I have not seen the girls in a while, and I am afraid we might not have enough chat to fill the evening, so I suggest we go to a play. It is on in a small theatre in a Georgian house on Parnell Square. We arrive early and head upstairs to the bar. I order a bottle of red wine and we sit down at a low round table and I pour us each a large glass. We catch up quickly on the more ordinary things, and then Claire mentions the two sexual assault cases that have been in the news this week. The judge in one case ordered the convicted man to pay €75,000 compensation to the victim, and suspended all but six months of the six-year prison sentence. In the other case, the judge ordered the convicted man to pay €15,000 to the victim, and suspended the entirety of the four-year sentence. Suddenly there is no shortage of things for us to say.
The barman comes over to our table and tells us the play is about to start. We place beer mats over our glasses of wine and go downstairs. In the basement, through a doorway shrouded with a black curtain, there is a tiny dark theatre with seven tiers of seats. It is so small the actors on the stage can look right into your face, and there isn’t any way for your eyes to escape them. The play has a cast of three, and we are meant to imagine the presence of a number of other characters on stage. It is about a woman who works as a prostitute while her children are at school. The set is quite bare; there is only a table and chairs against a plain white backdrop. There is a real kettle and occasionally there is a flutter of steam and a click from the corner of the stage when it boils. The actresses mime their tea-drinking with their cupped hands. I wonder how they decided what would be represented by actors and props, and what would be left to the imagination. There’s a sex scene with an invisible punter. The actress lies back and keeps her eyes open but fixed, like a broken doll, and she shunts herself around on the table rhythmically to show us the mechanical sex. But it is only her that we see.
At the intermission, we go back upstairs to our wine glasses. We all feel a bit battered around the head. ‘Theatre rarely comes in on me,’ I say to the girls. ‘The artifice of it is too immediate. I never get lost in it. It never has me completely.’ Emma says she cries all the time at plays and lists them off, all the best ones that had her sobbing.
‘Only real life makes me cry,’ Claire says.
‘Poetry can really do me in,’ I say. ‘There are a few poems that I only have to think of to get me going.’
Claire makes an impressed sound, but the truth is I only go looking for poetry when I am already sad, and looking for something to push me over the edge.
The bell rings for the second half of the play and we go off again down the stairs. An American student sitting behind us drank too much in the interval and she is giggling in the wrong places. I turn around and glare at her in the dark but she doesn’t stop. The nice punter who was supposed to rescue the prostitute with the heart of gold turns out to be a baddie. There is a rough anal rape scene. He bends her over and unbuttons his trousers. His gelled hair comes unstuck and falls forward over his face with his efforts. The three of us wince and slide down in our seats as it plays out. When it is over, the prostitute cries and crawls off the stage.
Afterwards, in the pub across the road, we’re all a bit annoyed that we’ve watched all this darkness and cannot find any message to take from it. We try to decide whether a story can just be told and leave you empty-handed.
‘I had an old English teacher who used to insist that there is irony in all stories,’ I tell them. ‘Life is never pure tragedy, if you are telling the true version of it. There is always a glimmer in it somewhere.’
I wasn’t sure if that was true. I had a fight with the teacher over it.
Emma is annoyed that the actor came out for his bow so soon after the rape. ‘We barely had time to switch our minds back and there he was, with his big smile, waiting for applause.’
And because we are now in this sort of conversation, we talk about all the carry-on at the BBC, the investigations and all the TV presenters being hauled up on sexual assault charges. Some of the girls in the cases were teenagers at the time.
‘I remember the girls in my class at school going out with older men,’ I say. ‘I remember being jealous of them. When we were fifteen, my friend Denise had a boyfriend who was twenty-nine and drove a truck. On a Saturday afternoon, we would watch her as she emptied her books and metal pencil case out of her school bag with a clatter, then she would fill it up again with toiletries and cheap satin underwear from Penneys before she went off to meet him. She had bad acne on her back and she told us that she covered it all up with talcum powder so it was softer to his touch. And we all copied her and for weeks, the gang of us went round smelling like babies’ bums until my mother scolded me for ruining the carpet in my bedroom, which cast up little clouds of talc if you jumped on it. At sleepovers, Denise told us some of the things he did to her. She told us he would trace his finger in circles around her nipples to make them hard and then we’d all go quiet in the dark, fiddling with our own nipples and thinking about Denise’s truck driver.’
Claire and Emma look horrified.
