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Authors: Colm Tóibín

The Empty Family

BOOK: The Empty Family
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By the same author


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Homage to Barcelona

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Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar

Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush


Beauty in a Broken Place

The Empty Family



an imprint of


Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published 2010

Copyright © Colm Tóibín, 2010

The moral right of the author has been asserted

All rights reserved

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book

‘One Minus One’ and ‘The Colour of Shadows’ were previously published in the
New Yorker
; ‘The Pearl Fishers’ and ‘Barcelona, 1975’ in the
Dublin Review
; ‘Silence’ in
Boulevard Magenta
, published by IMMA; ‘Two Women’ in the
Financial Times
; and ‘The Empty Family’ in
Vija Celmins: Dessins/Drawings
, published by the Centre Pompidou. ‘The Street’ first appeared in
and is also published in a limited edition by Tuskar Rock Press

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN: 978-0-67-091819-5

For Anthony Cronin


One Minus One
The Empty Family
Two Women
The Pearl Fishers
The New Spain
The Colour of Shadows
Barcelona, 1975
The Street

One Minus One

The moon hangs low over Texas. The moon is my mother. She is full tonight, and brighter than the brightest neon; there are folds of red in her vast amber. Maybe she is a harvest moon, a Comanche moon. I have never seen a moon so low and so full of her own deep brightness. My mother is six years dead tonight, and Ireland is six hours away and you are asleep.

I am walking. No one else is walking. It is hard to cross Guadalupe; the cars come fast. In the Community Whole Food Store, where all are welcome, the girl at the checkout asks me if I would like to join the store’s club. If I pay seventy dollars, my membership, she says, will never expire, and I will get a seven per cent discount on my purchases.

Six years. Six hours. Seventy dollars. Seven per cent. I tell her I am here for a few months only, and she smiles and says that I am welcome. I smile back. The atmosphere is easy, casual, gracious.

If I called you now, it would be half two in the morning; I could wake you up. If I called, I could go over everything that happened six years ago. Because that is what is on my mind tonight, as though no time had elapsed, as though the strength of the moonlight had by some fierce magic chosen tonight to carry me back to the last real thing that happened to me. On the phone to you across the Atlantic, I could go over the days surrounding my mother’s funeral. I could go over the details as though I were in danger of forgetting them. I could remind you, for example, that you wore a suit and a tie at the funeral. I remember that I could see you when I spoke about her from the altar, that you were over in the side aisle, on the right. I remember that you, or someone, said that you had to get a taxi from Dublin because you missed the train or the bus. I know that I looked for you among the crowd and could not see you as the hearse came after Mass to take my mother’s coffin to the graveyard, as all of us began to walk behind it. You came to the hotel once she was in the ground, and you stayed for a meal with me and Sinead, my sister. Jim, her husband, must have been near, and Cathal, my brother, but I don’t remember what they did when the meal had finished and the crowd had dispersed. I know that as the meal came to an end a friend of my mother’s, who noticed everything, came over and looked at you and whispered to me that it was nice that my friend had come. She used the word ‘friend’ with a sweet, insinuating emphasis. I did not tell her that what she had noticed was no longer there, was part of the past. I just said yes, it was nice that you had come.

You know that you are the only person who shakes his head in exasperation when I insist on making jokes and small talk, when I refuse to be direct. No one else has ever minded this as you do. You are alone in wanting me always to say something that is true. I know now, as I walk towards the house I have rented here, that if I called and told you that the bitter past has come back to me tonight in these alien streets with a force that feels like violence, you would say that you are not surprised. You would wonder only why it has taken six years.

I was living in New York then, the city about to enter its last year of innocence. I had a rented apartment there, just as I had a rented apartment everywhere I went. It was on 90th and Columbus. You never saw it. It was a mistake. I think it was a mistake. I didn’t stay there long – six or seven months – but it was the longest I stayed anywhere in those years or the years that followed. The apartment needed to be furnished, and I spent two or three days taking pleasure in the sharp bite of buying things: two easy chairs that I later sent back to Ireland; a leather sofa from Bloomingdale’s, which I eventually gave to one of my students; a big bed from 1-800-Mattress; a table and some chairs from a place downtown; a cheap desk from the thrift shop.

