Something so close to love – Artemis Callaghan
Contains strong language and sexual references.
Please feel free to email me at Ceri.Lloyd@bodleian.ox.ac.uk
“Did you know Ella had a girlfriend?”
“Ah? Is that all you can say?”
A sigh on the end of the phone. .
“Well, did you know?”
“Not as such. I saw her with a girl in a bar but I didn’t know anything had happened. She told me she wanted some uncomplicated sex”
“Deciding what marmalade you want doesn’t sound like uncomplicated sex to me, it sounds like fucking marriage”
I could hear what sounded like laughter, not particularly amused laughter but laughter all the same. I saw red.
“I don’t see what’s so fucking funny. All this time you’ve known and you didn’t think to tell to me and I just made a complete arse of myself in Tescos. And you gave me all that shit about how precious Ella was and she wasn’t to be hurt, and I stood there feeling guilty for having had sex with you, and all that time precious little fragile Ella’s been fucking some twinky kid without even turning a hair, you know, without a second thought, and you, Annie, you knew and you just didn’t feel like informing me?”
On the other end of the line was ice to match my fire.
“It wasn’t my place to tell you anything, Jenna. Do you know what? I don’t feel like having this conversation anymore”
Five rings. Click:
You’ve got through to Annie Weston. If you are ringing in connection with my work, some one at the Catherine Marshall Gallery will be more than happy to talk to you. If you’d like to speak to me personally, either call back later or leave your name and number and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
Beep, beep, beeeep:
Annie, it’s me. What can say? I told you I’d fuck things up. I have to say I really didn’t think I’d do it quite this quickly. I am sorry. It was a shock seeing them together but I really shouldn’t have taken out on you –
“No you shouldn’t have”
Annie’s voice cut through the recording.
“God, Annie, I thought you were never going to talk to me again”
“Don’t think I didn’t consider it”
“Can I see you?”
She paused for what felt like forever. My hand hurt from where I gripped the phone, my face burnt. When she spoke, she sounded as if she’d decided something against her better judgement.
“I’m guessing those are for me”
“Those” were a bunch of giant daisies I was holding at my side, I lifted my arm so they were in a proper presentation pose. Annie wasn’t keen to let me off the hook straight away but couldn’t help a small smile.
“Some how you’ve managed to pick my favourites”
“They’re mine too. They remind me of being a little girl”
“Were you ever a little girl?”
“Once upon a time”
She took the flowers off me.
“You’d better come in then, Wolf”
Later, Annie strung the daisies together into a chain that she put in my hair. I tried to pull her down to kiss her but she wouldn’t let me. Instead, she sat a little way off with her sketch book and started to draw me. There was the gaze again, the one I’d first seen at the gallery: the one that saw beyond the barriers I put up. When Annie looked at me, I knew she could see the girl.
The little girl sitting in the garden of a house that wasn’t home, picking white and yellow hearted daisies out of uncut grass, keeping the stems long. She pierces the stem with the edge of her thumb nail, big enough to slip the head of the daisy through but not so big it’ll split the stem into two halves. She carries on picking, piercing and looping until there is a chain 8 inches long, which she wraps around her hair in a crown. She’s the Princess. She picks another daisy and pulls out the petals: he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me. He loves me not. She crushes the petals in her hand and throws them on the grass.
Something was tickling my face, when I brushed it away with the back of my hand, I realised it was tears. Annie kept drawing, her gaze never altering.
The sun has moved out of the garden, the shadows under the trees edging further across the grass until the girl with the daisy chain in her hair shivers, unable to stop the tears from pouring down her face and splashing onto her knees. Just a girl, a lonely little girl.
“Sh, sh, Jenna, it’s okay, it’s okay”
Arms came around me and held me close, a hand stroking my hair. My face was against her shoulder.
“Close your eyes”
Hot water cascaded over my head, flattening my hair, running over my shoulders and breasts. Soap was being worked into my back, hands gentle but firm, rubbing the skin until it tingled. I opened my eyes. Candles and tea lights were set around the whole room, reflecting off the mirror, the tiles, the whole room flickering yellow in the steam. Another stream of water flowed over me, washing the soap away. Annie rocked back on her heels and looked at me. I drew my knees up, still exposed. She reached out a hand and cupped my face.
