Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Truth and Silence by Alison Wells

‘Everyone has the potential to be a murderer’ she said. And I laughed. She was wrapped up in that white fleece with the furry hood and her cheeks were flushed from the walk we’d just had along the coast. Waves were lashing themselves against the gritty shore. It was five months since she’d had the argument with her sister and two months before she disappeared.

There was never any sense of superstition. Just saying something wasn’t going to make anything in particular happen. Not saying was often the best bet. There was a whole lot of stuff that got better all by itself if you just left it and Janey knew that. She wasn’t one of those neurotics that keep poking things with a stick, again and again until the dead animal in the room began to smell. Dead animal. That’s funny. I mean - strange, not funny, I hope you don’t think…well, anyhow. We never fought. Never fell out, not outright, not out in the open. Things just went cool, frosty. Of course now there are times when I wonder whether the way we were together was like a frozen lake, beautiful on the outside - but underneath there’s all this shit, weeds and algae and shopping trolleys and half dead fish with the entrails trailing, murk basically. I didn’t think that then. I didn’t think anything. Inside my brain is like a room in the dark, empty except for a big worn armchair in the middle with no-body in it. I still don’t think really unless someone comes up and says something to me that flicks some kind of switch. But no-one comes up anymore, they just do this backing away thing. If they see me coming along the street they slide themselves up against the wall and focus their eyes on a bright patch of sky or a signpost several metres away or their shoes or their phone cos people always have something incoming that just needs attention. They don’t see me.

Anyway we were cool, she was cool, I was cool. And the flat was freezing. The bed was a small double but when she curled away at the edge with her long toes hanging out the side the cold air slid down the middle. No body heat when she made a space between us. But she used to bite my fingers when I put myself inside her and her sweat smelled of coffee.

Coffee on a Saturday morning when Saturday morning started post midday and the sun was already slanting by the time we’d had a wander down to the deli with the octopus ink spaghetti and the porcini in the long glass jars. When we got back she would put on some garlic bread and I would play the guitar quietly with my back to the wall looking out of the first floor window and the chords were strumming against the long shadows growing on the underneath of trees, and the high notes were picked out of the ochre glow on the leaf tops. Afternoons and sunsets. It was so quiet behind the music, behind the sizzling of onions in the galley kitchen. That wrapped round feeling, sun and sweet melancholy, soul in a bowl and the light fading.

‘Everything is situational’ she said and the wind beat her hair senseless. Would we have ended up together if Mark and Ciaran hadn’t stolen your taxi and it pelted rain and we both ended up staying at Angela’s?’ ‘That’s different, that’s fate.’ I said. Knowing that was wrong as soon as I said it. ‘No, I don’t mean fate, like it’s meant to be, I mean that was just something that happened. No-one made a choice.’

‘You could have got wet.’ She said. ‘You could have sat on the sofa instead of on the floor beside me.’

‘So how does that make me a murderer?’ I asked but then this picture came into my head of us having sex and I’m on top of her and I’m holding the hair at the back of her head and then I’m putting my hands on her face and nothing is enough, the light is dim and I want more, I want to take her apart, I grasp her by the hair and pull and I push myself into her and I want to destroy her, I want to rip apart the silence.

Now she is laughing but it doesn’t seem anything to do with me. It’s not even a nice day weatherwise, there are all these low down grey clouds hanging guiltily around. The sun has slouched off. She picks up a stone, light blue with a line of white through the middle and she makes to lob it into the water but then she turns round and throws it at me. It hits me on the lip and I feel blood. ‘What the..’ She is staring at me with a kind of frown, it looks like she’s squeezed all her mind into the bit between her eyes but her mouth has shimmers of purple and blue and a smile is playing around it like light. ‘I just wanted to get a reaction’ she said. Later we walked past a pub that served hot food and good beer on our way to the bus stop. We didn’t go in. The warmth and the bubble froth of conversations would have interfered with the silence.

Later on the bus home she said. ‘There is nothing you can do to me because I don’t love you.’

She believes in honesty. She uses honesty as a kind of currency. It buys her personal freedom. She can’t help it if it’s the truth. Can she.

That’s what the argument was about with her sister. Truth. She wasn’t going to pussyfoot around with the things she said to Certain Members of her Family.

Because she didn’t get on with her mother and her Dad was long gone.

Her sister, Diane said that their Mum was concerned about Janey and couldn’t Janey make an effort to ring her and patch things up. Janey said that her mother was the chewing gum on the soles of her family’s shoes. Her sister said that Janey was cold hearted and paranoid and needed her head examining. Janey said ‘instead of trying to sort me out, why don’t you concentrate on sorting out your own brats.’

