The sausages are screaming in the frying pan as I lift it off the heat. Their browned skin has split, revealing the meat beneath like a gaping wound. I rummage in the drawer for a fork. Spearing them one by one I put the sausages on a plate next to the toasted soda bread. I sit down at the kitchen table and begin to eat. It’s four in the morning.
The post comes at nine. I’m sitting in the living room, in the dark, curtains closed, drinking coffee and smoking as the letterbox snaps and the postman’s footsteps fade. I finish my cigarette and go out into the hall and pick up the mail. There’s a flyer for a Christmas sale in town and a card addressed to you. I go through to the kitchen, put the kettle on for another coffee and drop the mail in the bin.
The next few hours: I drink another cup of coffee and smoke three cigarettes. I think about watching TV but don’t. I run a bath, using up the last of your aromatherapy oil, and soak myself until the water turns cold. I take the plug out of the bath and watch the water swirl and gurgle around me. I lie in the bath until all the water has drained away and I begin to shiver. I cry twice.
After I dress I go downstairs, lift my coat from the back of the chair and leave the house.
It’s cold and it’s wet outside. A haze of mist and rain hides Black Mountain from view, covers the city in a blanket of grey.
I walk down the Belmont road in the direction of town. Every day for the past few weeks I’ve walked to the city centre and back. I walk through the streets that used to bring me to work and then I keep walking.
I notice the changes around me: The new buildings that have been built where for decades there was only wasteland. The neighbourhood shops where we used to buy things for our home, now shuttered and padlocked and empty. The apartment buildings on the shores of the Lagan, all yellows and browns, stacked side by side like gingerbread homes for the wealthy. The profusion of coffee shops offering cappuccinos and lattes and lunchtime specials of panini and soup.
I look at the faces of the men I pass by. I search for a connection, a shared history in the lines on their faces, the downcast shadows of their eyes.
When I reach the centre of town I stop at the front of City Hall and sit down on a bench. A group of Free Presbyterians stand huddled around a microphone nearby, their joyless voices droning a Christmas hymn. A drizzle begins to fall. I light a cigarette and watch the people walk by, some on their lunch breaks, some out shopping, others just marking time. I watch the women.
I watch the women as they walk. How they walk in different rhythms, how they move in different ways. I watch and I remember.
I remember Gail, and how at age just thirteen she was already uncomfortable in her body. How she walked with her arms folded across her suddenly out of nowhere woman’s breasts, her shoulders dipped, her brown eyes averted from my hungry teenage stare.
I remember Elaine, and Rosemary and Jane. I remember goose-pimpled legs above white knee socks on cold winter days in the school yard; the wonder I suddenly found in earlobes and cheekbones and eyes. How hair twirled around a finger or a high-pitched laugh could cause a warm tumbling inside of me.
I remember Donna, the first girl I ever kissed, the first girl I ever slow-danced with at the local youth club disco, and the way her slight body pressed against mine and made me hard. And later, in the shadow of a Cypress tree, her coat unbuttoned, her mouth tasting of Juicy Fruit and cigarettes, how I fumbled through the thickness of her clothes, searching for the secret of her breasts.
I remember whispered consultations on dark street corners, shy glances and unspoken agreements. Bragging and bullshitting in school the next day of who did what to whom and when.
I remember Gillian. My hand paused starlike on her breast the night we played spin-the-bottle and went upstairs to her room. And how it froze there. And how I searched her eyes for an answer, silently pleading for help to do this thing that I did not yet know how to do, and her blue eyes gazing back at me with her own unspoken fears.
I remember furtive explorations of Playboy and Penthouse, clenched fists and shame-filled release.
I remember the hungry thrill of watching Joanne’s arse as she climbed the stairs in her parents’ house. The slow sway of her hips, a promise wrapped in denim. And later, the cruel laughter in her eyes as I lay half-clothed beside her. The stark reality of her nakedness enough to make me come. I remember how I fell in love and out of love and into love.
I remember two-week romances and one-night stands. I remember losing my virginity to an English girl called Terry. We lay crushed in the back seat of her red 2CV in the car park of the marina at Bangor. It was snowing outside, The Smiths were playing on the radio, and it was over before it had really begun.
And I remember meeting you, that first week in college. You were eighteen years old and full of the dumb confidence of youth. Your lips wore a sly smile full of secrets known only to you, and your eyes held a challenge for me to discover them.
