Our judges, Literary Agent Simon Trewin, Bob Johnston from the Gutter Bookshop and author and journalist Edel Coffey, had a tough job narrowing down the long list of eighteen fabulous stories to just six, but here they are!
It’s now down to you, the reader, to vote for your favourite and choose the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year 2021 before 15th November when voting closes.
Previous winners are Billy O’Callaghan, Donal Ryan, John Boyne, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Orla McAlinden, Roisin O’Donnell, Nicole Flattery and Caoilinn Hughes.
The lucky author will be announced at the An Post Irish Book Awards on 23rd November, an event that will be televised by RTE shortly afterwards.
This year’s shortlist (in alphabetical order of author) is:
‘The Leaving Place’ Jan Carson from The Black Dreams (Blackstaff Press)
‘Worms’ by Roddy Doyle from Life Without Children (Jonathan Cape)
‘Blackthorns’ by Bernard MacLaverty from Blank Pages and Other Stories (Jonathan Cape)
‘The Wake’ by Alan Murrin from Waves of Change (Fresher Publishing – Bournemouth University)
Jan Carson is the Belfast-based author of two short story collections, two novels and two micro-fiction collections. Her novel, The Fire Starters, won the EU Prize for Literature for Ireland in 2019. A new novel, The Raptures, is forthcoming in January 2022.
The Leaving Place
I should have left the children with my sister. They are too young. Later, when they are older, they will remember this afternoon and wonder if they ruined it for you.
You want to say goodbye at home. It would be easier for you. For them. For all of us. But I’m thinking about the drive from the forest back to our house. How empty the car will feel without you; how light and empty. I’ll need the children to pin me down.
In the car, on the way to the forest, the children are their usual demanding selves. Anna asks if we can have McDonald’s for dinner. Fergus says McDonald’s is disgusting. He’s seen, on telly, that their chicken nuggets are made of liquidised feet. Anna hits Fergus. Fergus hits back harder. He is five. She’s only three. In the resulting kerfuffle, milk is spilled. The sour stink of it will linger in the car for weeks, bitter and familiar as the memory of this afternoon.
Alarmed by the racket, the baby wakes and begins to howl. He can’t be pacified. I try everything. Soft, soothing words. Reaching behind myself to pat him one-handed on the knee. Raisins. I even give him chocolate buttons, though in the list of rules you’ve left behind, chocolate’s only to be administered as a special treat. (You have not even gone, and I am already failing.) In desperation I put on his nursery rhymes CD and crank up the volume. The children are still yelling, but it is harder to hear the specifics through a solid wall of Old MacDonald and his farmyard friends.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘This isn’t how we planned it.’
I’d intended to give you Joni Mitchell at the end, a freshly valeted car and calm, smiling children: clean and well-presented, like children lifted from the Next catalogue.
You’d wanted it not to be raining for once.
You are more of a realist than me.
‘Never mind,’ you say. ‘The kids are just being themselves. It makes it more normal.’
‘Normal?’ I say. ‘Normal’s the last word I’d use for today.’
You try to smile but it’s too painful. Everything is painful now. Talking. Not talking. Even sleeping hurts. You haven’t taken your tablets since yesterday morning. You want to be present at the end. You say the tablets blur the edges so you don’t know where your own body begins and ends.
I lay my hand lightly on yours. Your skin is petal-like and bruised from all the times they’ve tried to slide the drip in and missed and tried again. Your whole hand disappears beneath mine. I was prepared for the sickness and the pale, yellow shade your face would turn, the clouds of hair appearing like tiny, drowned creatures, in the shower basin. I’d seen all this in films. I was not prepared for the way you’d shrink. The treatment has taken so much of you. When I carry you through the forest it will be like carrying a child. Fergus weighs more than you and he is small for his age, slight and willowy like a maple sapling.
The car park is empty. At least we will have privacy.
I get Fergus and Anna out of the back seat and usher them round to the passenger door. It’s lashing now and I haven’t thought to bring an umbrella. The children are itching to get back into the dry. Everything’s rushed because of the rain.
You take your time. You lay your hand on each child’s head. You are solemn in your blessing. ‘Mummy loves you so much,’ you say. ‘Be brave. Be kind. Look after your daddy.’ I don’t know where your strong voice is coming from. You are like an unbroken line with our children.
I hold the baby for you. You’re too weak to lift him yourself. You kiss the crown of his head where the hair’s worn away. You breathe in his powdered baby smell. As I lift him away, you look straight at me and do not blink. Your eyes are beginning to swim. I understand now that I am being selfish. It is too much to ask of you; parting like this, in a rainy car park.
I will the children to say something meaningful. Surely, Fergus is old enough to sense the mood. I love you, Mummy would be ideal. Instead, he says, ‘It’s raining. Can I get back in the car?’ Anna is on the other side of the car park toeing the edge of a mucky puddle. I wish, in this minute, our children were different children. Only the baby is playing along.
We’ve agreed not to scare them. I’m not going to say, This is it, kids, Mummy’s never coming back, but I feel like some sort of benediction’s necessary. They might hold this moment against me for the rest of their lives.
‘Mummy’s going away for a while,’ I say, raising my voice so Anna can hear. ‘Come and say goodbye.’
‘If Mummy’s away can we get McDonald’s for dinner?’ shouts Anna, bolting across the car park. ‘Can we go through the drive-thru?’
‘No,’ I snap.
‘Because the chicken nuggets are made out of feet,’ says Fergus.
I can’t believe this is your last precious moment with your children. I don’t know how to make it better.
‘Get in the car,’ I say.
I buckle the baby into his stiff-backed seat. I tell Anna and Fergus to behave themselves for a change. ‘Mummy and I are going for a wee walk,’ I say. ‘I’ll be back in five minutes.’
‘Are you going to do kissing?’ asks Anna. She’s only just realised that adults kiss differently from children.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘we’re going to do grown-up kissing on our own.’
Anna smiles. Fergus makes a puking face. This seems as good a place as any to make our exit. I leave the nursery rhymes playing. I give Fergus raisins for the baby and a dummy in case he starts fussing. I lift you out of the passenger seat, gently, gently as if you are made of spun glass. I carry you across the car park, into the forest, turning my whole body so you can catch the last glimpse of your children’s faces furring through the steamy windows.
‘Look at what we made together,’ I say. ‘Aren’t they beautiful?’
I have rehearsed these words on the drive over. They are the right words, but Fergus is ruining them, pressing his face against the glass so his nostrils flare and his mouth looms open like a wide fish mouth. He is wiping his slabbers across the window.
‘Lock the doors,’ you whisper. ‘I don’t want anything getting at my babies.’
I fumble for the clicker. It’s not in my pocket. The keys are still hanging from the ignition. I make a pretence of pressing it. You are too tired to notice the doors don’t lock. You believe your children are safe in the car. You would not leave them otherwise.
I find the entrance exactly where they said it would be. There’s a green ribbon tied around a tree trunk. It’s not an official path. The grass has been trampled down, then scuffed back up to disguise the entrance. You wouldn’t want anyone stumbling into the clearing. It’s a space reserved for those who need it.
I turn sideways, edging us past the brambles. Your face presses into the hollow of my neck. Your legs are like wet washing, draped over my arm. These last few months I’ve carried you so many times. From the bedroom to the couch. From the couch to the car. From the car to a wheelchair and, from there, to a bed in a white, white room with no windows and a chemical smell. Each time it has taken less strength to lift you. We’ve made a joke of it. You aren’t losing weight. I’m growing stronger from all this lifting. Power lifting, you call it. You say I should be paying you for the work out.
Today, you are lighter than ever, and I can hardly bear the weight of it.
The light leaves us in shades. It is darker than I’d anticipated. I wish I’d brought a proper torch. The path is damp. The air, sullen. The rain, filtering through the trees, sounds faint and freckled like a distant stream. We do not speak to each other. There is nothing left to say.
I use the light on my mobile to pick out the ribbons. Everything’s green in here, but the ribbons are a more demanding shade. Someone has taken the time to measure them and cut them and tie each one carefully to the trunk of a tree, marking a path through the forest. I am grateful for this kindness. We’ve been told to look for the ribbons and, just before the clearing, a small, stagnant stream which marks the boundary of the Leaving Place. As we approach it, the darkness lifts. There’s a perfect circle of light, like a watery blue eye, blinking down on us. The rain holds its breath for a whole five minutes.
I step over the stream into the middle of the Leaving Place.
‘Is this it?’ you whisper. Your breath is barely strong enough to carry your words.
‘This is it,’ I say.
This is where I will leave you.
It’s exactly how I’ve been dreaming it. I wonder if you’ve dreamt something similar. The reedy grass. The trees like tall soldiers, guarding the parameter. The flat stone laid in the centre, roughly the shape and size of a tipped headstone. I will leave you on it with your mother’s blanket tucked around your shoulders. I do not want you getting cold.
This might have ended quite differently. In the hospital, with machines and lesser pain. At home, in the living room, held together by a hospice nurse. In the bath, as we’d initially planned, all warmth and candles, a handful of hoarded tablets washed down with our wedding malt. I wanted to go with the easiest option; the one which would involve least pain. In the end, it was not my decision to make. It wasn’t even a negotiated thing like choosing a house or a baby name.
You insisted upon the Leaving Place.
You said it felt natural; traditional even. Leaving ran through your family like a passed-down tea set. Your grandmother – crippled by cancer of the bone – had begged to be left in the forest. Your grandmother’s mother went similarly. She’d had something swelling in her brain: a kind of tumour, which took her sight and left her head so screaming sore, they’d called it kindness to carry her out to the Leaving Place. There are already plans for your father. He’ll leave next year or the one after. It depends how quickly the dementia takes hold.
At first, I was adamant. I would not be leaving you in a forest. I did not care how natural it felt; how the trees would take care of you. I grew up in a sort of city. I knew nothing of the country or its odd ways.
You persisted. You were calm throughout; calmly determined.
‘I’ll do whatever it takes,’ I said, ‘but please don’t ask me to leave you.’
You said you needed me to leave you. You couldn’t manage it alone. The pain had stripped the pith right out of you.
‘Please,’ you said, over and over again, night and day, for almost a week until your insistence turned me thin and I said, ‘Yes, I will leave you,’ though I didn’t know if I actually could.
Then, we began to make plans.
How I would raise our children in your image.
How I would not leave it too long – two years at most – before beginning to see other women. How I would judge these women on their own merits, not their similarity to you.
How I’d explain your end to the various interested parties: doctors, not-so-close friends, our children, who were too young for anything but a moderated version of events.
How you wanted the leaving to be.
I am following your instructions carefully. It is the only thing you’ve asked of me.
I lay you out on the central stone, tucking the blanket around your shoulders and toes. I kiss you once on the lips. I close your eyes like you’re already gone. I do not say the word goodbye. You’ve been clear on this; no goodbyes, no hysterics. Instead, I say, ‘You have been so very loved.’ I leave the swell of this hanging over you like a burnt offering.
I turn and walk away from the Leaving Place. I do not look back. You haven’t stipulated this, but I know myself too well. If I look back, I will see you, small and defenceless with the trees already reaching down. I won’t be able to leave you there. I won’t be able to walk away.
I walk away, following the green ribbons in reverse. I do not cry. We’ve agreed upon this. I have to be strong for the children’s sake. Late at night, when the three of them were fast asleep, you’d make me practise not crying: ‘Think of never seeing me again,’ you’d whisper. ‘Hold that thought until it stings. Don’t let yourself cry.’ If you caught me crying – or even tearing up a little – you’d pinch me hard. You’d gather a crease of soft flesh between your thumb and finger and nip until you left crescent-shaped indentations like parentheses running the length of my arms. If I had to cry, I could do it in private. Never, ever in front of the kids. You were not to be shifted on this point. Your nails remained sharp, right to the end.
When I reach the car park’s edge I pause for a moment, feet straddling the line where the forest ends. Everything is different now, yet here is the car, sitting exactly where we left it, and there are our children, blurring pinkly through the foggy windows. They will require feeding and cleaning and every other ordinary thing. I settle my voice. I think my words straight. I will say, ‘Mummy’s gone to get a bit of peace and quiet. I’ll come back and get her later.’ I will say this in my best dad voice.
Best dad voice goes out the window the second I arrive at the car. The baby’s in his seat, howling. Anna’s making her way through the remains of the chocolate buttons. Fergus is nowhere to be seen.
‘Where’s Fergus?’ I say, my voice shrill and climbing.
‘He went to find you and Mummy,’ says Anna.
I am howling like the baby. I am making sounds instead of words. Anna is rigid with fear. She’s clinging to her seatbelt like it is a rope she might climb to get out of here. Her daddy’s making a monster noise. Her mummy’s left her alone with him. It must be awful in her head, like she’s wandered into a story book world. I should stay and comfort my daughter, but I can’t leave Fergus in the forest alone.
‘Stay in the car,’ I say. ‘Don’t move. I’m going to find Fergus.’
I can hear Anna wailing as I sprint across the car park. The baby raises his voice to harmonise. I’m torn between them and the forest beyond. You’d warned me it would be like this. ‘You’ll be pulled all roads and directions,’ you said. ‘You’ll always feel like you’re failing them.’ You’d a smile on your face when we had this chat as if you were recalling a particularly fond memory: a birthday party or a romantic meal.
Fergus won’t answer when I call for him. It will take almost fifteen minutes of searching before I find him, sitting on an old fir stump just inside the Leaving Place. He won’t be panicking or crying, just staring at the branches above his head, swaying with them, as if he’s hypnotised. I will run to him. I will pick him up. I will carry him quickly out of the forest, through clawing brambles and mulch-thick mud. All the time I will be talking. I will be challenging the hungry silence. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry,’ I will say. ‘Are you okay? I’m so sorry.’ Fergus won’t speak. He’ll hold himself stiffly in my arms like the branch of a tree, or a boy who’s seen more than he should have.
I will set him down on the car park’s edge, placing his feet on the firm tarmac. I will go over him carefully looking for signs. The skin on his face will seem paler than usual. I’ll raise my own hand for contrast and wonder if the shade is slightly green and if his eyes, which were always hazel, are a little more mossy than the last time I looked. I will pick the leaves from his hair, the twigs and prickly needles. I will wipe the mud stains off his arms. I will say very loudly in a confident voice, ‘Look at the state you’ve got yourself in,’ because this is a normal kind of thing to say when your child’s been playing in a forest. I will try to ignore the silence in him.
Tomorrow, when I return for you, I will leave the children with my sister. I will warn her that Fergus isn’t himself at the minute. ‘It’s his mother,’ I’ll say, ‘he knows something’s wrong.’ I won’t mention his silence or the pale green rash mottling over his lower legs. Sure, you’d only see it if you were looking for it. It’s probably just a reaction to the washing powder.
I will drive to the forest on my own. With no one there to disappoint, I will allow myself to cry. I will follow the ribbons back to the Leaving Place and find you, exactly where I laid you: still and quiet, swaddled in a blanket of leaves. I will peel pack the fine branches which have fingered their way across your face and sever the roots that bind you to the ground. You will be pale and glowing in the muggy light as I close your eyes for the final time. I will note your lips raised in an almost smile. I will choose to believe the trees are kind.
