James and Diana met in the summer, kissed on a bench in St. Anne’s in July and were sharing a flat in Coolock by Hallowe’en.
        Then everything stopped, except time. “WE HAVE MORTGAGED OUR CHILDREN’S CHILDREN,” wailed the Indo. “SOVEREIGN IRELAND ON HER DEATHBED,” mourned The Star. “YOUTH OF TODAY GET THE BOAT,” bawled the Mirror. But they didn’t get the boat. They got the headlines instead, the greyness, the queues and the warm cans, powder soup and the clamour at the bakery. Diana would go down the market on a Tuesday. Twelve shekels was a good price for a piece of bacon rind. You got it where you could find it. James would hide away the booklets, the stamps. They still never turned away a mouth at the door. She would make freshly battered potato clumps or hot popped maize with melted margarine, sometimes little flat brancakes on the griddle.
        “The whole system is wrong, Dee,” James used to say, in moments of quiet clarity. “But I think we’re winning.” He didn’t have to say it, not often, or even at all. They shared a sense of opposition, and took comfort in each other. They called each other comrade, in the security of their attic apartment, with a mattress under the eaves and two skylights. Diana felt rich in sky.
        Some people still worked. Services ticked over. Trains ran, albeit infrequently. A few brave and generous nocturnal crusaders even thought to paint them, all flowers and rainbows, because that was what was needed nowadays, some sweetness and light. That was worth expressing. Also, the penalty would be more lenient if there were no words. Words were another thing. Diana mostly thought but tried to refrain as it never seemed to get her anywhere. Thought was utterly impractical, an indulgence, like having two windows. She cooked a lot and didn’t say much of any great significance because who would listen? Not James, not really, not anymore – not when he knew things about Gatlings and metalwork, how to soup up some relic of a ’95 Micra with neons and bullbars, things the lads talked about, and she didn’t. But James was often silent too, brooding into his laudanum and playing strenuous games of Kill the Other Guy late into the night.
        Diana lost her index finger in a stew one day, a hazy midsummer Sunday. The gang was over to listen to the Stallionblitz tournament live from the Stadium of Light. Tickets were the price of, oh, too many of tins of corned beef and a fair few dozen kippers, or three backwater trout and an inkfin herring. But people went, because Stallionblitz at the Stadium of Light was the best spectacle this side of the Colosseum. You could smell the sulphur from their back garden, maligning the usual summertime perfume of honeysuckle and sweetpea. The wireless was on, and brought it all into their living room like the Pied Piper. The lads came down from the other tenements and brought their mead or Dutch Gold or Galahad. She had work to do, they had to eat. And so she boiled up some pearl barley on the stove, with some celeriac and shallots, a few new potatoes exhumed from the allotment and a carrot. There was no meat. She didn’t remember the incident, she must have blacked out on the sideboard, but could clearly recall thinking, as it began to simmer, at least they’ll get some iron. Some B vitamins, to keep everybody sane.
        Diana felt most like looking in a mirror when she opened the pantry doors. The grains of rice on the lower shelf assimilating green fuzz were memories of a faraway childhood, places grass grew. There were some leaves of onion skin, a staggering shade of purplish crimson, layered and curling like the pages of a book she might have loved once. She was a good provider but a terrible cleaner, it didn’t seem to bother most of them – there were always rats to trap for a game of Throw the Thing at the Thing.
        So, that was it, the finger went in. She stopped the blood by herself and bit down hard on her lip to keep herself in the room. She left the pot on for a good long while to soften it up, made sure the flesh fell from the bone and the nail had time to dissolve. Added some margarine to put a film on the top, so the bread would have something to stick to. Then she served up seven steaming bowls and waited. Nobody said anything, except for Nadger, who complimented her seasoning during an ad for Entemann’s cologne. “Stay classy, gents. Douse liberally and give the ladies something to smile about”. The lads loved that ad, three or four of them said it along with the announcer and high fived afterwards, laughing like hyenas. The room was hot-boxed with tobacco smoke and other smoke and dandelion cigars and the cloying fumes of alcohol and opiates, and the other smell, the rot from the greening damp in the walls. She put out a bowl of hot water with some gardenia petals and two drops of almond oil. It made almost no difference. The walls could wait, anyhow.
