Claire sat on the edge of the bath, her skirt hooked up around her thighs, her left foot balanced on her right knee, holding a razorblade between her thumb and forefinger. The bathroom door was locked. The house, all three floors of it, was empty. Beside her, balanced on the edge of the bath, were a box of tissues, an empty plastic bag, a sticking plaster, unwrapped but with its translucent backing still in place, and a thick fleecy roll of cotton wool, also unwrapped.
She let her hand drop down against her ankle, where the skin was pale and translucent, and began to cut. Her face, through the screen of mid-brown hair, was tight with concentration, but what she drew on the skin seemed unconsidered, undesigned, a doodle. A small, neat spiral, such as people draw on notepads while talking on the phone. Blood welled up, dripped round the ankle, onto the supporting knee, trickling down the leg.
When the spiral had twisted itself out to the size of her thumbnail, she lifted away the razor, and put it down on the side of the bath. Then she closed her eyes and took a couple of deep, shaky breaths, as if she had just surfaced.
She tore off a tuft of cotton wool and pressed it to the cut, then began mopping up the thinnish blood from her leg with a dampened tissue. She stuck a plaster down over the broken skin, stood up, shook down her skirt. She folded the used razorblade into its waxed-paper envelope and slotted it into the back of the box that the blades came in. She wrapped the bloody tissues and cotton wool in the plastic bag, crumpled it in her hand.
She stepped away, checking over the bath and cork tiles for splashes and drips, then unlocked the door and padded downstairs in her bare feet. In the back yard, she dropped her plastic bag into the wheelie bin, pushed back her hair and lifted her face to the sun.
Claire Thomas walked down Stranmillis Road. It was a soft, sticky evening, the eighteenth of June, nine months since she had arrived in Belfast, and she was pacing out her route to work.
At the bottom of Stranmillis she turned onto University Road. The old lime trees were dropping a gentle drizzle of cool sap; she felt it freckle her face, felt the pavement sticky underfoot. She slipped through the gap between blistery, rusted wrought-iron gates and cut across Queen’s front quad, onto University Square. Passers-by crowded her peripheral vision, indigo-denim-blue, files and folders clasped to their chests, bubbling with jittery half-heard phrases. It was exam time, Claire remembered.
And at any moment, Alan might appear. The door of the Philosophy Department might lurch open and Alan come stumbling out of the dark interior, a bundle of marking clutched to his chest, squinting in the bright sunlight. If he caught sight of her, he would stop dead. Unnoticed, a couple of essays would slither out of his grip. His mouth would fall slightly open. He would half turn to go back, then change his mind and hurry on, papers fluttering. He would pretend not to see her. While all the time she would walk on, head down, pretending not to have seen him. Looking down, she noticed that the paving stones were worn away in layers, like old leather soles. She watched her feet stepping over them, her slightly shiny suede shoes. She would get as far as the corner before looking up, she told herself, before taking another breath. Just in case he was there. Just in case he’d seen her.
On Botanic Avenue, chairs and tables had been set out in the sun outside the bars and cafés. They looked awkward and angular, like teenagers at their first party. A few seats were already occupied. As Claire passed Vincent’s, a sunglassed young woman dressed in immaculate black stood to greet a friend with a kiss on both cheeks. Outside Maggie May’s a pair of collies lay in the slatted shade of a table.
The railway station was closed. The tracks had been lifted; from the bridge a grey-blue line of slatey gravel stretched towards the City Hospital. Massive drills, stationary, higher than the buildings around them. She crossed Shaftesbury Square, a noisy muddle of junctions and traffic islands and dodging pedestrians, and overhead the giant telescreen played out a silent advert for Coca-Cola. Then the Stena HSS appeared, carving its way through pixelated waves, the shortest, fastest crossing
. The temperature flashed across the screen. 24°. The traffic lights changed, cars slowed, halted, others slipped into gear and streamed away, out into the city haze.
