Jane sits upstairs in the bus, and scans the pavements below like a greedy seagull. In Phibsboro, a young couple shuffle geriatrically along the footpath. They smile toothless angel smiles, and clutch Styrofoam coffee cups. The girl looks no older than fifteen, a child in a man’s anorak, missing a front tooth. The boy plunges, fearless, into the oncoming traffic, and she follows him, smiling, lost in her own hazy dream.
Trapped in the steel hulk of the unheated bus, Jane shivers. The bus is old and it shudders each time it takes off from a stop. The vibrations trickle through her, encouraging daydreams, fantasies, and a ghostly body turns into his, and she is remembering with a sharp pang his deep kisses, his hand encircling her ankle, the lifting and turning and wrestling for pleasure. The shape of him. The feel of him in her mouth.
Sitting in front of her on the bus is a woman with a backpack. Jane wonders why the woman has not taken it off to sit down when she sees that a tube snakes from the bag and is taped onto her nose, delivering the mercy of medicine. She wears a headscarf to hide her bare scalp. A jolt of fear and nausea strikes Jane, followed by shame for the thought that she does not want to touch her, or smell her sickness. She hurries off the bus and steps down onto O’Connell Street.
A grey wash stains the street, lightened a little by a sickly yellow escaping from the cloud-suffocated sun. She breathes in the dampness of the city centre, the foggy sighs that the river exhales. The teasing promise of the city seduces her every time. The pavement is splattered with chewing gum as if a thousand birds had shit along the length of it.
A young man, with a pinned-up excess of denim where there should be a leg, stoops to pick up something from the cracks in the pavement. Crutches angled precariously, he pockets his treasure, then rights himself again. Nimbly, he speeds down the street and turns left, heading for the parallel universe of Marlborough Street, street of shadows, where shoes are abandoned as if their owners had just melted into air, where Jane once followed a trail of bloody footprints that ended abruptly, leading nowhere.
On O’Connell Street, the Legion of Mary shop advertises the charms of the Virgin, and the legend: Abortion is Murder. By the shop window, three gypsy girls gossip and smoke. One of the girls has a toddler on her hip. The child pulls out one of her mother’s small breasts, and sucks a nipple into its mouth. The women hunker down to chat, bejewelled skirts tucked under their knees. The girl with the toddler squeezes the breast of one of her friends and they laugh with open mouths, heads thrown back.
Suddenly all three stop talking and stand up, faces creased wide in smiles. The toddler screams in anger when it loses the breast. It’s lifted up onto a hip and tries again to get at the other breast but its mother swipes away its hand, and calls out to an old man.
‘Paddy! Paddy!’ she shouts, and runs up to him with a welcoming smile, one breast still exposed. He winks at her, and nods at her chest. Flash of her brown throat as she laughs, and pulls over the cloth of her blouse.
Paddy is a familiar face to Jane. He lives near her in a squat grey block of Corporation retirement flats. He has a filthy mouth, and likes to flirt.
‘Are ye not sleeping well, Jane?’ he’d shout at her. ‘I have a cure for that. I could give you a hand or maybe something harder at night.’
‘You wouldn’t be up to it,’ Jane would tease him back.
‘I have it in me yet,’ Paddy would say, and then finish off their morning ritual of bawdiness by letting her onto the bus first, before carefully mounting the steps himself.
Some mornings another man shuffles out of the same flats. He slowly, slowly makes his way across the road to the petrol station. He crosses without regard to traffic, gaze directed straight ahead at the shop. Comes back again, clutching cigarettes. Once she saw him stop, at the fence encircling the flats, and empty his catheter onto the pavement, leaving an amber puddle in his wake.
Paddy stands in the doorway of the religious shop, beside the window dedicated to the delights of the Virgin Mary, the Mediatrix of All Graces, Lady most Lovable, Queen most Powerful. He lights a cigarette, and the girls clamour around him, smiling and flirting and asking for smokes. He winks at Jane as she passes. She shakes her head at him, and smiles.
The steel phallus of the Spire glints dully in the watery sunlight. At the coy, high street sex shop she stops to look at the window display. Plastic women flaunt their plastic limbs in stockings and suspenders, knickers and corsets and padded bras. Their dead eyes and fixed smiles unsettle the more closely you look at them. Jane plunges into the perfumed shallowness of the shop to explore its promise of endless permutations of pleasure for lovers, and loners. Tease a lover and press your female flesh into cheap polyester, bondage straps, cuffs, silk ropes. Succumb to the age-old clichés of vamp, whore, slut, the insatiable hole, the dominatrix, the bawd, the nurse, the teacher, the muse.
