Updated on May 24, 2015
Footsteps, Part 3
As Dougal stumbled out of the hotel into the piercing, horizontal light of early evening, the misplaced feeling in his stomach returned. He ignored it. Across the street a tall, red-brick tower reared up in front of him, catching the light in every window on one side and reflecting a myriad of suns. Along the wide street there were more squat, brick buildings – evidence of an industrial past, renovated and polished for the neighbourhood’s twenty-first century manifestation as a centre of expensive artistic chic. This was old New York made new – any mysterious, inherited memory of the place Dougal might have been hoping for had been removed, along with the erstwhile rotting beams and shattered windows.
The street was wide and, at this time, filled with impatiently hooting cars. The light reflected off the windscreens so he could not see the people inside. Up ahead was a crowded four-way intersection, with traffic lights suspended over the road and groups of people standing on the pavements, waiting for the illuminated man to instruct them to walk. Dougal wanted to cross, but at the last moment he changed his mind and instead followed the street as it bent away to the right. Now and again he looked back over his shoulder, memorising street signs and naked trees, like a trail of breadcrumbs, to help him find his way back to safety.
He scrutinised the faces of everybody who passed him. Some bustled past importantly wearing trim suits, all straight lines and acute angles. He imitated them by rolling back his shoulders, straightening his back and adopting a concentrated look; but they were all carrying their briefcases in the opposite direction, downtown, and before long his deliberate gait looked out of place in the faltering sunlight and outdoor cafés.
Dougal stopped at the window of an estate agency and examined the property advertisements. At first he perused them leisurely, letting his eyes wander from picture to picture, but he soon began reading avidly. He was on the brink of taking a pen from his pocket to note down the telephone number of the agency, when he saw a movement through the glass: a man caught his eye, smiled and began to get up from behind his desk. Dougal smiled back but, inwardly panicking, he hurried around the corner.
The further he walked from the hotel and the more people he encountered, the less comfortable Dougal felt. Everybody here seemed to know where they were going, while he was wandering aimlessly from block to block: the merciless layout of neat rectangles and straight roads felt like a deceptively simple labyrinth, designed to make him think he knew where he was going. But it was the persistent feeling that he was in a foreign city that most distressed him – where was the sense of homecoming? Why did nobody meet his eye, however briefly, in recognition that the Lynch family had returned? He thought that perhaps they were all strangers to the city as well.
At the corner of an intersection Dougal came across a restaurant emitting enticing smells into the air of early evening. Dark-green wooden panelling surrounded the square windows and cream-painted lettering boldly declared the establishment’s fat, round name: Bubby’s. Hunger overwhelmed his melancholy, but he lingered outside for a moment, looking through the window at the people eating inside, trying to see what was on their plates. An old man walked up the street, looked briefly at Dougal and went in. A few seconds later Dougal pushed open the heavy, wooden door and was engulfed in a delicious wave of cooking smells that drew him deep into the belly of the restaurant.
When his plane had finally touched down at JFK International Airport, Dougal’s shrunken world had opened up again; horizons expanded and possibilities multiplied to infinity. The images of death that had dogged him in the air dissolved the minute his feet touched solid ground. Tragedy no longer breathed over his shoulder. It returned to its rightful place, comfortably distant, stalking the heels of people he would never know. Continents with connotations of suffering: Africa, the Middle East.
At the airport entrance he hailed a cab to the hotel. The driver had a strong accent which he could not identify; he asked Dougal’s name and was delighted by the answer. He told Dougal that he was descended from Irish immigrants and had always wanted to visit their homeland; he asked him about Ireland in penetrating detail, but his expression fell when Dougal told him he had only ever been there for short holidays, visiting distant family. Nevertheless the man, whose name was Saul, was not disheartened and, no matter how unresponsive Dougal was, he did not stop talking for the entire journey.
From the driving seat Saul relentlessly narrated the history of some important landmarks in the city, including several points of interest relating to the Irish immigrants. He pointed out the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island; the Hunger Memorial and the city’s oldest public park. They passed the World Trade Centre and a note of pride crept into Saul’s voice, as he talked about the vast wealth and power contained within the two towers. Dougal’s first thought – which had been more of a fleeting longing in his gut, that he had instantly suppressed – was that he would feel proud of them too, if this were his country.
When he emerged from Bubby’s restaurant two hours later, Dougal was patting his swollen stomach and grinning stupidly, savouring the light haze induced by the two bottles of beer he had drunk. He ambled at a slow, luxuriant pace and muttered reassuringly to himself. How could he ever have expected to feel comfortable all at once? He thought – no, he knew – that belonging was not an immediate thing; it takes time to adjust to being at home when you have been away from it for a long time. Surely even the most self-assured people felt this way sometimes? Tiny raindrops fluttered on his bare forearms, so he rolled down his sleeves. Yes, this was where he was meant to be. And if tomorrow’s meeting went well then all the better; it would be a definite sign that he was supposed to have come. Not that he really believed in that sort of thing, of course, but he thought that perhaps just occasionally people should take some notice of coincidences. The rain began to fall more heavily.
He passed the estate agency again and wrote down the telephone number on the back of his hand, but as he stood there he suddenly found himself submerged in the smothering deluge of a thunderstorm. Dougal ran through the downpour. Water streamed through his hair and into his eyes, splintered his vision and turned dull streetlights into long blades of light which reached from the ground to the sky. Welts of water ricocheted off the skeletal structures of scaffolding and fire escapes with a hollow, metallic sound. Shivering puddles reflected blurs of neon shop signs and illuminated window-displays, and broke into pieces under his feet. The whole city seemed to be shattering.
The streets were transformed by the storm and the night, and Dougal almost ran past his hotel, but as he ducked under the awning for shelter he realised where he was and went inside. Back in his room he towelled off; the number written on his hand had been smudged by the rain and was now an indecipherable blur. He switched off the light, closed the curtains against the pounding rain and turned on the television; an old film was starting, which the continuity announcer described as a Hollywood classic. Dougal had never seen it before. Lying on the bed, half propped up with his head in his hand and a pillow under his elbow he read and reread his presentation notes. As the characters on screen fell in love and were torn apart by circumstance, Dougal paced up and down the room gesturing and silently mouthing the words of his speech. The movie ended with a tearful departure down a misty path and, with a final triumphant flourish, Dougal collapsed onto the bed and watched the credits roll lazily up the screen.
He turned off the television and checked the time – 23:10. A perfectly acceptable American hour to go to bed. There was no hurry to get up early: there would be time to go through his notes again over lunch and he felt it best to be fully refreshed for the afternoon. The rain was still beating against the window, so he put in his ear plugs and found the eye mask they had given him on the plane. Setting his alarm for eleven in the morning (embrace the new time zone, your life is measured differently now), he climbed under the tight covers and was asleep within minutes. He did not know that jet lag can seep into the bones.
Read Part 4 here.