Pure Silk

by Anthony Donovan

'I don't know what you see in me,' Helena Byrne says, stretching lazy and catlike on her warm bed beside him.

Ambrose settles his arms behind his head, nests his black hair on her pillow, gazes ceilingwards.

They are both drowsed after making love on a Sunday.

Around them the city slumbers. Dublin silent as the Sabbath, men afternoon napping, women finished with the Sunday lunch, washing dishes, reading the papers, watching the clock. Dinner at seven.

'You're a grand girl,' Ambrose says. 'I wish you didn't have such a low opinion of yourself.'

'I can't help it,' Helena protests. 'I've only to look in a mirror to see that I'm plain as bread.'

'Nonsense.'

Helena smiles, secretly pleased.

'Do you love me?' she asks.

'You know I do.'

'Swear it.'

'I swear.'

'Say it.'

'I love you, Helena.'

'I love you too, Ambrose. Madly.'

She lifts herself on one elbow and looks for Ambrose's reaction to her love words. Seeing none she picks a tiny feather from his black hair and slides it across his matted chest.

'Why do men have nipples?' she asks.

Ambrose shrugs, his eyes drooping with tiredness.

'I don't know or care.'

'Maybe men have the remnants of women in them?' she suggests. 'Something left over from long ago. Maybe cavemen weren't big, hairy creatures after all. Maybe they were gentle and kind, like women?'

Ambrose laughs quietly at her foolishness. He turns on his side, ending the discussion. When Helena leans over to kiss him again he is asleep.

'I don't know him at all,' Helena thinks. 'Ten weeks, four days of him and he's still a stranger. Even being intimate didn't change that. Loving is not knowing.'

Helena adores Ambrose. She'd like to rip out his heart, consume it, make him part of her.

'Poor baby,' she whispers dragging a sheet over his sweaty midriff. 'Poor baby.'

Helena walks naked from her bed and stands by the window. She opens the heavy curtain a fraction and peeks outside. Below, sedate Marion Avenue is deserted. It is the August Bank Holiday weekend and Dubliners are at the races, at the seaside or sleeping last night's over-indulgences away. Helena's own parents are down in Courtown, paddling in the Irish Sea with Auntie Jane and Uncle Pat. They're gone for three days. Helen has the house to herself.

'Lucky me!'

Helena sits by her dressing table and stares at her dim reflection. Behind her, Ambrose's chest rising and falling, not a sound out of him. The sleep of the innocent.

'What does he see in me?' Helen asks the silent mirror. Eyes too small, mouth too thin, short auburn hair framing a small, troubled, freckled face. Much too tall. Helena cups her large full breasts in her hands and wonders if they are the star attraction.

'What does it matter so long as he loves me?'

She gazes dreamily past her mirrored self and stares at Ambrose's reflected face, his dark remarkable profile. Aquiline.

'Ambrose is sinfully handsome,' she thinks. 'And thank God not full of himself, like so many Irish men. He's different. Ambrose is special.'

Ambrose is a prize Helena has awarded herself. Ambrose is the crowning achievement of her twenty-seven years, her time spent looking for Mr Right. Thinking about it makes her belly glad and fills her with happiness.

His jacket and trousers have fallen to the floor. Helena looks towards the napping man and satisfies herself that he's deeply sleeping. She picks up his jacket and searches his pockets. Quietly, furtively, one eye on Ambrose. Keys, loose change, junk. Nothing incriminating. No love letters or notes from other women. Nothing female. She searches his trouser pockets but finds nothing unusual. Helena breathes relief.

'I'm safe, thank God. For the time being anyway.'

Below, in the warm Sunday afternoon living room, a clock tolls four. Helena slips downstairs to make tea. Standing by the stove she anxiously watches the kettle worried in case it whistles and disturbs her sleeping lover above. When the water gurgles she lifts the kettle from the gas and makes tea. It thrills her to sit naked in the hot kitchen.

'The parents would have a fit if they walked in now. Though I imagine Uncle Matt would be pleased. Auntie Jane too?'

Helena giggles.

Across from her a small oval mirror sits on a shelf. Helena leans forward. Pulls a hair down over her nose and blows it away with a smile at her oval self.

Half an hour later Ambrose comes down the stairs running fingers through his too long, tangled hair, blinking sleep from his eyes, finds her in the living room, reading a women's magazine. Helena is fashion mad.

'What time is it?' he asks.

'Five. Almost.'

'I'd kill for a strong cup of tea.'

