Short Story by one of Ireland's Finest Writers

William Trevor's 'The Room' is published online exclusively here

Irish PagesWilliam Trevor was born in 1928 at Mitchelstown, Co Cork, spent his childhood in provincial Ireland, and attended Trinity College, Dublin. One of Ireland's most celebrated writers of fiction, he is the author of 11 collections of short stories, two novellas and 13 novels. His most recent book, A Bit on the Side (Penguin), a collection of stories, appeared in 2005.

The following short story appeared in Irish Pages, Vol 3 no 1, Spring/Summer 2005. Find out more about Irish Pages.


The Room

A soreness

‘Do you know why you are doing this?’ he asked, and Katherine hesitated, then shook her head, although she did know.

Nine years had almost healed a soreness, each day made a little easier, until the balm of work was taken from her and in her scratchy idleness the healing ceased. She was here because of that, there was no other reason she could think of, but she didn't say it.

‘And you?’ she asked instead.

He was forthcoming, or sounded so; he had been attracted by her at a time when he'd brought loneliness upon himself by quarrelling once too often with the wife who had borne his children and had cared for him.

‘I'm sorry about the room,’ he said.

His belongings were piled up, books and cardboard boxes, suitcases open, not yet unpacked. A word processor had not been plugged in, its flexes trailing on the floor. Clothes on hangers cluttered the back of the door, an anatomical study of an elephant decorated one of the walls, with arrows indicating where certain organs were beneath the leathery skin. This grey picture wasn't his, he'd said when Katherine had asked; it came with the room, which was all he had been able to find in a hurry. A sink was in the same corner as a wash-basin, an electric kettle and a gas-ring on a shelf, a green plastic curtain not drawn across.

‘It's all a bit more special now that you're here,’ he said.

When she got up to put on her clothes, Katherine could tell he didn't want her to go. Yet he, not she, was the one who had to; she could have stayed all afternoon. Buttoning a sleeve of her dress, she remarked that at least she knew now what it felt like to deceive.

‘What it had felt like for Phair,’ she said.

She pulled the edge of the curtain back a little more so that the light fell more directly on the room's single looking-glass. She tidied her hair, still brown, no grey in it yet. Her mother's hadn't gone grey at all, and her grandmother's only when she was very old, which was something Katherine hoped she wouldn't have to be; she was forty-seven now. Her dark eyes gazed back at her from her reflection, her lipstick smudged, an emptiness in her features that had not to do with the need to renew her make-up. Her beauty was ebbing — but slowly, and there was beauty left.

‘You were curious about that?’ he asked. ‘Deception?’

‘Yes, I was curious.’

‘And shall you be again?’

Still settling the disturbances in her face, Catherine didn't answer at once.

Then she said:

‘If you would like me to.’

Outside, the afternoon was warm, the street where the room was — above a betting shop — seemed brighter and more gracious than Katherine had noticed when she'd walked the length of it earlier. There was an afternoon tranquillity about it in spite of shops and cars. The tables, were unoccupied outside the Prince and Dog, hanging baskets of petunias on either side of its regal figure and a Dalmatian with a foot raised. There was a Costa Coffee next to a Pret a Manger and Katherine crossed to it. ‘Latte,’ she ordered from the girls who were operating the Gaggia machines and picked out a florentine from the glass case on the counter while she waited for it.

She hardly knew the man she'd slept with. He'd danced with her at a party she'd gone to alone, and then he'd danced with her again, holding her closer, asking her name and giving his. Phair didn't accompany her to parties these days and she didn't go often herself. But she'd known what she intended, going to this one.

The few tables were all taken. She found a stool at the bar that ran along one of the walls. Teenagers' Curfew! a headline in someone else's evening paper protested, a note of indignation implied, and for a few moments she wondered what all that was about and then lost interest.

Phair would be quietly at his desk, in shirtsleeves, the blue flecked shirt she'd ironed the day before yesterday, his crinkly, gingerish hair as it had been that morning when he left the house, his agreeable smile welcoming anyone who approached him. In spite of what had happened nine years ago, Phair had not been made redundant, that useful euphemism for being sacked. That he'd been kept on was a tribute to his success in the past, and of course it wasn't done to destroy a man when he was down. ‘We should go away,’ she'd said and remembered saying it now, but he hadn't wanted to, because running away was something that wasn't done either. He would have called it running away, in fact he had.

