It is partly the estuary’s fault that it’s taking Grace this long to find a flatmate. It bullies the beaches down the coast so that new blood stops in town purely for petrol and a piss. Mostly though, it is because Grace is looking for more than just a flatmate, she wants one with a glut of off-the-rack mates, ready to sit out back in her yard, inhaling empty days and full cans.
Her flat, which she previously shared with Ma, is the downstairs of a tarnished two-tone green house in a row that tiptoes down the hill to the quay wall. Grace, paddling through her twenties, looks good; she’s mastered sexily- messily hair from a YouTube video and her stomach, usually on display, still has the even sweep of a virgin dune.
She is up early, before eleven, because of the humidity, and she has narrowed the day down to Tuesday. Braless and with her feet on the sill of the sitting- room’s shallow bay window, she wallows in Ma’s old armchair, wiping away underboob sweat with the rump of her thumb at the same rate you’d apply a sleeve to a dripping nose. She watches two seagulls sink through the thick air, down the hill towards the pullulating stench of the ebbing tide.
It is then that Grace sees them.
Teenagers, five of them, all inexperienced in spending their empty days, have come to sit on the quay wall. With her heels still resting on the sill their distant figures trek across the tops of her toes. Look at them, she thinks, staring out across the estuary’s sucking mire and festering about how different their lives would be if it were all sand.
Grace and her boobs jog out of step down the hill towards them. And by noon she is drinking own-brand beer in Ma’s old bed with a boy called Tyler, who’s just turned eighteen (he provided his provisional). Thundery clouds smother in, turning the light green-grey which accentuates the grime that creeps around the bedroom like a conquering ivy.
‘I really should exercise more,’ the words sail out of her mouth on exhaled smoke.
‘You’re still tight where I need it.’ His soft lines have yet to harden.
Their limbs have twisted the sheet about them, so that a cotton grey whirlpool is circling a drain beneath her arse. The walls crowd the bed, as if feeling the swirling pull, and the smell stirred by their movement is fishy like it is all becoming too much for the drain. She doesn’t think she was his first. He’s only a young lad she tells herself, to quash the feeling she is being seen by a man used to making the best of bad. Ditching his can onto an ossified sock on the floor he asks, ‘You got anything else?’
‘I need my book,’ she says, disappointed he hadn’t brought anything. ‘Why?’
‘His phone’ll be off now.’
Crouching on the mattress like a summoning shaman she flings the abused hardback up at the ceiling. Tyler shakes white flecks from his slick-back, toppling the long strands overboard into his undercut. A door slams, then another—her front door—and when the heavy feet pause, Grace, stepping into her knickers, guides them, ‘Vinnie, in here.’
With his fly just buttoned Grace watches Tyler take in the exposed abs stepping through the door; ridges like the sandy seabed itself. Heading towards forty, Vinnie has begun wet-shaving his bony skull and face daily; it suits him, he looks invulnerable as if he’s come back here on holiday for the craic, despite having died. The right side of his face is covered with raw meat, a vac-packed frozen steak.
‘Sparring?’ Grace asks.
‘Sinuses. And I’ve nothing for ya, G.’
Standing on the bed she is his height and with feline proclivity slinks onto his forearm that hangs ready for her like a swing.
‘Don’t look at me like that, I told ya, not while I’m getting me creds. Who is he?’ Vinnie nods at Tyler who replies from the far side of the bed with his name.
‘And your mammy, boyo?’
‘No way, the granny in her thirties? The Whole in One?’
Grace flicks Vinnie’s earlobe as if to change the conversation’s channel. ‘Tyler, Vinnie’s a PT, a personal train—’
‘Jesus, G, how old?’ Vinnie asks.
‘It’s okay, I checked. Any canny-cans left?’
‘No beer m’dear. Switch to mouthwash.’
Tyler puts on his runners, keeping his eyes on the size of Vinnie’s feet in the gap under the bed.
‘To drink like?’ she asks. ‘To rinse. Bang off of you.’
‘I’ve got to go,’ Tyler says.
‘Hang on, so you’ve viewed the room…’ Grace makes eye contact with him, ‘And?’
‘He live here too?’ Tyler throws an eye at Vinnie.
