She likes to shock people that she’s met for the first time. Whether it’s with a carefully picked expletive, round and bouncy with fruitiness and dropped in at exactly the right time, or a not-so-sly poking out of her studded tongue – well, that much depends on her mood and the flow of the room. I thought – of course – that when I got to know her, she’d be a shy, stumbling little girl, clothing herself with barbs and spiky insults. But Enid just likes the thrill of it. Of making people gasp. She’s never quite grown out of the delight in causing a heavy tug on a stranger’s jaw.
We met for the first time on a Friday. Classes were over for the weekend, and those with cars and a desire to please their friends had taken off. Headed for the bridge to Newport or St Andrews, where student life was packaged in attractive, postcard-sized chunks and could be mailed home to hopeful parents. But not me. Instead, I sat with Brian on his bed. We were counting out coins, daring each other to state the obvious.
Out in the halls, someone was playing Supergrass and singing drunkenly. Brian was sighing. “You know, if we forget about the cod and chips, we’d have enough for a couple of cans. Nothing expensive though. Just Tennants.”
Such compromising and self-denial was a familiar drumbeat. My mother used to boil the Sunday chicken bones for Monday soup and Dad lined our boots with newspaper. Our house followed a rhythm, an order, where items of clothing, furniture, food would bob to the surface in different guises. Like the plastic bottles I used to play with in the bathtub. “Fine.” I shrugged at Brian and started rolling out my cigarettes.
The toilet flushed in the shared bathroom and a girl drifted into Brian’s room. I noticed her t-shirt first – “Scrounger” – and then the brazen colour of her hair. Bright, carroty red, cut to her shoulders. Freckles pitted her face, as though someone had thrown a handful of mud in her direction.
She sat down on the edge of Brian’s bed and sighed. “It’s like catching a fish.”
I looked at Brian and he shook his head.
“What’s like catching a fish?” I asked.
I remember how she smiled. The bottom row of teeth was crooked – she later told me she deliberately lost so many braces that her parents gave up taking her to the dentist – but her mouth opened unashamedly. I felt as though she was about to swallow me up.
“Finding a decent shag.” She lay down on her side, propping her head up on a bent arm and grinning. “I mean, all that waving it around and expecting us to be impressed. It’s not all about size, is it? Nah, give me a man with five inches and a bit of know-how any day.”
My mouth fell open, a prescient rehearsal of the expression I would later see on so many faces. I was too shocked to even laugh. But the way she smirked up at me, watching which way I would move, looking for my reaction; I felt like a fish.
Brian saw my face and sat back, exhaling noisily. Later, he said he could tell from my expression that a little chain had been tugged inside me. “Enid, meet Gary,” he said. “Gary, Enid.”
She has freckles on her back. On her naked back. They don’t peter out over her shoulders, like raindrops do when drying on a pavement; instead they become darker and more defined, tapering their way down her stomach and hips. Rich, Bournville-like blotches on her flesh, perfectly smooth under my fingers. I can practice piano scales on them, tapping on the ebony marks rising from ivory-white skin.
“Give over,” she’d say, and wriggle against the bedclothes. But the movement of her soft thighs only made me press further. Her private hair – red also, but less aggressive in shade than that on her head. Subdued, settled, as though the power of what it concealed needed no extra adornment.
In the first weeks, we spent most nights in her room. Hers was next to the bathroom, which meant we could slip out to pee, wash, refresh, without the warden seeing. Under the crashing surge of the cistern, we’d scamper back to her narrow bed and shiver beneath the thin bedspread. We had to hold each other close so the quilt would cover us both.
Once she pestered me to tell her how many. Her arm, flung over my xylophone-chest, was heavy and warm.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Oh you do. You do!” and suddenly Enid was up, staring into my face. She made to squeeze my nipple. “A lad of nineteen should know exactly how many!”
I laughed and rolled her back to the wall. We lay stomach to stomach. She stared at me, persistent. “I’ll tell you my number.”
“I don’t want to know!”
