Ailis

Henry Holiday, Dante and Beatrice (1883)

4,395 words

Google threw up no results and that surprised him. She had been ambitious, determined to become a famous actress, but he had not heard anything about her since she disappeared. Disappeared? That seemed a hard word . . . The Internet told him nothing, or rather by telling him nothing, it told him that in that respect she had failed. Whatever she may have become, a famous actress she was not.

They had become friends in London when she was 16 and he, Paul Wilson, was over 30. She was working at the time in a bakery in Pimlico, one that prided itself on the kind of traditional, home-meal bread which in those years was becoming fashionable. Paul Wilson’s wife, Sally, had just moved out of their shared flat in Sutherland Street, taking their two children with her, but agreeing on a financial settlement in lieu of claims on his large and increasingly valuable flat.

For several weeks after his separation he had taken up the habit of buying bread from the same bakery, not because of the croissants and loaves, but because of the girl who served them. The girl in question was obviously sociable and popular with the others. They called her something which sounded like “I’ll,” but he heard her boss address her as Ailis. At first he thought her name was Alice, a mistake on which she would later take care to correct him. It was a time when Celtic names were becoming fashionable, like the organic bread in the bakery, and probably for the same reason –  perhaps an urban nostalgia for ill-defined “roots,” a futile romanticism for a non-existent past? Or for an existent past? An Irish name in any case, and Ailis had had an authentic Irish accent.

He longed to make friends with her, but the circumstances posed obvious difficulties. Any opening conversational gambits in a crowded bakery might become embarrassing for both; might turn into a piece of theatre performed for the entertainment of staff and customers. He considered waiting outside the bakery for her until the shop closed, but dismissed the idea at once. It could be alarming for her and degrading for him to be waiting outside in the street. Edgar Wallace or worse. 1950s. Dirty mackintosh. Films noirs. Stalking . . . No, no . . .

At the beginning of February the following year, he decided to send her a Valentine’s card which he would address to the “New Nymph of Pimlico” (corny, but apt, he thought). He would say he was her “admirer,” the eccentric in the funny hat, who bought two croissants every Saturday. He even composed the message in rhyming couplets. If she didn’t chose to react, she could ignore the card and nobody would be embarrassed or lose face. Wasn’t that the original point of Valentine cards, to introduce yourself without running the risk of being publicly rebuffed?

He wrote the card and slipped it under the door of the bakery on the night of 13th February. He wrote the name “Alice” on the envelope, hoping she would find the card first. He was in the shop early the next day. As always, business was brisk. He waited his turn patiently, maneuvering so as to be sure that she would serve him.

“Er, the usual please. Two croissants.”

“Two croissants, right. Liked your card, by the way.”

“Good. Well . . .”

“Clever of you to think all that up.”

He had given a telephone number, a first name on the card, in the hope she wouldn’t have to ask anything in front of the others.

“I’m glad, wasn’t sure . . . Er, come along and have lunch with me some time.” He spoke the last sentence quickly; nobody else noticed, or seemed to notice. She took a little longer than usual to drop his two croissants into his bag.

Nobody in the queue seemed to notice that Ailis was being a little slower than usual. Paul slipped her his business card along with his money. She reacted to the card with amusement, but no great surprise. Could she possibly have been expecting it?

“Thanks very much. I’ll see you on Wednesday, then.”

See you on Wednesday, then, she had said, as easy as that. What a calm and collected girl for her age – and what was her age? She was young, about as young as you could be to work in a shop. He did not think she would come. Of course not. He was at her mercy. She would not come. Of course not. No chance. Never. She was just showing off. She wouldn’t dare. She was young. She didn’t know him. If she was polite, she would ring. Probably not even that. He couldn’t be so lucky. No, she wouldn’t come. Luck didn’t come his way.

But she did come, twenty minutes late, ringing the bell several times, telling the world – or at least everyone in the house – that he had a visit. The house rang with her loud cry of “Hi” as she walked into the entrance hall. He never forgot how she loudly took the stone steps instead of the lift, proclaiming her presence to the entire building. Was that an instinctive safety measure? When she arrived at the top of the four-story building, she was not out of breath at all.