“You are so beautiful”
Annie, her face open, her grey eyes clear. She leant forward again, soaping her hands, this time working it into my chest, my breasts, my stomach. There was nothing sexual about it; she was simply taking care of me. Tears, there were more tears, even though I thought I was washed clean of them, they were coursing down, big fat tears, splashing into the water. I put my hands over my face. Annie’s hands stopped, I felt her take my wrists in hers.
“It’s – it’s okay. I’m okay”
I dropped my hands and looked at her.
“Annie, I – ”
She put the tips of her fingers to my lips.
“Don’t say it”
“But – ”
“Don’t say it, you’re upset and you’ll say it and not mean it”
My knees drawn up to my chin in the cooling water, I couldn’t stop the sobbing.
Startled, I woke up in a strange bed, the strands of a dream unravelling. Moonlight was falling on my face and I couldn’t work out where I was. I wasn’t alone. There wasn’t anyone else in bed with me but someone was sitting in an armchair, watching me. I could make out their shape just outside the arc of light. It took me a heart beat to remember it was Annie. She was sitting silent, watching me.
“Why are you – why are you over there?”
“I couldn’t sleep”
I sat up and squinted, trying to make out her features, but it was impossible. She was unreadable. I put my hand out.
She didn’t move. I slid down the bed until I was at the foot of it, on my knees in front of her. That close I could see her better; her eyes were massive, silver in this light, serious.
“Annie, what is it?”
A sad half laugh.
“Please, tell me”
She rubbed her eyes with the palm of her hand.
“I thought I had it sussed, you know. All worked out”
The hand dropped, silver eyes looking directly into mine.
“I had it all figured out. If I never let anyone in, then they’d not be able to hurt me”
Her hand in mine, I drew it so I could kiss the palm, put it against my face. She smoothed the skin of my cheek.
“I know I did it to Ella. I only let her in a little bit, and even that was too much. I had to – I had to be brutal. I had to break her heart. Because – because – ”
“Sh, sh, Annie. It’s okay”
“But it’s not okay, don’t you see that? It’s never been okay. I couldn’t let Ella in because if I did then how could I help but be in love with her?”
“What would’ve been wrong with that?”
She pulled her hand away.
“I didn’t want to be in love, I still don’t want to be in love. Love – it gets in there and it destroys you”
I linked my fingers through hers, drew my face close to hers.
“Remember what I promised you, Annie? I promised I’d never ask you to say you love me. It’s okay if you don’t, really, it is. Paul loved me and all that ever made me feel was claustrophobic. What I’ve got with you is something so completely different it’s as if it’s from a different planet. He said he loved me but he knew nothing about me. You don’t love me, but you see right into me, things I’ve never shown anyone”
Annie said nothing, just looked at me.
“Please come back to bed. All I want to do is hold you. We’ve never slept in the same bed, do you realise that?”
A gentle tug pulled her out of the armchair.
“You’re happy to have me in Cath Marshall’s office, on the floor of your studio, but come to bed with me? Too much to ask for”
Annie’s proper smile was a bigger relief than I had anticipated. Another tug got her onto the bed with me. I put my arms around her, our faces so close I could feel her breath on my lips.
“Jenna – ”
I kissed her.
“Don’t say anything you don’t mean”
“Nice to see you back. I hope you had a good break”
A loaded statement. I smiled my work smile, the one that didn’t quite make it to my eyes. Back in my killer suit; on the surface I looked the same: same Queen Bitch, same ball breaker. I looked and meant business. At least on the surface. I was no longer haunted by Annie’s face, Annie’s body because they were mapped on me, I knew. They must be obvious to anyone who looked carefully enough. Luckily, no one at Hyperion wanted to look at me very much at all. Except for Paul.
He appeared at the door to my office half way through the afternoon of my first day back, leaning against the jamb, hands in pocket. Trying to appear casual. Katrina gave me a significant look and then decided she really had to get something in the post, you know, like straight away. Very slick. I sighed.
“Good to have you back, Jenna. Did you go anywhere nice?”
I pulled open my desk drawer, found the stapler and attached one piece of paper to another, not looking at him.
“No, I stayed at home”
The two pieces of paper slipped into an A5 manila envelope.
“Well, the weather’s been so lovely, no need to go abroad, I guess”
He was still standing in the doorway, making no attempt to either come in or leave. Impatience flared up.
