EM Martin grew up in the UK and moved to the west of Ireland in 2016. She is currently doing a Masters in Writing at NUIG. Before committing to writing fiction and poetry Emer studied English Literature and Italian at Manchester University, and began a career in journalism, working as a news reporter for the Evening Standard and The Sun. She now divides her time between Galway, where she is studying and Mayo, where she lives and works as a waitress. She has previously been published in online anthology Visual Verse.
The Colour Consultant
By EM Martin
Hazel squinted into the sun as she turned into the short lane which led to Michael’s house. The house lay behind large iron gates, which opened automatically as she slowed. Inside the gates, the lane spread into a neat space in front of three mock-timber homes. Michael’s was in the middle. Behind the houses the old trees in the oak forest were bowing under the weight of their leaves. The evening sky was still blue.
At the sound of Hazel’s car, Michael popped his head around the kitchen door, nodded at the man sitting at the table and disappeared again. The man had been making an effort to look at ease despite sitting in the room alone. He now pulled a large folder from his soft leather bag and placed it carefully in front of him.
The man’s grey Volvo Estate was slotted into the spot where Hazel usually parked. She stopped in front of the house and stared at the dark wood paneling of the front door. She did not want to go inside.
Three weeks earlier she had a panic attack in Tesco buying wine glasses for a dinner party. That day the white light of the supermarket had appeared to tighten around her like cling film as she placed the pack of six red wine glasses in her trolley. She was coughing. She took a few steps forwards towards the adjacent shelves filled with cushions, trying to get her breath. A sound, like a yelp, escaped her. She let go of the trolley, her legs went, she hit her head on the shelves and blacked out.
The next thing she remembers was a woman’s up-close worried face framed by the speckled polystyrene squares on the ceiling far above them.
“You, lady, hit your head on the shelf, we’re gonna get you an icepack. Are you ok?” she said.
“I hit my head?”
Hazel later signed a form at the Customer Assistance desk which stated that she had fallen reaching for a high cushion. She agreed, confused about what had happened. But she bought the wine glasses, and drove back to Michael’s.
It was the first dinner party she and Michael had hosted together. Michael had invited two couples, and Hazel had done the same. Michael’s friends worked in business and both couples arrived at the house with champagne. Her friends were teachers, one couple brought wine, the others arrived with nothing. As the evening had approached Hazel had become increasingly anxious about how little personality the house had. She had lived there for a year, but for the whole time she had been treading softly around the furniture and vases, noting the pictures and candles as if they were displays in a homeware shop, and sliding all her belongings into drawers and cupboards, unseen. She had barely noticed what she had been doing because her behavior was quietly matched by Michael. Michael seemed to have had little to do with arranging things in the first place, but had learnt to live with them comfortably all the same.
On the night of the dinner party Hazel suddenly realised there was nothing witty on the bathroom wall, they had no cute oil and balsamic dispenser with a holiday story behind it and she couldn’t casually hold up red and white wine glasses as a means of asking which bottle she should open. The evening took on an unspeakable significance. The thought of it alone had made Hazel feel like a stranger in what was, in fact, her home.
Now sitting out in the car, the dinner party done and dusted, Hazel pulled the rear-view mirror downwards to stare at her reflection, keeping the grey Volvo in the corner of her eye at the edge of the mirror.
Inside the two men were finishing up another attempted conversation. Michael would have rather not to deal with the man at all. He wanted Hazel to take over, he had booked the man for Hazel, because she had got into such a fuss about things not feeling like hers. ‘Wear the gold hat then, if that will please her,’ Michael had said at their end of their argument about the things in their house. ‘But it isn’t about gold hats at all, Michael,’ Hazel had said, ‘it is about us.’
Now, he looked out of the window of the kitchen to see if she was getting out of the car, nodded at the man sitting at the table and walked out of the room apparently to get something, but really, because he just wanted to leave.
Michael hadn’t changed the décor in the house since his divorce nearly three years ago and he didn’t want to talk about it. He had bought the house with his ex-wife, Laura.
He went upstairs and sat on the bed. In the bottom of a chest of drawers in the bedroom he kept an architect’s folder which contained the first drawings of another house he and Laura had dreamt up as a newly married couple.
She was the daughter of a property developer and he had fallen in love with her, at first sight and completely, when he was twenty three. They spent weeks after dinner mapping out the perfect place, sometimes sharing a bottle of wine, she draping herself over his shoulder as he sketched things down, pulling the hair on the back of his head if he pushed the particulars, saying if was annoying she wouldn’t come and live in any house with him at all. He loved that pretend bite in her. And that she was a snob.