She skips the foreplay of browsing through underwear and hen party novelties, and makes straight for the sex toys. A Goth girl, with an open smile, patrols the area. A couple, not Irish, chat joylessly as they deliberate over a toy. Two young Irish women giggle together as one of them brandishes an enormous pink dildo.
She is grimly alone.
‘Our most popular model is the pocket version of the Silver Bullet,’ the Goth girl tells her. rows of studs in her ears, piercings in her eyebrow and lip. Her lips are crimson, eyes kohled in imitation of an egyptian princess.
‘really?’ Jane replies, and tries to smother thoughts of what Goth girl might look like naked, what piercings lie in wait under the black lacy layers of her clothes.
‘Yes, but it’s kept behind the till because it gets shoplifted so often,’ Goth girl laughs.
The red gash of her mouth, the swell of her breasts, the taste of the girl’s perfume, confuse Jane’s senses. When Goth girl places her hand on her arm to guide her towards the less discreet toys, she feels a pang of desire. So long since the last touch, the last kiss. Her flesh craves human warmth, the sting of contact. How many years has it been? If she told this girl now, confessed to her, she would be appalled, unfamiliar with the tortures of life without a lover.
‘Okay I’ll take a Silver Bullet,’ she says to Goth Girl who has already lost interest in her, and points her towards the till.
‘Do you want wipes with that?’ the sales assistant asks chirpily.
‘No,’ Jane says, a little too loudly, and is tempted to add, there won’t be any mess.
She goes outside into the pale gold sunlight that has pierced through the clouds, and into the stink of fermenting rubbish. When she was unemployed, she walked the city all the time, day and night. Back in the days when a praying woman haunted the middle of O’Connell Street with her monotonous pacing dance. rosary beads clutched in her fist, she muttered prayer after prayer with a blissful smile on her red-painted lips. Well-dressed, with bright blue eye shadow, and bleached blonde hair piled up, an aged pin-up girl. The ruined beauty of her face, the huge swell of her breasts under her white blouse; legs still slim, feet clad in red high heels. What sins did she try to atone for, and were they even hers? The space where she danced has been written over now in the dead, illegible language of progress, in the phallic pen of monuments and regeneration.
Jane crosses over O’Connell Street and walks down Henry Street. The energy of the crowd, the mingling of languages and hues of skin lift her spirits. In a fit of nostalgia she walks down—and then back up—Moore Street, with its perfume of flowers, spices, and overripe fruit. A pleasing cacophony of African shops, Asian shops, Polish shops, call centres, hairdressers, and the almost obscene meat-filled windows of the butcher shops. She strolls back onto Henry Street with its British franchises, and department
stores, eager to sell you a new version of yourself, a synthetic skin to paste over the deficient one into which you were born.
A couple of shopping centres loom over the street like glass and steel surveillance towers, with CCTV cameras craning to capture your image, and metal spikes on window sills to stop you sitting down. You must not stop and ponder in your pursuit of perfection.
I could walk all day in Dublin and not speak to anyone, she thinks. Drink all night, and talk only to the beggars when I go for a smoke outside a city centre pub. She knows many of their faces, but not their names. Some nights she ignores them all. Some nights, in fits of guilt, she doles out coins and fags. She avoids the guy who felt sorry for her when she said she was broke. He offered her twenty if she’d suck him off around the corner. She declined, and went back inside to nod compassionately at her friend’s marital woes.
We never make love since we had the kids, her friend complained, we’re too tired after working. He’s always looking at porn but won’t admit it, and won’t show it to me god knows what it is, I hope it’s not kiddie porn can you imagine no it’s not that’s an awful joke. He likes big black girls I think. I checked his cookies because it showed up after he infected the computer with a virus. Better it than me, she says.
And they get so drunk and laugh so much that nothing matters. And nobody speaks to them. She gets some furtive glances from men, but it’s impossible for her to decipher if they are filled with admiration or hate.
Do all men deep down in their hearts hate women, asks Jane. Do all women even hate women?
Oh my god, you are so funny when you go to the dark side. Let’s have shots.
Beside them three students—two guys and a girl—play with their phones, with a laptop, and finally with the one who is a girl. She giggles and fakes a struggle as one of the boys throws her over his knee, and slaps her on the arse.
