At her high-achieving father’s instigation, an unenthusiastic student from Belfast travels to San Francisco to attend a high powered, motivational training event for tomorrow’s leaders. She comes away renewed and with fresh insights, albeit radically at odds with those that her father, and the motivational trainers, are promoting.
YOU ARE THE FUTURE™
A WAVE OF PANIC SWEPT over Erin’s put-on cool—her bag wasn’t on the carousel. All the other passengers’ luggage had made it, only hers. Hers was stranded at Kennedy; or it had never left George Best Belfast City Airport. For a moment, she thought she would sit down and weep loud in the dim hope that someone might show her pity. Then she saw it coming—the paisley pattern holdall her mother had bought for her, small and sad looking among the threesomes of designer luggage, the battered cases of seasoned travellers, the golf clubs, guitars and baby buggies. The first time she made to grab it, a big, broad-shouldered backpacker shoved in in front of her—‘Comin’ through!’ But, second time, she got a good hold of it and was able to lug it along to the queue for Immigration.
‘Point of embarkation?’ said the man in the crumpled uniform behind the Perspex screen.
‘Belfast. Stopover at New York.’ (She tried to say this so it sounded blasé and wearily sophisticated).
He tapped at his computer before looking up, unenthused. ‘Purpose of visit?’
‘Educational…Sort of…It’s a course where you—’
The man sighed with such force she could almost feel it through the screen. ‘Is it educational or not?’
He studied her stiff new passport, fed it into the barcode reader, and had her scan her fingerprints. Then he handed the passport back and looked up and over her head. ‘Next.’
‘Is there a bus or something I can get?’ said Erin. ‘Into town…the city.’
The man looked at her as though he might suddenly explode. ‘Information. Past the barrier.’
In the shuttlebus, she sat mesmerised by the lit-up skyscrapers, unreal against the clear night sky; the yellow cabs; the neon. It was past midnight when she reached the university. The drowsy young man at reception handed her a key, her required reading—some two hundred A4 pages in a faux leather folder—and a saucer-sized badge with you are the future™ in red, white and blue then her name underneath in black capitals: erin doherty.
‘You’re in the West Dorm,’ he said, through a yawn. He lifted the phone and tapped in a number. ‘Need to get Public Safety.’
Erin gripped the handles of her bag. ‘It is dangerous?’
The man shrugged. ‘It’s what we do.’
Public Safety—two police officers in a patrol car—arrived about ten minutes later. They had her sit in the back separated from them by a thick metal grille. There were no handles on the doors, she noticed, and immovable windows made from heavy-duty plastic that was scratched all over, so scratched she could barely see out. From time to time, a voice—crackling and indistinct—came in over the static of the radio: shooting in the Bay Area; break-in on the Hill; robbery on Masonic.
‘Dorm’ had made Erin think of giggling schoolgirls up gossiping after lights out—the Upper Fourth at Malory Towers. Or Bessie Bunter. But her room—once she found it in the warren of parquet floored corridors—turned out to be a stale, high-ceilinged cell with a built in desk and wardrobe and a single bed—grey metal, like it had come from a hospital—centre floor. Too fired up to sleep, she propped herself up on the bed and glanced through her folder. There was an agenda, a you are the future™ Personal Self-Evaluation Profile and the readings—a forbidding wedge of photocopied chapters and articles. Some of these were marked JJJ for right now, JJ for soon, or J for near future. They covered topics like:
Setting your life-goals (and keeping to them)!
Self-esteem and how to build it! and
Assertiveness—five really simple exercises to do every SINGLE day!
None of these did she feel ready yet to tackle. But the you are the future™ Personal Self-Evaluation Profile looked like it might be manageable enough. The first page of it had her name pre-printed in facsimile handwriting, then instructions: she was to look at herself long and hard (‘the way an unbiased, but somewhat critical observer might do’), after which she was to finish the sentence you are…taking no more than two pages to respond. Your answer, the instructions advised, would be the basis for your Introductory PresentationJ.
You Are… What could she say, she wondered? Joby—the acned psychology student she, festive and forgiving, had pulled at the Christmas Ball at the end of second year—had told her that people who couldn’t come right out and describe themselves were often, if not always, ‘loopers’.
