. He’s gone. He’s gone.”

“Get him out of here,” a woman who knew Sylvie said. “Just get him out of here before he causes any more suffering.”

“Let’s cruise,” Sylvie said putting her arm around Alejo’s waist. He let her steer him towards Fifth. They rounded the corner. Tom arrived, having parked the car. Lucy hung back and described what had just occurred. They turned around as they were making Fifth and looked back. The crowd outside the brownstone was gone. Alejo’s puffa-wearing escort remained at its door, like sentinels. There were tears in Alejo’s eyes. ‘Come on, come on.’ Tom and Lucy exchanged ‘I don’t know what to do either’ glances. Sylvie led them across the road towards the Park.


Mum and Uncle Joe had already flown back up to Dublin when I was woken up the morning after the wedding by one of my little cousins landing on my bed with a shower of tea and toast. I hadn’t really eaten since the crash. I hadn’t really noticed. But I was hungry then.

My cousin told me he had liked a speech I had made. He was either bluffing for a laugh or I did something I didn’t remember at all. “Shame about the mirrors,” he then said, as he unsuccessfully tried to get a rattling teacup over to me without spilling more of it on the covers.

“I didn’t do that?” I didn’t think I had. Shite.

“We caught you and Mouse red-handed. You had shaving foam all over.”

“I was trying to stop her. Ever think of that, Titch?”

“She said it was your idea?”

“I wouldn’t misspell ‘ho did dis?’ on a mirror, would I Titch? I can spell. It was Mouse stoopid.” I knocked back the tea practically in one go.

“Mouse said you spelt it bad on purpose, Jamie.”

“‘Wrongly’, Titch.”

“You’re lying Jamie!”

“It is ‘wrongly’. Not ‘bad’. Do they teach you anything in that national school of yours?”

“Stop it. I don’t like your music. Your MP3’s were weird. Izzy says you listen to that stuff even when you’re not at a club? Izzy said you do,” he said, as he picked up my empty tea cup.

“Wha?” I said. “It’s too early for this. I’m half asleep Titch. Laters. K?”

“Mouse DVD’d you and Izzy. We all saw you. Izzy’s your girlfriend again? But Mam said you already have a girlfriend. In America. Do you have two girlfriends?”

“Titch. Scram central. I’ll be too tired to go riding with youse lot. Two o’clock, we said? I bags Bedoin. We will race you to the stone village, but only if you scram. Now!”


Later that afternoon Lucy called me. She recounted why they hadn’t made it into the funeral.

“Celice’s parents didn’t like Alejo anyway and then the horse they found with her in the car… They blame him.”


“It was hardly Alejo’s fault when you think about it, actually, Jamie. Celice picked-up, not Alejo.”

“What’d you do after that?” I asked, ignoring the defence, but noting it. “Save it for the Judge,” I quipped in my head silently. I still felt odd.

“Came back here.”

“Old Prince von Trapp’s gone away?” I tried.

“Who? It’s Sylvie’s mother’s the princess, actually. But we’re not there. We’re at Alejo’s. Down the road from Sylvie’s parents’. He’s in a wretched state. He’s paranoid. Won’t see anyone but us. He’s scared he’ll be taken away somewhere.”

“Don’t be alone with him Lu. It’s not your responsibility. We don’t even know who he is.”

Lucy hesitated slightly, but not slightly enough.

“You on your own with him now?”

“He’s asleep. He’s on so many meds he’s not sure where he is.”

“Where’re Tom and Sylv?”

“Sylvie went home to pick up something. They’ll be back any second. Relax, Jamie.”


Later I would read in Lucy’s diary what Alejo was like then. Their dreamy conversations.

“What do you most fear Lucy?” Alejo asked one afternoon. They were in his apartment overlooking the Met. Next door to Jackie Kennedy’s building. Two floors. A roof terrace and a picture window over the park.

“Nothing really. Cruel things.”

“I despise cruelty Lucy. What is the cruellest thing that ever happened to you Lucy?”

“My mother died. I was eight. What about you?”

“I’m so sorry to hear about that Lucy. I didn’t know. Sylvie did not tell me this. I am so sorry. Poor Lucy. I think the person I’m in love with being cruel, Lucy. I’m beginning to fall in love with you.”

“Don’t be mad Alejo. What about Celice?”

He looked hurt. But he still pushed. “Is Jamie your true love?”

“Alejo? Isn’t Celice’s death cruel?”

“I don’t want to talk about that Lucy. Not now. Please. Let’s just talk about lightness. I want to talk about you Lucy.”

“No,” she laughed nervously. “I’m not sure I want this conversation Alejo. Actually I’m sure I don’t Alejo.”

“If not him who?”

“What? Doesn’t matter.”

“Please tell me Lucy? Lucy? I must know. It’s the most important thing to me.”

“Archie was. I’m sorry Alejo. I don’t really want to talk about this with you.”

“Was he Irish too?”

“God no. The exact opposite. Tom and Sylv will be back soon.”

“Let’s order food?” Alejo said.

“Tom and Sylv will be back soon,” Lucy repeated.

“They’ll eat without us. They always do,” Alejo answered confidently.

“Sylv won’t. Doesn’t. What are you talking about? I know she won’t. She asked us to wait for her. Don’t you remember, Alejo?”

“They won’t mind…”

“Alejo? What is it about you? You push, push. I’m sorry Alejo, but actually…”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“I know it doesn’t matter. But it’s like you’re trying to bargain with me the whole time. I’m not actually for sale.”

“Is this because of Archie, you said his name was? Please tell me about Archie. I have a way of finding these things out anyway. Did you meet at Cambridge? Your first love? Your hard-riding Byronic country boy?”

Lucy blushed. “I’m not ready for this, Alejo.”

“I’ve touched a nerve. Sorry Lucy. I’m very sorry. Please forgive me. I am always doing this. It’s the cross I bear. I see things no one else does.”

“Maybe the crash and all… You’re just being weird, Alejo.”

“It’s the crash. I’m sorry Lucy. I am just very grateful. I wish to thank you.”

“Then leave me be. I am very sorry Celice has died Alejo. But I am not going to be her replacement, am I?”

“I don’t know,” he said silently, as if hurt.

“Well, actually I do. I love Jamie. Besides, if I were you, I would get over Celice before –”

“You’re right Lucy. You’re always right. Is that what you did? You got over Archie before you fell for Jamie? Of course, that’s it. I will follow you Lucy. I’m just grateful.”


Lucy and I next spoke again two days later. I was back in Dublin. I went to see Dad in gaol. Fock. I was signing the papers now. They were right. Everyone was happy with me. Mum asked me never to put “us all” through this sort of thing again. I had made such a storm in a teacup. Uncle Joe said he knew I would see sense in the end. We all went out for a fine meal after signing the papers. We drank our toasts to Dad and through video cell phones had him with us in a private room. Uncle Joe spoke of how he had arranged for ‘structures’ to be put in place, which would mean our fortune would remain intact and in the family for centuries. Famous last words! It was a strangely magnetic feeling. Not being able to speak about it to anyone outside the family meant, though, that we all became closer. I really missed Dad.

Lucy rang almost at the end of the meal. I went out onto Merrion Row to talk to her. It was drizzling rain. ‘Normal’, ‘real’ people were hurrying around in the post-work rush hour. Lucy said she was back in DC. While we spoke, I was looking at all the expensive bric-a-brac in a shop there. I could buy any of it now, I thought. All of it, in fact. As I said, it was a very strange feeling. It wouldn’t change me though. I was glad to be as old as I was before it all happened.

“I thought you were going to the Hamptons with Sylvie?” I replied. “Has something happened, Lucy? You sound strange. What?”

“Her family want her to themselves and Alejo has been taken away.”

“How is he?”

“Still weirded out and actually creepy as hell. Sometimes,” she added, oddly. “By the way,” she continued. “Have you noticed anything odd Jamie? I mean do you feel weirder than normal?”

“A little, why? Long hangover from the crash night. It’s weird how there seems to be a physical reaction in me to the crash,” I confessed, crystallising a thought which had occurred in bits and bobs over the previous few days.

“We’re still actually high, Jamie. That coke…”

“Lucy,” I replied gently. “I think I’d know if I was high or not.”

“You wouldn’t, actually.”

“Not you as well,” I said reflexively, thinking of my sister.

“What are you talking about?”

“Nothing. My sister.”

“See Jamie? We’re both still high, that’s why this is all so difficult. We’re actually tweaking. Alejo says it’s properly easy to miss, unless you know what you’re looking for.” Another phone rang in the background. “Hold on, Jamie. Must get that.”

“Leave it.”

“Can’t, darling. It’s Sylvie.”

So? I thought. Lucy put the receiver down and I could hear what she was saying on the other phone. Even from where I was I could hear the totally different, more soft, chatty, voice Lucy answered the other phone with.

“You’re mad, Sylv… None of this is real… They’re still not speaking to you? I just haven’t actually told him yet… He’s on the other line; I better get back to him. Big kiss.”

She picked me up again. “That was Sylv. She’s seeing things. That wasn’t coke we got from Brett the other night. It was crystal meth. Crank.”


“Crystal meth amphetamine. Alejo says it’s, like, extra, extra strength speed. Everyone takes it here to write late-night papers. We’ve taken a gram each. You only need a tiny line to stay up all night. Alejo reckons we’ll be tweaking for a week, at least.”


“Tetchy. Not totally with it. Sleepless. Unable to eat. Unable to concentrate.”

God. At least that made sense.


Saturday afternoon, I flew over to London on the first leg of my trip back to DC. I went straight from Heathrow to Waster’s house at Vicarage Gate. We were going raving together. Just like old times. We went out to dinner first. Waster described his first five months as an investment banker. “What you thought was freedom was just greed.”

After dinner, we called the information line and went to the squat. It was the same as ever: some Godforsaken outer London suburb, disused cinema, whatever you wanted, dancing with pretty dredded foreign girls, exhaustion. We got back to Vicarage Gate at seven. Neither of us could believe we’d once spent a whole summer doing that every weekend.


My flight back to DC was at five o’clock that evening. But first:

It was 13.13 by the time I arrived at Lucy’s house. Only forty-three minutes late. Feeling bleary. Blinky, after the previous night’s endeavours.

The Boltons. Neither Kensington, nor Chelsea, nor Earl’s Court, but somewhere in between – Brompton. Finally, I found the house and felt like bolting. Presents from Lu in hand. So couldn’t. It’s vast. Basically a proper country house in west London. Bright white. Stucco. Video intercom. I cleared my throat. Quick visit. Hand this stuff in to Nanny, then, back to Waster’s flat, chat, little splifferooni, fly, then Lucy. I wondered why I was there – the ideas you get when you’re high… Bleep. Hesitant hello. Alive hello back: my name’s Jamie…

“Of course, of course. Lucy told us to expect you. Come in. We expected you earlier. Not to worry. Just stand very close to the gate. It will open automatically.”

“No. Closer. No need to push it.”

“I see.” The gate swung open slowly and slammed shut fast behind me. Very James Bond.

Channel Island plates on all the cars in the carriage drive. Immaculate small lawn. Early spring flowers bloomed as if they had planted there already in flower. Golf-green grass. Front door open. Glimpse of a tennis court to my right. Her father. Lucy’s father. Girlfriend’s father vibes: am I ready for this? Nope. Up the steps. Shaking hands. Cold hands.

“Nice to see you. Lucy asked me to drop this by,” I said, handing over Lucy’s birthday gift for her nanny.

“Of course. Of course she did. Thank you very, very much Jamie. You will stay for lunch, won’t you? We’ve actually been waiting for you.”


“My wife’s counting on an extra mouth. Eh?”

I knew now I didn’t really have a choice. What was I doing there? Shite. I felt terrible.

“No, thank you, Mr Anstey.”

“What’s that? Call me Giles.”

Door’s shut. Intricate ancient Persian rugs over the vast hallway floor. Letters to be posted on the hall table. Tate Modern catalogue, still in its clear plastic cover. I was led into a reception room that was of the proportions of a country house. Paintings in that Italian way cluttered the walls. Caught myself wondering: Christies or handed down?

