The note must have been stuck to the underneath of her compact because it was precisely at the moment the reflected eye fixed her from out of its interior that the zigzag descent distracted her. It now sat perched at the edge of the washbasin, an innocuous butterfly dwarfed by her friend’s cosmetics. Eleanor looked back at the iris sustained in the circular mirror and watched the mascara stick approach. But before the heavy stamen had engaged the lashes she pulled the stick away and looked again at the piece of paper.
It was small, no bigger than a cigarette skin, and looked to have been torn from a larger page. Yet someone had taken the trouble to fold it. She wondered when it had become stuck to her compact. Could it have been in her handbag? But she shook her head, looked once more at the eye in the mirror, hesitated over touching the lower lash with the brush. Her own dark pupil appeared to be examining her. Abruptly, Eleanor snapped the compact shut and replaced it into her bag. The mascara stick followed. Now she had been piqued by curiosity.
She looked again at the folded paper that teetered at the edge of the washbasin. How could it have been in her handbag? That made no sense. She glanced once at the door of the bathroom, listened to the hum of conversation that still overpowered the music in the next room. Then she snatched it up. Her hand acted now as though the origami insect might at any minute take flight. She opened it, smoothed out the folds, and allowed her eye run over the four short words scribbled along its interior. Too late, as though it had just stung her palm, she flung the note from her.
In the bathroom mirror a paralysed figure leaned towards her. A comic figure in bridal veil and Learner’s plate. Her mouth was open, a perfect O. Her eyes, wide. But Eleanor was not looking at this woman. Eleanor was staring at where the note had fallen into the wash-hand basin. It lay on the soapy skin of water, face down, the words a line of dissolving shadow showing through wet paper. Four syllables, thirteen letters. Their force had struck her solar plexus so unexpectedly that she could not breathe.
It was a full minute before she regained enough composure to consider what she had read. Of course it was a joke, a sick joke, but which of her girlfriends could have been so malicious? Who would have acted in such bad taste? One corner of the paper had already dipped beneath the water’s surface, the ink slowly dissolving into its warm undertow. Carefully, forensically, Eleanor lifted it out and laid it onto a white hand-towel. The ink had faded and spread like a lichen, but the trace remained legible. She looked again at the sentence, the thirteen letters, executed in a hand that was studiously casual.
I slept with Dan.
‘We were beginning to think you were never coming out!’ This was Chantal, Michelle’s younger sister. Scarcely twenty, she was already tipsy. But Michelle, looking up at her from the sofa, addressed her with concern.
‘Are you all right, El? You’re very pale.’
The conversation in the room was sporadic now that the music had finished, and Eleanor felt that all eyes were watching her. She managed to raise a smile for their benefit.
‘No, I’m fine. Really.’
‘She’s got cold feet!’ Miriam—voluble, laughing Miriam. ‘She’s scared stiff so she is!’ And the whole room was suddenly laughing. The bottles of wine were laughing, the CDs were laughing, the tortilla dips and the photographs and the potted plants were laughing, the poster by Matisse of the lovely odalisque, it too was laughing.
One of the girls attended to the music system and the speakers cackled back into life. Another, Katie, with red devil’s horns and a tail, began to dance close and sexy with Michelle’s huge teddy bear.
‘Come on! You need to get one of these inside you.’ A winking eye. ‘Dutch courage!’
So that she took the glass that was being pressed into her hand and, touching the brim to her lip, she allowed the volatile spirit fill her lungs. Was it brandy? Eleanor glanced timidly around the faces that were admiring her, the eyes that were encouraging her. One pair among them must know of the somersault that had sacked her world. But then Michelle manoeuvred her out with one hand on the shoulder and another close about the waist and before they left the flat they began a dance that was even more provocative than Katie’s.
How was it that she had got through the meal? The table, long and narrow, about which banter flew and jokes and ribald comments, the long table, with its closeness and deception and devious scrutiny. Four of the girls now had red devils’ horns and Michelle, the white ears of a rabbit. A playboy bunny. Her own veil was a blur in the periphery of her vision.
I slept with Dan.