‘You know…nutters.’ Joby had pulled a disturbing face, curled his fingers to make claws and raised his hands above his head like a low budget werewolf. Then he rested his arm across her shoulders and looked her in the eyes, his face suddenly serious, beseeching.
She touched her index finger to the tip of his nose. ‘So, tell me some more psychology.’
He looked disappointed, then thoughtful. ‘Opposites attract…’
He caressed her shoulder, first over, then under, her shirt. ‘And birds of a feather flock together…’
‘So, which is it?’
‘Is it “opposites attract” or “birds of a feather flock together”? It can’t be both.’
He snuggled his hair—styled in a choirboy bob and smelling, improbably, of freshly cut cooking apples—against the side of her face. ‘Can it not? Why?’
She thought of the technical term she had lately underlined in red, then yellow-highlighted on her lecture notes. ‘Reductio ad absurdum,’ she said, relishing the clever sound of it, like a spell from Harry Potter.
But Joby was unvanquished. ‘Well, it’s sometimes one and sometimes the other.’ He slipped a finger under the strap of her petal pink balcony bra.
She leant her head back and let him kiss her neck. ‘So, where’s the science in that?’
He sighed. ‘Dunno.’ His lips touched hers and she opened for him obligingly.
How easy it was to pull, she thought. To get off with someone. Any girl, any woman—pretty much—could have any man she wanted—pretty much. But for one night only. Pulling someone—getting off with them—was a cinch; holding onto them was the challenge.
Before her father had left—before he distilled himself drop by drop out of her and her mother’s life, he’d scattered hints of his coming disengagement that were, in retrospect, obvious.
Once, for instance, when she was ten or eleven, he’d looked up from whatever he was studying for, and he’d said to her, as if it were a secret he had been dying to tell, ‘Manus O’Mahony. Do you know him?’
She shook her head.
‘You know him surely,’ said her mother, busy with the week’s ironing. ‘That day at the shops with his mammy…What did you call her?’
‘Úna,’ said her father, just a little too quickly.
‘Úna. Twisting the arm off poor Úna so he was. You remember?’
Erin rolled her eyes. ‘Oh him!’
Her father pulled a face to mimic hers—mocking, disagreeable. ‘“Oh him”, she says. Well, if you haven’t heard of him now, you’ll soon know all about him. Could tell you anything, so he could—the capitals of Europe; the kings and queens of England; the presidents of America; the First World War; Second World War; the War of the Spanish Succession. Walking encyclopaedia, that one is.’
‘Well do you know your capitals?’
‘I think so.’
‘You think so?’
‘Some of them.’
‘What about Peru?’ He tapped the top of his Mont Blanc fountain pen hard on the page he had been writing on, then he pointed it at her, like a probe. ‘What’s the capital of Peru?’
Peru lit a brush fire of free association—Darkest Peru…Paddington Bear…Aunty Lucy…
‘Lima!’ she said.
‘Well that’s an easy one. Manus O’Mahoney knew that when he was still in nappies. What’s the capital of…Venezuela?’
She hung her head and peered at the fading pattern on the living room carpet—roses and ivy, gold on red.
‘Or Ecuador? No? Colombia? Bolivia? Brazil?’
Manus was all she got after that. Manus O’Mahoney. Young O’Mahoney. Master O’Mahoney. Young Mister O’Mahoney. What a bright light he was at St Mary’s. Passed all his GCSEs—and A stars the lot of them. And four As at A level, not that he needed them because Cambridge University (‘in England’) was begging him—imploring him—to take a place. And how big a deal was that? Having someone called Manus O’Mahoney at Cambridge University. And Úna—the mother—had he said how proud she was? Brought him up on her own, so she did.
‘On her own?’ said Erin, wearily.
‘All on her own.’
Erin switched back to her Personal Self-Evaluation Profile. You Are…You Are…
You Are… plump… round-faced…an apple (bah!)… You Are…fat—the fat girl who buys five Mint Aeros so the woman in the garage will think they’re for five little mouths and not just your own.