That was the beginning of a short but intense friendship, one which lasted four months and which was driven by their shared love of the theatre. It was a chaste relationship. He had never tried to be intimate with her. At the time, he had not wanted anything like that. At the time. For the short time.

Her enthusiasm for a world she hardly knew was boundless, and this, coupled with her lack of knowledge but eagerness to learn, gave him ample opportunity to show off in a way that had used to annoy Sally when they lived together, but it did not seem to annoy Ailis at all. Paul’s friends were skeptical and cynical.

“I am disappointed,” said one of them. “I should have expected more loyalty to Sally.”

“What do you mean? Sally left me, I owe her nothing.”

“Maybe, although they do say it takes two to tango. Anyway, I didn’t think you’d be that quick to – well, you know. I don’t have to spell it out.”

“This is totally different.”

“Different? Different from what? You sleep together, don’t you?”

“We do not.”

“Pull the other one, Paul.”

“We don’t, I swear we don’t.”

“Hmmm. Well, I believe you, thousands wouldn’t.”

“It’s true, though.”

He couldn’t explain what was different, or he was embarrassed to. He couldn’t say why they didn’t even have a physical relationship. The entire relationship was different. Radically. He was telling his friends the simple truth. They did not sleep together. Neither of them has so much as hinted at it. There was no religious objection. He was not even afraid that she did not find him attractive. It was something which he had thought – and supposed she had thought – would arrive one day. Still, it was unusual. Didn’t even calling someone “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” make the unspoken fact clear, that there was a sexual relationship between said “friends”? At the end of the second month of their friendship, they had taken to making sexual jokes and innuendos, and she had begun to read meanings into statements which he had made unsuspectingly. They had childish standing jokes about Ugandan Affairs, East Anglia, and visiting the Home Counties. They joked like ten-year-olds.

She lived in digs in Shepherd’s Bush (the subject of another puerile innuendo of theirs) with two other girls.

At the beginning of June, he was sent by his company to the United States. He was away for three weeks.

He sent her two traditional picture postcards, one of them “To the nymph of Pimlico, your very own picture postcard from LA, love Paul.”

He telephoned her shared flat on the day he got back. The first two times, nobody answered, but he was not surprised. People were slow in the flat to answer the phone. The third time he tried it was late, after 11 PM. He was feeling uneasy, more than uneasy; he was feeling a strange, unaccountable panic. Ailis had never been demonstrative. He had not expected to be met at the airport. He had not expected a message on his answering machine. It was not her style, nor was it his. There was no rational reason for feeling panic.

“Hello?” It was the voice of one of her flat mates, a corpulent trainee nurse who disliked Paul and who had made no trouble to hide the fact on the two or three times that he had been to the flat.

“May I speak to Ailis, please?”

“Nope, no chance.”

“Is she asleep?”

“Nope, she’s gone off.”

“Gone off? Where gone off? What do you mean, gone off? Do you mean she’s left?”

“Left, yea.”

“Where?”

“I might just tell you if I knew. But I don’t, so I can’t tell you, can I? She just buggered off and didn’t say where to.”

“When was this?”

“Hold on . . .” She was shouting at someone in the background. “No, it’s not Tony, it’s just that man asking for Ailis – you know, the posh bloke! . . . Hello? Are you still there?”

“Yes, I’m still here.”

“Well, that’s it: We can’t help you. It was about a week ago. She left no message and she didn’t warn us. Funny she didn’t tell you though, isn’t it? Try where she works.”

“Thank you, I shall.”

The nurse hung up abruptly.

The next day he went to the bakery and enquired after Ailis.

The man in the bakery was sympathetic but unhelpful.

“She told us she was leaving – gave just a week’s notice, picked up her last weeks’ pay, and that was it.”

“A week’s . . . Did she leave a forwarding address?”

“Nothing. Didn’t warn us properly. I’ve only just found a new person. That’s the way people are these days. Selfish.”

“Right, thanks anyway.”

“You’re welcome.”

For the first time he had gone to the bakery and not bought a croissant.

