Television pictures of famine victims flickered through the still darkened room. She reached across Johnny’s warm, naked body, her hands searching for the remote control in the folds of the bed covers.
“Oh, fuck Violet,” Johnny groaned, still half – asleep.
“Yeah, fuck fuck,” she answered him irritably.
She found the remote control, her fingers jabbing blindly at the buttons. It was morning news time, each channel emitting the same terrible images.
“How do you turn this fucking thing off?” she cried out painfully.
Johnny lay like a dead thing under her, unmoving.
“You bastard!” she spat at him.
She jumped out of bed to pull the curtains back from the morning light. She could read the control buttons now and instantly flicked the starved and starving images away.
“Like some fucking bad dream,” she murmured morosely, clambering back into bed.
Johnny turned over to face her, his penis erect, a smile on his face.
“Look, you’ve woken it!” he said with a sly grin.
“Fuck off! ”
He slipped his hand deftly into her crotch.
“I said, fuck off, Johnny, or didn’t you hear? So, fuck off!”
He withdrew his hand. His penis folded despondently onto his thigh.
“What’s got you, pussycat? Bad night?”
She started to cry.
“Oh, Jesus, Jesus!”
He sat up, put his arms around her shoulders and drew her down beside him.
“What’s up, Violet? Can’t know if you don’t tell…”
Her body shook against his.
“Jesus, I can’t go on living like this! It’s unreal! It’s all such a mess, suck a fucking mess!”
“Yah, fuck it!” Johnny said cheerfully.
She broke away from him.
“That’s not good enough!”
“We’ve seen worse times.”
“But this is it, Johnny, this is real shit time!”
He got abruptly out of bed.
“Ok, Violet, that’s enough, that’s a-fucking-nough! Do you think this is helping? Is this helping?”
He pulled the bed covers violently off the bed. Her tears stopped before his rage. On the bedroom floor, dinner plates with discarded food and squashed cigarette butts littered about his feet, together with an assortment of empty gin and vodka bottles. To Violet, despite the morning light, the room appeared grey and colourless, like a corpse sapped of its blood. She went to the table near the window, sat on a chair by it and let her head fall despondently into her hands. The morning light was so weak it seemed to shadow rather than brighten her. Johnny pulled his clothes on: sneakers, jeans, t – shirt.
“I don’t give a fuck any longer! Everything was all right, wasn’t it? We were managing! Everything was fine! What’s wrong with you, Violet? Are you fucking depressed or something? Maybe you need a head doctor?”
She did not answer him.
“Fine, fine,” he mumbled. “Everything’s fine. Everything’s just fine!”
His faith in life was implacable. He shoved some shorts and running shoes into a shoulder bag and slung it over his shoulder. He was young and lean and felt fully alive. He felt his aggression mount in him till it was a driving force, controlled and steady, swelling in him like a deep intake of breath, pushing upwards against his throat,
“Ah, see ya later, the caf…”
He moved with grace; the door opened noiselessly and shut hard behind him. Violet put a housecoat on, covering herself. The weather was warm, even this early in the morning, but still she felt cold. She didn’t know what was wrong with her.
She wore a short, purple jacket over leotard and black tights, with a knee-length, swinging black skirt and soft black slippers like dancing slippers. She sat at one of the plush, upholstered, wine coloured seats under a large panel of stained glass at the back of the café. With her short-cropped hair and her brilliant blue eyes she could not fail to be noticed but she was indifferent to attention. Frequently men stared provocatively at her but it meant nothing to her. Among those who knew her she had a reputation for cruelty.
Johnny arrived, swinging his bag from his hand with boyish carelessness, a broad smile on his face.
“Got something,” he announced with fierce pride.
He produced a crumpled fifty-euro note from the folded flesh of his fist.
“Scrounged this from Mahoney, the fat bastard! He owes me anyway; anyway I couldn’t give a fuck! Another day, another dollar!”
She laughed in his face.
“We need more than that, Johnny.”
“Ah, I’ll steal it, Johnny will steal it,” he said contemptuously.
“Where would you steal money, Johnny? ”
“I’ve done it before, no fucking bother!”
“I’ll go back to Mahoney, I’ll screw the fucker!”
“Don’t go back to Mahoney, he wants you to sell for him again.”
She remembered the rain-wet street and the gelid light of the street lamps like slime on the road surface. Johnny, face down in the rain, and the crunch of boots in his ribs.
“I don’t do drugs, I don’t do drugs!”
