Home > Normal People(11)

Normal People(11)
Author: Sally Rooney

Uh, he says. Yeah, thanks.

Gareth is one of these popular people who’s involved in college societies. He went to one of the big private schools in Dublin and people are always greeting him on campus, like: Hey, Gareth! Gareth, hey! They’ll greet him from all the way across Front Square, just to get him to wave hello. Connell has seen it. People used to like me, he feels like saying as a joke. I used to be on my school football team. No one would laugh at that joke here.

Can I get you a drink? says Gareth.

Connell has a six-pack of cider with him, but he’s reluctant to do anything that would draw attention to his backpack, in case Gareth might feel prompted to comment on it further. Cheers, he says. Gareth navigates over to the table at the side of the room and returns with a bottle of Corona. This okay? says Gareth. Connell looks at him for a second, wondering if the question is ironic or genuinely servile. Unable to decide, Connell says: Yeah, it’ll do, thanks. People in college are like this, unpleasantly smug one minute and then abasing themselves to show off their good manners the next. He sips the beer while Gareth watches him. Without any apparent sarcasm Gareth grins and says: Enjoy.

This is what it’s like in Dublin. All Connell’s classmates have identical accents and carry the same size MacBook under their arms. In seminars they express their opinions passionately and conduct impromptu debates. Unable to form such straightforward views or express them with any force, Connell initially felt a sense of crushing inferiority to his fellow students, as if he had upgraded himself accidentally to an intellectual level far above his own, where he had to strain to make sense of the most basic premises. He did gradually start to wonder why all their classroom discussions were so abstract and lacking in textual detail, and eventually he realised that most people were not actually doing the reading. They were coming into college every day to have heated debates about books they had not read. He understands now that his classmates are not like him. It’s easy for them to have opinions, and to express them with confidence. They don’t worry about appearing ignorant or conceited. They are not stupid people, but they’re not so much smarter than him either. They just move through the world in a different way, and he’ll probably never really understand them, and he knows they will never understand him, or even try.

He only has a few classes every week anyway, so he fills the rest of the time by reading. In the evenings he stays late in the library, reading assigned texts, novels, works of literary criticism. Not having friends to eat with, he reads over lunch. At the weekends when there’s football on, he checks the team news and then goes back to reading instead of watching the build-up. One night the library started closing just as he reached the passage in Emma when it seems like Mr Knightley is going to marry Harriet, and he had to close the book and walk home in a state of strange emotional agitation. He’s amused at himself, getting wrapped up in the drama of novels like that. It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another. But there it is: literature moves him. One of his professors calls it ‘the pleasure of being touched by great art’. In those words it almost sounds sexual. And in a way, the feeling provoked in Connell when Mr Knightley kisses Emma’s hand is not completely asexual, though its relation to sexuality is indirect. It suggests to Connell that the same imagination he uses as a reader is necessary to understand real people also, and to be intimate with them.

You’re not from Dublin, are you? says Gareth.

No. Sligo.

Oh yeah? My girlfriend’s from Sligo.

Connell isn’t sure what Gareth expects him to say to this.

Oh, he replies weakly. Well, there you go.

People in Dublin often mention the west of Ireland in this strange tone of voice, as if it’s a foreign country, but one they consider themselves very knowledgeable about. In the Workmans the other night, Connell told a girl he was from Sligo and she made a funny face and said: Yeah, you look like it. Increasingly it seems as if Connell is actually drawn towards this supercilious type of person. Sometimes on a night out, among a crowd of smiling women in tight dresses and perfectly applied lipstick, his flatmate Niall will point out one person and say: I bet you think she’s attractive. And it will always be some flat-chested girl wearing ugly shoes and disdainfully smoking a cigarette. And Connell has to admit, yes, he does find her attractive, and he may even try to talk to her, and he will go home feeling even worse than before.

Awkwardly he looks around the room and says: You live here, do you?

Yeah, says Gareth. Not bad for campus accommodation, is it?

No, yeah. It’s really nice actually.

Whereabouts are you living yourself?

