One side of the café was taken up with a window facing into the waiting area of the bus station, so people could keep an eye on the ever-changing timetable hanging at the far end of the hall. Aislinn sat inside watching as people rushed to their buses, rushed to wherever it was they had to be. As the hours went by, her source of entertainment dwindled, and she found herself giving the Korean woman’s entrance a little more attention than it warranted.
That said, it was impossible not to watch—whenever the door to the café opened, it was with an old-fashioned jangling. The brass bell over the frame was a lovely touch, but every single time it rang Aislinn jerked instinctively. The noise was harsh and jarring. Its irregularity cut through the tired grey fog in her brain.
The Korean woman was very small. She was wearing a bobbled cardigan that looked like it was moulded out of thick, lumpy oatmeal.__ __It reminded Aislinn of the woollen monstrosities her grandmother used to churn out every evening, sitting by the old electric fire in their living room. The woman wore flat brown pumps and the flesh of her small feet bulged out over the sides. Her pitch-black hair was run through with bolts of white, and her eyes darted around the café before she toddled over to the broken payphone beside the toilets.
Aislinn hadn’t seen anyone use a payphone in years. The thing looked as though it was being held together with gum and spit. Its casing was covered with all sorts of inked obscenities and professions of love which were no doubt longer lasting than the relationships that inspired them. The phone was set into the wall, with a bubble of plastic around it that gave the illusion of privacy.
‘Are you sure that’s all you want now?’ The waitress paused by her table. She nodded at the cup of hot water in Aislinn’s hands.
‘She didn’t dial a number,’ Aislinn said.
The waitress tipped her head to one side. She was a woman in her late forties, with unlikely red hair and a very kind face. She looked tired, but it was a tiredness with the anticipation of reprieve. ‘What’s that, love?’
‘That lady.’ Aislinn nodded her head at the old Korean woman. She had picked up the receiver to the phone and brought it to her ear, but that was as far as she got. She didn’t dial a number, and she didn’t put any money into the coin slot.
The waitress’s face lit with understanding. ‘Oh, I see. No, shur she’s not calling anyone. You can hear the dead on that. You just pick it up and listen. I don’t really know how it works myself.’
‘On that phone. Under the static. You can hear the dead talking. And don’t be asking me anything about it, because all I know is it’s a pain in the hole trying to tell tourists they can’t call taxis.’
‘She’s talking to the dead?’
Something in the kitchen was making a loud beeping noise. Aislinn didn’t know if there was a cook back there. The waitress was the only person she had seen taking orders and giving out food. The beeping was repetitive and robotic, and the waitress glanced in its direction with an irritated twist of her head.
‘Listening to,’ the waitress said. ‘Them that knows it’s here come to listen. Now, are you sure that’s all you’ll have?’
‘You won’t have a bite to eat or anything like that?’
Aislinn shook her head.
‘Only it’s late and the kitchen’ll be closing. Are you sure now?’
Aislinn nodded again. The waitress walked away.
Her stomach groaned hollow, hollow.
The café was the only place open at this hour where she was both sheltered and warm. The tables were sticky. The floor was covered in cracked plastic lino. Her chair had one leg short, so she felt constantly on the verge of tipping. A television played on a mount high in one corner, sound muted. The teletext on the bottom of the screen spelled out garbled nonsense.
Her hair was greasy. Her scalp itched, but she knew that if she started scratching it she wouldn’t be able to stop. Fighting the urge, Aislinn nipped and picked at the skin around her nails with her teeth. Earlier in the day she had peeled off a thin sliver, a hangnail on the third finger of her left hand. Now it was red and throbbing. It was the only part of her body that was properly warm.
She turned back to the window looking out to the main station. Winter was coming properly now, taking slow lazy slices off the day. Rancid pools of yellow artificial light puddled on the dirty floor, the uncomfortable seats of the station sending shadows across the ground. Hard bars carved the long benches up into single occupancy. Anyone looking to lie down and rest was shit out of luck.
Pigeons bobbed everywhere. They clucked and cooed and picked their way among tossed packets of Tayto and bits of old chips, making tracks through a veritable paradise of discarded food.
