The Reach of a Root

Micaela Maftei and Laura Tansley

Clare got caught looking at her cunt. A mirror between her legs, her white knickers rolled down around her knees, in the shower block of the girls’ changing rooms. Ruby stood and stared and left the kit bag she’d forgotten swinging on a peg in her wake. She wrote a long letter to Lisa about it in form, an itemized list of the irregularities: the place she chose, the look on her face, the Chanel compact tilted at an awkward angle. Ruby regretted writing it down, leaving Lisa to lay it on thick, to pass it around. Lisa, with her slicked-back hair sashaying in a ponytail; Lisa, who licked her lips in winter till they cracked, whose flat hips played tricks on all the boys who thought she wasn’t ready. Lisa passed it round and Clare was never quite the same again. Rosaria flushing, red thread veins pulsing, she was pink in the face forever more.

It confirmed what she had already suspected. Really, deep down, in the part of her that mattered the most, she was ugly. She would need to do a lot to make up for this huge, fundamental marking, this imposition on everyone else.

After she turned thirty, something shifted; she told herself to shift something. From then it became more about different types of categorization: people who knew, people who didn’t, and people who pretended. The first category included other women who changed in the blue-doored cubicles at the gym; the second, women who told stories of skinny-dipping and one-night stands. The third category was the most treacherous.

That was the year Clare moved to a new office. After her parents split up in an ill-advised retirement divorce, Clare moved across the country, transferred at her own request to a new branch. She also left behind Tim, the latest example of why independence trumped headaches and someone else’s post filling the hallway and dark curling hairs left in the drying bottom of the bathtub. He came up as ‘Time’ in her phone because when he’d first entered his name, drunk, it had made them laugh so hard she couldn’t change it. At first the phone had flashed ‘Time’ far too often, until she threatened to report him for harassment and then he stopped, probably moved on to someone called Emma or Kate or Carol or Liz, some woman from the third category.

On the last occasion on which her phone had flashed ‘Time,’ he told her that people worked hard for this kind of thing and she shouldn’t disregard it, and she told him she had to wake up early for a staff meeting and to stop daydreaming and believing in what all the films said. Time is on my side, she could imagine him singing, yes it is. The next day, during the staff meeting, her supervisor announced she’d be off on maternity leave in the new year, and Clare and the woman she shared a desk with, as well as a few drinks for the past few Friday afternoons, looked at each other.

“I guess we’ll have to get her some kind of gift, too, once she has it,” Clare said later that afternoon in the pub.

“I don’t even want to tell you how many baby shower gifts I’ve chipped in for. You transferred to the wrong office, let me tell you. There’s something in the water here.”

“I don’t see why you need to impose your decisions onto other people.”

“We all had to go to her wedding. All of us. It was so strange. It was like, where are your friends, honey? They’ve been together since they were thirteen, someone said in a speech.”

“That should be illegal. As should marrying the first person you sleep with.”

“Mine was gay. A gay boy called Francis. His mother, of all people, had to tell me. He left me to go to art school down south and I kept coming around to his house, asking if he’d written or phoned and mentioned me. God, who was that person?”

“Grim.”

“It used to be embarrassing but to be honest I think I got off easy. No crabs, no black eyes, no missed periods. You?”

“Someone called Robin. I’ll get the next round.” She reached for her wallet across the table as she rose.

Robin was Ruby’s brother. He was five years older than the oldest of her group of friends, a chef in a pub that boiled vegetables to a pulp, their integrity lost to even the blunt edge of a spoon. Clare had been there once or twice with her parents, to eat lunch at 3 p.m. on a Sunday after a drive around the country. Each step on the carpet sent wafts of stale beer and fat and salt into the air like spores. Kids in the garden took turns to see who was brave enough to approach the fence that kept a dog in and the punters out.

When it was quiet, after the dinner rush, Robin would hang around in a concrete courtyard by the bins, sitting on the empty kegs and smoking. Clare noticed him there, when she asked to get some fresh air, when she skulked around in the drizzle waiting for her mum to finish her orange and lemonade, her dad his second half of ale.

