The following story by Caoilinn Hughes features in Galway Stories: 2020. Hughes is the author of Orchid & the Wasp, which won the Collyer Bristow Prize 2019. Her short fiction has won an O. Henry Prize and the Moth International Short Story Prize. Her second novel, The Wild Laughter, was published in July and is shortlisted for Novel of the Year and the RTÉ Listener's Choice Award in the Irish Book Awards 2020.
It’s the soggy kind of wind that undoes all the hair-dos on the west coast of Ireland; that makes broken tents of nice new outfits, and shouting matches of good wishes:
I’ll love you and leave you. What love? Love me and leave me. I’ll let you go. Have a good life! Indeed it is. Fine a day as any for blowing off cobwebs. A northerly with wet spells. Where has the day gone? We lost track of ourselves.
It’ll be quiet in the shop today. What harm. Marjorie finds the work involved in customers to be quite annoying. She prefers to watch them come in and twirl around. If they slip their wallets from their back pockets, better’s the view. But framing their wedding shots and family portraits and homeopathic diplomas smacks too much of taxidermy. And the business, she can gladly do without.
This Dominic Street property—sandwiched between cafés—was part of last year’s divorce settlement, along with the three-bedroom house, its contents, two and a half empty beds, their cars, their pug-terrier Michael Flatley, and her ex-husband’s golf club set. Balls and all. The shop has no website and if it has word-of-mouth, the words are French. It wouldn’t behove Marjorie to sell it anyway, as the country is unkinkily spank-bang in the middle of a recession. It was Brendan’s architecture start-up premises back in the 90s when Marjorie’s inheritance became his seed fund (well, one of them); back when he was still astonished that his wife built his desk for him, and his closet. The closet, alas, didn’t stay shut. After a twelve-year largely platonic marriage, he asked for a divorce on the same weepy breath as coming out to her. “Who are you crying for?” she’d said, flaunting the dry whites of her eyes at him like hankies. All the same, it felt as though they were tilting down the farside of a twelve-meter wave—one that would deposit them oceans apart, differently wounded. She dragged her suitcase from beneath the bed for the passage. “Leave it,” he’d said. “I’ll go. You stay. Keep everything.” Marjorie’s face glazed suddenly, as if an eggy brush had been wiped across it. “Everything?” Brendan’s teeth chattered. He shivered in his spectral flag. Horrible, yes, to stand before a loved one, in shreds… for them not to hold their arms out to collect you. She glanced from the mole on his nose to the one disappearing into his crimped chin to the scar on his hairline; she could inch her way around him blindfolded. But he her? Not a hope. How she’d never connected the dots… Brendan had clutched his moisturized elbows then and, as a witness claiming guilt, said: “You’re my best friend. I never didn’t love you. It’s my fault. I’m… I wanted to give you everything.” It was the new millennium before Marjorie understood her deeper grief: that the closet she’d built for herself had been locked from outside and in. She’d wanted everything.
She should be in the back room now, cutting glass and mounts to size, but she’s not in the mood. Her Topman Hawaiian shirt is blanched in dust from the workshop this morning, where she’d been making a custom frame—the only such order this month. “Do you think a recliner chair would suit the place?” she asks her new colleague, who hums, as if sounding out the faxed information: that the boss plans to make napping at work more comfortable.
Bróna is cleaning the windows, having insisted that windows are the frames by which their expertise is assessed. Up and along the rivered glass she swans, with her lemony-white cremnitz skin, her bachelor’s degree in Art History, her Picasso sketch eyeliner and, cubistically, Marjorie’s eyes all over her. On the crescent scar that lends a smile line to her pussy face, on the shadowy ulnar bones of her wrists, her angular palette knife arms, the slant fact of her waist, the firm hold she has of herself, of that shammy. From the register, Marjorie clears her throat, which has the satisfying effect of making Bróna twist around. With her in profile, the composition is particularly consoling.
Marjorie finds the work involved in customers to be quite annoying. She prefers to watch them come in and twirl around.