Pigeons, Aislinn knew, used to be treated like cats or dogs. Publishers tried to persuade Darwin to rewrite his famous book and turn it into a study of the evolution of the common pigeon. Somewhere along the line something beloved had become something shunned. Pigeons were now the vermin of the sky.
The other day someone had called her a street rat.
The station was empty now save for a youth plugged into his iPod and a cleaner engaging in a bit of lacklustre sweeping. Every so often Aislinn heard a man’s voice over an intercom loud enough to filter through the window. It was indecipherable and lost in tinny static. No one took notice but the pigeons who, despite the inquisitive cocking of their feathered heads, were presumably disinterested.
Outside the café door to the right, the huge entrance to where the buses were parked gaped like a hole in the wall. Every time someone came in or out of the café, a chill wind swept through. It hit her left shoulder every time, splitting her body across its imaginary equator. Two separate climates.
Aislinn sat with one leg tucked behind the other. She wrapped cold hands around her cup of hot water, watching the floating bits of her last herbal tea packet.
Her scalp itched and itched.
Two tables away, a young man enthusiastically described his novella.
‘Real gritty shit,’ he emphasised. His sharp elbows leaned on the table, his voice low and intense. His knee went jig jig jig jig jig, keeping a quick tempo to a beat only he could hear. ‘Like really fucking—’ He held his hands up in front of his face, fingers bent stiffly, and shook them as though shaking something in the air. ‘Real, you know? All the blood and *shit *of real life.’
Malachi Mulligan, Aislinn said in her head along to the beat of his pumping knee. Malachi Mulligan, Malachi Mulligan.
She had a cold sore, and she knew that she should stop licking it but she couldn’t. Every couple of minutes she’d give it a half-hearted swipe with her tongue, tasting the tin of the scab. She used to have eczema growing up, but it was better now. She remembered her grandmother, frustrated with the steroid creams and the aloe vera lotions. D’you know what the best cream of them all is? she’d say, licking the palm of her hand, holding it out.
She looked disgruntled when Aislinn hadn’t understood what she meant. Disappointed maybe. Like she relied on a connection that wasn’t there. It was memories like that you dredged up when you were tired and feeling like shit. It was memories like that you spent your time over-thinking, reading too much into. Things that seemed inconsequential to others, but made you feel bad or ashamed or like a failure. When you were too tired to stop it, your brain scraped over every inch of them.
Jig jig jig jig jig jig went the man’s leg.
Swipe Swipe went her tongue.
The television was still playing with no sound, the subtitles below it slow and filled with typos.
I DON’T KN& WH^RE Sh£ WENt a young man told the police, his face filled with faux pain and sorrow. I C%ME HM^ AND SH£ WAS GON£.
It was some sort of crime show. The detectives crouched and looked pensive beside the body of a young woman in a strappy top and a miniskirt. She was dead, but still very beautiful.
When you die, you shit yourself. An optometrist had once told Aislinn that the eyes’ resting state was pointing in opposite directions, out to the side of the face. Aislinn hadn’t seen it written down anywhere but didn’t it stand to reason that that’s what the eyes would do if you were dead? Indignity upon indignity. Gawped at by strangers before being plonked on a steel table, the never-thought-about transition between walking around and resting peacefully. Reduced to immobile infanthood once more as a stranger bathed you, cleaned you, made you presentable.
The dead girl on the television screen was very beautiful. The actress playing her probably wore as much make-up as a corpse in a casket.
The novella-writing young man had a conversational partner. She was most emphatically not dead, a warm flush in her cheeks and a nervous shifting in her limbs. She had a book open on the table in front of her, her finger marking her spot. Aislinn couldn’t remember if she had been reading it when the man started talking. Aislinn found she couldn’t quite remember when the young man had started on his self-congratulatory monologue in the first place; the rattle of his words seemed to be a low constant in the ambient noise of the café. But then, she was very tired. It was harder and harder to hold on to facts. Every now and again her head tipped forward and her eyelids tried their hardest to stick together.
