Aisling Watters lives in Wexford and works in adult education. She has a BA in English, Sociology and Politics from NUI Galway and an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature from UCD.
She has previously been published in UCD’s literary journal Caveat Lector and Limerick Writer’s Centre Journal.
By Aisling Watters
A doll’s house. In a bank. It was not that it was bound to happen, but Jane could see how it could happen, unlike her co-workers who were shocked. Stunned. Still trying to take it all in. Words they would have said if they had been allowed to talk to the journalist sent over by the local paper, but they had been advised not to. So, to secure their jobs, they corralled where they could, repeating the details over and over again, inflating any of their minor involvements as though they had signed some peace treaty after years of painstaking negotiations. There were no heroes in this story. Jane knew this. But, as was her way, she pretended to listen to each of them between customers or while she was on her break, idly stirring the detox tea she’d bought knowing she would not like but would force herself to drink. Because Jane could grin and bear things. And Jane was not the kind of person who would make salacious gossip out of something as human as a man who’d lost his home and decided to smash a doll’s house that had been placed in his local bank for decoration. Stupid decoration.
Jane had come in one morning and the doll’s house was there, perfectly assembled beside the stanchions, a few feet away from her desk. Close enough to see the detail. Far enough to not get in her way. But it did bother her on some basic level. Not the house. Which was fine in a bleak way – so bleak it made her question why she’d wanted one so badly as a child, carefully writing doll’s house on her Christmas list for enough years to make her stop asking. Adult Jane could see it for what it was; a shell that encased nothing. Or at least this one did. Just vacant rooms bereft of everything except floral wallpaper. No, it was not the house that bothered her. It was the streamers that had been pinned to the facia of the house. Written on the small flags were the words: Five Minute Mortgage Chat.
Five minutes. Was that all they could give to people who were prepared to offer thirty years? In reality, she knew five minutes would lead to a much longer meeting, but still, the message it sent.
And yet, a lot could change in five minutes. Less than five minutes.
‘You really were incredible Jane. The way you spoke to him. The way he responded to you. I think he might have a crush – but you could do better.’
A look and co-worker number one knew she had gone too far. Knew to pretend to go and get staples, leaving Jane to look out at the deserted floor and the dark space where the doll’s house had stood.
They all knew what happened. If you live and work long enough in a place, information is prised from whatever tiny singular source that is willing to offer a kernel. They knew more than Jane would have liked people she couldn’t care less about to know. But to them, it was a story that once told, lost their interest and was swiftly forgotten about until they said the wrong thing − or what they perceived to be the wrong thing − when really, she would never think to connect the two. Because she would never connect anything these people said to him. There was before and there was after. No bridge between the two. So it didn’t matter if co-worker number one’s brother was learning to ride a motorbike or co-worker number two saw a terrible accident on his way to work or co-worker number three was at a funeral of a neighbour’s son; a man in his twenties who’d died tragically. These weren’t social gaffes – these were facts. Time and many awkward exchanges had taught Jane the skill of rebounding the discomfiture of others. But sometimes, she didn’t do so effectively. Sometimes, she needlessly sent people running for staples.
It had struck a nerve, co-worker number one’s allusion to her love life – or lack of one thereof. Loneliness had drilled down to her marrow. It was her way of life. It was her choice. And in the rare moments when she questioned her choice, she told herself it was her destiny. She’d been young when it happened, there could have been more, she could have searched for more or taken notice of the ones who happened to stray into her path. But they’d been so pale. Everyone was so pale compared to him. Utterly etiolated, save for rare shafts of light that were hardly worth noticing. But it wasn’t just men. Even her ambitions paled after she met him; side-lined for the pulsation of merely being in his presence. Having his attention. Even for a second.
Before him, she’d wanted to be a ballet dancer. Nobody knew about that. And she was glad. There was more at stake when people knew about your dreams than your tragedies. Much more. Particularly unfulfilled dreams. Her mother, with the help of her grandmother’s widow’s pension, used to take her by bus every Tuesday to her ballet lessons. She was the best in the class, not because she was the most talented but because she wanted it the most. She had never been so hungry for something. At least she thought so then. She had it all planned. The scholarships, the companies, the rehearsals, the performances. She dreamt in ballet in the way some people dream in another language. And ballet still entered her dreams. Only now, during her barre exercises or practising her choreography, she would stop after noticing, in one of the many mirrors, a man walking towards her. Powerfully built. Tattoos encircling his forearms and creeping up one side of his neck. A low voice that had a habit of curling everything into a question. This man would push back any tendril of hair stuck to her forehead before releasing the rest of her hair coiled into a tight bun. And the dream would shift. The outfit would change. As did the scene. She’d no longer be in a ballet studio, but on his motorbike, the wind whipping back any hair that escaped the helmet he insisted she put on.
