by Claire Hennessy
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Conor’s nosebleed wakes her up. Their bedroom’s right next to the bathroom, everything’s right on top of the next thing in this place, so as soon as she hears the water running and Conor muttering “for fuck’s sake” Lucy knows the story.
She pushes herself out of bed, pads along the cold floor and into the sickly-green-tiled space where Conor’s hair sticks up from his head and his hands clutch blood-sodden tissue. “Another fucking one,” he says.
She reaches out to touch his face. “You poor thing.” Her fingertips trace his stubble, the ginger peeping through the gold.
His shoulders are slumped. It’s not the nosebleeds, she knows. Not exactly. He gets a bunch of them every winter. Runs in the family.
She takes the used clumps of tissue from the side of the sink and throws them in the bin, pulling at the toilet roll for a fresh supply.
“It’s just,” he says, and she holds her breath because she knows something’s coming, “just – ”
“Just what?” She wiggles her toes to warm them up. The ragged towel spread across the floor to soak up the shower overflow is still damp.
“I’m just so tired of this shit,” he says.
“I know. I know.” She strokes his hair.
When the nosebleed stops he says, “I’m going to stick on the telly for a bit, do you wanna watch something?”
She checks the time. 2:47. “Ah, no, I’ve to be up early.”
It’s inevitable that the bed feels too empty, that the television blasts through the walls along with Conor’s laughter, that she ends up knotting her dressing-gown around her waist and curling up next to him on the couch. Inevitable that his hands undo that knot, his fingers sliding against bare skin, and that when his tongue works its magic between her thighs it’s impossible to remember that the walls are paper-thin.
When her alarm goes off at 6:45, she hears it as clearly as if it’s next to her, but has to extricate herself from Conor to get back into the bedroom to switch it off.
“Sorry,” she says, conscious of the noise she must be making as she moves around. A quick shower, a rummage to find something appropriately sedate for work, the retrieval of apples from the kitchenette to keep her going for the morning. Conor mumbles something indistinct into the arm of the couch. Before she leaves she tugs the once-green Ikea blanket over him, presses a kiss on his forehead. Moments like this make her imagine she’s in the movie of her life. This is the part where the audience notices how she takes care of him.
The college is on the other side of town, but there’s a direct bus if she gets it just at the right moment, carefully factoring in its own erratic schedule with the near-certainty of being caught in city-centre traffic for an hour if she leaves it too late. The cold air on her face makes her wish she’d remembered to root out her scarf from underneath the piles of clothes in the wardrobe. The shelves collapsed two months ago and the landlord hasn’t fixed them yet; it’s tricky to find something particular in there.
The bus is late. There is nothing new about this, but she squeezes her eyes shut and wishes for another two hours in bed. One o’clock, she thinks. She needs to make it through till one o’clock, which is nothing. Lucy looks at the girl next to her at the stop, leaning back against the wall, her face perfectly made-up. They’re probably the same age, twenty-six, and this other girl probably has the kind of real job where you stay until five or six and you’re in five days a week, maybe sometimes being called in on Saturdays; what Lucy has is so little in comparison to that. Four mornings a week, that’s it for the office drudgery, what Conor calls signing away your soul.
She lets the yawn out, jaw-snapping and satisfying, and waits.
The bus deposits her there in plenty of time. It’s not yet nine, so when she swipes her card through she goes to the computer lab on the first floor to check her email. Sometimes she’ll get a decent forty-five minutes of sorting through her real work, queries about whether she can edit this video or help out on this project or put together a script for this thing. This morning there’s something from Johnny, the guy who’s been working with Conor on a web series, looking for a favour. Conor said your the woman to talk to about editing this!!! She stares at the screen, checks the time, decides she’ll come back to it later when she’s less tired and inclined to twitch over punctuation.
Downstairs, the lights are on. Anne, the receptionist, is going through the post. “Morning, Lucy.”
“Morning!” She goes chirpy as soon as she walks through the doors of the academic registry. This is the movie for the next four hours: polite office girl.
