All you want to do is be the fire part of fire
Maureen knocks on her husband's door. She absorbs the fact that he is avoiding her. She knows she must do something today. She thinks about going into the village for breakfast, but she doesn't like people to see her eat. She imagines she hears children downstairs, but knows the kitchen is empty. She remembers when Valerie had the run of the place, trailed duvets from room to room, stored stolen sweets under the stairs. She must prepare Valerie's room.
She returns to the kitchen and bites into a cream-cracker but keeps the pieces in her mouth. She feels the crumbs on her lips and tries to think of something to cook for Valerie. When Valerie was a child she made soup and pies and the family ate most meals together, and afterwards her husband arranged the soup-bowls by the sink the way a grocer organises a window-display. It was understood Valerie didn't help.
She goes to the door of her husband's workshop, which more than anything reminds her of when the house was busier. She looks at the letters and patent applications on the desk, thinking about all the places she could be. Her husband strains to remain interested in his immediate surroundings. She once looked in his notebook but couldn't recognise anything; the words felt like old clothes thrown in a bin.
Peter appears solemnly, carrying a broken sprit-level and goes straight into his workshop. She can hear him humming. Her husband is a very careful man and usually finds something to pass a comment on. Usually, she pretends not to hear him, and she never really gets annoyed back. They have shared so many things. He is like another skin to her, good with money, incapable of seeing the worst in people. He can tell if an animal is sick or sad, sees things others don't. She is able to interpret his mood from the position of his wig on the hook behind the bathroom door, from the folds of his greying bath-towel.
He has been known to empty the room at parties by singing Paul Robeson. It seldom occurs to her anymore that she is a married woman, that a marriage is something she has acquired, so long ago, which sits there in the corner of the room like an upright dining-chair, where you sit amongst all the people you have ever known. She is fine with the idea that she and her husband have taken off from each other, without ever saying so, but she desperately wants to be kinder.
She does not always behave well, and the sad thing for her is that he feels happy to accept it. They make no attempt, not any more, to discuss Valerie.
She can hear him searching around in there. He comes out and asks if she has seen his binoculars. His lips are quivering again, his hair is woolly and wild, his skin is very, very dry. He doesn't look himself. She wants to ask him what's wrong, but doesn't. His gaze moves from the clothes on the radiator to the back door, and back again. She ignores this. He has a nerve!
“There's no coal,” she says.
“But there's wood,” he says.
“I'm going in to meet Valerie. I'm getting the lunchtime boat. Do you want any of that stuff for your face?”
“Why don't you surprise me?” she says.
There is a very long pause and the clothes on the radiators become dark clouds. He is throwing them up in the air as if he is conducting an out-of-control orchestra, even stopping to look her in the eyes. But it is easy to detach herself from this. The clothes are nearly dry anyway and she folds them and piles them on the stairs.
She waits for him to ask her to go with him on the boat to meet Valerie, but he doesn't. She watches him walk through the tunnel of trees that lead to the village, and at the point where he is about to disappear she decides to follow him. She doesn't wonder if he can see her, and doesn't consider getting on the boat, and it seems to her that they could, at that moment, be perceived as strangers.
She thinks she is falling in love with her husband.
She walks fast, faster and faster, keeping her eyes on him, escaping a feeling that has been following her, and following them, since the beginning.
She stands on the hill overlooking the harbour. She feels like she has successfully herded a motorway full of speeding traffic. She watches the boat leave. It is perfect. It is important to her to watch it leave. She can't understand it, but it is absolutely perfect. She is falling in love with her husband for the first time.
She allows herself an uncomplicated thought. She imagines a different house, where she could dedicate herself to painting perhaps. She could take her breakfast outside before painting in her room. Something awakens in her, a lovely feeling of freedom, but it is cast out not only by duty but by her lack of imagination. Though she rather likes the image of having breakfast before going into her room to paint.
A silver van pulls up and her cousin Bartley steps out, wearing his black silk shirt and zip-up boots. The boots have a Cuban heel. Bartley always dresses as if he's going out dancing. He regards her and is about to speak, about going dancing probably, when she opens the passenger door and gets in. This is a surprise to them both.
