by Mary Morrissy
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The desk clerk smirked. Julia sighed; her name was a joke every stranger thought he was the first to get. But as the clerk scrawled her name on the registration card, Julia realised this would be the last time the joke would be on her. The clerk was a paunchy man with oily black hair and a neat moustache. He peered over a pair of half-glasses. Despite his spotless white shirt, dickie-bow and braces, he had a vaguely dissolute air like the MC of a Weimar cabaret. Or perhaps it was because Valentin – for such his name badge declared him as – was the sole representative of manhood on the premises; the Hotel Nathaniel (formerly the Alhambra) was a women-only hotel. As he riffled through her passport, seeking out the title page, Julia had a chance to take in the foyer.
It was a dim ill-lit cavernous place with a gallery visible in the higher reaches. There were mosaic panels set into the walls and tiles in the risers of the stairwell which turned a corner sharply out of sight to the left of reception. The Eastern echoes of its former existence were repeated in the crazy-paving floor and the fountain which played idly in the centre of the lobby. A battered-looking leather sofa and scarred coffee table were set against the wall opposite the elevators. Stranded in the vast distance of the place they looked like museum pieces or priceless objets to be marvelled at but not used.
The foyer was not designed to entertain loiterers. Only a devoted narcissist would sit there, Julia thought, caught between Valentin’s sardonic gaze and the glassy reflection of the plate-glass windows that gave on to East 53rd Street. There was a set of revolving doors but they seemed frozen into disuse and she had had to pick up the semen-coloured plastic phone outside to gain entry. Valentin had done the honours, bowing slightly as she hauled her suitcase inside and he made his stately way back to his post. Moving in from the street through the foyer was to travel back in time, Julia realized, for whatever renovations had been made to the Nathaniel, formerly the Alhambra, over the years, it seemed only to extend to the frontage – the aluminium windows, the tinted glass, the oiled swish of the doors. The further you travelled into the Nathaniel the more old-fashioned – or decrepit – it became.
There were admonitory notices everywhere. On a silver pod inside the door – ALL VISITORS MUST REPORT TO THE FRONT DESK. A noticeboard beside the reception warned guests not to bring male visitors to their rooms, not to ask for quarters, not to play loud music, not to cook after 10, not to drink alcohol in the corridors, not to hog the public phone in the foyer and never to ask for credit. The only positive sign was pasted over the elevator buttons scrawled in red marker. PRESS ONCE, it said as if the denizens of the Nathaniel needed directions for even the most basic tasks. But even in that Julia felt there was warning. What would happen if you were so bold as to press twice, she wondered.
Between the elevators, a Christmas tree stood. It was the only concession the Nathaniel had made to the season. It was an artificial tree, spindly, white, three-legged and it looked like it had fallen victim to some terrible wasting disease. The silver baubles on it were frosted with white, bits of which shed like flaky skin on the worn maroon carpet which was placed underneath as if expressly to catch the dandruff.
“I’ll need to keep your passport, Miss Fortune,” Valentin said. A smile hovered on his lips, but he suppressed it. “For registration purposes, you understand. I can have it back to you later this evening.” He eyed her speculatively. “I’m on all night.”
“Okay,” she replied, though usually she did not like to be parted from her passport.
That time on the package holiday in Portugal had taught her a lesson. She had left it, just like this, at the hotel desk and had forgotten to pick it up the next morning. She and Eric had travelled over a hundred miles before she realized she didn’t have it. Eric had been furious.
“Jesus, Julia,” he swore as he did a dangerously dare-devillish u-turn in the hired car, a rackety Fiat. The car had seen better days. The passenger door was arthritically stiff and there were several scrapes and dents on the body work as if it had been used as a getaway in a previous existence. Eric took his rage out on the gear stick, and for a moment Julia had a cartoonish vision of it coming away in his hand. “You’d forget your head if it wasn’t tied on to you.”
Eric had the happy knack of getting everything about Julia wrong. If only she could have lost her head. . . But now there was no Eric and what difference did it make if she had no passport?
“And you’ll be staying how many nights, Miss?” Valentin had stopped using her full name, she noticed.
“Three,” Julia replied, “I’ve booked for three.”
In case she lost her nerve.