Her rebellions are small and insignificant, the kind of things she tried telling Conor about to mitigate the situation and then gave up on because he’d launch enthusiastically into elaborate plots. “You just need to walk out of there one day,” he’s said more than once, “just be like, nah, haven’t done anything the last six months, screw the lot of you, the last thing this country needs is more fucking religion teachers.” When he says things like this his eyes light up. He thinks big, while she quietly unpins notices (support groups for homosexuals who want to be good Christians, pregnancy support services she’s read exposés about) from the chaplain’s noticeboard on the way to and from the bathroom, things she could perhaps justify or lie about if needed.
She jots down the phone messages first and then starts the calls back. “Hi there, would Mr Johnston be available for a quick word? Just returning his call from yesterday . . .”
This school secretary has the voice of a smoker. “Who’s this now?”
Perky, perky. “This is Lucy O’Neill calling from St Joseph’s College.”
“And what’s this in relation to?”
“We’re looking to sort out placements for our student teachers.”
“Oh, now, I think Mr Johnston has that all sorted for next year – sure give me a mobile number, that’s the best thing, he’ll give you a shout if he has a place . . .”
Pleasant, pleasant. “I’m actually calling from the office at the college here, it’s not for myself.” She resents her voice for not indicating that never in a million years would she ever want to teach bored and hormonal teenagers, let alone indoctrinate them into Catholicism. “Mr Johnston left a message for me yesterday, would it be possible to speak to him?”
When she first started this job, a six-week thing that turned into six months, she presumed the jealous guarding of the principals was to do with secretaries having affairs with them. Now she’s learned the protectiveness is something much more tedious: deference.
“Mr Johnston,” she says smoothly when she gets through, “this is Lucy calling from St Joseph’s, returning your call from yesterday.”
“From where now?”
“St Joseph’s College of Education.”
“Is that the place out on the Navan Road?”
“It is indeed. So we sent you a letter back in September about taking on two of our students . . .”
“Listen, I’d love to help them out, but I’m – inundated, Lucy, absolutely inundated with applications from student teachers.”
She fills the notepad with stars and jagged edges. “Sure, I know everywhere’s under a lot of pressure. This’d only be for five weeks, now, it’s not for the full year. I don’t know if that makes any difference . . .”
He sighs. “And when’d this be?”
She has him. She talks him up from taking one (Religion with Irish) to two (“and how many history classes would you have? We could send you someone with history as their extra subject . . . ”) and marks it down on her spreadsheet. Triumph.
“How’s it going?” Ruth, her supervisor, pauses at the desk on her way out for the first cigarette of the work day.
“Do you have time to check up on the absences from last week?”
Lucy pretends to consider. “Sure. Is the list on the system?”
“Yeah. I’ll forward you on some of the emails from yesterday too, a few more came in.” Ruth’s already walking away by the time she gets to the “Thank you!”, and Lucy updates her to-do list for the day. Alice arrives, deposits her coat and handbag, and joins Ruth outside in the courtyard; Lucy can see them from her window.
“How’s it going, Luce?” Kevin asks, shrugging off a black coat.
“Grand. How are you this morning?”
“Not so great, having trouble with this video.”
She makes a sympathetic face. Kevin is responsible for recruiting students, making it sound like St Joseph’s is the hip place to be. She can imagine his energy when he’s in front of a group of sixth-years, winning them over, but his technical skills are woeful.
“Might ask Naoise to give me a hand with it later,” he continues.
“What’s the problem?” She makes her face blank as he explains. He makes it sound more complicated than it really is. It’s far less effort than the favour for Johnny is going to be.
She just has to survive until one o’clock, she reminds herself. She says nothing.
When she gets home Conor’s still on the couch, upright now, his laptop hooked up to the flat-screen monitor. YouTube clips.
“What are you looking for?” she asks, sinking down next to him, resting her head on his shoulder.
His arm goes around her, pulling her closer. “Just taking a break. No word back from the RTÉ guy yet, it’s so fucking ridiculous.”