I will carry you back to the car; belt you in like you’re still alive. I will talk without ceasing all the way home. This and that and nothing specific. I will keep my eyes glued to the road. If I don’t stop talking, I won’t hear your silence. If I don’t look at you, in the real-world light, I won’t see the pale, green glooming of your skin. And I won’t be reminded of our little boy. I will not be afraid that he’s leaving me too.
Roddy Doyle was born in Dublin in 1958. He is the author of twelve acclaimed novels including The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van and Smile, two collections of short stories, and Rory & Ita, a memoir about his parents. He won the Booker Prize in 1993 for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.
He started to notice it one night, in the early days of the Corona. He was shaving – he always shaved at night – and that old song, ‘The Whistling Gypsy’, was there in his head. Not like a thought, but lower, at ear level, as if he was actually hearing the thing. He realised then, that particular night, that it wasn’t the first time he’d heard the song while he shaved. And it happened again a few days later, the next time he was shaving. ‘The Whistling Gypsy’ was in his ears, both of them, although he could hear no real music.
It had been a big song when he was a kid. Ah dee doo – ah dee doo da day. His mother would have sungit in the kitchen and he was sure his father did too, orhummed it. But he couldn’t remember either of themsinging or whistling it. He had no idea why that songwas in his head, or why it turned itself on only whenhe was shaving.
It was ‘Back to My Roots’ in the shower. He’d been out in the garden most of the day. He was feeling stiff and satisfied – none of the anxiety that had been in his shoulders for weeks – and ‘Back to My Roots’ was there, at his ears. Odyssey was the name of the band – in 1981 or ’82. The song had never been a favourite of his. But it was there when he bent down to pick up the soap. At that exact moment.
He was outside again the following afternoon, cutting the ivy back off the satellite dish – filling in the day, really. And when he was taking the lock off the shed door to go in and get the secateurs – the second he had the padlock in his hand – he started hearing ‘Son of My Father’, and he knew he’d heard the same thing the last time he’d held the lock. He opened a new page in the notes on his phone and he made a list of what
he had so far – shaving, the shower, the padlock. He called the page Earworms, because he’d heard the term once and he’d liked it, a sound like a worm, wriggling,
sliding, digging into your eardrum. He googled earworm – this was still out in the garden – and these songs he’d been hearing weren’t earworms at all, strictly speaking. Because they weren’t irritating or unwelcome. They only stayed a few seconds. They weren’t songs he liked or disliked. ‘Son of My Father’ ended before the singing even started; it was just the opening part, the catchy synthesiser bit. ‘Back to My Roots’ was the first two lines and a Yeah. He looked at the list – the three titles, so far – and he began to see that his day might be full of these things. It didn’t worry him. It was introspection. He supposed. He’d heard someone on the radio talking about introspection, a woman with
a voice like an old-style air hostess. Introspection was only natural in these times, she’d said, and it wasn’t something to be anxious about. ‘We can do great things when we look within,’ she’d said. She’d sounded too keen for the word. The radio had been full of over-keen voices. Working from home, walking with purpose, home-schooling, human capital – men and women screaming for a decent slice of the airtime. He’d thought that the introspective air hostess sounded a bit desperate. But not long after he’d heard her talk about the importance of making daily lists, he was making a list of his own.
He came in from the garden and he was pouring himself a mug of water. ‘I’m Not in Love’ –‘Big boys don’t cry, big boys don’t cry.’ The second he put his hand on the cold tap. He added it to the list. He could feel it; he was really enjoying himself. And he was bending down, to see if it sparked off a song, when Thelma walked in and saw him.
—You’re not in the right gear for ballet, Joseph, she said.
—What are you doing?
The easiest thing was to show her the list.
—Oh, I love that one. Big boys don’t cry.
The whole idea, it grabbed her.
—Come here, she said. —‘Back to My Roots’. Does it start when the soap is in your hand?
—I don’t know – I’m not sure. Why?
—Well, look it, she said. —The razor, the lock, the tap. The soap too, maybe. The songs arrive whenever you’re holding something.
She took the breadknife off the counter and held it out for him. He took it. She stood back.
—Yeah – nothing.
—I might have contaminated it, she said. He put the knife back down on the counter.
—It’s all yours, he said.
—Open the fridge.
—Fuck off in a nice way, Thelma.
It was the longest conversation they’d had in weeks. It had been almost – Christ – flirtatious. And unsettling – it had definitely been unsettling. Joe felt like he was strolling into a trap.
The day after, she was showing him her own list.
—That one there, she said. —When I was leaning into the car.
Was she having a go at him? He looked at her, at the side of her face. There was nothing dangerous there, nothing getting ready to pounce. Her finger on the screen told him what to read.
—‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing’.
—Twice, she said. —Putting the bags in – in the car park. I went across to Lidl. And I wanted to get away sharpish.
He was still looking at the song.
—I still had my mask on and that, she said. —And I didn’t put the bags in the boot like normal. I opened the door behind my door and I was leaning in, to get the bags well in. And I heard ‘It don’t dah-dah-dah if it don’t dah-dah-dah.’ And then again – outside. Just now.
She left the phone with him and was emptying one of the shopping bags and spraying each item with the sanitiser they kept on the kitchen table.
—Do you get any songs when you’re in or around the car, Joe?
—Why is it?
She was stealing his Lego – that was what it felt like. Pushing him away from the box. But she was smiling at him over her shoulder.
He heard ‘Wichita Lineman’ when he was out for his daily walk. Just the guitar solo, when he got to the top of the hill, when he could see the Dart station – the bridge – ahead of him.
He went home and told Thelma.
—Is there a hill in the song?
—When you got to the hill –.
—In the song?
—No, he said. —The opposite.
—What’s the opposite of a hill? she asked.
He remembered an interview with Glen Campbell, or it might have been Jimmy Webb, the guy who wrote the song. Webb or Campbell spoke about the flatness of the landscape. You could stand on a matchbox and see for thirty miles.
—Wichita, he said. —It’s completely flat. That part of America.
He heard more worms but he kept them to himself. He divided them into categories and sub-categories. Touch, Mood, Favourites. Trying to make sense of them. He wondered if he was making a compilation of his life, an earworm autobiography. The razor was adult,
the padlock was ownership. He didn’t know what bending over in the shower was, but it made him laugh when he was looking at the list on the phone.
He was in the kitchen again. So was Thelma.
—A new one?
It was days since they’d had an earworm conversation. The last one had ended in a row. He suspected that Thelma had been cheating, coming up with song titles for the crack.
—Does anything ever happen when you’re putting out the wheelies? she’d asked him.
—No, he said. —Why?
—Just – I heard ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’, Thelma told him.
—When I was out there.
—At the wheelie bins?
—You never put the wheelies out, he said. —It’s always me does that.
—That’s why I was wondering.
—If it was one of yours, she said.
—‘Cracklin’ fuckin’ Rosie’?
—It must be mine, so.
—You’re a wagon, Thelma, he said.
—You’re taking the piss.
—Ah, Joe. I’m not. It’s just a bit of fun, though, isn’t it?
He didn’t answer. He was upset. He didn’t know why, exactly. The list was a bit idiotic but, somehow, it was important. It was some sort of message to himself. A path, a map – he didn’t know, he hadn’t a clue. But he was interested in something – really interested – for the first time in years. And Thelma wasn’t going to wreck it.
—Look, she said now, in the kitchen when she caught him laughing.
She was holding her phone in front of him. He could see it was open on Spotify.
—What am I looking at? he asked.
—My playlist, she said.
—All the songs, she said. —My worms. Different versions.
He took the phone off her and brought it up to his face.
—Did you know that Lonnie Donegan sang ‘Kevin Barry’? she said.
—No, he said. —Did he?
—Imagine, she said. —The king of skiffle recording an Irish rebel song.
He’d had no idea that she knew what skiffle was. He hadn’t known that she had Spotify.
—Will we do it together? she said.
—Compile the songs, she said.
She looked straight at him. And he looked straight back. For the first time in years. He realised that as he did it.
—Okay, he said.
They spent hours listening to the worms and covers of the worms.
—See, that’s a big difference between us, she said.
—What? he said. —Go on.
He’d fallen in love with his wife.
—I’ll tell you, she said. —You call them covers and I just call them versions.
—The songs – you’re talkin’ about the songs?
—Is that all? he said.
—You think they’re precious and I think they’re only oul’ songs.
He could feel it – he knew it. She understood him. She got him. Thirty-four years after they’d met. And he got her – he thought. He hoped. Something had happened. They’d opened up to each other. He wasn’t sure why – it made no real sense.
—It was your face, she told him.
—What about my face?
—I could see into you, she said.
—Sorry, he said. —What do you mean?
—When you were talking about your worms, she said. —Or thinking about them. Your guard was down. I could see who you were.
—And I liked you, she said.
—And what about me? she said.
—What about you?
—Some things don’t change, it seems.
—You’re different, he said.
—No, he said. —That’s not it. I don’t mean you’re different. I mean – there’s more of you.
—Ah, here –.
—More to you. There’s more to you – that’s what I mean.
—That feels a bit – well – well, a bit hurtful.
—I know, he said. —And I want to apologise.
—Okay, she said. —For what, though?
They were in the bed. Neither of them had moved.
—For not – like –. For not getting to know you properly. I think.
—And I really like you.
—What are we like?
—I don’t know, he said.
—I was being –. I think I was being facetious.
—I know, he said. —But it’s true. I don’t know what we’re like.
—‘The Whistling Gypsy’ has to go, she said.
—I can’t find an even half-decent version, she said.
—So what? said Joe. —It’s what I hear when I’m shaving.
—Well, it’s not going on the playlist.
—What’s your problem, Thelma?
It wasn’t a minefield any more. It was pleasure.
—D’you know who sang that song, Joe? she said.
—The purple fucking dinosaur.
—He’s not the only one, surely.
—Well, she said. —I thought –. I thought Nick Cave or someone was bound to have done it. Even once – at a gig. For a laugh. Or Tom Waits. Or Willie Nelson.
—Perfect, she said. —But even someone uncool would do. Just human.
—Crystal Gayle – or Leo Sayer.
It wasn’t that she’d taken a sudden interest in music, or the music he was into. It was years since he, himself, had been into anything. Not just the modern stuff. He knew that Taylor Swift and Stormzy existed but he’d no idea what they sounded like. The music he’d grown up with, the albums that he’d thought defined him – he’d stopped listening to them, years ago. But then, in the pandemic, in what became the first lockdown, he was back listening to music. But it was better this time; it was fun. The worms weren’t the bigots that he’d been
when he was nineteen. He was happy enough listening to anything.
—It’s called ‘The Happy Wanderer’ as well, said Thelma.
—‘The Whistling Gypsy’, she said. —They’re the same song – listen.
They shared her headphones, a bud each, like teenage girls, their heads resting against each other. They listened to a version of ‘The Happy Wanderer’ that had been in The Sopranos, sung by Frankie Yankovic. Joe had never felt more at home, or excited. Leaning against this woman who he’d discovered he’d been married to for more than thirty years.
—That’s not the same song, he said.
He was delighted – he didn’t know why. And so was she.
—Is it not?
—No, he said. —They’re completely different.
He didn’t pull the bud from his ear. She didn’t pause the song.
—That’s a relief, she said. —It’s dreadful. What’s ‘The Wandering Gypsy’ then?
—It’s not foller-ee-foller-ah, he said. —It’s ah dee doo, ah dee doo da day.
He watched her fingers travelling across her phone. Her sixty-year-old fingers. He wanted to bend and kiss the knuckles. But he didn’t want to interrupt her. He wanted to watch as she searched for the song.
—Ah, she said. —Here. Yet another name – ‘The Gypsy Rover’. The Clancy Brothers sang it. Here we go – brace yourself, Joseph.
Was this the new life? The third age someone had tried to tell him about? He couldn’t remember who – it was so long since he’d stood in front of anyone and chatted. He thought it was one of the men he knew in the pub who’d been yapping on about the third age, like an estate agent trying to sell it. He hadn’t really listened. Your life was your life, he’d thought. You took what came at you.
But he wondered. He’d been miserable – for years, before the lockdown. He got up, made it through the day, went to bed, got up. The lockdown hadn’t made much difference – until he met Thelma. Re-met her. They were laughing together one day and they’d looked
at each other and he’d started to cry, and so had she. He’d gone to hug her. She’d let him.
—I’m sorry, he said.
She knew what he meant.
—Me too, she said. —Will we get a takeaway? To celebrate.
She sighed the night when they heard that the travel restrictions were being lifted. They were sitting together, watching the News. There was a chart on the screen, the various categories of workers and when they could start going back to work.
—It’s good, I suppose.
—Ah, it is.
They stopped watching the News. They stayed in their lockdown. They shopped just twice a week. They stayed clear of the brothers and sisters, the cousins and friends. They said no to all the picnics and barbeques. They used Thelma’s asthma. She had to be careful, they said. And they were left alone. The word was out; Thelma had an underlying condition. The asthma hadn’t been a thing in Thelma’s life in years, decades – since, Joe estimated, a couple of years after they got married. There’d been a line they’d had back then – Is that passion or asthma? – one of a string of gags they’d made their own until the asthma seemed to just go,
quietly, and the jokes and bits of phrases went with it.
—D’you remember the Ventolin orgasm? Joe asked her one day, after she got off the phone with her sister.
—We were hilarious, she said.
—What actually happened your asthma? he asked her.
—Well, she said. —I was always told that I’d probably grow out of it. And that’s what happened – I suppose. Giving birth is my bet.
They had a new rule that they both loved: they weren’t allowed to talk about the kids. They had a room upstairs, the boys’ old bedroom, where they went if they had anything to say about the children, or if they were going to phone or Zoom them. The panic room,
they called it. Thelma referring to the birth of their eldest, in the sitting room – it took seconds for Joe to catch up.
—You never said anything at the time, he said. —I don’t think you did.
—I probably didn’t notice, she said. —But some sort of a psychological shift – that’d be my theory. Today.
—Amazing, really – isn’t it?
—I suppose it is, she said.
What neither of them said was that, really – they’d stopped talking. The words they’d spoken to each other, and there were a lot of them – millions – were exchanges of information as they passed each other in the kitchen, on the stairs, as one of them got out of the car and the other got in, as they got into bed and out of bed. And that habit, that practice, that polite desolation, had continued long after the kids were gone. Until the worms slid into his life, and her life. Into their lives. Their life.
—Well, it’s back, Joe said. —Officially. Your asthma.
—In name only.
—Do you feel guilty? he asked.
—Not a bit.
They got through the summer, the autumn and into the second lockdown without too much interference. The kids came to visit, one at a time. They weren’t invited to stay.
—Can I use the washing machine?
—No – sorry.
—Because you’ll have to come back to collect it. That’s not on. And you can’t stay overnight.
—Your mother’s been advised, love. We’ve to limit the visits. Because of her asthma.
—She doesn’t have asthma.
—You never had asthma when we were small, like.
—That’s because I was too busy with yours.
—I didn’t have asthma – that was Colm.
—I wasn’t being literal, sweetheart. But the asthma’s real – sorry. And so is the Covid. It’ll be different at Christmas – won’t it, Joe?
—Yeah, said Joe. —Open house.