Julia gingerly pressed the elevator button. While she had been at the desk, the two elevators had stood with their doors eerily agape though there was no one inside and no one had emerged from them. The doors kept making nervous forays as if they ached for closure but some neurotic hesitancy prevented them. Then suddenly, as she approached, both doors clamped shut, as if they had drawn morale from one another, and both lifts whirred into action in answer to some higher calling. After a wait of several minutes – during which she contemplated pressing again for fear she had not pressed hard enough, except the notice made her think better of it – Lift No 1 opened, empty of course, and Julia stepped in dragging her case behind her. Her reflection in the mirrored walls looked grey and emaciated. She was convinced they were those skinny mirrors department stores put in the ladies dressing rooms to make the customers feel better about themselves. Her hair was flat and greasy, though she had washed it only that morning, half a world away. Under the glare of the lift’s fluorescence, she felt twitchy as if she were giving off static. After all the contraptions she had gone through at the airport she firmly believed that as soon as she jabbed one of the buttons inside the lift, an alarm would go off or a red light would flash over her head and give her away. But after several false starts, the lift lumbered into action. The doors opened clamorously several times on the ascent, unbidden it would seem, and Julia would brace herself for a new arrival, but there were no signs of life in the Nathaniel. She could have been in a ghost hotel. When she finally alighted and wandered through the dingy corridors on the 12th floor, she could hear from other rooms the tinny babble of televisions and the mournful clatter of plates. She got the impression of caged, solitary lives and behind each door she imagined used rooms smelling of stale dinners and tart body spray.
Room 1210 felt very used. The motif of Middle-Eastern splendour had not made it this far and the room was a junk-shop of dowdy styles. Yellowing walls, a brown carpet. When she switched on the bedside light it gave off a low wattage tobacco hue. The bronze radiator growled when she put her gloved hand on it but it was warm, very warm, and she was glad of that. The bed was cloaked in an evil pink nylon bedspread; a rug at its foot was the colour of sick; a wastebasket with a plastic inset was embroidered with a small tangle of hair. She wandered into the bathroom. Where the white tiling halted, the walls were painted in a mouthwash green, speckled here and there with traces of mould. To match the walls there was an acidy eau-de-nil drip scored into the hand basin and the mirror sported the tributary of a crack. The perfect place, she thought, to end it all.
Behind the moss-coloured drapes in the bedroom she discovered a French door. After a lot of tugging she worked the handle free. She stepped out on to a balcony and into the glorious thrum of the bitterly cold night. It was her first taste of fresh air – if such the air over Manhattan could be called – and the cold felt different too. Brisker, cleaner. She leaned over the parapet and far below – well, 12 floors – a lighted centipede of traffic snailed towards a vanishing point between the glow-worm skyscrapers. The melancholy toot of car horns played a symphony; the diva sirens wailed. On the building opposite, an electronic tickertape mouthed a silent red greeting: Season’s Greetings 1987. She inhaled deeply – this would be Julia Fortune’s last Christmas.
From the moment she had stepped on the plane, she had felt hunted. Firstly, the form-filling. Reason for trip? Business or pleasure? Pleasure, she had written. And it was true, in part. She was surrendering to an illicit intoxication, a longed-for cessation of hostilities, and there was relief in it, if not pleasure. The form demanded where she’d be staying and Julia found herself looking furtively at what her neighbour was writing, some old schoolroom insecurity coming into play. He was a rough-looking fellow, from the country she guessed, with drills of red hair and raw hands and she knew that he would be bedding down at some ready-made address in Queens with half-a-dozen other illegal Paddies. Thaddeus Gavin, she saw his name was; Thaddeus, how biblical, she thought.
“Bit of handle, isn’t it?” he said to her grinning when he caught her staring.
“Thaddeus,” he said tapping the form with his chewed biro. “Ted, for short.” She didn’t know if this was a gamey attempt at an introduction.
“This is the best time of the year to go. They think you’re going over to visit relations.” He winked broadly. By next week he’d be a hod-carrier on some construction site run by the Irish mafia. Julia wasn’t trying to fool anyone – not yet, anyway – but she felt implicated in his chummy freemasonry. Everything about her visit so far was above board. In fact, it was the boldest gesture of her entire 27 years.
Hers was almost the last case to emerge on the baggage carousel at JFK and it travelled forlornly on its circular journey towards her. When she went to heave it off the chute, it almost sucked her on to the belt and but for the intervention of brawny Ted, she might have toppled over and been carried off on an endless loop.
“Want to meet up?” he asked blushing to his roots as he righted her case on the floor.
“Ah you know, like, for a pint maybe?”
Oh, she thought.
“I’ll only be here a few days,” she said, which sounded so terminal it made her want to gasp.
