Something so close to love – Artemis Callaghan
Contains sex and possibly strong language.
Please feel free to email me at Ceri.Lloyd@bodleian.ox.ac.uk
Róisín stood in the middle of Tescos holding two jars of marmalade, her expression hard to read. Her voice when she finally spoke was controlled, calm.
“What was all that about? And don’t even think about lying”
I couldn’t lie; I wouldn’t have known where to start.
“That was Jenna”
“Jenna? Who’s Jenna?”
I couldn’t meet her eyes.
“It’s funny because you’ve never mentioned a Jenna before, and I’m pretty sure we did the list of your exes”
“Jenna isn’t an ex”
“Is that so? You could’ve fooled me, Ella. The look on your face”
“She’s not my ex. It never got close enough to anything like a relationship to call her an ex. She’s someone I – someone I slept with a couple of times, that’s all”
“That’s all? It doesn’t look like that’s all. And you didn’t feel like introducing us? You ashamed of me?”
“No! God no, Róish, how could you even think that?”
I grabbed her arm and looked directly at her, making her hold my gaze. I kissed her.
“It’s nothing like that at all. I was surprised to see her, honestly. She took me by surprise”
She took me by surprise, there’s an understatement. The last thing I expected was to meet Jenna. Being abducted by aliens was more likely. Jenna was a part of something so completely other from the everyday of things like food shopping with Róisín, deciding if you wanted strawberry or rhubarb yoghurt, thick cut or unshredded marmalade. It was like meeting your headmistress in a gay bar; no wonder I didn’t know what to say.
I couldn’t blame Róisín for being upset with me. She was right, I’d never mentioned Jenna to her and I was amazed she didn’t see straight through me when I said that Jenna didn’t count. Of course she counted, but if I tried to explain she wouldn’t understand. Worse, she’d be incredibly hurt. If I was going to be honest I’d have to tell her that that first night in the bar she was no more than a diversion. If I told her that, I’d never see her again and that had come to be something I couldn’t bear thinking about.
“Can I see you again?”
I’d blurted it out. We’d spent the best part of 48 hours in bed and on the Sunday night she announced she really ought to go home, she had work to do for the next day. The prospect of that warm, reassuring presence being taken away had filled me with a childish insecurity. Róisín stroked my face and kissed my forehead.
“You don’t get rid of me that easily”
Compared to Jenna, Róisín was uncomplicated. Which isn’t to say that life was dull, far from it, but at least I knew there wasn’t someone else vying for her attention. The times with Jenna, when she was with me, I knew she was with me but as soon as either one of us walked out of the door, I never knew what she was up to, or with whom. Róisín made it clear that the only person she thought about was me. I’d be half way up a step ladder and my phone would ring.
“Can you speak up a bit? It’s very hard to hear you”
“I can’t. I’m in the library. Hey Ella -”
“Have I ever told you that I find libraries incredibly arousing?”
“No, it’s true. I think it’s all that knowledge potentially at my fingertips, that atmosphere of studious concentration. Sometimes I have to go to the ladies and a have a wank”
“And the high proportion of fit young women in there’s got nothing to do with it?”
“Indeed not, you know I only have eyes for you. Uh, I’d better go, the librarian’s giving me the evil eye”
Róisín in my kitchen cooking for me. I’d sit at the table and watch her as she scraped and chopped chillies.
“Chillies are full of endorphins, did you know that? Like chocolate. Mexico, they eat chillies and chocolate together. Must be that really dark stuff, can’t imagine Dairy Milk and red chilli, can you? What are you laughing at?”
“Ever listened to yourself?”
She feigned hurt feelings for about 30 seconds before waving the knife at me.
“Did I ever tell you about the time this woman took a bite of chilli before going down on me? Jesus, I thought I’d combust”
“I think I’d like to try that”
“Would you now? And just how hot can you take it?”
“As hot as you can give it”
“Aye, I bet you could as well, you dirty cow”
Róisín falling asleep on the last bus, her head resting on my shoulder, her hand holding on to mine, the kids at the end of the back seat row shooting glances our way but not saying anything. Gently stroking her hair to wake her up.
“C’mon on baby, next stop’s ours”
Jenna rocked my world, clichéd but true. She shook it to its foundations and never hung around long enough to put it back together. The last time I had sex with her was the most complete and nihilistic fuck I’d ever had. I’d wanted her to destroy me and she did. I had taken everything she could give me, let her take me over entirely, empty me out, wipe me clean. After that, I could put on my clothes and leave, stepping out into a night that was still hot. I was obliterated. If you’d asked my name, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you.
