Paper Coffee Cup
By Caoimhe Massey (17), Our Lady’s School, Terenure, Dublin
She taps her long nails on her knee, 1, 2, 3, imagining the sound they make on a harder surface. She glances at the clock. 9:05am. He takes a sip of his takeaway coffee and when he puts it down, foam spurts out of the hole in the plastic lid. She pinches her tights, picks up the fabric and lets it snap back against her thigh. He writes something on a sheet of paper, the scratching of the pen deafening in the silent room. She coughs. Then she wishes she hadn’t, because now he knows she’s capable of making noise.
“Do you smoke?” he asks. She contemplates not answering.
“No,” she says. It’s the first truth she’s told since she arrived. He raises his eyebrows but says nothing, takes another sip of his coffee and writes something else on the paper. Beige stains the white lid of the coffee cup and she itches to wipe it away. She doesn’t move. He puts the pen and paper beside the coffee on the table.
“You know why you’re here,” he says. He says it in that false-chatty tone people use to make you agree with them. It’s not a question.
“Yes,” she says. It’s not really an answer, either. One of the paintings on the wall behind his head is out of line with the others and she can’t not look at it.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asks. She almost laughs. She obviously doesn’t. She’s only here because Mr M made her come. There’s nothing wrong with her.
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” she says. She has made a mistake or two. Has bad coping mechanisms. So what? He looks pensive. She likes that word. Pen-sive. It sounds soothing, as if there were no bad things to be pensive about. She pinches her tights again, and this time her nail goes right through the nylon.
“Fuck,” she mutters. He doesn’t hear her.
“I’m not saying there is,” he says, in a voice that tells her yes, that’s definitely what he’s saying.
She looks at the stained coffee cup, then to the crooked painting, then to the fake plants on the windowsill. The blinds are open and she can see the green fence surrounding the primary school next door. She’s supposed to be at school right now. Or, not supposed to be, but she wishes she was. She has science first thing on a Wednesday.
“ . . . are you listening to me?” She looks back at him. His lips are pursed, hiding his mouth between his moustache and his beard. The bottom half of his face is just dark grey hair, no skin visible between his nose and neck.
“No,” she says. She wonders what he’d been saying, briefly. Then she remembers she doesn’t care. She pushes at the hole in her tights. It gets bigger. “I’d rather be at school,” He leans forward as if he’s watching some exciting action movie, Mission Impossible maybe.
“Do you like school?” he asks.
“I hate school,” she says, “It makes me want to . . .” she stops herself, remembers what happened last time she’d said that, Cian’s shocked expression and getting called to Mr M’s office later. It wasn’t even true, not really.
“Want to what?” he asks, because of course he can’t just leave it alone. That’s his job.
“Cry,” she says, then, under her breath, “or something.” He doesn’t hear that part. She focuses on the grey mark beside the door where it hits the wall every time it opens. Then she glances at the clock again. 9.25 am. Still 35 minutes to go. He sips his coffee again, the slurping almost in time with the quietly ticking clock. It’s quiet for a while, and when she concentrates she can hear the sounds of cars on the main road, and, distantly, a window smashing.
“Are you religious?” he asks.
“No,” She says. It’s a half-truth. She’s never been a devout Catholic, but she used to attend mass every Friday and even when she doubted her beliefs (often) the rote liturgies and prayers were soothing. “Not really,” she amends.
He doesn’t say anything after that, and she wonders why he even asked the question. The clock on the wall reads 9.45, the hole in her tights is now the size of a bottle cap, and the middle painting is still crooked. It mustn’t have always been crooked, because she can see a tiny sliver of wall where the cream paint is brighter than the rest.
“I like poetry,” she says. She doesn’t really know why she says it. “I can’t explain why. It just makes me feel.”
“And you don’t, usually?” She doesn’t answer that. It’s too close to and too far from the right question and she feels like she might cry.
“What about your parents?” he asks. She pulls a strip of skin from her lip with her teeth. The taste of blood is metallic.
“They’re okay,” she says, “It’s not because of them,”
“What’s not because of them?” She doesn’t answer, doesn’t feel like she has to. She bites her lip harder and a drop of blood falls onto her hand. She wipes it off on her tights. 9:50am. She hears the kettle boil in reception. He drains his coffee cup, the cardboard popping inwards. It’s tossed into the bin behind his armchair and it’s the only thing there.
She says, “Please fix that painting for next time,” her eyes on the centre canvas. He smiles like he has just won the lottery. She hears voices from reception, glances at the clock. 9.55am. There’s a grey arc on the floor by the door to match the mark on the wall.
“Do you want your mother to come in?” he asks.
“No,” she says, quicker than necessary. “That’s fine.” He picks up the pen and paper and starts to write something new.
“I think it would be beneficial,” he says, and she knows he’s right, but . . . it’s hard.
She says, “Maybe next week,” and he grins widely again. She scratches her nails on her circle of bare thigh, “I’m missing science.”
“And is class more important to you than getting better?” She considers her answer carefully, then, just as she’s about to reply, he says, “Time’s up,” and that’s that. Put all your feelings back in their boxes until next week. Time’s up, but neither of them move until they hear the kettle in reception boil, “See you next week.”
“Thank you,” she says, even though she doesn’t feel very thankful. She doesn’t really feel any different from when she walked in. Maybe she’s a little upset about ripping her tights. She stands up, slowly, stiffly, and he opens the door to let her out. Time to go back to the real world.