‘It’s not a flat, it’s an apartment.’
‘No it’s not. An apartment is just the posh word for flat. We live in a flat. You want us to buy a flat… accept it, Maura. For Christ’s sake, we’re not denizens of New York bloody City.’ But no – she wasn’t letting go. He knew that she was rehearsing this argument, expecting that she might have to deploy it against various sceptics on numerous occasions.
‘This is a flat.’ Her arm swept broadly around taking in the blocked-up marble fireplace, cracked ceiling high above and kitchenette to one side. ‘This is a part of a house that has been turned into self-catering accommodation.’
An apartment, on the other hand,’ – she was frowning slightly now, betraying a certain hesitancy, unknown to herself; those sort of leaks used to charm him, pull the heartstrings, now they merely amused him – ‘an apartment is purpose-built accommodation, it is designed to be something different than a house. You know this.’
Her curly red hair was falling into her eyes and an abrupt hand shifted it impatiently upwards. She was making breakfast of cornflakes and toast for them. She was still in her bed-wear-an old Marilyn Manson T-shirt that had been his at the commencement of the relationship, some five years previously but, like a lot of things, it had lost some of its shape and colour, he had lost his sense of owning it and it had inexorably moved towards that pool of items that were owned in common, that is to say by neither of them. Her long white legs hadn’t been shaved in a while and he could see the ink stamp of last night’s nite club still on the back of her graceful hand. Her pert breasts never needed a bra though lately she was wearing low-cut tops with a black push-up bra. Actually was she still wearing the bra these days? He no longer knew. Perhaps that was last year. He threw down the property supplement and drained his coffee.
‘An apartment. Indeed. How nice.’
Pausing momentarily to check he was in the right place, Dermot opened the door and stepped into Apollo Lounge. This time he was travelling under the guise of a school inspector down from Dublin carrying out a random spot check on some schools in the Wexford area. She was in the designated seat under the window, wearing the identifying red hairband. It was hard to tell exactly what she looked like from a discreet distance. She could well have been older than the admitted forty-five but it was clear that she at least wasn’t too heavy. Dermot strode purposefully toward her:
She nodded, smiling.
‘Hi! I’m Nero. How nice to finally get to meet you.’
They shook hands and smiled at each other, him trying to conceal his distaste, her looking like she was trying hard to regain control over the foolish grin that was forcing itself across her mouth.
‘My name is Bridget by the way.’
‘Bridget. One of my favourite Irish names. Great cross, love that design. My real name actually is Nero, but you can call me Seamus. What are you having to drink?’
Hers was a vodka and white, his a black pint. An hour passed and he felt it was time to move the proceedings along a little. Experience taught him that for a woman like this a big laugh followed by a low-key question predicated on her certain agreement should do the trick.
‘I’ll tell you Bridget some of the things that a schools inspector encounters, you wouldn’t believe it. I did a random spot check on a school in a townland of Roscommon a few months back. You will understand that I cannot give you the exact location. There was a classroom down the end of the corridor that they told me was disused but what do you know – when I went in hadn’t they turned it into a sports bar complete with big screen, surround-sound and oak-effect bar counter. Naturally I had a few drinks on them and caught some racing from Leopardstown before shutting the whole operation down.’
‘Really! ls that true?’ She gazed at him enchanted, slightly drunk.
‘That’s nothing-the stories I could tell you. The Mormons have taken over a gaelscoil in Mayo and turned it into a harem. There are parts of Dublin where the local convent school is renowned for the best head –and at a reasonable price mind. There’s a Christian Brothers school in West Cork where the brothers have the whole Junior Cert class turning out running shoes for Nike on a makeshift production line in the Physics lab. These days my role is more to do with stamping out vice and corruption than monitoring the teaching skills of teachers.’
‘I don’t believe a word of it.’ The laugh dying on her mouth, her voice was thick with drink and lust. He moved quickly.
