Three types of beauty salon: the pristine Swiss clinic set-up where the staff might as well be in scrubs; tart’s boudoir with a job lot of gold leaf and damask; and then the retro parlour with a few framed fifties pin-ups. Mo had tried something different. Tropical. An InvestNI start-up loan and a bit of money she’d saved bought her a tiny shop unit and some second-hand equipment from a liquidation auction. On the two-week start-up course they’d said about how you’d to achieve a total concept with it all working together to create brand synergy—the waiting area, the music, the décor. She had got a mate to do the painting. She had in mind a Caribbean paradise but when he’d finished it looked like a coffee shop off the Damrak. Would you like a quarter with your eyelash tint? Today’s double-sell! The lights on dim and it didn’t look so bad. The total concept got abandoned. The bowls of sand and shells in the waiting area should have been a good idea but people were always sticking their hands in and making the magazines gritty. After three days of Classic Reggae: The Soundtrack to Jamaica on repeat Mo retreated to the usual gentle ambient sounds and filled the bowls with boiled sweets.
What they said on the course didn’t matter anyway because it was all about the quality of the treatments. Treatments were reasonably priced—allowing for a careful margin—and methodically executed. Nails, waxing, facials, bit of massage, fake tan. One treatment room. Total reliability: no day-release wee dolls messing things up. She was in the place for 8, ready to start at 9 and she was there for the rest of the day, six days a week. Mo was starting to get regular clients, which was good. When she opened she’d put an advert in the local free paper with a discount voucher (15%: enough to create a positive vibe) and that had got things started well. She wasn’t fully booked at this stage—there were gaps in the diary—but she had known that that was how it would be for at least the first six months and she’d factored in that probability.
This morning Mo arrived at the same time as usual. The butcher next door was putting out his sign, a wooden cut-out cow, as Mo put up her metal shutter. Then she went through her routine: kettle on first, switch on the wax pot, light a few of the scented candles (black coconut). You needed to take away the smell of the bleach that lingered from the night before when the whole place had been washed down because ammonia wasn’t very ambient. Switch on the heat: important this, although it was expensive. The place always needed to be warm because people felt awkward enough stripping down to paper pants for a tan and they didn’t need to be freezing as well. The electric heater made a racket but no one had ever complained. Listen to the answer machine, turn the sign to open and finally, finally make the cup of tea.
Mo was reaching for the milk when there was a shatter of glass. She came through from the back and saw a hole in the window, a circle about two inches wide, and coming from it silver spokes that were tinkling as they crept further towards the edges of the window. Beside the table with the celeb magazines, a shiny red snooker ball had just come to rest. Mo heard the cracking of the glass, stared down at the ball, then looked at the window. Through the hole the road looked darker. She put the ball on the counter and went next door to the butcher’s.
Did you hear that? Mo said. My window’s just been put in.
The butcher shook his head, continued moving some meat from one tray to another. Shit, he said. That’s not good. Do you need a number? For a glass place?
Yes I do, said Mo. I can’t believe that just happened.
Desperate like, he said.
I can’t believe that just happened!
A woman came into the shop and he turned his attention away from Mo, did the what can I get for you my darlin?
Waiting at the bus-stop outside the salon were a handful of people.
Did you see what happened there? Mo asked them. My window’s just been put in.
An old fella shrugged. A boy in school uniform didn’t take out his headphones.
Yeah, a man said. Car pulled up and the window went down and they threw something. Drove off quick. Did anybody get hit?
Nobody got hit, said Mo. It was just the window that got wrecked.
Bad state of affairs, said the man. Nuts.
Mo’s first client of the day, in for an eyebrow wax and an eyelash tint, never commented on the window.
Blue black? Mo asked.
Blue black, the woman said.
She had taken her shoes off to lie on the bed and they sat neat in the corner, sad little comfortable shoes. Mo mixed the dye in the glass vial then smeared the Vaseline over her eyelids and under her eyes, positioned the semi-circles of paper under her bottom lashes. That window. Unfair so it was. The woman’s eyelids fluttered as the dye went on, cold and wet.
That’s us, said Mo. I’m going to leave you for ten minutes to let that take. You warm enough? Mo pressed two cotton wool pads on her eyes.
Oh yes, said the woman, lovely.
Good then, said Mo, and she closed the door on the woman lying blind in the dark.
The man from the glass place said he couldn’t come out until tomorrow but Mo supposed that was probably as good as she was going to get; she knew that even with the insurance this was going to work out expensive, one way or another. It wasn’t a total surprise it happened, she had been expecting something or other. And shouldn’t she be thankful that it wasn’t something worse, good it had happened when there weren’t any clients around. That fella would call in soon again, she knew it.
Mo went back into the room.
Yes, just nodded off, said the woman. Can I stay here the rest of the day?
Mo laughed as she cleaned off the dye, firmly and precisely, and then she handed the woman a mirror to look at the transformation. Before: eyes like a rabbit’s, pink and fair. After: it’s all the blue black. The woman made her mirror face, an ingénue smile even though she hadn’t seen sixty in years.
Oh now that’s great. That’s great.
The eyebrow wax took seconds, a few swift strokes. Mo mentally calculated her pay per second.
As the woman went out, the butcher came in. Here you might be needing this, he said. We had a bit left over. And he held out a length of glass repair film.
He put it on with only a couple of bubbles rising.
