Dark. Sweaty. Bass pounding. Bodies heaving. Overhead arched windows, looking out onto black. In the centre of the dance-floor Neil knelt down, seeing a thousand stars humming a song of eternity. He was out of his face on acid.
She was in the corner, moving like some crazy disjointed mannequin. Her shaved head glowed sick green in the bad disco lights. She was all bones. The light changed green to blue to red to white, turning her from sea-creature to madonna to devil to skeleton.
The thought made it happen.
Her eyes stared at him, empty black holes. She began to move towards him.
Coming to get you.
She slid her way across, slipping between the other bodies lumbering rhythmic on the floor, so thin that to his tripping eyes she seemed to be melting between them, coating them with a transparent patina of girl.
Now she was in front of him. Stone Age cheekbones, eyes huge and hollow, thin thin thin hands, waving seaweed fingers. She danced like a maniac, elbows, hands, knees everywhere. Her rhythm was off, kept catching him by surprise, but slowed down by the acid, he enjoyed the sudden shifts, went with them.
Outside, she mouthed.
He followed her through the ecclesiastical passageways of the deconsecrated building. She came and went in the darkness.
‘Wait,’ he kept saying. ‘Wait for me.’ Except he was so out of his face he couldn’t tell if he said it out loud or not.
She drew him into a room filled with red light and angular mechanical objects, sinks, plastic bottles full of dark liquids. Alchemy, he thought. Far fucking out. She waved a key in his face and kicked the door shut behind him.
How the – he began to think, then stopped as she placed her mouth on his like a wet soft hand and dug her tongue in.
She was voracious. Her lips were full and wet, soft cushions. They belonged to a fat girl.
Down, down onto the ground.
‘Hey, easy,’ he said at one point, distracted from his orgasm, from the feeling of it, which he wanted to savour because usually you don’t you know, but this time, with the acid he could, because it was so… except she kept fucking bouncing, like a Duracell rabbit on speed.
She stopped. Shame flooded her face, in the acid bath of his head distorting her into something by Goya.
‘Come live with me,’ she said. Come fly away.
She lived in a tiny house in the inner city. Red-brick, two-up, two-down. Or in this case, one-and-a-half-up, two-down. She was very practical about it. That surprised him. He’d expected her to be more, you know…
But no, she explained. Her flatmate had just moved out and she needed somebody to share with because she couldn’t afford it on her own. She was a photographer. On the dole, no money, living off favours and other people’s darkrooms.
Neil needed a place to stay. His ex had chucked him out, rents had exploded and there was no way he could afford somewhere on his own.
‘Okay,’ he said, still dubious at the way she’d dug his mobile number out of thin air.
‘Don’t worry.’ She exhaled cigarette smoke from the corner of her mouth. ‘I won’t bite.’
She was American, Kentucky originally, but years of hustling in New York had eradicated any trace of a Southern accent. She presented herself as being tough as nails, as an old boot, as something that had been left out in the rain for years.
He was given the bad room, the half-room, the one she had to walk through on her way downstairs each morning. She had the front room, the whole one with the big window and all the floor space and the ten strong wooden shelves.
She owned nothing. No pots and pans. No plants. No pictures. One day Neil stuck up two posters on the landing wall. When she saw them, she turned sour, resentful, as if he’d walked in on her while she was asleep and pissed on her bed.
One afternoon, when he was bored and sick of watching Jerry Springer and Stop Police! re-runs, he decided to poke around. She was out on an assignment, meeting friends, something intense. All her appointments were loaded with the same intensity.
He stuck his head around the thick black curtain that worked as a door between their rooms. He couldn’t get over how empty her space was. No clothes, apart from a functional shoprail of baggy grey and black workwear and a row of heavy clunky boots. No ornaments, no girlish things. In one corner a tripod and three cameras, arranged like precious heirlooms. In another, a grey filing cabinet. It was as bleak as a prisoner’s cell, he thought, somewhere a monk would sleep.