“Is that Lucy?” I asked suddenly. I stood up and walked over to a small portrait in oils. It was of the face and body of a raven-haired girl with mere pinprick hazel dots for eyes, running like a watercolour in the rain.

“Yes,” her father’s reply thankfully shook my thoughts away from God knows where. “Lucy’s mother painted it when Lucy was eight.”

“Lucy’s mother must have been very talented. She’s captured Lucy perfectly.”

“Yes, it was rather a good likeness. Drink? I’m on white. Lucy’s mother tried for a very long time before she succeeded in capturing, as you put it, Lucy’s rushing, as was her wont, at almost every visitor to the house crying: ‘I love you! I love you!’”

“My cousin’s a bit like that.”

“Did you say red?” Giles asked.

“That’s grand with me.”


“White, please,” I said. I couldn’t wake up my mind about anything!

The doorbell chimed.

“Of course. That’ll be Henry.”

There were footsteps in the hallway. Sound of greetings. A lady’s voice. Lucy’s stepmother walked in, leading someone who had to be Henry. I stood up.

“Please don’t get up.”

Too late, I thought. I’m fucking your daughter: somehow I knew that was exactly what Giles was thinking at that moment: this scruffy bastard’s fucking my darling daughter. Giles handed me a quarter-filled glass of red wine.

“Henry, this is Jamie…?”


“Of course. Young Jamie here shares a house with Lucy in Washington DC. Henry and I were at Rugby together.”

A slightly awkward silence ensued. Mrs Anstey excused herself and left the room to check on something.

“Will you stay in America after Georgetown, Jamie?” inquired Henry.

“We’re not sure yet what’ll we do.”

“I’d stick to Georgetown, if I were you,” advised Giles.

“Funny place, America. Fine for making money,” added Henry, not entirely relevantly.

“And England’s the finest place to enjoy it,” concluded Giles, taking up the thread.

“I’m not sure I’m all that interested in making money,” I put in needlessly.

“Really? Would have thought a young man like you’d be ambitious. Still, Henry, as I’ve always said there’s more to life than money.”

“And as I’ve been known to reply: indeed, but not all that much,” said Henry with perfect timing.

They were both laughing heartily when Mrs Anstey walked in and cheerily told us lunch was ready.

During soup, we chatted about writers. I had mentioned that that was what I really wanted to do. Henry had been at a dinner with Salmon Rushdie on the menu a few weeks before.

“He was in our house,” Henry explained to me as if he might be both proud and ashamed of the fact. “I felt like going up to him and saying: come on plot properly for the next one, eh? Honestly. All that magic. You won’t get the Nobel Prize, if you don’t. You can tell he’s, at heart, from the Third World.”

“Of course,” concurred Lucy’s father. “What was it Wellington said of being born in Ireland?”

“You can take the pig out of the sty. But you’ll never get the sty from the pig?” Henry tried.

“No. That’s not quite it. Though close. ‘If a man was born in a stable it doesn’t mean he’s a horse.’ Yes, that was it.”

I was lost. But there was a silence. “You weren’t his fag, were you?” I suddenly quipped.

“Wellington was a Harrow man. Besides he was born two centuries ago. You do know who Wellington was?” answered Henry, just a tad condescendingly.

“Yes. Of course. I meant Rushdie. It was a stupid joke,” I said sensing a serious faux pas in the making as soon as I said the word “Rushdie”.

Henry hadn’t reacted at first. Then what can only be described as a magnitude of horror grew over Henry’s face. Fuck, I thought. Though I had no real idea why he blanched so. A bad joke is a bad joke. No need to have a focking heart attack.

Giles, rather firmly, interjected: “Of course Henry wasn’t Rushdie’s fag. He wasn’t even in school by the time we’d left.”

I thought: that was the point. Joke? Shite.

Lucy’s stepmother passed round some vegetables.

“You’re a vegetarian, Jamie… That’s nice,” she said, breaking the silence and smiling warmly at me.

I had to get out of there. “That’s for some ethical reason, I presume?” said Giles after a further pause.

“I just don’t like the taste,” I answered curtly.

“Of course. What do you make of all these vegetarians who hate killing animals but who wear leather shoes?”

I replied quietly, I didn’t really know. I was wearing Church’s brogues.

“Hitler was a vegetarian,” observed Henry.

Only dessert, now, to go.

“You chose Georgetown because you’re a Catholic?” Giles asked as he resumed his polite attempts to draw me out. “Dwyer’s a Catholic’s name.”

“I was offered a, a scholarship,” I retorted.

“You’re not a Catholic then?”

“I’m not really a Christian,” I claimed.

“Would you like a bit more, Jamie?” interrupted Mrs Anstey.

“No, no thank you, Mrs Anstey. I’m cool.”

“James is a Christian name,” Lucy’s father puzzled deliberately. “Were you at one of those frightful Christian Brothers’ schools one always reads about in Irish novels, Jamie? That must have been what put you off religion,” he persisted.

“No,” I replied softly.

“What was the name of your school?” he pressed.

“You won’t’ve heard of it,” I answered defensively.

“You never know.”

“Gerards. Saint Gerards,” I answered finally, before realising I shouldn’t have given him the saint bit.

“Of course. So you are a Catholic, then, Jamie?”

“Is it really that important?” I snapped.

“No I don’t suppose it is. Just making conversation. I do apologise for upsetting you Jamie.”

“You haven’t. Please excuse me. I’m sorry. I am so jetlagged.”

“There’s nothing to excuse. Of course, religion doesn’t mean so much to the English. Though Lucy always went to church, usually on her own.”

Giles turned to Henry and asked him something about his work. Lucy’s stepmother stood up.

“I’m sorry but I’d best be off. My flight’s at five,” I said flatly, after I’d eaten dessert and no one had spoken to me for a while.

“You have nothing to be sorry for, Jamie,” Giles said genially.

I walked over and rather awkwardly shook hands goodbye with Henry. He seemed a little surprised at my formality. Decided just to wave bye to Giles. That went down equally well. Focking hell.

“I’m so sorry,” Mrs Anstey said as she led me into the hall and towards the front door. “Nanny’s not back. I expect she forgot. Poor Nanny. Now – I am sure I mentioned to her this morning Lucy’s beau would be here. I am so happy Lucy found you over there. We were so worried about her being lonely in Washington. She was so very nervous about going there. But when I spoke to her after she met you – it was the day after you first met, I think. Yes, I was so certain just from the way she spoke that you two were perfect together,” she continued, as we stood in front of the open door. “You must give our love to Lucy. And do please come see us next time you’re in London. You must. Promise?”

“I do. Thank you, Eva, for lunch… I’m, I’m sorry if I offended Henry. I was just…”

“It would’ve been very funny. Except that, and you mustn’t let on to Lucy’s father, now, but Henry’s… How shall I put it? Not quite as straight, as he seems. Lucy will tell you what I mean. Bye for now Jamie.”


Later that day Lucy and her father were speaking on the phone.

“First thing he did was look at the pictures.”


“It’s rude. When you walk into a room, you address people, not the walls. Manners maketh the man and all that. He’s a bit rough around the edges, darling.”

“You were rude too.”

“He said that?”

“No. No. I just heard what you talked about. It’s rude to ask about religion at the table.”

“I never taught you that, love. Besides, I was teasing. The Irish are actually supposed to have a sense of humour. He may come from an illustrious family or whatever you tell me, but he did seem, well, a bit ordinary to me. Are you sure?”

“Stop it Daddy. Please. We’re not actually getting married. You’re so funny.”

Chapter Four – Rustication

Two days after I returned from Europe, we had to go meet the Monsignor. His office was in one of the red brick late nineteenth-century neo-gothic buildings that so characterised campus. On the way there, Lucy rather discombobulated me by, aggrievedly, assuming I was stoned. I was (a weency bit). If there was one thing I prided myself on, it was that no one could tell when I was cained, either from my behaviour or from how I appeared. Lucy was different, of course, because she knew me so well. However, I told her I wasn’t, and her apparent distrust of my denial annoyed me.

The Monsignor’s room was very grand. It was lined with floor to ceiling-height bookcases and tall, numerous windows that allowed in great ironing board shards of light.

He sat behind a big uncluttered desk and looked up absently as I quietly closed the door behind us. He then switched to (ostentatiously?) hunting for the cap of the gold-trimmed black fountain pen he held in his hand. Lucy and I waded our way through the deep red, blue and green Persian-style rugs to him. He indicated the two chairs in front of his desk. Without having located its cap, he put down his pen with a temporarily frustrated look and stood up. We shook hands with differing grasps and sat down again. He remained standing though. Shit. I wondered whether we should stand up again. We had both been in the room before, of course, but it had always seemed a lot less somber.

“I hope you don’t mind my request to see you together. Do you object to this modus operandi?” he asked.

I looked to Lucy as she shook her head. I tried not to think of quite how much I wanted to fuck her. We hadn’t hardly since I’d come back. I nodded my head too to indicate my assent.

“Last week Celice Schwartz’s parents came up to see us.” My expression, and what lay behind, changed the instant he began her name. “I frankly didn’t know what to say to them. I let her into this university, you know. Now she’s gone,” he said, in an almost matter of fact tone. “Well, I’m a priest but they weren’t looking for spiritual guidance from me.” He paused, and, still standing, looked down upon us intently. I sat up a little straighter in my chair and met his gaze. I was in the headmaster’s study trying to persuade him it wasn’t me he’d seen throw that snowball. “How much of your fifty-thousand-dollar scholarship did you spend on illegal drugs? I only ask because the alumnus who donated that money is, sooner or later, bound to ask us.”

In the corner of my eye, I saw Lucy look down. I was taken aback by the way our relationship had so suddenly changed. Last time we’d met was in class the day before the crash. Knowing of Lucy’s involvement through her internship with the proposed biosphere reserve in Chiapas, the Monsignor had mentioned an old colleague of his who lived in Chiapas was coming to DC; he’d said we’d all have dinner together. But, although this made me sad later on, at the time I just felt defensive. I mean, we hadn’t done anything, really.

“We’ve both worked really hard,” I replied. I could feel one of Lucy’s special glacial stares on me.

“It’s not your work we’re here to talk about, is it?” he asked superciliously. It was my turn to shake my head. “I couldn’t be happier with you as students. My disappointment in how you conduct your private life, however, is in exact proportion to the pleasure I had in teaching you.” I noted that ‘had’ and hoped to God it didn’t mean what it sounded like it meant. The Monsignor’s language was normally so precise. Thankfully, at this point, he stopped staring at us like laboratory animals and sat back down. “Every day, since your night out, we have spent more time than we can afford to, speaking to alumni who ask, ‘What’s all this, Monsignor, we hear about drugs at Georgetown?’ Every day we have to speak to parents worried about the tens of thousands of dollars they spend educating their children going up in smoke…”

I was irritated. It wasn’t our fault Celice hung out with a crack-head. “If the university wants a scapegoat, why not Alejo de Tolejdes?” I challenged, perhaps unwisely.

Lucy suddenly said, “Dr Ferguson, I would prefer to speak to you alone.” I looked to her furiously. She ignored me.

“I appreciate that,” he responded, looking at her patiently. “But, there isn’t much more to be said. The university Regents have asked that I remind you both that whether or not your scholarships for next year are renewed is within their absolute discretion. Normally, given your respective academic performances, this would simply be a formality. In the circumstances, however, I think you ought to make an alternative arrangement, or arrangements, for next year.”

“We didn’t do anything…” I started, but was interrupted by Lucy saying, “Shut-up Jamie,” in a high-pressure whisper.

“On a personal level, for you, I’m very sorry about this. But the whole community pays a price when something like this occurs and you must bear your portion of it,” he went on, looking at Lucy more than me and making it clear he didn’t mean for me to feel so compensated. “Your transcripts will mitigate somewhat the damage this might do to your careers; they shall reflect what you would have achieved had your time here not been so precipitately cut short,” he concluded before picking up a stack of papers from one side of his desk and adding, “All right. Good luck.”


Once outside in the spring, I made a stupid quip to alleviate the tension. “No more homework, then.”

“I think we should give each other a wide berth, for the time being” was Lucy’s response.