‘Come to my room at the Imperial and I’ll show you the files.’ Later, in a guesthouse that smelt of damp and failure and irrelevance, they made love. She cried when he squeezed her tight in the death embrace of his orgasm. A moment later, standing on the repellent sticky lino of the cramped en suite toilet he had the strongest desire to discard her immediately like the condom he flushed down the forgiving toilet. He wanted to toss her out into the night, to throw her onto the landfill, to vaporise her, to compress her to a hundredth of her size and drop her in the bedroom’s plastic pedal bin. However, being both a civilised and a practical man, he did none of these things; merely dressing silently in the filtered amber streetlight of the mildewed bedroom. She continued to cry softly but made no attempt to stop him leaving when he muttered something about having to check on a late-night school with suspicious attendance figures in Gorey. He picked up his bag and walked out of the guest house and over to the nearby B&B that he always reserved in case of just such an unsavoury situation. This was his contingency plan but if there was one thing Dermot prided himself on, it was that he always fucked them – no matter how bad.
He woke early on a humid Saturday in August. He hadn’t closed the curtains properly and the early low-lying eastern sun was streaming straight into his eyes. He had a slight headache and his mouth was dry. A return to the oblivion of sleep was not an option. He picked up the Susan Sontag novel Maura had bought him and tried to read it but after half a page he threw it across the room in irritation. He was weary to the core and so bored that the weekend stretched out like a life sentence. With something that might have been nostalgia, he thought back to how Saturdays used to be: up late; down to the shop for a paper; over to the bakery for some bagels and croissants; returning home to freshly-brewed coffee. Loud music on the stereo or a video on the TV and nothing to be decided save maybe whether to catch an afternoon film before meeting friends in the city centre that night. If he had a hangover he might have a fry, if she was horny, they might spend a little longer in bed. But it wasn’t really what they did that mattered, it was more about how life felt then. It now seemed that he might have been content but he didn’t know it then.
It had happened one of those late May Saturday nights walking home in the monochrome light of an early dawn. Out of nowhere she suddenly got very serious. She said:
‘At the end of the day, Dermot, we are forming a life partnership, joining our resources to prepare for a great voyage together. We’ve had our fun and we may have more in the future but it is more serious than that. We can provide each other with a solid foundation from which to achieve great heights, to excel. We really have something, Dermot.’
He had grown used to distrusting his reactions while drunk – too many long rows defending foolish positions he didn’t even believe in – so he let it go. But afterwards, he felt that that had probably been the point from which things changed. Soon, there was a joint savings account, then the purchase of a smart saloon car and now there was a joint mortgage approval. He initially affected an ironic distance from it all, amusedly watching his life, their life, from the sidelines but now the amusement was starting to dwindle.
They were to see five apartments that afternoon. By three o’clock they were in the third. The estate agent was mocking the absent owner’s taste in decor and inviting Dermot and Maura to join with him in his elite club of superior decorative taste.
‘I love it,’ said Dermot, ‘wouldn’t change a thing.’ The tall slick bastard looked over suspiciously and then continued his tour, directing his comments only to Maura. When they walked out of the apartment, she turned on Dermot.
‘For God’s sake, do you always have to be so facetious. We need to keep on the right side of these guys – we’re going to end up buying a place off one of them.’
Dermot smiled and took his hand out from inside his jacket to display a small brass replica of the Eiffel Tower.
‘Hope we can find room for this in our new place!’
‘Oh Dermot! For God’s sakee! You promised me you would stop doing that.’
‘I was just a bit bored, you know. No harm done.’
‘Oh just fuck off!e’
She stormed off ahead of him down the street. She’d get over it. He made a point of getting a souvenir out of every goddamn place she took him to view. It particularly appealed to his sense of the ridiculous if his souvenir was itself a souvenir so he was feeling quite smug about the Eiffel Tower acquisition.