I’d only called her the one time, terrified at what Bruno had done but she never called me back.
She knew nothing about me and all I knew about her was that she was a force of nature, as irresistible as a tropical storm and as destructive.
Jenna knew nothing about me. She’d never asked. Róisín asked and I told her.
My parents died when I was two months shy of my 16th birthday. They’d gone down to Poole to visit my mother’s sister; I hadn’t gone with them because it was a school day. Not that I minded too much, I never liked Aunty June that much. She was like all the scary parts of my mother amplified; it was as if she disapproved of me on principle: nothing I did would ever be good enough, I’d amount to nothing. An ice cold smile that never reached her eyes.
I’d gone up to Aunty Mary and Uncle Ivan’s for my tea, walking up there after school with Stephan who was in the year below me. Stephan opened the back door. Strange, there was no one in the kitchen.
Mary appeared at the door between the kitchen and the sitting room.
“Stephan, is Ella with you?”
“Yes, I’m here”
Mary’s face was white, like all the blood had been sucked out of it. Her hands were twisting, shaking. Ivan appeared at her shoulder, equally white faced.
“Ella, dear, I think you’d better come in and sit down”
Why were there police officers in the sitting room? A tall, blonde man who took his cap off and stood up when I came into the room, and a dark haired woman who was already standing and stepped towards me when she saw me. She didn’t know me but there was genuine compassion on her face. I looked from her to the tall policeman to Ivan and Mary.
“What is it? What’s happened?”
But it was like I already knew; the tears had already started to slide down my face before anyone said anything.
There had been a multiple pile up on the motorway. A lorry had jack-knifed suddenly and my father had been unable to stop the car ploughing straight into it.
Instantaneous, the policewoman said, they’d have felt nothing. How did she know that? I thought. How could she know what they felt? It was just something they said to try and make things easier. Easier for who, though? For me in the listening or them in the telling?
Mary, hands still shaking, handed me a mug of tea. I took a sip, it was incredibly sweet, too sweet to drink. I hated sweet tea; didn’t any of them remember that?
“You’ll stay here with us, dear”
I looked up at her, surprised.
“But I want to go home, Aunty Mary”
Mary and Ivan looked at each other.
“I’m afraid you can’t, Ella”
“You can’t be there on your own”
There’s no such thing as on your own with my family. It’s an alien state to all of them. I stayed with Mary, Ivan, Stephan and his brother David until my birthday. As far as 16th birthdays go, mine was a pretty sombre affair, after all, my parents were only two months in their graves; any sort of overt celebration would’ve been tasteless. I didn’t care; I didn’t want a party. I knew what I wanted: I wanted to go home, and now no one could legally stop me. Pressure was brought to bear, naturally. There were tears and threats, cajoling and reasonable arguments but I would not be moved on this. The house was mine by rights; I wanted to live there, even if it meant living there on my own.
Moving from room to room, it was hard but I had to do it. All the things I’d taken for granted my entire life took on a new resonance for me as I packed them away. Crystal animals cocooned in kitchen roll, set carefully in a shoebox padded with cotton wool; twenty years of railway magazines present-wrapped in pass the parcel brown paper and string. Keeping it together until the main bedroom and the big wardrobe. Breathing in the double scent of my mother’s perfume, my father’s aftershave; the wizened orange studded with cloves meant to keep the smell of dust and disuse off the items that had worked themselves to the back. Sitting in among the dresses and the suits, the shirts and blouses, I buried my face in the old mink coat my mother loved but could never bring herself to wear. Soft fur brushed my eyes, my nose, my mouth, absorbing the tears, the snot, muffling the sobs. I sat at the bottom of my parents’ wardrobe until I was stiff and cold and I carried on sitting there.
Part of the deal for me staying in the house by myself was that I wasn’t to get behind with my school work and I kept my side of the bargain. I’d sit at the kitchen table with books spread out in front of me, the house silent around me; I sat at a desk in the sports hall marked with my candidate’s number and I wrote and wrote, losing myself in essays and equations, multiple choice and still life drawing. My picture in the paper: Local Girl Turns Tragedy into Exam Triumph, my withdrawn face surrounded by grinning proud Raminskis. Walk into any of my family’s sitting rooms and you’ll see a framed copy of that photo; everyone but mine.
Ignatius Loyola wanted me to try out for Oxbridge, Durham or St Andrews but I had other ideas. I wanted to go to art college. Mrs Dunbar, the headmistress, was not best pleased, a waste of a good brain, she said but I knew my own mind. The one I depended on now was me.