The conversational partner had long, straight brown hair that fell over her shoulders, and a thin hair wrap in pink and purple running from behind her left ear. She had a freckled nose, and wore dungarees and a stripy top. The skin of her index finger, pressing open the pages of her book, was white with pressure.
The Korean woman was finished with the phone. She hung up and turned around, her eyes focused on something in the distance. Then, she made her way in neat, tottering little steps to the main counter of the café. Aislinn observed under lowered lashes as the old lady climbed up on a stool that was almost as tall as she was, and put in an order with the waitress. They seemed familiar with each other. The waitress greeted her with a jovial *shur tis yourself! *and their conversation was easy and without pause.
Malachi Mulligan, rashers and sausages, higgledy piggledy, on again off again.
‘Gonna be real gritty, y’know? I’m not pandering to anyone, I’ve got a story to tell and if it shocks, it shocks, y’know?’ The young man shifted and pulled up the collar on his denim jacket, making him look oddly out of time, like a heart-throb in an eighties movie. He had a lot of layers on, and moved with the energy of someone with energy to burn. The energy of someone who has eaten three meals today, and can have more any time he wants. Aislinn imagined his jigging leg creating a friction, the movement of all of his limbs starting a small fire in the crevices of his clothing.
She glanced at the old, cracked payphone in the corner, and looked away again.
Aislinn’s seat was an ordinary kitchen chair. It seemed fine when she first sat down, but now it felt as though the wood and the bones in her arse were making a spirited attempt at meeting through flesh. She brought the ball of her hand up to her eye and rubbed it as she shifted, trying to bring some feeling back in her thighs.
Distracting herself from the rush of pins and needles, she turned and watched as—with some small amount of ceremony—the waitress placed a large knickerbocker glory on the counter in front of the old Korean woman, who eyed it with satisfaction. Then she picked up a spoon with a long thin handle and started taking tiny, nipping tastes from the raspberry dribbled dessert. Aislinn watched the delicate way she picked at it, imagining the sweetness of the ice cream blossoming inside her mouth.
‘Of course it’s probably going to need a happy ending if I ever want to get it sold.’
The man was still talking. His back was to her, but when he turned in his seat she saw that he had pale skin and dark hair that fell attractively over his forehead. He leaned back in his chair now, stretching out his long arms. He laced his fingers behind his head and looked at the ceiling speculatively, all elbows and knees and thin wrist bones. Bird bones. Hollow on the inside.
‘That’s what they want, y’know? I mean they pretend they want reality, but really all anyone ever wants is happy fucking endings. That’s not real, you know? But I gotta make money off the machine, so everyone is going to end up puking glitter and rainbows. Fan-fucking-tastical.’
The woman shifted in her seat. She still had her finger in the pages of her book. She had a green rucksack on the seat beside her with brass buckles and a variety of brightly coloured badges all over it. Be happy! one said, over a multi-coloured graphic of a heart. Ur Purrfect *said the one with a picture of an adorably wall-eyed kitten. *Mind Yourself said another.
The detective show was either over or it had been interrupted by the news.
230,000 H)USES ST%NDING £MPTY AR%UnD IR£LA&d
‘If you’re eating you’d want to be eating.’ Aislinn jumped. The waitress was standing beside her.
When you’re exhausted your attention focuses down on the insignificant, the forgettable. Aislinn hadn’t noticed the woman walking away from the counter, yet she could barely keep herself from staring at the make-up gathered in the crow’s feet by her eyes.
‘We stop serving food in forty minutes.’
‘I’m fine,’ Aislinn told her. ‘I’m happy out with my tea.’
Her nametag said MOIRA. She expressed her dissatisfaction with a loud exhalation of breath, as she lifted her yellow pad and made an adjustment to whatever was written on there. Aislinn wasn’t sure what it could be. There was no one here but herself, the talking man, his companion and the old woman sitting on the high stool at the counter.
‘I don’t know how you can be calling that tea at all,’ Moira commented, sharply sticking the pen in her bun. ‘Colouredy water with bits of leaves.’