‘I think she married him though,’ I say, and we laugh.
I am glad to see the girls again. We have known each other a long time but since I’ve been with George, I haven’t been as good at making an effort. I suppose I’ve always been inclined to go a bit odd, to hide myself away. You have to fight that quare part of you, though. My mother used to always say that if someone is already odd in their thirties, they never get any better. They get into bad habits. She used to say it as a warning to me about the awkward men I was always going after. I liked inward-looking men who busied themselves with their own anxieties and didn’t come in on mine. But now I think I am playing a child’s game, sitting in a dark cupboard, looking at the line of light at the bottom of the door, loving being hidden, but waiting to be found.
I leave the girls and go off to get a taxi home. The taxi driver is African. The windows are rolled down in his car, and there is a towel over the back seat. He is already having a bad night. We make a silent agreement not to chat and he turns up his music. It is a simple melody, children singing in unison.
I feel like I have to think about it now, on the quiet drive back to my house, looking out the window at the emptying city streets, although I’m not even sure I believe it any more. We used to drink an awful lot at college. We were seventeen. It was the night of our first college ball and three of us were sitting around the kitchen table of our flat in a basement in Ranelagh. It was a damp little place and the bathroom was covered in a black speckled mould. We’d often have to get the bleach out and scrub the walls. Louise was standing over by the CD player. There was a stack of dirty, pawed-at CDs on the shelf, all out of their cracked cases. When the CD skipped in the player, she took it out, spat on it, wiped it on her dress and put it back in again. There was a Matisse poster on the wall, one corner unstuck. We had all chipped in on a bottle of tequila. We had cut up a lemon with a butter knife so it looked a bit sawn-at and pulpy on the saucer in the middle of the table, the salt shaker beside it. We needed to get very drunk before we left because the college ball was in a fancy hotel in Ballsbridge. We were all wearing our old debs dresses and we were all from the country and we weren’t sure if we matched up to this new crowd. People in our class were just better looking than anyone had been at home – more confident, with clearer skin and better hair. Suddenly, you went from being the best in your class at school to not being able to open your mouth for fear of looking like a complete fool. When I told my mother about these new people, she said, ‘A lot of them are probably Protestants – the Protestants always have better skin.’ And she asked me to list off some of their surnames to see.
The morning after the ball, I woke up alone in a strange room. The curtains were open but it was November and still quite dark. I sat up in the bed and pulled back the duvet. There was a pink watercolour stain on the undersheet, nothing too bloody. If some tribal elders had wanted the sheet for evidence, they might not have been entirely convinced. It was a nice room. The bed was larger than a double, with lots of fluffy pillows and white bedding. In the corner, there was a tall plant in a blue ceramic pot. I carefully put the duvet back over the bed. My black velvet dress lay on the floor and I pulled it over my head. My tights were there too, and when I put them on they had a huge ladder, but the dress was long and covered it. I could not find my small black bag with my money and phone. I left the bedroom with my shoes in my hands, and tiptoed down the long dark hallway. I passed an open door to a brightly lit room, the living room perhaps. The house was completely silent. There were stained-glass windows on either side of the front door. A black cat with white paws sat on a rug and watched as I struggled with the latch.
I walked down the long steep driveway in my stockinged feet, the loose tarmacadam sticking to my soles. The soft grey light made everything in the garden look pale and unready. I had no coat, only a black shawl over my shoulders. I did not know where I was and I leaned on the gate at the end of the drive and put on my shoes. There were no other houses around, only fields. On the other side of the road there was a long grey wall and no footpath. I took a guess as to which direction the city might be and set off along the grassy roadside. I could not remember who he was. I remembered being in the room in the bed with him, on top of him kissing. I had probably wanted that much. And I remembered struggling, but not for long, and then turning away from him afterwards, curling into myself. He might have been waiting for me in the house somewhere, maybe in the room where the light was. Maybe my bag was in there, too – and some people asleep on couches, with coats placed kindly over them.
We had all been going home with fellas and doing lots of things with them but still leaving their bedrooms without going the whole way. That way it didn’t count, and you didn’t have to hold it as evidence against yourself. We laughed and called ourselves ‘Everything But’ girls.