Kids, huh? the butcher said.
Kids, said Mo. That’s good of you, I appreciate it. That’s great.
Just pay it, he said. Ain’t really that much, just pay it.
She hadn’t spoken to him before beyond hello. She didn’t talk much during the day. Alright, if it was nails, you’re facing the person and it’s ignorant not to, so you have to talk, but people want to keep it light, holidays and work-dos and new shops that have opened in the town. Other treatments, people just need you to shut the fuck up so let them head off to wherever they want as the cotton wool sweeps over them or your hands smooth their skin with cream. Oh there were questions you could ask if you wanted to, bodies that begged for someone to ask why, what’s all that about. That long thin scar, running along the inside of your thigh, lady in the grey cashmere, what caused that? Those arms like a box of After Eights, slit slit slit, why you doing that, you with your lovely crooked smile, why you doing that? The woman with the bruises round her neck, her hand fluttering to conceal them. Jeez missus, is your fella strangling you? But you don’t ask, why would you?
Mo had done enough talking, done enough listening. The call-centre job she had done at night while getting the beauty qualification had a boss called Eamonn, a man from Donegal in a velvet jacket. The pay was very poor, he had told her, below the minimum wage, but for every thirty seconds you kept people on the phone over ten minutes you got a bonus. Plus you could work all the hours you wanted pretty much, right into the night. Theresa over there, he pointed at a woman drinking tea from a flask, Theresa earns more than I do. There was a choice: either the sex line or the fortune line. Irish angle on both: guys getting off talking to colleens or women having their future decided by Celtic mystics. The other new girl said, what’s with the Irish stuff? I’m not telling some fella I’m Irish when I’m not. You’ll just be on the phone, the man from Donegal had said. It’ll just be the accent. Which for most people is, regardless of your own local distinctions, Irish. But I’m British, she said. I’m from the loyalist community. Eamonn had looked thoughtful. No, he said. No. That’s just too niche. Loyalist psychic readings. Loyalist girls wanting to talk to you now. No my sweetheart you are Irish to your fingertips and if you don’t like it then that, and he pointed, is the door. She had stayed though and so had Mo. And what would you say, asked Mo, if you were speaking to the fellas? ‘Work away there’, ‘keep working away there’ and ‘that you finished’? I’m sure you can manage something better Mo, he had said, if you want to earn any money. Mo was put on the fortune telling. No knowledge of anything spiritual required, said Eamonn. Just keep it sensible and lengthy. If anyone is in severe straits give them the number of the Samaritans. But only after a while.
You could feel them sometimes, people’s hopes, even though all you wanted to do was just get on with your job. People looking at their faces, seeing a crumpled version staring back at them, hoping that the dermabrasion was going to make them feel like the time when they were thirty and they told that funny story at their sister’s party in that restaurant and everybody laughed. For all this stuff you had to work neatly and quickly: people got nervous if you were hesitant or unsure.
Mo rolled the snooker ball in her hand. Not good. She imagined sitting down in the police station, those concerned faces when she explained what was happening, the offer to make her a cup of tea, the feigned surprise, the commitment that they would do something about it, the nothing, maybe the worse than nothing. Just pay it, the butcher had said. Ain’t really that much. Well it really wasn’t that much: you could recoup it with a late-night opening. But but but that would be just the start of it. You could just see the sorry little tale taking shape: next thing it’s a friend of mine’s daughter needs a job, lovely girl, very keen, all those qualifications in beauty and you don’t need anybody but you have to take her, and then the next thing is she arrives, hard piece, lazy-assed piece, and you are stuck with her loafing about and all her friends coming in for mates’ rates. The guys next door were paying the money though and Christ knows who else on the road.
Maybe it wasn’t any different to insurance. That’s what the fella was implying. When he had come in before he had introduced himself and he had shaken her hand. Kyle, he said his name was. There was something about him that let her know that he was not some bloke coming in for a voucher for his missus, the only reason men came to Mo’s place. She wasn’t doing male treatments, no thank you, she was not doing back sack and crack, not when she was working by herself, no way. The way he stood there, cock of the walk, like he owned the place, suggested to her that he wasn’t after a voucher.
With this situation there was no a), b) and c). It was difficult to know what to do. That was what was wrong with the phone-line, idiots wanting advice from spirits or the runes or the stars and yet it was obvious what option they should take. Kick him out! Get out of the flat! Go to a gym! Go to the doctor! Tell her the truth! Give in your notice and look for another job! Can you not understand?
One woman had phoned up about her new dream fella who just didn’t get on with her ten-year-old son, had hit him quite hard one time, although fair’s fair, the son had been bad, beyond cheeky. Her fella had said that the son was gonna be a problem big time before too long and she was just so worried about the situation and wondered if she should put the son into temporary foster-care, you know just temporary. Couldn’t go back to being on her own again.
Pretty obvious what you should do love isn’t it?
What? the woman had said.
I said if you aren’t thick as shit it is pretty obvious what you need to do, huh?
Silence on the end of the line.
People like you don’t deserve to have kids, you tool. You hear that? The stars are saying that, and all the spirits in the spirit world, I can hear them coming through very clearly and they’re saying you’re a fuckin tool.
Mo didn’t need the job any more anyway. She’d got the beauty qualification and the money saved and she was all set: a), b) and c).
