Vote for Your Favourite! Writing.ie Short Story of the Year
After some serious debate, our panel of judges, Alison Lyons, Director of Dublin UNESCO City of Literature, Bob Johnston from The Gutter Bookshop and Literary Agent Simon Trewin, have settled on the six shortlisted stories from those longlisted here. They were all read completely blind, and it’s only at this stage we have realised that we have an all female shortlist (again!)
It’s now down to you, the reader, to vote for your favourite and choose the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year 2019.
Previous winners are Billy O’Callaghan, Donal Ryan, John Boyne, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Orla McAlinden and Roisin O’Donnell – who will be be our 7th Award winner?
The lucky author will be announced at the An Post Irish Book Awards event on 20th November – the whole evening will be televised by RTE and all six of our shortlisted authors will be there, waiting with baited breath.
This year’s shortlist (in no particular order) is:
A Real Woman by Orla McAlinden from Full of Grace, Red Stagg
Parrot by Nicole Flattery from ‘The Stinging Fly’, Issue 39 Volume 2, Winter 2018-19
Mother, May I? by Amy Gaffney from HCE Review , Volume 3, Issue 1
Sparring the Heather by Louise Kennedy from Banshee issue #8
Balloon Animals by Laura-Blaise McDowell from Still Worlds Turning, No Alibis Press
The Lamb by Andrea Carter from Counterparts: A Synergy of Law and Literature, The Stinging Fly Press
A Real Woman by Orla McAlinden from Full of Grace, Red Stag.
Everyone knows that Catholic priests are raving, slavering drunkards – even the teetotal ones – so you carefully set your whiskey tumbler down behind a large photograph of Pope Francis on the mantelpiece before you answer the front door of the parochial house. You take a moment to adjust the angle of the cheap gilt frame to hide your well-watered Powers. His Holiness doesn’t seem to mind; his expression doesn’t change. His benign smile says Never mind, my child. If I had to serve in that shithole parish of yours, I’d have a snifter myself, the odd time. Not a big man for the condemnations, nor for letting fly the first stone, is Francis; more of a live-and-let-live fella, like yourself.
In earlier years, you wouldn’t have hidden the alcohol, back when Tómas O’Fiaich was Primate of All Ireland – a jovial big lad out celebrating at the opening of every envelope in the diocese – and no one thought twice of a priest hopping in his car to administer the last rites with a few drops taken. Those days are gone though, and you pause with your hand on the door handle to crunch a Polo mint. You’re not a big drinker and you’ve nothing to hide, but you’re sick to the back teeth of snide remarks and snarky glances.
‘Am I disturbing you, Father? I could come back later.’
A civil greeting anyway. That’s good. You haven’t a clue who the young lad is, and you don’t bother trying to guess. You’ve always been hopeless with names. Back in the day you’d have started an old rigmarole of asking after his parents and hoping desperately for some chink of light to fall on the mystery of your visitor’s name. There’s no need for those subterfuges these days. Lads of this young man’s vintage who darken the church door are as rare as hen’s teeth, so much so that you personally know every one of them and all belonging to them. Apart from funerals, this fella probably hasn’t been in a church since the Passing Out Parade – or the Sacrament of Confirmation, as the school teachers still call it. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad lad, of course. Pope Francis smiles encouragingly.
‘Come in, come in. Sure, it’s only eight o’clock. Let me turn off this noise.’
You cringe. Should elderly priests spend their Saturday evenings watching Strictly Come Dancing? Who knows? Who cares, these days? You’re sure your visitor has never heard the phrase ‘a vertical expression of a horizontal desire’; if his grandmother ever told him about Ireland’s priests preaching from the pulpit about the sins of jazz and close-dancing, he’d probably think she was making it up. As your hand hovers over the remote, Jess and Brian on Strictly strut like feral ponies, all white teeth and tossing locks. You’ve been watching other people dance all your life. You’re sure you could have given good account of yourself, if it wasn’t for the bloody Roman collar and the lack of a partner.
‘Will you take a cup of tea?’ you ask.
Your visitor has sprawled, uninvited, across an easy chair, legs falling apart from the crotch, taking up a huge amount of space. Your space. You wouldn’t want to share a bus seat with him. That’s another new thing for Irish people, this excessive taking up of space, this stating to the world, Here I am. Take me or leave me. Or more realistically, Take me or fuck right off.
‘G’wan, g’wan, g’wan,’ he replies and you smile patiently, as if he is the first person to make that joke. Father Ted has a lot to answer for.
‘Mrs Doyle has the night off,’ you say, your smile not reaching your eyes. ‘Will I wet a pot of tea? To be honest, I haven’t had a housekeeper for over ten years. I know where the kettle lives.’