“Your Ruby’s pal, aren’t you?” he said one day, flicking the butt of his cigarette over a wall.

They weren’t really friends, Ruby felt sorry for her, but they slept at each other’s houses every now and then, cooked jacket potatoes in the microwave together after school. But they didn’t sit together on the benches in the playground at lunch, didn’t pair-up in PE or mark each other’s math homework.

“Well I’ve seen you around anyway, you’re at St John’s, aren’t you?” He lit another cigarette, his finger curving around the filter, puffing his cheeks up with smoke, like a much older man.

“Yeah I am.”

“Want one?” He said, offering her the packet, drawing her nearer to peek in and look at the contents. There was something satisfying about them lined up in two snug rows like they were. Something cute about the packet that reminded her of beaded purses that burst out of crackers at Christmas.

“I’m OK,” she said, “my parents are inside.”

He smiled, flicked the butt over the wall again and pulled a tube of mints from his checked trousers. He bit the top one off, paper and all, then offered her the next, his thumb pushing it out of the foil into her palm where she felt the warmth of his mouth.

“See you then,” he said, and walked through a beaded curtain back into the kitchen.

Clare put the mint in her mouth and sucked it, the cold air and sugar finding the sensitive parts of her teeth. Then she climbed on top of one of the metal bins to peer over the wall; fifty, no, a hundred brown cigarette butts lay there soaking up the frost. She wondered which ones were his, which ones had stained his fingers yellow.

No matter how hard she looked, she found people in her life who disbelieved the truth of her earlier experience. Men who tied her hands to bedposts so that they could look at her without the traffic directions of her strong hands motioning upwards, upwards, always upwards. Doctors who swiftly closed down discussion, sending out assurances into thin air. Women who shared bottles of wine with her and, near the bottom of the second bottle, heard her words and tried to remove the outrage from their eyes.

“I think we spend most of our adult life dealing with our early years.”

“I’m sure that’s not true. It’s not possibly true.”

“Absolutely. Nuclear fallout. Is that what it’s called? Everything you do and pretty much everything you think can find its way back. There’s always a thread.”

“Life isn’t threads, it’s actions. Deeds. Childhood is when you get everything wrong and nothing makes sense.” She shuddered theatrically. “Can you image if that extended into . . . today?”

“Clare. Get real. Nothing does make sense. I mean, it doesn’t.”

“Is this the part where we blame everything on our parents?”

Her coworker laughed, “can you not see you’re proving my point?”

“But if Ruby’s parents are away, isn’t there going to be anyone else there? Anyone else, responsible?”

“Her brother Robin’s going to be there.”

“And how old is he?”

“He’s nineteen.”

“He’ll be in? All night? Supervising a sleepover? Won’t he be out, with his friends?”

“He has to work early in the morning, at the Blue Bell.”

“I’m sure he’s not going to get much sleep anyway.”

Clare remembered looking around at this point, at her dad, at her mum, at their plates, hers half full of chicken skin and bones and the potatoes topped with cheese that her mum mashed with a ricer to make them smooth, like she used to like them, that took her an extra thirty minutes to prepare, congealing in the cold. They were often quiet during dinner, but there was something different about this silence, something that made the spaces between them bigger, then contract.

 

Ruby’s house was newer than Clare’s. Everything was open-plan, the lines between rooms blurred by lighting and windows that ran the length of the house. There were four of them that night, watching drab, almost comical horror-film sequels from the far-end shelves of the video rental store that they squealed at to make them scary.

“Does anyone want to come and sit outside?”

Robin’s bedroom window opened out on to a flat-roofed, shingled garage. This was where he went to smoke sometimes when he couldn’t be bothered to go downstairs and out in to the garden.

“We’re watching a film, dummy,” Ruby’s face never turned away from the telly.

“I’ll go.”

Clare took a sweatshirt with her to put on over her nightie. She’d been snuggled under it and she tried to pull it with her when she got up but Ruby was sitting on one sleeve. Clare tugged and tugged while Ruby first pretended not to notice and then reached under her thigh and yanked, hurling the sleeve towards her and punching the volume button on the remote so that the film drowned out Clare’s uneasy laugh. She was marked now, she’d made her choice.