“Don’t blame me,” I said. I’d just noticed some kids were looking at us from across the lawn. Since our pictures had appeared in ‘The Hoya’, the daily campus newspaper, as part of a big spread about the crash, we’d become campus notables. Alongside a sensationalist piece on Celice’s death, they’d written-up profiles of me, Lucy, Alejo and Sylvie under the headline ‘Eurotrash Crash’. On the basis of an abstract of my ‘Revenge Now’ article I’d distributed at one of my class presentations, I was ‘The Irish Commie’ (Lucy was ‘The English Fall’, which took us some time to work out). The day before, on my way into campus for the first time since I’d gotten back from Ireland, I’d been asked if I was Jamie Dwyer – “No” (in an American accent), and pointed at a couple of times. One jock from the safety of a group of friends had even suggested that if I hated America so much I should just ‘piss off’ (in his rubbish impression of an English accent).

“Jamie, this is one thing which actually isn’t only about you. We’re both going to say things we’ll regret if we speak any further right now. I’m going to work,” she announced.

At a time like this? I thought. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked.

“Don’t, Jamie.”


“No. Look, it’s happening already. I’ll call you later.”

“We have to talk strategy, Lu. About what we’re going to do. Let’s fight this. We didn’t do anything…”

“It’s over, Jamie. I h a t e t h i s b l o o d y p l a c e. I thought maybe when you got back it’d be okay again, but it’s not. I wouldn’t stay if they paid me; which, if you weren’t too stoned to understand, they’re not going to do.” She must have seen how her words had affected me because she relented. “We’ll have supper. I’ll call you later. Okay?”

“’K,” I said reluctantly. And then she left me standing.

I decided to go for a hot chocolate at a non-student café on M street. Campus was beginning to freak me out. It was fine with Lucy, but on my own… The very first person I bumped into was Alejo.

“How’s it going?” I greeted him with absurd normality.

“Jaime. Wonderful. Welcome back.” We were just like two old friends meeting after long apart. We hadn’t seen each other since he’d been whisked away after the crash. Whenever I had thought about him, it was usually with anger. I hadn’t been prepared for seeing him in person. He wore a perfectly fitting dark suit, white shirt, thin black tie and seemed so genuinely pleased to see me, I was – touched. “Do you have t-t-time for a bite, Jaime.” Only when he pronounced my name the way he did, did I remember: of course, he’s Mexican. Otherwise, to me at any rate, he was completely indistinguishable from the posh prep school educated Americans ubiquitous at Georgetown. “I think we should t-t-talk.”

“I’m just…” I was just going to make up an excuse. Instinctively, I thought Alejo would be the very last person in the world I wanted to see just then. Weirdly, though, I felt immediately better for being in his presence. It wasn’t just a case of ‘any port in a storm’. It was more than that. I was actually happy (distracted?) now I’d bumped into him. He said he knew a quiet Italian place down a side street near the canal where no one from school would be. I realised I didn’t have any money on me. When I told him, he looked momentarily confused.

“I invited you, so you are my guest,” he said simply.

While we strolled to the quiet Italian place, I asked when he’d arrived back to DC.

“I just flew in on a commercial flight for a wholly unwelcome appointment with my tutor – our plane is still being fixed. I don’t know why it is taking so long. Do you understand aeroplanes, Jaime?”

“Lucy and I just saw the Monsignor.”

“Is that why you appear as you do? Yes. That must be it.”

“I look that bad?”

“Tired Jamie. You look tired. As soon as we order you’re going to tell me exactly what transpired.”

Once we were settled, I described precisely what had been said in the meeting with the Monsignor, though, of course, I left out the bit where I tried to land him in it. Sitting face-to-face with him, I now felt pretty bad about that.

“But that’s terrible Jamie. Whatever are you going to do?”

The food arrived.

“My first instinct is to fight. Lucy thinks she wants to leave. I’m going to persuade her to fight with me.”

“What does it take for any of us to unravel? This is a question I have been asking myself Jamie. Jamie, there are three other questions which have been troubling me lately. I particularly want to ask them of you. There is no necessity for you to provide answers to me. It would be better for you to listen very carefully. We Mexicans are like you Irish. We have a great gift for friendship.”

“The Northern Irish call southern Irish people who come over the border to work or live ‘Mexicans’,” I said to try to lighten things up a little bit. I thought Alejo would be interested to know that. But his expression did not change; did not relax one jot.

“When I left New York after the crash, Jaime, my parents had me locked up. For one week I was given so many drugs. I was asked so many questions. And do you know what the doctors concluded? I am saner than they are.” The waitress came over just at this very moment. “We’re absolutely oki-dokey. Thank you. Aren’t we Jamie?” She started to go. Somehow he made her stop and turn without really saying anything. “I am being very rude,” he said to her. “Ask my guest would he like anything further?” There was something menacing in the way he said it.

“I’m grand, thank you,” I said when she looked at me strangely. She didn’t get what I meant by ‘grand’. She stood there.

“He said ‘No. No thank you. I am fine for now too. Just like my friend Alejo.’” She went away immediately. I took a sip of water.

“Jamie, the question I really need to ask of you is… Well it’s about you and Lucy. You told Lucy, didn’t you, that you and Celice kissed, didn’t you? Why did you do it Jamie? I would never have said a word to Lucy. It doesn’t matter. My doctor said I had to speak to you about this. Now I have. I don’t blame you. No I don’t Jamie. It’s important you know that. It is that little minx of a dancer I blame. You see, I never minded Celice being with girls. En fait, I encouraged it. It’s only boys I mind. But I don’t mind you Jamie. You’re fine. I won’t tell Lucy. You’re wondering what Celice and I were arguing about before the crash? It was you Jamie. There. I’ve said it. It’s important you say nothing about any of this. They have put me on these antidepressants. Do you know how they affect me?”

“No,” I managed. I felt sick. I wasn’t clear about what had just been said. Not absolutely. What Alejo said, and how he seemed while saying it, seemed completely inconsistent. His body language genuinely suggested he was completely at peace with himself, and me. The menace was gone. Utterly. Yet the things he was thinking about. What I had done to him surely was unforgivable? But here we were sitting in this little Italian restaurant, like two normal friends. A completely mad thought occurred to me, which to this day I am happy I suppressed. I was weighing up whether or not to tell Alejo that Celice also kissed Lucy.

“While you were in Ireland Jamie, I saw a lot of Lucy. I’m sure she told you this. We looked you up on the Internet. Your family is just as interesting as mine, isn’t it? Well, you don’t know my family. But I feel I know yours. Your poor father Jamie. Did you see him when you were in Ireland? What was it like? Prison? He simply did not deserve it. What I can’t understand is that you never told Lucy any of it? She was so surprised when we read the articles about your family. So surprised. I can’t understand why she never researched you. I am talking too much? I research everyone. Forgive me, Jamie. I am tired. So tired. Do you know what my parents have been trying to do to me? … I am no Holden Caulfield, I said to them. Mother corrected my grammar. I want you to come to Mexico to meet my mother. You would like my mother. But I do worry about you, Jamie. Things have been very difficult for you,” he seemed to recover quickly enough. “And about Lucy. Poor lost Lucy…”

“We’re fine Alejo. Look. I’m sorry. I am so sorry. I don’t…” I faltered.

“Jamie, I haven’t spoken like this to make you feel worse than I know you already do. No, that was not it at all. We all feel it. I have said what I must. That is all. What we have been through together – all of us – is something we will always have together. We are bound together. Forever. This is a tense time for all of us. I just want it to stop, but every day some new, some new consequence. Your parents Jamie, do they know?”

“About the crash, yes.”

“If we can all get through this, we’ll get through everything. We must stick together.”

I found this reach for solidarity curiously consoling. “Alejo I’m so sorry about Celice.”

“We must get on. We must all go on.” He pushed away his plate. “We must just stick together.”

I said something non-committedly. He paid the bill. That made me feel so bad – him paying the bill, after what had just gone on. As if my paying a bill would change anything. Once we stepped outside, the beauty of the day, that glorious sharpness in the air, the blue sky, it all seemed perverse.

“I want you to consider something very carefully, Jamie,” Alejo said, just as we were about to go off in our different directions. “I want you to come away with me. I want us all – Lucy, Sylvie, you and me – to go away from here to think about what has happened. Together. I have a house in a very, very interesting part of North Carolina. It’s a wonderful place. Only one or two hours away. You’ll come?”

“I – I don’t really know what I want to do.”

“Then come. You must come. For one day or two? You can persuade Lucy. Won’t you Jamie?”

“I’m not sure I should, Alejo.”

“Jamie,” he said intensely. “You must come. Say you will? It would mean the world to me. The world. Jamie?” I was cracking. “You and Lucy will have plenty of time alone to walk, and I, well, Sylvie and I can prepare the house while we await your return. Jamie? It’ll be wonderful. Wonderful.”

Just to stop him going on, I agreed. He immediately beamed back. “I knew I could convince you. In a couple of days?”

“Fine, fine,” I replied. I totally didn’t want to go there. I had this crazy thought that he wanted to lure me there to get some sort of revenge.

He left me to go see his tutor. I went home to get ultra-stoned. That really helped the whole paranoia thing. I needed to distract myself with work. But I just kept thinking of Lucy. I needed to see Lucy. I ended up spending the afternoon listening to Placebo. I hardly managed to read one page.

Before six, I decided to get dressed. I thought when Lucy called, as she had promised she would, we’d go out to a bar downtown and then go eat in the Ethiopian restaurant she liked in Adams Morgan. I put on an outfit she had once said made me very handsome. When she hadn’t called by eight I began to worry: distancing manoeuvre? And, when she eventually did call should I hide my distress? Aggressively express it? I would show her I wouldn’t put up with being lied to? With being let down? I must be gently discreet. She will get it. I enjoyed running over the possibilities in my mind. Meanwhile the phone refused to ring. I checked my email. Tried Sylvie’s cell: no answer. I would not call Lucy’s phone. I would not seem impatient.


Around eight, Lucy was waiting for Sylvie inside the Eighteenth Street Lounge. It was probably the most fashionable bar in DC at that time. New York style. Four leather sofa-strewn floors, waitress service. Dark finishes.

“Hello there,” Lucy said when Sylv approached the third-floor window sofa where she was sitting.

“Hi. You look cool.” Sylvie admired Lucy’s tightly fitted, smart pinstripe trouser-suit.

“Too cool. I need a sweater.”

Sylvie unwrapped hers from around her waist and handed it over.

“Thanks dal.”

“Vodka-cran?” asked Sylvie. Lucy nodded and Sylvie ordered another one for herself as well.

Outside, the street artist Lucy had been watching while she waited still stood on the sidewalk, surrounded by a crowd of people as he stood on a platform. The waitress left them with menus and disappeared. Another one came, almost immediately.

“What do you feel like?”

“Quarter-pounder and fries,” Sylvie replied. “In this weather I should be having a salad, but I’m starving.”

“Two quarter-pounders and two fries,” Lucy ordered. “I’m sick of playing vegetarian,” she explained when Sylvie made a face. “I don’t think he even notices.”

“He would if you didn’t,” Sylvie put in.

They handed over their menus and Lucy leaned back.

“How was your meeting?” Sylvie asked.

“Great. Properly great,” Lucy beamed.

“I thought something was up. You asked?”

“He said as soon as they get funding for next year. Mexico here I come.”

“When? How soon?”

“Couple of months. August, maybe.”

“You can wait till then?”

“Not if I can help it. The whole point of going for this was to get away from here. There’s a thin chance of a few weeks’ assignment at the UN.”

“New York time?” Sylvie asked, smiling. Lucy nodded. “What did you tell him about school?”

“The truth. No funding for next year and after the crash I don’t feel the same about DC.”

“How do you do it?” Sylvie asked with a curious expression on her face.

“Charm,” Lucy smiled. “I suppose.”

“He fancies you.”

“He’s great to work for,” Lucy replied. “But that’s it. I saved his ass with that conference paper I wrote for him. That’s why, I suppose.”

“I still say he fancies you.”

“Stop saying that Sylv. I’ve worked properly hard all year. I won ‘intern of the year’ – remember?”

Sylvie blushed. “Sorry, I was only joking.”

