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“Desire,” by Esther Freud

Feb 06, 2024Feb 06, 2024

By Esther Freud

Audio: Esther Freud reads.

“The three of you are sisters, surely?” A man, awash with drink, waylaid us as we fought through to the lounge. Our mother smiled, eyes fixed on an empty row of seats, while Bea and I stepped sideways to avoid the steam cloud of his breath.

“Quick.” A couple were snaking their way toward our chairs and, lifting Max, Mum rushed to intercept them. The boat was cheaper than the plane, the night boat cheaper still, and it was possible, if you were fast, to find enough seats to allow you to lie down. The man, red-faced, lost his footing and, one arm flailing, caught Bea around the waist. “Fuck off,” she said, yanking herself free.

“Remember, not a word about the move,” our mother said when we were settled, and I glanced at the dark curtain of her hair, her fine, drawn skin and worried eyes. Bea had twisted around to check the rubbery doors, slapping back and forth into the bar. “Sure,” she said, and I agreed, and Max, who’d only recently turned three, ran a train along her arm.

Esther Freud reads “Desire.”

We hadn’t been to Ireland since Nana and Grandpa sold the farm. They were living in a bungalow on the other side of Youghal, and although there’d been invitations in Nana’s fine blue hand, we’d let the opportunities slip by. Now, with nowhere else to go, we heaved across the sea toward them, the churn of engine oil, the dry salt smell of chips. “Nothing has changed.” Our mother was determined that her parents never know that she’d left Max’s father, even though for the past two months Bea and I had slept in a series of spare rooms, our hosts watchful and polite, while our old beds in our old bedrooms lay empty. What we would do when we got back I wasn’t sure, and I imagined Bea beginning her new life—she’d been willing herself to turn sixteen so she could get away—while I’d go back to the same school, to the clock tower and the drinking fountain, the wishing gate and the walk down to the bus, to where our stepfather would still be teaching drama, even if he wasn’t our stepfather anymore.

Nana and Grandpa met us at the dock. “Look at the lot of you,” Nana said, eager. She had a silk scarf wrapped around her hair and her lipstick made a bright-red bow. “Haven’t you got big.” There was the familiar grip of her fingers and the rustle of her mac as she drew close. Grandpa was dressed as I’d only seen him dress for Mass. His farm jacket and green Wellingtons discarded, he wore pressed trousers and a short beige jacket. His beard was trimmed, his bald head shiny. He looked small without his work.

“And how are you all, my pets?”

All I could think of was what I mustn’t say.

“We’re fine.” Bea filled the silence with her plans of London, and the college she’d be starting in September—art, art history, French—while Nana fluttered that she always was a clever one, and hadn’t she the smart handwriting, she always admired it, when she wrote. There was a pause as we looked guiltily through the car windows, aware of how long the stretches were when her letters lay unanswered, how hard it was to know what to say.

The bungalow they’d moved to was on a slope that overlooked the bay. “Will you look at the view,” Nana said when we’d taken off our shoes. There was an oatmeal carpet and the place was very neat. Grandpa sat down in an armchair and picked up the paper—he still read Farmers Weekly—and Nana went into the small kitchen to put on the kettle.

There were two spare bedrooms in the bungalow. I was in a twin room with Bea. Our mother was to share with Max. “Fuck,” Bea said, rolling herself a cigarette, and I thought about how often I’d watched her blow smoke out of the window, or had waited for her to come home at night. The first place we’d stayed after our mother escaped to her friend Jane’s was the Humphrys’. They had two boys: the younger, Steve, was known for being handsome; the older had already moved out. One morning, the night after I’d locked myself in the bathroom for the second time (even though they’d warned me not to lock it), Mrs. Humphry suggested that I walk to school with Steve. She gave me a fortifying hug, and while I did my best not to sob against her bosom, Steve finished his toast. Together we walked under an umbrella, stumbling beneath its shadowed dome, along the edge of the golf course, across the Brighton Road, and down the cow path, my right arm stiff lest I accidentally touch him. But even before we reached the school Mrs. Humphry must have caught Bea climbing in through the window I’d left open, because when I arrived back that afternoon it was only to collect my things and move to another family prepared to take us in.

