by Aileen Armstrong
starts off like this.
A man walks into the coffee shop, well-dressed, bearded, bespectacled, newspaper under his arm, and he appears normal, even gregarious: Geez it’s warm in here, is what he says. And Dara – and Dara is twenty-nine, ginger dreads, lumberjack shirt, red Yo-Yo Beans apron, today in charge of both the coffee shop and Claire, his thirteen-year-old sister, who is for reasons unknown to him lurking in the back staffroom, when by rights she should be at school – Dara gives a nervous laugh and says, ‘Oh yeah man, I suppose it’s fairly cosy alright.’
And he, the bearded man, says, ‘Do you have the heat going? Full blast?’
Now this is a warning sign, if anyone’s counting – but today, more than other days, is about picking battles. So Dara just shrugs, and agrees that he does (dude, it’s December? It took me twenty minutes to de-ice my bike this morning?), and he opens his mouth to take the man’s order but the man sighs, a long rush of ashtray breath in Dara’s face, and he studies the coffee menu chalked up by the counter, and,
‘I’ll take a hazelnut cappuccino,’ is what he says.
‘One hazelnut cappuccino. No prob – ’
‘Geez it’s warm in here.’
‘I can turn down the –’
‘Hah? It’s very warm. Hah? Crazy warm. That’s all I’m saying.’
Dara looks around. It’s two weeks before Christmas. It’s minus-five degrees outside. Nobody else in the café looks, particularly, crazy-warm – just swaddled and grateful, like they’re so happy Yo-Yo Beans is open they could cry. The city is festively treacherous, compacted snow on the pavements and the canal in the process of crusting over. Half of its businesses will stay shut today, and Dara feels stung by this: this accusation from the public of bad service. He reaches up and makes a big show of turning down the heat. He’ll turn it straight back up the second this guy leaves.
Actually, Dara had been feeling pretty good about his morning so far. Since he unlocked the doors at half-past seven, Dara’s handled nine breakfasts, he hasn’t burnt a single bagel, and Abbie (his girlfriend, manager of Yo-Yo Beans) isn’t even here to stand over him and make sure he gets it right. His lattes and macchiatos have been looking suspiciously good – as good as Abbie’s, even; way better than Claire’s. Dara’s even been moving his butt a little bit to the Christina Aguilera Christmas album that’s been playing on a loop on the shop stereo. He’s been quick off the mark today: he’s juggled take-aways and sit-ins, he’s clocked up the tips and re-strung the tinsel, he’s added free cinnamon biscuits to every order. He’s been feeling – and this is not a word Dara would use lightly – merry.
So Dara delivers the cappuccino – and it’s a perfect little thing of blown-silk milk and sweet fine dark powder – to his customer’s table and without looking up the man flings aside his newspaper and says ‘IT IS STILL TOO WARM IN HERE WILL YOU TURN DOWN THAT FUCKIN’ HEAT.’
‘I did turn down the heat, man!’
‘You didn’t turn it down enough. I was watching you. I saw that you only turned it down a couple of notches. What kind of place are you running here, anyway?’
Dara stands very still. At the top of the shop, Claire has come out from the staffroom and is hanging over the counter, looking like she’s just wandered off the set of a 90s teen sitcom– Saved By The Bell, maybe, or The Fresh Prince – backwards baseball cap, a SWIM IRELAND T-shirt, leggings, hi-top Converse. Oh no he di’in’t! Claire is mouthing. Oh no he did not!
Dara says, ‘Right.’ He heads back to the counter and looks at Claire and silently holds out his hand, and Claire passes him an empty takeaway cup, and now see him marching back down the aisle, Dara, ginger dreads bristling, see him pick up the china cup. See him slosh a hazelnut cappuccino into a paper beaker, and, ‘Fuck off, so,’ to the man in the waistcoat, see him say.