And she had no memory of having ordered or even having looked at the menu, so that when there was a mix-up first over the starters and then again over the main courses Miriam had laughed out ‘Poor thing! She’s so much in love, she’s off her food so she is!’—love and food beaten flat by her Ulster accent. And Michelle, who was returning after a cigarette, had added from behind her: ‘For once Miriam has a point. I’ve never seen you make such a poor effort at a marinara.’ And then Katie had shouted ‘Oh, my God, El, you never told us you were pregnant!’ and the shrieks that followed disturbed the other tables so that the waiters frowned at their party.
Juvenile Chantal, giggling Chantal, was sitting diagonally opposite, and the Chianti had quite obviously gone to her head because as the desserts were arriving her flighty hand upset a wineglass. A huge stain spread over the cloth like a shadow, and a trickle dribbled onto Eleanor’s thigh before she had a chance to move out of its path.
‘Oh, my God, I’m so sorry!’ But Michelle, calm as a nurse, was able to apply a salt compress which lifted the worst of the crimson out of the silk.
Which of the eyes was watching with low malice?
It was late and the dance floor was far too crowded. A couple of foreign boys were busy entertaining two of the she-devils, but the rest of her group was ranged about a stand to the left of the bar. Drinks in various shapes and colours overpowered the miniature surface. But her girlfriends were tired of being jostled, and the mood was subdued.
I slept with Dan.
Each time it returned with the force of a blow.
Then at some point Michelle had taken her by the arm and steered her across the dance floor in the direction of the rest rooms. What in God’s name do you pair get up to in there together? The sorority of the toilet! That was Dan all over, the crow’s feet and the squinting eyes. He was forever goading Michelle. He got on so well with all of her girlfriends. Only her brother had never warmed to his easy manner. So was it possible… No! No! Eleanor could not let her imagination go there. She shut her eyes and drove down the sudden rebellion in her entrails. Not Dan.
And, after they had queued, the dank, buttocky closeness of the bathroom, so heavy with sprays, made her feel faint. The truth is she was not used to drink. Like a true friend Michelle had seen that the others had not pressed too many spirits on her, but there was only so much that one could do. This was meant to be Eleanor’s night.
‘Talk to me, El. What is it? You haven’t been yourself all evening.’
Michelle was standing at the wash-basin beside her. As she waited for Eleanor to reply she began to touch up her lips, kissing a tissue paper and then pouting provocatively at her reflection. She was very attractive, Michelle, when she made the effort.
‘I don’t know. I…’
And suddenly she was sobbing. Great gobs of anxiety swelled up from her guts and poured out of her mouth. She teetered, gripped the wash-basin. She felt her friend’s arms steady her. ‘For God’s sake, what is it? Ellie!’ But throat and lungs were racked with spasms and she could not speak. She opened her mouth, and no air came from her lungs. No word could pass through the stricture in her throat. It was as if terror had seized her.
Outside. It is almost three o’clock.
‘Can you talk?’
‘I’m sorry, you’re breaking up on me.’
‘No. Listen. Will you ring me back?’
There is too much bustle and noise on the streets, and the connection is fragile. Brittle. The girl in the white rabbit ears glances quickly at the anonymous faces that grin past. Then she looks instead to the squat phone that nests in her palm. Even outside, even at this late hour, she is reluctant to raise her voice. Perhaps the walls will overhear.
She lights a cigarette and glances back towards the bouncer. As she exhales blue smoke into the night air she thinks over the evening’s vicissitudes. She thinks of the moment that her best friend disappeared into her bathroom before they left the flat. All the while Eleanor was in there, a rage of butterflies had troubled her stomach.
She draws again on the cigarette and squints in the direction of the club. She does not want to think about what she has done. She does not want to think. Her eyes deflect to the phone. What words will she say to him? How will she have the nerve to tell him?
She flicks away the cigarette, half-smoked. Inside her, the rage of butterflies is relentless. She glances hurriedly at the entrance to the club. But if Eleanor were to step out, now, this minute? Could she admit? Beg her forgiveness? Go back?
A vibration shocks her hand. A light tenses, dilates, bickers.
She raises the phone and reads, in panic, in relief, his flashing name.