'The kettle's nearly boiled. There's no need to kill.'

She stands, takes his arm and leads him to the kitchen.

'I'll have to go in a few minutes,' Ambrose says, sipping his tea, devouring a piece of cake.

'So soon?'

'I promised mother I'd get home by six. She'll be needing her tea. I have work to do as well.'

Ambrose works hard in an Estate Agent's office in town. Often brings work home at weekends.

'Why can't I meet your mother?' Helena asks.

Ambrose's eyes flash sudden anger over the tea cup.

'How many times do I have to tell you? Mother's not ready for visitors. As soon as she's up to it I'll bring you over.'

Ambrose's old mother is in mourning. Her daughter - his younger sister - Margaret, killed in a car accident just four months ago. Mother and son lamenting still, the old lady absorbed in grief, not wanting strangers at her door. Helena trying to sympathise.

'All right,' she says. 'I understand. I think.'

Ambrose pats her hand. Slips upstairs. Dresses. Leaves. Without a kiss goodbye.

Days later, Helena phones Ambrose in his office. He says 'I can't see you tonight. Mother's taken a turn. The doctor's coming around.'

'What time are you leaving work?' she asks. Casually.

'Four.'

It is half past three now. Helena works in a bookshop near Merrion Square. Ambrose's office is just a long walk away.

'Daydreaming again?' her boss asks, frowning censuring looks in her direction.

'I've got a headache,' she lies. 'Can I leave a bit early?'

'If you must. Make up for it tomorrow evening though.'

'Sure thing.'

Helena leaves work early. Hurries along the hot Dublin streets. A gentle, warm rain falls on her face. All day, all night she's been thinking about Ambrose. She can't get him out of her head. Ambrose is an obsession. At Westland Row, Helena stops hurrying. There's time to spare. Not yet four.

At the place where Ambrose works she stands across the road by a shop window. Behind her at the kerbside, Ambrose's car. The shop window has two white plastic mannequins, posing robots, in underwear, stockings, suspenders, and silky slips. Enticing female things in red lace. Between the lifeless models, Ambrose's car reflected. Helena waits, looking at satin, silks, waiting for Ambrose.

At four o'clock sharp he emerges from the building. Doesn't raise a head. Climbs into his car and drives away.

Helena looks at her guilty reflection. Relief, that he's telling the truth.

She's watched him before. Even walked past his house a few times. Terrified in case she sees him with a girl. Two timing. Betraying her. But he's been good as his word. So far.

Helena walks to a bus stop. A sudden cloudburst washes the streets clean.

Remembering a rainy night in early June when she first met Ambrose. Dancing. She was with her pals, Marion and Clare. Standing shyly, watching her friends having a grand time.

'Will you dance?' Ambrose suddenly there at her side, his face red and green from the flashing lights.

'I'd rather sit this one out,' she said. Helena has two left feet. She only came because Marion dared her. Promised she'd find a man for Helena.

'Maybe I could sit it out with you?' Ambrose smiling, intimacy in his eyes. A friend in need.

They talked for ages and when they left the club rain was pouring down. O'Connell Street littered with soaked newspapers and day spent trash.

'I have a car. Can I give you a lift?' he asks.

'No thanks. I'll get the bus.'

Ambrose pleading. 'You'll get soaked. I'm going your way. Please, Helena. Don't be such a silly goose.'

'O all right then.'

Keep away from strangers. Don't accept sweets from men. They only want one thing. Her mother's litany about men's wicked ways. Sometimes, Helena took the sweets.

'I'm not a child any more, mother.'

'That's what you think.'

Mother and daughter glaring at each other. Like strangers. Constantly at war.

Helena's parents return from Courtown. No more love upstairs. It's the Phoenix Park or up the Dublin Mountains if they need to be alone. Madness in the back of Ambrose's car. In the darkness she chews his ear lobe, guides his hands into her, eating his lips in the darkness.

On Wednesday night looking down on Kilberry Lake there's a chill in the air. August has not been kind.

'Let's go someplace special this weekend,' she says.

'What do you mean?'

'A hotel? We could stay overnight.'

Ambrose chewing his lips, pondering, tasting her words.

'I don't think so,' he says. 'I hate that kind of thing. False names and telling lies to knowing bloody receptionists. It would cheapen what we have.'

'How can you be certain, Ambrose? Have you done it before?'

'Never.'

'You sound experienced. Have their been others? Tell me, Ambrose. I promise I won't be annoyed.'