        They were still paying off the wireless. They scrimped, but it was understood he needed his opiates and a flagon of Galahad to pass the afternoons, and she needed her moonshine after dark, to make things less real. To tranquilise the rabble of butterflies multiplying in her gut, great big Amazonian Skybrights with eyes patterned on the wings, Red Admirals the size of your palm, Cabbage Whites like seagulls. To put halos around lamplight and make faces younger. But it was worth it, or near enough to it. Michéal O’ Muircheartaigh hardly sounded tinny at all when he said, “and now they’re adding the semtex on the opposite spawn, some riders will be thrown by this but not O’ Shea, with the ferocity of a lion he’s coming up on the inside, swinging his best weapon, the trusted mace that won his father Seanín the 1965 final – he has unlocked the laser sight – hostile hunter-killer inbound now – and that’s Mitchell Grant wounded, taken clean off the horse, the mighty Atticus Fring – a veteran of the arena as any sportsfan will know, sired by Blackguard Nobella, he is still thundering towards enemy lines…” There was a collective intake of breath. Atticus Fring’s game-winner involves a flamethrower built into the breastplate. When he rears up, the crowd just lose it. Rumour has it the beast is worth close on a thousand guineas, even now. The measure didn’t have the same meaning anymore, a vulgar and outmoded conglomerate of unwieldy units, each shimmering like a mirage and altogether threatening as tanks, as a thousand armoured elephants, waiting in the hills with castles on their backs. Simpler to stick to your few shekels.
        The lads play Stallionblitz on a mat with figurines, cards and dodecahedral dice. She got James a Blackguard Nobella last Christmas. Everyone was mad jealous. It was a significant boon to his play. She asked him once if he loved the game so much and knew all the strategies why didn’t he try out for the real thing? No, he said.
        “Why not?”
        “Eh, because I don’t want to die? Duh!”
        “What do you want, then, if you don’t want to die?”
        He just laughed, shook his head and slugged back some more mead.
        The little room that day was as tense as a hospital waiting area. There’s no telling where a blitz will go. A tournament of this magnitude could take days. There was a bunk area for spectators but if the players wore out during a match they were toast. There were substitutions every ninety minutes and a B-team to recover. Respawning, they called it.
        The loss of her left arm was a stranger event entirely. She woke up one day and it was gone. No blood, no wound, and no arm. She tried to retrace her steps. Where could she have put it? Kitchen, bedroom, bathroom… What had been on the wireless? Oh yeah, the popular reality radio show Get Thee Wed. She didn’t actually harbour aspirations towards wedlock, but it was a thing people did when they loved each other, and that seemed to matter. So, Get Thee Wed, and she definitely had two hands then because she remembered adjusting the frequency while still holding her cup of valerium tea. Then what? Then the girls came over to sit for a while. Moonshine and gossip, more moonshine. One of the girls (Thora) is into one of the guys (Hatchets). She’s sweet on him since he threw a length into her one night over the Christmas. Drink, blur, spin, blackout. Where? Bedroom? Then she thought about it and tried to see the positive side. It was her only left arm and she was right handed. Not such an awful loss. The tattoo was on her right wrist. She still had that.
        “Did I… Did I make toast last night? Before bed?” she said, prodding him urgently with her middle finger. “Or turnip clods or anything?”
        “Don’t think so, babe,” James said into the pillow. “My tummy says no.”
        “This is fucked up.”
        “It’s the times we live in, comradeski. It’s not us. Things are fucked up all ‘round, for everybody. You know?”
        “My arm’s missing.”
        “So? What am I supposed to do about it?”
        She paused for a second. “Nothing, I suppose.” As soon as she’d answered, she realised it wasn’t a question.
        “Come here to me. I love your lips. Plant one on me, sugartits.” He shrugged himself into a seated position, expectantly turning to face her with his eyes screwed shut.
        She felt a familiar warmth wash over her in a shallow foaming wave. She gave him a quick peck and, smiling, nuzzled into the crook of his arm.
        “Remember our first kiss?”, she asked, gazing up at him and focusing closely on the crest of his lower lip, just before the colour, and feeling small and safe but excited, all wrapped up in his skin, her favourite skin.
        “I remember the first time I lashed you out of it, above in Portmarnock. Up in the dunes. You were mad for it, middle of the day and all, kids around and everything, but you didn’t care. You were fuckin’ wild.”
        “The kiss, J.”
        “Oh, we kissed, did we? Like in the movies? No, no, it’s not ringing any bells…”
        “Of course I do, baby. You’d kill me. Of course I do.”
        “I don’t believe you.”
        “Tell me about it, then.” She sat up and forgot herself, tried to fold her arms but thumped her left side in an awkward half hug.
        “How can you not believe me?”
        “Laudanum, mead, moonshine, yes, but laudanum. You didn’t always used to… it’s not the same. We’re losing parts of—”