The next client was a full body spray tan. Mo showed her into the cubicle where she had laid out the paper pants. White—if it was Marilyn-white, dense and creamy—was beautiful. But people weren’t ever Marilyn-white, they were lumpy and mottled. Tan helped but everyone wanted it too brown; never mind the different calibrations Mo offered, they always went for the top intensity. Mo liked doing the spray tan. You needed skill. It wasn’t just point and go.
What happened your window? the woman asked, shivering a little as the tan spray moved across her tits.
Mo shrugged, concentrating on progressing to the woman’s shoulder blades. Not entirely sure, she said. Young ones messing. It’ll be sorted tomorrow. Hopefully anyway.
Terrible, the woman said. A place was burgled the other week.
The man, Kyle, held the door open for the woman on the way out. It gave Mo a shock to see him standing there. He wore a leather suit jacket and held a briefcase that could have come from a game show, the prize bundles inside.
He put the briefcase on the table and rested on the counter.
Problem? he asked, nodding towards the window.
It’ll be fixed by tomorrow, said Mo, and she started fussing at one of the shelves, aligning moisturisers.
Kyle sighed slowly, shook his head. Not good, he said. This road isn’t what it used to be.
Yeah, said Mo.
The other week, he said, I was only trying to help. Seriously. This situation is just what you are trying to avoid.
Through the broken glass and the cellophane Mo could just about see a man outside, leaning against a car. She said nothing but put her hands by her sides because shit they were shaking.
You live round here? he asked. I said, you live round here?
No, said Mo. Well not that near, she said.
Yeah you do, said Kyle. House with the white door, number 32.
Is there any point in being stupid? he said.
Any point in being stupid?
Mo thought of her white door.
He spread himself out in one of the seats. You see, it’s like this, he began. It’s all about community. Communities don’t run themselves. Businesses like yours, they’re vulnerable, you see what I mean? There’s a lot of people out there who are not nice people and all we are really doing here, you know, if I’m being honest, is offering you our help. As a member of the community.
I know what community means, said Mo.
You do? said Kyle.
I know exactly what community means, said Mo.
On the shelf by the window there was a line of OPI nail varnishes, running the range of colours of the spectrum, twenty of them. Mo watched as he used the back of his little finger to push from the left so that the varnishes fell slowly on to the tiles, one at a time. All twenty of them, one at a time.
Only two actually smashed, a coral and a hot red.
You need to watch it, he said.
Mo swallowed. That leather jacket would be wipe-clean.
It’ll need to be in an envelope, Kyle said. And it’ll be a Friday.
On his way out he turned round. And you’ll also be giving me a Christmas and Easter extra. Plus something over the holiday.
I’m talking money, he said. Fuck sake don’t flatter yourself love.
Hey, she shouted after him, when she knew he couldn’t hear. Hey, big man! You left your ball!
Another late night it would have to be then. Nothing else for it. In the appointments book she ruled the line for Tuesday down to the bottom of the page.
The cemetery sloped down the side of the hill. Although it was big, there was rarely anyone there during the week and it was always cold up there, looking over the city. The older graves had granite surrounds and marble chips, some kept white with squirts of bleach, but most were green and mildewed. Kyle was at the lower section, the newer space, where the graves were less grandiose— just headstones side by side. He was nervous walking towards it. Over the past year there’d been the time when it had been spray painted with red loops—you wouldn’t have known what it said, if it said anything—and then there was the day when someone must have taken a sledge-hammer to it. They’d knocked off a great lump. Scum, pure and simple. The worst time, and Jesus this was the worst time, was when somebody had shat on the side of the tombstone. They’d smeared it across his name, David Ian Starrs, and when Kyle saw it he was disgusted to the pit of his stomach. He had only been wearing a T-shirt and he took it off, run it under the tap at the bottom of the graveyard. He attacked the stone with a fury and thought about the sound of cracking bone and the way a lip swells.
T-shirt had been stinking. He couldn’t see a bin so he just bunched it up and threw it a couple of rows away where it landed on an urn.
There’s a fella’s feeling the heat, said a fat man who was getting a bunch of flowers out of the back seat of his car.
What did you say? Kyle went over to him. What did you just say?
Nothing mate. The man held out his hands and shook his head. No offence. It was just, you know—and he pointed at Kyle’s bare chest—feeling the heat.
Kyle grabbed the bunch of dog daisies and shoved them into the man’s face, right into his mouth. He was making a choking sound and the flowers were falling apart but he still kept pushing.
Who the fuck do you think you are? Kyle said, genuinely inquisitive. Like who?
He didn’t tell Grace about the man and the flowers but he told her what had happened to the grave this time.
Who’s responsible for doing that? she had asked.
Don’t know, he said, but he knew it could be several different people, several different groups. Davy’s funeral had actually been on the TV, well the local news at six in the evening, but by the later news something else had replaced it. Afterwards they had sat in the bar with Davy’s three little children marauding around and the two practically identical ex-partners. But today the grave was fine and nobody had touched it. Kyle traced the golden lettering with his finger.
Grace had said that they were going out for their dinner that night but he had not been enthusiastic. Well we’re going, she had said, and that’s that.
Why? he had asked.
Just are. It’s bring your own, so if you want to, bring your own.
It’s just new opened. I met the guy who runs it’s wife.
Do we have to?