The traffic fumes made the tip of Claire’s tongue taste metallic, like old coins. The cut was chafing slightly against the cuff of her shoe, and, although she tried to walk evenly, she still favoured her left leg. She felt hot. Her blouse was tight across her chest, the buttons gaping. Her trousers stuck to her as she walked. The rolled-up apron, clutched in her right hand, grew damp and limp with sweat.
She was heading for Conroys, down on the quay. There were probably shorter, faster routes to work, ones which would carry a smaller risk of meeting Alan, but Claire didn’t know them. She was almost superstitiously cautious about straying off her beaten track. Outside her narrow familiar slice of Bel- fast, the city was hazy, indefinite. On her mental map there was a great deal of terra incognita, calligraphed with here be dragons.
Dublin Road was cooler: the breeze drifted in between the buttons of her shirt and touched her skin. It seemed like she was the only one heading into town. One-way traffic streamed towards her. A steady march of pedestrians passed by: suited office workers, jackets off and sleeves rolled, mothers push- ing buggies, a solitary shambling bearded young man in dirty zipped-up parka and battered trainers, who wrapped his arms around himself and shivered.
A woman came towards her, smiling, bright lipstick.
Claire slowed. The accent was foreign.
“Can I interest you in coming to a Bible class?”
“No, thank you.”
Claire walked past her. The woman stepped back, smiling.
“We meet every Friday night: it’s great fun; there’s singing—”
“No, really, thank you. I’m in a bit of a hurry.”
Claire made to slip past her again; the woman stepped into her way.
“If you’d just give me your phone number, I’ll call you: we can meet up and talk when it’s more convenient.”
“No. Really. Thank you. Actually, I’m Jewish.”
The woman hesitated. Claire managed to duck past her, heart pounding.
“Hear the word of the Lord when He cries out to you in your darkness.”
Claire, breathless and trying not to hear, walked uncomfortably on, shifted her crumpled apron to her other hand. There must be something odd about her face, she thought, something different, some reason why they always seemed to home in on her. And, every time, she let herself be stopped, and smiled politely, and still expected to be asked directions.
Bedford Street was cold. There was always a gale blowing down there, even when the rest of Belfast was without a breath of air. At the end of the street, the City Hall stood, all acanthus leaves and pillars and green copper domes, lavish as a wedding cake. A right turn, and now only a couple of cars, a couple of stragglers late from the office. Everyone else had got where they were going.
She turned up towards the Waterfront Hall. The glass front reflected the young trees, the chalky limestone paving. The open sky surrounding it was blurred with traffic fumes, the sun was low. Claire saw a tiny distant silhouette walk the length of the upper balcony, turn and disappear into the cool dark interior. The hall still looked impermanent, as if it had just landed. As she got nearer, the yellowbrick towers of the Hilton and the multi-storey carpark loomed into sight, overshadowing the low smooth dome.
She turned the corner, and she was at work. From the moment she could see the bouncers outside Conroys, everything felt green and dark and slightly slimy, as if she had taken a wrong step and tumbled foolishly off the quayside, and was stumbling through old riverwater instead of air.
There were two of them, bulky and vivid in their purple shirts. They stood with their hands clasped in front of them like nuns, shifting from foot to foot, the sunlight reflecting off their shaven heads.
“How’s about ye?” said Dave. He pushed the heavy door open for her, held it as she passed. Claire smelt something sweet on his breath, like peardrops.
“I’m fine,” Claire said, awkwardly, half inside, half out, never quite knowing how to answer this. “How are you?”
“Grand.” But she was still moving past him, into the noisy bar, blinking in the dark. She smiled back at him unevenly, over her shoulder, but couldn’t quite be sure if he had noticed.
Inside, the noise was deafening. Loud music, loud voices. As she walked down the long high room Claire unrolled her apron, reaching back to pass the strings round her waist, tying them at the front. Her eyes readjusted as she went; she began to pick out figures, people.
