A summer story number one: The siren in the small back room

A new short story by Clare Boylan. Illustration by Matilda Harrison
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Sissy Sullivan said that the most sensitive part of a woman's body was the crook of the arm. We held out our arms and she scraped them with the glistening mauve ovals of her nails. "Close your eyes," she said. "'Tis pure bliss." We closed our eyes and tried to imagine pure bliss. The fleece of a very white sheep came to mind.

Sissy came into our lives in the summer of 1964. She was our lodger, paying twelve shillings a week for the small room at the top of the stairs (use of bathroom. Only 3d fare to Nelson's Pillar). As far as my parents were concerned, her role was to bring money into the house as discreetly as possible. As for us three girls, aged nine, eleven and twelve, we knew almost as soon as we set eyes on her that her mission was to smuggle into our mummified existence some life.

My father had been out of work for almost a year (a fact never mentioned). It was out of the question for a married woman to seek employment. At length it was decided that a single woman would create a minimum of disturbance and that her modest contribution would put meat on the table.

"She's too young," father said, as soon as he saw Sissy. She was a round- faced, round-chested country girl with mousey hair and small grey eyes. She was brought to Dublin by her mother, a shy, awkward farmer's wife. Mrs Sullivan appealed to my mother: "I want the best for Sissy. She is not suited to rural life. She is a refined and gifted girl." Sissy appeared to be asleep on her feet. Her little eyes took in some things, but only on a low level, as if she was looking for lost money. Once or twice she caught our eyes and her plump mouth rolled down on one side in a kind of smile.

My parents agreed to take the girl. I think they were reassured by her lack of personality. They imagined she would creep like a mouse through the floorboards and that they need not think about her. Sissy's mother burst into tears and clung to her daughter and Sissy remained speechless, expressionless until the country woman had gone in a taxi to the railway station, and then she followed my father up the stairs.

"Well, she won't set the world on fire," my mother said. "I suppose we should give her something to eat on her first evening." I ran upstairs at once. Sissy was lying on the bed smoking a cigarette. She was wreathed in smoke as if she had been smoking there all day. There was something about the way she smoked that made it seem likely that she might very well set the world on fire. I stood by the side of the bed and stared at her and she rose up on an elbow and blew smoke in my face. In this manner I made the delightful discovery that Sissy Sullivan was not shy. Her inertness came from composure.

"My mother says come down to tea."

She put out her cigarette, smoothed her childish pleated skirt and followed me downstairs. There were boiled eggs for tea and Mikado biscuits. Sissy said she didn't fancy an egg, having seen where they came out of, but could she have two Mikados. "Have ye a telephone?" she asked. "A television?"

Mother asked her if she would like the loan of a book or a magazine to read in bed. "A book?" Her plump pink mouth hung open in astonishment. "Yis are living in the dark ages."

What happened to Sissy Sullivan then was like a fairy story. Within a week the sleepy girl had turned into a woman, a dazzling creature. Every day she went out to work at Maison Prost, where she was apprenticed to a hairdresser. Each evening when she came home, some feature had been dramatically altered. Her mousy hair went pale gold, her doughy skin bloomed peach pink, the slab of her chest became two peaks pointing in slightly opposite directions. The little grey eyes turned large and luminous under wedges of blue shadow. Wherever she went there followed in her wake a shock of scent, sweet as fudge but with a sting of spice and lemon. Even her short, nibbled nails were quite suddenly transformed into long, painted pearly moons. We soon discovered that those little oval masks came in a packet and were glued on over bitten stumps. Her bosoms too we located, peaks of white rubber foam like uncooked meringue. "They're falsies," I accused. "All you have to do is catch a guy's fancy," Sissy pushed the rubber cones into her bra. "Reality is immemorial to men."