“Ah right so,” he said and he was so easily defeated that she almost felt like changing her mind. “Sure, it was just an idea.”
If this were a Hollywood film, she thought, this would be the start of a romance. This was the Irish version – two inarticulate people angling to be the first to give the other the brush-off.
The cab journey from the airport had only intensified her feeling of being on the run. The taximan drove like a lunatic, swinging from one lane to the other, as they hurtled towards the city. Her heart lifted at the familiar skyline – there was the Empire State, the Chrysler. She smiled to herself. Wouldn’t Hetty have loved this! It was from here, after all, she had sprung. Then they had nosedived underground into an acid-lit tunnel full of numbed traffic roar, before emerging into the heart of the frosted silhouette they had seen minutes before, towers looming up all about her in shining sentinels.
Now it was she who was looming over it. For the first time since she had left home, Julia felt, there on the balcony of the Nathaniel, a moment of unadulterated victory. She had made it! Nobody could stop her now. She was reluctant to go inside again for fear the brief bout of euphoria might fizzle out in the musty confines of the room but she could feel the cold air solidifying in her lungs and she thought she might die of frostbite if she stood out there any longer.
Shivering, she retreated into the fusty warmth of Room 1210. Unzipping her case she fished out her toilet bag and deposited it in the bathroom. The mirror with its jagged seam, she discovered, was actually the door of a cabinet with glass shelves. She lined up her toiletries, adding her tweezers, face cream and the orange tube of capsules. Sleeping tablets. Since the break-up with Eric she hadn’t been able to sleep and the doctor had prescribed the tablets to get her over the hump, as he called it. Eric had been Julia’s last chance and she had thrown herself into the relationship with abandon. That was her downfall, mistaking willed abandon for love. But she had managed to fool him and herself for three years. When he had broken up with her, he had said sadly (though it had sounded as if he had been calculating the odds for months) something is just not right. The something, though he didn’t know it, was Hetty, a fat orphaned memory of childhood. She shut the door of the cabinet. It made a disapproving click.
She wandered back into the room and turned on the television, a large, old-fashioned black and white model encased in mock mahogany. She kept the sound low. There was a quiz show on one of the channels and every so often as she unfurled her dressing gown and pajamas, her underwear, her squashed shoes, she caught glimpses of people in frozen poses of constipated glee. She remembered Hetty’s mother telling her once that the contestants were auditioned, not for their general knowledge but for their ability to “do” hysteria. She spoke of America fondly, or so Julia had thought. It was only in retrospect she realized that Jenny Gardner was being ironic. Julia wondered how much of her existence had been built on the foundations of someone else’s throwaway lines? Someone who literally could not bear her. But, however indirectly, she was here because of Jenny Gardner.
She had told her mother she was visiting an old college friend for the holidays. A lie, the only one in this whole escapade. Christmas at the Fortunes was raucous and extended; her absence would be barely noticed.
“But I was counting you in,” was her mother’s only protest.
Julia had expected more resistance. In some odd way she was disappointed how quietly her mother had acquiesced to what could only be perceived as a whim – haring off to New York the day before Christmas with next to no notice, though in fact she’d be planning the trip secretly for weeks. The break-up with Eric – a month before – had made it more understandable. Like her, he was a loss adjuster at Hibernian Life and Julia had been going out with him long enough for her mother to be sure that she was about to follow the well-worn path of her sisters down the aisle. Even Greta, her mother had said with more than a hint of blame when Julia had announced the split. Even Greta, who was considered a lost cause, is what she meant. But her mother’s baffled disappointment meant that Julia was granted a brief reprieve in the face of this loss, allowed, as her mother said to be out of sorts.
Julia was the only one living at home. The last of five, the final disappointment, the last gasp to rescue the unfortunate family name. Five evenly-spaced daughters – Greta, Rose, the twins Kitty and Liv, and finally Julia – had exhausted her father’s hopes of an heir. Her mother ineffectually tried to curb their spirits as if the communal force of five girls in the house was the ultimate insult to her father’s manhood. A gaggle of geese, he called them. Despite the hectic display of feminine chaos, the prevailing mood of the house was depression, though the word itself was considered too pretentious for the Fortunes. In the dumps was the closest they got. Her mother put any shift into the melancholy register in herself or her girls down to the Monthly Visitor; her father filed all unpredictable behaviour under Evil Moods. All that female energy had exhausted him into submission.