You Are…your mother’s daughter…Oh, stop it! The idea that she was just another version of her mother had haunted her these last few years. An increasingly unshakeable sense of herself as someone perpetually awkward and ungainly, same as Mum. That exact same apologetic manner, ever shrivelling in the presence of authority, or gushing, over-grateful, for the smallest kindness. ‘We are who we are,’ that was the little bit of wisdom her mother always called upon in times of disappointment, or failure. We are who we are, our whole lives mapped inside of us from the start, a deep coded, immovable destiny, irreversible as a blood group. The future enters into us long before it has happened, discuss with particular reference to the works of…oh, who was it? If only she’d done English…If she’d put her foot down and studied English for four years, she’d have a first now. Well, maybe. Better than a Third anyway. English was what she’d wanted to study; what she was good at; least bad. But—what do you know—her father had said different, a sudden, offstage intervention Erin had listened into on the bedroom extension. Politics, Philosophy and Economics, that’s what Erin would be studying.
‘But it’s English she likes, Jackie’ said her mother. ‘You know yourself, she loves her books…’
‘Likes! I couldn’t give a…fiddler’s what she likes. English? She’ll end up working in a shop or in Burger King—you keeping her; instead of her keeping you.’
So she’d gone along with it; what her father wanted—systems of government; Plato to NATO; logical positivism; imperfect competition—all of it wobbling in her head like a house of cards.
You Are… a mouse… a pushover…the wimp of all wimps…
‘I’m thinking of selling the house,’ her mother had said on the bus to the airport.
Erin had squirmed but said nothing, gazed out at the drizzle and the motorway, wishing for headphones.
‘We could get an apartment—one of those new ones over by Tesco’s—and still have a bit of money left over. Take a couple of holidays, maybe. Just the pair of us, like. A cruise or something.’
Erin pictured the cruise ship, she and her mother, together; and all those declining men—soft, shrunken, disaffected—all on their last hurrah, briefly flush on lump sums and redundancy payments, eyeing them up, looking from mother to daughter, unsure which was which.
you are…on your last chance.
And if her father had done nothing else, he’d given her this one last freedom ticket out of Mother and Daughter Central; set it up for her. (‘Guilty conscience,’ her mother had said). Late one evening he’d phoned from Strasbourg, his first call since Christmas. Erin had been expecting it; dreading it; fretting any time the phone rang.
‘So what did you get?’ he asked.
‘It was always going to be a First or a Third with me,’ she said, same as she’d said to everyone since that miserable day the degree results came out. She’d left it until late afternoon to go and scan the list in the Quad. And when she’d seen that single word against her name, she had hoped, unreasonably, that it might say First.
‘So which was it, Erin?’ her father asked.
She swallowed back a cry. ‘…I’m sorry Dad…I did my best…’
There was a long, disappointed silence. ‘Well, here’s something,’ he eventually said. ‘you are the future™. Ever heard tell of it?’
Erin confessed she hadn’t.
‘It’s a one-week programme in San Francisco. Leadership training…Oh, don’t sigh! Hear me out. I went on it myself about fifteen years ago. Remember?’
Erin remembered. The books he came home with, the nostrums he gleaned from them, the pop psychology endlessly doled out, his confidence building, insufferably.
‘Well, believe you me,’ he said. ‘It turned me around. “Make things happen, Jackie,’ that’s what they told me. “Don’t just sit around your whole life waiting.” And that’s what you need to do, too, Erin. Go out and get what you want the way I did—got the job I wanted, in the city I wanted, for the kind of money I wanted.’
And with the type of wife you always wanted, thought Erin. And the son.
‘I’m telling you,’ her father said. ‘People kill for a place on you are the future™. Literally. And I can get you on it. Just like that.’ She heard him snap his fingers. ‘Just a word in the right ear. And all you need to do is fill in the form. You can manage a form, can’t you?…Oh, don’t be like that. Listen, leave it to me, I’ll sort out the form for you. What about that?’
‘Don’t go if you don’t want to’ her mother said.
‘But I do want to,’ said Erin.
‘Are you sure?’
‘I want to go!’
In the end it was her mother who paid for the flights; her mother who sorted out the passport; bought travellers’ cheques; picked out, bought and packed that sad, paisley bag. ‘Dress the part,’ she said when she saw Erin setting out her jeans and denim jacket. ‘Smart dressers, those American ladies.’
‘It’s not like on TV, Mum.’