‘Shur, isn’t that what tea is anyway?’
‘Jesus, would you listen to yer one! Knows everything, she does.’ Moira tilted her head to one side. ‘Are you sure now? If you want something it will take a while to be made, so we need to get the order in.’
‘You need to eat.’
Aislinn thought half-heartedly about making up another cock and bull story about a big breakfast, a late lunch, but she was so tired. Oh god, she was tired. It felt like there was a bleed in her brain somewhere, and all reactions that weren’t necessary to basic bodily functions were leaking out.
‘I’m fine,’ she said again. Again, again, again. That should be her motto, her epitaph. She was always fine right up until she wasn’t, and even then it was like she had a small battered cardboard box of set responses on stained bits of ratty paper that she pulled out over and over. I’m fine. I’m fine. Don’t worry, I’m fine.
Her cold sore tingled and her eyes felt like two boiled marbles in her head.
‘You’re fine,’ Moira repeated. ‘My arse.’
Aislinn looked down at the warm cup clutched in her hands, at the tiny bits of leaves and grit swirling inside the yellowed water. When she looked up again, Moira had bustled off back down the other end of the café. Her stomach clenched uncomfortably, and she stared back down again.
Jiggery pokery, phantasmagoria, Jesus of Nazareth, bronchopneumonia.
Soon the water in her cup would be cold. Soon it would be daylight, but not soon enough, and there would always be hard bars across benches, cold pavements outside empty houses.
The empty estates outside the city were being called ghost estates, their windows and doors like blank faces in front of hollow heads.
Outside the café window, the station was finally empty. Some of the main lights had been turned off, creating alcoves and cubbies of darkness around the room.
Her swollen finger pressed against the nail with a steady throbbing that screamed infection. Steeling herself, Aislinn slipped it into the water. A cold wave of pain washed over her entire body as the heat hit the raw, hurt flesh. She pulled her hand out and carefully examined her finger, feeling awake for the first time in days.
‘Here.’ A plate clattered loudly on the table beside her. There was a cheese and ham sandwich on it, along with a bit of lettuce, tomato, and some crisps.
She looked up. Moira raised her eyebrows at her. ‘Don’t be looking at me like that. It’s only a sandwich, and you only a small slip of a thing. If my girl looked like you, I’d spend morning, noon and night feeding her. Well, don’t gawp at me,’ she sighed, nodding her head at the plate. ‘Eat. You don’t have to pay for it. Go on.’
Aislinn untangled her red-raw, all-made-of-knuckles fingers from where they were interlaced with the handle of the cup, and picked up the sandwich. Her stomach ached for the food so badly she felt sick, so she was careful to take small bites, easing herself into it.
‘You eat like a little bird. Pick pick pick.’
The bell on the door jangled, cutting Moira off. Aislinn accidently bit the inside of her cheek as she jumped in fright. The door had been thrown open by the woman with the buttons on her bag who seemed to be in a huge rush to leave the café. So much of a rush that she almost collided with the couple in their mid-thirties walking in.
The bell rang on as if protesting, as though it was unused to such uncouth handling. Aislinn had time to reflect that such a bell seemed more suited to a corner shop than an eatery, but with people coming and going, catching buses and catching trains, maybe they needed to keep an eye on their clientele.
The woman made it out, and the couple made it in.
Without bothering with the pretence of ordering, the couple made straight for the phone. The man had his arm tightly around the woman’s shoulders. They walked towards the phone together, almost in two-step time, stopping in front of the dull and dirty plastic. The man started to say something, but she ignored him. She snatched up the receiver as though it was in danger of disappearing and brought it to her ear. The man tried to say something again, but she turned her back on him, pulling her shoulder out from under his palm. She pressed her fingers to her other ear. Her eyes were closed, a strained look of concentration on her face.
Suddenly her shoulders dropped and her face softened. She leaned against the side of the casing__. __The hand previously jammed angrily to her ear came down to cup the elbow of the arm holding the phone. She was listening intently, a small smile on her face and her eyes still closed.
