Something so close to love – Artemis Callaghan
Please feel free to email me at Ceri.Lloyd@bodleian.ox.ac.uk
Jenna was sleeping. Jenna was sleeping in my bed. My bed. Curled up like a child, her fists balled against her chest, she was deeply, completely asleep. She’d only stirred slightly when I’d slipped out from under the covers, just enough to turn over and curl up in the warmth I’d left behind. I’d sat for so long watching her that I was running late; worse, I’d made her run very late. No time for breakfast, barely time for a shower, she’d kissed me and hurtled out of the door in my smart white shirt and almost smart black jeans. I’d worn that shirt to Stephan’s wedding.
After she’d gone, I cleared the dinner plates and sat down with my mug of tea, lit a fag and looked at my mother’s crystal animals as they marched across the kitchen table. When my mother was alive, they’d taken pride of place in the Welsh dresser in the dinning room, there for everyone to admire when they came round for Sunday dinner or for Boxing Day tea. A cold collation of meat, pickled onions and beetroot, pickled walnuts fished out of their jars with my maternal grandmother’s little mother of pearl handled EPSN fork with its chased pattern along the tines. The animals set high enough up out of the way of the sticky and clumsy fingers of countless boys and me. Here on the kitchen table, well within reach, they looked as if they were on holiday, as if they had finally been released from captivity. I’d promised Jenna I’d not put them back in the box. I couldn’t bear to return them to their old Welsh shelf home. I’d have to find somewhere else. I picked up the horse and the tiger and held them until the cold glass turned warm with the heat of my hand.
When I got to the client’s house, Uncle Joe’s van was already parked outside it. I swore under my breath as I let myself in. He was in the sitting room, painting the metal grate enamel black with a little paintbrush. Anton and Little Joe must’ve been working on one of the bedrooms, I could hear their radio. Little Joe was laughing at something the DJ was saying. Uncle Joe didn’t look up from the grate when he heard my boots on the floorboards.
“Nice of you to join us”
“Yeah, sorry, my alarm didn’t go off”
He wiped excess paint off onto the edge of the tin, gently smoothing the brush across the iron flowers.
“And what happened to you yesterday? I came round about 2 and you weren’t here, popped back about 6 and as far as I could tell, you’d not been here all afternoon”
I blushed. Thank god he hadn’t come around at 4, if he had, he’d have caught me with my overalls round my ankles and Jenna between my legs.
“I’m sorry, Uncle Joe, something came up”
The brush stilled for a moment.
“And that flashy mobile of yours that takes all those lovely photos, it wasn’t able to make a call, eh?”
The brush was moving again, caressing a curling leaf.
“Yeah, well, don’t make a habit of it. I don’t want Sonny and Cher up there getting similar ideas; it’s hard enough getting a day’s work out of them as it is”
Ordinarily, I loved working alongside Uncle Joe. Everything he wanted to teach me I was eager to learn. And while he was teaching me he’d tell me stories about the family, about him and my father and my other uncles and the tricks they got up to when they were boys, every story showing Uncle Joe up in a favourable light, but I didn’t mind. Other times he’d tell me about how my grandfather and his brother had come over from Poland after the war to seek their fortunes only to end up working in the car factory; how both men had married local women, my grandfather to a girl he met in church, great Uncle Stanislaw to a woman he met in the pub. I always loved the counterpoint of that, and knew I’d taken after Uncle Stan more than Granddad. If I was to marry a girl, it would be one I met in a pub, not in church. He also told me stories about my parents when they were young, about how my father met my mother when they both worked in the Town Hall. My father was the oldest brother and married late, well into his thirties, my mother too. Theirs was not a tale of young and fiery passion, or so Uncle Joe would have me believe, but one of a deep and abiding love that steadily built up and was unshakeable. Those stories always left me feeling strange: a little melancholic and empty, but they were also the ones I wanted to hear the most.
But that morning I’d have rather have been on my own. There were things I needed to think about, problems that needed sorting, images that needed taking out and treasuring, and to do that it needed to be just me. Doing something with my hands has always freed my mind to work on other things. Painting the wainscoting with white gloss in peace and quiet would allow me space to think about Jenna in my bed, Jenna not two feet from where I was kneeling; dipping the fluffy headed roller on its extendable pole into a tray of red emulsion and covering the wall with a smooth, even action would give me the chance to think, to start to work out what the hell I was going to do about Róisín. But that was out of the question with Uncle Joe there, Anton and Little Joe singing along to their radio so tunelessly I hadn’t a clue what it was meant to be. All I could was work and try to close my brain down.
One o’clock came and Uncle Joe put his brush down, walked over to the door and shouted upstairs to Anton and Little Joe. I heard the thud of boots overhead, and Mariah Carey rudely cut off halfway through a song.
“C’mon on then, girl, lunchtime”
I sat back on my heels.
“No, it’s alright, you lot go on. I’ll stay here and finish this off. Make up for being late. Bring me back a bacon butty, eh”
Finally it was quiet. I had an hour to myself. I dipped the brush into the little pot of white gloss and knelt forward, an image of Jenna curled up, fists balled against her chest mugged me as soon as Uncle Joe’s back was turned.