Outside of Sissy our only contact with the outside world was school. I got on well at school but was outcast by the mark of goodness, which sat on me like a frost. I was a good child, and attracted good little girls like myself, tense and corseted in convention. There were other girls, girls who paid no attention to their lessons, but moved in relaxed and intimate gangs. Francey Murnahan was the leader of a gang. She always had sweets and money in her pocket. Already she had come to terms with life and knew how to select only those parts of it that she liked. I tried to be friends with her but although she wasn't unkind she passed me over like a dull toffee in a box of chocolates. I got on with my lessons, with sums and verses and history but they seemed to me far more false, more removed from the flesh and blood of life, than Sissy's rubber bosoms.

Her mother had been right when she said Sissy was gifted. She had a gift of sex which is as irresistible to women as it is to men. Sissy's sleepy personality had about it an air of ferment that drew men as money does. Almost from the first day she had boyfriends, sometimes strangers who followed her home from the bus. At night when she returned from the pictures with a date we girls would cluster at the bedroom window. Under a sticky veil of violet sky with a sparkle of star chips she laughed in little trills and when the man kissed her, she went limp and sleepy while he seemed at once to strangle and struggle like a murderer and his victim. In the morning there would be a half eaten box of chocolates in her room, or a limp bunch of flowers which she had not bothered to put in water. "What do you talk about with a man?" we begged her. What does he say to you?" "Sweetheart, darling, love - all that flabbergasting," she shrugged.

All that summer we followed Sissy Sullivan everywhere, consumed her leftovers and rooted in her waste basket for souvenirs. When she ate an apple she slowly carved off the skin with a penknife, paring small separate strips of skin, offering them to us on the knife and we took them with reverence. Then she would examine the apple for imperfections and gouge out any wormy bits or bruises and we would eat those as well. She made use of us too. While we hung around her room she would have us boil the kettle, make her a cup of tea, rinse her nylons, run to the shop for a pack of biscuits or cigarettes. All of this we regarded as a privilege and we fought with one another to do things for her. While she talked we examined her wardrobe which was no longer an empty coffin with a few battered hangers, but a hothouse blooming with brightly coloured net skirts, Swiss cotton blouses, swagger jackets, all with the slightly suffocating fragrance of her perspiration and perfume. Sometimes we even rooted in her waste basket for clues to her personality. Once it was overflowing with bloody wads of cotton. "What happened, Sissy?" we asked in concern. "Did you hurt yourself?" She only laughed. "Don't fret yourselves. 'Tis a messy business being a woman."

Even the messiness seemed a kind of licence. She was the only grown-up we had ever met who had the sort of life we envisaged for ourselves, eating sweets and biscuits, doing whatever she wanted or nothing at all. The most exciting thing about her was that when she arrived she had been ordinary like us and now she appeared rich and beautiful. It seemed as if all the other adults we knew had failed some examination early on and been disqualified from participation in real life.

At first my parents were pleased with Sissy because she was self-sufficient and amiable. If she had taken the trouble she could have charmed them as she did us but they were to old to interest her and their disappointment at rejection turned to irritation. "That female seems to spend half her life in the bath," my father said. "She uses hot water as if it grows on trees." "That female was behaving like a tramp with some man outside the house last night." My mother speculated less dramatically, "I wonder where she gets all her money for clothes? She is supposed to be living on thirty shillings a week but she has a new outfit for every day of the week."

Unwisely, I carried this back to Sissy. "All right, for your information only, miss!" She hit me on the head with a matted hairbrush and beneath their startling blue ceiling her little grey eyes narrowed in excitement. "I fecked 'em." It felt as if my whole inside had been scooped out like a spoon of ice cream. I knew what she meant. Fecked meant stole. Then I thought, maybe it has some other meaning in the country. "But you did pay for them...?"

She fell back on the bed with laughter. "Aren't you the right gooseberry! Amn't I after telling you? I fecked 'em. There's nothing like it for kicks. Your heart does be going like the clappers. Tell your mammy and I'll cut your ears off."

