Something so close to love – Artemis Callaghan
The usual swearing.
Please feel free to email me at Ceri.Lloyd@bodleian.ox.ac.uk
I’ve spent so much of my life trying to have my cake and eat it; it was only a matter of time before someone told me to make up my mind. But what do I do about the part of me that wants it all? As a little girl, I hated to go to bed because I was convinced I’d miss something. There weren’t enough hours in the day for me. I would sleep when I was dead. Compartmentalising life meant that I got to pretend I was eating my cake and keeping it in the tin, as long as I never thought about the consequences too deeply. Any problems that arose were other people’s issues. If they couldn’t cope with me, then I’d underestimated them and they weren’t worth bothering with. For someone who thought there was nothing more boring than a scene, I didn’t half provoke a lot, and never took responsibility for any of them.
Lately, however, that strategy was starting to founder. I was beginning to care.
Ella sat on the carpet-stripped floorboards in the house of a complete stranger, her head resting on her knees, and I was sitting next to her, not caring about a hundred year’s worth of dirt and dust and underlay on my Paul Smith suit. I didn’t think about it at all.
Ella. Why did I have to tell her about Annie? That was a new development; before I’d have kept that one to myself. And to whom did I owe that burst of honesty? To Ella or Annie? Neither was going to be pleased with me, I knew. Annie only had herself to blame, I told myself. It was she who had fostered this new frankness: she scratched and scraped away at my surface until she exposed the red rawness underneath. She turned over the stone and blinking in the unaccustomed light was my conscience. Untutored, it had a tendency to blurt out the first guilty thing that came into its head. I, who had once been unbothered by these things, had the conscience of a five year old.
Ella had appeared like a ghost in the café, coming in out of the rain in overalls and big boots, like Annie but not Annie, like Ella. And the part of me that can never be still at the sight of a beautiful woman had sung high up in my head and made me drop Elisa Mainwaring’s magnum opus on the table, and carried on singing even when the other part of me was bitter and wanted to make her pay for having a girlfriend. A girlfriend with pretty eyes. A girlfriend with pretty eyes that wasn’t me. Both pretty girls when you smile, the old man in the café had said. Seeing Ella smile had burnt off the bitterness like fog and the singing came through loud and clear. Until she kissed me.
But I wanted her to kiss me, I wanted to kiss her but that new found conscience prickled, sent me images of Annie in the dark with her huge silver eyes. For god’s sake, it even sent me images of Ella’s girl, the dark eyed Róisín; what the hell was that all about? A picture of a blonde haired, dark eyed girl holding two jars of marmalade in her unsuspecting hands.
Am I beyond despicable? I think about what I did behind Paul’s back and how I found ways to justify myself, but how, really, do you justify a threesome with a couple you met in a dodgy club? There is no justification for fucking a girl whose name you don’t know in the toilet of a Virgin Cross-Country train. It was about me; it was always about me. Having my cake and eating it. I went to that house with Ella because I’d hoped she’d kiss me; I hoped she’d more than kiss me. If I was lucky, the part of me that always wanted its own way whispered, I might get another fuck out of Ella Raminski, another glorious, heart stopping fuck, and that voice combined with the siren singing was too much to resist.
Listen to me. When did I become like a recovering alcoholic who has to apologise to everyone they ever hurt with their drinking? Where has this compulsion to bear my soul come from?
I told Ella about me and Annie. I thought she might be angry, anger I could deal with, I’ve been deflecting it all my life; what I hadn’t expected was for her to faint. Both of us sitting on the bare floorboards in the house of a complete stranger, a hundred years of dirt, dust and underlay, her in her overalls and big boots like Annie but not like Annie, me in my Paul Smith suit. I never expected to feel something so close to love. Look at me, Ella, open your eyes.
Christ I wished we hadn’t finished the fags in that café.
When it comes to the court case of my life, the evidence against me will be damning; witnesses for the prosecution lining up to condemn me. Paul Moss will stand before the jury with his big, brown hurt eyes and tell them that all he ever did was love me but all I ever did was run around behind his back with any girl that took my fancy; Ella Raminski, stunning in a dark suit, white shirt and harlequin waistcoat, will be forced to recount how after I’d had sex with her I copped off with the woman who was possibly the love of her life, knowing full well what I was doing. Of course, there would be witnesses for the defence, for all the good they’d do me: Cass would tell them that despite everything I do have a heart in there somewhere; Annie would be bound by her own sense of honour to take her share of the blame. Maybe even my parents would testify their part in it all, but not willingly, they’d have to be subpoenaed. An open and shut case, the judge would say, members of the jury, there can be no other verdict than guilty. Take her down.
