Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 117 in February, 2009.
“We’re here,” he said.
She pulled up, as advised. The young man opened the door and stepped out. He looked back into the car for a moment. “Your cheeks are white, why don’t you come in with me?” he asked. “I can give you something hot: strong tea with lots of sugar, there might even be a biscuit.” He shut the door gently, walked the short distance to the gate and waited for her to follow.
“As you can see,” he said, “I’m not the only one who rents a bed-sit here.” He pointed to the motley collection of bikes.
“I’m lucky,” she lied, “I live alone.”
“By the way,” he said, “my name is Tom.” He held out a hand.
Her body hesitated. Why go any further? I can pay him now and leave.
It was safe to enter. Something let her know – an invisible hand, not his.
“Come with me,” he smiled, “you look a bit shook. I’ll make you the tea, strong and sweet.”
The house outside was dark brick, in need of repainting. And soon, she thought. Too much neglect, nothing survives neglect. The cut stone steps were falling away, broken at their foundation, dangerous. She placed her feet carefully to avoid the fault; two at a time she went. The front door was black, but not always, layers of youthful colour broke out and cracked up its skin.
Inside, a heavy brown staircase opened its mouth, ready to swallow them up. It was familiar territory. She had been brought up in one of these grand Dublin houses. They were all the same. Dismal.
“I’m sorry, it’s a little grim,” Tom said, locking the door firmly behind her.
The smell was different, not as she remembered. Here there was an aftertaste: fried bacon, stale and rancid, clung to the walls.
“It’s up two flights,” he motioned.
She said nothing, but laid her hand on the smooth clear varnish of the handrail. It shone, out of character with the rest of the hall. The dull patterned carpet was threadbare – no grip for her feet. Care required. No more accidents today.
“We’ve arrived.” Tom touched her arm as if to wake her. “This is mine,” he said.
He unlocked the three separate mortice locks and pushed open the door. A harsh light filled the tiny lobby. There was no room for them to stand together so she waited on the threshold, exposed by the glare. Her foot slipped, unsure of the saddle, worn at its centre from too many crossings. She knew it was mad to enter, but balance had gone, her body tipped forward – saved by a pile of boxes.
“Please could you take off your shoes?” He was out of range and did not notice her clumsy approach. Tom had stooped down to unlace his runners. “I sleep on the floor. I don’t like the dirt of the street to penetrate my dreams.”
Dreams. So, he’s a man of sweet dreams. She stretched a hand across her brow. Fatigue had taken hold.
The hallway was lined with books and opened out onto a larger room; some limp floral curtains hung over the small window.
“Can I open it?” she asked. “I need a breath of air.”
“Sure, let me undo the lock.”
There was a view of sorts, lightly obscured by a film of dirt. A purple buddleia burst forth from the dark brick wall – dilapidated and falling down – a seed had landed on it. Why would a wild flower stop here, in this place? she wondered. Why not stop somewhere more beautiful and find a kindred spirit? There’s not even a dandelion sprouting from the concrete yard. She turned to face the room. His bum is cute, perhaps that’s the attraction.
“Sit down, why don’t you.” Tom pulled out a chair for her. “I’ll put the kettle on. What will you have? A tea bag? Coffee?”
“I’ll have the strong tea,’ she said. ‘Remember?”
She looked about the room to find some knowledge of him; her eyes rested on a book and ran along its spine: One Act. A catchy cover of orange and blue. She wanted to handle it. Look inside. Eleven Short Plays of The Modern Theatre. She knew nothing of the theatre. Her life was devoid of that type of artistry. So, he has an interest in drama. That makes a change.
She stretched her limbs; her body was beginning to ache – holding too tight with shoulders bunched. I must let go.
She lay back and observed him from the comfort of his one easy chair: worn at the arms and stained irreversibly. The kitchen ran along the back wall, everything to hand. He works at his tasks methodically, no sign of shock at all. She couldn’t make it out. He picked up a mug from the drainer and wiped it with a dirty cloth. No shaky hands. The sink was piled high with grimy pots and plates. Washed as needed. He’s a practical man.
Tom lit an incense stick, stuck it in a ball of plasticine and placed down solidly on the shelf beside her.
“This gets rid of unpleasant smells,” he said, “I don’t like to feel as if I’m living in the kitchen.”
“I know what you mean,” she said.
And I know nothing, she thought. Why does he bother about the smell if he can live with the rest? A man of odd perceptions. She was curious. Why the One Act plays? He’s a contradiction: gentle and squalid all at once. Hand to mouth and educated – a choice existence. To be envied? she wondered.
He put three tea bags in a stained teapot and set it down on the table with two mugs, a packet of flapjacks, and a chipped bowlful of sugar. The tea was left to get strong. He walked across the room and pulled some clothes out of a cupboard.