‘In the flat upstairs, just him, his mam is long gone, like my ma… well, my ma is not so long gone, she actually died—’
‘You gonna take it or what?’ Vinnie takes over while Grace goes off remembering the moment they popped her dead ma out of her armchair like a conker ripe from its shell.
‘Two weeks up front, 120,’ Vinnie says. ‘Bit much…’
‘Grand so, fix your fringe, Swifty, and piss off.’
‘Vin, his name is Tyler not Taylor,’ Grace says.
‘G, you just said the same name twice.’
‘No, one’s with a Y,’ she tries again. ‘They both have a Y,’ Vinnie says.
‘I mean just a Y.’
‘WIO always did have notions, Tyler for fuck sake like.’
‘Fuck it, fine, 120,’ Tyler says sitting back on the bed.
‘WIO stands for Whole—’
Vinnie stops as Grace hops from his arm saying, ‘So, Tyler, you’ll bring your friends over then?’
‘Why? More rooms for them to view, have ya?
‘To hang out, out the back like.’ Grace pats Vinnie’s advancing chest, his skull cocked at the boy’s tone. ‘You know with some cans, maybe do a little partying.’ ‘Yeah, whatever, I’ll bring the 120 tomorrow night,’ Tyler says passing Vinnie, who catches his wrist and slaps the steak into his hand. ‘For your Mammy, I
never bought her dinner first.’
Twenty-four hours later, Grace balances her groceries—noodle nests, soy sauce, fish fingers and a six-pack—on the withering compost mound that is her kitchen table.
On the way home she stepped in setting concrete. Shielded by a blue tarp the six feet of new footpath had looked perfect. The crinkled lines across it were like puckered wrinkles, calling out to be rubbed onto a crisp page with a thick red crayon, but she settled for pushing her foot down through its skin, sinking deeper than she planned when that woman appeared; the one Grace liked to think she’d look like if she had a job. The woman stared at Grace, not through or even at her, but more as if Grace was her reflection; like her worst angle revealed in a rippling shop window. A gull squawked as the woman hoisted her boobs by her bra straps, rallying her posture, and Grace fled the concrete and the feeling that the woman was about to flap wings and try to smash through the offending reflection.
She stands at the sink facing the window that frames the concrete wall and
wire-fencing that has become her DIY prison yard. Outside Vinnie is doing burpees and his skull glistens each time he jumps into a sliver of sunlight.
Grace doesn’t see Vinnie or the yard today, her gaze never gets through the pane, searching for a reflection not visible. Kicking off her flip-flop she grabs the dishcloth from over the neck of the tap and begins wiping her hoofed-back foot. ‘Did ya call into Fang?’ Vinnie has come inside to stretch his calf, leaning with
his palms flat against the wonky fridge. ‘What?’ Grace asks.
‘Prawn crackers?’ Thigh flexed, Vinnie winces. ‘Mmm-hmm.’
‘What’s wrong with your foot?’
‘Nothing,’ she says, still rotating her head in front of the window in search of her worst angle. Fang had also looked at her funny today, funnier than usual. Grace always feels on display for Fang and her changeable eyeballs. Her sockets are like peep holes where visiting sets of eyes come to gawk in at this strange thing, Grace in her zoo town. But Fang laughs at all Grace’s jokes, and says things like, You crack me up, my ace Grace—which is enough to keep Grace going back.
Fang seems to have stayed the same age all Grace’s life. She runs a takeaway; a hole-in-the-wall job the same colour as her sweet and sour while upstairs her studio flat smells of cooked cockle shells and steaming salt-water. She was a sort* *of dinner-lady to Grace, providing her meals without questions on schooldays when Ma’s paranoia made her housebound. Ma concocted all kinds of stories, as Vinnie called them, but to Grace, Ma was just lying, sitting in her chair making up her own versions of events. And none of her versions were helpful. Fang and Vinnie were the only ones who came to Ma’s funeral, and now most mornings Fang drinks tea while Grace eats prawn crackers for breakfast; the crackers dissolve in the dip, like Jesus on your tongue.
After today’s breakfast though, Grace is unsure if she can ever return. She made an off-limits joke about the similarity between Fang and her mongrel: the two of them shuffling around, toenails clicking on the floorboards, with their Labrador-size heads on stout Corgi bodies. She only said it because of the postcard, the new one of a Chinese dragon pinned to Fang’s fridge; it had become the third big head on a small body in the flat, and simply too much for Grace not to mention, lubed as she was on prawn crackers and compliments.
