Time passed. Ten minutes? Half an hour? And then a shadow fell across her. And she knew it was him.
‘Sarah?’ She looked up at him.
‘Hey,’ she said, and something in her broke, yet again.
How did he still have the power to do that, after all this time?
‘I thought it was you, but I wasn’t sure. What are you doing here?’
‘What?’ She pretended to look confused.
‘Not exactly your neck of the woods, is it?’
‘I’m living in Booterstown now.’
‘When did you leave Portobello?’ he asked.
‘I was living in Stoneybatter before, actually.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said quickly. ‘Listen, we should catch up. Do you want to grab a coffee?’
He checked his watch. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘I have some time.’
As they walked down Breffni Road, he said, ‘I haven’t seen you in ages. I can’t even remember the last time we met.’
It had been three years.
We can’t break up, Sarah, he had said to her, three years ago, when she decided to stand still and to ask him for more.
She had pretended for so long to be sterile, clean, to have no needs of her own except to please him. She couldn’t do it anymore.
But we can’t break up, he had said to her while she tried not to cry. He didn’t like women who cried; it was messy, undignified.
We can’t break up because we were never in a real relationship in the first place.
They had only seen each other one more time after that, a stolen evening in an expensive hotel.
But Sarah didn’t want to think about that night and how it had ended. What he said. How he had looked at her.
‘Yeah, it’s been a while,’ Sarah said now.
‘You look great,’ he said.
He had always commented on her appearance, but it wasn’t in a weird way, she used to tell Fionn. Being admired by him didn’t feel like when other men would look at her, teeth bared as if they wanted to devour her.
Smile, love, men would shout as she passed them on the street. You’d be so much prettier if you smiled, as if a performance of joy was the price Sarah had to pay for existing in a female body in a public space.
‘You look well too,’ she said.
‘Thanks,’ he replied. ‘I’m feeling uncharacteristically relaxed. Just back from Paris with Flo and Harry.’
He held the door to the cafe open for her. Oonagh would have hated that, Sarah thought.
Chivalry is an outdated concept that only perpetuates patriarchal myths, she’d said at one of the insufferable dinner parties William threw regularly. The beautifully arranged dining table at the Killiney house, linen napkins and silver cutlery, a single orchid in a short tumbler at each seat.
The walls were laden with photos of Oonagh and William in their twenties and thirties, impossibly young and glamorous: Oonagh holding a placard above her head, demanding divorce or abortion rights, waving at the camera as she and a group of equally rebellious women set off on the train to Belfast to procure illegal condoms.
That’s why I’ve made sure that the men in this house know that housework isn’t a woman’s job, Oonagh had said as Oisin stood up to clear plates.
All the men.
She’d winked at William and he reached across the table to kiss her.
‘Paris,’ Sarah repeated. The coffee shop was small, wooden tables with jam jars full of wild flowers. The waitress gave them menus when they sat down. She was attractive, blonde hair and excellent teeth, and Sarah looked at him to see what his reaction would be.
‘I don’t need a menu,’ he told her. ‘I’ll have an Americano.’
‘Are you sure?’ the waitress replied. ‘Our gluten-free brownies are fab.’
‘I’m sure they are.’ He leaned back in his seat, looking at her more closely. ‘But, sadly... What’s your name?’
‘Luna? That’s an unusual name. But very pretty. I must say, it suits you,’ he said, and the waitress blushed. ‘But sadly, Luna, I’ll have to refuse.’ He looked at Sarah. ‘What’ll you have, Sarah?’
‘A chai latte.’
‘And a chai latte for my friend.’ He handed the menus back. ‘Thank you, Luna.’
After she left, he lowered his voice. ‘What kind of name is Luna?’
‘Maybe her mother was into Harry Potter.’
He didn’t answer, and checked his phone instead. That was rude, Sarah thought. Oisin would never do that. Oisin’s manners were impeccable; his mother wouldn’t have stood for anything less.
‘So. How was Paris?’