Art college has come to mean one thing to me: Annie. Beyond paint and pencils, clay, marble and printing ink, Annie. I was 18, Annie 20.
There was a large room with a high ceiling, the floor bare boards, cold apart from a tiny circle in the middle warmed by a fan heater that hummed and had the same smell of hot dust as a gas fire used for the first time that year. In this barely warm circle sat a naked man. Around this naked man in his warm circle was a small forest of easels and donkey benches. Drawing boards obscured faces. I was intent on committing the naked man onto a piece of rough sugar paper with a piece of charcoal, trying not to think of the flaccid penis that hung between his legs. After all, I was a grown up now, surely I’d moved beyond staring at penises since the days Bruno insisted on showing me his. Charcoal in hand, one eye closed, I was trying to measure the distance between the man’s ear and his shoulder when a face shot out from behind a board. Black hair pulled back from a pale face, she caught my eye and gave me a smile of such incandescent radiance the charcoal fell from my hand. I scrabbled to pick it up and when I looked up again, the face had disappeared. Disappointed, I went back to my drawing.
“You’ve captured his expression really well”
I jumped half out of my skin. The girl’s voice had come from right behind me; I spun around and faced her. There was that smile again, making me a little weak at the knees.
“But you seem to have avoided his cock”
Laughter burst out of me.
“Can’t say I blame you. I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding cock myself”
“I’m the only girl in a family of boys; I should be used to them by now”
“Little boy cocks don’t count”
“You’ve obviously not met Bruno”
“My cousin. I was an only child”
“So just you and your mum and dad then?”
“Not exactly, they died a couple of years ago”
“O god, I’m sorry. I don’t even know your name and I’ve already put my foot in it”
It was easy to fall in love with Annie, in fact I did a little bit that day. After the life class, I bunked off the rest of the afternoon and sat in the cafeteria with her. I’d never met anyone like her. There had been girls at school that I’d liked but I never told them, since the incident with Maria Costello I’d learnt to be careful where I looked, what I let on. I didn’t have many girls as friends; I had so many cousins at school I hung around with them. Break times were spent up at the top of the playing fields with Bruno, Michael, Anton and Little Joe, sneaking fags as far away from the patrolling teachers as possible. Bruno was obsessed with sex. He’d lie on the grass, taking a drag on his cigarette.
“That Keira Smith’s a bit of alright”
Little Joe snorted.
“You are joking, man. She’s rough as fuck”
Exhalation of smoke.
“Yeah, but have you seen the tits on her?”
“And anyway, girls like that are always so fucking grateful, man, d’ya know what I mean?”
No wonder I didn’t know how to talk to girls.
Annie bought me a cup of tea and slipped into the seat opposite. There was something about her: she exuded a quiet confidence, a tough, resilient centre that I admired. I acted hard, the young woman who lived in the house by herself, but underneath it I was mostly a scared little girl. Annie looked like she didn’t need anything from anyone. She’d give but never take in return. That in itself was enough to make me love her but there was more.
Annie sat in front of me with that smile on her face, her eyes the bright, pale silver grey of the sea when the sun shines on it. A strand of hair came loose, and unconsciously she looped it back behind her ear.
I fumbled a cigarette out of the packet and lit it with a slightly shaky hand. Clear, sea bright eyes watched, appraised me.
“That rubbish’ll kill you”
I attempted to sound sophisticated.
“A girl has to have a vice”
She leant forward and took the fag from me.
“I can think of better vices than this”
She took a puff, pulled a face and then stubbed the cigarette out in her saucer. Leaning back in her chair, she carried on her appraisal. Damn it, I was blushing, pushing scattered sugar crystals into a single pile with the edge of my thumb. I could only risk brief glances at her, each one was an information overload: hair, eyes, the pull of her t-shirt across her breasts, boot braced against the table edge, the curve of her thigh. Where was Bruno when I needed him?
“You’re not – you’re not a foundation student, are you?”
“No, I’m second year fine art. Bev lets me join the life classes because I can always use the practice. I think Bev has a bit of a soft spot for me, bless her. She’s old enough to be my mum”
“What’s your – what’s your specialisation?”
“I’m a painter. How about you, any idea what you’d like to do?”
The blush deepened. Compared to painting, what I wanted sounded so trivial.
