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All that summer, the flies were an irritation. They disturbed our dinners so we erected a fly-catcher, a bright sticky orange strip that displayed the lurid corpses. My father told me I swallowed them at night; they travelled down my throat and settled in my stomach. In the mornings, before my preening routine, I examined my mouth for evidence of badness – black stains on the bottom of my teeth, a broken wing lodged under my tongue.
       The men lived in the caravan. They arrived in threes – mute, unfriendly, unsmiling – and it was my mother’s job to let them know when they were finished. My father would say to her, 'Get that don'e, and she would set off across the lawn. If she liked the men, if she had spoken to them or they had been in the house, she took the time to compose a personal letter – her childish scrawl offering basic commiserations. If she did not have any sense of them she simply said, 'Boys, get your belongings'.
       My father used any excuse to sack them. He disliked evidence of effort, and he abhorred vanity in men. He considered it unnatural. He resented these sullen strangers, the suggestion of wax in their hair, their good complexions. Usually, he didn’t even bother to learn their names. As unceremoniously as they arrived, they made their way down the gravel drive. Some had suitcases, or large backpacks; others carried their things in plastic bags. I watched their departures from my bedroom window and seemed important – becoming acquainted with men’s disappointed backs, watching their retreating shadows.
       That summer, the summer I turned fourteen, was warm. We had no language for the weather. We wandered around like people burdened and we pointed at the sky. The missing women of the Midlands peered out of the papers; their vague and vanished faces seemed to understand the tedium of the heat. The women had all disappeared from nothing places. It was a long walk into town from our house, a town with a heavy thrum of dark traffic. I did that walk daily, sometimes wearing shoes, sometimes not. I had adopted a uniform of flimsy halter-strap tops and pedal pushers with beads oddly, and uncomfortably, attached to the cuffs. I brushed my hair out and made necklaces from multi-coloured rope. People asked if I was a hippie and I said yeah, I was.
       I was happy for the break from school – I had become too good at being who I was. When one of the more established girls gave a blow job beside the Virgin Mary statue outside the school, I declared myself unimpressed by the obvious symbolism and others followed suit. I had a quiet sort of pull in that way. There was speculation that I might have significant breasts underneath my school jumper, but it was not a card I would be playing so it didn’t warrant much discussion. There were faint rips in our universe – the missing girls, the blow job – but nothing ever ruptured in the way we wanted it to. We sowed pleats into our skirts to make them tighter, we snapped our hair into humourless ponytails. That summer, we watched scary movies we selected brazenly from the back of the video shop. At night, our film minds whirring, we fell asleep with our hands on the small of each other’s backs.
       At the edge of our town, a new housing estate was built – the first of many – and it brought with it a sense of novelty. There were boys in those cheaply-built houses, boys who had to move schools, boys who had hurriedly left cities, and we all lied to each other about our levels of experience. The three-beds faced an area of stubby, patchy grass and the boys called it the green. We always split up according to some hierarchy I couldn’t fathom and I was left with the quietest, the kindest, the one who had spent the least amount of time in a juvenile detention centre. He would pull down my bra-strap, pull it back up, pull it back down as if to say: Nope, I have no idea what’s happening here either.
       In the evenings, when my friends and I were alone, we talked about the missing girls. We admitted we thought some of them were plain.
       Before the Australian arrived, the missing girls were the main priority. They had been sucked into a blood-red sky, summoned into a gaping, flame-filled ground. The man who took them was Freddie Krueger, his claw-hand stretching out of a silent car, skirting slender upper-arms. We dripped ice-cream onto our laps, our bare stomachs. The girls said ‘Candyman’ three times into an unforgiving mirror. We sat on walls, we skipped through side alleys. We sauntered around, bare-shouldered, waiting for cars to beep at us, seeking any tiny confirmation that we were alive.
