“Alterations” by Mark Kilroy

At first Ben resented giving up his Saturday mornings, driving his daughter across the suburbs of Dublin to learn the piano with old Mrs Dooley. But by October, their third or fourth trip out, he came to see their little excursions as a blessing, at a time in his busy thirty-two year old life when blessings were far from frequent visitors. It was a good deal, swapping the supermarket run – campaigned by wife Helen and their other children – for meandering conversations with Julie and, while she tinkled the ivories inside, an hour spent lusciously alone and unaccompanied.
Usually he just sat in the car, a newspaper flexed over the steering wheel his only alibi, watching the terraced street go about its Saturday morning business. Nothing much ever happened. The pocket-sized gardens were too small for lawns and grass-cutting husbands. People passed with shopping bags or dogs or children of varying sizes but mostly the curved little street languished contentedly outside the windows of his comfortable car. He tried not to think of work. The radio was a help.
Once he walked down to the nearby cluster of shops but the coffee was bad and the girl serving unnerved him with her breasts thrusting out like beacons in the night.
Sometimes with the window down, he could just make out the piano.
Killing time seemed far too ungrateful a term for it.

Then one Saturday, something unusual took Ben’s eye: billowing from a pruned cherry tree a few doors down was a white t-shirt. Why put a t-shirt on a hanger half out on the street? Ben leaned forward trying to make out the writing across its chest – something ending with “ions” – but the breeze made it impossible to read. No balloons – if there’d been balloons he could have put it down to the markings of a kid’s party. No, this was definitely more of a Jolly Roger sort of thing.
He was just turning back to the article on autumn salads when the front door of the t-shirt flyer’s house opened. A woman in her thirties stepped out and stopped at the gate. She looked up and down the street, the wind circling dark hair around her face. Ben stared. It was the way she just stood there, pulling some yellow thing through her fingers. Nothing hurried her. A few seconds passed and then a gust caught the t-shirt behind her, bulging it out and he read the single word across its chest: Alterations.
It all added up: the yellow measuring tape, the unconventional signage, the woman – not seeing him only thirty yards away – was looking for customers. He wondered what had lead her to this, probably her first day at it. Maybe she’d lost her job – the news was full of nothing else or… her eyes swung in his direction and he quickly dropped his head.
When Ben looked up again, she was gone and there was Julie skipping towards him, passing the dancing t-shirt without a care in the world.
– Hi, chicken, he said as she got in.
How happy she looked.
– Hi turkey.
He liked her calling him that. Helen once called him a goose but it hadn’t gone down well.

Though work came thick and fast that week – the office buzzing with calls and e-mails going out – Ben knew that if things didn’t pick up soon, he’d have let someone go. But who? Everyone seemed disgruntled.
Helen and he were so busy it was ridiculous: two jobs, two kids and a house that never settled. They’d married young and started a family without ever really talking about it. There was always the future to look forward to.

* * *

When the zip on his favourite jeans came apart in his hands on the Wednesday – tugging at it too quickly as he changed after work – Ben thought of the dark haired woman in the terraced house. No need to bother Helen with it. No need to even tell her. And so three days later he was pleased to see the t-shirt up to its antics again, a little more subdued this time, a heavy sky threatening rain all morning.
He waited till Julie was safely inside before locking the car and crossing the street. He noticed, close up, how beautifully stitched-on each letter was of Alterations. A good sign, he thought.
The dark haired woman opened the door and looked out at him. He held up his jeans.
– Hello, I hope I’m not presuming here, I saw your…
He motioned backwards, not sure what to call it.
– No, great. Come in.
Ben ducked his head as he entered; they really were small these houses. She led him into the front room, clothes and material all over the sofa and chairs, an ironing board with a cat asleep on it – had it got up there itself?
– You want them let down?
– Sorry?
– Your jeans.
– No, it’s the zip. Broken. If it’s not too small a job.
She smiled, taking the jeans from him and fanned the zip open with long, loose fingers.
– I should get your name and address.
She turned to the table for a pen. Trim like Helen used to be.
– Ben. I’m around every Saturday. My daughter’s learning the piano with Mrs Dowley.
Why did I tell her that, Ben wondered.
– Dooley.
– Yes, of course, Dooley.
He watched the pen hovering over a scrap of paper.
– Had you a price in mind, Ben?
– Ten euros?
– Might be closer to fifteen. I’ll see how it goes.
The cat stretched, pleased with her answer.
Julie wasn’t her usual chirpy self after class. She told her father that scales really could be very tricky and not very interesting. He told her that life was full of tricky bits and that we just had to do our best.
The rain was bucketing down as they drove home. Halloween that evening; he hoped it wouldn’t spoil everything.