“Ok, Violet, you fucking save our skins then! Don’t blame me if we starve!”
“There’s a guy I know…”
“It’s not what you know in this country, but who you know, my mother always told me that!”
Johnny’s pointed finger beat the air with emphasis.
A woman passing with long, tousled red hair falling over her face leaned above the two of them.
“Hello, Violet,” she said, her voice hoarse, burned-out sounding. “How are you?”
“Fine,” Violet said, ” just fine.”
“Good! Hi, Johnny.”
Johnny was silent a moment, then,
“I’m busy! Can’t you see this is business, this is deadly serious! We’re talking life and death here!”
The woman laughed roughly.
“I like this kid! I’ve always liked this kid!”
She sat down uninvited and took Violet’s hand in hers.
“I don’t often see you, you know,” she said, caressing Violet’s fingers.
“I’ve been out of circulation.”
“You’ve been missed,” the woman said wistfully. “I’d like to see more of you.”
Violet remembered a party somewhere, shimmering lights, pounding music, crowded bodies, and this woman’s voice heavy with whisky breath. A hand cups her breast; fingers gently manipulate her nipple. Stinging alcohol drips from a fingertip.
“Some people have no shame,” Johnny intoned woefully.
The woman turned on him sharply.
“Violet has talent where you have nothing!”
“I’m good in bed too,” Johnny protested, his pride hurt.
“If you had any style you’d never say that!”
Violet shook her head.
“I’m still an option,” Maria said. “I’ve always appreciated you. Phone me, please phone me…”
“Where did you come out of?” Johnny interrupted. “We were just having a pleasant little chat, now bump off!”
Bump off was an expression he had learned as a child to plague his parents with.
“Bump me off you hungry-looking man, ” Maria said back to him, enigmatically.
Johnny looked bemused at her.
“I’m not hungry,” he told her. ” I’m fucking starving! Now, please, I wanna eat! ”
Violet’s and Maria’s eyes interlock, embrace, hold tight, disengage.
“You’re like a drug, ” Maria said.
“Have you got a language problem?” Johnny menaced her.
“I’ll phone,” Violet promised.
“You’ve been away too long,” Maria told her, before winding her way out through the mid – morning coffee drinkers.
“She’s got some fucking nerve,” Johnny said angrily. “Who the fuck does she think she is?”
“She’s got style.”
“Yeah, buckets of it, she slops it all around the place! I’m going to eat! I can’t stand it any longer!”
Five minutes later Johnny returned with a tray with bread and butter and jam and two mugs of steaming coffee. His eyes, usually so mobile and restless, were set and fixed on Violet. He had the skill of a predator; he missed nothing. He recalled with ease where the conversation had been interrupted by Maria. He had survived all his life in this way.
“Who’s the guy you know?”
“He lives out in Monkstown.”
“A rich guy?”
“He’d pay well to fuck me!”
“You dishonourable whore,” John said with calm contentment, stuffing his mouth with bread. He took a long slurp of steaming coffee.
“It’s none of my business, of course! I don’t give a fuck! Maybe I like the idea. Yeah, good idea! Fuck him, but make him pay!”
She was silent.
“What’s wrong now?” he asked.
She snapped at him.
“I wasn’t asking for permission! I do what I fucking like! Ok? Understand?”
“Ok,” Johnny said sheepishly, then grinned, ” bloody good idea though!”
Violet returned home. She changed her clothes, shedding the purple jacket, the leotard, the black skirt. She put on a peach coloured silk blouse over suspender belt, suspenders, white lace stockings, silk panties and an olive green skirt with a broad slit in front right up to her thighs, and a matching jacket and high heeled shoes. She studied herself in the mirror, making sure she looked just right, making sure she had calculated well her air of secret but determined sensuality. She liked what she saw. She was ready to sell a dream to a man.