“Was there something you wanted, Paul? Because, as I’m sure you can imagine, I’ve come back to a ton of work”
He stood up straight and took his hands out of his pockets.
“Well – it’s just there are – still some things of mine at yours. I was, well, I was wondering if I could come round and pick them up”
Poor Paul. None of this was his fault, I had to remind myself. All he’d ever done was love me and I treated him like a bitch. My impatience dissipated.
“Sure, why don’t you come over after work? Tell you what, I’ll even cook for you. That thing your mother showed me how to do, the one you really like”
“That’d be nice”
Turning round from the cooker, there was Paul standing in my kitchen as if the last couple of months had never happened. He was standing in the same spot as he was when he told me we should get married. A strange sadness came with the memory. Behind him on the notice board was the Polaroid of the two of us, faces bleached out. I’d still not taken it down. Suddenly shy, I went back to stirring the sauce. His voice came from a great distance.
“There’s something different about you, Jenna”
“I got a lot of rest that fortnight off”
“No, it’s not that”
I paused, wooden spoon standing still in the pan. I glanced at him over my shoulder. He was watching me with a strange expression. Blood rushed to my face; he misread what that meant and started to smile.
“I guess I’d hoped that you and I could try again”
A heavy sick feeling pooled in my stomach. I put the spoon down, turned to face him, leaning against the cooker.
“Paul – ”
“We were good together. I – I know I sprung it on you about getting married. We don’t have to get married – ”
Fingers rubbing the edge of my hair line: he saw it and stopped talking.
“Paul, I’ve met someone else”
You would’ve needed a sharpened Sabatier to cut through the silence that followed. Paul cleared his throat.
“Is it that girl from the wedding?”
My hands were shaking.
“The girl at Katrina’s wedding”
“But – ”
Paul sighed, his hand on my shoulder, he dipped his head so he could look in my face.
“I’m not stupid, Jenna, things went seriously bad after that day. And anyway I’m not blind; I’ve always known”
Shocked, I looked directly into his eyes.
“You’ve always known?”
“I know you think you were being subtle, perhaps you were when I met you, but lately if you see a woman you like, you don’t do much to disguise it. At first I couldn’t work out what it was, you certainly never looked at men in quite the same way. It was like you had this brightness in you and it only came out when you were with a woman. At Katrina’s wedding, I saw that brightness. You watched that girl all the way through the speeches, and when you wouldn’t dance, I saw you with her”
I was dazed. All I could do was stare at him in disbelief.
“You wanted to marry me! You knew that and you still wanted to marry me?”
A sad smile.
“Maybe I was prepared to put up with it. I can’t pretend that knowing your girlfriend’s a lesbian does much for a bloke’s ego”
“I’m not a lesbian”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you”
“It’s not that, I’m not offended. I just mean it’s not that simple. I wish it was. Do you really think I could’ve been with you if I was a lesbian?”
He walked over to the fridge and took out the half empty bottle of wine, filling two glasses. He handed me one. Cold liquid hit the back of my throat, calming me a little.
“I don’t know why you were with me. I knew you had your reasons, and one day you might’ve told me”
Why couldn’t I have loved this man? Why couldn’t I have settled for stability and contentment with him? What was it about me that didn’t know a good thing when I saw it?
“Paul, I am so sorry. Please, you do have to believe me when I tell you I was never using you”
“Not even a little bit?”
“Not in the way you’re thinking. You were – you were so good to me. I don’t think you’ll ever know how much you gave me. Before I met you I was coming apart at the seams, I was running around, sleeping around, getting my head done in and doing in other people’s. I was a fucking mess”
He took a large pull on his drink and gave me a level stare.
“So what was I, your St. Bernard?”
“No, you were my saviour”
“You don’t think that’s a tiny bit melodramatic?”
I couldn’t blame him for being angry; in fact I was surprised he hadn’t thrown his glass at me.
“You know me; I don’t do things by half measures”
“Tell me one thing, Jenna: did you sleep with any of them whilst you were with me?”
It didn’t matter what I said now, he was never going to believe me unless I told him the truth.
“I slept with Ella”
girl from the wedding?”
“And before that?”
As always, my face betrayed me.
“I don’t know. Not that many”
He grabbed my arm and held it tight. Up close, his face was taut.
“How many is not that many? 10, 15?”
