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November 2008
SEARCHING FOR THE VIRGIN

Mary McCluskey
Liz is marching ahead, her blistering irritation so obvious that Claire wants to laugh. Her sister does not like to be mistaken. And they are clearly lost.
virgin-mccluskey-

‘It was on Noel Road, for heaven’s sake. I remember the name.’ Liz is stamping forward in her elegant designer heels. Her voice is patrician and assured. She’s never lacked confidence. Not even in the teenage years when everyone around her lived in fear of pimples and peer indifference. She is four years older than Claire. It is a gap that Claire finds pleasing these days.

‘Bullshit. Total bullshit. You couldn’t even remember where Camden Passage was.’

‘That’s absolutely not true. And is it necessary to use American swear words in Islington?’

‘It is.’

‘Why?’

‘Why not?’ The years in California have made Claire stubborn, just as they have coloured her language.

The two women are walking down the hill from Camden Passage. They are looking for a pub called The Virgin Queen. Liz had not wanted to come, claiming more important places to see on her sister’s first visit home for five years. But Claire had insisted. The memories have sustained her for a long time. That pub had sparked the beginning of something for her, sparked all the longings that came later: for excitement, for travel, for men who had an edgy, frightening charm. A pub named after a virgin was Claire’s haven when she was a virgin herself. A virginity she lost after a drinking session in the pub, and to a boy with brooding good looks who tended bar there. A fact she has not shared with her sister. The barman was her sister’s boyfriend.

Liz has stumbled to a stop in the street and is staring at an old brick building, painted white. The pub advertises the predictable menu of a chain. It doesn’t look at all familiar.

‘Is that it?’ Liz asks. ‘With a new name?’

‘Well, it could be. With a new name, an entirely new and different building and a new location,’ Claire says. She returns her sister’s dark look with a smile. ‘No, that’s not it,’ Claire says.

It had been a cavernous place, vibrating with music and full of bearded strangers and rough poets with dark eyes. And a barman who looked satanic and awfully alluring. For Claire, a student at the Slade, the pub held the promise of the danger and excitement she craved. As did, Roger, the barman. He was a student at LSE, moonlighting. Liz, newly graduated and working in advertising so she that she could easily afford the boxy suits with tiny skirts she wore to work and the long pre-Raphaelite dresses she wore in the evenings, seduced him effortlessly. The dark, mocking eyes worked on her too, for a while. But In those days they were all looking for love and pain, for heartbreak and all of life’s most intense experiences. Roger was only the beginning.

The Virgin they called it. It had been their local when they lived in a basement and bought second-hand clothes made of fur, leather, and denim. When they wore swirling dresses, patch-worked with satin, silk and velvet from a shop in Camden Passage called Frock Frocks. Gone now. The shops they saw this morning were mostly antiques stores. As we are, Claire thinks. Just a couple of antiques.

One a polished and expensive antique, with a hugely successful, if chronically unfaithful, physician husband; the other worn, scarred, hiding from a marriage precariously balanced and likely to fall. And a husband who calls late at night after too many glasses of bourbon, his voice sounding sad and American and asks when is she coming home. Who says, look, honey, this was not the way it was meant to be.

I don’t know how it was meant to be, Claire replies. But I want to do this.

An odyssey back to a different, younger time. Claire wants to remember again when it all mattered: when a body hard against her felt exactly right. When she could still dampen at the thought of a boy’s hands touching her.

Her feet are aching. She knows that Liz is tired, too. But Claire doesn’t want to give up, not yet.

‘We’re starting from the wrong place, that’s the problem,’ Liz says suddenly. ‘We should start in Arlington Square and work backwards. Just walk up towards the Angel.’

They had lived in Arlington Square in a basement flat. When it rained, the water poured through the railings like a waterfall. They find it easily enough. To Claire’s surprise it looks entirely unchanged. The graceful Georgian houses are all converted to flats now. The neat fenced garden in the centre of the square looks just as it did all those years ago. They peer down over the railings at their old flat. There are bars on the windows

‘We didn’t have bars,’ Claire says.

‘No, we didn’t. And they say the area has improved.’

‘Maybe that’s why they need bars. We never had anything to steal.’

