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Authors: Claire Keegan

Antarctica

BOOK: Antarctica
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CLAIRE KEEGAN

Antarctica

For Padraig Hickey, who rescued me in a time of floods and in memory of John McCarron, teacher.

Much thanks to David Marcus, Giles Gordon, Mary McCay, the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, and friends and faculty at the University of Wales, Cardiff, and Trinity College, Dublin.

Every time the happily married woman went away she wondered how it would feel to sleep with another man. That weekend she was determined to find out. It was December; she felt a curtain closing on another year. She wanted to do this before she got too old. She was sure she would be disappointed.

On Friday evening, she took the train into the city, sat reading in a first-class carriage. The crime novel didn’t hold her interest; she could already predict the ending. She stared out beyond the window. A few lighted houses, fiery points, flashed past her in the darkness. She had left a dish of macaroni cheese out for the kids, brought her husband’s suits back from the cleaners. She’d told him she was going shopping for Christmas. He’d no reason not to trust her.

When she reached the city she took a taxi to the hotel. They gave her a small, white room with a view of Vicar’s Close, one of the oldest streets in England, a row of stone houses with tall, granite chimneys where the clergy lived. She sat at the hotel bar that night nursing a tequila and lime, but there was nothing doing. Old men were reading newspapers, business was slow, but she didn’t mind; she needed a good night’s sleep. She fell
into her rented bed, into a dreamless sleep, and woke to the sound of bells ringing in the cathedral.

On Saturday she walked to the shopping centre.
Families
were out, pushing buggies through the morning crowd, a thick stream of people flowing through glass automatic doors. She bought unusual gifts for her
children
, things she thought they wouldn’t predict. She bought an electric razor for her eldest son – he was getting to that age – an atlas for the girl, and for her
husband
an expensive gold watch with a plain, white face.

She dressed up in the afternoon, put on a short
plum-coloured
dress, high heels, her darkest lipstick, and walked back into town. A jukebox song, ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’, lured her into a pub, a converted prison with barred windows and a low, beamed ceiling. Fruit machines blinked in one corner and just as she sat on a bar stool a little battalion of coins fell into a shoot. On the next stool sat a guy in a leather jacket that looked like he should have given it to Oxfam years ago.

‘Hello,’ he said. ‘Haven’t seen you before.’ He had a red complexion, a gold chain dangling inside a
Hawaiian
print shirt, mud-coloured hair. His glass was almost empty.

‘What’s that you’re drinking?’ she said.

He turned out to be a real talker, told her his life story, how he worked nights at the old folks’ home. How he lived alone, was an orphan, had no relations except a distant cousin he’d never met. There were no rings on his fingers.

‘I’m the loneliest man in the world,’ he said. ‘How about you?’

‘I’m married.’ She said it before she knew what she was saying.

He laughed. ‘Play pool with me.’

‘I don’t know how.’

‘Doesn’t matter,’ he said, ‘I’ll teach you. You’ll be
potting
that black before you know it.’ He put coins into a slot and pulled something and a little landslide of balls knuckled down into a black hole under the table.

‘Stripes and solids,’ he said, chalking up the cue. ‘You’re one or the other. I’ll break.’

He taught her to lean down low and sight the ball, to watch the cue ball when she took the shot, but he didn’t let her win one game. When she went into the ladies’ room, she was drunk. She couldn’t find the end of the toilet paper. She leaned her forehead against the cool of the mirror. She couldn’t remember ever being drunk like this. They finished off their drinks and went
outside
. The air spiked her lungs. Clouds smashed into each other in the sky. She hung her head back to look at them. She wished the world could turn into a fabulous, outrageous red to match her mood.

‘Let’s walk,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you the tour.’

She fell into step beside him, listened to his jacket creaking as he led her down a path where the moat curved round the cathedral. An old man stood outside the Bishop’s Palace selling stale bread for the birds. They bought some and stood at the water’s edge
feeding
five cygnets whose feathers were turning white. Brown ducks flew across the water and landed in a nice skim on the moat. When a black Labrador came
bounding
down the path, a huddle of pigeons rose as one and settled magically in the trees.

‘I feel like Francis of Assisi,’ she laughed.