Gareth was turning from the optics with a glass in one hand and a Club bottle in the other. She smiled awkwardly at him. Dermot was sitting at the bar. He glanced round, gave her a grin, lifted a hand. Next to him, straight from work, in his three-piece suit, pushing his glasses back up his nose, was Paul.
She shoved through the double doors, into the kitchen.
Jim, the Scottish chef, shaved head, goatee beard, was standing in his black-and-white checked trousers, jacket sleeves rolled up to the elbow. His tattoos looked as if they had smudged in the heat. He was in one of his creative furies.
“Where the fuck have you been?”
"I’m not due in till seven.”
“These are stone cold now.” He was pouting, one hand flung out towards the platters on the counter. Claire lifted a teacloth, spread it over her forearm, picked up a tray of pizza slices.
“They look fine to me. I’ll get them out now.”
The edge of the metal platter cut into her arm. Whatever way she held them, she would never get the trays to sit com- fortably. They were just too big for her. At least this one was cool. When they were hot, they left tender little pink burns on her inner arm. And the taint of this food, bloodwarm and tucked in close and hip-high, would be on her skin when she woke up in the morning, and stay with her all day.
Conroys was split level. As Claire moved around the bar, abbreviated flights of stripped pine steps took her up a few feet, down a few feet. The highest section, at the back, was stone-clad and set out with long wooden tables and benches, like a medieval banqueting hall. It was balustraded along its length with wrought-iron rails, twisted and contorted like candlewax. When the place was full, customers leaned along the whole length of the rail, looking out over the heaving mass of bodies on the level below.
When the middle section was empty, Claire thought, it looked like a ballroom. The scuffed wooden floor stretched for what seemed like acres, lit by wrought-iron chandeliers. You could fit two hundred drinkers in there, no bother. No chairs or tables to get in the way.
The lowest level, at the front, looked out onto the street through frosted glass. Three steps down from the middle bar. Claire made her way down them sideways, platter cantilevered out from her hip, watching her feet as she descended. The room was low, dark and smoky, with sour-smelling deep leather benches, padded stools and a snug at one end. There were old murky photographs on the walls. Conroys. Generation after generation, muttonchopped, moustached and aproned, hands on hips, squinting in the daylight out- side their bar. When one retired, the next one took over with no perceptible difference, except in the quality of the photograph. Glancing up at the fading images as she passed, she remembered asking who the bar was named after. If it was the original Conroy, or a partnership of several Conroys, or all the generations of Conroys that had ever owned it. Where, in fact, the apostrophe should go. Gareth had laughed. He didn’t know. Gareth’s daddy was a McIlhenney. He had made his money in haulage. He had bought the bar years ago from an ageing Conroy junior, and later bought the failed chandler’s next door, and then the clothier’s on the other side, and then the bank on the corner, when it closed down. Then he ripped through and up and back. The front bar was all that was originally Conroys. And there had never, as far as Gareth knew, been an apostrophe at all.
The food had been Gareth’s idea. On Fridays the bar was always heaving early on, from five or so. It was down near the law courts, the offices, the businesses on the quayside, so it filled with people straight from work, still in their suits, still clutching briefcases. By eight, things had tended to flag as, already drunk, the professionals dragged themselves off home for their tea. The younger, later crowd arrived from around half nine. Gareth fed the early drinkers in the pub, so they wouldn’t get hungry and leave. Pizza slices sopped up the beer, made the customers feel loved, and notched up the profit. If Gareth hadn’t had that idea nine months ago, Claire wouldn’t have had a job. She wasn’t barstaff, she wasn’t really a waitress. It didn’t even have a name, what she did.
It was quieter down there: just the background buzz from the main bar. A couple at a table and an old man at the counter, his papery hand curled around a pint glass. His name, she thought, was Tommy. She held her tray out towards him. He lifted off a pizza slice, laid it down on the scarred bartop like a dead fish, began to pick at it with his fingernails, didn’t say a word.
