Something so close to love – Artemis Callaghan
Contains strong language.
Please feel to email me at Ceri.Lloyd@bodleian.ox.ac.uk
Love comes from strange places, usually when you’re not expecting it I find. I’ve spent most of my life falling in love but I’m still surprised when it’s reciprocated.
Once the idea of liking girls had been so firmly and unintentionally put in my head by Maria Costello I’d looked around me with newly opened eyes. I’m sure a psychologist could have a field day with me: the only girl in a large extended family of boys, no wonder my gender identity was skewed. The thing is, when I was little I might’ve wanted to be a boy but I never wanted to be a man. I was surrounded by enough of them to know that wasn’t what I aspired to. Bruno constantly whines about it, but the fact is I have a better way with women than he does because I try to treat them with respect.
All I can promise is I’ll treat you with respect
That’s what Róisín said, just before she told me she loved me. Treat you with respect. So why hadn’t I told her I loved her?
In three years Annie never said she loved me. Sometimes she got close to it; she might not have said it but there were times she’d look at me and I could see something that was an approximation of love. I didn’t need her to say it. It was sufficient for me that I loved her, I thought it was enough. After all, hadn’t I spent years loving girls who didn’t even know I existed? That’s not true, they knew I existed, after all, I was the girl with all the cousins, the one who had lost both her parents and turned out to be some sort of exam genius; the one who then pissed it all away going to art school. What they didn’t know was that I’d sit in my house reading Shakespeare, Hardy, Donne and see them in the lines of verse, the grand protestations of love, the over the top self sacrificing gestures. When Bruno and the others would talk about some girl’s tits, I was silent but no better; as they spoke, there in my mind would be the image of that girl bending over to dry her calves, her arms, after Games.
“Fuck, Ell, you don’t know how lucky you are. You get to be in the girls’ changing rooms, man”
No matter how I tried to point out that that was not a blessing but a curse, he’d have none of it.
“I bet you see some right stuff in there, don’t you? More tits and pussy than you could cope with, eh?”
I hit him but the blush gave me away and the others laughed. Bruno sparked a fag and handed it to me.
“You only want to go to art school so you can look at those naked models”
“Good come back”
When, at 14, I told Bruno I thought I liked girls he’d laughed and said so? I tried to stress the importance to him but he just shrugged.
“So you’re a lez, so what? Fucking hell, monkey face, I’m not Maria Sodding Costello, I’m not gonna tie you to the girls’ toilets, am I?”
“Don’t tell Mum or Dad. Or your Mum and Dad. Or Aunty Mary and Uncle Ivan – ”
“Will you chill out? Christ sake, Ell. God, if I was a girl I’d be a lez. Who wants to spend their lives looking at cock? It’s bad enough in the showers, fancy actually wanting to touch them. What? What are you laughing at?”
Even with Bruno on my side, I knew it was something I should keep quiet about. I never got to have any sort of chat with my mother about these sorts of things, love and sex of any kind. Maybe she was saving it up for a day that never came, and once she was gone, who else was I supposed to talk to? Yes, I had all these Aunties, and they’d take me aside and say things like You know, Ella, if there’s anything you want to talk about and look at me very significantly, but it’s not the same when it’s not your mum. And would I have told her any way? A lot had happened to the little girl who lived in mortal fear of Hell fire and damnation; God and the Devil had started to slip out of my life before my parents died; the accident only served to banish them completely. However, the rest of my family were devout church goers, taking up a sizeable chunk of seats in St. Aloysius’s every Sunday. Bruno might shrug and say it was no big deal, but I knew they’d take a different view.
“Annie I love you”
Lying on what had been my parents’ bed, the bed I was conceived in, the one my mother gave birth to me in. Annie kept their ghosts quiet with her fingers, her mouth, her tongue. Happiness and body contentment flowed through me with my blood, usually coming out in tears and laughter but this time a declaration. The sort of declaration you can’t go back on. Annie’s only response was to kiss me. Jesus, I’d blown it. I made sure I never said it out loud again.
