TINA, TINA, TINA
The man who had introduced himself as Donal, pulled himself up to a sitting position on the lounger, pushed his sunglasses back on his head.
You live on a farm? He repeated.
Tina knew by the look on his face that he’d guessed she was no longer in her thirties. He was probably wondering how she – at her age – could run a farm. She adjusted the lime green bikini top that was a little on the skimpy side and smoothed down the sheer black kimono that partly covered it.
Yes. A farm, Tina said loudly. She pulled her dyed black curls into a low ponytail and said, but I don’t keep many animals. It’s just hens now. Chickens. She didn’t tell Donal how they were company, or the hen named for her followed her around and stood by the clothesline when she was hanging out the sheets, how the same hen, when she cuddled her, made soothing noises like the purr of a cat, and visibly relaxed in her arms.
Donal looked distracted before asking her who was looking after them while she was – and here he laughed and leaned in closer to her – lounging around in this Lanzarote paradise?
Tina felt the blush rush up her neck, crowd her cheeks. She glanced around the hotel pool. In the corner six young women, all curves and gleaming skin, were sucking colourful cocktails through transparent straws. Tina recalled the women she’d seen in Penneys. Snatching bikinis of many hues, grabbing something flowery to go over them. She supposed that they wanted to display themselves in triangles of colour but also hide beneath layers of flowers. After watching them, she’d plonked three bikinis, size 16, into the grubby mesh basket. Yellow, pink, and lime green. Now she plucked at the thin line of latex and cotton digging into her chest. What she wanted was to be unremarkable. And to be unremarkable you had to be the same as everyone else.
So? Donal said, poking her arm with his square fingers. What about those hens?
She laughed. My hens are fine. The neighbour, John-Joe, is taking care of them.
John-Joe. Donal said, raising his eyebrows. Sounds like a match made in heaven.
He sounded American, Donal did, the way he turned what he said into a question, or the way it seemed like he’d made up his mind about her before she’d even explained who she was. But he hadn’t left her for the women in the corner, and he was the one asking questions.
She shook her head. No, she said, there’s no match there. He’s my parent’s generation, well, if they were still alive. John-Joe likes the hens, understands them.
Donal apologised for being such a city boy. I’ve been in New York for the last thirty years, and am Dublin bred so, well, what can I say, I’m a city slicker.
Tina knew it was her turn to ask the questions. Why had he left New York? Was he divorced? Her mother had constantly reminded her that there were social norms she had to engage in. That was, if she didn’t want to be left alone, or to die on the farm and have the hens pick out her eyes and the cats gorge on her insides. Yes, mammy, she’d said. Now she sat up straight and looked right at Donal’s face.
Isn’t it difficult for you living in Ireland after all those years in New York?
He ran those perfect hands through his silver hair, short back-and-sides, and let out a long sigh. Well, he said. My parents died within weeks of each other so I’m living in my childhood house, a good area of Dublin. It’s actually not that difficult.
Tina looked at his chest, the entwined curls of black and white hairs, the toned muscles, the creases on his neck that spoke of age, and a life well-lived.
He reached out and took her hand. May I?
She bit her bottom lip, nodded.
Am I ruining the mood? Shall I continue my story?
Yes, she said. Continue, I mean.
So – and here was that sigh again – my father was nursing my mother – she had cancer – and he called me to come home. They’d said she had a week left and, well, of course I came home. Stopped my life, got the first plane to Dublin.
Tina nodded and stopped biting her lip. Here they were, two adults – older than every other guest in this hotel it seemed – who had been orphaned in the same month. And here they were, in this sunny resort in the second week of February. She leaned closer and was glad when he did the same.
So, you can imagine what happened, he said.
Yes, Tina said, I can. And you know why? Because the same thing happened to me.
She wanted to smile – had she found her soulmate? – but knew that was the wrong thing to do so she looked down at her legs. They were covered in goose bumps though she didn’t feel cold.
He let go of her hands. The same thing? He reached back for his orange coloured drink that had become diluted and dull in the heat. He took a long drink and licked his lips.
Not precisely the same thing, but my mother died just last month and my father a few years ago so –
–so that’s not the same. His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat as he raised his voice. My father had a heart attack on Christmas day, and my mother struggled on for two weeks in palliative care. Everything was my responsibility.
You don’t have siblings? Tina whispered.
