In the evenings, the prostitutes hang out along the canal. At that time, there weren’t any exotic creatures from Central Europe or Africa, so picture the indigenous variety instead. White girls dressed in short skirts and heels. Hair bleached or permed, faces painted just that little too much.
Picture Susie. She leans forward, weight balanced on her toes. Legs thrust up to her ass which in turn thrusts back, creating a firm shelf of arse that mimics African girls’ booty. Her back is as rigid as a tabletop. Her head curves round to transact with the man in the car. One hand on the car door, the other on her hip, fingers splayed inwards, bringing attention to the product; the means of reproduction.
Too much kohl. A shower after every sale.
‘Isn’t she sore from the scrubbing?’ said Dave. Not getting it, I almost asked him to repeat it. And maybe he wanted me to. Except—
Unh, I said instead, a second too late. Stared out the window, feeling my face burn.
She’d come and gone five times in two hours. Five times the sound of running water, the door slamming. Each time it slammed, there’d been an echo ten minutes later. ‘See,’ said Dave. Patient, as if explaining to a child. ‘First slam – guy leaves. Second slam, it’s her, going back to the job.’ Through the top-floor window at the back of the house, we watched her. Just the two of us, me and Dave. Matt was out working his Burgerking shift; wouldn’t be back till two. Dave had binoculars. He’d laughed when he’d realised he could follow Susie all the way to her spot.
‘Fuck,’ he’d said. ‘We’re living with a prossie.’
I hadn’t believed him, so he handed me the binoculars. I saw her white jacket bobbing between the tired green leaves of the trees. Her skirt was a darkish colour. Short. Flesh-coloured tights, not black opaques like the girls in college. Stilettos.
I’d bumped into her earlier, on her way out. She’d looked like a secretary making ready for a night of fun. Except that the skirt was just that bit too high.
How much is too much? A finger’s width? The span of a hand, seven inches above the knee? Is that much always too much?
It was a beautiful September evening. We stayed at the open window. Cracked open some beers, talked about football.
‘Ssh,’ said Dave. His hand tapping my leg, involuntary almost, the way you’d still an animal. ‘That’s six. Jesus.’
The shower, again.
Then, a little while later, the washing machine, down in the basement.
‘Sheets,’ I said.
Dave glanced at me.
I felt uncomfortable. ‘Think about it.’
He kept looking at me, let his face change slowly, from fake-puzzled to mask of disgust.
Later, we heard music drift up from her flat.
Keyboard, schmaltzy as a game-show theme tune. Dave started to sing along. Nights in White Satin.
I got the giggles, then he did too. The lady of the night playing music. Not, like a geisha, for her clients. Just for herself. And the snake, of course.
The house was in a long Georgian terrace in Ranelagh. Its windows were on an east-west axis. Dave, Matt and I had the whole top floor, so we got light all day long. Susie was on hall level; one room, at the back. By afternoon, the sun would shift its weight round to the front, throwing the house’s silhouette over itself. I imagine Susie sleeping in on those autumn mornings we got up early to cycle over to Belfield. I see her clinging to the fresh smell of her laundered sheets and waking, eventually, to shadows. Padding to the window, peeking out through the curtain, at the weeds and rhododendron in the overgrown back garden.
I never thought of her then, in that way, from the inside. But now—
How did her days pass for her? Was she busy? Did time flow or drag? What did she do, those shortening afternoons before the night’s work started?
Her snake coils in its cage and watches. I see its eyes, yellow glints in the darkness.
I can’t remember who started the fabrications. Matt, maybe. ‘A hooker? No! How do ye know, lads?’ A question, triggering
responses, leading to a riff, exploding out into a story. There was a guy who came to the door in the daytime, during her non-working hours. Her boyfriend, I suggested. The others scoffed. ‘You dick,’ said Matt. ‘No self-respecting lad would have a hoor as his bird.’
‘Actually, Matthew,’ said Dave, doing one of his about-takes. ‘You’re the dick. All that expertise. Who wouldn’t want a free sample of that?’