Today it was Sligo town and he was purporting to be a beauty products salesman covering the northwest region. She, the modestly code-named Dreamgirl, had nominated the Sligo Arms Hotel as the rendezvous and his probing eye quickly caught the red hairband in the hotel lobby. He walked by her, enjoying a certain invisibility by not wearing the agreed yellow sweater. The picture on the dating web site that had grabbed his attention and caused him to initiate the e-mail contact over the last few weeks had been of a sallow-skinned young woman, possibly from somewhere east of Berlin. The picture had been fair enough – she was OK-looking – but he had neglected to pay any attention to the height statistic further down the web page-she could barely have reached the coin slot in a condom machine! She looked towards him with anticipation but he avoided her eye and strode purposefully on towards the darkened bar at the end of the lobby. He was unsure how he wanted to play it but mindful of his long unbroken record of satisfying every e-date. Initially the bar did not look promising but presently a pretty lounge girl brought him a drink and soon he had persuaded her to join him for a drink on her imminent break.
She was interested in beauty products.
‘It was the Greeks that invented make-up back in the time of Plato – heard of him?’
‘Yeah. I think so-he was one of the pharaohs right?’
‘He was. He used to put make-up on all over his body and make love to the Christian slaves while the lions watched. If a slave didn’t please him he would throw him to the lions and watch them eat the loser. Gruesome stuff, but if the slave did please him, he would bring him back to his pyramid where the guy got to make love to his pick of the pharaoh’s women before going free. It was the mark of a free slave that he was allowed to wear make-up in public – you probably know all this already.’
‘Yeah I think I heard that – is it really true?’
‘It certainly is. You can verify it with any Egyptologist of your acquaintance. Indeed it is a damning indictment of the barbarity of our times that only women now wear make-up while men run around unadorned.’
‘Yeah. You’re so right. Why shouldn’t men get dolled-up a bit?’
‘Indeed.’ This was working.
‘Do you ever wear it? Make-up I mean.’
‘Only when I want to make passionate love to a slave with the lions watching – which is more often than you might expect.’ Here a laugh threatened to unmask him but he deftly turned it into a strangled cry.
‘Are you OK?’ Her small hand with purple-painted nails was rubbing his leg, moving ever so slightly up his thigh. Her pretty and delicately-featured face, bursting with feeling, was very close to his. He paused for a moment to emphasise the gravity of his request.
‘I need you to be my lion. Will you? Will you watch me make love to a Christian?’ She was unsure but he implored her.
‘Nothing bad ever happens to the lion. The good Pharaoh loves his lion – and rewards her. Come to room twelve upstairs when you’re finished tonight. Please. I need you.’
He headed for the toilets. It was a long shot, but even the thought that she might enter the room at any moment should be enough to see him through what might otherwise be an erotic non-event. He stepped into the cubicle and swapped his blue polo neck for a yellow jumper from his travel bag. He walked back through the bar, into the lobby and straight for Dreamgirl.
‘Dreamgirl? I am just incredibly sorry for being so terribly late. I’m Prince.’ He extended a hand, she paused to take him in from head-to-toe, perhaps making up her mind on whether to forgive him – and then shook his hand, beaming.
‘I’m so glad you’ve showed up.’
We’ve had our fun and we may have more in the future but it is more serious than that. We provide each other with a solid foundation from which to achieve great heights, to excel. We really have something, Dermot.
On a rainy Saturday night two weeks later, Dermot and Maura were in Cafe en Seine standing around the crowded bar talking with a group of assorted friends when the conversation took a turn towards the subject of Dublin property prices. Acting quickly and heroically, Dermot abruptly slumped and fell to the ground, spilling his pint over Maura. There was consternation, alarm, confusion. Maura was kneeling by him, talking urgently into his ear. The patrons immediately surrounding them hushed to a respectful silence watching the absorbing-hopefully serious-tragedy unfold. Dermot took a moment to savour his fun and then he sat up opened his eyes and joined his hands together:
‘I entreat you. All of you. Please do not mention the dreaded house price subject again. It corrodes the lining of my very soul. I fear I may not survive the next onslaught!’
Laughter, a chorus of comments, a helping hand to drag him back to his feet and then, a sharp ringing smack on the face from Maura.
