Jarlath lay in Ruth’s bed. Those red lips slightly parted like they were anxious to keep tasting the world. That disparity between white unblemished skin and masculine muscle. He came from the other side of the peace line and it didn’t faze either of them.
‘What’s that noise?’ he asked, sitting up suddenly.
She listened for a second, half expecting it might be the screeches from the drunken pick-ups, that her housemate, Colin, habitually brought back with him from the clubs on a Friday night. The Decibel Jezebels, as she jokingly termed them behind Colin’s back. Then she realised it was nothing but the usual creaking from the derelict house next door where the outer wall had been bulldozed. You could hear the wind run up the stairs, spiral the lampshade, peel back the wallpaper, playing with the house at its delinquent leisure.
‘You know, I’m thirty-seven,’ Ruth told him, knowing he was only nineteen.
‘You’d better take control then.’
Ruth had met him earlier that night in Kelly’s Cellars after she’d called in with Sinéad from work. He was sitting in the trad session group playing the Irish pipes and the first thing that struck her was the curls that obscured his face as he looked down in concentration at his fingers. She couldn’t help noticing the leather strap tightened around his upper arm; it was that strap across his white skin that made her long for him indefinably, perhaps in its insinuations of strain and quickened pulse-beat. Desire was triggered off in the subtlest of ways. She
and Sinéad sat down next to the group in the only seats that were free. When he stopped for a break, she spoke to him.
‘Are you wearing lipstick?’ she asked, staring at his red lips.
‘No, it’s all natural, I swear to you,’ he replied, taking it in his stride, though he fidgeted nervously with the hippyish bead bracelet he was wearing.
‘I thought you were gay for a minute.’
‘Hit her, Jarlath,’ Sinéad interrupted with a gasp.
‘Some girls have thought that but they soon changed their minds and left very satisfied,’ he answered and his bravado suited her. A look had been exchanged, the lightest and least binding of contracts, but nevertheless it was there.
His sister was playing the violin. When Jarlath went to get a drink at the bar, Ruth talked to the sister who had long dark hair and soft brown eyes. Somehow getting on well with a member of his family ratified him. But she guessed that even murderers occasionally went out for a pint with their sisters so that blew that theory out of the water. Still, she couldn’t help feeling that if she’d been born a man she would have been attracted to Jarlath’s sister so there was a symmetry in this meeting, a kind of double desire that made her want Jarlath more.
‘Hello, wee darlin’,’ an elderly man with a clapped-in mouth was shouting at Ruth and he triggered his finger into the air and began to sing a Republican anthem.
‘Shhh,’ said the bar owner, coming out from behind the bar.
The old man stood over her, his eyes fixed on her, his mouth moving in a scarcely discernible whisper, repeating the same lip movements over and over, as in a rosary. The Mighty Quinn was his name, Jarlath said.
‘Do you know what he’s saying?’ asked Jarlath to which she shook her head. ‘Up the Provies, over and over.’
And it began, the bed concerto, the high-pitched fiddling of the loose wooden frame, the base pounding of the mattress and spring percussion and it blotted out the infernal acoustics of the wind next door, as though his breathy gasps and ‘yeahs’ were competing and driving the wind away like bad spirits. In a rare pause, she marvelled at him in her bed—he didn’t belong in this crumbling, three-storey Victorian house, his peerless skin dazzling against the stained wall.
‘You’re beautiful,’ she told him.
His face flinched and she could have kicked herself. Hearing from older men that she was beautiful when she was young had irritated her too.
‘So, did you like me the moment you first saw me?’ she asked, willing him to say something good.
He was vacant, sightless, still lost in the feelings of his own body. The door of the neighbouring house had been wrenched by the wind and was banging like an invitation for unwanted guests to leave.
He had to go, he said, as he had an appointment at a recording studio in the morning and she was glad because there was no conversation between them. He got dressed quickly and shyly like he was in a public place and not her bedroom, so aware was he of her eyes taking everything in. He didn’t want her to walk him to the front door and she smiled as she heard him clumsily descend the stairs. As she slowly fell asleep, she couldn’t tell if the creaking she heard came from the springs in the mattress unaccustomed to so much strenuous exercise or the lists of her tired, drugged- up head. The solitary dark always brought a fear of hallucinations with it. The fear lay in the danger that one night the little zips of spinning light in the darkness would become her reality, supplanting the normal day-to-day vision, trapping her in their sparkling blindness for ever.
