first published in the Fish Anthology 2003
Alex said ‘Màiri, you look like a tease’, and that was fine with me. I like being a tease. When I’m feeling fast and dangerous I can really surprise the men; I can make their jaws drop. If I tell them that the damp stain on their tie is Caffrey’s, or that the too familiar pubic hair on their fly isn’t their own; if I pick it off finely, barely brushing the hissing, static fabric with my shiny red nails, that is when I make their jaws drop. Then I say ‘Marmite for breakfast!’ and their mouth snaps shut like a fish’s mouth, all tiny sharp jagged teeth.
Understand this: I know that this vision of mouths is one of my wrong visions.
I know that teeth are smooth and square like white tombstones. I’ve run my tongue around the inside of enough mouths to know the feel and size of them. Hot mouths and cool ones. Tongues big and loose, like slabs of warm meat; tight little firm tongues, reptillian and bloodless. Mouths tasting of tobacco or lunchtime beer. Mouths tasting of other mouths, mouths tasting of death, or as if something just died inside them. But the mouths I see are small and red and sharp, they are gasping and needy.
These are some of my other wrong visions:
Wednesdays bathed in green light; pigeons possessed of tiny human heads; books gently swaying and moaning and coaxing as they sit on shelves; stars bearing their names as they fly through the night sky, Polaris, Orion, as if these were their real names, pinned, badged, fixed, (as if any of our names were anything more than unwanted gifts we are obliged to unwrap in front of the whole world). Cucumbers crying human tears, farts billowing in pink clouds behind their donors. I know all these visions to be wrong but they are true to me, and I am not sorry.
People think the streets must be more dangerous for me than for the other girls, but how can this be true? I stand in the darkest corner and see who’s coming before they even know what they’re looking for. The muscles tense in their calves and their heels draw up inside their shoes as they draw near, so near that I can taste their hopes. They are such pitifully small things, other people’s hopes, vesicles which rattle about inside of them, waiting to burst. They hope to be touched gently, to not be found out, to have hair, to be told they are fine, to sleep, to have a friend, to feel no pain, to forget.
If I walk towards them they stop giving me these clues about themselves; they become like a step, or a road sign, or a flashing light. I try to stand still; I keep my composure.
I am keeping my composure now, sitting in the deep silence of the church, breathing in its cool smell, running the palm of my hand over the surface of my life, feeling every kink in its weave catching me, reminding me. I hear the sound of a door shutting, not any painted door, but the heavy wooden door at the far end of the nave of the church and I know what the door will do even before it is pushed. I understand its hinges and wait for the gust of air the door makes as it swings, longing for the air to rush past the back of my neck. As the door meets the frame there is a moment’s pause before the echo of collision hurtles up the nave, filling the ears of every golden angel and stone devil, hurling itself down the top of the organ pipe and up the cassock of the priest. It’s an ending.
I hear her again, with her old woman shuffle shuffling by. I do not know who she is, will not ask her name. She thinks I don’t know that she’s circling me; don’t know she thinks she’s the vulture. I hear her heels dragging along lower than her toes so that her outdoor slippers are worn away at their backs. I can even hear the holes that sag at the knees of her thick tights. She’s always coming in here. I’d like to tell her to fuck off, but I keep my composure. I pray for him and I am never disturbed.
Everyone says I have a very visual imagination. The girls say ‘Màiri, you have a very visual imagination’ and in my mind’s eye I see them smile as they say it, for it makes them happy, this idea of me seeing so much, but never quite so much as them.
I did not know that I was unable to see my world in the way you see yours until I was five years old. This might seem surprising to you, but how was I to know if no one told me?
Dad said ‘Màiri, see that bird,’ and described its blue and grey feathers, its moleskin head, its tiny yellow eyes, its hard stubby beak, and I saw the bird. Mum showed me the family album: pictures of granny and grandad, of great grandparents, of relatives I’d never see, the living and the dead. She described their clothes and their faces, the tight moustaches and slicked back hair of the men and the cupid bow lips and polka dot dresses of the women, and I saw them too.
I liked to look at pictures with Alex, to have him show them to me. I would allow myself to relax a little inside his patience; his breath on my ears and cheek, the blood in his thigh beating against the blood in mine, separated by imploring skin and dumb hairs. Understand: once I’ve seen pictures they are mine, more mine than any picture of yours. I am the blind woman with the photographic memory. Perhaps there are others like me, but I have not yet met my mirror image, so I believe I am the only one.
At home, when I was small and before I understood that I was blind, I would go back to the family album when I thought no one was looking and I’d run my fingers over the photographs. The oldest ones were grainy and dry; the newer had a feeling of being always slightly wet. I’d stare at them for hours until I knew exactly what everyone looked like: the old ladies with their smell of geraniums and the men with haloes of oily rags; young aunts in mini skirts looking like typewriter oil. The colour photos thin and unreal, wobbling between now and then. I sensed them watching me sometimes. I’d feel their eyes staring into mine and think of our shared sightlessness.
