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TOM TIERNEY

 

 

Tom Tierney

Tom Tierney lives in Skerries in Co. Dublin. He has had work published before in the Stinging Fly magazine and in the recent anthology, Let’s Be Alone Together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

 

Quasimodo and Me

 

I sat on the steps outside Jill’s apartment, waiting for her to get home and wondering if I was welcome.

When I had arrived in Dublin and heard she had moved on to Paris, I had called her. ‘I have a few days free,’ I said, though in truth I was free for as long as my money would last. ‘I was thinking of coming over.’ I had hoped that this might please her. I had hoped that she might say so. ‘Really’, she said instead, without inflection. She said I could come, that there was a pull-out sofa. I said that was good then, I’d see her when I got there and she said yeah, it was good to hear from me. But she did not say it with much enthusiasm.

A girl with long hair and a business suit climbed the stairs, carrying a briefcase. She smiled and asked if I was Jill’s friend. She said that she was Sarah, and that she’d been told to let me in and offer me a drink and make sure I didn’t steal anything. I said I’d love a drink and asked if they had anything worth stealing. She laughed and said no, not really. She unlocked the door in three places and drew back a latch and we were away from the cold stone and dark wood of the stairwell and in a bright well-lit modern room. I told her it was nice.

‘It’s the company’s,’ she said. She dropped her bag and crossed the living room and disappeared. I stood, awkwardly wondering where to stow my bag. I sat for a minute but felt uncomfortable, then stood up and looked over the few books and CDs. But it occurred to me that it might look like I was prying. I looked through the window instead.

‘That’s better,’ said Sarah, coming out of her room, dressed now in a tracksuit and tee shirt. ‘What can I get you?’

‘Whatever you’re having’ I said, hoping for a beer but thinking that Jill would be more likely to have wine.

‘Well I was going to have a glass of water.’

I said that water would be fine. She laughed lightly and said she was only teasing. She was having wine, but I could have water if I wanted. I lied and said that I really could do with a glass of water but that maybe I’d have a wine with her as well, but then when she opened the fridge I saw some bottles of beer and said, actually, I might have a beer. She handed me a bottle.

We sat at the small kitchen table and she asked what had brought me to Paris.

Jill, of course, had brought me to Paris but I didn’t want to say that. I said I just fancied a few days away.

‘You’re an old boy-friend, aren’t you?’ she asked.

I said I was. She asked why we’d broken up.

‘I went travelling a little. We broke up then.’

‘And are you here because you want to get back together again?’ she asked.

‘I just wanted to see Paris,’ I told her. ‘I’ve never been before.’

Her eyes held mine for a moment and she waited to see if I’d elaborate. I stayed silent.

‘It’s nice here, I think,’ she said at last. ‘At least I suppose it is. I feel I’ve hardly got to see it. We’re working on this IT project. It keeps us busy.’

She hadn’t been to the Louvre yet. Nor Notre Dame. She had seen the Eiffel Tower, but only from a distance. I liked the sound of that. If they were too busy to have seen Paris, maybe they were too busy for Jill to have met a man. Perhaps she was lonely and homesick enough to have me back.

‘The night-life is great, though,’ Sarah added, pouring herself a top-up.

The phone rang. Sarah answered and said, yes, I’d arrived and yes, she’d given me a drink, and that no, I hadn’t stolen anything. She hung up, then told me Jill was nearly finished work and a group from the office were eating out and why didn’t we join them? She went off to change again. I sat with my beer and wondered why Jill hadn’t asked to speak to me.

 

On the metro, Sarah examined a map and explained to me the various permutations of what lines we could take and where we might change. I suggested we walk the last short distance, past Notre Dame, which she’d never seen. She seemed pleased at the idea.

I didn’t know much about Notre Dame, apart from something about a hunchback. She said it was just an old church and probably not very exciting and almost certainly closed but that it would be good to be able to say she’d seen it. She wondered if the Hunchback story was true or was it just a movie. Or had it been a book? I said it had definitely been a movie and I thought a book but that I didn’t know if it was true or not. Maybe it was partly true.

