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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Between Dog and Wolf

Elske Rahill


 HELEN HAD her back to me. She was leaning a hip against the counter, humming, waiting for the kettle to boil. I was still warm from bed and wrapped like an invalid in layers of thermal vests. Helen's feet were bare. It made me shiver just to see them naked like that: her toes purplish against the chequered floor. The floor must have looked like a chessboard once, but the white squares have yellowed since it was first put down, and the black ones are sun-bleached grey. There is a gap at one corner where the lino has curled up, and dust and stray peas and hairs and bits of tobacco gather under it. The kitchen is shared by six of us. Like the other kitchens on campus it's tiny, with the drabness, outward cleanli­ness and inward filth of a place unloved and tended weekly by a professional. Helen bought a fish bowl to liven the place up, but the fish keep dying. There was another dead one there this morning, floating at the top with its fins clamped to its body. Helen mustn't have noticed yet.

She was wearing a matching pyjama set of brushed cotton with heavy, straight folds at the shoulders and up the legs. She looked clean. I was very aware, suddenly, of the pockets of stink trapped against my body. When I moved a waft of stale body heat was released up and out the neck.

'New PJs? 'The sound of my own voice startled me. The words shot out like an accusation: New PJs} She looked down at her body as though she had forgotten what she was wearing. The pyjamas were cream. Pink moons and stars were printed on the fabric with the words 'Sleepy Girl', designed to look like a child's handwrit­ing, floating about between them. The top buttoned up the front like a shirt, the way all pyjamas used to. It didn't look right on an adult body. It made her breasts seem heavier than usual.
'Penneys - seven euro - such a bargain! They're so comfy as well!'
I am not used to seeing Helen without make-up. All day her face is an orangey disc with shimmering lids, spider lashes, smiling mouth the colour of bubble gum. In the mornings her eyes are ringed black by the residue and a tan tidemark outlines her jaw. She must have scrubbed well last night, because this morning she had fresh, translucent skin - impossibly white. It made me think of dew. The only clues to her usual mask were the unchanging eyebrows, professionally plucked into sharp little peaks of alarm. Otherwise she looked gentle this morning, peaches-and-cream pretty. I told her she'd get a cold in her bare feet and she shrugged, sliding a big mug of tea across the Formica. She was feeling happy this morning. You can always tell how Helen is feeling at a glance. Her mind was cloudless behind her eyes.
'You slept late. Late for you, Cass.'
I shrug. Actually, I woke quite early this morning. I watched the ceiling and thought for a long time about getting up. The white paint was splattered with grey blots. It wasn't the first time I'd noticed them. If I stare at them for too long they begin to move about the ceiling like silver worms. Today it was worse; they merged and parted quickly, rolling into one another and multiply­ing like mercury maggots. It was so terrifying that I didn't want to see. I pulled the blankets up over my head. I wanted to shrink back to the dark like a snail. In a neighbouring room someone scrambled into their clothes and clattered away, late for some­thing, and the sounds of the college day started up outside my window. I don't have a clock but I can count the hours from bed by the morning chats and the yelp of sneakers.
I know those noises by heart but they always shock. Their life scratches at the walls, pecking at my quietness to haul me up out of my shell.
'I have no lectures today,' Helen said, hoisting herself up onto the counter and kicking her heels against the press. A dimple curled at the edge of her mouth. Her hair is a mass of blonde wisps, barely believable, like the hair of something mythic.
'I have absolutely nothing to do today!'
This seemed to make her proud and she hopped down again, all dimples and light. Why was she so bloody happy?
I smiled, 'What will we have for breakfast?'
'Dunno. I feel like Coco Pops. Do you have any? I'm totally addicted to Coco Pops at the moment. I ran out yesterday. I meant to buy more
'Oh well. I don't know then. I'd love a fry but I'm totally broke. I spent a fortune on Saturday night ...'
'There are eggs. Will I make us some pancakes?'
'Oh yeah! Cool. I haven't had pancakes in ages!'
There was no ground coffee left in the tin, which in any case belongs to Cahill down the hall. Neither of us drinks instant, so we raided Helen's penny jar, and she put on a coat and flip-flops and went to the snack stand in the computer block. While she was gone I mixed the eggs, sugar and flour into paste with a fork and then slowly, carefully, added the liquid; half milk, half water.....