This evening he would tell her about his day, and she would say about her's and would have to lie. And in turn they'd listen while she brought various dishes to the dining-table, and he would pour her wine. None for himself because he didn't drink any more, unless someone pressed him and then only in order not to seem ungracious. ‘My marriage is breaking up,’ the man who'd made love to her in his temporary accommodation had confided when, as strangers, they had danced together. ‘And yours?’ he'd asked, and she'd hesitated and then said no, not breaking up. There'd never been talk of that. And when they danced the second time, after they'd had a drink together and then a few more, he asked her if she had children and she said she hadn't. That she was not able to had been known before the marriage and then became part of it — as her employment at the Charterhouse Institute had been until six weeks ago, when the Institute had decided to close itself down.

‘Idleness is upsetting,’ she had said while they danced and had asked the man who held her closer now if he had ever heard of Sharon Ritchie. People often thought they hadn't and then remembered. He shook his head and the name was still unfamiliar to him when she told him why it might not have been. ‘Sharon Ritchie was murdered,’ she'd said, and wouldn't have without the few drinks. ‘My husband was accused.’

She blew on the surface of her coffee but it was still too hot. She tipped sugar out of its paper spill into her teaspoon and watched the sugar darkening when the coffee soaked it. She loved the taste of that, as much a pleasure as anything there'd been this afternoon. ‘Oh, suffocated,’ she'd said when she had been asked how the person called Sharon Ritchie had died. ‘She was suffocated with a cushion.’ Sharon Ritchie had had a squalid life, living grandly at a good address, visited by many men.

Katherine sat a while longer, staring at the crumbs of her florentine, her coffee drunk. ‘We live with it,’ she had said when they left the party together, he to return to the wife he didn't get on with, she to the husband whose deceiving of her had ended with a death. Fascinated by what still was lived with, an hour ago in the room that was his temporary accommodation her afternoon lover had wanted to know everything.

On the Tube she kept seeing the room: the picture of the elephant, the suitcases, the trailing flexes, the clothes on the back of the door. Their voices echoed, his curiosity, her evasions and then telling a little more because, after all, she owed him something. ‘He paid her with a cheque once, oh ages ago. That was how they brought him into things. And when they talked to the old woman in the flat across the landing from Sharon Ritchie's she recognised him in the photograph she was shown. Oh yes, we live with it.’

Her ticket wouldn't operate the turnstile when she tried to leave the Tube station and she remembered that she had guessed how much the fare should be and must have got it wrong. The Indian who was there to deal with such errors was inclined to be severe. Her journey had been different earlier, she tried to explain; she'd got things muddled. ‘Well, these things happen,’ the Indian said and she realised his severity had not been meant. When she smiled he didn't notice. This is his way too, she thought.

She bought two chicken breasts, free-range, organic; and courgettes and Medjool dates. She hadn't made a list as she usually did, and wondered if this had to do with the kind of afternoon it had been and thought it probably had. She tried to remember which breakfast cereals needed to be replenished but couldn't. And then remembered Normandy butter, and Braeburns and tomatoes. It was just before five o'clock when she let herself into the flat. The telephone was ringing and Phair said he'd be a bit late, not by much, maybe twenty minutes. She ran a bath.

The tips of his fingers stroked the arm that was close to him. He said he thought he loved her. Katherine shook her head.

‘Tell me,’ he said.

‘I have, though.'

He didn't press it. They lay in silence for a while. Then Katherine said:

‘I love him more, now that I feel so sorry for him too. He pitied me when I knew I was to be deprived of children we both wanted. Love makes the most of pity, or pity does of love, I don't know which. It hardly matters.’

She told him more, and realised she wanted to, which she hadn't known before. When the two policemen had come in the early morning she had not been dressed. Phair was making coffee. ‘Phair Alexander Warburton,’ one of them had said. She'd heard him from the bedroom, her bath water still gurgling out. She'd thought they'd come to report a death, as policemen sometimes have to, her mother's or Phair's aunt's, his next of kin. When she went downstairs they were talking about the death of someone whose name she did not know. ‘Who?’ she asked and the taller of the two policemen said Sharon Ritchie and Phair said nothing. ‘Your husband has explained,’ the other man said, ‘that you didn't know a Miss Ritchie.’A Thursday night, the eighth, two weeks ago, they said: what time — could she remember — had her husband come in?

