Something so close to love – Artemis Callaghan
Warning: strong language and sex.
And please feel free to email me Ceri.Lloyd@bodleian.ox.ac.uk
It was Bruno who noticed her.
“That blonde piece keeps staring at us”
“Her over there. She was watching us all through the speeches”
“She’s doing it now, look”
“Fuck, she is as well”
“Sh, sh, she’s coming over”
Bruno, Anton, Michael and Little Joe bunched round me, giggling like kids. Those guys are like brothers to me, but there are times they are massively immature. But then, I was laughing just as much as they were and I didn’t know why. It could’ve been the relief that the service and the speeches had all gone without a hitch, no pun intended, or it could’ve been the champagne. I had drunk rather a lot of it and could feel my cheeks burning. Of course, it could’ve been the spliff. Bruno had nudged me just as the DJ had cranked up You lift me up, asking for Stephan and Katrina to lead the first dance.
“You have got to be joking, Bru. No way am I dancing to this”
“I’m not asking you to dance, you muppet. Look”
He opened his hand, and sitting in the palm of it was a beautifully rolled joint. A grin crept over my face.
“Bruno Raminski, you are a bad man”
“Yeah, and don’t you know it. Apparently I’m going to straight to hell. That’s what Aunty Lona tells me every time she sees me”
“Well, I’m sure we’ll keep each other company”
Once outside, we were joined by the others; bees to a honey pot. Still, there was enough to go round, share and share alike. That was when Bruno pointed her out, the woman. She must’ve been with Katrina’s mob because I didn’t recognise her, and to be honest, she was a cut above anyone in my family. Don’t misunderstand me, I love them all, but classy isn’t a word that usually pops to mind when describing them. The only one who’d really got the looks in the family was Bruno. If he hadn’t been my cousin, and a boy, then I might’ve been tempted to make a play for him myself.
There was no doubt she was coming over to us, very purposefully, like she’d made her mind up about something and was not to be dissuaded. Blonde didn’t quite describe her: she was more what they call a strawberry blonde, that halfway point between a true blonde and a red head. Her hair was cut quite short but very well, an expensive hairdresser, that was obvious, to go with an expensive taste in clothes judging by the classic elegance of the dress she wore. Cream lawn, it clung to and hung off her body in all the places it should, and shimmered over her as she walked.
She’s coming over for Bruno, I told myself. A woman that classy is coming over for the prize of the family. Even so, I handed him the joint, not wanting her to catch me with it. When she was about six feet away, the others stepped back so we were standing in an uneven row, like coconuts at a bloody fair. O well. I smiled anyway, I couldn’t help myself. A strawberry blonde in a cream lawn dress will have that effect on me. She was very obviously eying all of us up; I noticed her gaze fall on Bruno. Hold on though, it left him very quickly and it was me she was smiling at, cigarette dangling from her fingers.
“Have you got a light?”
A plastic Clipper lighter, hardly the height of sophistication. After two flicks and sparks it sprang into life and she bent to light her cigarette. This close, I saw that her face was covered with freckles; this close, her perfume had mixed with something warmer, darker, something essential to her, and made it unique. A scent I’d never forget, I knew that. She inhaled the cigarette smoke and looked straight into my eyes, as if she could read me, every part of me: my thoughts, my dreams, my desires.
“Think nothing of it”
With that, she turned and walked back into the marquee.
Bruno took it very well.
“Fuck, Ell, you are in there, man”
“Fuck yeah. Did you see the look she gave you?”
“Yeah, it was pretty intense”
“Intense? She’d have had you there and then, I reckon”
I couldn’t keep the grin off my face.
“It would be letting the side down not to”
She was sitting at a large table on her own, watching the people on the dance floor. Generations of Raminskis were doing their thing in the way that only they knew how to, just like at every family party, and the thought made me laugh. She seemed to be giving most of her attention to a group of about ten people who obviously knew each other. They were dancing to Hi ho silver lining and knew all the words. I was impressed. Judging by the woman’s face, she was not. However, I wasn’t going to be put off by her rigid body language; the effect of her direct, soul searching stare was still upon me and I was buoyed up by champagne, dope and my cousins’ belief in me.