Rain began to fall; she felt it falling on her face like small electric shocks. They backtracked through the market-place where stalls were set up in the shelter of tarpaulin. They sold everything: smelly second-hand books and china dishes, big red poinsettias, holly wreaths, brass ornaments, fresh fish with dead eyes lying on a bed of ice.

‘Come home with me,’ he said. ‘I’ll cook for you.’

‘You’ll cook for me?’

‘You eat fish?’

‘I eat everything,’ she said, and he seemed amused.

‘I know your type,’ he said. ‘You’re wild. You’re one of those wild middle-class women.’

He chose a trout that looked like it was still alive. The fishmonger chopped its head off and wrapped it up in foil. He bought a tub of black olives and a slab of feta cheese from the Italian woman with the deli stall at the end. He bought limes and Colombian coffee. Always, as they passed the stalls, he asked her if she wanted
anything
. He was free with his money, kept it crumpled in his pockets like old receipts, didn’t smooth the notes out even when he was handing them over. On the way home they stopped at the off-licence, bought two bottles
of Chianti and a lottery ticket, all of which she insisted on paying for.

‘We’ll split it if we win,’ she said. ‘Go to the Bahamas.’

‘Don’t hold your breath,’ he said, and watched her walk through the door he’d opened for her. They strolled down cobbled streets, past a barber’s where a man was sitting with his head back, being shaved. The streets grew narrow and winding; they were outside the city lights now.

‘You live in suburbia?’ she asked.

He did not answer, kept walking. She could smell the fish. When they came to a wrought-iron gate he told her to ‘hang a left’. They passed under an archway and came out in a dead end. He unlocked a door to a block of flats and followed her upstairs to the top floor.

‘Keep going,’ he said when she stopped on the
landings
. She giggled and climbed, giggled and climbed again, stopped at the top.

The door needed oil; the hinges creaked when he pushed it back. The walls of his flat were plain and pale, the sills dusty. One stained mug sat lonely in the sink. A white Persian cat jumped off a draylon couch in the living room. It was neglected, like a place where someone used to live; the rubber plant in the lounge crawled across the carpet towards a rectangular pool of streetlight under a high window. Dank smells. No sign of a phone, no
photographs
, no decorations, no Christmas tree.

A big cast-iron tub stood in the bathroom on blue, steel claws.

‘Some bath,’ she said.

‘You want a bath?’ he said. ‘Try it out. Fill her up and dive in. Go ahead, be my guest.’

She filled the tub, kept the water as hot as she could stand it. He came in and stripped to the waist, and shaved at the handbasin with his back to her. She closed her eyes and listened to him work the lather, tapping the razor against the sink, shaving. It was like they’d done it all before. She thought him the least threatening man she’d ever known. She held her nose and slid
underwater
, listened to the blood pumping in her head, the rush and cloud in her brain. When she surfaced, he was standing there in the steam, wiping traces of shaving foam off his chin, smiling.

‘Having fun?’ he said.

When he lathered a flannel, she got up. Water fell off her shoulders and trickled down her legs. He began at her feet and worked upwards, washing her in strong, slow circles. She looked good in the yellow shaving light, raised her feet and arms and turned like a child for him. He made her sink back down into the water and rinsed her off, wrapped her in a towel.

‘I know what you need,’ he said. ‘You need looking after. There isn’t a woman on the earth who doesn’t need looking after. Stay there.’ He went out and came back with a comb, began combing the knots from her hair. ‘Look at you,’ he said. ‘You’re a real blonde. You’ve blonde fuzz, like a peach.’ His knuckle slid down the back of her neck, followed her vertebrae.

His bed was brass with a white, goose-down duvet and black pillowcases. She undid his belt, slid it from the loops. The buckle jingled when it hit the floor. She loosened his trousers. Naked, he wasn’t beautiful, yet there was something voluptuous about him, something unbreakable and sturdy in his build. His skin was hot.

‘Pretend you’re America,’ she said. ‘I’ll be Columbus.’

Under the bedclothes, down between the damp of his thighs, she explored his nakedness. His body was a
novelty
. When her feet became entangled in the sheets, he flung them off. She had surprising strength in bed, an urgency that bruised him. She pulled his head back by the hair, drank in the smell of strange soap on his neck. He kissed her and kissed her. There wasn’t any hurry. His palms were the rough hands of a working man. They battled against their lust, wrestled against what in the end carried them away. Afterwards they smoked – she hadn’t smoked in years, quit before the first baby. She was reaching over for the ashtray when she saw the shotgun cartridge behind his clock-radio.

