Athena

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Book: Athena by John Banville Read Free Book Online
Authors: John Banville
Tags: Literary, Literature & Fiction, nonfiction, Contemporary, Contemporary Fiction
mocking air? I felt a silent breeze from somewhere on the back of my neck and I turned to speak to A. only to find that she was no longer there. I was about to call out to her when I heard the sound of clicking claws rapidly approaching along the passageway outside and my heart gave a sort of sideways lurch and then righted itself with a frightening thump. The clicking ceased and Prince the dog appeared soundlessly in the doorway and looked at me, jaws agape and red tongue softly throbbing. A moment passed. I spoke to the creature in a hoarse, high voice and put out a cautious hand. I felt an equal mixture of anger and alarm; how had I allowed myself to be lured into this trap? For this was what I had been expecting for the past half hour, to be discovered like this, caught in surprise and dismay and unaccountable guiltiness. A bead of sweat slid down between my shoulder-blades cold and quick as the point of a knife. Then Francie with his hands in his pockets materialised beside the dog and eyed me smilingly and sucked his teeth and said, ‘Private view, eh?’ He scanned the cellar with a swift, sharp glance and dog and master delicately sniffed the air: A.’s perfume; I could smell it too. Francie ambled forward and picked up a miniature hammer from the workbench and turned to me and—
    Enough of this. I do not like it down here, I do not like it at all. A wave of my wand and
pop!
here we are magically at street level again.
    Francie invited me to go with him to The Boatman for a drink, hunching his shoulders and looking away and smiling to himself. We walked along Fawn Street through the hazy, brazen light of early evening with the low sun in our faces. The dog kept close behind us, head down and sharp ears flattened along its skull. The office crowds were hurrying homeward; buses reared, bellowing, cars coughed andfumed. I thought of A., her pale face and vivid lips, the leaf-rustle of her silk dress. Spindly girls dressed all in black with stark white make-up passed us by, hanging on the arms of enchained, bristled young men; they glanced at Francie and nudged each other. He was in his usual outfit: threadbare tweed suit of a peculiar, gingery shade, a flat cap and collarless shirt and cracked brown sharp shoes curling up at the toes. He had the look of one of those characters who used to appear now and then at our door when I was a child, itinerant knife-sharpeners, rag-and-bone men, tinkers selling cans: timeless figures of uncertain origin who went as silently as they had come, and who afterwards would appear along the margins of my dreams.
    We turned into Hope Alley and came upon Quasimodo – remember him? – singing
The Green Hills of Antrim Are Calling Me Home
and waggling an empty plastic cup at passers-by. I had been noticing him about the streets for some time, and took an interest in him. Down-and-outs have always appealed to me, for reasons that should be obvious. This was a new and fallen state for him; the last time I had seen him he was working as a signboard man for a jeweller’s shop tucked up a laneway off Arcade Street. Those must have been his salad days, perched on a high stool at the sunny corner of the lane with flask of tea and mighty sandwich and the newspaper to read. His sign had borne the ambiguous legend,
The Bijou – Home of Happy Rings
, in front of which was painted a stylised hand with rigid index finger imperiously pointing up Tuck Lane. He was a little nut-brown fellow with curiously taut, shiny skin and a smear of oily black hair plastered to his skull as if he had just taken off a tight-fitting cap. His hump was not very pronounced, more hunch than hump, really; seen from the front, with his tortoise’s flattish head thrust forward and that fixed, worried grin that he always wore (was it a tic?), he seemed to be flinching from a playful blow constantly expected but neverdelivered. I felt proprietorial about him, and I was not pleased when Francie pointed at him now with his chin

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