Well I got stuff to do. Tell me where it is and sure I’ll just meet you there.
Kyle’s stuff. A diverse portfolio. He had heard somebody say that once and he had liked it so he used it. Things had been better though: money came in well enough most of the time but it wasn’t always easy to maintain control. The taxis company, such as it was, did alright delivering the afterhours what have you, and then there was the shop and the mechanics that he had a main cut in. Most places were still paying up, as were the small dealers, but nothing felt secure. What was it? It was just—maybe it wasn’t any different from what it had ever been and it was just him. Davy going had been terrible. That coroner: heart attack brought on by steroid abuse, no way was Kyle having that. Why wasn’t everybody having heart attacks then if that was the case? Basically the enemy was everywhere and there wasn’t anybody left to trust except Grace who he did trust even though she probably disapproved of everything. Once, when there was a situation, she had been taken in for questioning for a day and a half and she had said nothing. In fact, one of them had said to him, you’re punching above with that one Kyle. There were Hungarians on the scene now, they smashed up one of the bars and they were making inroads into things. And your woman, lippy fuck, going on about community the other day, oh I know about community, should’ve fire-bombed the place. Might still. The sort of people that were coming up now, they weren’t the same. Boys were stupid, the ones who would have been part of it in the past now went to university, cleared out.
But maybe it was just him. That was why he was going to try this place, against his better judgment. A flyer had come through the door about it but it was far enough away for very few people to recognise him. It was above a dry-cleaners. He’d been past the other day to see what it looked like, the Class A Hypnotherapy. Just a staircase up and then some net curtains. Looked a dump, but if it worked it worked. Nothing else—and he had tried a lot of stuff—had made any difference.
The waiting room was a small white cube and on the wall there were testimonials from people who had been successfully treated at Class A Hypnotherapy. There was some ponce who he had never heard of saying that Class A had cured him of his stage fright and that he was ready to do a summer season in Blackpool for the first time in years. Fella looked a fruit, him and his nerves. Fuck him and his nerves. And then there was some student who had written to say that her troubles had cleared up thanks to yeah yeah yeah. There was a candle oil burner and the place smelled of a plant and the music was like you’d get in a Chinese. Kyle lifted out the candle and burned along the edge of one of the brochures on the table, setting fire to an inch or so at a time, and then blowing it out. When he’d done round the whole brochure he blew out the candle.
He heard voices, somebody coming out of the room and going down the stairs, and then a man appeared in the waiting room. Geoff, he said, extending his hand. Very pleased to meet you.
Kyle stood up.
And you are, he got a diary out of his pocket, you are—
Marty, said Kyle.
Well Marty please come on through.
The Chinese music was still on the go in the other room and there was a beige sofa where Kyle was told to sit because there needed to be a consultation before any treatment could begin.
We need to fill in a questionnaire, said Geoff.
Marty, your other name?
Kyle thought for a minute. The only thing that came to mind was Pellow.
Pellow, he said.
Alright, said Geoff, as he filled the boxes. Marty Pellow. Address?
Look no, said Kyle. Never mind my address. Are you gonna just get on with this?
I do need your GP’s name, said Geoff with an apologetic smile. Who would your GP be now Marty?
Arches, he said.
Right you are, said Geoff, writing in The Arches Medical Centre. So, he said, admin done, what brings you along to us today?
Kyle shrugged. Just the usual.
Geoff continued to look at him, his pen poised. Just what Marty? How do you feel?
You feel alright. What would alright be on a scale of 1 to 10?
Jeez. Seven out of ten, Kyle said. Maybe an eight.
Now that, said Geoff, is really quite good.
Yeah, so? said Kyle.
If most days you feel seven, maybe an eight, then why, Marty, have you come to see us?
There’s only you here, yeah? asked Kyle. Why you keep saying us? Why you keep saying that when it’s only you?
People come to us for all sorts of reasons, Geoff continued. Some want to give up smoking say, others have a specific fear, of flying perhaps, or maybe they feel nervous thinking about a particular event.
Kyle’s face showed his opinion of these kinds of people.
And then there are those who come to us because they experience high levels of anxiety, manifest quite possibly in panic attacks, sleeplessness, obsessive-compulsive disorders—
Alright, said Kyle, don’t be telling me any more about these people, I don’t care. Could we just get on with whatever it is you do like, you know, maybe now. If that’s convenient.
Geoff indicated a chair over in the corner. You sure you want to continue Marty? he said. There’s not a lot of point in continuing if you feel this isn’t for you. The will must be there.
Well he wasn’t expecting it to be a man swinging a watch on a chain and saying look into my eyes but this was just a chair with your man perched on the desk but then the chair reclined, like a La-Z-Boy, but so far back it wasn’t a telly you were watching, it was the ceiling. There was a black spot on the ceiling. The man had gone out and come back with a blanket and a cushion that had been heated up.
Kyle threw the cushion on the floor. I don’t think we’ll be needing that mate. He kicked off the blanket. All this shit would you just make a start here?
Geoff started to say the spiel. He was reading it off, you could tell, the way he was savouring every word. Something about a beach and the sun shining: yeah he could imagine the beach, he could imagine a few hot birds in bikinis, okay well now they were starting to get off with each other. Well that was pretty alright to think about but Geoff said Focus really loud and then he was back to the room, listening to that voice of his going on about different parts of the body. That Chinese music was still on the go, the ribs and the black bean sauce, wee doll bringing over a sizzling dish, you spinning that revolving table. Mandarin City. Cueball ate the fortune cookie at the end, bit of paper and all. How the fuck was I meant to know he said, give me yours and I’ll eat it as well. That was a while ago though, some laugh, that fella was long gone.