There was another day-time guy, thin and sleazy, blouson jacket, Brazilian strip of a moustache. Dave reckoned he was her pimp. And then there was the kid, but only on the weekends. Sweet-looking. He wore glasses. I thought he was around eight. Dave reckoned older. ‘Undernourished. Because he’s a knacker.’ A sly sidelong at Matt, who came from a working-class family. Matt took a long toke, spoke through the spliff-smoke, exaggerating his Limerick whine.
‘Technically, David, you’re not insulting me there. Knacker’s only for Dublin scumbags.’
Dave came up with the first name. The son’s. Dylan. Matt named the ex. Pat. Pah, he said, dropping the t the way they did in Dublin. Steo, the pimp, was my contribution. Dave started laughing.
‘Oh, that’s good. That’s dirty.’
‘Steeeeo,’ I said, emboldened, making my mouth mean and long, flattening the word. Matt laughed too.
‘Who do ye think he lives with?’ I said later. ‘Dylan. The kid?’.
But they were already talking about the match that afternoon, losing interest.
Her flat was immaculate. We’d get a glimpse of it sometimes on our way up the stairs, or if we were passing to go out to the back to the miserable garden. I imagine her now, scouring the bachelor fittings in the lean-to kitchen, rubbing Jif along the ancient draining board until her hands stung. Spraying Pledge on the shelves, plumping up her cushions from All Homes, arranging them prettily on the bed. Polishing his cage, rubbing the bars until they shone.
His name I knew, though I didn’t tell the lads. She’d shared it with me the week after we’d moved in. I’d been passing, saw her standing at her window, looking out, the python wound around her body like a weight-lifter’s belt.
‘Oh.’ She turned, catching me. Her face was soft and pale. Brown eyes, longish lashes. No make-up. Her mouth small, delicate, the colour of a winter rose, fading.
‘Hi,’ I said. A blurt. My hand stuck itself out, like I was playing bank manager.
She looked down at it, my silly hand. Looked up. Her gaze seemed bored, unreadable. ‘You’re one of the students.’ The snake shifted, raised its head. Its tongue appeared.
‘This is Kaa,’ she said, stroking his scales.
I must have blinked, surprised she had the same references I did.
Her head tilted. ‘Oh, yeah,’ she said, like it was a question, or challenge. ‘He’s the real king of the jungle.’
Trust in me. Just in me.
Ugly wallpaper. A green floral motif; hard and embossed, like a skin disease. A dull no-colour carpet, the type country landlords used because it didn’t show the dirt. She’d added touches. Three Anne Geddes posters; dimpled four-year old Californians sucking on lollipops, hugging teddies. They bother me now, those images. Did she choose them to throw the landlord off the scent, to make the place not look like what it was? Or for her own sake, to make her feel innocent again, or remind her of her son? Were they for her boy, when he came to visit? Or were they part of her shtick, a deliberate choice – along with the prim secretary get-up and the pale, featureless face – a sop to the men who fucked her there, that really, what they were doing to her and what she was letting them do was okay?
Maybe she got them to make the men feel bad, like when they were fucking her, they were fucking innocence too.
Maybe she just wanted herself to feel bad.
‘Nice,’ I said, nodding at them, that evening she introduced me to Kaa.
All the time backing out, arse first, like a toady at a Renaissance court.
Her window was long and dusty. Floor-length velvet curtains either side. Dark red, starkly vaginal. Knocking Shop 101.
Those were the words I used when I described them to Dave. He didn’t react. He seemed preoccupied. I felt myself panic.
‘Do you think she bought them?’ I said. ‘You know, like a thing? Like the snake? Or the posters—’
‘What posters?’ said Dave.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘You know…’
Dave shrugged. ‘No idea. Ask Matt.’
But Matt wasn’t there. He was staying out again, with the girl he’d met from the College of Commerce, the one who had a bedsit off Camden Street.
‘Or maybe.’ Dave had about-faced again. Was looking at me, suddenly alert. ‘They were Steo’s idea.’
‘What posters? The curtains.’
My mouth opened itself. ‘Yeaaaahhh.’ There I was, doing Steo’s voice again. ‘Steeeeo, branding mastermind. Knocking Shop 101.’
