Laura Healy graduated from National University of Ireland, Galway with an MA in Writing and since then she has published short stories and non-fiction in the UK and Ireland. Laura has also read at several events in Ireland and won awards for her work. She is currently in her second year of a PhD in Creative Writing at The University of Reading.
By Laura Healy
The clouds gathered overhead, a sombre welcome party, on the day Sarah returned to London. There was no green and the streets hissed with determined raindrops. She got off the train and someone – a woman not much older than herself – pushed past causing Sarah’s tights to snag and ladder on the corner of her own suitcase. But she was already a mess; the ferry had been slow and rough, heaving from side to side like a restless sleep.
Now deep underground in the pit of the city she had laddered tights and could feel the skin under her eyes actually sagging. The moment on the pavement at Oxford Circus before she descended the escalator had frightened her: the power of people and the rushing, bursting streets with myriad noises all rising and rising to a cacophony of sound like an explosion. And rain. As though she had never left, it fell with intent and reminded her of the past five years in Ireland: her running away years.
She looked at the damage on her tights and saw the black fabric like a row of teeth showing her skin beneath. Surely, it was the final defeat: lack of make-up didn’t bother her or tangled hair, even a stain on her t-shirt or a missing button. But laddered tights were bad. Like a girl who didn’t make it home the night before. She looked around the platform once the insect crowd had dispersed down white ceramic-bricked tunnels. Central Line. Way Out. She wanted more options. She walked slowly towards the way out sign and as she turned onto the jagged metal step of the escalator she wiped sweat from her top lip. London made you sweat even on the coldest days. She had forgotten the pace.
‘Hi. I am here.’ Sarah tried to insert a smile into her words; a verbal bracket and colon. Nathan’s response told her it hadn’t worked. She followed his directions to the flat: walk straight, turn left at KFC, keep going until you reach the park. It was some achievement to be near green space in London. The people on the streets were shadows that crept up on her and then hurried by; each time she held her breath and hoped they wouldn’t hurt her, that each one wasn’t going to murder, rape or mug her. Those were the things that happened in real cities, weren’t they? She couldn’t help her quickened heartbeats as she walked. Was she always this scared of London? Galway and Sligo had been so easy. She didn’t like this sudden immersion in real danger. Ireland had been like a padded cell but a green, pretty one with busy pubs, lots friends, love even.
She turned the corner and saw the park. Swings gently rocked in the slow breeze much like empty gallows. Perched on benches were people with hoods over their heads and bikes were tossed on their sides with the wheels still spinning, slowly. A dog – squat and solid – ran towards her and she stopped. But then it grabbed a ball from the grass and turned back.
She looked at the Park View flats. They were concrete with a communal balcony running along the front. Some windows had black iron bars on them.
‘Sarah, is that you?’
Nathan was leaning out of one of the doors along the balcony. She waved and hoped she had smiled. After everything he had promised to help her.
‘Yeah. I’ll come up.’
He pointed towards the staircase at the side and she walked quickly over to it. It wasn’t how she imagined she would see him again. Her first words were not supposed to be, ‘I’ll come up.’ At his door he grabbed her before she could stop him and he held onto her tightly as if to make up for ever letting her go.
‘It is so good to see you.’
‘You must be cold, and tired, come in.’
‘It was a long journey.’
Inside, there were familiar objects everywhere and the clutter and dust that he always kept. He looked at her, up and down, like a man in a bar.
‘You look nice.’
‘I look a mess. And I have laddered tights.’
‘I wouldn’t have noticed. Anyway the kids round here think that’s cool. You’ll fit in when you start school.’
‘I saw some in the park.’
‘Yeah, they hang out there a lot. At this time of year the obsession is fireworks. I sometimes worry I will get one through my window. Anyway, sit down. Make yourself at home.’
‘Thank you.’ She sat on the edge of the grey sofa. Bright Andy Warhol cushions were lined up along the back – they were new – but the rug wasn’t and neither was the sofa. ‘It reminds me of your old place.’
‘I mostly just transferred items when I bought this place. You can’t afford anything once you have bought in London.’
She laughed and looked around. ‘It’s nice.’
‘You could have visited. Ryanair’s not so bad.’
He shook his head and laughed but it wasn’t a happy laugh. This was never going to be easy.