 

They sat dangling their legs over the back of the garage, looking out into the gardens of the surrounding houses, the outlines of rusting trampolines and splintered climbing frames left outside on lawns, wasp-eaten sheds full of bikes, trikes, and tools.

“If you fell off here you’d break your spine,” he said, and pinched the back of her neck, making her shoulders scrunch up.

“Get lost,” she said, giving him a shove and a smile.

“Want one?”

“OK.”

He must have known it was her first because he lit both cigarettes in his mouth then passed one to her, saving her the embarrassment of trying to do it herself.

“You have to take it down, right into your lungs.”

She tried, holding her breath with the smoke in her mouth, but it just came tumbling out of her nose like dust, like pollen.

He laughed, “you’ll get the hang of it.”

So they sat and she tried to smoke, and something did happen, in her head and her stomach, feelings like the drop from the peak of a swing or standing up too fast.

“Do you know how they test, to see if you have nerve damage, after you break your neck, or your back?”

“No,” she said.

“Cross your legs.”

She did as she was told and with his free hand he inched her nightie up over her knees, making the soft blonde hairs there stand up with the static.

“Watch this,” he said, and hit her below the knee-cap. Her top leg jerked up, led by her foot somehow, full of a tingle that was like when she hit her funny-bone off the woodwork bench. She looked at him, quickly, and laughed. He did it again. And then once more.

“Can I try it? I mean, will it work if I do it to you?”

“I don’t think you’re strong enough.”

She looked at her legs and wondered about nerves and impulses and then looked at the ground three meters below her feet.

“Do you know what else they do?”

“No,” she said.

He leaned down and picked up her foot, swinging her around on her bum. With the bottom of the plastic lighter he drew a line down the middle of the bottom of her foot. The sensation was almost unbearable, making skin, muscles, tendons, bones, everything, straighten up and sit tight till she couldn’t stand it and she kicked out, knocking the lighter from his hand. She winced when it smacked the asphalt, fearing an explosion of some kind, but no fire or smoke came. She listened to hear whether the girls had heard it as well, bouncing off the drive, but of course they couldn’t. They were too busy pausing and rewinding stupid moments, rewriting what they were watching, adding sound effects.

“Sorry,” she said, eventually.

“No big deal,” he said, easing another plastic lighter out of his front pocket, this one green and considerably more beat-up. He smoked two more cigarettes on the roof, and he must have known how sickish she felt because he didn’t offer her another one. Her foot fell asleep almost immediately but she was too scared to move it off his lap where he’d placed it, so she wriggled her big toe as he held it between his thumb and forefinger to try to force the circulation. He wouldn’t let it go.

When he flicked his last butt downwards and stood up, her foot fell heavily and she struggled with it, trying to ignore the pins and needles and thinking desperately of something to say. He helped her up with one hand and when he let her climb through the window back into the bedroom first, it was like the cars that always turned into her parents’ drive to turn around and back out again—a pause, a moment until they realized it was a dead end, and then a flick of the indicator and a backwards heaving, the driver’s tiny hands flying one over the other as the steering wheel twirled.

She had one foot on the sagging sofa he’d pulled towards the window as a step, and one foot on the sill. Then his hand was on the calf of the windowsill leg and she turned to look at it in slow motion. That foot had the last of the pins and needles in it, and the stubbiness of his stained fingers muted the sensation, dampened it. He looked at her for a reaction and she chose one: grinned, forgetting to smile with her mouth closed to hide her crooked front teeth.

It was only seven-thirty but they’d left work an hour early and the barman here made strong drinks. It was his own fault for telling them how much they’d save buying bottles instead glasses, doubles instead of singles. Clare pinned her shoulder blades back against the plastic of the booth to keep from pitching forward. Her new coworker had made a pass at her and was now probably being sick in the toilets, considering how long she’d been gone. Or perhaps she was embarrassed—Clare’s reaction had not been the right one, at least not the one she expected. Been there, done that. Another sort of headache altogether, all it led to was twice as many toilet-paper-wrapped tampons in the bathroom bin each month, and weird looks from idiots on the street. She reached across the table for the faux snakeskin pocket book and flicked it open with one finger. She laughed out loud to learn the woman lied about her age. There were four tenners in the billfold, and Clare slipped one out to get a cab. When she stood up her feet were unsteady, so she stepped out of her heeled shoes and carried them in one hand as she walked out of the pub. The barman called something out, and Clare waved backwards, leaving five sticky prints on the heavy glass door.