“Fuck,” Bea had said then, too, although the place that was found for us was the Godbers’, whose middle son, Lawrie, had, until that Easter, been my boyfriend. The bedroom was next to his, and, just as we’d done during the winter of our going out, we lay together on his bed while he flicked through motorcycle magazines, and I breathed in the raw, fresh-air smell of him and wondered how we could find our way back to the time before.

He’ll find me more interesting now, I’d thought when our mother told us we were leaving. But if Lawrie did find me more interesting his ways of showing it were subtle. He’d call me on a homemade telephone, two tin cans and a length of string strung between our rooms, and we’d talk, leaning out of our adjoining windows, sometimes for up to an hour. We didn’t mention Fenella—the cause of our breakup—who I blanked in class, but neither did he try and kiss me, which left a large, sad stretch of time where kissing once took place.

“I’m going for a walk,” Bea said, flinging away the mashed end of her roll-up. I started into the sitting room, where the adults were on a second pot of tea, and then, fearful of getting into conversation and finding myself tripped up, I grabbed my jacket. Bea had reached the end of the short drive. “Let’s go down,” I said, pointing to the water, but she turned the other way and hurried uphill.

I followed her in silence. The bungalow was new, and above it, at regular intervals, were other, even newer bungalows, all with the same plate-glass windows framing the view. We kept on, passing fields crossed with low stone walls, rocks stacked so slackly they looked ready to slide. There was a whitewashed cottage nestled in a thicket, built, presumably, before a view was required. A flock of sheep surged, thick as porridge, around a bend, and we climbed onto the ridge to let them pass. “Afternoon,” the farmer said, squinting, curious, and when he whistled his dog slithered ahead and worried the sheep into a field.

On we walked, through spits of rain, and I thought about the places where we might live when we went back to England. There were two rooms in a house on the outskirts of the village, and a kitchen, sour with gas and mold, shared with the small, pecking woman who had shown us around. “It’s very reasonable,” she said, “although you’ll have to keep the little one quiet,” and she watched us, hopeful, as we hurried away. There was a flat, newly built, on the road that led, eventually, to Brighton. Its walls were thin and the windows rattled, and the rent, even if we’d wanted it, was twice what we had to spend. The communal house was the one that I’d liked best. There were three rooms built around the stairwell at the very top, and a balcony that looked out over fields, but the landlord would have to accept my mother’s offer of help with the garden—the grounds were large, with formal beds that ran in terraces to a pond—in lieu of some portion of the rent if we were to afford it.

“Bea.” I was breathless as I caught up with her. It was strange to think she wouldn’t be living with us again, that she’d be leaving home at the same age our mother had, when she’d moved to London to live, unmarried, with our father. We’d reached a plateau and the road had narrowed. “Should we go on?” I was relieved when she turned back.

Nana had a ladle in her hand and was describing the ailments that afflicted her, the arthritis in her fingers, the heart trouble that had forced my grandparents to retire.

“Stop the moaning, woman.” Grandpa knocked his pipe against the chair. His beard was stained yellow, and he wheezed as he heaved himself up.

“And then there’s his chest, so bad.”


Nana bit her lip and served the soup. It was a leek soup with potato and small nubs of mutton that floated to the top. “It’s only the smallest bit,” she said, defensive. “For the taste.”

Bea put down her spoon. We’d not eaten meat since arriving at the farm one summer to find our own orphaned, bottle-fed lambs had been carted off to market, but today there was nothing else save a white buttered triangle of bread, so I ate the potato and left the mutton in a small gray pile.

Max gobbled his up. “He likes that.” Grandpa shot my mother an accusing look. “Give the child a steak, that’ll set him straight,” he said, and he turned to Nana. “Get into that kitchen and put one on to grill.”

“No!” Mum’s eyes flashed, fierce.

Nana hovered above her chair.

“It’s what the boy needs.” Grandpa stared at Max as if he were defective, and we all looked, at his pale face and straight, pudding-bowl hair, and no one said it—how fearfully he looked like his father.

“There’s no need.” Mum was firm, and she turned to her mother and told her to sit down. Grandpa glared, and Nana, nervous, clattered her spoon against her bowl.

“I hope he dies first, and Nana can have some fun,” Bea said that night in bed, and I crossed myself below the covers as I sometimes privately did.

