Two Damsons, a short story by P Kearney Byrne
P Kearney Byrne has twice been longlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award and is working on a novel and a collection of short stories
“Two large dry whites and a plate of antipasti, Tobes,” Melanie called to Tobiasz. Illustration: Getty Images
The Weir had filled with Friday night drinkers. Most of the committee had straggled off home, and Melanie and I were holding on to our sobriety, fingertip-style, until we could shift The Préachán. That’s what we called Declan, the Chair of the Board, because of his fluffed-up chest. He was standing holding the dregs of his pint, directing the conversation at me, his little crow’s head tipped to one side. Behind him, Melanie was rolling her eyes, signalling me to move it along. We’d got the funding letter that day, and the whole committee had shown up in the Weir to congratulate us. The Préachán was always last to leave. He fancied me, Melanie said. I thought it was unlikely when there was Melanie to ogle. But maybe he didn’t like women taller than him.
We were getting squashed at the bar. Some lads, stag-party types, pushed against me, and my Budweiser slopped the front of my dress. Declan leaned across and tapped one of them on the shoulder.
“Sorry, luv,” the guy said. English accent. Cloosh was a popular place for stags. Especially in summer.
Finally, Declan toddled off, and Mel and I took full possession of our section of the bar, climbing on to the stools we’d slung our jackets over earlier.
“Two large dry whites and a plate of antipasti, Tobes,” Melanie called to Tobiasz. He gave us the thumbs up and we slugged back the last of our beer.
“Fucken Préachán,” Melanie said. “When he gets the beak in, he doesn’t know how to stop.”
She hauled her dirty-blond hair out of its ponytail and looked in the mirror behind the bar, smirking at me, raising one side of her top lip. I loved when she did that. She had cute eyeteeth, two sharp little fangs – kind of thrilling when she bared them. It was hard not to want to look at Melanie. She had a strung-out leathery style, like a rock star, or a model. I couldn’t work out how she managed to seem so glammed up all the time. She didn’t make much effort, usually jeans and a blouse. But she had long legs. And the jeans were tight. Plus she always wore bright red lipstick. I wished I could do that too, the lipstick thing. But it made me look like a kid who’d sucked a red ice-pop. And I couldn’t talk with red lips. My mouth went all stiff and solid trying to keep the colour on.
Melanie had her lippy out now, and her little mirror. There was a hen party down the other end of the bar, dressed in waitresses’ outfits, little frilly aprons and super-short black skirts. The alpha female and her betas were screeching, having a great time, but there was one woman on the edge of the group who seemed totally morto, her horrible short dress and ridiculous pinny making an eejit of her. I wanted to smile at her, like, feeling for you, girl, but I was afraid she’d think I was laughing at her. Tobiasz put the wine and antipasti in front of us. I scooped a couple of olives, an artichoke and a bunch of leaves, leaning on the bar while I waited for Melanie to get settled. Then we raised our glasses.
“To the best boss in the county,” Melanie said. “You fucking did it. You’re a total fucking genius, Grace Turner.”
“We did it,” I said. Which was true. Melanie and me, evenings and weekends, all hours, up in the old shack of a building, bashing that god-awful funding proposal out.
“Gerroff,” she said. “We all know who the brains is.”
She pulled a piece of jamon and an olive off the plate and stuffed them into her mouth, took a swig of wine, and pulled her mobile out of her pocket.
“We better let the boyos know we’ll be late.”
“Gotcha,” I said and rooted around for my phone.
I texted Nathan.
“Mel and me out on the town. Explain later.”
Then I saw Melanie had phoned Richard, and was chatting, laughing that throaty laugh of hers. “Yeah,” she was saying. “I know, yeah… ”
I felt a bit weird that I’d only texted Nate.
Melanie hung up.
“It’s official. We can drink our heads off. Old Dickie says he’ll pick us up.”
“Cheers to Ricky-dickie,” I said. “And that being the case, let’s throttle a bottle.”
I stood on the rungs of my stool, leaned across the bar and waved down at Tobiasz. He cantered up. It didn’t matter how busy or slack the Weir was, Tobiasz fired on all 10 cylinders.
