Under My Skin, page 1
Under My Skin
Alison Jameson lives in Dublin. Her first novel, This Man and Me, was published in 2006.
Under My Skin
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
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Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published 2007
Copyright © Alison Jameson, 2007
The moral right of the author has been asserted
All rights reserved Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
For Kathy and Rachel
1 The Yum-Yum Girl (January 2001)
Sweetheart n. Something or someone who is cherished and often considered one of a kind.
Whenever Larry is late I make spaghetti. He says he’ll be here at three now, and instead of answering I catch the sun with my watch and make a bright dancing spot on the sitting-room wall. The flat is old and dark. It has dark green walls and the furniture is oak. The fabrics are corduroy and velvet, dark green again and stained yellow and brown. It’s like living in a forest, a strange underworld on the second floor. People died here. They must have. Old people or maybe even youngish people like me and my flatmate Doreen. The poster of Les Misérables belongs to her. So does ‘Famous Pubs of Ireland’. So does all the cutlery and the giant steel saucepan. The half-dead cheese plant and the boyfriend who is late belong to me.
‘OK?’ he says and then ‘OK?’ again. The first time he says it he sounds impatient. The second time he is smiling into the phone. In the flat downstairs, Mr and Mrs Costello are moving around. Larry owns the diner on the corner. There are red leatherette seats and rows of white tables and all the walls are painted turquoise-blue. He wanted it to look like a 1950s cinema and so the name ‘Vertigo’ hangs in small dizzy letters over the door.
In my head I am starting to make Pasta Putana. Boiling the water, adding the pasta, opening the fridge, and asking the anchovies to step out.
Last night Doreen came home drunk and put our coat-stand into the neighbour’s skip. I met our neighbour once, a nice man in a Foxford dressing gown and slippers, pleading with us to turn the music down. This morning Doreen went out in her pyjamas and brought the coats back in. As I watch from the kitchen window now a young man in a white raincoat comes and lifts the coat-stand out. He walks down the promenade with it resting on one shoulder and then the sun blinks out and it picks out some fresh glistening spray. There is something about this and the idea of warm Mediterranean tomatoes that make my Saturday feel more complete.
We took the flat in Bray because of the location and because we are all officially poor. All around us, there are people getting rich in this city – the ‘Boom’ is everywhere – except here. Doreen moved in two months ago. She’s my best friend and she can also pay one third of the rent. No one seemed to notice the smell in the downstairs hallway or the green fur on the wallpaper or the hole under the lino in the kitchen floor.
‘What’s that smell?’ I asked the landlord and we stood and looked at each other in the tiny kitchen at the top of the stairs.
‘Rising damp,’ he said calmly in a voice that told me he had met a hundred girls like me before.
So the giant saucepan gets lifted up from under the kitchen sink and the pasta gets bunched together and then I light the gas heater and lie out on the sitting-room floor. The water needs to bubble up before I can put the pasta in. I am still thinking about the question they asked me yesterday.
‘If you were having a dinner party, what four people would you invite?’
I wanted to ask them what that had to do with working in advertising. I had already made up a good story about ‘previous experience’ and the truth is I have never worked in an advertising agency before. On Wednesdays I visit my grandmother and I spend the rest of the week managing the vintage record shop – they didn’t need to know that we live like three church mice in a damp green and brown flat. I had answered all the questions about brands and my favourite TV ads and now I just wanted to say, ‘Please. Just please. Give me the job and get me out of that dump.’ They were all wearing aftershave and black suits and one of them had a pair of Bart Simpson socks. But I got stuck on that last question. Now of course I can think of all the great people to ask. Martin Luther King. John F. Kennedy. Even Queen Elizabeth. I mean people you think of just to show you have a brain and have read some books. Instead I jammed and said – wait for it – ‘Gay Byrne.’ I mean to say, who in their right mind would have him over for dinner? Maybe if I was in my sixties. Sometimes I think I am and actually I am just twenty-two. If I was being truthful the only people I would want are Larry and Doreen – and Jack, if he was home from New York. And my grandmother – on a good day – and even Matilda – or the guy who took the coat-stand out of the skip – but that’s not the kind of answer that gets a person a job and a better kind of home.
Then they asked me if I was mobile but I was still thinking about Gay Byrne.
‘We need someone who can get out and meet the clients,’ the Managing Director said. And here’s the worst part. I actually jumped up and went to the window of their boardroom and pointed out my car. It’s an original Messerschmitt. A bubble car in red – and it was still shaking a little after the drive in from Bray.
‘It’s a TG 500 Tiger,’ I told them. Actually when I see it now it reminds me of jelly and cream. Larry refuses to go anywhere in it. He says he has never seen a ladybird so big. Anyway, the boys at the ad agency seemed to find all that rather amusing.