Mum and Dad watched me. A waste of watching I’d think to myself, feeling their gaze on the back of my neck. But I never said, just in case they stopped. I am not an attention seeker, but this does not stop me growing warm in the centre of attention.
They tried to make up for my sightless eyes, these stumbling parents of mine, first by telling me what my world looked like, then by getting me to tell them what theirs looked like, our world, and in this way they got me to believe I could see. I have never worked out why they waited so long to tell me I could not. Perhaps it was because they did not want to disappoint me; perhaps it was their own disappointment they were trying to avoid. And so they spent my first few years chasing each other, never quite reaching the point where they had to admit this truth, among all their other undisclosed truths. Perhaps they thought that I would suddenly gain the power of sight; God knows they believed in miracles. They left it so long that I did not understand how to see and how not to see; I still don’t understand, despite the frequency with which I walk into furniture, low walls and small, erratic dogs.
It created trouble, this ignorance of mine, this seeing everything so differently to everyone else. Dad would get me to drive when we went out in our Zephyr. How I loved that name; Dad said it was a very old car, worth nothing at all, but to me it was heaven, with its smells of warm well-used vinyl, of dashboards and of a cigar lighter that I could burn the tips of my fingers on. It smelt of sex, too; of long dead orgasms that shuddered their way from 1967 into the mid 1970s, their last vibrations almost too faint to feel.
He bought a Zodiac next, and I do believe that it was because I so loved the letter Z. Dad told me that I couldn’t even see above the dashboard to tell him where we were going. I couldn’t be his little navigator in that car, he said. And I’ve turned and turned those words of his in my mind ever since, wondering whether he thought that if he put me on cushions, or if he switched the Zodiac for the Zephyr, that I’d be able to see; that I’d be his little navigator.
Don’t you think I’ve wished that I’d been there that day? Don’t you think I’ve wished I could have navigated them away from their tragedy? Don’t you think I could have done it? I don’t know why they went out that day without me, since they always took me everywhere. People spare the feelings of a child, so I was only told that my Mummy and Daddy had ‘gone away’. For a long time I thought they should have told me they would go away, should have known that I would not be able to see where they went. But deep in the seeing pit of my guts I knew, so that when, tuned-in by the word Mairí, I heard one of the boys at school telling another, in whispered excitement:
‘You couldn’t even tell it was a car’
And it felt like an affirmation, a relief. Like throwing-up. Most days I wish I’d been in there with them.
I used to smile unthinkingly when I was a child, a smile coming to my face as irresistibly as my shoulders turn my neck to turn my face to turn my eyes to face a voice. It was less what you’d call a feeling, more a response. Now I’m more careful with my smile. Now it’s a matter of composure, and isn’t composure everything? I treat my smile as a calculation for others to work out.
Because I killed Alex, and because I saw him so clearly in my mind’s eye, I see him still. This does not mean I think he is still alive. I can no longer taste the salt skin of his chest, or feel his raw chin or smell his walnut balls as I’d squeeze him in my hand. Those Alexes I have cast away. I cannot listen to his lies; he does not talk to me from where he is now. He sings to me still, a little, when I’m on his side of the bed.
He was unlucky; he knows that now. All the deceits he played on me he’d played on others, and because they could see they didn’t notice. He loved me, that I know to be true, not only because he never said so, not only because of all the things he never did for me, but through his neediness, through the transparency of his hope. He didn’t want to lose me, I was the one thing he thought he’d have forever, but I had to punish him; I had to make him leave.
I see Alex now, adjusting his dead feet to avoid me walking into him. Poor Alex, not knowing that I can take anything but betrayal. I can take beating and spitting and looks and pity and fucking with strangers, but not lies. I can even take shoelaces as they fall away from each other, with their little collars of plastic at each end, drumming along the floor. Tap bloody tap. Trip.
Did he tell me he loved me? Did he have to say that? I’d never, ever have asked him, never for a moment invited the suggestion of a response. I liked the way he sent me out to earn my keep, the way he showed me how much I was worth. It was more than I expected, less than he wanted. I liked that, too. He did fall in love with me, I know. I felt that as certainly as a broken bone. It was a different pain, more dramatic and less useful than what had gone before. In one touch, one look (yes, I knew his look), one word Alex made a cage for us both. He could come and go as he pleased, but once made that cage could not be unmade for me. Not even when he washed their smell from him, not even when he brought me lilies, with their visible smell of death. Not when he brought me the voice of Billie Holliday with her help me/leave me cry captured and hammered forever into the smooth surface of a plastic disc. He shouldn’t have lined my cage.
People don’t blame him for leaving me. That’s why I won’t get caught; why I haven’t even been interviewed, why no-one seems to have noticed his absence, except for me, the one who cannot see. They think it was good of him to stay for so long, gracing me with his with his absences and his unexplained returns, allowing me his laugh when I asked where he’d been; granting me his company in the places he would take me and roughly forbidding me the places where he wanted to be seen. Gifting me the presence of all the other women he fucked.