‘Dara went nuts again and kicked out a
customer,’ Claire says, the second Abbie
comes in at ten o’clock. Abbie is twenty-six, carrying a crate of milk, wrapped
up in leather boots and a wool poncho and some borrowed real fur, already late,
doesn’t care for thirteen-year-old squealing – ‘Is it too warm in here?’ Abbie
says. Abbie puts down the crate and straightens up, lets drop her fur, unzips
her boots, steps into the black ballet shoes she wears when she is working. She
checks her pockets for a tie for her hair, finds elastic bands, a pack of
cigarettes. She flicks one of the elastic bands at Claire.
‘OW, Abbie, don’t do that!’
‘Well, don’t squeal on your brother, then.’
‘And do your homework,’ Abbie says. ‘Do it and I’ll make you a babycino.’
‘Right, because I’m a baby?’ Claire skulks back into the staffroom.
Abbie hunkers down and starts loading the milk into the fridge below the counter. Then she cleans the espresso machine, which is messy, and the workspaces around it, which are messy also, stained with pools of thickening milk, speckled with coffee granules. All of the things that need to be done, cleaned, sorted, prepared, and all of the figures, accounts, ingredients, stockists, supplier-quantities, and invoice numbers, are stored in Abbie’s head and in her body, in muscle memory, in various different brain-chambers, coded into her. Dara is co-signatory on their lease, but only Abbie has access to this particular master-list, though a list implies a sort of vertical arrangement, and that is not what it is at all: the things that must be done are spread wide in the air, here, there and everywhere, and Abbie spends her days spinning first this one, then the next, towards her, working upon them a moment and then sending them out again, these glowing orbs, these gleaming dream-slides, and nothing ever quite finished, always an update to be done.
‘Here, Abbie?’ Claire’s head has appeared around the wall. ‘Just wondering, you know if you’re putting marshmallows in the babycino? Can you put in two of the little ones instead of one of the big ones?’
‘Go away, Claire,’ Abbie says.
And Abbie is sick of it, sick of the master-list, sick of the city, Christmas, the Big Freeze, the crusted-over canal, the cheeky students, the begging dogs, the onion smells that rise at her in clouds when she opens the refrigerated cabinets to clean them. She is also sick of Claire; and when she realises that it is only half-past ten and not half-past four – God it is so dark today – and that consequently there is no reason for Claire to be here at this particular hour, Claire’s school being one of the few in the city that has stayed open throughout the bad weather – Abbie bursts open the staffroom door.
Inside, Claire is starfished on a beanbag, an open maths book on her stomach like a broken bird. Claire ‘I-can’t-I-have-my-period’ DeLacey; Claire who lifts her head and says it now, her refrain, blinking with piteous eyes across to where Abbie stands at the door, index finger still locked on the switch. Claire chants it through a mouthful of the olive hair she keeps twined in a plait, the end of which she sucks industriously: I have my period, Claire says, and Abbie bends and shoves Claire’s schoolbag and swim kit from her path, straightens, and flips the light switch on and off. On/off, goes Abbie’s finger, on/off, Claire why are you sitting here in the darkness?
‘Because I like the darkness,’ Claire says.
In the staff toilet, Abbie shimmies her bum into black stretchy work pants. Abbie paints Chapstick on her mouth. She looks at the pedal bin, which is overflowing with green and purple wrappers and wads of tissues, and which reeks: of blood, of sweet rotting flowers, of something that should be kept away from dogs and men. On her way back out, Abbie smacks the calendar on the wall: dust shivers from the month of December.
Claire stares her down with olive eyes. ‘It’s the canal,’ Claire says. ‘It brings it on.’
‘The canal brings on your period. Twice a month?’
‘The canal,’ says Claire, waving her hand, ‘the full moon, the ice-tides ... ’
Abbie, binding herself into a red Yo-Yo Beans apron, says, ‘If all the women of the world just opted out of life when they had their periods, what would happen?’