Johnny ran in St. Stephen’s Green. The sun had burst through the clouds. The air was heavy with its dense and humid light. Through the heavy – leafed branches of the trees overhead the sunlight shed warm, bright spangles in his path. He ran, pushing himself to the limit, around the outer perimeter of the Green, his long, graceful stride striving in conquest of the ground. His sweat coated him like warm, trickling honey. His breath plundered the air in front of his face. His mind was empty of all thought as his body strained to go beyond itself. It was like fucking. He was all body, entirely physical. He was taut and elegant, his muscles hard beneath the leanest of physiques. His limbs whipped through the air; faster and faster. His mind stood still as his body raced at an unrelenting pace. There was only the stifling, overly warm day holding him back from complete freedom of speed and movement. New sensations encroached on his blind, running consciousness. Pain and fatigue. He pushed himself beyond them in a final, furious burst of great speed. He was running as fast as he could. His skin burned. In one last tremendous effort, his breath stolen back from him, his heart pounding, his eyes blind with stinging sweat, he flung himself beyond the limit to which he had pushed himself, throwing himself into an area of sweet abandon, breaking momentarily out of the hard and cruel hold gravity had on him, shooting forwards like a released missile, in an explosion of gathered momentum, into a sustained fifty yard sprint that left him knees down on the silky grass grasping for air and light and reason while his mind swirled in dizzy spirals through his body suffering extreme pain and at the same time, pleasure. For Johnny this was the ultimate. It was better than sex or drugs or anything. It was even better than being alive, if that made any sense. By his own effort he had sought and achieved his own annihilation.
At the edge of the pond he changed, getting back into his jeans, t – shirt, sneakers, putting his running shoes and shorts back into the shoulder bag. For five minutes he lay back on the grass staring up meditatively into the cloudless emptiness of blue sky. Deliberately he strove not to think, not to remember, Violet, not to think of her. He succeeded in shutting her and what she was doing out of his mind. His mind was calm and peaceful then. With a start he remembered that he had to call to the Employment Exchange in Werburgh Street. It was his signing on day. Money meant a lot to him. If there was one thing in life you could not afford to forget or be without it was money. He got to his feet, crossed the stone bridge in the middle of the Green, descended Grafton Street. in fast strides, his stance hard, determined, aggressive. His air was one of calculated indifference. He walked through the crowds as if he was alone on the planet. He did not see, or pretended not to, the many attractive women who crossed his path. When it came to sex, though he was desired by many women, he had long since feigned an attitude of coldness, as if to say, I couldn’t care less. However, a young, vital man, when his pulse quickened and his sex hardened all he could think of was flesh and the idea of devouring it possessed him like a wild dream.
At the bottom of Grafton Street, opposite the college, he turned up Dame Street, passing the Central Bank and heading for the grey, elegant mass of Christchurch. Opposite the Cathedral the low, subdued building of the Employment Exchange stood back in timid retreat from Christchurch Place and the narrow descent of Werburgh Street. Johnny walked bravely in and approached the familiar hatch with the same young woman with short, brown hair who received him each week. She inserted a ruler between the brown cardboard files and sorted his signing – on papers. Afraid of him, she never looked him in the eyes.
“Hello, Pussycat,” he said mewishly to her.
She grinned nervously back at him.
Johnny signed the papers and crossed to the payment hatch opposite. He disdained the sheet of paper he carried and let it slide away from him under the slim, metal bars of the hatch towards disembodied hands and a face he could not see. He couldn’t be bothered looking; he didn’t want to know who it was. Some other stupid fucking bitch. The money came back automatically, two twenties, a tenner, and several coins. He gave it a quick, inspecting glance to make sure he was not being short-changed.
Violet took the Dart from Tara Street. The long, apple – green city train pulled noiselessly away from the station. She saw tumble – down streets, derelict buildings, office blocks, apartments, a school, sports fields, an expanse of dry, brown sand, a shallow, distant sea, and the slumbering mass of Howth Head as the train carried her further and further into the south city suburbs. Further on there was a port with long piers and church spires rising above brightly painted seaside houses. She saw a round, short, stone tower lift its brow up over the rocks on the coast to gaze out steadfastly at the calm, unchanging sea. There were racing boats and surfboards with billowing sails and riders who struggled to control them. There were children dancing at the edge of water and further out the flapping arms of practised swimmers beating the quiet surface of the sea.
At each station where the train stopped, people got on and off. Violet observed them casually, without great interest. Two men sitting opposite her made broken conversation, interspersed with long, elaborate silences. The older had a look of manicured sophistication, a certain pompous air, and made wide, curling gestures with his hand as he held forth on some point to the other. Violet recognised him as a university professor who sometimes appeared on television. From time to time his eyes swung round to her and lingered with lascivious candour on her thighs. His thinning, grey hair combed back in a wispish, untidy mane gave him a leonine air as he began all of a sudden to lecture his reverential, head – bowed interlocutor. The professor had embarked, his speech evolving elaborately, occupying a self – complacent, meditative region situated somewhere between her knees and her navel. Violet felt his voice touch her furtively. She shuddered at it.