Possibly because of the recession or possibly because of the general drain-ward motion of society, Bróna has taken it upon herself to be concerned about the business’s viability. “Let’s hope that wet wind makes it looks cozy in here. Hygge!” she says, keeping her ear close to the glass as if listening for the squeaking counterfactual: the fine crack in the reality of this permanent, salaried job, with sick days and—for the love of god—retirement contributions.
“Hooga. Is how the Danes say it.” Marjorie DJs the scalp behind her ear rhythmically. “But you know… I think your higgy sounds cozier.”
The tone had been set at the interview stage a month back and, since no complaint was made, Marjorie took it as understood that one mustn’t resent what libido is left in a forty-five-year-old woman. Lechery is nicer to be around than bitterness. And their taste in music has a sizeable overlap—Talking Heads, Oscar Peterson, the Schindler’s List soundtrack. Bróna had said as much. “The noise that would be on in Supervalu!” (where one of her college friends has wound up). “The factory din of Medtronic!” (one of the only employers taking people on in the county). “The TV operatics that would be on at home!” (that is, in Bróna’s parents’ house) to overpower the vibrato of their negative equity: the passive-aggressive Say Yes to The Dress, the colonialism-nostalgic Antiques Roadshow, the tongue-clicking misconstruing of this new generation. Bróna doesn’t quite know what to make of her own generation. She hadn’t remortgaged a home willy-nilly when it had magically doubled in value, as her parents had. And if she had ever driven a brand-new 2007 Audi A4 Quattro out of a dealership, it would have been to test drive it to Lidl for discount korma. But then, she had come into shops like this, as people under thirty-five tended to do, to fawn over the merchandise, photograph the desired product furtively, and to abscond and buy it online from China, via the neighbor’s wireless on mam’s MasterCard. She’d admitted all this to Marjorie, demonstrating the “candid and open nature” her C.V. had listed as a Key Skill. Reading through her contract, she’d been shocked to see no mention of commissions. And how does that even work thermodynamically—that business can cool off and its employees are retained all the while? She voiced an interest in part-time diplomas in business to wrap her head around it, which Marjorie immediately offered to fund if Bróna would only keep her profitability aspirations to herself.
Bróna sidles up to the Staff Wanted sign still up on the window and, with the tweezer precision of an art conversationist, frees a fly from its Sellotape frame. Scrupulously, she cleans the glass all around it, to no avail. Marjorie doesn’t tell her to take it down. When no more wishes can be genie’d from the glass, Bróna moves on to dusting. Right into the bevels of the display frames. The little bell above the door. Lest she arrive at the cash register altogether, Marjorie sends her into the back office to boil the kettle. Meanwhile, a couple arrive in making a fuss of an umbrella that was protecting the woman’s painting. The man is clad in cycling Lycras and high-toe shoes—the opposite of high heels, but with the same clenched arse result. Marjorie had described to Bróna this classic customer type: the middle-class couple with a pramful of—lo and behold—hobbies. ‘You’d want a lilo to get around in that,’ the woman declares, eyeing up her husband’s wet t-shirt rigout.
“A submarine, more like,” Marjorie says. “But it doesn’t bother himself on the bike?”
“Ah no,” the man does his own answering. “The wind dries you off as you go, sure.”
Marjorie glances from his treaded-tire face to his knuckular groin. “The more you cycle, the worse you swim. Is that true, or is it only a myth?”
“What’s that?” the man angles his helmet-strapped ear toward her.
Embarrassed now that she can see some of the expert drawings leaning against the walls awaiting pick-up, the woman cradles her painting to her chest and glances around as if lost—TK-Maxx would do her, surely. Idly, she goes to the wall to rifle through the frames that are in a poster-like flickthrough display. The metal ones tick. The wood ones tock. The man gets her to lay her painting on the huge table so they can see what they’re working with. He thinks of it as an equivalent to opening a fitness meter app post-ride to see one’s form laid bare: one’s personal best. When she sets it down—a muddy Connemara pony in a Kenyany sunset—the man awaits commentary from the vendor. Surely this is how they earn their margin, his Elvis lip cues. But Marjorie’s eyes are trained away from the painting as from Medusa. Bróna arrives with a cup of tea for her boss and beams at the customers. A dozen recommendations sputter at her lips, so desperately yearning The Close.