‘No, you’re grand, Father, I’ll not be here for long.’
Well thank God (if He exists) for small mercies.
‘What can I do for you?’ you ask, finally remembering that he is probably at the same disadvantage as yourself. You stick out your hand. ‘I’m Father Anthony O’Donovan. Should be long since retired, but still holding the fort here in the absence of a younger man. Do me a favour and tell me you’re here to discuss your vocation to the priesthood or diaconate. I could do with a hand.’
You laugh to show that you know you’re being ridiculous. After a moment, your visitor shrugs off his appalled look and tries to remember whatever manners he once knew.
‘You’re a real geg, Father. No such luck here. I’ll have to work for my living, not join the priesthood.’ He smiles to take the sting out of it, but you are long past caring about insults like these.
You glance at the clock sitting next to your hidden whiskey on the mantelpiece. The second half of Strictly is always where the competition comes down to the wire.
‘Can you tell me why you’re here, my child? Or do you need more time?’
Have you never heard of the Samaritans, you big lummox? They’ve a hape of specially trained listeners if all you want to do is not talk.
‘God, no. Sorry. I’m right, now.’
He pauses and you fear he’s going to lapse into silence again, but eventually a dark-red flush travels up from the open collar of his shirt and stains the whole of his stubbled face.
‘Erm, it’s confession, you see, Father. I’d like to go to confession.’
You can’t remember the last time a parishioner came to the parochial house looking for an out-of-hours confession. It used to be old dears, rushing up with their semi-imaginary sins. Four terrifying times during the Troubles it had been shaking, pale-faced, bloodstained men vomiting out their awful deeds, pouring their pain into your heart and soul. You had known, even as you spoke the words of absolution, that you were partaking in a charade, that despite their honest repentance they were doomed now, doomed to repeat their crimes when ordered, or to die for refusing to do so.
You take a careful look at your penitent’s face, in case you need to describe him to the cops later, and check his boots and clothes, but they are clean. He just looks … ordinary. He isn’t wearing a Victorian waistcoat or sporting a bun in his hair or the beard of an Old Testament patriarch. Nor has he shaved his head and covered every inch of visible skin with swirling, interlinked Celtic tattoos. He just looks normal. He looks like a lad who might be on the second-string football team at Clann na nGael GAA club.
‘You know, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is available on Friday evenings, before the devotions—’ you begin.
‘Tonight, Father, it has to be tonight.’
‘And then I need you to write me a letter confirming that I done it.’
‘I need a letter confirming that I done my confession tonight, otherwise I won’t get my papers and the girlfriend will have my guts.’
‘What papers? What are you talking about? Your girlfriend …?’
He drags himself into an approximation of a respectful posture.
‘I’m sorry, Father, I’ll start at the start. The girlfriend and me is getting married. She’s hankering for a baby. Nothin’ll do her but up the aisle and straight into the maternity ward nine months later.’
‘Have you given this some serious thought? That’s a big step.’
‘Ach we’re together eight years. She’s had her days drinking Prosecco through a straw and dancing on the table. Now she wants the ring and the baby.’
‘And she wants them in that order? How unusual.’
You didn’t mean to say that out loud, but it’s water off a duck’s back to him.
‘Look, it’s simple. We’ve one day over us on the pre-marriage course and the final day’s tomorrow and I need to do the confession and get the proof that it’s done.’
‘Why here? Why now? Surely the Sacrament of Reconciliation was offered you today as part of the preliminary proceedings?’
You wish the Vatican would stop messing with the names of everything, chopping and changing for the sake of it, it seemed. The old grey cells in the old grey heads of your congregation can’t keep up with all these subtle changes in the creeds and responses. It’s like the Tower of Babel at Mass these days, with half of them on the Vatican II responses and half on the new ones. At least Sacrament of Reconciliation has a chance of catching on. Who the hell came up with the sacrament of penance version? No one in the twenty-first century thinks they deserve penance.
The man shifts uneasily in his chair. ‘There’s no way on God’s earth I’m doing my confession and then having Laura going straight in after me to the same priest. He’d be looking at her and thinking, what the fuck are you doing with that gobshite, wee girl?’
He doesn’t apologise for swearing in front of you, or even seem to be aware of how inappropriate it is.
‘Well, surely the priest in charge should have reassured you on that front,’ you say. ‘The secrets of the confessional are sacred unto the grave. He’d never have said anything to her. Nor would he have wanted to. The confessor is merely a channel between the repentant penitent and the eternal, boundless mercy of God, not a judge, jury or executioner.’
‘My child—’ And suddenly curiosity gets the better of you, and you can’t keep up the pretence any longer. ‘Listen, son, you want me to hear your confession? Just give me two ticks.’
