Imagine, says Lara, day barely awake in her; hair falling in yellow strips onto the cherry wood dining table—what life would be like if you and Dad had never found each other.
She holds a rose-coloured apple like a white summer sky holds a red sunset and bites the skin. I watch her throat contract but no words come after. It must be nearly time to leave and Wayne is waiting by the car. I steal a tablet from under the sink, pop it into the dishwasher, close the door of it. I have startled her; now Lara looks at me, her eyes like lost tourists, up and down my face they walk.
What do you think, Mum? she asks.
I shrug; murmur, People don’t exactly find each other, Lara, I say, conscious of saying too much and next thing her appetite returns and she eats the rest of her apple then stretches, hands clasped so her arms make a kite frame behind her head.
As a younger girl my daughter was exceptionally starry-eyed but since reaching thirteen I have seen her change: Lara is no longer easily convinced that everything falls into place the way it should. Like how I used to tell her it sometimes just kind of does.
You would not be here for a start. Nor your wee brother, I say smartly. Simon! I call up the stairs as if I have only remembered him. Come now, your father is waiting in the car.
Simon rolls in, his hair, his clothes, his jumble. Mum, where is my…He does not get to finish before I hand him his lunch. He sweeps a slice of toast from the plate and holds it between his teeth.
But imagine, insists Lara, if you had married someone else, or if Dad had…
Your father was married before, I say pushing her lunch bag across the table. She lifts it and looks at me open-mouthed while my son, though I’m sure he is listening, may as well have just overheard a conversation where one person is telling the other how the sun sets and rises each and every day. He gathers the hulking apparatus he needs for the day then hangs a hug on me before he leaves. But Lara stares on with clear interested eyes. He was?
Yes, I say. Your father’s first wife—Tricia—she died after a long illness.
Why has no-one ever told me?
I didn’t think you would be interested. Now go!
Can I ask Dad about this? Lara asks.
He won’t be annoyed or upset?
No. He was young, and this was a long time ago.
Through the window she looks at Wayne. But imagine if his…Tricia hadn’t died.
Yes, imagine, I say, putting the last crumb-covered plate into the dishwasher and going to the wall to switch it on.
Wayne said he found her hard to read at that time. She was resigned that her fate would not be a long journey; that they would not grow old together. He tried to talk to Tricia about everything they needed to put into place before she got sicker but they always got interrupted. There was another treatment, so they tried that. Three in total and all insufficient. Then there was Tricia’s family, who could not accept that they would lose her; and Wayne himself, with his unusual superstitions that he—as a Northern Irish man—had been brought up with: For instance, he worried about putting a scud on Tricia’s health by talking about it; and positive figures of speech fared equally poorly as pessimistic ones, it seemed, so he stuck to conversations about the weather, his work or time off, as Tricia sat at the dining table and Wayne pottered about, stacking cans of tomato soup and the like into the larder. He was sick of sickness and being indoors and he said, without any real thought, Since we’ve never been, Trish, why don’t we go to New York?
And here was the ripple spot.
Wayne, you are a case! Tricia laughed. You know full well that I’ve never fancied going to New York.
Where then? he asked. You have a bit of your spirit back, you could go somewhere; somewhere slower than New York, right enough. Then he thought of an evening a while before when he had found Tricia watching a TV drama, one of the ones with subtitles he used to call pretentious. In the drama, the characters were bohemians who looked thoroughly despondent and every unlikely action they performed drew a scoff of disbelief from my husband’s first wife. But as much as Tricia seemed annoyed with the drama, he remembered that she was entranced by it too, commenting on the scenery with an energy only she had for miserable-seeming things. So, thinking of that scenery; mountainous, crisp, and fluttery with meaning, Wayne said, How about Switzerland?
Tricia screwed up her nose. I’m not in the least interested in going there. She seemed suddenly tired again and impatient.
Where then? he pressed her. This could not be it, he told me, not here in this house, every day like the last and no new memories to cling to after; but Tricia was a home bird. Spain had been too warm and the French too abrupt. And there were the Italians, who, granted, she did love but they drove like a death wish, and now that Wayne was leaving it up to her, he imagined Tricia would refuse to go anywhere.
That day she was tired of talking; she would get like that, understandably. Wayne was about to leave the idea completely when, with sinking breath, Tricia sat further back. How about Holland? she said. That’s somewhere we’ve never been. I wouldn’t mind going there.