The waitress returned with their drinks. When she had left, Lucy looked silently at Sylvie. She didn’t return the look. “You say you are, but you’ve said as much before. Why be nasty?” Sylvie looked out the window at the street artist who was now throwing flaming torches and catching them in his mouth. She was fighting with herself, not knowing exactly what she wanted to say. “Seriously Sylvie. Why?”

Sylvie looked away from the window and picked at her nails. “I think Alejo and I are going through a bit of a difficult patch,” she said finally.

Lucy didn’t say anything. She took a sip of her drink and regarded Sylvie thoughtfully. Sylv took hold of a carnation from the vase on the table.

“That’s hardly surprising,” Lucy said at last. “This’s difficult for all of us. Now you know they’ll let you graduate that must be a weight off your minds. How are things with Tom?”

Sylvie absent-mindedly plucked the leaves from the flower.

Their burgers arrived. Lucy loaded mayonnaise on to the side of her plate and poured ketchup liberally onto the chips. “Comfort food,” she attempted to make Sylvie smile. “Hope it works,” she said as she took her first bite. Then she was silent, waiting for Sylvie to speak.

Sylvie coughed a couple of times. “I’m being awful. I’m taking it all out on Tom,” she said eventually. “And it’s getting to him. I can see it is. He’s never ever lost his temper with me. He almost did yesterday.”

Lucy popped a chip into her mouth. “It’s hot,” she gasped, her eyes watering. “What’s the problem?”

“I don’t even know if I love Alejo,” she said. Then it all came flooding out. Even before the crash, he’d been spending very little time with her. He was spending all his free time with Celice. Then, whenever he didn’t call her, she would lose it with mild-mannered Tom. Throughout the whole post-crash period in New York, Tom was her brick; whenever, because of nightmares or the Crystal Meth, she couldn’t sleep, he was there for her.

“Why do you think this has happened?” asked Lucy.

She wiped her eye. “He thinks I’m fat.”

“Alejo? Don’t be ridiculous, Sylvie,” Lucy laughed. “If you think he’s that shallow drop him. It’s not as if Tom doesn’t love you.”

“Even you think I’m fat. God…”

“I didn’t say that. I meant, I meant even if you were, then he’d have to be…”

“Tom’s stressing me out too,” Sylvie continued. “I met him straight after today. He was so unsympathetic. I need a Xanax…”

“Or a change of subject? Let’s talk about something else?” Lucy suggested as she arranged her knife and fork to indicate ‘I’m finished’ on her plate.

“You told Jamie about Mexico?”

“It’s only a possibility, Sylvie. No. Since he came back from Ireland, I don’t know…”

“What?” They ordered more drinks.

“It feels like we’ve been married a hundred years,” Lucy said.

“Look on the bright side. At least you’re not.”

“Yes, but I don’t think he’s even aware of it. I don’t think he’s been in a relationship like this before.”

“I wouldn’t go become Jungle Jane just ’cos you want to give him the can. Tell him.”

Lucy chewed the inside of her lip. “You’re one to talk.” They both giggled. “I don’t know if that’s what I do want. We were both so happy a month ago.”

“It’s all Alejo’s fault.”

Lucy looked up at her sharply. “What do you mean?”

“Easy tiger. I meant the crash. All this. What’ll you do if Mexico doesn’t work out? Home?”

“No way. I hate England.”

“You have to come to New York. I just wish you had met my parents at a normal time. Normally they would have loved you. You could have stayed forever. But come to New York anyway. I’ll find you somewhere to stay.”

Lucy stirred the dregs of her drink around and around. “Well, it’s one jungle or another…”

“Speaking of which, will you come away with me and Alejo next weekend?”

“Don’t think so. Where?”

“Please Lu. I can’t tell Tom I’m going away with Alejo alone and you said you wanted to get out of DC. It’s this crazy house on the edge of a primeval swamp in the Carolinas.”

“Sounds interesting. Maybe… Might be good to get away from Jamie too.”


When Lucy hadn’t called by nine I was sure she wouldn’t. I went downstairs and sat in Lucy’s crimson room. Checked my email. Checked Lucy’s diary. Nothing new. Waited for the phone to ring. Doorbell rang. That’s her. She’s lost her key. She’s decided to come back. Needless to say, it wasn’t any of those things, or even her – it was Tom.

“Let’s drink,” he said when I explained what had happened. He went out to grab some beers while I waited on the sofa for one last hour for the phone to ring. When he returned, we sat on the barely lit deck and talked quietly so we wouldn’t disturb the neighbours.

“As soon as I got back,” I started, “I noticed the spark was gone. Even after the crash there was, there was always this feeling between us.” I began to skin up as it all poured out of me. “But now it’s gone. Kissing, she suddenly stops. ‘What?’ I ask. ‘Oh, nothing.’ Then I – I try to undress her and she blows me out.”

“You’ve just got to find the right level again,” Tom advised. After the last two weeks it’s not surprising things shake.”

“Sorry,” I said. I was always trying to hand him spliffs. “I just want her to know I love her.”

“Then act like you don’t give. If she’s being cool with you, be cool back.”

“Our relationship doesn’t work like that, Tom. We’re really very open about our feelings.”

“Jamie, I really admire your relationship. You don’t always know your own feelings. I think you’re going through a transition period…”

“How are you guys coping?” I cut him off.

“Good. It’s all good. I’m just trying to be there for Sylv when she needs me and far away when she needs space.”

“How do you know though?”

“You don’t. That’s why it’s good she blows you out once in a while.”

“It was a lot easier when we were going to be here for two years. Now I don’t know.”

“I still don’t think it’s fair Alejo and Sylvie get to graduate.”

“I’ll go back to Ireland. What’s the point if Lucy and me are over?”

“Don’t play dead, Jamie. Fight for her. She’s properly worth it.” His impersonation of Lucy’s mannerisms always made me laugh.

We left the house at one-fifteen. He’d told me ages ago about this strip bar up at Glover Park, a blue-collar area just north of Georgetown. Since Lucy hadn’t bothered to call, thinking it was bound to annoy her and it might be my last chance to go, I decided now was the time to pay it a visit.

From the outside it looked like a boarded-up shop and after you paid the five bucks’ cover you entered what was a normal looking bar except that all along one side of the room was a narrow stage with poles. A girl was dancing. She wasn’t as fit as Lucy, but the same idea. There weren’t too many others there and we made our way through to the bar and ordered shorts. Beside us, a couple of Hispanic guys were paying the girl to dance right in front of them. It only cost a couple bucks. After watching for a time, we wandered over to a seating area, but you could only drink drinks there you’d ordered from the pretty waitress who was hovering around the tables covetously. So we ordered more drinks and let ourselves be Maître d’d into a small table with an obstructed view of the stage.

“I bet she called soon as we left.”

“Fuck it.”

“Hope she did. If we’re going to get married I’ve got to teach her she can’t treat me like this,” I said.

“Woo, dude. You do not want to get married. We’re all too young.”

“If you meet the right person, it doesn’t matter how young you happen to be,” I replied.

“It’s not meeting the right person’s the problem. It’s knowing yourself well enough to know who’d be right for you. Jamie I think this crash has affected us all in ways we cannot imagine at the moment. Just take it easy, dude.”

Now, I’d known Tom since that first class back in August. I couldn’t say I knew him that well. This was the first time we’d ever been out together without the women. We’d talked a lot about esoteric subjects like politics, US foreign policy, or about stuff to do with class assignments. We’d talked enough to know we shared the same views about a lot of things. Or at least the same values. A couple of times Lucy had gossiped about his and Sylvie’s relationship.

The secret of their relationship, Tom told me that evening, was that they had been close friends for months before anything romantic had happened and they were quite disciplined about how much of each other they saw. It was due to this, Tom explained, that they’d successfully negotiated the rapids that lie between being in love and actually loving one another.

“Why does someone fall out of love?” I asked as we left the bar. We were totally smashed, and it was four.

“Be positive Jamie. Make her love you again. Keep it cool.”

“I don’t want her to think I don’t care,” I said as we got into his car.

“That’s what’ll make her see you do love her. Just give her space,” he reasoned wisely and started the engine.


Alejo lived in a portered redbrick on P Street. Sylvie’s plan was to go there after dinner with Lucy. But when it came to it she didn’t want to go alone. Lucy reluctantly agreed to accompany her, but she’d only stay, she said, for one more drink. He lived on the top floor. When the elevator opened, they slipped through the double doors into a large sitting room. Alejo had been on a sofa hunched over a table, legs splayed, playing out a complicated-looking game of patience. He came towards them.

“You can’t imagine how happy I am to see you.” He kissed Sylvie perfunctorily on the cheek and went to kiss Lucy, but with a deft (possibly ambiguous) movement she avoided him by going over to the wall of windows and looking out at Virginia beyond the Potomac. Sylvie went to the bathroom. “Lucy, it has been so long,” he said joining her there. “I’ve been wanting to apologise for how I was in New York.”

“There’s nothing to apologise for,” Lucy answered. “That’s Alexandria, isn’t it?” Lucy asked looking out across the river.

“Yes. It must have been horrible for you. I was so much trouble?”

“It was only a couple afternoons.”

“I didn’t mean that,” Alejo said walking over to her.

“What didn’t you mean?” Sylvie asked walking back into the room. They both turned around and Lucy walked back away from the window. “I was just saying that it was only a couple afternoons I sat with him in New York,” Lucy replied sitting down on one of the long sofas. “The way he’s going on you’d think I was with him twenty-four-seven.”

“That was me Alejo. I was the one who sat with you every hour I could bear,” Sylvie corrected the record, sitting down opposite Lucy.

“I know you did,” he said irritably. Lucy hadn’t heard that note before in his voice.

“Lucy says she’ll come away with us to the country,” Sylvie announced, suddenly wanting to please.

“That’s wonderful. Absolutely wonderful,” he replied, perfectly altered. “I met Jamie today and he said he’d come too.”

“What? Tom’ll know now we’re going away.”

“Don’t stress Sylv. It’s better Jamie comes. That way you can tell Tom, it’s a crash party.”

“Seriously though. Why are you such a fuck?” Sylvie confronted Alejo viciously. “Ever think Lucy mightn’t want Jamie there?”

“Is this true, Lucy?” he asked.

“Course it’s not. I’m glad you asked him.” Lucy was looking at the upside down cards laid out before her on the table. “This’ll work,” she said taking up a card and turning over the one behind it. “And this.” She continued for about a minute.

“It’ll be fine Sylvie. I promise.” He placed his hands on her shoulders from behind. “You’re amazing Lucy,” he continued, noticing how she was finishing the game. “I was having t-t-terrible trouble with the next move.”

“Let’s play a proper game,” Lucy suggested.

His smile returned and he got up to fix them drinks while Lucy picked up the cards and shuffled them expertly. Sylvie looked like she was sulking.

Noticing this, Lucy said, “Actually I think I’m too tired to play.”

Sylvie sat up and said, “No, Lucy stay. What game? Blackjack?”

“Poker?” suggested Alejo.

“I don’t want to,” Sylvie replied petulantly.

“Pontoon,” Lucy said authoritatively.

“Great. You gamble don’t you Lucy? Whoever has the most matches at the end wins.” He fetched a glass vase crammed with matchbooks.

Looking up every now and again, Lucy could see the lights of Virginia shine beyond the river in the distance. For a tireless hour they forgot themselves and played the game. Sylvie was first to fade.

“I’d drive you home Lu. I’m so tired,” she explained. “I’m going to crash here.”

“That is a very good idea Sylvie. You stay here while I take Lucy home. I can do that. Lucy, would you like to go to bed?” asked Alejo.

“That’s okay. I’ll grab a cab.”

“I’ll take you, Lucy. It’s nothing.”

“You don’t mind if I don’t come?” asked Sylvie.

“Course not. I’ll see you…”


“Today. Later?”

“I’ll call,” said Lucy. “As soon as I leave work. I can’t believe I stayed up so late and I have work tomorrow. Today.”

Once in the car, Alejo pounced. “That talk we had in New York, Lucy…”

“Forget it.”

“No really. What you said. I’ve thought a lot about it. It really helped.”

