Rachel Seiffert

Afterwards

‘A novel about invisible borders; the hard-held Irish border, the border between lovers, between generations, between past and present.  It is a fine and profound work.’ Irish Times

 

To love someone, do you need to know everything about them?

When Alice and Joseph meet, they fall quickly into a relationship.  Both are young and hopeful of each other, and both come from families who have fought for their country, so there is understanding there.  But each brings with them an emotional burden: Alice’s family is full of absences and Joseph harbours and unspeakable secret from his time in the army in Northern Ireland.

When Alice’s grandfather begins to tell Joseph about his RAF experiences in 1950s Kenya, something still raw is tapped in Joseph; his reaction to the older man’s unburdening of guilt is both unexpected and devastating for them all.

 

-How did you sort out the money, then?

Alice couldn’t believe the afternoon with her granddad had gone off without a fuss. Joseph sat across the train aisle from her and smiled: she’d been nervy all afternoon at the old man’s, and he wasn’t used to seeing her like this, and now they were on the way home together, the train filling up in the Friday evening rush.  The man next to her stood up, and Joseph slipped into the seat beside her, and then they just sat there smiling a moment in the crush, both glad the afternoon had gone well in its own way – relieved that her granddad had agreed to Joseph working for free.

-He wasn’t happy about it.  But he couldn’t embarrass me by insisting after I’d offered, could he?

– No, I suppose not.

Joseph had thought Alice was close to her granddad, she spent so much time with him.  At the house, she’d made a show of leaving them to get on with it, discussing the paint and the wallpaper – but Joseph could tell she was listening, the whole time they were talking.  He could feel her, even in the next room.  Like she was ready to step in if things got difficult or something.  But the old man had been fine.  A bit stiff with him at first, asking Joseph all sorts of questions about the painting jobs he did, and where he did his training; Joseph couldn’t decide if he was checking his credentials as a decorator, or the right kind of boyfriend for his granddaughter.  He asked David at one point, straight out:

-Do I pass muster, then?

And he was glad when the old man took it well.

-You’ll do, I’m sure.

He gave a short smile and nod.

Joseph thought he was alright.  A bit on the dry side, maybe.  But at least he had a sense of humour.

-Your granddad’s okay.  It’ll be fine.  No problem.

Alice nodded, sort of, like she still couldn’t trust the idea.  She looked better now than she had in the house: still a bit nervy, but happier with it, and Joseph wanted to make her laugh.  He said:

-You told him I was trained by the council.

-Well you were, weren’t you?  After you left school, I thought?

-Not exactly.

Alice swayed a little with the movement of the train, smiling at him again, eyes narrowed this time, ready to be teased.

-What exactly, then?

-It was my community service.  My mate stole some crates of beer from the community centre bar and I hid them for him under my bed.  A hundred and twenty hours for harbouring stolen goods.  We had to paint over graffiti in the subways.  That sort of thing.  The man in charge of us – Clive – he knew my dad.  I got on okay with him, so he took me on when he set up by himself.

-I see.

– He did a lot of jobs for the council, I suppose.  But it was Clive who trained me, not them.

Alice looked at Joseph a moment.

-You didn’t tell him all that did you?

-Your granddad?

-Yes.

-No.

-Good.

Joseph heard her let out her breath.  And then she leaned across the seat and thumped his knees.  But she wasn’t angry, just laughing, eyes bright with relief.

-A hundred and twenty hours for harbouring stolen goods.

Alice was making fun of him, and Joseph had to smile; he recognised the tone of voice he’d used, the slight touch of pride.  Coming up for thirty years old and still parading his teenage rebellion.  Alice said:

-Bet you were the one who sprayed the graffiti in the first place.

Then she leaned back and looked out of the train window, still smiling.  The sky outside was torn clouds and sunshine, and she blinked at the houses going by; he couldn’t tell what she was thinking.  The skin on her chest still looked hot somehow, but Joseph thought she looked good: relaxing properly now, still laughing too, about the both of them, wiping her eyes on her jacket sleeves.

-Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear.

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