I would feel the faint warmth from her glazed parted lips as she holds my arm in hers, and I would slip it lightly through, up to the elbow, then my hand against her lower ribs, her fingers on my shoulder, to steady or resist, and my hand curled round to the tense bow of her back. And then she would turn to face me, my hands curved round her waist, fingers shifting pressure on her hips, chin jutting onto my collarbone. I would know how to appreciate this, and not grasp her or squeeze her breasts. Anyone else would look at her and might as well be looking at a city sycamore. I look and think: That’s nice, a well-turned ankle, an interesting arched eyebrow, a nice way to fill the space inside a skirt.
Even with the fairest of them I do not lose composure. I’m quick off the mark with some ready wit to let them see I’m no Quasimodo with the manners of a dog. There’s one just past the steps to the maternity clinic, another oasis of contentment and reprise. I’ve spent many hours there on those broad well-swept steps. But she can’t be seen from there, she’s further on, on the side wall of the tenement building. She sits there looking seraphically at her toes—each toe a little darling bud. I would know the measure of their soft resilience. She white-gazes at her toes; she can just see them over her knees. With her the feet are the window to the soul. Each part of her is sufficient in itself to look at—the round knees, the line of the chin, the nose a delicate shellfish. The larger curves give me a feeling of fullness. It’s a pleasant sense of solidity. When I look at her back curved and her knees drawn up I feel a fluid strength.
No one else would have dared address her. No one else would have smiled first at her. The bus conductor was instantly at a loss, it was plain as day, but he has learned in his job how to pretend not to see. Others find it harder. But I had acquired that confidence from my bravery and the purity of my vision. And because I can already feel how her underarms might be to touch.
I stood up from the bus-stop bench where I’d been warming myself since dawn and said, This is the way to the school you are looking for. She was holding a folder with the bands of blue and the crest on it. Behind me Mallin doubled over and cackled. His laugh wrinkles fissured his weathered alcoholic’s face.
—You won’t find it so easily, I explained, everyone who looks for it comes back this way after an hour of searching. She held me in her suspicious regard and I, not down-faced, held her in mine.
—I’ll walk you there. It’s no trouble, I’ll carry that dunnage.
She edged her bag away from me with her foot and then picked it up. She took a few tentative steps towards the crossroads.
—It’s all right. This direction. I darted in front of her. She looked about her at the road signs and took a few steps in the same direction, as though she’d reached this decision without seeing me. I kept ahead of her then, across the intersection and down the so-called industrial road. She kept a strict five paces behind. Looking about her at the road signs and door numbers.
—Is it far?
At last she had given over the pretence that by pure chance we just happened to be going the same direction.
—Not two minutes, but it might as well be an hour, I answered.
—Why an hour? How far is it could you tell me?
Anxious voice now.
—It’s an hour if you don’t know the way. But it’s two minutes the quick way.
Her hip bones pushed out the taut fabric of her dress so a crease appeared first one way then the other, switching to and fro. If the curve of the waist is beautiful, the face will be beautiful too. One glimpse of an ankle indicates the whole. A blur between two passing lorries is enough. Even through watery eyes, dust-blinded and sun-scarred, the way they move, once you’re attuned to it. A shadow on the ground is often sufficient. Later I can confirm the first glimpse at leisure. It’s unfair really, that beauty is not dispensed in parts. They even smell nicer.
Sometimes even the word ‘she’ dropped by a stranger in passing sets me in a receptive mind. ‘She’ is a word full of itself.
I listened gratefully to her footsteps behind me. Click clack click clack.
These are my guardians, these pretty pretty ones with pneumatic surfaces. When I concentrate on them I feel I can do no evil. I immerse myself in every glossy image, every sky-wide billboard. I would know exactly what to say to them. Why are there none like these on the streets and in the queues? Only the most exquisite, the most spiritual beauties appear on these glossy pages. Their beauty pierces to me. In this it does not lie. There is no faking, though all the world set its value at nil. Beauty reigns.
Full curves fill with osmotic pressure. The tenderiser is a shaved triangle.
We passed the empty storage bay where I spent most of ’98. This is the no-man’s land where I feel comfortable. It may be a bus stop. It may be the wind-sheltered side of a warehouse. Here I can breathe. Here a thought is my thought, I owe nothing and am owed nothing.
There is also Waldamir, who once ice-skated to the provincial championships and carved furniture from rosewood for his mother. There is Bull, who could never get away in time. There is Alex, who knew the insides of valve radios like the faces of old friends. I have seen him pull an old Robertson’s out of a skip and croon over it, taking the valves out one by one and shaking them close to his ear, sleeping with it for several nights running until at last it went missing on a night of special brew.
They have great pity for me because I cannot drink enough: it disagrees with my stomach. Once in a while I clear out the system with a bottle of vodka. I sweat my pores dry without feeling the least bit more jolly. Then they cheer me and become better friends. It’s not my fault I can’t keep up the pace. They’re annoying and repetitive when they’re drunk. And though the stuff helps them sleep soundly the next day, they’ll have muscle cramps. But they know that too.
She was not perfect, my elegant teacher. The skin below her eyes had a smooth puffy look to it: too much cream, too many worries. A face needs something startlingly attractive about it to get away with black hair. Eyes that bore in and core out. You can tell to the nearest millimetre what they’re looking at. Lips that tremble exposing water-painted teeth. She didn’t have that, but she had a fine look of nakedness about her. Her bare shoulder blades, the soft collagen and blue-tinged tracery of her neck, a little hollow at the base of her throat, the pallor of skin unused to the light. She was beginning to draw me in.