He had gone to an architect who said their ideas were inspired and eventually they sharpened the whole thing up to a set of blue ink digital drawings. They lost interest in the dream house when Michael’s business had been struggling and they ended up buying the mock timber fronted house he now shared with Hazel. The time he had spent in the office trying to keep the business afloat knocked something off balance, knocked the ink house out of their hands – Laura needed attention, but so did he, she wanted more money, and so did he, she needed sex, and so did he. They just stopped trying to get it from each other. Michael kept the ink drawing of their house, not because he ever intended to build it, but as hard evidence of the beauty of being in love.
Now he sat on the bed, rested his elbows on his knees and looked down at his blue and white boat shoes. He thought of Laura – she had picked the shoes off the shelf and brought them over to him on the other side of the shop, making a sail with her hand. “Buy them, they make you look wealthy,” she said. And he did.
He pushed his finger into the gap between the arch of the shoe and the faded leather. He wondered now if love was lost forever, like childhood summers. Michael wished he had just told Laura what he had done. Laura was just more his type, really.
Outside Hazel sat in the car and said his name aloud, “Michael Kennedy. Mike. Kenners.” She was fourteen when she first saw him. He was four years older, and in the final year of school. She had heard of Kenners in the Boys’ school since she started aged eleven, but she didn’t go to the gate between the two schools to meet the boys until she was fourteen. The day she and her best friend went for the first time, he was there.
The gate was really a barrier which stopped cars from driving from one school into the other, around the back. Hazel walked up to it, unsure what to do, but by the time she stood still, Michael had sauntered over.
She told him who she was and he said he had heard she was good at hockey. She said she had heard he was running a real business as well as taking his A Levels. Rumour had it that he had been for drinks with the girls’ school drama teacher, but she didn’t mention that.
When he spoke to her that day she started saying things she didn’t mean.
“So I heard you’re good at hockey Hazel?” he asked.
“I am, I’m really good, I’m better than you, I imagine,” she said.
“Better, like how?”
“I’d look better playing it for a start,” she said.
“Really?” he was delighted, she could tell.
“Well there’s got to be a reason why the boys come and watch us play, and don’t bother watching their own teams, you should come.” She felt on fire.
“Oh Hazel, I will.”
And that was it. A conversation sustained her for two years. That summer he left school and went to university. Hazel’s desire for him grew and grew, she masturbated for the first time thinking of him, she dreamt of him constantly, she fantasised about meeting him at night, in dark streets, behind walls, at the end of gardens, the lack of him sent her imagination racing into every possible inventible submission, and she was interested in no one else.
“He was a philanderer,” Hazel mouthed, without a sound, as she stared now at the mock timber door, then, out loud, “Philanderer. that is the only word for it.”
Michael had been divorced for a year and a half when they met this time around, seventeen years after he promised to come and watch her play hockey. Hazel had just returned to Birmingham from London, single and 31. She wasn’t convinced she had ever loved any of her boyfriends.
The night they met she had been with old friends in a busy pub in the centre of the city, where she knew the feel of the rickety benches and the smell of spilt beer on bar stools, and she felt sexy and full, in just being present. Michael had spotted her first and followed her through the heaving crowd as she made her way out for a cigarette.
“You don’t still smoke?” he asked by way of introduction.
“I see you’re still a dick,” Hazel had smiled as she she hugged him.
In the first few weeks of their new relationship, Michael would pick her up in his electric blue BMW and they would drive to a pub and they would drink two pints each. They would talk about what had happened in their twenties, fitting what they knew of each other into the revelations, justifying each other’s decisions, sympathising with each other’s mistakes, incredulous always at the times when other people hadn’t understood what they could now easily understand. The summer air shuttled them into lust blurted promises of love. At the weekends, they would drive to the Malvern Hills, or Shrewsbury to take long walks. Soon she was staying over in his five-bedroom house, the thick carpets full of promise, and leaving her underwear, then clothes, and finally letting her flat go.
But after eighteen months of being together, she really wasn’t sure if they were in love either. She sensed he was desperate to love her and that made her feel strong. She felt sometimes like she was a room and he was a heavy table that she had inherited and should learn to appreciate. She had been flattered by his undivided attention from the moment he spotted her weaving her way towards the door of the Birmingham bar.
