The absence of the bubbles hadn't been on that day’s list of priorities, so when the doorbell shook the house and a man with an accent yelled out - not even giving her a chance to respond to the bell - Elizabeth Carraway was more than a little annoyed.
‘Mrs Carway? Sorry I late. Wife have baby.’ He had a grin that refused to let its style be cramped by bad teeth.
‘What?’ She buttoned up her apricot-coloured cardigan, which her husband said should never be worn outside the house. ‘It’s Carraway.’
He came up two more steps, seemingly keen to bring himself to her level. ‘The spa. I come to fix.’ He flipped over a small badge that hung from his jumper, revealing the name Heavenly Hot Tubs.
‘Oh, yes, yes. Well, you’ll need to be quick. Through there ... under the glass patio.'
‘I’m late because baby born,’ he gushed, shaking his head as if he found the words too incredible to believe. ‘My wife have baby boy.’
‘Yes, yes. Never mind.’
She walked briskly through to the patio after sensing in a flash that he wouldn't be able to find it quickly enough on his own. With her mind on the iron upstairs and the new sesame bread about to burn in the oven, she waved her hand at the tub that hadn't been producing bubbles for months. Her husband, Alistair, had vaguely mentioned an appointment when he was last home but she'd forgotten to make a note.
With a less cheerful face than before he said, ‘First baby in England. We very happy.’
‘Oh? Very nice.’ She looked at her watch. ‘The bubbles stopped over Christmas and so we drained it. Do you have the right tools? Do you know these kinds of tubs?’
She didn't like the look of him, his clothes too baggy and scruffy, a long scar on his bony cheek. There were also patches of pink skin amongst his stubble, which she found particularly troubling; she wondered if he might be harbouring some kind of contagious disease from his wretched homeland. She warned herself not to get too close. She could also smell the bread.
‘My wife names him after my dead papa. My family killed in war.’ He put his duffle bag down on the tiles, taking in a quick breath, as though to stifle a hidden pain.
‘Splendid. What? Oh.’ She wondered if the bag was greasy and whether her tiles might need cleaning afterwards. She leaned on the edge of the spa and looked down at the bottom, noticing with alarm that Alistair hadn't yet cleaned out the leaves from the old indoor tree that had died from a lack of water. ‘I'm sorry ... I mean ... that's nice. Well, sorry for your father but nice for the baby.’
‘All my family killed.’ He put his hands over his eyes and stood still.
‘Oh.’ She cupped her hands into the praying position, a spontaneous gesture that she hadn't decided on. ‘Goodness. Are you alright?’
He didn't answer. He lowered his head and brought his feet together, like a prisoner waiting for a sentence to be pronounced.
She looked back into the spa. ‘It may just be the leaves stopping the bubbles. It may be something quite silly. What do you think?’
‘Baby is new hope, Mrs Carway. New life in family.’
‘Oh dear. Are you crying?’ It was a silly question because she could see he was crying, his tears streaming down between his fingers, like he’d just splashed his face with water.
‘We come for peace. Too many die.’
She reached down into the spa and picked up one or two of the dried leaves that lay there, gently crushing them in her fingers. The little pieces scattered over the tiles. The iron was getting hotter. The bread needed to be taken out. Alistair’s suits needed collecting. She had to ring the boys to see if they were still coming home from university for the Easter break - she'd heard from their meddling grandmother that they had voiced a preference for a trip to France with their friends.
The man dried his eyes with the sleeves of his jumper and then bent down to pick up his bag. ‘I'm sorry, Mrs Carway.’ He slowly started to inspect the spa, but it was clear his mind was elsewhere.
‘I'll leave you to it.’ She pulled on her knuckles, making them crack. ‘Will you be long?’
He nodded and smiled forlornly, reaching down to clear out some of the leaves.
She went back upstairs to the dressing room but felt bothered about something she couldn't grasp. With the iron held loosely in her hand she found herself staring out into the backyard, unable to blink. It seemed only a few years before that the boys had played on the swings and chased the dog across the lawn. She only got one sleeve of her husband's shirt done before she headed down the stairs into the kitchen, where the burnt smell had already built up.
She flicked off the oven but didn't bother opening the door. She slouched and looked at her watch: four o'clock and nothing accomplished. The back lawn suddenly struck her as being as bleak as a graveyard. The man's words came to her then: happy, hope, family. She folded her arms and closed her eyes, allowing a chill to spread through her body. She felt weak and sick. Utterly sick. Sitting down at the table, she gently placed her head on an outstretched arm.
The sound of rushing water startled her some time later. She went to the doorway that led to the patio and saw the man carefully replacing a panel on the side of the tub, wiping away a streak of grease he'd left. The water rose quickly, swirling and frothing like the wild whirlpools they'd seen in Scotland the year before. ‘It’s funny but I’ve never actually been in that tub. Four years it’s been there and I’ve never hopped in … only Alistair and the boys.’ She wasn’t sure if he’d heard her.
She suddenly had visions of the man’s family, bundled into an old lorry by armed thugs, blindfolded, taken away in the dead of night, never to be seen again. She leaned up against the door frame and tried to imagine how it must be for him to visit homes like hers, people who'd never suffered such atrocities, whose only worries were about the functioning of their daily comforts.
‘I didn't even ask your name,’ she said quietly. ‘I didn't even ask your new baby's name.’
‘Oh, I nearly finish, Mrs Carway. Bubbles good now.’
‘My name’s Elizabeth. I feel awful about before, when you were talking about your family. I was in a world of my own. It must have seemed very selfish.’
‘No, I'm sorry. My baby not make you happy news. I am just man for repair.’
She leaned forward and swallowed, desperate not to let the moment pass. ‘I really do want to hear about your baby, about your family, about your thoughts on us and ...’
He frowned, tilting his head to the side. ‘You have good bubbles now. No more broken bubbles. Pump not good. Not leaves. Just bad pumping.’
‘Oh, yes. But I don’t care about the bubbles now. They seem so very low now in the wider scheme of things. Would you like a cup of tea? You could even test the tub if you wanted. Have you ever been in one? You could even bring your wife and new baby over for a spa.’ She felt herself stiffen, standing up straighter. Her face felt flushed but her body seemed cold.
‘Thank you, Mrs Carway, but I meet wife in hospital park. Six o’clock.’
‘Oh. Yes. Of course.’ She pictured the man laughing and walking with his wife and baby through a gorgeous park, determined to put their past horror behind them.
She felt hopeless watching him leave, with an acute sense of bereavement at not having heard his story, about the country he’d come from, about the family he’d lost. She turned and looked down her long, vast hallway, listening to the rush of bubbles from the patio. She sobbed uncontrollably, putting her hands up over her eyes.
© Copyright, 2007. Seamus Kearney.