There had been other women after Annie, other relationships though none of them serious. They’d said they loved me and hadn’t meant it: almost as soon as it was said they decided they didn’t love me after all, or they did but not in that way. We can be friends, yeah? The only one I ever told I loved them and meant it was Bruno. Bruno, that fixed star in my firmament; the one I guide my ship by.
“What is up with you? You’ve been acting all weird for days”
Bruno was sitting at my kitchen table, the place he likes to sit and spliff up. The heart of the home is the kitchen, he says, reiterating a Raminski family saying. Make us a cup of tea. I didn’t answer him straight away, pretending to concentrate on boiling water and finding tea bags.
“C’mon, monkey face, I know when something’s up with you. Is it your time of the month? Tell your Uncle Bruno”
I poured the water into the tea pot, mashed the bags with a spoon and set the top back on. There was only so long I could delay him.
“Róisín said she loves me”
Bruno licked the edge of the papers and sealed the joint.
“What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that like whoopee? I always thought that was what you girls liked, a bit of romance”
The fretwork trivet my father had made for my mother as an anniversary present was in the middle of the table. The intertwined wooden hearts mocked me; I covered it with the fat brown tea pot to shut it up. Bruno lit the spliff, took a couple of draws on it before passing it to me. First off the tobacco hit my lungs telling me that my old pal nicotine was here to save the day, calm things down, and even better, he’d brought his friend cannabis along for a party. He’d be arriving a little bit later. Around about now. I sat down.
“D’ya know, Annie never once said she loved me. Not once in three years. I’ve known Róish how long, a couple of months? And she’s already said it”
Bruno took the joint off me and viewed me through the smoke, one eye shut.
“You can’t go through life comparing everyone to Annie, you know that, don’t you? That girl has serious intimacy issues. Maybe Róish just knows now, it does happen. Look at my Mum and Dad: they got engaged after three months, and they’re still ridiculously happy. Crazy, but happy”
“Do you know, the only person other than Annie I’ve ever told I love them is you?”
“Well, who can blame you?”
“You know if it wasn’t incest - ”
“Technically it isn’t”
There was his wolf grin, the one he gets when he’s stoned, the one you never know if he’s joking or not, the one you couldn’t second guess. I turned my attention to the tea, pouring it into two mugs and adding the milk.
“I saw Jenna the other day”
Wolf grin was replaced by a scowl. He took a sip of his tea and another pull on the joint, saying nothing.
“She was looking really good”
“Fuck’s sake, Ella”
His sudden burst of anger surprised me.
“She’s nothing but trouble, can’t you see that?”
“I can’t help the way I feel”
“Yes you can. Can’t you see that what you’ve got with Róisín is really good? Why do you want to spoil it with that – that bitch?”
“She’s not a bitch, Bruno”
Bruno leant across the table.
“She’ll fuck you over, Ella, and you’re too blind to see it”
I pushed my chair away from the table and walked over to look out of the window, my back to him, arms crossed. Outside, autumn was starting to come to the garden, the leaves beginning to turn colour. Next door’s apple tree was already passed its best, the remaining fruit hanging heavy and greeny brown on the branches.
“It doesn’t matter anyway. It’s obvious she doesn’t want me”
To say it was raining would be an understatement. Rain came up and across the street and pavement like waves on the sea, puddles rippling like lakes. People were running into doorways, caught out in inappropriate clothes, covering their heads with newspapers, brief cases, in a vain attempt to keep dry. It was a waste of time, simply walking four doors up they’d be drenched. Like me. I ducked into the café, its windows steamed up by a combination of wet people and the old fashioned Gaggia coffee machine behind the counter. The old man working it nodded his head in acknowledgment and set about fixing me a cup of coffee. The place was packed out, good news for the old boy, rain brought in the custom for him, bedraggled men and women looking for somewhere to dry out a little before they got on with the rest of their day. It was bad news for me as there didn’t seem to be any free tables. I’d been coming in here most days for my lunch as I was working four doors down. To be honest, my house was only a couple of streets away and I could’ve gone there for lunch but I liked to sit in here and drink coffee, eat toasted cheese sandwiches and watch the world go by.