There was a shout of laughter from the snug. Through the frosted glass panels she could see shadows, movement. A rising wave of talk: English, northern accents, she noticed, and tried to make out what they were saying. The heavy vowel sounds suggested something further south than home, but then she had never been good at placing accents. She turned towards the couple at the table.
The woman was bronze-haired, a cigarette held to her lips, her red top pulled firmly down over a round belly. The man pressed his cigarette down into the notch in the ashtray, his belly bulging against the buttons of his shirt. They sat side by side, a half in front of her, a pint in front of him, looking straight ahead. Claire held out the platter, smiling for them.
“You’re a wee honey.” The woman blew smoke out through pursed lipsticked lips, balanced her cigarette on the edge of the ashtray, took a piece. “You’re a lifesaver.”
The man reached out, peeled away a slice, said, “That’s enough, Joyce.” She pulled a face. Claire smiled back at her, turned away.
Tray balanced awkwardly on her left arm, she pulled open the snug door, propped it with her right hip. The tiny space was packed full, shoulder to shoulder.
She remembered afterwards the open pores of a sweaty nose, thick squarish reflecting glasses, neat clean close-clipped fingernails, the reddened curl of an ear. There were smeary fingerprinted glasses cluttering the table, an overflowing ashtray. She remembered later the weight of a hand on her hip, her waist. She never got a clear idea how many of them there were.
They stopped talking. They stared at her.
She felt her face go tight and numb. She felt her eyes go out of focus. She held out the tray. Nothing happened.
“Compliments of the management,” she said.
“Now that’s nice,” someone said.
“That’s a nice touch.”
“Irish hospitality, you know.” Another voice. Yorkshire, Claire thought. “They’re famous for it.”
“And a what do you call ’em, an Irish Colleen.”
“They’re famous for that too.” A hand descended on her waist. She shifted slightly, uneasily.
“What’s your name, then, love?”
She looked round at him. Squarish glasses, wet lips. One hand resting on the table, a cigarette crumbling between mauve fingers, the other hand resting on her. She felt its weight begin to slide down, following the curve of her hip. Behind the glasses, the eyes narrowed.
“C’mon now, don’t be shy.”
Claire, burdened by the platter, wedged between the door and the table, felt helpless, felt her chest cramp up, her face burn. She looked up, looked round the snug. Smiling, most of them. One lifting a pint glass to his lips. Watching her over the rim. The hand slid down still further.
She jerked away, her tray crashing down onto the table, sending glasses skidding off the edge. The ashtray, shunted, coughed up a sputter of fagash. She stumbled out of the snug, she heard the door slam shut behind her. A moment’s silence. Then—inevitably, she thought—laughter. Walking unevenly down the bar, she felt the regulars staring, the teatowel hanging over her wrist, her hip burning as if branded. She felt hot. She didn’t know what to do with her hands.
Because it was nothing, she thought, nothing really. Not as if a glimpse of washed-grey BHS bra through the gaps between her buttons had driven them wild with lust. Not as if she was in danger of her life. Just a touch. The slightest of invasions. A couple of words would have sorted it out. An eyebrow, properly raised, could have defused the whole situation. Arsehole. Stupid arsehole. She caught up the teatowel, folded it, unfolded it. Jennifer would never have lost it like that. Jennifer, with a slight twist of her lips, with half a dozen words at most, would have cleared the air completely. Like opening a window. Claire could almost see her there, at the bar, perched on a stool, sleek and glossy and completely at her ease. She would be shaking slightly, perhaps; she would be trying not to laugh.
“Fucked that up, didn’t I?” Claire said inwardly.
“Too right you did.” Jennifer would shake her head in mock despair.
“Well what would you have done if you’re so bloody smart?”
“I wouldn’t be working in this fucking hole in the first place. You’ve got no class, Thomas. That’s your problem.”
Excerpted from Offcomer by Jo Baker. Copyright © 2014 by Jo Baker. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.