Bartley fills her in on his latest financial triumph and his latest run-in with authority. She is relieved to hear that this time it is a run-in with authority followed by something of a financial triumph. Bartley smiles like he is entitled to a prize and starts to sing. She sits quietly, smiling, staring ahead. She doesn't speak at all but assumes she is communicating her foolishness and her excitement wordlessly.
The song peaks and Bartley starts the engine. “Shall we have a tour of the island?” he says.
“People don't know that we're only second cousins. I'd like them to know that.”
She expects to feel distressed, but as the van winds through the village she feels only the foolishness and excitement. She and Bartley are only second cousins and not close, will never be close, she doesn't have to concern herself with him. She is alert yet motionless, quite surprised, or amused, and, she knows, curious and light-hearted about this tour, which will take them to his house, where they will heartily kiss and grab and bite each other while the husband she has fallen in love with is on the way to meet their daughter.
A funny thought occurs to her in Bartley's bedroom. Outside, his dog barks so forlornly that all her other anxieties are driven off and away; the shouting, silences, calling and crying that will never end. She imagines her husband looking in at them before ducking below the window, and she even imagines his long form at the end of the bed. She imagines his statesman's voice and his gracious and reliable words, his wild, woolly hair, his eyes squeezed shut in sympathy, and far away, she is sure that she can see their daughter stepping out from her little orange paddling pool, happy by the looks of it, to be wrapped up in a towel like a perfect little sausage-roll. Ω
“And you can fuck off,” I said.
Only once, twice, maybe three times a year did I watch television. I would grow quietly keen on some kind of miraculous event like the Olympics. I had my dinner on my lap & because I'm deaf I would read the subtitles.
It's not like I didn't like talking to my family; I'd never met & didn't want to meet the girl who didn't want to avoid her family from time to time.
“I'd appreciate it if you'd let me finish this,” I said. “Muchas Gracias.”
“You're little face,” he said, & folded his arms & sighed like he did when he bluffed at cards. It was a familiar scene, except his eyes were twitching, & he was scratching at his arm like a recent amputee.
“Why?” I shouted. “Why?!”
I was deaf but I could still shout.
“Your mother died this afternoon,” he said.
I put my hands over my ears. My chair was grimy. I tried to crawl under it. Ω
I'd been around, I was nobody's fool. I gutted fish when I left school. I tore tickets at the museum, demonstrated vacuum cleaners, delivered meals to the housebound, & for one week, one summer, until I came across my father passing through it the wrong way, I sat in the reception of a Galway massage-parlour.
I've given it up now, but I used to import hot-tubs too. I made so much money that I took no notice of it. I knew a thing or two about hotel bathrooms & lived a life of makeshift luxury. I didn't mark time & didn't expect others to. You'll pore over my record & find nothing but high-grade activity ; though I did enjoy a little hanky-panky from time to time. I'll come clean straightaway; with my good looks I was fair game.
I also spoke my mind & because of my peculiar voice I made an impression on people. I resembled ‘a certain celebrity', which is also important though misleading. I was successful & wealthy, so the bills got paid, but it was my face that mattered: prowling blue eyes, luscious mouth, tawny skin with very few wrinkles. You could have stuck an EU blue flag on me. Ω
Candlelight was all I could bear. Ω
I pushed my bags along the quayside in Rossaveel, meeting the gaze of everyone I saw. Of course you packed your new Diesel jeans to your mother's funeral. Of course you sang her favourite songs - Roy Orbison! - to yourself, as you waited for the boat to pull away. Of course you wondered if Ray, of all people, would be there on the pier to meet you.
I needed my mother's funeral in my life like a hole in the head: no, I was getting confused, that was what she had died of. But, so far, the experience was speaking very little to me. Plus, there was war on the TV.
The boat's throbbing turned it to static, so my pain dwarfed all wars the world over.
I contemplated what I could; gulls rocketing alongside. My memory being miserly, it took me a little while to get to my mother: to the rosary-ing, the salopettes she wore to do the garden, how she would dart nimbly to get the washing if it so much as spat rain, Dad buttering her bread whenever we went out to dinner, the sweet, yeasty smell of her breath as she read us stories.
The Big Island shone quietly. I cursed the place & changed into my new jeans in the bathroom.