‘Right, so you’re a one-shoe pony now?’ Vinnie asks.
She looks at his head, ‘Yeah well a pirate called and he wants you to… to get back to work on the Jolly Roger.’
‘What are ya on about, G?’
‘It’s a joke, your head is all bony, everyone thinks so.’ ‘I do have good structure… who’s everyone?’
Grace pinches the prick in her finger, encouraging any last drop of blood. Fang had let her play with her lancet again. Grace is always encouraged by the sight of the red globule. It’s confirmation that she is made of the same stuff as everyone else. Lately she has become perturbed about her eggs. Fang says hundreds of eggs are lost every month, but Grace isn’t even sure she releases them, only sure that by now she should have surely seen one. Google did not have an answer to How do I see my eggs? so she has continued to look for clues in sitcoms where women demand sex from their busy husbands by saying, ‘I’m ovulating. Come home.’
‘Gracie?… G, stop poking your finger. I’m gonna bring the bench press out
back yeah, just need something for the rain,’ Vinnie says as he sits down on a kitchen chair.
‘You’re going to traipse clients through my kitchen?’
‘Yeah, didn’t think you’d mind, you drag enough fellas through here.’ She throws the dishcloth at him.
‘But seriously if I’m bringing clients down we’ll have to clean the place. Get rid of all the junk. The smell.’
Caught in the Blue Beat 73
‘It’s not that bad.’
‘Think of it this way, G, you know on TV when the police go into a house because the neighbours are complaining about a smell?’
She takes the dishcloth from his hand and begins wiping her foot again. ‘Do you really think they’d send someone to investigate like, if I died?’ He frowns at her, ‘So one flip-flop just flipped right off then?’
‘Just leave it will ya?’ she says and takes a swig of soy sauce. She believes it masks the ash on her breath.
‘Who’s the beer for?’ Vinnie asks. ‘Tyler.’
‘Good lay was he, like the Mammy? You can’t teach it—it’s in the genes, like being good at footie, or growing muscle, it’s all predetermined like. But he’s not actually moving in, is he?’
‘Vinnie, don’t start.’
‘With the last one you let stay, you were a protester. We were making placards out the back like a sweatshop, and before that more games. He’ll be the sixth flatmate in less than a year, G.’ Grace opens her mouth to object, but Vinnie points the index at her. ‘And now you’re a schoolgirl for this one?’
‘Vin, he’s not a kid, and he’s not like the others, all he needs from me is a place to stay. Sharon kicked him out, on moving her fella in. Look, it’s just a room, Vin.’
‘But, see, it’s not just a room you’re renting out, it’s more like… it’s yourself. That’s exactly it, G, you can’t keep renting yourself out along with the room. There won’t be any of you left.’
‘So what if I like having people around? When we were younger, people were always here, having parties for days, remember?’
‘I do, kiddo, but I just don’t like seeing you twist yourself for guys.’ She shrugs. ‘This is what I want.’
He looks at her. ‘Okay, but remember, no games. I’m not playing.’ Grace goes back to the sink.
‘It was me, by the way, that came up with the Whole in One,’ he says. ‘Funny.’ Grace holds the dishcloth around the tap like a hood, and Vinnie
wraps his arms around her until she gives in to his gentle force and leans back into his sweaty chest. He whispers into her messy hair, ‘But not nearly as funny as my ace Grace.’
Later that night, when it is as dark as a summer’s night can get, Grace lets Tyler in with his GAA gear bag, its busted zip leaking a caseless pillow. She unfurls
*74 *Emer Rogers
his limp fivers and tens, two of which are sterling, but she gives him a key and a can anyway. He says nothing as he shuts his bedroom door. Across the hallway in the kitchen she drinks three cans and leaves four voicemails for Vinnie—or it may have been four cans and three calls—and witnesses the blue fairy lights strung along the window lose a turf war to the rising light.
Tyler’s room is darker and beside a sleeping Tyler she strips to her tank top and knickers, lifts the duvet and puts her head in his armpit and matches his breathing. Bored, she tries to count seagulls on the street based on their squawks.
Two, no three, no only two. Then she hears the front door open.
‘Morning, Grace,’ Vinnie shouts in, shaking his head as he turns into the kitchen. Her leap from the bed is followed by Tyler’s roar; she elbowed his balls on take-off.