You are not alone. You are not alone. Say it. But she never did say it to him.
Wait till that pretty little thing gets hitched and up the duff, and then she’ll see it’s all a load of crap, her friend slurs, and bursts into tears. You’re so lucky to be on your own, no responsibilities you can do anything you want to do. Well if you had any money, and a proper job. You will though, you deserve it all darlin’. Just wish for it and it’ll come true. You know that book where you pin your wish to your bra or your knickers, or somewhere I can’t remember. Well, people swear that works…
They stuffed themselves with chips and burgers and hugged and went home alone in their respective taxis. Her friend had another baby thirty-nine weeks later, a boy, her third son, and she was secretly devastated because it left her with no choice but to try for a fourth time, for a girl.
Jane tries to imagine herself with a baby, or a child, the child she could have had many years ago. The child who would be ten now and who haunts her dreams: a shadow in a corner of a secret room she discovers in her tiny apartment.
In three days, Jane turns forty.
She drifts in and out of shops stuffed with clothes made in China, India, the Philippines, made from material that smells of petroleum and pain, no matter what their price tag. When she goes into a clothes shop, she sneezes as if the fibres harboured invasive pollen. Her eyes stream as she fingers imitation black satin knickers with a peep-hole love heart in the back. She buys it for two euro, for luck, for defiance, and knows she will have to pluck it out from between her fleshly cheeks because she has bought it several sizes too small for her arse, because her real size is never in stock.
On the street a man passes by, tall, black, very handsome, and he grins at her. She all but blushes, but she has long ago forgotten how to blush. Blushing requires some belief in your own dignity.
He passes by and his aftershave smells of evenings she spent lying naked on another man’s couch, supping on whiskey and kisses, laughing and fighting. Parting finally with such rancour that she cannot remember the reason it all began, it all ended. But she remembers the night she walked the city streets until dawn not caring what happened to her hoping something bad would happen to her almost disappointed to arrive home in one piece with only the huge loss of him in her heart.
She walks faster now, feels the need to cross over the river and dip a toe into the other side where there is more danger of meeting people she knows, or maybe even him. She scans ahead always for the shaved head, that smooth expanse of skull that tortured her with the thoughts, and fears, that lay beneath it.
On Ha’penny Bridge, she meets a guy who knows her, who knows him.
Hey how are you? Haven’t seen you around for ages. You working much? I’m off to Toronto to get away from the bloody misery. Well take care. Facebook me, and he’s gone, and she knows he couldn’t remember her name.
She had longed to ask how is he, has he stopped drinking, how bad is he now? Is he still thin and wasted, does he ever think of me, will he just drink himself to death with a saddlebag of coke on the side? Go out with a heart attack in the arms of some Goth girl with a stud in her tongue, and some esoteric erotic object in her clit? Or worse still, is he married to a trim blonde, and living in the burbs, complaining about interest rates? And she knows the truth lies somewhere in the middle—she has stalked him down on Facebook, she has seen the profiles pictures of him with his son, has heard his partner is lovely and good for him.
She crosses over the road, and into the gloomy pissy stench of Merchant’s Arch where she and he had such a vicious drunken fight that he knocked her over, and she kicked him in the groin. Middle class brats pretending to be hard, dangerous, cool, creative, with dreams that festered and died in the mire of parties, failed ‘projects’, lovers’ spats, and too many days spent in bed tasting, testing, teasing the skin of the other.
Down an alleyway, a man scavenges through huge metal skips. He finds a pair of black women’s boots, a newspaper, and a pink knapsack. Delighted, he puts the paper and the boots into the bag, and puts the knapsack on his back. A small orange cuddly toy hangs from the zipper. The man is more or less her age. Looking on with disdain, a young man smokes and tells his friend to leave off. The older man just grins, and throws some rubbish he dislodged back into the skip. Then he carefully starts searching through the next one.
This city: she loves and loathes it. Not born into it, she adopted it, and grew to love its darkly glittering spaces. Now she cannot read herself into its brittle glass and chrome towers, its geometric bridges, and the generic architecture that graces a thousand other cities.
She shares a tiny cell of an apartment block, built in a bland suburb where she forces herself to smile at her neighbours, her colleagues in the school, at the children she teaches. The awful streak of misanthropy in her that she has to shave off each day, like a horrible stiff hide, just to face the world anew each morning. Like Donkey Skin in her stinking furs, fleeing from her own deranged father, from a world that trades in the beauty of passive women.