Fuck, if only it were that easy. If only I could get sent down for 5, 10 years and come out with a clean slate to start again. As it was, part of me sat next to Ella thinking why Annie? What is it about her that had this girl fainting after 5 years, that had me going through the world feeling as if I was naked I was so exposed? Ella asked me if Annie had told she loved me and what else could I say but no. That’s something then.
Everyone has a point, a point you can’t push them beyond. A breaking point, I guess, or a boiling point. All my life I’ve pushed people as far as they’ll go to see if they’ll snap. Some people have a very low tolerance: my brother would lash out after only a few minutes, already holding me responsible for the crime of being born, his justice coming rough and summary. Others have a much longer fuse: Cass has put up with me for 14 years with only the occasional burst of exasperation. Well, that’s not strictly true; things had got easier with age and her falling out of love with me, but she sticks with me. Some people I push to destruction even when I don’t mean to. I never meant to do it to Paul, not consciously; and Ella, I’d never meant to do it to her at all. The thing was, had I pushed her too far? Was there no coming back from this? Because sitting there next to her in that house it mattered a great deal. Something so close to love. Look at me, Ella.
“Look at me, Ella”
She lifted her head from her knees. Her hand was still in mine, I changed position so that our fingers were linked. That was better, this way I could feel the strength in hers; a strength like Annie’s. It must come from using a paint brush all day, or from being determined. Mine felt slight, evasive, in comparison. I tested my strength against hers by giving her hand a squeeze. All that did was illicit a slight smile from her. No returning pressure. I couldn’t blame her for that.
“I’m sorry, Ella, I really am. I don’t expect you to forgive me”
“When I was a kid, I believed in all that, you know, confession and absolution, forgiveness”
“That must be nice. I don’t know where I’d start. He’d have to be a very forgiving God, I can tell you”
“Thing is, Jenna, I don’t blame you, I blame Annie”
I looked at her, her face set so serious, a cold, determined anger. I took her chin in my hand and forced her to look in my eyes.
“No, you’re only telling yourself that so you’re not angry with me, for whatever reason. Don’t hate Annie, if you should hate anyone it’s me. I’m the one that’s fucked you around. Whatever happened with you and Annie happened years ago. I have to take responsibility for what’s happened now”
My hand had moved so that it cradled her face, her skin soft, smooth and warm.
“You shouldn’t be angry with Annie anyway, baby. You’ve got your dark eyed girl”
Red marked her cheeks and she dropped her eyes. She said nothing. I moved my face so that I could see her eyes.
“Do you love her? Róisín?”
When she spoke, her voice was barely a whisper. Had I not been sitting next to her, I’d have been hard pressed to hear her.
“I don’t know”
“Does she love you?”
“She says she does but how can she?”
“O very easily, believe me”
Ella paused, looked like she was trying to decide whether to tell me something or not and then made her decision.
“She wouldn’t love me if she knew that the only reason I went off with her in the first place was because I wanted you. I did it to get at you”
That threw me for a couple of seconds.
“I have to say that was an act worthy of me, well done you. But you know, love does come from unexpected places, if it chooses to come at all, perhaps Róisín is the one for you”
“There is something about her, I can’t explain it – not easily – not in words. Sometimes she feels like home. Do you know what I mean?”
Did I know what she meant? Sadness swamped me. Not for the first time I fought tears that once started wouldn’t know when to stop. Instead, I squeezed her hand.
“Then you shouldn’t let that go”
“I don’t know. Home is such an illusive concept, I should know. I feel comfortable with her but sometimes I want more. It’s like a craving, like for fags or sugar, you know it’s bad for you and will eventually kill you but you still want it”
“You don’t have to explain that one to me, baby, believe me. If anyone’s followed their vices to their own destruction, it’s me. I’m a woman with a 20 a day habit who’ll fuck anyone who takes her fancy. It’s not an admirable trait, so who the hell would I be to criticise you? Speaking of which, I don’t suppose you’ve got any fags on you?”
She shook her head, laughing.
