The Collectables, by Julia Armfield

Art: All These Women


We burned what we could of Simon Jenkins in a pit at the end of the garden. Jenny held her hands over the flames – a bonfire of the final boyfriend – photographs with eyes scratched out, a note he had written on a napkin, the grisly confetti of toenail clippings she had pulled from the bathroom bin. The pads of her fingers were mottled yellow, barbecue-black around the nails. Miriam dragged her away at last and smoothed her palms with aloe vera, talking a circle of taut affirmations – you’ll feel better – he wishes – doesn’t know what it is he’s lost.
This was the last of them, the final dramatic gesture. When the neighbours called to complain about the smell, Miriam told them with great dignity that we were purging ourselves of evil spirits.
“Well I’m sorry that you’ve had to close your windows, Mrs Adams, but that’s the price one pays for catharsis.” She held the phone slightly away from herself, as ever unwilling to touch the earpiece for fear of infection. Someone had once told Miriam that she looked like Princess Anne and this throwaway comment had come, over time, to form the basis of her whole personality. She wore green velvet loafers year-round, pinned her hair in the shape of a pumpkin, spoke like her teeth were made of glass. After hanging up, she sat for a moment in silence, twisting each of her rings halfway round her fingers so the gemstones faced inwards. Catching me looking, she shrugged and held her hands out – two palmfuls of diamonds, as though she had clawed them out of the earth.

In the drifting dusk, we picked through the debris of the fire with cereal spoons; burned husks of photo paper, the plastic-coated lace of a tennis shoe which had failed to catch alight. The failing sunlight illuminated twists of ash and charred pieces of the newspaper we had used as kindling. I pulled a shred out with my fingers and read aloud the two lines of text which had not been scorched beyond comprehension. It was from the page which ran the personals ads, a drab little daydream of a sentence, ending in a smear where the phone number should have been.
“Professional Woman, mid-forties, seeks Prince Charming for Fairytale Endings/Heroic Rescues/Castles in the Air. Please call Linda on -”
“Keep dreaming, Linda,” Jenny snorted, kicking a heel over the ashpit of her ex-boyfriend, who by now would be in St Austell with the girl he had dumped her for.

+
“There is an insult I cannot overlook,” Miriam announced “In the way that men behave towards women.”

We were sitting on the front steps of the house, drinking cherry cokes in the hot September twilight. The cigarette which we were passing back and forth had started with Jenny, but was now smudged with three separate shades of lipstick – red for Miriam, tangerine for Jenny, frosted brown for me. Across the street, Mr Cline from number eleven was hacking at the bushes his wife had planted, a dense and elaborate display of power topiary which, thanks to his ministrations, were now vandalised beyond repair. Two doors down, a muster of pre-teen boys were playing Chinese Chequers on the pavement, the woman from number seven dragging her pram down into the road in order to pass them by.
“I mean look at that,” Miriam gestured with index and ring fingers clenched together “Don’t even move to let her pass. Men.”
“Those aren’t men,” I replied, squinting towards the boys and noting their acne-dusted shoulders, the way one of them had sprouted far taller than the others and had to bend almost in half to play their game
“True,” said Miriam, equably “but if you stuck them all together they’d probably add up to one.”

This was some days after the bonfire. In the dead end of that week, Jenny had taken to poltergeisting round the house in her bedsocks, cluttering surfaces with cups of cold tea and crumby saucers, snivelling and watching the phone. Simon had finally called on Wednesday night, sloppy on sangria and wanting to know why Jenny had sent him a shoebox of ashes in the post. Miriam had been the one to answer and throughout the brief conversation had stood with one hand extended, forcibly holding Jenny away from the phone. On hanging up, she had wiped her ear distractedly with her monogrammed handkerchief, complaining that she could practically feel him spitting through the receiver.
“I don’t want to hear it,” she had said, when Jenny had made signs of starting to snivel again, before ordering me away to the corner shop to buy cokes and a box of peanut brittle with the money from the swear jar in the hall.
+

Until recently, I had been seeing a man called Stephen Connolly, who had been a good kisser and appalling in all other aspects. The realisation had come upon me only in stages, for I liked kissing well enough to ignore for a while the books he read and way he spoke about women, the fact that his chin was feeble and his back pocked with waxed-off hair. The reality of the situation became clear eventually, but even then, it was somehow him who left me. I was tricky, he said, I asked too much of him, the things I talked about sometimes bored him to death.