You bustle back a few minutes later, robed and ready, more than half expecting to find him gone, along with the silver candlesticks (which aren’t actually silver) and your wallet, which you stupidly left in the pocket of your jacket hanging on the back of a chair. But he is lolling in the armchair, waiting.
You sit down beside him and wait for him to start. He looks at you blankly.
‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned …’ you say by way of a prompt, but he doesn’t know the next part. ‘How long is it since your last confession?’ you ask.
‘Oh right, yeah. It might be ten years … no, wait … it must be sixteen or seventeen years ago. First year in the college, I’d guess.’
‘When you were about eleven years old?’
‘I’d say so.’
‘And never since?’
‘Never felt the need, to be honest.’
‘Because you have a personal relationship with God and feel you don’t need the mediator of a priest?’
‘What? Shit, no. What? Look, I just don’t think I ever done anything you could call a sin.’
‘Well, that’s great.’ You pause to digest that piece of information. ‘If that’s the case why didn’t you go to confession this morning and tell that to the priest who took the course – Father Manus was it?’
‘Big, round, beardy fella? A bird’s nest poking out of each nostril?’
You snort, but change it into a cough. ‘That’s the one. Why didn’t you just tell him you’d nothing on your conscience? Or make something up?’
‘Lie to a priest? Lie in the confession box?’
You’re surprised at the tone of shock, as if you had offered to stab his mother or lend him a JCB to gouge the cash machine out of the wall of the Ulster Bank.
‘Well, I’m here now, my child. I don’t know how you found me, or what brings you out here to the side of this windy hill when there’s priests a lot closer to Omagh than I am, but let’s do it. Do you know the Act of Contrition?’
He shakes his head, so you guide him through the children’s version and he repeats it line for line. You can see signs of recognition in his eyes as bits come back to him, and he looks quite pleased with himself when he blurts out the final words without prompting. Then silence.
‘I didn’t love God when …’ you hint.
He squints at you as though you’ve sprouted satanic horns while he searches for the words; then realisation dawns.
‘I didn’t love God when …’ He stops. ‘I feel a bit thick doing this.’
You nod and smile. The dancers have finished; you’ll have to watch Strictly online tomorrow. Maybe, just maybe, you might be able to help this young man and Laura start married life unencumbered, shrived and psychologically sound. It would feel good to matter, to know that you still can justify your existence.
‘Listen, Father, there’s no point beating around the bush.’ He rubs his hands across his eyes like a much older man and drops his gaze. ‘It’s a sex thing. I wouldn’t necessarily have been completely faithful over the years, like.’
‘Well, eight years is a long time, I suppose, and you would have been very young …’
‘Well yes, there’s that, I suppose.’
‘So you want to clear your conscience of the weight of having betrayed your fiancée. And the other girl, of course – I mean, it wasn’t fair on her either.’
‘Well, I want the absolution. And I want the letter.’
‘Yes, I can see how you wouldn’t want to start a marriage with this hanging over you.’
‘So, you’re sorry for your youthful indiscretions, and you resolve never to sin in this way again and remain faithful. That’s the right frame of mind for any young man embarking on matrimony.’
He should jump on that. You practically patted his shoulder and told him he’s a great fella. He should be looking you in the eye by now and declaring before God that he’s feeling a million dollars, and that it won’t be another seventeen years before he comes back to confession. But he isn’t.
You follow the line of his stare. His eyes are fixed on the toes of your shoes, cheap and not particularly comfortable, but shiny and black and recently polished.
‘When was the last time you saw this other girl?’ you ask, your heart sinking like the lead-weighted eel-fishing nets of Lough Neagh.
‘Last week? For fuck’s sake!’ That gets his attention all right. He jumps and shifts in his seat. ‘I’m sorry. You gave me a shock … Last week? And do you love this girl?’
‘Of course I love her. Sure, we’re getting married in six weeks.’
‘The other one, you big amadán. Do you love this other girl?’
He laughs. Whatever you were expecting – self-recrimination, shame, even claims that he was led astray – you weren’t expecting laughter.
‘Of course not. Catch yourself on. Sure, she’s not even a real woman.’
And now you are truly out of your depth. You’ve heard some crazy stuff over the years, but what are you going to say to this man?
‘A doll, you mean? Is it one of those inflatable sex dolls?’
Please, please God, let it be a doll. Don’t let it be some kind of robot. Do such things exist yet? Oh Christ, don’t let it be … a child.
‘No, Father. Jesus, no!’ He looks at you in horror. ‘I’m not some kind of pervy freak. It’s you know …’ He nods and winks.
‘I certainly do not.’