They watched Micheál Martin on the News announcing the careful opening up of the country. The phrase he used – a meaningful Christmas – felt more insidious than any virus. But they knew they’d have to let the family in. They remembered their first Christmas together, when Thelma had been pregnant and they’d told the others – her family, his family – that they’d be spending it alone, just the two of them. There’d been war and they’d called the house Stalingrad for a while – another joke they’d forgotten – but they’d won. They’d
had the day they’d wanted – a ride, a chicken, a pile of rented videos.
—We could do it again, said Joe. —Could we?
—No, said Thelma.
—I kind of miss them.
—Me too – I think.
She sighed, and smiled.
—Wait and see, she said. —The whole country will go mad and there’ll have to be another lockdown straight after.
They went to one of her sister’s, and then on to one of his. They didn’t hug anyone, and they didn’t stay anywhere for too long; they walked in wearing their masks. Two of the kids came to the house for a couple of days. They endured it all cheerfully. The pubs and restaurants would be shutting again on Christmas Eve and the home visits would be stopped. They put the turkey on the table knowing that they were almost into the third lockdown.
But it was different.
Joe woke and knew, immediately: they were in trouble. Thelma wasn’t awake but she was whimpering. She was in a fight against something he couldn’t see. He put a hand on her shoulder and felt the heat. His hold seemed to calm her. The whimpering died but a wheeze, a gentle rattle, had replaced it.
She was lying on her back now, still asleep.
Something was happening – he had to be ready. He went down to the kitchen and found the box where they kept the old medicines and plasters. He rooted through the empty packets and foil blister packs. He was hoping he’d see the strange blue of a Ventolin inhaler. Or the other one, the brown one – Becotide. He didn’t know what good either of them would do but he remembered the blue one in Thelma’s fist – years ago. He remembered her shaking it, bringing it quickly to her mouth, the gasp when she pressed the silver top with her thumb – actually, the bottom – and the seconds, the eternity, until she took the thing away from her mouth. He knew as he searched: there wasn’t an inhaler in the house. But there was a song in his fuckin’ ear.
She was still asleep when he got back to the bedroom with a glass of water in case she wanted it. He brought a chair in from the panic room and sat at the window. He googled asthma and Covid but he couldn’t read; the words weren’t sticking. He threw his phone on the bed.
He must have drifted. His neck was sore when he became aware that she was turning in the bed. He heard her gasp.
—Thelma – love?
He stood so he could see her properly. Her eyes were open; she was staring at something that wasn’t in the room.
He saw a slight nod – he thought he did.
—A bad dream?
There was no nod this time, no shake of the head. He leaned in, put his hand across her forehead. She was hot, and wet. She lifted her hand and gripped his wrist. She was holding on to him; he could feel that. Her hand was clammy – and, somehow, not hers.
—I heard another one, he told her. —Downstairs.
She squeezed his wrist.
—‘The Hustle’, he said.
He thought he saw her smile.
—Man-on-a-mission music, he said.
—No man I’d want – to know, she said.
She was fine – he’d just heard the proof. He grabbed his phone off the bed.
—Will I play it?
—No, she said.
She gasped. She whimpered.
—I’ll phone the doctor.
She didn’t answer.
She came downstairs. He stayed in the kitchen, so she wouldn’t see him watching her. She came in and took her bag off the table.
—I’ll come with you, he said.
—No, she said.
She looked okay. She sounded okay.
—Better for you to stay here, she said.
—If you have it, I have it, he said.
—No, she said.
He showed her the Croke Park testing centre on his phone, and the route from where they were standing.
—It’s not the usual way you’d go if you were going to Croke Park, he told her.
—I’ve never been to Croke Park, she said.
—Just look at the map, he said. —Stop being fuckin’ cranky.
She stood beside him.
—Are you sure about this?
—Has to be done, she said.
He followed her out to the car.
—Are you sure? he said.
—Go back inside, Joe, she said.
She kept him fed through the day with a stream of texts. The Q – FFS! He replied, but asked no questions. She was home by the end of the afternoon. She’d texted him when she was leaving Croke Park, on her way home. And he could check his calls and confirm that he’d phoned for the ambulance after he’d phoned the GP. There were two days, almost exactly forty-eight hours, between her text and his second phone call. She’d come home – he knew she had. But when he was asked to account for the two days – when he asked himself what
had happened – all he could say was, It got worse. He remembered bringing her water. He remembered telling her that ‘These Boots are Made for Walking’ had slid into his ear on his way up the stairs. He remembered waiting for her to say something. He remembered feeling like a fool for mentioning it, especially as it wasn’t true. He’d heard nothing, just her struggling to breathe before he got to the bedroom door.
The television was on when the ambulance lads brought Thelma down the stairs. It was right behind him – he hadn’t been watching it. He fought the urge to go in and turn it off while he stood at the sitting room door and watched them – and Thelma – pass, and go out. He stood outside and checked that he had his keys in his pocket in case he locked himself out, and he watched as one of the men shut the back door of the ambulance and climbed into the front. He didn’t look at Joe. Joe stayed there, halfway between the door and the gate, until the ambulance had gone around the corner. He went back in. He turned off the television, then turned it back on. She’d been gone five minutes but it felt like days – or longer. He tried to remember when they’d last spoken properly. He couldn’t hear her voice.
He slept where he sat.
He phoned the children. He must have – they phoned him back. They left food outside the door. They texted him. They sent him the names of forensic dramas that they knew he’d like. They WhatsApped him a video of Guards dancing – cops all over the country dancing to a catchy tune in front of perfect scenery. He looked at it for hours, again and again, and cried.
The phone rang on the couch beside him. It was a Dublin number, not a name. He looked at it, then picked it up.
—Hello there – am I talking to Joe?
—Hi, Joe – I’m calling from St Joseph’s ward –.
—No – it’s fine – no. Joe – do you have an iPad or a tablet? Aoife wasn’t sure.
—Christ – yeah. Sorry – yeah.
—No, no –. Do you?
He had to think.
—Yes, he said.
She was going to call him again in the morning, at ten – the girl; if she’d told him her name he’d forgotten it. He was going to answer on the iPad and he’d see Thelma – he’d be able to see Thelma.
—Will she be awake? he asked.
—Hopefully she will.
—Yeah. Thank you.
He looked at himself in the bathroom mirror. It was days since he’d shaved and he wanted to look normal for Thelma in the morning. He was drying his face when he realised that he hadn’t heard ‘The Whistling Gypsy’.
It was hard to know her on the screen. He’d expected the oxygen and the tubes. He’d seen enough hospital wards on the News over the past year, and nurses and doctors in the bee-keeper gear – he didn’t let himself be shocked.
—Here she is, said the nurse holding the iPad – her name was Úna.
—Do you see who’s here, Thelma? she said.
He wanted to tell her to shut up. He just wanted to look at Thelma. He wanted to recognise her.
—Is she awake?
He couldn’t see that. The screen was too close to her. Her skin didn’t look like skin. Her face wasn’t hers. Her hair was pushed way back off her head.
—Howyeh, Thelma, he said.
—Hear that now, Thelma? It’s Joe – isn’t it?
—Are they feeding you properly, Thelma?
He wanted it to end.
—Oh, we are. But maybe not up to your usual standard, if I’m being honest. Am I right, Thelma?
There was no movement. The shape he was looking at – it didn’t shift or react. The sounds came from under liquid. He was shaking when it was over and already dreaded having to do it again.
There was no change the next day. She looked the same.
He didn’t ask questions. The kids did, and they told him the answers.
—Will she be coming out? That’s all I want to know.
It was a horrible thing to ask, forcing the answer from one of his children.
—Don’t – sorry. You’re doing your best. I understand. I just miss her.
—So do I, Dad.
—I know, love.
Every morning, for ten days – his slot was ten o’clock – he sat at the kitchen table and waited for the call. He held up the iPad with one hand and pressed
the green circle.
The screen this time, the camera – he was looking straight at her face. The mask was off, beside her on the pillow, leaning against her ear.
She was saying something – speaking.
—I – heard – one. Joe.
—Did you? he said.
He seemed to see each word before he heard it.
—At first – I was – afraid – I was pet – rified.
He knew the song.
—‘I Will Survive’, he said.
The words were heavy – she worked hard at pulling them out.
—I – might.
—Jesus – I love you, he said.
Something struck him now, the thought that had been lurking for months.
—Your worms, he said. —You’ve been making them up all the time, haven’t you?
He looked at her mouth on the screen, and waited.
It was ages before she answered.
Bernard MacLaverty lives in Glasgow. He has written five previous collections of stories and five novels, including Grace Notes, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Midwinter Break, the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Novel of the Year. He has written versions of his fiction for other media – radio and television plays, screenplays and libretti.
County Derry 1942
The man walked the road with his two little girls.
They came to a small bridge where there was a
gap in the hedge that would allow them to go
down to the burn. Some branches were in the way and
the man held them to one side with his arm so the girls
could go through. When the innermost part of the hedge
was revealed, he had a look to see if there were any likely
sticks. He let the branches spring back again and, in doing
so, one scratched the back of his hand.
When he was out walking with his daughters he liked
to show them things. If he found an empty bird’s nest he
would lift them up to peep into it. He would tell them it
was now ‘their’ nest. But they must never touch it because
the bird would then forsake it. Every time they passed
this spot, they would remember. And they could have
nests all over the woods. As well as holes where badgers
lived. And wet places for frogspawn. And where the
biggest blackberries were in autumn.
They went down to the stream. It was shallow and the
fast water flowed noisily over the stones. In some places
it fanned white over larger rocks. The sound the burn
made was continual.
‘Can we build a dam?’ asked the elder girl. Their father
nodded. He was pleased because it was he who had taught
them to do this in the first place. But he started them off
by lifting some large stones and splashing them into place.
‘Careful, Anne.’ Their father declared that the water
was too cold at this time of year for them to go barefoot.
The girls wore grey socks and strappy shoes. They balanced
on dry stones, crouched on flat ones, dug downwards
with their fingers into the silt and mud and gravel.
They did not allow their hands to remain in the water
for long, but took them out and shook life back into
them. ‘Anne, keep an eye on Clare. Don’t let her get
too cold. And don’t ruin your shoes or your mother’ll
He left them to it and wandered upstream. He looked
at where the branch had scratched him and licked away
the blood. At this time of year the wood was devoid of
any flowers. He headed up the slope into the trees. What
he loved was the quiet, with only the occasional bird call.
And the now-distant sounds and squeals of his two
daughters as they played. It was late afternoon and the light
was beginning to disappear. He loved the way the trees
grew straight upwards, regardless of the tilt of the land. As
if they took their orders from the centre of the earth and
not from the slant of the forest floor. They had shed most
of their leaves and the sky was visible when he looked up
through the canopy. He was now approaching the big house
and could just see some of the turrets and chimneypots.
As the light faded, everything became very sharp against
There was something unusual going on. He could hear
noises he did not associate with the big house. Many
voices, laughter, the sound of heavy engines. Where the
path turned, it afforded him a view of the rear of the big
house and its yards and stables. The area was full of soldiers
criss-crossing the muddied yard. Carrying stuff,
emptying lorries. There was boogie-woogie music coming
from somewhere. A gramophone? Or was it a real piano
from the big house? The sound was drowned by a soldier
revving the engine of his jeep. His wheels were just
spinning in the mud, and his vehicle was drifting slowly
from side to side. From this distance there was something
odd about the scene, which he couldn’t make out. He
went off the path to get a closer look, his feet ploughing
through undergrowth and nettles. He was brought up
short by an old wire fence. When he looked up again he
realised that all the uniformed men were black-skinned
– every last one of them. He had never seen such a thing
before. Photographs, yes, but living people in front of his
eyes? Then he realised that these must be the first
American Negro troops to arrive. He watched and marvelled
for a while, then called the girls to show them.
Almost every test the doctor performed gave him cause
for concern. Temperature, blood pressure, the wound
itself. He tried not to let it show on his face. The man’s
wife stood at the other side of the bed watching, willing
things to have a remedy. The man was lying on his back
with his eyes closed. He wore a grey semmit and his hands
were cold and clammy to the touch. His black stubble
seemed to weigh on his face. It was difficult to tell if he
was conscious or not. The ground-floor bedroom was
small and airless and through the painted-shut window
the doctor could see into the street. The front door
slammed and a girl appeared outside, carrying a white enamelled pail. By the way she carried it, it was empty.
She was no more than twelve. She wore a flowered frock,
up-and-down at the hem, and a grey cardigan for warmth.
The child had no notion of what was going on with her
father because she danced the last few steps to the pump.
From such a distance the doctor could hear the dry squeak
when the girl worked the pump handle and, more faintly,
the water gushing into the pail.
He took up the man’s wrist from the coverlet again and
found the pulse point. He checked it against his pocket
watch. There was a small crucifix on the wall and, above
the bed, a picture marked with a caption, Mother of
Perpetual Succour. These images were in nearly all Roman
Catholic houses. The most popular one – although absent
here – was of the Lord displaying his red heart. The
breathing of the man in the bed could be heard at the end
of each quick exhalation. Three nails had been driven into
the back of the bedroom door. On the central nail hung
a navy-blue overall or housecoat in the vague shape of
the human being who had previously worn it. The other
two nails were vacant. When he let go of the man’s wrist,
it flopped down. By now the girl was on her way back
to the house with her bucket, her arm straight out from
her shoulder for balance. Her breath was visible on the
winter air. He indicated to the man’s wife that he had
finished his examination and they both turned to leave
In the kitchen the doctor faced the woman. He was tall
and the woman had to look up at him. He could see in
her eyes that she was ignorant of the seriousness of her
husband’s condition. So he found it difficult to get the
words together. The front door opened and the girl came
in with the half-filled pail of water. It was all she could
manage to carry. She set the white bucket with its turquoise
water under the table and gathered herself into an old
armchair beside the hearth. The doctor glanced at the child
and lowered his voice.
‘I’m afraid, Mrs Conway, that. . .’ He looked again at
the girl in the armchair.
Her mother said, ‘Why don’t you go outside and play
with your sisters?’
The child did as she was told. The doctor smiled at her
as she passed him. Her hair was blonde and tangled. The
latch on the front door clicked shut.
‘Mrs Conway, your husband is a very sick man,’ he
said. The mother’s chin moved repeatedly and she found
it very difficult to know where to begin. ‘Can you tell
me again what happened? Is there anything else I should
‘At the start of the week he was out walking the roads
as usual,’ the woman said. She pressed her index finger
to her temple as if it would help her recall. ‘He had two
of the children with him and he got a bit of a scratch.
Said he was looking for blackthorn sticks out of a hedge
beyond Coyle’s Bridge. It’s something Peter does – to try
and make a few shillings.’ The doctor listened carefully,
his head inclined. ‘He thought nothing of it. But the other
night he showed me the redness and the swelling. The
next day he took to his bed with the shivers – and that’s
not like him – so I sent for the doctor.’ She must have
thought it sounded unmannerly, ‘For you, Dr Irvine.’
