Amy and Jasmine’s joy is hissing out into the dark bedroom like a gas leak.
Two floors below, Amy’s mum is sat in the kitchen, bare feet on the cold tiles, body filled with ache. She is reciting crimes committed against the ache, and the culprits. A lifetime of shitheads. Drunk in a sagging flannel dressing gown, fingering endless roll-ups under a tilted lamp, she is unable to grasp motive. Her syrupy odour breaking down in the empty space around her.
A burst of laughter from above. 1:23am. The girls are taking the piss. She shouldn’t have said yes to the sleepover. The laughter erupts again, even louder, and the ache and her numbing feet and the lonely night all merge into this fresh insult. She stands up.
When they roll towards each other, the heat escaping Jasmine’s mouth, and the smell of her, fills up Amy’s own mouth, and laughter spills back out, fizzy and rich.
“I’m crying!” groans Jasmine.
Everything is funny. Delirious inside the embrace, wrapped in the velvet night, Amy wants to fill the whole house up with this beautiful gas, for it to knock her mum out in the cold kitchen below where she sits and drinks all night. The thought hits her sharp in the chest and makes the laughter hurt.
Her dressing gown is now tied tight at the waist, stiff as a uniform, holding her back straight. Wine glass drained. Cigarette stubbed. The lights left off as she makes her way slowly to the stairs across the stripped and neglected floorboards. Treacherous splinters and nails; she knows each one. In this house, in this state, she walks without light. She can hear angry muttering, clipped from her own body, roaming around her in the darkness.
Amy wants to say how great it is to have Jasmine stay over. But she knows she shouldn’t, that it would be too much. Jasmine was last in this house when they were both in Year Two, when they used to play together. Now, Jasmine is popular and lovely, and so are all of Jasmine’s friends. Amy and Jasmine barely ever speak, even though they both still live on the same street.
Amy breathes in the warm air, and feels the shared rhythm, fragile and new. She imagines becoming Jasmine’s best friend, their casual arms around each other, everyone seeing them on the playing field in the sun, sharing secret jokes and laughing until they collapse on the grass.
Amy’s mum ascends, faster now, drawn upwards, away from the cold below, feet cushioned and reassured by the carpet on the stairs: this is home, the heart of the home, you’re going to put it in order. The girls’ laughter explodes again. She stops on the first floor beneath the family photos and listens, leaning against the wall to steady herself. Above her head, the people in the pictures are hiding in the dark, old laughter leaking from them. From the floor, reaching up to her waist, dim piles of clothes and books and toys and ornaments, some boxed, some in sagging stacks, close in on her.
The bedside lamp is on now, the embrace broken. Jasmine is a shadowy movie star, with a cupid’s bow and liquid eyes and a low voice. “I’ve got a secret,” she says.
They are still lying next to each other, but Jasmine looks very far away. Amy strains in anticipation of the new pleasure. “It’s about Mr Wallace and last year. It’s super personal. I can’t tell you out loud. I have to write it down. Do you have some paper?”
Amy had Mr. Wallace for Maths last year, a quiet man. Her class laughed at his armpit stains and his embarrassing enthusiasm. Amy can’t imagine him doing anything really bad. Drugs or stealing or hurting someone. She peels herself eagerly out of the second skin of her sleeping bag, limbs chilly and awkward. Jasmine stands up too, and watches Amy bend over her tiny desk. Amy fumbles through the piles of exercise books, keen to stop drawing attention to her childish furniture. She finds a sheet of paper.
“Not loose paper,” says Jasmine. “That diary? So it’s private?”
Amy picks up the diary and unlocks it. She passes it to Jasmine, opened on one of the many blank pages. She’s tired and shaky, and she wants to get back inside her sleeping bag, but Jasmine is kneeling in her pyjamas so Amy does the same.
Amy’s mum starts to climb the second staircase, to Amy’s attic room. Legs and feet heavy. She cries out and falls. Something is looped around her ankle—she pulls at it—a voluptuous soft strap, attached to a bag of very soft leather, a woven front panel. Amy? It’s not Amy’s. Jasmine’s. A grownup bag for a young girl. Amy’s bedroom is just above her, at the top of the narrow staircase. A warm yellow glow through the crack beneath the bedroom door. She thinks of Jasmine laughing in there with her daughter. She smells perfume on the bag. Musky, adult, just like those nasty girls when she was at school. They are probably talking about you. Gossiping and laughing at you. Calling you a bitch. A silly bitch. You silly bitch. The ache is in her throat. The girl’s voices are faint and muffled.
Jasmine writes slowly. Amy knows her fat, looped handwriting with its glamorous bubble dots from class. Now she is handed it, in her own diary. Now she reads it.
Amy’s mum sits doubled over, clutching the soft bag strap.
The shock is pinched, nasty. Jasmine’s face is blurry. Amy wants to cry but she knows she shouldn’t.
“It’s true,” whispers Jasmine. “I thought you’d want to know.” She says the words as if they had been rehearsed. She looks at Amy’s face. She waits.
Amy’s mum staggers to her own bedroom and sits on the bed, her mouth sour with wine. Opposite her is the shimmering feature wall, thick-striped candied pink and oyster shell paper. Decorated by Amy’s dad when they moved in. The house was cheap for its size, a bargain for someone willing to pull it apart then redecorate. Only the bedrooms got finished before he lost enthusiasm. Then when his attention drifted even further and he left, the bedroom got dismantled again.
