Susannah Dickey is from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her poetry has appeared in Ambit, The White Review, Poetry Ireland Review and The Tangerine. She was the winner of the inaugural Verve Poetry Competition. Her first pamphlet ‘I had some very slight concerns’ was published in June 2017. This excerpt is from her first novel.
Some things you’ll remember
You know your father from the back, from years spent staring at his head from the back seat. You know the thinning brown-grey hair that forms an earthy Catherine Wheel: at its centre is a patch of shiny scalp. He’s wearing a striped shirt and the flesh of his neck blurs the edge of the collar; the skin folds over in a paunch. Sitting opposite him is a woman. She’s thin. She has glossy, brown hair in a bob
‘Nice’n’Easy! The hair colour that doesn’t look like hair colour!’
and its colour is too stark and sudden against the sky. Every hair looks like it has been individually lacquered, and the result is disconcerting, like seeing a CGI simulation of hair. She is wearing dark purplish lipstick. It has bled into the rivulets around her mouth and unlike her hair her mouth looks slightly out of focus; two slug-shaped bruises meeting at either end. When she smiles you can see that one of her front teeth is dark with a smudge of purple, and you can imagine pressing your index finger against it and feeling the tooth give under the pressure. You stand at the edge of the lawn, watching them, then edge yourself to the closest picnic table. You lower yourself onto a bench. You lift your legs over the beam and slide them under the table. You keep your eyes fixed on the woman.
She is wearing a sleeveless dress. You follow the line of her arm, from the bare shoulder down the upper arm – it has a pronounced asymptote of muscle definition – to the elbow resting on the wooden table to the forearm to the thick gold bangle on the wrist to the back of the hand. You think you make out the fraying constellation on lentigines when she scratches her nose. When she lowers it, she wraps her fingers up in your father’s. You put your hand in your pocket and crunch the foil of the silver pill packet between your fingers – the packet with only four blue diamonds remaining. You know their purpose now.
You picture it. You picture the woman, in the sleeveless dress, nervously adjusting a mauve dust ruffle on her bed, anticipating his arrival. You picture him, your father, standing outside. He checks his reflection in the brass doorbell before pressing it. He has been looking forward to this for weeks. You picture her giggling as he presents a bottle of red wine and kisses her cheek. You hear the wet slur of their words as their teeth get blacker – not with lipstick – and their eyes get redder. You picture your father, fumbling in the bathroom with the foil of the packet, popping one of the diamonds out from its see-through bubble. You picture him swallowing it, wedging his head under the tap, then straightening up. He performs a little jumpy dance as he waits and he smiles as he feels the pill serve its purpose. He feels it smooth the creases in the fabric of his cock; he feels his cock rise jerkily like the arm of a crane. You picture him looming over the woman with the glossy, dark brown hair, his chemically enhanced yoke filling her up and steering her, her blurry lips parted and the black arches of her gums exposed. You hear their breathing, as they lie side by side on the rumpled bed sheets, the lights dimmed. You try so desperately to make it ugly, but it isn’t. You picture him lifting one arm and you picture her rolling towards him and you picture him holding her for as long as possible before he has to go. You picture him leaving, the apology in his smile, the sadness in hers. You picture her returning to the bathroom to make eye contact with herself. You picture her sliding in the plastic retainers that live on the edge of the sink and make her feel like a teenager.
You know that this is what your father does. When you or your mother calls him and he doesn’t answer or when he comes in late on a Friday night and you hear him shake the ill-fitting wooden doors in their frames; when he’s sitting at the kitchen table staring blankly at the crack in the wall, his mouth ajar, it is because of this. This normal looking woman with the aging hands and the plastic hair is the reason your father has cause to smile at nothing, when nothing has been said. What reason would he have otherwise, to smile that kind of smile? This woman is laughing at something he has said. When was the last time he made a woman laugh?