‘His bloodstream is poisoned. I’ve seen this condition
before.’ He shook his head. Then he noticed the picture
on the kitchen wall of Jesus displaying his heart. This was
bad enough, but even worse was the glow of a filament
of a red lamp in front of it. He sidestepped the woman
so that his back was to the picture. ‘I cannot emphasise
too much the seriousness of his condition. He may not
survive.’ The woman’s eyes widened in disbelief and then
she hid her face from him with both hands.
‘He’s a fit man,’ she said into her cupped hands. ‘Aw,
Peter dear.’ She seemed ashamed to be upset in front of
‘We’ll do our best,’ said Dr Irvine. ‘We’ll do our very
best for him.’
Outside on the street the doctor took a deep breath, tried
to clear the muffled feeling of the small house from his
lungs. He slipped the coins the woman had paid him into
his trouser pocket – aware that it was, for such a household,
a substantial sum. Probably they’d pawned something or
borrowed from somebody better off than themselves. He
knew that Peter Conway had no work to speak of – other
than what he earned from odd jobs. He had never given
him any work himself, but he had seen him digging and
clipping hedges and cutting grass about the town. Dr
Irvine kept those kind of jobs for the not-so-well-off on
his own side of the house. If Conway died, his whole
family would have to sit on an egg less.
Rain, not enough to darken the ground, had started. It
was his last house call of the day, hardly worth driving
the car home. In the square, soldiers were drilling.
American infantrymen. Shouted commands mixed with
the sound of crows cawing behind the church above the
trees. Unlike the British, they marched three abreast
instead of four. He rolled down the window and listened
to the pulse of their boots as they wheeled and turned.
They were good, unlike their reputation. The British
troops, who had been there before them, mocked them
– accusing them of slovenly saluting, of a casual approach
to uniform. But that was only to be expected. All
tradesmen did it – criticised their rivals. A joiner he’d
hired to install their kitchen complained, ‘Whoever did
this job the first time never heard of measuring.’
And from where he sat, the engine idling, he could see
an American face he actually knew. The US Army had
arrived earlier in the week, hard on the heels of the
departure of the Royal Berkshires, and Dr Irvine had been
invited to the welcoming reception.
‘You bring bright horizons,’ he said to every Yank he
spoke to. ‘Your intervention is timely and will be decisive.’
He was conscious of using cut-glass language and diction
and he did not want to embarrass the American visitors
by colloquialisms. He had been introduced to the doctor
in charge, Major Bradley Zelinski. And there he was, as
large as life, on the steps of the hotel in the town square,
taking the salute. At the reception he and the Major had
had a long chat. Dr Irvine was impressed and had invited
him to his house that evening.
He did not want to interrupt the manoeuvres, so he
drove the back road home. Once inside the house, the
first thing he did was to phone the hospital to see if they
could render him any assistance with his case of septicaemia.
But it was late in the day and there was a war on. Perhaps
tomorrow. Was that the very best he could do? Deep
down, he knew that tomorrow would be too late. He
shrugged even though there was no one in the room.
For some time the doctor’s wife, Myrtle, had been excited
at the prospect of ‘a villageful of Cary Grants’, but
knowing she was to welcome one of them into her house
so soon was hardly believable. The morning after the
reception she’d sent their housemaid, Winnie, in search
of ingredients. Winnie put pressure on the butcher and,
by the afternoon, he came up with a plump chicken for
Dr Irvine. The greengrocer handed over a leathery but
fresh pamphrey. And the potatoes were the best available.
So that in no time at all everyone in the town knew the
Irvines were having an American visitor. What Winnie
could not buy, Myrtle borrowed from friends. It was an
occasion important enough to use her wedding china,
Royal Doulton, which she kept in the glass china cabinet.
Winnie had been instructed to wash and dry each item,
just in case.
All afternoon during surgery hours the doctor had heard
the two women scurrying about the house. Once, between
patients, he went to see what all the fuss was about. Myrtle
confessed she thought roast chicken and pamphrey
sounded a bit odd.
‘There’s a war on,’ said the doctor.
‘I think he might know that.’
Myrtle made her husband say the Major’s name aloud
so that she could pronounce and practise it.
In the hallway when he arrived that evening in full
uniform, Dr Irvine introduced him to his wife.
‘This is Major Bradley Zelinski.’
‘Call me Brad,’ he said and shook hands firmly with
Myrtle. The sound of the jeep, which had left him at the
door, roared off into the night. Winnie, in her white freshly
starched apron, took his coat and set his peaked cap on the
polished hall table. Myrtle thought the Major had a wonderful
smile. His uniform was a jacket of dark chocolatebrown,
beige trousers with stone-coloured shirt and tie.
He brought gifts of Chesterfield cigarettes and Jack Daniel’s
bourbon and looked like he had stepped straight out of
When they sat down to table, Dr Irvine and his wife
bowed their heads and said grace. The Major looked down
at his place setting. When Winnie brought in the food the
Major ate the American way, cutting up with his knife,
then spearing and scooping with his fork. He talked slowly
and well. Mostly about FDR. And when he saw the
puzzlement on their faces at the first mention of the initials
he added, ‘Roosevelt’. He then went on to speak of
Churchill and asked them what they thought of him. The
Irvines were hesitant but eventually said he was no friend
to Ulster – a devious man, if ever there was one.
‘Ever know a politician who was not devious?’ Brad
‘I like the way you drawl,’ said Myrtle and they all
laughed at her forwardness. They could tell Brad was
paying close attention to the way they spoke because he
would ask Myrtle to repeat some things. But she charged
on at the same speed and took no account of Brad’s
unfamiliarity with local Irish words or constructions or
expressions. As for Brad, he tried to put his hostess at her
ease by frequently telling her he was having a swell time.
His face was suntanned and leathery, which made his teeth
seem whiter. Myrtle could hardly take her eyes off him
After the food, which the Major praised extravagantly,
especially the gravy, he offered around his cigarettes. The
Irvines didn’t smoke very much, but they knew how to
‘I’m considered a bit eccentric,’ said Dr Irvine. ‘I remain
to be convinced it’s harmless.’ For the evening Myrtle
declared herself ‘a social smoker’ and Brad got up from his
place to light her cigarette. She detailed Winnie to bring in
an ashtray. It took some time before the maid found one.
It was a freebie Dr Irvine had got at a medical conference,
advertising Player’s Navy Cut. At each corner there was a
small indentation to rest your cigarette. Myrtle kept tapping
hers, sometimes sharpening the ash against the rim.
When she asked him where he was from, Brad said the
Midwest. Iowa. His mother was Irish – thus the perpetuation
of the family name Bradley – and his father Polish.
He was brought up on farming territory. He knew about
going to bed early and the brutal times of rising. Of
working all the daylight hours God sent. Of horizons that
were uninterrupted, and roads that were ruler-straight
because there was little reason for them to become bends.
Of temperatures you would not believe – summers hot
enough to fry eggs on the tarmac, winters cold enough
to freeze your brains when you inhaled.
Dr Irvine apologised, said that they could not make
coffee well enough to please an American but they were
good at tea, adding, ‘We have insufficient equipment.’
‘A percolator. I asked every shop in the town but
nobody would own up to one. We have, however, all the
accommodation for making excellent tea.’ The Major
didn’t seem to like the idea of tea, but thought he’d like
a glass of the in-store bourbon that he’d brought.
The Irvines were abstemious people who went to church
every Sunday. Their eyes kept meeting, almost as a warning
– ‘Watch your step,’ they seemed to say to each other. Dr
Irvine took the Jack Daniel’s from the sideboard and, after
a moment’s hesitation, handed it to the Major to open.
Myrtle took out a glass from the china cabinet and set it
on the table. She looked up at her husband. He sheepishly
nodded yes. She set another glass on the table. Brad opened
the bottle and poured two glasses. They all listened to the
quiet popping the American whisky made in the neck of
the bottle as it came out.
‘Are you sure you’ll not join us?’ said the Major to
Myrtle. She shook her head shyly.
‘We’re not big ones for the booze,’ she said.
‘Here’s to the man himself,’ said Brad, making a toast.
‘To Jack Daniel.’
Blank Pages and Other Stories
He drank off his glass.
‘And to FDR for coming to help,’ said Dr Irvine.
He sipped his drink slowly, as if it was scalding. He
reached out, turned the bottle and read the label.
‘Lynchburg, Tennessee. Not a great name for a town
in the Deep South.’
The Major looked at him. One of his eyebrows went up.
‘It’s not what you think,’ said Brad. ‘Rumour has it –
the town was started up by a fellow countryman of yours,
an Irishman called Lynch.’
Dr Irvine laughed. There was a pause, then he said, ‘I
saw some soldiers, earlier this afternoon – a column of
them driving into the big-house gates. They were. . .’
‘That’ll be our coloured boys. Odd-job specialists, not
fit for combat. Looking after latrines and the like. Stay
well away, if you know what’s good for you.’
‘Oh, don’t talk,’ said Myrtle. ‘Everywhere you go
there’s somebody who’ll let the side down.’
Brad looked at his plate and smiled.
‘You might laugh, but I knew a Major-General – good
friend of mine, who shall be nameless – and he said if he
had to choose between having five thousand white soldiers
or two hundred and fifty thousand coloured boys. . .’ he
looked at the Irvines, challenging them to guess. Dr Irvine
and Myrtle hesitated. ‘Said he’d go for the whites every
‘And where are you based?’ asked Myrtle.
‘The camp out at Lismoyne.’
‘So it’s a segregated army?’
‘We wanna win the war.’
‘A house divided against itself,’ said Dr Irvine. ‘Mark,
chapter three, verse twenny-five.’
‘Listen to you,’ said Myrtle, ‘picking up an accent
‘You have no idea. Can you imagine those black boys
managing the amount of medical supplies I have out there.
Whole operating theatres plus equipment and backup,
ready to move at a moment’s notice. Ready to mop up
‘We have a thing here called the Black Preceptory,’ said
Dr Irvine, smiling. He put his elbows on the table and
leaned closer to the American. ‘It’s a religious thing and
some people refer to them as “black men”.’
‘And are they?’
‘No.’ Dr Irvine laughed. ‘Have you heard of the Orange
‘Yes. Don’t tell me they’re orange.’ He waited for a
laugh but none was forthcoming. ‘I’m kidding,’ he said.
‘They briefed us a little about it before we came over.’
‘Well, I’m a member of the Black Preceptory. A black
man, if you like.’ They all seemed amused. ‘You progress
through the Orange Order to the heights of – the black
men are supposed to be a bit more respectable. Being a
doctor helps. The Imperial Grand Black Chapter of the
British Commonwealth, to give it the full title.’
‘And what do you do?’
‘They parade to church in full regalia,’ said Myrtle.
Brad smiled at her.
‘And do you set fire to crosses?’
Dr Irvine’s face remained solemn.
‘No, we don’t.’
Brad turned to Myrtle.
‘And the women?’
‘It’s a Protestant fraternal society,’ said Dr Irvine. ‘There
are no women.’
‘We’re sidelined,’ said Myrtle, ‘except when it comes
Brad picked up the bottle and tilted it towards his host’s
glass. Dr Irvine put his finger and thumb almost together
to indicate how little he required. Brad seemed to ignore
the gesture. Dr Irvine shook his head because, he said, in
a town this size he was always on duty. Nevertheless he
sipped what had been poured and smiled at the Major.
Winnie came in and began to clear the rest of the table.
The two men became more and more deeply absorbed in
a conversation about the nature of small-town medicine.
So much so that Myrtle excused herself, closed the kitchen
door and began to help Winnie with the dishes, so as the
maid could get home early.
Dr Irvine said that he felt he had a vocation to look
after all the people of the town, whatever their religious
persuasion. It was drudgery, but it was necessary drudgery.
It was work of high seriousness – daily he dealt with
matters of life and death. And Brad nodded, inhaling his
cigarette. Dr Irvine said that in war or peacetime there
was no better thing they could be doing. Bringing children
into the world, reducing their neighbour’s ration of pain,
smoothing the exit of the old. The rewards were not
financial. Brad nodded vigorously. He joked that his bank,
instead of sending him columns of figures, should send
him a note to say, ‘You have enough.’
‘That’s all we need,’ he said.
Dr Irvine said that he was frequently paid in plucked
chickens, new potatoes and bunches of rhubarb.
Brad poured himself another glass but Dr Irvine refused
absolutely, saying it was ‘a very strong brew for someone
who is practically teetotal’.
But there is deep sadness in the everyday, too, said Dr
Irvine. He told of his visit to the poor family that afternoon
and how it had affected him. The man had septicaemia.
He had a wife and four young daughters. The man might
even have died – as they were speaking. He was only in
his early forties.
Brad shook his head in sympathy. Myrtle must have
overheard from the kitchen because she came into the
room and said, ‘Who are we talking about?’
‘I don’t think you’d know them,’ said Dr Irvine. ‘The
Conways. Live down by the burn near the school. They’ve
four girls, wouldn’t you know.’
‘Roman Catholics,’ said Myrtle, to keep Brad informed.
‘I’ve seen them about.’
Brad looked from one to the other. Myrtle returned to
‘I might have something. . . out at the camp,’ said Brad.
‘Antibacterial juice. It’s new. Can be very effective.’
‘So what is it?’
Brad told him the trade name and the success rate of
the trials in America.
‘The Scotchman and his Petri dish discovered it ages
ago. Fleming. But we were the only ones who could
mass-produce the stuff.’
‘Like Henry Ford?’
‘Henry was some man. Put America on its feet.’
‘I would have thought the opposite. Because of Henry
Ford, nobody walks any more.’
‘Financially on its feet.’ Brad laughed and slapped the
table. ‘Some man, Henry. Very fond of employing the
coloureds.’ He shook his head and chuckled. ‘But he’s
not fond of the Jew-boys. So they say.’
‘Not a big problem here.’
Brad went on to outline the method of deep-tank fermentation
that was necessary to mass-produce the antibacterial
juice. Dr Irvine listened and nodded.
‘I know what you’re talking about. I’m sure I’ve read
about this in The Lancet.’
‘I can let you have some.’
‘It’s probably too late.’
‘In the evening?’
‘No. I mean he’s probably passed away.’
‘We can get it right now – if you drive me out to the
Dr Irvine considered this. He looked towards the
kitchen door, then glanced at his pocket watch.
‘Are you sure?’
‘It’s late, but. . .’
‘The sooner, the better,’ said Dr Irvine, easing himself
to his feet. Brad drank off his glass and stood.
‘I hate waste,’ he said, staring down at Dr Irvine’s halfemptied
glass. ‘Down in one.’
Dr Irvine hesitated, then finished his drink in two long
sips. He opened the kitchen door and spoke to his wife
to explain where they were going.
‘Will you be back?’
‘I doubt it.’
She gave him a look, then flung the dishcloth into the
They drove out the Lismoyne Road. Dr Irvine sat high
in his seat trying to see ahead as best he could with his
attenuated headlights. He was also a little nervous about
the amount of alcohol he had just consumed.
‘What’s the car?’ said Brad.
‘Austin Ten.’ There was a long pause. Dr Irvine added,
‘I’m very fond of it.’
‘It’s a first for me. Are you getting enough fuel?’
‘I’m probably the only man in the town who is.’
On one bend the car began to drift and Dr Irvine steered
into the skid to regain control.