However, I couldn’t sit at my usual table as it was full of kids, laughing at each other at how wet they’d got, putting off going back to school. I scouted around for a free seat. There was one, at the back, but there was someone else at the table already.
She was sitting on her own, a glass cup of milky coffee and a packet of fags in front of her. She was oblivious to the rest of the café, to me, as she was reading a fat paperback, frowning slightly at it. My heart thumped in my chest as rain water dropped from my hair and seeped into my overalls. Despite everything I was drawn to her. I stood by the table for a couple of seconds until I got up the courage to speak, and when I did, I hardly recognised my own voice.
“Is it okay if I sit here?”
She hadn’t looked up from her book, nor recognised my voice. It wasn’t until I slipped into the seat opposite her that she glanced up. A momentary shock flashed over her face and she dropped the book, losing her place.
“Hello Jenna. I thought it was you”
She scrabbled at her things, trying to find and mark the place in her book. She fumbled a cigarette out of the packet and offered one to me, flicking her little gold lighter to light us both. Her hands were shaking, but when she spoke her voice sounded calm. She raised an eyebrow.
“You got a little wet, I see”
I ran a hand through my hair, sweeping it back off my face. It hung wet against the back of my neck. Jenna watched me with an expression that was hard to interpret. There was a clatter of cup and saucer as the old boy put my coffee down on the table. He looked at both of us before returning to behind the counter to read his newspaper.
Jenna was surprisingly dry: she’d evidently missed the worst of it, and sat cool and professional in a black suit that had a fine grey pinstripe running through it. Her white blouse was open at the throat, the collar tips over the lapels of the suit jacket. Everything about her shouted smart business woman, tough, no nonsense, but there was a vulnerability in the freckles at the base of her throat, across her collarbone. The urge to reach out and brush them with the tips of my fingers was almost overwhelming. I fell back in my seat, smoking the cigarette she’d given me. Catching sight of my red emulsion covered fingers made me aware of my white decorator’s overalls, my boots, the paint that was smeared half way up my forearm. Embarrassed, I stubbed out the fag and slid my arms under the table.
“I’ve not seen you in here before”
“I’ve only been here once. I was passing and I remembered I liked the coffee”
She picked up the book and leafed through it. On the cover was a water colour of a woman in a shawl standing in a street of back to back houses; a name, Elisa Mainwaring, was picked out in silver embossed print above the title A woman of her time.
“Can you recommend it?”
“What this? God no”
“I must admit I was a bit surprised to see you reading it”
“I’m meant to be having a meeting with the writer so I thought I’d better read one of hers first. All I can say is I must’ve pissed someone off”
Sighing, she put the book back down again and then looked at me.
“I seem to be pissing a lot of people off. You included I think”
I couldn’t meet her eye, instead, I scratched at the bright red plastic ketchup dispenser shaped like a tomato. There was a click as she lit another cigarette, I heard her exhale the smoke.
“You haven’t pissed me off”
“Only last time I saw you, you weren’t exactly in the mood to talk”
Blood rushed to my face. Jenna watched me as she smoked.
“You should drink your coffee, Ella, it’s getting cold”
I gulped it down, the warm milkiness of it sliding down my throat. Jenna’s face disappeared momentarily behind cigarette smoke. She was serious, thoughtful.
“Your friend has very pretty eyes”
What was I supposed to say to that?
“Yes. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the iris starts and the pupil ends”
“Paul’s eyes are like that”
Well, I guess I had that coming. If I had Róisín, why shouldn’t she still have Paul? Stabbing at the formica with my spoon, I realised I’d left a dent in it. I let the spoon drop.
“How is Paul?”
Her laugh sounded hollow, her voice tight.
“O I’m sure he’s fine. How’s your friend? I’m afraid I don’t know her name, you didn’t exactly get round to introducing us”
“Róisín, pretty name. And how is Róisín?”