 

She’d seen herself in mirrors many times since that day in the changing rooms, when Ruby had run from her. In bathrooms, in bedroom ceilings, in tilted dresser mirrors, in consultation rooms, by professionals, by trainees, by amateurs, by honest-to-goodness men and women. Tonight, as she undressed in lamplight punctuated by the gentle flashing of an answer phone message on her phone, she saw herself in twos and threes, in kaleidoscopic swirls that only settled when she focused hard on moles, scars, and rogue hairs.

When her dad picked her up in the morning, Robin stood in the doorway watching her leave. Ruby was asleep on the sofa cocooned in a sleeping bag, exhausted after the breakfast they’d had at six in the morning because the sun was up and there was no point going to bed when it wasn’t nighttime. Clare had been given the bacon with the white greasy bits, the parts that didn’t cook properly because they curled up away from the bottom of the pan. And when she offered to pour out the orange juice Ruby took it away from her, telling her to throw out the soggy carton with cracked eggshells in it that had been left to stand in a yolky puddle on the counter.

Robin smiled at her, then at her dad. They looked at each other for a moment and for her dad it was like dirt under his nails, meat in his back teeth.

“Who is that?” he asked, as if he didn’t already know, as if there was a chance he wasn’t real.

“Robin. You know, Ruby’s brother.”

“Right,” he sounded incredulous, that this person dared to be.

Robin waved goodbye with two fingers, the rest clutching the clear lighter he must have retrieved, then turned and closed the door.

Clare’s dad pulled away, fast, and drove fast all the way home, changing gears with such force, making the car chew on itself in frustration. He turned into their driveway, got out and slammed the driver door without even offering to help Clare with her duvet wrapped in a bin bag, her rucksack, her pillow. He fumbled at the front door fishing for the key in his pocket.

“Dad?”

“What Clare?”

Her eyes started watering involuntarily, like when she tried plucking her eyebrows. Her dad didn’t notice, but then all of a sudden his hard hand was pincering her shoulder, so he must have.

“Don’t bother doing that now. It’s no good doing that now. Stop that. Stop it. You can’t just walk around with your eyes closed like you do, stop it right now. You’re going to walk into things, without realizing. Don’t let me catch you doing that.”

He finally managed to open the door and walked in so fast he forgot his key in the lock.

There weren’t enough things on hinges, with handles, with lids or on runners for her to slam shut that day. Everything was her fault: it started with her and it ended with her, and everyone else—this seemed somehow hazy and obvious at once—anyone else who happened to be caught up by her was a casualty, not an accessory. It was everything to do with her, it was backwards, it was the inside-out problem, inches-deep, the length of her longest finger.

The next week in class Ruby and Lisa and the rest of them set up elaborate structures against her, invisible and impenetrable. On Monday and Tuesday, when she still carried the imprints of Robin against her, the memory-smell of his wrinkled checkered shirt and the pale hardness of his fingernails, she felt buffered, though anxious. Maybe it would be like the time all three of them had wanted those new trainers for Christmas but only one of them was wearing them the first day back in January. But by Thursday she knew it was not like the trainers, it had nothing to do with them. And even though three weeks later, when school let out for two weeks at Easter, and all of Robin was completely wiped clean off her, shaved off and picked off and scrubbed away, she knew that he was still there somehow, hanging about, and she wondered how long he could exist like that, caught up in the net of the echoes in the gym from the retained sounds of flat feet, the slap of a mat dropped to the floor, the snap of the fire door of the girls’ changing room with Ruby flying beyond it, and Clare’s concern caught in the reflection of a mirror smudged with her mother’s make up.

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