He wondered if he should go in. Why not? It wasn’t as if he was going to steal anything.
The shelves were full of hard-backed folders containing slides. Nothing interesting, just her work: landscapes, cityscapes, her own body. She was obsessed with her body. He tried to open the filing cabinet, hoping to find diaries or some other evidence of who she really was, but it was locked. He gave up and was about to go when he saw a scrap of paper sticking out behind the edge of the cabinet. It must have dropped there but she hadn’t bothered picking it up.
He teased it out.
A round-faced all-American teenager, sitting on the back of a big red Cadillac, endless yellow fields stretching behind her. She had apple-pink cheeks and curly brown hair that fell in spirals down to her shoulders. She was a big girl, strong and fit but definitely on the large side. Her arms were freckled, her face glowed.
Later that evening when she came in, moody and on edge because her meeting hadn’t gone well, he searched for the farmgirl in what she was now. He couldn’t find her; she was long gone, reduced to almost nothing.
They fucked again from time to time, mainly when they were pissed, but never in her bed. Instead, the cheap uncomfortable sitting-room sofa, the kitchen table – a clumsy experience that left him with a black eye after he knocked a saucepan off one of the shelves – and his small, single bed. She bounced on him like a demon, urging, all bones. Turned off, he usually came close to losing his hard-on, except then he’d think of something – a gash mag, the model in the Smirnoff Ice ad (undressed, of course), ex-girlfriends, the sweetie from his favourite cafe – and freed from service to the untenable moment, would come.
She never did. Nor did she pretend to. He wondered about that, but never for too long. It wasn’t something they could talk about. One night when they’d been smoking grass, she opened her mouth, frowning, and he thought she was going to say something. But he’d just jizzed, was in a world of his own, pleasant, warm and sated, and not really in the mood for going into all that. She must have read him because, instead of talking, she reached for the grass and rolled up another joint. And that was that. He didn’t feel bad about it. He got the feeling it was easier for her not to go there; that way she wouldn’t have to dissolve that wall of transparent ice she’d built around herself.
She ate nothing. Okay, not quite nothing, but as far as Neil – born and bred on rashers and eggs, beans and chips, hot dinners, chocolate and crisps – was concerned, sweet fuck all. Bowls of stewed fruit first thing in the morning, followed by some mess of cereal you wouldn’t give a dog. Salad for lunch. Rice and vegetables, occasionally, at night.
One night when he was jarred he mentioned, jocularly, that she could do with some fattening up. She went still, the fag at her mouth seeming to freeze too, even its smoke hanging, poised, in mid-air.
‘Oops,’ he said, trying to joke his way out of it. ‘Touchy subject.’
She extracted the fag and blew a stream of smoke towards the telly. He noticed that her fingers were shaking. She didn’t say anything, just zapped to Channel 4.
The next night he went clubbing and brought another girl home. The sweetie from his favourite cafe. She was lithe and small and brown, with large breasts that fell into his E-sensitised hands like pieces of heaven. She came loudly, twice.
See? he thought, satisfied, imagining her in the room beside them, awake, listening, crying.
He was afraid to wank in case she’d hear.
She woke religiously, same time every morning. Seven. On the odd day Neil was awake then too, he’d hear her get out of bed. Then it would start. The heavy breathing from behind the black curtain. Ee-aw-ee-aw. He imagined her masturbating, lying on the sanded floor, legs open, pressing that tired fleshless button of hers, willing something to happen. Ee-aw. For twenty minutes, then she’d scoot up and race down to the shower as if frightened he’d get there first.
One night she came in rat-arsed from an opening and forgot to pull the curtain over properly. The next morning he woke too early, burning with the beginnings of a flu, unable to get back to sleep. From next door he could hear the breathing. Ee-aw. Harsh, fast, slow, fast. He couldn’t stand it anymore, lying there, listening, that gap in the curtain calling to him like a friend, so he crawled down his bed and peeked through.
