The Walrus

Opera

by Janice Galloway
Fiction · From the April 2008 magazine
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Splashing and gurgles in the throat. Listen. Almost a racket, a radio slipping out of true. But it’s not that, not at all. It’s Lola. Listen. Singing.

Love is just like the wildest bird
That none can ever hope to tame


Some terrible translation she’s read somewhere chimes round the bright blue tiles, yearning rising with the steam. Lola can’t see the steam, because her eyes are shut. In the dark, she doesn’t have to see how tired her breasts look, how many stomachs may emerge out of the bath clouds without warning. Blind, aqueous, she can be a wild slip of a thing, Carmen with scarlet fingernails rolling a cigar on her inner thigh, crazed with passion. And if I love you, then beware of me! Mouth opening on the flat of the water surface just below the island of her nose, a disembodied yawn, a singing puddle. At the end of the verse, she sings the accompaniment, too, her chest cavity imagining a panther pulse of cellos, the announcement she is not done yet. She’s turning like a bull to the matador, pawing toward the reprise. Her hands surface, clutch the edges of the bath like spiders, and there she is, risen from the suds like Venus, wrists high above her head, playing absent castanets. Rivulets of water run like swollen veins down the length of her torso, her sodden, bruisy arms. La Carmencita to the life.

L’amour est un oiseau rebelle
Que nul ne peut apprivoiser


This time in French. It’s the kind of French that could pass for Swedish, maybe, but close enough for Lola. Lola understands no foreign languages and can’t sing, doesn’t know how to sink into the middles of the notes, to let her voice melt in any way at all. And she doesn’t care. It’s not for anyone else, after all: this is solely for Lola, for the physical joy of yodelling at the sky. It’s not as though anyone’s there to see, for chrissake. The bathroom is full of condensation and the door is locked. Lola’s had a whole packet of Jaffa Cakes all to herself, no sharing, the empty box there, evidence on the bath-side mat. Her soap smells of coconuts, her shampoo recalls bananas, the bath foam is kiwi and lime. Fruit juice bubbles slick her hips, insinuating a frothy track between the crack of her buttocks. The bedroom is littered with cast-off clothes, the dishes aren’t washed, and there’s nothing but tins of tomatoes in the fridge. But here is another world, and in here Lola doesn’t care about a bloody thing, not about the brown stain still seeping though at the joins of the bathroom ceiling, about the stink of cats at the front door, the tidy wee pile of bills toasted curly on the top of the microwave — nothing. In here she is who she chooses to be, and who she chooses is Someone Fabulous.

L’amour! L’amour! she roars, pitching in the tub like a seal. Her breasts brush the enamel sides of the bath as she rolls on her front, snubbing up with its touch: the mild abrasion of powder bleach left over from the last time anyone cleaned the bath burrs at her thighs, but it doesn’t put her off. L’amour! she sings, big handles on her voice, meaning it every time. At the climax, she surges, splashing on the cork tile floor. Si je t’aime — fixing one burning eye on an absent man, a rebel, a sex goddess, icing on a fat spiced cake — si je t’aime, prends garde à toi! And there she is, holding the moment all to herself in the ringing echo. Woman incarnate, a gypsy with blood on her lips. Look. She’s running with fluid, her head flipped back like a lighter cap, like her neck just broke. There’s a bare light bulb, a white-cold ceiling. Lola’s eyes, glassy as marbles.