'You're a silly goose,' Ambrose affectionately insults. 'Anyway, I couldn't leave mother.'

Friends in with his mother tonight. Suppose Ambrose didn't go home? Helena thinks of the old woman lying in the dark all night. Rosary beads in hand, praying for the dawn, terrified in case mortality comes out of the dark. Death loving her to death. Helena smiles at the thought. Ambrose frowns, reading her mind. He pulls Helena towards him, kisses her eyebrows, her nose, her mouth. Assures her she's special, unique. Then he loves her with his hands and she loves him with her lips.

Even so, she can never be sure. Ambrose says he's had girlfriends but nothing like her. Helena's different. That's hard to believe. A handsome man just passing thirty. He must be lying. Aren't all men sex mad? But then, Ambrose is quite religious, has strong moral values. Even considered the priesthood but his mother wouldn't let him. Helena can't be sure about Ambrose, about anybody really. As for herself? Apart from surreptitious feels in the cinema and boys taking unoffered kisses, Helena came to Ambrose tight and tense with chastity. Once, when she was twenty, a man almost forced himself on her in his car. After a funeral it was. Made a mess of her dress. She puked breakfast all over him. It took her a long time to recover from that experience. Helena is still almost a virgin.

The promised heat comes in September, late summer surprising the pessimists.

Ambrose phones.

'Come to my house on Sunday?'

'Really? Are you serious?'

'Absolutely.'

'What about your mother?'

'She's gone into hospital. She'll be there for a couple of days. Maybe longer.'

'Nothing serious, I hope?'

'They're operating on her legs. Varicose veins.'

'Oh.'

'Please come, Helena. I'm desperate to see you.'

'I'll come.'

Sunday afternoon.

Helena in Ambrose's front parlour, disappointed by the smallness of the house inside, so spotless clean she dares not breathe on the gleaming furniture. Knickknacks on the mantle. Linen on backs of chairs. Knitted covers on cushions. Stale perfume. A woman's house. Smells of polish and pot potpourri. Pictures of Jesus on the wall, statues of Mary. Women's things. Still. Helena longs to be enfolded by his house, absorbed in its Ambrose atmosphere, becomes part of the furniture. Come home to him.

As he goes to make tea Ambrose tells her 'Mother is doing well.'

Helena wishes the old bitch dead. Clearing the path to Ambrose's door. Still. Be grateful for small mercies. This promised visit a respite, welcome as a birthday wish granted. It's been weeks since they've been in bed. Helena is raging with need.

'What do you think?' Ambrose asks, rejoining her, placing a tray on the shining mahogany coffee table, lifting a green knitted tea cosy from the teapot.

'It's nice,' she smiles, vaguely, getting used to the place. 'It feels special. To think you grew up here!'

'It's cosy,' he says.

Helena raises her cup. 'Tea cosy,' she says and smiles, red lips spreading across her fine teeth, pleased with her pun.

After tea, Ambrose takes her next door. Framed pictures of his family on sideboards and on the mantelpiece. Helena sees his mother at last, her rival. White haired, severe, standing with Ambrose. He rises tall above her but you can tell who's boss. His mother, not as old as she'd thought. Not yet sixty, he confirms.

Next, his dead father, locked in small monochrome frame, silver edged, smiling in a striped jersey with baby Ambrose bawling in his daddy's arms. Daddy Ambrose lived long enough to dutifully sire two dutiful children, then died, his duty done.

Finally dead sister, Margaret. A tall girl, like herself, all smiles and dimples. Staring out of a colour portrait in a school uniform - shirt, tie, emerald blazer, freckles around her nose, gaps in teeth, small green eyes, short hair curled.

'How old was Margaret when she died?' Helena asks.

'Twenty nine. Just.'

Helena returns the photo to the mantle. Margaret's frozen smile follows her out of the room. Haunting her.

Upstairs, they fall violently into loving. Each with their own tricks, preferences, games. Ambrose is very patient.

When it's over they lie, sweated and relieved.

Talking quietly.

'I have to leave for the hospital around seven. Mother's expecting me,' he says.

'Can I come?'

'If you like. You'd have to wait. I'll be an hour. You'll be bored. Why not wait here?'

'You won't let me meet her?'

Helena dying to be part of the family now. To be special in the eyes of his mother. Already she's planning ways to please the old women. She'd even polish and cook. Prove herself. Somehow.

'It's not a good time to meet her. Not in hospital. Not now.'