“Ah no,” she says, feeling the disappointment grasp her too. “I’m sorry.”
“They’re all such cunts,” he says.
“I could tell when we had the meeting . . . just didn’t have a clue. They’ve no idea what’s actually funny. They’re stuck in this weird time loop where it’s the fucking eighties . . .”
She brushes her fingertips along the back of his neck, then into his hair. “Are you going to give your man in TV3 a shout?”
Conor jerks his head away. “He’s not answering the phone, Lucy.”
The injustice is almost tangible. “Do you think he’s avoiding you or just – busy?”
He shrugs, slumps. She curls into him, breathing him in. His grey hoodie needs a wash, and she’s furious at the world, at the TV people, for not getting him. For not giving him a chance, when he’s taken more of a chance on this comedy stuff than she’s ever managed.
The first time she saw him he was on stage, so completely at ease with a microphone in hand that she was transfixed. She laughed the whole way through his twenty minutes and then dared herself to go up and compliment him afterwards, when he was lounging against the bar with one of his friends.
“Sure listen, can I buy you a drink?” he asked at some point in their fervent agreement that all the good stuff in Irish comedy was happening online.
“Yeah, go on.” She grinned, and she could picture how her face might look all lit up.
As it turned out he didn’t have enough change on him and the bar wasn’t taking cards, so she bought him a drink, but it proved a good investment. Half an hour in she mentioned she’d written the script for one of the things he was raving about, and watched his eyes widen. “Ah you should have said! Jesus, and I’ve been rambling on here like an eejit . . .”
He was overly effusive but she loved it. They stayed up late at night making plans, talked about collaborations. Then when his landlord, an unpleasant man at the best of times by all accounts, announced to Conor he had someone else moving in so if he could be out by the end of the month, it was the perfect moment to think of a crisis as an opportunity. She’d been back at home ever since finishing the masters and she was itching to feel like a real adult again. Two months in she realised the freelance work covered her rent but not the heating or internet, and she dipped into her savings for another two until the quest for part-time work paid off.
Now she holds him until he dozes off. She’s never been able to nap, wishes she could. His chest falls and rises and she disconnects his laptop from the monitor, replacing it with her own.
The weariness hits her as soon as Johnny’s email comes up again. She doesn’t want to do him a favour. Johnny’s the other brain behind the series they’ve been trying to impress RTÉ with, and maybe he’s messed it up with his inept punctuation, maybe they know not to take him seriously.
It is not possible to be this tired at three in the afternoon, she tells herself. Get over yourself.
This is not how it’s supposed to work, having less time to say yes to the things – film, comedy, theatre – that matter. Having less energy. She downloads the video, opens up the programme, lets it play through once to see what kind of a state it’s in. Beside her, Conor’s shifting in his sleep. She roots her headphones out of her bag and plugs them in.
The content’s not bad, it’s the quality that’s the issue. And there’s something so grey about Johnny’s flat, where he’s recorded this, or maybe it’s just that she knows it too well; she’s struggled with that dodgy window, leaned against that wall with a bottle of beer that time she and Conor were over there watching the film both the guys had appeared in. The beer was their payment, she remembers suddenly, borderline drinkable.
By the time Conor wakes up she’s made a decent start on the video, smoothed out some of the rough edges. It’s satisfying in its own way, easier than editing her own stuff. “I’m starving,” he says.
“I’m going to do a pasta thing in about an hour.”
He rummages through his pockets. She hears the clink of coins. “You sure you don’t want something from next door?”
“We should buy shares in that place,” she says. He looks at her blankly. “You’re still half asleep, aren’t you? Ah, go on, get me something.”
“What do you want?”
“Sweet and sour chicken?”
“Cool.” There’s more clinking. “Do you’ve a tenner by any –”
“Wallet’s on the table.”
When the door swings shut she allows herself a minute of irritation. She knows, she knows, he’s on the dole, he’s struggling, he’s doing everything he can to make money at this thing. It’s part of what they get about each other – the things you put up with to try to do what you love. But the pasta’s there, bought, paid for, and they got takeaway last night, and . . .
