By Eilish Mulholland
He was standing down the street at the bus stop when he saw them pass by. A little lean round the jowls and with a length of copper pipe in their hand they reminded him of a small group of peacocks he once saw on television who preen themselves in order to assert dominance. He felt his shoulders hunch, reflexively pulling his denim jacket tighter around him as he melted into the brickwork. These were hard lads. Hard lads who called him a coward and spat at him because he wouldn’t join in like a kid in the school yard. Hard boiled. Fitted out for the cause and fed on such myths of fire and bloodshed as those rebel songs his da used to quote to him whenever he’d talk about his great grandfather chasing the black and tans away from Donegal. He thought what his father told him was rubbish. As far as he was concerned this grandfather’s shotgun was little more than a glorified keepsake. It was something to dust off, an object to mention once a year when a campaign went well and to vent your frustrations out on when a campaign failed with quick bursts of sporadic gunfire at the neighbourhood magpies. In the morning he’d often find the bullet casings next to their hardened corpses or a wing wrenched off where the bullet had shot through the bone and scattered. He’d often touch them softly, looking into their black eyes and feeling their clawed feet that were ice cold from sitting out in the frost overnight and feel disgusted at his father’s lack of empathy for defenceless creatures.
He thought about this as blew on his hands, shoving them under his armpits for warmth and cursed to himself. It was cold. Autumn was giving way to the chill sweep of winter and his wardrobe hadn’t caught up yet. He peered into the foggy morning and tried to look for the bus. The car headlights were dim, emerging from the mist like candlelight and fading by the amber spark of their taillights. He coughed, shifting his feet in his shoes and felt his nose begin to stream. He sniffed, cleared his throat and jingled his feet with impatience. He started cursing the bus, cursing the government, cursing the idle timetabling that compelled the bus company to only run a bus through here every 2 hours, he cursed his father for not allowing him to get a car, he cursed himself for being a bad driver and he was cursing the very nature of the world when she appeared out of the mist and stood beside him. She was blonde, small, wearing a suede coat covered in matted sheepskin and was trying to light a cigarette with great difficulty while balancing a large leather case in her left hand. She stood beside him and they both ignored each other. He was still gloomily meditating on his bad luck when her lighter clicked in his ear. This motion continued for some time, incessantly interrupting his thought process with an irritating pop as the lighter fluid drained back into its holder and he found himself glaring at her.
“Jesus would you stop that.”
The words had slipped out of him. Harsh, cold words that made his face flush scarlet because he could feel the tension in face and knew he looked like a surly bastard.
She blinked at him. He could see the recognition pass over her face as she contemplated his words. She stared at him, slowly, looking him up and down with a quick observation and she smiled, her teeth pointing over her lip in a crooked manner.
“Not my fault! Lighter’s on the blink anyhow.”
She dropped the plastic case on the ground and looked up at him, holding an unlit cigarette between her fingers like a pen.
“You have a light by any chance?”
He balked, patting his pockets down hurriedly until he located his strip of matches and lit one for her. The flame hissed, flared up and he cupped it gently with his hand, bending down to her level as she turned her face and sucked gently, exhaling over her shoulder in a long stream of smoke.
She tapped the ash onto the pavement and looked at him.
“What you waiting on?”
He looked at her confused.
“Er, the bus?”
He pointed up to the sign above his head where a brief outline of a bus was painted onto a wooden board. Someone had daubed I.R.A over its sides in thick black paint so it looked like a crude advertisement rather than a symbol of public transport.
She looked up and rolled her eyes at is gesture.
They both laughed, and he smiled at her and shaking his head.
“You’re sharp aren’t you?”
“Not sharp just pissed.” She paused and took another drag of her cigarette before adding that she was cold like an after thought.
He paused trying to think of what to say.
“What are you waiting on?”
She looked down at her feet, contemplating the cracked patent leather of her boots.
“Ah Yeah. Same. Going to work?”
She squinted up to look at him.
“Something like that. You’re mighty inquisitive for someone at 9am.”
She paused, her eyebrow raised and he felt he needed to respond with something witty.
He smiled at her, flashing his slightly crooked teeth at her and said “Well my mother always said I was too inquisitive for my own good. She said God stuck a rocket up my ass when I was born.”
She laughed at his comment and he felt a pleasurable sensation rush through him. Her laugh was loud, cutting across the cold air like a knife as it rang with genuine mirth.
“You’re a quick one aren’t you?”
He shuffled his feet against the pavement and made a noise of agreement.
“What do you do when you’re not waiting on buses then?” She exhaled another cloud of smoke, sending her vapour straight up into the air like an arc.
“Read?” She seemed faintly interested in his response. “That’s unusual around here. I thought you’d be for the cause.”
A wave of panic swept through him. He stuttered.
“No, no of course I’m for the cause I just-“
She interrupted his garbled excuse with a snort of amusement.
“Slow down! I’m not an informant I’m just messing with ya.”
He tried to laugh and felt his voice break a little.
“Oh right yeah.”
She looked at him again and offered her hand out to him.
“Sorry. I was just messing honest. I’m not one for politics. I’m Angie.”
“Oh Ah, I’m James. Not one for politics either.”
“James.” She repeated his name out loud and he felt it sounded odd to hear her say it. He was conscious of her hand in his and he studied it for a minute. Her hands were different from anyone else’s he’d encountered before. They were not like his mother’s, broad as a bed slat and hardened from years of housework. Her hands were soft and elegantly shaped. She had painted her nails a metallic colour which was wearing off round the edges so you could see a sliver of pale pink nail underneath, escaping like a flash of light back on itself like one of those black hole boomerangs he’d read about in his science monthly magazine. A small silver ring encircled her index finger and it bit into his palm as she shook his hand.