        “The fuck. Laudanum is natural, how many times do I have to say it? And you use too when you feel like it, don’t lie. And sure it’s illegal, but then again the whole country’s in shit and I don’t make the rules, do I?”
        By the time he’d finished speaking he was already out of bed and sliding into his slippers, buck naked.
        “Where are you going?”
        “Downstairs,” folding himself into his bathrobe – the heroic one, the one with the satin print stallion on the back.
        “What for?”
        “What do you mean ‘what for’? The usual. Obviously.” He rolled his eyes and, smirking, whipped something small and greyish out of his pocket. “Shut up, slut, chew up this mushroom!”
        “Where’d you get that?”
        “Allotment. I was down there yesterday. For herbs,” he said, and winked. “Don’t say I never give you anything.”
        Fair enough, it wasn’t bad, a bit withered around the edges and only starting to putrefy underneath, not bad yet. She frowned and twirled it between her remaining fingers and thumb.
        “I’ll get you a new one when I get a job. Be grand.” The door might have slammed only there was no catch.
        And so it went: right index finger, left arm, right big toe (it was very hard to balance, and her favourite peep-toe heels were out) left baby toe (she actually found that one in the shower drain) right leg (that was a difficult one to accept but she had a sense of expectancy about at this stage, which she tried to communicate to James one night but he’d had a fair few and things didn’t sink in right) left leg (comparatively much easier) torso, then stopped. She still had her chest, her head was intact and there was one tattooed arm with three fingers and a thumb. It was she and him, and he told her he loved her every day, like a refrain or a mantra. She wondered if she could remember when things were nothing like this. Every day is yesterday in a funhouse mirror. Caligula would have gone to Australia for a year. Nero would have snapped the bow of his fiddle.
        The rest of her went systematically, piece by neighbouring piece, like taking a jigsaw apart. She didn’t feel it happening but she did feel the loss. James didn’t mind. He still loved her. She still had those lips. She developed the habit of biting them, testing them, wetting them with her tongue and pouting a lot, just for the hell of it. She’d occasionally get a kiss off him, always a delicious surprise. She asked him every morning to pick out her lipstick. He’d apply it straight from the tube, ham-fisted, made bold by the impossibility of making a mess. It wasn’t colour by numbers. It was just a simple block of red or pink, some taupe or maroon but she rarely felt like those ones. On fire engine red days they went to the pictures. She got to sit in the popcorn bucket. Sugar spun candy pink days they hung out downstairs, with the lads, and she observed his play. Darker, wine stain days he left her in bed. This was one of those days. Bandy’s voice from outside the back window, floating up like bubbles. Smoke bubbles, because that was what he was doing outside.
        “Only a fuckin mouth’, that one. It’s nag, nag, nag… More fuckin’ nags than a Stallionblitz outpaddock.”
        “Still, though. Good for an Oval Office Special.”
        “Hah. Jamesy’s a clever bastard. He doesn’t rap to get women.”
        “I’d let her eat my meat alright. Not much of her to hang onto though.”
        “Fuck hanging on, bitch, open your mouth!”
        There was a slapping sound; Nadger is in the habit of clapping his hand off his knee when he finds something unspeakably funny. Then it began. Phantom twitches in her this, phantom shudders in her that. An unscratchable itch, and the memory of trapping a thumb in a car door. The memory of ripping a plaster off her grazed knee. The memory of her first time. Phantom. A great name for a horse. Hours passed. The shadows on the ceiling went from monsters to trees to monsters.
        “She’s really let herself go lately, hasn’t she?”
        Minerva O’Connor, none other, installed on the patio. Here to make a play for Bandy, now that he’s had a few flagons. Diana curled her top lip in a snarl. Goddammit, she hated that Minerva O’Connor, with her rabbit-skin boots and her Touche Éclat and her mink stole.
        “You’d think she’d pull herself together. Jamesy’s a catch.” And Nike Callaghan, pure poison under three layers of fake tan, Special Agent Orange.
        “Her lips are getting thin, have you noticed? All shrivelled like old fruit. It’s gross.”
        “Yeah, they say it happens to women of a certain age.”
        “And she’s definitely of a certain age.” They laugh like rats with daggers in their gullets.
        So help me, if I had two hands I’d clatter those two off each other like cymbals. These infidels ruined this green and pleasant land, buying up L-shaped sofas, designer sunglasses, German automobiles with all their invisible money, like it was going out of fashion. Why don’t you just fuck off like the rest of them? Flee, like the landowners! This is serf country, haven’t you heard? To hell or to Coolock.

