An excerpt from Deirdre Shanahan’s Carrying Fire and Water
A steel hand glints across my scalp. A clamp of steel prowling. A leopard. Or maybe a lizard. Travelling around my ears and over my nape. Up the centre and down. Slides and skirmishes. A scrawl, shaving off the past. The making of me. The barber holds my head and hair falls in locks to the floor. Swept under the folds of the navy cape. I push out and away.
All right, love? he asks.
My eyes are huge in the whole of my face. Nothing to hide behind. I figured this place would do the best job. A clean cut. No questions. No talk about looks or styling.
The leisure centre’s better than serving in a bar until two a.m. with a manager who looks twelve years old and has acne. They took me on no questions asked, only my NI Number. Staff lockers are boxy small. The trick is to put the key for one in another and get the use of two. A woman rushes ahead, carrying a sports bag and towel over her shoulder. She showers as her boiler’s broken and a young Sikh man in an Irish football shirt scampers to the gym. The kids from the special school and their carers arrive at ten and the chocolate bars have to be hidden from them.
The coffee machine clogs and sandwiches need packing but left on my own I don’t mind, not any of it, not even the swell of people after swimming lessons. People push out through the turnstile, tousled, rat-haired, damp with dangling towels.
Parts are expensive, a man shouts into his phone. Don’t go there.
Girls with blocks of mascara and kohl rimming their eyes run in. Think they own the place and leave a mess of cups and plates. Wrappers on tables. Napkins on the floor.
Andrez smiles as he passes. He has black hair and skin so pale I wonder if he’s ever seen the sun. He frowns and says, You look different.
I drape the string from a teabag over the side of a cup and pass it to him. My legs ache but I can’t sit. No room for a stool this side of the counter. He doesn’t have to pay. Nor for sandwiches. Energy restoration, he says, while I stash away biscuits.
Cold evening air smacks on the way home. A dry bird’s nest lies on the pavement, shrivelled grass and twigs. I settle it among the branches, frail leaves falling out. My hair, a stubble field, was once a forest of stories. I scavenged the countryside when I was a kid, for blackberries or haws. Sloes ripe and thick. I bloodstained my fingers till I got home, when autumn rolled in bringing school and lessons. Lessons. And him. Tall and friendly in an uncertain way, with thin glasses. Telling me Beethoven rambled in the Vienna woods. At Christmas, Mum said to give him a box of chocolates wrapped in paper with holly. He said, Lucia, you’re giving me a present but I can tell you really want to give me something else.
Back at the flat I make a sandwich and go to bed. Music on my headphones fizzes me out. All I have to think of is getting up the next day. Even though it is Sunday.
I slug out of bed in the morning, rough cold. The Polish couple, the Iranian girl who works in the estate agents, and the Scottish lad who cabbies: all asleep. None of them have anything in the kitchen I can eat. No cereal and no decent bread. All brown or the gritty stuff.
Dubai Mall is shut but the window shows long black gowns with sequins. People in the Evangelical Hall on the corner sing and a woman wearing a hat decorated with flowers steps from a car near the Pentecostal Church, her turquoise suit shiny with threads and a fitted jacket of gold. The centre is so quiet, the slightest sound echoes, so I slip down to the studio. The door is locked and I have no idea of the code. I slide my card between the chunks of the metal locks and the studio opens. Newly painted walls, the long slide of mirror where I see myself bulkier than last time. The rungs have all the weights. Blue 1kg. Green 2kg. Black 10kg. Plates like knights’ shields. Others are the pastel tones of eyeshadow. Saturdays in Boots. Slipping a couple up my sleeves.
At the end of the day, no-one’s around and if I keep trying the equipment will shape me. Smooth and lengthen. Take off what there is. Or was. Lift and down. Lift. Up and in. My arms pull and stretch. Press and in. In and out. And out. Squeeze every fibre. Taut and clean. My tummy’s flatter and my tits have gone but I don’t mind. My legs are thinner.
Thought you’d left. Andrez stands in the door. You could’ve got locked in.
Sorry. I thud the weights into the slots. Sunk solid down. I was…
I know. He smiles and I can’t tell if he pities or understands. Him and his NVQ. Though he’ll be a good trainer. Got a quiet way so’s you wouldn’t know he was getting you to do things. Mr. Blake was quiet. Quiet hands until they reached. So smoothly it might have been the cat. But the gnash of his teeth. The crash on my lips. Clever. Telling mum extra lessons’d develop my talent.