He shook his head.
She felt her stomach flip. Another thing they had in common.
I was their only child. He scratched the back of his head. I guess I always knew that when I returned, it would be to death. He looked up. But what can I do, now, Tina, except to live a little?
Live a little, she whispered, yes, that’s what you have to do now.
That evening Tina was first to arrive for dinner. She smiled at the handsome waiter who pulled out her seat. He moved to take her shawl. Her slip of a black dress was such a snug fit she’d had to go without a bra, and she was suddenly conscious of the tiny straps which were fraying at the edges. She pulled the white shawl in towards her chest.
Oh no, gracias, she said, tengo frio.
The waiter smiled politely and said something she didn’t understand. Probably agreeing that the evenings were chilly this time of year and that Señora was right keeping her shawl wrapped around those fine shoulders.
Sonia, the hairdresser, had told her that people go on trips to heal their grief. It was Sonia who’d also advised her on bikinis and recommended her own beautician. Now Tina wiggled in her seat, thanking God that the redness on her bikini line and legs had finally disappeared. She’d screamed when the beautician pulled the strip away from her skin, and with it, the hair that had appeared, unwanted, all those years ago. After, when the beautician heard that Tina was Mona’s daughter – Mona who had just died – she made her a hot chocolate with marshmallows, sat her down in the cerise pink armchair in reception and told her to take her time. Tina had felt glorious; she’d felt cocooned.
Now, sitting in the hotel restaurant in Lanzarote, she remembered how her mother’s friends had embraced her and whispered that Mona had died lonely and without grandchildren. Dry-eyed, Tina had thanked each person for coming. You do realise, another one said, that Mona never wanted you alone in that big old farmhouse. She wanted you to find love. Tina took a sip of iced water, considering that all through her life with every task she’d completed on the farm or in that big old farmhouse, she’d never had the time to stop, or even to smile. She jumped at Donal’s arrival.
I’m so sorry, he said, brushing his lips against her cheek quickly and sitting down opposite her. I’m not that late, am I?
I was too early, she said, and she heard the crispness in her voice. Her dress strap slipped down, and when she pulled back up onto her shoulder, the material gave a little more. Donal checked the time on his silver watch.
It’s okay – she began – but he was still talking – I’m not late, well a minute or two but you see, my estate agent rang and they’ve got another offer on the house and I just couldn’t rush this decision. There’s a war – a bidding war – can you imagine!
She said she couldn’t imagine. She’d never sell the farmhouse where she lived. It was home for them – her and the hens.
The waiter came and called out the specials.
Want me to order for you?
Tina wanted that warmth again, like she was being cocooned. Yes, order for me, she said, feeling a little lighter.
You like asparagus? Meat?
I eat everything, remember, I grew up on a farm.
Tina understood that behind every beautiful dish there was a death. She relaxed back into the wicker chair and watched Donal joke in Spanish with the waiter, hum and haw about which wine to order. She waved her hand when he offered her the wine menu, let him pick; she settled back into the warmth of her smile.
The waiter disappeared and came back with crusty white bread and a carafe of red wine which he poured into their tall glasses.
Love, he said, love is in the Spanish air.
The waiter looked about her age and she wondered if he had a wife, children. Gracias, she said, hoping it would make him happy to know that his efforts were being appreciated. Tina clinked glasses with Donal and drank generously. It was a strong red he’d ordered. Until the starters arrived, they mused on the quality of the hotel and the professionalism of the staff.
As she cut into the smooth white asparagus on her lime green plate, she told Donal she’d been planning a few trips. They all left the hotel early in the morning and returned to the hotel in time for dinner at 8.30pm.
He took a drink of wine. Hmm, he said. This is good stuff. Setting down his glass gently on the white tablecloth he said, Cesar Manrique’s house and museum is definitely on the cards for me. He twirled his fork in the spaghetti in the large white bowl.
They were all about contrast on this island, Tina thought. Yesterday the green spinach omelette arrived on a black plate. She watched Donal push the pasta into his mouth and chew loudly.
That’s on my list too, she said. She took another forkful of food, ate quietly, carefully swallowed, and said, we could also just watch the sunset on one of those remote beaches. I want to feel the ridges of black, volcanic sand between my toes. She thought about it. She’d always wanted to know what black sand felt like. To lie down in it, immerse her body in its blackness, like a dream.