Dave laughed, like he hadn’t the first time I’d said it, and I did it again, and we riffed then, about asking the powers-that-be at UCD to bring Steo in as a guest tutor on the marvels of the marketing mix.
‘I bet you he’s given her a name,’ said Dave. That slightly hyper look in his eyes. ‘Suzanna. Her real name is—’
‘Clients don’t want a Suuusan.’ I was doing Steo again. ‘Suuusan’s their mot’s name. They want something exotic—’
‘Something with a Z,’ said Dave, in a Steo’s voice that under the Belfast, was way more dangerous than mine. We stopped and looked at each other, and because there was nothing else to do, we laughed, though it had an odd, uneasy sound to it as it came out of our mouths.
I wonder. Was she ever renamed, the real Susie? Suzanna for work, Suzanna with a Z, the one spied on by the elders?
Would she have liked that name, or been upset by it? Felt like it took something away from her, scraped away at a piece of her soul, made whatever she had left less hers, more theirs, the men’s; his, the pimp’s, the one we called Steo? I find myself asking her these questions. I find myself imagining a friend for her, like an Imelda, from Cork, who will answer them. I picture them together outside office hours, two young women sitting on a park bench on a Saturday afternoon sharing a fag. They are discussing the Z. Imelda tells Susie not to argue with Steo about it. Yerra, girl, he’ll only do something on ya.
i.e., Glass or cut her.
Or maybe Susie was okay with it. Felt the Z gave her something. Protection. Yeah, Steo. I like it. Thanks.
Maybe the Z was hers all along.
Hey listen up, Steo, you little worm. I’ve an idea. I want a Z in me name… and I realise I’m doing Susie’s voice this time, but out loud, and nobody is listening.
I’ve begun to take the Luas to Ranelagh. Two, maybe three evenings a week, after work. The tram bells trill and a voice tells me we’re there, and I get off. I walk past the house and look at the ground-floor window, the one at the front that wasn’t Susie’s. I can’t get past its black glass. I want this woman’s history to surface for me – god knows why – a wooden saint emerging from the painted doors of our shared astronomical clock. But all that surfaces is me.
I think of the black eyes we saw her sport; twice, each time the same eye. Was it Steo who gave it to her, like Dave said? Or the ex, Pah? Was it a punter? How did she get away with it for so long, working there? I picture our landlord, poised on the landing, fist raised to knock for the rent. I feel her furniture crash to the floor. I hear her shouting.
It’s easy to make up lives for other people. Dave created a therapy group for Susie. He hated that stuff, thought it was soft and meaningless, useless in the face of real problems happening to real people, like wars. He gave her a facilitator. A book. Heal Your Life. He had me say the title, in the well-meaning Dublin accent of our dinner ladies at the college canteen. Together we cobbled up a Bad Thing that had happened to Susie to justify the therapy. ‘Maybe she killed someone,’ said Dave. ‘One of her men.’ Maybe she tried to kill Dylan, I thought, but didn’t say. Thinking of my mother, the unspoken-about darkness that fell on her after my sister was born.
Dave invented Susie’s family too, a big horde of Cabra Dubliners on her mother’s side. I gave her a Belfast father. ‘Cliché,’ said Dave. ‘She’s not remotely northern.’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Think about it. His name’s Jack. A violent bastard. Used to beat her mother. That’s what put her on the game.’ ‘Fuck off,’ said Dave. ‘What do you know about any of that? Here’s what it is.
She loved Jack and Jack loved her mother and her mother loved her and none of them–’
‘None of them,’ I said, getting it.
Loved the one who loved them.
But who, who, I think? Who, apart from her child, was her family? Where did they live? Did she have parents who were still alive? Siblings? Aunties, uncles, grandparents? What did they know of what she did, those shapeless relatives? What could they know? If someone from the fringes of my family had been a working girl at that time, would I have known?
I picture her not on the canal, but across the city, on the other strip; the Golden Mile near Heuston train station. Sun slants over the low roofs, striping the Liffey gold. A man pulls up in his Punto, winds down his window. Another girl is nearer but the man beckons to Susie, smiling his slow, investigative punter’s smile. Susie leans over. A waft of fag smoke, sweat and Magic Tree.