Her stomach growls. Lucy reminds herself that she’s grumpy when she’s tired. And hungry. It’ll be a relief just to have the food right there in front of her, to be able to eat as she works. There’s a script competition deadline approaching and if she finishes up Johnny’s thing, or at least does enough to put it aside for now without guilt, she can start polishing her piece (currently titled ‘The Kidnappers Vs The Hipsters’, though she’s been hoping for a better title). Last year she made the shortlist. The prize went to an old college friend of Conor’s; apparently he’s always been a lucky bastard.
The voices just at the door, then the thump-thump-thump up the stairs, tell her he’s on his way back. “People are so rude,” he says, depositing the cartons on top of the layer of papers on the coffee table. “Your man downstairs just started roaring at me about having the telly on last night.”
“Some people have jobs to go to,” he says, mimicking Rory’s accent. “Yeah, fuck off. We’re not all corporate drones.” He slams his foot down on the floor. “Not everyone lives the way you do, mate,” he yells in the direction of Rory’s flat.
“Don’t, don’t get into it with him,” Lucy says. She stares at the floor as though something might burst through it – a fist punching its way through the ceiling, maybe. It’s almost not a surprise when she hears the crash. Not from the floor, though. The bulb in their swaying living- room light has just given up, taking the paper lantern shade with it. She empties the shattered glass into the bin.
“We could light a candle,” she suggests, eyeing the darkening skies outside.
Conor stares at the floor. “I hate this place.”
She settles the container of sweet and sour pork on her lap. “So at the madhouse today, I run into Fergus and Joanna in the staffroom . . .”
“Ah, you know.” It’s the one great scandal of the place, a story Kevin told her in her first week and one she didn’t entirely buy until Ruth confirmed it a month later. “Ex-priest, ex-nun, ran off together about ten years ago and now they’re having their second baby.”
“I told you about them, it’s mad. They’re lovely though, so happy together. Anyway – ”
“A priest and a nun?” He starts laughing, the snorting kind. “Brilliant.”
She lets the anecdote itself slide; she’s managed to cheer him up. “Can you imagine them in confession,” she says, and that gets him going even harder.
These are the moments, she thinks. Laughter and love. Their life.
Thursday. So close. So close. She’s going to have a glass of wine this evening, and then get up at eight tomorrow and work in her pyjamas, that’s what she’s going to do, she can taste it.
“Lucy,” Ruth says, en route back to her own desk after her mid-morning cigarette and coffee break. “Is there any chance at all you could come in tomorrow?” The dread hits Lucy right in the chest. “I know you’re not down to work, but Naoise’s off sick and we could use a hand with the open day . . .”
Open day. She can do that. “Sure, yeah, that’s fine. The whole day?”
“If you can manage it.” Ruth looks at her hopefully.
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
“You’re a star.”
She runs into Fergus, the recovering priest, in the staffroom. “I hear you’re helping us out tomorrow,” he says.
“Good woman.” He smiles. “You’re getting on well in there.”
“It’s fine,” she says. The kettle clicks; the water’s ready. “How many do you normally get in for the open days?”
“Depends, depends. Usually the place is packed. We’ll see now, tomorrow, what the story is.”
Outside there’s an anxious student – one of the third-years, she thinks – hovering. “Is Fergus around, do you know? I was just down in his office . . .”
“Yeah, he’s just grabbing a coffee.” She pauses. “I’ll let him know you’re out here – it’s Susan, right?”
“Yeah. Cheers, Lucy.”
She can’t remember the first names of any of the admin staff being on her radar when she was in college. But this is the thing, she tells herself as she settles back at her desk with coffee in hand. It’s too like school, this small college, too cosy. And this office – almost empty now, with Ruth at a board meeting and Alice off somewhere else – is too quiet. She’s self-consciously cheery on the phone, full of exclamation points.
Kevin catches her mid-eye roll while she’s on hold for a grumpy school secretary. “In tomorrow?” he mouths across the room.
