Scenes from an Empty Attic, by Rosemary Jenkinson
12 Stories of Christmas: Day 2 – from the collection Aphrodite’s Kiss
Angelina put on her coat and presented both profiles to the mirror, deciding that the left one was best. The late nights this winter were telling on her skin. The scar on her forehead appeared whiter than usual against the shadows under her eyes. All these nights spent with people who longed to be everywhere at once, restless and impassioned, inflamed and burnt-out, rubbing coke on to their pale gums, showing their teeth in the candlelight like vampires. Every morning she turned up at work exhausted.
The room rocked slightly as a train shuddered along the siding that passed by the back of the house.
‘Annie, Annie,’ called a voice anxiously from the landing.
‘Christ,’ said Angelina, going out.
It was Stuart, the boy who rented the box room. He stood awkwardly, head hunched forward, the door jammed tight behind him so she couldn’t see into his room. On one occasion she’d had a glimpse of walls lined with clear plastic packing boxes. It had reminded her of the locker room in a train station.
Stuart suddenly unleashed a torrent of words. ‘I’ve been speaking to Coleman about buying the oil and Coleman says it’s up to us what we do …’
‘Colm,’ Angelina butted in, suppressing a smile. Not only did he call her Annie, but he persisted in calling the landlord Coleman. It seemed to be a form of dyslexia with names.
‘Coll-um,’ he repeated.
‘Look, can we talk about it again, Stuart?’ She was already running late. She zipped her coat up to the neck to confirm that the conversation was now closed and ran down the stairs, leaping out into the open air as if released.
* * *
The lights on the walls of Kelly’s Cellars were the shade of malt whiskey, and the yeasty smell from the beer pumps added to the warmth inside. The bar was full and the air buzzed with Belfast accents, honed into harshness through generations of roaring at peelers and Protestants. Angelina joined her friend Maria, who was sitting with a group of professional drinkers that were always good for the craic.
‘Sure us Irish blew up all the buildings,’ one man was saying, ‘but then we got all the jobs building them back up. Oh, we knew what we were doing all right.’
A large group of tourists armed with cameras came in and looked up at the cracked ceilings and black-lacquered beams. They were hushed and wide-eyed as though they’d just entered a chapel. They started clicking away at the bar and, in particular, at an elderly man in an outsize tweed jacket sucking on a pint of Guinness.
‘Most photographed man in Belfast,’ someone in Angelina’s group commented.
There was a wistful silence, a sudden unspoken communion as everyone thought of the past, sensing that all things local and Irish had been driven underground to the last few pubs, as if it was quaint history, finished with the bloodshed, swept away entirely.
The tour group filed out without even taking a drink.
‘Would you look at that,’ muttered one of the men at her table, offended, and he snapped them with his mobile phone in mockery as they left.
Two strangers kept looking over. Angelina had already noticed the beautiful brown eyes and fine bones of one. His tanned skin glowed next to the Irish faces that were the shade of pink-grey limestone, scored by years of drink and cigarettes. Maria pulled over two stools and gestured for the men to join them. They were Spanish and barely spoke English. Cosme was the name of the man Angelina liked. He conveyed to her somehow that he was a student on holiday and was leaving for Dublin the next morning. She tried to explain that she worked in a bank in the foreign currency section, but he seemed to think she was describing her own rich jet-setting lifestyle, and they laughed and shrugged and gave up.
‘A cigarette?’ Cosme suggested. In his accent it sounded to her like ‘a secret’.
They went outside, and the smoke poured deep into her lungs and surged up into her brain. He smiled to see her pleasure in the cigarette and the smile filled her too, like the smoke. He looked at the ruby-coloured stone on her necklace that sat above her chest and said it was beautiful.
Then he spoke to Maria, and Angelina was jealous - until she saw his eyes move for a second away from Maria’s, and in that second was a gulf and Maria had lost him. Angelina noticed the muscles on him from carrying his backpack, and the energy and curiosity in his eyes. He was like an animal rippling under its pelt.
It had been four years since she’d come back to Belfast. She’d spent years teaching abroad. During her time away, she’d haunted anyone with an Ulster accent, anyone who said ‘a wee drink’, ‘a wee walk’, feeling the pang of the loss. She’d been so happy to come back, but the feeling had faded. Now she was travelling once more, only not across huge spaces but within her own mind, falling and surging on drugs and joy and pain.
Last orders was called and one of the group suggested a house party. Everyone started throwing money into the centre of the table to get a carry-out of beer and cider.
‘Are you two coming?’ Angelina asked Cosme. She looked at him in his tight-fitting coat and wanted him. He checked quickly with his friend.
‘Yes, we come,’ he said, smiling.
