Her hair was cropped short when we went out the gates and she walked with a jaunty, boyish step. She was thin as a rake and beautiful in her own strange way: gapped front teeth, a wide smile that turned down at the corners, all elbows. She wore a tweed jacket and leather shoes and a yellow scarf loose around her neck. “Kate,” I said. “Katie.” She slowed up and waited for me letting the crowd flow past towards the pedestrian crossing.
“What are you going to have?” she said when I caught up.
“Usual,” I said. “And tea, lots of tea.” We crossed over and got stuck behind a glut of tourists, and she mused on rashers or sausages or both. It was late on a Friday morning and we were hungover, our books left in the library, our wallets in our pockets. A bus roared by and trailed diesel fumes behind it. The watery autumn sun shone palely through half-bare branches above and the ground was wet with recent rain. Someone was selling magic eye posters tacked up to the shutter of an empty shop on College Green and we stopped, searching for the shapes in their patterns. I was never very good with them.
“That one’s a seahorse,” Kate said, nudging me and pointing to a blue one in the middle.
I tried to let my eyes relax. “I can’t see it.”
“Look, you can see the curve of its tail.”
I was still staring, trying not to blink, when Declan stopped behind us. “Hallo,” he said, loud and gregarious. “How’s the heads this morning?”
He had on the same faded green hoodie from last night. I could smell the smoke. The low-burning headache lingering above my eyes throbbed and receded. “Fine, considering,” I said, and he barked a harsh kind of laugh.
“Yeah, I’m only just making it in now,” he said. “What time did you end up getting home?”
We didn’t know. I couldn’t remember exactly. I just remembered woozy, quiet laughter, leaning against the wall while Kate turned the key in the apartment door, falling asleep on the couch under a blanket, my feet against one armrest and my head on the other. Kate told him we were going to the café. “Do you want to come?”
“Can’t. Thanks, though,” he said. “I haven’t even started the reading for Anglo-Irish next week.”
“McGahern,” said Kate. “It’s great stuff. You’ll like it.”
I had never read McGahern. I kept trying to see the seahorse, but nothing came. After a few minutes Declan ambled on towards Nassau Street and Kate and I turned and headed on. “Thank god he didn’t want to come.”
“Yeah,” I said. She hadn’t kissed him the night before but she had on other nights there in the dank student club, pressed up against black walls, the dregs of a Guinness going flat on the table beside them. They weren’t awkward exactly, but we were meeting the others at our usual table for four and we would have had to make room, our plates crowding the table and our conversation stilted, his overloud voice cutting through us, boxing us in.
“We’re early,” she said, checking her watch.
“We are,” I said. “Secret Book and Record Store? I need to get Orlando for Lit and Sex.”
“Yeah,” she said, grinning her downturned grin, putting her hands in her jacket pockets while we waited for the lights to change.
Down Wicklow Street, dodging the blank smiles of Hare Krishnas, and in the little corridor to the bookshop. The smell of old paperbacks reached us before we even stepped inside. And there, his back to us, was Graham, flicking through The Awakening. “Hey,” I said. “Is that for Literature and Sexualities?”
“Yeah,” he said, turning around. “Hey.” Then, “Hey, Kate.”
A wry hello from her, a nod of her head, and I knew to drift away. I didn’t know if it was on or off between them. I didn’t think they did either. The guy behind the till had a paperback Hemingway left butterflied on the desk while he talked to someone on the phone. Down the other end of the shop someone shuffled vinyls from a box into their slots. I wandered a few shelves away, looking for Orlando. I could hear them, though, talking about nothing, about the club the night before, about someone they both knew from working on the college paper but whose face I never recognised at parties.
“Did you read his piece on the elections last week?” said Graham.
“Oh god, it was gas,” said Kate. She was a little too practised around him, a little too urbane. I wondered if he noticed. She pitched her voice low and level and leaned her shoulder against a bookshelf.
“It was fucking hilarious.”
I crouched down and ran my finger along the broken spines of old paperbacks. No Orlando.
“Listen,” he said, “will I see you at the Stag’s tonight?”
“Maybe,” said Kate. “We might be heading over.”
“Cool, cool. See you if you’re there so. Anyway, I better go. Lecture.” He paid at the till, where the guy was still on the phone.
“See you,” she said to him.
“Yeah, definitely. Catch you later.”
He smiled, slipping the book into his jacket pocket and left. She turned to the shelves without catching my eye. “We’re going to the Stag’s?” I said.
She shrugged, an over-casual jerk of her shoulder. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Uh huh,” I said. “Right.”
“Come on,” she said. “They’re probably already there by now.”
We walked back down the corridor that opened onto Wicklow Street. I laughed a little and said, “Who else that you’ve kissed are you going to bump into today anyway?”
Kate said nothing, just looked at me sidelong, half smiling, and nudged against me with her hip.
The café was up a cramped staircase on Clarendon Street, and Sebastian and Blathnaid were already there at a table in the corner. I sat in beside Sebastian, sunlight streaming in the window at my back.
“Ladies,” said Blathnaid. “How are we this morning?”
“Delicate,” said Kate, sliding into a wooden-backed chair beside her.
“Heather?” she said to me, a wide smile on her face.
“In need of tea,” I said. “How are you so smiley?”
“Four pints of water when I got home,” she said.
“Clever.” She played smug, nothing in it really.
Sebastian looked at the menu and shook his head. “I don’t know why I’m even looking,” he said. “It’s not like I don’t know what I’m getting.”