‘And be careful who you talk to. If it’s late, take a taxi home.’ There was a catch in her voice. ‘And be sure and phone when you get there.’
Erin switched on her phone, hoping the thick walls of the dorm might block out any signal. There was the ping of a single message welcoming her to the United States and the T-Mobile network. She’d phone tomorrow. No point now. Tomorrow when she was fresh and rested, less likely to be irritable.
She woke up early, half slept, then she showered and dressed. There were two missed calls on her phone—Mother times two. They’d keep until later, she decided, and went to the refectory for breakfast.
It was there that she saw him. Kendrick Allaby he was called—she read it off his you are the future™ badge as she queued for a second bowl of multi-coloured cereal. He wore his shirt barely buttoned, tight, faded jeans and baseball boots, artfully scuffed. His sandy hair was almost long. Kendrick’s breakfast consisted of a single slice of toasted granary, an orange juice, a small coffee and a yoghurt. When he finished these, he sat back and read a few pages from a book called Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences. By then she had finished her second helping and, fatefully, begun to imagine the two of them together—sharing a mocha in the café in Waterstone’s; driving a beat-up camper van through Europe; the two of them an item at the next Doherty wedding, which would be held somewhere drop-dead fancy like the Manor House or the Slieve Donard, him and her standing for the group photo, a touched-up version of herself—Fantasy Erin—bubbly and eccentric, now, all aglow with a plump, minxy sexiness. And Kendrick, that hair would be longer—she’d have convinced him how well it looked long. She’d have him in a pale blue linen suit with a white, open necked shirt…And why not? Someone would snap him up, sooner or later. Why not her? Opposites attract, Joby said so. And her father—believe in yourself, he was always saying. Go for the gold. Not the silver. Not the bronze. Anything less than gold is second best. And if you settle for second best, second best is the best you’ll ever get.
Heading back to the dorm, she contrived to catch him up, almost falling over herself as she hurried up to him. ‘Think we’re here for the same thing,’ she said, pointing to her badge, realising too late that this might look like she was inviting him to look down her top.
‘Kendrick Allaby,’ he said, catching her hand in a meaty grip. ‘And you are…’—he read her badge—‘Erin…Erin from Erin! What’s your major, Erin?’
She told him she’d studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics, leaving out the detail of the First and the Third, and what a wretched three years it had been, all told.
‘Three majors!’ said Kendrick. ‘You’re a polymath. A Renaissance woman.’
‘And me—because I know you’re about to ask—I’m a grad student at Ohio State this coming Fall. Mathematical models of human decision taking.’
Erin forced a look of deep fascination. ‘Looking forward?’
He said he was excited. Said it in a way Erin knew was not ironic. He was excited about you are the future™, too, he told her, though they’d a tough few days ahead of them. But all the people he would meet, the tutors, the students. It was all going to be so awesome. And exciting.
By the time he’d said all this, they’d reached the main door and he was telling her how pleased he was to have met her.
‘See you,’ she said.
Then he headed back to his room and she to hers. Safe inside, she studied her face in the tiny, speckled mirror—hair up; hair down; smiling; looking thoughtful; finally, wide-eyed and with her tongue out, like someone off their head—a looper.
Oh, Joby. She could have stayed with him. Could have attached herself to him, plagued him until she’d worn him down and he’d said yes. Yes. Oh sad, awkward Joby, with his bad skin and his so-so major. Psychology, its students too dull for Medicine but, then again, too fly for English with its prospect of shop work and waitressing. Psychology. It had at least some hint of purpose, an almost science. Experiments in which bored student volunteers—she’d been one herself—rolled dice ad nauseam, ad absurdum. Questionnaires—pronounced, capriciously, ‘kestionaires’—that nosed out traits—pronounced ‘trays’. Opposites attract. Birds of a feather, etc, etc. Poor Joby. He could have done worse than Erin Doherty. Maybe not the gold. Or even the silver. But a bronze. How bad was that? Company at least. A long-term cellmate instead of a lifetime’s solitary confinement.