       My mother, threatened by the modernity of the new estate, had decided to gut the kitchen. The Australian was recommended to my father by a friend, but it was clear from the start that he didn’t know what he was doing. His talents extended to drawing elaborate sketches of a wood-panelled kitchen, but no further. He pored over these squiggles with a look of wild concentration, but resisted doing anything as serious as actual physical labour. My father liked him in the way that men who don’t say much often do like each other. He was rewarded with a key to the caravan and my father insisted that once he got started on the farm, once he settled, he would be an excellent worker. The kitchen project was abandoned, as my mother always knew it would be.
       He was in his early thirties and if you didn’t know him, you would have presumed him to be stupid. He had one of those unlucky faces that could so easily be described as slack-jawed, and a great braying laugh. He also had a sad, lazy way of confirming people’s low expectations of him. On good days, he was a charming stranger. Other days, he was simply the man who stood squinting in our yard. His clothes were not well cared for – a button missing, a shirt cuff frayed or torn, the material faded in places from the sunlight. He had no passions, nothing he talked about with enthusiasm. It takes a special kind of hard-working mind to fall for someone so helplessly and honestly ordinary.
       ‘I’m in love,’ I announced to my mother, refusing to elaborate.
       I had a babysitting job in the next town over, something I’d acquired in an effort to overthrow my parents. The Australian collected me each night in my father’s filthy farm-car and I endured five-minute journeys that felt like actual physical suffering. I baffled myself with the blandness of my own conversation. I inquired about the length of the train trips he had taken around Europe. Did he have a normal cabin or a night cabin? Did they serve food on board? Was it fast?
       My friends and I had idle thoughts that we should be elsewhere – at the small, mean local summer camps, improving ourselves – but we dismissed them. If feeling energetic, we entertained the idea of tennis – but only the idea of it. We ran and scattered, ran and scattered. We rehearsed, again and again, the stories of the missing girls. We sketched love hearts on our skin with suncream. We were always projecting futures: we were dropping out of school, we were going to live in caravans, raise our children collectively with few rules. On my fourteenth birthday, we went to the one pub that allowed us and leaned across the pool table like we were working for tips.
       One night, collecting me, the Australian caught sight of my friends and I could see him appraising their outfits and sly, knowing gaits.
       ‘Those girls will get you into trouble,’ he said.     
       I shrugged like I couldn’t wait.
       (He was right. In three years, at exam-time, I would be dragged into an airless room, papers would be flung at me, and a nun would say, Well, things aren’t looking so amusing now, are they? It’s a shame, the nun would say, because when you came into this school we thought you were going to do great things. Now, we would be surprised if you do anything – anything at all. And, not for the last time in my life, I would curse myself for laughing when nothing was funny, and staying still when I should have been moving, and moving when I should have been staying still.)
       If my parents went out, he was instructed to call to the main house to check on me. They were meant to be brief visits but time always got away from us; two people aware they were doing something wrong but not knowing how to name it. One evening, I begged him to stay and watch The Exorcist. As an incentive, I offered microwave pizza.
       ‘Are you old enough?’ he asked, referring to the film.       
       ‘Yes,’ I said, disgusted.
       The film was dark, but I thought it would be darker, more twisted. It was just priests, really – priests in unusual circumstances.
       He yawned and leaned back on the leather couch, revealing a large scar running from the top of his trousers to his belly-button, healed but still red and angry-looking. I glanced and he pulled down his T-shirt. 'What are you scared of?’ he asked me.
       'Nothing,' was what I wanted to say, but I had somehow got it into my head that it was wrong to lie to the people you love. So I told him – I knew the way I talked with my friends was silly, that the man who took the missing girls didn’t have a hook for a hand. He was probably normal, and you would be an idiot if you believed otherwise. And that’s how it would be forever – the people who hurt us would look normal and be normal, except for the one thing that meant they weren’t.
       ‘They are some interesting thoughts for a thirteen-year old girl,’ he said. ‘Fourteen,’ I corrected him.
       I slid closer to him on the couch and thought about how his hands would feel underneath my clothes. On screen, the actress spewed and I explained it was pea-soup. I wanted him to understand that you could fool other people but you couldn’t fool me.