“She’s in Ireland”
“Leaving you at home all on your own?”
“Brave woman. I’m not sure I’d leave you unattended”
My face was hot. I couldn’t work out if it was embarrassment or a growing anger.
“Jenna, are you sure it’s not me that’s pissed you off?”
Her face relaxed into something close to sadness. She was rubbing her hairline.
“No, I was surprised, that’s all”
Her eyes, blue as a summer day, summer day blue flecked with gold. How could I have forgotten them? How could I have forgotten her scent? Present even under the heavier smells of cigarettes and food, wet clothes and coffee. Everything about her was loosening me like it always did. I took another cigarette out of her packet and lit it. We sat in silence as the café bustled around us. Outside the sky was lightening and some of the newly dry customers were making their way out. Jenna finished her coffee but made no move to leave.
“Overalls suit you”
That startled me. I looked down at myself. The bib of the overalls was hanging loose, the legs were covered in smears where I’d wiped my hands, cleaned off brushes.
“I didn’t know you were a painter”
“I’m not. Not a proper painter. I used to be a bit, you know, I mean I went to art college – ”
An image of Annie flashed into my mind that I didn’t want there. Annie in her combats covered in paint, her big boots on the bare boards of my sitting room. Annie above me, her hair falling over her face.
“I’m a decorator. It’s hardly very exciting or high powered I know, but there you go”
“You don’t have to be defensive. What sort of snob do you think I am? It’s always useful to know a decorator. Always useful to know someone who’s good with their hands”
I glanced up at her, she was still smiling.
“Me, I’m terrible at anything like that, completely useless at anything practical”
“I’m the only girl in a family of boys”
“Yes, I remember, all those boys at the wedding. All of you in matching suits, I thought that was a nice touch”
She leant forward.
“You do realise that none of them matched up to you, don’t you?”
My face was burning now. I ran my thumb along the dent I’d made in the formica.
“I find that hard to believe. I’m sure Bruno made more of an impact”
“Hm, he was okay but still not you”
Suddenly I remembered the time she’d come round to the house, the time Bruno had been there and done whatever it was he’d done and wouldn’t say. As if she could read my mind she said:
“He warned me off you. That day. He warned me off in no uncertain terms”
Horrified, I buried my face in my hands.
“Christ, Jenna, I am so sorry”
She reached out and touched my wrist, and when I dropped my hands she put the palm of her hand against my cheek.
“It’s okay. I can’t blame him. He was probably right to do it. I am nothing but trouble, it has to be said”
“It was up to me to find out though. He should mind his own business. One of these days I am going to kill him”
“Don’t be too hard on him, if someone could’ve helped save me half the heartache I’ve had in life, I’d have been eternally grateful”
“Is that why you haven’t been in touch?”
She let her hand fall and took out the last cigarette, crumpling the empty packet.
“It’s one reason, yes, but it’s not it entirely”
Her face disappeared behind smoke again, her expression screened for a moment. I let myself leap to a conclusion.
“Was it to do with Paul?”
The hollow laugh.
“I don’t think I’ll be seeing that much of Paul anymore, not after what I said to him”
“What did you say?”
She shook her head.
“It doesn’t matter. Suffice to say Paul is no longer an issue. Well, not until the day I decide I should really get therapy. Actually that might not be a bad idea”
Her evasiveness confused me.
“There’s no need to frown, baby”
Her head was tilted to one side, her hair slightly flopping in the direction of the tilt. I couldn’t help it, my face lightened into a smile.
“Nice to see you two smile”
The old boy had picked up our empty cups.
“Both pretty girls when you smile, if you don’t mind me saying so”
After he’d gone back to his counter, Jenna’s hand found its way back to my face.
“He’s wrong. You’re not a pretty girl when you smile”
“Thanks a lot”
“You’re not a pretty girl, you’re a beautiful one”
Why was it that Jenna could fire my blood like this? So easily with just a look, a word, a touch? All thoughts Paul, all thoughts of Róisín, evaporated as she held my gaze with those sky blue eyes of hers. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, those blue eyes were still there, looking right into me. I reached out to hold her hand, and caught a flash of red emulsion.
