Home > Normal People(4)

Normal People(4)
Author: Sally Rooney

In the hallway the next morning he kissed her goodbye and her mouth tasted alkaline, like toothpaste. Thanks, she said. Then she left, before he understood what he was being thanked for. He put the bedsheets in the washing machine and took fresh linen from the hot press. He was thinking about what a secretive, independent-minded person Marianne was, that she could come over to his house and let him have sex with her, and she felt no need to tell anyone about it. She just let things happen, like nothing meant anything to her.

Lorraine got home that afternoon. Before she’d even put her keys on the table she said: Is that the washing machine? Connell nodded. She crouched down and looked through the round glass window into the drum, where his sheets were tossing around in the froth.

I’m not going to ask, she said.


She started to fill the kettle, while he leaned against the countertop.

Why your bedclothes are in the wash, she said. I’m not asking.

He rolled his eyes just for something to do with his face. You think the worst of everything, he said.

She laughed, fixing the kettle into its cradle and hitting the switch. Excuse me, she said. I must be the most permissive mother of anyone in your school. As long as you’re using protection, you can do what you want.

He said nothing. The kettle started to warm up and she took a clean mug down from the press.

Well? she said. Is that a yes?

Yes what? Obviously I didn’t have unprotected sex with anyone while you were gone. Jesus.

So go on, what’s her name?

He left the room then but he could hear his mother laughing as he went up the stairs. His life is always giving her amusement.

In school on Monday he had to avoid looking at Marianne or interacting with her in any way. He carried the secret around like something large and hot, like an overfull tray of hot drinks that he had to carry everywhere and never spill. She just acted the same as always, like it never happened, reading her book at the lockers as usual, getting into pointless arguments. At lunchtime on Tuesday, Rob started asking questions about Connell’s mother working in Marianne’s house, and Connell just ate his lunch and tried not to make any facial expressions.

Would you ever go in there yourself? Rob said. Into the mansion.

Connell jogged his bag of chips in his hand and then peered into it. I’ve been in there a few times, yeah, he said.

What’s it like inside?

He shrugged. I don’t know, he said. Big, obviously.

What’s she like in her natural habitat? Rob said.

I don’t know.

I’d say she thinks of you as her butler, does she?

Connell wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. It felt greasy. His chips were too salty and he had a headache.

I doubt it, Connell said.

But your mam is her housemaid, isn’t she?

Well, she’s just a cleaner. She’s only there like twice a week, I don’t think they interact much.

Does Marianne not have a little bell she would ring to get her attention, no? Rob said.

Connell said nothing. He didn’t understand the situation with Marianne at that point. After he talked to Rob he told himself it was over, he’d just had sex with her once to see what it was like, and he wouldn’t see her again. Even as he was saying all this to himself, however, he could hear another part of his brain, in a different voice, saying: Yes you will. It was a part of his consciousness he had never really known before, this inexplicable drive to act on perverse and secret desires. He found himself fantasising about her in class that afternoon, at the back of Maths, or when they were supposed to be playing rounders. He would think of her small wet mouth and suddenly run out of breath, and have to struggle to fill his lungs.

That afternoon he went to her house after school. All the way over in the car he kept the radio on very loud so he didn’t have to think about what he was doing. When they went upstairs he didn’t say anything, he let her talk. That’s so good, she kept saying. That feels so good. Her body was all soft and white like flour dough. He seemed to fit perfectly inside her. Physically it just felt right, and he understood why people did insane things for sexual reasons then. In fact he understood a lot of things about the adult world that had previously seemed mysterious. But why Marianne? It wasn’t like she was so attractive. Some people thought she was the ugliest girl in school. What kind of person would want to do this with her? And yet he was there, whatever kind of person he was, doing it. She asked him if it felt good and he pretended he didn’t hear her. She was on her hands and knees so he couldn’t see her facial expression or read into it what she was thinking. After a few seconds she said in a much smaller voice: Am I doing something wrong? He closed his eyes.

No, he said. I like it.