“Never mind, it’ll do me good. It’ll be good for – good for my immortal soul”
“I think it’s going to take more than not smoking a couple of fags”
“Sadly, I believe you’re right. I’m spiritually fucked”
“We both are”
A hundred years of dirt, dust and underlay. The dry cleaner would sneer at me, disgusted that I should treat such a fabulous suit so badly. And I would give her a smile that implied that it was worth it; even if the suit were ruined beyond repair it had been worth it. It was worth it to feel the weight of Ella’s body on mine, pressing me, holding me down. Worth it that her tongue was finally in my mouth, her hands skimming my body. The knees of the trousers with their slight flare and fine pinstripe taken out as I flipped her over and knelt above her so I could see the heat in her face, her weather predicting eyes forecasting a storm. If the suit had to go for rags, then it was worth it.
In between kisses I managed to gasp:
“Are you sure about this?”
She nodded, her hair brushing my face.
“I’m bad news, you know that?”
“You know that I’m likely to disappear again?”
“That I’m likely to fuck the first person that takes my fancy, regardless of gender, regardless of you?”
“I just want us to be clear because – because – o god, Ella I want you inside me and if – if we’re going to stop, stop now”
“I don’t want to stop”
“Christ Ella, fuck me. Please”
The rightness of her paint stained fingers filling me was undeniable; I opened my legs to let her in, gasping against the pressure of them driving up high and hard. The come was quick and hard, me holding on to her wrist, keeping her hand inside as my cunt convulsed around her fingers. Slowly, she withdrew them, letting the tips stroke my clit, gradually, gradually building everything back up, loosening the song in my head. Singing summer, sunshine in open fields and blue skies with no clouds, no clouds, just sunshine and blue and the touch of her fingers on me building me up, up. Up, up and out, singing out and arching up into the tips of her fingers, her name in my mouth, on my lips. Something so close to love. Look at me, Ella, open your eyes.
“O my god, Ella”
“Are you hungry?”
“Me too. Wait, that’s probably because all I had for lunch was coffee and two cigarettes”
Ella propped herself up on her elbow and looked at me, her eyes warm.
“My house is just round the corner, come on I’ll cook you something. It’s pretty obvious neither of us is going to get any work done this afternoon”
I peered at my watch. It was 5.30.
“Have you got fags at your house?”
“We’ll get some on the way”
I sat at the old fashioned, well scrubbed table letting nicotine race round my blood stream screaming its head off like a hyperactive six year old. Following my vices to my own destruction. Ella moved around the kitchen, still in her overalls but with that ease in her body that comes after a fucking, like everything’s been put back together properly. The thought made me smile; she caught it and looked quizzical.
“What’s that secret smile for?”
“O nothing, I was just thinking how gorgeous you are”
“That’s okay then”
I watched her as she prepared food. Only spaghetti sauce, she said, chopping onions and garlic, frying off minced beef.
“I don’t mind, I could eat the proverbial horse”
“It’s Róisín who’s the proper cook”
Aware of what she’d just said, she glanced at me, but I found I didn’t mind.
“I mean, I can cook. I had to learn after my parents died”
“When was that?”
“When I was 15”
I bet there are huge chunks of her life you know nothing about, I bet you don’t even ask her.
“O god, Ella, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise”
She looked at me over the pan she was stirring.
“I came back to live here as soon as I could. About two days after my 16th birthday, I insisted. The family were not best pleased”
“I can imagine”
I don’t know why I said that, of course I couldn’t imagine. I couldn’t imagine being orphaned at 15 and being strong enough, forceful enough to come back and live in a house that must hold so many memories, so many ghosts. I was used to a house of ghosts, not all of them dead, but I hadn’t chosen to live there by myself; in fact, I’d chosen to get out as quickly as I could, staying out later and later, longer and longer until the day I could leave for good. However, what I could easily imagine was family disapproval, the lingering looks of resigned disappointment, the unshakeable feeling that you are constantly never being quite good enough.
Ella drained the pasta, put it onto two plates and covered it with the sauce. She put one down in front of me.
“You don’t mind eating in here, do you? There is a dinning room but I can’t say I ever use it. It’s – it’s full of stuff”
“No, here’s fine. I like the kitchen, it’s like the heart – ”
“Like the heart of the home? Spoken like a true Raminski”
“This is really good”
“You’re only saying that because you’re shag hungry”
“Maybe, but it’s still really good”
When we’d finished eating, Ella lit two cigarettes and handed me one, we sat smoking in silence. After a while she looked at me, her expression difficult to read.