To her cheeks some colour returned. When Wayne first told me this I pictured her face, that look Tricia had when she would propose something that she was expecting a rebuff for, I’d never forget it, nor the look on his when Wayne relayed the story to me, how without a second thought, he said to her, Now wasn’t that painless?
Later that month they came to Holland where Wayne rented a room in Amsterdam overlooking the canal. He found the Seven Bridges through a travel agent. Tricia had not been present at his booking of the trip but when she got to the hotel she—according to Wayne—looked pleased with the view. Wayne was lying on the bed contemplating the tourist brochures, when he said, Should we order some room service in? So they did. He cut Tricia’s food for her and she washed it down with a glass of water. She asked him to help her change and brush her hair before they headed out into the night where they walked in somewhat of a loop before coming back on themselves.
But first they found themselves in De Wallen where they saw those windows, red as a fog, and the girls, one per pane, and usually three in total. Something for every taste, Wayne later explained to me. The girls were dressed only in underwear and in an alarmingly short time they no longer looked half-naked to us.
Then they were back at the Seven Bridges and fast asleep.
The next morning Wayne was woken by Tricia coughing into her napkin. Fuck, she said, looking into it. She was likely upset because he had promised the travel insurers that her health was better than it was.
Wayne was in bed pretending not to see. How did we sleep in so late? he grunted.
Tricia nodded at the window. It looks like a nice day, she said, going to rinse her napkin in the en-suite sink. She held up the jug by the bath, tipped it over her head. Oh look at this delft, she said. There’s no hose attachment for a shower, maybe you use this?
He washed her hair then they ate some breakfast then Wayne helped Tricia into clean nightwear so she could rest afresh. She lay silently on top of the covers, so frail it made his heart ache. Look at me, Wayne, she would say, I’ve aged a decade in two months. And he would say nothing because the fact pained him to acknowledge, though he could not deny it was the truth.
They had so little time there and it was Saturday; a hiving Saturday, so Tricia told him to go and have some time to himself then she settled down to sleep and Wayne let himself out. Outside there were flocks of people and cyclists. Wayne wondered about taking a tour but instead he stayed nearby, sitting for an hour in a café watching happy couples and groups of friends, and eating hash cake that melted in his mouth and melted his senses.
They were walking to the restaurant that evening when Tricia said, Those girls in the windows last night, they put me in mind of a sweet shop. And Wayne laughed. What do you think about them? she asked him.
I suppose it’s sad, he said. They can’t be very old—and to be objectified like that.
Ooh, objectified, Tricia teased Wayne for this word, like he would do her. Like he does do me.
What about you, Trish, what do you make of it?
I was reading about it in the room when you were out, she said. They rent those windows; they’re self-employed, you know. In that way, I like it; they’re empowered. You know they can refuse anyone, Wayne, and that says something. Tricia sighed. It’s just different. It’s all different to back home.
Do you still want to go to Anne Frank’s museum tomorrow? he asked. Is it her museum or her house?
House, and god no! I’m dying, love, Tricia said.
Wayne looked at her, failing to see that unimaginable shape take form. So you want to go see the windmills? he asked.
No. A windmill is a windmill is a windmill.
I want to see a show.
A sex show, she said.
When in Rome…
Wayne had stopped thinking about her that way; he had stopped thinking about sex and had not considered that Tricia was thinking about it either.
At the club, alcohol was free but really they’d paid in advance through the price of the admission fees. So Wayne ordered them both a beer they would not drink, just to get his money’s worth; he can be tight like that.
No sooner were they seated than a techno song began to blare and a couple walked on stage. Initially they looked young but the closer Wayne examined them the older they became. They seemed very well-accustomed to each other, immediately positioning themselves on a bed that was already rotating, their oily spray-tanned limbs stacked on top of each other like loaves and soon they were having sex; the man pounding on the woman to the beat of techno music.
This is ridiculous, Tricia shouted.
The couple finished just in time for their song to end, and next a woman entered onto the stage and stripped off her clothes like she was home alone, after a hard day. Her worn-out eyes searched the crowd and found a group of stags. She too was oily and tanned; this was the only physical description of any of the performers I could garner from Wayne, apart from an approximation of their ages, because, firstly, he thinks it is unkind to comment on people’s appearance, and secondly, Wayne easily forgets people’s faces: We are always being stopped in the street by people who say hello to him, and my husband can never place them.