The wind gusting in from the Bay was something she’d not expected. Any time she’d thought San Francisco, she’d pictured a blazing Californian summer. Instead, there was a mid-morning chill that got to her the moment she began her walk across town, determined to see as much as she could on this, her one free day. She took a cable car to Nob Hill, browsed bookshops and the modern art museum, walked halfway across the Bridge telling herself she could feel its swing beneath her feet. She had a McDonald’s Happy Meal near the civic centre, after which it was time to go back to the dorm and face those course materials and the phone call home.
She was nearly there when she saw a sign that said check’s cashed fixed to a pre-fab covered in chicken wire and with a caged security camera above the door. An old man with thin, straggling hair and grey, cigarette-stained stubble lay crashed out alongside the concrete steps at the front. He was wearing a ragged camouflage parka and a matching hat with a floppy brim. Around the brim of the hat, and down the front of the parka, were different-sized badges, all with pictures of Marilyn Monroe. And Erin could see dozens of Marilyn badges in the canvas bag lying open by his feet. She felt his eyes on her as she stepped past him and entered the pre-fab.
Inside, was another camera, and bullet proof glass protecting the teller—a resigned-looking woman in her fifties.
‘I’d like to cash a cheque,’ said Erin, talking into the intercom.
‘Sign it. Send it across,’ the teller said, her voice brittle and distorted through the speaker.
Erin took a travellers’ cheque from her bag, signed it, then set it in the shallow trough running under the glass.
The teller licked the tips of her fingers to pick it up, then she set it on a document stand and tapped the details into an antiquated computer. After that, she opened an inkpad and passed it through to Erin’s side along with a piece of yellow card and a square of single ply tissue. ‘I’ll need your prints.’
Cautious, Erin gave her prints then wiped her fingers clean.
‘And some photographic ID.’
‘Like a passport?’
‘Passport, drivers’ licence, student card…’
‘I’m not sure I have my passport with me.’ Erin shrugged, apologetically. ‘Didn’t think I’d need it.’
The teller cut her short. ‘Well, I do. I need your photographic ID.’ She drummed her fingers on the counter.
Erin rummaged in her bag, though she knew for certain sure her passport wasn’t there. ‘If you gave me the cash now…’ She rummaged some more, noticing the phone, the three missed calls. ‘…I could bring the passport along tomorrow.’
The teller shook her head and returned the cheque. ‘No ID, no cash.’
Back outside, the man with the Marilyn Monroe badges had hauled himself to his feet. As Erin came down the steps, he held his bag open in front of her.
‘Buy a button,’ he said. He stank of drink and cigarettes and unwashed clothes.
Trying not to touch his hand, she handed him a quarter and got back a badge.
‘You’ve got to pin it on,’ he said. ‘No point having a button if you’re not going to pin it on.’
She fastened it to the front of her denim jacket, her fingers shaking. It was a cheap badge, the picture on the front—the skirt-billowing scene from The Seven Year Itch—was barely stuck to the disk. And the pin, she could hardly get it to stay in place.
‘You Dutch?’ asked the man, shielding his eyes. ‘You look Dutch.’
‘I’m from Ireland.’ Erin said. She felt herself tremble, a wobble in her voice.
(you are…always afraid—of everything.)
‘Same thing,’ he said. ‘Same skin. That’s why you’ve burnt.’
It was true. For the past half hour, she’d felt her skin begin to sting and had put it down to the day’s long walk. The breeze had made the summer sun seem weak; now she realised it had been slow-burning her the whole time. She imagined how she must look—red of face, flushed, a fish out of water. Wet behind the ears.
‘Take care of that Irish skin,’ said the man, pointing a nicotined finger close to her face. ‘My wife was Dutch and she got skin cancer.’
He came closer and, before she could step back or raise a hand to stop him, he’d stroked her hair, then, briefly, the side of her face, the flat of his hand rough and callused, dirty for sure, dirt caked in every line and pore.
‘You’re like her,’ he said, standing back a little. ‘You have your mother’s eyes. Same eyes; same skin. You have your dear, dead mother’s skin.’ There was a catch in his voice. And was that a tear, or just the old drunk’s eyes watering? ‘Take care in the sun,’ he said. ‘If you do nothing else, take the best of care.’
Erin said she’d be careful as she hurried away, her own tears coming fast and only the back of her hand to dry them with.