And all those days – a Friday, a Saturday and a Sunday at the beginning of September – as I was busy with delivery times, credit cards and the whiz of taxis from store to store, my mother was dying and no one could find me. I had no mobile phone, and the phone line in the apartment had not been connected. I used the pay phone on the corner if I needed to make calls. I gave the delivery companies a friend’s phone number, in case they had to let me know when they would come with my furniture. I phoned my friend a few times a day, and she came shopping with me sometimes and she was fun and I enjoyed those days. The days when no one in Ireland could find me to tell me that my mother was dying.

Eventually, late on the Sunday night, I slipped into a Kinko’s and went online and found that Sinead had sent me email after email, starting three days before, marked ‘Urgent’ or ‘Are you there’ or ‘Please reply’ or ‘Please acknowledge receipt’ and then just ‘Please!!!’ I read one of them, and I replied to say that I would call as soon as I could find a phone, and then I read the rest of them one by one. My mother was in the hospital. She might have to have an operation. Sinead wanted to talk to me. She was staying at my mother’s house. There was nothing more in any of them, the urgency being not so much in their tone as in their frequency and the different titles she gave to each email that she sent.

I woke her in the night in Ireland. I imagined her standing in the hall at the bottom of the stairs. I would love to say that Sinead told me my mother was asking for me, but she said nothing like that. She spoke instead about the medical details and how she herself had been told the news that our mother was in the hospital and how she had despaired of ever finding me. I told her that I would call again in the morning, and she said that she would know more then. My mother was not in pain now, she said, although she had been. I did not tell her that my classes would begin in three days, because I did not need to. That night, it sounded as though she wanted just to talk to me, to tell me. Nothing more.

But in the morning when I called I realized that she had put quick thought into it as soon as she heard my voice on the phone, that she had known I could not make arrangements to leave for Dublin late on a Sunday night, that there would be no flights until the next evening. She had decided to say nothing until the morning; she had wanted me to have an easy night’s sleep. And I did, and in the morning when I phoned she said simply that there would come a moment very soon when the family would have to decide. She spoke about the family as though it were as distant as the urban district council or the government or the United Nations, but she knew and I knew that there were just the three of us. We were the family, and there is only one thing that a family is ever asked to decide in a hospital. I told her that I would come home; I would get the next flight. I would not be in my new apartment for some of the furniture deliverers, and I would not be at the university for my first classes. Instead, I would find a flight to Dublin, and I would see her as soon as I could. My friend phoned Aer Lingus and discovered that a few seats were kept free for eventualities like this. I could fly out that evening.

You know that I do not believe in God. I do not care much about the mysteries of the universe, unless they come to me in words, or in music maybe, or in a set of colours, and then I entertain them merely for their beauty and only briefly. I do not even believe in Ireland. But you know, too, that in these years of being away there are times when Ireland comes to me in a sudden guise, when I see a hint of something familiar that I want and need. I see someone coming towards me with a soft way of smiling, or a stubborn uneasy face, or a way of moving warily through a public place, or a raw, almost resentful stare into the middle distance. In any case, I went to JFK that evening and I saw them as soon as I got out of the taxi: a middle-aged couple pushing a trolley that had too much luggage on it, the man looking fearful and mild, as though he might be questioned by someone at any moment and not know how to defend himself, and the woman harassed and weary, her clothes too colourful, her heels too high, her mouth set in pure, blind determination, but her eyes humbly watchful, undefiant.

I could without any difficulty have spoken to them and told them why I was going home and they both would have stopped and asked me where I was from, and they would have nodded with understanding when I spoke. Even the young men in the queue to check in, going home for a quick respite – just looking at their tentative stance and standing in their company saying nothing, that brought ease with it. I could breathe for a while without worry, without having to think. I, too, could look like them, as though I owned nothing, or nothing much, and were ready to smile softly or keep my distance without any arrogance if someone said, ‘Excuse me,’ or if an official approached.

When I picked up my ticket and went to the check-in desk, I was told to go to the other desk, which looked after business class. It occurred to me, as I took my bag over, that it might be airline policy to comfort those who were going home for reasons such as mine with an upgrade, to cosset them through the night with quiet sympathy and an extra blanket or something. But when I got to the desk I knew why I had been sent there, and I wondered about God and Ireland, because the woman at the desk had seen my name being added to the list and had told the others that she knew me and would like to help me now that I needed help.

BOOK: The Empty Family
12.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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