Julia’s memories of him as a child were always of activity. Under the car endlessly tinkering, pushing the hand-mower around their abused garden. Theirs was the most unruly patch on Prosperity Drive, which ached so much after a prim respectability that the Fortunes with their indiscreetly large brood were considered only a step above tinkers. The garden did nothing to dispel the reputation. The lawn – Julia would have hesitated to use the word – was a patchwork of scutch grass and clover, the fuchsia bushes had gone feral, the roses arched stalkily and proclaimed neglect in their badges of disease, their swarms of white fly and stains of black spot. Added to that, her father liked to fix things. But not before he had taken them apart. So their driveway was marred by oil blotches from engine parts that had bled and behind the gate there were several old tyres stacked. The family car, a fifteen-year-old Ford Anglia – another totem of the Fortunes’ poor standing on the Drive – was left outside year round to rust and grow moss in its window ledges. Julia felt this mangy piece of concrete was truly her father’s domain, the only place he was safe from female surfeit. Poor Dad, Julia thought, poor beleaguered Dad.
Her mother, on the other hand, was easy-going to the point of slothfulness. She was dumpy with it, her girth expanding with the disappointed expectation of each birth. She was much smaller than Julia’s father so that when Julia got to the age of speculating about such things, she wondered how it had worked between them, physically that is. Did her mother have to stand on a chair? Was that why there had never been a brother? But mostly she wondered what on earth possessed them to fetch up together. To think that love or passion or desire might have moved them seemed inconceivable. Or maybe it was the fact that a boy was inconceivable. . .
Whatever it was, by the time Julia came along, they seemed animated by a kind of lazy contempt for one another. Decisions sank between them in a lather of low-grade recrimination.
“Dad, can I go to the tennis hop?”
“What does your mother say?”
“She said to ask you.”
“That’s your mother for you!”
“Well, can I?”
“Am I expected to make all the hard decisions around here?”
“Is that yes or no?”
“If your mother says it’s alright. . . she’s the boss, after all.”
Which meant nobody was the boss. Julia’s friends envied this laissez-faire approach but she felt cheated, the runt of the litter, not worthy of even a marital spat. She remembered her sisters exciting rows of operatic dimensions between her parents.
There was a knock on the door. Julia froze. Who could it be? Who knew she was here? Cautiously, she inched the door open. A very tall black woman stood outside. Her hair had been viciously straightened but there was one lock of silver amidst the black which stood out like the tail of a skunk. She wore glasses with elaborate wings that swept upwards like encrusted extensions of her eyebrows. She bent forward deferentially, as if by folding herself up she could negate her great height. She must be six foot tall, Julia estimated. She wore a white cardigan over a navy polka-dot dress made of some filmy stuff. Her large feet were carelessly pushed into fur-lined carpet slippers.
“Hi hon,” she said smiling broadly. “Gloria, 1209.” She pointed regally at the next room. Her door was ajar. Julia caught sight of a miniature winking Christmas tree and heard waves of TV laughter from an unseen set. “I thought I’d be neighbourly.”
Julia smiled tightly.
“You just shipped in, then?” Gloria asked peering beyond Julia at her disembowelled case spilling its contents on the floor.
“You like to join me for a little celebration?”
Julia looked at her blankly.
“It’s Christmas, honey, or hadn’t you noticed?”
Inwardly, Julia groaned. Christmas Eve in the big city and it was not possible to be left alone. And just now Julia wanted to be very anonymous.
“Thank you,” Julia said, “but I have plans for tomorrow.”
The sleep of the just, she thought.
“We all got plans for tomorrow, honey.”
Julia felt reprimanded.
“I’m talking about tonight. My place, 7.30.”
Gloria smiled munificently.
“Where y’all from, then?”
“Dublin,” Julia said mulishly. “Dublin, Ireland.”
“My, my, aren’t you a long way from home! Well, honey, you get back to your settling in,” Gloria said waving a lavish hand in Julia’s direction. She backed away a few paces. “You’re going to just love it here – we’re all just one big old happy family at the Nathaniel.”
Julia shut the door briskly. She collapsed on the bed, her heart pounding from fright, and lay there, fully-clothed. Even though her throat was tight with anxiety, she felt numb with tiredness. Sleep was the only escape. . .
