You are late. The receptionist is judgmental. At the desk, you have to give your date of birth and home address. She repeats your information back to you in a robust voice.
As you give your date of birth, you realize that the last time you were here, you were about the age of the girl behind you in the queue. She has a small child in a pram who calls her “Mammy.” She is yakking on the phone. She must be about 16. You had not had sex when you were 16. You waited until you were out of the country and safely away.
The address you give is your home address from when you were 16. You don’t have another home, at present. You are between homes and thus, your home is your parents’. You are not living at home but staying there, at present, until you work out how to be alone again. You like your parents, largely, but this was not the plan, no, never the plan, no. You are a cliché. You are, at present, Peter Pan. While your friends are buying second houses and having second children, you are spending evenings playing Scrabble with your folks, thank god for them. They are happy to have you to stay. They are remarkably gracious and attentive, which is becoming humiliating. They are always trying to feed you. Your mother follows you about the house, lighting fires and placing little jugs of plum and cherry blossom in every room you sit in.
Today you are triple-tasking: blood test, smear test and sexually-transmitted infections. You have not had sex in months. You have not had sex since the gleamy panic that the breakage conferred rubbed away, and you returned to feeling raw, uncertain. You have not had sex since you came back home. You would like to have sex, but there is no one here with whom to have sex. Everyone was married by the age of 31, so you would be dealing in divorcees or extramarital affairs. Your high school boyfriend has four kids and owns the award-winning local butcher shop. He is married to a former weather woman, who voices the shop announcements: “Hallo Customers! Our meat sale has now started! We have a very special deal today on our curry-flavored gourmet sausages, and our store-cured bacon is going for a song!” Her delivery is overripe, in your opinion, but they do sell quite good minted lamb chops.
You walk into the waiting room, which smells of the pink-cheeked farmer in welly boots who is seated in one corner, he of the Massey Ferguson tractor parked in the carpark. You are thinking of going back to being a vegetarian. The waiting room is immense—still plenty of space in the country. You sit in the seat that is farthest from everyone. All of the faces look familiar. You used to see them about when you were a kid, on the street, in the shop, at church when once or twice you went to church. You never knew their names because you didn’t have to, because you were a kid. They look like themselves but older by 18 years. You wonder do you look like yourself to them.
You stretch for a magazine. No hope of a Vogue. You rifle through a couple of TV Choices. Even an OK! would do the trick. You will not read You Mag as a point of principle, though you are oddly mesmerized by that moany columnist on the back page, her awe-striking indiscretions. No, you will not look at You Mag; that would be hypocritical. You have already expressed to your parents your profound disapproval of their paper of choice, which you regard as an infection. There is a vast quantity of bridal magazines. You plump for the Tatler, which you only ever read at the doctor and the hairdresser. Twice you were in the Tatler: first, for the school dance, and later, for a piece about local actresses, entitled “Stars in Their Eyes.”
Yesterday, your mum asked if you were in that ad on the TV.
“Which ad?” you said. “Is the insurance one back on?”
“No,” your mum said, “another ad, a new one.”
“Not as far as I know.”
“The sex ad,” your mum said.
“A sex ad?”
“Yes, about sex and what you can get from it. I know it’s you on top of that boy. It’s your hair and your forearm, and you’re wearing your bracelet that Winnie gave you for being her bridesmaid.”
“This bracelet?” you said, holding up your arm. “Mum, it’s not me.”
“It is you. I know my own daughter when she’s straddling some strange boy for the whole world to see.”
“Do you think I wouldn’t warn you?”
“Maybe you thought I wouldn’t notice because it’s half in the dark.”
“Joe and Zoya did a condom ad together.”
“They were promoting responsible, consensual behavior.”
“They live on a boat!”
“Why are you two so anti-boat?”
“Boats deplete in value. A boat is not a home. If it was you,” your mum said, trying a new approach, “what would you have got paid for it?”
“I don’t know because it isn’t, but if it was, that would be none of your business. You know, I wish I had done it. I could do with the money.” You returned to the sink to spit your toothpaste.
Your mum went downstairs, on a mission as it turned out. You craned into the mirror. Murk was accumulating under your eyes—you were starting to look like a tree sparrow. Your complexion was somewhat tinged too. The rot is setting in, you thought, though it might just be poor diet, since you do consume a lot of brown and yellow foods.