Go for the gold. Believe in yourself. Take what you want. As if it were that easy; as if all it took was an act of will. Or faith. When really, luck was what mattered. And luck—good or bad—was doled out cold and uncaring, without justice, without reason, fickle as the flip of a coin. It was luck that left you lying, crashed out on the steps with your bag of badges, or safe—safe enough—inside the shack behind bullet proof glass. Luck that said whether you loved and lost, or loved in vain, or were loved and left.
It was nearly seven when she made it to the dorm, tired, sore-footed, burnt. At the entrance, she all but fell over Kendrick. He had a girl with him now—a young woman, rather, an adult. She looked like a model, Erin thought, what with her chic summer dress and the slim silver necklace that gleamed against her suntan. Sharp.
‘This is my friend, Antoinette,’ said Kendrick. ‘Antoinette, this is…’ He tapped the top of his head. ‘I’m so sorry, I’ve forgot your name.’
Erin reminded him.
Antoinette smiled, a perfect, pearly white. ‘Love your button,’ she said, pointing to Marilyn. Then she stopped smiling.
‘We’re just off,’ said Kendrick. ‘Dinner at Sailors.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘I’d ask you to come, only’—he gave a shrug—‘we can’t wait up. Sailors gets real, real busy this time of year.’
She glanced at her watch. ‘Five minutes…’
‘But you’re burnt,’ said Antoinette. ‘And you look tired. You’d be better resting. And there’s that folder to read through. Have you read it?’
‘Sick looking at it,’ said Erin. She held up her hand, fingers splayed. ‘Five minutes.’ And off she went to her room to prepare. The dress she’d brought was so tight it hurt and her hair stuck out even if she wet it and combed it back. She splashed some water on her blazing skin, then a touch of make-up, a little perfume and a final look in the speckled mirror.
You Are…wasting your time.
Then she banged the door behind her and all but ran down the stairs to the front door, relieved to see Kendrick and Antoinette still waiting, certain they’d have caught a cab and gone without her.
(‘You’re paranoid,’ Joby had said, the day he broke up with her. ‘Know what causes paranoia?’
‘Egotism,’ he said, screwing up his face, as though the very word disgusted him.
Joby pointed accusingly. ‘Know what causes egotism?’
‘I’m all ears.’
‘A weak character.’)
Sailors was indeed busy just as Kendrick had said, but all the same he managed to persuade the waitress to seat them in one of the few empty booths. Kendrick and Antoinette settled themselves at either side of the table, while Erin sat beside Kendrick.
She noticed how effortlessly he made himself visible. When he wanted the waitress, he just looked in her direction and over she came, smiling, eager to please.
‘We’re all having chowders,’ he decided, before she could read out the specials. ‘Three chowders, a beer each and oregano bread.’
And after it all arrived, he said things like ‘I’m having some of that bread,’ as he reached over and helped himself; ‘I’ll have some of that pepper,’ as he lifted the mill and ground some into his chowder.
‘Seen Elephant?’ he asked.
Erin hesitated, ransacking her memory. Elephant? A play, wasn’t it? Or was that Rhinoceros?
‘Loved it,’ said Antoinette. ‘Fan-tastic.’
‘Way better than Bowling,’ said Kendrick.
‘Bowling?’ asked Erin.
‘Much better,’ said Antoinette.
‘There’s no denying it,’ said Kendrick. He tapped his unused knife on the rim of his chowder bowl. ‘Guns are the issue this country does not want to face.’
Antoinette got her nod of agreement in first—a little purr of accord. Briefly, her hand brushed Kendrick’s, then she leaned well back, fussed with her hair, locked her hands behind her head.
Erin squirmed, feeling as though her dress was actively tightening around her middle. There was a great stainless steel coffee machine to the side of her that she dared not look at for fear she might see her face as bright, blazing red as it felt. She went to take another drink and noticed that her beer had gone down a lot faster than anyone else’s. Antoinette’s stood three quarters full and Kendrick had talked so much his was barely touched. She, on the other hand, had gulped hers down.
‘And what gets me most,’ she heard Kendrick saying, ‘Is that the entire critique—be it op-ed, book or film—is an exclusively elite discourse.’ He sighed. ‘Guns. The elephant in all our rooms.’
‘Elephant,’ said Antoinette, nodding, resting her hand on Kendrick’s. Elephant, thought Erin, recalling that time Sister Claire had told her off for wearing kitten heels in school.
