Hennessy New Irish Writing: How to float by Niamh Donnelly
Two girls drift through a polluted paradise in this month’s winning Hennessy New Irish Writing short story by Niamh Donnelly
First, ask Ella to tie your bikini tight so it won’t come off. Watch her fix her bikini and draw her belly inwards. 25th June 2009. You’re at a bar on a river in Laos, out on a wooden deck.
When Ella brings a Japanese man and two bottles of Chang to your table, assume the man is Chinese, Thai, or anything other than what she tells you. The Chang is hopefully just Chang.
“I’ve made a friend,” she says; that silly grin on her face, like an ugly child trying to be cute. The man waves a camera over his eyes. Full of smiles. Void of words. A bit too middle-aged for this party.
Say: “You get in,” and wave an imaginary camera over your eyes.
He laughs. “Why would I want to be in my own photo?” says the laughter. He wants one of you and Ella. White blondes in the sunlight. Pretend to be naive to the why.
Think of photos he could take: karst rocks and jungle river; tourists drifting downstream in floating tubes; sweating trees; wooden huts; liquorice ropes being flung, sending splashes and hauling drunk, willing bait into riverside bars like this one. Postcard pictures, they would be, with “Tubing in the Vang-Vieng” written all over them. But he wants you two girls. Flash your teeth as he paps. Good.
Convince yourself this pinky-greyish feeling is a once-in-a-lifetime sensation. Inhale the warm, not yet dark, night. Remember, suddenly, it’s not night, it’s day. Around 2pm. It’s just, you’re already hammered. Assume it’s too early for drugs.
Whatever time it is, get yourself to a bar. Watch a stream of vodka fall into a bucket of ice. The barman is muscular, tattooed and ageless.
“He’s sexy,” Ella says, confirming her irresponsible taste in men. Watch her watch him wipe the counter. At least you’ve lost Mr Japan.
Dance; the speakers so loud your intestines rumble. Thriller by Michael Jackson. Jump up and down because you love this song. Turn around and you’ve lost Ella, meaning no-one to hug. Feel an Australian man put a consoling hand on your bum.
“Haven’t you heard?” he says. A wet whisper into your right ear: “The prince is dead.”
So now 25th June becomes the night Michael Jackson died.
Freeze. Ella’s over there, beckoning you.
“Nuang, song, sarm, si, ha!” she says to the tube-rental man as you approach. She’s trying to hire inflatable rubber tubes to carry you downstream to the next bar. “Nuang, song, sarm, si, ha!” – One, two, three, four, five! The only Thai she knows.
The man smiles and points at her breast. There’s money peeking out of her bikini. She winks and produces a blue note. He takes it, puts it in his pouch and nods.
“Muchas gracias,” she says.
Grab her hand. Tell her it’s only 2pm and already you’ve drunk two buckets of vodka, made friends with a Japanese man, and Michael Jackson has died.
Watch her salivate with laughter. “We drink too much.”
“Or not enough.”
“Definitely not enough.”
Jump from the deck onto the tubes. Hold hands as you float downstream. Ask what her favourite Michael Jackson song is. Sing Ben at the top of your lungs as you drift along, bums folded in water; the rest of you a sundae of arms, knees and calves.
Ignore your hopeless stretched thighs on the rubber and other ugly things. Tilt your head back and look at the cloudless sky. Tell it: “You’re beautiful, Sky!”
The next bar is vaguely cinema themed. There are ripped, indecipherable posters on the wall, and striped tubs of stale popcorn accompany each drink. Mostly the popcorn is mashed to the skin and foot-soles of sweaty ravers. Dance on a table – high vantage point. All eyes on your body. Throw popcorn like confetti, and see hairy and hairless armpits open to worship it. Put the empty tub upside-down on your head and think you’re funny.
Then spot the funniest thing you’ve ever seen: a plaque that reads: “Do not swim if you is not swimming.” Climb down and go closer to make sure it’s real. A black and white sign at the side of a dancefloor. Grab a dancing man to show him. He’s English: Bob.
“What do you call a man with no arms and no legs in a river?”
“. . .”
He is laughless and boring. Find Ella. Time to move.
Jump onto the rubber tubes again. Forget to hold hands as you float. Watch Ella glide away because her tube’s faster.
Laugh as she leaves, fast as a leaf. Slide away into your mind as the river carries you, alone. Is this the funniest place on earth? What makes the fun fun? You have a mind for madness, you decide. Whistle up at the sun. Feel its rays on your skin like hands. Hate the word melanoma. Pronounce it, fruity on your tongue. Hiccup.