“I’m very glad.”

“I don’t think I would have survived those first few days without you.”

“And Sylvie, and Tom.”

“No it was you, particularly. How you managed your grief when your mother died…”

“Forget it, Alejo. I only talked because it helped me too.” He looked hurt. “I mean I’m glad it helped you. It helped me too. So don’t thank me.”

As they pulled up outside our house, they saw me lying down in a foetal position on the steps.

“Something’s happened,” Lucy exclaimed. She jumped out of the car. Alejo followed and calmly concluded, as she gently tried to rouse me, I was only asleep. They could smell my boozy breath.

“What you doing?” I slurred when slightly awake.

“Why’re you not inside?”

“Pissed – no key – I’ll show you,” I responded, cogently enough for her to get the picture. I then collapsed again and fell asleep. Alejo helped her carry me to her bed. On her bed was her laptop with her diary open, just where I’d left it when Tom had called by earlier. It was the first time Alejo had seen her crimson bedroom. After he’d gone, Lucy started slapping my face to wake me. I just remembered the word ‘diary’. I was unrousable. She went upstairs and slept in mine.

Lucy was supposed to be at the office at ten for a meeting. She tried to dress quietly so as not to wake me up. She didn’t succeed. I’d waited up all evening for her call, I told her before I’d even opened my eyes.

“We better not speak right now Jamie. I fucking did call you a hundred times but you were on the Internet. Or were you just reading my fucking diary?”

“I opened it by accident Lu. I’m so sorry. I didn’t read any of it. Tom arrived. I got distracted.”

“Have you been reading it all year? I actually cannot speak to you right now or think about any of this. Got to get to work. I’ll be back at one. To sleep.”

And with that she left me and the house.

Chapter Five - Okefenokee

Alejo’s country house was a couple of hours’ drive from DC, he said. Around it, he explained, were swamps, and flora and fauna that hadn’t altered greatly in ten thousand years. His Aunty, whose house it was, had given up the struggle against the encroaching jungle many years previously. She lived in Ecuador. And, as she never visited, Alejo went there every now and again to check on things, and to party.

Since the strip-bar night, I had hardly seen Lucy. We had made up a couple of days after the ‘diary fight’ – our most serious yet – but things weren’t quite back to normal. There was a kind of determined silence about her. I was definitely being phased out, I reckoned. The one time she really did speak to me was when she told me about her job possibilities. It was as if it was understood that we had broken up already. I encouraged her to think about New York. I would win her back, I thought. I wanted to concentrate on expanding my article into a book. I needed libraries. On the down side, though, I didn’t want a normal job, so this meant, I told Lucy, I might have a problem making the rent; we should therefore live together there, I said. We’d manage somehow, I was sure. Lucy was like: Jamie, even if you weren’t rich, we’d be living apart. She’d be staying at Sylvie’s, she told me.

Lucy was working on a project in the office and wasn’t back till late each day when, she said, she was too tired to talk about our relationship. I was just trying to take Tom’s advice and give her space. But it was hard because it was basically all I thought about all day while she was at work. I couldn’t wait, though, to have her in the countryside. We could go on walks and work out what to do next.

Only when we got onto I-95 did Alejo tell us the last time he’d gone there was with Celice a couple of weeks before the crash. No one spoke for a while after that.

This was exactly the type of adventure I’d hoped to find at Georgetown. One of the stupid angry thoughts that seized me these days was whether meeting Lucy so soon after I had arrived in DC meant that I’d missed out on opportunities to find Secret History type friends. It was ironic that now our time at Georgetown was almost over, I finally was doing the kind of stuff I’d expected to be doing the whole time.

Straight down the highway we sped. Passed signs warning hitch-hikers might be escaped criminals and one that actually said: Antiques Made Daily. After six hours, we still weren’t there. I wondered irritably, were we lost?

“I seldom know how long trips take. I prefer to fly. An hour we’ll be there,” reckoned Alejo.

“You said…”

“You’re like a child, Jamie,” Lucy interrupted me, although I was sure she was as pissed off as I was about being misled.

After another hour, we stopped at a strip mall, ate lardo pancakes and bought groceries. Sylvie, Alejo and I also did a little key. I felt better after that.

“We’re almost there,” Alejo reassured us before we set off again. Soon we’d turned off the interstate. I stared bleakly out of the window. We passed vast fields. Sylvie, in the front seat, opened her window. Warm air blew her hair in her face.

“Some of my mother’s family also had a plantation down here,” Alejo said. The landscape of endless pines reminded me of parts of the west of Ireland too, in a way, though there it was on a much smaller scale of course. Just before turning onto an even smaller road, we passed a dismal cluster of businesses in a strip mall: a garage and a gravel store. A young white trash looking guy in jeans with a hunting cap was holding what seemed to be an unloaded shot gun slung over his shoulder and a brown paper grocery bag. Some chickens wandered across the road. We had to slow down. On we drove. Shacks gave way to more woods, with occasional flat fields that smelled of chemicals. Then we descended rapidly for about ten miles before reaching a sign declaring our entry into a UNESCO designated biosphere reserve. The countryside had changed. Now, on either side of the road, the sparse woods gave way to thick tangles of reeds. And, despite the air con in the car, you could feel the humidity rising. After about twenty miles, there appeared something I hadn’t seen before in the American countryside – the kind of miles-long brick wall that sometimes surrounds European country estates. It seemed to go on forever. Every time I thought it was finished, there it was again, peeping through the hugging vegetation that rose before and above it.

“It has more bricks in it than any other wall on the Eastern seaboard,” Alejo told us. It surrounded, he added, the house where we would be staying. We must have driven a further ten miles along and around the wall until we reached a pair of double gates topped with razor wire. Alejo pressed a fob and nothing happened. He and I got out and pushed the gates open a bit before their electrical mechanism kicked in.

The first thing you noticed on the drive was the thickness of the foliage on either side. It reminded me of my uncle and aunt’s house, except that here the flora really was jungle thick and impenetrable. At times, the tangle of branches, leaves and vines on one side of the drive joined with those of the other, making a canopy which the roof, windscreen and sides of the car scratched along. It was so dark in there even Alejo took off his shades. After a further few miles, we broke out of this forest; on either side of the grassy road grew long grass about half a car’s height.

“It’s mostly back to marsh now,” Alejo explained. “Last century, slaves fashioned several thousand hectares of marsh into the finest parkland in the Carolinas. Thousands more acres were reclaimed for agriculture. Nothing’s been grown here for eighty years, though. And no one’s lived permanently in this house for about fifty. My aunt inherited it when she was eighteen, but she’s lived most of her life in Ecuador. And apart from when she was younger and would come spend some of the winter here, she never visited much. Won’t sell either. I might inherit it when she dies,” he concluded, as we approached the house itself.

It was southern style – eleven windows across, three storeys, with an eight-columned balconied portico protruding from the front. It was completely falling apart. It had probably once been brilliant white. Now only tiny speckles were visible here and there on bricks where the kudzu leaves were absent. The long grass stretched practically to the front door but it wasn’t half as tall as the really long grass that now covered what might have once been an elegant and constantly cut front lawn.

Alejo went off to see if the caretaker was in – he wasn’t – and we adjusted ourselves to the weird environment. It was a few degrees hotter than DC and, if you can believe it, a lot more humid. It was like DC after a thunderstorm, except worse. Alejo said it was always like this, but in winter, it had always been such a relief to get here from a freezing DC. We stepped in through the creaking, rotting front door.

“There’s only one old guy now to look after the place. He doesn’t do too much.” Where would you start? I thought. “I always thought,” Alejo continued, “I might buy it, if it’s not willed to me. I really would if I decided not to return to Mexico. It reminds me so much of my family’s land in Chiapas. I love coming here: the jungle, the swamp at the back, the damp, the heat – all of it.”

The atrium was the height of the house and empty, except for plaster here and there on the floors in little, anciently swept heaps. A grand cantilevered double-staircase that looked pretty rickety led all the way to the ceiling. I tried the echo – good. It was terrible dark inside there until Alejo opened some of the doors that led off the hall. Lucy said it felt creepy, and she wasn’t wrong. Strangely, though, it was about ten degrees cooler inside the house than outside, even without any air conditioning.

“I had a party here. Freshman year. Fifty of us came. We flew here though, in a chartered jet. That was the weekend I first made Celice,” Alejo reminisced. We didn’t say it, but the three of us knew now, for sure, that for Alejo this was some sort of pilgrimage. We wandered through the ground-floor rooms. There was hardly any furniture. At the back of the house was a room that seemed to run the entire length of the house. Three of its walls were made of damp, stained glass-fronted bookcases, while the fourth consisted of closed shutters which Alejo began opening almost as soon as we had stepped in. The three of us headed straight away for the shelves of books that housed hundreds, maybe even thousands, of titles.

“You used to be able to buy them by the weight,” Alejo explained, after we’d shouted out a couple of odd titles to each other – medical, legal stuff, in all sorts of languages. “No one thought it worthwhile removing them with the rest of the contents.”

We continued to peruse the spines in the increasing light as Alejo threw open the shutters; nice bindings but the pages were all mildewed and bug-eaten. Early evening light streamed into the empty, dusty room. You could see the ceiling-plaster was entirely gone in places, exposing the floorboards of the upper floors. Through the uncovered windows, you could also see the long grass quite as high as a mid-summer cornfield. In one place though, roughly opposite what looked like window-doors, there was a mown patch of grass, a few feet wide, that opened up into several mown paths that wound away from the house. Alejo opened the door-sized windows and we stepped back outside into the humidity and the noise of frogs, cicadas and birds.

“We must pay attention. The swamp moves closer and closer to the house every year. There should be safe paths cut through the grass all the way down to what was once the lake, though.”

“What’s it now?”

“Swamp. The old island’s still there. We can row over to it tomorrow for a picnic, if you like. But there’re crocodiles and the boat’s not very good.” With that he took out one of those little smoked-glass bottles you buy coke in and suggested we do a few keys.

“I’m going to pass, Alejo,” said Lucy. “I wouldn’t mind a little sleepee. Is there actually any furniture?”

“Me too,” added Sylvie.

“We’ll sleep together upstairs. I’ll show you.”

Closing the window-door behind us, we stepped back into the gallery and through the hall, carefully following Alejo’s exact footsteps as he ascended the grand staircase up to the third floor. He explained, as we passed it, the second floor was completely unsafe, rotten. Papers lay strewn all along it. Old letters. Old documents, he said. Torn, damp. Boring, legal stuff, apparently.

The third floor looked relatively well kept, or, at least when we reached it Alejo walked without any hesitation on the floorboards. All the doors were wide open. Nothing was inside the rooms. We padded along looking into them or down onto the atrium until we reached the end. Then Alejo stepped through a narrow door and we followed his ascent up the even narrower stairs. When we reached what was probably once the servants’ floor, Alejo opened one of the closed doors to reveal a large low-ceilinged room with a vast antique bed covered with a transparent heavy plastic dustsheet; other pieces of furniture all covered too – a bedside table and an ensuite bathroom with old age-specked appliances.

“There’s only cold, I’m sorry,” Alejo said to Lu as she tried one of the taps. “Welcome to the Hotel California,” he added, a little worryingly. He was now fiddling with the manky mosquito shield on the tiny window.

We took the dustsheet off the bed. It was well bouncy. Alejo then uncovered a chest of drawers and told us to help ourselves to the clothes inside.

“Celice and I spent a couple of weeks here last year. She left all these clothes. They’re hers,” he added needlessly. “Let’s leave the girls to get ready. I can show you further around Jamie.”

“I might sleep, though, in an hour or two.” Only one bed? I thought. I was disappointed. I had envisioned a high-ceilinged bedroom in which Lucy and I might have privacy. It didn’t look like there was a chance for any of that. I was in no particular rush. So we left them there to get into Celice’s pyjamas.

Once downstairs, Alejo and I did two enormous lines. I’d never felt more awake. A spliff speedily put paid to that. We went back down through the windows into the darkened noisy garden. We walked the whole way around the house with a torch, crushing the high grass under foot and squelching every now and again into islands of swamp as we did so. Alejo showed a practical side I’d not suspected him of possessing. He pointed out, here and there, aspects of the house that needed an urgent seeing-to. Gutters mostly.