On the way home near the railway bridge, a rat scurries to undergrowth, its tail twice the length of its body. Alert and bright-eyed and unafraid. A muscly cyclist with a tattoo swirls past as a child’s long cry rises from a distant street, softening into the evening.
I journeyed down here by train. Fed on cups of tea and if I made enough mess no-one’d sit near. I got a man diagonally across the table but he was too busy on his phone to bother me. Couples lounged over each other. Old Welsh ladies yapped. One had a grandson exploring the Amazon. Another a sister on holiday in Sardinia. I had a bag and backpack but didn’t know where I was heading. And something was left behind. Something always is, I reckon. Most of my stuff. Music and clothes. I won’t miss them but I’ll miss Mum. Her accordion with mother-of-pearl buttons and sleek black sides with glimmers of a rainbow. When I was a kid, I used to press the keys and she played, balancing the squeeze-box on her knees, teaching me. She used to say I never could keep a song in my head.
I slither into the studio when it is crisp quiet. The weights are in the same place but heavier. Maybe because I missed a couple of days. But in the mirror I am myself. I bend. Ease out. Lie down. Lift a plate. Keep one between my knees. Make the new shape come. Clothe me.
What you doing?
Andrez is upside-down. His knees are shiny but his lower legs hairy under his baggy sports pants.
It’s not allowed, he says.
Only for trainers. Besides, you don’t need to do this. He picks up the plate, replaces it on the stand. There’s nothing of you, he smiles. Make sure they’re back in place. I do as he says because he could report me. Don’t mean to keep chasing you.
You following me? I charge, eager to take the lead he’s given.
His face crumples to a laugh revealing straight white teeth. I don’t know anyone with such good ones.
Wanna see a film or something? he asks.
We go to the cinema because he is keen though I’m not really interested as long I’m out of the cold. He lives in a concrete building near the centre where he has a big room because he was in care. It’s cheap, he says, and a social worker set it up for him, so he’s sorted. He smiles.
Not exactly. Halfway house.
His place is clean with a view to the park where tips of trees brush the sky, lolling branches rich with leaves. The houses opposite are elegant, like prim aunts, with a terrace with iron railings and, over the doors and windows, a band of white coils with faces.
I visit his street because the house calls me and I am drawn by the glass in the door glowing red and blue. Delicate lines trace the entryway. The windows are misted with net and the front garden is lush with plants. A light pink rose creeps across a wooden fence. A dainty iron gate opens onto a path of crazy black and white tiles. The person who lives here must love it. I lay my palm flat. To wake every morning in a house like this’d make anyone better.
Andrez says it’s an investment for the girl he’s seen, but she doesn’t live there. Seriously dressed. Professional.He knows a lot. More than me, even though he’s been in nine foster homes.
He says, Some houses are listed.
Think it means not meant to be touched. Not done up inside.
He makes tea. The shimmer of boiling water. A clutter of mugs not his.
He asks how I ended up here.
I tell him I took the train to the first place I could think of.
He says getting lost helps you find your way home.
We sit in a pub, in the only free seats, which are near the toilets. Antique mirrors light up behind the bar and there’s a little stage in a corner. By nine the place is full of men, bellies sticking out over their belts. A tall girl approaches the stage and settles on a stool. Her tanned arms are well-toned. As she sits the men glance up, fat fingers around their glasses, waiting. Dark hair outlines her heart-shaped face, billowing out onto her shoulders. Her sequinned T-shirt is loose. She sings an Abba song and ‘The Foggy, Foggy Dew,’ words riding out into the air as a boat on waves. Mum sang that song and the low notes gather, rousing, reaching for me. The girl leans back, eyes closed, as the notes soar like birds, gliding, filling the room, fluttering over the old men in caps tucked up at the bar. She sings with a searing longing. She wears the song and loses herself to the words.
You all right? Andrez asks.
I was that girl. Something like her.
Did you sing?
The pub is hot as more men enter, clogging the end where the girl performs. She raises a hand to press back flyaway strands of hair. We leave and don’t return.
A fancy orchestra plays for free in the park. I’ve never seen a real one. Only in papers or concerts at school with kids on the violins and clarinets but this will be more instruments. Drums. Brass. Silver flutes. At the front, cans are scattered. The sun spanks the back of my head. The conductor rises in front of us with his long curly hair and a Ramones T-shirt. He says they are playing a Hungarian piece based on folk music. The notes are rollicking. When it draws to an end, the conductor announces a piece by an English composer and a violinist emerges. A thin, awkward boy with an overgrown fringe. He slips a pair of glasses onto his sharp nose. Mr. Blake said I had potential and if I kept playing I’d be his best pupil. The press of the crowd smothers and the notes sear, harder and hotter, and the piece grows wilder as the violinist’s arm moves back and forth, his body leaning into the music.