Geoff was saying think about contentment, when you felt in control, and Kyle is in the old front room where their dad is lying half on, half off the rug and the blood from his mouth is pooling on the floor. A couple of weeks before Davy had asked, you know the way I’m fourteen and you know the way you’re thirteen? You put us together do we equal a man of twenty-seven? Must have put it into their heads they could swing it—and they did because when the old fella hit Davy full on the face the two of them laid into him and there he was on the floor. Still dangerous because they couldn’t afford for him to get either one of them alone, but even that would only be for a certain period of time because they were getting stronger and his boozing was getting worse. Pathetic him lying there. Felt good to see the legs collapse from under him, pathetic the way he tried to appeal to them through the blood, Davy! and then, Kyle!
Even their ma was pleased. She said oh what’s the world coming to, and all of that stuff, but she was happy and they knew it. She put a tea towel over his head. And that was what Kyle was thinking of, that was a good day.
Try to take a snapshot of that contentment, focus on a detail of that scene if you can, said Geoff, are you focusing Marty, on something specific? (Yes: the blood on the floor way darker than you’d think.) Can you do that Marty? That’s good. Good. You are going to hold that in your mind as a motif of happiness that you can refer to. You holding it in your mind?
I am, said Kyle.
And how are you feeling? asked Geoff.
You’re feeling good? asked Geoff.
Okay, said Kyle.
Hold that image and know that you are the same person who can achieve that contentment again, whenever you want Marty.
But no, Kyle thought. No. Because Davy wasn’t here and that made everything not the same. What the fuck was he doing lying with a blanket round him on a chair above the dry-cleaners listening to this pure shite, how bad had things got that this was what he was at?
Right, that’s it. Over, that’s enough. Will you move this fucking—he tried to push himself out of the chair—this fucking—
Geoff spoke calmly. The initial session can sometimes be a little underwhelming. Next time—
They’ll be no next time, said Kyle. That’s it.
Geoff took an invoice from a pad at the desk, calmly filled it in, and handed it to Kyle.
You got to be having a laugh, he said. Eighty quid to lie back in a chair and listen to you reading a script off a page, well I do not think so. Here, he hoked around in the pocket of his jacket, that’ll do you, and he handed him a fiver. You are making easy money pal let me tell you with this fucking caper.
Geoff watched from the window as Kyle got into his car, slammed the door shut.
Kyle Starrs, he said aloud.
The restaurant had had a refit since it had been the burger bar. There were now white tiles, fairy lights and pictures from local artists. Every table had a couple of tea-lights and a posy in a jam-jar. Grace was already there, sitting at the table. Kyle came in clinking with bottles.
Can I take those for you? the fella asked.
Kyle lifted out two bottles of Moët, and a bottle of Courvoisier.
One of those over in an ice-bucket, he said. Mate.
What? he said to Grace.
It’s bring your own, yeah?
It’s bring your own.
Well then. What’s the issue?
She sighed. Doesn’t matter.
It’s bring your own and I’ve brought my own. Jesus Christ.
The young man brought over the menus.
I’m actually quite hungry, Grace said. Haven’t eaten anything all day.
Well order whatever you want. Here, what’s the holdup with the drink? Kyle said. Oi! Mate! He pointed to the table. Drink?
The fella came over, apologetic. It’s just that, we don’t have any ice-buckets yet. We’re only open, I mean, we’re only just open so not everything’s quite right yet. Sorry, but we are only open.
Grace smiled at him. No problem, she said.
Hick joint, said Kyle to Grace when the waiter had gone. Don’t think much of this place.
Wise up Kyle, said Grace. Just leave it for goodness sake.
The owner’s wife came over with the champagne and two glasses.
Oh not for me, said Grace. I’m happy with this.
She pointed to her tonic water.
The woman poured a glass for Kyle, and then the fella appeared with a vase used as an improvised ice-bucket.
He poured Grace a glass of champagne. Cheers, he said.
I don’t want any Kyle. I said to you.
God a glass won’t kill you.
I don’t want it.
There was no enjoyment in drinking by yourself. That voice of hers killed him. Always calm. He once had said to her, you know who you remind me of? Clint Eastwood.
That’s flattering, she had said.
I know it is, he had replied.
But she could make you feel like nothing. She wasn’t impressed by much: a five star would mean as much as a two star. Jewellery she wasn’t into. Not interested in fancy places, well that was obvious when you took a look round here. They could have been in the town at somewhere where you got treated really well, where there were plenty of people about to see you out and about. He knew fine rightly that she knew about the various other women over the years but she never made a scene. He wouldn’t have minded her being bothered, full-on furious, he wouldn’t have minded if she’d punched and slapped him. Even that one time when your woman that he had seen on and off for a few months came round to the house to make a row, she had just said, Friend of yours to see you, and gone out of the house. Did your woman ever regret that one but Grace never mentioned it again other than to say, please try to avoid that kind of thing Kyle because I could do without it.
The young fella was over asking them if they had decided what they wanted to order. Grace said she would have the pulled pork and Kyle said he wanted the steak. He hadn’t looked at the menu, but he wanted the steak.