“I’m going to have a wash,” Tom informed her.
“OK,” she said, as if granting permission.
She sat alone, staring after him. She heard running water. Sounds like a shower. He’s so uninhibited, she thought. I could never do that, with a visitor left sitting in my own living room. She poured the tea and added two spoons of sugar. He’s forgotten to put the milk out. She found the tiny fridge and opened the door; it too was filthy. She took out the container, looked at the sell-by date and laughed, what use? I don’t know even know what day it is. It can’t kill me. The tea was dark and sweet; she hated it that way. But as she drank the foul tasting liquid she felt better and pondered on the strangeness of acquiring new tastes.
He reappeared, this time barefoot and dressed in soft clothing. Tom was ready. His hair was wet and flung forward. She could smell its freshness.
“That’s better,” he said, “now I’ve washed away the bruises. Thanks again for the lift.”
“It was the least I could do.” She suddenly remembered why she was there, dug deep into her handbag and pulled out a chequebook. “How much do I owe you for a new bike?” she asked.
“Oh, I think two hundred will do,” he said. “It was a fairly new racer.”
She opened it and saw the two names printed at the bottom of the cheque. Jack and Fiona. Joined in matrimony. She signed, making it payable to cash. No need to record his name. The cheque tore easily at the perforation. She handed it to him.
“My name is Fiona,” she said, “I forgot to say. And thanks for the tea Tom.”
“Fi-o-na,” he articulated slowly, “want to go to bed?” There was no time for response, he continued without pause. “It’s over there, I can pull it out.” His sad eyes pointed to the rolled up mattress behind her. “I’m tired, how about you? It must be the shock,” he said. “You can have a shower if you want – it eases the pain.” He stood close to her.
“You’re not in pain are you?” she asked, horrified. “You said you were OK.”
“I’m only joking,” Tom smiled and traced her cheek with the back of his finger. “Don’t worry so much. I think you’re the one who could do with a bit of comfort.”
She noticed his lips for the first time. Not like the old thin line waiting at home – but soft and full and young.
The bathroom was like the rest of the bed-sit, tidy and dirty all at once. Fiona took off her clothes and stacked them carefully on the lid of the lavatory seat. They must not fall; the floor’s too wet. Don’t slip. That’s all I need – to be taken away and Jack called in to identify the naked body. Would he even recognise it? She stepped into the shower tray and turned the handle. The hot water relaxed her. Blood beginning to flow again. What next? Her wedding band stuck fast, no budge on it. She lifted a bar of soap from the slimy dish and rinsed it well. There were odd times like these when she was fussy about what touched her body. She twisted the ring, easing it off her fleshy finger. What now? Turn off the shower. No, a few moments more. I need time to transform. What am I doing here? Fiona got out and shook herself free. Her wedding band sat, oblivious, in the bottom of her bra cup.
Tom was already tucked up in bed. He looked up at her and swung the duvet over to make a space. ‘I’m sorry but I don’t always come first time.’
“You do as you please,” she said, dropping the grubby towel in a heap.
The initial effort was over; he eased himself out and slid down beside her.
He turned to face her, “I don’t like to leave a job unfinished.”
“It’s OK, I’m a little sore – it’s been a while.”
“Don’t worry,” Tom said, “I’ll fix all that.” He caught her falling breast and kissed it tenderly.
But she lay there in someone else’s bed thinking of home and Jack’s hand: slim, beautiful, indifferent. Is this lovemaking? she wondered. Tom’s soft lips brushed behind her ear. He flicked his tongue to the front. The small of her back shivered. His saliva cooled on her skin.
Jack had kept his pale eyes shut, always. Why can’t you look at me? she demanded in those early days. He told her not to be stupid. I’m long sighted, he said, that’s all, it hurts me to be too close to anyone, don’t take it personally. But she had. She couldn’t love a pale ginger corpse. He had been the object of her desire; that was all. She fell for his willowy frame and fine bones. Strawberry blond with a dusting of amber freckles – he was ethereal – not ready to be caught and pinned down like a dead butterfly. Behind clever gold frames, his eyes were enlarged. All the better to see you with, he joked. But in bed, they had no such props.
Tom’s hand interrupted, it was warm and began patiently and evenly to dispel the chill of her thoughts. Then, without warning he took it away, she felt bereft and close to tears. He put two fingers up to his mouth to catch some spittle and quickly returned his hand. Tears poured out of her, unstoppable. He caught them with his tongue and kissed her face again and again until she could feel him hard beside her. His fingers made way, and he entered easily, but her eyes were too full of tears to see his. Soon there was no need…