'Never, I suppose?' Helena snaps, confidently hostile in Ambrose's house.

'Maybe when she gets out of hospital,' he offers.

'More maybes.'

'I promise you'll meet her then.'

Helen smiles, quarter satisfied.

Nearly time to leave, dressed and out on the landing Ambrose says 'Let me show you Margaret's room.'

Swings open a door. Helena blinded by the sun, gleaming on a bare polished floor. She steps inside. The bed made, sheets clean, the pillows uncreased. A plain crucifix over the bed.

'It's sad looking,' she says.

'Nothing to be sad about,' Ambrose assures, settling an arm around her. 'Margaret's in heaven. We should be glad.'

More photos. Helena studies Margaret again. Picks up small picture of her and Ambrose as children dressed up. Margaret a moustached farmer, Ambrose a farmer's wife. Both disguised. Helena laughs. Looks around the room for more clues to Margaret.

A wardrobe open a fraction, a hint of green. Helena curious. She slips away from Ambrose, walks gently, barefooted on the cold floor and swings open the creaking wardrobe door. Jumps startled. A full length mirror inside the wardrobe door reflects her anxiety.

'That nearly put the heart crossways in me,' she says.

'Afraid of yourself?' Ambrose laughs.

Helena reaching in, touching clothing, sees shoes, handbags, boxes crammed with promises, wigs on cranium shaped mounds.

'This is expensive stuff,' she says, knowingly. Helena understands about these things. Clothing maketh the woman. Helena couldn't even afford the shoes.

She reaches for a green dress. Chiffon. Green with envy.

'Is it all right if I touch?' she asks.

'Sure thing. We haven't given much away. Mother likes to come in and sit. I think it helps knowing that Margaret's things are still around.'

Helena presses the green dress against her body. Shivers. Thinks momentarily of snakes' skins and mildewed shrouds.

'Nice,' Ambrose says. 'Pity you didn't know Margaret. You'd have got on great together.'

I know her now, Helena thinks.

'I could never afford this kind of thing,' she says, reaching for a different dress. Green again. Velvet.

'Green was Margaret's favourite colour,' Ambrose says.

'Green is suppose to be unlucky.' Helena's mother often says that. Silly woman.

Helena holds the velvet gown to her warm body. Inhales the lingering perfume, deep and mysterious. Tenacious scent. Margaret's smell.

'Try it on,' Ambrose prompts.

'No.'

'Please.'

Helena turns and smiles. Ambrose seems agitated, excited again as though the afternoon was just beginning.

'All right,' she agrees.

Helena poses for him. Different colours, different styles. Feels the softness of Margaret's garb against her. The sensuality of expense. Finally, tired, she stands in her half-slip and lays the last of the dresses on Margaret's green quilted bed.

'I'm exhausted,' Helena says, plopping down on the bed. 'Models must have tremendous stamina.'

Ambrose beside her, kissing her hot face, moving his hands over her, making her want a second helping.

Helena laughs and consumes him. On Margaret's bed.

After seven, dressing again.

'You'll be late,' she warns.

'I don't care.'

Helena beams.

'Stay late tonight,' Ambrose whispers, looking in Margaret's mirror, fixing his hair. 'Stay all night. I've brought no work home this weekend. I could even go in late in the morning.'

'Are you sure?' Helena excited, insatiable.

'Positive.'

'What about all this?' she asks. Margaret's things all over the bed, mingled with their juices, sweat stained.

'Keep them, dear.'

'I couldn't, darling. They're much too good.'

Ambrose walks across the room, flings open a drawer, scatters Margaret's underwear over Helena.

'Keep it all,' he says. 'It's top quality. The best. Pure silk. We liked to buy things for her.'

'But these were your sister's.'

'It's like an exorcism,' he says sitting beside her, exhausted, burying his face in his hands.

'What about your mother?'

'Mother won't mind. So long as I'm happy. You can meet her soon. Not tonight. Not in the hospital. As soon as she gets home. She'd like to meet you here. In her house. A proper greeting. You know?'

'Sure?'

'I promise. Mother will be so pleased. She likes me to be happy. Mother will do anything for me.'

Helena charmed with her new wardrobe stands, adjusts her hair in the mirror. Sees a photo of Margaret smiling at her from across the room. Reflected Margaret smiling back to front.

'Ambrose is mine now,' Helena thinks. 'I'll sleep here tonight. In silk. That should make him satisfied.'

She finally knows Ambrose. Pure silk. Spun from worms. She knows her lover intimately.

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