He handed her tea in a mug she recognised; a yellow mug with a photograph of a cat on the side. He held his own, red but with the same cat.
‘You always did like cats.’ He had caught her staring at her mug. ‘Of course you can’t have one round here. There’s nowhere for them to go, besides city cats are mean.’
‘I haven’t thought much about cats.’
‘What have you been thinking about?’
A siren sounded in the distance, waving in and out like a fading scream.
‘Nathan, we have both been busy.’
He nodded and sat back in the armchair opposite her. The armchair that five years ago they had both fitted in; their limbs intertwined, hot and sticky, kissing and groping. It was the same chair.
‘Why come back to me now, Sarah? I am more than happy to have you but there are so many other people you could have stayed with.’
‘The school, my job, is in Bethnal Green. You are the only person I know who lives here.’
‘For crying out loud, Sarah. Is that all?’
She looked at him. He had jerked forward so his elbows were on his knees and his tea slopped over the mug.
‘You know it’s not.’
‘I thought we were happy, before you left.’
‘I needed to go. London, everything, it was all too much. I had to go.’
‘You got a better offer.’
‘A chance to educate myself. Nathan, is that so bad?’
‘I would have come but you didn’t give me the chance.’
‘Ireland? You would never have come to Ireland. You never did.’
He flopped back and sipped his tea. ‘Fair enough.’
‘I wished you were there so many times.’
‘But you didn’t come back.’
‘I had a life. There was something about Ireland, even after my Masters, there was something that held me there. It was so different. No one hurried or cared too much, people were nice to each other and valued their free time without cramming in work every minute. I didn’t want a London life, is that so bad?’
‘You could have told me.’
‘You love it here. London pulses through your veins and lights you up like Leicester Square on a Saturday night. You belong here, Nathan.’
‘I would have left it all.’
‘I didn’t want you to.’
She had imagined the pain she had caused for so many years but now it was as blatant as a billboard.
He wiped away tears. ‘And so now you are back.’
She nodded. She felt like a teenager after a failed attempt to run away. He didn’t mean to make her feel that.
‘It’s not just the job. Or that you are living in Bethnal Green. Nathan, I wanted to see you first.’
‘Your parents are in Oxfordshire. Kate is in Ealing with Becky. They would have helped too.’
‘You know I didn’t want to come back, don’t you?’
He stood up and walked over to her and took her hands in his.
‘Don’t hurt me more, Sarah. Let me think you want to be here.’
‘I do. I mean I was always going to come back, come home, one day. It’s just sooner than I thought. But teachers lost their jobs in the recession; I couldn’t find work anywhere. Sean – my partner – he lost his job too. We broke up. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have family in Ireland and friends’ sofas only lasted so long.’
‘You’re on a friend’s sofa now though.’
‘It’s true but I have a job and I am ready for London. I can face it now.’
Another siren sang quietly in the background and the rain rapped against the windows.
‘I liked hiding out in a city by the sea with brightly coloured buildings, salty air and smiling faces. I liked the cobbled streets and the green blanketed mountains that were a short drive away. It was easy to forget there and I thought I was making a life but when I saw London on TV or in films I knew I wouldn’t stay away. You should have come-‘
‘I couldn’t see you there, with him, and in a place you never belonged.’
‘Do I belong here?’
‘London missed you. So did I.’ Yet another siren called out into the night, like a lonely cat. ‘See they are celebrating your return.’
Sarah laughed and squeezed his hand. ‘The underground scared me and the people – the lack of smiles, the stale air and the way they move. Auto pilot. I don’t want to become that.’
‘You take from London what you want. You know that. Besides, it’s fun.’
‘Yes and being somewhere that doesn’t care about you.’
‘But you care.’
‘You are always welcome. Cities have a habit of never saying no. Tomorrow we can explore and reacquaint you with all the sights. The places you have forgotten.’
‘I never forgot you.’
‘We were always waiting for you.’
She laughed. ‘We sound like a pair of poets.’
‘That is the city, see? An urban melody at all times. You just need to tune in and stay in touch. The countryside doesn’t have that. There is nothing like the throbbing beat of a city’s heart.’
Sarah curled up her legs and leaned against Nathan, hiding the grinning ladder beneath her skirt. The rain was still there, a reminder both of what she had left and what she had returned to. The city was not so different and it was home: like a cold hug from someone who is shocked to find they still care.