Well done, he said. I like it, you know, really well done.
The fella went away and then came back. It’s just, he said, it’s just that the chef says that it’s a minute steak.
So what? Kyle said.
Minute steaks are meant to be cooked quickly. That’s what the chef says, he added carefully.
No, said Kyle. Well cooked. End of.
Grace leaned across the table. They’re only saying that if you want it well done, it’s likely to be tough because minute steaks need to be fried quick.
Did we come out for a cookery lesson? Did we?
Minute steak, he added. What a load of shite.
The woman appeared at the table. We’re sorry about the steak situation, she said. Maybe there’s something else on the menu that you would like to choose.
No love, said Kyle. I’ve made my order thank you very much.
Were you busy today? Grace asked.
Kyle shrugged. Just the usual, he said.
Was up at the grave, he said.
Used to be small, that graveyard, said Grace. It’s eaten up most of that hill now.
Everybody all together in that graveyard, she said.
Yeah well, said Kyle. Death comes to us all. Grim Reaper.
Does that steak come with sauce? Can’t remember, he said. I don’t want the sauce all over the top of it. I hate when they do that, slather the sauce all over the top of it.
The young fella came over to top up Kyle’s glass of champagne.
You celebrating something? he asked.
No, said Kyle.
That guy’s doing my head in, he said to Grace when he had gone.
He’s just doing his job Kyle, she said.
The steak, when it arrived, was a pathetic specimen, a shrivelled offering.
Well you got what you asked for, said Grace. You can’t complain. So don’t complain.
Kyle tried to cut it but it didn’t yield.
Fucking shoe leather, he said. That’s gonna bounce off the walls.
But they told you Kyle. They did say.
Try some of this, said Grace. It’s nice. We’ll share it and they can bring us another plate.
So I’ve come out for half a meal, he thought. I can’t even get a proper meal. That ponce, what had he said to think about, what did he tell me, and he thought, yes, it was his da lying half on half off the rug. Davy had wanted to wrap that electric flex round his neck, the one that he used to hit them, but he had said no just leave it, that was enough, enough for now. Sore being hit with that flex.
The worst was the street-preaching when they stood in Cornmarket on a Saturday afternoon with two speakers, a microphone and a cardboard box full of tracts. If it rained they put the box in a black bin bag. On the rare occasion they went to places like Portadown or Lurgan and Grace didn’t mind this so much because there would be no chance of seeing anyone from school. It would be the usual: you’d be cold and you’d get people either shouting abuse or laughing at you, but at least no one would know who you were.
There were things you could do to pass the time. You could count the paving stones for as far as they stretched into the distance; they started square and then, as they got further and further away, became wafers. You could hold your breath until you saw someone with a pink coat. Then you could hold your breath until you saw someone with a green coat. Then you could hold your breath until you saw someone in brown boots. You could do those same things in Cornmarket but you had no anonymity. Three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon there would be all the shrieking laughing crowds from the school. Is that not your wee woman from our year? Your wee doll in that big coat? It is her. Feel wick for her. Shout something over but.
Sometimes there would be competition from other groups: fire-eaters, choirs and, now and again, break-dancers who would bring a CD player and turn it up loud until the sound broke. Grace’s dad would turn up the preacher’s volume and his sound won out because it had an amp. It was a cosmic battle between good and evil right there in Cornmarket, transmogrified into a street sermon versus 2-Unlimited.
An American evangelist had held an old-time crusade in a huge white tent on the O’Neill Road and the very first night he went Grace’s dad had some kind of epiphany. On the next evening Grace’s mum had one too. They started going to a mission hall that was opposite an old dairy and constructed out of corrugated iron. Women had to wear hats. There were some people who had apparently been very bad like Jimmy Baker who had given his testimony and told everyone about how he had found the Lord after being a gambler and a womaniser and a communist street-fighter. Jimmy Baker seemed so nice, sucking his mints in the back row.
Sunday clothes were uncomfortable in ways you could not have imagined. The tights were always too small and the good wool skirt scratched. The label on the nape of the jacket was stiff but it was stitched right in so you couldn’t cut it out. The hat was like a pancake. There were lots of ways you could wear a beret, Grace’s mother had said. Yeah and every one of them stupid. The shop windows showed bright clothes, tight clothes. You walked past people, women, and they were all like the drawings in the maths book with the compass, soft concurrent semicircles.
Grace’s clothes, bought at charity shops, were chosen for their amorphous quality. Her mother talked about ‘good’ materials, wools, gabardine, camel hair, durable and decent. The girls in her class used tampons. Grace’s mother thought tampons tantamount to rape.
The preacher was called the Reverend Dr Emery. Everything he said was in groups of three. Sin, despair and iniquity. Our Saviour past present and future. A strong, hot, welcome cup of tea, available at the back of the church after the service. The long, boring, repetitive service. You could stare at the Reverend Dr Emery in the pulpit until he doubled and became surrounded in black light and then you could look at the ceiling and see his outline in relief against the white-washed beams. You could make bargains with the Lord. I will believe if you make your woman there’s hat fall off. She scratches her neck. Split second when you think it might happen. Hat stays on. You could listen to tales from a mostly Old-Testament world of hard justice. You could listen to his lamenting tone: oh why is the world filled with such evil? You could think, I don’t know if I believe this.