She'd faltered, lost in all this. ‘But who's this person? Why are you here?’ And the taller policemen said there were a few loose ends. ‘Sit down, madam,’ his colleague put in and she was asked again what time her husband had come in. The usual misery on the Northern Line, he'd said that night, the Thursday before last. He'd given up on it, as everyone else was doing, then hadn't been able to get a taxi because of the rain. ‘You remember, madam?’ the taller policemen prompted, and something made her say the usual time. She couldn't think; she couldn't because she was trying to remember if Phair had ever mentioned Sharon Ritchie. ‘Your husband visited Miss Ritchie,’ the same policeman said and the other man's pager sounded and he took it to the window, turning his back to them. ‘No, we're talking to him now,’ he mumbled into it, keeping his voice low but she could hear. ‘Your husband has explained it was the day before,’ his colleague said. ‘And earlier — in his lunchtime — that his last visit to Miss Ritchie was.’

Katherine wanted to stay where she was now. She wanted to sleep, to be aware of the man she did not know well beside her, to have him waiting for her when she woke up. Because of the heat-wave that had begun a week ago, he had turned the air-conditioning on, an old fashioned contraption at the window.

‘I have to go,’ he said.

‘Of course. I won't be long.’

Below them, another horse-race had come to its exciting stage, the commentary faintly reaching them as they dressed. They went together down uncarpeted narrow stairs past the open door of the betting shop.

‘Shall you come again?’ he asked.

‘Yes’

And they arranged an afternoon, ten days away because he could not always just walk out of the office where he worked.

‘Don't let me talk about it,’ she said before they parted, ‘Don't ask, don't let me tell you.’

‘If you don't want to.’

‘It's all so done with. And it's a bore for you, or will be soon.’

He began to say it wasn't, that that was what the trouble was. She knew he began to say it because she could see it in his face before he changed his mind. And of course he was right; he wasn't a fool. Curiosity couldn't be just stifled.

They didn't embrace before he hurried off, for they had done all that. When she watched him go it felt like a habit already, and she wondered as she crossed the street to the Costa cafe if, with repetition, her afternoons here would acquire some variation of the order and patterns of the work she missed so. ‘Oh, none at all,’ she'd said when she had been asked if there were prospects yet of something else. She had not said it was unlikely that again she'd make her morning journey across London, skilful in the over-crowded Tube stations, squeezing on to trains that were crowded also. Unlikely that there'd be, somewhere, her own small office again, her position of importance, and generous colleagues who made up for a bleakness and kept at bay its ghosts. She hadn't known until Phair said, not long ago, that routine, for him, often felt like an antidote to dementia.

She should not have told so much this afternoon, Katherine said to herself, sitting where she had sat before. She had never, to anyone else, told anything at all, or talked about what had happened to people who knew. I am unsettled, she thought and, outside, rain came suddenly, with distant thunder, ending the heat that had become excessive.

When she'd finished her coffee Katherine didn't leave the cafe, because she didn't have an umbrella. There had been rain that night too. Rain came into it because the elderly women in the flat had looked out when it was just beginning, the six o'clock news on the radio just beginning too. The woman had remembered that earlier she had passed the wide-open window half a flight down the communal stairway and went immediately to close it before, yet again, the carpet was drenched. It was while she was doing so that she heard the downstairs hall door opening and footsteps beginning on the stairs. When she reached her own door the man had reached the landing. ‘No, I never thought anything untoward,’ she had later stated apparently. Not anything untoward about the girl who occupied the flat across the landing, about the men who came visiting her. ‘I didn't pry,’ she said. She had turned round when she'd opened her front door and had caught a glimpse of the man who'd come that night. She'd seen him before, the way he stood waiting for the girl to let him in, his clothes, his hair, even his footfall on the stairs: there was no doubt at all.

The cafe filled up, the doorway crowded with people sheltering, others queuing at the counter. Katherine heard the staccato summons of her mobile phone, a sound she hated, although originally she'd chosen it herself. A voice that might have been a child's said something she couldn't understand and then repeated it, and then the line went dead. So many voices were like a child's these days, she thought, returning the phone to her handbag. ‘A fashion, that baby telephone voice, ‘ Phair had said. ‘Odd as it might seem.’

She nibbled the edge of her florentine, then opened the spill of sugar. The light outside had darkened and now was brightening again. The people in the doorway began to move away. It had rained all night the other time.

‘Nothing again?’ Phair always enquired when he came in. He was concerned about what had been so arbitrarily and unexpectedly imposed upon her, had once or twice brought back hearsay of vacancies. But even at his most solicitous, and his gentlest, he had himself to think about. It was worse for Phair and always would be, that stood to reason.