Morning came and she stretched luxuriantly, feeling triumphantly sexual. As she pulled back the curtains from the rheumy eye of the old window, she spied his scarf lying under the table. It smelled of perfume and not him. She put it round her neck, but couldn’t manage to knot it as he had done which somehow bothered her. She remembered a fifty-year-old she’d slept with who’d said that young people to him now were like beautiful ponies; they no longer attracted him. She almost pitied that fifty-year- old—what a madman, giving up on beauty. When she checked herself in the mirror she could have sworn she looked younger. The light reflecting off the sun-browned curtains gave a warmth to her skin and faded the veins and blemishes, as if she had undergone a rejuvenescence overnight. Suddenly she thought she could detect the chemical aroma of condoms and threw open the window. Shivering, she got ready to go out.
It was a freezing December day, ‘dark and dirty,’ as her father would have said, enlivened only by the jangling of plastic icicles festooning eaves and the
sight of inflatable Santas doing shimmies up drainpipes. The Christmas lights lay dark, like empty bottles after a party. The sole brightness in the sky came from the white plumes of steam from the engineering works. She passed the neighbouring house, showing its entrails like a home interior exhibition hit by vandals. Half the houses in the street had been condemned by the Housing Executive and their windows breeze-blocked. The front doors encased in brown metal and stamped with official warnings of impending demolition reminded her of prematurely erected gravestones. Old bunting hung tangled and noosed above the doors. Ironically, one of the condemned houses bore a blue plaque, bearing the words, ‘Best Kept Street, Belfast City Council 1991,’ and she was suddenly reminded of the old republican’s crowing in Kelly’s Cellars: ‘They said that the grass would never grow on the shipyard and look at it now!’
At the Methodist church, a huge sign said, ‘Hooked on Jesus.’ On the wall opposite was scrawled, ‘New Land Outlaws,’ indicating how the people of these streets were torn between religion and gangsterism.
She went into a small café with windows curtained with steam and ordered a fry. The ache in her legs and womb as she sat down reminded her of the sex and made her happy. Medication for urban depression, she told herself. She found herself gazing at the plate on the counter, full of fairy cakes, iced with pallid lemon and anaemic pink. She watched the wee hard women busy themselves around the counter, their voices grown harsh from hooshing their drunken men at home, and the cosy familiarity washed over her. Framed photos of hot-cross buns in Easter baskets adorned the mock-ecclesiastical arches in the wall.
In the taxi home, Sinéad asked, ‘What are youse two up to under there?’ Ruth brought Jarlath’s hand out from under the pipes case.
‘Nothing, just holding hands,’ she lied and Jarlath’s other hand crept across her thigh. Ruth looked up at the night, her heart soaring. It was moments like these that made it worthwhile, the nights of touring bar after bar, searching, playing this ‘pass-the-parcel’ existence, unwrapping experience after experience and finding emptiness inside. For once the night held something. The taxi driver kept braking as drunken girls tottered across the road like new-born foals, their bare legs fawn with fake tan and tipped with white shoes. The city was alive.
Pasty-looking men kept entering the café, their faces wrecked through self-demolition by alcohol. They were the familiar casualties of hard partying and the single life, needing urgent resuscitation by greasy fry.
‘Sure, why drink water when you can drink beer?’ one of the diners was pontificating loudly. ‘Water rots wood and rusts metal, so why would you ever put it into you?’
Ruth hugged Jarlath’s scarf to her chest. She began to think of a line of typical tongue-in-cheek sexual vaunting to entertain the girls in the pub with later: Having young guys in your bed keeps you young—but I’m not throwing the moisturiser out just yet. It was a bit lame but something better would come to mind later and anyway it would come across okay with the right inflections. There were always two voices in Ruth’s head commenting on her actions—one the rather anxious voice of reality and the other rehearsing for later performance.
