If she turned to me, half smiling, and stepped out of her lilac dress, the disappointment would kill me.
For eight years I have mooned over her from my table. Underneath her clothes, she is as prosaic and cream-coloured as the coffee cups she fetches from the kitchen.
I want to weep and press my face against her marble belly. My sylph. I am cursed by her perfection.
It is torture to think of her, rolling down her stockings. They might conceal a mole the colour of chipped plaster; a speckle of black hairs that fractures her calf’s cool alabaster.
The sweat on her top lip is erotic. I imagine when she touches her tongue to it, the taste is aromatic; spicy. When she leans against the bar to conspire with the other waitresses, she wipes her arm across her forehead. The movement pulls and lifts her lilac dress so that underneath the thin sheaf of fabric, her body is firm and substantive. Tonight after her shift she will go home and pull that dress off. Her skin will be warm, animate: soft and candid under a flourish of freckles. It says: touch me, I might shiver, but with laughter.
Today, we are practising Skills. Shopping! Gene’s favourite. He dashes down chalked aisles, swinging a basket piled with imaginary food.
Nurse pouts out advice from where she mopes against her magnolia wall.
“Christ. Gene, give her the money… The money.”
Outside, the world is a flurry. It roars; clashes. People scrape together. Doctor frets at keys strung onto a length of chain.
Everywhere people try to decide between choice and the illusion of choice.
Gene holds an empty packet of corn flakes, its top taped closed. He is basking in the blue of the ceiling and its fluffy, painted clouds.
After five years, he just happened to be walking down her street?
He’d not noticed at first. He’d been following his feet.
As he rounded that familiar corner, passed McDonnell’s bakery, he realised he’d been footsore for a long time.
Your mind may wander on its own way. But feet, he thought, always want to bring you home.
What had been Bow’s Hardware shop was now a block of flats, but the creaking sign above of The Sailor’s Rest still rasped on its hinges.
By the time he saw number 15, with its blue door repainted red, he was running.
That day we reached Elysium’s front doors. Randall makes crude remarks to a waitress on the terrace.
Two burly men in black, tight-fitting tuxedos root themselves in front of us. Their solidity is immutable and we go no further.
I snatch one dismal glance past a rock-like shoulder. A young woman tilting her head back to laugh. Succulent light glosses her silk dress. Nothing more.
As we trudge back to our campsite, suddenly weariness floods out of my heart, like blood. It is a jumbling torrent and I almost crumple onto the dirt track.
But man, that waitress, Randall whistles.
He’d found it somewhere in the smashed up village.
A clown’s foam nose he shouts, popping the grubby red bulb on his own conk.
The younger guys laugh at Lafferty, in his greasy fatigues, the ridiculous nose stuck in the middle of his dirty face. But he and I, we’ve not been talking, so I ignore him.
Imagine that, he says, trying that hard so people like you; all that effort just to be an idiot.
Trouble is, he says, people fucking hate clowns. And he lobs the dirty orb back into the rubble.
As a child, he’d always been told dolls were for girls. Which was why the collector made him uneasy, cradling the porcelain doll lovingly between his grey fingers.
Buster sensed the doll’s huge cash value and his greed had made him hunt out the collector.
He was beginning to regret having it valued in this squalid little shop. But it was called ‘life of dolls’.
Small, wet tuts of appreciation escaped the old man’s mouth..
“I love dolls. Especially when they bring me something so fun to play with,” the old man says. Slipping past Buster to lock the door.
Whenever we are off shift, Lafferty drinks. He scrounges sherry; bottles of bathtub hooch; black market whiskey; anything he can find. Then he retires to drink with the steady persistence of someone trying to solve a puzzle. As if at the end of it there will be a verdict.
He lurches from his canvas cot to greet me and pats me on the cheek. His open palm both benign and surly.
You’re drunk, I tell him.
In the Eskimo language there are twenty-six words for snow, he replies, and I find I cannot meet his bloodshot eye with my own.