Sean slapped a trowel full of mortar into the hollow on top of the next brick. The mortar was brown and had the consistency of blancmange. It reminded him of childhood puddings. Chocolate blancmange was one of his favourites. He picked up another brick and smoothed more of the mortar onto each end before placing it firmly on top of the mortar in the hollow. He used the butt of the trowel handle to tap the brick level then scraped away the surplus mortar that oozed from between the bricks on each side. A jerk of his arm was all it took to add the surplus to the shrinking pile of mortar on the board. He wondered who had been the first person to apply the epithet 'mortar board' to a graduation cap. Who ever it was, it was an accurate shorthand description for that particular head-dress which certainly looked nothing like a cap but did resemble the board on which the soft sandy material was carried from mixing area to point of use.
He drew the trowel through the pile of mortar several times to keep the moisture content uniform throughout before collecting another trowel full which he slapped into the hollow of the next brick. He had begun building the wall early that morning and had lost count of the number of bricks he had laid since. A glance at his watch told him that he had been working steadily for almost three hours. It would soon be time to stop for a cup of coffee and a slice of his wife's fruit cake.
The wall had been his wife's idea. "We must do something about that," she had said in that irritatingly determined voice she adopted whenever anything was annoying her. "We" of course meant "You", as it usually did. "That" was the regular appearance of Pepe the poodle from next door. Pepe was, according to his wife, the most pampered poodle in creation. That would not have mattered were it not for the fact that the pampering did not extend to the provision of on-site toilet facilities in the animal's owner's garden. The animal's owner was much too fastidious to clean up after the dog had 'done its business'. She had come up with what she no doubt deemed to be an elegant solution: let the animal visit next door at appropriate intervals. Once over the boundary between the two properties Pepe would live up to his name and pee-pee by cocking his leg up against any suitable object.
Over the months since Pepe had arrived next door, the plum tree, both apple trees and the shed had been subjected to repeated 'christenings'. Just last Sunday Sean had left his bike out instead of putting it away in the shed immediately after his morning ride. It was a decision he regretted for he was sitting on the bench recuperating from the exertion of climbing two hills on the thirty mile route he had undertaken that day when Pepe bounded across, sniffed at both wheels of the bicycle then ignored Sean's expletive laden imprecation and raised his leg to spray the back wheel. All of that was difficult enough to tolerate but it was the solid deposits that the animal frequently left on the lawn that had led to the decision to place a solid barrier between the adjacent properties.
On several occasions his wife had requested that he visit next door and remonstrate with Pepe's owner. On each of those occasions he had found an excuse not to do her bidding. And on each occasion his wife had shaken her head, called him a coward and threatened to call on their neighbour herself. The truth was that both Sean and his wife had stopped talking to Pepe's owner. It had come as no surprise to him that when his wife eventually carried out her threat the outcome was less than satisfactory.
He had been at work. As soon as he arrived home he could sense that something had upset his wife. There was an atmosphere about the place that reminded him of the sign he had seen at a zoo once when he was a child: 'Approach with Caution' the sign had counselled. That would, he felt sure, be the best way to deal with the woman that he had loved for so long that he understood every nuance of her emotional ups and downs. Today, he was certain, he was about to be treated to a down of magnificent proportions; one so deep that it would rival the great abyss in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He had read somewhere that it was so deep that no-one had actually been able to measure it. Most of the time he had the measure of his wife's state of mind but there were times when he didn't and he instinctively knew as he entered the small hallway that this was going to be one of those times.
Several possible strategies for dealing with the situation crossed his mind. He could feign a lightness of mood that he certainly did not feel in an effort to disarm his wife. He could pretend that he had endured an unbearably awful time at the office in the hope of securing her sympathy and thereby divert the worst of her venom. He could offer her a juicy piece of gossip gleaned from some of the younger female colleagues at the office - except that no such nugget had been revealed that day and he had not had the foresight to save up the last such gem so as to unveil it on such an occasion as this.
All of these possibilities underwent the briefest of examinations as he dawdled in the hallway spending much longer than was usual on the simple tasks of removing his coat and hanging it neatly on its hanger in the cloaks cupboard; untying his laces and placing his shoes carefully onto the bottom shelf of said closet. Other men, he supposed, would throw their coat onto a chair and themselves into the arms of their beloved. Not he. Such sloppy behaviour would provoke a lecture at the best of times. On a day like today, whatever strategy he eventually adopted, it was best to meet his wife's high expectations of neatness in all things.
As he stood up from straightening his shoes he heard the sound of an opening door. That was a reminder of something else that he had left undone despite many hints from his wife. The hinges on the kitchen door needed a squirt of lubricant. That, however, was not the reason why the hairs on the back of his neck began to rise. Oh God, he thought, what have I done now? For what terrible omission am I about to be castigated? He turned slowly to face his accuser.
"She had the gall to attack me in the car park!" her tone was brimming with indignation. "Kept opening the car door and shoving her head inside to shout at me! Some poor old man was trying to get to his car that was parked next to mine. Stood there looking embarrassed poor fellow whilst she berated me! And that brat bouncing up and down in the shopping trolly. Scratched the poor man's paintwork I shouldn't wonder. If you don't do something about her soon I shall insist on putting the house up for sale."