She was doing push-ups, naked. Her muscled back shone blue and orange in the early morning streetlamps. Her tiny buttocks clenched together. Her shaven head raised, lowered, raised. Downy hairs lifted up all over her skin. The tendons of her arms stood out like the knobbled bits on an Aran jumper. Her breath was harsh and fast.
Poor bitch, he thought, surprising himself with his pity.
He usually went out on Sundays but that week his parents were down the country, denying him roast dinner and the use of their washing machine. The sweetie from the cafe had gone back to Barcelona and his mates were all split up: canoeing holiday, business conference, and an open-air festival which he couldn’t afford.
She was going out.
‘There’s this old market in the centre,’ she explained as he drank his coffee. ‘I want to capture it before they tear it down and turn it into another fucking pub for tourists.’
‘Tourists?’ said Neil, slyly.
‘And fuck you.’ She stubbed out her cigarette and, before he could say Oh but you have – ‘D’you want to come along?’
‘Okay,’ he said, surprising himself again. Then, because for some reason he felt he had to justify himself, ‘Why not?’
They headed off around four. Neil helped her carry her cameras. She’d brought all three of them. One standard 35mm, one digital video – a present from back home, she said – and one square brown box Neil didn’t recognise. ‘Large-format,’ she explained. ‘Takes incredible pictures, super candid.’
Town was busy in the usual places but the crowds started thinning out as they got closer to the market. Rats deserting a sinking ship, lice fleeing a comb.
‘Okay,’ she said, ‘here,’ and set the tripod down.
The building was large, glass-roofed, littered with old pallets and fruit papers. Oranges rolled in corners, bruised and oozing rancid juice. Scraps of tattered cloth dangled from the peak of the roof. Ancient signs, painted with the names of fruit & veg families who’d been there for centuries, hung overhead.
It was cold.
‘There was a church here once,’ she said. ‘Underneath.’
Neil thought of dark ecclesiastical passageways and black arched windows.
‘They say people are buried there.’
She began taking pictures. She was deliberate in her work. She would stand for minutes, looking, looking, smelling almost more than seeing, then move, decisive but not rushing, to the place where she wanted to work, line up her camera, look through the lens, wait again – for ages, it seemed to Neil; afterwards, he thought it must have been to get the light right - then click. The click was over so quickly, compared to the waiting.
Jesus, he thought. If only she could fuck the way she worked.
It grew darker.
‘Shouldn’t we go?’ he said. ‘I mean, the light…’
She shook her head. ‘No. This is the best hour. Things come out of the walls at this time of day.’
Left with no choice, he had to keep watching. Look, wait, smell, listen, bend, look, move the camera forward a bit, up a bit. She touched the camera with small gentle movements, as if it was a little child she was training to walk. It responded. They were dancing together, he realised. She and the camera, dancing in the dusk.
As he observed her, he became calm. Her stillness leaked into him like pus.
‘Why don’t we explore?’ he asked. The pictures were on the verge of being finished, he could tell that – by the way her head was inclining, perhaps, by a restlessness starting to itch itself into her right foot. He could tell she was about to finish and he didn’t want her to. Anything would do, anything to keep things as they were.
‘Oh.’ She turned, surprised. ‘I was about to –’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘But why not – I mean – you never know what we might find.’
‘Sure,’ she said. Half-smiling. A small puzzled frown on her forehead.
They came across the door in a corner of the market, hidden behind a metal trolley laden with pallets and empty fruit boxes. It was not as he’d imagined it, oak and gothic, but square, dull-grey, sheet metal.
Someone had been there before them. One edge of the door was twisted up and away, jimmied with a knife or chisel. He stuck his fingers into the gap and pulled. The door screamed, metal against metal, and opened a fraction. It was too small a gap for him to get through. He slid in his arm.
‘Chancing your arm,’ she said. ‘Like the Normans.’