The woman has stood up from the table. You see her mouth move around the words ‘Ladies’ room’, and you wonder if it is important to her that your father doesn’t think of her sitting on a toilet seat with her thighs spread and her dress hoisted up around her waist. As her arms press themselves to her sides teardrop shaped pillows of adipose flesh appear between her arms and her dress. The skin of those pillows is a slightly different colour to her arms – more yellow-tinged. You have the same droplets when you wear sleeveless tops and you always try to squish them inwards so they are concealed. This requires much attention and instead you have decided to never wear sleeveless tops. That this woman has the same problem and has chosen to either not care or to conceal her discomfort fills you with warmth and pity. Then it occurs to you that maybe she doesn’t view the teardrop folds of fat as a problem, something to be solved, and this fills you with a different feeling, something you’re not sure how to identify.
She circles the table, and as she passes your father she puts her hand on his shoulder and kisses him on the top of his head, right on the spot where he has a slightly raised mole. You feel the jerk of nausea in your throat. The woman crosses the garden; her canvas kitten heels scatter divots of grassy mulch. She is swallowed by the pub. You sit, inert, and your father puts his hand to his back pocket and slides out his phone. You wish you had tried to call him earlier, so that he could see your name on the screen and bring you into his thoughts.
You keep your hand firm on the pill packet. You wonder if your father can sense its closeness. You run your thumb over the already-popped, crumpled domes on the blister pack, then over those still housing blue pills. You finger it faster and faster, till you are amazed the others on the lawn can’t hear the metallic crackle. What you are feeling, more than anything else, is something like relief. You wonder sometimes if your parents feel cheated; if they feel like they traded in their happinesses for a daughter who has yielded little. You imagine it’s much easier to be unhappy if your child is beautiful and clever and loved. What have you been worth? You like that your father might have realised this; you like that his actions might negate the need for you be something better than what you are. You find yourself jealous for a moment; jealous of your father; jealous of the woman; jealous of the old man sitting at another table, reading the newspaper.
You wonder what the woman with the teardrop folds of fat under her arms would say if she came back to find you sitting at the picnic table, opposite your father. You wonder what your father would say if you walked to their table, sat down, said ‘Hi, dad.’ You wonder if she might feel compelled to introduce herself as a ‘friend’. This seems like perhaps the worst outcome.
‘I’m a friend of your father’s. You know, I think you and I could be friends’, she would say, and you would want to say in response
‘No, just because we have matching fat under our arms does not mean that we will be friends. Just because you are having slow and rhythmic and medicated sex with my father does not mean that we will be friends. Just because you have made him happy does not mean that we will be friends.’
Probably you would not say any of this. Probably you would sit, mute, while the woman rested her hand – made sticky by old stains on the table – on your arm. Your father would probably think that he had got away with it; he wouldn’t understand that his having an affair has made you less culpable. He would watch you say nothing. He would mistake your silence for ignorance, rather than your desperate wanting to be complicit in someone’s happiness.
Your fists are pressed tightly into your thighs. Your chest feels warm and tight and your breathing feels ragged, like your lungs are bags of crisps left for months at the bottom of a school bag. You press the heels of your hands into the concaves of your eye sockets.
You wonder what you ought to do now.
When you are 21 you stand outside the home of one of your lecturers. You are one year into a different course from the one you began studying, but still at the same university, the one that brings you neither shame nor pride when you tell people you are studying there. You do not volunteer the information, but if people ask you tell them as if you were telling them you had cereal for breakfast. You abandoned the first course after 15 months, after you had long stopped attending lectures or seminars, after you had committed to spending most days in your room, watching films and sometimes earning £25 for proof reading foreign students’ personal statements.
It’s warm, too warm for March, and you got dressed in a rush and you are regretting jeans and a jumper and a coat and trainers. Your hair is furry and dry at the ends and greasy at the roots. You have a large patch of dry skin on your cheek. You arrange your hair to try and hide it. You wonder what you ought to do now. You ring the doorbell.