Hetty appeared in her troubled slumber. Her dreams of Hetty were always steeped in grainy family album hues, each scene preserved in envelope corners over a handwritten caption – June 11th, 1972. The first time she saw Hetty. The Gardners had moved in two doors up about a week before – moved into the Vances’ house which her mother to this day persisted in calling it, even though the Vances had left in ’71. Julia had been kneeling on the bed, her elbows propped on the window sill, looking out at the Fortunes’ rumpled back garden – Kitty sunbathing on a deck-chair pretending to study, Liv in her vest and undies painting pots, her latest craze. Then she saw something she wasn’t expecting – signs of life in the garden second next door. A girl of about her own age had appeared, stepping gingerly down the cracked path which led to the hedged-off bit of the garden. She was a plump creature in a white smocked dress with puff sleeves and bare tawny legs shod in pink plastic sandals. She climbed aboard the swing set which had been left by the Vances. Once garden-shed green, the paint had flaked off in places and hadn’t been touched up so its predominant colour now was rust. There was a wooden slatted seat and a pleasingly dried scooped-out hollow of ground underfoot where the Vance kids had left their signature with their heels many years before. The Vances were a generation older than the Fortunes so Julia had known them only as young adults – Lillian in her nurse’s whites coming off duty from night shift at St Jude’s, Gay – amazingly – returning in priest’s clothes from the seminary. It was hard to imagine either of them ever being children.
She watched as the girl climbed on the swing and tentatively got a momentum going. She called out, something indiscernible that Julia couldn’t catch – Pop, was it? – and a man appeared and ambled down the garden. She called to him again and he came in behind the swing and started to push. With his hand on her back, the girl was propelled forward almost as high as the swing’s crossbar and when she swung back it was almost as if she were not sitting on the swing but propelled by her own will through the air. She was crying out from fright or glee, Julia could not tell, but she could sense the girl’s exhilaration. Then a woman appeared, her mother, Julia supposed, and she joined in clapping her hands as the girl flew higher and higher, as if this were some kind of daring performance. It was a performance alright, Julia thought, of a kind she had never witnessed. As if the very fact of their connection were being celebrated, the parents on the ground, the child airborne. Some spiteful part of her wanted it to end badly. . .
“Hi, I’m Henrietta Gardner, but my friends call me Hetty.”
Julia was sitting on the wall of the front garden swinging her legs and chewing on a toffee when the little American girl introduced herself. Up close, she was round and very pleased with herself, despite the silly name that sounded like a character in a prissy children’s book. Julia, in mid-chew, felt in the presence of a commanding adult.
“Wanna come and play?” Hetty persisted.
Julia shrugged and slid down from the wall; she found such directness unnerving but compelling. She followed Hetty, several paces behind.
“Mawm!” Hetty yelled when they entered the Vances’ house by the back door.
The house remained much as the Vances had left it. The red and white kitchen cabinets with the corrugated glass, the faded striped wallpaper scattered with illustrations of kettles and bread bins and tea canisters, the same mud-coloured lino. The kitchen table was new – glaring yellow Formica on tubular legs with matching chairs. Hetty went directly to the fridge when there was no response from her mother and lifted out a bottle of orange squash. This added to her precocious air of command. In the bluish glare of the open door, Julia caught a glimpse of cities. Cartons and bottles, tubs teetering on the shelf edges, an impression of largesse.
Hetty climbed on a stool and fetched down two plastic beakers, setting them on the counter and filling them noisily. She popped a straw into both. Solemnly, she handed Julia one.
“Candy?” Hetty asked.
“No, Julia,” Julia replied, “my name is Julia.”
“I mean would you like a candy, Julia?” Hetty repeated very slowly making Julia feel utterly stupid. She burrowed into one of the kitchen cupboards and fished out a tin, opening it with a flourish to reveal a stash of chocolate bars. Julia snaffled one quickly fully expecting the arrival of an ogre mother who would insist on her putting it back. She slurped noisily on the straw, thinking how exotic this was. The only time she’d used one was in Cafolla’s when they’d gone there for ice cream sundaes on the twins’ Confirmation day; she didn’t think of them as domestic accoutrements.
Hetty’s mother appeared then.
“Who’s this little citizen?” she asked – not what are you doing eating me out of house and home?
She was a slight woman, her heavy blonde hair tied back in a bouncing ponytail, a leafy freckling on her cheeks; she wore a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Her features were sharp; her candour interrogative.
“Mom, this is my new friend,”
Julia felt thoroughly appropriated by this declaration. Hetty hadn’t gone through the ritual Julia was used to, in which you slunk into a loose kind of alliance and if you didn’t fall out you supposed it was a friendship. But it wasn’t an altogether unpleasant sensation to be taken in hand like this.
“Name, rank and serial number?” Mrs Gardner asked.