Her throat went dry. She said, if you’re interested in going, with me, I mean, I’m not presuming anything.
Donal wiggled his wine glass at her. I know, I know. Here we are, two orphans, alone on a tropical island. What could possibly be on the cards for us?
She blushed. There’s the cactus garden, too.
He mopped up the pasta sauce with a hunk of bread. I’ve heard that’s beautiful.
The food was passable, but it was the wine she enjoyed the most. She watched the liquid roll in the glass, counted the alcohol tears that it left, and swished it in her mouth. It’s really quite fine, she said, holding up the glass to the light.
Donal agreed. The local wines were so different from anything he’d had, even compared to New York fine dining, with work, of course. Lunches. Dinners. Deals. He’d worked as an accountant for a well-known legal firm and the job had worn him down. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, he stressed, it was just that, you know, too much pressure just gets to a person. This is the sort of life I want now, he declared. Living more. Working less.
Later, after a night cap, they stopped at her bedroom door and kissed, slowly. When Donal leaned on her, the force of his weight pressing on her, telling her she was so special, she knew she would not let him into her bed that night. She would wait. He would wait for her. Love could wait one more day.
We’re up early, she said, for the trip. She wiggled her toes in the high heels she’d squashed her feet into. So, she said, running her finger down his cheek – like she’d seen a woman do in an old black-and-white film – we’d better not.
Something in his face hardened. Fleetingly. Then he kissed her again. You’re right let’s not rush things. He looked at his watch. It’s nearly midnight. We’d better get some sleep.
She stayed with her back pressed against the white door, and watched Donal go backwards down the corridor blowing kisses as he walked. He took a left turn towards the lift which would take him to his room on the floor above hers. When he was out of sight, she swiped her key card in the door, and it sprung open. Standing on the threshold, she let the shawl fall to the floor. The left strap had finally broken, and the slip of a dress fell open, exposing her full pale breast to the empty room.
The next morning Tina woke late, feeling she’d hardly slept. Her cheeks were wet and she pushed the thought out of her mind that she’d been crying in her sleep again. She hurriedly showered and pulled on a dress with solid straps – wide and secure. She stood in front of the mirror alternatively smiling then frowning. Mammy had loved that dress on her, said it was perfect dress with its blue flowers on a base of buttercup yellow. She patted on the sunscreen and applied a light pink lipstick. She plaited her hair and secured it with a yellow elastic band before slipping her feet into plain brown sandals.
Today they were going to the cactus garden and after a light lunch, they’d get a tour of a volcano. This whole island was a volcano, she thought, as she made her way down the wide staircase. Donal was waiting for her in the lobby, linen trousers with beige loafers and a cream jacket on his arm. His hair was gelled again, and his smile was wide. He asked her if she slept okay.
Like a log.
Good for you he said, I hardly slept at all.
Why ever not?
Because, silly, I was thinking about you. He moved closer, put his mouth to her ear and whispered. Really thinking about you.
Tina didn’t know what to reply but then she heard her name and turned to see that the receptionist was calling her. The woman held the telephone receiver in her hand and pointed to it – call, she was shouting, I’ve got a call for you, Miss Tina.
You’ve got a call? Donal asked, rubbing his chin, at this hour?
Tina walked to the side of the desk.
I was trying your room, the receptionist said, but you’re here now so that is very good. Very good, she repeated, beaming.
Tina felt like she was underwater as she lifted the receiver to her ear. Hello?
It was Dervla in the Post Office telling her that John-Joe had died in his sleep. Tina blessed herself, feeling something catch in her throat. There she’d been, kissing a stranger last night, when John-Joe was dying. May poor John-Joe Rest In Peace, she croaked into the phone. Dervla said Sonia had arranged a flight back for her; the travel agent had been so accommodating. She was lucky, she was saying, there are only two flights out a week.
Of course, tomorrow is fine, thanks so much – hmm – yes.
She glanced over at Donal pacing. She’d have to hurry.
No. I don’t mind cutting the holiday short. I want to be there for John-Joe.
Thank you, Tina said as she handed the receiver back to the receptionist. There’s been a death and I’ll be leaving tomorrow. She heard her voice as if she were playing a part in a tragic film on the big screen. She blinked away the threat of tears.