Then the Carson family started coming. They were tall, thin people, a husband and wife, who had been in Malawi for many years, mostly working on bible translation but involved in other projects too. Their own children had long left home but they fostered kids, short term, and they had plenty of room in their big double-fronted house with the overgrown garden. First there was a boy, about ten, who had a hearing aid and a green coat. Grace wondered if he could hear what the Reverend Dr Emery said; he mouthed the hymns like he was dubbed. Then there was an older boy, although he wasn’t there for that long, whose head was always cocked to one side, oh aye right, it said. Then there was a girl who overlapped with him for a month or so, fat with a pale face. Grace’s mother had said, why don’t you go over and talk to her after church, so Grace had tried but the girl hadn’t asked her anything back. Grace shifted from foot to foot until it was time to go. And then there was the next one who had a clump of hair dyed pink. After one of the bible readings she shouted out, Amen! and then started laughing. There was embarrassed, irritated shooshing. Later, Grace’s mum said, I think that girl’s a bit lacking. Shouting out like that. People don’t shout out like that in our church.
She did it with an American accent, said Grace.
She’s a bit lacking.
But that didn’t stop Grace’s mother asking her to go round to help the girl, Kerri, with her schoolwork.
Why? said Grace. It didn’t go well, speaking to the other one.
This is a different girl. She needs help with her schoolwork.
Why can’t Mrs Carson help her?
She’s busy. You’re going round tonight. I said to them that you would.
Like I’m the genius.
Don’t be cheeky Grace, her mother had said.
Mrs Carson said the bedroom was the first door on the right at the top of the stairs. Should she knock? Grace wasn’t sure.
Hello, she called.
What you want? the girl said from inside.
And then she came to the door. What you want?
I’m meant to help you with stuff, said Grace. That’s what they said for me to come and do.
I don’t go to school, she said.
Then why did they send me?
I go to a centre, the girl said.
They said I was to help you.
Well I don’t want any help, said the girl and closed the door.
But her mother sent her back again the next night. Sometimes it’s necessary to persevere. We need to do what we can where we can.
Not you again, the girl Kerri said, opening her door when Grace knocked. Behind her everything was round the bed like a magnet: clothes, magazines, dirty tights with the knickers still in them, cans of coke. You could smell body spray but mainly smoke. Did the Carsons not notice?
Did you not get the message last time? she said. Why you here again?
Mrs Carson called them downstairs. Kerri screwed up her face. On the dining-room table there was a book with a rabbit on the front cover and a worksheet. The other kids were playing out in the garden, even though it was raining a bit. Mrs Carson said, Kerri, I want you to remember the talk we had earlier. You remember? No effort made with work, no allowance. No allowance, no whatever it is you like to buy.
Kerri scowled across the table at Grace. Then she lifted the book about the rabbit and opened it at a random page. Her finger slowly ran under each word and her lips silently formed the words. She read about ten pages like this, with Grace looking on redundant.
Then she sighed, closed the book. Done, she said.
What’s it about? asked Grace.
Fucking rabbit, said Kerri. Did you not see the front of it?
Is that what you have to read?
If it wasn’t, you think I’d be looking at it huh?
It’s a rabbit that goes round doing stuff, she added.
She dropped the book on the floor.
The other one was about a homeless man, she said.
Was it better? Grace asked.
No, said Kerri.
Come on up the stairs, she said. I want to show you something.
Grace thought that Mrs Carson might object but she was involved in doing something in the kitchen and so said nothing. Grace found herself sitting on Kerri’s rumpled bed. Kerri was pulling something out from behind her wardrobe. She sat down on the bed beside Grace with a magazine.
Never mind that, look at this, she said.
She opened the magazine at a page where there was a woman lying on a sofa with her legs wide open. Not totally naked: she had on gold platform heels.
What do you think of that then? said Kerri, holding it up close to Grace’s face.
Grace said nothing.
What do you think of that?
She turned to another page with two women.
Never you mind you coming round here to tell me about this that or yon, you don’t know it all. Look again at it. Look at it. Look at this one. They’re all at it. All that lot in that tin box just the same as everyone else. Same as everyone else.
You’re not normal, Kerri went on. You’re really weird. I seen you sitting there with those two, your mum and dad, all holy holy, and I think god help you. You know Helen Watson who used to live here well she said the same thing about you. Said you were a psycho.
You’re the one who’s not normal, said Grace.
Oh aye is that right? I’m not going round like a granny mush fucking mouse. What you frightened of? Burning in hell?
No, said Grace. I’m not going to burn in hell.
Here let me tell you something, said Kerri. Let me tell you something. What year were you born in? What year was it?
1980, said Grace.
1980. So in 1979 you weren’t here. Were you bothered? You weren’t. So when you’re not here again because you’re dead, will you be bothered? No. You weren’t before—so you won’t be again.
Grace thought about this.
Hah! said Kerri.
Think about that one, she said. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Aw but no you can’t because Jesus says don’t smoke.
1979. It was a nothing.
Kerri started reading the description of the woman from the magazine. Here listen, she said. Listen to this. She read it with a big pause between each word, the cadence of a kid, following the line with her finger. Cindy likes Cindy likes—
What? said Grace. What is it Cindy likes?
Kerri puzzled at the word.