‘I didn’t realise it was so slippy,’ he said. ‘Must be black
‘Slick,’ said Brad. ‘That’s the word we use. Slick.’
Dr Irvine took his foot off the accelerator. He’d been
told that the slowest speed in the highest gear gave the
When they arrived at the camp Brad talked them through
security, then directed Dr Irvine along a cement road
lined with Nissen huts to a red-brick building. A field
had become a street in a matter of weeks. Dr Irvine
parked. The Major invited him to come in and have a
‘I think the sooner we get to the patient, the more
chance we have,’ said Dr Irvine.
Brad got out of the car and the door slammed. Dr Irvine
kept the engine running.
He was frightened of the effect of the bourbon. Brad
seemed to be immune to it. Uniformed white soldiers
moved about the place, talking loudly, laughing.
He rested his forehead on the steering wheel. Never
again. After a while Brad came back with a bagful of kit.
Dr Irvine leaned across the front seat and let him in.
‘On, James, and don’t spare the horses,’ said Brad in a
mock, not-very-good English accent. Dr Irvine drove –
slow as a learner. He concentrated on the road and the
possibility of ice, so much so that he understood little of
what Brad said about Pfizer’s production of large quantities
of pharmaceutical-grade antibacterial juice.
The place was dark and Dr Irvine felt around for a door
knocker. He gave up and hammered on the door with his
fist. There were reverberations as if the door was not a good
fit. A sound of movement from inside and Mrs Conway
opened the latch. She was dressed in a navy shower-of-hail
overall and looked up, startled, at the two men.
‘Sorry to disturb you at this time,’ said Dr Irvine. ‘But
there is another treatment we’d like to try with your
The woman looked over her shoulder into the house
and dropped her voice.
‘Oh, we can’t afford. . .’
‘Never mind about that. It’s a kind of research for us.
My colleague is American. Dr Bradley Zelinski. For a
‘Two doctors? How could I pay two doctors?’
Brad reached out and shook hands with the woman.
‘How is he at the moment?’
‘Very poorly,’ she said. ‘He was anointed earlier.’
Even in the dim light Dr Irvine could see her
‘Has the priest gone?’
‘Yes – he left about half an hour ago.’
Dr Irvine and Brad had to stoop a little going through
the front door. The kitchen was warm and a kettle was
sizzling on the range. Two of the elder girls were still up,
including the one with the tangled blonde hair Dr Irvine
had seen earlier.
Both the doctors greeted the girls in subdued voices.
The girls nodded but did not say anything. Then there
was a noise from the far end of the room and two small
heads appeared. The woman of the house told them in an
angry whisper to go back to bed, and then led the way
into the sick man’s bedroom. She switched on the single
bulb. Dr Irvine could smell the candle wax in the air after
the anointing ceremony. He was unsure of the name for
it or any of the other mumbo-jumbo that went on. The
extinguished candle with its black wick stood on a stool.
Brad went to the bed and tried to assess the situation.
He got no response from the man. Dr Irvine looked at
the woman and moved his eyes towards the bedroom
door. She nodded and left them alone.
‘The anointing means they think he’s going to die,’ said
‘I know. I’m Polish.’
Dr Irvine watched Brad open his medical pack and
produce a black box. Everything was marked as property
of the US Government. In the box was a glass syringe.
He took a tablet from a small jar of tablets and added one
into the barrel of the syringe, then drew up a certain
amount of solution from a different container. The back
of his chocolate jacket looked black as he stooped in the
dim light to inspect the man’s arm on the coverlet.
‘Do you want me to. . .’ said Dr Irvine.
‘No, I’m fine,’ said Brad. He waited for the tablet to
dissolve and turned to Dr Irvine, rolling his eyes a little
in impatience. He gave the syringe a shake to assist the
dissolving. Then, when he felt the process was complete,
he pointed the needle to the ceiling and squeezed out a
little fountain towards the light bulb. He injected the
The two doctors came back the next morning. Mrs
Conway remained in the kitchen with her girls. The patient
lay in the bed, his eyes open. His breathing was too fast
and shallow. Dr Irvine introduced Major Zelinski to the
patient, explaining that not only was he a Major, but also
‘This is Peter Conway.’
The patient laboriously turned his head to look at the
‘How do you feel?’
‘Not so good,’ said Peter.
Dr Irvine went through the same battery of tests as
he’d done the night before.
‘But you’re still with us.’
All three men smiled.
It was Dr Irvine who did the second injection. When the
needle went in, the man reacted by straightening his lips.
On the third visit the patient had changed his grey semmit
for a white vest and was sitting up in bed, clean-shaven, with
his arms folded. Mrs Conway came into the room with the
two doctors. Dr Irvine noticed that the candle and the altar
cloth were no longer there. A fire had been lit in the bedroom
grate and it made the room seem a little more hospitable.
There were kindling sticks and halved logs in the hearth.
‘I think my prayers have been answered,’ she said. ‘He’s
on the mend – took tea and toast this morning. And shaved
himself. One of the girls held the mirror.’
‘This is truly remarkable,’ said Dr Irvine. He had no
need to go through his battery of tests. He could just see
the improvement. But Brad was more efficient. He did
his tests and found them all normal, or returning to
normal. Even the site of the original scratch had lost its
redness and swelling. What was taking place was healing.
‘We’ll have you back to work in no time,’ he said.
‘If only. . .’ said Mrs Conway. ‘If only it was as simple
Brad gave him a final injection, just to be on the safe
side. The fire made spitting and cracking noises.
When Brad had finished, Peter scratched his hair with
both hands and said, ‘I mind very little about the last couple
of days. Clare tells me you’ve both been great.’ His wife
nodded. ‘We don’t have very much, but I’d like to. . . I
make sticks – walking sticks. I’ve a selection of good ones
out in the shed. They’re not quite ready for action but as
soon as I’m on my feet again, I’ll get them round to ye.’
Both doctors smiled and nodded their thanks, not quite
believing it would happen.
Outside the patient’s house the two doctors stood talking.
‘Hey – that’s some stuff. I’m very grateful to you,’ said
Dr Irvine. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. From death’s
door to fighting fit, all in the space of. . .’
‘About thirty-six hours.’ Brad’s face indicated that he
too still thought it pretty amazing.
He stamped his feet.
‘The cold here gets into your bones. It’s so damp.’
There was a jeep parked in the driveway and the house
was warm and full of the aroma of coffee. Winnie loaded
up a tray and brought it into the sitting room.
‘Thank you,’ said Myrtle. ‘It’s maybe not as good as
you can make it, Brad.’
Winnie raised her eyebrows but said nothing.
Brad offered Myrtle a cigarette and she became a social
smoker again. He lit hers first, then his own. She’d touched
his arm to guide the flame to her. She loved the clunk it
made when he closed his lighter.
The two men stood looking out the window. There was
sleet blowing occasionally across the garden. Against the
dark tarmacadam drive it appeared as hailstones.
When Brad took the first sip of his coffee he said,
‘Another tutorial on the percolator might be required.’
He laughed and apologised, saying he was only joking.
‘Be much simpler if you tried to like tea,’ said Myrtle.
‘Coffee and Ulster scones don’t seem to go together.’ She
blew out the smoke away from the company.
A man and two young girls walked into the driveway.
‘Who’s this?’ said Dr Irvine. ‘So much for helping the
war effort. They take your gates away and anybody can
‘I know who it is,’ said Myrtle. ‘Conway – who lives
down near the school.’
‘Our famous patient,’ said Brad.
‘I wonder what he wants?’ said Dr Irvine.
‘I don’t want them in here,’ said Myrtle. ‘That’s for sure.’
Peter Conway looked up and saw the group standing in
the bay window. He gave directions to his girls, who were
each carrying a stick. Then he took the sticks from them
and looked up at his audience. He pretended to be stooped
over and put his weight on both sticks, pretended to be
crippled even. He went on with this charade for some
time, looking up and grinning.
‘Is he trying to tell us something?’ said Dr Irvine. He set
his coffee on the window ledge and left the room.
‘Sell us something, more like,’ said his wife to Brad. ‘I
wouldn’t have one of them about the place.’
‘One of what?’ said Brad.
Brad smiled and excused himself. He flicked his cigarette
end into the fire and followed Dr Irvine out.
The two doctors went to the front door and down the
steps. They waited for the little party to approach. By this
time Peter was no longer clowning. He had transformed
and become upright again. He held the two sticks up
‘Well, who have we here?’ said Brad.
‘These are two of my girls,’ said Peter. ‘Finnoula and
‘What lovely Irish names.’
‘A complete pair of imps,’ said their father. ‘I’ve two
more like them at home. Anne and Clare. These ones’d
give you back cheek as quick as they’d look at you.’ Being
the centre of attention, the girls giggled and nudged each
other. They had knitted scarves but no overcoats. ‘It’s a
bit of luck to find you both together,’ said Peter. ‘We were
going to traipse out to the camp to see you.’ He nodded
at Brad. ‘Because I promised you sticks. And sticks you
He held both blackthorns upright for the doctors to
‘It was the girls’ idea to decorate them. Difficult things
to wrap, if you know what I mean.’
Around the neck of each was tied a twist of coloured
wool. Maroon, navy, yellow. The handles were not rightangle
bends, but in both cases were bunched fists. At the
ground end, a bright ferrule cut from a metal pipe.
‘These men saved your daddy’s life,’ Peter spoke to his
children. But still the girls just pushed each other and
laughed. Peter handed a stick to each man. The two doctors
brandished and tested them.
‘Good, eh? The way they fit the hand.’
‘Great,’ said Dr Irvine. He looked his stick over. Its
varnished sheen, its dark nodules, the paleness of the handle, its different colours of wood. He turned to wave at the Blackthorns two women still in the window and motioned the stick, like he was beating them. The women laughed silently. Brad said that he’d never remove the wool the girls had tied to his stick.
‘Decorations that’ll be there for ever,’ he said. ‘What
are the sticks?’
‘Blackthorn,’ said Peter. Brad tested it for straightness
with his eye, aiming it like a rifle. ‘It’s as straight as can
be. I hang a boulder from them with twine – for about a
year after they’re cut – to straighten them. They’re jagged
and straight at the same time. So straight you could rule
Brad thanked Peter for his gift. Dr Irvine kept nodding
and muttering, ‘There was no need. It’s very kind,’ he
said. ‘You could get two, maybe three swagger sticks out
of this one.’
He shortened the stick and tucked it up under his arm
to demonstrate. The conversation seemed to die away and
Dr Irvine began backing towards the house. When there
was sufficient distance between them, he shouted his
thanks for a final time and gestured to Brad to come into
the porch. Both men waved goodbye with their sticks.
Dr Irvine closed the door.
In the driveway Peter turned up the collar of his jacket
and put his head down into the sleet, which was becoming
heavier. It blew diagonally into their faces. He told the
girls to tighten their scarves. Then he took each daughter
and led them even-handedly out onto the main road.
Alan Murrin is an Irish writer based in Berlin. He writes for The Irish Times, The Times Literary Supplement and The Spectator.
On Sunday nights, Izzy made a light supper and they watched Antiques Roadshow. It had been like that ever since the kids left home and there was only herself and James. They had a big meal in the afternoon, and something simple in the evening, so that there wouldn’t be too much clearing up after. Retired fifteen years and never much good around the house, since his diagnosis James was no help to her at all. He used to at least set the table or stack the dishwasher, but now he waited in his chair to be called and retreated as soon as he finished. She checked daily for signs of decline. His appetite remained healthy; his colour good. He’d always been uncommunicative. If anything, he was less irritable, patient at times, amenable even. And this worried her most of all.
However basic the meal, it was always followed by a dessert. James had a sweet tooth that, until recently, he’d kept in check by only allowing himself one nightly indulgence. On Sunday evening, they ate dessert in the living room, in front of the television.
‘That was a grand bit of apple tart,’ he said, still scraping up the last mouthfuls. ‘Where did you get that? Doherty’s?’
‘Jesus – such a question – and me baking all morning. Did you not see the sweat dripping off me?’
She watched him lay his plate carefully on the side table. It was harder now to make him laugh, to get any kind of reaction from him.
‘Would there be another slice going?’ he asked.
‘Indeed, there would not. What do you think it is? And the size of the slice I gave you. It would have fed three.’
He gave her that new look, that slightly agog expression that came from tilting his head forward and looking up at her from just below his brow – you’re going to deny me that? it asked.
She turned her attention to the television. ‘Let me watch this for a few minutes and I’ll give you a slice then,’ she said. ‘A small one.’
On the screen Fiona Bruce was floating through a field of corn in a white linen trouser suit.
‘She always has lovely gear on her,’ Izzy said.
She enjoyed seeing the big houses where they filmed, and the shots of the English countryside, which wasn’t so different from the Irish countryside, but the weather always seemed to be better.
The sun caught the highlights in Fiona Bruce’s hair.
‘I like her with the bit of blonde.’ She raked back her wispy fringe with the nail of her little finger. ‘Do you think I should go for something like that?’
‘I think you’re fine the way you are.’
‘Oh, dear-o,’ she said, with a little shake of her head.
Two middle-aged men stood side-on to the camera, bellies pointed at each other, surrounded by a crowd of gawping onlookers. A squat silver container lay on the table between them.
‘What’s that?’ Izzy asked.
‘He just said it was a sugar bowl.’
The expert kept lifting the lid on and off the bowl, going on about how it wasn’t the original, while the owner cast suspicious glances at him. The owner had a bristly white moustache he chewed on when he spoke and wore a fusty looking fishing jacket.
‘I’d say he needs the proceeds from that sugar bowl to damp-proof his house,’ Izzy said.
‘I’d say you wouldn’t be too far wrong there.’
The bowl stood on four spindly legs; the lid worn smooth,its fine engraving was almost invisible.
‘He won’t get much for that,’ said Izzy. ‘There’s one of them lying around every house in the country. I have better than that myself that I don’t use.’
And she stopped herself then from saying that was another job that needed to be done – the cabinet would have to be emptied and every piece of silverware polished. She’d need to pay someone to come in and do this for her. The arthritis in her hands made these tasks difficult now. Then there was the outside of the house to think of. Elevated above the surrounding land and facing out into the bay, they were as exposed as it was possible to be, and the house needed repainting every couple of years. They’d have to wait until later in the summer for that. Even then, there was no guarantee of a good stretch of weather. It had just turned mild enough to plant some new shrubs and she’d had John in last week to make a start on the garden. She’d told him to concentrate on the front of the house, to get the flowerbed at the top of the drive looking presentable. He listened without saying much, but she knew he understood what was being asked of him – that speed was necessary and a certain amount of discretion.
And the curtains in the good sitting room – they’d started off a vibrant pink but had faded to a pale salmon, and even though no one would see the lining, she’d checked, and it was dappled with mould. There was no way she could have people traipsing in and out of that room with the curtains the way they were. And the house would be full. But James was never out long enough for her to get someone in to take the measurements. She’d thought of whispering some instruction to Emmet when he dropped by the house, but she could see the look on her son’s face as she handed him the measuring tape – he’d know what she was up to. As it was it could take weeks to get the curtains made, and there was no way of telling how long James had left. It’d be silly to leave everything to the last minute when they’d been given so much warning. James would understand that. But if he were to see someone halfway up a ladder in the sitting room measuring the curtains he might get the wrong idea.