I put the bottle and two glasses on the table.
“Are you here with anyone?”
I followed the direction of the tip of her head and saw that she was pointing towards a man. His back was to me but he was very definitely a man. Confused and angry, I stood up to leave but she grabbed my arm and pulled me back down into the chair. My jacket sleeve and then the sleeve of my shirt were pushed up, she was holding my forearm in one hand and with the other she wrote a number in felt tip pen along the line of my pulse, blotting out the blue of my veins against the white of my skin. The wet pressure of the pen made me gasp. She capped the pen, threw it in her bag and after pulling my sleeves down leant in and whispered.
I was finding it hard to breathe.
“She’s here with a bloke”
“Aw, harsh, man”
“But she gave me her number”
“Don’t you think that’s wrong?”
“He can’t be giving her what she wants otherwise she wouldn’t be looking elsewhere, would she? As far as I’m concerned, that’s his problem. If I was him, I’d be doing everything I could to hang onto her”
“I worry about your lack of moral fibre sometimes, I truly do”
“Told you already, I’m earmarked for Hell, might as well have a little bit of fun while I’m at it. And so should you, couz, after all, you’re gonna be my companion in eternal damnation, remember”
Unsure what to do, I spent the rest of the reception avoiding the blonde woman, something that turned out not so hard to do as she left early. Bruno told me he’d seen her get into a taxi with a man “who wasn’t all that” and laughed at the expression on my face.
“God, Ell, you look like a kid caught scrumping. Like you’re relieved you ain’t gonna get a beating but disappointed you didn’t pinch more apples”
“Shut up, monkey face”
“Great come back. C’mon, I think we owe it to Stephan and his lovely bride to get completely fuck faced”
So we did. The rest of the afternoon, evening and night became an increasing blur of drinking, dancing and fending off elderly relatives asking me when I was going to find myself a nice young man and settle down. Never, I shouted, taking gulps from the champagne bottle in my hand, never ever. I drank and danced everything into a blur of well-meaning people who looked familiar, of slices of wedding cake and more champagne, more dope, and a vague recollection of a bridesmaid’s dress, ivory silk, pushed up against me, hot breath against my ear, the brush of gyp against my cheek. I drank and danced everything into a blur of the swirling clouds and stars as I lay flat on my back in a field of stubble. A middle aged woman’s face loomed above me.
“Don’t you going ruining that suit, Ella Raminski, it has to go back to the shop on Monday”
“No, Aunty Mary, everything will be just fine, I promise”
There was a snorting noise and the face vanished, to be replaced by a grinning upside down Bruno.
“Waiting for the space ship to come and take you home?”
“Yes, I got a message there had been a terrible mistake and I’d been left with the wrong family”
“No shit? Would they like to take me too?”
“The more the merrier”
He lay down next to me. He was quiet for a couple of minutes, and when he spoke again, he sounded thoughtful.
“I wonder how many stars there are up there”
“Too many for us to count, not without losing track anyway”
“And the light we’re seeing is like thousands, millions of years old. It’s like I switched a torch on and it’s taken you millions of years to see it”
I started to laugh, proper happy, joyful, stoned and pissed laughter.
“What?” He sounded a little hurt.
“Oh Bru, can you hear yourself?”
“But it’s true”
I tried to stop laughing but couldn’t. I was laughing so hard the tears were streaming down my face, my chest hurt and there was a real danger of my head bursting.
“I know, I know, but, fuck it, mate, the only time you ever get profound is when you’ve had a skin full and a toke”
He leant up on one elbow and looked at me.
“Perhaps this is the real me”
“That’s another thing you say when you’ve had a skin full and a toke. God knows I love you Bruno, but ordinarily you are the shallowest man alive. And please don’t go changing on my account”
“Wouldn’t anyway, you’re a complete arsehole”
“But you still love me, eh?”
“Much as it pains me to admit it, yes I do”
“Then it’s all good, isn’t it?”
