Hennessy New Irish Writing: February 2018’s winning story
‘Who is the Fairest of Them All?’ by Anne O’Brien
Illustration by Evelyn McGrillen
Emily, with her pale hair and freckles, is used to being different and to eyeballing the women who stop to stare and then peer into Laura’s pram to see if her baby is as pale. While the fruit and veg man in the market now understands Emily’s gestures and will drop a few of the coveted small courgettes into her basket, and the baker often offers Laura a galleta, Emily still feels like she inhabits a parallel universe where, but for Pete and Laura, she is alone.
Of course, there’s different-interesting, different-different and different-why bother? Christine, who Pete insists could be Emily’s friend too, is French and definitely different-interesting. She’s tall and angular and, though also pale-skinned, carries it off in a totally artistic way.
Tonight, she’s invited Pete and Emily to a “soirée”, to celebrate the renovation of her top-floor apartment in the Salamanca district. Emily, knowing the tasteful surroundings are rarely matched by the food on offer, picks up a steak for Pete.
Pete tucks into it while Laura, having recently mastered a spoon, laughs and slaps her puree, flicking bits into Emily’s hair.
“Remind me,” says Emily. “Why are we going?”
“You can network.” Pete mops up bloody juice with a piece of baguette.
Emily’s mouth fills with saliva. She wants to pull a chunk of bread and join him, but, over a year since Laura’s birth, there’s still a stone to shift.
“There’ll be loads of interesting people.”
“Speaking French or Spanish,” she says.
“Don’t start. You need to get out of the house and anyway, she’s our friend.”
Christine shares Pete’s office and Emily is used to hearing Christine this and Christine that, as he goes on about her latest presentation or the article they’re co-authoring, ending each anecdote with: “she’s not just a pretty face”.
“God. The time,” says Pete. “I’ll clear this, you get ready.”
Fifteen minutes later, with most of her clothes strewn on the bed, Emily hears Pete answering the door to the babysitter. The grandfather clock that came with the house tolls eight, its mournful bongs echo in the hall.
“Hurry the hell up,” Pete shouts as she squeezes into a dress that no longer fits.
I have Laura, I have Laura, Emily takes the stairs gingerly, due to the tightness of her skirt. Pete turns from the door then quickly back again. Oh God, I should have worn the black dress.
Christine is wearing a dress of burnt-orange. It should clash with her hair, a shade of red that never arises naturally, but it doesn’t. The bodice strains across her skinny breasts and her white neck emerges like a swan’s. The dress is offset with chunky jewellery and a pair of perfect shoes.
She’s wall-eyed; bizarrely, it’s weirdly attractive. One eye wanders out windows or seeks far corners of the room, while the other fixes on you a gaze so tight, you feel special. When Emily tries to feel kind, she imagines Christine as a toddler, a patch over her good eye in an attempt to make her bad one behave.
After all Pete’s panic, they are first to arrive. Christine shows them around. Abstract canvases are hung off-centre on cream walls, a well-ordered bookcase holds titles in many languages; Klimt’s Kiss hangs above her bed. Through the large windows there are views of rooftops and church steeples. The parquet floor has been freshly waxed, the honey smell hangs on the air.
Tonight, Christine’s make-up is dramatic; her lashes are drawn out, her eyes large and liquid, her mouth is painted burgundy. Despite the perfection, a dull flush disturbs her neck as she answers the door, moving easily between French and Spanish and charmingly into English when necessary, as she does with Emily.
The guests gather. Emily watches skinny females nibble curling squares of pâté on toast. Across the room, Pete lifts his glass and sips wine, holding it in his mouth for a moment before swallowing. Emily’s dress rides up a little, seeking out the waist that’s no longer there.
Last to arrive is a new man, almost hidden behind a massive bouquet which Christine sets centre stage. Emily doesn’t catch his name but hears Brazil mentioned. He stands beside Christine, his mouth close to her ear, murmuring in Spanish. All men love Christine. Emily hopes the Brazilian might love her most. His eyes are deep and dark and his black curls tremble and twitch, perhaps at the thought of the comb of her slender fingers. Pete watches him too. Emily notes how often he lifts his glass and downs the heavy Rioja; his lips are already tinged purple.
After a while, the Brazilian announces that tonight, being special, he will dance the Sevillana.
“I teached Christina.”
The men push furniture to the walls as the Brazilian waves his hands to show the space needed. The kilim rug is rolled up and put aside and the guests circle the cleared space. The Brazilian’s shirt is dark blue and tucked into tight-fitting jeans. He has a proprietorial air which Emily hopes is not unfounded. He puts music on, returns to the centre, raises his arms and waits. A guitar starts playing, then there’s clapping. He turns his upper body to face Christine and stamps his foot; she lengthens her back.
The Brazilian is a bird of paradise, puffing out his feathers, tossing dark curls and thrusting his hips as he circles Christine. She’s the coveted female, the fairest of them all, her heart as elusive as her wandering eye.
Emily seeks Pete out. He is standing to one side, his view uninterrupted. Even from across the room, she sees his eyes are loose with desire.
The dance progresses. The Brazilian wills Christine towards him; she mirrors the moves of his body. The music builds and the tapping intensifies, like a frantic heartbeat. Christine’s lower lip becomes full and drops away from the upper one, her pink tongue emerging between small sharp teeth. The Brazilian has even managed to draw her wall eye to his.
The woman beside Emily claps, as though she plays some small part with her tap, tap tapping.
The Brazilian’s dark hand encircles Christine’s waist, twisting her this way and that.
The music stops abruptly. There’s applause and wolf whistles and Christine smiles. The Brazilian’s curls are sticking to his forehead; there are dark orbs of perspiration under each armpit.