The woman on stage fetched a man from the crowd, a young American, whom she brought up to the front where she strapped a dildo to his forehead, leaving him to get acquainted with his headdress for a second or two before she ordered him to kneel down, then she knelt in front of him and mimed, with a sliding motion of her hand, for him to do what one typically does with a dildo. But the stag did not understand, or could not bring himself to. He froze. The young American looked to Wayne like a stage-frighted unicorn.
Tricia had buried her head in her hands. This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen, she said, opening her fingers to look at only pieces of the performer and the stag.
Let’s leave, Wayne said.
But Tricia said, Not yet.
The American was getting to his feet when the performer ordered him back to his seat, her song was almost up and now it was time to do her trick with a banana that the club was known for. So she did. Then another song began and another couple arrived; they too had tanned, oily sex, but their sex somehow mutated into an impressively choreographed but tediously colourless breakdancing routine.
No more! said Tricia, tears streaming down her face. She took a napkin from her pocket and coughed into it then excused herself to go to the ladies where Wayne waited by the door.
Do you know that we have only been here for fifteen minutes? Wayne said, taking her arm as they left the club.
It was enough to put you off sex for the rest of your life, she said. It’s hard to see any beauty in it now. They walked on quietly before she thanked him for giving her such a good laugh.
Well, for that it was worth going, he replied.
She tugged gently at his sleeve. Let’s walk past the sweet-shop girls again, she said.
Are you sure?
For god’s sake, Wayne, stop asking me if I’m sure, she said.
They stopped in front of the windows of the district and watched the redhead with the dark forceful eyes. The way the redhead looked back at Wayne made him drop his gaze to her outie belly button.
She’s very pretty, isn’t she? asked Tricia.
I don’t notice that kind of…
Wayne, Tricia stopped him. I’m sick, not blind; you think she’s pretty, don’t you? He remembered her being jealous once but they had been teenagers then; maybe it was plain old immaturity. You can say she’s pretty and I won’t fly off the handle, Tricia insisted.
Not my cup of tea, he said.
How about her, then? She nodded at a blonde woman having a smoke in the window.
Hmm…Prettier, Wayne said.
C’mon, said Tricia, if she wasn’t where she is now and doing what she’s doing, you’d think she was gorgeous. Look at her dimples; I think she’s very cute actually.
Yes: cute, he agreed. That’s the word.
I held my breath as he told me.
Mattel, Wayne said, I know you are more open with these things, but I’m a basic Northern Irish man, and for me, well, especially back then, it was quite the eye-opener.
Yes, I told him, I can understand how that would be.
When people used to ask Wayne and I how we met, he would tell them that I was a buy-a-bride, if he was feeling humorous; then I would tell them how we met at the shops in all actuality, in the reduction aisle, and people would say, God, aye, don’t you hear about that, people meeting that way! Or, they’d say, Typical Wayne, always looking a saving.
I would massage his shoulders and say, But he was a good purchase, no?
And they would laugh and look at me a little suspiciously, or else I am just imagining those looks, and imagining that Tricia had told them when she had not.
She was a tiny slice of a person; it’s how I always think of her. She was holding open Dutch for Beginners and smiling in the most uplighted way.
Excuse me, she said.
Excuse me, Madame, I said trying to side-step her.
You are just stunning, she said, I don’t know why you…
And then she could not find the words in her book for what I did.
I thanked her and said, I must work now. I knew that much; I had to say it to men often.
Tricia took Wayne’s photo from her bag and held it before me. What was her problem? Of course she had to have one.
He has not been here, I said, though I did recognize him, and her, and how they had both stood looking at me, him shyly, her with tongue-biting consideration. Tricia had examined each of us girls in a way I had not minded because some women pass the windows and at the same time shouting disgusting remarks, but she had not. I let them watch as I reapplied my lipstick, lit up a Marlboro Red and waited; but the man’s handsomely solemn face drew me back.
Yes, yes, Wayne, she said, alive with all the wrong words. Just looking, she said, pointing at her eyes with forked fingers. Then in Dutch she added, I am dying soon.
I stopped and I looked at her for the signs of this statement. Then Tricia handed me a page with her address on it, this address: Belfast. And she tried to tell me something else but her pronunciation was very poor. She handed me another letter instead in which it looked like she was asking me to come to Northern Ireland after her death, and an appropriate period of mourning, and marry her husband. But it was madness, so I laughed.