       *We read aloud an article from a woman’s magazine and giggled. ‘In her lifetime, a woman will have an average of twelve lovers.’ Twelve seemed an extraordinary number to us then. What would we say to all these men? What would we say to them with our clothes off? We thought about the missing girls. How many boyfriends did they have before they were taken? One? None?
       He invited a woman to stay with us and, unbelievably, she did. Her named was Genevieve. He didn't call her his girlfriend, but he didn’t have to. It was my first encounter with jealousy and I took a lively interest in it. Out of solidarity, so did my friends. Together, we hated her with all the blackness we could muster. We hated her haircut, which we suspected was a pudding-bowl style but spiked up. A secret pudding-bowl. We hated her long, thin legs which she paraded in shorts. We hated the colourful silk underwear she hung up to dry outside the caravan. This underwear was so obviously corrupt that we wondered if there was an authority figure we could contact about it? What did it cover? Where could you buy it? We hated her Australian accent and her expression of gentle, calm acceptance. When the boys from the green asked about her – they had seen her striding through town – we nearly lost our minds with outrage. She was ancient. She was twenty-four.
       I rifled through her things, her creams and lotions, as though, if carefully handled, they could reveal her secrets to me. I had become an expert at this scandalous practice from babysitting for a family who paid me very little, or sometimes paid me in chocolate, or, most usually, didn’t pay me at all. I quietly ripped apart their home as if it were a formal duty. I studied receipts, flicked tiredly through their clothes, checked out the hidden corners of their bedside lockers. If I took something, I felt no guilt about it. I told myself it was because they were blow-ins, because they had more money than my family, because they had lived. Or I told myself these small items would prefer to come with me, that I could give them a better home.
        The parents were oddly faceless to me. They trusted me with their child, when they probably shouldn’t have. He ran around the house naked, shrieking, exposing his nubby penis, and I did little or nothing to stop him. I often hid in the hope that my disappearance and dramatic reappearance would calm him. Or I closed my eyes and wished that when I re-opened them he would simply be gone. This worked once, and when it did, my body shut down. I ran through the house, wearing new shorts that felt grim and foolish, shouting his name. Eventually I found him outside, playing happily in the patch of land they called the green.
       That night, on the drive home, mistaking my terror for sensitivity, the Australian complimented me on my silences. He said, most people didn’t know when to be quiet. I agreed and I huddled closer to the car door. I couldn’t tell him I had magicked away a child, that I was evil, that my legs looked squat in shorts. Passing under the eerie streetlights, on the blank roads, we looked like a photograph from an instructional pamphlet warning about the dangers of strange men. Or the dangers of babysitters. Or the greatest pamphlet never written – a warning of the romantic danger of being left alone in a car with someone you’re attracted to.
       A willing silence working in my favour, he said, ‘Genevieve wants me to marry her.’
       I suspected that she had followed him here with that in mind. I often found her looking disagreeably at the notice board in the supermarket, picking up signs for gardening jobs or part-time secretarial work, and putting them down again.
       ‘People like to do that,’ I said, as if I had already dismissed marriage as an option for myself.
       ‘Should I?’ he smiled the useless, halting smile of the perennially uncertain. He looked at me, urgent, as if it was a decision we could reach together.
       ‘You should do whatever you want,’ I told him.
       I had been measured for a bra recently and my breasts were actually largish. We were probably going to start going to discos soon. I owned several skirts. I would be fine.
       Genevieve’s problem was she came to Ireland looking for her boyfriend, the one she met at home, but he was gone. He had changed. 'Big deal,' I said to my mother. We all had stuff going on. 'Big deal,' my mother promised. 'Until it happens to you.'
       Genevieve hung around the main house, snacking, exchanging tips for lined eyes with my mother. Her presence only confirmed what I’d always known about my mother – she would have been a different sort of woman if my father and I had let her. My father and I had something definite in common that didn’t even need to be mentioned, and we excluded her. In that hot, rotting kitchen, the flies conspiring above our heads, my mother talked to Genevieve about her life as though it was still a work in progress. She spoke condescendingly of the people in the town, as though they were characters in a book she had picked up and quickly put down, bored. It was unnerving. One more week with Genevieve and I think my mother would have lost all inhibitions, and said: 'You know what? I hate this dump and every last person living in it.' There were several things I couldn’t bear to hear and that was top of the list.