‘To keep you safe,’ he’d say.
And he did keep her safe. He kept her so safe that she forgot what it was like to feel unsafe. To feel alone. But she quickly remembered. And she was still remembering.
Every day, she tried not to let it become too much. She segmented her time. She kept busy. She walked. She cleaned. She took a sleeping tablet. She understood why the man smashed the doll’s house into tiny fragmented pieces. And while watching his second swing (the first had caught her off-guard), there had been a part of her that had to contain a cheer. Or a wail.
Christine had gotten to the stage, around her second or third year into the job, when she realised that she had to stop trying with Jane. But the equilibrium of the place had been disrupted ever since the man smashed the doll’s house, and, throughout each workday, Christine found herself forgetting that she was supposed to have stopped trying with Jane. But she shouldn’t have said it about him looking like he had a crush. Everyone knew what had happened. But it had been so many years ago and Jane still behaved like it was yesterday. Christine thought that Jane could watch the news and not tell you a single story. Or that she could get blood taken and not feel the prick of the needle. Or that she could observe an autopsy without flinching once.
It was just that she had never met anyone so disconnected from themselves − so lost in their ruminations that there was no change in their expression when someone destroyed something in front of them. Had she been there? Had she held him in her arms on the roadside? Him in his leather jacket. Her with her long hair streaming down her back. Christine had heard things from girls who’d gone to school with Jane. He’d been older. He’d lived in a rented house in the country. Christine pictured the house by a lake, but it probably hadn’t been. Christine pictured other things as well; the two of them stoned and naked; talking nonsense and coming luxuriantly. And when she pictured these things, Christine felt jealousy rise like acid in her sternum and she’d remind herself how frigid and sad Jane’s life was now until the acid would slowly sink. But sometimes it didn’t sink. Sometimes she had to take two antacids for it to go.
She was not proud of this.
He’d had a tattoo of her name on his arm. She’d heard it from a good source. An actual tattoo. It almost begged for tragedy to strike. That level of infatuation. Which it was. Not love. No. Christine knew love. Love was duty. Love was staying. Love was cooking dinners and pushing out two sons and never letting the side down.
Life moves on.
People have names.
Christine. She couldn’t keep track of the amount of times that she’d told her. But people have to want to remember your name for it to eventually lodge into their limbic system along with buy cat food, wash the car, your mother’s maiden name and your date of birth combined is the password for everything, the capital of Peru is Lima, you’re allergic to shellfish, JFK was assassinated in 1963, you have a hair appointment on Friday.
After a year, she learnt not to take it personally. And it became more and more apparent to her that Jane either didn’t know or didn’t use her other colleagues’ names either, regardless of how long she’d worked with them. She couldn’t accuse her of being rude though. If their paths crossed, she’d smile and say hi. If Christine asked her a direct question, she’d answer. But Christine knew that Jane neither liked nor disliked her, and if she had to go with one, she’d probably lean towards dislike. It was there behind her eyes sometimes; this collated judgement that revealed itself when Jane saw Christine staring at her wedding band, or scrolling through some story about the royal family or reality TV stars on her lunch break, or even when she touched the small gold crucifix that her Daddy had given her for her First Communion that she’d never taken off. It was such a comfort to her in the darkest of times, knowing that she could touch her chest and feel the crucifix nestled there above her breasts.
But Jane didn’t know this about her. Jane didn’t even use her name, so how could she possibly have known that she hadn’t pretended to need staples because she was worried that she’d offended her. No, Christine had gone running for staples because she’d offended herself. Because she deserved more. That morning, once she heard her husband leave for work, she got up, dressed, woke the kids and went downstairs to make a cup of tea. But there were no tea bags in the caddy. Just a Post-it.
Replace, you fat cunt.
It was the comma that got to her. The comma that made her cry non-stop driving to and from work and intermittently throughout the day. Because anyone can write a note. But punctuating it is different. Punctuating shows you thought about it. And you meant it.
Her name was Christine and for five days of the week, she sat beside the saddest, luckiest woman in the world.
Jack had peaked too early. Like those stars; the ones that were only going to be seen for a certain amount of time. He used to judge people who stayed awake or set their alarms to get up and see them. But he could see the appeal now. People will go to a lot of lengths to see one moment of brilliance. Or to revisit one. Jack had achieved his entire catalogue of brilliance before the age of twenty-five. Thereafter, everything gradually started to decline. And then it torpedoed.