There was nobody registered under her mother’s address in the Irish Directory of Enquiries. The next thing he did was to write to her at her Irish address, care of her mother. He received no answer. He wrote again. After six weeks, both letters were returned to him marked “address unknown/return to sender.” He knew this was wrong because he had written to Ailis at the address before, while she was visiting her mother on holiday, and Ailis had mentioned his letter. Besides, the words “address unknown” were not accompanied by an official post office signature. What did it mean?

Her disappearance piqued his vanity, but there was a perhaps less selfish thought as well. What had happened? He could think of nothing he had done to annoy her. She had never suggested that she might leave her job and her room.

Not finding her name through Google ten years later frustrated and provoked him – reminded him of her; reminded him of what in more ways than one was “an unclosed chapter”; reminded him, too, of the many evenings they had spent at the theatre together. When he thought about them now, he realized with astonishment and shock that they were among the very happiest days of his life. He did not know what had made him think of her ten years later. Maybe it was just that he heard that with the Internet, you could trace people you had lost touch with. For whatever reason he felt a strong urge – if not to contact her, at least to know where she was, what she was doing.

Why this urge? It was not as though he had been in love with her. There had been other girls in his life he had once loved more, but this annoyed him, left him no peace, challenged him. It was unfinished and inexplicable. He told the story to Sally the next time he saw her.

“You are a bit old to be chasing after old dreams of love,” she sneered.

Love? Was that what it had been? He didn’t think so, but the word provoked him into action. He googled for a private detective in the Galway area. Galway was where he had her mother’s address – at least an address for an area near Cuinne Badb.

The detective was called Andy and sounded English. Paul explained the situation to him.

“Do you do this kind of work?” Paul asked.

“Oh, yes, absolutely, it is certainly in the range of work we do.”

They agreed on a price: 250 euros for the first stage of the investigation.

“The first thing I need to find out is if the address I have is even valid. As it isn’t a house number, it could cover quite a wide geographical range.”

There then followed months of uncertainty and telephone calls and e-mails.

Communication with the detective agency was often uncertain. Andy frequently claimed to have phoned or called when Paul had received nothing, but after a couple of months there was a breakthrough. Andy had established that there were two families in the area called Cuinne Badb and who had her surname.

“What I suggest we do now is that you write a personal letter and I’ll take it along and see if one of them knows who she is, if there is a relation there, and if there is, I can give them the letter to pass on. You appreciate I can’t give you any name and address directly.”

“Oh, I appreciate that, quite.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, I’d like to know if there was any background in your case.”

“Background?”

“I mean a quarrel, bad blood, that sort of thing.”

“Nothing at all. That’s just what puzzles me. She left without warning me and without telling me where I could find her. There was no bad feeling of any kind and no warning. If there had been, I might have got over it, but there wasn’t.”

“Write me that letter and I’ll see what I can do for you.”

He did what Andy suggested and wrote a long letter, the first letter in longhand that he had written for many years.

He sent the letters to Andy. Again, weeks followed and he heard nothing. He left telephone messages, e-mails, and even a fax. Finally, he complained to the agency’s central office in London. They were reassuring.

“Andy has had a personal loss in his family, but he went back to Ireland yesterday, so you should be hearing from him in the next few days.”

In fact, he heard from Andy the same day.

“But I sent you two mails.”

“I didn’t see them.”

“Strange. Well anyway. I got your letters. I’m going to try and deliver them next week.”

“Thanks. Please keep me posted.”

“Sure.”

More time passed. Again, Paul had to make several attempts to reach his private sleuth. Andy returned his call after leaving a second message.

“Hello?”

“Hello. Paul? Can you speak?”

“Andy. I’m alone, so go ahead.”

“Well, I had your letter and I went out last week with it. There were two families answering to the name of Ryan. The first family didn’t seem to have anything to do with Ailis or know anything about her. I had more luck with the second. They told me where I could find, er . . . her mother. She had moved, but not far . . . a small village . . . But this family did tell me one thing.”

“What was that?”

“Ailis is married now.”

“Oh yes, yes, I expected her to . . . to be married.”

“Yea, well, I’m going out there, to the village, next week. I’ll give her mother your letter.”

“Thanks, please keep me posted.”

That was the last he heard from Andy. Time passed. Again, he left messages and e-mails. Again, there was no response. Reluctantly, he decided to contact the center again.