“Jenna, I should really go back to work”
Her sigh came from, well, if not the heart then certainly deep down somewhere.
“So should I, I guess”
No, I didn’t want this abrupt halt; the idea that she would get up and walk out of my life again filled me with panic.
“I’m working just down the road, would you – would you like to come and see what I’ve been doing?”
A genuine, sweet smile, the sort I’d never seen on her face before. The sort of smile you could fall in love with if you weren’t careful.
“Yes, I’d like that”
“Mind out for the tins of paint, the last thing you want is gloss on your suit, especially one that expensive”
Jenna picked her way through the tins, rollers and paint trays that lined the narrow hallway, following me into the sitting room. The house I was working on was the same era as mine, the layout not dissimilar and as in mine I’d stripped decades of paper and paint back to the original plaster. Now smoothed off I was painting it a deep red, offsetting the ceiling and cornice in white. One wall was taken up almost completely by a chimney breast and in the middle of that was a rather grand fireplace which we were in the process of stripping to its original metal and wood. Generations of occupiers had covered it with paint, eventually boxing it up and sticking an ugly gas fire in what was once the grate. The new owners wanted it restored to its former glory, or something at least approximating it.
Something had caught Jenna’s eye. She was standing by the trestle table looking at a collection of papers.
“Did you do these?”
I looked over her shoulder at the designs for the house, each room on a separate sheet, an aerial overview of the room and an impression of how I thought the room would look once we’d finished. In the corner of each was an E.R., Like the Queen, Uncle Joe had said but insisted I kept it. Adds a bit of class, he reckoned. Works of bloody art they are. As part of the deal, we gave the designs to the customers at the end of the job, Uncle Joe liked to think that they had them framed and put up but I thought they probably shoved them in a box with all the other things they’d forget.
“You told me you weren’t a proper painter, whatever that is. You are such a liar”
“It’s hardly painting; it’s not like – not like a friend of mine’s stuff. That’s just a picture, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s not like I’m showing the world something, I’m just making designs for people’s houses”
“You shouldn’t underestimate that though”
“You’ve obviously not seen my friend’s paintings. If you had, there’s no way you’d ever compare them to these as favourably”
Jenna had fallen silent, her fingers stroking a swatch of crimson velvet.
“What’s that cliché? I don’t know about art but I know what I like? People don’t always want to be challenged. Sometimes they just want to look at something that makes them feel comfortable and happy and at home. Something uncomplicatedly beautiful”
I stilled the fingers on the velvet with my own. I wanted to kiss her but I stopped myself. She turned and faced me, her eyes bright.
“I should get you to design my house for me”
“It would be a pleasure”
“I’d pay you the going rate, of course”
“No, that wouldn’t be right”
Colour flooded her cheeks and she looked down. When she looked up at me again, her eyes had lost some of their brightness, the sun had gone in behind the clouds.
“I need a change”
Unsure of her tone, I took it as if we were still talking about her house.
“From what I remember, your place has a lot of potential”
“Potential. Yes, I’m sure it does”
She fell silent for a couple of seconds.
“It certainly doesn’t feel like home”
My arms were round her, I was holding her so close I could feel her eyelashes fluttering against my cheek, her hands against my back.
Such sadness, so much sadness. Not just her, me too. I spent my life making something of other people’s houses, trying to make them into home. After all, I was the girl who had the house, the one who had wanted to go home the day her parents died, who had insisted on going home the day of her 16th birthday. But when I got there, it was no longer home. The heart had gone and all I was left with was a house, a house full of crystal animals and railway magazines, a wardrobe of clothes I would never wear, a mink coat I couldn’t bear to throw out. I’d spent 10 years trying to make it home and still it was simply somewhere I lived. Don’t get me wrong, I was pleased with everything I’d done in it, but it was like a show house. Uncomplicatedly beautiful. Bruno spliffing up, Róisín chopping chillies, they went some way to making it home but at the end of the day they went back to their own homes and left me with the house. Annie had quietened the ghosts but in the end she left, like everyone else did. I was the girl sitting at the kitchen table doing her homework in an empty house.