‘Uh-oh,’ James said. ‘Your man’s not happy.’
‘He’s going to get told his sugar bowl’s worth tuppence.’
‘Do you think? Ah now, surely he’ll get something for it.’
‘You can tell by the way the antique dealer’s priming him. He’s getting ready to deliver a low blow.’
‘Well, I’d say he’ll get two hundred for it, at least.’ She waited for James to respond. She looked at him from the corner of her eye, slumped in his armchair, staring at the screen. ‘What would you say – more or less than two hundred?’ He puffed out his lips but said nothing. ‘Go on now – put your money where your mouth is?’
‘I don’t suppose it matters really.’
‘It’d matter if it was worth two thousand. You wouldn’t be saying that then. Go on – how much?’
The doorbell trilled and her heart thudded against her ribs. She jolted upright, her hand splayed across her chest. She stared at James, who offered her a look of despair. It was like this now; since word of his illness had got round, the phone was forever ringing, their mobiles buzzed constantly, and each little intrusion produced a disproportionately violent reaction from her, like the house was under siege. But it was unusual for someone to arrive unannounced, especially on a Sunday evening, and the strangeness of this fact hung between them.
‘Who in the name of God is that?’ Izzy said, sliding her feet back into the moccasins she had just that moment slipped off.
She closed the door behind her. Through the hall window, she could see a boxy maroon Toyota parked right up at the front of the house. Yellow stuffing bulged through the cracks in the cream leather seats. She was sure she knew no one with a car that old. She straightened the mat with her foot before opening the door.
A couple stood huddled together, the man a good head and shoulders taller than the woman, so she was sheltered by his height. They wore apologetic looks, like they were used to being shooed away from people’s doorsteps. Jehovah’s, Izzy thought, taking in the woman’s faded mauve anorak. A handbag idled from her shoulder, swinging against her knee.
‘Hello. How are you?’ Izzy said.
‘We’re well thank you,’ said the woman, joining her hands together. ‘We’ve just come to pay our respects.’
And again, that knock in her chest like her heart had been seized and bounced off a wall. ‘I’m sorry?’ she asked.
‘Have we got the wrong time?’ the man asked. ‘Only it said on the radio that the rosary was starting at nine.’
The woman took a step forward and placed her cold palm against the back of Izzy’s hand.
‘We used to work together at the carpet factory away years ago and I always remember he was the kindest man.’ The woman peered out weakly from behind her glasses, like she’d just poked her head above the surface and her eyes were adjusting to the light. Izzy noticed how her lank, colourless hair framed her small features, the strands almost meeting at a point below her chin.
‘I’m very sorry for your loss,’ she said. ‘Ina and Terence McGovern, Donegal Town.’
Izzy felt something hard kneading the bones in the back of her hand and looked down to see that the woman was already clutching a pair of rosary beads. A hot pain climbed the joints in her fingers and she pulled her hand away. ‘Well, there must be some kind of mistake,’ she said, ‘because there’s no one dead in this house.’
‘I’m very sorry,’ the woman said. ‘We asked at the petrol station where Seamus Keaveney’s house was, and they sent us up here.’
‘Oh – oh right,’ Izzy said, understanding now what these people were, that this was their pastime, listening to the deaths on the local radio and making lists of wakes and funerals to attend.
‘We didn’t mean to give you a fright,’ the man said.
‘Well, this is James Keaveney’s house.’
‘We’re sorry to have troubled you,’ the woman said.
‘You don’t want to be here at all. You want to be over the Coast Road – that’s where that wake is.’
‘True enough, I said coming up the drive I thought there’d be more cars.’
‘You need to get onto the main road and head in the direction of the town.’
They were stepping back, the gap between their bodies widening so Izzy could see the crescent shaped flowerbed, upturned and empty and waiting to be replanted.
‘Sorry again,’ the man said, ‘we’ll leave you to get back to your evening.’
Izzy watched them duck back into the Toyota. She closed the door and went to stand at the bannister, where she could see the car but couldn’t be seen by its occupants. She was just able to make out the figure of the woman on the passenger side shifting about in her seat. They didn’t seem to be in any hurry. And what kind of price would you be expecting for an item like this, a voice asked from the living room. The woman settled herself but still the car did not move.
‘What are they playing at?’ Izzy said out loud.
‘Is everything all right?’ James called.
She slipped back into the living room and shut the door. She stood there pulling the hem of her jumper down over her waist and smoothing it out.
‘Who was that?’ James asked.
‘Oh, just people looking for directions.’
‘Directions? Where were they going?’
She hesitated. ‘Kilcar.’
She walked over and lifted his plate from the side table.
‘Kilcar? Why would you need directions to Kilcar? Every sign you pass has Kilcar on it.’
‘They weren’t from around here.’
‘They can read,’ he said.
‘You wouldn’t be so sure,’ she said. ‘They weren’t the sharpest tools in the box.’
‘Where were they from?’
‘Down the country somewhere. There was a Galway registration on the car.’
‘Oh,’ he said, as if this explained everything.
‘I’ll make tea.’
‘Aye – and if there was another slice of that tart going.’
Like it had jumped out of her hand the plate went skidding along the sideboard and clattered into the kitchen sink. She listened for some response from James in the next room. She tried to catch her breath but there wasn’the senough space in her chest. A film of sweat prickled her top lip, andshe tore off a piece of kitchen roll and dabbed at it. She opened the back door as quietly as she could and crept around the side of the house, stopping at the corner. There it was, parked in the same place, the number plate on the back sprayed in dirt but still clear enough for anyone to see that there was a Donegal registration on the car. The grey head of the husband bobbed above the headrest. He looked up and she locked eyes with him in the rear-view mirror. She marched over to the passenger side. The wife was already rolling down the window.
‘Can I help you?’ Izzy asked.
‘Oh, we were just having a look at this,’ the woman said. They were holding a map between them, stretched over the dashboard and across the steering wheel.
‘Can you say the name of that road you mentioned again?’ said the husband.
‘I’m afraid you need to leave,’ Izzy said.
‘I’m very sorry, we were just trying to get our bearings,’ the wife said, still reading the map. ‘When you get back onto the main road is it a left or right at the junction –’
‘You need to take that map and look at it somewhere else.’
They both stared at her then, their eyes widening, disbelief and affront spreading slowly across their faces. The map sagged between them.
‘Get off now,’ Izzy said, ‘before my husband comes out. He won’t be long telling you where to go.’
‘It was an honest mistake,’ the man said, turning the key in the ignition, the old engine giving a few dry heaves before it spluttered to life. The woman was struggling to roll up the window with one hand and haul the map out of his way with the other.
Izzy leaned closer and shouted over the noise of the engine. ‘Go on – drive off to another house and ask if someone belonging to them’s dead.’
The car lurched forward and she stepped back, the tyre just missing her foot. She waited, watching them pull away. At the end of the drive, they slowed to take the corner. As they disappeared out of sight the taillights of the car flashed on. She noticed then the change in the evening – the failing light over the headland, the cold air rising off the bay. She turned and made her way slowly to the rear of the house, going in through the door she’d left wide open.
She flicked on the kettle, heard a dry fizzle and filled it. She glared down at the apple tart lying on the sideboard. There was maybe half left. She considered the variegated shell of it, the pastry slightly burnt the way James liked it, then swept the foil plate up in her hands and carried it into the living room. Passing James, she allowed the tart to slide off her palm, so the plate landed on the side table with a little slap. The sudden movement roused him. She went straight to her chair and tried to focus on the woman on the screen who was having a diamond bracelet valued. Art Deco, the female expert said. Inherited from my mother-in-law, the woman said. James continued to shuffle in his seat.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Izzy snapped.
He was sitting straight up, looking from her to the kitchen door. ‘I’m just going to get a knife and plate,’ he said, at last.
‘Sure, what do you need a knife for – can’t you just eat as much as you want and leave the rest? Getting knives and plates and making more mess for me to clean.’
‘But sure, I can’t eat the whole thing.’
‘No one’s asking you to eat the whole thing – eat as much or as little as you want. You said it yourself – it doesn’t really matter.’
She turned her face back to the screen.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked. ‘Did those people say something to upset you?’The camera zoomed in on the bracelet and through her tears the diamonds melted into one.
‘He got five hundred for the sugar bowl,’ James said.
She was silent.
‘You should dig out that bowl you said you had,’ he tried again.
‘That’s another day’s work, James,’ she said.
Stuart Neville is a Northern Irish crime writer. Winner of the LA Times Book Prize, his work has been shortlisted for most major international crime awards.
Coming In On Time
Barry Whittle asked, “Is she coming in on time?”
Old Man Gove, the loading officer, said, “Aye.”
“Good weather today,” Barry said.
“Aye,” Old Man Gove said.
“Nothing to hold her up,” Barry said.
“No,” Old Man Gove said.
“She’ll not be long,” Barry said.
“She’ll not be long,” Old Man Gove said.
Barry stepped back, looked out across the channel. Saw the Sapphire cracking the flat table of water. Coming fast like it always did. Once a day, here in the morning, and back again in the evening. Tourists and locals, all of them
squashed together, in and out of their cars. The ferry would spill them onto the slip soon. Just wait.
He didn’t know if today was library day or not. He wasn’t good at telling the days yet. Mum had been teaching him: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, then . . . Barry wasn’t sure. He always got Saturday and Sunday mixed up. Without Mum to help, he couldn’t say them all in the right order, even if he counted on his fingers.
Barry thought there had been three sleeps since Mum went. And he thought the last day he’d seen her had been library day, when the van came off the ferry and stopped in the small car park. Mum had brought Barry on board that day, like she always did, and let him take as long as he wanted to look at the books.
Josie, who worked on the van, sometimes read books to him. The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Winnie the Witch, The Gruffalo. She would sit on the floor, her legs folded to make a nest for him, and he would let himself be swallowed by her. He liked the way she smelled, and the feel of her breath on his cheek when she leaned in close and read the words, her fingertip following the letters that he didn’t understand.
He knew some words and letters. Mum had been teaching him. He could recognise DOG, Duh-Oh-Guh, and CAT, Cah-Ah-Tuh, and some more. Numbers too. But not well enough to read all by himself. Not yet.
Mum would sit at the back of the van, reading grownup books. Or sometimes Josie would leave Barry to look at the books on his own and she and Mum would talk in low voices, their heads close together. Then, when it was time to go, Barry could choose six books to keep until the van came back. Mum did the same, and they would walk home to their house on the other side of the island. Sometimes, if they were too heavy, Mum would carry his books for him.
Mum didn’t say bye-bye. No kisses or anything.
“She left,” Dad said.
Barry had come downstairs after waking up. Normally, Mum would come and get him, but not that morning. So he had walked into the kitchen, still in his pyjamas, the floor cold on his bare feet. Dad was sitting at the table. He looked like he’d been crying. He had taped some tissue to his hand, across his knuckles. The paper was stained reddish brown.
There was broken glass on the floor. Barry was careful not to step on it as he moved farther into the kitchen.
“Where’d she go?” he asked.
Dad didn’t answer, so Barry asked again.
“To the mainland,” Dad said.
“On the ferry?”
“How else would she get there?”
“When’s she coming back?”
“Dunno,” Dad said. Then after a while, he said, “Soon.”
Dad smelled funny. He always smelled of beer and cigarettes, but that morning there was something else. Something Barry couldn’t name. He had dark stains on his shirt.
“You want breakfast?” Dad asked.
“Toast? Cornflakes? What?”
“Mum gives me Weetabix,” Barry said.
Dad got up from the table, fetched a bowl and spoon from the dish rack, placed them on the counter. He opened one cupboard after another before asking, “Where are they?”
Barry pointed to the cupboard beside the washing machine. Dad found the box, put two biscuits in the bowl, took a bottle of milk from the fridge. Barry opened his mouth to tell Dad he always had warm milk, but it was too late. Dad poured cold milk into the bowl, dropped the spoon in, then set them on the table. “Can you turn the TV on yourself?” Dad asked.
“Yeah,” Barry said.
“I’m going back to bed. Don’t make any noise.”
Dad left him in the kitchen to eat.
Barry thought about Mum. He wasn’t surprised that she’d left. Not really. The way Dad hit her when he was angry and had been drinking beer. Sometimes he hit Barry too. Dad’s hands were hard and heavy. They sometimes knocked Barry off his feet.
It happened more often now that Dad didn’t have a job anymore. Barry used to like the mornings when Dad was out working on the fi shing boat. He and Mum had the house to themselves, and they would cuddle and read stories, and Barry would touch her bruises and kiss them better.
Why didn’t she say bye-bye? It was okay that she left because she didn’t want to get hit anymore, but why didn’t she say bye-bye? Why didn’t she take Barry with her? He supposed it was because she left late at night and didn’t want to wake him up.
But the ferry didn’t go in the middle of the night, did it?
When he finished his breakfast, Barry dressed himself and left the house without telling Dad. He went out the back door, which was never locked, and walked around the house to the patch of gravel and weeds that was their front garden. He knew the way to the ferry slip, so he didn’t need Dad to take him. Not that he would, even if Barry asked.
It felt like a long time, that first morning when he walked there alone. Old Man Gove asked if his parents knew he was there, so Barry lied and said yes. He remembered the things Mum would say while they waited for the ferry: Is she coming in on time? The weather’s good. Nothing to hold her up. And Old Man Gove grunted the same replies.
Barry knew the library van wouldn’t be on the ferry that morning because it had been just the day before, so he didn’t bring his books. But anyway, that wasn’t really why he walked to the slip. He went there in case Mum came back. If she came back, he knew she would be happy that he was there waiting for her.
But she didn’t come back. Not that morning, or the next, or the one after that. He had gone to Mum and Dad’s bedroom while Dad lay snoring and gathered up the books she had borrowed. One of them had her favourite bookmark still stuck between the pages, so Barry slipped it out and put it on the bedside locker. He took the books and put them in a plastic bag along with the ones he’d borrowed and carried them all the way to the ferry slip. This was the third morning he’d done that, and they were so heavy, but he did it anyway because he wanted to bring them back to Josie so she could read some more to him.
The first morning he carried them, the plastic bag’s handles cut into his palm and fingers, and he cried. The next time, he put them in a backpack he found under the stairs. That was easier, though it did hurt his shoulders.
Now he watched the ferry approach, and he could see the cars and one small bus on its bottom deck, a few passengers leaning on the rails of the top deck. He lifted his hand and waved. Some of the passengers waved back, smiling.
The library van wasn’t there. Mum wasn’t there.
Barry said goodbye to Old Man Gove and headed home.
DAD WASN’T THERE WHEN Barry got to the house. He looked in the cupboard and found the last slices of bread. There was no more butter in the fridge, so he ate them dry along with water from the tap. That done, he took the backpack up to his bedroom and removed the books. He set Mum’s aside and opened the first of his own.
He’d borrowed this one before and he knew nearly all the words from memory. The pictures of the little boy in his bed, then falling.
“Did you ever hear of Mickey, how he heard a racket in the night?”
Barry worked his way through the book, touching the words, saying them out loud. Almost like proper reading. He did the same with the others, though he didn’t know them so well.
He hoped the library van would come tomorrow so he could get some new ones. He hoped Mum would come back soon and take him away.