The sun was making its presence known by burning my eyelids red. I didn’t have a clue where I was. Cracking my eyes open a fraction, I was relieved to discover that my innate ability to find my way home regardless of how pissed or stoned I was had worked its magic again. I was in my own bed, and an arm flapped half heartedly either side of me confirmed I was alone. Pulling my left arm back up towards my head, I caught a flash of blurry black marks. What? I opened my eyes properly and saw that I had a long number, a mobile phone number, written on the inside of my forearm. And then I remembered. The rest of the reception after her was sketchy but the strawberry blonde in the cream lawn dress writing on my arm was indelible.
I was working for my Uncle Jozef, father of Anton and Little Joe. He’d started as a painter and decorator, but had ideas, grand plans, wanting to expand, to run a classier business. Getting into interior design, that was Uncle Joe’s plan, and this was where I came in. Bruno had laughed and said that Uncle Joe only wanted me because I was family and therefore cheap, and to start with I did seem to do far more painting and paper hanging than I had thought I would. I’d show Uncle Joe my designs and he’d say “Lovely, Ella, girl, but you’ve got to learn the trade first”, which translated as “get up that ladder and finish off the top coat on the cornice”. Still, it beat working in an office or a shop, and Uncle Joe did have a point: how could I explain to customers about finishes and textures if I didn’t know them myself? Courses and art school were all well and good, but nothing beat hands on experience. I told myself this as I was on my knees holding a paintbrush loaded with off white gloss.
What the strawberry blonde couldn’t have known was that I am left handed, and with every stroke of the brush on the skirting board, her number snaked towards me. I’d tried to rub the number off, first idly and then with some vigour in the shower, but it wasn’t going anywhere. It was refusing to fade, constantly taunting me.
“Okay, okay I give in” I told the number, sitting back on my heels and reaching into the pocket of my overalls for my phone.
My phone was bleating at me whilst vibrating against my chest. The number flashing up on the screen was the same as that written on my arm.
The old lady sitting next to me tutted loudly and pointedly. I ignored her. Of course, I’d rather the strawberry blonde had not rung when I was on the bus. I’d have rather have been somewhere I could be charming, flirtatious, just a little bit seductive. Not really things you can do on a number 5 bus, especially when an old lady and her shopping trolley have you hemmed in against the window.
“Hello, Ella, this is Jenna”
On second thoughts, it didn’t matter where the hell I was. That voice was pure melted sunshine; that voice was the blue sky and all the stars of heaven reduced and converted into zeros and ones and poured into my ear. Sunshine, blue sky and a heaven of stars were in my smile. Even the old lady seemed to soften, the fruit and vegetables in her trolley shone like jewels: a bag of tomato rubies, an emerald the size of an iceberg lettuce, a hand of Baltic amber bananas.
I turned my face towards the window, intensely aware of the shops and houses, the trees and lamp posts slipping by in the stop and start of rush hour traffic; a trip I did nearly every day seen as if for the first time. The sunshine voice was giving me back my city.
“I didn’t know your name was Jenna. It’s really pretty”
“Thank you. Ella’s a nice name”
“That’s after the singer, you know, Ella Fitzgerald”
“Yes, it could’ve been much worse. I was nearly Shirley, after Shirley Bassey”
She laughed and you could’ve cut a hole in the reinforced plastic of the window with my smile.
“Listen, Ella Fitzgerald, come and have a drink with me. Come and have a drink with me tonight. I’ll give you just enough time to go home and get changed. How long would that take you?”
“I can be back in town by half past seven”
“You do that, and don’t be late”
“Wait, where shall I meet you?”
“In the bar by the castle. And remember, Ella, don’t be late”
The line went dead. I flipped closed the phone and slipped it back in the breast pocket of my jacket. The old lady was scowling at me again; I flashed her a smile.
“Excuse me, love, this is my stop”
At exactly 7.30, the bar door opened and there was Jenna, heart stopping in a dress of scarlet silk, its bodice stiffed with gold embroidery. I was underdressed, o god I was underdressed. I’d put on my faded black jeans because I loved the fit of them, the way they had softened and knew my contours, the same with the shirt and jacket. I loved the way they made me feel in my body; they fitted me like skin. But what if Jenna thought I’d made no effort, had just thrown on the first thing that came to hand? If she was disappointed, she didn’t let on. Instead she raised an eyebrow at the cocktail glass on the bar next to me.