You woke at 11.20 to an email, asking you to go to his house at 12. He is a visiting lecturer, Australian. He has a high voice and a patchy moustache and long legs but a round belly. He has published one book of critical theory and one day you found a typo in it: ‘form’ instead of ‘from’. Until this morning he has expressed no particular interest in you, which is something you have come to appreciate.
You’re not sure why you are going to his house. Because he asked. Because it feels like something you ought to do. Because he is leaving to go back to Australia the following week. Because you are curious to see if it’s exactly what you think it is, or if what you think it is is something reserved for films and newspapers. He opens the door and you put your hands to your hair. He says ‘Hi’ and he asks how you are and it doesn’t seem to matter that you don’t tell him how you are. He takes your hand and leads you down the hall. He undresses you, until you are standing in the middle of his bedroom, naked, with your arms wrapped around your soft and sagging stomach and your eyes squinting at the light coming in through the blinds. He tells you that he thinks you are beautiful and sexy, and you know that this is a case of youth equating to beauty; of availability equating to beauty; of willingness equating to beauty. You let him press you against a wall and put his hands on your breasts. You wonder at your own passivity. He holds your head in his hands and looks at you and you try to angle your head to the side because you know you don’t look good face-on. He turns your head back to face him, firmly. You wish you weren’t so aware of being inspected. You put your hand to his trousers and you notice that he isn’t hard. He smiles and says ‘I’m a little embarrassed’, and you say ‘Why?’, and he says ‘Because I don’t have a throbbing erection to fuck you with’, and the apology, the pornographic description of his own penis, the erroneous ‘fuck’ at 12 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, all make you wish you were anywhere else. He pushes his fingers inside you and you apologise for how your hair looks, because it seems like you should apologise, to match his apology. He puts his hands back to your hair and kisses you, but it’s too soft and too wet, like kissing sushi, and you wonder if it’s something he might have seen in a film once. On the chest of drawers is a picture of his wife and son, and you wish you were in Australia, with them. You wish you were them.
You leave him lying on top of the duvet, which has no cover on. His trousers are bunched around his ankles and his shirt is pushed up around his nipples. The last thing he says is ‘Thank you, sweet girl.’ By the front door is another chest of drawers with all the drawers removed; on top of it is an unplugged lamp with the cord wrapped up, a passport, and a wallet. You open the wallet. You take out £25, leaving him £10. You walk out.
You perform an ungainly leg lift over the bench. What is the right thing to do? Your tights snag on a barb of wood and a ladder appears above your knee. You make a point of smiling, in case anyone is looking and you need to make it obvious that you are not bothered by your own clumsiness. You walk across the lawn and into the pub, keeping your head down and your arms folded in case your father looks up from his phone. The sudden darkness of the pub makes you put an arm to the wall to steady yourself. You wait for your eyes to adjust to the gloom. The pub has long, wooden tables in the middle and booths around the side with soft red sofas. There is a family sitting at one of the tables. In a booth is a group of four middle-aged women. Nobody looks up at you, and you are grateful. You head towards the toilets, towards the woman in the sleeveless dress and the kitten heels.
The pub has saloon-style doors into the toilets and novelty bathroom signs on the respective men’s and women’s. One says ‘Hens’; the other ‘Roosters’, and you wonder at how this fits with the pub’s name and obvious lack of theme. Someone has written ‘cocks’ in felt tip on the men’s toilet door. You walk through the door marked ‘Hens’, and with the door still half open behind you, you find the woman. You collide with the woman. The ball of the woman’s foot, squeezed into the flat triangle of one canvas kitten heel, covered in grass cuttings, presses down on your toe, the one clad in thick plaster and sprouting the alien growth and the palpitating ingrown toenail. Lights appear in front of your eyes and your foot erupts with pain – you think suddenly of Bugs Bunny being hit with a hammer. You feel ripples vibrating through your whole foot. You gasp, and the woman steps back.
‘Oh god, sorry love!’
You stare at her. You don’t say anything; you’re concentrating on not crumpling to the floor and nursing your foot in your lap like a swaddled orphan. You stand still. The woman looks worried.