We stayed for three days before setting off for Bantry.

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“Whatever is there in Bantry?” Nana had lipstick on her teeth.

“I have a friend, and the girls can see the country. We’ll be back, don’t worry. We’ll be back before you know.”

It didn’t start to rain until they’d dropped us at the bus stop. I thought momentarily that we might catch the bus, but as soon as their car was out of sight my mother took Max by the hand and, insisting that we follow, trudged off along the road.

“Fucking hell.” Bea stared at the flared ends of her trousers, soaking up the wet.

“Smile.” Mum stuck out her thumb, and I did smile—at the men and women peering out between the wipers, at children turning around to look. A red car approached, a man and a woman, side by side. I froze, sure it was our grandparents returned, and I lowered my arm, expecting the screech of their brakes, the accusations. Nothing but tinkers. But it wasn’t them, or, if it was, shame had blinded them and they drove on.

“We’ll need a van at least,” my sister huffed. Her trousers were stained wet halfway to the knee. “Who’s going to stop for all of us?” But just then a car pulled over. “Where are you off to?” A man leant across and pushed open the door.

“Bantry Bay.” My mother’s dripping hair swung over her face.

“That’s a way,” he said, hesitating, but even as he spoke, explaining that he was only going as far as Ballincollig, she swung open the back door. “Thanks so much.” She picked Max up and slid him in.

Max sat between Bea and me and played with his trains. In one hand he had Thomas, in the other Gordon, and he ran them up and down the seat, muttering, “Ballincollig, Colligballin,” while Mum sat in the front and studied the map. “If we could make it to Clonakilty, I know some people there.” She looked back at the three of us. “Martin and Petula?” She didn’t sound as if she expected us to remember, and when we said nothing she gave her full attention to the driver.

The rain had eased by the time we were set down at the turn. “Good luck.” The man waved, and we shook ourselves, and Mum stood Max against the verge, and we all watched as the snail of his willy fattened and unfurled.

“Damn, now I need to go.”

“And me.” I followed Bea toward a scrubby bank behind which we squatted, our pee steaming hot against the ground.

“Quick!” Mum yelled as we were shaking out the drops.

“For God’s sake.” Bea buttoned up her flies and the elastic of my knickers twisted as I tugged them up.

A car was waiting on the road.

“Here they are,” Mum said, smiling, and the driver, a woman in a plastic mac, widened her eyes in alarm. The woman was going to Clonakilty, and although she didn’t know Martin and Petula, it was clear that she’d heard their names. “They’re up at the farm with the dogs, is that it?” Her hands tightened on the wheel.

At the entrance to the farm there was a statue made from rubber gloves, and as we eased open the gate a pack of hounds came barking out to meet us. I held tight to Max, although it was me who was afraid, but the dogs only circled, sniffing, and soon there was a shout and a woman sloshed across the yard.

“Petula!” Our mother waved.

Petula looked with horror at our bags. It was quite obvious that she didn’t recognize Mum, although when prompted—I’m a friend of Jane’s, do you remember, Appleby?—they embraced, and we were told to come and see the puppies, seven of them, born the day before.

The mother, Sorrel, was a lurcher, who lay in a heap of straw in the corner of the barn. “Aren’t they adorable!” The puppies were bald and blind, but Petula was so delighted by them, their snuffling noses, the greedy way they sucked, that we knelt down to pay homage as each one was unplugged from its teat and passed around. Sorrel looked up with weary eyes, and I was reminded of when Max was born and we crowded in to examine our new brother.

Martin was in the kitchen, hacking up a rabbit. He grunted and said welcome, and slowly over that slow afternoon, the rabbit bubbling into a stew, men and women drifted in and sat at the table, playing music, dealing cards. The stew, when it was ready, was served with potato, mashed with skin and eyes, and afterward we were shown to two sofas in a dark-beamed sitting room, so damp that we made a fire with paper to cheer us while we settled down to sleep.

We were woken by shrieking in the yard. Mum threw off the covers and ran from the room. Max sat up and shivered, and I crawled across to him and climbed into the warm space where our mother’s body had been. He curved his knotty back against me, and we listened as voices rose, anguished, angry, interspersed with wails.