No, I said. This—I pointed at the brothel window— does not mean yes. I knew that phrase in English, and some basic German, but mostly my clients were from the Netherlands.
In one year…She held up a finger. You come and see if you can make him happy again.
It was not apparent, not completely apparent, that she was being serious until Tricia pressed a page with her address into my hand and the photo of Wayne, and opening her purse with quick thumbs she handed me thousands of euros; we had not long changed from the guilder. Then Tricia took my hand and squeezed it, a white glimmer of hope burning her eyes.
It was more money than I’d ever held at once. Enough to see me through college or to pay for my rent for a year, but not enough for both so I kept working. I always wondered about Wayne’s wife, if she had gotten sicker, if she had died, and soon I could not bring myself to be with another men. Plus, the bank would not give me a mortgage and the streets were full of people—men and women—who would walk away from me when I spoke to them.
Over the months I showed the other girls Wayne’s photo in my purse as I said, This is my boyfriend, he sent me money so I can move to Northern Ireland to be with him.
I had caught happiness: a strange happiness. Then my money went missing. As we say in Belfast: I was a mug.
But that year did pass, as years are wont to do, and by then I had scraped together all the money I could and I went to the address Tricia had given me, where I did not know what I would find. So I watched him for a while; I learned the cadence of Wayne’s life and work. Followed him around his local shop where he did not see my good-faith attempts at a meet.
One day I reached for the same meal that he did, which felt deliciously random. Sorry, I said. That is yours; you must have it. I had seen scenes like it in romantic movies and I wanted it to be our story, it seemed much more free-range; a story to tell our beautiful glum children, one day. The next day the same thing. And the next.
We must stop meeting like this, I said. A meal for one, isn’t that so sad? I creased my eyebrows in the way I had practiced, then I softly pouted my mouth: I am nothing if not self-aware, as girls once sold in windows must learn to be. I can cook, a little, I said. But there is no fun, not for one. I sighed; widened my eyes.
Yes, you’re right there, Wayne said.
I tossed my hair back and placed my hand on my hip. I was wearing a padded coat but had unzipped it, and underneath, a tight sweater; on my head a cream woolly hat with a pompom on top. Little mascara; lots of blush.
Wayne asked me where I was from and I told him. He had been to Holland, he said. Amsterdam.
I’ve been sometimes, I said. It was not, strictly speaking, a lie. But I have moved here now.
He said that Amsterdam was the last trip he and his wife took.
Oh no! I’m sorry, I said putting my hand on his arm, unexpectedly insecure but unafraid. Keeping it there. I smiled the smile that slowly reveals my dimples; I had planned to keep it for later in the conversation but you can’t plan entirely. Sometimes you sense you need to speed things along; go too slow and you get mush. I bet your wife is very lovely, I said.
She was. He nodded. Lovely…and feisty.
I’m Mattel, I said, pushing my handbag up my arm, purposefully gracelessly, to offer him my hand.
Wayne, he said, then the sweet surge of a smile.
Let’s buy our sad pathetic meals, Wayne, I said, I can cook them in my oven, if I can get it working.
Or, he said, I can do the cooking. I have a microwave in good working order.
Settled, I said.
Do you think Lara was shocked to find there was life before her? I ask Wayne after tea as we work together to empty the dishwasher.
Isn’t it always a shock to find out the world didn’t start with you? Wayne says, stacking up the plates and putting them into the cupboard while I sort the glasses.
Lara is stretched out on the sofa looking at her phone; now she knows the story of Tricia and has seen a photo of her from Wayne’s memory box, she can close down all interest. Although it’s hard to picture this life being lived any other way, I can’t help but hear Lara’s question from this morning. I’ve heard nothing else in my head all day.
What would have happened if Tricia hadn’t died? The answer to this I think I know.
Kelly Creighton’s short story collection Bank Holiday Hurricane (Doire Press, 2017) was longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize and shortlisted for a Saboteur Award. Her first novel The Bones of It (Liberties Press, 2015) was selected as the San Diego Book Review 2015 Novel of the Year and is taught on the Political Violence degree in the USA.
She is the founder and editor of The Incubator literary journal. She is a community creative writing tutor, teaching poetry and short story writing.
Creighton’s short fiction and poems have won her runner-up and shortlistings for awards such as the Michael McLaverty Short Story Award, Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize, Fish Short Story Prize and Cúirt New Writing Prize.