       We felt sure Genevieve wouldn’t last until the end of the summer, but she confounded even us with how quickly she left. I watched her outside the caravan most nights and, despite myself, I felt pity for her. She sat in an old deckchair, smoked roll-ups and sang quietly, holding slight notes. She drank beer and let the bottles roll away from her. I had never heard songs like that before, they weren’t rock songs or songs off the radio, and she never knew all the words.
       If she was waiting for him to come out and join her, he never did. Her last week they fought loudly and frequently. Her face developed the sunken look of someone who has become familiar with saying sorry.
       This was it, according to my mother, the only story – the woman behaved desperate, got it in the neck, went ugly. He took her bag to the front gate, but didn’t wait with her. I asked her if she had a plan and she said, God, no, I don’t have a fucking clue where I’m going, and that answer seemed brave and insane all at once. My friends and I celebrated her departure like it was an amazing heist we pulled off. We went to the pub and got ambitious with alcohol left in abandoned glasses. It made us solemn. Genevieve was tall and the right age. She had good legs. We hoped she didn’t hitch.
       Shortly after she left, my mother came into the bathroom when I was in the tub and sat on the edge. I pulled my knees up. Our bath was cracked and plastic and, if I splashed, water flooded the floor, soaked into the hallway, trickled into the kitchen and someone, it didn’t matter who, screamed.
       ‘Was Genevieve pregnant, do you think?’ she asked me.
       This was how it was with my mother – everyone was either pregnant or dying.
       ‘No,’ I said and dipped the tendrils of my hair into the water. I watched them floating shapelessly like weeds. ‘Not pregnant,’ I said, preoccupied. ‘Just annoying.’
       (At sixteen one of us would become pregnant. Statistics dictated it would be one of us and statistics will have their dreary way.)
       A man was caught violating a woman in a car, not far from us. The woman escaped. The man became a suspect in the missing girls and we gathered around our parents’ leftover papers. Violating, we agreed, was a funny, old-fashioned word. When they questioned this man, he said of the escaped woman, ‘She’s lucky: she’s alive.’ We widened our wild eyes at each other, still brave then, still merciless. Can you believe that, we repeated. She’s lucky: she’s alive.
       The summer slipping away from me, I went to the caravan. He wasn’t there but the lights were on and I let myself in. It was damp and musty and had the air of everything being put together in a hurry. The duvet cover was from an old set I recognized from my parents’ room. There wasn’t an oven, just a hotplate with a tube linking it to a canister of gas outside. There was barely anything hanging on the clothing rail. No photos, no postcards. I thought he would revert back to himself, happy again, after Genevieve left, but the opposite happened. He kept odd hours, stayed up all night and returned from the fields in the mornings rumpled, smiling manically. He made mistakes with the animals. He bought a pack of cards and let me beat him, howling mockingly at the moon. He touched my face, told me I was a good girl.
       In the bathroom, Genevieve’s creams still littered the shelves as a reminder of her. My intention hardened when I saw them. I sat opposite the slim sliver of wardrobe mirror. I had a babyish face that no amount of make-up could transform. I removed my top. I took off my trousers too and I was, surprising myself, in my underwear. My bra and pants were grotty, cheap and childish-looking so I took them off too. It was cold because the window was not a proper window, just two boards my mother had nailed up.
       Outside, I could hear the familiar creak of the deck-chair and I knew he had arrived back. There was the short snap of matches being lit one after the other. I felt something fluttering on my back teeth. I reached right in, all the way into the part of my mouth I did not know, and yanked out a trail of dead flies, black, long and sticky-looking. I discarded them and I waited.

© Nicole Flattery

This online version of “Sweet Talk” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author.  It appears in the collection Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery, published by Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

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