“So James, this bus seems a bit hopeless doesn’t it?”
He consulted his watch and saw that it was half nine, the bus was incredibly late.
“Yeah it does. Do you-“
He gestured with his thumb to the road behind him.
“Well I’m gonna walk in if you’d like to join me?”
He felt himself blush slightly as he added quickly.
“I’m not a serial killer or anything like that though.”
She laughed again and smiled at him.
“James, I think you’d the first serial killer who’s ever admitted their motives publicly if you were one. But yes, I’ll walk but I may slow you up on account of my shoes.”
She pointed one foot out, turning her heel out elegantly so he could see the stacked sole beneath the leg of her jeans.
“No, you won’t.”
He gestured his hand in a forward motion and she followed after him, her boots clicking on the pavement as they walked in silence. They turned onto the main road and he let a few cars zoom past them before he spoke again.
He tested the name in his mouth. It felt heavy, clunking against his teeth because he wasn’t used to it’s quick tone. He’d grown up in a house full of flowery girl’s names. The likes of Bernadette, Mary, Siobhan, Saoirse and Niamh’s which had the colour of an elongated morphology that made the tongue retreat into the mouth and was so alien compared to the pointed ending of her name.it was like holding a pebble under his tongue and feeling it click against the roof of his mouth.
She turned her head towards him and he couldn’t help but smile.
“Er, what do you do when you’re not waiting on buses?”
“What do you draw?”
“Oh people, places and stuff.”
“You don’t seem impressed James.”
“No, no, it’s not that I’m not impressed I just think that’s wild,being able to re-create something.”
“Ah well it’s pretty easy. You just close your eyes and move your arms.”
They begin to laugh at the image she’s created. Angie flaps her arms for emphasis in a comic fashion and they dissolve into giggles again.
“Oh Jesus that’s funny.” He wipes a tear from his eye and finds that Angie is staring at him intently. He stops, held by her gaze and she smiles at him. He notices that this smile seems different. Her mouth is turned up at the corners, she’s showing her teeth and seems to not care that she’s smiling so hard it’s crinkling the thin skin around her eyes. It’s like she’s been caught in a moment of carelessness, with the ghost of her laughter hanging in the air and he feels his stomach tighten.
Still, they keep steadily walking. Up past milltown cemetery where the wet lilies from a recent funeral are hanging limply at the gate, picking through the pavements filled with shop keepers sweeping last night’s rubble away from their doorsteps, feeling brief glimpses of heat from the steamy bakery yard where a fleet of little green 3 wheeled vans stand with their doors gaping open being stuffed with fresh loaves like a set of Foie gras poultry for some fancy restaurant. They both breathe in the glutinous air, feeling their mouths water as they sniff the scent of bread and he remembers his grandmother making soda farls on a Sunday morning before mass and how the butter would melt and drip over his fingers because the bread was still hot from the griddle and scorched his fingers as he picked at it. He feels compelled to share this memory with Angie, he had a feeling that she might share that same sensation but it seemed foolish to mention it.
They kept walking. Every so often the wind would come swirling from the east and they’d find themselves gasping, biting into the cold atmosphere as their cheeks grew increasingly red and they were unable to speak until the spasm of frostbite had left their bodies. He could feel how cold his skin was. Any time he looked down at his hands he saw they’d changed from a pale pink to a mottled purple. He tried flexing his fingers to form a fist, wincing when his skin puckered and snapped where the skin was dried and cracked from his work. His nails stared back up at him, little black crescents filled with dirt and he felt ashamed when he compared them to Angie’s. Her’s were a similar shade of marbled skin, except her hands were smooth and creamy coloured. They looked like they’d been moisturised every night and washed with imperial leather hand soap. She smelt good like fresh cotton and he thought that she wouldn’t look out of place on a soapbox or a television screen extolling the benefits of Sunbeam washing powder to housewives and children with a white bow in her hair. He felt dirty by comparison and shoved his hands deep into his pockets and tried to think about the last time he’d used soap properly and felt his ears turn red. It had been ages. In-between work and the polytechnic and training at the weekends he felt he’d never had time to actually be clean. Sure, he’d had the usual weekly bath, and the usual wash-down, standing shivering in the cold tiles as he briskly scrubbed himself with a flannel to get the day’s dirt off, but he’d failed to ever feel truly clean. There was always someone else looking in, the hot water was scarce enough and he didn’t like the idea of washing behind the old fire guard in the front room because someone was bound to come in and disturb him. What he wanted most was to have a proper bath. To sit in a bathtub overflowing with hot water and let himself soak deeply in it. there would be some bath foam, a soft warm towel for afterwards and he’d stay in there for as long as he wanted. His skin would be pink, his chest flushed and when he went under water to wash his hair, he’d let himself float for a while in the clean smelling water, imagining he was on a boat somewhere exotic and no one knew him and no one cared about him. He thought about the luxury of such a thing and wondered if he’d ever get to experience such a thing. Already his mind was making plans to rush home early and commander the bathroom for an afternoon. He had almost felt himself sinking into the water when Angie stopped at a leaf lined street and gestured towards some Victorian building painted white and red with a sweeping pebbledash drive.
She shifted her case in her hands and looked up at him.
“Well, I guess I have to go now. This is where I turn off.”
James nods, feeling intimidated by the building and her presence. He feels like he’s been slapped by her words and his mind moves to stall. Maybe he should ask Angie about getting coffee, feign a heart attack or fall into her arms.
Angie nudges his elbow.
“I think it’s customary to say goodbye in these instances.”
“Oh yeah, right.”
James smooths his hand against his jacket and grabs her outstretched hand. He shakes it twice, making her bangles jangle against her wrist until he drops her grasp and watches her retreat up the long drive, her coat swishing until she melts into a faint brown blob.