"Imagine putting cream on a scone," he says. The café is empty, apart from a middle-aged man with glasses and a little girl at a table by the wall. The girl is eating a cookie and has chocolate on her face. The music seems louder than normal. Ruth tips back her mug. Sweat is forming on the back of her neck. The waiter collects their plates. "More coffee?" When he brings it, he says, "I didn’t see ye here last Saturday." Above the mask, his eyes are kind. Ruth can only vaguely recall the features of his face. "They actually came to Dublin, for once," she says. They had stayed with her in the flat, and she had slept on the couch. She had wanted to bring them into the gallery but her father got too comfortable in Neary’s. On the Sunday, he’d been so pale and tired they had just had some breakfast and got in the car. "I keep telling her," her father says, "she doesn’t need to come down so much." As he speaks, his outstretched hand chops the air, one chop on telling, another on much. His gaze is somewhere around the waiter’s belly button. "They’re all fussing, but there’s no need, I keep telling them." He often says things to strangers that he would not say to Ruth or her mother. Ruth does not react. The waiter smiles politely and looks to her. "Would you ever think of moving back to Galway?" "People are always asking me that, but sure work is in Dublin." Her father is watching her. He had helped her take off her laptop bag when she sat down and he’d seen her check the work phone that was now in her coat pocket. The waiter goes back behind the counter and her father pours milk into his coffee. Vague shapes pass by the window. Misshapen umbrellas dance in the wind. Despite the condensation, her father recognises some of the faces. "He’s from down there by St Joseph’s. His wife has Alzheimer’s. Terrible. Your mother never forgets anything.” He looks expectantly and she obliges him with her laugh and he turns back to the window. "And there’s that woman your mother went to college with. She swims every morning in Salthill. She was married to Tommy Carrol." He shakes his head. "Never sick a day in his life, that man. Never smoked, only a few pints. Dead at sixty-four." Typically, these summaries end with an early death. He disappears to adjust the piece of paper under one of the table’s wrought-iron legs. "And how’s all in our nation’s capital?" She tells him about the call with the landlord, about the rent going up and the heat still being broken. "Give me his number. I’ll talk to him." She glances at him, at his lined eyes and the grey sheen of his face. "It’s grand. It’ll get sorted." She sips her coffee, which is growing cold already. Her phone is buzzing in her coat pocket. It rattles against the chair, like a trapped bird at her back. She works hard to keep her hands on her mug. "—don’t remember this." Her father is looking at her. "Sorry, what?" She arranges a calm expression. If she tells him about the project deadline, he will either say she shouldn’t be working at the weekend or that she should have stayed in Dublin if things were busy. "Ah, nothing," he says. "No, sorry, what were you saying?" He is tapping a sugar packet against the table. His eyes dart around, like an unspoken threat surrounds him. She suddenly wants to reach out and take his hand. The phone buzzes again. She passes a hand over the back her neck. "I was just thinking," her father is saying, "about one evening, when you were five or six maybe." He is looking out the window. "I came home from work and you were sitting up at the kitchen table. Your mother was reading the paper, I think. I was taking off my coat and you were looking out the window, which was pitch-black at that stage. And you had this suspicious scowl, and you said, ‘How’d you know how to get back when it’s dark out?’" He gives a bark of a laugh at the window. And then he starts coughing, loud and unrestrained. He throws the sugar packet back into the bowl and tries to gain command. He starts to gag, like he has swallowed something disgusting. She looks around. The waiter, putting cutlery away, glances over, and each knife and fork clash as they hit their mark. The little girl with the chocolate on her chin is staring. The vulnerability in her father’s eyes makes her want to get up and leave. "Are you alright?" He nods but from his throat is an unfinished sound, like ancient rocks breaking. He quietens and after a minute of staring out the window, she says, “And what did you tell me?” He clears his throat again. "What?" "What did you tell me, about finding your way in the dark?" "Ah, I think I said, ‘Sure, I know the way home.’" He shrugs and drains his cup. "Where does the time go, eh? What age are you now, anyway? When are you going to start making enough money so I can retire?" She pays for the coffees. He tosses a two-Euro coin into the tip jar. "See you next weekend," the waiter says. Out on the street, she hoists up the umbrella. There is the scrape of the lighter and the brief illumination of his eyes, which seem more watery and yellow now. The smoke mixes with the steady rainfall in the cool evening air. She stops. "Put that out." He exhales. In the amber glow of the streetlights, his face is alien