Viscera, a new short story by Dearbhaile Houston
A trip to Athens forces a woman to confront the truth about her relationship
Dearbhaile Houston’s is currently working on a collection of short stories.
Maeve wore five nazar bracelets on her left wrist, the ones they sold strung in bunches outside the shopfronts along the port. A collection of unblinking eyes that left small imprints on her skin. She didn’t need them for their protection, she wore them because they looked nice. If anyone needed protection, it was Dan.
They had come here to make some money, to have some fun before it was too late. They had come here to get away from their lives, which had not yet properly begun. Here, a tiny island with its English tourists crackling in the sun and groups of French pensioners on holiday en masse, their elderly imperialism unlike anything they had ever seen before in their lives. They worked in a bar that had two-and-a-half stars on TripAdvisor and sold very potent cocktails.
Sometimes she felt as though she was living someone else’s lunch-hour daydream: waking up at two in the afternoon on a Monday, having only gone to sleep at six that morning, still smelling of last night’s shift and whatever Dan was cooking in their badly ventilated kitchen. The sun coming in the window so warm and bright that she felt see-through.
Dan, being better looking, made the most tips. He had grown a beard and yes, it did glint red in the sun and yes, his accent was like a dream, lush as a verdant field. Maeve was annoyed about it but could understand it had nothing to do with her. Their clientele were older women on girls’ holidays and perhaps Dan reminded them of their sons, real or wished for, or a daughter’s boyfriend who had flirted with them gently as the dishes piled and the Sunday chicken, pillaged and shredded, made the kitchen bin smell.
Dan found flirting with these women easy and enjoyable. There was no line to cross, no sudden turn in these exchanges. That was the thing that bothered Maeve the most, she thought. Not him or the women, really, but men, in general. She had a cry by the bottle banks out back, the flies landing on her arms, thinking about men: envying their ease, their recourse to violence, their scrappy beards and mediocrity.
It came to her one morning. A feeling – like seasickness or the start of an ulcer – that despite the bracelets, things would not work out in her favour. She and Dan were on a boat to the mainland, taking a few days off to visit a friend of Dan’s who was staying in Athens. Tara had been ‘freelance’ since graduation, whatever that meant (it meant she had money, Maeve knew. That was the thing, money). She dabbled in everything – writing, curating, guest-editing – but at that time Tara was working on an essay collection about female trauma and was learning Greek so she could read Sappho untranslated.
Maeve hadn’t learned these things from Tara directly. These were small nuggets gleaned from what had been posted in various places online: a long expository caption beneath a photograph of a book, Tara’s graceful Barbra Streisand-fingers holding the pages open. Tara was like a scab to her, something she had to prod and pick at until she felt suitably and satisfyingly disgusted with herself. Afterwards she would delete her browsing history, like a pervert.
Dan and Tara had known each other a long time, since secondary school according to the both of them. This was not strictly true. When pushed, Dan admitted – at first shyly and then with a bashful arrogance – that they had gone to the same school but did not run in the same circles. Tara being, well, Tara (at that time dusty blonde hair to the middle of her back, the mad-woman circles of Touche Éclat around her eyes caught in a camera’s flash), and Dan being the sort to eat his lunch in the library, neither smart nor athletic enough to be noticed for the right or wrong reasons.
One Saturday near the end of sixth year, Dan got the train into town. Tara was sitting a few seats ahead of him, listening to her iPod. He could admit this teenage indiscretion to Maeve because he and Tara had become friends. They were good friends now. He followed her out of the station. Expecting her to make a beeline for Penneys, he tracked her all the way up O’Connell Street to Parnell Square, right into the marble entrance hall of the Hugh Lane. It was there he found the courage to say hello to her, beside a pull-up display for the Francis Bacon studio. It was there that his fantasy that she was different from her school-sanctioned persona and that they might somehow be friends came true.