Jolt back to reality when a rope hits your thigh. Grab. Clench. Wait to be dragged towards the bar. Feel the force of the water push you wrong. Surge.
Panic, unsure if you’ve always been afraid of drowning. Grip harder, even when the man gestures to let go. Do. Not. Let. Go. Fear for your life; nothing but a tube propping it up. Air. Rubber. Smelliness. Tubiness. Probably peed in. Pee. Suffer the stages of something: anger, denial, bargaining, hiccup, rage. Hopelessly hope you might stay here eternally clinging. There are things that live in water and on water. You could be an entity that floats forever.
But they say this water is the most polluted in the world. A stream of beer, vodka and excrement. The dirty pint is what you’ve to drink when you lose a drinking game – a mélanged slop of forfeited booze. Try not to think you’re stuck floating on something regurgitated: a mingle of sewage, alcohol and vomit. Spit.
Feel the rope frizzle as the man shakes you away. Feel it twist your wrist and unleash. Spin downstream in a dizzy backlash. Scream. Close your eyes. Worry. Forget to breathe.
Spiral around a corner and see shards of colour. The next bar throbs like a house-music heart. Salvation. Leap off your tube and swim. Almost impossible. Do not swim if you is not swimming.
Your head fills with the sound of Ella.
“Ahahaha, look, Alix!”
Suck her laughter into your mouth so you’re laughing too. One of her arms is attached to a man, the other pointing at you. Smile at her smiling at the state of your hair – knotted and insane. Smile as she makes fun of your face – a crisis of melting make-up. Clamber onto the deck, feet sore, and notice your flip-flops are gone.
Ask: “How did you get here?” Hug.
“Ran down the street, obviously!”
Nothing makes sense. But it’s okay, as long as it’s okay. Dance.
“Where can we get drugs,” she says.
“ANY YIPS!” you shout, pulling a yellowish note from your top, holding it above your head. Feathery fingers make it loose. It floats away. Laugh.
“I think this is the happiest I’ve ever been,” says Ella. Then her favourite song comes on and she is happier. She introduces you to her newest friend: an Aussie-sounding man with faraway eyes. Sit with them at the empty end of a picnic table. Wait while he goes to the bar, she to the toilet. While waiting, watch a person in a Spiderman outfit hang upside-down from a rafter and kiss any willing woman who walks by. Which turns out to be quite a few. Don’t notice as the rafter begins to break, slowly, like a life. Notice, when it’s too late - when he crashes to the ground, and there is blood in his mouth, and he spits; two teeth falling through the crack in the wooden deck to the river beneath.
On sunny days, darkness always falls like a threat. The half-light is the worst – the tricks it plays on the mind. It’s in the half-light you find Ella crying and clutching her broken bikini top tight to her heart.
“Hah, hah,” she cries, like a laugh.
“Ella, are you alright? Who did this to you?” Pull her hair back as you speak, and wipe her tears with your thumbs. Then get to work on the bikini, loosening knots where you need more give, and tying new knots where the string has been broken. “Come on,” you say, when finished, “time for another drink.”
On a stool at the bar she talks, eyes still gleaming, leg and bum-cheek half-off the stool. “Don’t let anyone tell you who you’re not,” she says.
Indulge her. “Who, Ella?”
“Being me’s no joke.”
She sighs. “Okay, listen,” she says, “Know how to be what you are right. And if they tell you you’re a slut, tell them you’ve opened your heart to the world.”
Marvel at this, as bodies jostle around you, pushing you off balance. Grab her hands to still yourself, but feel her like a current through your arms.
“I will,” you say, which sends her into convulsions of laughter.
Drinks come, but now Ella wants food. Peanuts. She makes monkey motions and eating noises to the barman. He brings a small wooden bowl filled with something orange and salty. Ella devours, eyeing her stomach as if to see whether the fat has lodged. There is a touchableness about her body – a malleability that tells you things. Like, it’s not about being thin, or beautiful. It’s maybe a little bit about being strong. But mostly it’s about being crude. It’s about sticking your pierced tongue out in a big fuck you and tasting the rain.
When the food has calmed her, she remembers something. “Alix,” she says, “I got them.” Her fist blossoms to reveal two white pills. At last.
Utter the words: “I want one.” Allow them through your lips, easy and guiltless. Put the pill behind your teeth. Decide you’re going to be more like Ella. You’re going to open your heart and your mouth. Swallow.