Claire shouts, from the depths of her chest, ‘You’re not taking me seriously you don’t understand how bad I feel!’ She scrunches her body further into the beanbag and pulls up her knees. She begins to weep: the tiny, heartbreaking sounds of an ancient grief. She clamps the maths book over her head and cries into it. Abbie checks the CCTV. A man has come in, is standing by the door, looking around.
man’s name is Conor Doherty. He is 80% deaf. He wears real sapphires in his
ears. He has lion-blond hair and lion-blond eyelashes. He is looking for Claire
DeLacey, who has not, for reasons menstrual, shown up for her school’s swim
training this morning. When Abbie comes
out front, face primed with hellos, he is waiting, standing against the
counter, helping himself to a day-old muffin, picking the bun apart with his
fingers. As ever, he has that air of holiness about him, that ... essence of bishop, artless, unmoveable,
a man of great and patient ambition. Sometimes when Abbie meets him she is
struck by the thought that he would like her to kiss them, the sapphires, and
some day too she will do it. Some day, she will lean across the counter and tip
a sinner-kiss onto each of those gemstones – but for now, they began to sign to
each other, a trick that Abbie, over the last three years, has become
They sign, flashing their fingers, and, as always in the Yo-Yo Beans by the canal, the windows sputter with weird green shadows, and the smell of the canal seeps in. In the Yo-Yo Beans by the canal, the sofas are threadbare, and the display cabinet – for sweet cakes and slices – is too small. The menu is mendacious. The muffin that Conor is eating has been baked offsite, is pumped full of hydrogenated vegetable oil, contains additives that are a known cause of cancer – but Abbie is cute: cute like a barmaid spirited up out of the last century, cute like she’s got other plans cooking, cute like she’s long understood when not to comment. ‘Haven’t seen her, Conor,’ Abbie says. ‘Not a clue.’
closes the staffroom door. She squats in front of the beanbag and she takes a
small neat thing from her apron pocket. ‘I’m going to show you something,’ she
says. ‘You know what this is, yeah?’ She shakes the yellow-wrapped thing at
‘Why, that’s a sweet,’ says Claire DeLacey.
‘Shut up. Do you know how to use them? Do you use them?’
‘Yes. No,’ Claire says, ‘I don’t want to.’
‘Have you tried?’
‘ ... Yes.’
‘Try again. Go into the loo and have a go. I’ll wait here. Look at the picture on the instructions.’
Claire sits up and snivels. She is Dara in miniature, except female, thinner, olive-haired, faster than him, even more finely strung. In a couple of years, she will pass him out, and by the age of twenty-one, Claire will be five foot eleven inches tall. But now her loosened plait flops over her forehead. Her eyes look like they’ve been stung. ‘Will you help me?’ she asks.
‘No, Claire!’ Abbie says, backing away.
comes back with his paper around half-past twelve. ‘She’s here, isn’t she?’ he signs,
but he’s not bothered: outside, the temperature is static at minus-four and Claire’s
absence is the excuse he’s been waiting for all morning. Abbie makes him a cup
of coffee: very hot, the way he likes it. Since the start of the cold weather
at the beginning of the month, Conor has taken to coming in most days to sit by
the counter and talk to Abbie, watch her perform all the milk-tricks, the
spider-pattern paintings she makes with chocolate sauce.
But he’s started to take liberties, this Coach Conor Doherty, and he assumes a few too many things about Abbie. He assumes that she is good and patient ("a sweetheart", she thinks he might say about her); that she likes him; that she has a warm heart; that she feels maternal towards Claire; that she is necessarily in thrall to his previous success – Conor once won bronze at the Olympics! Sometimes, Conor makes Abbie furious: because he keeps giving her things, because his attraction to her is mostly borne out of pity, because he is young enough and old enough – at 48 – to know better. But then there was that one time Abbie saw him in Tesco – she saw him, and he didn’t see her, and he looked so cross and so lost – and he looked so bereft, dithering there in the bread aisle, that she almost thought it could not be the same person at all.
‘How’s the coat,’ he asks her now, and Abbie, head bent, halfway through a pour, nods her thanks. ‘Yeah, good,’ she says. ‘You know, last night I went to bed with the central heating full on, and thermal pyjamas, and that fur coat of your mother’s was the only thing that would warm me?’