“Why not?” She replied and ordered another two.
Sitting so close, so close, the press of the people around us an excuse. An excuse for the pull towards each other, skin drawn towards skin. The bite of cranberries and the sing of lime juice under the insistent high notes of vodka and triple sec, pulling us close. The outside of her knee, her thigh, pressed against the inside of mine, and when she leant in to talk into my ear, the echo of freckles across her bare shoulders. When I took off my jacket, she saw the number, dancing along the veins of my forearm.
“It won’t come off, no matter how hard I try”
She traced the number with her fingers, the tips fluttering, my pulse jumping, throbbing in my wrist.
“Don’t try too hard” She whispered.
“Jenna, can I ask you something?”
She took a draw on her cigarette and a sip of her drink.
“Ask me anything you like. Within reason”
“Are you married?”
She stubbed the cigarette into an already full ashtray and looked at the blackened end of it for a pause before answering me.
“No, I’m not. But I do have a boyfriend”
She looked up at me.
“Is that a problem?”
The cocktails were dancing around in my head; they were racing around my blood stream along with more basic wants and needs. Primitive primate brain processes, not capable of higher thought, concepts like morality, decency, moderation were as alien as space flight. There was only one thing I knew: I wanted to have sex with her, there was nothing beyond that.
“I don’t think so. No. It’s obviously not a problem for you”
She smiled into her glass as she drained it.
“So it would seem. Shall we have another one?”
Leaning in closer, there was her scent. Her scent: running warm and dark as blood, warm and dark as sex; lifted above the department store testers, mixed with warm freckled skin, hair blonde as pale copper wire, the rustle of gold embroidered scarlet silk. I was soft worn denim, leather and cotton; I was sliding skin and no resistance. Her breath on my ear, burning the tip.
“I want to kiss you”
I dipped my head until it nearly touched her shoulder.
“I’d like that”
“Come on then”
A firm hand in the small of my back propelled me towards the toilets. Two girls swung round from the mirror to stare at us as Jenna bundled me through the door; with their bleached, streaked and highlighted hair, ceramic hot plated flat and limp, I’d have been hard pressed to tell one from the other. Girls like that leave me cold, and it was obvious I did nothing for them as they turned their attention back to applying lipstick. Jenna was a different proposition altogether: their eyes kept flicking to her reflection as she stood there, arms crossed, waiting for them to leave. She sang out the self assured, confident sexuality these girls longed for; that hair, that skin, that dress, she was what they could never be: a woman. Despite the studied scorn, they’d only ever be girls in the dressing up box. And Jenna stared back at their reflections until intimidation got the better of them and they barged past us, the door banging behind them.
I couldn’t help but laugh, but no sooner had I started than Jenna took it away with her mouth, forcing me into the flat glass basin until it dug into my back. I pushed into her, her face surprised until I took her hand and made her feel behind me. “Cubicle” I said against her mouth and felt her grin.
The blue, green and silver mosaic tiles were smooth and cold on my back, the palms of her hands hot as she pulled my shirt up. She parted my lips, tasting like a great night out: cigarettes, expensive drinks and the thick richness of her tongue as it darted at mine and ran along my teeth. My eyes closed of their own volition as my arms went around the back of her head and pulled her in so that we were kissing deeply, her hands working their way up my sides under my shirt. The blood was whizzing blue through my veins, scorching red through my arteries; my synapses and nerve endings were crackling interference and my primitive primate brain was shouting, demanding do it now, do it now, do it now. My eyes opened but all I got were disorientating rollercoaster snap shots: her hair in my eyes, the freckles on her cheek bone, the freckles on her shoulder, cloth the colour of new blood. I could hear her breathing, my breathing, the beat of my own heart and the beat of hers. And over everything, unifying everything was her scent. I buried my face in her neck and breathed it in. Ella, she said, o god Ella.