“Are you decent?” Your mum strode into the bathroom, brandishing her iPad. “See for yourself,” she said, having fetched up the ad on YouTube. She must have scrutinized it fifty times.
You took the screen and pressed play. The girl, who was supposed to be you, was fervently snogging a guy on a bed. They were also grinding slightly.
“It looks a bit like me,” you confessed. “You can only see my ponytail and a third of one cheek.”
“There’s more,” your mum said.
The scene cut to the lovers in a post-coital sleep. Out of their bodies, specters morphed, rising from the bed and dressing until gradually the room spiraled with the ghosts of all the lovers they had ever had—quite a good old crowd of them.
“See.” Your mum prodded the screen and the image froze. “It’s your forearm lying there on that sheet.”
“Fine, yes, it does look a touch like my arm.” You prodded the scene back into motion.
“And there’s your bracelet, so.”
“I wear my bracelet on my left wrist.”
“You could have swapped wrists.”
“Mum, you’re bonkers. I’m going to bed.”
As you left the bathroom and headed down the hall, she watched with skepticism.
Flick: hair salon re-opening. Flick: youth orchestra’s annual gala. Flick: launch of Insanity Tan Miss World Northern Ireland Contest. Flick: wine group. Flick: book group. Flick: wedding. Flick: wedding. Flick, flick, flick: wedding, wedding, wedding, wedding. Oh great, your high school boyfriend’s wife has a column in the Tatler—here they are at another award ceremony. Flick: Game of Thrones tour. Flick: non-invasive cosmetic procedures. Flick: People of the Year Awards—your folks had tickets to that.
Finally, the beep beeps and a new name flashes up on the digital display above the community board. Not you.
You put down your magazine and unintentionally catch the eye of somebody you might know. You have looped the loop. You are back at your beginning as if nothing happened in between. This may be a perfectly decent place, but how in hell did you end up back here when you have always had somewhere far away to be? There is nothing for you here. You didn’t even get to appear as the careless girl who has unsafe sex in the raunchy health advisory ad on the telly. You are losing what beauty you had. You are late for everything. You are not robust. You are dreamy, tender and unrealistic: that has always been a problem. Beep!
Now you can go to the nurse’s room, Room 5. You pick up your stuff. This is no biggie. People do this all the time. Do you have to go to the loo? Maybe you should go before you go in.
The loo is occupied. You hover about the hallway, pretending to read a poster about emphysema. There are people who go to the same doctors’ surgery their entire life—terrifying. No, it’s a good thing. It’s good to trust your doctor. It’s good to know your doctor from cradle to—no, it’s terrifying. This is your own fault: you left your grown life; you came back; you are your own ghost of lifetime past. What on god’s green earth were you attempting to reveal to yourself and will it ever get through?
Your phone buzzes while you are washing your hands in the way outlined in the comic strip on the wall. You do not usually wash your hands like this: banging together the roots of the fingers, scrubbing at each digit, rub-rubbing your palms, the tops of your hands, the tips of your fingers, under your nails, your knuckles and wrist bones. You open the door with a paper towel, wedge it with your foot, and tilt back into the cubicle to drop the paper in the waste basket without touching anything.
Thank fuck he’s out—it’s a WhatsApp photo of Winnie’s husband, bearded and bespectacled, fresh child curled against his bare, furred chest.
A spate of buzzes follows. Woop woop! Well played! Congrats! Awesome work! Some banter about possible bird-themed names. Puffin. Bud-G. You suggest Sparrow.
The little one came early. A mere day ago, Winnie had posted a selfie from the Southwark Crown Court with wig, gown and enormous bump. You are delighted for them. You are going to send a miniature Moomintroll costume and a card which says,
The sky was blue as usual
You will design it yourself.
You knock the door of Room 5. There is silence; nothing works. You knock the door a second time.
“Come in,” her voice says.
Truth is you were ransacked and you will never cease to know that. Your body didn’t betray you, no, it knew and told you and kept telling truths. And truth is you sensed it coming, on his breath, in your organs. Why were you so willing to toss away your freedom? Truth is the sky’s not blue as usual but turquoise, white smoke, flint, looking fairly beautiful you have to admit. When you cleaned out the hearth this morning, you lifted a five-inch nail from the cinders. You threw it in the bin and picked it out again, placing it on a square of kitchen roll beside the Belfast sink. Seemed wrong to dump it when it came through all that, survived the fire, of course it did. What will do you do with it now? You looked him up on Facebook, where he’s citing Alfred de Musset, whoever that is, claiming he loves the sentiment—“All men are liars, all women are treacherous,” et cetera.