“Hey, sh, sh, Ella, sh, don’t cry, baby”
Was I crying? I must’ve been. My face was wet, and Jenna was holding my head in her hands, pushing my hair out of my eyes. She kissed the tears away, her lips gentle, which only made me cry the harder. Jenna pulled me closer, stroking my hair, my face buried in her shoulder, her neck. There, like the lifeline on the palm of my hand, was her scent.
Finding her mouth was as easy as breathing, kissing her as easy as the in and out of my lungs, the rise of fall of my chest. The scent of her, the taste of her, as easy as breath. Her breath hot on my lips, only slightly startled, and then as natural as the rise and fall of her chest, the pattern of freckles on skin pale even after a sunny summer, traced so easily with finger tips.
She pulled away suddenly, her fingers on my lips, her eyes still clouded.
“We shouldn’t do this”
I dipped my head until our foreheads were touching. Jenna went on.
“Ella, you’ve got your girl. She’s so much better for you than I am”
“You don’t know that”
“Ah but I do. I might not know what she’s like but I know what I’m like. I can’t – I can’t give you what you want”
“How can you know what I want when I don’t know myself?”
She stepped away from me and walked over to the fireplace, running her hand along the mantle.
“That day I came round and you weren’t in, Bruno said I wasn’t to hurt you, and the thing is, Ella, I would hurt you. It’s like I can’t help myself. Everything I touch, that touches me, I fuck up. Things might seem brilliant right now but I will find a way to ruin it. I probably have already”
“What do you mean?”
She walked around the room, letting her fingers slide across the smooth painted walls, until she got to the window. She stood still and looked out at the cars going past.
“You said I mustn’t have seen your friend’s paintings. The thing is - ”
She turned and faced me.
I didn’t understand.
“Annie, I’ve seen her paintings”
No, no, no, no. No. These were two parts of my life that should be separate, very separate.
No, no, no, no. The floor was spinning, why was the floor spinning? I felt Jenna’s arm around me, holding me up, I threw it off.
“Believe me, I never meant it to happen”
Happen? Dizziness lurched the floor up towards me; before I knew where I was, I was sitting on it, Jenna next to me holding my shoulders, her face so white the freckles jumped out at me.
“Ella, o god, I never – I never meant – it just happened”
Jenna and Annie. My head was spinning, my stomach fighting its way up into my throat. I rested my forehead against my raised knees in an effort to get everything back to where it should be. Jenna’s arm was still around me, I couldn’t bring myself to shrug it off. It was all so much to take in but ironically she was the only comfort I had in the room. The dizziness and nausea gradually faded but I still sat with my head propped on my knees. Jenna lifted her arm off my shoulder and also pulled her knees up, wrapping her arms around them.
“I wish we hadn’t finished the fags”
She looked at her watch and then took her mobile out of her trouser pocket, flipped it open and dialled a number.
“Elisa? It’s Jenna Matthews. I’m really sorry about this, but I’m not able to make our meeting this afternoon. Something’s come up – no, everything’s okay but it was unexpected – okay, so I’ll ring you later to reschedule? That’s brilliant. Thank you”
She flipped the phone closed to end the call. Her voice throughout the call had been calm, but a quick glance at her face showed how pale she still was.
“Did you know Annie was my – was my ex?”
“Not at first, no, I swear”
“But it didn’t stop you once you knew? And did Annie know who you were?”
“Yes. If it’s any consolation, she didn’t want to progress once I knew”
“But it didn’t stop her, did it? She knew how much – how much I liked you”
Feeling foolish, I stopped talking. Tentatively, Jenna took my hand in hers.
“I liked you too, I mean, I like you too. You know that don’t you?”
“In all fairness, so did you”
We sat in silence for a while.
“Has she told you she loves you?”
She hung her head.
“That’s something then”
Continued in Part 9
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