Connell tells him. It’s a flat near college, just off Brunswick Place. He and Niall have one box room between them, with two single beds pushed up against opposite walls. They share a kitchen with two Portuguese students who are never home. The flat has some problems with damp and often gets so cold at night that Connell can see his own breath in the dark, but Niall is a decent person at least. He’s from Belfast, and he also thinks people in Trinity are weird, which is reassuring. Connell half-knows some of Niall’s friends by now, and he’s acquainted with most of his own classmates, but no one he would have a proper conversation with.

Back home, Connell’s shyness never seemed like much of an obstacle to his social life, because everyone knew who he was already, and there was never any need to introduce himself or create impressions about his personality. If anything, his personality seemed like something external to himself, managed by the opinions of others, rather than anything he individually did or produced. Now he has a sense of invisibility, nothingness, with no reputation to recommend him to anyone. Though his physical appearance has not changed, he feels objectively worse-looking than he used to be. He has become self-conscious about his clothes. All the guys in his class wear the same waxed hunting jackets and plum-coloured chinos, not that Connell has a problem with people dressing how they want, but he would feel like a complete prick wearing that stuff. At the same time, it forces him to acknowledge that his own clothes are cheap and unfashionable. His only shoes are an ancient pair of Adidas trainers, which he wears everywhere, even to the gym.

He still goes home at the weekends, because he works in the garage Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. Most people from school have left town now, for college or for work. Karen is living down in Castlebar with her sister, Connell hasn’t seen her since the Leaving Cert. Rob and Eric are both studying Business in Galway and never seem to be in town. Some weekends Connell doesn’t see anyone from school at all. He sits at home in the evening watching television with his mother. What’s it like living on your own? he asked her last week. She smiled. Oh, it’s fantastic, she said. No one leaving towels on the couch. No dirty dishes in the sink, it’s great. He nodded, humourless. She gave him a playful little shove. What do you want me to say? she says. I’m crying myself to sleep at night? He rolled his eyes. Obviously not, he muttered. She told him she was glad he had moved away, she thought it would be good for him. What’s good about moving away? he said. You’ve lived here all your life and you turned out fine. She gawked at him. Oh, and you’re planning to bury me here, are you? she said. Jesus, I’m only thirty-five. He tried not to smile, but he did find it funny. I could move away tomorrow, thanks very much, she added. It would save me looking at your miserable face every weekend. He had to laugh then, he couldn’t help it.

Gareth is saying something Connell can’t hear now. Watch the Throne is playing very loudly over a tinny pair of speakers. Connell leans forward a little, towards Gareth, and says: What?

My girlfriend, you should meet her, says Gareth. I’ll introduce you.

Glad of a break in the conversation, Connell follows Gareth out the main door and onto the front steps. The building faces the tennis courts, which are locked now for the night and look eerily cool in the emptiness, reddish under the street lights. Down the steps some people are smoking and talking.

Hey, Marianne, says Gareth.

She looks up from her cigarette, mid-sentence. She’s wearing a corduroy jacket over a dress, and her hair is pinned back. Her hand, holding the cigarette, looks long and ethereal in the light.

Oh, right, says Connell. Hi.

Instantly, unbelievably, Marianne’s face breaks into a gigantic smile, exposing her crooked front teeth. She’s wearing lipstick. Everyone is watching her now. She had been speaking, but she’s stopped to stare at him.

Jesus Christ, she says. Connell Waldron! From beyond the grave.

He coughs and, in a panic to appear normal, says: When did you take up smoking?

To Gareth, to her friends, she adds: We went to school together. Fixing her gaze on Connell again, looking radiantly pleased, she says: Well, how are you? He shrugs and mumbles: Yeah, alright, good. She looks at him as if her eyes have a message in them. Would you like a drink? she says. He holds up the bottle Gareth gave him. I’ll get you a glass, she says. Come on inside. She goes up the steps to him. Over her shoulder she says: Back in a second. From this remark, and from the way she was standing on the steps, he can tell that all these people at the party are her friends, she has a lot of friends, and she’s happy. Then the front door shuts behind them and they’re in the hallway, alone.

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