Two days early? Oh I am very sorry. The receptionist gave a little bow and cocked her head to the side. I am very sorry, she repeated.
Tina took Donal’s elbow, explained the developments.
Your old neighbour, he said, sure he’s dead! He won’t know you’re not there to bury him. You can’t cut your holiday short. Didn’t you tell me this was your first real holiday, I mean your only holiday, ever?
But she had to be there – for John-Joe, for herself, and for her hens who would be already lonely without the company. It’s already arranged, she said, I fly out in the morning. Eleven O’clock flight. I was lucky to get on it.
He stared at her and then took both her hands in his and said he would make their last day in Lanzarote one to remember. He ran to the receptionist, told her in hurried Spanish that they’d be changing their trip this morning. They would be taking the Cesar Manrique day tour.
The volcanos and cacti will wait for us, he said rushing back to Tina, we’re going to spend the day basking in the heat and genius of Manrique. Today you’ll forget your grieving, forget those farm people, and open yourself to the beauty of the world.
Tina heard herself agreeing, it might be nice, she said.
They would walk the same white steps Manrique once walked, see the views he admired, and sneakily – because it was a museum, and this was forbidden – dip their toes in the cool water of his sunken pools.
Somewhere inside Tina wondered what Donal would do if she were to cry. Cry for all the words she did not know, words that could name what was snaking and slowly pushing through her.
And then, Donal said, still talking – though she had missed most of what he’d said and already agreed to another trip, a weekend away – we’ll enjoy our own country. I’ll book a special place for us. He clapped his hands. Oh, what plans I have for us, Tina.
Tina followed Donal up the steps of the coach, feeling the touch of sun on her calves. She paused and closed her eyes for a second. Heat, she thought, that could be a word to describe what she was feeling. Heat.
John-Joe’s funeral was a quiet affair at which Tina gave a short speech. She spoke about how generous a man he’d been. While he might have kept himself to himself – as the saying goes, she said lowering her voice – and was therefore less known around the village, John-Joe really was a pillar of the community. After her own parents died, she continued, he was the one who provided the support she needed to look after the hens and maintain the farm. He had kept her company over pots of tea. John-Joe was a great man full of stories. He would be sorely missed.
Tina bowed and carefully stepped down off the altar. She felt muffled in her black polo neck, dress, tights and shoes. She slipped back into the front pew, alongside a great-niece of John-Joe’s, of whom he’d never spoken. The woman, dressed in a smart skirt suit, sat with her gaze fixed on the coffin. Disbelief, Tina thought suddenly, the young woman’s face was filled with disbelief. She had lost a great-uncle she never knew and suddenly gained a farm. But that was life; the coin always falls or is flipped.
The rain stayed away until John-Joe’s oak coffin had been lowered into the ground and then it came, with great big gusts of wind, belting into their faces. The great-niece let out a few sobs. Sonia put her arm around her. Tina couldn’t bear to look at the girl who would – of this she was sure – quickly disappear back to wherever she’d come from without a care for the land, the animals, or the house. She put her head back, her face to the rain. She found it refreshing; a reminder that she, Tina, was still alive.
She followed the group down the hill towards the town, where they congregated in the small hotel. After curled sandwiches and vegetable soup that was too hot to eat, Tina reminisced about John-Joe with Sonia and a few of her mother’s old friends who lowered their voices when they praised her for cutting her holiday short. She didn’t mind, she said, didn’t mind one bit. Home was where the heart was. They nodded, and said she was like a reincarnation of her mother, so she was. Tina managed to avoid the great-niece. After a while she left them to their rounds of whiskey and slowly walked home.
The rain had turned to sleet and the road felt longer. She wrapped her mother’s coat a little tighter around her middle, clutched it with her mittened hands and looked at her breath in the freezing air. She remembered that she was going away with Donal at the weekend. He’d arranged for them to stay in an old Georgian house where they’d eat all their meals. A chef who’d worked in a Michelin Star restaurant in Paris was the head chef there. It would be fine dining and proper pampering, what she’d need after the funeral, he’d said. She’d grown to like the idea, but with John-Joe gone she’d nobody to mind the hens and she worried about her favourite, one she’d named for herself. She couldn’t ask Sonia; she was too busy with the salon. There was no question of changing her mind about the weekend; Donal had expectations that she’d helped to set. And though she might not admit it aloud, Tina knew she, too, had those same expectations. She tried to imagine Donal opening the door for the last time to his parent’s house in Terenure; the house had moved to sale agreed. But she couldn’t picture him. She could see him by the pool in Lanzarote, or at their table in the hotel restaurant, and she could, just about – strangely, as that was where they’d spent their last day together – picture him at Manrique’s house. The house that had seemed to her full of light and promise.