We pieced together what we could remember. Something about a hunchback whose job it was to ring the bells in the church, who then saved a woman from hanging and took her into the bell-tower so that she would be safe. And did he fall in love with her? We presumed so. But there had certainly not been any sex and we were pretty sure they didn’t end up together, because he was too ugly and she was too beautiful. We suspected he must have died in the end.

We crossed the river and found ourselves on that square. It seemed peaceful and quite beautiful. The face of the Church was lit up. We agreed that it was pretty. But then so were so many other churches, we agreed too, and most of them were pretty.

‘Its very big’ she said, and I nodded. And maybe that was why it was so famous. Because it was both big and pretty.

‘And it has a nice spot all to itself,’ she added.

We sat for a while on a bench and agreed that it was a lovely spot and that as well as being big and petty, maybe this was why it was famous. We sat there quietly for a moment, then she asked was I sure I wasn’t thinking of getting back with Jill.

‘I’m not sure. But maybe. I’ve been thinking about her.’ I glanced sideways and found her watching me quite intently.

‘What way have you been thinking?’

I’d been thinking about her in Thailand, I explained. I’d hurt my ankle and had to spend nearly two weeks just lying in a hammock. It wasn’t the worst place in the world to be laid up but I’d been lonely and found myself wishing that she’d been there with me. I’d even thought of trying to get in touch with her, to tell her to take some holidays and to fly out.

‘So why didn’t you?’

I shrugged and said that it had been too difficult to get to anywhere that had a phone. And that the more I thought about it the more I wondered if I really wanted her to come. She was always so active, I explained. So busy. I was afraid that she’d want to do something if she came out. I had got used to just lying in my hammock and drinking tea and reading and doing nothing much else and I wanted her to be around and to drink tea with me and read beside me and to sleep with me at night. But I wasn’t sure I could picture her doing so little.

‘So I missed her and wanted her to be there with me and felt she might spoil it if she actually turned up.’ I said. ‘I don’t know what I wanted, really.’

‘And you do now?’

I said that I was telling her far too much and asking her nothing about herself.

‘I’ll tell you all about me when I’ve had a few drinks. You won’t be able to stop me. Tell me about your travels.’

‘Victor Hugo!’ I said suddenly.

She looked confused.

‘Victor Hugo!’ I repeated. ‘He wrote the “Hunchback of Notre Dame”. It was a book. I read about this when I was away. Apparently he’s a saint of some church in Vietnam.’

She looked even more confused.

‘And Charlie Chaplin too. And Shakespeare. And I think Thomas Jefferson too. And loads of others. They’re all saints in this religion. I’ve been to some of their temples. They were very beautiful.’

At last I said that we really should go. She shivered a little and agreed, and I saw that she was wearing only a light jacket. I insisted she take my coat and she refused at first but didn’t resist when I put it over her shoulders.

‘I’ll keep it just for a minute,’ she said. We sat for another moment and looked up at the enormous façade of the cathedral and agreed that it did have something going for it even if we couldn’t quite say what.

 

When we arrived in the restaurant, the others had already eaten and were sitting over drinks. I explained I had insisted that we go by Notre Dame so that I could see it.

‘Notre Dame!’ Jill said, and paused in her re-arranging of the seating. ‘I really want to see Notre Dame. I haven’t seen anything yet in Paris.’

I told her it was only a little walk away but that we had only seen the outside. Somebody else interrupted to say that Sacre Couer was far more impressive and this sparked a wave of debate. And then Sarah asked about the hunchback and did anybody know the original story and if any of it had been true.

‘Fate!’ said Jill quietly.

We asked her to explain.

‘Hugo used to hang around Notre Dame,’ she said, ‘and he saw this word written on the walls one day. In Greek, I think. Or Latin. But just that one word: ‘fate’. As a sort of graffiti. And he wondered who wrote it and of course could never find out, but while he was thinking about it, he came up with the whole story of Quasimodo and Esmeralda. How he saved her and took her to the church and how they both died. And in the end of the book, centuries later - after the rest of the story has taken place - some workmen find the skeletons of two people in the ground and they’re embracing and one of them is deformed. And when they touch them, the corpses turn to dust.’