“Hell.” Bea pulled on her boots, and with a quilt around her she went out. Minutes later, she was back. “It’s a bloodbath.”

Max went rigid in my arms.

“The puppies are dead.”

I put my hands over his ears.

“They think it’s a local, came in and killed them.”

We waited in silence until our mother returned. “We should probably get out on the road and make an early start.”

“What if they think it’s us?” My teeth were chattering.

“It was Sorrel,” she said, “and they know it.”


“It happens sometimes if the mother is too young.”

I thought of our mice and how the father, Cassius Clay, had eaten the entire litter. We hadn’t known then that parents should be kept apart.

“They’re doing it for their own good,” our mother had said, and she said it again now as she gathered up our things.

There was very little traffic going out of Clonakilty. A van passed, a trailer attached, and when the farmer stopped it was only to tell us that he was going to collect sheep from the next field, and although he’d be happy to take us, it might be quicker to walk. We did walk. It was a fine, soft day and the trees in the lane stretched above our heads, forming a leaf-green cave. Mum handed out dried apricots from a packet in her bag.

“Are we going to the dog farm again later?” Max asked, and when we said no he stamped in one of yesterday’s puddles and shouted “Hurrah!” and we all laughed. Even Bea was cheerful.

Bantry, when we arrived, was quiet. It was lunchtime, and the sky had clouded over. Xavier had been our stepfather’s friend. He’d visited us once in Sussex, all bone and Adam’s apple, and now, for no other reason than that he lived in the west of Ireland, we were to stay with him for a few days. “He said to find him at the Bantry Inn.”

“What, anytime?” We toiled through the streets until we came across the pub, which was small and plain, with three men at the bar. None of whom was Xavier.

The landlord hadn’t seen him. Not for days.

Tears sprang into our mother’s eyes. Don’t cry! I willed her, and I caught Bea’s grimace. “Last week he was here, and most likely next week he’ll be sitting on that stool, but just now he’s away to Galway to bring back his wife, God help him.”

“The thing is.” Mum was blinking. “We’ve come from England. He said we’d find him if we—”

“Ah.” The man’s face cleared. “So it’s yourselves he’s been waiting for,” and he rummaged through a drawer, searched the till, and, not finding anything, disappeared to a back room. “It’s a bit of a walk,” he called. “Down to the harbor, keep to the right and up the hill, and you’ll not miss it, it’s the last house.” He laid a large iron key on the bar.

We were so grateful that we stopped and had a drink, shared a plate of chips and, while we were waiting, a packet of crisps. Restored, we set off, climbing and stopping, carrying and cajoling, leaving the town behind. The sky was gray by the time we reached the house. It was a stone house built up from the cliff, and if you peered down from the back windows you could see the waves churning against rocks.

Welcome. Xavier had left a note and a large raw salmon on a plate.

My mother switched the oven on while we explored. The bedrooms were downstairs, small arrow-slit windows, the largest room, Xavier’s, a mattress on the floor, the smallest, a child’s, dusty and shut up, a mobile swaying in the draft. Max rushed in and examined the toys. Two Teddies tucked into the bed, and a heap of books none of which featured trains. There was a musty bathroom and a study with a desk facing the sea, but upstairs all along the walls was one long daybed, foam seating wrapped in Indian prints, soft enough to sleep on.

I read Max a story—one of three that we’d brought with us—about an engine, banished to a siding, that learned to be good and was grateful for it, and when it was finished I looked down at the beach and there was Bea, barefoot, climbing over the rocks. As I watched, she stopped and looked at the ocean and I looked, too, at the spit of the estuary, the lighthouse on its island, the lowering sky.

“Bea,” I called when I’d run down to her, but my voice was thrown back by the wind. I pulled off my shoes. “Bea!” I was panting by the time I’d scrambled close, and she turned around, startled.

“What?” Her nose was swollen, her eyes two slits of red, and alongside my pity was a small mean streak of curiosity to see her beauty dissolved.

“Sorry.” Beyond her was a white-sand crescent, washed smooth by the tide. “I was . . . bored.” I wanted to cry, too. Will you miss us? Will you come home? Will it just be me now? Instead, navigating the next foothold, I began to scale the sharp black stones.