‘True.’

Claire shivers then, remembers stumbling down those steps with Roger. Her sister was away at an advertising seminar; their other flatmate, Sheila, was staying with a friend. She had told him she was tiddly, and he had offered to walk her home. It had been storming, the slanting rain drenching their faces and hair.

When they stumbled through the door they were laughing, still slightly drunk, soaking wet.

‘I’ll get you a towel,’ she said, dripping. He followed her to the bathroom. He knew his way around the flat, he had been seeing her sister for some weeks. She pulled a couple of towels from the rack then threw them to him. ‘I should change. These clothes are saturated.’

‘So are my jeans. You mind if I drape them over the radiator?’

She stared and he laughed at her worried face.

‘It’s okay. I’m wearing very sturdy underpants.’

She nodded, blushing.

When she came out of the bedroom, dressed in a long blouse and cotton skirt, the light was off and Roger was a shadow at the window looking out at the rain. A street light shone into the flat, a muted yellow light and she could see that Roger wore only his underpants, a towel loose around his neck, his hair still damp.

‘Come look at this,’ he said, without turning around. The rain spilled down from the road in a torrent, a waterfall, and it pooled in a rainbow of glistening light as the small carriage lamp by the front door shone on it: a prism of changing, fluid colours that glowed. She moved in front of him, amazed.

They stood quite still, watching the soft colours change; she could hear only the sound of the rain and Roger’s soft breathing. After a moment, she felt his hand touch the back of her neck, the edges of her hair.

‘Your hair’s still soaking,’ he said, and took the towel from her. Her back was to him, and he pressed her against his chest, holding her tightly round the waist, as the other hand gently dabbed at her neck, the sides of her face. She caught her breath for a moment, but still stared out of the window, gazing out into the tiny yard, watching the colours fade and glow. It was raining hard now and the pelting, noisy rain was the only sound in the room.

After a moment he dropped the towel and his hand stroked further, undoing the buttons of her blouse, finding her breast. She could barely breathe. His left arm held her close against him; the other stroked softly, so softly. When he squeezed her nipple, the tingling shot down her body.

‘Roger, I don’t think—’

‘Then don’t think.’

He took her hand, led her towards the bedroom, switched on a small bedside lamp.

Claire, swamped with shyness, wanted darkness.

‘Leave the light off. I like the dark,’ she said.

‘Not this time,’ he said, and pulled her close to kiss her.

It felt so strange, his mouth on hers. She’d imagined it. She had imagined it hard and passionate and uncontrolled. But his hands were gentle, his mouth soft.

When he began to pull the blouse over her head she helped him, wanting the awkward fumbling with clothes to be over. She yearned to be under the sheets, to hide, but he was slow, kissing her shoulders, her breasts, stopping to look at her.

‘You’re beautiful, Claire,’ he said.

She moved onto the bed, pulling the sheets up to her breasts. He laughed and came to lie beside her, holding her against him. His erection was hot against her thigh and his hands moving over her body triggered sensations that caused her to murmur, soft involuntary sounds, wanting him closer, closer. She was damp when he entered her but still she cried out and he pulled back, looked into her eyes.

‘Claire, you’ve done this before?’

‘Of course,’ she lied.

‘You’re sure you want to?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Oh yes.’

He entered her then with a long sigh. She held his shoulders, biting at her lip and gradually it hurt less, became damper, warmer, and just as Claire was beginning to feel this warmth expanding deep inside, he cried out. Moments later, she could feel his penis shrinking, a small warm weight against her.

‘Your turn,’ he said, and his fingers were there inside her, stroking, until she clutched at his shoulders with tight hands. Her breath came so fast, she felt she could not breathe enough. Her mouth felt dry. She dampened her upper lip with her tongue, frantic, then she felt a moist tumbling inside her and she came with a cry. Roger smiled down at her.

‘You’re beautiful,’ he said again. ‘Sleep now.’

When she woke some hours later he was gone. The sheet beneath her held a dark circle of blood; she was glad he had left before he could see this. Later, in the small bathroom, Claire closed the door and stood with her back against it. In the mirror her flushed face, eyes bright, stared back at her. It was changed now, irrevocably. There was no going back.