“The roof’s good. Just. But the lead flashing needs replacing or the house is finished. Will you help me go up there and check it?”

I glanced up to the top of the house. It looked very tall. I made a non-committal noise. Alejo didn’t seem to notice.

He described how one of his family estates in Mexico was like here – how it was located in a similar environment, albeit further away from a swamp than this. He pointed out a strange looking grey-green shrub he called a pain tree, named as such because, he said, should you brush against it, invisible patches on the leaves and bark would leave a painful scarlet inflammation on your skin. He also indicated another tree whose trunk stank when you approached.

Alejo led me along one of the paths cut through the long grass. Every now and again, we’d turn off onto smaller branches until I was totally disoriented. I wondered, shouldn’t he show me all of this in the morning when it was light? But he was sure it’d be fine now. The only things we had to worry about, he said, without any apparent irony, were the attacking snakes. Within fifty metres, as the crow flies, of the house, such was the slope of the former back lawn and the height of the grass, you couldn’t see even the outline of the big house’s roof any longer. Every now and again we’d reach an odoriferous little copse composed only of incense trees, or squelch through a marshy bit of grass. Along the way, Alejo, aided by my questions, told me the history of his family.

“We’re one of the only truly American families alive. We’ve been intermarrying with conquistadores’ families for four centuries, so I’m a mixture of Castilian, Galician and Andalusian. There’s even some Breton. We’re aboriginal Celto-Iberians. That’s why you and I, Jaime, we get along so fine. Impervious and hard-headed, that’s what we Iberian-Celts are. I have cousins in almost every country in the Americas. One of my great-grandfathers, the Marques de Tolejdes, inherited over four million hectares of land in Chiapas. Well, by the time he was twenty-five, he’d given two-thirds of it away – to his tenants. Some say, that action alone sparked off the Mexican revolution. We’re now down to one hundred thousand hectares. It’s fine land, but my father won’t allow us to inherit more than ten thousand between us.”

“That’s terrible,” I put in.

“My father’s very old fashioned. He thinks we should make our own way in life. Bizarre, don’t you think? Are you rich? What an absurd question. Of course you are. But how? Will you ever need to work I wonder? I shall have to work. My father ordains it. If I have to work, I will go to Wharton. I would like to be president one day. Perhaps. But part of me would like just to remain here with you and Lucy and Sylvie, of course. We could live here together, forever. That is my dream Jaime. My dream.”

We reached what might once have been a little harbour on the lake. Barely any water was visible through the weeds. I couldn’t help but imagine this landscape transposed to Ireland, onto that land which I knew best up in the Dublin mountains; the estate we’d lived on had had a wild lake too. Until it was part filled in to make way for new houses.

“Does it matter you didn’t get a degree at Georgetown?”

“Don’t suppose so. No, not really.”

“What’s your next move?”

“Not sure. Lucy wants to leave DC now. We could go and live in a cottage I own near Dublin. But she wants to stay in the Americas. She’s going to Mexico soon; you know?”

“I find Lucy’s plan very bizarre. The jungle’s no place for a woman. I wish you would go to New York.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Say the word and me casa sua casa.”

“That’s kind, Alejo. But I don’t think it’d work.”

“Why ever not? No, you must come to New York. It’s settled.”

“Thanks Alejo. But that would be too much.”

“I insist. I’ll be in Mexico most of July. Then we can all live in my apartment together. Yes, my parents are insisting that I don’t live alone. My mother likes you. She saw you in the video of the crash night. This is the solution we were all seeking. Yes. I will work on Wall Street and we will all live together for the summer. Say you will Jaime? You must.”

As we walked back towards the house, I conceded I’d think about it.


“I’m worried about Alejo,” said Sylvie to Lucy when they were both snuggled up in bed under one big white silk sheet together. “Since the crash. He’s weirder than ever.”

“I’m just glad Jamie’s here.”

“But you told me you hate him now? I don’t understand?”

“It doesn’t matter. Work is a Godsend.”

“I think Alejo might go off the rails.”

Soon afterwards, they fell both asleep.


As Alejo and I re-entered the house through the library, he suddenly suggested we wake the girls.

“Let’s sleep with them,” he added, with sudden energy.

“We have to anyway?”

“There’s nowhere else to go,” he agreed.

We went upstairs and when Sylvie went to the loo Alejo took her place beside Lucy and I lay down on Lucy’s other side. At first she and I were facing each other. I was so on for it. The heat. Our few weeks’ abstinence. This might be how I win her back. Her scent. The impress of her body against mine… When she turned over to face away from me, I moved closer in and we gently pressed each other in the darkness as we fell asleep.

An hour or so later Lucy was half-awake and, with me behind her, she felt Alejo’s breath upon her face. Opening her eyes a little bit, she saw a pair of brown eyes staring back. She closed them, and what she’d dreamily expected to happen did happen: first, his lips pressed against part of hers. She didn’t move away. She could hear his and our breath. She felt his tongue press in looking for hers. Her mouth opened a little. A little more. And for a moment he explored it before withdrawing and quietly turning over to face Sylvie. She was left staring at the back of his head, at his neat wiry hair, awake as a God.

We woke up the next morning early and after breakfast Lucy and I went for a walk together down to the lake.

“Are you sure this is the way?”

“Sort of,” I replied.

“This walk is a parody of the way our relationship is going.”

“Come on, Lu. Everything’s cool. It’ll be fine.” We were well lost, but I was pretending I remembered the way from Alejo’s walk the night before.

“You say that, but how well are we getting on these days?”

I told her about Alejo’s New York offer. “I can go to the New York Public Library every morning and meet you after work. We could explore Manhattan together.” I did recognise that pain tree … but where was it in relation to the lake?

“We’re not going anywhere,” she said abruptly. “I mean, Jamie, I still love you. A break is just what we need.”

“Why did you insist I came here Lu?” I said, pained.

“Protection. You’re my protection against Alejo. Or so I thought,” she added, then mysteriously.

We’d just found the lake. I tried to conceal the hurt her words caused me. It was best just to let it lie. I was going to win her back, whatever she said.

“Do you really want to be Alejo’s guest?” she said. She must have been reading my mind. This was why I loved her. We looked across at the island. It was just trees and bushes. “You don’t even like him. You’ve told me. All that ‘Alejo de Fucking Eurorash’ stuff. You have such a bitter tone towards him.”

“We both used to laugh at that! He’s cool. Little weird. But who isn’t?”



“Isn’t weird.” The mid-morning sun was beating down on us and the humidity made us sticky.

I agreed. “Okay, he’s straight along the line. Everyone else is, though.”

“’Cept me.”

We crossed some meadows to a wood above a stream.

“This way?”

“Jamie,” Lucy said suddenly. “Let’s fuck right here right now.”

I flinched. I don’t know why, but she noticed. “Sure,” I said. Talk about taking me by surprise!

“You don’t sound very enthusiastic. Jamie? I thought this would be what you would want.”

“I am. I mean I do.” I knew then that she saw this as the last chance we had to become lovers again and for us to taste what was fast becoming a forbidden delight. Neither the part of undressing in the heat nor awkwardly arranging ourselves on the bed of dry long grass cushioned by Lucy’s top helped to arouse in me the blind urge I needed to carry it through; Lucy was just passive. I couldn’t do it. Fock.

When we finally got to the house, the others were sitting by the windows of the library smiling in the sunshine. Sylvie was sunning herself. Alejo too. Having cooperated in finding our way back using the sun, we too were happy again, though there was something ineffable between us that I could not shift, something that was growing. The ruse hadn’t worked. Coming away together hadn’t helped.

After lunch that day, we drove to the tourist entrance to the Okefenokee reserve about five miles away. The only way to get away from the humidity was the air conditioning of the bus, which took us, and a group of tourists, through the reserve. We saw what Alejo had meant when he’d told us the house was on the edge of a primeval swamp. We went out in a boat, the four of us. I quoted from ‘The Waste Land’ and we chanted:

Elizabeth and Leicester,

beating oars the stern was formed…

That evening we all went to bed drunk and when Sylvie and Alejo started to kiss beside us, Lucy and I did likewise. I was so hungry for her now. And then for Sylv. One thing led to another and indeed finally we all came together.

The next morning, I woke as Lucy was getting out of bed. I wanted her again, but she was no, no, no. The others got up then too. It was a little embarrassing, but no one said anything about it. We decided to head back to DC after a short walk. During the walk, I ended up with Sylvie and Alejo and Lu got separated from us.

“Alejo, why did you kiss me the other night?” asked Lucy. It was really the first time they’d been alone since then.

“I thought they were right behind us,” he replied innocently, but he added when he saw Lucy’s expression, “I thought you were Sylv. We kissed last night as well Lucy. Remember?”

“I saw the way you looked at me. There was no mistake.” Lucy had stopped walking. They could still hear Sylvie’s and my voices.

Alejo had stopped now too and turned around. “Oh, Lucy. I’ve so wanted to kiss you…” He moved towards her.

“No, Alejo,” she said putting her hand up to stop his progress towards her. “I have a boyfriend; you know?” She moved back a little.

I shouted out “guys?” just at that moment.

“He wouldn’t mind,” Alejo said looking straight into her eyes. “I know he wouldn’t. You kissed me back.”

“Yes, but I didn’t mean to…”

I called out again.

“Stay where you are. We’ll come find you,” yelled Alejo.

“Besides, I didn’t want to make a fuss. I was half asleep.” She turned away from him.

“We’ll find them this way,” Alejo suggested, seemingly indicating the opposite direction from where we were. “Sylvie’s fed me snapshots of you, Lucy. For so many months and months. Since last September in fact. The whole year, for sure. And she did not know what inflammable celluloid into my insatiable mind since. I’m in love with you Lucy. Lovely Lucy,” Alejo confessed moving forward again. The grass either side was taller than them.

“Stop it. Why are you so weird? Even if I felt the same, Alejo, I would never cheat on Jamie.”

“It’s not cheating just to kiss-’n-go. Jamie understands that.”

“How would you know?”

“Why, he kissed Celice and I didn’t mind.”

“How can you lie about something like that?”

“Don’t you have an o-o-open relationship?”

Just then, they found us, standing watching a snake cross the path in front.

Of course, I didn’t know what had just passed between Alejo and Lu then, so I was sure she was suddenly being stand-offish again as a result of something I’d just said.

Back in DC the next day, Lucy returned from the office and told me that her secondment at the UN had come through. She would be starting the following Monday. In Manhattan.

I was shocked. I knew the end of our time in DC was imminent. But until a date is fixed nothing really seems that immediate.

Chapter Six – Play Close for Eurotrash

Two months after we had moved, separately, to New York, I finally managed to secure a meeting with Lucy. Between the Four Seasons and a neighbouring office tower was a corporate courtyard, lavishly planted and flawlessly maintained. Two office workers stood up and vacated a bench by the fountain. Lucy perched on it and folded her arms. I sat down on it. The fountain murmured and generated medium strength privacy.

“I can’t make Saturday afternoon ’cos of tennis,” she said. “And I’m out Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Friday is tricky. Wednesday afternoon would normally be perfect because my boss takes a half day. But for the next few weeks she’s in. Alejo’s having a party on Friday evening, actually. You won’t want to come I am sure. Why did you want to meet me today Jamie?”

“Where do I fit in?” I spluttered. I had meant to lead up to it. It was a question that was torturing me. If I just knew how important I was to her, then, I would know how much to persist. She immediately knew what I meant.

“You remember that discovery you made last December reading Engels? ‘At a certain point, a certain quantity transforms quality’? Suddenly ‘love’, you told me, emerges out of ‘like’? Well, I don’t know Jamie. I don’t know what this is. But time will tell. We’ve spent months together at the edge of twenty-three. It’s an important moment in our lives, but just that; a moment in our lives.”


Lucy was right – I didn’t want to go to Alejo’s party. But where else would I get to see Lucy again so soon? I abased myself. I called over to Fifth. The doorman rang ahead and brought me up silently in the elevator. Inside, I found it was only the three of them – Sylv, Lucy and the man himself. Some focking party. They didn’t seem surprised to see me. We took some coke. At some point, I wandered out alone onto the roof terrace and looked across the park. When I tried to go back in, I found that the sliding door was locked.