Her hair was blonde and lovely, pulled back into a neat chiffon. She wore a pastel pink cardigan, and white trousers. Aislinn had seen her runners in a shoe shop last week, emblazoned with signs proclaiming them to be ergonomic, breathable and fairtrade.
Behind her, her husband started crying. He cried like a child, in hitching sobs, unmindful of who was watching. His mouth was open and his arms hung slack against his sides.
Aislinn glanced at Moira, whose face was one of unspeakable sadness.
‘Every night,’ she murmured, with a disapproving click of her tongue. ‘Eat up,’ she told Aislinn, before turning on her heel and walking back to her station behind the counter.
Aislinn ate. The food filled her small cramped stomach quicker than she would have believed. Every time she swallowed, it went thickly down her throat accompanied by a sharp stab of pain from her tonsils. She took careful sips of her now tepid tea, not wanting to finally get that gloriously full feeling and piss it all out again by overloading her bladder. The salt on the crisps stung her cold sore. She swiped her tongue over it while she absently gathered the remaining crumbs on the plate with the tip of her finger.
Just as she brought it to her mouth, someone sat down opposite her.
‘Hey,’ the young man said, now companionless. ‘Hey, so I’m doing research for this story I’m writing. Do you know what a novella is?’
Aislinn leaned back in her chair and remained silent, but he was unbowed. He ran his fingers through his dark hair, his eyes bright and animated.
‘I’m interviewing people on the street. I want reality. People need to wake up and see the world how it really is. Like, aren’t you so sick of people sticking their noses into books about teenage wizards and fucking, I don’t know, ghost boyfriends or some shit? I’m writing fiction, but it’s not going to be fictional, if you get me. I’m here to write some true shit, y’know?’
He looked so healthy, Aislinn observed dully. When she looked in the mirror, eyes like matte pebbles looked back at her. Her hair hung in strings around her shoulders. She was so pale.
The bell jangled, signalling the couple’s exit from the café. It also signalled the freeing up of the phone. It didn’t need money, or any magic words. You just picked it up and listened to it. Anyone could do that.
She realised that the young man had stopped talking, and that he was looking at her like he expected something.
‘Well, come on,’ he coaxed. ‘Tell me something true.’
It’s true that the phrase double-dactylic is not double-dactylic, Aislinn thought.
It’s true that Dublin’s first telephone kiosk was installed in May of 1925, next to the Henry Grattan statue on College Green.
It’s true that I’m not waiting for a bus, and it’s true that my grandmother is gone.
It’s true that I used to want to write stories, but now I can’t bring myself to think things that aren’t true. I can’t watch television shows. I can’t watch films. I can’t watch things that want to pretend to be real. Every time I see a character struggling, I just know that there’s an actor inside of them enjoying what they do.
It’s true that I wish I could open my mouth so wide that someone could crawl inside of me. I’d swallow them down like a duck and they could take up the hollow space in my chest and be my actor. They could enjoy being me, enjoy the poetic struggle and the gritty reality, while I closed my eyes and got some sleep. Maybe I would dream of happy endings.
It’s true that there’s a phone over there where the dead speak under the crackling static, but I don’t know if the things they say are true.
Aislinn pressed her lips together to keep the words from slipping out over her lips like hot water heaving up from her sloshing stomach.
He was still looking at her expectantly.
‘I’m—I’m really tired,’ she told him. And that was true.
He leaned back and looked at her thoughtfully, bringing one hand up to scratch at his attractively stubbled cheek. She felt her cheeks heat up under his gaze and some disconnected monkey part of her brain was glad of it. Maybe if she pressed her fingers to them, her joints would stop hurting.
‘You’d make a great character in my story,’ he said finally, before getting up. In long rangy strides, he walked out of the café and back into his life.
The bell jangled, mockingly now.
A hot little ember of anger flamed to life in her chest, as hot as her swollen finger. She wished she had told him to fuck off, but she had always been one to play it safe. Locking up the barn after the horses have fled, her grandmother would say. But her grandmother had also said is minic a ghearr teanga duine a scornach too, and that had always held more weight for her.
