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Portobello – A new short story by Mitzie Murphy

Mitzie Murphy, who has a BA in psychotherapy, has used writing in her therapeutic work

He was 22. She was 16½. He liked talking about things that mattered. So did she. He had deep-set eyes and blonde hair. He was just beautiful to look at, and she liked him. She was an awkward teenager, never happy with how she looked.

“You’re not pretty, but you’re different looking,” a boy at the disco had told her once. She didn’t even know why he’d said that. It might have been some sort of compliment, but it felt like an insult, and she knew how they could feel. They were sharp and they hurt her.

Boys could be like that and say anything they wanted. Sometimes she would stick up for herself, so she’d told him to “shut up and cop on”, but the insult had made her feel bad and nothing that she said would change that.

Anyway, this beautiful boy, who was 22, was a man. When she met him first, she was nervous about sounding stupid around him. He had been to college and was working in a solicitor’s office; she was working in a shop. His job seemed important when he talked about it. She would tell him stories about the mad ole ones that came in for their shopping, even doing impressions of them. He would fling his head back and laugh. He thought she was hilarious and would often say, “You’re a funny little kiddo” and she loved that. When she made him laugh, it made her happy.


She was not his girlfriend. She never thought of him like that.

She and her friend used to play pool in a place in Rathmines; he was just one of the men that started coming in. She was good at playing pool and could hold her own with any of the men who played. She could spin and jump a cue ball. She knew how to kiss a ball up to another one so it would linger on the pocket, looking like a breath could push it in. She could block a pocket with a little push of the cue. She was an expert at crossing the cue ball until it hit the intended ball into the pocket and, when it came to potting the black for the win, she could name any pocket, line it up and slam it in, stopping that little white cue ball in its tracks. She could be on the table for 10 games before she lost or got bored – all the coins sitting on the Maple rim ready for the next eager player to take her on.

When she knew she was good at something, it would light up. It was at those times that she truly felt she like herself.

This boy, this man, had a lovely name, a rich name, but it will never be written in her pages or find its way to her lips. It’s just a little something she does, a little something she can take back from him. It helps.

They would have long conversations at the coffee bar. They could talk about anything and everything. Their talk was endless. She told him about her family, her dreams. She spoke about leaving home and travelling, about her need for freedom. Every girl she knew was looking for something. She liked to seek things out, find meaning in songs, discover new books, and feel the rhythm in poems she didn’t understand.

She was a little hippy, I suppose.

After months of being his friend, he asked her one night if she would like to join him for a meal in Portobello. She was surprised, as their friendship had never moved outside the pool hall. He must have seen this in her face, as he said, “I just need to eat, you want to come along?”

“Why not?” she said.

They chatted as they walked through Rathmines. Well, he talked more, as she was still getting used to being outside with him. They passed the Wimpy chipper with its smell of burgers and fried onions tumbling into the night air. They passed the Bamba, where she often spent hours choosing a second-hand book. The shelves there were packed from ceiling to floor. She loved the excitement of not knowing what she was looking for and then the excitement of finding it. It was in that very shop that she had seen a book, with a hard maroon-coloured cover, the title in big yellow print: “The Catcher in the Rye”. It was one of those books that she remembers opening and walking right into the story.

Her father was a reader. He was always trying to get his kids to read, but he liked the old type of books, ones about Irish people and places. She had no interest in those books. One evening he handed her two books by Walter Macken. He raved about them: “Best books you’ll ever read,” he said, but even looking at the depressing images on the cover made her tired. Later that week, she put them back on his bookshelf. He never asked her if she’d read them. He knew she hadn’t. He never talked to her about books again.

When they walked past the big old church at the top of Rathmines, he asked her if she went to Mass. She laughed, said she didn’t, and asked him whether he did.

“No, I don’t, but the office where I work is right beside Whitefriar Street church. I’ve often gone in there during my lunch break. I just sit and stare at the stained glass behind the altar, and every time I see something different.”

He sounded so serious and deep, and she could not find any words inside her mouth to say to him, so she stayed silent.

They walked on over the Portobello bridge until he steered her into a bright doorway. As soon as they’d gone through the glass door, they stepped on to stairs that twirled downwards into what was obviously a basement where the restaurant was.

At the end of the stairs to the right was a beautiful coloured beaded curtain. He pulled the beads aside to let her in. The beads jingled as he let them drop. Then he was smiling and talking to people. The place was packed, but the waiter found them a table near the bar. He knew the waiter, and he introduced her as his friend. It was the first time since getting to know him that she felt awkward. He ordered for the two of them. “You’ll have a curry?”

“Great,” she said, never having tasted a curry before despite hearing about them from her older brother. He’d just got back from London after a year working on a building site. He never stopped talking about the food. She wanted to say to him, “then bloody well go back”, but she knew that would hurt him, so she just thought it in her head. Her brother could act like a fool sometimes, but she felt sorry for him. He never knew the right things to say, their father was always shouting at him. The tension it caused would make her feel sick.

The curry appeared, snow-white rice with a mountain of brown sauce with big lumps of onion and chunks of chicken sitting in the middle. It looked delicious, and she was hungry. The smell was strong and sweet, but she felt anxious as they tucked into the food. She had forgotten that eating out sometimes made her nervous. He chewed and talked with ease, while she ate timidly, afraid some of the curry might dribble on the crisp white napkin that he had tucked under her chin. She tried to ignore the big clock that she could see behind the bar; it said half-eleven. It was already past the time she would usually be home, but she would find some excuse. She was good at making things up. She was the last of their seven children and they were tired. They would choose to believe any story she wrapped up neatly and handed to them. Her mother would tell her father, “She is mostly a good young one, so we just have to trust her.”