Show. What else can you call it? A little harmless fantasy. The fact that Lola loves this stuff is not her fault. It’s not Michaela’s either. Nothing is Michaela’s fault. Not yet. Michaela’s just the lodger, through in the front room, straightening cushions. She was listening a minute ago, but the stopped singing in the bathroom at the end of the hall kicked her into a tidy fit. It’s no longer possible for her to picture every move, what it is Lola is doing through there, and the hiatus means only one thing. Lola is about to surface. Ten minutes more, and she’ll be running around in here, half-towelled and pink and wondering where her perfume is. What have you done with it, dammit dammit Michaela, stop tidying my things away. Then she’ll get out that black Lycra cocktail dress for somebody smaller, the one that clings to every nook and Venus-mound cranny, filing her hips with the fabric as she pulls it up, up, as she snaps the shoestring straps in place. Gorgeous, knowing it, she’ll run her hands over the Rubens bump of her belly, flick up her hair. No tummy-control knickers for Lola. No knickers at all. Natural, she says. Real men like curves. And they do; the kind of men Lola likes, they certainly do. They like beauty spots, extra eyelashes, and different lips, and they get those as well. Makeup’s a tightrope, Michaela, but Lola walks it. She walks it very well. She wears sandals with peep toes irrespective of the weather, handcuffs her forearms with silver bangles, slices her ears with silver hoops. Then the hair, flounced out, pinned up, unpinned, straightened, curled, running her fingers through wax to tip the ends so little strands straggle over her forehead, down the back of her neck. Like I just got out of bed, she says. You don’t want to look too combed and you should never use hairspray. Jesus have you tasted the bloody stuff? And Michaela won’t say But who’s going to taste your hair, Lola? For a whole variety of reasons, she’ll keep mum. Just a wee girl yet, Lola says, and chucks her under the chin. Stick with me, kid, you’ll learn something. The final touch is lipstick, pushed up from its gold barrel, ready to roll. Real red, she says. Don’t have any truck with other colours. Real red, Michaela, real lips. And she’s done: an edifice, the unquestionable McCoy. Michaela has watched the whole thing umpteen times, wondered at the splendour unfolding before her eyes. Because that’s what Lola is. Splendid. Solid gold.

Whose place is this? Who pays the rent? Who shares her jokes and her cigarettes and that wine that tastes like lighter fuel? Who puts out steak for strays? Who do you think? All Michaela has to do is clean up, take the odd phone call, bring in something to eat now and then. Lola does everything else; she deals with the sprawl and the noise, the wisecracks and the men that hang around in the close, thinking fights and swearing are entertainment. The bills. However the money turns up, and Michaela doesn’t know how, Lola pays the bills. Michaela only knows what she sees. What she sees is that Lola took her in, a stranger with the feel of the Irish ferry still under her feet, only a spit-through suitcase and a photograph of a runaway boyfriend for company. She sees she gets to stay. And what Michaela knows is that she can’t get by without Lola. Lola knows everything and everyone. She has contacts, connections, ears close to the ground. She knows the future. At weekends, that’s what she does: she sits people down on her velvet cushions, reads their teacups, palms, and tarot cards for money, a head scarf roping in her hair. It’s not a joke. If you take it serious, she says, they come back. Folk are desperate for any advice they can get with life. Telling fortunes is real work, Michaela, believe you me. Other days, people bring stuff in vans and Lola stashes it through the back. The grey economy, she says. C’est moi. And at night, almost every night, Lola goes out. You’re only young once, she says. I’m not bloody wasting it. And off she goes, God knows where.

Lola’s private stuff is private and Michaela doesn’t ask. She tries not to wait up, not to worry when Lola doesn’t come back, sometimes for days. She doesn’t phone or go out looking. I can look after myself, Michaela. I don’t need a ball and bloody chain. And Michaela knows her place. She stays home in it, waits. The city is no place for someone soft, after all, and Michaela knows that’s what she is. Soft as pus. Every so often, she thinks it might be better to go back where she came from, but what for? She still hadn’t found him. Head for the city, Michaela thought, head for people and start asking. It hadn’t occurred to her how different things would feel, how terrifying. She hadn’t the stamina, she figured, had made a mistake. In short, Michaela was scared and she hadn’t the guts to admit it, not yet, not by going back. And distantly, without ever saying or thinking it in a straight line, Michaela was hoping Lola would find him for her. Lola with her contacts, her nose for things. She got the whole story out of her in five minutes, pretending to read her cards. A man, she said, tapping at the pack with her nail. Dark hair. He’s trouble, him. Am I right? And Michaela spilled beans like a lorry on a Z?bend. When she wanted, Lola could draw any secret out of you she liked. Then again, Michaela had wanted to talk. She hadn’t realized how much. He’s not good for you, she’d said. Look. Jack of spades, that’s dark. Bad news, hen. Seven of hearts — that’s you. In wee pieces. She turned over a queen of diamonds, then looked into Michaela’s eyes. She reached across the table, stroked the other woman’s cheek. Why him, Michaela? What’s so special about the one man?