There is a clatter and a bang in the kitchen. ‘He’s just cleaning,’ explains Grace. ‘Time?’ Tyler asks still squinting.
‘Nearly six.’ ‘Morning like?’
‘Mmm-hmm, sooooo when do you think we should have your house- warming party?’
He pulls the pillow, still caseless, across his face.
‘Tyler?… Will you ring your mates then?’ She slides his phone up to his chin. ‘Anyone want breakfast? Steak, yeah?’ Vinnie hollers in.
‘No Vin,’ Grace hollers back as Tyler mouths fuck off.
‘Tyler, give him a chance, you guys have a lot in common, his Ma was…’ ‘What? A whore? A slut.’ Tyler belches out the words from under the pillow.
She kisses his velutinous chest.
‘I was gonna say that she was young when she had him… So was mine actually.’
He fish-hops away from her and mutters something into the pillow which she hears as, ‘Yeah, well, her nickname affect you?’
The Drone—it had affected her. Ma had got the nickname because of Grace. While watching telly in Vinnie’s flat, Grace said, ‘Guess what she said today, Vin? Calls me over to her bloody chair and goes—God didn’t make it obvious, Grace, and that was the only gift he gave woman—Jesus, this is her motherly advice on orgasms like.’
Vinnie muted mangled cars on a desert road and pulled her across the sofa into his chest, ‘G, your Ma is like a drone, she is high in the sky then she opens her mouth and fires down a bombshell completely off fucking target.’
Grace straddles Tyler without warning. He shoves her off. ‘Christ, would ya stop.’
She sits wounded on the bed, flat on her arse, ‘We’ll chat about it later so.’
‘Jesus’ is audible from under the pillow so she throws it on the floor, ‘That not suit, Tyler?’
He will not look at her, swiping open his phone instead. She watches his thumb orchestrate the information before his eyes: up, down, over and back.
‘Tyler, look at me, can’t you see I’m talking to ya?’
He laughs at a shouty GIF. This isn’t childish, he has never been a child, he could live here happily and ignore her with authority. He would know how to do that. He would know all about eggs too. Snatching his phone she asks, ‘Tyler you know on TV when women demand…’
‘Christ, do you think I’ll bring mates here to see another old wan and her fucking john.’
He continues to stare at the hand where his phone had been. Like a friendly pebble in her pocket she fingers—round and round—the thought of Tyler and his mates, out back having cans.
‘Grace? You there?’
She tosses his phone up in the air and when it lands on the mattress beside him she has a lie ready, ‘Vinnie doesn’t pay me anymore.’
‘The same things your Mam does.’
That evening she watches Tyler walk down the hill to his mates. They should be sitting in her yard not on the quay wall. She doesn’t enjoy playing Vinnie but she needs him hostile to the boy.
She tells him Tyler has left her short on rent. ‘Text him to come here now,’ is Vinnie’s reply.
They never usually sit in the kitchen, but it feels like the only place to wait for Tyler—on kitchen chairs dragged away from the composting table. Vinnie yabbers on about the blue tarp he’d stolen to rainproof the yard while Grace watches a seagull soar in and out of the window’s range, squawking at a beeping bin lorry. Its belly glows blood orange from the setting sun.
‘Why doesn’t he just fly to the beach?’ she asks. ‘Sure this is what he knows,’ Vinnie tells her.
Grace has forgotten about her ciggy in the scallop shell. It continues to burn, holding its flaky shape, waiting for a touch to blow it apart. At midnight Tyler’s head finally crowns through the door and the three of them pause and look to each other.
‘Busy?’ Vinnie asks.
‘No,’ Tyler says. Leaning against the sink, he farts with an ease beyond his years.
‘G texted you a while ago.’ Vinnie sits back, open-legged with his hands a composed V at his groin.
‘Didn’t realise I was being timed.’ He susses along the worktop like a dog let loose in new surroundings.
‘About the rent…’ Vinnie says.
‘I rent from her,’ Tyler interrupts.
‘Well, it’s between the three of us now.’
‘I’ve paid,’ Tyler says.
‘Grace?’ Tyler asks, but Grace bites her lips, she has to for the sake of the parties, the cans, the mates, the empty days out back.
‘Leave her, you’ve upset her enough,’ Vinnie says.