But Janey had moved into Diane’s for two months to help out when Jade was still a baby and Dylan was three and Jade got really sick and had to stay in the hospital for tests. She told me this in between playing pool and the slots at the amusements one Sunday afternoon. The sun was blazing and busloads of people had turned up at the seafront. The Dads were wearing ice-cream and the babies were eating sun lotion and stick handed grannies were eating sticks of candy floss. The sun was too bright so we went inside and she beat me at pool two games to one. After she won the first game she came up to me and pinched me on the cheek and said ‘You know you are kind of cute’ and she laughed so loud and bent over while she was laughing. She was wearing jeans and this skinny red top. She laughed out loud and her mouth was open wide and the same colour as her top. She was leaning on her cue. And the balls made a thundering racket coming out along the chute. She was dying to get started on the second game. I put them in the triangle. But she didn’t win that time, she fouled a yellow and I took it from her and she went quiet. But in the last game she split the balls wide open and pocketed a red automatically. I didn’t stand a chance. She turned my mistakes to her advantage, she found the chinks and stabbed me through them with the point of her cue. When she potted the black, she pursed up her mouth and she looked at me from under her eyelashes, her eyes dark pins, as if she thought I might take something from her.

We did the slots. She won four times on the trot. The pleasure of treasure clanging down the chute.

She never used to ask me questions about myself. I think she wanted to take things at face value. But she didn’t really look me in the face either. In the early days we used to talk at the floor to each other and later she used to direct comments to long strands of her hair. And later again she used to look at the wall when I said something she didn’t agree with and screw her toes into the rug. And at bedtime I got the long cool column of air up my back. I would fall asleep thinking what was her problem, what I’d said to her wasn’t all that bad and anyway she never cried, never made a sound.

Sometimes when I came home from work and she was there before me with the telly on and her feet curled up and her thumb in her mouth and her twisting the guts out of her hair, I used to wonder why we were together. And were we together, or just taking slices out of each other as we slid past.

People say they never saw the end coming. That’s because it’s always there - like mercury in a glass ready to spill its poison. The end is always under the ribs, under the pillow, under the past sell-by-date carrots in the fridge, pulsing under the fingertips when you touch each others skin.

We had a raging argument one day. In fairness it probably wasn’t about onions but I can’t remember the details. She was spitting, sparking, roaring, wailing like a wild animal. God I so missed the cold shoulder, the silence. I thought I could see a glimpse of it like the eye in the centre of a tornado, this hard cold globe in the middle of me or of her. And I stayed still with her fury flailing around me like whips or thrown flame. I watched her crack wide open.

I didn’t do anything. Believe me.

Janey used to say to me ‘Whenever I say something I know the opposite could just as easily be true. When I say nothing it’s because everything in my head cancels each other out. When you say nothing it’s because there is nothing. Is there? Is there?’

Even when she is pleading her eyes are blank, dead.

Is it possible to kill someone just to make yourself feel something?

She just went away.

For ages afterwards I used to find long strands of her hair stretched over the furniture, in the shower, on my jacket, even once in my breakfast cereal, Janey DNA. I had to remove her from between my teeth and that was after she was, well, no longer here. For a while I couldn’t get rid of her, toenail clippings in the bin, armpit shavings on her razor, the smudge of her fingerprints on the mirror. I thought that the police would take more notice, since they were trying to find her, but they couldn’t seem to see what was in front of their face. They questioned me but then seemed to get bored. She had done this kind of thing before. Her mother even told them she had self-harmed at one point, drew parallel lines that oozed blood across her arm. ‘I never knew what was going on in her head’ she said to me when she came to the flat with Janey’s sister, to take some of Janey’s stuff. She hugged me when she came in. She smelled sweet and powdery, her arms were squidgy. She seemed real soft, the kind of sponge like person who soaks up everything. I said that I wished I could say more about what happened. I said that losing Janey left a kind of hole.

Now I remember Janey in her white fleecy hood and then with her little red top, looking at me, laughing. I guess I miss Janey. I should. I don’t really think but sometimes I like to imagine her at the bottom of a frozen lake, making a racket. Kicking, shouting, blowing bubbles up to the underside of the hard ice.

About the Author:

Alison Wells was born in London and now lives in Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland with her husband and four children. Her short fiction has been featured in Crannóg, The Sunday Tribune, the Higgs Boson Anthology and is forthcoming in an anthology by Bridgehouse. She was shortlisted for the Hennessy XO New Irish Writing Awards in 2009 and for the Bridport and Fish Prizes in 2010. She has completed Random Acts of Optimism , a short story collection and is working on a flash fiction collection and a literary novel. She blogs at www.writing.ie and www.alisonwells.wordpress.com

Photograph (c) Nick Veitch