“You love this place really,” he says when she hangs up the phone. He’s behind her now, adding a folder to the filing cabinet.
She blinks. “It’s grand.”
“And what do you do outside of this madhouse?” he wants to know.
“This and that.” Ruth’s phone is ringing. Lucy doesn’t normally answer it but she’s tempted to now.
“So mysterious.” He’s asked her before; it’s not quite a running joke but it has the potential to be one.
Her own phone goes. “Good morning, St Joseph’s, how can I –”
“Lucy, I was trying to get Ruth but maybe you could help me?” Fergus. “I’ve just been chatting to Susan here. Can you send me on a copy of the regulations for the placements, I can’t find the most recent one . . .”
“Yeah, I’ll email that to you now.”
“You wouldn’t know off the top of your head the deadline for filling out the special-circumstances form, would you?”
“It’s next Friday. Was going to be tomorrow but then they moved it back.”
“Brilliant. Thanks, Lucy. God bless.”
It goes so well until she gets the “God bless”. They’re all at it.
Kevin’s still there. “Seriously, you’re not going to tell me?”
“Bits and pieces.” She shrugs.
“Give me an example.”
She’s pretty sure he’s just looking for a distraction. Thirty-two-year-old manchild putting off doing real work. “I write comedy scripts. Nothing big, like, just little things online or for festivals or whatever.”
His mouth curves into a grin. “Would I have seen anything?”
She sighs. “There’s that one with the priest at the wedding . . .”
His face lights up and then contorts into a frown. “Not the one where he’s . . . with the page-boy fella . . .”
“Yeah, that one.”
“I did see that. It’s pretty dark.” Kevin’s looking at her like he’s never seen her before.
“Yeah. Well. So’s the Catholic Church.”
“Ah, but that’s . . .”
She’s already pulling herself back from this. This is pub conversation, home conversation, anywhere-but-here conversation. “Anyway,” she says brightly. “What are you –”
“So what else do you do?” Kevin wants to know.
“Bit of video editing,” she says, to change the subject, and then she could kick herself.
“Video editing, you say.”
“I’m not very good –”
“Ah go on, Luce. You know you want to.”
She ends up staying until two; Ruth’s happy to sign off on the extra hour. Kevin’s delighted with her, like she’s some kind of new toy.
Conor’s in a mood when she gets home. “Apparently there’s a problem with my dole,” he says as soon as she’s in the door.
Her heart sinks. Not another delay. She won’t get paid for her extra day this week for another while. “What is it?”
He shrugs. “I’m going down there tomorrow.”
“Okay. I’ll –” She starts to say she’ll be in work, then stops herself. There’s no point rubbing it in. “Do you want a cup of tea?”
He shakes his head, lights up instead. The smell of it hits harder than usual. She slips her laptop into its case. “I’m going to go work down the road for a bit. See you later.”
On the way to the Starbucks on the corner, a wave of something overwhelming hits. She doesn’t know what to name it. Beyond panic. Something like viewing her life from the outside and wondering how it turned into this. She stops at the traffic lights and pretends to check her phone, waiting for the moment to pass.
“Hi, you’re very welcome to St Joseph’s, do you know where you’re going?” Lucy is on greeting duty for the moment, directing secondary-school students towards the lecture hall where Fergus and Joanna are delivering their spiel about the education and theology departments. A few are in uniform, shepherded by teachers or guidance counsellors.
“Hello,” a grey-haired woman says, shorter than Lucy, suddenly emerging underneath her nose. “This is Catherine. Say hello, Catherine.”
Catherine is gangly, awkward, but most definitely old enough to be here without her mother. “Hi, Catherine,” Lucy says.
“Are you a student here yourself?” The woman peers at her through tortoiseshell glasses.
“Oh no, I work in the office.”
“And what do you do?”
It’s probably only two minutes later but feels like twenty when Kevin rescues her. “Excuse me, I need to steal this lady away for a second,” he says to the woman, tugging at Lucy’s arm. When they’re out of earshot, he picks up a copy of the day’s schedule and mutters to her behind it. “Avoid the parents. At all costs. They’re mad.”