The drizzle has turned to rain. Umbrellas are unfurled, people dash for the shelter of the nearby shops. I decide to get out of the rain. I cross the road at the side of City Hall, past the parked buses with people restless to get on board, and toward the tall glass frontage of The Apartment bar.
A bouncer holds the door open for me. I thank him and climb the stairs, shaking the rain from my hair. I squeeze past the people queuing for a lunchtime meal. I move through the dining area, past a group of women perched on sofas of upholstered leather, twirling pasta on forks, laughing and drinking and smoking. I make my way to the bar and find an empty stool next to a group of men, all beerguts and business suits, boasting and bluff I order a pint of Guinness and light a cigarette as it settles. I listen as the men flirt with the barmaid, call her gorgeous, buy brandy and cigars.
I drink my Guinness and smoke my cigarette. I watch the hands on the clock above the bar slowly turning. I stub out my cigarette in the ashtray on the counter. The men in suits leave, giving cheerful farewells to the barmaid. I order another Guinness.
‘Excuse me, love. Do you have a light?’
I turn to my left. A woman stands beside me, a cigarette in her lipsticked lips, a hand raised in front of her, her fingers mimicking the flick of a lighter. I reach into my trouser pocket and bring out my matches. I offer them to her.
‘Aren’t you going to light it for us?’ She asks, smiling. I take a match from the box and strike it. She leans in towards me. As she sucks on the cigarette she raises her eyes to meet mine. Her hair is wet and smells of coconut.
‘Cheers, sweetheart,’ she says as she leans back. Her hand as it falls brushes my knee. She places her cigarette in the ashtray and shakes off her sodden coat. She orders a hot toddy from the barmaid. I watch the smoke from her cigarette twirl slowly in the air. She sits down on the stool next to mine.
‘That’s a terrible day out there, isn’t it?’
‘It is,’ I reply.
‘Here on your own, are you ?’ she asks.
‘You’re not much of a talker, are you ?’
‘Not much, no.’
The woman studies me, appraises me. She takes a drag on her cigarette and exhales the smoke through her nose. The barmaid brings her drink. She pays for it and lifts it to her face. She cups the glass in both her hands and inhales the fumes before drinking.
‘Nothing beats a hot whiskey on a day like this,’ she says.
She tells me her name is Cathy. She tells me she’s in town shopping for a present for her parents. It’s their wedding anniversary. They’ve been married thirty-eight years. She tells me she was born exactly nine months to the day after their wedding. She tells me she’s a widow, her husband dead two years. She tells me these things and doesn’t seem to mind that I say nothing. She doesn’t tell me she’s lonely.
Cathy asks for another light. I leave the matches on the counter and tell her to help herself. I excuse myself and walk around to the far side of the bar where the toilets are. On the toilet door, instead of a sign saying Gents, there are a collection of men’s toiletries trapped behind the glass of a circular window: A stick of deodorant and aftershave, a comb and a shaving brush, a cut-throat razor. I find an empty stall and lock the door behind me. I lift up the toilet seat and vomit a thick black gush of Guinness into the bowl. I stand over the toilet. My legs begin to shake. I lean forward and rest my hands on my thighs. I spit into the bowl, a bitter taste in my mouth like metal or blood.
I think about what I’m going to do. I could just leave. I could just leave my drink unfinished at the bar and walk past her and keep walking. I could walk down the stairs and go back out into the rain.
Or I could go out to the bar and talk to Cathy. I could talk to her and make her laugh, make her believe I have something to offer. I imagine how the day could go. I imagine inviting her to join me for something to eat. I imagine telling her all about you and your leaving, and the common pain of loss would bring us together. I imagine Cathy and me walking to my house in the rain, the night air around us pregnant with promise. Then the key in the lock, coats shrugged off and the kettle on for coffee. And like a badly written romantic movie we would kiss as the water came to the boil and the screen would fade to black.
I walk back to the bar. Cathy is gone. Smoke curls from the ashtray, a crumpled butt stubbed out in a hurry, the bent cork stained lipstick red. She has taken my matches.
Outside the rain has stopped; the day has faded into twilight. Town is busy with people loaded down with shopping bags filled with gifts for their loved ones. The Christmas tree in front of City Hall shines bright against the darkening sky.