Julia looked to Hetty for translation.
“Don’t mind Mom,” Hetty said in an aside. “She’s a bit kooky.”
“You’re spending a lot of time around there,” her mother would say, as if there was something suspect about her new friendship. “Are you hoping some of their Yankiness will rub off on you?”
Yes, Julia wanted to say fiercely, yes.
But no, it was more than that. She wanted both to own the Gardners and be possessed by them. In their company she felt singular, but what she longed for was to be indispensable.
Information was one way. She scavenged for biographical detail. Bob was from Faithful, Arkansas, Jenny from New York, New York. That’s the way she said it. So good they named it twice, Hetty would add. They had met at a monument in Paris, Hetty said, and love blossomed. Love blossomed. Julia puzzled over such phrases of Hetty’s. She was full of declarations which sounded adult to Julia and too emphatic to be queried.
“I’m a love child,” Hetty informed her gravely. (Julia could not shift the image of the Gardners delivering Hetty in front of some grand equestrian statue.) “What about you?”
Julia had no idea. As far as she was concerned she had sprung from some dark mood of her father’s and a blind eye turned by her mother.
Hetty and her parents presented a united front; they were part of her play as if they were enjoying a second childhood. They went to the Stella Cinema together for the double-bill Saturday afternoon matinees; they made their own popcorn and shouted out answers in unison when Quicksilver came on the TV.
“We’re making memories,” Hetty said, “that’s what Mom says.”
Julia was so casually included in their lives that it made her feel, sometimes, that she was more witness than participant. She would watch all three of them cavorting around the living room in a cushion fight and feel some creeping wariness she could not explain. She could not entirely trust to this gaiety. In the midst of the laughter she got the whiff of loss.
“I don’t know why they’re such a great hit,” her father would complain mildly. “Sure, isn’t he on the run?” Her father’s theory was that Bob Gardner was a draft dodger – he must have a low number. “Although, he doesn’t look like a yobbo.” (Yobbos had long hair and wore – ironically enough – army surplus.)
Mr Gardner, – no Bob, she corrected herself for such Mr Gardner liked to be called even by children – had a sharp haircut and wore a smart suit to work. The shiny kind that Mormons wore. She imagined him going door-to-door peddling religion although she knew he worked in the airport. But her father’s speculations made her anxious and prone to drawing up inventories of impermanence. Well, they were renters, weren’t they? They used Bakelite dishes instead of delft as if they were on an extended camping trip. She noticed, too, that instead of loose covers Mrs Gardner – Jenny – used tie-dyed throws on the sofa and chairs. They were like conjuring props as if with one swift movement Jenny could make the furniture disappear. And her father was on a contract, Hetty told her, and could at any time be called home, a phrase Julia had only seen on gravestones. It was this air of contingency that made the Gardners’ tenure so imperilled. One day she might knock on their door and be greeted by silence. She would peer in through the letterbox and see only a shaft of hazy light falling in an abandoned hallway. These things happened, she knew; she and Hetty watched The Fugitive. The soundtrack boomed in her head.
Julia awoke, startled. She pressed her temples to rid herself of the ghostly echoes and realised that the rat-a-tat was at her door. Rumpled, she rose from the bed and opened the door. It was Gloria again. She looked at her watch – half past midnight. Still on Irish time.
“You ready then?”
Gloria was wearing a crown-shaped party hat. She sipped from a pale green cocktail with a cherry floating on the top.
“You don’t want to miss my Japanese slippers!” she said gesturing to the glass.
Julia allowed herself to be led into Gloria’s room. If Julia’s room was merely used, Gloria’s was possessed. Every available space had been filled. There were bookshelves and a display cabinet, a table under the window. In the corner near the bathroom Gloria had set up a breakfast cooker. As well as the Christmas tree there were streamers and balloons and golden paper chains hanging from the light fittings and draped over the picture frames. She raised a jug and poured Julia a large cocktail. She handed her a paper hat. In as much as she had thought about it, Julia had somehow expected that this would be a party but now she realised that she was the only guest. Was this woman trying to pick her up? Or adopt her?
“Come on, come on, it’s Christmas. Don’t they celebrate Christmas where you come from?” Gloria chided, sensing her reluctance. She invited Julia to sit and don the papery head gear. Then she went to a corner of the room and dropped a stylus noisily on a record. Frank Sinatra eased his way into the room.
“The anthem of New York,” Gloria said, mouthing the words.
I want to sleep, Julia thought in response, in a city that never wakes.