“I haven’t a clue,” the woman replies when asked what she’s after. “I mean… I don’t know. Do you normally have glass on top of an oil painting?” The woman shifts her weight from one Croc to the other.
“Not typically,” Marjorie says, “but, you know, we can do whatever we like.”
The woman looks to her husband—his wedding band is hidden by cycling gloves, despite the nude fingers. She doesn’t want to do what she likes: she wants to do what’s right to do. Without causing hassle: hassle is for the rest of life; not for hobbies. The way she’s breathing, it’s clear the let-down will be sore: she mightn’t paint again; that’s how fragile her generosity is towards herself.
She doesn’t want to do what she likes: she wants to do what’s right to do.
Squaring up with Marjorie, the man removes his windshield glasses. What kind of a doctor’s appointment is this, where self-diagnosis is both frowned upon and required? “How would this be professionally framed, if you yourself were to do the choosing. Would it have a mount around it? Or what about those hover frames with the gap around the sides? I’ve seen them with canvases. What’s the perfect custom frame solution for this, no matter the price?”
“Oh god, Raymond, stop, I’m… it matters, the price. It’s not worth some fancy frame, not—”
“Claire.” Raymond grips his wife by her fatty upper arms, imprinting bike oil on her shawl-like cardigan. “Your painting deserves a good frame, and no two words about it.”
The woman tucks her chin to her chest and smiles like the bashful seventh dwarf, who could have been the sixth dwarf if it weren’t for shame. The man stamps a kiss onto her forehead before clicking from his cleated advantage over to the wall, arrowed in display frames—their cut-off corners V-ing to the ceiling like poorly-painted geese. Marjorie responds to their questions evenly, even though there’s an enormous price difference between the frames they’re considering and the off-the-shelf ones that can be easily bought online. Bróna gushes almost pornily when the couple handle an art-deco silver gilt-inlaid frame, even though it would render the painting ridiculous. Finally, the woman decides upon something humble and asks what time the shop is open until—they might come back later. “Grand,” Marjorie says, blowing on her tea.
Bróna stands with her arms suspended several inches from her sides, making a peace sign of her body. “You could leave your painting here, till then… if you like?” The pitch of her voice might shatter the windows, after all her shining work. “We could frame it for you, and have it ready to collect? And if you don’t love it, we can just change it.”
The woman shimmies now—her hormones dancing a jig they’re not at all fit for. And in Crocs! Knowing well this perimenopausal urinary urgency, Marjorie helps her out: “They’re a labour charge for framing it.” Conspiratorially, she adds: “You could equally take it home and do it yerselves.”
“Ah sure look,” Raymond says, holding the door. “I could whack it in no bother.
“You surely could.” Marjorie nods. “And if in doubt, there’s instructive videos online.”
At that, the couple takes off, pretending to have forgotten to leave the painting there for safekeeping. In the rush, they’ve left their umbrella instead. Bróna’s eyes go to it. A baton? The drizzle has eased, so they may not bother returning for it. A dripping profit margin. While Bróna is immobilized by thought, Marjorie has advanced to prying staples from a linen-covered frame, and the playlist has advanced to that iconic cello fifth that would bring the shop to a standstill weren’t it stoodstill already. “The good thing about the Schindler record,” Marjorie addresses her plyers, “is that it lends perspective to the minor tragedies.” Bróna takes the umbrella hostage to the back room, in case they return for it. The phone goes and Bróna actually runs to pick it up. “Eh … yes. Hegarty? Yes. It’s been ready now for two months … Of course, Miss Hegarty. … Till six. Okay—oh sorry, just, just one sec, Miss Hegarty. Just one moment, please.” Marjorie had been gesturing to Bróna and, now that the phone is pressed against her chest, Marjorie stares at the phone and tells Bróna to inform Miss Hegarty that their insurance doesn’t cover paintings stored beyond a fortnight—certainly not ones bought at auction. They are not a storage facility. “Looting is on the up now, tell her. On account of the recession, and a very good batch of methamphetamines in from Longford.” A laugh bursts from Bróna’s lips and she lowers her eyelids at Marjorie. She puts the phone back to her ear and tells Miss Hegarty that it would be much-appreciated if she could pick it up because they’re very short on space in the shop. Profuse thanks. With the trace of a smile, Bróna takes up the iPod shuffle. “Can I put on something else?”