“I’ve missed the last bus,” she told him when they came out of the restaurant.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get you a taxi later,” he said, as they walked around the corner to his flat.

They came to a huge old house across from the canal, and he pointed to it. “This is my gaff,” he said, laughing, and she laughed with him. His flat was on the ground floor, an enormous room with the highest ceiling she had ever seen. He took her coat, and she sat down on the big sofa. He went down the other end of the room and into a little alcove. He came back with a can of Fanta and two flowery glasses and poured it out between them. “I don’t drink,” he said. “Hate the taste of it.”

“I hate the taste too,” she told him, “but I like how it makes me feel”. She had been drinking the odd time in the last few months. A naggin of vodka in a large bottle of white lemonade before she and her friend went to the Disco in Terenure. It took away that nervous feeling. It made standing up against the wall less lonely, while others slow danced to I’m Not in Love and Stairway to Heaven. Some songs could be so long.

And then he was sitting beside her. She hardly knew what to say, so she sipped the Fanta and hummed to herself. He got up, put on an LP, and Bowie filled the room. She loved his lyrics. Her favourite song came on When I Live My Dream it was like poetry being sung just for her, and she sat back on the couch.

“You’re beautiful,” he said.

She could feel her neck and then her face going red. “Stop,” she said, “you’re embarrassing me”.

“I mean it,” he said, and he leaned over and cupped her face in his hands, the same way her aunty had done when she was 11.

Then he kissed her, and she kissed him back. She felt sick and scared and excited. He pulled her top over her head and took her bra off. Now she was sitting on his couch half-naked. She had never been like this before. She pulled a cushion up in front of her, and he laughed.

“You’re so funny,” he said, and gently took the cushion away.

Next, his head went down, and he kissed her breasts. She liked it, and then she didn’t. He stripped himself and pulled up her long hippy corduroy skirt. She was mortified because, under it, she had knee-length woolly socks. Then he was kissing her again, and she could taste the Fanta coming up in her mouth... He put his hand into her underwear...

She tried to stop him.

She did try to stop him.

He kept telling her she was beautiful, which was worse – much harder to say “stop” when he was being so nice.

Then he got on top of her, and she started crying, silent crying.

He was telling her, “It’s all right, kiddo, just relax.”

Then she was trying to be mannerly, saying, “Stop, please stop.”

Even now, she still finds herself telling people that she never fought him or even tried to push him off, but he was looking at her as he was moving in her, hurting her. He must have seen that her face was wet.

She thought he would stop.

But he didn’t.

He went faster and faster, and his weight got heavier, and he seemed like a giant. The night was going all dark. The ceiling looked like it could fall on her, and she froze. Then it stopped, he stopped, and he dressed.

She put on her bra and top and asked to use the loo. It wasn’t even in the room, she had to walk down a shady hall to pee, and the only thing she thought about was “What if I get pregnant?” so she stuck a load of toilet paper as far up her vagina as she could in the hope that it would take it all out. She splashed cold water between her legs from a rusty tap, and wiped her eyes. She made her way back to the room.

“Are you all right?” he asked her.

“Yes, I’m just tired and need to get home.”

Bowie was still singing in his big room. She almost cried again. He ordered a taxi from the call box in his hallway and held her coat out for her. When the taxi arrived, he walked her out. He asked the driver the price and paid him.

“See you soon,” he said and stroked her hair through the open window before the taxi drove off.

She did see him again, in the pool hall. They both pretended nothing had happened, but nothing was the same. They talked now in strained sentences. She hated him using her name. He never called her “kiddo” again. She knew he was feeling bad, and she tried not to feel sorry for him. Sometimes when she looked at him, he looked like the friend he used to be. She told herself that it was probably only five minutes. She took that number away from all the time she had known him, and that helped. It could have been less than five minutes, so when she needed to feel calm, she would divide the five in two. Other days, she thought it could have been more, so she would multiply the five minutes until she felt sick.

She started counting everything.

She counted the hours since she was born, the number of days she had spent at school, the months she had known him. She put these all up against the five minutes, and it would shrink. She found that counting helped her to feel right. She counted stairs and doors, chips on her plate, books and pens, coins in her purse. She counted steps and railings.

Counting made her calm.

One night, 37 days since it had happened, he asked if they could talk. Reluctantly she agreed, and they took their coats and went outside.

“I didn’t mean it to happen,” he said, as he leaned in nearer to her.

She leaned out.

“It had all gone too far before I realised you didn’t want to do it.”

She wanted him to be sorry, to say he was sorry.

But he didn’t.

“It’s not simple or straight forward,” he said.

“But I was crying,” she said.

“I know, I know,” he said, “but it can’t be all my fault.”

She searched around inside her head for words, anything that would travel to her mouth, but nothing came. She could tell her silence unsettled him, as he rubbed his chin and moved his feet.

She counted the panels in the door behind him, and then she walked away. She counted 60 steps to the bus stop. Sixty steps away from him.

Mitzie Murphy is studying for an MA in creative writing at the University of Limerick. She has a BA in psychotherapy and has used writing in her therapeutic work