They spent the whole afternoon talking about their love of Bacon and the poetry of Yeats which they had just been introduced to courtesy of the Leaving Cert syllabus; the small-mindedness of their parents and peers; the fact that they were both hoping to get into the same university that year, if they did well in their exams. Some friendships are built on much less, Maeve thought when Dan revealed this to her. It was all so obvious though, more obvious than the way she had caught him looking at Tara from time to time with sad longing. It was more than just attraction or desire. It was beyond sex. It was genuine admiration, that’s what it was.
The ferry over took five hours. They left at six that morning, walking to the port in a silence that might have been hostile had they not been so sleepy. They stood for a long time among the fumes of the car deck waiting to ascend the stairs to the passenger area, the mechanical screech of the cargo ramp rising up to shut them in as they moved off from the moorings. The upper decks were swarming with young families, men and women carrying babies or trailing a child beside them.
One man in particular caught Maeve’s eye as he carried his baby expertly with one hand, the baby’s tummy balanced along her father’s forearm. This confidence: the way everyone’s eyes followed the father, the juxtaposition of the strong arm and the small, soft baby. It struck her that there was something of the event in this, something rare, which was both lovely and dispiriting to her. The world was full of these young fathers and one day, Dan might become one. One that has to deconstruct a complicated pram at the door or have a sweet little package hanging from his chest in a sling. Or he might not be that type at all. Dan had one of those proper families in which nothing was ever said. His mother’s lipstick collected uncertainly around the corners of her mouth. His father Maeve could not really bear to think about that much: long, hinged limbs that Dan had not inherited and his funereal silences. Being left alone with him in the front room was like death – your own death, time spanning out into nothing – until Dan or his mother came back with the plate of biscuits or carton of milk that had been forgotten on the kitchen counter. Dan was always evasive and strange for the duration of these visits. It was up to her to fill in the silences, to talk over the noise of what was left unsaid. Afterwards, in the safety of the car journey home or in their bed, he could not articulate what had happened in that house. A house that was, for all intents and purposes, just a semi-detached at the back of a 1980s estate: everything pebble-dashed and with sliding patio doors but nice cars in each drive.
Maeve knew he would never tell her unless she had something of equal weight to tell him first. But the truth was that she had had a happy childhood. Any damage that had come into her life, or her parents’ lives, had eluded her, was a spill that had diverted around her. She had stayed dry her whole life. Sometimes she thought she was making it up, his damage, the outline of which got sharper when he drank, until he went teetotal and she began to doubt herself again.
Tara said she would meet them at the port.
‘There she is’, Dan said when he saw her sitting, in an airy cotton dress, on a wall near the ticket kiosks. But of course Maeve had seen Tara a mile off. She recognised the cool dignity of Tara’s solitude that slid into warmth as soon as she saw Dan. She had recognised Tara since the first day they’d met, on a cold afternoon on Sandymount Beach. Maeve had complimented her sheepskin coat and Tara told her it was vintage, her dad’s in the seventies, with a happy shrug that told Maeve what she was up against. Maeve’s father wore whatever was bought for him in Dunnes or M&S. He did not save his clothes, not least for his own daughter.
As Dan and Tara hugged, Maeve reminded herself – as she sometimes had to – that it had not been made immediately obvious to her that she was second-best. She wasn’t stupid. It was that it took a while to see what gave Dan away. A look. The way he kept his eyes fiercely shut when they had sex, his attention not on her or her body but on an image in his head. And yet they had said ‘I love you’ and introduced each other to their families and, in recent months, talked vaguely of a future (children, mortgage, the lot). She wasn’t stupid. She felt like saying it out loud, as she hugged Tara herself. I’m not stupid. The heat of the city was getting to her. Sweat dripped from her hairline into her eyes as Dan and Tara started on toward the Metro. Maeve could hear her talking to Dan about how wonderful Athens was, the people so warm and interested compared to people at home. Every so often Tara threw an inclusive smile back at Maeve and Maeve did not like her any the more for it. They got off at Attiki station and walked the tiled streets, made slippery by centuries of feet. Sweat bloomed up Dan’s back. She could not bring herself to look at him.