“There’s something, something I’d like to show you but I’m afraid you might think I’m weird”
“Show me anyway and let me make up my own mind”
Ella got up from the table and went into another room. Not the sitting room, I remembered that from the last time I was here, but the room next to it. The door had been very firmly shut, I remembered, and I’d thought that odd as all the other doors in the house she kept wide open. It must’ve been the dinning room, the one she never used. She reappeared, shutting the door behind her, and carried over a box that she put down on the table. It was an old shoe box, a dusty green, faded on the top, with Clarks written in black cursive script on the side. She lifted the lid. Inside was padded with cotton wool and nestled in that were a number of small objects wrapped in kitchen roll, a pattern of orange flowers still vivid along the edges. Ella took one of the kitchen rolled objects from its resting place and carefully unwrapped it. Inside was a fawn made of lead crystal, its eyes studded black, its head and body faceted so that it caught the overhead light and shone through the spectrum. Ella set it gently on the smooth wood of the table top before taking another out. This time it was a bear standing on all fours, on closer inspection I could see it was a polar bear, carved out of ice. Ella put him next to the fawn. In all there were 20 of them, and Ella unwrapped each with infinite care and set them out like a crystal zoo, a parade of animals. Not quite Noah’s Ark as most of the animals were unpaired, but something better by far. They sparkled and glowed on the kitchen table amongst the dirty plates and the over full ashtray. Words failed me.
“Ella, I - ”
She picked up a magpie, holding it gingerly between her fingers.
“They were my mother’s. She’d never have let me touch them like this”
There was a horse:
She nodded. The horse was cold and hard, the facets abrupt but not sharp edged. He was every little girl’s fantasy horse. One that could carry you for miles, far away from home, far away from everything. He dazzled me under the kitchen strip light.
“Which one is your favourite?”
She shook her head and I was afraid it was too much for her but she smiled.
“This is the first time I’ve looked at them in 10 years. It’s like I deliberately forgot them. Give me a second to remember”
I put the dazzling horse back in the animal parade, the little girl still gripping me. Ella was surveying and itemising them like Noah with his list. Eventually she found what she looking for. It was a tiger. She held him up on the palm of her hand as if she was introducing us. The tiger’s stripes were made of smooth, clear and slightly rough, frosted glass, his ears tipped to catch the light, his eyes beady and alert black. She placed him back down next to the horse. Horse and tiger. Me and her.
“I had to pack them away. I had to so I could get on with living in the house. I’ve never shown them to anyone else, not to Róisín, not even to Annie”
I glanced up at her, her eyes were bright.
“Don’t put them back in the box and exile them to your dinning room, not now they’ve got a taste for freedom”
“Don’t worry, I won’t”
She was standing by the window. I stood behind her and put my arms around her, resting my forehead against her shoulder.
“I’d ask you what you’re looking at but I’m afraid I’d be repeating myself”
“Funnily enough, next door’s cat is down the bottom of the garden again. I think she’s got a mouse, she’s acting very skittish”
“I know how she feels. Come back to bed”
Ella lay on her side, I curled myself around her and she held onto the hand I’d slipped round her stomach. I never thought I’d be in her bed again, never be this close to her, just skin on skin. I could feel the rise and fall of stomach with her breathing; it was steady but she was still awake. I pushed myself into her back.
“What are you thinking, baby?”
“Just how things don’t turn out the way you think they will”
I kissed her shoulder.
“Well, I suppose if we could tell the future, life would be very dull. Or we’d be very rich”
She was still and quiet for a while after that. I thought she’d fallen asleep and was dozing off myself when she spoke and startled me awake.
“Thank you for not laughing at the animals”
I pulled her in tighter.
“Thank you for showing them to me”
Again, she fell quiet.
“What am I going to do about Róisín?”
I stroked her hair, her shoulders, her back.
“Let’s not worry about that now. Things might look different in the morning”
I woke. I woke because Ella was kissing me awake. Half asleep, I put my arms around her and pulled her down into a full kiss, smiling against her lips.
“That’s a very nice way to wake up, even nicer than Charlotte Green reading the news, and believe me that takes some beating”
“I’ve made you some tea. I’m afraid I’ll have to go soon, try and catch up on the work I didn’t do yesterday afternoon”
I rubbed my eyes and looked at the bedside clock. It was 8.00. I shot out of bed.