Sometime later, Barry heard Dad arrive home. He went to his bedroom door, opened it a little, and listened. Keys dropped on the table. The rustle of plastic bags. Things getting put away. The snap and hiss of a beer can being opened.
Barry went back to his books.
HIS BELLY GRUMBLED LOUDER as the day went on. He heard bad words and stumbling from below, then crying.
“She’s a demon,” Dad said. “A demon.”
Barry wondered if he should go down there and tell Dad it was all right, Mum would be home soon to look after them. But he knew when Dad was like that he would be angry, and he might hit. So he stayed in his room until he smelled something bad, a burning kind of smell.
He opened his door and the smell got worse. He saw wisps of smoke in the air. The stairs creaked under his feet. From the hall, he saw Dad in the kitchen, his head resting on his forearm, spit hanging from his lips. Rows of empty cans on the table, and a half full bottle with an orange label. Dad always called it wine, but Barry thought it wasn’t real wine, not like people drink on TV.
Smoke billowed from a pot on the stove. Two slices of charred bread stood up in the toaster. An open tin of beans on the counter.
Barry went to the cooker. He thought he should probably turn it off the way Mum did when something was getting too hot. One of the big knobs on the front was turned all the way round. He turned it back until it clicked. Still, the beans in the pot burned, more smoke filling the air. It made his eyes water, and he wanted to cough.
He reached for the pot handle to lift it away. His fingers released it before he felt the burning heat, and the pot clattered on the floor, spilling hot beans across the tiles.
Dad’s head jerked up, his eyes wide, his mouth open.
Barry put his hands up, backed away, saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean it, sorry.” Dad blinked at him, then coughed, waved the smoke away.
“What happened?” he asked.
“I’m sorry,” Barry said, the tears coming. “I didn’t mean to spill it. It was an accident. I’ll clean it up, I promise.”
Dad looked at the mess. He looked at Barry.
“The beans were burning,” Barry said. “I lifted the pot off but it was too hot and I dropped it. I’m sorry.”
Dad crossed the room and Barry backed as far into the corner as he could go. He held his hands up, crouched down, made himself small, saying, sorry sorry sorry . . .
Dad got down on his knees, took Barry’s hand, and pressed his lips to the hot palm. Barry felt the stubble of his chin, saw tears fall from Dad’s eyes. Then Dad wrapped his arms around him, pulled him in close, hugged him for the first time he could remember.
“No, I’m sorry,” Dad said. “I’m so sorry. I did a terrible thing and I can’t take it back. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
And Dad held Barry like that for a long time, so long that Barry had to push Dad’s arms away. Then they cleaned up the mess together. Later, Dad made them both toast, and opened more beans, and they ate them cold straight from the tin.
After they’d finished, and they’d been sitting quiet for a while, Dad started to cry again. It occurred to Barry that he should hold Dad’s hand, even though he knew how hard and heavy it could be. He did it anyway. Dad squeezed Barry’s fingers between his.
“I should end it,” Dad said as his eyes gazed at something very far away. “I should just end it, but I’m too scared.”
“End what?” Barry asked.
Dad didn’t answer. He let go of Barry’s hand, stood up from the table, and fetched another can of beer. As he drank it, staring out of the kitchen window, Barry left him there and went to bed.
“EVERYTHING ALL RIGHT, SON?” Old Man Gove asked. He hardly ever looked at Barry, but he did this morning, his eyes small and watchful.
“Yeah,” Barry said.
“You sure? I saw your dad yesterday afternoon. He didn’t look too well.”
“He’s been sick,” Barry said, not sure if it was a lie.
“Where’s your mum these days?”
“She left,” Barry said.
Old Man Gove’s face went loose. He looked away and said, “Sorry to hear that, son.”
He didn’t say anything else.
It had been three sleeps since the night Barry and Dad ate together. Barry had hardly seen him since. Only heard him staggering and bumping into things, and the cursing and shouting, and the crying, saying, demon, demon. So Barry had eaten dry bread, and Weetabix from the packet, and drunk water from the tap once the milk was done. Each morning, he washed his face at the bathroom sink, even brushed his own teeth. He’d been wearing the same clothes since Mum left, but he did change his underpants one day because they had gotten stained and smelly.
He didn’t see Dad at all yesterday, and hadn’t heard him since the evening. The back door had slammed sometime after dark, and that was all.
The house had felt empty as Barry came downstairs this morning and into the kitchen. A piece of paper lay on the table, some writing on it that he couldn’t read.
“Is she coming in on time?” Barry asked.
“Aye,” Old Man Gove said.
“Good weather today.”
“Nothing to hold her up.”
“She’ll not be long.”
“She’ll not be long.”
And there she was. The Sapphire, gliding across the water. Barry felt hope in his chest, just like he’d done every morning since Mum left. And every morning, as the ferry had come closer, he’d felt the hope wash away when he saw no library van on the bottom deck. And his Mum never waved at him from the top deck because she wasn’t there.
But maybe this morning.
He shielded his eyes from the sun, but its reflection on the water made him squint. The ferry appeared as a black shape against silver, nothing Barry could make out. As it came closer, he saw the forms of people on the upper deck, but still the lower deck remained obscured by the glare. Then a cloud passed across the sun, and he saw the reds and blues of cars, a white delivery van, and there, to the back, the bright splashes of colour on the library van.
Barry couldn’t help but giggle. The smile felt strange on his mouth after so many days without. He found himself jumping on the spot, a dizzy feeling behind his eyes like when Mum would spin him around, his hands clasped in hers.
Then a dark feeling pierced the joy.
Mum should be here too.
Old Man Gove trudged down the slip as the ferry’s apron ramp lowered. The metal met the concrete with a clang and clatter, and Old Man Gove waved the first of the cars off the boat. Barry waited by the railing at the edge of the car park, the vehicles passing him one by one.
At last, the library van climbed the slip, up and into the car park, to the far side where it would stay until the ferry made the return journey that evening.
Barry ran to it, the backpack full of books slapping against his shoulders. He reached the side door and knocked it hard enough to hurt his knuckles. The door opened, and Barry’s heart felt like it might burst when he saw Josie on the top step, smiling down at him.
“Hiya, Barry,” she said. “Up you come.”
She reached down, took his hand, helped him up and into the van. Rob the driver already had his newspaper open on the steering wheel and was pouring himself a cup of tea from his thermos.
Josie looked past Barry, out into the sunlit car park, the smile falling away from her lips.
“Where’s your Mum?” she asked.
Barry shrugged the backpack off, unzipped it, and emptied the contents onto the floor. “I brought her books back. Mine too.”
Josie hunkered down in front of him. “Barry, where’s your mum?”
“Can you read my books for me?” Barry asked.
Josie got on her knees and took hold of Barry’s arms.
“Tell me, where’s your mum?”
He didn’t want to tell her, but she looked him in the eye.
“She left,” he said.
And then it all came out. All the worry. All the pain. All the fear. It gushed out of him along with the tears he’d been holding back. He collapsed into her arms, and she gathered him up, and he cried and cried as she rocked him, saying, “Oh sweetheart, oh darling . . .”
THE VAN RATTLED AND juddered along the road to Barry’s house. Rob drove, his newspaper stashed into a pocket in the door. Barry sat on Josie’s knee, the seatbelt strapping them both to the passenger seat. She had insisted they come here. Rob had argued, said they couldn’t leave the car park, but Josie had shouted at him, and Rob had said, okay, okay, don’t get your knickers in a twist.
The engine grumbled as the van climbed the steep lane to the house before the ground flattened out. It occurred to Barry for the first time that it wasn’t a nice house. It was small and old and dirty looking with a garage that had never had a car in it.
“You wait here,” Josie said to Rob. “I’ll find out what’s going on and then we’ll head back, all right?”
“Just don’t be long,” Rob said.
Josie helped Barry climb down from the van and onto the gravel with its tufts of moss and grass. She held his hand as they walked to the front door.
“Will your dad be home?” she asked.
“Dunno,” Barry said. “I don’t think so.”
She knocked on the door and listened to the quiet. After a while, she asked, “Do you have a key?”
“No. But the back door’s open.”
Josie took his hand again and said, “Lead on, then.”
She glanced back at the van where Rob watched and waited. Barry brought her around the side of the building, and she sniffed at the air as they passed between the garage and the house.
At the back, the door was shut. Barry pressed down on the handle, and it swung inward. He stepped inside first, and Josie followed, his hand still in hers. The kitchen smelled bad. He hadn’t really noticed before, but now that Josie was with him, in his house, he felt embarrassed and sad.
Josie looked around at the dishes piled in the sink, the stack of dirty clothes on the floor by the washing machine, the rows of empty cans and bottles on the counter.
She squeezed his hand tighter and he saw a glisten in her eyes. He knew she felt sorry for him and it caused hot anger in his heart. Even though she was being kind, it made him feel small and stupid, like a baby. He let go of her fingers, shoved his hands down into his pockets.
“Mr. Whittle?” she called.
No one answered. She tried again.
“I don’t think he’s here,” Barry said. “He went out last night. He left that.”
Barry pointed to the piece of paper on the table.
Josie approached it, leaned down so she could read the words. He watched her lips move, his anger forgotten.
“Oh Christ,” she said, then she covered her mouth with her hand. She looked to the back door, still open, then at Barry.
“Stay here,” she said.
Josie rushed out through the door, into the back garden. Barry went after her, out onto the step. She glanced back at him, told him to stay there.
He didn’t. He walked along the back of the house, keeping her in view. She opened the side door of the garage and stumbled back, her hands over her nose and mouth. Flies, black and fat, tumbled through the air around her.
Josie looked back at him once more. “Stay there,” she said. “Don’t come any closer.”
She stepped into the dark.
Now Barry stopped. He watched the dim throat of the doorway, listening hard.
Josie screamed. She lurched out into the light and fell to her knees. Vomit spilled from her mouth and nose.
Barry stood still, unsure what to do. He wanted to go and help her, tell her everything was all right, but he was too scared to move. So he stayed there just like she’d told him to, even as she wept and threw up and spat, even as Rob came running from the van.
HE WOKE UP IN the strange bed, Josie beside him. Mrs. McCue in the village had given them a room and Josie had insisted she stay with Barry, said she didn’t want him to be alone.
The police had come in a helicopter. It had made a big noise as it landed in the field behind the house. Two policemen and a pilot. The policemen went into the garage, and when they came out, their faces were different. Like they’d grown older in there.
They asked lots of questions. When did Barry last see Mum? Had her and Dad been fighting? Was Dad angry lately? More police came, some without uniforms, and they all needed to talk with Barry. And two different doctors. Low voices and warm hands. They told him things he didn’t understand, about Mum, about Dad, big words that didn’t make any sense. So he stopped listening.
Josie stayed with him all the way through the questions, and eventually she told the policemen to stop. They could do more tomorrow. And then they talked about where Barry could stay for the night. Josie knew Mrs. McCue had a big house, so she got Rob to drive her into the village to ask.
As Barry got out of the library van, people on the street looked at him strangely and whispered to each other. Josie gathered him in close, let him hide his eyes in the billows of her cardigan.
She sent Rob back to the mainland, said she’d stay here with Barry, he needed someone to look after him. So they slept in the big old bed in the draughty room, Josie still wearing her clothes, Barry in the pyjamas she found in his bedroom.
Now it was light outside and he was wide awake. Josie snored softly, the kind of sound a cat makes, he thought. He lay still and quiet for a long time until he could see the sun through the crack in the curtains.
Barry realised it would soon be time for the ferry, and Mrs. McCue’s house was only a couple of streets away from the slip. It wouldn’t take long to get there. Of course, the library van wouldn’t be on the ferry this morning, it had only been here yesterday.
But maybe Mum would come back.
Barry knew something bad had happened at the house. Something to do with Dad. But he didn’t know what. People in the village seemed to know. Maybe Mum had heard about it and she’d come back to take him away.
The idea grew in his mind.
Yes, she would surely know something bad had happened and she would come back this morning. Barry was certain of it.
He slipped out of bed, found his shoes on the floor, and carried them out of the room. The door creaked as he pulled it to, and he froze, watching Josie. She huffed and rolled over.
Barry went down the stairs and paused at the bottom to put his shoes on. He didn’t know how to do up the laces, so he tucked the loose ends down the sides of his feet. The front door didn’t make a sound as he opened it. He stepped through, but didn’t close it all the way, in case the noise would wake Josie.
The streets were empty on the short walk to the slip, no one to stare, no one to whisper about the boy in the pyjamas.
Old Man Gove saw him approach. The loading officer’s shoulders slumped.
“What are you doing here, son?” he asked, his voice softer than Barry had ever heard it.
“I’m going to wait for the ferry,” Barry said.
Old Man Gove shook his head and looked sad. “Why?” he asked.
“Mum’ll be on it,” Barry said.
And when he said it out loud, it made him even more certain, because now it was a real thing, not just an idea in his head. Old Man Gove breathed out long and slow, and he blinked tears out of his eyes.
“Ah, Jesus, son,” he said. Then he looked away, out across the channel as he wiped at his red cheeks.
“Is she coming in on time?” Barry asked.
Old Man Gove sniffed hard and said, “Aye.”
Deirdre Sullivan is an award-winning YA novelist from Galway. I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay (Banshee Press) is her first book for adults.
1950s, unknown brand, head and arms vinyl. Cloth (cotton) body stuffed with unknown substance, possibly a sort of putty, indented to the touch. Difficult to reshape, but can be done if left in direct sunlight and gently massaged.
Three visible holes on right side of neck, scratch across eye, discoloration and staining on the torso. All fingers and toes present. May have contained a squeaker at one time, but doesn’t now.
Some loose hanging threads. Do not snip or remove, she doesn’t like it. Though a baby, this doll is possessed of an older spirit, possibly inhuman in origin. Flickering lights, blown fuses, and a clicking sound not unlike the mandibles of something very large may disturb. May move when not in your eye-line, but never very far.
Joanne would do well as an introductory haunted doll, however, due to the inhuman nature of what is inside her, caution is recommended. Will not get along with children or pets (one fatality, possibly unrelated).
Asking Price: €450.00, plus shipping.
Photographs available on request, but Joanne may not grant permission, and with so many little lives in one location, I must respect their wishes. Contact via website, or Joanne directly through the medium of your choosing.
SERIOUS BUYERS ONLY. I AM SICK OF TIME WASTERS.
Will not accept international buyers for this one.
Beside every doll, we keep a list. Sometimes it’s a collection of old envelopes, brown to bright, and other times it is on coloured cue cards, as though the little legs would straighten up, approach a podium and give a speech in someone else’s voice. Some charges require notebooks right away, or scrapbooks where the histories have grown too long for bullet-points.
Sometimes newspaper articles are pasted in, apparently at random. Fires, drownings, deaths. Calamity. Calamity. Calamity.
I started dusting the shelves the first time Mam got sick and had no energy. She hates to dust so now it’s just my job. I clean them one by one, with special solutions, recipes my Granny handed down. To keep some instincts dampened, recharge false skin, polish glass eyes, small shoes.