‘Prick!’ She turned on heel and marched out. Declaring that it was lucky he was not sensitive, Dermot headed for the bar to buy a round of drinks for the crew. Later, as he kissed a girl out celebrating her Leaving Cert results in the taxi home, he thought about how no matter how much better older women were at the technique of kissing, the young ones always tasted fresher. This kid was in the moment, actually kissing him with her whole mind and body, not just deploying her kissing expertise while her disengaged mind went where it wished. Poor Maura was well into her thirties now-he really should leave her. He was just guiding the eager beaver’s hand towards his cock when the taxi pulled up outside his Rathgar flat. He threw her a tenner for the fare, slipped in the hall door and crept towards the couch hopeful of a quiet night’s sleep.
We provide each other with a solid foundation from which to achieve great heights, to excel. We really have something, Dermot.
‘Look. We’re not criticising your work as such. Everybody knows that you are one of the best developers.’
‘You flatter me’, Dermot, his most supercilious tone.
‘All right, all right. The point is that there is no justification for all these travel expenses. What were you doing in Waterford yesterday? Tullamore on Monday?’
Dermot shrugged. ‘Work. Face-to-face, one-on-one with the client, you know-all the relationship management stuff that differentiates us from the competition.’
‘And look at this! You put in for a hotel in Wicklow last week. It’s only forty miles away, for God’s sake. Everyone else here works over the net and over the phone. There is no need to be on-site with a client to develop their website. I don’t know what you’re up to but I cannot continue to sign off these expenses, Dermot. I’m sorry.’
‘OK. Message received.’ He stood up to go.
‘Wait. You seem a bit… off these days. Is there something wrong? Something you want to talk about? As a friend.’
‘Well. .. there is one thing: that new graduate you took on in the Content team-she’s as ugly as hell. I mean, Jesus, we’ve precious few females here as it is. I thought it was our mission to always employ the best. I look at her and I get depressed Paul, you know. She makes my cock feel clammy and useless. Is it any wonder I have to get out of the office.’
Paul stood up, the smile fading from his thin lips.
Unfortunately for him, he was in no position to fire Dermot. ‘Yeah, Dermot. Whatever. I’ve got to catch up on some voicemails.’
Dermot gave the old-fashioned chain a vigorous tug and the toilet flushed noisily, his stool disappearing in a rush of disinfectant bubbles. The water from the hot tap was cold and he used several of the posh napkins to dry his hands. He stepped out into the hall. Maura shot him a furious look. The ever-hovering estate agent had a face like a headmaster confronted with a bad case of mutual masturbation in the school toilets.
‘Have we seen the garden dear?’
‘It’s a second storey apartment’, she hissed and disappeared into the renaissancee-themed living room.
Dermot shrugged, sat and then lolled back on a gaudy antique chaise longue. As he looked insolently around, hoping to provoke the estate agent, a stuffed fox on the hall table caught his eye. It was a dilapidated old thing, marooned on a chipped black marble base but he wanted it more than anything. He grinned inanely at the agent and the idiot soon followed Maura into the living room. Dermot moved quickly. He picked up the fox, looked him in his clouded eyes and kissed him on his perished lips. Just then he heard the creak of the floorboards at the living room door. Casting about wildly, he dived into the bathroom again clutching the fox and slamming the door shut. He could hear Maura saying something stupid and banal to the agent, trying to cover up for her delinquent boyfriend. Dermot pushed open the bathroom’s high, frosted-glass window and, with a cry of ‘fly free’, threw the fox to the wind. As he pulled the window shut, he heard a crash and an agonised shout from below. For a moment he lost himself in the sheer enjoyment of the present.
We really have something, Dermot.
One Monday evening, some two months later, Maura came home late and threw a set of keys carelessly on the phone table in their hall.
‘It is the most beautiful apartment, Dermot. Just wait till you see it. I told the estate agent that you were busy all week and that we had to see it in daylight on Saturday afternoon. He’s at some auctioneering conference for the weekend so he gave me the keys-we can just let ourselves in and really take our time having a good look around. Dermot, it’s the one. I know it will be just right for us. When you see it, you’ll love it.’ She put her arms around his reluctant hard body.
‘I know you’ve been a bit off-form lately but I think this is just what we need. It’ll settle you down. You can get a proper job instead of having to travel all over. We can have nights in by the telly like normal couples, people over for drinks, your parents ’round for tea.’