Maybe, said Grace, maybe you should stick to the rabbit book Kerri.
Kerri rolled up the mag and threw it at Grace. Read it yourself, she said.
Grace grabbed it, twisted it tight and hit Kerri across the cheek with it.
I didn’t want to come here. Do you understand that?
Kerri came charging across the room, grabbed Grace by the hair and threw her onto the bed, elbowed her hard in the gut. Grace gasped—she couldn’t breathe out. But it was easier to hit Kerri than she would have thought; her fist made contact with her stomach, taut as a drum, and she hit her again and again. They fell on to the floor on top of the dirty tights and the dirty plates. Kerri was quick and heavy, the ways she flipped Grace over, twisting her arm up behind her back. She couldn’t move and Kerri kept pushing harder so that she thought she was going to be sick. And then Kerri stopped. She was panting, trying to catch her breath. All Grace could smell was fags and hot fabric conditioner. Mrs Carson must put loads in the washes. Kerri took another handful of her hair and Grace thought she was going to get hit again but instead Kerri’s mouth was soft although you could taste the blood like a coin.
At home Grace’s mother was sewing a hem.
All go well? she asked.
It was alright, Grace said.
There are some booklets you could take round if Mrs Carson gives us a call. There’s those new ones that were sent from the States.
Sure, said Grace.
Her mother’s hand stretched the thread taut, did a final double stitch and cut the thread. When they were next in church there was a big empty space at the end of the pew where the Carsons sat. Kerri wasn’t there. It was the same the week after and the week after that. After church Mrs Carson said that she was grateful that Grace had helped Kerri along a bit, but that she had gone back to live with her mother now. They come and they go, Mrs Carson said. This is for you, she said.
She gave Grace a folded up piece of paper with an address and phone number on it. The frill of a spiral bound page torn off. Big bubble writing: written with careful deliberation, nearly pressed through the page. She kept the paper even though she knew that she was never going to phone or call round. She couldn’t imagine it: going to the pictures with Kerri; going for a meal with Kerri. Sending each other a Valentine: it seemed preposterous.
The next week Grace didn’t go to church. She said it was because she wasn’t well, but when her mother came up to her room, she said the thing is I’m giving going to church a miss for the time being. She knew that they prayed for her all the time. They sent Reverend Dr Emery round to see her and she sipped a cup of tea slowly while he told her about lost sheep and the prodigal son. He tried to scare her by talking about girls he had heard of who had strayed from the righteous path and who, without exception, had come to a bad end. They would congregate at the front door, there would be whispering and then he would go. There would invariably be a quiet knock on her door. Everything alright Grace? Her mother would be hopeful. Fine, Grace would nod.
There was pain and there was passion and there was no God. Some people had to wait a lifetime to find out that kind of thing, had to study and read books, gaze up at the stars. But it had been made apparent to her when she was young, it had come all in a rush when someone was whacking her with a porno mag. You might never experience that intensity of revelation ever, ever again.
You lived your life. You didn’t expect anything too much. There were holidays and meals and trips to the multiplex and city breaks. There was work in the nursery which was good fun most of the time. All that intensity was a long time ago now. She loved Kyle and wouldn’t leave him. Would he have been like how he was if it hadn’t been for that brother of his, getting him into stuff? Good riddance to Davy. Live by the sword die by the sword. Matthew 26:52. She could remember that. Grace had found out she couldn’t have kids. They had tried IVF but it hadn’t worked. She had been frightened he would go off with one of the others but he didn’t. Doesn’t matter, he said. I’ve got you and that’s what matters. Sex was useless because she felt a dud.
She went to church one time, nostalgic for her youth, when she saw a poster for a crusade but it was a small scale affair that took place in a hall where the floor was marked out for badminton and basketball with coloured tape. All the people were old and had all been saved years ago. There was no singing, only a man and a PowerPoint, but she ended up helping out with the teas because there was something wrong with the urn.
This morning Grace was leaving stuff at the dry-cleaners and then going to the beauty place. She had been there practically every other week since it opened. She had never thought before that she was high maintenance but now it turned out that she was. She wouldn’t have thought of going there if she hadn’t seen the advert and the voucher in the paper. The woman was just starting out. Weird little box of a place but she liked it. It was always warm, and it smelled of coconut. The girl didn’t say much which was good. The first time she had gone it had been for a leg wax. It was sore. The woman had said, next time, take a couple of paracetamol before you come. You know what in fact, she had said, take a couple of paracetamol and a brandy. Can only make it better. She had taken neither the paracetamol nor the brandy. The girl’s face was sometimes only a couple of inches away from you: you could run your finger along that frown of concentration. That pony tail, you could wrap it round and round your fist, pull it tight. She always looked preoccupied. Grace thought about her all the time. What did other people think of? Lying on beaches? Being in the Caribbean? To do lists? Grace thought about the taste of blood, a woman in gold high heels, lying face down on a bed. It was a disappointment every time when the woman said, well that’s it, I’ll leave you to get ready and I’ll see you outside. The dull thud of the well this is all there is.
And here she was again, back for more, sitting waiting for the woman to get the room ready. She looked at the line of moisturisers, the row of nail varnishes, the stack of magazines.
What happened the window? Grace asked when the girl appeared.
It’ll be fixed this morning, she said, if the fella ever arrives. Go on into the room, it’s all set up, and I’ll be through in a minute.