There were all sorts of secret exchanges on the pier & without knowing it I twirled about looking for Ray. All else fell away. The tour-buses dispersed, cars swept in & were gone, &, peering down from his van, our cousin B_ announced he was there to pick me up. He staggered under the weight of my brand-name luggage & manhandled me into the van beside him.
“Why?!” I said.
Agog, it occurred to me that he had been in love with Mum. But love was love. He almost exhausted himself reminding me of her beauty; beautiful because beauty seemed to him to speak of the perfection of machinery; smooth, admirable, hard-wearing, but he ignored Mum's true outlook, her clipped, quarrelsome tone & temperament, & was unaware, still, that she had always regarded him as a germ, to be isolated, dealt with & eliminated.
B_ also wanted to listen to Pretty Woman.
We tapped the dashboard & nodded. I couldn't hear it but I kind of could. He started to cry. Ω
I was deaf but I could still fucking shout. Ω
I wore a blue pinafore to the wake & ate sandwiches by myself on the stairs. This was my wake. Mine, not theirs, not theirs, not theirs. Theirs but not theirs.
“Please, Valerie!” said Dad. “Look at the mess you're making.”
“I can't,” I said. “Assassins are after me.”
“Just get a plate.”
“I can't. Using a plate gives me cancer.”
“Everyone's downstairs and you're up here playing your music full volume?”
“I'm going to Italy,” I said. “I'm going to Italy and I am not going to use a plate and I am going to have a nice time. I'm going to do what I want and drink as soon as I get up and behave like a prostitute.”
“I can't talk to you when you're like this. I'm going downstairs.”
“You go downstairs. I'm going to Italy.”
“Can we not just talk normally?”
“I can't talk normally, you know that!”
“Let's just talk.”
“I don't want to talk. I don't want to talk.”
“I'm sorry, okay Valerie?”
“Forever? And it'll never happen again?” Ω
Dad ran out of shaving-foam on the morning of the burial. I went out to get some & handed it to him in the bath.
The room itself was so bare & dismal; & Dad's petrified hairless thighs, his old-man's balls covered in a face-cloth, his hands. I thought of the frozen ground. I was already thinking of Mum as helpless & cold there. I thought of my parents waiting for me at the bus station in Galway when I was thirteen, bathed in July light, untroubled by anything so telepathic as the thought of her death.
My father was a teacher of technical drawing, so he was a specialist. His workshop was a space behind a curtain off the back kitchen, so he was a discreet specialist also. It wasn't that he ever did anything in there, or said much when he came out. He was a functionary in my life. He was a socket. & sockets allowed other things to work: pots boiled that way. But you don't think about sockets if you don't need to use one.
He seemed to be interested in: almanacs, oars, interesting storms, shipping disasters & anything at all to do with patents; though he wasn't much of an inventor.
We would sometimes row out for mackerel. Dad liked to sit in the boat & eat Babybel cheese. He started by licking the inside of the red wax packaging, &, bit by bit, would mash the stuff off the roof his mouth like it was some wallpaper paste stuck to his tongue. His lips quivered like ribbon when he ate.
In any case, the fun part was not being at home & not knowing what time we'd get home. Ω
I discovered half the population of the island standing in the garden. The whole scene seemed garish, a joke: you can do without me, I thought. I smoothed my dress & walked alone to the harbour. It was high season, but the pier was free of leafleters & buses: there was, after all, a funeral on the go, & an island funeral was not to be missed if you ever got the opportunity. Though I could have done with a good party, I sat on the wall & waited for the noon boat.
It was a bit late to think things through, & the frustration I felt came from the realisation that I hadn't thought things through. I felt like a water-skier who had done a magnificent loop-de-loop just as everyone had gone inside to see what was happening with the All-Ireland final. It was dreary on the pier, & the other passengers were overwhelmed by texts & facts, but so what? Ω
I was no quitter. I know why I left. There had been nights in far-off Januarys, cold as coal & dark by five, but nothing out of the ordinary about that; running myself into the filth, incommunicado with tiredness, fucking heroic, miles from home. Running was mechanical, bone-throbbingly fulfilling & I could have run for days sometimes. Nothing would get in the way.