Horse-shite. Easy to say that, abject. There is ample space between purity and degradation. Life is a capacity, not a cesspit. So what if that’s earnest, so fucking what? La, forget the hollow one who cannot meet his own eye in the mirror. Beneath that mild face that stretches to the world, behind the iris and deep inside, the in of him churns without peace or magnitude, and you will pity that one day when this rage passes.
“How’s about you?” nurse asks.
Oops, back you come, for you were carried off, folded in, pontificating. But what if he gave you something? “Me again,” you reply.
“Blood’s today, is it?” Nurse looks down at her form. “For the thyroid is it, and the iron?”
“Yeah, they reckon it might be hemochromatosis.”
“Right, well, let’s hope not.”
“Yup, don’t much fancy the bloodletting. Sounds archaic.”
Nurse rolls up your sleeve, fastens the tourniquet, disinfects the nook of your elbow and slides the needle in. The drawing out of extraction is a long pressure, indelible pull. You look away, squashing the end of your thumb until it throbs.
“I’m sorry. Am I hurting your wee arm? There’s not a pick of fat on you.”
“No, no, I’m grand,” you say. “Just don’t like to see.” The blood’s radiant in the tube. She drops the syringe in a plastic bag and seals it, pressing a plaster over the aperture and unstrapping the tourniquet.
“Now then, we’ve a Pap test? The delights!” she tuts. “When was your last?”
“About a year gone. Did they not send my records from London?”
“We don’t have any records for you.”
“They were supposed to send them over.”
“Must have got lost.”
“Oh.” Where did they go? “Ignore me if I get upset. The last time was a bit rough, see.”
“Dear dear, don’t fret,” nurse says. “I’ll be gentle. Pop off your knickers there and hop up on the bed while I lock the door.”
You do as told, take off shoes, socks, jeans, stuff your knickers in your Converse, and clamber onto the bed with its layer of papery ultramarine. Your bottom slithers down and then up a few centimeters. You close your legs, open your legs, wait.
Nurse inserts her plastic contraption, jagged and intractable in your softness. “Can you open up a wee bit wider? Yep, swivel them hips out a tad, that’s it. You okay?”
“I’m fine,” you say, “really.” Your pal just had a whole child.
“Sorry, pet, can’t seem to catch it. Here I’ll have to try a bigger thing.”
“Do what you need to do,” you say.
Nurse tries another contraption, pokes deeper.
Your thighs grow shaky with the tension, and you are giggling now, somewhat breathless.
“No joy . . . ” Nurse is quieter, drops a second contraption in the sink, chooses a third.
Now you’re laughing, catching breath, eyes liquored and blinking hard, no, you can’t stop cackling high in the throat.
“There, there,” nurse sings. Her brow crumples as she peers. “Yeah, yes . . . Ah, lost it.” Her voice strains and she sighs, shaking her head. “You’re a great brave girl. I’m not hurting, am I?”
“No,” you say, “plenty have had it worse.” In bed this morning, you listened to a podcast in which a 12-year old orphan described giving birth on her own while being held as a sex slave, after which her baby was stolen. How to listen to that and keep going? Have to not turn over, don’t you? Have to not change channel to Judge Judy or Say Yes to the Dress. They ought to teach them that in school, but it’s depressing. What kind of god lets that happen?
“Look,” nurse says, “here’s what you do—tuck your shut fists down there into the small of your back and weigh down on them hard, and hopefully that’ll unlatch the hipbones.”
You do as you are told.
“That’s a girl! That’s the one. Just can’t reach your wee cervix,” she complains.
What’s wrong with you? Where is it? Third thing clinks into the basin.
“Are you all right up there?”
“Yup, I’m okay.” Your voice is stretched, airy.
She stands back, flummoxed, vexed.
“Look, I’m awful sorry, but I’m going to have to go get the doctor, for it’s all tucked up away and I can’t reach it, so the doctor will have to come in, for I’m not allowed to delve further. But she’s a lovely young doctor so she is, lovely young girl.”