“The Sauvignon Blanc, Tobes, thanks. Givvus the bottle and another plate.”
“Coming your way right now, ladies,” he said.
I pulled up the last wodge of jamon, tore it in two, and gave half to Melanie.
“I don’t think they expected us to get the full shebang, do you?” she said. She was chewing, talking with her mouth full. “Or was that just me?”
“Oh, ye of little faith,” I said.
The funding was to set up a Living Life Centre in the town. The area was fucked – there’d been a spate of suicides since the recession. But I also knew how much it mattered to Melanie. She and Richard had twin boys, 13, and a mortgage they were behind on – a fact I kept highlighting to Nate every time he raised the shady issue of us starting a family. Melanie was supposed to be a temp, assisting me with admin until the proposal was in, but she’d turned out to be much more than that. Proper funding meant contracts and decent salaries for both of us for three years. So far, it seemed my lot in life was to take on projects that had no money, get them financed, then move on. Only this time, I was considering staying. If Mel stayed too. And I thought she would.
The music in the bar was getting louder and we’d pulled our stools closer. We were getting drunk. I knew because we were leaning on the bar, talking shite, and I was laughing my head off. Melanie was being hilarious. I’d already snorted wine on to the empty salad plate. I mopped it up with a paper napkin while she did her impression of Mairead, the Treasurer. The Tapeworm we called her, because of this little sucker-type mouth she had. She always seemed to have a cold and spoke with a lispy squeak. Melanie had her mouth squished up, the little slitty eyes and the exact note of the high whine.
“Nnn NGrace, will you be looking to leasse a new building, NGrace, sssss?”
“I certainly fucken will, Tapey. Me and Mel here need a jacks that actually flushes and desks that don’t have sixth years’ initials and bolloxes carved into them. So maybe this time, we’ll choose it ourselves.”
I did the Préachán then. I puffed out my chest, put my head on one side and made as much of a beak as I could with my lips.
“I do wonder whedder dere’s something a liddle unsavoury aboud Grace’s commidment to the work, Mairead. Don’t you find her a liddle … ambitious?”
“Nn..I like her, nDeclan. Nespecially from behind, sss.”
I spluttered more wine on to the bar. Melanie wiped it up with a tissue.
“You go another?”
“I certainly would.”
She waved at Tobiasz. We drained our glasses while he uncorked a new bottle. We’d moved on to talking about how we’d hire the new staff.
“Their gobs looked totally smacked when you announced I’m getting the Deputy post,” Melanie said.
“Nnn, it’s not what we’re used to, nGrace, ssss, proceeduressss.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Like there’s someone who could replace you.” I topped up our wine. Melanie shook her head.
“Ah, fuckit,” she said. “They’re not the worst for a culchie comma-fucken-tee. But, Sweet Jesus, in the total nick of time or what? Richard and I have been shitting ourselves. I mean, truly crapping our pants, the last six months.”
“Well, here’s to the end of the austerity measures,” I said. Except I couldn’t remember what the word for austerity was and I said prosterity by mistake. Melanie started laughing. She rummaged her hand through my hair. Then she stopped and looked hard at me.
“I fucken owe you, Grace,” she said.
She had her snog face on. Melanie would tell you anything, how much money she had, if she had an STD, what she and Richard fought about. But she was still monumentally hard to get to know. Then, when you least expected it, she did this wide-open shenanigans. I called it her snog-face because every time I saw it, that’s what I wanted to do. Snog her fucking face off. Naturally, I never discussed this with her. Besides, it never lasted long. Usually a second or two. So maybe the alcohol was extending it, because this time an electric charge seemed to hum between us, and neither of us looked away. Melanie bit her bottom lip with her little fangie eye-tooth, still looking at me. I was starting to feel a bit of vertigo.
“Don’t you need a ciggi-break?” I said.
“And leave my girl unattended?” she said. “Nah. But I do need to go to the jacks. Pronto.”
She climbed off her stool, and I watched her head off to the loo, squeezing between people, the guys watching her. I wondered should I go after her. What if I followed her into the loo, got her in a cubicle, shoved her up against the wall and snogged her? What if I slid my hands up under her blouse and groped her tits? She had beautiful breasts, with aureolae like two damsons. I knew because on sunny days we often sat in the yard behind the old building – it wasn’t overlooked – and did a spot of topless sunbathing. I was getting a bit steamy with this going through my mind, and when I shifted slightly on my bar stool, I realised I was wet, which made me snigger. Drunk and horny sort of went together for me.