“Oh do. Slip on something more comfortable.”
Bróna clears her throat and says: “It’s a friend’s band. It’s kind of… trad electronica. They were on at the Roisín last week. They’re really good.”
“We’ll find out, so we will,” Marjorie says. But she doesn’t get to find out because two people enter the shop simultaneously. One carries the cardboard-cylinder evidence of an ill-advised Monetprint.com purchase for which there is no frame suitably cheap; the other is a Colin Farrell-looking thirty-something interviewee Marjorie was expecting four minutes ago. His shirt and jeans give a 3D-printed impression; he has a raincoat bunched in one fist, and a backpack held like a briefcase in the other. Le Coq Sportif. In dismay, Bróna watches Marjorie place her hand on the interviewee’s lower back to lead him to the office. “You’ll hold the fort?” Marjorie asks rhetorically, then glances back at the unfurled ‘Water Lilies’ print and tells its owner: “Fair play to you! Gorgeous color palette on that.” The office door shuts and it stays shut until their bellies begin to grumble.
During this time, Marjorie has managed to extort such information from the lad as he didn’t know he had in him. Which way he voted in the Twenty-eighth Amendment Treaty of Lisbon referendum. Whether he prefers savory food for breakfast or sweet or neutral—for example porridge. What he made of Inglourious Basterds altogether if not a pile of American self-flattery, with some good lines in it, albeit. “The eye-talian scene in particular. 3 Idiots I thought was superb. And Mr. Nobody. Did you see that?” The interviewee doesn’t bother with humming sounds at this stage. He twitches his face in the negative. “And, you know… Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen… it got an awful hard time but I quite enjoyed it. Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, sure, they’re worth six stars before they open their divine gobs.”
One of the interviewee’s caterpillar eyebrows tries to climb over the other one. There’s a knock on the door and Bróna sticks her head in. “Sorry to interrupt, but… will I go on my lunch-break now, or—?”
“Do that,” Marjorie says, “and leave the door wide there so I know if there’s a customer but it’s unlikely.”
“Sure. Sorry…” Bróna says with throat-frayed deference, tilting her head at the interviewee. “Were we in NUIG together? Art History?”
The interviewee cocks up his chin. “I went to Trinity.”
A brushtip’s worth of red marbles the white of Bróna’s face. “Sorry, I thought I recognized you. But…” She backs out, then stalls and surges forward. “What did you do, at Trinity?”
Good on her, Marjorie thinks. Promoting herself to co-interviewer! That’s how it’s done. Marjorie thumps the five-page C.V. on the desk before her. “He has a 2:2 in Film Studies and History, which would compliment your art expertise and my carpentry beautifully, not to mention his impressive experience in furniture removal, as well as retail, but… alas…” Marjorie taps her fingers twice on the C.V., “the challenge is in the job-seekers pool being so full, and us being further along in the interview process with two others. Women.” Marjorie takes a lavish pause here, and Bróna eventually drops her shoulders sympathetically.
“O…kay?” The guy stretches the two syllables like udders. “Why d’you call me in then? Why didn’t you cancel the interview?”
“Oh believe you me,” Marjorie warns, “my mind’s not made up. I want to be fair and equitable. I take great pleasure out of equally considering all options on the table.” Marjorie stands to reveal her embodied impartiality—her very shape, unresolved. She extends an even hand, stating: “You’re hot mail.”
When he responds with the word what, it is packed with enough vehemence to blow out a set of birthday candles.
“Pee underscore nethaway at hot-mail dot com?”
Copping on to the implication, he demotes his briefcase now to its backpack state.
“Grand. We have that memorized, so we do.” Marjorie smiles so completely that the metal crescents of her crown bondings are on display as a full set of filthy nails. She offers him his C.V. back because she’s into sustainability. It’s the only thing that’s ever come into fashion that’s actually suited her, besides a knee-high boot. “Do you know the way? You go around in it, and you feel a million dollars. Or a quarter of a million euros. It makes you look and feel good. Recycling and a knee-high boot.” Her pleasantries carry on at his retreating back like surplus credits. “There we have it. Grand. Now. Alright. Thanking you.” Though he’s letting himself out, she follows him through the shop so as to show him the way all the same. “Ah look: she’s dried up for you! Just in time.” He utters no parting thanks, only side-eyes the Staff Wanted sign as he sulks off down Dominic Street, shoulders umbrella’d to the wind.