That’s funny, I thought.

I heard muffled laughter from inside. I decided not to try the door again. So I wandered over the terrace and I tried another door. Inside was only a small room with one-way glass, a glass roof and a bed. There might be a way through to the flat. I entered and saw Lucy’s slippers under the made-up bed and her luggage in the corner. On her bed was her laptop. On. I just couldn’t resist. She hadn’t even changed her password. Her diary was open on the screen. I stuck my pen drive in. I saved her diary. I couldn’t leave it at that. I wanted to read what she had just been working on.

“He actually asked: ‘Where do I fit in?’ Where do you fit in, Jamie? Well, actually, yes, you do fit in, but not the way you think. Yes. The twenty-five-year-old Porsche-wielding advertiser. Yes. That Eurotrash City lawyer who charmed my faux-sophistique seventeen-year-old palate with restaurants Daddy had spoken of. Yes, that handsome insipid merchant banker. My Paulinas’ rite of passage… And yes, our trip in a private plane to Venice. Told poor Daddy: ‘Dorset with Katie.’

“And then, yes, yes, my hard-riding Byronic country boy. Yes, our odd encounter in the queue to join the yoga soc at Kelsey Kerridge. Freshers’ week. Yes. My hair wet. I could not speak. He said: hold on tight. And down we went. We were hardly apart again for three years. Yes. All of our vacations away together – his family hunting lodge on forty-five-thousand acres near Mull; riding, lost on the Norfolk broads; the extraordinary castle belonging to his cousin, the Arch Duke, above Porto Fino; full-power psy-trance parties for days on end in Goa when he would never let me out of his delicious sight; the waterfall hotel, beyond the Atlas mountains at Immousin-les-bains, with oranges you could pick almost from the bed; the near-deadly rickshaw in Laos when one of his hands stopped me falling; watching the rains moving silently across the Altiplano at dusk as we slowly, endlessly fucked… And then… Yes, then… So certainly, so very politely, suddenly, he broke my heart on King’s Backs just after our finals. The morning after the Trinity Ball, last year: ‘Let’s see what happens after you come back from Washington, shall we?’ And, all that time, the ambitious Caius girl from outside the Ring whom he’s marrying, I’m now told, was hovering around us… Earnest and maddeningly confused Jamie on the rebound, with his highbrow Marxist ways… My mysterious Mexican. That’s where you fit in, darling Jamie. Mein Irisch kind. You might have had my heart, but you blew it. Yes. I’m not sorry. I can’t give you more. It’s no longer mine to give or yours to take…”

I was stunned. Everything about my situation… Being in her room… Getting my just desserts for snooping… For torturing myself over something that was dead… For hoping… For being stuck on the focking terrace, while they laughed… For being in that bastard’s apartment… And in, in New York… For just being… Everything started collapsing. For a moment. But I gathered myself in another moment. I could indulge in this misery later, when I was safe. I did not feel safe. Was this a trap? I left the room quickly. I tried the door back into the apartment again. It was still locked but Alejo came to unlock it, just as I was turning away, convinced I was being entrapped and caught up in some crazy, suspicious game.

“What happened there? Don’t you want to come in, Jamie?”

“It was locked.”

“Lucy, the door was locked. What happened there? You should have knocked harder Jamie.”

“I didn’t knock,” I replied quietly.

“What happened there?”

“I’m not feeling good. I’d best be off.”

“There anything wrong, Jamie? Have another line.”

“No thank you.”

And, as I left the building and emerged onto Fifth Avenue, I crossed over to the steps of the Met and sat down looking upwards to where I had been and remembered a line from a book I had read at school, long forgotten, never understood: ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun.’

Chapter Seven - Envoi

How I found myself in a room one Sunday, January 2014 in Ulaanbaatar. How I’d found an Australian nun to introduce me to a text embodying the entire path to enlightenment there is a mystery. Well, it’s not that mysterious, really: now I know being there was a result of my karma over infinite embodiments/lives, blowing me there. In India and in Nepal, twenty years earlier, I’d never so much as visited a Buddhist temple even while I was in Bihar for a week and in Kathmandu for a month and in Dharamsala for several days – the golf ball dancing around the hole, without falling in.

It was ‘suffering’ though that had brought me to Ulaanbaatar and into that room that Sunday morning. Only afterwards, was I to discover awareness of the truth that suffering is the first of the Buddha’s ‘four noble truths’; the first teaching normally given to aspiring Buddhists.

Two aspects of this ‘Morning’ text immediately drew me in.

The first was the claim in the preface that it contained the entire path to enlightenment, if one truly understood the meaning of the words.

And, second, the linguistic formula on the first page ‘from the two types of motivation – the causal motivation and the motivation in the moment – this motivation is causal’: I was, like, the moment I read it: “Is this a typo? What can it mean?” It intrigued me. Either it was a typo or here was a new signification – potentially layers of signification – for the all too common signifier ‘cause’. Still, my reading about the Law of Karma now reveals to me new meanings underpinning this phrase. Maybe other phrases in here will intrigue you enough similarly to draw you in.

All I’ll say is that there are no mistakes in that text (A Daily Meditation Practice/How to Meditate on the Graded Path to Enlightenment: Lama Zopa Rinpoche (Wisdom Publications, Boston)), no typos, no unresolvable apparent contradictions, yet, that I have found in that text. I’ve read it now every single morning (or recited most of it) and I’ve done the same each evening (or almost every evening) with the ‘Evening’ text which the nun also gave me after that Sunday in Ulaanbaatar.

So far, I have not found any typo or unresolvable apparent contradiction which other texts haven’t explained – particularly Tsong Khapa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. There were twelve of us in that room in Ulaanbaatar – only one other Westerner, and a cat, who scratched the nun. It was that moment, in that room, in Ulaanbaatar, when I first realised that the path I had begun traversing would lead me towards a brand new understanding of words in the English language. Words which I already knew, or had not yet known, as I read the carefully translated core texts, such as The Great Treatise, which underpin the ‘Morning’ and ‘Evening’ texts.

What I have learned: Ignorance is what conceals our inherent Buddha nature from us human embodiments (delusion and the incapacity to read and practise the Dharma is what prevent animals accessing it; pride is what prevents Gods accessing it). Ignorance, in this sense, has a technical and quite specific meaning: it means both ‘ignorance of selflessness/emptiness/suchness/ignorance that everything is dependently arisen; nothing itself did not even arise out of nothing, and what this means…’ The concept of ‘emptiness’ is indeed consistent with quantum mechanics’ latest insights; that even on the level of the quarks of which our material embodiments consist, the most part of us is space – empty space. It is consistent with neuroscience’s ‘best current theories of how we store new memories without overwriting old ones, suggesting that each synapse needs to continually reintegrate its past experience (the patterns of activity in neuron A and neuron B) to determine how fixed (or changeable) it will be, in response to the next new experience. Take away this synapse-by-synapse malleability, current theory suggests, and either our memories would quickly disappear or we would have great difficulty forming new ones.’ (Kenneth D. Miller (NYT: Oct 10, 2015)). The second technical meaning is ‘ignorance of the Law of Karma and its contents; its codes.’

What I have learned: If you insist on using the essentially empty concept of essence and ask of what does our mental continuum’s essence consist: then the answer is: the harmony of emptiness/suchness/selflessness and luminescence/light.

What I have learned: Mindfulness has a technical and very specific meaning: ‘mindfulness of death’. Such mindfulness has a consequence: studying and practising the Dharma in order to prepare for what happens as, and after, the embodiment of your mental continuum dies.

What I have learned: As we die, it gets tremendously confusing: hallucinations, devils, regrets, dreams, noises, screams, fear, lights of all kinds, paths opening, closing, embodiments beckoning us to follow them or to leave them alone, images of land, of sea, of lakes, of beauty and of pure terror. But, basically, as the wind of your mental continuum’s unneutralised/unexpiated karma (its actions throughout infinity, including your most recent life) will propel your mental continuum through these confusions towards rebirth in one of the six realms. If, (and this is very important), as you are dying you can’t remember what the fock to do; if you panic – try, at least, to remember this: follow the blue light (but, this will be hard because there’ll be lots of other lights, whose colours meld into one, and distracting forces). Constantly repeat (daily) this ‘Morning’ and this ‘Evening’ text until they form a continuous murmur underpinning your awareness. This will take years and years and years, so I’m told, which is why I started in January 2014 and continue to learn them. Until you have learned them off by heart, and can recall any part of them to meditate on as a matter of will or karma; until, that time, then, you can only hope you will remember even a tiny part of them amid all of the confusions as you die. If you can recall them, then, at that moment, then the hope is that their ideas will infuse your mental continuum sufficiently to help you to control your mental continuum’s journey, as the winds of your karma following you from this life, and infinite previous lives batter you off (or on?) course, at least somewhat. When the Austrian army pretend-kidnapped me in late January 2015, and I was blindfolded for hours, I muttered as much of the ‘Morning’ text as I could remember: “Stop fucking praying. Stop fucking praying,” was what the army chaps kept on screaming at me in their scary WW2 German movie accents. I had trouble recalling in those moments even the parts of the ‘Morning’ texts I’d thought, then, I’d known perfectly off by heart. Beware, pride… Therefore, start now to prepare to die. This is what it is all about.

What I’m learning: Both the ‘Morning’ and the ‘Evening’ text follow the same structure: preliminaries (generating Bodhichitta, or the Will to, or the Spirit of Enlightenment (this has a technical meaning best explained by Tsong Khapa and elucidated in modern meaning by Robert Thurman in The Jewel Tree of Enlightenment)); The Generation stage (generating an image in your head of Buddha, which, after years of practice, will eventually always be there, a presence in your mental continuum’s conscious consciousness – so I’m told: if I keep up the practise and follow carefully and fully the instructions. And once this image is implanted forever in your consciousness (to prepare you better for the confusions as you die) that will help signify all of the Dharma these documents are shorthand for); and finally the Dedication stage. This stage distinguishes Tibetan Buddhists from others. Tibetan followers of Lama Tsong Khapa constantly dedicate any merit they accumulate to their enemies and to their friends, for the sake of all sentient beings, including all humanity. This is their purpose: to help liberate everyone, and not just themselves, from the sufferings of being embodied. Dedicating merit, of course, earns you merit, which is further dedicated and in that endless cycle, begun as soon as you first consciously, dedicate the benefit accruing to you of any good or virtuous action, goes on infinitely; it’s tantric; and it’s in itself a jewel of immense power, value and beauty.

What I’m learning: Tantra means, basically, ‘continuity’. The human embodiment is not able to know when or how the billions of universes (as many as there are grains of sand on the banks of the Ganges, apparently) began or will end. So, rather Buddhists can opt for the middle-way ‘Madhyamāpratipad’ between the two extremes. They have to work hard continually not to lapse into, or be seduced by, the extreme of Nihilism, on the one hand, or the extreme of Reification/eternalism, on the other hand. And to do this, too, while acknowledging that there is no essential self, that everything is without an essence and that everything, even these words, are empty of any essence or selfness. To do this while keeping that in mind, and without going mad, well, that’s a task a modern highly educated Western person finds themselves particularly well trained for.

What I’m learning: The extreme of Nihilism: ‘Nothing matters ultimately. Therefore, fuck everything. When you die, you simply disappear. Act morally, sure, for the sake of itself (if you can work out what is moral and not moral), but don’t act morally because you’ll get some reward in heaven.’ That kinda thing.

The extreme of Reification/eternalism: ‘I don’t know for sure how the universe begun so I’ll guess it was started by a God; I’ll make a bet; I’ll wager this, and if there is a heaven: great. And if there is nothing, well, at least I concocted an organising fiction by which I could live. Or, I know rationally I am just a bundle of empty quarks moving around a quantum universe which composes me. Or, I know, rationally, the “me” which exists today, contains no cells that existed in the “me” that existed two years ago, or a decade ago. I know all of this rationally. I know I am simply empty of any continuing self, but I’ll pretend that there is a “me” continuing eternally through time-space; or that there is a God that created all of this and that when I die, I’ll go to hell, or heaven, maybe.’ That kinda thing.