It happens a lot with males. Peaking too young. Women not so much. They sort of grow into themselves. They grow into themselves until they can’t grow anymore. Until one look can simultaneously make your heart stop and your dick shrivel. It happened with his wife. He’d married this almost cherubic-looking girl who’d thought everything he said was both hilarious and true, but, in the end, she could barely look at him, and whenever she did, he’d wind up in the corner of some bar or in a stranger’s bed or even on the street. It had been their way to get revenge, to stop paying the mortgage. Each missed repayment a testament to how much they’d given up on each other.
Nobody grows up.
Of course, she came out of it better. Remarried. Nicer house than he could ever have given her. And a nicer husband than he could ever have been. But he didn’t resent her. Not really. Only when he was drunk. Which he usually was.
But he hadn’t meant to smash the doll’s house. Despite what the hammer in his hand might have implied. He’d just wanted to stand close to it. Tip it maybe. Imagine smashing it. But something came over him.
Something always came over him.
The reason there was nothing more from it was because he knew the bank manager from school, where he’d been mercilessly bullied until Jack told his bullies to stop. And it stopped. Jack’s word had been golden then. Not like now.
School years had been a good time for Jack. The best time. He could see it now, on the days he collected his son; the ones who’d be in trouble down the line, who’d had it too easy too young. It was in their walk, the way they spat on the ground or smirked at any girls who passed. His son wasn’t like that. There was a hesitancy; an unwillingness to trust in anything but his own will. It was a good thing. It would serve him well. Better than his father. And his son knew this too. It created a chasm between them that was only going to get wider; this awareness that his father was a deadbeat and he didn’t want to be the same. Jack hadn’t asked him what he wanted to do when he was finished school because he knew he’d have an answer and Jack didn’t want to hear it. The definitiveness. The understanding that whatever it was, he’d need his stepfather to help him to get there not his father. And so, somehow, their time together was no longer Jack’s right to access but his son’s act of charity.
At least he didn’t know about the doll’s house. Not yet anyway. But she did.
Christine. He liked how her name sounded. How he had to work his mouth for the sound to be right. He didn’t like the way she’d looked at him; like she was seeing him for the first time. It was a look he’d come to expect off women. It was a look he deserved.
Christine. He loved her voice. He loved how she interacted with people. He loved how she counted notes. He loved how, when she leaned forward, there was a small sturdy display of breasts encased by an off-white bra. The kind of bra he used to avoid bumping into on the washing line as a child. The kind of bra he’d grown up to despise, but for some reason, the kind of bra that on her, made him want to break the plexiglass between them and fuck her right there on her desk that she loved to neatly pile notes on.
He’d ask her first of course.
‘You’ve got to ask,’ his father said. They were gathering hay. It had come out of nowhere.
‘Ask what?’ he said. His muscles ached. He wanted to go back to the house. And he also didn’t. There’d be work for him there as well.
His father took a hip flask out of his trouser pocket and proffered it towards him. Jack drank the warm neat whiskey, pretending not to find the taste repulsive or the way it eased his insides, resplendent.
‘Ask,’ his father said, drinking what was left in the hip flask then throwing it to the ground and resuming work. And Jack resumed work as well, knowing this time exactly what he’d meant – and remembering it too a week later when he lost his virginity to a neighbour’s daughter in that same field; lost it with as much finesse as a plug trying to slot into the wrong receptacle. But at least he had asked.
Did Christine’s husband ask? Not once, he reckoned. He had a radar for people trapped in an unhappy marriage. The woman she worked with was unhappy too. But it was a different unhappiness. More entrenched. Nevertheless, she carried herself with a rectitude that was not found too much anymore.
‘Rectitude’ was the answer to a crossword puzzle he’d worked on sitting in the dole office. He’d had to look the word up. He was learning a lot from unemployment. He was learning a lot from everything that had gone wrong. So wrong, it sometimes took his breath away.
But still, there had been no reason to frighten those two ladies. Particularly Christine. He’d probably never redeem himself in her eyes now. The way she’d run to get a dustpan while her colleague talked to him. It was like she was used to running to get a dustpan.
He’d found some work painting houses but had yet to be paid, so two single roses were all he could afford. One for each of them. But there’d be more for Christine if he could. If she could. For now, it was a gesture. A gesture that terrified him as he walked towards them in his paint-covered overalls. A single rose in each hand to let them know how sorry he was.
Christ, he was sorry.