She had been shopping the day we met. She stood slouched in the angled lines of bitter rain, the evening tabloid smooth and slick across her head, her dark clothes hanging damply. No bags. The engine wheezed and coughed, surprisingly uneasy in the rain and cold. That was the first car, half-time. I was hunched forward towards the wheel, stiff-wristed, vigilant for drunks. I stopped abruptly at the rank where she stood and the car stalled. She pushed into the back seat, dropping her slippery paper, dragging the bottom of her dark overcoat in last. She used both hands to pull the door shut. I watched her in the rear-view, waiting.
Rathmines, she said. I indicated and began pulling away from the curb, windscreen wipers squeaking across the sheets of rain.
Up George’s Street?
Behind the crap Swann Centre.
Yep, I lied. My first day, my second customer-if you count the apricot of a lady with a thousand bags who wanted a lift from the middle of O’Connell Street to her bus-stop on Parnell, which takes four minutes to drive and five to walk. I couldn’t charge her, not that she was offering to pay, apart from a Tanks Luv and a strong little hand pressed onto the back of my head. I didn’t know Rathmines, didn’t know George’s much past the Long Hall, though there was an oddball drunk I’d scam off of at The Bleeding Horse for a time.
We found it after one important wrong turn. I quoted an amount £1.40 less than was showing on the meter.
There you go. She didn’t tip. Good luck on your first day. She laughed high in her throat. The rain lashed down. It was dark as dusk at 3.30. Two children ran with navy schoolbags on their heads across my low beams and into the front door of the apartment block. Neighbours’ kids, she said. Complete bitches. The noise a them!
Yeah. Thanks a million. I didn’t know what else to say, with her dripping and immobile in the back seat, and petrol sputtering through the engine. First day, and already a situation.
Want to come in for a cuppa? Warm yourself. I’d hate to arrive home empty handed after a day’s shopping. The same laugh, coming out of her nose.
Thanks, but I don’t have time.
Too bad. Will you wait here a sec? Just hold on a minute. She was out of the car and unlocking the glass front door. I saw her legs churning up a set of stairs, and I sat with hands wrapped firmly around the wheel. A beat later, she crossed through my headlights and appeared smiling at my window, rain on her wide face. Here, she said, thrusting a map book at me. You can owe me.
I was glad of the book, though I barely glanced at it. Just kept it on the seat beside me, a talisman for my new life from my first real customer. I told her as much when I dropped it back into her. You’re a fool, she said smiling. I was glad I’d met her on my first day. New life. It made sense to me.
Last year pre-Christmas, before I’d come to know her particular shopping foible, I spent days inside shopping centres. Each day we’d emerge with either something small for her, or nothing. She eventually gave money to her niece—the only person apart from me on her list—despite four months of toy stores and American mail-order catalogues from her phenomenal collection. Money, for a nine-year-old? Her niece, Alice, belongs to her sister, Sara-without-the-h. They were not close growing up. Sara teased her mercilessly about being a frump, always bought her makeup and hair-care products. Then Sara married an assistant director at Esat, which is easy to understand because she’s good looking. Then they had their starlet, and there was the whole babysitting fiasco, with them taking advantage of Auntie, and then offering to pay when she complained, and then cutting her out of the equation altogether when she refused the money. She still insists on buying Alice a Christmas gift each year: I don’t want her to grow up thinking I’m mean; I don’t want the bitch to have any ammunition. So each year Auntie hems and haws and chews her nails to nubs deciding what trinket to get the girl who has everything.
As for me, last year she hinted and fretted and hovered and wavered and asked and denied and then, when the crunch came, she gave me an exact amount of money to buy myself an exact thing. Blue house slippers, £34.99 at Brown Thomas. I took the money down in an envelope she’d prepared, with the item description and amount and location in the store written in pencil on the outside. I just handed the whole thing over to the sleek blonde in the Men’s Accessories department. I was uncomfortable in that store, listening to the ambient carols, feeling the perfect shopping temperature (just below warm to cool the adrenaline sweat). It was too easy within the store’s hermetic gentleness to confuse mannequins with salespeople.
The blonde seemed puzzled, loosening her pristine smile, and I shrugged and looked over at the perfectly-aligned stacks of silk scarves. Tiny little lines webbed out into her deep base from the corners of her tight little mouth. Oh, I see, just a moment. She walked slowly away. I moved over to the scarf table to ruffle silk.
Tight-mouth returned empty handed. Her fragrance arrived shortly after she did, something undoubtedly labelled “spicy” on an ambiguous glass bottle sporting someone’s sonorous bi-syllabic name: Halston, Oscar, Chanel, CK, Tommy.
I’m so sorry. We don’t have blue in this size. We have pearl grey or forest green left in this size. They’re reduced. As if a £4 price reduction was creating queues angling out from the slipper display.