“Six. And a half.” She started to giggle. “Want me to tell you the story of the half?”
“Not a bit.” I was jealous, hot and territorial. I made to touch her, to make her forget.
Later, as the dark fell quickly and theatrically, like a velvet curtain, she whispered into my shoulder. “Is it one, Gary? Is one your number?”
I love the fact that she wears jewellery in bed. It seems so brazen, that white flash of sparkling stone against her bare throat. She wears a pendant from which a large diamond hangs. Not real, of course. But Enid has a magpie-love of brightness. The necklace slips between her breasts as she moves and settles on the mattress; no matter how tired I am, I always ache to smooth the tear-drop flat against her rib cage.
She plays with it as she eats, moving it constantly between her fingertips. Sometimes, in the middle of the night when we’ve both finished our shifts, we eat bowls of cereal in the kitchen. Spoons clink conversationally on cheap porcelain. Our first flat – we can’t afford much in the way of furniture or crockery. At the weekends we turn the heating off and stay in bed, wrapped around each other and the duvet.
One early morning, she told me about a patient. I remember the slow fall of her mouth as she spoke, lines of fatigue shining under the midnight fluorescence of the kitchen light. She’d cared for a little old lady, all on her own. No family. No friends. No one to hold her hand as she neared lip of life. “Perfectly ordinary,” Enid said, in that wondering way of hers. “We see old dears like her every week on the ward. Matron calls them the Bowing-Out Brigade.”
It wasn’t funny and Enid didn’t say it as a joke. I was no longer prey to be shocked. She twirled the tear-shaped pendant and looked away. “She made me cry.”
I was surprised. Enid didn’t cry. And, two years after graduating, she had become frustrated with nursing. The hours were too long and the pay poor. The patients were faceless shapes on a bed, soon to be moved elsewhere. She’d talked half-heartedly about asking for a job in the pub, so she could listen to me play.
“She said thank you.” Enid’s bottom lip began to shake. She smiled at me, her eyes bright. “I gave her some water, that was all. I thought she was out of it, really, but she woke up when I moved her and her lips looked dry. She said thank you.”
Tears slid down her nose onto the plastic kitchen table. Perfect clear circles, they glinted in the harsh, artificial light. I looked at the saline gathering, bewildered. Because Enid didn’t cry. I put my hand out, flat, stroking them away. And then we hugged and I offered her some redundant, bald words of comfort.
She eats fruit in the bath. I detest the soft brown cores, sweating into the porcelain, but the sight of Enid biting into an apple, naked, decadent, is so hot it squeezes my throat. She does many things to bring heat to my centre. I doubt she even realises.
I promised she could eat as many apples as she wanted on honeymoon, and made sure the hotel room had a bath.
But then she discovered mussels. I didn’t know she liked them. We were strolling around the seventh arrondissement, doing the unremarkable tourist things, when she saw a sign outside a bistro. “Moules et frites, 11 Euro.” They came in a steel tureen, those black shells, with their plump pale flesh. We went back four times that week. Enid was like a child opening a selection box.
That was the first time I felt a kind of fascinated repulsion towards her. Watching her tear into the sallow shellfish, gorging on the salty gobs of fatness. She could be primitive at times – when I’d done just the right thing in bed and one, shocking time when she was furious at her mother. And there, in the burgundy bistro surrounded by velvet and garlic, an atavistic desire to prise open, scoop out and swallow overwhelmed her. She ate with her hands, clattering shells on the table with careless ease. I sat back, nursing a Beaujolais, entranced, disgusted, and incredibly turned on.
That shuddering sense of fascination returned, three years later when our daughter was born. Watching Enid turn her body inside out to expel our red-haired, red-skinned and furious girl, I slid between pride at her strength and wariness at the strange contortions of her flesh. Enid said after that she didn’t feel the cutting; but I did. I hung down at the business end, hands open and ready, barely able to believe what I was seeing.
