:: Article

Nicole

By Jacinta Mulders.

I am not unhappy that, so far, the places I have visited are not the ones I thought. It is off-season, early autumn, so the grass and leaves are green and the landscape trembles as though holding its breath. Norfolk is lovely and I have never regretted coming here. But I am sick of the scene: the rooms with velvet wall hangings where the poetry readings are held, the smell of wet benches supporting damp coasters and pints of ale, and the blurred view of the street slipping past at night from my bike.

I like my poems, but I have not written as many as I intended since I left Norwich two days ago. I work to rhythms, and am only able to write once I have passed a Tesco Express and have bought enough food to know I will not go hungry. I buy tinned fish. I feel ambivalent about the taste but it keeps me full, and I have been told that fish oil is good for you. It is about ten months since I left Weston Creek. My poems are occasionally nostalgic—never for Australia. Instead, I write about the obvious icons of Italy: St Francis of Assisi; the stone boys spouting water from their mouths in The Boboli Gardens; the three women dancing under orange trees in Botticelli’s painting, Spring. My parents are from different countries in Europe, but I’ve always preferred to think of myself as Italian than anything else. Some cultures stake greater claim on you than others, and here, thinking of myself as Australian first is suddenly out of the question.

 

Ed is from Scotland. I visited during the Christmas break and it snowed the whole time. Nothing was open but we walked around the shuttered University of Glasgow, the flakes becoming wet and translucent on the tarmac. We were not dating yet, and maybe that is why we had the energy to walk in driving snow. It was that time before the start of things, when everything around you feels poised. I wonder if Ed and Nicole fell into a relationship as suddenly as we did. Since they started seeing each other I am wary in town squares. I get edgy at street corners and select galvanising music on loud volume when I am in the grid of streets near St Benedict’s church. At the beginning of spring I saw them in the fish and chip shop holding hands. That first month I had trouble keeping food down.

 

Since I have left Australia I have had the impulse to be expansive, and am greedy with places, histories, conversers. The leafage in England is the most incredible green and the wind pulses through it like a spell. It is northern, frigid wind: old like the statue of Commander Nelson on the highway, old like the flint churches with their small doors. I feel irresponsible and drifting, and I would like to keep drifting—to keep gaping at the thickness of the clotted cream in the tea rooms of the National Trust buildings, the teapots inured against the many men and women drinking English Breakfast from them on weekends. I acknowledge I am in love with Ed but I do not want to focus on the pain. I do not stop to think. I keep spreading outwards.

 

Some women look gorged with love and others destitute, like they have found themselves unexpectedly alone. I have felt both. We introduce ourselves to others as one person but are made from different landscapes which clock in and stay for a while. I am not old enough to see an adult person change but I am looking forward to the fitfulness of it, the public acknowledgement by a person they were wrong about something important.

Ed met Nicole at our favourite café. It sells Guinness cake. I imagine them being coy over glass cannisters of biscuits and settling down with teapots of rooibos. I have overheard them talking in the front rooms of parties and I find their sentiments and expressions to be fake. Dear Nicole, how are you so sure? Dear Ed, why are you so forgetful? They tilt their heads at good angles and feather papers and tobacco between their fingers. I occupy myself in my own activities and routines, but they are always bouncing into vision.

The first time I saw Nicole out here was yesterday, reflected in the front window of the Fakenham Museum of Gas and Local History. I watched her unlock a car in the parking lot opposite while a man to my left encouraged the child he was carrying to open the metal side gate that blocked the entrance to the museum.

‘Come on Oliver, push!’

I heard the car’s ignition from across the street and watched the green car inch towards a low brick wall.

‘Do you need Daddy to help you?’

I looked at the child bunched in its parka. The man looked toward me over his shoulder.

‘Oliver, you’re holding up the lady.’

I watched the car leave the carpark and accelerate out of sight. I stared at the curve where the car had been: it was a sad curve, with a petrol yard and three white vans against the road’s edge. I followed the child through the gate and paused at the threshold to the first gallery. Dun walls, scattering light. The child ran ahead over the floorboards and started smacking the edges of a line of dated cookers. The sound it produced was grating, but it also enlivened the room.

 

*

 

It is no coincidence I saw Nicole. While I concede Norwich is small and it is difficult to avoid acquaintances, I have seen Nicole almost every day for the last two weeks. Pushing open the front door of the pub where I was already waiting at the bar for someone else; buying a flapjack in the queue in front of me at the café in Eaton Park. On Tuesday, I watched her carry two brown pints smugly back to her new boyfriend who was waiting at a table by the river. He was sitting under a red fairy light, bewildered and moony. I rubbed pocketed coins; looked wildly for anything else to watch.

I am not interested in how I feel when I see Ed because it is predictable: joy, then bewilderment as he tries to occupy himself and get himself out of my gaze. With him, she is fawning and brazen and her attention is focused on the thing he is doing or talking about. Alone, she is sly and loud. Her provocations feel deliberate and uncontrolled. I sense she wants to be looked at. Looking at her I am flush with love for Ed and the memory of our bodies touching, then startled when I realise she has taken my place and blocking any continuity of a romantic relationship with him.

I wonder if she knows this; that I am still in love. Very likely she does. I am not a relaxed, easy person; I have not attempted to pretend to be her friend. Perhaps this is where I have gone wrong with her: I am not interested in performing the social niceties that would contradict my feelings. I am cordial but inconvenient. It is tiring to baulk against reality, but I have never been afraid of work.

The woman at the front desk of The Mill Inn is softly spoken and asks me about my day when I pass. She is wearing the same blouse as yesterday: sateen with pearl buttons.