• • •

‘Well, we can’t stand here all day,’ Liz says now, jolting her forward thirty years. ‘Let’s go towards Upper Street. It must be that way. Surely.’

They walk past the Hanbury Arms.

‘That place looks a bit smarter,’ Liz says. ‘We could have something to eat in there.’

Claire shakes her head.

‘No. Let’s keep going. It can’t be far now. We walked it nearly every night.’

‘We were young then.’

‘Damn right.’

A few more yards up the hill, Liz stops.

‘We’re almost at Camden Passage again. And my feet are killing me.’

‘Let’s have something in the Camden Head, then. That’ll do. Take a break.’

The place looks just the same: red velvet, polished brass, Victorian.

‘They’ve refurbished it,’ Liz says laughing, when she comes back from the bar with two large glasses of white wine. ‘And it looks exactly the same as it did.’

They sip at the wine, study the food menu.

‘Strange. I always liked this place, but it never had the charm of the Virgin,’ Liz says.

‘It was Roger who had the charm,’ Claire says.

‘Yes. He certainly did.’

Claire takes a breath.

‘Remember that time you went on a seminar?’ she begins. ‘When you were going out with Roger?’

Liz is frowning.

‘A seminar? Oh, no. I said I was going on a seminar. I went to meet Adam.’

Adam. Adam, the young doctor Liz later married. The man, now a senior consultant, to whom she is still married.

‘You went to meet Adam in Edinburgh? And you told me and Roger you were going on a seminar?’

‘Yes. Well, Adam asked me. It was our first, well the first time we got together. You know. I didn’t know whether it would work. So, I—’

‘And that’s why you finished with Roger afterwards?’

‘Yes. Well partly. He withdrew after that weekend anyway. He seemed to know something. Or sense something. It just wasn’t the same. And then he left, remember.’

Claire stares. She has held her secret so warm and close to her heart for thirty years. She longs to share it now, after this.

‘But I thought he liked you. Roger.’

‘Well, I suppose he did for a while. But Adam, you know, he was just so right for me.’

‘A better catch you mean? Nice young doctor, going places.’

‘Well, yes. And I was right, wasn’t I?’

There is something so smug and self satisfied in her sister’s expression that Claire’s resolve snaps.

‘Apart from his little affairs?’

‘Oh, come on. We’ve had a good life, Adam and I. I admit it hurt at first. But they don’t mean anything, you know. His women. He always comes back to me.’

‘You think Roger would have been different? Perhaps Roger, too—’

Liz interrupts her.

‘You know, I’ve wondered about that over the years. I’ve wondered about Roger. How it would have been. And thought about him. Because he wouldn’t ever have played around. He was just a different kind of man. He was—.’

The words fly from Claire’s mouth.

‘He walked me home that night,’ she says. ‘Roger. When you were gone.’

Her sister looks hard at her, frowning.

‘Walked you home?’

‘Yes. I’d had too much to drink and it was raining and dark. He walked me home.’

She knows she sounds defiant. Liz is studying her face.

‘He didn’t try anything with you? Surely?’

Claire takes a sip of her wine, thinks for a moment, then meets her sister’s eyes. There is something in them she has never seen before: fear perhaps, or pleading. Liz has carried her own memories. She and her sister have fed their fantasies for thirty years with the same dream.

‘No,’ she says, finally. ‘No. Of course not.’

Liz sighs.

‘No. He wouldn’t, of course. He was a such good guy.’

‘Yes,’ Claire murmurs. ‘He was good.’

They order a baked potato and salad and another glass of wine and the rain begins outside and the pub feels warm and welcoming. Claire looks across at her sister. Her skin is smooth and pampered, her hair streaked and salon styled. She is still beautiful, she thinks. Perhaps I am, too. I’m four years younger after all.

‘We had some good times,’ Liz says softly after a while. ‘Didn’t we?’

‘Yes, we did.’

‘Shall we continue our search? Go on looking for the elusive Virgin Queen?’

‘No,’ Claire says, in a clear, sure voice. ‘Let’s keep it in our memories. Let’s remember it the way it was.’




© Mary McCluskey
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