I thought for a moment. Just blue, I said, get a pair of blue ones, as close as you can.
She smiled her tight little smile. Her face was blank.
I’m serious, I said. The size doesn’t matter. Just the blue.
Fine, she said. Just a moment. While she moved away, I took a quick scan around and knocked over the pile of scarves nearest the table’s edge. Helpfully kneeling to reassemble the crisp silk stack, I lifted the one nearest my left knee and shoved it into my coat pocket.
When tight-mouth returned, I waited for the ritual completion of our transaction, the swift percussion of the printing receipt, the mask of minion’s gratitude, the finality as for a moment both our hands clung to the plastic bag, giving and receiving.
I am untrustworthy now. I couldn’t hide my heels hanging out the back of the slippers on Christmas morning. She yelped and called me a fuckin’ eegit and when I said it didn’t matter because I wouldn’t be wearing them anyway but thought about leaving them coupled on the floor near the sofa, she got really angry. But you said … you said … Followed by tears. When her face was dry she refreshed her sparkling wine, in honour of Christmas morning, and told me I was no good.
I use the scarf in the car, to clean breath-fogged windows.
Town’ll be black today, she said this morning, though I knew what she meant.
Okay, I said. I was trying to listen to the traffic report on the radio, which was hard with her talking and the TV on. She likes it that way, with both media turned up. There were long shots of shoppers bustling. We were sitting on the blue chintz sofa, well worn with happy repose. She loves that sofa.
Do it another day, I said, setting my cereal bowl on the glass-topped coffee table. Saturday, maybe. The TV is showing close-ups of sophisticated toys, space-age people whose arms turn conveniently into rocket-launchers. The radio is music.
Saturday? Her portmanteau jowls hung lower as her mouth shaped the final syllable and remained open a beat longer.
Why not? I asked. She dug her spoon into her bowl and pushed it milk-dripping into her mouth. She chewed noisily. She kept chewing, long after the cereal had been decimated and washed down her throat.
It’s today she’s coming, you thick, she said.
You’re collecting her at six. Remember?
No reply from me.
When are you going out? she asked.
I’m thinking soon. Catch the early shoppers.
All the culchies, she giggled resentfully, like they were all going to purchase her stuff. She quickly wiped a droplet from her lip with the back of her hand. Her hand held a balled-up piece of floral paper towel, but she used her own flesh anyway, like the towel was more important, was being saved for something special. She can be odd like that. I’m not saying you know someone after seventeen months, but you know quirks, and you know the obvious foibles.
Didn’t you go out early yesterday? she asked. The TV was off toys and onto a historical segment about the Aztecs, who apparently practised blood sacrifices and cannibalism, disgusting the Spanish before the conquest by using human blood as a condiment for their food. Are you watching this? she asked.
I was out early yesterday, yeah. It was a good day.
Are you watching this?
I was busy with ladies and their bags and their wailing brats.
Can you believe this? She sighed then and folded her podgy hands in her lap, the pallor of her skin blending with the pale grey of her cotton track suit, both skin and cotton taut over flesh. Ladies and their bags, eh?
These are busy days.
Can you believe they’d do something like this?
Tis the season.
Shut up, I’m watching this.
Everyone and their grandmother is out there.
Shut up. Weren’t you out last night? she asked.
Hmm. It was a small sound, and her eyes were on a temple dedicated to the sun god and recently re-built by the Mexican tourist authority. I was glad of the distraction. I fabricated the Association. I couldn’t say I was driving around sometimes, and sometimes up at the canal. It was strange to go back there, in a car and all, driving slowly up, then over the small curve of the bridge, and back along the other, darker side. The dim silhouettes of night-black trees becoming rough bark and slivers of shadow in my headlights. Slow to a stop, check the mirror, wind the window vigorously down. The girls know me, of course. You can afford me now, they laugh, looking at the car. Or, Are you for hire? I rarely take advantage, though, and avoid the lads, who always say hello with their hands out now. I don’t care. I know where they’re at. I just don’t want the hassle.
I’ll go today, she said. Some other confluence of needs, apart from the quotidian gravities of kitchen and lounge, of morning’s grey and afternoon’s fading winter light. Can you drop me? she asked.
Just say when and where. My usual reply.
Are you watching? I can’t believe this.
We went to the shopping centre. She spent the first hour in the ladies’ section of Roches, and in the jewellery store, and leafing through soap opera digests in Eason’s. So I said, Let’s go.
But I haven’t got anything yet.
Give her cash. Keep up the tradition. This is ridiculous.
Give me a break.
It’s ridiculous. Let me take you home. Get a nice card. Let me drive you home, and go collect her.
I’m not ready. There’s time.
Would you come on?
Oh, thanks for your fuckin’ help.