“Let go of me!”
“How many then, Jenna, tell me”
I struggled against his grip, my own anger starting to build, cold, cruel.
“Do you really want to know, Paul? Are you sure about that?”
I let him have it, both barrels.
“Well, there was the woman I met at a sales conference in Dusseldorf, she was the keynote speaker and liked to have her arse licked in more ways than one. And then there was a girl I met on the train coming back from my mother’s. Now she was lovely, you’d have liked her Paul, very pretty girl, beautiful skin. We did it in the toilet just outside Wolverhampton. I think she cried when she came. I’ve always been a sucker for that, do you know what I mean, when they cry? Not that I ever found out what her name was though. O and there was the couple I got picked up by in a club. You might like that: that was a man and his wife. I wouldn’t have bothered if it had just been him but she was gorgeous. He was a shit fuck, really, unimaginative in and out but she was something special, she’d try anything and I mean anything, and there he was wanking himself pig-faced while I fucked her in the arse with a 9 inch strap on. I told her she was wasted on a fucking loser like him. I hope she listened to me; she could do so much better. And then there was one I met that time – ”
“Stop it? But I thought you wanted to know, Paul. You told me to tell you”
When I saw his face, the anger faded. I put my hand to his cheek.
“Didn’t I ever warn you that when I’ve got something good, I seem to go out of my way to fuck it up?”
I drained my glass and refilled it, downing that in one.
“At least your mother’ll be pleased I’m the dead loss she always suspected I was”
A third glass downed.
“Now, if there wasn’t anything else, I think I’d like you to go”
Five rings. Click:
I’m afraid I’m unable to take your call at the moment but if you leave a message after the tone, I’ll get back to you.
Beep, beep, beep, beeeep
Darling, pick up. I know you’re there, I can hear you breathing. Come on, Jenna, pick up the ph –
“It’s always trouble when you call me Cassandra”
“You love me, don’t you?”
“With all my heart, as you well know. What have you done?”
“What makes you think I’ve done something?”
“If I come round, will you let me in?”
“You’ve got your key”
“I’ll be straight over”
A key in the lock. Cass’s voice. I looked up from where I was sitting on the floor by the fridge, my knees up.
“You didn’t bring vodka”
Cass squatted down in front of me.
“Judging by the look of you, you’ve had enough already”
“There’s no such thing as enough”
“On the contrary, darling, there is, especially on a Monday night. Do you want to tell me what’s going on?”
I covered my face with my hands.
“That good, eh?”
“What is it about me?”
“A question I ask myself all the time”
“Why do I have to fuck things up?”
“Is this a specific fuck up or a general one?”
“Both, why do I have to fuck my whole life up? Why do – why do I feel this compulsion to ruin anything good that happens?”
She sat down on the floor next to me, her arm around me.
“Darling, that’s a big question. Why don’t we start with specifics? How did you get to be in this state in the first place? I mean the sitting on your kitchen floor pissed”
“Paul came round”
“Ah, I take it that didn’t go well”
“He said he wanted us to get back together”
“And that’s a good thing or a bad thing?”
My head shook.
“Okay, that’s a bad thing”
Exhaustion overwhelmed me. I wanted to lie down but the sensible part of me that was still tucked away somewhere stopped me from stretching out on the kitchen floor. Instead, I wrapped my arms around my knees.
“I’m not sure I know what’s a good thing or a bad thing anymore. Things were fine with Paul until I went to that wedding. Okay, okay, you don’t have to look at me like that, not fine exactly but good enough to be going along with. And I had to meet her, Ella – ” “Ah, the mystery girl”
“Yes, her. That’s when it all went wrong, Cass, then. Before, when I cheated on Paul I kept it away from home, you know, it never interfered with me and him but this was different. God I need a drink. Cass, look in that cupboard, see if you can’t find something”
Cass stood on the tips of her toes and pushed through the cupboard. She pulled out a bottle of Cinzano, making a face.
“Are you sure about this?”
“It’s alcoholic, isn’t it?”
“Anything to mix it with?”
I shook my head. Cass rinsed out a glass and half filled it with vermouth.
“Aren’t you having one?”
“Darling, I haven’t drunk Cinzano since I was 15, I’m not going to start again now just to keep you company. Anyway, one of us needs a clear head. Tell me about this Ella”
Room temperature vermouth filled my mouth and the back of my throat. It tasted dreadful, especially after all the wine I’d drunk.