I know I’ll be lucky to get this job. I think everyone in the room realized that. I had to ask Larry to check my CV. I have a problem with spelling and the meaning of words. When I hear a word I like I have to write it down. Otherwise they just seem to fall out of my head and sometimes I use them in the wrong places which can be embarrassing. For example, when they asked me how I got to the agency yesterday I wanted to say, I descended by car.
The bathroom door slides open. Doreen walks down the three steps from the hall to the kitchen. She’s wearing a white towelling robe with white tennis socks and her black suede high-heel pumps. Sometimes she wears a swimming cap in the shower. Sometimes she sleeps in those shoes.
‘Nice look,’ I tell her, and she says nothing and just starts to make tea. I like Doreen a lot, especially like this, when she is smiling and silenced by her hangover
She looks at the saucepan on the stove and then picks up her cup and holds it in both hands.
‘I’m asleep,’ she says eventually. ‘Standing up, like a horse.’
Yesterday we wrote the landlord a long letter and we complained about all sorts of things. Once we got started neither one of us knew how to stop. And the truth is I was just nervous about the job interview and Doreen’s allergy had flared up. But we covered everything – starting with the gas and ending with the smell of our neighbours downstairs. We even told him that there was a giant spider living in the bathroom – the bathroom with the weird sliding door and the tiny teaspoon sink.
The pasta is making the windows steam up. When Doreen speaks her voice is three octaves lower than it should be. I try to talk to her about the interview question.
‘Who would you ask if you were having a dinner party?’
‘Are you still going on about that?’
‘Who would you ask?’
‘What are you having? Pasta Putana?’
‘What’s the difference? – who would you invite?’
‘If we were having spaghetti I’d ask Robert de Niro.’
I can kind of see her point.
‘And if we’re having Indian…’ and she pours more tea and starts to laugh.
Doreen works at the Indian restaurant on the corner. Last night when we came in she had them all sleeping on our sitting-room floor.
‘It’s the Indians,’ I said to Larry, and he just looked up at the ceiling and went straight down to our room. One of them was sleeping under a duvet that looked a lot like ours. I’m getting used to seeing them pull up in the beige Ford Fiesta and shout out her name in the street.
Larry says, ‘You need to build a wall, Doreen,’ but I know she has no clue what that means.
Sometimes it looks as if there are more than ten of them packed into that little car. She takes them to the islands and the lakes and once she even drove to Wexford with them for a whole weekend.
When Doreen comes in again she is dressed and her cheeks are rosy and she tells me she’s going to the flicks for the afternoon.
‘Are you meeting the Indians?’ I ask her.
‘No,’ she says. ‘I’ve had enough for one weekend.’
My least favourite word in the world is croquet. Because of croquet I was kept back in second year at school. Because of ‘a game involving wooden mallets and hoops’ I was told I had a reading age of a ten-year-old, and I was fourteen then – and I have never needed to say croquet again. Not even once.
On the other hand, some of my favourite words are soufflé, lackadaisical and afternoon.
Doreen has only been gone ten minutes when the phone rings. I am lifting the spaghetti with a fork and checking that it’s not going to stick – and the black olives and anchovies are mixed and waiting together in a bowl.
‘Hello,’ I say, and I’m using a distracted voice like someone who is slightly bored.
‘Hello,’ the voice says, ‘this is Bandhu.’
I sigh when I hear this because it means one of the Indians is on the phone.
‘Doreen’s just gone out,’ I tell him.
‘OK,’ he says. ‘But actually… it was you that I wanted to speak to.’
‘Me?’ and really what I’m saying is, ‘Oh’ and ‘God.’
‘Could I come round?’ he asks. ‘I need to talk to someone. I’m in trouble. I need to talk to someone about Doreen.’
‘Well, this isn’t a good time,’ I answer. And I’m surprised at how firm I can be.
‘Are you busy?’ he asks. ‘It won’t take long. Please, I really need to talk to you about Doreen.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I tell him, ‘but I’m cooking spaghetti this afternoon.’
‘It won’t take long,’ he says again and then he puts down the phone. In five minutes the doorbell rings. He must have been parked nearby. He must have sat in the driver’s seat and called me on his mobile phone. He must have seen the man lift the coat-stand and he must have watched Doreen leave. He is small and his hair is parted too low down on one side. He reminds me of a tax inspector or someone collecting census forms – and every time I hear myself saying, ‘Gay Byrne’ I still want to get sick.
He sits down on the edge of an armchair and his hands are placed neatly on his knees. He is wearing the kind of grey pants twelve-year-old boys wear when they’re visiting their grandmothers. He is wearing a blue shirt and a grey V-neck cardigan, and everything about him, especially his voice, is apologetic and small.