“Yeah.” She sighs. “Would you have brought your mammy along to an open day?”
“I wouldn’t, and you wouldn’t, but some of this lot don’t know they’re born.”
She likes that, suddenly, feeling on his side.
“Lucy! Can you give me a hand with these posters?” Alice calls over. “And stop flirting with Kevin,” she says out of the corner of her mouth when Lucy arrives at her side.
“I – was not,” she says.
“He’s off at the end of the month, don’t get attached. Even if he’s a dote.”
“Yeah.” Alice pauses, unscrolling a six-foot poster. “Did you not know?”
“No, no idea.” It’s not that unusual – she’s not there for lunch time, not there for all the gossip that’s swapped over smokes. But it feels like a sudden betrayal anyway.
The last potential student leaves at four and she helps with the clean-up. Ruth hands her left-over schedules for the recycling bin and says, “You know Kevin’s leaving at the end of the month?”
“So if you’re looking for something with more hours . . .” Ruth shrugs.
It takes Lucy a second to process this. “They haven’t found a replacement yet?”
“Not yet. Everything needs to go through the proper channels and all that, but if you’re interested, put in your CV, okay?”
“Okay,” she says.
It’s the last thing she wants, she thinks on the bus home. She rests her head against the glass, tired, but vindicated; she’s had a long day’s work, she’s off the hook for everything else, everything else that’s half-favours and not-enough.
And if she had a full-time job then she wouldn’t need to be so stressed about money . . .
When she unlocks the door she already knows there’s something very wrong going on. There are noises coming from her bedroom.
The sick feeling intensifies when she hears the laughter, the snorting. Conor. Just in case there was any chance it mightn’t be him in there, with – with who? Some actress, some photographer maybe. Someone with a flexible schedule lending itself to sneaking around.
She pushes open the door and on their bed there’s a priest and a nun going at it. “How many Hail Marys will this be, Father?” the nun says in a high wavery voice.
The snorting again.
He’s filming. It takes her a moment to link it all together. Conor with the camera, another friend of his leaning against her bedside locker. The nun is Johnny, of course, and the priest is their mate Kieran, and the simulated thrusting is taking place on her bed and the worst part is it’s not even funny.
Conor looks at her and grins.
She smiles tightly and returns to the living room. She can still hear it. They’re in absolute hysterics.
There’s a new sheet of paper on the table. About a building society account. Not hers. She looks at the balance and then the name. Conor Kavanagh.
Later, when the boys have gone, she asks, “What happened with the dole office?” She fixes her gaze on her laptop screen.
“Oh, it’s such shit. They’re saying something about this emergency account my parents set up for me . . . it’s for emergencies, for fuck’s sake.”
“I didn’t know you had an emergency account.” Her voice is light, casual.
“It’s only for emergencies, it’s – you couldn’t live on it.”
You could live on twenty-two grand for a good while, Lucy thinks. Her hands are shaking. “There’s a full-time thing coming up in St Joseph’s,” she says.
He says nothing.
“I’m applying,” she elaborates, indicating the CV on the screen.
“Ah, Lucy,” he says. There’s something in his eyes then. She identifies it, wearily. He’s disappointed in her. That’s what it is.
Claire Hennessy is a writer, creative writing facilitator, and editor based in Dublin. She is the author of several novels for young adults and children, and is currently working on a collection of short fiction for adults, supported by an Arts Council bursary. She can be found online at www.clairehennessy.com or on Twitter (@clairehennessy).
Marianna Santikou is a 19-year old photographer, living in the suburbs of Athens, Greece. Her interest in photography began in 2009, when she started taking simple photographs mostly of still life and nature. She quickly discovered her passion for portraiture, which she has been practicing ever since, focusing on self-portraits. She has been featured in many magazines and blogs, and her work has been accepted in PhotoVogue Italia. Greatly inspired by the works of Steven Meisel, Tim Walker and Alex Stoddard. View more of her work at http://mariannasantikou.wix.com/msphotography