+     +     +

        “I’m sick of driving you everywhere. Down to the Civic Centre with the papers and the stamps. Up the road to the post office. In to get the bread. Jesus, Dee, I’m sick of carrying you.”
        “You love me! You told me you love my mouth.”
        “I’d love it more if it’d shut up whinging every now and again and fuckin’ smile. It’s not all bad, Dee. We have each other.”

+     +     +

        They were at the kitchen table one midweek morning in early August. It had stopped raining but the clouds still pressed everything down a little. Diana was perched on a beermat, chewing on the straw after finishing her scrambled soup. They’d recently hit on the idea of making liquid meals in a pulveriser as it had become a chore for either of them, particularly for him, to cook. She’d begun to guide him through her recipes – he’d slot her into the toaster so she’d be nearby but wouldn’t get splashed or singed or sliced – but her commentary caused him to get tetchy and drove him straight to sleepers. After bumbling through the bones of a meal, cracking wise about how he’d miraculously magicked up another batch of haggis without losing a finger, he would knock himself out with crushed hops and fall into a deep and unnatural sleep, with both eyes still open.
        “Hey Dee. Listen,” James at the head of the table tapped his paper with the nib of his pipe. “They’re looking for a caller down the Whitehall Apollo. Not exactly town crier but you could do that. Couldn’t you, babes?”
        “Could I?”
        “Hardly rocket science, is it? Easy money. You remember your 1,2,3’s, right? You have a voice, don’t you?”
        She didn’t know.
        She didn’t know what was left, and she didn’t want to jinx anything.
        From the front room, the distinct plash of a dropped can. Something else. A clip, clop, slow and stronger, rising-falling. An inhuman snort. And a:
        “What the…”
        “Horse walks into a gaff—”
        “Why the long face?”
        Aido and Hatchets break their hearts laughing.
        In their kitchen, now, dipping his head low to clamber through the doorway, up the uneven step, a horse. Off-white from the rain and with benign splotches of black and walnut brown like spilled paint, woodstain, creosote. Not thin but rough as sandpaper. A good foot taller than the backs of the chairs, the full length of the kitchen table. Too old to be skittish. A listless gaze from heavy-lidded eyes, eyes like two shot glasses half-full of cocoa, alarmingly fringed by ice-white lashes, the velveteen tremor of his hot breath clouding the windows. James watches slack-jawed as curlicues of loose tobacco flit across the table and sail to the floor. The weight of him, spreading and reshuffling over unshod hooves, makes the tiles groan. His coffee-cream mane falls inspiral in rain-made ringlets, a thick blanket of forelock folded fatly over his face. Someone had plaited it, not long ago, and a little plastic butterfly still clutches a few strands. Dew in diamante constellations on his back rising faintly in a steam, scarred rivulets on his flanks marbled and striped like candy canes. He swishes the theatre curtain of his tail, once, with the ailing flourish of an injured matador, and keeps going, out the open back door and up the garden path, snaking his neck out under the bowing sunflowers, his sodden fetlocks kicking back, kicking back, and into the trees.

Tara White

Tara White is a Dublin based writer and English language teacher from Limerick, Ireland. She holds a degree in English Studies from Trinity College Dublin and will receive an MA in Creative Writing from University College Dublin this year. She was shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize 2012 and has been featured in Irish literary publications such as Outburst, The Bohemyth, Wordlegs, and The Caterpillar, as well as the upcoming Fault Lines Anthology of New Writing (e-book available in August). She is currently working on a novel.

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