At the heavy double-doors of her apartment, Tara struggled with the ancient lock.
‘Max?’ she called, when the doors had finally swung open. ‘We’re home!’
Dan’s face fell as Tara said this. The smallest slide of disappointment, imperceptible, but Maeve caught it. Max, abundantly American, came bounding into the hall to greet them. They stood around, Tara leading the introductions, while Maeve’s bag straps dug into her shoulders. She wanted to put the bag down somewhere but could not bring herself to grubby the immaculate space, its stippled walls and marble floors. She wanted to lie down in a cool room on a soft bed and close her eyes, think about Dan’s discomfort, deconstruct it. The big performance of shaking hands with Max, the way he took on Max’s cadences when he asked him how he had met Tara. Instead they were all ushered through the apartment, as Tara talked constantly, going from description to explication. The living room with its original Art Deco glass panes led somehow into a story of Max’s Greek heritage (‘My grandmother was born in Thessaloniki’, he told them, as if they had asked for proof). All the time, Tara had not moved her hand from Dan’s upper arm.
They had come to their final destination – an open plan kitchen and dining room. In the middle of this white expanse stood a large, rectangular table. On its surface was a jumble of mismatched plates and crockery. Red candles down the middle of the table picked up the orange and pink of a serving dish, which clashed pleasurably with the deep blue of the willow pattern plates. This is what Tara thought about, Maeve knew. How to please the eye, if nothing else.
Tara saw her looking. ‘Are you hungry? Don’t worry, we’ll be serving lunch soon. Max is doing lamb – he’s gotten really into butchering lately.’
‘Like, actual butchering? Like dead animals? That’s impressive,’ Dan said, in his good-lad voice that Maeve had not heard since he had stopped drinking.
‘Yeah, I dabble,’ Max said in his easy way.
‘What’s it like?’ Maeve asked, turning to Max.
‘It’s amazing’, Max said with sudden passion. ‘Especially here. You can buy an entire lamb carcass at the markets, head still on. It’s wild.’
At this he shook his own head, disbelievingly. She imagined that he had grown up a child of processed meats: damp, anaemic slices of turkey breast or salami slapped onto bread.
‘Can I watch?’ Maeve asked. ‘I mean, I’ll help you, of course.’
‘For sure. I just started the prep when Tara went out to meet you guys.’
Maeve followed him to the kitchen, not waiting to see if Dan would join or notice. He didn’t. He was already on the balcony with Tara, his hand on the middle of her back now, as they took in the view of the city. On the kitchen counter, knife, saw, hook, and cleaver were all laid out beside the carcass, headless and skinless now but its body caught in a final frolic. As the butcher began, his back turned to protect his guest from the sight, Maeve thought of someone, her grandmother maybe, mid-prayer, tapping her tough chest with her knuckles, her hand in a tight fist. There was a little pile on the worktop beside the sink: kidneys, heart, liver, lungs. All the things no one wanted anymore.
The feeling Maeve had earlier came back to her. The problem was that Dan thought Maeve was naïve because nothing terrible had befallen her yet and she had accepted that as her due. She touched the white and blue beads around her wrist. She did not understand how bad the world was and part of him wanted life to trip her up. They might stay together and have their hypothetical children, the ones they could have in a few years’ time, if they wanted to. But they both knew that once they got home, Maeve would take the first flight to London and sort something out and Dan would stay, get one of those tidy little policy jobs where you just sit around in a suit and speculate. She imagined him in a suit. He would look good. And the secretaries would all adore him and he would be kind to them and she would think of him sometimes, from wherever she was, and feel a bit of desire for him, but pity too. Pity for the next girl he would bring home and say that he loved.
‘You want to try?’ Max asked, holding the knife out to her.
She took it from him, placed it between rib and spine, and cut.
Dearbhaile Houston’s fiction has been published in Banshee and The Dublin Review. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.