Melanie was back, sliding on to her stool, pouring out the last of the wine.
“The fucken time already,” she said.
I raised my eyebrows over my glass.
“Nearly half eleven.”
“Aw, fuckity-fuck,” I said.
I didn’t really want to go home, but hey, Melanie had kids and responsibilities. While I waited for her to phone Richard, I looked around for Tobiasz. I was thinking of ordering a coffee. But Melanie was putting her jacket on.
“Fancy a bag of chips?” she said.
“As a matter of fact,” I said, trying not to look too pleased, “it’s exactly what I want. I’ll just whip down to the jacks first.”
Melanie was outside on the path waiting for me. We headed out to Main Street and started walking towards Glancy’s chipper. The town was swarming with staggers and hens, all of them more or less ossified. A group of lads was heading towards us, swigging from pint glasses and bottles.
“Oi, Joanna Lumley!” one of them shouted at Melanie. “Show us yer tits.”
Melanie was lighting a fag. When they came closer and he tried to put his arm around me, she flicked him in the face and told him to piss off.
“Fucking lesbos,” he gobbed at us.
“What’s it to you?” Melanie said. “Just keep your fucking hands off my girl.”
Then she slung her arm around my shoulders, cackling and sucking hard on her fag.
“Wankers,” she said.
When we’d got our chips, we walked towards the river. It was warm for May and the moon was full.
“Full moon in Scorpio,” I said.
“Izzat so?” Melanie said.
The car park was empty except for her Fiat. We climbed in, put the chips on the dashboard and shared out the packets of salt and vinegar. Those finicky little yokes are hard to open when you’re drunk, and I spilled a couple before I got sorted. The heat from the chips had steamed the windscreen. I rubbed my side clear. I wanted to look at the Shannon rushing past, black and dangerous under the moonlight. I loved the Shannon. I thought it was the best thing about the midlands. Though of course it was just passing through on its way elsewhere. Melanie was scoffing her chips, but neither of us was talking, which felt a bit weird.
“How you doing, doll?” she said after a while.
I turned to look at her. She was leaning back in her seat and fuck me if she hadn’t got her snog-face on. I shoved my chips on to the dashboard, then reached across and pushed her hair back from her face. She didn’t pull away, just kept looking at me.
“I’m doing great, Mel,” I said. I leaned over and kissed her. It was pretty awkward, the gear stick and what have you, but she wasn’t holding back. She’d chucked her chips on to the floor and strained towards me, her hands either side of my face. I felt like she was going to eat me. My knee was jammed up against the handbrake, and when I tried to twist around, I fell back against the headrest. Melanie accidentally leaned on the car horn and it gave a super-loud honk.
“Fuckit,” she said. “All we need is a herd of bucks galloping down for a gawk. Let’s get in the back.”
We were sniggering and breathing hard at the same time. By the time we’d climbed into the back seat, she had her blouse open, and I had my knickers off. She shoved a football and some jackets on to the floor and I sat astride her. I don’t know what we said, stupid things like, fucking hell and Christ you’re gorgeous. I’d have stayed there all night with her.
After we’d both come, we took a rest. It was Melanie who started up again. We heard some yobbos coming across the bridge. I turned to look. Maybe six of them, stumbling and mock fighting.
“Shit,” Melanie said. “Get the fuck down, Grace.” She slid lengthways on to the back seat, pulling me after her, yanked a coat from the floor and covered us up. The voices came closer. Louder. One of them called the other a tit-nosed dickhead and I started to laugh, but Melanie put her hand over my mouth, so I shut up and wriggled down under the coat.
When they were right beside us, one guy shouted that the others should fuck right off, and he bashed his hand on to the bonnet. The car rocked and Melanie jumped. Lying across her, I felt her heart racing, though she was hardly breathing. We stayed completely still until their footsteps and voices had drifted off and mingled with the other low sounds floating across the river from the town. We lay there for another while. Melanie’s arm was around me and she was tracing some invisible line on my shoulder with her fingertips. She tilted my face up and kissed me on the nose.