At sometime after 8 o’clock there was a knock on the front door. I was working on some designs at the kitchen table, the crystal animals an attentive audience. The sharp rap of the knocker startled me. I wasn’t expecting anyone. I put my pencil down and went to answer the door. It was Jenna, standing on the doorstep in a black and grey striped t-shirt, faded indigo jeans and skateboarding trainers. I’d never seen her looking so casual and frankly adorable; I couldn’t help the smile that crept up on me. In her hand was a plastic bag, which she held out to me. It was my shirt and jeans.
“I’ve not had a chance to wash them”
“You’ve only worn them the one day, there’s only so dirty you can get in one day”
“I don’t buy that. Remember the state my suit was in”
“Yes, but I’m figuring you didn’t spend today rolling around in muck”
Her face was very serious.
“In a manner of speaking, I have”
“Perhaps you’d better come in”
She went straight into the kitchen and sat down, picking up the crystal horse and then putting it straight back down again. She got up from the table and moved around the room, picking things up and putting them down again before standing at the window looking out at the darkening garden. She was rubbing her hair line. I sat down at the table and closed my sketchbook. After about two minutes, she turned and looked at me.
“I’ve been at Annie’s”
There was that dizziness again, the table lurching, the animals holding on for grim life. The earth settled, the table and animals righted themselves. Jenna was sitting in the chair opposite mine. She reached out and held onto my wrist.
“I’ve told her everything”
“More or less. I’ve told her about you and me, and that you know about me and her”
For some reason I found that funny.
“It sounds so complicated when you say it like that”
“Well, there’s no use pretending it’s not even more complicated than that”
I felt sick at the mention of her name. Róisín had never done me a single day’s harm in her life and I was a bitch for ever dragging her into this mess. Jenna and Annie were as complicit as I was, we were all damned together, but Róisín was innocent. As far as she was concerned, I was a woman she’d pulled in a bar. As far as she was concerned, I was her girlfriend, the woman she said she loved.
“Much as I hated it, Annie gave me the lecture about making choices, about not having my cake and eating it. And much as I hate to admit it, she does have a point”
She moved her hand so that she was holding mine, linking our finger.
“We’ve both got to make choices, and I suspect it’s going to be harder for you than for me. At least I know Annie’s not in love with me. I can’t break her heart because she’s never let me in. And I’d like to think it’s going to be a really tough decision for you, maybe it’s not. I mean, if you’re sensible, you’ll choose Róisín. But I’m not going to put any pressure on you, baby. I’d rather lose both you and Annie than have you make a decision you come to really regret. So I’m going to go now, okay?”
She let go of my hand and came over to my side of the table, bending down to kiss me. As she made to move off, I caught her hand.
I picked up the glass horse from his place next to the tiger and pressed him into her hand.
“Ella, I can’t”
“Please, I want you to have it”
She bent down and kissed me again, her lips soft against mine, warm and salty, her tears or mine, I didn’t know.
Even in the street light the horse dazzled. Even held in my curled up fingers, hand plunged deep in the pocket of my jeans, the horse dazzled. I sat on the bus, the bright light unreal and hurting my eyes. If I started to cry now, then I’d never stop. I felt so tired I could sleep and never wake up.
In the last two months I’d cried more than I had done since I was a little girl. Everything was making me weep, as if something had been unlocked inside me. Something thawed out. But if I started now, then I’d never stop, and I didn’t want to cry on a bus full of strangers. The horse dazzled and glowed and burned a hard, dark hole in my pocket. I could feel him against the top of my thigh as I held onto the metal bar in front of me, gripped it until my knuckles turned white. Dazed, I got off at the terminal stop and walked through town. The shops were closed for the night but their windows were still lit up; I passed displays of this season’s jackets and dresses, heavy wrist watches and eternity rings, violent video games and the latest CDs by singers I didn’t recognise. All around me, the city centre bustled with a life not intent on retail. With no cars to separate them, young people shouted to each other, laughing and running around, expending some of their hormonal energy, keeping most of it back for the fucking and fighting of later on. It was still early, they were still friends or only friends, things hadn’t moved beyond into the darkness that would come around midnight. By midnight I’d be in my own house with the doors locked, keeping the outside out and the inside in. The dazzling horse rode the top of my thigh as I walked unnoticed through a fire storm of energy that promised to go one of two ways.
I keyed the deadlock, slipping the chain of the French lock over, standing for a moment with my back against the solidity of the front door. My house. My house for five years and still not home; just somewhere I kept my stuff, somewhere I ate my dinner, somewhere I slept and occasionally fucked. I went into the kitchen and pulled a bottle of wine out of the fridge. The kitchen. The kitchen is the heart of the home. That’s what Ella’s family reckoned. There was no heartbeat in my kitchen, only the hum of the fridge freezer, a fridge freezer full of nothing except bottles of wine and ready meals, ice cubes for the gin and tonics I hated. I switched off the light and went into the sitting room. I took the dazzling horse from my pocket and set him on the mantelpiece, pride of place. From there he could survey the whole of the room, for what it was worth. The Italian leather suite I’d only just finished paying off, a studded chestnut coloured Chesterfield and a wing chair like something out of a gentlemen’s club. I fell into the chair and pulled my knees up to my chin like a little girl, staring at the horse in his new home. He sparkled, alien amongst the soulless generic ornaments I’d bought because I’d seen them in magazines, in Habitat, and they’d gone with the colour scheme. He was the most alive thing in the room, even taking me into account.