and taciturn. "I came down on the train—again—and now this is what you’re doing." Their time in the café is already falling away, collapsing like a rickety bridge behind them. Then he crushes the cigarette under his boot, takes the umbrella, and hoists it over them both. "I’m parked behind the Cathedral." He takes up a sprightly pace and she has to follow, the umbrella drumming the side of her head. They pass through Woodquay and cross the road outside the Abbey Church. The tarmac is slick and dark. The streets are quiet. "No one asked you to come down," he says over his shoulder as they cross the Salmon Weir Bridge. The path is too narrow. She must walk behind him. There is a curve to his shoulders under the umbrella and the harsh whip of the wind and rain hits her face. She pulls up her hood and her gaze falls on the placid and devious river below. Back in the car, he clears his throat again. "I can’t believe you’re still smoking," she says. He starts the engine. As they wait for the light to change, he drums his hands on the wheel. * He’d been drumming his hands on the steering wheel that day too. "Why didn’t you wave to me?" That was what he had said. He’d been staring at her, eyes wide, eyebrows up, and then he’d turned away, and continued thumping some unknowable rhythm against the dull rubber. They’d been at the school gate. His hair was still brown then and he was still wearing that black leather jacket. She had been talking to some girl from her class, now a uniform without a face. Through the car window, he had waved and, out loud, she’d said hi to him. She had finished talking with the girl, tripped down the steps, and sat into the car. "Why didn’t you wave?" He hadn’t heard her. He couldn’t have heard her. Now his jaw was set and that line was between his eyes. Her defence blocked up in her chest under the sudden new weight of this responsibility. "Doesn’t matter," he’d said, starting the engine. "Put on your seatbelt." He should have been at work, but he was taking her to visit his own father at the hospital. He’d walked ahead of her through the disinfected hallways, the squeak of his wet soles loud against the gleaming beige floor. She struggled to remember her grandfather’s face but he had seemed cheerful. After the funeral, at the house, one of her cousins, in that ruthless way children have, had said, "I never saw your dad cry before, Ruth." "I’ll see you cry in a minute," she’d said. But she was envious because she had not seen it herself. That evening, when they were at home, he’d announced: "I’m quitting. That’s it. I’m not going to go that way." He’d looked her mother in the face. Ruth couldn’t remember her mother’s response. She had an image of her walking away, towards the stairs, but that could have been some other evening. * The rain stops just as they are getting out of the car. "Don’t say anything to your mother," her father says. Ruth stands with her hand on the car door. Her phone buzzes again in her pocket. Her mother is sitting at the kitchen table, which is set for dinner. She is reading a newspaper, and looks up as they come in. "How was it in town?" "Wet and miserable," her father says. His keys clatter against the bowl on the windowsill. "Are you hungry?" Her mother’s gaze is evaluating. It is wholly separate to the questions she asks. "I’ll change before dinner," Ruth says. Up in her old room, she has started storing a few things. Clothes, shoes, a spare charger. Once the treatment starts, she will need to be prepared. The bowl of chicken korma and boiled rice is steaming and warm. Ruth cleans the plates. Afterwards, her father stands up, stretches and says he will just pop out for a walk. Ruth looks to the blackened kitchen window, but the rain hammering against it is clear. Her father takes his jacket from the back of the door and is gone. Her mother starts to clear the plates. "Make some tea, will you?" Ruth takes the mugs down. "Will I bother making enough for him, or will he be ‘popping out’ for long?" "I’m tired, Ruth, just make the tea." "Are we just not talking about this? COVID at Christmas, cancer, and now he’s smoking again. And we are just not talking about this." Ruth slams the teapot down on the counter. The handle snaps off. She stares at it in her hand. "I’ll glue it back on." Her mother passes her an oven glove. "I’ll get another one tomorrow." She is wiping down the table with a cloth, collecting the discarded bits of food in her cupped palm. "It’s not to spite you, Ruth. Or me." The door slams and her father reappears, his grey hair dripping against his pale forehead. "Are we having tea?" Ruth turns to face him. She is thinking of the story he told in the café. All at once, she revokes her compassion. Because they would be obliged to go on. And then she is reaching out a hand and placing it on his shoulder, feeling the rough damp wool of his coat, and they are looking each other right in the eye.
Kate Smyth holds an MA in Writing from NUIG and a PhD from Trinity College Dublin. She has been published in The Cardiff Review, Icarus, and Wordlegs. She was short-listed for a National Student Media Award and longlisted for the Cúirt New Writing Prize. She is writing a story collection.