“I’d better phone Richard,” she said. “I’m thinking we’ll get us a taxi home, you think?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Good plan.”
We peeped up and made sure the coast was clear. We pulled our various bits of clothes on, got out and climbed into the front of the car. Melanie rooted for her mobile. I gathered up the chips that had fallen and crunched up the paper bags. Then, I got out. I wanted to give her some privacy while she talked to Richard.
I took the bags and put them in the bin, and walked to the edge of the river. I was sobering up and having a hard job working out how all that had happened. I took a quick look. Melanie was out of the car, her head bent over her phone. Seemed she was just texting Richard instead. I stopped looking. I heard her phone the taxi.
“Taxi here in five,” she called out.
I gave a wave, and for some reason, instead of going back, I kept mooching along by the riverbank. There was a shy thing coming over me, in my face, and up high in my chest. And maybe because I hadn’t gone straight back to her, every minute that went by made it harder to pull myself away from the water and walk across the car park. I was at the bridge, and I watched the river swirl under it. I took a quick look back at the car. Melanie was leaning against the bonnet, smoking and pulling her hair into a ponytail. There was something about that little glimpse that caused a different feeling to creep into me, low down in my belly. I felt sick, and suddenly, I wished I was at home in bed with Nathan.
Melanie called me and I saw the taxi pull into the car park. She climbed into the back and left the door open. I opened the passenger door, and asked the guy if he knew where Drumlennan was, out the Clebb way. He’d started tapping into his GPS, so I sat into the passenger seat.
“It won’t come up on that,” I said. “Take the road towards Carrick and I’ll direct you from there.” We’d pass my gaff first, then he could go on to Melanie’s.
Behind me, I heard Melanie pull the back door shut. We drove through the town, down the one-way system, avoiding Main Street with all the pissheads hogging the middle of the road, then on to the N4. I kept my face turned to the side window so the guy wouldn’t start talking to me. He kept flipping the radio between stations, Lyric, RTÉ2, bits of country songs, until he landed on some old duffer droning on about the importance of the GAA to the national psyche.
Outside Carrick, I started giving directions to Drumlennan. At the turn-off for my place, I asked him to pull in.
“I’ll walk from here,” I said. It was another half kilometre on the back road by the lake.
“You sure?” he said.
“Yeah. I do it all the time.”
I looked at his meter. Ten euro so far. I pulled out a 20.
“Keep the change.”
I got out.
“See you Monday, Mel,” I said without looking around.
“Okay.” Her voice was faint.
I shut the door. I wanted to run, but didn’t want them seeing me slapping along in my sandals and dress, so I walked quick as I could into the side road. I stopped when I heard the cab drive away. Through the trees, I watched the red tail lights disappear. Across the lake the bedroom light in our house came on for a minute, then went off. Nathan always got into bed quickly and zonked out in seconds, as if he was drugged or dead.
I started walking. The air was warm on my face, but I was shivering and kept looking around. The mute silhouettes from the full moon and the terrible flat silence of the lake were everywhere.
From the end of our driveway, I saw the glow of the downstairs lamps Nate had left on for me.
I didn’t go in. I went to the tool shed and typed a message; Can I see you tomorrow? I erased it and wrote; Are you okay? I scrubbed that, turned my mobile off as quick as I could, shoved it behind a tin of paint on the shelf and went into the house.
I made some tea and drank it standing up in the kitchen. I had a hot shower in the downstairs bathroom, then went to bed. Nathan was sleeping face-down as usual, and he didn’t wake when I got in beside him. I lay on my back. The weird animal aliveness of the universe pressed in around me and I was afraid. I lay there all night, hardly moving, listening to Nathan’s solid, steady breathing, watching the pale shadows slide clockwise around the room.
P Kearney Byrne is a writer and psychotherapist living in Co Leitrim. She is the recipient of the Francis McManus, Bryan McMahon and John McGahern awards for fiction, has twice been longlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award and is working on a novel and a collection of short stories assisted by funding from the Irish Arts Council. She has an MA from University College Dublin