‘It’s not just the noise, Erin’ she’d said. ‘In those shoes, you put as much pressure on the floor as a baby elephant.’
Elephant…Rhinoceros…Elite discourse…you are…out of your depth.
you are…trying to punch above your weight.
‘What do you weigh?’ sour old Miss McGurk had asked her in Maths one end of term, poking at her with the question until she’d had to own up….
‘Eleven stone?’ the teacher had said. Then she’d turned to the tittering class. ‘OK. So which weighs more? One hundred and fifty pounds of Erin here. Or one hundred and fifty pounds of Connemara marble?’
Erin’s second beer went faster than the first. And after that, she had a third. Then, almost certainly, a fourth. But three to four beers in, she could at last sit right up beside Kendrick, touching him—her leg rubbing his, her hand on his, talking right into his ear because of the noise. She was lovely, now, she decided. Fantasy Erin. Smart. Minxy. Voluptuous. See what you missed, Joby? See what you could have had? ‘See on the bus this morning…’ she said.
‘Excuse me?’ said Kendrick, crouching in closer.
Antoinette shook her head. ‘I can’t make out a word she says.’
‘On…the…bus,’ said Erin, speaking as distinctly as she could, ‘When I was on the bus this morning…’
‘You got the bus?’ said Kendrick.
‘That’s what I’m telling you!’ Erin punched his shoulder with greater force than she had intended—so hard that he sat there rubbing it. ‘I got the bus this morning and the guy driving it, he says, “Zack change.”’
‘Guns,’ said Kendrick, still rubbing his shoulder. ‘See what I mean? The buses are all…’—he stabbed his finger on each word—‘exact change only. Why? Why? It’s in case someone tries to rob them…at gunpoint—’
Erin cut in over him. ‘I’m on the bus and he says “Zack change, zack change” and I’m like “I’ve a dollar.” (It was seventy-five cents and I’d a dollar).’
Antoinette raised her glass in a sarcastic toast. ‘Well, good for you.’
Erin waved an imaginary dollar. ‘I’m like, I’ve nothing smaller; this is all I have. And he keeps going “Zack change, zack change”, so I look down the bus and—here’s me—“Can anyone change a dollar?”, and, all of them, they all look down at the floor or into their books and papers like I’m some kind of…looper.’ She was speaking fast now, certain that Kendrick or Antoinette would butt in and change the subject were she to slow down. ‘So I say to them, “OK, this is the deal of the day. I’m trading seventy-five cents on the dollar. One dollar bill for seventy-five cents—can’t say fairer than that”. And this guy’—he had been slim, short-haired, her age, cute—‘this guy hands me the change.’ (He had smiled at her when he did this, making her wonder if this was a sign of incipient affection, a kind regard in a glaring world).
‘So you were down a quarter?’ said Kendrick.
‘Yes!’ said Erin. She heard herself all but shriek with glee.
‘I’d have walked,’ said Antoinette.
‘I’d have brought some change,’ said Kendrick.
‘But what about this,’ said Erin. ‘No, listen…Don’t sigh!’ And she told him about the baby elephant and the slab of Connemara marble and how it was always going to be a First or a Third with her and how she did not relish the prospect of becoming her mother, at least not until she’d had some life of her own. The more she talked, the more Antoinette looked on, making a face Erin took for envy. Her day in the City—had she mentioned it?—her walk, the cheque, the Marilyn Man, the subtle summer sun, her Irish skin. She talked and talked and then, all at once, she found she could not work up the energy or the enthusiasm to talk any more. Completing even a single sentence took more effort than she’d expected. The background music seemed suddenly louder and to come round on its cycle faster than before so that songs she had just heard, she heard again.
We built this siddy.
We built this siddy on rock and roll.
She had to shout to make herself heard above it. Then she struggled to speak at all, conscious of feeling warm and cold at exactly the same time.
In the taxi home they had to have the driver stop so Erin could open the door and be sick. She hung her head out and felt the cold drifting in off the Bay. At first, nothing came. Then everything—the chowder, the bread, the beers, the rainbow cereal.