That’s the problem with kissing. In theory, when someone’s good at it, you should be able to keep kissing forever. But of course, forever is too long to do anything without getting bored.

+

We spent our days working on our PhD theses, our nights watching films on the floor of the living room, bare-legged and digging splinters from our feet with tweezers, drinking iced tea from a melamine jug. The nights around that time were balmy through slices of open window, slick with the smell of charcoal barbecues before the meat goes on to cook. We would argue in desultory fashion over which movie to watch, knowing as always that we would end up watching Jenny’s choices, if only for a quiet life. On Fridays, Miriam would order us pizzas, businesslike with the hated telephone in hand as we yelled the same jokes we yelled every week.

“I’m ordering now – what does everyone want?”

“Cheese and Tomato, please. Or Margherita if they have it.”

“Cheese and Tomato is Margherita. What about you?”

“I don’t know. What are you having?”

“Ham and Pineapple.”

“That’s no help.”

“Well what toppings do you feel like?”

“The flesh of righteous men.”

“I’ll get you a Meat Feast.”

It was always the same man who delivered our pizza – in his twenties, green-eyed as a cat at night. Since the first time, he had seemed singularly unphased by the way we answered the door all together, handing over our food with a smile and mimed tug of an imaginary cap.

“You ladies have a wild night,” he would say every time and saunter away before we could tip him.

Back in the living room, Jenny would simper over his green eyes and Miriam over his manners until the pizza grew cold and had to be microwaved. We had been in this town for what sometimes felt like forever, and in all that time, only the man who delivered our pizza had never once managed to let us down.

+

Three magpies on a washing line – a good or bad augur, depending on the rhyme you chose to recite. Drinking coffee in the garden on a Sunday, I listened to the funeral bells from the church three streets away. It was early still, sore-boned morning, gentle dew-fall after rain. My throat ached from arguing down the phone with Stephen over the jacket he claimed I had stolen as an act of retaliation after we split.

“It’s for the guy from the admissions office at the university,” Miriam in white cotton shorts, coming to sit beside me and tilting her head to indicate the bells “The one with the cowlick. He stepped in front of a bus on Monday.” She shrugged and took a sip of my coffee “So they tell me. It’s a shame.”

We sat together until the funeral bells faded, preparatory to a second burst of rain. Back inside, we found Jenny making pancakes the way Simon had liked them – brown with almond butter on the insides and slightly scalded at the rim. Miriam took the skillet from her wordlessly and tipped the pancakes into the sink, her white shorts stained black and gritty from the garden steps.

We drank through the day, bottles of yellow wine which made us hectic and shrill, our neighbours hammering on the walls to protest against our too-loud music. By the evening, we were headachey and red about the eyelids, Jenny wailing that she hadn’t done a stitch of work all day.

“Well for God’s sake,” sighed Miriam, prickling with alcohol “We were only drinking to keep you company.

I was the one to suggest the walk, if only to prevent an argument. We wandered down through the town, barefoot and weaving, curtains twitching around us in the close-walled streets. We ended up at the church, its bells now silent, peering down into the cemetery to spot the fresh-dug afternoon grave.

“What a waste,” Jenny murmured when we told her about the guy from the admissions office, scrolling through her phone to find a photograph she had once taken at a faculty party – a crop of the bottom half of his head “He had such lovely teeth.”

+

Jenny loved the classic Universal horror films – Dracula with Bela Lugosi, The Invisible Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Coming back from the church that night, she put on Frankenstein with Boris Karloff, rewinding twice through the opening scene with its grim graveyard, its coffin dredged up from the mud.

We were all, by this point, halfway into the next day’s hangover, furred to the back teeth with instant coffee, flat out like dogs on the floor.