‘Paris is Paris,’ he said. ‘Harry enjoyed it though, and that’s the main thing.’
‘It’s cool the three of you went on holiday together.’
‘Oh, we’re terribly modern.’
‘Was Daniel all right with Florence going away with you?’
His jaw tightened. ‘No idea.’
‘Well, I’m glad it went okay – for Harry’s sake.’
‘I’m glad too. Although I will say seven days is too long to go without getting laid.’
Sarah wasn’t sure if she had heard him correctly, but then he smirked at her, confirming her suspicions. She knew that, later that evening, she would be able to articulate exactly why this had hurt her feelings, but for now, the perfect response was somehow just outside her grasp.
‘I’m sure you can survive seven days,’ she said, wishing her drink would arrive so she’d have something to do with her hands.
‘I think we both know that’s not true,’ he said. His eyes met hers and, for one moment, it was as if nothing had changed.
‘Here you go,’ the waitress said. She banged Sarah’s chai on the table, the milky liquid splashing onto the saucer. ‘Sorry,’ she said to Sarah, before gently placing his coffee down.
‘Is that everything?’ the waitress asked him.
‘Perfect, thanks, Luna.’ He didn’t look at her this time, too busy scrolling through his camera roll.
Luna faltered, her smile fading, and Sarah almost felt sorry for her.
‘Here,’ he said, holding his phone out to Sarah.
She could tell instantly it was one of Fionn’s paintings. If Sarah had spent her life trying to make the sea true on the page, then Fionn had attempted to do the same with the sky: swashes of inky blacks and midnight blues. His paintings were intense to look at, as if you were being swallowed whole, the paint swirling in your mouth and crawling up your nose until you thought you might suffocate in the world he had created.
‘Sure, there he is,’ Sarah said, but she looked away from the photo as soon as possible.
‘Isn’t it incredible? This fantastic place called Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac had a piece of his in an exhibition of up-and-coming artists. If you’re ever in Paris, you should check it out.’
‘If I’m ever in Paris?’
‘Yeah. You’d love this gallery. Sofia Coppola was a guest curator a few years ago.’
‘Did you go to Pere Lachaise again?’
‘Pere Lachaise?’ Sarah asked again, but his face was blank.
‘Did you buy anything by Fionn?’ she tried. ‘Or is it still only the one piece you have?’
‘I bought this one,’ he replied. ‘It was cheap as chips, really, especially compared to the Oonagh MacManus I bought the day before. I was afraid Flo was going to demand extra child maintenance when she saw the price of it.’ He took another sip of coffee.
‘What do you think of MacManus? I know some people say it’s just hype, that she’s more ideology than actual talent, but her work never decreases in value, does it?’
‘That’s weird that you would mention Oonagh.’
‘I’m dating her son,’ she said, watching him carefully.
‘The black kid in that terrible band?’
‘The Principles aren’t terrible; they’re really popular.’
‘They’re popular in Ireland,’ he said. ‘Playing Vicar Street and small pubs down the country. They’re not going to set the world on fire, are they?’
‘I don’t know,’ Sarah said. ‘Anyway, that’s Domhnall. I’m with Oisin, his older brother.’
‘Very good.’ He caught the waitress’s eye and made a scribbling motion in the air: Bill, please. ‘That’s why you’re here, is it?’
‘Are you here to see the Wilsons?’ he asked. ‘She’s an attractive woman, isn’t she? Still has it, even at her age. I met her when we sold them that house in Killiney.’ He shuddered.
‘What a monstrosity. It’s like something an itinerant would buy after they won the lotto.’
That’s not funny, she would have said to anyone else, but he would have laughed at her. So Sarah stayed quiet and giggled, a high-pitched noise that announced what an easy girl she was – an easy, lovely girl. Sarah had always done that with him and she had always hated herself for it afterwards.
The waitress brought the bill and he insisted on paying.