‘Thank you for seeing me,’ he begins. I have had to turn the spaghetti back so that it’s cooking slower now. In five minutes it will have to come off and if he’s still here I’m going to ask him to leave.
‘The problem is…’ and whenever he speaks I am thinking that there is a little boy in our sitting room. He is sitting there on our armchair and soon his legs which are too close to the gas fire will begin to toast.
‘The problem is…’ he says again, and he is slicing the words out in this thin boy voice, ‘I’m in love with Doreen.’
And I’m nodding back at him and even smiling and inside I am thinking, ‘Oh, beautiful. How lovely. Thank you, Doreen.’
‘We’ve been an item for several months now. I’m in love with her but she won’t tell anyone about us. She won’t tell anyone that I am her boyfriend.’
I have known Doreen all my life. There are lots of things she doesn’t tell me and there are things she tells me that I would rather not know.
‘OK,’ I say again.
‘I don’t know what to do. I am so in love with her. But she will not introduce me as her boyfriend. She pretends it doesn’t exist. But we have had the happiest times together, at the Powerscourt waterfall…’ and here he shakes his head and his eyes drift off.
Doreen is at least a foot taller than him and he guesses my thoughts.
‘I’m not making this up,’ he says and he holds his palms out towards me. ‘I’m in love with Doreen.’
And I just sit there looking back at him.
‘You know her,’ he says. ‘Tell me, help me, what should I do?’
‘You need to talk to Doreen,’ I tell him.
‘She won’t talk about it.’
‘My pasta is ruined,’ I tell him, and now I’m towering over him, ‘and you need to talk to Doreen.’
When the front door closes the phone is ringing again.
‘This is Jonathan Kirk,’ the voice says and it is so well behaved and liquid-smooth. ‘Can you talk?’ he asks politely. ‘You’re not in the middle of something…? I’m sorry to call you on a Saturday afternoon.’
‘No, it’s fine – at the moment,’ I tell him. I am about to pour some more tomatoes into a bowl. I imagine he is calling me from his big walnut desk at the agency and that he is swinging around and around on a black leather chair.
‘We have white smoke,’ he says. ‘We’d like to see you again.’
Upstairs I can smell the pasta starting to burn.
There are several different songs in my head and I want to sing them all together when I put on a new batch of spaghetti and then Larry calls again.
‘It’s crazy in here today,’ he says, ‘I won’t make it until five.’ In the background Vertigo sounds like it is sliding down a hill.
‘Don’t worry, Larry,’ I tell him, ‘and by the way, I think I got the job.’
‘You did?’ he says, and then quick as a flash I say, ‘I love you muchly, Larry,’ and he says, without even blinking, ‘Well, you know I’m crazo about you.’
The flat is darker now. The winter sun stretches out and covers me in the dull shadow of five o’clock. I sit on the forest floor with the toadstools and the damp green bark and think about Larry. How he stepped into his old jeans this morning when he sat on the bed. How he left the watch I bought him on the bedside locker. How his old leather jacket hung on the door, the Penguin Classic pushed down into the flap pocket. His notebook, dog-eared.
The only problem is we have no money. Zip. We are not even able to buy things like clothes and shoes and on top of that we owe €3,865.00, which Larry lost in a game of Black Jack. He is not even a gambler. He has only ever played once and that was because Doreen and the Indians got him drunk. But last week someone called to the diner and asked Larry to ‘pay up’. The conversation opened with a very nice black eye and ended with a pleasant head-butt. This year we were supposed to go to New York and now we can’t afford to do that. We had it all planned out and I even rang Jack about a sublet, and one week later he rang me back.
‘Hey,’ he said, ‘I think I found a place for you. It belongs to a girl called Matilda. She’s dating The Chief’s best friend.’
‘The Chief?’ I said and inside I was seeing a picture of Sitting Bull.
‘Remember? My brother-in-law,’ Jack replied, and I could tell from his voice that he was smiling. ‘He’s head of the Midtown North Precinct. Everyone calls him “The Chief”. I don’t know Matilda or his buddy but I hear she’s got a really nice place on the Upper West Side.’
Then he gave me her email address and we’ve been emailing each other ever since. She even sent me a picture of her apartment and now there is a tall brownstone with its own chestnut tree on the door of our fridge. Someday I know we’ll fly to New York and Matilda will move out to be with her boyfriend, and me and Larry will start our new life and move in.
The front door slams and I know it’s not Larry – or Doreen – or one of the Smell family – I know from the heavy footsteps coming up our stairs that the landlord has let himself in. He’s puffing like a madman and his face looks hot and flushed. When he walks down the little landing he wobbles from side to side and he is wearing squeaking shoes and carrying some extra weight.