What I’ve learned: The modern mind has little problem understanding that matter is neither created nor destroyed. Once I saw this poster for a brilliantly titled conference ‘Mind: the gap!’ This encapsulates the acceptance, too, that there is more to consciousness than mere matter; even if most people can’t put their fingers on what it is. The tantric view sees consciousness, our mental continuum, as continuing from a time before when “we” selfless beings received this particular embodiment going backwards into infinity. If you have no evidence of a beginning, why reify this ignorance into a beginning myth, or despair that since it can’t be known, there is “nihil”? Why not simply accept that it cannot be known, and concentrate on what can be known? There was something before this embodiment of “me”, there is something “now” and there will be something “afterwards; after now.” And that after this embodiment of matter, our matter will become flowers; stardust; and leaves; and maybe miraculously, the embodiment of another sentient being in one of the six realms of samsara. And that, likewise, our consciousness, which once was embodied by it, will continue too – our mental continuum. The nihilist says “No way.” And the Reifier/eternalist says “I prefer to think of me as having a soul which will live forever, after I am gone.”

What I’m learning: Developing one’s mental continuum’s own compassion/will to, or spirit of enlightenment/bodhicitta, is an essential perquisite for progressing along the path. Robert Thurman is brilliant at explaining to Western minds this core concept. In it is contained the central idea of Buddhism: I have been a mother to all sentient beings going back into infinity and they have been my mother too and bore me and nurtured me, going back to infinity. It’s particularly fascinating, in this context, that modern genetic science tells us that “in 2013, geneticists Peter Ralph and Graham Coop showed that all Europeans are descended from exactly the same people. Simply put, everyone alive in the ninth century who left behind descendants is the ancestor of every living European today, including Charlemagne, Drogo, Pippin and Hugh. Quel dommage.” Joyce also famously wrote, “Amor matris: subjective and objective genitive – the only true thing in life.” This genetics stuff, empty like everything else, will help me find compassion for them, even if now today they appear to be my enemy, they were once my mother. Deciding to repay this love they once gave me is a necessary condition for arousing one’s own will to enlightenment, or spirit of enlightenment. It’s in the ‘Morning’ text, too. Look for it! It’s also incredibly hard, especially when we feel wronged by bastards. But then, of course, who is it that is feeling wronged? Why it’s a selfless being; it’s a being without essence; it is our mental continuum, which is empty of any inherent being; empty of essence. Nothing wronging nothing equals no one wronged, equals no reason to feel bad, or to decide to wreak revenge. But – be tough. Exercise skillfulness, and remember, you may be an instrument to help neutralise some other being’s negative karma. It’s complicated, and hard, and no one says it is easy. The Dalai Lama emphasises that we must exercise discernment, otherwise one will end up on the two extremes, and/or mad as a brush. So, in actuality, and upon reflection, literally nothing is wronged by anyone, it is just our pride, or our ego, or ultimately our ignorance, which blinds us to this and persuades us “I must bear a grudge against this person, etc.”

What my direct guru Lama Tsong Khapa has taught me: In order of increasing importance the six perfections, development of which (each is given in great detail by Tsong Khapa) leads to Buddhahood and can be practised every day of one’s life: 6 – Generosity; 5 – Ethical discipline; 4 – Patience; 3 – Joyous perseverance; 2 – Meditative equipoise; and 1 – Wisdom.

What I have learned: you can meditate while walking down the street; in fact, you already do! Analytical meditation (what one does as one meditates on the stream of thoughts running through our minds as we, for example, walk along the street) is just as important to achieving Buddhahood as that which we generally assume to be meditation, like sitting still and trying to empty one’s mind. In years to come, we might all be able to empty our minds of the random musings that stream along them in our ignorance and incapacity to control that stream. But, to think “oh, I can do this now if I just sit silently and without learning the Dharma and understanding the point of mindfulness” (the proximity of death and how to try and exert control over your mental continuum as you die) is not that helpful. It will lead to failure, or, if you do succeed in emptying your mind, without understanding the Dharma; potential madness. Today, Guardian articles warn us of this risk, just as Tsong Khapa did in the fourteenth century! “Emptiness [of mind] without understanding emptiness can equal insanity, which is no good for anyone or any mental continuum.” By learning the ‘Morning’ and ‘Evening’ texts off by heart, and other core texts, one can then analyse them anytime, anywhere, so that their different levels reveal themselves to you and to me.

What I have learned: Don’t make a devil/a cage/a prison/ from something beautiful, the Dharma. To miss the joy is to miss all. When your cat pounces on you in the middle of your daily practice, or the phone rings, or your partner calls you, or you’re interrupted while trying to maintain meditative equipoise, or while you are practising analytic meditation: don’t get angry or do indeed please try hard to overcome that spark of frustration. Engage with the interrupter and then revert to the practice as soon as possible. The purpose of all of this is to bring happiness to all sentient beings; to free them from suffering. And making them unhappy for, for example, interrupting your “me time” is, given that you are completely empty of all selfness, perfectly ridiculous. The emotions which rise up to spark anger at such interruptions, well, they’re the result of negative Karma and they create further negative Karma which projects into our future like a mould.

To be a Buddhist, all one has to do is to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha six times a day. One takes such refuge simply by saying “I take refuge” in those (empty) words six times. This is the only essential practice. The rest is a luxury. The rest (for example, reading the ‘Morning’ text all the way through, or meditating on its contents) helps to power one’s refuge. The two or three times (no more, I swear) I have been unable (through tiredness or being at a party, for example) to read the ‘Morning’ or the ‘Evening’ texts, I have still taken refuge by saying those words at least six times in every twenty-four hour period, since encountering the Australian nun in Ulaanbaatar that Sunday morning in January 2014.

When I began meditating, I simply read the ‘Morning’ and ‘Evening’ texts out loud to myself. It took me around an hour to read the ‘Morning’ text to myself that first morning after receiving it from the nun in Ulaanbaatar. I soon realised I would have to wake up earlier, if I was to practise. Then, I realised, I would have to go to bed earlier. I didn’t understand, even on a rudimentary basis, very much of the texts at all. One morning, on a run along the seashore near Ulcinj Montenegro, in May 2014, I suddenly tried and almost succeeded to run through the text in my mind, not word by word but sufficiently to divide it into a twelve-part structure, ending with the dedication of merit. Now in the last quarter of 2015, I recite most of both texts by heart. The ‘Morning’ text takes me around twenty minutes each morning, instead of an hour. Many days, one single sentence hidden in amidst the twenty-one pages will occupy my mind at different times that day; sometimes it will even enter my mind at precisely the right moment to solve a question about how I should act, or motivate an act that I am contemplating. When I am reading another Buddhist text – say, Words of My Perfect Teacher I can recall clearly the sentences containing the same ideas in the ‘Morning’ text, even when they are using different language, as I read through the book. Only now I know parts of the ‘Morning’ text off by heart, can I begin to meditate on it properly! This meditation can occur while I am daydreaming or walking down a street thinking of something from twenty years before, or that very moment, or, as I said, as a result of some incident during the working day which throws up a moral quandary about how I should properly act, or how I should properly have acted, in its wake.

What I have learned: Tsong Khapa is perfectly clear on this point. It is a very bad thing to set out on the path to enlightenment and then to abandon that path. It is much better never to start, rather than to cease taking refuge in the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) after a month or two. Therefore, read all of these texts for sure. Read the books, too, by Tsong Khapa and by Robert Thurman. But, if you are not yet ready to spend the rest of your life taking refuge six times daily, don’t yet start to practise. To do so, is a non-virtuous action (bad karma) extraordinaire. Maybe your next embodiment, or an embodiment in millions of years, will be the right time for it. Reading the documents now will, though, project into the future and help you at that point. I was lucky. I just started reading the ‘Morning’ and ‘Evening’ texts and have continued to do so (they, as I mentioned, both contain the refuge words). Only after doing so every day, do I find that some days I also have time to explore the other texts I have found most helpful, as recommended in this document. What I am saying is (for the avoidance of all doubt): all you need to do is to read the ‘Morning’, (the first chapter in the Rinpoche text referred to earlier in this text) and ‘Evening’ texts. Even if you never read all of the other recommended texts, you are on the path. But – if you’re not yet sure whether or not to embark (I was lucky enough to be one hundred per cent certain), read around first.

Lama Tsong Khapa is my direct guru in this lifetime. He lived from approximately 1360–1410. For the previous five or six centuries, the best minds in Tibet had put their energies into the Dharma. The same happened for the few centuries following Tsong Khapa’s embodiment. Tsong Khapa was able to synthesise the Buddha’s teachings, and the seventy thousand odd sutras or scriptures/interpretations of those teachings, into the three volumes of The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. We are almost the first generation since then to have access to this in the English language. I have found all the answers I have so far sought to questions provoked by meditating on the ‘Morning’ and ‘Evening’ texts within it. It is a lifetime’s work, however, to know these texts. Actually, I guess it is many lifetimes’ work: start now? Tsong Khapa is considered to be on (basically) the same level as the Buddha himself.

What I’ve learned: You can neutralise the effects of non-virtuous actions (negative karma) by your mental continuum in this incarnation/embodiment, and of your previous incarnations/embodiments stretching backwards into infinite time, through two processes (both of which are inherent in the ‘Morning’ and the ‘Evening’ texts): purification and accumulating merit. The effect of virtuous and non-virtuous actions projects far, far into the future and can never be destroyed. It can only be neutralised, by either fruition, or purification /accumulating merit. The good thing about this is: when bad things happen to you – you know it’s your fault, ultimately; it’s only karma coming late. The second good thing is that you know that the result of that bad action is therefore extinguished. So dust yourself off, and get on with life. When good things happen to people who in this life seem like the most unconscionable scoundrels, take solace in the idea that, well, they earned this from good actions in previous lives and now they are receiving their just desserts, just as you will. This is why some undeserving people are rich in this life, while many virtuous people starve to death. That’s karma. It’s immensely complicated. I only know a tiny part of it. For hundreds of years, thousands of the cleverest human minds occupied themselves with elucidating and debating its intricacies. Tsong Khapa summarises the product of this labour. Before reading him, most people (well, me) may only have a very bare bones idea of an echo of the law of Karma. Peeling off this ignorance is an immense pleasure and helps you in everyday circumstances the moment you start learning about it. When you feel jealous for a moment, when you see or hear something that at first sight, or sound, does not “feel” right or just; whenever, apply it and you’ll see, it helps in the here and now; and of course it will help you later.

Books that have been particularly helpful to me include: Robert Thurman’s teaching in The Jewel Tree of Enlightenment; the teaching embodied in the nineteenth-century book, as newly translated into English and published by Yale University Press, Words of My Perfect Teacher; the teaching in The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment; and the teaching in the recent (and for the first time ever in the English language) full translation of the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead (Penguin edition by Gyurme Dorje and Graham Coleman). The current Dalai Lama introduces each of these, which is a mark of quality and consistency with Tsong Khapa’s teaching. Of course, the greatest external influence on my thinking is the ‘Morning’ and ‘Evening’ texts. These texts have sparked the investigations that have started me on the path of relentless and continuous re-reading, re-studying and meditating.

It is a long and lonely path, like life, and indeed, like death itself. I hope to achieve Buddhahood in this embodiment. My mental continuum may not be as lucky to be given such an embodiment as it has been given in this life again, ever. I can only hope that I live long enough to practise enough to achieve enlightenment for all sentient beings (the Greater Vehicle/Mahayana), rather than simply to avoid being reborn (the middle vehicle for people with middling potential), and rather than simply to achieve an equivalent or better rebirth/embodiment for my mental continuum (the lesser vehicle). (Tsong Khapa, with exquisite clarity, delineates all of this in Volume 1 of The Great Treatise.) Of course, I cannot know yet if I have great, middle or lesser potential. All I can do is to continue along the path and to continue to practise as hard as I can without making an enemy out of the gift, which is the freedom I have been given by this embodiment.

Practise skillful means; the middle way; assiduously; and with as much joyous perseverance at all times as you can.


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