There was a moment of silence and I told Jill what a wonderful story that was, and she turned towards me and smiled and said that she knew it was but that it of course wasn’t her story so she could hardly take any credit for it. I wondered should I make some remark about our fate, but I felt that it wasn’t quite the moment.

‘How have you been?’ she asked and I told her I had been well and that I’d been missing her, and then Sarah interrupted from across the table to ask did Jill know that Hugo was considered a saint by a church in Vietnam. The moment to speak to Jill personally passed.

 

Back in the apartment, I poured out three glasses of wine and Sarah told Jill about me spraining my ankle and being laid up for weeks in a hammock and Jill said wearily that that probably suited me perfectly and held out the palm of her hand to refuse the glass I offered her.

‘I have to sleep,’ she said, and asked if I’d be OK pulling out the sofa-bed myself. I said I’d manage.

‘I’ll help,’ said Sarah, but instead she put on some music then sat on the couch with her legs tucked under her and with her wine in her lap. I sat at the other end of the couch.

She let her eyes close for a few moments and listened to the music and then sipped on her wine and said she was exhausted and that she’d pay for this the next day but that she did love her wine. She asked if Jill and I were getting back together.

I gestured towards the closed door of Jill’s room and said I didn’t really know what to say to her anyway.

‘Just compliment her. Tell her she’s looking great. Tell her you love her hair. Girls love that sort of stuff.’

I wasn’t sure she had been looking great, I thought, looking towards the closed door. She looked very tired. She was obviously working too much. And I remembered now how I had always thought that she took her work too seriously. She worked in insurance. It was just a job.

‘She’d come running back to you,’ continued Sarah.

‘Would she?’ I asked.

‘You’re interesting. She’d jump at the chance.’

I let that remark linger while she reached across me for the bottle of wine and topped up both our glasses. When she sat back again she stretched out her feet so that they rested in my lap.

‘They ache. I wear those bloody awful heels all day trying to look glamorous and business-like. They’re instruments of torture.’

I asked her about her work. I didn’t want to hear about that, she said, it was all deathly boring. I took one of her feet in my hands and gently massaged the instep.

She sighed and shifted so that she was more comfortable. I told her about the man who had massaged my sprained ankle in Vietnam and helped me get back on my feet. He used petrol as a lubricant, I told her.

‘There’s some cream in that bag there beside you,’ she said. I found the jar of moisturizing cream and rubbed some into the sole of her foot. When I paused for a moment, she shifted again and moved her other foot in to replace the first. I worked on that foot from the toes along the instep and from the sole to the heel and then ran my fingers up along her shin and around to her calf. She let her eyes close and occasionally sipped on her wine.

A door opened and Jill emerged, looking sleepy. Her eyes settled briefly on my hands and Sarah’s legs, then she walked past us to the bathroom, looking down so that she did not have to catch my eye. Sarah sat upright again and pulled her knees up to her chin.

‘Oh dear,’ she said quietly.

I sipped my wine and asked if she thought it looked bad.

She thought for a moment and then said ‘Possibly.’

I nodded and topped up my drink and held my breath as I heard the bathroom door open again and saw Jill reappear. She walked past us again, without looking, as we sat in silence.

‘I was just going to bed now,’ Sarah said brightly. Jill said nothing and closed the door behind her.

‘Fuck it’ I said.

‘You could go in to her,’ she suggested, ‘say it was nothing, that you’ve come to Paris to get back together again. Tell her you love her and all that stuff.’

‘And that I like her hair?’

‘Exactly,’ she said, nodding and smiling.

I shook my head. ‘I don’t think I’m invited in,’ I said. ‘I don’t think I’m welcome.’

‘You would be,’ she insisted but I shook my head again and took a long drink from my glass. I remembered when Sarah had told her about my accident and having to spend several weeks in a hammock, and how Jill had said that that probably suited me.

‘And fuck it anyway,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to go in.’

For a while we stayed quiet and listened to the music and while she listened she slowly rearranged herself so that her feet were once again in my lap.

‘I really do have to go to bed soon myself,’ she said.

I said I hadn’t meant to keep her up.

‘That’s ok,’ she said, as I again let my fingers stroke her feet and slowly drift up along her legs.

©2009 Tom Tierney

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