The late afternoon is warm and a man sits outside eating while Reggae pumps out its incessant beat. Mr. Blake. His long face and limp eyes, begging. The thrust of his words, Do you love me? Do you? Do you love me? Love me? I want to shrug off the memory of him but it clings to me like dried sweat. I want to wash off the whole of me.
I can’t sleep at night and Andrez asks what’s wrong. I say the sun affects me. He lies his whole length down on the bed, feet sticking out over the edge. He rubs my back, my legs, murmurs how we have over a hundred bones in each foot, and presses at my ribs. He says I am gravely thin and tells me he is pressing the metacarpal of his hand against my palm.
The orchestra appears on the TV in the lounge while I’m waiting for Andrez. Local news. A charity walk, a school inspection, the park concert. Notes run, triple to a clash, with horns and a harpist and Andrez sipping a beer. I search for myself in the footage but no-one is me and the conductor is in the way.
Andrez rushes downstairs. What the hell was that?
I turn down the volume and hear a thud. A lumpen shudder outside. Andrez opens the front door as three men, quick in the night, scarper from the house across the road.
Some blokes trying to break in.
The fleeing footsteps lighten as the men disappear and the gate swings on its hinges. Andrez calls the police. Two cars pull up and the policemen do what they always do, stand around looking busy. A van arrives and a man boards up the opposite house, bandaging the door with golden chipboard.
Dreams cram my sleep. I ride a horse of the deepest chestnut from the farm next door. The sky is lowering dark, thrown with stars, and in the distance the deep blue sound of trains crosses the night. A scratch of blackbirds rises against the morning light. I wake but lie there, hear his voice: When you play, brightness shines.
His sullen eyes had shadows underneath. Mum was pregnant and had to lie in bed. He came on Tuesdays after science last thing. I sat on the piano stool with the golden edges and he opened the casing of the metronome. The white front with the pendulum lying like a tie was exposed and he showed me how to adjust the tiny weight, sliding it up and down. When he wound it up for my piece after the scales and exercises, the pendulum flicked each way. Each way. I squeezed down on the pedals. I didn’t feel the pressure at first. I had my fingers to watch. Had to keep busy. The notes were quick and might run from me. They could catch me out. I squeezed down the pedals and did not feel him. Or maybe I did, but Mum was upstairs and I could not disturb her. She had said this one would be the last. Unexpected, she said. The metronome swung, back and forth and back like a flag waving in changing winds. His fingers. His hand. Under the keyboard you could not see. He pressed. Sliding up. Further. Until it was all gone. My fingers ran with nowhere to hide.
On the way to the centre, afront door opens at a terraced house and three little girls still in pyjamas dance out to the garden until their father shoos them in. At the bus stop, a thin, raggedy man reads a paperback. I’ve seen him lots of mornings. Even when it is early. The scratchy grass frontage of the car showroom has no cars. Only signs for sale and discount and secondhand wanted. The other shops have grilles drawn all day.
The notes were running but the keys stayed still. Black and white and black. Playing me. My feet were somewhere else. His hand was warm. I played to block it out. Down and down. My feet on the pedals. The stave was a fence and if I kept running I would find a gap to sneak through. Slip through while all the time the touch was running, running.
I’m moving, I say.
The sun slashes in through Andrez’s window, and treetops rise over the roofs like umbrellas of green. They allow the merest incisions of light.
You got a better job?
He stretches out on his bed, riffling through the pages of a raggedmagazine from downstairs.
No, I say.
He sits upright. What, then?
Moving. Moving away.
Where? You don’t know anywhere.
He lets the old GQ slip to the floor.
Gateshead, I lie. Rents here are too much. The house is too full… the centre…
Gateshead? But it’s so far. Everywhere is far but I like the sound of the place. I’ll arrive with what I’ve got on my back and won’t know anyone. Mum got the piano from the pub she worked in as the manager was throwing it out and one of the regulars with a van delivered it. I used to like its russet tones, like the depths of forests, and the fancy brass flower holders where candles fitted in the old days when women wore hats and long dresses and people sang at home.