Plates clattering on formica-topped tables, the rumble of a dumb waiter behind the serving counter. The smell of fried breakfasts and boiled cabbage. Under the table, Kate’s foot knocked against my own. A quick “sorry” and she pulled back listening to Blathnaid’s story of seeing some guy we were out with last night upstairs in the Berkeley Library that morning asleep on his notes, pen in his hand.
“Maybe he waited till it was open and just slept there,” said Kate.
“Where does he live, anyway?”
“Ringsend. He shares that house with Caroline,” said Sebastian.
“Oooh, Caroline! You would know, wouldn’t you, Baz?” said Blathnaid.
“Shut up,” said Sebastian, frowning again at the menu, but smiling a little anyway.
We ordered and the tea came quickly, a large pot of it, four mismatched mugs. Plenty of milk, sugar, and we sipped and groaned as if we were drinking some elixir. Laughed at our own theatricality. Thought of the Coronas last night, limes pushed down into the bottles. Vodka and cokes later, dancing, sweating, singing along to Blur and Radiohead and The Verve. Still ringing in my ears as I drank the tea, both hands around my pink-patterned mug.
“Who did he get off with?” Blathnaid was asking, eyes bright with new gossip.
“Who are we talking about?” I asked.
“Pay attention, Heather-bell,” she said. “Declan. Kissing another young hussy. Not that you’re a young hussy,” she said, nudging Kate.
“Right,” said Kate. “I am though.”
“Well, a bit,” admitted Blathnaid. “But who’s this new one then?”
Sebastian had seen them, up against the wall near the booths at the back, he said, hands all over each other in the half-dark. “I think it was Molly from English,” he said.
“Oh my god, seriously?” said Kate. “Molly? D4 Molly?” Molly with her long, glossy hair and sports jerseys and immaculate make-up. An anomaly amongst the tweedy, motley collection of dreamers who studied English literature and stood on the Arts Block ramp rolling limp cigarettes and drinking tea from polystyrene cups.
“I think so,” Sebastian said again. “It was her hair. It looked like her. I’m pretty sure it was her.”
“Wow,” said Kate.
“That’s a turn up for the books,” said Blathnaid.
“Definitely,” said Kate.
I said nothing. Who knows why one person presses another against a dark wall? I remembered being pressed against that same wall. I remembered the sharp hip bones under her jeans, the hollow at the base of her back. Her mouth, her soft skin. One of her hands on my face. Sweat and music and lights and the taste of her, the feel of her in my arms.
“I wonder did she go home with him?”
“He was late coming in this morning,” said Kate. “We met him on the way here.”
“Ooooh, maybe breakfast with the new lady,” sang Blathnaid.
“‘New lady’,” scoffed Kate.
“You don’t think it’ll be a thing?”
An interruption then as the waitress put our plates in front of us. Sausages, rashers, beans, fried eggs, racks of toast.
“Mmm,” said Blathnaid, smacking her lips. “Just what the doctor ordered. But Katester, you can’t see it? Declan and Molly?”
Kate shrugged, mug in her hands and elbows planted on the table. “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s probably nothing anyway. Just a shift at the club.”
“Probably,” said Sebastian. Buttering a triangle of toast with care, right to the corners. “I can’t see it either.”
“Hmm,” said Blathnaid. “Stranger things.”
I broke the yolk of my fried egg and it spilled yellow across the plate. I thought of stranger things: the key in the door of her apartment, my hand on the small of her back, and I didn’t sleep on the couch that night. The next morning, we woke and I pressed my mouth to the top of her spine, spread my palm across her stomach. Sunlight mottled through net curtains on her pale skin. Long, black hair on the pillow. Later we smiled coyly at each other and slid, shy now, out of bed. It was a lark, a bit of fun, a conspiracy we had between us just to see what it was like. We got dressed and put it away.
“Did you think he looked like a man in love this morning?” she said to me.
“Nah,” I said. “I think he looked like a man who really needs to throw out that ratty hoodie.”
She laughed a little and cut into her rashers.
“That hit the spot,” said Blathnaid later, leading the way down the stairs.
“I’m going to fall asleep in Philosophy,” said Sebastian.
“It’s sheer cruelty to have Philosophy lectures on a Friday afternoon.” Blathnaid pulled the door open. Clarendon Street was bright with sunshine, the rain drying up from the footpaths. I could smell the low tide, the dank, salty mud in the wind, seagulls wheeling and screeching overhead. The sky between the eaves was a vast stretch of blue.
“Are you alright, Heather?” Blathnaid asked me as we threaded our way through the Wicklow Street crowds.
“Yeah,” I said. Surprised she asked me. I felt drawn out of myself somehow, half invisible in the light. “Just tired.”
“I getcha,” she said. “Are you staying in long today?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Kate said we’d meet Graham in the Stag’s this evening.”
“God,” she said. “I’m not sure I can handle that.”
“Oh, you can,” said Kate, looking back over her shoulder. “Come on, I can’t go on my own.”
“You’re the one dating him,” said Blathnaid.
“We’re not dating,” said Kate. “I don’t…” She shrugged a little helplessly. “I don’t know what we are.”
It was easy to poke fun, and we did, but I knew. I knew these things don’t break like fevers, all at once, but like waves. Over and over, all the little things. Meetings in bookshops. The darkness of clubs. The collision of bodies and new, secret knowledges. It need not have been her, but it was, and as we walked down Nassau Street, stopping to look in the window of Oasis, continuing on across the traffic island towards the Arts Block entrance, I felt a kind of newness come over me. An understanding. Her yellow scarf caught in the breeze lit up in the sunlight. Sebastian turned to me as we went down the steps into the entranceway. “You seem revived,” he said. “Has your hangover lifted?”
“Yeah,” I said to him. “Yeah, I think it has.”