Ben was embarrassed waking up, dreaming of a woman he barely knew like that. Sex was one thing, but what he and Samantha were doing on what looked like a Caribbean beach, and in the straw hut after, was barely gymnastically possible. Still, it helped him through the trying hours at work. Where had all the hope gone?
For the first time Julie wasn’t keen to go that Saturday. He reminded her that there were thousands of children out there who’d love to be learning the piano but she pouted and looked at her shoes. In the end, he promised he’d buy her a surprise.
They drove out in sharp November sunshine, the roads glistening like first kisses, and Julie niggling him about the surprise.
– Something big? she asked again.
– No, not big.
– What then?
– A surprise.
– Like chocolate, or bigger?
– Somewhere in between.
Ben rang the bell and waited, the shadow of the t-shirt dancing at his feet. We should notice these things more, he thought, stepping back to watch it. Julie, she’d have seen it straight off. Then voices, and when the door opened an older woman with a hat looked up at him disinterestedly, Samantha just behind. Ben moved aside as the woman passed, wrapping up her talk of weddings and special days.
– I did that for you, Samantha said.
Another lovely smile, he thought, dipping his head.
– I’ll be with you in a minute. Your jeans are on the table.
She turned and started up the stairs.
He looked around the front room: the same homely mess as before but flowers this time, in a large vase by the window. He was never one for flowers – lilies, were they? – but something made him pick his way across the room and stoop to inhale their scent, to take in more of the world. He reeled back light-headedly. Steady, he said to himself.
He picked up the jeans and unfurled them: the stitching was excellent, the zip the perfect size. He slipped off a shoe and was undoing his belt when he heard Samantha on the stairs – what the hell was he doing?
– Okay? she said behind him.
Ben struggled with his shoe.
– Great. Thank you. I, eh, I’ve brought a jacket…
As he turned around again, the dizziness came over him again. Like when he’d leaned over to smell the flowers.
– Wow, he said, wobbling. Do you mind if I…
He sat down heavily on the sofa.
– Sorry about this. Head’s going off on its own here.
Samantha knelt down beside him.
– What is it?
– Dunno.
Work, he thought. All those articles on stress. He leaned back till his head touched the armrest, and smiled weakly at the ceiling.
– Should I call someone?
– No, just stay a minute. I’m sure it’ll pass.
She edged herself onto the sofa, watching his eyes open and close like a goldfish’s. Nothing moved but their breathing.
Ben sighed.
– A bit embarrassing this.
– You’re grand. Take your time.
Was that Debussy in the distance?
His hand extended slowly, blindly, finding her arm.
– Have you ever been to the Caribbean, Samantha?

* * *

Ben was unusually helpful around the house over the next few days. Nothing was too much trouble. He even sat with Julie, grimacing behind her back, as she went through her scales. Passing the open door, Helen thought they looked so lovely she sneaked a photo.
Then on the Thursday evening, the doorbell rang.
– I’ll get it, Julie shouted, careering around the furniture.
Ben followed her into the hall, watched her stretch for the latch. A large man in uniform asked her if her daddy was in.
– Are you Ben?
– Yes.
– Can I have a word with you?
– About what?
He looked over Ben’s shoulder as Helen emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands.
– Alterations, he said quietly.
He nodded to Helen as he was led towards the sitting room.
Ben closed the door after them and turned around, noticing just then, with relief in his heart, that the uniform was not a cop’s but a parking attendant’s.
– You’ve a lovely house.
Ben smiled authoritatively.
– Thank you. So what’s this about?
– I’m not sure, to be honest. Samantha asked me to give you this.
He held out Ben’s jacket.
– She’s my sister, he explained. She said to tell you your expectations were too high. Said you’d understand what that meant.
– My expectations?
– Yeah.
He shifted on his big feet, uneasy in the silence.
– Anyway, I said I’d be passing. Sorry for disturbing you.
– Okay, Ben said, moving towards the door. And thank you.
Ben’s mind was racing as he saw the man out.
He closed the front door. When he turned around he was surprised to see Julie standing in the middle of the hall. Such a serious little face.
– Hi, chicken.
But she just stared at him.
– Ben! Helen called from the kitchen. Dinner’s ready.
He patted Julie’s head as he walked past her. What the hell do kids know.
The youngest was crying in his high chair, on and on. Helen, her back to him at the cooker, raised her voice over the wailing:
– Who was that?
– Some mix up at work.
– What was he doing with your brown jacket?
– I’d left it somewhere. I’ll be back in a minute.
Ben went out into the hall. He found himself at the front door. He gave it a push to confirm the lock had sunk home. It was hard to think clearly with the boy crying and Julie, back at the piano again, revving up and down the scales.
She should have said something, Samantha, that day. Her eyes had said yes. Lying eyes, lying eyes.

strong>Biographical Note:
– I have written the screenplays for (and directed) two fiction films, “Hard Shoulder” (Channel 4/RTE) and “Double Carpet” (IFB/RTE) which were screened at the IFI and broadcast on RTE and Channel 4.
– I have written several short stories. “Bog People” was published in the Sunday Tribune (and shortlisted for a Hennessey Award in 2008), and “How Big is the Sea?” was published in Southword 5.
I read a story, “Alterations” in the Lonely Voice series in March ’10. It was published in the Tribune’s New Irish Writing page in July ’10 and is shortlisted for a Hennessy Award this April.
– I have completed a novel, “Blue on Blue” which is with an agent seeking publication.

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