Her mobile telephone rang again and his voice said that in his lunch hour he'd brought asparagus because he'd noticed it on a stall, looking good and not expensive. They'd mentioned asparagus yesterday, realising it was the season: she would have bought some if he hadn't rung. ‘On the way out of the cinema,’ she said, having already said that she'd just seen La Strada again. He'd tried for her an hour ago, he said, but her phone had been switched off.

‘Well yes, of course,’ he said.

Six months was the length of an affair that took place because something else was wrong: knowing more about all this than Katherine did, the man she met in the afternoons said that. And, as if he had always been aware that he would, when a little longer than six months had passed he returned to his wife. Since then, he had retained the room while this reunion settled — or perhaps in case it didn't — but his belongings were no longer there. The room looked bigger, yet dingier, without them.

‘Why do you love your husband, Katherine? After all this—what he has put you through?’

‘No one can answer that.’

‘You hide from one another, you and he.’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you afraid, Katherine?’

‘Yes. Both of us are afraid. We dream of her, we see her dead; And we know in the morning if the other one has. We know and do not say.’

‘You shouldn't be afraid.’

They did not ever argue in the room, not even mildly, but disagreed and left it there. Or failed to understand and left that too. Katherine did not ask if a marriage could be shored up while this room was still theirs for a purpose. Her casual lover did not press her to reveal what she still withheld.

‘I can't imagine him,’ he said, but Katherine did not attempt to describe her husband, only commented that his first name suited him. A family name, she said.

‘You're fairly remarkable, you know. To love so deeply.’

‘And yet I'm here.’

‘Perhaps I mean that.’

‘More often than not, people don't know why they do things.’

‘I envy your seriousness. It's that I'd love you for.’

Once, when again he had to go, she stayed behind. He was in a hurry that day; she wasn't quite ready. ‘Just bang the door,’ he said.

She listened to his footsteps clattering on the boards of the stairs and was reminded of the old woman saying she had recognised Phair's. Phair's lawyer would have asked in court if she was certain about that and would have wondered how she could be, since to have heard them on previous occasions she would each time have had to be on the landing, which surely was unlikely. He would have suggested that she appeared to spend more time on the communal landing than in her flat. He would have wondered that a passing stranger would have left behind so clear an impression of his features, since any encounter there had been would have lasted hardly more than an instant.

Alone in the room, not wanting to leave it yet, Katherine crept back into the bed she'd left only minutes ago. She pulled the bedclothes up although it wasn't cold. The window curtains hadn't been drawn back and she was glad they hadn't. ‘I didn't much care for that girl,’ Phair said when the two policemen had gone. ‘But I was fond of her in a different kind of way. I have to say that, Katherine. I'm sorry.’ He had brought her coffee and made her sit there, where she was. Some men were like that, he said. ‘We only talked. She told me things.’ A girl like that took chances every time she answered her doorbell, he said; and when he cried Katherine knew it was for the girl, not for himself. ‘Oh yes, I understand,’ she said. ‘Of course I do.’ A sleazy relationship with a classy tart was what she understood, as he had understood when she told him she could not have children, when he'd said it didn't matter, although she knew it did. ‘I've risked what was precious,’ he whispered in his shame, and then confessed that deceiving her had been an excitement too. Risk came into it in all sorts of ways; risk was part of it, the secrecy of concealment, stealth. And risk had claimed its due.

The same policemen came back later. ‘You're sure about that detail, madam?’ they asked and afterwards, countless times, asked her that again, repeating the date and hearing her repeat that ten to seven was the usual time. Phair hadn't wanted to know — and didn't still — why she had answered as she had, why she continued to confirm that he'd returned ninety minutes sooner than he had. She couldn't have told him why, except to say that instinct answered for her, as bewilderment and confusion had when first she'd heard the question. She might have said she knew him as intimately as she knew herself, that it was impossible to imagine his taking the life of a girl no matter what his relationship with her had been. There was — she would have said if she'd been asked — the pain of that, of their being together, he and the girl, even if only for conversation. ‘You quarrelled, sir?’ the tall policeman enquired. You could see there'd been a quarrel, he insisted, no way you could say there hadn't been a disagreement that got out of hand. But Phair was not the quarrelling sort. He shook his head. In all his answers he hadn't disputed much except responsibility for the death, had not denied he'd been a visitor to the flat, gave details as he remembered them, accepted that his fingerprints were there, while they accepted nothing. ‘You're sure, madam?’ they asked again, and her instinct hardened, touched with apprehension, even though their implications were ridiculous. Yes, she was sure, she said. They said their spiel and then arrested him.