Back in the dorm, she rolled over on the bed, gathering the duvet round herself, the room shifting every time she looked, rolling like a boat in a storm. When she ran her tongue along the roof of her mouth, she tasted a mix of sick and Budweiser.
Eventually, the insistent beep of the alarm on her phone woke her. Only grudgingly did she drag herself from under the duvet, her head throbbing, the memories of the previous night making her cringe. It was all she could do to take a shower, dress and brush her teeth.
Late for class, she saw the others already there, sitting in a horseshoe, their folders on the ledges of their chairs, Kendrick, Antoinette, the whole gang of them eager, excited in their smart, shop-fresh casuals. And then Erin, looking awful, she decided, in yesterday’s denim, bloated all over, bags under the eyes, and a fair chance she was still exhaling alcohol.
‘Just in time,’ the tutor said as Erin slouched past him to the empty seat at the end of horseshoe.
Sharp dressers, those American ladies her mother had said, but this man, this…teacher—slim, tanned and ageless—his suit was knife-edge sharp, as if he had been dry-cleaned into it. His hair was crisp and freshly cut, combed and sprayed into an immovable style; his scent, pervasive; his voice, buttery smooth, like a game show host. He examined his watch ‘We’re just on the introductions so you haven’t missed much.’ He nodded to Kendrick, who stood up.
‘I am Kendrick Allaby,’ he announced, ‘And I am the future…’
Gameshow host and the others applauded. Then it was Antoinette’s turn.
‘I am Antoinette Fisher-Callaghan,’ she said. ‘And I am the future.’
And then the next person stood up and they too affirmed that they were the future, and so on…
Erin waited her turn, trying to envisage herself making the same type of introduction. ‘I am Erin Doherty,’ she imagined herself saying. ‘And I am…I am’
‘Am I fat?’ she’d asked her mother once. ‘The other girls say I’m fat.’ She had been seven or eight at the time.
‘You’re an apple,’ her mother said. ‘My big…pink…rosy…apple,’ giving her a tight, maternal hug on every word.
And any time Erin asked again, she’d got that same answer—an apple, you’re an apple, you’re my apple…
One day, though, they’d gone shopping and her mother had stopped to talk to a friend—a younger woman with a boy about four in tow. The woman had looked awkward, eager to get away. (Or was that just hindsight on Erin’s part?) The boy—a wiry, crew-cut blond—had tried to get away as well, doing all he could to wriggle free from his mother’s hold, twisting her hand round and round while she, in turn, struggled to keep him still.
‘This is Manus,’ said Erin’s mother’s friend. ‘Manus—stay at peace!—this is Erin.’
Manus ceased his manoeuvring and, unsmiling, studied her, his eyes like ice. ‘Erin’s fat,’ he said eventually.
The four of them said nothing. Then Erin’s mother said to the friend. ‘Oh, Úna, she doesn’t like people saying she’s fat…’ She lowered her voice. ‘I tell her she’s an apple.’
Úna stooped down and tousled her son’s hair, ‘Erin’s not fat, Manus. She’s an apple.’
Manus’ gaze dropped to the pavement. Then he spat—a great gob of white froth that fell just short of Erin’s sandaled feet.
‘See that Manus one?’ her mother said when they were home. ‘There’s a want in him.’
Erin pouted. ‘I hope someone runs him over!’
Her mother gasped. ‘Erin Doherty. May God forgive you! That’s a terrible thing to say!’
‘Well all the same, that’s what I hope. I hope he dies.’ She pictured the ambulance, its blue lights flashing, the tiny body being stretchered away, Úna weeping.
But her mother shook her head. ‘It’s a small mind that thinks a thing like that,’ and she caught Erin in a hug and held her while she sobbed. ‘You’re better than that. You are miles better than that.’
Erin readied herself to speak but, by now, all of the class was back sitting down. Settling back in her chair, she could not decide if she had missed her chance to tell them who she was, or if that chance was still to come.
Martin Tyrrell has an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. His stories have appeared in the journals Cadenza, Splinters and Verbal, and in several anthologies. In 2014, his story Father Figures was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is Deputy Chair of the John Hewitt Society and a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books. He is cofounder of the Outside the Lines writers’ group.
Twitter handle @mjat42
Dublin Review of Books essay: http://www.drb.ie/essays/them-and-us