Marjorie spins around on the heel of her wide-fit trainers and tells Bróna: “I never lost it really … but I’ve bloody well found my appetite. Would I be a mean tease of a boss to take my lunch-break before you?” Bróna crosses her arms, which Marjorie didn’t know she was able to do—that the planed carved limbs could be bendy.
Here is the window that needs cleaning: a small window to pose the qualifying questions. “Sure,” Bróna says. “But … Marjorie?”
Will she come out with them, finally? Her questions: It isn’t a twist on the sexual harassment cocktail, is it? Or—hardly—a generational vendetta? If the shop doesn’t need to be profitable, surely there’s something else it could accomplish? There are plenty of other values it could have.
“Marj, please. You say Marjorie as if you want to spread me on toast.”
“I’d like to experiment with the set-up while you’re gone,” Bróna says, firm as cold butter. “I have some ideas.”
Marjorie collects her coat and wicker bag from the back of the chair behind the counter. “So you do. Whereas himself had only notions. And resting bitchy face.” Marjorie grins at Bróna and holds it. Then says: “I must admit, Bróna, I admire your initiative. As well as a lot of other things about you. Be sure to enjoy yourself. And regale me with all you get up to afterwards.”
Nothing less than a picnic on the riverside grass by the Spanish arch would do Marjorie. For lunch, she ordered a large fish-and-chip supper at McDonagh’s. She had lived so many years eating appropriate meals at appropriate hours.
She lays her windbreaker coat on the damp grass and plonks herself down with a jolt to the sit- bone. No one is around to hear her yelp but one fisherman on the far bank, gulls describing the wind with Renaissance overkill, passersby on the road aways behind her, and patient fuckers at a bus-stop. A yellow box containing a life-ring interrupts the view of the River Corrib, gushing rightward. It is a castratingly cold Jacuzzi, the color of manky denim with white spray all along it like used shaving foam. Beyond it: the vibrant green algal slime of the stone riverbank; a row of mixum-gatherum townhouses of yellows, burgundies, blues; a grey convent-looking erection; and, an inch above that, cloud—like the surface of the ocean seen from underwater. Marjorie smacks her throat to feel for gills.
Her neck had begun to thicken in her late thirties, without any children to impugn. “I’m getting more and more grotesque,” she’d told Brendan on her fortieth birthday, to which he’d responded with a wicked smile: “You’re getting more and more like Marlon Brando!” They’d gone out for a walk in Barna Woods before a four-course meal back in town so neither of them would have to be designated driver. Marjorie stopped walking and stood there, quizzing her husband’s face, which had gone funny. His gaze darted from her one eye to the other and his lips were pursed, as though he were the one awaiting a defense or apology. After a long moment, Marjorie said: “In On the Waterfront … or Apocalypse Now?” Brendan coughed out a laugh, as if he’d been holding his breath. He looked off behind her and said that forty was when things got interesting; that forty couldn’t give two fucks about pretty, slender necks. “No, that’s right,” Marjorie said. “I give one fuck now. By forty-five, I’ll be down to no fucks.” Brendan grabbed her by the hand then and marched her off the track between shivering trees and clicks of his tongue. Who he was scolding, she didn’t know. She found his outdoor sex kink to be far too effortful, but it was an effort she made, if only to dig a well in their dust-dry acreage. He was the full five inches shorter than her, so—given it was her birthday—he let himself be pressed against a tree; the bark making of his vanilla arse a twin-cone with chocolate sprinkles. The sky had darkened and, under the canopy, the particularities of their bodies were homogenizable. Still, she could make out Brendan’s closed eyes. The wince of his cheeks, like the torn page of a journal that’s been scrunched up in self-disgust, then ironed out with the warm heel of a palm. He cut out anagram-wheels from newspapers to bring home to her; she consulted on his hiring of employees based on their ample laurels; he primed and varnished her headboards on sunny weekends; they droopily enacted scenes from films with malty, late-night breath. All that time, she thought she had everything.