She stops to buy painkillers and a bottle of water. She swallows two pills with a mouthful of water, and heads to the Secret Bookshop to browse through the second- hand books discarded by their faithless owners.
The welcoming odour of mouldering books reassures her, soothes her.
She re-reads a passage of Lolita, a book she has read three times. Lush, voluptuous descriptions of a man’s desire for his own thwarted desire; for an object to use and abuse with impunity; for youth; for an escape from the rotting meat in which we are all encased. A painful, deep rush of longing suffuses her body, an excess of celibacy vibrating through her.
She picks up The Sadeian Woman, and flicks through the academic argument, the detached toying with notions of desire. Female desire—stunted, stolen, subsumed, sold, twisted into bizarre patterns of courtship, marriage, motherhood, and prostitution. The yearning to be subsumed—is that really all there is to a woman’s desire? The strange, incessant obsession of wanting to be loved, to hold a child, to own a casserole pot so heavy it could crush that child’s skull. Her head throbs. She closes the book, and is embarrassed at the comic decadence of her standing there in the bookshop, worrying about love and desire, all the while waiting for painkillers to kick in before she goes to get her labia waxed.
Every story is a love story, he said to her once, as he struggled to write song lyrics. Your stories are too gloomy, and your characters are horrible. You have no romance in your soul.
I love you, he would shout as he came, but he never said her name in bed; the trick of the womaniser.
She only told him she loved him when she was drunk. They were like a clichéd stage Irish couple with fear-frozen hearts, but liberated, ardent nether regions. This reminds her that she is late for her appointment. On her way out she sees Baudelaire’s Les Fleur des Mals, and on impulse buys it.
Muse of my heart.
She undresses the lower half of her body. Strips off shoes, tights, skirt, knickers, and lies on the paper-lined bench. echoes of other undressings bounce off the walls. The gaze of the lover, the gaze of the surgeon. She feels the excess flesh of her arse and thighs spread out beneath her. The soothing aromatherapy oils are undone by her sense of failure that she is not city thin, suburb thin, rich-woman thin. And also by the blare of the TV screen on the wall which is tuned to a British soap.
The room is a sickly lemon yellow. The girl comes back in and smiles.
‘Are you having a Brazilian today?’
‘Oh, just take it all off.’
This would be her last time. It’s too expensive, too painful, too indicative of a forlorn hope.
The girl wipes her clean, and pastes hot wax on her crotch.
They chitchat about the weather, the economy, hen parties and burlesque dance classes as the girl strips away her fur, her visible hide.
The girl massages oils into her labia and drips hot, hot wax onto her clitoris and she gasps in pain, and then the surprising aftershock of pleasure. Sweet torture, pointless, aping porn-shorn muses of the small screen, but a welcome jolt to this body that she carries grudgingly around with her.
Muse of my heart.
‘Almost finished. Hold your legs up like that. How’s work?’
‘The school will probably let me go soon.’
‘Such a shame. Kids like that really need people like you.’
Jane just nods.
Really she wants to say—sometimes I wonder if I do anything useful for them at all. If I’m just helping to mark them out, let the system off the hook so it doesn’t have to change. Cordon off the minds and bodies that don’t fit. Label them as this, as that, as if the school is a tiny replica of the concentration camp of the city, the state, where we are watched, and regulated, slotted into jobs, dole queues, cells. We are all now refugees in our own streets, wrote someone whose name she can’t remember.
She doesn’t say any of that.
She doesn’t write any of that. She hasn’t written a word for five years now. People tell her that her stories are too gloomy, too dark. People don’t like their art to be contaminated by the ugliness of life. They want beauty, and hope, and sweet lies to keep them on the straight and narrow path. So she doesn’t write anymore but the words spill over in her head, and give her blinding headaches. Sometimes in her dreams, she sits in front of pages and pages of her own handwriting, desperately trying to put it into some kind of order.
‘All done. No showers, gym, saunas until tomorrow evening. Don’t forget to exfoliate. I’ll see you outside.’
She is alone with her bare, red-raw crotch, her clothes in a pile on the chair, as if she has been seduced, ravished and abandoned.
She dresses slowly. Knickers, tights, skirt, shoes.
She gathers up her bag, her vibrator, her book of poetry, her profane heart, pays and tips her torturer, and plunges back onto the sticky streets of the city to look for the words hidden, like promises, in its shadows.