Do you want to know how I killed him? Shall I count the ways? I could have rubbed him with salt and had him sweat out the sourness of his life like an aubergine. I could have put him in the freezer, like a side of beef, to await warmth. I could have taken him to the edge of a cliff and had him trip over my ankle so that I could see him fly while he saw himself fall. I could have drowned him in my surplus tears.
But I did none of these things. I killed him here in this church. Does killing people in churches count as more of a sin than killing them anywhere else? Sitting here just now it feels as if it should. But so many have died in churches, locked inside, set-alight. Died for their beliefs or lack of them. How I’d love to blaze.
I brought the girls here last week, into the church and down into the unlit tunnels that run north and south beneath the transept and beyond, under the town’s streets. These were places of refuge centuries ago. The people of the town would live here during siege and plague, the lucky few. Now these tunnels lie a hundred feet under Sainsbury’s and the leisure centre. The smell down in the tunnels is of old sacks, of long-dried grapes, of burnt animals and of liquid cold injected deep into the muscle of living things.
The noise of the shopping trolleys does not drift down through the marble floor or permeate the rock and the graves and the dripping wet arched brick roof of the tunnels, not even to my ears. The tight click of badminton rackets on the tiled floor of the sports centre, the leaking shower head in the men’s changing room, the sour smell of sweat-filled socks; all these offerings float up to Ursa Minor, not down to where life is buried.
They were too excited, down in the darkness, like happy babies at a funeral. They like fear, the girls. They took me to Blackpool in the winter, to the roller coaster. The sea air and the rum and coke kept me sharp, so that I clenched my buttocks as the cogs caught the chain that tugged our car up the long rise. So that I started screaming long before we began our long sweep down and up, down and up and round the tracks. So that I screamed long before anyone else.
The tunnels leading from the crypt were my Blackpool for the girls, and I did not let them bring a torch.
‘Come down, come down,’ I said.
‘I’m not following you, you evil bitch,’ said Tara. She knew that I liked her calling me a bitch, though no one else.
‘Lead the way yourself,’ I said, but they couldn’t see and I could.
They ran their hands along the dripping, slimy walls and made retching noises with their throats. They screamed as, carefully late, I told them about the step down. I was making them happy.
Then I heard the rattle of wood over empty space. In all my wanderings I’d never heard it before. One of the girls had stepped on a heavy wooden cover. I’m the dangerous woman, and so we pulled the cover aside and found some stuff to drop down into the void below. Two pence pieces, a lighter, Tara’s keys. She was cross about them, said she’d jump in after them, but she didn’t. We could hear how big the drop was. Such a long silence and finally a sound like a 3 a.m. drip into an undrained bath. It was a sign off call. Plop.
I went back the next day and felt like the guilty must feel when they return again and again to the scene of their crime, waiting to be caught. Except in this case there had been no crime, only the impression of one. I walked confidently to the edge of the well, stopping as my toes came to its edge, and knelt beside it carefully. Coin after coin I dropped into it. 5p pieces at first, but soon it was 50p, then lipsticks (my curse), my purse, my mobile phone. Each one signing off. I ran my hand around the inside of the well to make sure it was wide enough to take a man.
‘Alex. Alex, do you trust me?’
‘I trust you. Yeah.’
‘How much do you trust me?’
‘What do you want?’
‘I want you to play a game. A scary game.’
‘Are you feeling brave?’ I could feel the interest rising in him, like the way his cock would swell and throb and demand attention if I put the palm of my hand over the front of his jeans, just so. Whether it wanted to or not. Plop.
‘Yeah, I’m feeling brave.’
He was smiling. I could feel his smile, white and wide and winning, but I’ll never see it now.
‘Come to church with me.’
‘Oh, fuck off.’
‘We’re not going there to pray, Alex. We’re going to see the dungeons.’
He liked dungeons.
‘We’re going to see how good I am in the dark.’
He already knew. He was shaking as we went through the wooden door into the crypt and out the other end into the unlit tunnel.
‘I’ve only got five minutes, Maíri. I’m seeing Jackie at six.’
Alex’s hand was sweaty in mine as we stepped towards the gaping mouth of the well and I thought that he might grip hard as he stumbled into its void, dragging us both in, and I thought that would have been fine. But he trod lightly into nothingness; I felt his body shudder, as I’d felt it shudder so often before. The sweat helped his hand to slip easily from mine. I rubbed the soft tip of my thumb across my hand after he said ‘Aaaahhhh’. I listened to the slide of his hard, smooth, warm body as it slid fast between the hard, smooth, cold walls of the shaft of the well. I sniffed the fear suddenly mute on my palm and thought of the cartoons Alex watched in the afternoon: ‘Aaaahhh’, they said. Once, when I heard him laugh, I asked him to tell me the cartoon’s story, but he said it was not worth it.
I walked up from the tunnels, through the crypt, up the steps, back through the heavy door, causing the few people in the church to turn and look. A blind woman in the street, in daylight, is an impediment, to herself, to others. She should have a dog, or a man or a stick or dark glasses or something to tell. At night she has her uses, for everyone has their uses at night. But a blind woman in a church has business to attend to. Here everyone can see that she is about the work of God, and the work of God is vengeance.