Emily checks her watch. It’s only just gone 10; amongst the clutter of discarded toys, Laura will be sleeping. Emily wants to be standing by her cot, watching her small chest rise and fall.
Pete empties his glass.
Christine’s wall eye takes off again. Emily follows it as it roams and comes to rest beyond Pete, in the furthest corner of the room. She wants to see what Christine sees, but there is nothing there. Nothing at all.
The music is now muted, classical. Emily puts her head to one side, aiming to look like she’s happy not to engage in conversation; the search for words in languages that are not hers would finish her off. Minutes pass interminably slowly. This should be a coveted night out and yet there is not a single moment when she is truly glad to be here rather than there.
Going abroad had seemed a good idea. They needed a change and Pete had a great job offer. Surely Emily would get something? But she didn’t. It shouldn’t matter – he earned enough for both of them. But it did. She needed to work, instead she got pregnant.
The place and the people have absorbed Pete, loving his Irishness, his fluency in languages. He makes everyone laugh, but her.
Her life has, in the main, been a series of moments when she wants to be elsewhere. Sipping her glass of tepid water, Emily realises it will continue like this, a long road cobbled with such moments. The thought makes her catch her breath, as though before a dive below the surface of a dark, still lake.
She takes her handbag and walks towards Pete.
“I’m done in.”
“Go home if you want.” He sets his glass on a table, pulls the car keys from his pocket, and unbuttons a second shirt button. “It’s not like we both need to.”
He tosses her the keys. She knows the foreign words he’ll use unselfconsciously in her absence are piling up in his mouth, sloshing around with the dark wine.
Emily drives home, getting lost on streets she should know; the arrow of her inner compass spins wildly for it knows only north and this place is full of south.
The babysitter is on the phone to her boyfriend while the baby monitor crackles. Emily pays her too much; nothing matters now but that she is left alone. She closes the door, locks it and, in addition, slides the small nub of the security chain along the brass runner. Pete installed the extra lock and chain so she’d feel safe when he’s away for work.
The house is big and rambling but has no garden. Once he was made permanent, Pete had insisted on buying it.
“It makes sense; rent is wasted money. Doing it up can be your project – until you get a job.”
She’d tried to love the house as she stripped generations of wallpaper back to sand and horsehair plaster which crumbled when there was no longer anything to hold it together.
Emily goes upstairs to the baby’s room and stands by the cot, resisting the urge to place her hand on Laura’s terry pyjamas. The mural she’s been painting since Laura started spending mornings in a local creche, picking up Spanish as quickly as English, is almost done. There are scenes from the fairy tales she’ll soon read Laura – a tower where a princess lives, winding paths and unicorns hiding behind trees.
Emily undresses, wraps herself in a duvet and sits in the nursing chair. As her body softens, she wonders what Pete will do when his key is not enough to open the front door.
If I had three wishes is a game she’s played since childhood. She knows she’d use her first wish on a huntsman who’d watch Christine from the dark corner of the apartment where her wall eye wanders. Once the guests leave, the huntsman will lead Christine into the forest, carrying her when her high heels sink into the needle-clad floor. He’ll tell her the story, says he must take her heart and multi-lingual tongue and bring them to the queen who sleeps under a quilt filled with swan down. Christine’s lower lip will tremble.
For her second wish, unlike in the tale of the fisherman and his wife, Emily will be happy with a little cottage by the sea, the open door painted blue. She hears waves pulling back over shingle and can almost taste salt in the air. Laura, a red bucket in her hand, runs back and forth, filling the moat around the sandcastle they’ve built and decorated with shells and a seaweed flag.
A door bangs. Pete’s voice is in her head as she stands at the edge of a dark forest. He walks towards her, a young doe draped around his neck, its head lolling, its long-lashed eyes still open. Her mind surfaces and she knows the voice is real, an urgent whisper, funnelling through the letterbox.
“Emily. Let me in. Let me in.”
Streetlight silhouettes Pete’s head in the frosted glass of the front door, open a crack, to the limit of the security chain. She must close it completely to release the lock. As she does, the door seems to swell and fit itself more securely into its frame. She feels a surge of love for the house who wants to hold her and Laura safely inside and keep this other out. She hesitates. She has no friends in this place, no work colleagues, no bank account. The door will open.
She slides the ball along the lock’s runner.
A blast of night air causes her skin to rise in bumps, each hair follicle trapping the last of the warmth beneath it.
“I walked home.” There’s a large wine-red stain on Pete’s white shirt. In the dimness of the hall, his eyes are too bright.
He comes closer and Emily shivers.
“You’re cold.” His gaze drops to her bare feet. Her toes are splayed and grip the tiled floor. He bends and rests one of his long hands on her foot.
“I walked home,” he repeats.
“Home?” says Emily.
Pete lies on his back, purple lips ajar, inhaling air in long shuddering snores.
Unable to sleep, Emily returns to the baby’s room. As she settles in the armchair, her third wish comes to her, as clean and sharp as an arrow: a plane crash, something mercifully quick and painless, that will take care of him and leave her alone with Laura, the mortgage paid off by the life insurance and enough money to go home.
She stares into the dark. Through two shut doors she hears him, like a beast in the forest, wolfing the air.
The winning author
Winner of the 2016 Bath Short Story Award, Anne O’Brien has also been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, the RA Pin Drop Short Story Award, and BBC Opening Lines, among others. Her work is published in several anthologies and magazines and has also been translated into Vietnamese. She lives in Brussels, where she is working on her first short-story collection while reading for a PhD in creative writing with Lancaster University.