She leaves and you wait, legs angled, hips ajar, knuckles wedged into your tailbone, blunt fuzz of your leg hair bristling in the room’s cool. You are merely a compass with metal limbs. This is the exact position you were in when he was violating you between others.
A few long minutes later, in they come, nurse explaining.
You meet doctor between your thighs. “Hello there,” she says.
“Hello,” you say to her while she’s looking up in.
“It must be hiding,” nurse quips.
You half-laugh at her not funny joke. Where’s it gone to? Where’s it gone?
Doctor’s all business. “Will you chuckle?” doctor says. “That ought to free things.”
You start chuckling as instructed while the juice forms a runnel down the right temple of your face.
“Och no, she’s crying now, you’re crying,” nurse says. Is she sorry or accusing?
“Not crying, no, not crying,” you say. “My eyes are watery.”
Doctor snags the spot, tugs, scrapes. “Got it.” Job’s done. She steps back, strips her gloves, toe on pedal, casting them into the waste bin that’s marked with a hazardous black exclamation.
“You can close your legs,” nurse says.
“You might bleed for a while,” doctor says.
“And you’ll likely have a belly ache with all of that rummaging around.” Nurse frowns—“I feel terrible, I really do.”
“Honestly, I’m okay, I’m fine.” But the brine’s up and you can’t stem the surge. “Pay no heed. I can’t help it. I’m just being a wimp.” The tears are tripping you as you sit up, jump down, pull on your jeans and pick your forgotten knickers out of your Converse, stuffing them in a pocket as though you were scarpering from a one-night stand.
Crushing you goodbye, nurse says, “You’re the bravest I’ve ever had,” which you know can’t be true. This woman is weird and consoling and confusing. You don’t get it.
You drift gingerly out of the clinic. The air flaps and you quiver. You linger a minute at the squat wall between the carpark and the pavement—over there is the old St. Columba’s graveyard, where you always meant to go. This town was a “thin place” that pilgrims came to, in the belief that here the margin is finest between heaven and earth. You can’t fathom that. Heaven’s only a sweet con to mollify and defer you, an excuse for why some days here get so painful. No reason, no good reason. Would it be better or worse if you had reason to feel this joyless? Nothing matters and you’re meant to keep on going on.
The pavement stipples shyly. It’s a soft day got. From moment to moment, the weather may turn. Mizzle hovers. Blueyness is spectral, moving. One day, this place will endure only in poems: we’ve gone far, too far, and lovely chameleon nature dwindles. Still, you wonder at the resilience of the wild birds that come, and go away, and come again to pause on the wetlands close by, near Tuaim. Beautiful, they are clustered and scattered on the rim of the greedy route between cities; dual carriageway is key, say those who are paid to choose how we use and leave this earth. Those geese don’t know, do they, that a road will keep on getting wider? Those geese don’t know that only one tribe was ever welcome in Tuaim, and not the other. How long have they been coming here? Before all that stuff. Back, maybe, when the isle was parsed between early Irish kings and queens. How old is the knowledge they’re passing through their wings? They must know what you have missed. So stupid you, so stupid, you know nothing.
When the dizz’ wanes, you climb back into the driver’s seat of your mum’s car. Well, that’s over. Rain pelts down onto the glass. What can you do? The sky is closing till it opens again—turquoise, snow, smoke, stone, feather, nail. You click on the blow heat and the radio.
A string of vans and cars beads up to the traffic lights on Main Street. You slip off and circumvent the town centre, coming back in at the tip where the chapel is, and the computer repair shop Bits and PCs. You park outside McElwaine’s Bar and run across with your crap laptop under your arm.
“I’ll have it for you t’morra,” Liam says. “Here, just write down your wee password.”
You’re mortified. “It’s a bit cringe,” you say. But you take his pencil and scribble it on a post-it note:
l@ v1e en r0se 2017
“All attached, all lower case,” you say, laying the pencil on top of it to keep your secret till you’re gone. “So I’ll pick it up about noon on my way to the airport.”
“No bother,” Liam says. “Where you headed?”
“Honeymoon,” you want to say. You can’t believe you were the kind of woman who was heading off on her honeymoon. What a twat. Your hand itches again.