‘Sounds like you need a new boyfriend,’ Conor says. Conor hates Dara, won’t talk to him. Dara used to be a swimmer, too, but jacked it all in for band practice and drugs: Conor’s version, nicely edited, of the story. It’s Conor’s opinion that there was always something a bit untamed about Dara – something a bit off, a bit vibe-y, survivor-y: Dara has his wires so crossed that if you cracked open his head they’d burst out, in a thick jungle-tangle, from his skull. That boy of yours, he tells Abbie, is a Waster. That boy of yours is just Dark.
Abbie pours steamed milk in a smooth, thick spear, watches as it mixes with the coffee, and rises. She sets the cup on the saucer, adds a teaspoon, shakes a thump of chocolate powder over her creation. Her engagement ring – yellow-gold, a diamond solitaire – pitches about her finger while she works. The ring was purchased in Argos. It makes her whole hand look chubby. It is not something she would have picked for herself. ‘What?’ she snaps, before she can help herself – Conor is asking her something. ‘Oh. Well, it’s like this, you see Conor. Her cycle’s fucked.’
Claire got her first period the day after a meniscus-tear operation that, six months ago, cleaned out Abbie and Dara’s savings. The operation had Claire off school for a fortnight and under their feet at the café, and she’s been sort of a monster ever since. The staffroom is still littered with the paraphernalia of her rehabilitation: neon crutches, a slim pedal scooter, kiddie weights, what looks like a giant beach ball – and still, Claire is getting two periods a month, and still she is doing everything to avoid training. It makes Dara livid, but sometimes, in her kinder moments, Abbie understands, remembers the body-shock moment of her own first period – a summer morning, rusty blood on the sheets, her eyes big and black in the bathroom mirror – and in Abbie’s memory the event seems lit with a strange kind of sorrowing, Polaroid-blurred; the sense that from now on nothing would ever quite fool her.
‘Here, Abbie?’ The olive head of Claire DeLacey is once again framed in the staffroom door. ‘Can you just come in here a sec? Oh shite,’ Claire says, spotting her coach.
‘"Oh shite" is right.’ Conor points his rolled-up newspaper at her and then he smacks it, very loudly, off the counter.
‘Claire,’ Abbie says, ‘go away. Wait!’ She calls her back, mutters, ‘Did you get the hang of it?'
‘No, but I’m done now.’ Claire folds cool olive arms.
‘I said I’m done swimming!’
‘Claire,’ Abbie says, but a knot of customers has arrived out of nowhere. Claire’s head slides, turtle-like, back into the staffroom, and for the next twenty minutes Conor reads his newspaper and Abbie works the espresso machine like an octopus.
mystery to Abbie, this swimming stuff. Those mean, slicing laps in the pool
every morning, the chlorine that Claire wears like a second skin. Her hair,
olive-blonde from all the chemicals. And the injuries – ‘But professionals
don’t dwell on the injuries,’ says Conor Doherty, tapping his ears. ‘Otherwise,
professionals don’t get up in the morning!’
There are a few things that Abbie will one day challenge Conor on. Define professional, she will maybe say, or, Why do you think I get up in the morning? or even, How would you like to be a thirteen-year-old girl, and have all of this to be dealing with, all of this hot, strong blood, Conor, every time you pull down your pants?
Abbie clamps a BLT in the panini machine and shoves tomato soup into the microwave for nuking. She slaps down the tongs, and bacon-fat sprays the back wall. She wipes her fingers on the seat of her trousers, she runs boiling water into a teapot, she composes a tiny fussy side salad on the waiting platter. In the microwave, the soup has started to burst and darken, and Abbie sprints over to rescue it. Oh hot, fucking Jesus hot where her fingers catch the gloopy bubbles at its brim! Outside, a blueish green dark is descending. A snowstorm is starting, very careful at first, and then it becomes a kind of storming from the sky. Back inside, a line has formed at the cash register. ‘CLAIRE!’ Abbie roars. ‘CAN YOU COME OUT HERE, PLEASE!’