“Think of the man we could have if we only took the best bits,” I remember Jenny saying at some point, nodding at the monstrous man being woven together onscreen “Stephen’s kiss, Simon’s torso, Matthew’s – ” she stopped and looked at Miriam enquiringly, though Miriam only snorted softly and told Jenny not to talk over the film.

Matthew was a lecturer at the university who had given Miriam a diamond ring the previous winter and asked for it back in June. This had been around the point that all three of us had started falling behind on our theses, although why it should have affected Jenny and me as much as it did Miriam would be difficult to say.

+

We had a small cellar in our house which had been used as a makeshift shelter during the Second World War. It was here that Jenny first drew the outline on dressmaker’s paper – the long body of a man in black marker which she laid out on the floor like the scene of a crime. She had been drinking fairly solidly all week; a thin dribble of spirits which started with Irish coffee in the mornings and continued through to makeshift cocktails the moment the clock struck six. Simon called fairly frequently now, though when he did Miriam only told him to get on with things with his new girlfriend and for God’s sake stop bothering us. I made slow progress on my thesis during this time, traipsing to the library and back in my open-toed sandals, stewing in the gardens in the late afternoons. I was there the day Jenny came out in pyjamas and wandered down to the ashpit at the end of the lawn. For a moment, I watched her scratch chicken-like through the remnants of our bonfire, before suddenly she bent and then straightened, pulling something out of the dirt.

On her way back up the lawn, she held her palms out to me, the way Miriam had showcased her handfuls of diamonds. Only in this case, the cupped palms held not precious stones but a charred collection of fingernails – the chalky half-moon cuttings Jenny had wrenched from the bin to set fire to after Simon first walked out.

+

The scavenge became Jenny’s little joke – coming home with strands of hair yanked from men at the supermarket, fallen eyelashes she had found in the spines of library books and collected on pieces of folded tape. In the evenings, when Miriam and I were submerged in our reference books, Jenny would haul her plunder down to the cellar and arrange lines of nails and fringes of hair around her line-drawn paper doll, tacking them down with Pritt stick and Elmers washable glue.

“Occupational therapy,” she said when Miriam asked her what she thought she was doing with a pocketful of skin-peppered dust from a university windowsill “Something to do every day, one day at a time. Kind of like being in AA.”

“Not that you would know,” Miriam replied, gesturing to the beer bottle in Jenny’s free hand.

The sun sharded through the open window, amber in the thunder-smelling midday and filling Jenny’s face with momentary electricity, as though she had been set alight at the neck.

For the most part, we left her to it, poring over our theses with increasing distraction as the temperature rose and the telephone rang more and more often. Simon had a bee in his bonnet about something – insisted on talking to Jenny, though every time he rang Miriam answered and never allowed him enough time to explain.

“Maybe if we just let him speak to her,” I ventured once to Miriam, the two of us on the back steps in our dressing gowns “After all, it worked for me and Stephen after I stole his jacket. And even Matthew stopped calling to ask for his ring back once you spoke to him about it yourself.”

“It’s not the same,” Miriam replied, curd-yellow around the eyelids. Back inside, we found Jenny just coming in, though it was barely eight o’clock in the morning. She smiled at us both, pulling her hand from the front pocket of her dungarees to show us what looked very much like the flicked-off head of a scab.

+

We ordered pizza as usual on the Friday. The delivery man brought it to our door well under the forty minute guarantee time, smiling at each of us in turn as if he had only just realised something wonderful. His eyes were as green as ever – the colour of wine bottles emptied down sinks.

“You ladies have a wild night,” he said, like he always did, and Jenny wriggled with delight.

After the pizza, we ate sugar-dusted doughnuts and dates from a green glass bowl and talked about the fantasy men we had each grown up with – Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid and Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, boys with long hair from American movies, Aladdin and Mr Darcy, Mr Knightley, Mr Rochester, Indiana Jones.

“I blame the movies,” moaned Jenny, who was more than a little drunk “How was any real live man ever supposed to compete?”