—A teacher is it you are?
—Yes, she said shortly. Again she consulted her folder and looked at the squat white box houses. Not for nothing do we call it Japanese Row.
—We should be almost there by now.
—Indeed we are, I said. Knox Road leads off the end of this.
My knowledge reassured her. She even attempted the ghost of a smile. My dear, why do you fret yourself searching for the right thing to do? What I appreciate is naked personalities. Continue to treat me as a dog if you wish, only let it be from the heart.
The school at last. Not mine, though I remember. I was the silent one in class, and when I spoke the sound seemed to emanate from the centre of the room. This annoyed the teachers and gave me a lone-ranger status in the schoolyard microcosm. I had no jokes, I was no good at sport, but I drove the teachers to insanity. I kept it up for six years. After school I didn’t train to be a commis chef. The benches are full of those who once trained as commis chefs. I don’t even know what the word commis means. I trained as a photo-lab assistant. At that time my fatal weakness appeared
Eight or ten or twelve years after leaving school, in some local pub with chance friends I would mention how old Leary had once called me a reprobate; O’Reagan the reprobate, he called me.
—Remember that time he put Stokes up at the top of the class and told us he has an excuse because he comes from a troubled family? Leary was such a fascist hypocrite. And remember when he shouted at Lysaght, stop masticating. And Lysaght pulled his hands out of his pockets like he was bitten?
Their faces took on pained expressions and they exchanged knowing glances. Oh excuse me, I’ve made a bloomer. What taboo have I broken? Whose toes have I stepped on? I dug up the past, that’s what. We’re all so mature now. Beyond it all. We have our own lives now.
—What you talking about O’Reagan? said one of them. This is 19xx (any year later than 1988). Ok, it might be funny to mention if we just met after twenty years, but we meet each other every week. Come on, times have changed.
—Did I tell this story before? I asked, thinking perhaps I might have told it a few nights before.
—No, maybe not exactly that one. But you’re always going on about school and things that are just over and done with… and we’ve moved on.
He frowned, puzzled over how to express just precisely what it was that annoyed him so much. But I knew what it was. The schoolyard haunts us. We pretend we have escaped it. But it is ever there. The laughing scorning voices we left under a corrugated roof.
I never grasped that handy trick of letting time heal all wounds. Never copped that I’m supposed to smirk indulgently at all that was real to me as a teenager. I have remained ever and the same. I stuck to my guns, and didn’t do the memory wash.
—Why school? Why can’t we talk about something more recent? We didn’t have a clue back then.
And this from someone who is only a bus driver. What has he learned in the intervening fifteen years? How not to blush. What wisdom does he have? The successful transference of habit. With me, for better or for worse, the imprinting failed. I was left unguided. I failed to follow mamma duck’s waddling arse and went my own way.
That bus driver was Gilchrist. He was the last to let me go when I cut the ropes. The last to speak to me like we used to in the old days. We sat in a huge tin shed with our backs against enormous rolls of paper. A bare light bulb burned dully overhead. A bag of sugar and loose teabags lay across a rack of fuses. Was this the antechamber to normality? Was this my last chance?
—When I lost my driver’s job I was at a loss too. But see! I picked up a handy number here. You can do the same. I can have a word with the boss. Regular working hours will get you back in form. He spoke convincingly, he really wanted to help.
In a few words he sketched out his plans for me. Sit there night after night among the rows and rows of paper, skip with the wage cheque down to the bank, and I’d soon be back in the ranks. Meeting friends and inviting people home for dinner to a one-bedroom apartment in Drumcondra. I laughed out loud. It was sad to disappoint him. He really and truly believed salvation lay in a warehouse job. I cherish him for that. Though he is in league with powerful forces, I cherish him.
And I would have taken that job too, it was that close, but the gods interceded and the bus broke down on the way to the interview. I never rang them back.
My little darling, do you know who made you? Gave you your accents and your graceful figure? That well-bred walk and those pretty shoes? That nice clean smell? Who was it?
—You don’t really have to help me, she said. She has a nice toothsome way of pronouncing her ‘t’s. We were approaching the caretaker’s door.
—I’ve nothing better to do. There’s no one knows the area as well as I. Doesn’t look like there’s anybody here, does it? You can wait in the library. It’s only two roads away. Give it one more buzz, he might be on out the back.
Her mouth was stretched thin as she rang a second time.
—No, I can’t wait. It might be closed for the day.
She crouched to push a folder through the low letter box. At the level of my knees. I could see how her bra fell forward from her breasts.
—You know I could roll you over on your back now and see your panties under that skirt, I said.
She sprang up.
—You think I didn’t think of it? I asked surprised. She edged around me clutching her remaining folders to her breasts.
—Help, she shouted half-heartedly, then, a little more reasonably, Go away.
She backed off fluttering. Am I a tame puppy who never thinks to bite? Is thought a crime? But she’s a charming butterfly who can’t behave any other way. She’s no more or no less than what she was brought up to be. Make no surprising moves. Say the right things. Act relaxed, and she’ll flutter onto the palm of your hand. Go away you, you more than half a mechanism. Watching you is like watching a drowning puppy.
These in the white-walled houses would be nothing without their mummy and daddy and hurry hurry. I owe nothing, I’ll say it again. Here where I am are made the silent decisions that keep them inside of love. I am a harmless old beggar, fuck. Or do you think less of me because I stop short of the deed?
I ambled back to the bus-stop corner. Mallin doubled over and cackled with laughter. He slapped his thighs and pointed frantically at a departing bus.
—Pipe down, or I’ll give you a crack across the jaw, you ignorant leech, I said.