There was no answer, of course, and Lola wasn’t expecting one. She waited a minute to let the question sink then came up with an excuse herself. We’ve all got to want something, eh? She smiled, gathered her cards together, poured Michaela a smudgy tumbler full of wine and pushed it across. And looking at the colour of it through the glass, the dark redness blurring a pattern on her fingers, Michaela found herself asking without really meaning to. So what about you, Lola? What is it you want? For a moment, Michaela thought Lola was angry. She opened a black silk cloth, began to fold the fortune deck inside. Then she drew a deep breath. One thing, she said. Just the one. She leaned forward and whispered. I want a grand finale. Then she drew back her head and laughed. The laugh was forced, Michaela thought, too loud. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was just her own embarrassment at being so naive as to think Lola would tell her anything that intimate.

She watched as the older woman stood up, smoothed the frock over her hips, topped up her perfume and went out earlier than usual. She might as well have written a message in the steam on the bathroom mirror: Subject Closed. It didn’t stop Michaela thinking, though, wondering as she sat in alone with the TV running, unwatched. What was it Lola wanted? Over days and weeks, watching Lola swilling tea dregs for big-eyed clients, listening to her go through her homilies and maxims, Michaela started to piece together something like a bigger picture.

Do what you want in this life, Michaela, you don’t get another one. Never apologize, never explain. Life’s too short to shut yourself in a box. And if a man starts thinking he can tell you what to do, get out quick. Jealousy’s a monster. It kills people. Jealousy kills people.

When Lola wants, she can talk up a storm. But Michaela looks past the talking now, knowing it’s not just for her. Michaela wonders who else is hearing, what they make of it. The boyfriends who turn up now and again when they need money, someone soft to lie against. The way Lola puts out for them the way she has for Michaela, not asking for anything back. Michaela has seen the look in their eyes at having found her, this woman right out of a big boy’s fairy tale. A woman who understands when they say No Commitments. They can’t believe their luck. Till the day they come round looking for her and she’s not there. Till they find she’s out in her tight dress, lipsticked to the hilt and not with them, that’s she’s out pulling other men who fancy a slice of Lola. Then the tune changes. Where Lola is, who she’s with, what she’s doing — stuff no one but Lola can answer, and Lola won’t. And they sometimes hit her, tell her they crack her ribs out of love. Sometimes they cry and threaten, phone till she leaves the thing off the hook. I don’t need a ball and bloody chain. Lola picks herself up and, to spite them, moves on, does it all over again.

There’s no point asking. Lola, why do you always go out with these possessive guys? You of all people? Why? She’ll only laugh. You’re worse than them, Michaela, she’ll say over her shoulder, door open in one hand, the bruises on her knuckles patched over with concealer and fake tan. And her eyes glitter as though this is a game, a contest, a piece of fun. If you’re that worried, stop me. On you go. Smiling that lush red smile, knowing Michaela couldn’t stop a bus, never mind a runaway train like Lola. That smile used to make Michaela feel like laughing. Not now. These days, she watches Lola pouting at the bathroom mirror — rattling those bangles she puts on her ankles, her wrists; painting her henna tattoo, a line of barbed wire, round the slender mushroom stalk of her neck — and it chills her to the bone. Stop me. On you go. And Michaela thinks about the kind of men who want Lola, how insane she can drive them simply by being the kind of woman they want. How sooner or later one of them will be bigger, drunker. Thinking further than that is something she doesn’t want to do at all.

And if I love you, then beware!

Again. Lola is singing in the bathroom in two languages, doing the rounds one more time. Michaela plumps the cushions on the settee again, listening. Lola is setting the mood through there, cracking up the nerve to hit the town. Michaela folds away a magazine, brushes crumbs from the side table, piles cartons of videos into a flaky stack. When the silence comes, the sound of Lola emerging to prepare herself, Michaela wants to be distracted. She doesn’t want to see Lola cinching her wrists and ears with metal, hanging her ears with hooks; Lola checking in the mirror, her face brittle and warm as Tiffany glass. She doesn’t want to see what card she flips over on top of the deck before she leaves, if it’s the same dark ace she’s had three nights running. But she will. She bets she will. She’ll watch Lola pick up Donny’s picture, hear that tease in her voice that’s almost a dare — Green eyes, kid, he’s got green eyes. Then the door will click, the sound of Lola’s heels will echo in the stone stairwell. Kid, she’ll shout, loud enough for the whole close to hear, a parting shot — I bet I find him before you do. And she’ll laugh. At the bottom of the stairwell, she’ll laugh and sing, voice trailing like Havana smoke, heading toward the finale.

Beware. Beware.
Janice Galloway is the author of Clara, a novel, and Where You Find It, a collection of short stories.