For a few weeks after that I stayed away from Sissy's room. It wasn't that I disapproved of her. Her character was so much larger than mine. It was as if she had suddenly revealed that she was somebody famous, an actress in the films.

Some time later Sissy gave me a present of a cracked mirror compact and shilling. "What's that for," she quizzed. I assumed it was for not saying anything to my parents or the police but I was not sure.

"For information. Easy money."

By now I realised that Sissy's glorious, uncomplicated life was won at the expense of other people's peace of mind. "What information?"

"What night do your parents go to the pictures?"

"Wednesday," I said.

"There now, that was easy, wasn't it?" She scooped a pinch of cake crumbs from a plate on the table and fed them into my mouth. As always, I was touched by her lack of squeamishness, the way she thrust her pearly nails right past my lips into the wetness of my mouth. "Every Wednesday?" I nodded.

When my parents had gone out Sissy came downstairs. "What do yis think?" She wore a green dress, cut low at the front, tan nylons, pink pearls and in her hair, a white artificial flower and a little green comb. The effect of the green against her pale skin and vivid make-up was electrifying. We could not hold ourselves back and ran to her. "Oh, you look fab. Where did you get that dress? Where are you going?"

"Going nowhere. I have a visitor. I'd say he'll probably bring me a box of sweets. Mind your business and I'll save you some." She went out of the room with a swish. We at once left our homework on the dining room table and went into the drawing room so that we could spy on her visitor behind the window and see what kind of sweets he brought.

Hours later we heard her cry. We had finished our homework and were listening to Radio Luxembourg and talking about the man. We thought he looked too young for her, which was strange since he was about twenty five and she was only seventeen but the eager way in which he had glanced up at the house before unlatching the creaky gate made us think of her knowing eyes and complacent body and how easily she could make him feel inferior. We turned down the wireless and sat very still. There was another cry.

"It sounds as if she is being strangled. Her voice is all muffled." I left the room and crept up the stairs. The door was not properly closed and I pushed it and went in. I knew I should not be there and I knew I should stay quiet, but I couldn't help myself. "Sissy!" I whispered. She half turned her head towards me, half opened little slitty eyes. She was lying underneath the corpse of a man. She touched his hair and he grunted. She smiled at me. Pure bliss.

I tried to avoid her after that but she caught me on the stairs. "Well - Now you know!"

"I don't know," I cried. "`What was he doing?"

She laughed, "It's a private thing between a man and a woman." She watched my struggling face and sighed in pity. "Ah, you poor city kids are pig ignorant. Try to imagine, now that the man is the key and the lady is the keyhole. Do you get me? Think if you had this little box and it was locked and then along came someone with the perfect little key. You can get a baby that way too, if you're misfortunate. The man sprinkles seeds inside the lady."

Sissy left under a cloud, but we would always feel she walked on one rather than beneath one. Before she returned to the country, she dumped her whole glorious persona in the bin and returned as the strange, sullen, mousey little girl we had met three months earlier, apart from her hair, which still brassily flagged her triumph and disgrace. After her departure we girls descended on the bin and raided it in a silent frenzy, making off with matted combs, half full bottles of scent, broken strings of pearls and even bits of underwear. Long after these had been lost or forgotten I continued to carry around, like stones in my shoes. the gappy information she had given me. I often thought about the box and the key. I had no idea what she was talking about and yet I felt, contrary to what she had said, that I now held the key and would someday find the little box. My imagination had been caught and it ruined my concentration. I became a dreamer. I no longer paid attention to my lessons, exasperating the nun whose pet I had been, until she was driven to hit me with a ruler. Francey Murnahan watched me and for the first time she smiled her languid smile at me, a wide grin that spread across her brown little monkey face and brought her prominent front teeth to lap moistly over her lower lip. From that day I was a part of her gang

An extract adapted from a book in progress. Clare Boylan's latest book of short stories, `That Bad Woman', is published by Little Brown, price pounds 13.99