I walk and I remember the years we spent together. The memories return in a series of unconnected images, snapshots, moments frozen in time.
You are sitting on the edge of my bed, not long after we met. You’re wearing the green jumper you loved so much, the one that brought out the colour of your eyes. You are leaning forward, staring at your shoes as you talk to me, your silk-black hair like sleeping bats around your face.
We are running through a heavy shower, plastic carry-out bags over our heads to keep out the rain. We’re laughing, splashing through puddles, on our way to see Pulp at the Ulster Hall.
You are standing naked in front of me in the darkness of your room. Your body is pale, a curved wonder of flesh and bone. Your hips are banded red with the ghost of your underwear.
We are lying wrapped together, your shoulder in the crook of my arm, the bedclothes damp with sweat. You are begging me to go to sleep. You are tired, you have an exam the next morning, your lips are sore from too much kissing.
We are sitting with our friends in the Limelight. We’ve just done a round of tequila. The DJ starts playing ‘Groove is in the Heart’. You grab my hand and pull me on to the crowded floor. As you swerve between the writhing bodies I lose my grip on you. You spin round, already beginning to dance, and check that I am still with you.
Graduation day. You are standing between your parents on the green lawn at Queen’s, framed in the lens of my camera. You are shouting out instructions to me as I struggle with the focus. You hold your diploma across your chest like a shield.
We are at a party somewhere in the Holylands. Daylight bleeds through hastily pulled curtains. Oasis are playing on the stereo, a half-gram of coke is scattered on a mirror by our feet. You take a cigarette from my lips and stub it out in an ashtray. You tell me that I smoke too much; you’re worried about my health. I laugh and tell you that we’re going to live forever.
You are unpacking boxes in the living room of our house, plates and glasses carefully wrapped in newspaper. Your hair is longer; it falls into your eyes. You stack the plates beside you, the crumpled newspaper on the floor. You look up and smile as I watch you.
I walk on. I walk down High Street, the Albert Clock slantwise in my sights. If I stop now and take a left onto Bridge Street and then right at the lights, I’ll come to Commercial Court, the Duke of York pub nestled in the shadows towards the end of its cobblestone street. It was in this pub that our harmony ended.
It was in this pub I first kissed Helen, a sloe-eyed girl I met drinking gin at the bar. It was somebody’s birthday and a few of us went for a drink after work. I phoned you and told you I wouldn’t be late. It was four in the morning when my key found the lock and I shambled in through the door of our home. You were dozing on the sofa, a rug around your knees. You sat up and looked at me, your silent mouth accusing, your eyes filled with fear. You didn’t need to hear me speak to know that I’d upset the balance of our days.
We tried to carry on as if everything was as it was before. We made plans for our wedding, talked about buying a house. We met up with friends for drinks, went to clubs and parties, pretended everything was fine.
In the bedroom I tried to reclaim you, but couldn’t reach you anymore. Your body lay open beneath me, but your eyes refused to meet mine. We sweated and suffered and found separate relief, somewhere in the darkness, alone.
I waited for the day when you would leave me, I didn’t have the courage to go.
Gradually our lovemaking ended, our tongues fell silent, and our bed became a prison we retired to at the end of the day. I would lie awake half the night watching you as you twisted in half-sleep, struggling to find freedom in dreams.
And the only thing I had left, the desire to make you happy again, was lost when I realised that you could never be happy as long as I stayed by your side.
I remember the last night we slept together. I watched you as your face relaxed into sleep. Freed from the tension of imprisonment you had become again, somewhere in your dreams, the teenaged girl I had first marvelled at. The corners of your mouth had regained that sly smile that promised secrets known only to you.
I left you that morning still sleeping. When I came home from work you were gone.
I walk along the footpath on Queen’s Bridge. I stop halfway and reach into my coat for my cigarettes. I take one from the packet and place it between my lips. I put the packet back in my coat. I remember I don’t have any matches. I move over to the railings and lean out. I stare down into the river below. I take the cigarette from my mouth and throw it down into the blackness. I remember how I told you that we were going to live forever. I reach back into my coat pocket and pull out the packet. I stand back from the rail and throw it as far as I can. I watch it land in the water and move with the current, heading out towards Belfast Lough. The lights from the buildings on each side of the river glow like embers in the night. I turn and walk towards home.