“I thought I was so clever, I thought – I don’t know, I thought I could have it all. What’s that song line I want to have a boyfriend and a girl for laughs? I’ve done it in the past, you know I have”
“So what happened?”
“She got to me. You know. She’s beautiful and funny and fundamentally the sweetest woman you could ever meet, and unbelievably sexy. And she tried, she tried to fit in with my life, my life, like it’s any better than what she had, but she couldn’t. And who can blame her? Why should she put up with me having my cake and insisting on eating it? So she walked out of this house one day and I never heard from her again”
“Darling – ”
I waved her away.
“And then I went to that private view with you. Remember you asked what I’d done to Annie Weston for her to give me a £5000 painting? How about a fuck in Cath Marshall’s office”
“You don’t know the half of it. Cass, Annie is the most amazing woman I’ve ever met, I can’t even begin to tell you how she makes me feel, not all of it good”
Another mouthful of Cinzano, a sideways glance at Cass. If she was surprised or shocked by anything I’d told her, she wasn’t expressing it.
“Annie’s a good choice, I thought that at her show. Good looking girl, very talented”
“Ah. Well, the lesbian pool is notoriously small. Ex from how long ago?”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Excessive guilt. Heart break, that sort of thing. She thinks it would kill Ella if she found out about us. But then – but then I saw Ella in the supermarket with another girl who’s at least 10 years younger than me”
“And believe me, this was no casual thing. They were choosing marmalade”
“Yes, marmalade. Does that sound like uncomplicated sex to you?”
“I can’t say it does, darling”
“Exactly, that’s what I told Annie. Thing is – ”
I stared into the bottom of my glass, looking at the floor tiles blurred through the liquid. I took a drink.
“Thing is, Ella – Ella’s still – I’d fuck her tomorrow given half the chance”
“Well, darling, you have always liked your dramas, that’s for sure”
Another drink. I was starting to get used to the taste of the Cinzano.
“O it get’s better, babe, you’d better believe it. Remember Paul?”
“How could I forget?”
“Well, he gives me this whole getting back together thing and I tell him I’ve met someone else and he outright asks me if it’s Ella. He then drops the bombshell that he’s always known. Always known about the women”
“No shit wow. More like fuck me backwards. He said he knew and he’d have been prepared to put up with it”
“What’s the problem, darling? I’d have thought that was the ideal situation for you”
Drink. Another drink. Glass getting empty.
“He pushed it too far. He wanted to know if I’d slept with anyone since I’d been with him. I said not many but he kept on pushing it. So I told him”
“He left not long after that. I think he’s taken his things. I’ve not looked”
“And then you hit the bottle?”
“And then I hit the bottle and the rest of it you know”
We sat in silence for a couple of minutes.
“Cass? You still love me, don’t you?”
“You know I do”
I kissed her.
“I’m glad someone does”
No dinner, a bottle and a half of wine and the best part of a bottle of Cinzano. What I brought up must have been what I’d had for lunch: a tuna salad eaten out of a plastic container at my desk. Well, at least the tuna was going back home, I thought just before another spasm hit me and I wretched unproductively into the toilet bowl. Some sort of stomach bug, I told work, a one day thing. God, I hope it wasn’t food poisoning and Paul wasn’t affected. No, they said, he’s here. He’s at his desk, though he does look a little the worst for wear. Last time I cook that then, ha ha. Ha bloody ha. I spat into the water. Really, I felt no worse than I deserved to feel, it was like my body was revolting against me. Revolting against no dinner, a bottle and a half of wine and, o god, the best part of a bottle of Cinzano more like. I didn’t even know why I had it in the house, possibly for my mother, she likes a nice Cinzano and lemonade. O god, surely there couldn’t be anymore inside me. I sat back from the toilet and flushed it.
Perhaps I was starting to feel a little better. My head didn’t feel as if it was being squashed from all four sides anymore; the complete emptying of my stomach left me feeling light, pure. Pure? That was a laugh. I ran the tap for a while, running my wrists under it, splashing my face and taking mouthfuls of cold, clean water. Maybe at some point before the end of the day I’d be human again. I’d be human again and I could start to try and put my life back together. Whatever that meant.
Continued in part 8
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