The thrill of excitement woke Dermot early that morning. He hadn’t had a good Saturday in a long time. He slipped out of bed, got dressed and stopped off in the hardware to get a set of duplicate keys for the apartment before picking up some bagels and almond croissants at the Jewish bakery. The curious look on the I-have-suffered face of the woman serving in the bakery alerted him to the fact that he was singing out loud as he stood in the queue on that grey Dublin morning. ‘Suzanne takes you down… ‘ he just couldn’t stop himself. He felt giddy, like a child on Christmas Eve. He e-mailed Missbehavior from his phone, just to confirm that she was still on. He e-mailed Foxylady. He e-mailed Wildthing. He e-mailed Misterpussy-they were all still on; all just gagging for love-action on a Saturday afternoon. He felt the adrenaline surge through his veins as he positively bounced back to their smart and sensible saloon car and drove back to the flat.
An hour later, he had Missbehavior on the apartment’s master bed and then asked her to wait for him, explaining that he had to go to carry out an urgent errand for his bicycle courier job but would be back soon. She was not to worry if she heard any of his flatmates come and go. He then had Foxylady in the spare room and asked her to wait while he went to file an urgent report for his newspaper reporter job. He had Wildthing from behind in the bathroom but she wouldn’t wait around for him to go and collect a celebration cake-you can’t win them all. Misterpussy was dangerously late and, furthermore, he turned out to be spotty and shy in the daylight. He wouldn’t go down but he wouldn’t go home either. He was still sitting in the hall polishing his high boots and smoking cigarettes when the bells rang out for three o’clock-the time Maura was expecting to meet up with Dermot to view the apartment.
It’s surely done now thought Dermot as the key turned in the lock and Maura walked in; sensible, secure and practical. A woman bobbing happily along in the stream of life, coming to meet her boyfriend to see an apartment that they could buy and decorate together, the first rung on the ladder that would later see them trading up to a house in a nice area, maybe having some children and ultimately a dog. She could have no inkling that his ennui-saturated thoughts had hijacked two jumbo jets, giant precision bombs, and had already aimed them straight for the Twin Towers of her life.
‘Dermot! What? How did you get here ahead of me? I…’ Her voice trailed off as she registered the miserable transvestite sitting beside Dermot.
‘Maura. Let me introduce you to some people. This is Misterpussy, but he’s no fun.’ He took her arm and propelled her into the main bedroom.
‘This is Missbehavior. She’s been particularly naughty today. And then, come with me. Come. Come. In this bedroom we have Foxylady-she likes it fast and dirty.’ He paused, looking intently into her sensible face, willing her to give him some more reaction. This was not working-he was burning a million pounds and barely getting a glow out of it.
‘And, of course, me you know.’
Maura silently toured the apartment once more, pausing only to fix her red hairband in the living room mirror. She stopped uncertainly in the hall and then walked into the bathroom and threw up, neatly, into the toilet bowl. As she did so, the disgruntled e-lovers all left together, checking their phones for messages from other potential lovers, the newly-brave Misterpussy squeezing Dermot’s crotch as he exited. Dermot felt simultaneously dejected and exalted: freedom was moments away, the last tie to ‘humanity’ about to be severed. He looked at Maura with an insolent curiosity as she emerged from the bathroom, wiping her mouth with her monogrammed handkerchief. She looked him calmly in the eye.
‘At the end of the day, Dermot, we are forming a life partnership, joining our resources to prepare for a great voyage together. We’ve had our fun and we may have more in the future but it is more serious than that. We provide each other with a solid foundation from which to achieve great heights, to excel. We really have something, Dermot … ‘ She paused, ‘and I know we can work it out.’
Dermot slumped down on the seat and picked up the smouldering cigarette left in the ashtray by Misterpussy. He inhaled deeply and stared in disbelief at Maura’s solid face. So the million pounds wouldn’t bum and the twin towers were indestructible after all. He ceased pulling against an anchor heavier than he could ever shift:
‘You know you’re right. This is a great apartment. I think we should buy it.’