A taxi came around the bend and I stood in tight against a wall because the morning light was still poor. He slowed when he saw me, and I waved him down and he stopped. When I got in, he said, ‘What have you been up to, young one?’ I told him I had no bag and no money and he said he would leave me home. He would give me his phone number and I could call him with the fare when I got myself in order. He had a daughter too, and all that. We didn’t say much else. When I got back to the flat, I had no keys and none of the girls were there, so I guessed where they might be and he had to leave me to another friend’s house. He was a bit annoyed with me then, on that leg of the journey.
The girls were in our friend Eileen’s house, and when I went in they were all sitting in bed together in their pyjamas. They were drinking cups of tea with their hair tied up and their faces clean and only some slight smudges of last night’s mascara left around their eyes. I sat at the bottom of the bed with my stockinged feet in under the blanket and told them what happened. Everyone was quiet and unsure. Triona reached over and brushed off a little blue pebble that was stuck to my tights and said, ‘We didn’t know where you went off to. Are you sore or anything?’ And I shook my head and said, ‘No, not really.’
We talked about sex all the time; the mess and squalor of it. The week before, when Steve broke up with Eileen, she showed us the lovebites on the inside of her thighs – ‘They’re from this morning,’ she said. ‘Then he breaks up with me a few hours later.’ She had her arms folded on the kitchen table and put her head down into them. And we were all a bit jealous even though she was crying so hard she could barely breathe and someone had to go and get her a glass of water. Louise had lost her virginity to a fella from her class a few weeks before. The walls were so thin in our flat and we’d stuffed our heads into the pillows, laughing at the sound he kept making, like a cow mooing. In the end, Triona was the only one who got to do it right. I came back up to Dublin from home one Sunday evening, and the sofa bed was folded out in the sitting room, the sheets rumpled on it and the remnants of tea lights all over the room, just the little tins and the wicks remaining, all the wax burned out. But when we were talking about me, we couldn’t make any jokes or ask any of the good questions.
That night I went to the student bar anyway, with the rest of them. We were all jumpy with hangovers and we thought a few drinks might help. I wore a dark pink top that was a bit tight and unforgiving, and I had to keep remembering to pull my stomach in. I held on to one plastic pint glass of cider for the whole night, squeezing the sides of it so that the liquid came right up to the brim and then releasing it before it spilled. Everyone was standing too close, and I barely spoke to anyone. But I was always delicate when I was hungover.
As far as I was concerned, I lost my virginity to my friend Joe one afternoon during rag week three months later. We’d kissed a few times before, and done a few other bits, so we were both primed for it. I was wearing navy cord flares and a lilac shirt and the gap in the material at my boobs was held together on the inside by a safety pin and we laughed while he fiddled to get it open. The next morning when Joe was in the shower, I scanned his bookshelf and then his CD collection. I put on a Doors album and played ‘Love Street’. He came in from the shower, skinny and wet with the big blue towel around his waist. I thought about telling him, and what he might say. But I just sat on the bed cross-legged, and read the back of one of his books as he got dressed.
I break the silence only to give the driver some directions. A holy medal swings from the rear-view mirror, and occasionally our eyes meet in the dark glass. When we reach my road, I tell him to leave me at the gate. As I walk up the gravel driveway, the security lights come on and the dog next door starts barking. There are no lights on in the house. George is still at work. He is a good man, George. He would never ask me about these things. He’s eighteen years older than me. I always went for the older fellas because I felt like they were a bit played out, like they were all they were ever going to be. It scares me sometimes, how many different people one person can turn out to be.
At the front door, I fumble for my keys in my bag, eager to get the lights on around me. Our house is supposed to be haunted. Sometimes a light will flicker or you will feel a sudden chill in the hallway. In the front room, there is sometimes a very strong smell of cigars. There are lots of things about the house that we don’t understand: a fire pit in the back garden, outhouses that have ceramic door knobs shaped like little hands. When we moved in here, we were clearing out the sheds and we found a stack of rusted single mattresses and about ten old typewriters with ivy twisted through the keys. When we asked a neighbour about it, he said he didn’t know much about the history of the house, but an old woman died here just before we moved in so maybe the ghost was her. I don’t mind. I say hello to her sometimes when I am here alone. They say it helps to talk to old ghosts. I say, ‘Hello, Bella. I hope you are not angry with us. We mean no harm. We have a nice life here.’