I thought about the other animals, how they’d still been on Ella’s kitchen table. She’d fanned them out so that they watched her whilst she was working; she’d shut up her sketchbook when I’d come in, but she’d not moved the animals. I thought about Annie and the line of bottles on her window sill that she’d found in an old rubbish tip, she told me, digging away with her hands until she unearthed lemonade bottles with the frosted glass marbles still stuck in their throats, earthenware bottles for patent medicines, the blue writing on the white glazing promising relief from any number of maladies, the small blue bottles, ridged to let you know that it might contain poison. I’d held one up to the light, trying to see through its midnight but I couldn’t.
I rested my head against my knees. Why did it have to be that I couldn’t have one without the other? Did both have to be so mutually exclusive? Life without either was too hard to contemplate.
Essentially, I’d lost Annie the minute I went to that half decorated house with Ella, the second my mouth was on hers. Not that I blamed Annie, I’m not sure I would’ve forgiven her in the same situation. Ella it was harder to tell if I’d lost her or not. She had more to lose than me. She had a girl that loved her. A girl with pretty eyes who could give her far more than I ever could. Róisín wasn’t afraid to be in love and admit it, she wasn’t afraid to be Ella’s everyday, the one who did the cooking, the one who cared enough to learn which marmalade Ella liked. I was the one who had a freezer full of ice cubes and ready meals and didn’t even know how Ella took her tea. I was about intensity and going to work late because you’d been up all night fucking. I was not about responsibility and settling down. The thing was could I ever be? I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands. One thing was immediately obvious: if I didn’t want to get the sack, I needed a bath and an early night.
Hot water eased over my shoulders as I slid down the end of the bath. I love that feeling, water flowing over my shoulders and neck, my chest, breasts and stomach slipping under water filmy with scented oil. I lay with my hair fanning out, listening to the muffled sounds around me: the pipes clanging from where I’d taken the hot water out of the tank, the faint rush of traffic on the by pass, the sound of my own voice as I sang softly to myself. I’d kept the light on; the idea of lighting candles had been too much to bear: Don’t say it, you’re upset and you’ll say it and not mean it. I pushed the memory away as my head broke the water and I sat up, smoothing wet hair away from my face. Stretched too thin, everything was going to remind me of something else, was going to remind me and make me want to cry. I couldn’t live life stretched this thin.
The weight of the duvet was good: it pressed down on me like sleep. Unusually for me, I’d pulled the curtains together; the room almost pitch black apart from the green glow of my clock radio. Soon enough my eyes would grow accustomed, I’d be able to pick out familiar objects: the wardrobe with the suit bag hanging from it like a ghost, the squat dwarf of a chest of drawers, my little girl pretending to be grown up dressing table with its mirror and hairbrush, perfume bottles and make up bag. And the thing I knew was there but couldn’t see: Annie’s painting. I couldn’t see it but I knew Josie’s fierce eyes would be staring out at me, no longer angry with Annie, angry with me again. I buried my face in the coolness of my pillow and tried to talk myself into going to sleep but by now I should’ve realised that would never work. I turned over and lay on my back, staring up at the ceiling. A crack of light evaded capture by the curtains and fell in a yellow strip over one corner. Outside, cars and lorries by-passed the city, calming me with their rhythmic hiss, but not enough to lull me to sleep. Eventually I gave up and threw the covers off.
Curled in the armchair, I cradled the phone in the crook of my neck as I dialled the number.
Ella sounded bleary. I glanced at the clock. It was 11.30.
“O god, did I wake you up?”
I could hear the smile in her voice, a smile that told me if I had woken her up it didn’t matter at all.
“I wasn’t in bed. To be honest I’d fallen asleep at the kitchen table. You’ve probably done me a favour waking me up, I’m stiff as a board. You’re up late”
“I was in bed, but I couldn’t sleep. Ella - ”
I paused, listening to her breathing on the other end of the line. From where I was sitting, I could see the horse, translucent in the slice of light that came from the hall. If I shifted my head slightly one way and then the other, he caught the light and sent me red, orange, yellow. Ella’s breathing on the other end of the line.
“I just wanted to say good night”
Her laugh was soft and warmed me against the cold of the leather.
“Okay, I just wanted to hear your voice. I just wanted - ”
“Would you like me to come over?”
More than anything, but I had to be sensible. Didn’t I?
“So, I’ll get a cab”
“I’d love that. Ella?”
“Nothing, it can wait till you’re here”
I unlocked the door and took the chain off before sitting in the armchair with my knees pulled up like a little girl, waiting for the chug of a taxi’s engine, for her to ring my door bell.
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