‘Christ!’ says the man.
Susie retracts. The man grabs her wrist. ‘Susie.’ She falters. He takes off his shades.
Things like that can happen.
She kept her earnings in the flat. A biscuit-tin.
1991. I’m guessing: handjob fifteen quid, blowie thirty, full package somewhere between fifty and a ton? Six a night, average five nights a week, and Steo took his cut of (I’m guessing again) sixty percent. If my sums are right, and they’re probably not, on good weeks she would have made almost a grand. Maybe I’m overestimating her earnings. The thought makes me sick.
She came up one night, in late November. The others were out, Matt at his girlfriend’s place, Dave on the tear. It was very late. Two or three. I couldn’t sleep, was sitting in the kitchen, reading Stephen King, the one about the boys and the body.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know if….’ She was in a dressing-gown and slippers. Shivering. Her face was bare. She looked worried. ‘I heard a noise at the back. I think there’s…’
Someone in the garden, I thought. It was an old house, spooky. It backed onto a lane; easy enough for someone to climb over the wall and in.
‘Would you come down?’ she said. ‘Just to keep me company?’
I remembered my mother, not letting go my hand. Not letting go my hand and all me wanting was to get away.
The stairs swallowed us.
‘What age are you?’ she said.
I didn’t want to answer. My mouth moved. ‘Twenty.’
‘Ahh. Where are you from? Wexford?’
Not a bad guess. That surprised me. But then, I thought. All those men.
‘The good-looking lad that lives with you.’ She was peering down at the steps, carefully, as if she’d never walked them before. ‘The fella from the north.’ I felt my skin itch. ‘Is he a friend?’
The stairs swallow us.
‘I don’t think there’s anything there,’ I said, stopping on the landing.
‘Please.’ She held out her hand, drew me down.
The biscuit-tin was on the top of the Super Ser. The Super Ser wasn’t switched on. Its back door was an inch open. She asked me to stay, till her mind was settled, like, and would I want a cup of tea. I can’t remember if I nodded but she made me one anyway.
‘Can I have a biscuit?’ I said.
She looked at me and I thought I saw pity in her eyes and there I was, the fat kid again.
‘I don’t have any.’
I must have glanced at the tin and she must have looked and blinked or something because then I knew.
Steo, financial wizard. Here, Suuusan, don’t give your money to the fucking bank. Keep it somewhere safe.
I made my face into nothing. I do remember that moment, the mask coming over me. Its tightness on my skin, warm as scales.
She must really have been frightened, I think now, to leave the tin like that, not take a moment to hide it after taking the money out and stuffing it down her pants or bra or wherever she stuffed it.
‘They eat people,’ she said, nodding at Kaa. ‘I heard about a fella who had one. He forgot to feed it. Left it for a week and one night it swallowed him.’
Is he part of your act, I wanted to ask. Is he your surrogate baby? How old is he? Is he ancient, older than you and me combined?. How old is Dylan? Your son, I mean. What is his name? Do you love him?
Something rattled at the window. She jumped.
‘That’s just a tree,’ I said. I was feeling angry and I didn’t know why.
‘I don’t have biscuits,’ she said. ‘But I can make you toast.’
A smell was on her, rich and loamy as leafmould.
I didn’t want her toast. I didn’t want her kitchen, or anything. ‘Okay,’ I said.
This is what I would like.
She keeps him hungry for a week, then another, and another again. It hurts her to do it. She still risks the occasional caress, but she no longer takes him out to wind around her body, or brings him into bed with her, balancing him against her palms while she lies back and tries to sleep and maybe dreams.
This might happen: One night, servicing a client, she might hear him, rustling in his cage behind his curtain. Trying to move the hunger out of him. The client might hear too. Complain. She’ll say Kaa’s part of her act, but he’s sick that night.
Another night, another rustle, another complaint. Word reaches Steo. Here Suusann, what’s the story? Susie tells him she’s planning to get rid of Kaa. Having a snake, she says, wasn’t as good for business as she’d hoped.