The miniature clothing is not for the washing machine. We handwash it carefully. Small white cotton socks, flamenco dresses. Some things can’t be cleaned, and others shouldn’t. Certain stains increase an item’s value – semen, blood. Tears are harder to identify. They don’t yellow a thing like old, dark sweat.
Some dolls collect stains under armpits, as though they have been wearing themselves for years, soft pale stuffed bodies. As though they’re ready for another venture. They might be still for months, or maybe years. But something always happens in the end.
A little pulse.
A dash of spite.
Or something far less tangible than that. A sharp internal stirring. A sense of something you can’t put your big meat-finger on. An almost-story waiting to be told.
When I was a little girl I was still bigger than a doll. I liked the story Thumbelina because of that phrase ‘no bigger than a thumb’. I wanted to be so small it would define me. I always took up space though. Sometimes too much space and I was punished. Scratches on my soft skin in the dark. Little pinches leaving little scars.
You can convince yourself of anything. I saw this thing online about shared delusions. Psychosomatic illness. People’s bodies hurting them because they suppress trauma. And I wondered if it could be that, with some of the people we get the dolls from. The part of them they don’t want to look at going inside plastic, china, wood. Becoming something other, something else.
I mean we all have things.
There was a woman in an actual wheelchair, and she had to give up her job and no scan would diagnose what was wrong with her and eventually they found out it was the death of her brother and that was fine, but it didn’t cure her. Because she could name it but she still had to process it like meat to a manageable pulp.
I saw a flash of a film on TV when I was babysitting once, and there was this image of a woman suspended on a butcher’s hook. I flicked away. I don’t like unhappy things or scary stories. I don’t want to escape to something worse. I want a girl who is seen by someone or something kind. I want someone like me, and I want her to be okay at the beginning and a little sad or angry in the middle and then happy by the end.
I want a shining face to look at her and see her and want her.
A face that’s made of flesh with jelly eyes.
I don’t know how much Mam believes about the dolls. She says there’s money in them, and while there’s money in them we’ll keep doing them. We have ones whose stories we can trace, through years, through fires, bankruptcy, murders and breakdowns. But she’s always going to car boot sales as well. Or searching on the internet for the dolls that look like they’ve been haunted. The china ones with big dark eyes, and maybe a little crack that trails right down the centre of their face, so they look damaged. People think that damaged things can hurt them.
Maybe we can.
We have a no refunds policy. But that doesn’t mean no returns. We’ll always take returns. We can sell them on no bother, and we share the emails with the names redacted to back up how haunted the doll is. I thought about staining them with tea like we do other documents but it doesn’t work for email because email isn’t as old timey as a newspaper clipping from twenty years ago, or a photograph from the civil war.
Sometimes we get phone calls, or desperate emails begging us to come, please come to a house and to collect a doll. And when we do, Mam goes. We’ve driven down boreens and back roads in our dressing gowns in the middle of the night. To get to them before they think to charge us.
Sometimes it’s one we didn’t even sell them in the first place.
Once, on the way back from a fairly normal-looking house in town, Mam turned to me, and said, ‘Sarah, that wasn’t the doll.’
And she shivered. Something in her face I’d never seen.
The doll in the back of the car with cupid’s bow lips and one eye missing.
They’d done that to her. Inside the house.
We all like to take things out on someone.
Mam generally makes up the backstories when we don’t get them first hand. She has a voice recorder on her phone, and a dictaphone as well, the kind that journalists used to use, she says. She’s not sure if they use them any more. We don’t know any journalists. I keep track of the stories, and file them with the dolls, adding in photographs sometimes. If they’re going to America, I can use photographs of the abandoned farmhouse on the land near where we live with the odd made-up one. But we can’t use them around here, because everybody knows the story of what happened there and why no one will go inside it now.
It’s useful, Mam says, because if anyone was to come asking, no one would say a word about it and sure couldn’t it have been a haunted doll?
You can take a lot of photos in there, and depending on what angle you use, it looks like a completely different place. And there’s a lot to like. I’ve left dolls strewn in the fireplace. On top of the cracked Sacred Heart. Hanging limply from the big nail in the middle of the wall. Or standing to attention in the corner. There’s one window that looks out on the wilderness of what used to be the Mahons’ land before. Another window, differently shaped, looks out on the pools of water and bogland and the hills behind. I’ve also done one through the cracked ribcage of the roof, but you have to be careful because crows roost up in the tall old trees and the floor is spattered with their shit and it could go in your eye very easily.
And from the other side you can see the hedgerow and the dirt path and the corner of our house. If there is washing on the line you can’t see the window. But if there isn’t you can. I don’t like using that one. But sometimes you have to for variety. We live pretty far from anyone, our closest neighbours are Karl and Davey Mahon, but they’re a twenty minute walk up the road and they don’t like Mam at all.
Mam also buys old books for authenticity. You can use the paper to make old documents. Lots of books have a few blank pages either side and you can rip them out, or pull out a page covered in words but splatter ink over most of the words so it just says something spooky like ‘God Help Us.’
I find blotting out words soothing. It feels like magic, changing what they mean..
Mam likes to make up rules. And set limits. She says it encourages people to break them. When we say ‘No International Buyers’, a lot of the time someone International will think we’ll break that rule for them if they shell out way more money. We go back and forth, but they’re usually right. We got a grand for an old Skipper doll once. She had her feet gnawed off. I think she might have even been mine.
I don’t really understand why people want them. Why would you buy a problem, or a lie?
Mam makes up rules for me sometimes as well. I have to have my homework done before I get my dinner. This doesn’t apply if I get more than an hour and a half of homework because dinner is always at seven. She also doesn’t want me getting any tattoos on my arms because she has three and it can be difficult when she’s trying to seem like different pairs of arms throughout the dolls’ history.
We have a lot of dress-up clothes. Car boot sales are great for them. And estate sales.
Though estate sales always make Mam angry. Because of the English. But they’re well worth going to, unless you get someone else who’s into dolls. Which a lot of people are, apparently.
Sometimes my friends want to come and visit and I bring them over, and they always look at the big door with the symbols on it that says ‘DO NOT ENTER’ and sometimes they want to go in there, and sometimes they just ask about it. If I need to go out to take in a wash, or look for the cat, they always come out too ‘for company’. And I pretend I don’t know they’re afraid.
I do let them in if they ask. But not right away, and I make them work for it.
Like an international buyer.
She touched my face. She told me that it was dangerous to be a pretty child.
She touched my face.
Sometimes we make tinctures and solutions from my grandmother’s recipe. Mam says that she was an auld bitch but that she knew what she was doing with these lads. She means the dolls. We put vodka, ragwort, garlic, ash and fingernails into the bottle. And TCP as well. We bury it outside for six days and six nights and then we dig it up and then it’s ready. We use glass jars to bury it but we put it into a spray bottle before we use it because it’s handier.
Most of them won’t do anything to you. But you have to be careful. A bit like men, Mam says.
We got a new one.
It has a tongue.
It licked me and I giggled but it wasn’t very funny and then I couldn’t stop laughing and Mam slapped me and made me a cup of tea with lots of sugar in it and said that we mightn’t have any friends over until this one sells, love, and I said fair enough because it was.
Mam isn’t happy. The thing with her womb is back, and her hair is falling out from the stress of it. She wants it gone but if she goes to hospital again I’ll be here alone and there are a few of them we have to sell before that happens.
I pulled my jumper over my face but it kept moving closer. I could see it moving through the spaces in the wool that let in light.
One step at a time.
Granny was a normal granny, really. She made great bread. She just liked dolls. And if you have more than a hundred dolls some of them are bound to be haunted. So she learned ways to mind them. Knowing about them helped her to keep track. She wouldn’t have sold any of them if she was still alive, but she wouldn’t have minded Mam doing it. She might be glad that she has any sort of job. She didn’t have much faith in her.
Mam says that I can be anything I want to be, and she can pay for me to go to college in Dublin or Galway or somewhere else no bother. When I’m finished school, I should go off and live my life and follow my dreams.
I dreamed of a wide white mouth with flat black teeth. There was a sheen on them that was almost golden but it wasn’t gold it might have been dirt it might have been dirt it might have been dirt.
She doesn’t often bury things in graveyards but I could smell the grave dirt on her hands it doesn’t smell like muck it smells like mass.
Little pink tongue the same shape and size as mine but softer and more moist.
Bisque doll, German 1860s (RARE). Aurelia is a find for any collector, even without her backstory. Her skin is unpolished porcelain and has a matte texture. If you look at the reference photo you’ll see that she has four perfect little teeth beneath her top lip. Her body is made of porcelain and not the usual cloth and she is anatomically correct.
She was brought here by a Polish child who settled in Ireland in the aftermath of the Second World War, and was confiscated by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent De Paul. From there she ended up in a Magdalene Laundry, where more than a hundred bodies were found buried in a field out the back. We cannot guarantee she had anything to do with it but I wouldn’t be surprised. She has bitten me twice now and the wounds refuse to heal. We can always smell burning hair when she is in the room. Minimal injury so far, but there is a sense of menace and danger in the house since she arrived and therefore she is PRICED TO SELL.
Aurelia would be suitable for a sole collector, or a large family where no one would be left alone in the house with her. She would make a charming addition to a museum of the occult, or an interesting subject for a paranormal investigation. NO VIEWINGS. SERIOUS BUYERS ONLY.
Photographs of Aurelia and the bite marks are included below. She moved once while I was taking them but I couldn’t say for sure that it was preternatural movement. I might have jostled her and not clocked it.
Price available on request. To be clear, it is a four figure sum I’m after for Aurelia.
International buyers welcome but shipping is at your own expense. I’m not made of money.
I did that one, I think it’s pretty good. We got her in Age Action but she is a real antique, so she cost us twenty euro.
Mam asked me if I’d rather be here alone or would she get someone to stay but she doesn’t have many friends and I knew it would be hard so I said it’d be fine. I can look after myself. Run the business. Cook dinners. The only thing I can’t do is drive, but only because I’m too young. She’s going to get a taxi there and back. I’ll go with her for the first bit and then I’ll meet Melissa and them in town and maybe one of their parents will drop me home. It’s a really simple procedure. They scoop it out and then they do a biopsy. Sometimes it goes away without any treatment and sometimes it gets worse. The last time they sent her home the same day but it’s more complicated this time. Too many at once, and all together. She’ll definitely be gone for one day and probably for two. I’m not religious but I keep thinking about the bit out of the Hail Mary about the fruit of your womb. I imagine it like that, apricots and grapes all growing in her. She should just get the whole thing taken out, but she doesn’t have to yet, and doesn’t want to. When it’s really, really bad they don’t give you a choice, I think, like with my appendix, so maybe it will all be fine. She goes in for ultrasounds and says it’s just like with a baby but instead of a baby there’s something else growing in there and it’s not as nice. But if you didn’t know, and saw the shape, you could almost think it was a little person tucked inside.
Like us and not like us and isn’t that what’s weird about the dolls. That they’re shaped like us but aren’t us. That’s why we put the dark parts of ourselves inside them. Our crimes and our disasters. The energy. It doesn’t just appear. It comes from us.
I try to be calm but I have to go into the toilets of McDonald’s and have a cry and they all know there’s something going on but they don’t ask. Melissa’s mum doesn’t offer me a lift, so I have to get two buses and walk for an hour and a half and by the time I’m home I’m just wiped out, and there’s nothing from Mam so I make myself beans on toast and light the fire, read the internet and fall asleep.
Tiny Tim Doll (Vinyl, 1990s)
Face melted slightly. Tiny Tim is a doll that can drink water and then urinate to train children how to change nappies. Unfortunately sometimes the water that emerges has an acrid stench (possibly useful for curse-work). We were asked to remove Tiny Tim from a house in Carlow, where he had caused havoc (scans of their handwritten testimony included below). They had a druid in afterwards to cleanse it, and have had no trouble since. Tim has been quite placid since he arrived here, but sometimes around him we can hear small chirps, of the sort a cat makes upon sighting a bee on the windowsill. We cannot guarantee that paranormal activity will occur with Timothy, and are therefore willing to sell to a family with children or pets. He does not seem to dislike animals and my daughter has had no trouble with him. He enjoys being taken off the shelf and handled, and is in better form if this is done often. If you really want to annoy him, leave him alone in his box for a week or two and something bad will probably happen.
We’re letting Timothy go for €35.00 (plus shipping), but we will also be accepting higher offers.
I ring the hospital.
I get some messages from Melissa and them, asking me if I’m okay, after the crying, and I don’t respond because I don’t know what to say, it all depends on Mam and how she is.
She isn’t coming home tonight again. It took more out of her than they thought it would and they had to take more out of her than they thought they would, or something like that. I couldn’t really understand what she was saying. Her voice was far away and different than it usually is.
I packed up Sophie, Laura and Imogen to go to the post office. I can’t ask one of the neighbours to give me a lift. I don’t want them to know I’m here alone.
I think I might not like people the way that other people like people. Romantically I mean, but also in the other way. They’re such hard work.
I went in to clean the shelves and of course they were everywhere and I had to set them all back and open all the boxes and check that they were in the right order. It took a while. I listened to a podcast about sharks.
People think all sharks are bad, but no sharks are, not really.
Some just end up eating humans.
We eat other animals all the time.
They don’t sell little chunks of us to other sharks to make money.
They just get hungry.
Everyone gets hungry now and then.
My phone lost all its battery in the dolls’ room, and I’d been there for seven hours when I left. I don’t remember anything after the podcast. And that was only fifty minutes long. I hate it when that happens..
I sprayed and locked the door and put Sophie, Laura and Imogen out on the porch and locked the front door on them. They don’t do anything once they’re all wrapped up. But I wanted to be careful.
I went to sleep and when I woke up there was a loud knocking on the door and it was shaking the walls and it was like someone had their two fists against it and they were thumping, thumping and yelling, and I looked out and it was our neighbour Karl and he looked angry so I closed the curtains and left him at it. He was saying something but I couldn’t make out the words, it was like there was a pool of water or a cloud between his voice and my ears. I splashed my face with water and checked the time and when I turned my phone on, Mam had been trying to get through to me, and I thought maybe it was about that so I opened the door but it wasn’t that at all he wanted it was something else.
I don’t know how he knew I was alone.
Mam called to say that she was discharged, and so I went and got her in a taxi. It wasn’t very practical, but I really wanted to see her.
Someone bought Mabel, so we don’t have to worry about money for a while. Mabel is in a newspaper clipping from 1927 where she levitates in front of a startled girl in a little pinafore. The girl’s eyes are wide and Mabel’s face is just like Mabel’s face, all calm and blue-eyed. Mam was tired but she said they got it out and it shouldn’t be back again, not for ages, we got five whole years last time. And wasn’t I a great girl.
Her scarf smelled like roses and disinfectant. Her breath was stale.
And didn’t I do well.
Best of luck to all the shortlisted authors!
If you loved these stories you can order the collections that they are part of here:
‘The Leaving Place’ Jan Carson from The Black Dreams (Blackstaff Press)
‘Worms’ by Roddy Doyle from Life Without Children (Jonathan Cape)
‘Blackthorns’ by Bernard MacLaverty from Blank Pages and Other Stories (Jonathan Cape)
‘The Wake’ by Alan Murrin from Waves of Change (Fresher Publishing – Bournemouth University)