But the sweetness of Carrie’s smell and the softness of her hair; her ferocious screams for milk were more searing and urgent than any sound I could wring from the piano. We stayed at the hospital for five days – longer than necessary – existing in a little bubble of pride.
Newly forgiven, Enid’s mother helped us settle into our flat. She moved the keyboards from the spare room and installed a steriliser in the kitchen. She held Carrie while we slept, hugging our pillows in bewildered shock at the intrusion of this vibrant little person. Later, when the new grandmother disappeared again on one of her cruises, she sent cards home addressed to Carrie. Neat little cut-outs of pyramids and coastal towns. Enid didn’t throw them in the bin like before. She pinned them over Carrie’s cot and stood before them silently, holding our daughter against her shoulder.
She can’t navigate. Anywhere. As her how to get to Carrie’s nursery – a drive she has made hundreds of times – she’ll look at you blankly. And then start to giggle. It drives me crazy at times, watching her dissolve into helplessness, when I know she can pin down a drunkard while Sister forces charcoal wash into his stomach. But give her a map and she’s a child again, hysterically afraid of teacher’s questions.
But Enid was determined to navigate our way to the coast. She knelt over maps in the living room, highlighter in hand. She printed reams of notes from the internet and bounced in the front seat, excited, keen to prove herself. We got off the ferry and she made frantic hand signals, jabbering instructions until Carrie started to laugh, and I started to growl.
We found where we needed to be, that holiday. Over the bay from our small cottage, a lighthouse winked in the sunlight, preventing us from being lost, ever. We spent afternoons on the beach, letting the dappled heat chase the greyness from our skin. In the evenings we walked to a little tabac, and ate cheese and sardines. Carrie fell in love with salty French butter and clamoured to have it smeared on everything – on toast, on ham. Enid laughed long and loud, letting our girl dip her finger in the wine and smoothing Carrie’s red hair from her face. We sent Enid’s mother a postcard – a dull one, just a photograph of the beach. And we only wrote a few words – “having a wonderful time”, I think. But we were. Honestly and completely.
But the woman who had drawn blood from so many patients and helped diabetics administer their insulin is afraid of needles. These white spaces on my map of Enid shame me sometimes – I didn’t know she hated the sharp stick. I had to hold her still whilst the samples were taken, and I held her again when the results came back.
She looks so different without her hair. So much of who Enid is is bound up in those red, heavy locks. She likes to swish it around her shoulders, head snapping to make a sharp point. Or wrap it round a finger, curling up on the sofa with Carrie. It falls down her back as she sits on me, and sways as she rocks slowly, forwards and backwards. I was able to stifle the gasp when she came out of the shower, holding out her hair like clumps of bloodied meat. We bought a wig. Nothing, though, could quite match the original, shouty colour.
She didn’t want to eat. In vain, I bought cheese, cornflakes, mussels; all the things I remembered her devouring, when she was well. She smiled bravely, the enamel rubbed from her teeth. Carrie made her a cake at school, and she pretended to eat that too. I saw her tuck it in a tissue and I felt ready to cry.
Those warm brown freckles that I loved to touch. I wanted to paint them away.
She likes bright things. Shiny stones and surfaces that catch the light. Carrie and I chose white marble that glints as the sun moves around it, and the engraver carved a lighthouse beneath her name. I think Enid approves.
She has a peaceful spot, near to the wall. Her father is nearby. And there’s space for us, for us to join her later. Much later, I tell Carrie, and smooth my fingers over the chocolatey spots splattering her shoulders.
Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. Her story collections – Catching the Barramundi (2012) and The Settling Earth (2014 – were both longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), winner of the Black Pear Press Short Story Competition in 2014 and, in 2016, was been listed for competitions including the Evesham Festival of Words and Music, the Chipping Norton Festival, the Sunderland Short Story Award, and the Green Lady Press Short Story Award. She has also been profiled as part of the University of Leicester’s “Grassroutes Project”, a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county. Her debut novel, The Bishop’s Girl, was published by Odyssey Books in September 2016.
© 2011, Rebecca Burns