While he starves, she plays knife-games on her kitchen table, spreading out the fingers of her left hand and stabbing the wooden spaces in between. She’s good at that game; I’ve given her my skill with it, though I’ve kept the beginners’ scars on my fingers for myself.
The stabs make a rhythm, like drums. She thinks of Dylan.
She thinks of Pah, and Steo, and her clients. Each time the knife makes contact, she pictures it jabbing a face. She sees the shapeless relative, the man I imagined for her at Heuston Station. She sees the father I invented, Jack, from Belfast. She sees Matt. She sees Dave. She sees me.
Yerra, girl, you’re terrible quiet these days, says Imelda, the fabricated friend from Cork. Are you eating enough?
Kaa’s skin is dull; his eyes are baleful. The uneaten mice in the cage are fat and complacent. The room fills with the stab of the drum.
She stops playing the keyboard. It hurts Kaa’s ears and makes his mouth open. She misses the keys just like she misses his scales. They both give under her fingertips.
I began to go back home at the weekends. The bus was cheap but the smell of other people made me feel sick, so after the first weekend, I hitched. My da was worried, but he didn’t know what to ask. My sister was cramming. For the Inter. What a profound waste of time, I wanted to tell her, but I didn’t have those words. I walked the People’s Park and up the hill, to the bad stretch of Barrack Street where the winos and the tough boys laughed and called each other names. I didn’t want to drink. I didn’t want to do anything. ‘Have you lost weight?’ said my sister, and it was an accusation.
One Sunday evening nearing Christmas, I came back to Dublin and the house in Ranelagh had changed. It looked brighter somehow, as if someone had turned on all the lights, though they hadn’t. Susie’s door was closed. Sounds were coming from behind it, but they weren’t sex. I passed it quickly. Dave was on the landing, just out of the bath. Hair wet. A towel around his neck.
‘There he is. Returned traveller!’
He gave me a rough hug and I smelt sweat, warm, on the damp towel.
‘She’s leaving,’ he said, pottering around, opening beers.
He stopped. ‘Who d’you think? She was robbed. Friday. Came back late, found her room in pieces. Furniture smashed.
He’d taken her money.’
How do you know, I wanted to say. ‘Is the snake alright?’
‘You know who it was? The fucking landlord. He knew where her money was, right? She kept it there. In a tin. How stupid is that?’ He shook his head, frowning. ‘Trying to get rid of her. Wanted a different type of tenant.’
I see her room again, the Super Ser on its side, the biscuit-tin open. My trouser pocket stuffed.
Dave looked over.
‘Jesus, Dave,’ I said. ‘That’s a fucking good one. Best so far. You had me convinced there, nearly.’
Dave laughed too, but he was still frowning, his fingers starting to work the sugar-spattered surface of our kitchen table.
His fingers, stained with nicotine near the tips, pushing at the grains. Little spirals, figures-of-eight. Christ, I thought, I could sit here for ever.
Warm sweat. Under it, a perfume; clean and new, like spring.
Her knife lands.
The tram bells trill. A voice tells me to get off.
This is what I want.
I enter the room.
Kaa’s hungry eyes register. His body coils, his head lifts.
I don’t see him, his opened cage.
I reach for the heater, unclick the back door.
A rustle. I turn. Too late.
He flings forward, all open.
I am gone. I am in him, and he is around her, pushing his musculature into her strong-soft flesh, and they are one, and she is playing Nights in White Satin and I hear it through her skin, and his and my own, as it dissolves, and upstairs they’re laughing with their girlfriends, Matt and Dave, doing Steo as best as they can without me and wondering where I’ve got to, the fat boy, wondering where I’ve gone.
Mia Gallagher is the author of two acclaimed novels: HellFire (Penguin Ireland, 2006), awarded the Irish Tatler Literature Award 2007; and Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (New Island, 2016), recently long-listed for the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize. Her prize-winning short fiction has been published internationally and her non-fiction has been published in print and online. She was guest-editor on the Stinging Fly’s special ‘Fear & Fantasy’ issue (Winter 2016-17) and has received several Literature Bursaries from the Arts Council of Ireland. As a performer/deviser and playwright, her theatre work has toured widely in Ireland and abroad.