Eat peanuts vigorously. Smile a curried grin at the partyers around you. Ew them.
Ella copies. Sensing her playfulness, the hands of a man standing behind her tickle her skin. She giggles and shows him her smile. The knots on her bikini fold into the fat on her midriff. She has known all along, you realise, that the world thinks of her as foolish. But what other way is there?
Leave Ella and her tickle-man and slide off your stool into the throng of bodies. Go find a man of your own. Scan the scene for . . . Who? Someone who will feel the wrath of you; be taken by, kissed by, moved by, changed by, fucked by you. A wimpish fool in a preposition. A man who will regret you.
Adam is who. An unexotic Irishman who seems to have eyes for your smile. Tall, beefy, acned all over and skin white as a lie. Adam.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
Why not. Lives can line up together as if they’re the same, tending towards one another, leaning. Why not a name, near enough to be your own, propped against yours. He leans in, sings some lyrics. Michael Jackson again. Man in the Mirror.
Get the foreboding sense he might kiss you. Stall. The river still drools across the front of the bar and under the wooden panels. Out back is a square of sand that was once a volleyball court.
Grab his wrist. Lead him out there. Feel like you’re going the wrong way, out the wrong door. Everyone else’s heads face the river where the lights and the chairs point.
“Come on,” you say.
“We going for a walk?”
“A long walk off a short pier,” you do not say.
Draggle your body through the fingertips of the crowd. Slip out the door to the court where he’s yours. Lie on the sand, face to the stars, him beside you, his wrist still in your clutch.
When your body is full of the kiss, hear him say: “You have to want to come home with me now.” Are there times when a choice has been made long before you realise it was you who made it?
“I want to wait for the sunrise,” you try, looking up at the moon, no idea of the time.
“Sun won’t be out for hours.” He kisses you again. A kiss, like a please, or a must, or a maybe. You grip the sand and the music from the bar rattles through the ground, through your bones.
“Wow,” you say, and he thinks it’s a wow for him. But it has started to rain and you can smell it like damp copper. It comes first in slow drops, then quicker, in a stream. Open your mouth. Taste it on your tongue. Pull it through your hair and blink it through your eyelashes. The breath of the rain is all over you. Soon lights start to flicker out as it fills the world, floods the river and cuts the electricity. Think you’ve closed your eyes but realise everything is darkness. Look up to the sky for a cure. But the world lights up for a beat of time and then, like a mating call: thunder groaning across the ground.
Stand and stretch your arms out. The world is giving you something, free of charge. Open your body and say “I want”. Rain comes harder. A feeling.
Standing up, you can see the next strokes of lightning line up across the horizon.
Wish Ella were here. But he is standing close to you now. He points across the horizon. “There he is.”
“Michael Jackson, moonwalking across the clouds.”
He holds your waist from behind like someone who loves you. He whispers Man in the Mirror to your left ear. Wish your drugs were like his. Squint and will yourself to see the prince dancing across the sky.
Walk back to his place holding hands.
Lie on his bed and think there is no real tip of an orgasm, just the tending towards it. Think of all those moments that lean towards other moments, piled up towards nothing. Your life is one that gets stuck in the curlicues – the embarrassing bits. The bit where he can’t get your bikini open, the bit where he goes next-door to ask for a condom.
Lie waiting on his bed. Breathe his smell into your lungs. Wonder if you should leave. Back to your own bed, or Ella’s. Wonder if we only ever pass from one bed to another - one form of drowsiness to the next.
When it comes to sex, open your legs to the world and brace yourself.
He kisses your knees, your bellybutton, your shoulder. “You okay?” he asks.
“I hate that question.”
Try keep your eyes away and your mind in the drugs. Try keep your body up and open as a vessel for his. Try, even when you’re not strong enough to hold it. Head back. Float. Worry that he doesn’t seem to want to touch your breasts. Worry about your body taking up space on his bed.
“Talk to me,” he says.
You’ve nothing to say, but breathe out a “hey”. It’s silly, but still... Weaken. Curl your hips inwards as time stretches outwards. Now you’re stuck in a conversation. Now you’re left floating, hanging, clinging for dear life to a “hey” that feels like something.
“You okay?” he asks, again.
“I’m fine,” you say.
Niamh Donnelly is a graduand of the first MA in creative writing at the University of Limerick, for which she won the Thomas and Ellen O’Connor Riverdream scholarship. This is her first published fiction