There was the smell of baking salmon, and “Desire” boomed from two tall speakers. “Saaaara,” Dylan wailed, “Saaaara,” while Mum whisked oil for mayonnaise.

“What are we going to do here?” Bea shouted. She’d flicked through Xavier’s records. No Sex Pistols, No Clash.

I wondered how it would feel to be loved as much as Sara. “I don’t know.” Mum smiled, sad. She beat the egg.

I sat with Bea on the daybed and we listened, over and over, to “Desire,” startling when the wind rattled the house, relieved to find that it wasn’t Xavier, returned. When the first side of the record ended, we let the hiss and crackle of it play on, the small regular bump as it rotated, until one of us got up and turned it over. When the salmon was cooked we ate it with potatoes, and afterward, by candlelight, lay down on what were now our beds to mourn again the lost hopes of the boxer Hurricane, languishing in jail, and the death of the gangster Joey, gunned down in a clam bar in New York. Bea and I mouthed “Oh, Sister” to each other, and sang along to “One More Cup of Coffee,” howling like hyenas, our voices rising above the wind, the chorus coming around so often that Max’s thin accompaniment wound its way up from below, where he’d been tucked into Xavier’s daughter’s bed.

The next morning the sky was clear. Small breezes shuddered the windows, and gulls called as they swept by. I stood up and stretched, and, before I’d had a chance to turn, Bea clicked the record player on and let the needle drop. “Hurricane” began again, his story so familiar by now that I could have testified on his behalf in court—and to avoid the painful unwinding of his fate I pulled my clothes on and walked up onto the cliff. The grass was short and scattered with droppings, and as I stood, eyes closed, the sun on my face, I wondered if the Hurricane was still in prison, and hoped to God he wasn’t.

“Saaa-ra, Saaaa-ra,” Bea warbled as she ran toward me, and, picking up speed, she raced past and away along the fine white path, her hair streaming out behind. I followed, my own hair streaming, bursting, as I’d always been, to catch up with her.

The salmon lasted for three days and then we were forced to walk down the hill to Bantry. It was warm and the grass sang green, and the harbor from above was turquoise. White gulls floated in small flocks, and boats with their white sails tacked across the bay. Tall houses stood, reflected. We were crossing the square, making for the grocer, when a flash of orange caught my eye, and there was a young man, thin and pale, dressed in saffron robes. “Have you heard of the Beatles?”

We stared at him, affronted.

“George Harrison has a solo album, and he’d like you to have a copy.” He slid a record from his bag and thrust it at Bea. “For a small donation to the monks of Skibbereen . . . ” and he went on, talking so fast and so determinedly that our mother opened the drawstring knot of her purse and paid him to stop. He bowed, his hands pressed together at his heart.

“Now, what am I meant to do with this?” Bea said when he was gone.

“I don’t know.” Mum was counting our diminished funds. “Leave it by the side of the road.”

But we couldn’t leave it. It had cost us more than tickets for the bus, and what if the monk found it, or, worse still, George Harrison, who’d been my favorite, when I had a favorite. He’d be hurt.

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“Damn.” Bea sighed.

We bought bread and cheese and a bag of tomatoes, and we were looking for a bench where we could sit and make a sandwich, when we passed the Bantry Inn. Music floated out. A lone voice, singing. We stood and listened, and then our mother pushed open the door and, finding the place full, we squeezed in.

A man was sitting at a table, a young boy on his lap. When he reached the chorus—“Bobbing up and down like this, bobbing up and down”—the whole pub bobbed. We bobbed, too; there was no withstanding it. We bobbed again, and then again, until even we were laughing. When the song came to an end, there was a cheer, and another man began. His voice was clear and carrying. It was the story of how his village came to have a bus, and while he sang there was a deep, attentive silence. Verse after verse, the song unspooled, his face expressionless, his eyes fixed on the distance, every breath in that room his. He finished, and his neighbor pushed a glass of drink into his hand.

“Come all you roving blades, that ramble through the city.” The words were slurred, and had a tang of English. “Kissing pretty maids.” I turned, and there at the bar was Xavier.

“What’ll it be?” he asked when we’d pushed our way through to him. “Pretty maids indeed.” His eyes were wet, his mouth, too, and when we declined he ordered us three glasses of Guinness, and a whiskey for himself.