The Gardners used to listen to music like this and smooch around the sitting room while she and Hetty played upstairs. They would hear giggling and sometimes whoops of laughter followed by strange silences. Hetty would put her finger to her lips. The secretive gesture made Julia feel thrillingly included.
“They’re making a sister for me,” she would say nudging Julia as they sat at Hetty’s white melamine dressing table brushing each other’s hair. The trick of the triptych mirror made Julia believe that there was already a third presence in the room. When she got excited, Hetty would often grab her hand or clutch her arm. Her touch made Julia agitated. She would feel a terrible seizing at her throat that could have been tears or fright. She remembered once lying next to Hetty on her bed. Hetty was chattering as usual but instead of listening, Julia found herself contemplating the plump satin pile of her instep and inexplicably wanting to kiss it. It had made her blush all over.
The bed had a canopy of white netting over it and she remembered staring intently at its tiny honeycomb pattern until the shameful desire passed.
“This is like a four-poster bed,” she said trying to change the potent mood.
“Mosquito net,” Hetty explained, wrinkling her nose. “Mom thought there’d be mosquitoes here.”
For the first time Julia considered that Prosperity Drive might be an exotic destination for the Gardners, a far-flung, wild place with who knows what hidden dangers.
How they spent those seemingly endless hours of childhood, Julia couldn’t catalogue afterwards, hard as she tried to piece them together. The activities seemed too banal to bear the weight of charged memory. There was Ludo and cards, the disrobing of dolls. Hetty had three Barbies – airhostess, party girl and nurse – while Julia had only a battered Sindy, a hand-me-down from Rose. The plastic pellet that was her right breast had been chewed by the dog (a bitch, of course) that the Fortunes had briefly owned before it was run down on the avenue by an ambulance on its way to St Jude’s. The clothes that Sindy had come with were long vanished, compensated only slightly by a host of rough-looking replicas that Greta had run up on the sewing machine. (Thanks to Greta, the Fortunes’ pants and jackets sported pale patches where the pockets had been removed to tart up Sindy’s wardrobe.)
Once or twice, Julia was allowed to stay the night. A sleepover, Jenny Gardner called it. Julia would wake in the small hours, the light from the landing creeping in under the lip of the door, the steady rise and fall of Hetty’s breath in the bed beside her, the wispy canopy overhead and she would feel, however briefly, a certainty about her place in this world. Emboldened she would reach out and stroke the little dark hairs on Hetty’s forearm. But it was a feeling that could only flourish while the household slept.
“You look done in,” Gloria said after the third Japanese slipper.
“You flew in from Ireland today?”
“Say, hon, I don’t even know your name,” Gloria said.
Julia took a deep breath. Now was as good a time as any.
“Henrietta,” she said. “Henrietta Gardner. But most people call me Hetty.”
She took a large gulp of Japanese slipper to damp down the wail she could feel rising in her throat. As if Hetty had just died, as if she had just killed her. She stood up, dropping her glass. Gloria rushed to the bathroom and came back with a cloth. She righted Julia’s glass and began to mop up the seething stain which was spreading on her pale rug. Julia in her silly paper hat watched and sobbed.
“Hetty, honey, what is it? What’s troubling you?”
Gloria was on her knees gazing up at her. In all these years no one had asked her so directly.
“My friend,” she started. Gloria’s extravagant eyebrows were arched in compassionate query.
“My friend died.” There, it was said.
Gloria stretched up her hand and grasped Julia’s.
“Why don’t you sit back down and tell me all about it, hon.”
On Christmas Eve, fifteen years before, Hetty had cycled to the shops on an errand for her mother. Crackers, Jenny Gardner kept on repeating at the funeral, a box of Christmas crackers. Julia was at home. The Fortunes had one house rule; after nightfall on Christmas Eve was family time. So even before Hetty’s death, Christmas had felt to Julia like a day of bereavement, a zone of female disappointment. It was a cold, wet night and Hetty had pedalled down the Classon’s Hill near the old dye works which every child in the neighbourhood had been told to dismount for. Conditions were bad, greasy underfoot with poor visibility. Hetty must have been travelling at some speed, hurtling down the forbidden hill. A pebble must have struck the spokes, or maybe she had hit a pothole. She applied the brakes. The cable snapped. She went over the handlebars and hit her head against the stone balustrade of the bridge. Stone dead, they said as if a gravestone had been instantly erected. Stone dead.