The one good thing about having Claire around the place is that she’s so dotey, a calf of a girl, a muscled elf-child, if you didn’t know her. ‘Let me get that for you,’ Claire says, rolling up her sleeves gallantly, plucking the smiling customer’s docket from her outstretched hand. It takes Claire a minute to figure out how to work the cash register, but only a minute; and all the while, she keeps beaming, keeps producing a charming commentary (‘Any plans for the Christmas?’) out of Christ knows only where. When all the customers have been taken care of, and Abbie has patched up the BLT, she says, ‘Claire, stay here a sec, will ya. I won’t be long?’
Abbie doesn’t smoke, but she’s remembered the cigarettes she found in the pocket of Ma Doherty’s fur coat, and she has decided that the thing to do – today, on this dark December day – is to go outside and stand in the snow and smoke them, smoke three of these cancer-sticks in a row. Now she stands by the canal, smoking ten-year-old fags, leaning her bare wrists on the iron railings: Oh please God, make me an addict – give me that! The canal gleams up at her, dense and newly frosted. It is four o’ clock, the snow is stopping. It is now too cold for snow.
‘It’s not working!’ Claire screams through the
‘Make it work! Just look at the picture! Claire you need to get the hang of this! You can’t do sport properly unless you can figure this out! You can’t swim!’
‘I don’t care!’
four. Dara has returned from walkabout. He stands in the doorway, a fine film
of ice on his dreadlocks. His hands are red-raw, stiffened like lobster claws,
but his face is – ‘My God,’ Claire says, pointing at him. ‘You loser. You’re actually gone blue with the cold.’ Dara
doesn’t say anything. He goes to the radiator and tries to sit on it. He has no
coat, no hat, no scarf, but is still wearing – an unforgiveable detail – his
Yo-Yo Beans apron. Abbie stands with her
arms clutched to her sides, her ankles crossed, her lower back resting against
the counter. She looks at Dara, at the way he keeps shaking – and really, he is blue with the cold. ‘So, great,’
Abbie says. ‘Where’ve you been?’
Dara has been no place special, just hanging by the canal for the last four and a half hours, occasionally drifting uptown to the Christmas market to look around. If Abbie, standing earlier at the canal’s edge, had thought to turn her head to the right, she might have seen him, perched on a bench a little way off, watching her. Watching her pull somebody’s fur coat about her thighs, watching her smoke. Knowing that his sister’s coach is somehow linked to these facts, and trying to figure out if he cares.
‘Well anyway,’ Abbie says. ‘We’re closing early.’
‘YES!’ shouts Claire, punching her sinewy arm in the air.
And so in the city today draws on its cables, and in the Yo-Yo Beans by the canal Claire is zooming about on the slim pedal scooter, weaving in and out of chairs and tables, circling, in an impressive leaning swoop, the two pillar columns that divide up the room. If Claire was a different, better kind of child, she might have pitched in with the closing up process. If she was a different kind of child (thinks Abbie, who is watching her), Claire might have thought to bust out the mop, run the last pieces of china through the dishwasher, wipe the sticky menus, help. But she isn’t. Even if she hadn’t been in pain – no, she just isn’t. Claire’s sole purpose, this Christmas season, is to heal, while Abbie toils with the cleaning bucket. And to – what is the word? To forbear. Yes, Claire will have to learn how to forbear. Alone in the staffroom, Abbie slips off her engagement ring and lathers up at the sink, and thinks: Is there still time to make something of today?
Aileen Armstrong lives in Galway. In 2009, she graduated from the M.A.
in Writing programme at NUIG, and in 2010, she was awarded a literature
bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland. Her writing has appeared or
is forthcoming in the Stinging Fly, Three Times Daily, Cuadrivio, Some Blind Alleys, and Galway Stories. A collection of her short fiction is forthcoming from Doire Press in 2013.
Photographer's credit: David Griffin lives and works in Cork, Ireland. He graduated with an MA in Medieval History from University College Cork in 2005. His photographs often focus on details of landscape and architecture, and feature widely on the Long Story, Short Literary Journal website.