That night Xavier made a seafood stew, and as it cooked he talked, his words rising above the crash of the waves, about his wife who wasn’t coming home. “The bitch.” He poured more wine, detailing for us her faults, her jealousies, her moaning, the demands she made, her squalor. Just when I thought he’d stopped, he lowered his voice to tell us how he’d caught her, down on the strand, her skirts hitched up, pleasuring herself.

Heat flushed across my face, and I looked quick at my mother. Had she not heard? Her eyes were flat and far away.

Xavier bent low over Bea’s chair. “Is that what you’re up to yourself, down on the beach?” He licked his lips and sloshed a spoonful of seafood into her bowl. “I thought maybe I’d seen you there when I was peeling prawns.”

It was dark on the hill and there was nowhere else to go, and I thought of my stepfather and his own babyish words when I’d gone back to collect my clothes. “I loved your mummy,” he’d said, although I knew by then he’d spent the half-term holiday with a girl who’d starred some years ago in the school production of “Medea.” I’d looked at him, his hair mussed, his trousers shrunk to reveal his socks, and I’d been clear, although I couldn’t say it: You didn’t.

We were quiet on the way back to Youghal. We carried our George Harrison record under our arms, on our heads; Max even used it as a branch line for his engines when for more than an hour no car passed. “Leave it,” Bea hissed as we were dropped, finally, on the road that led up to the bungalow.

“You leave it.” But we didn’t have enough of anything to let it go.

“There you are.” Nana threw open the door. “You’ve only now this minute missed him.”

“Missed who?”

“Your man about the flat. He called to say that you can have it, in exchange for gardening, at a nice low rent.”

Our mother paled.

“So you’ve left him.” It was Grandpa.

We waited for the row.

“Sit down if you’re sitting down.” Nana’s voice was high, and she ushered us toward the table, which she laid with a cold tea. Sliced bread, egg mayonnaise, coleslaw. “I never thought, for sure, he was the right one.” She looked sternly at Grandpa. “It may be best to make a break for it. While you’re still young.”

“Is that so?” Grandpa blew a plume of smoke into the air, and he leant back in his chair.

We ate in silence, until, unable to bear the strain, I described our new home. The flowered carpet, the staircase, the flight of wooden steps that led to our own door, and all the while I was thinking how, when Bea and I were babies, Mum kept us secret. She’d been terrified, she’d said, that if she came back to Ireland she’d be locked up in a home for wayward girls and women. That we’d be taken away.

“And where will you be staying when you start your studies?” Nana turned to Bea, and Bea told them how our father had found a place for her to live in London, not too far from college.

“Now, isn’t that something,” she exclaimed.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Grandpa snapped. “It’s only his duty that he’s doing.” He looked at Max and shook his head as if they’d all be fools to expect any decency to come his way.

Late that night as I slipped out to fetch a glass of water, I saw them through a slice of open door standing in the gap between their beds. “Will you calm down.” My grandfather held Nana by both arms.

“I will not!” Tears blurred her face.

“You’ll wear yourself out.”

She quieted then and laid her head against his shoulder. There was a silence as they rocked from side to side. “How is she to manage?”

“Stop fretting, woman.” It was his familiar, cross voice, but, as I readied myself to tiptoe past, I heard the crack in it.

The next day they drove us to the ferry. We stood on the deck while all around rose up the wrench of chains, the bellow of the funnel, the shrieks and squalls of parting. “Bye!” we shouted, and we watched their open mouths, their open palms, and when we’d waved enough we went inside to find our bags, which we’d thrown onto a row of seats.

It was a calm crossing, and as I lay sleepless I saw us travelling through London, boarding our train south, the bus we always caught from the station swaying through country roads, turning at the church where in our old life we’d leap off. We’d stay on now until we reached the last village on the route. We’d pull open the door of the communal house, and trail past strangers to the flat on the top floor, where we’d make a new triangular family, with me at the farthest point, while Bea, escaped, spun off into her new life.

“Bea?” I hissed. “Are you awake?” I nudged George Harrison, on which her coat was heaped to make a pillow.

“No,” she said, and together we listened to the great steel ship pounding through the waves. ♦