I wasn't straining for recognition, or training for a race. I had no desire to compete at all. I wasn't even concerned about fitness. One day, without seeing it coming, I stopped. The best thing about pushing yourself so far, about not being a quitter, something that I wouldn't have known if I had been a quitter, was that the uprightness of sticking-with-it, & knowing what it meant to burn out, allowed you, once in a while, to quit. Ω
Ray's mother smiled dully when I arrived at her door. She was at pains to explain that she didn't know about my mother, & as we had only met once before, & this had been six years previously, I had to acknowledge this was awkward for her.
“So, it's your mother's funeral?”
“At least it's not my father's.”
“How is he coping?”
“So far so good. I'm cool with the situation too.”
“But your father's fine?”
“My son is doing better these days. He tries, that's all I ask. But it strikes me that you're not happy, Valerie,” she said.
“Have you thought about why?”
“I don't think about things. It's one of my rules.”
“When you were you last happy?”
“Venice,” I said. “I think.” It was inevitable. I only doubted it because I was a little upset. Ω
There was an incident. I wouldn't leave. Ω
I couldn't get her to tell me where Ray was. I tried every trick in the book, couldn't have tried harder. I even wrote down some of the hard-to-explain stuff.
I also tried hard to make her understand that I had experienced remarkable pleasures with her son; that I was, in fact, a passionate lover. I'll say this much for her, she didn't try & disagree.
I shouldn't have done it, but I said I needed to use the bathroom & went into Ray's bedroom & got into his old bed. I felt very calm. I was careful to dangle my feet off the sides of the bed. I have never experienced such vicious pain &, for just a moment, I felt his bloodflow & his breath.
I couldn't explain it, I was supposed to be grieving after all. I felt what was a kind of greed, a miraculous presence. I tried to think of other things. I made quite an elaborate fantasy of making love with Ray, who would make sporadic appearances; bearing the whiff of the saloon & throw me all the careful, fake shapes of intimacy. Which isn't to say I wasn't turned on. I preferred sex when I was in a bad mood anyway. It was like two angry people licking the same ice-cream. It was like you weren't alive at all.
I can't remember what Ray's mother said or did not say when she came in, or what I said or failed to understand. If anything she seemed quite concerned that I didn't get any more upset than I already was, that I didn't ‘disgrace myself' were the words she used. I didn't care about that. I remember that she seemed terrified & that I was an animal & animals can't be disgraced. Ω
Venice, then. Ω
Bartley's house is prosperous but furnished unimaginatively, as modestly luxurious as a Marriot hotel, except for the off-white formica kitchen, as cracked and brittle as a fingernail. His bedroom is distinctly anonymous. Making love in the cream sheets and sleeping in them afterwards become the same feeling, she cannot make out when they pass from one to the other. Bartley offers Maureen a lift home, or to the village.
She knows she is delaying him but she turns her back without a word. He flips through the paper and waits. She doesn't want to go yet. She wants to be left there, in another bed, not even in her imagined other life, not knowing what she has done, without the prospect of remembering.
“We'll have some lunch,” says Bartley.
“I'm not hungry,” she says.
“But you'll eat. What boat are they on?”
“Later,” she says.
Valerie lives in a caravan in Connemara, which is full of expensive bags and odd shoes and make-up, and the smell of human waste. Sometimes Maureen offers to help her clear it out but thinks better of it. Valerie reminds her that she does not ask for help. She spends her money on slick, pointless magazines and random, unwearable clothes, and frames ‘photographs' that have been torn from those magazines. The photographs mean that Valerie is terribly lonely, or that she is not terribly lonely, and Maureen knows that things haven't been right for a long time. Add to that the abortions.
Maureen sleeps and dreams and when she awakes she thinks of the tunnel of trees and the image of her husband accelerating away from her, thwacking at branches. She stretches her neck out. She stretches her whole body and trudges into the kitchen. Bartley switches on the radio and fiddles with it. Her eyes start to stream with tears and an aggressive pain, like a balloon being inflated inside her skull, takes over.
Bartley has family photographs in the kitchen; Maureen, her husband. There is a photograph of Valerie from school, her soft face beaming. Valerie was insecure and unhappy from the beginning. She is her mother's biggest worry, and, she thinks, her only failure.