“The poverty stricken of the third world,” he was saying, “take us for God! They look to us for salvation! On the front page of the newspapers a mother, child in arms, pleads with us to save
her! She has forgotten there is a Heaven – sheltering sky. There is only the West, there is only you and I, blind, fatuous fools, reading our newspapers, barely glancing at the front page, at her despairing photograph, before turning to the Sports, or God forbid, the Arts page! We are as unheeding, empty and stupid as God is perhaps, therefore her begging aid from us makes sense; it is like prayer; it is as pathetic and useless as prayer; we will not respond and her child will die!”
The second man nodded in agreement.
“And I, you know,” The professor continued, “I am the first to recognise how empty and stupid I am, how shallow I am! What if I were to say to you that I spoke with the sole intention of arousing that young woman from her indifference? ”
The second man eyed her coldly, critically, then answered in a thick, native Dublin accent,
“Good ploy, I’d say, good ploy!”
The professor said,
“We all know what hunger is.”
“I’ve given all the same,” his friend said. “I’ve given to that appeal on the telly, and to all the others. They say the Irish give most generously.”
“How much did you give?” the Professor demanded haughtily.
“Fifty quid! ”
“Enough to buy yourself a little self – love! That’s why we give of course, to purchase a little warmth for ourselves, to buy a little tenderness! I give too, that’s how I know, I know all about love, I know what it is to be selfish! ”
He nudged the other with his foot and then said, turning to Violet,
“What do you say, young lady?”
Looking fixedly at the sea, Violet said coldly,
At the next stop Violet left the train. The two men looked after her then turned merrily to each other with silent laughter shaking their frames.
“Touchy, touchy,” the professor said.
Violet crossed the footbridge. Beneath her the train pulled out from the station. On the platform below there was just a handful of people. An old woman in black, winter clothes and a couple of schoolkids. She heard a voice floating over the platform, a young woman with dark hair held by a red ribbon in a graceful ponytail,
“Do you like fruit, William?”
The remarks were addressed towards a small wheelchair on the platform, its back turned to her, wheeling round, a tiny hand guiding the steering lever. It wasn’t a child, as she had thought at first, but a small, stunted man, his limbs like those of a small child, his hair a wild, flaming red, his face broad and heavy, his eyes wide – open and penetrating.
“Apples, oranges, bananas?”
He stared at Violet descending the footbridge. He caught her eyes. His short, imperfect body was like a vague, distorted question mark before her. For an instant she was surprised and taken aback by him before she realised what the question was and saw the same brooding longing about the mouth and eyes, the same intense, insatiable hunger peering out of him. She looked boldly back at him, raising her eyebrows playfully. She was to him, she knew, as perfect and unattainable as the most distant star in the Universe but she was not beyond feeling pity for him.
His eyes glimmered as she went by and he said,
His voice had a quiet and restrained poetry that touched her but she did not answer him or look back.
She walked slowly up the steep slope of Alma Road to the detached house converted into studio apartments. For some reason she could not understand, as she moved from light into shadow and shadow into light, she remembered from her nursing days the image of a dead child nestling in the stillborn emptiness of its mother’s lap. The image was crude and cruel and she, by not resisting it, allowed it thankfully to sink back into the mysterious darkness from whence it had arisen; lifting her face to the hot sun, closing her eyes to the blinding light. The colour violet suffused her vision.
At the second turning of the stairs, arriving on the landing, she pushed the bell positioned in the centre of the door, just below the keyhole. After a moment the door opened. The inside of the apartment was dark and cool. Brian stood nervously by the open window. Past him she saw the intense light of the garden and a clamber of roses entangled on a back wall. On a table near him she saw the photo of a woman with exotic features, Lebanese perhaps, with dark, chestnut hair and deep brown eyes of passionate intensity. Across the chin and lower cheekbone was inscribed the tender message,
“To my darling wife, Louise, all my love,” in flamboyant, extravagant handwriting.
Brian was drinking. He was a little nervous.
“Would you like a drink?”
“What is it?”
She moved across the room to him and he raised the glass to her mouth tilting it at her lips. She drank and it was neat and biting on her tongue. It ran like fire to her throat.
“It’s good,” she said, her eyes holding his firmly.
“Thank you for coming,” he said.