The phone started ringing shortly afterwards, but for once even Miriam ignored it. We watched Disney movies until well after midnight and I must have drifted off because the next thing I knew it was dark and Jenny had apparently gone out and come back again. I didn’t ask her where she’d been or even move to let her know I was awake, but even so, there she was creeping in through the kitchen window with mud-crusted elbows and a bottom jawful of straight white teeth in one hand.

The scavenge became less of a game after that – Jenny coming home at odd hours smelling like dirt and cold stone, black tote bags which took on curious shapes when thrown over her shoulder. Mr Cline was seen in the street one Thursday morning complaining that his hedgeclippers and spade had gone missing and two days later, I came across both in the hall cupboard, curiously pristine as though recently washed. I told Miriam it might be best if we threw away the Disney movies, though as Miriam pointed out, any movie with a good enough hero was enough to set Jenny off on the subject of The Perfect Man, these days.

Simon called daily, though most of the time now Miriam just let the phone ring. He was sorry, she told me in confidence, his new girlfriend wasn’t what he’d imagined, he wanted Jenny back. That day, it had been announced in the local paper that a young athlete, an Olympic sprinting hopeful born barely six streets away, had died of an untimely heart attack and would shortly be brought back home to be buried. Jenny had spent the morning in a reverie about men with good legs, mentioning several times how disappointing Simon’s had been the few times he had agreed to do it with his trousers all the way off.

+

“I think we’ve taken our eyes off the ball a little,” Miriam said to me seriously. The collection of fingers on the kitchen table came not from one hand but several, though all seemed to be at similar early stages of decay. She had gone into Jenny’s bag and found them, counting them out for me like paper money, and now stood uneasily as a sound reached us – Jenny’s footsteps on the cellar stairs.

“There they are,” Jenny said, coming into the kitchen as calmly as though seeking her keys “I knew I didn’t just have thumbs.”

She collected them together, a bouquet of severed fingers, tall and blue-tinted towards the tips. A rogue image swam through me – Jenny coming back from her first date with Simon, the slender handful of daffodils he had given her and way she had held them upright all the way home. As if on cue, the phone started ringing and Jenny glanced towards it impatiently. “I don’t know why he bothers. Now these,” she held three fingers towards us as though inviting us to pick a card “Are from a concert pianist. They buried him last week. Incredibly limber-looking, don’t you think? Whereas these,” three more, squarer around the nail and knuckle “well these I just chanced upon. I like to imagine this guy was good with his hands, whoever he was. What a collection, anyway. Don’t you think?”

“Jenny, you’re going to fall behind on your thesis.” It was all I could think to say, although later that day, when she showed us what she had been doing in the cellar – the scavenged skin and bones and severed features all arranged just-so on her strip of card – I understood that she hadn’t so much fallen behind as changed subjects altogether.

+

It was a Saturday when she finally spoke to him, just back from a funeral and holding her tote bag protectively along the bottom as though concerned it might split. She sat down on the arm of the sofa to talk, legs crossed and expression absent. From the kitchen door, Miriam and I could hear the bleed of Simon’s voice from the receiver, the way he rattled on in increasingly desperate fashion as Jenny answered him only in yeses and nos.

“It’s not anyone’s fault,” she said finally, waving her hand in Miriam’s direction and signing her request for a cup of tea “You’ve just given me the time to realise I can do better than you. I feel I’ve got something to look forward to without you. Something I can make on my own.”

She nodded along with the voice on the phone for a moment, readjusting her bag on her shoulder slightly as she did so, a shape curiously resembling an ear faintly visible through its canvas side.

“No I know that,” she said at length “And you were wonderful on paper. You’re just not the sum of your parts.”

+

Jenny ordered pizza without asking us, one Friday in harsh summer rain. The delivery man came to the door as normal – green eyes like church windows – tipping his imaginary cap to her and asking why we’d only ordered one pizza this time.

She gave no clear answer, only smiling benignly and asking whether he didn’t want to step in out of the rain. There would be lightning, she said, not good weather to be out in. Why not bring the pizza through, she said, I’ve got something to show you, something that’ll make your green eyes pop right out of your head.

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