“Alpha Investigations. Can I help you?”

“Yes, I have called before. The name is Paul Wilson.

“How can I help, Mr. Wilson?”

“I’m calling about Andy Fleming. He is very hard to get hold of. I wonder if he has had personal problems again.”

“Andy from Galway?”

“Yes.”

“He’s gone the way of all flesh.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“He had a weak heart, poor old Andy, and it stopped last week.”

“He’s dead?”

“That’s what I’m saying, yes, he’s dead.”

“I’m very sorry. I can hardly believe it. I mean, he didn’t strike me as very old.”

“He wasn’t. He was 43, but he had a dodgy ticker, so there you go.”

“I’m very sorry.”

“Yes, he was good at his job. Had he been working on a case for you?”

“Well, as a matter of fact, yes, he was supposed to be doing something in Galway – well, near Galway.”

“Galway, that’s awkward. We haven’t got anyone to cover Galway at the moment. You can have your money back or you can wait.”

“He was going to visit someone on my behalf. Could you let me have any data he may have gathered for me, especially the person’s exact address? Then I could take it from there myself.”

“If it is not filed as strictly confidential, which means confidential even for the client, and if you can confirm your client number and send from the e-mail address, including your date of birth which you gave us at the beginning, then we can do that, yes.”

“Thank you. I’ll send those things right away.”

“You’re welcome. Did Andy have your postal address?”

“Yes, of course.”

He duly sent a mail, including his client number and date of birth. A week later, a packet arrived which included the address of the woman Andy had said he was going to visit.

Sally took the news that he was paying a visit to Ireland very badly. He was surprised by the vehemence of her reaction. Her overall reaction to his Irish detective work was much more hostile than when she learned that he had been unfaithful to her after an office party. Where was the logic in that? Why should she care now one way or the other?

The journey out with Aer Lingus was extremely disagreeable for him. In the first place, the flight was two hours late. In the second place, Aer Lingus, Paul discovered to his dismay, operated a no-alcohol policy on its flights. It was getting dark when he arrived in Dublin. He decided, to his own surprise, not to wait till the next day to drive out, but hired a car and drove out immediately. It was probably a bad decision. When he arrived in Galway City, it was late and he was tired. He stayed in an overpriced and brutally modernized hotel in the city center. It was the first time he had been to Ireland in over thirty years. The poverty had gone, but so, evidently, had the charm. Smoking was not allowed in the pubs and bars, so he saw no point in patronizing them. He watched television in his hotel room instead, hardly taking account of what was showing, mildly amused at a British soap opera synchronized into Gaelic. That night, he slept fitfully. He had a nightmare in which he was attacked by a crow which flew down at him from a cross. It tore hungrily at his eyes, squawking an incomprehensible but clearly menacing Gaelic. He was covering his eyes with his hands when he woke.

The next day, he drove out to the village where Ailis’ mother lived. It was not far from Galway. He found her home, an ugly modern bungalow with a sweeping drive.

As he was parking the car, he could see a face observing him from behind the lace curtains in the front. The woman who answered was about 70, with a hard and haggard face. She did not seem surprised to see him.

“I’ve come to ask about Ailis Ryan. My name is Paul Wilson. I am a sort of courier.”

“Well, you are the second ‘sort of courier,’ in that case. There was someone here a few weeks ago asking about her, and he said he was a sort of courier as well.”

Paul was pleased to hear that Andy had got out to see her before he died. That would mean that this woman had the letter.

“Are you her mother?”

“I’m related to Ailis.”

“May I come in?”

She nodded curtly and opened the door wider to let him in.

“I have come over myself because the last person – er, well, unfortunately, he died.”

“Oh.” She expressed mild surprise and let out something which might have been a tut of disapproval, or possibly a vague indication of commiseration. However, the news seemed neither to greatly shock nor even to interest her.

“As a matter of fact, he must have died shortly after seeing you.”

She made no reaction.

“May I sit down?”

“Yes, of course. How can I help you?”

“Well, I wasn’t sure if he – Andy, I mean – had been here.”

“Yes, he was here.”

“Did he give you a letter?”

“He did, yes.”