“O Christ, why didn’t you wake me earlier? I’m going to be so late”
She sat on the edge of the bed and gave me a smile that undid me.
“You were so beautiful asleep; I couldn’t bring myself to wake you up”
“Yes, baby, that’s all very lovely but I don’t have time to go home and get changed. O god, look at the state of my suit!”
She lay back on the bed.
“It was worth it though, eh?”
I threw the jacket at her.
“Relax, you can wear something of mine”
I stood hands on hips scowling at her, she leapt off the bed and kissed me; a kiss that weakened my knees and my resolve.
“Have a look in the wardrobe, see if there’s anything you fancy”
I arrived at work half an hour late wearing a white shirt that was a little too large for me and black jeans that fitted perfectly, much to the amusement of Katrina who lifted her eyebrows at me. I raised my hand to her.
“Don’t even ask”
“I don’t know, Jenna, bunking off yesterday afternoon, arriving half an hour late in clothes I’ve not seen you in before. Have you got a new bloke on the go?”
“Something like that”
“Anyone I know?”
I had to bite my tongue at that one. I could hardly say yes, your husband’s cousin, the one I pulled at your wedding, could I? Luckily she didn’t push it.
“There’ve been a couple of calls for you. Elisa Mainwaring rang to reschedule your meeting, and said that she hoped you’d managed to sort out the crisis, whatever that was”
“Right, I’ll give her a ring in a minute. Who was the other one from?”
Katrina looked at her message pad.
“An Annie Weston, she didn’t want to leave a message”
Everyone has a point, a point you can’t push them beyond. I sat at my desk in Ella’s shirt and jeans, her smell on me: her deodorant, her shower gel, her washing powder. Everything about me smelled of Ella. I sat at my desk and wondered where Annie’s point was. Which was she going to hate me the most for doing: telling Ella or sleeping with Ella? The old part of me told myself to chill out, after all Annie couldn’t take the moral high ground, hadn’t she seduced me at the gallery knowing full well that I was Ella’s love life complication? Hadn’t I said that I couldn’t promise not to fuck things up? But then my brand new conscience bit me. Annie in her candlelit bathroom taking care of me, stopping me from saying something I might regret, me stopping her from making the same mistake.
Why did I have to make life so complicated for myself?
Annie’s studio: I was wandering round picking up and putting down things. Annie was sitting in her armchair watching me.
“What’s the matter?”
I turned to look at her, a Victorian green glass bottle in my hand.
“What makes you think something’s the matter?”
“You won’t settle; that’s usually a sign that you’ve got something on your mind”
I placed the bottle gently back down on window sill, keeping my back to her.
“I’ve done two things you’re not going to like”
“Go on, tell me”
“I’ve told Ella about you and me”
“Right. And what was the second thing?”
I looked at her over my shoulder.
“I slept with her”
Again, she paused, her face giving nothing away.
“Well, I guess Ella did see you first”
Her apparent lack of concern perplexed and then slightly angered me.
“Ella saw me first? Christ, Annie, we’re not 14 year olds”
From her armchair, Annie was giving me her steady gaze, the one that cut through all the bullshit. I flushed.
“No, we’re not. And I’m not your moral guardian. You can do what you like”
“You don’t care?”
Silver grey eyes levelled directly at me.
“I didn’t say that. I just said I couldn’t stop you doing what you wanted”
I leant against the window sill, my face in my hands.
“What do you want, Jenna? I’m making it easy for you”
There was an edge under the cool of her voice, I dropped my hands and looked at her. She was slumped in the chair, her face closed down apart from her eyes. They shone with something I couldn’t quite recognise. Anger? Hurt? Disappointment? My laugh, when it came out, was hollow.
“Easy? None of this is easy, believe me. I wish it was. I wish it was a case of being able to make a choice and sticking to it”
“People have to make choices all the time, Jenna. It’s part of being adult, part of being human”
“Is this where you tell me I can’t have my cake and eat it? Believe me, you don’t have to tell me that one, I’ve heard it all my life”
“Well, if we’re being literal, it is physically impossible. Maybe morally it is too”
“Of course, you know what it is I’m frightened of, don’t you?”
“Making the wrong choice”
“It’s not a decision I can make for you, I’m afraid. But I will say one thing”
I looked at her. Her face was still closed, resolute.
“You can go to Ella with my blessings but you can’t have us both”
Concluded in part 10
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