Outside, they had a long wait for taxis. Cosme was chatting to his friend. It was as though the frosty air was blowing through the earlier dream. Under the cold streetlights his eyes were black and not warm. His body was covered up and shivering and hunched. Maria decided to bail out of the party and Angelina wondered if she should leave too, if it was pointless to hang around. But then a taxi rolled up and she got in next to Cosme, and he slapped his hands against his legs to warm them up and laughed, still half convulsing in shivers, delighted to be out of the cold.
Just as they arrived outside the party house in a street off the Falls, Maria rang Angelina.
‘You know where you’re going?’ she said. ‘Well, I’ve been there before, at a party with Eamonn, and do you see the stairs straight through the front door? There’s a pink carpet and walls.’
Angelina could see inside through the frosted glass of the front door. It radiated a kind of womb-like warmth.
‘Horrible, isn’t it?’ laughed Maria. ‘Well, if you go straight up the next flight, there’s an attic room which is very nice. Take Cosme there.’
Angelina laughed. ‘You’re crazy,’ she said, but her imagination leapt up the stairs.
The party was in full swing in the open-plan front room and kitchen. It wasn’t too packed, and Angelina and Cosme each got a beer draped in tinsel. They stood silently, the one question standing between them. She immediately felt frail and vulnerable as the night’s alcohol receded. Cosme took her hand.
‘We go …?’ He pointed upstairs.
They went out into the hallway and up the pink stairway. Angelina followed Maria’s advice about going up the next flight of stairs. It led to an attic room without a door. The bedside lamp was on. A bare-mattressed bed was covered in bundles of essays, which Cosme, with one sweep of his arm, sent flying to the floor. Used teabags were lumped greenly in an old pint glass; another was full of cigarette stubs.
They quickly took off their clothes, shaky-fingered, interrupting the rush only for a clumsy yet needy kiss, and they laughed a little at their own recklessness and hunger, then fell on to the bed. She noticed an old injection mark on his arm, white against the tan of his skin. She found it beautiful, this small white flaw. There were no bedclothes to cling to or hide under, and the open doorway made them nervous. They began to fuck hard out of panic and need. A cross hanging from a chain around his neck swung violently against his skin, then hers.
After coming, he brushed the side of her cheek gently with his knuckles, suddenly aware that tenderness had been missing, and they both smiled, looking at each other with the same unsated hunger as before.
They hurried back down to the party. Cosme scanned the room anxiously for his friend. ‘Oh, he’s just left,’ someone said, and without a word, Cosme turned and ran straight out the front door.
‘I have that effect on men,’ Angelina joked.
She kept glancing at the door. She was hurt that he’d bolted without a goodbye, but she understood. A traveller. Leaving Belfast in the morning. Travelling. Sometimes in the bank she put the foreign banknotes to her nose, just to breathe in the palms of hands, the earth, the food, the sun; all she did all day was imagine.
‘That was a beautiful man all right.’ An older man, clutching a can of Guinness to his chest, nodded as he spoke, as if he had just delivered a eulogy at a wake.
A feeling of pride came over her. ‘Yes, that was a beautiful man,’ she said smiling.
She rejoined the party, the epicentre of which was the kitchen, rocking the house with its music and laughter. A man wearing blue hexagonal glasses was whipping it up. He was chopping up china-white coke on a kitchen tray, flicking it expertly into lines, like a chef preparing a delicacy. He was a party professional, hiding his carry-out in the washing machine from the hangers-on.
She decided she wasn’t going into work the next day. She couldn’t focus on the banknotes at the best of times … Russia, Senegal, Cambodia, the Emirates. She chased away her thoughts with red wine and put on the man’s blue glasses - icy blue tracers began to shoot from the light bulbs.
‘I wear them to hide me bloodshot eyes,’ he said.
Cold. Such a cold blue world at five in the morning.
* * *
She woke up. There were pins and needles in her nose. The man next to her on the sofa shifted and snuffled as he slept, his fingers like creepers slowly moving up his face. It was Blue-glasses.
One of her legs was caught under his and she extricated it painfully. It looked as though their bodies had been mashed up together and thrown on to the sofa. She could see through to the pink hall, spilling with sunlight. It was nine o’clock. She got up and stumbled around looking for her coat, then called a taxi.
Outside, the duck-egg blue of the sky cracked goldenly. It was a beautiful day. She wondered if she would ever go back to work again.
Back at her own house, she could hear the isk-isk-isk of the brush as Stuart swept out his room. He pulled his door to as soon as he heard her on the stairs, and sidled out to the landing, immediately resuming his monologue on the need to purchase heating oil. Angelina listened and agreed, then went to her room.
A train rattled past, shaking up through the floorboards and into her feet. She thought back to the pink staircase and started laughing to herself, louder and louder. Then she imagined Stuart telling people that he lived with a mad girl who kept laughing to herself alone in her room, and suddenly tears sprang to her eyes and she was crying and laughing and crying and laughing. She pulled off her clothes, slowly touching her skin with her fingers, like she could feel the heat, the food, the voice of a sun-filled land, a beautiful language written on her body.