Julia came to a full stop. How could she explain that in her adult life she had met no-one who could match the captivating passion – wasn’t that what it was, passion? – that a dead twelve-year-old playmate had inspired. Not even Eric; especially not Eric. If it had just been Hetty, she might have recovered. Hetty at least was safe in her memory, a constant companion, the wise child who would never enter the treacherous gangland of adolescence or know the guile and wrangles of adulthood. She remained embalmed for Julia, like a child martyr of the church. No, it was the loss of Jenny Gardner that had really stung. Jenny had simply cut her out. She couldn’t bear to see Julia. She would cross the street if she saw her coming. Even at the funeral she refused to make eye contact; it made Julia feel invisible, as if she were the one who had died. Weren’t mothers supposed to cleave to the companions of their dead children, treat them as substitutes, invest them with the souls of their lost angels? Not Jenny Gardner. Julia was like an insult to her. A smack in the face. She was as antagonistic as if Julia had pushed Hetty over the parapet. Or as if she had intuited, somehow, Julia’s first spiteful thoughts that summer’s day she saw Hetty on the swing.
“It’s nothing personal,” Bob Gardner explained to Julia’s mother, “it’s just too painful for her. Maybe after a while. . . ”
But time only solidified Jenny’s dark resolve. The milestones in Julia’s life – leaving school, her first boyfriend, going to college (the first of the Fortunes to do so because she was the last) – these exaggerated the chasm between her and the Gardners. There were times in her teenage years when Julia would pray for them to disappear. Why don’t they move back to America, she would wonder, vehemently wishing for the very thing that had haunted her childhood. Why don’t they move on? But for all their seeming transience, they were as rooted (or stranded?) in Prosperity Drive as the Fortunes were. She’d heard – but never saw since she was never permitted to enter their house again – that Jenny Gardner had preserved Hetty’s bedroom exactly the way she had left it, her unopened Christmas presents still intact in their shiny wrapping. (She had asked for a surprise that year, Julia remembered; only Jenny knew what was wrapped up inside.) So Julia’s last image of Hetty was at the moment of flight, her body in mid-air, still intact, still joyous and alive, her head laced and tinselled with Christmas. . .
“Hush now, hon,” Gloria was saying rubbing her back as if she were winding a child. “Your friend Julia wouldn’t want you to be grieving like this, now would she? She’d want you to be getting on with your life, making a fresh start.”
Julia nodded dumbly. Of all the dislocating experiences of the past 24 hours, this was the strangest, hearing herself being described posthumously in the third person. It was like someone walking over her grave. She shivered.
“Maybe, hon, you should get some sleep?”
Gloria steered her to her door as if she were feeble. She had trouble with the key – everything in this country turned the wrong way – and Gloria took it from her and opened the door of 1210. Her passport was lying on the floor where Valentin must have slipped it under the door when he got no reply. She picked it up and put it on the bedside locker.
“Alright now, honey?” Gloria asked.
Julia nodded. Thank you seemed such a paltry a thing to say to this woman to whom she had blurted out her entire life so she said nothing. She peeled her clothes off letting them drop where they fell and crept into bed. There was a dull thudding in her head, a drumbeat of drink and grief. She looked at her watch. It was almost 3 a.m. She closed her eyes but the room spun about making her feel sick. Sleep seemed out of the question. Maybe now was the time to do it, sick and sore and purged.
She rose and went into the bathroom. She opened the cabinet – she was cut in two by the gashed mirror – and fished out her nail scissors. She went back into the room and picked up her passport. She opened it to the half-way point and began to hack through its pages until only the covers remained. She gathered up the shredded remains, put them in the wastebasket and stepped out once more on to the balcony. Sheltering the flame with her hand, she struck a match and set fire to the contents. Her past flared briefly, singed and then shrivelled into charred blackness. Smudges of it escaped and danced briefly in the frosty air, mingling with the hot clouds of her own breath. If anyone could see her, they would think her crazy – or a jumper. A naked woman on a balcony going up in flames. She didn’t care.
“Happy Christmas,” she whispered into the darkness, “Happy Christmas, Hetty Gardner.”
Mary Morrissy has published three novels – Mother of Pearl, The Pretender and The Rising of Bella Casey – and two collections of short stories, A Lazy Eye (1993) and Prosperity Drive (2016). She has won a Hennessy Award and a Lannan Literary Foundation Award and currently teaches at University College Cork. Prosperity Drive will be launched in Cork on 23 April during the Cork World Book Festival. Visit her website: http://marymorrissy.com/