"Do something about what?" He already suspected what the answer would be but asking for clarification gave him a chance to play for time.
"That bloody sister of yours and her dirty animal, of course. Who else do you suppose I was talking about."
"You had an argument with Mary in a car park? Find somewhere more public to air your dirty linen why don't you." It was his turn to be indignant now but it was short lived.
Drawing herself up to her full height his wife gave him a look that made him feel that it was he who barely reached her shoulders instead of the opposite. "I did what you have so often failed to do. I," and once again the "I" was emphasised with a finger pointed at her chest, "I went to her door. I tried to have a civilised discussion in her house. It was she who chose to continue it in the car park. I tried to keep my car door closed. She kept opening it and screaming at me." She paused briefly to draw breath before continuing: "I was the one that apologised to that poor man. She was still trying to open my door as I drove away."
The idea of he and his twin sister having houses built next to each other had seemed perfectly sensible. Indeed, given that the two did everything together throughout their childhood and continued to do so as adults, even getting married on the same day in a double wedding that had cost both sets of parents far more than either could reasonably afford, it was to be expected. What with him being a builder and she being his personal assistant there was nothing to prevent it.
Things had gone swimmingly until differences started to appear between his wife and his sister. He didn't mind that every time his sister got something his wife had to have an identical object too. That fitted in with the way he and his sister had always carried on. So the flat screen TV, the most up to date ecologically friendly appliances; the solar panels, the conservatory with its energy rated glass, even the red BMW standing in each identical driveway had not caused a problem. The two couples got on swimmingly, sharing everything, dining in each other's homes every Saturday, going to the pub together to listen to music every Friday, occupying the same pew at Mass on Sundays.
Everything changed the day his sister announced that she was pregnant. That was something that was not easy to duplicate. There were, after all, some things that could not decently be done together. Sean and his wife had been the first to hear his sister's news; well, the first after her husband anyway. The two of them had come bouncing between the two houses brimming over with pride and joy at the expected new arrival. Sean's wife had not been quite so overwhelmed with happiness however. Indeed, to say that she was underwhelmed would have been an under-statement.
After his sister and brother-in-law had left the house his wife had practically torn his clothes off as she dragged him into the bedroom. In all the years that had elapsed since they became man and wife - not to mention those before they had legitimated the relationship - she had never been as enthusiastic a lover. And it did not stop there. She made it clear that, if his sister was to have a child, then so must she. It might arrive a month or two later, that seemed inevitable given Sean's apparent inability to emulate his sister in this particular regard, but they would still be almost like twins. The two women would be able to walk to the shops with their identical children in identical buggies. Later the children would play in each other's gardens; gardens that were really just one large garden given the absence of any but the flimsiest of barriers between the two. Later still the children would go to school together.
And so they had made love to each other at every possible opportunity and in every conceivable place. Colleagues at work had noticed his haggard look, the redness of his eyes and his propensity to fall asleep at his desk. Seeing these things the more sympathetic of his colleagues had shaken their heads. Some of the newer employees had resorted to ribald remarks about rabbits and wishing their own wives or girlfriends were as insatiable as they sensed his was.
But no matter how hard Sean and his wife tried - and they certainly tried hard although sometimes he found it difficult to get hard often enough - the result was always the same. Soon it became clear that one of them was deficient in that department. And so they had consulted their doctor and he had made them an appointment with a specialist. The specialist had conducted a string of humiliating tests and finally delivered his verdict. Sean was infertile.
If the tests had been humiliating then the outcome had been more so. For Sean because it diminished his masculinity, for his wife because it meant that at last there was an area of her life in which she would be unable to compete with his sister. They had gone to counselling sessions but quickly gave that up just as they had given up making love. His wife's ups and downs became downs and deeper downs. When he first thought of that description of his wife's moods he was reminded of a song that they had danced to soon after they met. 'Down, down, deeper and down' the singer had screamed against a heavy drum and bass background. He cursed himself for such an inappropriate thought. The song was not about moods. It was about … well, never mind what it was about, we won't go there, he thought, in fact we never seem to go there anymore.
And so time passed and his niece was born. Sean and his wife reluctantly attended the Christening but neither spoke to the delighted parents. And that was how things had been ever since: the two couples trying their hardest to avoid each other. The arrival of the poodle had lowered the temperature even further and Pepe's constant excursions onto their side of the double plot had made it imperative that a suitable barrier be erected.
He was surprised at how much he enjoyed the work. He had not built a wall in many years. As the business had grown he had moved into the office and employed others to do the skilled tasks like brick- and block-laying. He could, of course, have got one of them to do this job but it didn't seem right somehow. This final act of betrayal, echoing the one his sister had inadvertently perpetrated by becoming a mother when he would never be able to become a father, was one he had to undertake in person. To have asked one of his employees to do it would have been to shirk a responsibility; an affirmation of his humiliation. He might not be able to make his wife pregnant but he could build a wall. That was one of the few things he was good at.