In the back of the taxi she was front and centre, asking the driver about the sort of night he’d had, telling him about the great bar we’d been in. Fantastic cocktails. Her face straight and innocent. Her hand between my thighs, running her thumb nail up and down the leg seam of my jeans, the crotch seam of my jeans, all the time chatting away until I yelped:
“Here’s just fine, mate.”
“Keep the change”
“Cheers love. You girls have a good night”
“O don’t worry, we will”
“Do you live here alone?”
“Yes, it was my parents’ house”
Jenna walked into the sitting room, her eyes quickly appraising it. I was proud of that room, it was the first job I’d worked on, Anton and Little Joe helping me strip it from a 1970s cover up back to its Victorian foundations. Jenna dropped into the sofa.
“Thank you. Would you like a drink?”
“What would you like?”
“Gin and tonic”
“Then you’re out of luck, it’s the one thing I don’t have”
“Surprise me then”
I brought her vodka, straight up, lots of ice and a twist of lime.
She took a mouthful before grabbing hold of the front of my shirt and pulling me down into a kiss that was spiked and fiery. Her tongue found its way back into the slick inside of my mouth and the spirit fired. Jenna was lying on the sofa and I was lying on Jenna, stiffened silk under my hands.
“Jenna, your dress, it’s the loveliest thing I’ve ever seen”
“I first saw you in scarlet and gold, remember”
Skin on skin. Hers so pale under her clothes, the tan of mine looked dark against it, and all I could do was stare at it as my fingers, my palms, the backs of my hands skimmed her. Freckles spattered not just the bridge of her nose and her shoulders but across her chest, stronger where they’d seen the light, yes, but still surprise-marking her. Dot to dot with the tip of my tongue from the edge of her hairline down until her legs parted and I kissed where femur met hip bone. She pushed her pelvis up but I wasn’t going to let her have it that quick and easy. I propped myself up on my elbows and looked down at her and laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“Collar and cuffs match”
“Very amusing. O god - ”
My tongue had flicked to her breast, her nipple puckering, hardening under my teeth.
Index and middle slid into her with no resistance, I added the ring. The indelible number sprang to life against the paler skin of my inner arm. Jenna’s breathing shallowed: short and ragged.
“Do you think you can take more?”
“I can – I can take whatever ever you give me”
The number was dancing now, snaking in and out, daring me to go on, to go further and deeper. Little finger. A gasp; Jenna or me, I don’t know. Go on, murmured the number, go on. Everything around my fingers is wet and hot and soft, slowly, slowly opening around me. Last of all: thumb. Jenna’s breathing changes, flattens out and her body stills. Anxious, I glance up and her face steals my breath. Sex transforms a woman’s face, if she’s prepared to let herself go. It’s as if you can see what she truly looks like. What I saw in Jenna transcended even that; it was beyond what she looks like: it was what she is, has been and could be, and all of it written on her face.
“Look at me, Ella. Open your eyes”
Blue, blue like high up hot summer. O god. Around her pupils, deep and black, flecks of gold. Blue eyes shot through with gold. My own mutable: grey and green and hazel, weather predicting eyes. Oncoming warm front, anticyclone, high pressure. Her leg between mine, pressing up, nowhere for me to go but stay with it, stay with the rhythm, open up to it and let it take me where it wants to, eyes wide open. Eyes wide open. High up hot summer, hot high up blue. Wide. Shot through gold and immutable. Open.
Kissing me, spiked and fiery, hair coiled tight in gripping fingers. Kissing me deep, biting and thrusting. Breaking away to breathe hard and gasp:
“Christ, Ella, how did you get to be so fucking beautiful?”
I’m gone, gone somewhere else but still connected by the lines that tie me to her. Pressure contours on the map of our bodies, isobar spikes and occluded fronts. Some rain before morning.
“I don’t know”
Some rain before morning. Even though sunshine poured through the window. Jealousy and insecurity, those housebreaking emotions, got in through the back door and trashed the place. I watched as the connection was severed quicker than it had been formed, and all because I couldn’t keep jealousy and insecurity out of the bedroom, couldn’t stop them from going through my things, couldn’t keep my stupid mouth shut.