Fan-fucking-tastical. Fan-fucking-tastical. Fan-fucking-tastical.
The anger-ember flickered and went out. Aislinn watched it die in her mind’s eye. It was hard to feel too strongly about things these days. Everything seemed to happen far away, behind frosted glass.
No one was using the phone.
She shifted in her chair as she looked for Moira to give her back the plate and to thank her. Aislinn hoped she hadn’t gone home, but at the same time she remembered the expression on Moira’s face as she watched the married couple, and hoped that she had.
Aislinn turned her head sharply when she heard the bell again, as though she had been caught doing something shameful, or pitiful. The noise felt like a physical thing inside her, like unwanted and unwarranted punctuation in the middle of a stream of thought.
An old man in a brown plaid suit and a farmer’s hat shuffled into the café, clearly making a beeline for the phone. He looked like the type of character you smelt before you saw; his trousers were held up with a length of blue string and the fingers wrapped around the plastic of the receiver were stained nicotine yellow.
Aislinn rose from the table, the plate in her hand. She fancied she could hear her joints creak and feel the blood rushing back into her legs. The television was still playing but now it was a jaunty, brightly coloured ad for dishwasher tablets. Clean whites, minty greens and fresh blues filled the screen. The teletext had given up for the advertisements, and the black bar was filled with neon yellow asterisks.
Aislinn caught her arm coming up to scratch her scalp and stopped herself.
She left the plate on the counter. Moira was nowhere to be seen.
Quietly relieved for reasons she couldn’t quite articulate, Aislinn walked over and stood a little away from the old man, politely waiting for her turn. It wasn’t as though it was a big deal or anything, she just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. She would listen once, that’s all. The café would be closing soon anyway and she needed to find somewhere to spend the night.
The old man was still on the phone. Shining strings of spittle linked his lips as he mouthed along with whatever he was listening to. His skin hung in worn folds from his bones, and a dark brown birthmark smeared his jaw. He turned and looked right at her and his eyes were the washed out blue of age and cataracts.
‘I didn’t do it,’ he said, his voice weak and quavering. His ear was pressed to the receiver, the hand holding it was shaking. His teeth were that same stained nicotine yellow, like old piano keys. ‘He keeps saying that I did it, but I didn’t do it.’
She wanted to look away, but he held her in his milky gaze even while he looked right through her. Her tonsils were starting to swell, and they sat like hot marbles in the back of her throat. If her grandmother was alive, she’d have her gargling over the kitchen sink with hot salt-water. But it wasn’t her grandmother’s kitchen sink anymore, and it wasn’t Aislinn’s kitchen sink either. She didn’t know who owned the house now, but she had a feeling that it was sitting as empty as the houses in the ghost estates, its existence dictated by the whims of whatever bank had its hands on the deeds.
‘I didn’t do it,’ the old man repeated, soft and hoarse. ‘I didn’t.’
Then he hung up the phone. Without looking at her again he slowly shuffled out, the ringing bell marking his departure and highlighting the emptiness of the café.
Someone had turned off the lights behind the counter. Most of the light was filtering in from the main station now. A loud rattling noise signalled the closing of the roller door over the entrance to the loading area for the buses. Aislinn didn’t see who pulled it, they did it from the outside. The station was shutting down around her.
Aislinn stared at the phone in the half-darkness, wondering if she had time, or if someone was about to come and lock the door to the café. She could always come back tomorrow, if she wanted to. She could come back tomorrow and the day after and the day after that.
There was nothing stopping her. Nothing at all.
The phone started to ring.
It had a deep mechanical brrring that came from the centre of the machine. Brrring brrring it rang, with a slight pause between each one as though politely giving you a chance to take note and answer.
Aislinn watched it, standing alone in the shadows of the empty café, thinking about stories, about endings and beginnings. Thinking about real life, linear patterns and liminal places.
Mesopotamia, ever-so-splendidly, ultramagnificent, self-referentially.
She pulled her thin jacket tighter around her shoulders and, without looking back, walked out the door.
The bell jangled.