“On the Waterfront,” Marjorie tells herself now, unbagging the polystyrene container and salivating at the gluggy tartar sauce vomited over three fillets of battered cod and five spuds’ worth of chips. She prongs a mess of cod onto the plastic fork and shovels it into her: salty, temporary fullness. Hygge. Gulls trapeze through the air, screaming. They, too, can be grotesque, but they do not repulse their feathered husbands. They go wild on one another—out in the open, wings spread— and, afterwards, they slope around the town for munchies. Their eyes are open and red-rimmed all the time, and no one pities them.
Her mastication pronounces blue veins travelling from her throat up onto her cheeks so that she resembles a dark clown who hasn’t properly cleaned off her paint, post-show. It’s his fault this habit formed: of seeing herself from the outside. To try to reason the unengorgement, and to locate the pitied feeling. Whose feeling was whose? Enough now. Enough flagellation. Moping. Look forward. Ah yes, the fisherman on the far riverbank. Or is it only a wanker? The two hands are held before his crotch and there is no equipment at all. No rod, no wire, no coolly-box for the catch. The scrawny man is barely clad: he has on a long-sleeved striped t-shirt, a cap, and … gloves. It’s a mime artist, she realizes. Performing for no one. For no fish supper. Marjorie’s phone buzzes in her pocket and she jumps exaggeratedly, so that it counts as exercise. She sets the supper down beside her and roots out the device. It’s a text from Bróna.
“Trinity just posted a bunch of vitriol about you and the shop online. 1 star reviews all over the place.”
It takes Marjorie a moment to realize that Bróna means the interviewee. “Ha!” she proclaims, and looks around for acknowledgement. Deep in concentration, the mime artist is either fitting imaginary bait onto a fly lure or inspecting his foreskin for a hook—real or imaginary. Another text ignites the phone:
“I took down the staff wanted sign. Hope you don’t mind. If I’m a bad hire Marjorie, please let me know and I’ll try harder or quit. But for now at least I need to know it’s not a scam. And that I actually got the job! Thank you so much for understanding.”
Then, after a few seconds, a postscript:
“I’ll boo all his reviews.”
Marjorie is concocting a witty riposte when she sees the ellipsis still pulsing on her screen. The girl’s lovely thrumming fingers. The new hire has more ideas to impart, so she does. Marjorie waits awhile, blinking at the dots, catching herself ensnared like the youngsters by four puny inches when there is so much content around the pixels: so many people, unintroduced; such landscapes, light on history. And there: a mime artist, casting out expertly; turning on his sit-bone as the current tugs the unseen line downriver. There is no one in the vicinity to throw him a euro or a plastic fish. Marjorie will duck in that way heading back to the shop soon enough. Tuck a tenner under his beret, or give him the coat off her back. Well, from beneath her arse, but sure it’ll be nice and warm for him. She has heat in her yet, to transfer.
The phone buzzes again and she really fucking jumps this time. Thirty calories at least in the lep, and she’s out of breath at all the action, and the college graduate essay showing up on her screen.
“I really love this job btw. I’m grateful for it and I badly want to keep it. It’s impossible to find a job at all, much less one that doesn’t involve signing away your conscience. There’s just one problem I should flag. Sometimes there’s a mildly inappropriate tone sometimes that makes me uncomfortable. I really don’t want any awkwardness to develop in terms of sexual misconduct or anything like that and of course there’s been Nothing of the sort so far. And I understand it’s just your cracking sense of humor which I love. But I can’t tell you how much I want to keep this job, so it’s more I’m just thinking about long term sustainability and establishing really good frank relations between us. Can I draw the line on 5 innuendos a day Marjorie?!!! I hope this is all okay to lay out. I’ve just found that I get less anxiety if I air grievances or concerns early on before they become something I should never have let them become. It’s preventative. Because the job’s worth protecting. I can see myself here in 5 years, if I’m lucky. I’ve locked up for lunch because it’s half two and I’m starving!! (I guess you’re napping in a recliner chair shop, testing merch!) Thanks for hearing me out.”