“And you are going to give the letter to Ailis?”

“Oh, yes, I told him I would. I haven’t yet, but I will.”

There was a long pause. She spoke again.

“Ailis is in London. She never came back here. She didn’t want to come back.”

“Do you know what she did when she stopped her job?”

The mother let out a bitter, half-suppressed laugh.

“She had many jobs, I couldn’t keep track of them all.”

“Well, I mean the one in the bakery.”

“Oh, that one. The bakery, that was the first job she had in London, the first job she had at all, as a matter of fact. She was only 16. Held it down for six months, that was good by her standards. That was years and years ago. So you are . . . ah, yes, of course, you must be the much older person with the nice flat. I remember she said you had a nice flat.”

“Did she say anything else? About me, I mean?”

“Well, Ailis doesn’t say much, does she, not about personal feelings. She wasn’t one for speaking out, not even as a little girl. So she won’t tell you why she did whatever she did. Leave you, did she?”

Paul was taken aback by the bluntness of the question.

“Frankly, I am not sure. That’s the reason I am here.”

“You could have spared yourself the trip, then. She’s in London. She’s a regular little London lady nowadays. Married, too.”

“So I gather.”

“When she was on her fifth job. Listen, Mister . . . Sorry, I have forgotten.”

“Wilson, Paul Wilson.”

“Listen, Mister Wilson, I’ll make sure she gets your letter. I can’t promise what she’ll do with it or whether she answers it or not. That’s up to her, of course. And I couldn’t give you her address, not without her permission.”

“Of course, obviously. I understand.”

“I don’t think I can help you in any other way.”

“And do you think she left me?” The question was out before he knew he was going to ask it.

“Do I think what? Left you? Not for me to say, but she may have been disappointed, you know.”

“Disappointed? What about?”

The woman smiled. It was not a friendly smile. It was more like a smirk.

“Well, three months, was it, and you hardly kissed her, from what I hear. She must have thought you were queer. Women don’t like uncertainty, you know. They expect a man to – well, show where things stand. But it’s not for me to say. But since you ask, I think she might have been disappointed. Jerry, that’s her husband, he makes quite sure she knows where things stand.”

“Is Jerry interested in the theatre?” He felt the question sounded ridiculous, even pathetic, the moment he asked.

“The theatre? Now, I really couldn’t tell you, but I shouldn’t think so. Don’t imagine so. Don’t think she has much time for all that now. She has four children, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know.”

“Two boys and a girl.”

“That’s three.”

“By her husband, and she has another child by – well, there is another child, the other child’s white. We don’t know who the father is.”

Paul felt an immense weight press against him. Why should he care about all this?

Caring about an old flame, one of many. All gone their various ways. Why did this one matter so much?

“Then the others?”

“Well, Jerry’s Jamaican. Anyway, I don’t think she has much time for films one way and another.”

“The theatre.”

“Films, theatre. I don’t expect she has much time for any of that. She may like to hear from you, who knows? Anyway, I’ll let her have your letter.”

“Thank you very much.”

“Pleasure to help.”

As he left the house, there were crows circling the road. It was getting dark when he left.

He had to concentrate hard to find his way back to Galway. Twice, he took a wrong turning.

“Well,” said Sally the next time they met. “And how was the green isle?”

“Not a place worth visiting these days.”

“Perhaps it never was – all that tourist hype.”

“It wasn’t all hype. There used to be quite a lot of charm about the place.”

“But you didn’t find any charm on this last visit of yours?”

“No, nothing.”

“Maybe people don’t see you as charming anymore.”

“Could be.”

He could never bring himself to throw away his only photograph of Ailis, taken on the evening they went to see a play called The Country Wife. The photograph showed Ailis standing outside The Fox and Hounds in Passmore Street with a pint in her hand. She was laughing and she looked extremely relaxed and happy. He had wanted to give it to her; instead, she had written on it and returned it to him. On a sticky label attached to the back of the picture, in a small, neat hand, was her message: “Lots of love to Paul and especially thanks for all the happy (the word ‘happy’ was underlined twice) times theatre and pub crawling in London with him – Ailis.”

He never heard from her again.

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Author: DissentWatch