‘Don’t be going on with that feminist nonsense, Sarah,’ he said, ushering her outside into the sunshine, his hand in the small of her back, and she fought the urge to lean against him and murmur her thanks. She wasn’t allowed to do that anymore.
‘Well, look who it is.’ A short, balding man was walking towards them, overdressed for the heat in a royal-blue suit.
‘Michael Gleeson, how the hell are you?’ He moved away from Sarah to shake the other man’s hand.
‘I’m good, I’m good,’ Michael said, wiping sweat off his brow. ‘How was Paris? Florence told Yvonne that you went shopping. Naughty, naughty.’
‘I did. They’ll sell on well, particularly the MacManus.
‘Ah, he’s grand.’
The two men talked about Harry and Noah, how relieved they were that Transition Year was over and the boys were finished with work experience and mini-companies and trips to Kolkata to feed starving children in slums. Yvonne was sick of having to chauffeur Noah around to rugby training and to the Wes and she couldn’t wait until Noah had his full driving licence, but then you worry about boy racers, don’t you? Almost makes you wish you had a girl.
Finally, all talk of Noah’s rugby kicking technique exhausted, Michael nodded his head at Sarah. ‘And who’s this?’ He didn’t remember her, Sarah realised, even though she had taught Noah for two years at St Finbarr’s before she left.
‘This is Sarah Fitzpatrick,’ he told Michael. ‘She’s a friend of mine and an artist. You should keep an eye out for her.’
I’m not an artist, Sarah thought. Artists create art. Sarah’s art was trapped in her fingertips, like dirt gathering beneath her nails.
‘Just a friend?’ Michael winked at him.
‘Behave yourself, Gleeson,’ he replied. ‘Sarah is involved with Oonagh MacManus’s son.’
‘Oonagh MacManus?’ Michael said. ‘I’ve been trying to get in contact with her for months but her agent is so bloody over-protective. Will you give her this, the next time you see her?’
He handed Sarah a business card, silver font on green.
‘My gallery is on Kildare Street.’
‘I know where it is,’ Sarah said, and she could hear how coarse her accent was, how country, Dunfinnan strangling her vowels.
‘Kevin’s place is only a few doors down.’
‘Kevin Walsh? How’d you know him?’
‘I’m friends with his boyfriend.’
‘Ah, Robbie, of course,’ Michael said. ‘Does that mean you know Fionn McCarthy as well?’
‘Sarah and Fionn went to Dublin Art College together,’ he interrupted, and Michael whistled.
‘You know all the important people, Miss Sarah Fitzpatrick,’ he said.
His phone beeped and he pulled it out of his pocket, grimacing as he read the text. ‘I’d better go; the wife is looking for me,’ Michael said.
‘You’re a lucky man; no ball and chain for you, is there?’
He laughed. ‘Good to see you, Michael. Tell Yvonne I send my regards.’
‘I will, of course,’ Michael said. ‘And nice to meet you, Sarah. Stay out of trouble.’
He waited until Michael was out of sight before he took a step towards her.
‘Stay out of trouble? You?’ he said. ‘Never.’
He was getting old, Sarah realised, the creases around his eyes cut deep, his teeth almost yellow in his thin-lipped smile. He was forty-seven now, and he looked every year of it. What was Sarah doing here?
The wind blew her hair over her face and he brushed it away.
‘You dyed it.’ His voice was surprised, as if he had only noticed now.
‘Yes.’ Blonde. I dyed it blonde, like you preferred.
‘It suits you,’ he said. ‘But, listen, I have to go. Duty calls. Do you need a lift to the Wilsons’ place?’
‘I’m grand,’ she said. ‘Thanks, anyway.’
‘Be good, Sarah,’ he said, walking away from her. She waited for him to turn around and look at her, one last time.
But he didn’t.
Matthew, she thought.
Matthew. Matthew. Matthew.
This is an extract from Almost Love by Louise O'Neill. Almost Love is out on 1st March in hardback, £14.99, published by riverrun. ISBN: 9781784298869.