A fine drizzle congests the wind and Marjorie squints at the air before her, as if she’s about to sneeze. She presses the phone uncomfortably into her pocket. “Well,” she says, neither question nor statement. Searching for the punchline that had been the line too far, she can only call to mind scenes of herself preparing quotes and timescales, packing and completing orders, feeling up the furniture with a damp cloth, closing out the till. She cannot even see herself in her workshop, or visualize anyone alongside her, or hear any words close to the truth that had been uttered—let alone too close. Then again, going through the motions is hardly blameless. Was his heart ever in it—even once—pumping to the point of arrhythmia; flushing the skin beneath his chest-hair like parched soil in a sudden downpour? Marjorie wipes the mist gruffly from her face, and still the blue veins don’t wash off. “You came out in the wrong season!” she shouts at the mime artist, empty-handed. The artist’s gaze is devoted to the line, which he is reeling in, dutiful to himself; reverent to the motions. The river is boisterous between them in its unflagging, forthright, littery youth: the wet fucking youth of it! “But you!” she calls out ineffectually. “You’d have gone back for the umbrella. Wouldn’t you?” She didn’t mean the physical thing, but the gesture of it. And in a similar gesture of collection, a colossal white gull swoops down for Marjorie’s mushy cod remains. The gesture comes first—a batting motion of smacking the dust from a hung rug—then a scream wrangles from her throat. Sitting, she is useless against the gull. The motion of pushing herself up to her feet suffices as a fitness regimen, so many muscles does it use. There is more to the routine, too: Marjorie tears fistfuls of grass from the ground and flings them skyward. “Fuck off! Fuck off!” She remembers the catapult she had once carved, for something to do with her hands the evenings she and Brendan sat on the couch. He didn’t like fingers in his hair. When he asked what she was making, she said a rape alarm. They’d had to pause the film, Brendan laughed so uncontrollably. To him, it was the multi-layered joke only his amazing wife was capable of.
She’s ripped out so many bits of earth, her picnic area looks like the Celtic Tiger’s cleaned its claws there. No one comes running to the gulls’ rescue, because they will be fine and dandy. There is ample detritus strewn about the city. Besides, they are unpitiable. The mime artist has stressfully packed up his things, and clears off. The bus-stop is deserted. Buses must arrive these days, now that all the leased Audis have had to be returned! There is a new petrol bellyful to the sky, but Marjorie doesn’t pay it any heed. She collects the cold tissuey dregs of her supper and gobbles every spec. It tastes of mime, she thinks … of salty mime. But it hadn’t done before—there had been flesh involved—she had seen it, from the outside. Pacing the patch of grass, she wonders if she’ll be sick. But then, there is Bróna, who isn’t yet trained to close out the till. What possession that young, fuckable woman has of herself: how easy and urgent she found it to state her truth, in writing—to formalize the complaint. But Marjorie needn’t channel such discipline. The nausea has already passed. “T’was only a wobble.” She is sweating, but it is a hot flush. Her cool will come back to her momentarily. She inspects the polystyrene container with satisfaction: so well polished it could be recycled. She moves a finger against its slippery skin, pushing the rain around.
Soon, there is enough rain that it moves around her. Even the gulls have absconded to some eave to dry off. Hump their feathers light again. Marjorie collects her handbag and tucks the strap up onto her neck-shoulder amalgam. She marches riverward, smacks the polystyrene container flat and frisbees it into the water. A floaty… lest anyone jump in, and then change their mind. What use is the life-ring for a U-turn, and it boxed up on dry ground? Well… dryish. Marjorie snorts to herself. So sapped a nation is it that even the metaphors don’t work! Now that she’s standing on the bank, she can see that the mime artist hadn’t left; he’d only taken shelter in the convent. In its portico—across the body of water—he is on his mobile phone… calling some authority, maybe, to come and fine her?
“You think that’s litter?” Marjorie yells across to him, dripping; her eyes wide to the elements. “That’s nothing! Wait’ll you see! That’s only to keep the youth employed.”
Excerpted from Galway Stories: 2020, edited by Lisa Frank and Alan McMonagle, published by Doire Press. Copyright © Caoilinn Hughes 2020. Reprinted with permission of the author.