Her breath sounded ragged then. He pulled her hips back against his body and then released her slightly. She made a noise like she was choking. He did it again and she told him she was going to come. That’s good, he said. He said this like nothing could be more ordinary to him. His decision to drive to Marianne’s house that afternoon suddenly seemed very correct and intelligent, maybe the only intelligent thing he had ever done in his life.

After they were finished he asked her what he should do with the condom. Without lifting her face off the pillow she said: You can just leave it on the floor. Her face was pink and damp. He did what she said and then lay on his back looking up at the light fixtures. I like you so much, Marianne said. Connell felt a pleasurable sorrow come over him, which brought him close to tears. Moments of emotional pain arrived like this, meaningless or at least indecipherable. Marianne lived a drastically free life, he could see that. He was trapped by various considerations. He cared what people thought of him. He even cared what Marianne thought, that was obvious now.

Multiple times he has tried writing his thoughts about Marianne down on paper in an effort to make sense of them. He’s moved by a desire to describe in words exactly how she looks and speaks. Her hair and clothing. The copy of Swann’s Way she reads at lunchtime in the school cafeteria, with a dark French painting on the cover and a mint-coloured spine. Her long fingers turning the pages. She’s not leading the same kind of life as other people. She acts so worldly at times, making him feel ignorant, but then she can be so naive. He wants to understand how her mind works. If he silently decides not to say something when they’re talking, Marianne will ask ‘what?’ within one or two seconds. This ‘what?’ question seems to him to contain so much: not just the forensic attentiveness to his silences that allows her to ask in the first place, but a desire for total communication, a sense that anything unsaid is an unwelcome interruption between them. He writes these things down, long run-on sentences with too many dependent clauses, sometimes connected with breathless semicolons, as if he wants to recreate a precise copy of Marianne in print, as if he can preserve her completely for future review. Then he turns a new page in the notebook so he doesn’t have to look at what he’s done.


What are you thinking about? says Marianne now.

She’s tucking her hair behind her ear.

College, he says.

You should apply for English in Trinity.

He stares at the webpage again. Lately he’s consumed by a sense that he is in fact two separate people, and soon he will have to choose which person to be on a full-time basis, and leave the other person behind. He has a life in Carricklea, he has friends. If he went to college in Galway he could stay with the same social group, really, and live the life he has always planned on, getting a good degree, having a nice girlfriend. People would say he had done well for himself. On the other hand, he could go to Trinity like Marianne. Life would be different then. He would start going to dinner parties and having conversations about the Greek bailout. He could fuck some weird-looking girls who turn out to be bisexual. I’ve read The Golden Notebook, he could tell them. It’s true, he has read it. After that he would never come back to Carricklea, he would go somewhere else, London, or Barcelona. People would not necessarily think he had done well; some people might think he had gone very bad, while others would forget about him entirely. What would Lorraine think? She would want him to be happy, and not care what others said. But the old Connell, the one all his friends know: that person would be dead in a way, or worse, buried alive, and screaming under the earth.

Then we’d both be in Dublin, he says. I bet you’d pretend you didn’t know me if we bumped into each other.

Marianne says nothing at first. The longer she stays silent the more nervous he feels, like maybe she really would pretend not to know him, and the idea of being beneath her notice gives him a panicked feeling, not only about Marianne personally but about his future, about what’s possible for him.

Then she says: I would never pretend not to know you, Connell.

The silence becomes very intense after that. For a few seconds he lies still. Of course, he pretends not to know Marianne in school, but he didn’t mean to bring that up. That’s just the way it has to be. If people found out what he has been doing with Marianne, in secret, while ignoring her every day in school, his life would be over. He would walk down the hallway and people’s eyes would follow him, like he was a serial killer, or worse. His friends don’t think of him as a deviant person, a person who could say to Marianne Sheridan, in broad daylight, completely sober: Is it okay if I come in your mouth? With his friends he acts normal. He and Marianne have their own private life in his room where no one can bother them, so there’s no reason to mix up the separate worlds. Still, he can tell he has lost his footing in their discussion and left an opening for this subject to arise, though he didn’t want it to, and now he has to say something.

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