But at the same time she thought how the whole act of possessing someone for a night, of ‘having to have them’ was futile, unmanageable, a kind of consumeristic nihilism. No one was possessable through sex any more than the mind of a favourite writer was attainable through the reading of their work. And yet, so many women had brought down presidents and leaders by pin-pointing some description, some giveaway act that was unique to the man. To have sex with someone was akin to knowing their genetic blueprint. There was no greater intimacy—and paradoxically no greater distance. The ultimate problem in having sex with a stranger was that you were exploring their body but incapable of knowing anything about their mind, in the warmth and cold at once, within them and yet outside them entirely. Yes, possession wasn’t easy… The memory came back of the sudden panic as he was leaving of where the condom was and then pulling it out from inside her, peeling it away like a second skin.
She smelt the scarf and the sweetness from it reassured her. She knew that Jarlath lived in the next street to Sinéad and she had a ready- made excuse in returning the scarf. Perhaps he’d left it on purpose as many men did; some even said to her on the way out when she’d spotted their gloves or socks that they would get them the next time. She prided herself on the fact that they always wanted to come back. Yet with Jarlath she really wasn’t sure that he would want to, and, strangely, it felt like a betrayal. For this reason alone, she thought she should see him, stir him. She stood up quickly. Oh, it was asking for disappointment but at the same time her own madness excited her.
Some snow had fallen on the dry malty-coloured mountains making them look like floury wheaten farls. It was three o’clock and the layered clouds snagged by the wind had taken on a lurid infected orange tinge. The orange inflamed suddenly into pink and then, cooled by the impending darkness, turned back to a downy white. Ruth hurried up the Limestone Road past the meshes denoting the peace line that grew taller every summer. Although she was in nationalist territory, the streets were littered with tribal remains of her side. Heather’s Mini-Market lay derelict, Adair and Milliken Engineering was chained up and empty. These monuments came from businesses burnt out only in the past few years.
She couldn’t help her anger. She often thought herself fluid, accepting, tolerant but the illusion of being well-balanced came from the fact that she could swing from one extreme to the other—one day she was conservative, one day socialist, one day Christian, one day atheist, one day she was with the Protestants understanding their grievances, the next with the Catholics, understanding theirs… open-mindedness meant that she felt the truth behind all points of view. The trouble was it made her double angry instead of tolerant. Up in the stark branches of a tree, a nest rocked like a cradle.
Nerves flew to her stomach as she rang the doorbell. She felt so vulnerable standing there, every window trained on her, and she half-prayed he would answer, half hoped no one was in. Before she had a chance to turn, a girl opened the door, dark-haired and brown-eyed.
‘I’m afraid he went out,’ the girl said and, as Ruth became accustomed to the artificial light in the hall, it revealed the comfortable domesticity of the décor and suddenly unveiled the wrinkles in the girl’s face, grey hairs in the cornerstones of her temples. It’s Jarlath’s mother, she realised aghast.
‘He left his scarf,’ she gabbled quickly, taking it off and passing it to the woman.
In those seconds she took in the confused quiver of the woman’s plucked eyebrows, surveying her face for its remains of beauty. She was struck with the crazy impression of meeting a rival in love rather than his mother.
‘I’ll give it to him,’ said the woman in a kind but bemused way, looking at Ruth as though trying to place her from some long-past memory.
Ruth’s face was burning as she fled back onto the street.
People passed by, hunched, shouldering the winter darkness like a coffin. She zipped up her coat feeling an instant chill. In the scarf’s soft hook had lain the only chance of seeing him again. She remembered the childish excitement in his voice as he’d told her he was going to study medicine at university that autumn and the cold fear returned. She knew she needed a chemist’s to get the pill to take the dread away, to erase that drunken night.
As she hurried, she couldn’t help but remember the sound of him in sex; the sighs and the moans, soaking up her sexual pleasure, reflecting her own deep-throated murmurs. Something to hold, something to hold on to. Against the nationalist side of the peace line, a youth lolled, following her with his eyes, his mouth moving over and over, the words drowned by traffic, the frosty condensation hitting the air like the spray of graffiti.