The house is cold, though. I put my hand against the wall in the kitchen and it feels almost damp, so I turn on the gas heater and sit at the kitchen table and wait for George to come home. I’m not sure what I thought love would be, but he is someone I want to look after. I cannot walk past him in the house without rubbing his back or touching his shoulder. He does a show late at night on the radio. On air, he is warm and giddy, he does voices and makes jokes and then when he comes home, he is quiet. I switch it on sometimes to hear that other man. It seems to me that it is the time when he is most alive – when he is alone in a room talking and people are only an imagined thing. Tonight, he comes home with a bottle of red wine someone left on his desk in the station. We sit at the dinner table sipping. He tells me about the woman who emails him with little details of her life. She sits in her kitchen every night drinking tea and listening to him. She picks up on little personal details he sometimes lets slip on air and she makes up fantasies of him and her. She is in love with him, she says. But her fantasies are gentle ones and he always reads them thoroughly to check that there’s no worrying change of tone. Then he shares them with me; or, if he doesn’t, I will ask after her. In a way, she has achieved something, in that she lives within our lives.
I tell him about the play I saw tonight. He agrees with me. He thinks it is all unnecessary anguish, that there should be something more to a work of art than just pain and hardship. He won’t even watch the news any more. ‘There was once a time when people only had to worry what happened between their sofa and the front door. Now we have to worry about the whole world,’ he says.
We take the wine up to bed with us, I have some notion that it will be playful and sexy, but we drink only a little bit before I spill it on the duvet so he takes the glass from my hand and puts it on the bedside locker. There is an upturned box of cotton buds on the floor beside the bed that I stepped over and he sees them now and gets out of bed and kneels down and picks them all up. He comes back in under the covers. When he touches me, he is so gentle. When we met and I discovered this about him, it made me go back to him again and again. But sometimes afterwards, he is lying beside me in the bed, silent and looking up at the ceiling and I can feel it in the room, the heavy machinery of his thinking. If I told him about the night of the ball, he would help me find the house. We could get in the car some Sunday and go looking for it; for the stained-glass windows. I wonder where it might be, with that wall and those fields.
In the morning, I am woken by a car alarm out on the street, or maybe by the bird in the tree outside that is mimicking the car alarm. The room is cold and through the gap in the curtain I can see condensation sliding down the inside of the old sash window. We need to spend more money on the place. We probably shouldn’t have bought a house that needed so much care and attention when both of us are so inclined to leave things the way they are. We’ll end up falling in with the house’s own ways. George is curled into me, his face to my breasts, and I can feel his warm breath on my skin. I pull back and look at him, kiss his forehead and his eyebrows. Then I slowly stroke his steel-grey hair, smoothing it down. It’s oily from the stuff he puts in it trying to make it do something that it won’t do any more. He gives a little appreciative moan. It’s okay that he doesn’t know every bit of me.
George’s grey hair in my hands pulls along another thought. I am ten and sitting on the arm of my grandfather’s black wingback chair. My feet in their socks are tucked in under his leg. My grandfather is as old as he will ever be, and he has been incredibly silent since Nana died. My mother has brought me with her to make him some supper and when we come in the back door and call for him, the house is quiet. In the sitting room, the fire is lit but there are no lights on. He is sitting there in the dark. We go around and turn on all the lights, but when I go to switch on the telly he says, ‘No, I can’t watch that oul’ nonsense any more.’ We make scrambled eggs and toast for him and when Mam is setting the tray and making the tea in the pot, I butter the toast and cut it into triangles. I put a plate over the saucepan and drain off the little bit of water that seeps from the eggs. When he was younger, we used to be scared of my grandfather. If the cat curled round his legs, he would kick it. But this day, he lets me clamber onto the chair and play with his hair. I do it tentatively, stopping every so often and looking into his face, as if he might stand up suddenly and shake me off, like a dog in from the rain. Perhaps he always wanted love, but just stood around the edges, not knowing how to participate in it. His hair is long and grey and slicked back. I put tiny plaits in it and he sits looking straight ahead, and the plaits fall down over his weathered face, a Benson & Hedges cigarette in his hand, his nails hard and yellow. After he’s eaten his eggs, and we’ve washed up and tidied the place around him so he’ll be comfortable, we get ready to leave and he says, ‘Who’ll mind me now?’ This is our routine. I say, ‘The cows?’ ‘But sure they’re off down the field,’ he replies. And then I say, ‘The radio.’ And I climb up on the red leather sofa with its cracks and its missing buttons and twist the knob of the black radio that sits on top of the telly so that, when my mother and I walk out the front door, the house behind us will be full of voices.
To read the rest of Dublin Review 59, you may purchase the issue here.