As you’re coming out of Salt’s Chemist with your eczema ointment, a white Hummer limo crawls past, roof window roaring Beyoncé’s “Sorry,” wagging of fingers and gleeful screeching of many girls—“Tell him, boy, bye! boy, bye!” The limo stops slightly before the chapel, outside Boyle’s Eurospar, and as you walk back to your car, the little creatures tumble out: slender orange girls with crystalized talons, crunchy ringlets and impossible black eyebrows, in foamy gowns that remind you of the dolly whose skirt enveloped the toilet roll in your granny’s pink and mustard downstairs bathroom. One in emerald. One tangerine. One cerise. One lilac. One cerulean. One lemon. They keep on coming, ten or twelve of them, tiny limbs propping up gigantic dresses, cast of a tween-inflected, psychedelic re-envisioning of Gone with the Wind.
Bride comes out last, hiking up her silver tulle and hopping onto the pavement in bare feet. She is wearing a white fishtail. She pokes her toes into high white shoes. They waddle toward the chapel entrance.
It’s a Tuesday. Who gets married on a Tuesday?—she does. You’ve only ever seen the likes of this on TV. You wouldn’t dare, would you? You’ve never set foot in that place; they’ll know, won’t they know, you’re not one of them. You toss your chemist’s booty on the passenger seat, get in, climb out, pull on your coat and ping the lock as you cross the road to the chapel. The girls are gobbled up and everyone else must be waiting within. Sure, they’ll all be looking in the other direction. You’ll just take a peek. You used to dance too with your pals to Beyoncé. Winnie says you could sue him if it’s bad news—the test, she means: “We’ll litigate the entrails out of him. It’s a crime: endangering life.” She told you the legal definition of the thing, which sounded about right, except an absence of guts was a great part of his problem, and you couldn’t bear to go raking through all that damage, cowardice. You want him to vanish, no traces in you. If you could go back to before he touched you, and claimed you, and fucked you with impunity.
At the entrance, you almost bottle it, push open the door and enter a bright antechamber, separated from the main hall by glass doors. The feel is airy, unlike the dim wee churches to which you are accustomed, and unexpected, considering the drab lump of modernity you always deemed it from the outside. No, it’s fresh and lovely so it is, not oppressive at all, welcoming. Funny that you’ve never been in here at the head of the road you were raised on. From the street, it’s the shade of a chicken’s egg—chalky peach—but the inside is pale, lucent, and no doubt designed for dramatic effect. You suppose it’s intended to impress upon a person that she’s an unprepared morsel, a baby soul cupped within the cavity of a divine shell, where she may grow complete. You walk right up to the glass and look in: the theatre is quarter full, all backs to you.
Have these folk settled nearby? They like them to settle nowadays. You can’t just rock up in your caravan and occupy any old field with an open gate. Sometimes they give them static homes or council houses to make them stay put.
Couple stands up front while priest tries to project his voice over “Ave Maria”; he’s wearing a white frock too. A wee boy in a white tuxedo rambles about the aisle. Bride and groom tangle hands, attempting to seal some intricate pact, and when they kiss it’s a strange chaste kiss, half on her cheek. They seem happy enough, look like sister and brother. The business is pretty matter of fact and as they’re gearing up to come back down the aisle, “You Raise Me Up” blasts out of the speakers. Bride kisses her mummy, who’s graceful in her white hat though her breasts are prominent, and then she picks up a wee girl with white flowers banded around the soft bald head. She’ll have one of those of her own soon. You feel a thing about that and you don’t know that it’s relief. Wee boy jiggles to the song with no sense of his own flesh—it’s lovely to see a child dance. Maybe you had too much choice, too many chances to pick your bad egg.
You catch yourself on and leave, half thanking that sly tyranny above, in whom you don’t believe, for sparing you from walking an aisle to make a promise you couldn’t ever have kept.
Instead of going straight home, you drive up through the mountains, just to drive. You love driving on your own—you forgot that. Here you are. The sky is lapis lazuli. You learnt that word in another world, in Santiago de Chile when you were 16 and a half, and craving the day you’d be alone and free. You went with your friends to a nightclub, where a hot, slightly older guy in a biker jacket picked you, and took you aside, and you kissed. He said you were cooler than the other girls, and he said you’d make an excellent mother and wife. You’re not a bit sorry you laughed at him. When you told that to your pals, they laughed too.