No, thanks for your fuckin’ help.
Would you rather be out working?
You’re in love with that fucking car.
Okay, calm down.
No, you are. You’d rather be riding it than riding me.
For fuck’s sake. We can go to Argos. Did you try Argos?
It’s the new me, she mimicked.
Let’s go look in the catalogue. I took the magazine out of her hand and put it back on the display shelf.
New you for the price of a fuckin’ cab. Give me a fuckin’ break. She slowed then and looked down at her feet. Her shoulders heaved up, like she wanted to say something else, something different. But she turned and walked out onto Henry Street.
I collected Alice, and we drove over without speaking. I let her play with the radio, but not the meter. When we got to Auntie’s apartment, the TV and radio were emitting ads, up loud. Not a good sign—she wasn’t muting. Hello Alice, she said, bending over to hug the limp-armed girl. Both had faraway looks. There were no bottles and no glasses, which meant they’d been put away. It sounded like a Sunday paper on the radio and a mortgage deal on TV. This is the best of the bunch …For the lowest rate…
Go in there and watch TV sweetie and I’ll get you a glass of orange.
No thanks. She was swinging her arms, twisting her torso to and fro.
Ah go on. I got it specially for you.
Pause. Alice was standing in the doorway to the sitting room, looking at the tired brown carpet; we were in the tiny front hallway. I don’t like it, she said softly. Auntie’s head jerked at this quiet comment from waist height.
What? Silence. You go watch TV sweetie and I’ll bring it to you just in case.
Alice wasn’t moving, and she wasn’t moving either, just looking red-eyed at the top of the girl’s bent head, shredding balled-up paper towel. I have to go, I said. I’ll be back to get her for nine.
I came here, then, back to the centre. Not fancying anywhere else, not wanting the red glow of brake lights. Not wanting the emptying streets or the dark heavings of winter trees, or the wistful smell of mulching leaves. I prefer it here. Here there are people and there is bright fluorescent light bathing their cupidity. The people pluck at each other, tugging on bag-reddened fingers, and I sit apart. Their voices modulate between benign indifference and rasping spite, and I listen. Their limbs hang limply within limply hanging clothes. Their eyes focus dully on the cluttered debris mounded behind sheets of smudged glass, and I watch.
Driving back I take the long way round, along the canal. Still too early for business, though I can see one girl, well-dressed in jeans and her mother’s old coat, maybe, standing waiting by the bridge. She watches my car carefully, in her white-fluffy collar and bare head. She disappears and then I can see her in my rear-view—solitary spectre, the colour of amber street light.
There’s no traffic, so I’m there in minutes. I use my key to let myself in.
Alice is hysterical, mouth open, wailing, sitting against the wall in the hallway. She’s got the phone receiver clutched in both hands, but isn’t using it. She’s crying for her mother: Take me back, take me back, she says immediately I walk in. I switch on the hall light and kneel down next to her.
Okay, okay, Alice. We’re going now. Give me the phone. What happened? I take the receiver and replace it on the table set inside the sitting room door. I see her then. She’s sitting impassively on the sofa, watching TV with no sound. I re-direct my question: What happened? There’s a bottle out now, and a glass of orange drink on the coffee table.
It’s you, she says.
What’s going on? I ask. Alice has come a step back into the room, and is behind me, crying in short bursts.
She … bit … me, says Alice. Look. A raised pattern of teeth marks on her forearm. A daub of blood. Grazed skin.
How was the meeting? Her eyes don’t move from the screen.
What the fuck is this? I am holding out Alice’s arm.
She’s behind me still.
What is this?
Don’t shout at me. Her eyes tum, red rims glistening, sucking the heat out of the air, out of this moment. They are ice cold.
Alice is crying louder now, her voice becoming raspier.
I drop her arm. Let’s go, I say.
She … said … to … play … Indian. Deep gulps of air between each word. My heart goes out to her.
Let’s go, baby. Let’s go to your ma. Alice holds her arm out in front of her, like that makes it feel better. I get her jacket from the press in the hall.
Typical, she says.
You bit her, I say through the door.
It was a game.
Come on Alice. Let’s go to Sara.
You’re a prick, she screams at me from the sitting room.
She can’t stand up from the sofa. She wants to.
Say bye-bye to Auntie. Alice is opening the door.
You’re nothing but a fuckin’ junkie. We are outside, now, the door closed behind us, and at the car. I unlock my side first. The inside is still warm.
Put on your seatbelt, sweetheart, I say to fill up the terrible space.
I left my present. She has moved back to this side of tears. But only just.
Forget it. We’ll get it later.
I reverse quickly out of my spot.
She bit me. Hard.
I know. I know.
As we move forward, yielding before swinging heavily out onto the square, I tum on the meter, out of habit, for the comfort of the red numbers.