She wonders if it would be a good idea to give up on Valerie altogether; because it is clear now, in the midst of this intense headache, that Maureen is indifferent to certain people, indifferent to their sadness, indifferent to anything that might ease their pain.
Bartley is making sandwiches from a cooked ham. She watches and sees that he makes their sandwiches differently. She hears him breathe through his nose. He trims the fat from her meat and slices the bread uniformly. He lifts the sandwich onto the plate slowly. It doesn't seem to matter to him how he cuts the meat for his own sandwich.
The noon boat has returned and is turning in the bay. Soon the pier will be full of people and later Valerie will be there with her deluxe luggage. She will spend the weekend combing her hair. She will disappear for long stretches of time and her father will trail after her. It still surprises her that Valerie is deaf. No one was more upset than her when they heard the news, of course, but it was as if it was something that had to happen. She doesn't like to admit it to herself but it soothed her to see Valerie overcome the experience. It was cold, painful news, but though it surprises her now, it didn't surprise her that Valerie became deaf the way she did, when she did. Not that she would ever urge such misfortune on her daughter; she merely understands its value.
Maureen walks to the window to look at the boat. She puts down the sandwich and watches the boat and listens to the radio. The pain is draining the energy out of her. Bartley comes to the window beside her. On the radio an Englishwoman is trying to describe her adopted home in Western Australia. She can't describe why she chose to make it her home: and there is something that is not quite right. She and her husband travel all over Australia in case there is somewhere else they might think of as home, but they always come home to their ranch; a wild, bare farm with a red tin barn and a blue wooden house. There was one perfect place they would have considered, on a hill by the sea, also with a tin barn and a wooden house, but derelict. The interviewer asks her: why don't you give it a go? The Englishwoman thinks she is fine where she is.
Maureen is lying on the floor.
She is smiling, and for no good reason is thinking of the weather in that part of Australia. It must be too much: the heat, trying to work in it, it must be unbearable, what it does to your skin. She can't remember the last time she wore a bikini, and it is unlikely she'll ever make it to Australia at this age! She can't think of that now because she is lying on the wrong floor. Her eyes are shut tight with the pain, and the last thing she sees, before her head breaks apart, is the ham on the floor. Bartley says something softly to her. He's saying that he should try to get her home and she's lying on her back, trying to close her eyes tighter. It's as if she is part of the boat's engine, throbbing in the bay. It's as if her dreams have become lighter than her fears, and she's thinking of those two farms in Australia. She would really have to see them for herself but by the sound of it the other place would need too much work. Ω
“You I don't remember. Your ex-boyfriend maybe. But you no. Though you are deaf, which is a novelty.”
I was hot & bothered. No, I was seduced by the place once more. & hot & bothered. So, I was hot & bothered & seduced by the place once more. I might have been more decisive about it, if the owner of Hotel R_ hadn't added to the weathered scene; & nimble & so upright with strange, firefly eyes, he looked at me like he knew what I was thinking.
I was already warm with him. Ω
Venice seemed diminished; a sullen swamp. Even if the gondoliers came across like camp hoodlums, something that appealed to me very much. I wasn't on honeymoon, I wasn't celebrating an anniversary, I wasn't even having an affair, & only now, having asked myself why I was there, like I'd mis-stepped & had meant to find myself in Wexford, did I come to the conclusion that I'd come to Venice because I wanted to get lost. A place where you have to walk sideways to buy an apple or a newspaper is a good place to get lost. At least signing the register was proof I was there.
I bought some Slovenian wine & some pastries for a picnic. My room - room 1! Our old room! - smelled of bridles & turpentine, & I knew, without having to check, that the antiques would be fake, the lamplight too dim, not to mention the mildew. I lay back & pictured the old time squalor, the Corto Maltese prints hung on antler hooks, the plastic blossoms on the window-sill & decided that rooms were rooms, & Venice was Venice was Venice. Ω
All rights reserved.
Young Skin is a long story. 17,000 words long:
Valerie Ffrench pops out on an errand on the morning of her mother’s funeral, and doesn’t come back.
Leaving the island where she was born, she travels to Venice, recalling a holiday she spent there with a former lover. Gradually, Valerie comes to feel at home in this peculiar yet welcoming community, but just as she has created a new identity for herself her other life comes calling in a very surprising and upsetting way.