“Don’t thank me. It’s always a pleasure to see you…”
He was taller than she was, his hair sandy, his face nondescript, his mouth and eyes nervous and unsteady, his dress correct, his tie firmly fastened, shirt and trousers proper, shoes polished highly, his voice hesitant but not unpleasant, and a faint, sweet scent of sweat from his armpits.
“You are beautiful, always more beautiful. I’m glad you’re here. You’re marvellous! I can’t see enough of you, Violet. I need you so much, I need you always, I just need you!”
Violet smiled indulgently,
“You need me! You need my beauty. Yes, I am beautiful, I know it. As long as I can remember, men have told me that. I’m familiar with it all now, the tired overtures, the gauche compliments, the gratuitous obscenities, mens’ fathomless desire for me, their furious lusts, their implacable hunger, the prolonged rape of their fantasies, their feeble, lovesick dreams focused on the miracle of my sex. I know it all. Men have no secrets from me; they have confessed everything and long since pleaded guilty! Need? I have seldom been loved, but I have always been needed! ”
“Bravo!” Brian cried out ecstatically. “Only you could make a speech like that, Violet, there’s no other woman like you! I get so much pleasure from you!”
“What do you get from your wife?”
“Dinner! Roast beef and roast potatoes mostly!”
“I think she’s very beautiful!”
“With you, Violet, it’s like champagne and oysters! Speaking of which…”
He hurried into the kitchenette, tucked in a corner of the studio, and opened the door of the small fridge with a delighted flourish. He lifted out a silver tray of oysters and a dew – beaded bottle of champagne. He left it down on the marble patterned counter, displaying it to Violet with his arms held wide. He laughed loudly and Violet could not help smiling. He shook the bottle and opened it quickly to let the freezing liquid spume out brightly. He poured it messily into two glasses, spilling it over the edges of the counter. They clinked their glasses.
“Chin, chin,” Brian laughed, brimming over with nervous excitement, and raising his glass, he added, “here’s to business! Always a pleasure to do business with you!”
“Speaking of which…” Violet reminded him.
With a tiny fork she loosened the oyster flesh spread like a shining gob of spittle on its moist, inner shell.
“How much do you want?”
Violet considered, thought of a number at random, doubled it and half – mischievously, half – daringly, redoubled it. She watched his face cloud over.
And then the sun re – emerged.
“Anything you fucking ask for, Violet,” he told her. “You’re fucking worth it!”
Holding his glass, he embraced her, drinking her up, his mouth breathless with impatience, cool with champagne. His free hand plunged determinedly between her thighs. Suddenly he let go of her and ran to the far side of the room. He began to undress, his fingers fumbling at his tie-knot, unbuttoning his shirt, unzipping his pants.
“If my wife ever finds this, I’m rightly fucked!”
He pressed the play button on a small, black tape recorder he held in the air to let the sound travel.
“This music…” he said. “Listen!”
It was not music, not really. It was her voice. Her voice soaring in disembodied flight. She sang. His voice rising in frantic, futile antiphony.
Listening to it, her own voice, she felt a thrill of excitement, of sudden pleasure and felt the inside of her body dilate fantastically in a furious, tremendous spasm.
“Fuck me!” she called out blindly to him, her body closing tight as a fist on her words, her voice, her sensation.
He swept her up like a wave, carried her, dancing, dancing, on the deliciously curved arc of his movement. She swirled about him like a sucking pool, a vortex swallowing him. Ravenous, their mouths opened on each other’s mouth. Greedily they devoured each other, tasting, sucking, biting and chewing, eating each other up.
The Dart line followed the curve of the bay. The evening sun was broken by cloud. Violet almost slept in the entire calm of the aftermath.
Johnny dances around the room with the money in his hand. His laughter is intoxicated, his mind in a dizzy whirl. His voice is strident with happiness.
“I’m fucking a one thousand quid fuck, yeehah, yeehah!”
Violet undresses tiredly and lies prone on the bed. She hears the brusque, staccato whisper of Johnny’s clothes being pulled from his body. She feels his flesh intrude upon hers from behind. His hands lift and shake her at the hips. Her leg presses down hard on the television remote control and zaps the empty screen into bright life. Face down in the crumpled sheets she is unaware of the images that project into the shadows of the room behind her. She feels Johnny’s breath on her back, his voice vibrating over her skin,
“Jesus, Violet, I love you, I fucking love you!”
Images of the dead, famine images, corpses with bellies bloated by hunger are strewn in the room by the flickering light of the television screen. Their mouths, deprived of sound, open and shut on a silence filled with the animal joy of sex.