‘That’s where the saying comes from. There were these two, like, knights, who were fighting in the cathedral, and one of them ran into a room and barricaded himself in. The other guy said he wanted a truce, so he stuck his sword hand through this eentsy hole. So the first guy could, you know, shake it.’
‘Yeah?’ he said. He still couldn’t budge it.
‘Hey, let me.’
‘You won’t,’ he said, looking at the space between the edge of the door and the wall.
She turned herself sideways and edged her knee into the impossible gap.
Her shoulder disappeared, then her hip. Half of her body was on the other side of the door. She made a small, sighing sound and manoeuvred her other hip through.
‘Yeah,’ he said, feeling darkness creep up behind him.
She squeezed her head backwards through the gap. It made him nauseous, thinking of the fragile bones in her skull, weakened by stewed fruit and too many push-ups, turn liquid under the pressure of metal and stone.
The tendons on her neck stood out, parallel lines, vulnerable. He wanted to touch them, stroke them as you would a baby’s face. She melted into nothing.
‘Okay.’ From the other side, her voice was echoing and dark. ‘I’m gonna push.’
You can’t, he thought. Then he remembered her daily grind of push-ups, the muscles on her body standing up like knitted blackberry stitch.
She pushed. The door screamed and shuddered.
Come on, come on, he thought, not wanting to be stuck in the darkening empty market like some forlorn ghost. The door screamed again.
‘Pull!’ Her voice was muffled.
He seized the edge of the door and heaved it towards him. From the other side he felt the force of her body push; so much force for such a small body.
‘Okay!’ he called. ‘Coming through!’
The pencil beam of her maglight shone on crumbling stone walls, moss, blackened rock, a few half-broken steps.
‘Be Prepared,’ said Neil, indicating the light.
She ignored him.
At the bottom of the stairs was a second door. Much more like it. Panelled wood with iron clasps, set into a gothic arch. It had been pulled well off its hinges and swung open without a bother.
Inside, it was cold and damp, the floor slippery. Fungus glowed in the corners. The maglight flickered on ruined benches, pieces of old rotten wood, pews missing backrests and feet, crumbling arched recesses where holy pictures had once stood. At the top, what must have been the altar; a raised bank of stone speckled with lichen, covered with beer cans and cigarettes.
Neil laughed. ‘Jesus. I thought it was just a story.’
‘Sshh,’ she said, finger on her lips.
Fucksake, he thought. It’s not a museum.
At the back of the altar was a raised wooden casket. One of the doors hung loose on a single hinge, the other was fastened tight. She walked up to it.
‘Hey,’ he said, wanting to warn her but not sure why.
She ignored him and, using one finger, swung the closed half-door open.
‘Oh fuck!’ She stepped back. Her torch clattered onto the ground, sending shadows racing over the walls. The maglight snapped off. They were in blackness.
‘Oh Jesus!’ She began to heave dry retches.
‘Jule?’ said Neil, on instinct calling her name, the way you’d call a hurt dog.
She started crying.
‘It’s okay,’ said Neil. ‘It’s okay.’ He couldn’t see where she was but moved towards the sound of her retching, her sobbing.
‘It’s okay. I’m here.’ His outstretched hands came in contact with warmth, cheekbones, wet face.
He closed his arms around her. She crumpled into him, still sobbing.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Ssshh.’
He kissed her forehead. She pressed into him, sniffling. His hands stroked her goosepimpled arms, the hairs that stood up on end, smoothing all into place. Behind her, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw something white gleam against the blackness of the altar.
‘Easy,’ he said. This time she listened.
‘They were bones,’ she told him as they walked home hand in hand through Dublin’s deepening blue evening. ‘Children’s bones. I could see their little faces and legs and –’
‘It’s okay,’ he said and squeezed her hand. She squeezed back, fingers thin thin thin like river reeds, autumn twigs.
This story is from Shift by Mia Gallagher (New Island Press)