Amy’s mum’s gaze slides over the three-year-old gaps in the furniture where he took half the units. He didn’t want their bed. She lies down in her dressing gown on top of the covers. She is jelly, just heavy jelly, nothing else.
She sleeps, her sleep blacked out and silent inside. Outside of the silence, her body snores. Next to her, folded up in the bedside cabinet, there are clues. Since they appeared a year ago, Amy has been sneaking in and inspecting them. She has read them over and over again, drinking in the intoxicating words and confusing feelings with a flushed face and exploratory fingertips. She has memorised parts of them, parts that say things she doesn’t have words for. Now, lying awake a few feet above her mum, she has solved these clues without wanting to, and everything is dissolving.
After a while Jasmine repeats: “I really thought you’d want to know,” in her own child’s voice. Then she asks, “Amy, are you OK?”
Amy is turned towards the wall, thinking of Jasmine and the others at school laughing behind her back, laughing about her mum and Mr Wallace. About all those beautiful words she knows so intimately. Mr Wallace, his fat hands and yellow fingernails. His ugly old face worrying over stupid numbers. She feels sick. “I hate you.” The words come out of Amy in a whisper, but they fill the room. She wants to feel like she is made of nothing. She wills the darkness to press down on her. Nothing nothing nothing.
Jasmine’s phone vibrates, and a powdery blue light illuminates the wall. Amy hears Jasmine texting rapidly. After a while Jasmine starts to sniff, a small wet sound.
Nothing nothing nothing. Amy presses her eyes shut. Her mum snoring below them sounds like a machine breaking.
Amy shrugs, then quickly straightens her shoulders and answers quietly. “She’s still getting ready.”
Amy’s mum purses her lips and doesn’t reply, but Amy knows the kind of words coiled inside her, nervous of the morning light. Jasmine is a slut. Eleven years old in makeup and a short skirt. Amy sneaks a glance at her mum, at the dark blue dress stretching from shoulder to hip to knee, tight around her middle. She wonders uneasily what Jasmine really is doing upstairs. She was already dressed half an hour ago.
The house phone rings, strange and bleeding. It never rings in the morning.
“Hello, Anne speaking?” She turns her back, twirls a pen, speaks with bright intonation. “Ah, hi. Oh no trouble, she’s been fine. It’s nice to see her after so long. She’s just upstairs getting dressed. Shall I get her to call you back when she’s done? Oh OK. Yes, that’d be nice, let’s do that. Just let me know. Speak to you soon. Bye Carol.”
A few minutes later, Jasmine comes into the room. Her hair is tied up high in a loose, gleaming ponytail. Her cheeks are dusted a shimmering pink. She is wearing a peach-coloured jacket. Underneath is a short dress that clings to her thin bare legs. She’s got her leather bag in her hand, which she puts down in the corner, squatting carefully so that she doesn’t show her knickers. She smiles nervously.
“Good morning Jasmine. You look nice. Your mum called. She said she’ll be back in town this evening but your brother’s in all day. She asked you to turn your phone on.”
“Sure,” says Jasmine. “I turned it off last night and forgot. Thank you Mrs. Sudeley.”
The nasty pinching feeling from the night before is still inside Amy, running up the back of her head. Jasmine is lying. Jasmine screens her mum’s calls. Amy imagines confiding, her mum nodding and listening intently, gratefully. Jasmine has a boyfriend and they kiss with tongues. Jasmine is a bitch.
Jasmine doesn’t finish her toast. She pulls on her boots and leaves quickly, her wide eyes skating tensely over mother and daughter as she waves goodbye, head lowered as she makes her own way out through the dim hall.
After Jasmine has left, Amy’s mum examines her daughter, her bagged eyes and limp hair. She knows she shouldn’t have let that girl stay over. She didn’t owe Carol the favour. Carol will never bother to call her back. Carol doesn’t even bother to say hi in the street. They’re a snobby family, like most of the families round here. Jasmine’s the kind of girl that pushes Amy around at school. It was OK when they were little, but not now. Girls form packs at this age. Amy’s the perfect target, she’s asking for trouble, she sticks out like a sore thumb. Her daughter raises her eyes to meet her gaze.
“Sort yourself out a bit Amy, for god’s sake,” she snaps. “Get washed and put on something clean. I’ve got to go out for a while.” She stands and pulls her coat on, her peripheral vision greying out for a moment, her mouth dry.
The house is silent. Amy climbs the stairs, passes the pictures of her grandparents and their faraway smiles. Nothing nothing nothing. She sits down on her mum’s bed, opens the bedside drawer and takes out the letters. Now she knows where they came from, she wants to get rid of them all, but she can’t. She has already unspun the tight spidery handwriting and woven the words into her own body, and she knows the most important ones without looking. They are the only thing that let the ache come out, the hot and flowing grief.
My beautiful Anne. My love. You are perfect.
I think of you every day. I need you in my life. Together we can sort this out.
I can’t replace him, but I can love you better than he ever did.
He left. I’m here.
© Frances Donnelly
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Frances’ interview]