‘What’s this?’ She picked it up. It was heavier than it looked.

‘Oh that. That’s a present for somebody.’

‘Some present,’ she said. ‘Looks like pool isn’t the only thing you shoot.’ She said this and laughed.

‘Come here.’

She snuggled up against him, and they fell swiftly into sleep, the sweet sleep of children, and woke in darkness, hungry.

While he took charge of dinner, she sat in the couch with the cat on her lap and watched a documentary on Antarctica, miles of snow, penguins shuffling against the sub-zero winds, Captain Cook sailing down to find the lost continent, icebergs. He came out with a tea towel draped across his shoulder and handed her a glass of chilled Chianti.

‘You,’ he said, ‘have a thing for explorers.’ He leaned down over the back of the couch and kissed her.

‘Can I do anything?’ she asked.

‘No,’ he said and went back into the kitchen.

She sipped her wine and felt her throat opening again, cold sliding down into her stomach. She could hear him chopping vegetables, the bubble of water
boiling
on the stove. Dinner smells drifted through the rooms. Coriander, lime juice, onions. She could stay drunk; she could live like this. He came out and laid two places at table, lit a thick, green candle, folded paper napkins. They looked like small white pyramids under a vigil of flame. She turned the TV off, and stroked the cat. Its white hairs fell on to his dark-blue dressing gown that was much too big for her. She saw the smoke from another man’s fire cross the window, but she did not think about her husband, and her lover never
mentioned
her home life either, not once.

Instead, over Greek salad and grilled trout the
conversation
somehow turned to the subject of Hell.

As a child, she had been told that Hell was different for everyone, your own worst possible scenario. ‘I always
thought Hell would be unbearably cold, a place where you stayed half-frozen but you never quite lost
consciousness
and you never really felt anything,’ she said. ‘There’d be nothing, only a cold sun and the Devil there, watching you.’ She shivered and shook herself. Her colour was high. She put her glass to her lips and tilted her neck back as she swallowed. She had a nice, long neck.

‘In that case,’ he said, ‘Hell for me would be deserted; there’d be nobody there. Not even the Devil. I’ve always taken heart in the fact that Hell is populated; all my friends will be there.’ He ground more pepper over his salad plate and tore the doughy heart out of the loaf.

‘The nun at school told us it would last for all
eternity
,’ she said, pulling the skin off her trout. ‘And when we asked how long eternity lasted, she said: “Think of all the sand in the world, all the beaches, all the sand quarries, the ocean beds, the deserts. Now imagine all that sand in an hour-glass, like a gigantic egg-timer. If one grain of sand drops every year, eternity is the length of time it takes for all the sand in the world to pass through that glass.” Just think! That terrified us. We were very young.’

‘You don’t still believe in Hell?’ he said.

‘No. Can’t you tell? If only Sister Emmanuel could see me now, fucking a complete stranger, what a laugh.’ She broke off a flake of trout and ate it with her fingers.

He put his cutlery down, folded his hands in his lap and looked at her. She was full now, playing with her food.

‘So you think all your friends will be in Hell too,’ she said. ‘That’s nice.’

‘Not by your nun’s definition.’

‘You have lots of friends? I suppose you know people from work.’

‘A few,’ he said. ‘And you?’

‘I have two good friends,’ she said. ‘Two people I’d die for.’

‘You’re lucky,’ he said, and got up to make the coffee.

That night, he was ravenous, like a man leasing
himself
out to her. There was nothing he wouldn’t do.

‘You’re a very generous lover,’ she said afterwards, passing him the cigarette. ‘You’re very generous full stop.’

The cat jumped up on the bed and startled her.

‘Jesus Christ!’ she said. There was something creepy about his cat.

Cigarette ash fell on the duvet but they were too drunk to care. Drunk and careless and occupying the same bed on the same night. It was all so simple, really. Loud Christmas music started up in the apartment downstairs. A Gregorian chant, monks singing.

‘Who’s your neighbour?’

‘Oh, some granny. Deaf as a coot. She sings too. She’s on her own down there; keeps odd hours.’

BOOK: Antarctica
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