‘Not too bad,’ I say, thinking of the poem I half-drafted over lunch. The poem is based on something that happened to me when I was eight. My parents took me to a church in Siena where I saw the bones of a saint in glass.

 

I go to my room and look at the dark lump of clothes next to my backpack on the floor. The embossed curtains no longer feel cosy; but encasing. They are thick and dusty and I draw them across the window. I listen for sounds other than the cars outside slowing as they approach the roundabout at the end of the street. For dinner I eat thin rice cakes—about fifteen of them—which is extremely boring and which are dry in my mouth. I boil water in the kettle with the short cord for peppermint tea. I think of my parents who contact me less regularly. They always ask, ‘how is your poetry?’ I never know what to reply.

I imagine Nicole in the lobby. I imagine Ed there too. What did Nicole say to the proprietor when asked about her day? Did she walk through the overgrown grass on the side of a field? Did she drink a weak cappuccino at Costa and read her book? What are Nicole’s interests, are they similar to mine? I do not want them to be. I do not want us to have the same friends, style, accent, or exercise habits. I have fantasies about showing up on their holidays, where they travel to places I have never been: Portugal, Tanzania, the Isle of Skye. I hate being around them but love being obstructive. What is the consequence of my obstructiveness? I do not think about it too hard.

 

I wake and it is black, I am unsure of the space between my body and the other things in the room. Nicole is in the corridor: I can hear her yelling. It is not traumatic yelling but delighted yelling, yelling and running. She is not alone but only her voice is audible: drunk, confident, live. There are gaps in her laughter where I hear a muffled voice. I cannot tell if the voice replying is a man or a woman, nor if they are old or young. There are blows against my door; the room articulates itself. I am not scared of Nicole. I have never taken her seriously because my love is too imperious. I know she is agitated by my former relationship with Ed, and I enjoy watching this distress, the unholy ruckus; it brings me closer to the relationship I have lost. My body softens into the sheets as the thuds continue outside. They are insistent. I can almost relax in them.

 

*

 

On the bus I eat sandwiches of sliced white bread and apricot jam from the breakfast room. The morning sky is pearly. My poor sleep hangs lightly from my shoulders. I am not angry I was woken by a girl causing chaos in the corridor, but thrilled by it. Girl! Be frightening! Show passions! She reminds me of myself, second year of university, running down the corridors of our brother college and threading bright streamers from the Victory Dinner through the wooden bannisters of the staircases. That semester I took a module on Italian poetry and enjoyed making comparisons between waking life and the behaviours of the souls in Dante’s Hell. In his epic, Dante took vengeance on the people he disliked in life. The funnel of hell, in its cold layers, was like a giant schema of control.

My vision glazes over passing fields golden with the snuff of autumn. The countryside, and the experience of being in it, has always encouraged me towards perspective. What am I doing, trying to be a poet but basically just sexually jealous? The next time I see Nicole, I will go and speak to her. We will nut things out. Probably, actually, there will be more in common between us than I think. We are both young women, we both likely suffer in the same ways for the fact of being female. We are not being supportive of each other but are in contest over a man. It is so generic, so banal.

I fantasise: Nicole and I might become good friends. I hazard: girlfriends. We might write collaborative poetry together and read it out to our peers in the room with the velvet wall hangings. We will create unique work by mingling the details of our different lives and heritages. I will convince her to break-up with Ed and then we will write poetry about that, too. We will move London and date people who are worldly, professional, and who do not think about literature except with the usual, casual interest.

 

The bus turns at a sign that says ‘Blakeney’. I am tender about the countryside and grateful for the anonymity of expatriation. I do not love England for its neat, certain attitude nor for its Kings, but as a landmass. The silvery North Norfolk coast as it appears, the suggestion of a bluish fog on the horizon, the way the light yellows the low clouds. I love the road hurtling through the woods and the foliage stretching over the road. There are bogs near the beaches, razor clams in deep holes, strong winds along the flat, long landscapes. I am pacified, I am thinking about my poems. The sway of Ed has been left somewhere in the medieval streets surrounding the Norwich Cathedral, by a bale of hay beyond the country end of Bluebell Road. If I see Nicole, I will ask her if she would like to have a tea in one of the tea rooms near the harbour. I am in the mood for a Bakewell tart: a cake with pink icing and a glacé cherry, something that is dense and sweet and gums itself against the roof of my mouth.

We pass low walls of stones and white-rimmed windows, then drive into the carpark. The marsh spreads out, its surface knotted with lavender and sea grass. Nicole is parked two car spaces over. Her blonde head of hair is the first thing I see as she steps out of the driver’s side. She is walking towards me and she does not look upset or aggressive, but interested. I am interested too.

I ask her if she would like a beer or a scone and she looks so pleased, I am moved. I resolve myself never to be petty or make pre-conceptions about other people’s characters, but to do my best to be kind and generous. It is hard to be consistent but if you start with a self-made rule, you at least know the direction you are heading in. We walk towards the nearest pub, just as I am explaining to her that I do not mind if she was drunk and screaming, it is a thing commonly done and it can help people understand themselves when they do not know what to call their feelings, or are paralysed by how deep and unknowable they are. The theme music from the Harry Potter films starts to play. Nicole pulls her phone from her back pocket. She starts to smile. It is a smile of warmth and love. Ed’s voice is audible: dull, blunt, and beautifully familiar. Ugliness twists through me. I do not know where I am, only that it is far from home.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jacinta Mulders
is a writer and former lawyer from Australia. She has an MA in Prose Fiction from The University of East Anglia. Her non-fiction and criticism have appeared in Meanjin, ABR, The Lifted Brow, Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, and Review 31. She is on Instagram: @jacinta.mulders.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 29th, 2019.