From the spare bedroom, I watched her walk up the street and never look back once. Jenna in her beautiful scarlet dress in sunshine that was pleased to see her. I would’ve cried, but my chest was too empty.
The phone rang. It was Bruno.
“Monkey face. You still moping around the house in your bra and knickers, man?”
“No. Well, maybe, but I’m not moping”
“Listen, you’re coming to a party with me tomorrow night. I know for a fact there will be loads of fit birds there, about 75% of whom will be lezzers. You’ll love it”
“Bruno - ”
“No, this is non-negotiable”
I was in the brightly painted kitchen of a strange house with lots of people I didn’t know, watching Bruno as he piled his plate with food from the dishes laid out on the table. Everyone apart from me was up for having fun, I could see it in their faces; everyone flushed and already a little drunk. All these people I didn’t know. Except for one. There was the shock of catching the familiar curve of a head, glossy black hair pulled back into a short ponytail, the familiar planes of cheekbone and jaw line amongst the unfamiliar. Furious, I stuck my fingers in Bruno’s ribs.
“Ow! What the fuck was that for?”
“You didn’t tell me Annie would be here”
“Of course she’s here, it’s her party”
I jabbed him again.
“I can’t believe you’ve brought me to a party held by the last person on Earth I want to see”
He smacked my hand away.
“But Annie isn’t the last person on Earth you want to see, is she? That Jenna is. I thought if anyone might be able to talk some sense into you it was Annie”
“For God’s sake, Bruno, I don’t believe you sometimes, I really don’t”
The garden of this strange house was small but pretty. Paper lanterns had been hung from the washing line and fairy-lights strung in the bushes, casting a soft light over the leaves and creating pools of deep shadow. I sat by myself on a low retaining wall with a bottle of lager and a fag letting my anger at Bruno dissipate with the cigarette smoke and cold liquid.
“Hey, Raminski, you’re looking well”
Annie sat down next to me. Both our voices were stiff when we spoke:
“Thanks, you too. Great party”
“Yeah, it’s not bad. Everyone seems to be having a good time. How’s business?”
“You know, I’m still up a ladder most of the time but Joe has started taking me to meet new clients”
“That’s good, isn’t it?”
“I guess. How about you, how are things?”
“Well, I’ve just hooked up with a gallery owner; she’s really keen to show my stuff”
“Annie, that’s fantastic”
I’d forgotten what a joy Annie’s smile was, how it lit up her face. But it only stayed there for a moment. She became serious, concerned.
“Bruno was telling me about your straight girl troubles”
“Bruno’s got a big mouth”
“He just doesn’t want you to get hurt. He cares about you”
“Sometimes I wish he’d mind his own business”
Annie paused for a moment.
“He’s not the only that cares, you know. I never stopped caring about you, Ella”
I was surprised how much it meant to hear her say that, and I softened, but in softening, I felt sad. I picked at the label of the bottle and stared at the weathered decking. Annie put her arm around me and said nothing.
“I’m sorry, Annie”
“Yeah, me too. Sometimes things you think are going to be great just don’t turn out that way. There’s no reason we can’t be friends now, is there? Truth is, girl, I miss having you in my life”
“I’ve missed you too”
“Not enough to pick up the phone though”
Unsure of her tone, I glanced up at her but she was smiling and I found I was smiling too.
“So tell me about this straight girl of yours”
What could I tell her? I didn’t know where to start. It wasn’t as simple as me falling for a straight girl who was unattainable because that was patently untrue. Jenna was neither straight nor unattainable; she would fuck me at a moment’s notice, that was a given. What she was was impossible to pin down, to ever get a handle on. To have Jenna in your life was to never have her completely there. Like the cat in the fable, she walked by herself. And Jenna kept on walking. Walking in and out of other people’s lives as if they were a costume change: a cream lawn dress, a scarlet and gold harlequin waistcoat, the wedding suit of a man whose face I never saw completely.
Continued in Part 3
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