“You’re going to think it’s stupid”
“I’d like to be an interior designer”
“That doesn’t sound stupid”
“But compared to being a painter -”
“Yeah, but what I want is fundamentally selfish. I’m doing it for me rather than anyone else but what you want to do is make people’s lives brighter, happier”
I looked up to see if she was taking the piss, but her face was serious.
“I think that’s great”
“I do some work with my Uncle Joe, he’s a painter. Not like you, obviously, he’s a painter and decorator. One day I hope he’ll let me design houses for people”
“He’d be an idiot not to”
“In the mean time, I practice on my house”
“On your house?”
“Yes, I have a house”
“I think I’d like to see that”
Annie in my sitting room, her big boots clattering on the boards where we’d pulled the carpet up, nodding as I told her how we planned to strip the paper off right back down to the plaster, that Uncle Joe was showing me how to create a surface as smooth as royal icing. She flipped through my sketchbook, brushed her fingers across the swatches and samples of cloth and wallpaper; viewing each design with the same attentive seriousness as she would a work in a gallery. Show me the rest of the house, she said, tell me your plans.
Bathroom and spare bedroom were no problem, but when I opened the door to the main bedroom nausea hit me and I shut the door, my back against it. Annie’s face creased with concern.
“Ella, are you okay?”
I nodded then shook my head, weak laughter. Annie cupped my face with her hand.
“It’s okay. Show me another day”
She saw the other door.
“Is that your room? Why don’t you show me in there?”
It felt weird sitting with Annie on my childhood single bed, its candlewick bedspread stretched out the same way my mother did it. In 18 years no other girl had been in my room, and the first would have to be her, big boots, paint covered combats, black hair in a short ponytail. What would my mother think? Nervous laughter tickled the back of my throat, became proper laughter, came tumbling out.
“What are you laughing at?”
“I don’t know. I was just thinking – if only my mother could see us in here. I don’t think she’d like it”
I hadn’t meant to kiss Annie, well, not consciously anyway. And I don’t know if Annie had meant to kiss me back but after a fraction of surprised hesitation, she opened her mouth and let my tongue in. After about 20 seconds, she leant back and looked at me.
“Do you always make your move so fast?”
“I’m – I’m sorry”
“Don’t be sorry”
“To be honest, I’ve never kissed anyone before”
“You could’ve fooled me”
This time it was Annie that kissed me, her lips soft against mine.
“This is so much better than I thought it would be”
I heard Annie laugh.
“O god, did I just say that out loud?”
“I’m afraid you did”
“Shit, what kind of idiot must you think I am?”
She stroked my hair.
“A beautiful one. Do you know how beautiful you are, has no one ever told you that?”
Shy, I shook my head.
“Well, I might be the first but I doubt I’ll be the last”
And that was me done for. After that, Annie could do what she liked with me.
Not that afternoon but three days later: the press of candlewick against my back, Annie above me, her hair falling over her face. Whispering, even though the house was empty, unbuttoning my shirt. I caught her hands.
“Annie, I don’t know what to do”
“It’s alright, sh, it’s alright.”
Her hand sliding down my front.
“Is it okay if I touch you there?”
“O god, yes”
Annie’s hair brushing the skin of my face, my chest, my stomach. The touch of her fingers, her lips, her tongue as she slid across my body, undoing buttons, zips, every caress, every kiss electric; her fingers on, in places only I’d ever touched, only ever dreamt of being touched by someone else. When I came, it was as if she flicked a switch in my head. Everything was illuminated, everything was bright white light.
After that I was Annie’s completely.
The trouble is, though, if you give someone your heart, there’s no guarantee they won’t break it. It might not even be their fault that it gets broken, it might be a genuine accident, but once it’s out of your own safe keeping, there’s not a lot you can do about it.
Tears that would not stop no matter how hard I tried to. Even work, a tried and tested diversionary tactic didn’t help. I’d find myself sitting at my drawing board wondering why the paper was cockling, the pencil lines smudged and wet. The emptiness in my chest was unwelcome but familiar; if I closed my eyes I could feel the brush of mink, the smell of cloves and dust.
I’m going back to London, Ella. There’s no point going on, it’s not working out. It’s not working out for me.
How was life possible? How was it possible to go on today and the day after and the one after that? How was it possible to go on?
Five years later and the pain could still catch me off guard.
Róisín took me in her arms to let me know she understood.
“I can’t promise you that I won’t break your heart, Ella. That’s not a promise anyone can make unless they’re a liar. All I can promise is that I’ll treat you with respect”
She kissed me, her lips clinging to mine.
“I love you”
Continued in part 7Return to the Academy