Benjamin Black

Elegy For April

The third book in the Quirke seriesб 2010




For days a February fog had been down and showed no sign of lifting. In the muffled silence the city seemed bewildered, like a man whose sight has suddenly failed. People vague as invalids groped their way through the murk, keeping close to the house fronts and the railings and stopping tentatively at street corners to feel with a wary foot for the pavement’s edge. Motorcars with their headlights on loomed like giant insects, trailing milky dribbles of exhaust smoke from their rear ends. The evening paper listed each day’s toll of mishaps. There had been a serious collision at the canal end of the Rathgar Road involving three cars and an army motorcyclist. A small boy was run over by a coal lorry at the Five Lamps, but did not die- his mother swore to the reporter sent to interview her that it was the miraculous medal of the Virgin Mary she made the child wear round his neck that had saved him. In Clanbrassil Street an old moneylender was waylaid and robbed in broad daylight by what he claimed was a gang of housewives; the Guards were following a definite line of inquiry. A shawlie in Moore Street was knocked down by a van that did not stop, and now the woman was in a coma in St. James’s. And all day long the foghorns boomed out in the bay.

Phoebe Griffin considered herself April’s best friend, but she had heard nothing from her in a week and she was convinced something had happened. She did not know what to do. Of course, April might just have gone off, without telling anyone- that was how April was, unconventional, some would say wild- but Phoebe was sure that was not the case.

The windows of April’s first-floor flat on Herbert Place had a blank, withholding aspect, not just because of the fog: windows look like that when the rooms behind them are empty; Phoebe could not say how, but they do. She crossed to the other side of the road and stood at the railings with the canal at her back and looked up at the terrace of tall houses, their lowering, dark brick exteriors shining wetly in the shrouded air. She was not sure what she was hoping to see- a curtain twitching, a face at a window?- but there was nothing, and no one. The damp was seeping through her clothes, and she drew in her shoulders against the cold. She heard footsteps on the towpath behind her, but when she turned to look she could not see anyone through the impenetrable, hanging grayness. The bare trees with their black limbs upflung appeared almost human. The unseen walker coughed once; it sounded like a fox barking.

She went back and climbed the stone steps to the door again, and again pressed the bell above the little card with April’s name on it, though she knew there would be no answer. Grains of mica glittered in the granite of the steps; strange, these little secret gleamings, under the fog. A ripping whine started up in the sawmill on the other side of the canal and she realized that what she had been smelling without knowing it was the scent of freshly cut timber.

She walked up to Baggot Street and turned right, away from the canal. The heels of her flat shoes made a deadened tapping on the pavement. It was lunchtime on a weekday but it felt more like a Sunday twilight. The city seemed almost deserted, and the few people she met flickered past sinisterly, like phantoms. She was reasoning with herself. The fact that she had not seen or heard from April since the middle of the previous week did not mean April had been gone for that long- it did not mean she was gone at all. And yet not a word in all that length of time, not even a phone call? With someone else a week’s silence might not be remarked, but April was the kind of person people worried about, not because she was unable to look after herself but because she was altogether too sure she could.

The lamps were lit on either side of the door of the Shelbourne Hotel, they glowed eerily, like giant dandelion clocks. The caped and frock-coated porter, idling at the door, lifted his gray top hat and saluted her. She would have asked Jimmy Minor to meet her in the hotel, but Jimmy disdained such a swank place and would not set foot in it unless he was following up on a story or interviewing some visiting notable. She passed on, crossing Kildare Street, and went down the area steps to the Country Shop. Even through her glove she could feel how cold and greasily wet the stair rail was. Inside, though, the little cafй was warm and bright, with a comforting fug of tea and baked bread and cakes. She took a table by the window. There were a few other customers, all of them women, in hats, with shopping bags and parcels. Phoebe asked for a pot of tea and an egg sandwich. She might have waited to order until Jimmy came, but she knew he would be late, as he always was- deliberately, she suspected, for he liked to have it thought that he was so much busier than everyone else. The waitress was a large pink girl with a double chin and a sweet smile. There was a wen wedged in the groove beside her left nostril that Phoebe tried not to stare at. The tea that she brought was almost black, and bitter with tannin. The sandwich, cut in neat triangles, was slightly curled at the corners.

Where was April now, at this moment, and what was she doing? For she must be somewhere, even if not here. Any other possibility was not to be entertained.

A half hour passed before Jimmy arrived. She saw him through the window skipping down the steps, and she was struck as always by how slight he was, a miniature person, more like a wizened schoolboy than a man. He wore a transparent plastic raincoat the color of watery ink. He had thin red hair and a narrow, freckled face, and was always disheveled, as if he had been sleeping in his clothes and had just jumped out of bed. He was putting a match to a cigarette as he came through the door. He saw her and crossed to her table and sat down quickly, crushing his raincoat into a ball and stowing it under his chair. Jimmy did everything in a hurry, as if each moment were a deadline he was afraid he was about to miss. “Well, Pheeb,” he said, “what’s up?” There were sparkles of moisture in his otherwise lifeless hair. The collar of his brown corduroy jacket bore a light snowfall of dandruff, and when he leaned forward she caught a whiff of his tobacco-staled breath. Yet he had the sweetest smile, it was always a surprise, lighting up that pinched, sharp little face. It was one of his amusements to pretend that he was in love with Phoebe, and he would complain theatrically to anyone prepared to listen of her cruelty and hard- heartedness in refusing to entertain his advances. He was a crime reporter on the Evening Mail, though surely there were not enough crimes committed in this sleepy city to keep him as busy as he claimed to be.

She told him about April and how long it was since she had heard from her. “Only a week?” Jimmy said. “She’s probably gone off with some guy. She is slightly notorious, you know.” Jimmy affected an accent from the movies; it had started as a joke at his own expense-”Jimmy Minor, ace reporter, at your service, lady!”- but it had become a habit and now he seemed not to notice how it grated on those around him who had to put up with it.

“If she was going somewhere,” Phoebe said, “she would have let me know, I’m sure she would.”

The waitress came, and Jimmy ordered a glass of ginger beer and a beef sandwich-”Plenty of horse radish, baby, slather it on, I like it hot.” He pronounced it hat. The girl tittered. When she had gone he whistled softly and said, “That’s some wart.”

“Wen,” Phoebe said.

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