‘Oh love, I’m really sorry, I didn’t see you. Are you okay?’
You nod, and she takes a step forward, and for one awful moment you think she is going to hug you. She takes a step to the side and you realise she is trying to leave. You don’t move.
‘I am really sorry. Sorry – would you mind if I just-‘
She leaves the sentence hanging, and it occurs to you that she and your father are very well suited. You think about not moving, about making her stay in here, with you. There was an older boy at primary school who would wander around, forcing younger children to look at the gently infected wound from his appendectomy. You wonder about making this woman confront the image of your exploded toenail. You step to one side and she gives you a worried smile and then she leaves. She doesn’t know who you are; your father has either never mentioned you or has never shown her a photo on his phone. On your father’s phone there are 13 photos. Two of them are of you. One is you on your first day of your last year of school. You are wearing your uniform. You have your arms folded and you are smiling a closed-mouth smile and you are not looking at the lens. The other photo is a photo of a photo; you on a carousel, aged 7. The horse is yellow. You have a large gap between your front teeth and you are smiling widely and you are wearing bright pink shorts. Your father had tilted the phone when he tried to take the photo and so the proportions are strange; your head and the horse’s head both look enormous compared to your shrunken legs, draped over the shrunken horse’s torso. There are no photos of your mother. The passcode to your father’s phone is 1706333. He doesn’t know you know this.
You walk into a cubicle and shut the door, your line of vision still red and starry. You sit on the toilet and press your head, hard, against the white tiles on the wall. The throb of your toe flares and dims and flares and dims and you make your breaths match.
When you are a child you have a recurring dream. There is an antique railroad handcar – thick, sturdy, exposed wood. You never see it – the you in the dream doesn’t seem to have eyes – but you can sense it, roving in the dark. Its direction changes sporadically: it will edge closer and then abruptly move away. There is a wailing sound, like a police siren, that accompanies its movements. You don’t know what will happen when it reaches you, but you are scared. You are trapped in the blackness and you can hear the steady thump of the iron handle on rotting wood and the scream, as it gets nearer. Eventually it is so close the siren seems to be coming from inside your skull.
You wake, sweating and with your hands gripping the sheets. You run, one foot stinging with pins and needles, into your mother’s room – your father has already begun to occasionally sleep in the spare bedroom. The first few times this happens you ask why.
‘He’s only sleeping in there because he has a cold and I cannot afford to get sick at the moment.’
As you get older you mother cannot afford to get sick more and more frequently, and the fifth or sixth time you refer to the spare room as ‘Dad’s room’, she does not correct you.
Your mother wakes slowly, and her voice is muffled. She leans out of bed and kisses you on your hair. She asks you what’s wrong, what the dream was about. You realise you can’t explain. You go back to bed with the siren fading and swelling in your head.
The locked cubicle door disappears behind flashes of light. When your sight has returned to normal you peel down your tights and unwrap the plaster slowly. You are careful not to nudge the toe, which is still throbbing. The white pad on the inside of the bandage is yellow at the edges and then red and then brown. The side of your toenail looks like a trodden on quiche. You try to slide your thumbnail under the alien lump to separate the toenail from the inflamed skin and the sudden pain makes you flinch. Your flap your foot in the air and blow on it. Each puff of air comes with a desperate, low-pitched hum in your throat: hoooo. You rest your raw foot on top of your other leg and lean your head against the cool of the tiled wall. You dab a finger along your face – there is a greasy sheen on your forehead, your nose, your eyelids. You close your eyes amd concentrate on your breaths, making sure they match the throb. When the pain has abated you redress the toe and leave the toilet stall. You stand in front of the mirror and stare at yourself. Under the two bright lights it looks like you are wearing a mask; your make-up is too dark and has formed a thick crust a centimeter in from the edge of your face. It sits in shiny clumps on your forehead and nose. Your eyes are made smaller by the swollen pillows at the tops your cheeks. You dab at your face with a ball of toilet roll. You wonder if you will ever get used to your own reflection.