She looked up to the grey sky and across the empty fields. A crow called and dipped and flew high again. She kicked a stone along the narrow road. For a few minutes snow fell lightly. It landed like dust on the road but didn’t seem like it would stick. She listened to the sound of her feet as she walked. There was something hypnotic about walking. The movement was simple and pure, one foot in front of the other. In the distance she could hear the call of cattle. The crows circled above her, screeching. They knew, she thought, that behind the heat inside her was the coldness of death. She stopped walking and took in the clarity that came to her. There was only one way she could let love come into her life, there was only one way she could love Donal.
On Saturday Tina woke before the alarm went off. It was early morning and the light had not yet come. She pulled on a woollen jumper that had belonged to her father and stepped into an old tracksuit bottoms. She wouldn’t – couldn’t – eat. There was a job to be done. She walked down the stairs, slowly, and was glad that she was able to see herself as she’d be this very night: in a lace nighty, waiting for Donal on a large four-poster bed. He’d be brushing his teeth, freshening himself up. He’d know that no woman wanted foul breath. The sheets would be white – classic – the bedspread heavy satin or brocade. The original wooden floor would be covered by a thick-pile cream carpet. They’d have dined on veal and drank red wine and their bellies would be full and their hearts satisfied. She shook her head. No. That was ridiculous. Their hearts couldn’t be satisfied, not at that point. Their hearts wouldn’t be satisfied until later.
In the kitchen she pulled on her wellington boots, pushed open the back door, making a mental note that she’d oil the squeaking hinges after the weekend away with Donal. She stepped out into the yard. Good. It hadn’t snowed overnight; the early morning air was cold and dry. She walked across the yard to the hen house.
In the stillness she pressed the latch down on the door. She called out. Tina, tina, tina. She stood in the darkness. Without silhouettes or shadows, they might be wary. She called out again and then she heard the movement, the rustling of feathers; of course, they were answering the familiarity of her voice. She lifted the bag of grain, shook it. They squawked with excitement. She reached up to the ledge on the left where her father had always kept the Stanley knife. She slid it off the shelf, into her hand. She backed out of the hen house slowly, soundlessly.
A dull light had started to creep across the yard. Tina scattered some grain, creating a trail from the hen house to the middle of the yard. She shivered as she waited. She heard them coming towards her. She reached into the semi-darkness, searching for warmth before quickly drawing the blade across each of their scrawny necks. Warm spurts of blood hit her face. She found it hard to breathe.
Don’t panic, she said aloud. You’re preparing for love.
She began listing out the tasks she had to do before she’d be lying in Donal’s arms.
Pluck the hens.
Chop them into pieces.
Bag the pieces.
Label the bags.
Place them in the free-standing freezer.
Order a taxi to get to the man who loved her.
This spring, she thought, as her breathing returned to normal, was more like a winter. A full freezer would serve her well. She pictured Donal’s face and how he would gaze at her after they had made love; this is what freedom would feel like. She looked up to sky where the sun struggled through. She swallowed down the taste of metal. She took a deep breath. She had not said kill the hens in her list. She had not said that.
The last and the hardest kill was Tina. She chased her namesake across the icy yard, both of them skittering and skidding. She dropped the knife in the chase. When she finally caught the hen, she held her in a tight grip, shivering so much her teeth chattered. She felt the hen relax; she hugged her like she always did. Then she spoke to her.
I don’t want you to die alone, Tina, I want you know love.
There was a pause – she, Tina, felt it – the air became thick and pungent and then she wrung Tina’s neck, quickly, the way her father had taught her.
Silence spread over the yard.
She held Tina’s legs until the twitching stopped. Across the long field a light went on in John-Joe’s house. That great-niece of his must be living there. Already. The woman hadn’t disappeared, after all.
Tina’s insides twisted. What is a farm without animals, she whispered, looking around at the small, scattered corpses she’d soon pluck and chop and freeze. What was this place, now?