In those first few weeks, he had a habit of putting songs on in the car, and after the first few bars, leaning over, squeezing her knee and saying, “this song makes me think of you, you’ll love this”. Hazel couldn’t bring herself to ask him why he thought she would love it when she didn’t. But she did love the fact that it made him think of her.
Now, outside his house, she looked at Michael’s jeep and thought of his bare feet on the carpet inside, the curve of his calf, his long cream board shorts and his blue shirt. The sureness of it all. He was the adult version of something she used to know. He was dragging her up. She liked that he bought only one type of coffee and only drunk whiskey or beer. She even found she admired the way he always washed himself in the shower in exactly the same way, foaming his hands and washing his arsehole last, triumphantly holding the hand he did it with up to the water as a signal the shower was over.
Michael ran his own chain of pawn shops. He bought and sold gold and he worked from home a lot. Sometimes, in the mornings he would step into the drive in his bare feet, tip-toe hop around the back of Hazel’s car and give her one last kiss before she went to work. It was almost perfect.
Inside the house now, Michael went downstairs and began to chat to the man again, this time about summer holidays.
Outside, Hazel readied herself to get out. She looked at the black paper bag in the passenger seat beside her which held a Longchamp bag. She had finally bought one, this afternoon, preparing herself for the evening with the colour consultant. She had always resented women with Longchamp bags. Their slip on shoes, the beige coats, the make-up and hair and rings. There was something so-well edged about them, as if they had carved their outlines with such sure strikes of the chisel that their becoming lasted no longer than the blink of a decision to let the chisel fall.
She dropped a hand down to the keys and felt the urge to turn the ignition and leave but instead stared at the door until everything was out of focus. She used to do the same stare on the tube in London, so that all the faces opposite her were fuzzy shadows. It was one of the first places, the tube, where Hazel realized that things were losing their edges – that the wrinkles on an old man’s face appeared no different to the squashed pudgy features of a baby.
In London, Hazel had dated so many people, men and women, but she couldn’t find the key, the sex and the friendship, the desire and the chat. And it always made her lonely or deviant. Well, Michael had found her. And now, she was sitting outside a house she didn’t know, and living with a man she might not like, she wasn’t sure. And the sex wasn’t good. She was fucking a ghost, really. All those nights when she was a teenager, thinking about him, learning how to masturbate without making a sound, were in her, and made her look at him a certain way.
She watched the leaves behind Michael’s house. Her mind drifted to the great copper beech at the house where she grew up, five miles away. It was so tall, that tree, the trunk so wide. It hadn’t changed for as long as she could remember. She had been in love with that place. Under the shadow of the tree, with her sisters and brother somewhere in the garden, her parents willing her into the future, all the hope that one day she might kiss Kenners.
Michael suddenly appeared at the door.
“Darling? What the hell you doing? Are you coming in?”
He stepped down to her window, anxious.
“It’s the colour consultant, remember I got you an appointment, to talk about changing a few things in the dining room and our bedroom.”
“Oh, yes. Sorry sweetheart, I completely forgot. How exciting.”
Michael smiled, tapped the top of the car twice, and went back inside leaving the door hanging open. Hazel held the steering wheel. She looked at the open door, and thought of setting the table in the dining room with the wine glasses and light green walls. She coughed suddenly and got out of the car.
She looked up behind the house. She thought of her copper beech tree. She had stared at that tree, it’s huge burgundy canopy night after night wondering what the future held, how many lives had come and gone in the length the tree had lived, and all the possibility of hers. She saw herself standing as a teenager looking at Michael, arms folded in his white shirt, his watch glinting in the sun, and thinking he was a dream, thinking one day he might dare to touch her.
“The colour consultant,” she whispered, as she pulled her things from the car, “well, I guess, this is what a woman with a fucking Longchamp bag does. Colours, dinners, then kids. And a fucking Volvo Estate.”
She pushed the door open and walked into the kitchen. The lower half of the colour consultant’s anxious face broke into a smile.
“Mrs Kennedy!” he said, standing.
“No, sorry, well, Hazel, sorry, I was on the phone,” she said.
Michael raised his eyebrows and nodded to the pair.
“Guys, I’ve done my job, I’ll leave you to it,” he said.
Hazel went to the open window in search of air, and clicked on the kettle.
“I can’t really be bothered with this,” she said.
“Oh, sweetheart, I know how you feel,” the man said, his eyes suddenly glinting, “But it’s amazing what a lick of paint can do.”
For The Galway Review 7, (Printed Edition)