Tyler hoists up the yoke of his jeans back onto his waist. ‘I upset her? Seriously Grace, you’re saying nothing?’
She spins away from him on the seat cushion, tugging loose its strings.
‘Okay, Vinnie, what about you not paying? No surprise like, you stiffed the mother as well like.’
‘I stiffed yer Mammy for sure, boy, but I left her cash like everyone else in her arse crack, but what are ya on about with G?’
‘Well, G told me you stopped paying her, a couple of months now.’
‘Paying for what?’
‘I didn’t ask for specifics.’ ‘For what boyo?’
‘Sex. You stopped paying her for sex.’
Vinnie’s attention moves solely to Grace. The blue fairy lights give the kitchen an urgent feel, as if it is caught in the blue beat of a circling siren. Help lost on its way. She takes a deep breath, swallowing some saved tear-drips to make a crackle in her throat.
‘Tyler, you need to leave, mate,’ Vinnie says, still looking at Grace.
‘What?’ Tyler says.
‘Tyler, trust me, get fucking gone. Grace, I’m done with this, I’m done…’ Vinnie kicks the back door open and stands out on the step; a moth flutters in, stops and flies straight back out over his head again.
‘You swore you’d stop the lying after the protester.’ He disappears out into the unlit yard.
‘Grace, it doesn’t have to be like this,’ Tyler grabs Grace’s arm. Vinnie roars in from the dark, and Grace feels Tyler jump and chances a look up at him but Vinnie is back in the doorway. ‘I see ya, Gracie, biting back a smile at this poor fucker, your hero boy. Thinks he’s seen this all before with the WIO.’ He leans against the fridge; palms flat, head bent like he’s stretching. ‘Gracie are you sure this is what you want?’
She remains rigid in the chair, and when her tears shift, reflex takes him the three strides to Tyler: ‘Get gone.’
‘It’s our flat. You go,’ Tyler says, lining himself up for the hit.
Vinnie’s fist finds bone under his pudgy cheek and makes a fleshy divot. This wasn’t Tyler’s first either, Grace thinks as he hums a hymn of curses with his arse backed up against the sink.
‘Ready to go now?’ Vinnie takes one of the vac-pack steaks from the freezer to cover his knuckles.
‘I have nowhere to go,’ Tyler says.
‘Then I’m sorry for ya, boy, you haven’t a clue,’ Vinnie says throwing him the dishcloth from over the tap for the blood. They stand still in the blue light and listen to the fridge’s whirring. ‘We could have just had steak and noodles,’ Vinnie says looking up at her from his knuckle.
‘Forget him, Grace, the lads are coming over now.’ Tyler’s phone lights up his face. Grace winks at Vinnie, but he just moves on with his closing lines.
‘Enjoy your backup party, Swifty. FYI, if they’re your size, you’ll need at least three of ye.’ Vinnie flicks up his T-shirt sleeve and flexes his bicep. He leans over Grace, as Tyler continues texting, and whispers into her hair: ‘You probably should have cried when I hit him, G.’
She leans back to fit into his chest but he’s at the door, shaking his head, ‘Well played, m’dear, I’m done.’
Grace sits in Ma’s armchair waiting for the navy night to melt to blue. With her head against the velvety cushion her heart thumps in her ears like the beats of a distant party. She closes her eyes and tries to follow the beats to it.
‘Grace, you want a can?’ Tyler shouts in through the serving hatch. ‘He’s a gull.’
‘He’ll be back down.’
‘Don’t worry, the lads will be here soon.’
‘Are there enough canny-cans?’ she asks as she tries to catch her reflection in the bay window, of her worst angle, any angle. Tyler pokes his head through the hatch, ‘The lads are bringing enough. Enough. For. Days.’
‘The yard is what he knows.’ She stays staring at her reflection but the tip- toeing houses keep breaking through. A gull fades in and out. A bald gull. No feathers, a skull head. She is smiling.
‘Ah, that’s better. They all can’t wait to see the famous Grace.’ Tyler is walking over to Ma’s armchair, his arm stretched out to her with a can.
‘Will they though?’ she asks still staring at the windowpane.
The flat, the street, the tide are all quiet. Two mates with cans. Almost there. ‘A party,’ she says.
‘Just what ya need, G,’ Tyler says, ignoring her