Katherine slept and when she woke did not know where she was. But only minutes had passed, less than ten. She washed at the basin in the corner, and slowly dressed. When he was taken from her, in custody until the trial's outcome, it was suggested at the Institute that they could manage without her for a while. ‘No, no,’ she had insisted. ‘I would rather come.’ And in the hiatus that followed — long and silent — she had not known that doubt began to spread in the frail memory of the elderly woman who in time would be called upon to testify to her statements on oath. She had not known that beneath the weight of importance the old women was no longer certain that the man she'd seen on that wet evening — already shadowy — was a man she'd seen before. With coaching and encouragement, she would regain her confidence, it must have been believed by those for whom her evidence was essential: the prosecution case rested on this identification, on little else. But the long delay had taken a toll, the witness had been wearied by preparation and did not, in court, conceal her worries. When the first morning of the trial was about to end, the Judge calmed his anger to declare that in his opinion there was no case to answer. In the afternoon the jury was dismissed.

Katherine pulled back the curtains, settled her make-up, made the bed. Blame was there somewhere — in faulty recollection, in the carelessness of policemen, in a prosecution's ill-founded confidence — yet its attribution was hardly a source of satisfaction. Chance and circumstance had brought about a nightmare, and left it to a Judge's invective to make a nonsense of it. He did so, but words were not enough: too much was left behind. No other man was ever charged, although of course there was another man.

She banged the door behind her, as she'd been told to. They had not said good-bye, yet as she went downstairs, hearing again the muffled gabble of the racecourse commentator, she knew it was for the last time. The room was finished with. This afternoon she had felt that, even if it had not been said.

She did not have coffee and walked by the Prince and Dog without noticing it. In her kitchen she would cook the food she'd bought and they would sit together and talk about the day. She would look across the table at the husband she loved and see a shadow there. They would speak of little things.

She wandered, going nowhere, leaving the bustling street that was gracious also, walking by terraced houses, lace-curtained windows. Her afternoon lover would mend the marriage that had failed, would piece by piece repair the damage because damage was not destruction and was not meant to be. To quarrel often was not too terrible; nor, without love, to be unfaithful. They would agree that they were up to this, and friendly time would do the rest, not asked to do too much. ‘And she?’ his wife one day might wonder, and he would say his other woman was a footnote to what had happened in their marriage. Perhaps that, no more.

Katherine came to the canal, where there were seats along the water. This evening she would lie, and they would speak again of little things. She would not say she was afraid, and nor would he. But fear was there, for her the nag of doubt, infecting him in ways she did not know about. She walked on past the seats, past children with a nurse. A barge with barrels went by, painted roses on its prow.

A wasteland, it seemed like where she walked, made so not by itself but by her mood. She felt anonymity, a solitude here where she did not belong, and something came with that which she could not identify. Oh, but it's over, she told herself, as if in answer to this mild bewilderment, bewildering herself further and asking herself how she knew what she seemed to know. Thought was no good: all this was feeling. So, walking on, she did not think.

She sensed, without a reason, the dispersal of restraint. And yes, of course, for all nine years, there'd been restraint. There'd been no asking to be told, no asking for promises that the truth was what she heard. There'd been no asking about the girl, how she'd dressed, her voice, her face, and if she only sat there talking, no more than that. There'd been no asking if there had really been the usual misery on the Northern Line, the waiting for a taxi in the rain. For all nine years, while work for both of them allowed restraint, there had been silence in their ordinary exchanges, in conversation, in making love, in weekend walks and summer trips abroad. For all nine years love had been there, and more than just a comforter, too intense for that. Was stealth an excitement still? That was not asked and Katherine, pausing to watch another barge approaching, knew it never would be now. The flat was entered and Sharon Ritchie lay suffocated on her sofa. Had she been the victim kind? That, too, was locked away.

Katherine turned to walk back the way she'd come. It wouldn't be a shock, nor even a surprise. He expected no more of her than what she'd given him, and she would choose her moment to say that she must go. He would understand; she would not have to tell him. The best that love could do was not enough, and he would know that also.
 


William Trevor was born in 1928 at Mitchelstown, Co Cork, spent his childhood in provincial Ireland, and attended Trinity College, Dublin. One of Ireland's most celebrated writers of fiction, he is the author of 11 collections of short stories, two novellas and 13 novels. His most recent book, A Bit on the Side (Penguin), a collection of stories, appeared in 2005.