‘It’s a business relationship.’
‘You work with her?’
‘For Christ’s sake, do I have to spell it out? They’re working girls. Prossies.’
You sink back in your seat. ‘They? They? You’re seeing prostitutes and you’re getting married in six weeks?’
You rest your forehead in the palm of your hand and stare at the worn carpet. Horrified by your pragmatism, you ask, ‘What if you catch something? What if you give a disease to your wife? Or the unborn child?’
‘Ah now, Father, do you think I came down the River Mourne in a bubble? There’s such a thing as condoms you know. And the girls look after themselves. I mean, they’re not street-walkers.’
You hold up your hand; you honestly don’t want to know any more. ‘Listen. I’m heading for seventy-five years old. I don’t want to talk about what you do to these poor misfortunate women.’
‘Ach, they’re grand, Father. The minders look after them okay.’ He glances down and you watch him twist his fingers together. ‘Well, there was one girl last month wouldn’t stop crying … but usually they’re grand.’
You look up at Francis for help. Christ, you need that whiskey now, and another stronger one to wash it down.
‘Are you telling me you had intercourse with a prostitute who was crying?’ When it’s obvious he’s not going to answer you continue. ‘Why didn’t you stop? Why didn’t you do something? You could have called the police.’
‘She told me not to stop. She said she was sorry, that she’d be okay the next time, to keep going and not give her a bad review.’
‘Well, I think that’s what she said. She was a wee foreign girl with a thick enough accent.’
You stagger to your feet and pull the stole off from round your neck. Its weight is bearing you to the ground. In your trouser pocket is a cheap, tinny rosary ring. You have got in the habit of carrying these rings around with you because the children and grandchildren of your parishioners are so divorced from the Church that you sometimes turn up at a wake to discover that the corpse has no rosary entwined between its fingers. You pull out the ring and slip it on your finger, just for the superstitious comfort it gives you, and lean heavily against the mantelpiece.
The world has gone mad, the whole boiling lot of them, and this lad’s the worst. Your searching fingers close around the hidden cut-glass tumbler and you drink the whole lot in two gulps. It is more than half water anyway.
‘I don’t know what you want or why you came here,’ you say, ‘but it’s time to go.’
‘You’re behind the times, Father. It’s just a job. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, like. It’s just a service industry like any other.’
‘They’ve nothing to be ashamed of – you’re probably right. But you?’ Your voice shakes and you turn to the sideboard to claim the Powers; no water this time as the bottle rattles a shaky staccato on the rim of the glass. ‘What the hell is wrong with you? You’ve a woman wants to marry you and you’re messing around with prostitutes. Isn’t one woman enough for you?’
He laughs and you clench the full lead Tyrone Crystal glass so hard you think it might shatter in your hand, but it has been tempered at thousands of degrees Celsius and it withstands the puny heat of your fury.
‘For Christ’s sake, it’s not the same thing at all,’ he says, pausing for a moment to clarify in his own mind exactly why it’s not the same thing at all. ‘I mean, you wouldn’t do that kind of stuff to a real woman.’
The heavy tumbler catches him on the cheekbone. Thank God there’s no bleeding. If you still had a housekeeper it would be hard to explain the whiskey splashes on the heavily patterned wallpaper. There’s even a splash on the face of the Sacred Heart, which catches the light of the red votive lamp below and glows eerily, as though Our Lord is crying blood.
He touches the side of his face, which is reddening now, and you find yourself wondering if anyone saw him arrive here. If they come tomorrow morning and find you lying in a pool of your own blood, with the Sacred Heart on one wall and his Blessed Mother on the other staring impassively down, would they be able to trace him and arrest him? Maybe that would be the best way to save Laura from this marriage. Or maybe you should ring young Father Manus and say, fuck the seal of the confessional, wait till you hear this.
His fingers stop probing his face. It doesn’t look too bad to you; his eye isn’t swelling. He’ll probably just have a big, easily explained-away bruise. He could say he walked into a door. Isn’t that what the women of your parishes have been saying to you for the last forty years? You used to marvel at how clumsy women were.
He steps towards you and you cringe backwards, wish to hell the door was closer, or your mobile phone. He reaches out a hand and lifts his car keys from where you didn’t notice he had thrown them and turns to leave.
‘I take it I’m not getting my letter then,’ he says. ‘I’ll take your advice and go to confession tomorrow. Tell bushy-nose a pack of lies. Hypocrisy. I can’t stand hypocrisy. But look where the truth gets you.’
You watch as he leaves the room, not even slamming the door, and listen to him quietly driving off into the night. You turn to the mantelpiece, gripping it with white knuckles, and lay your head on the cooling slab of marble.
Pope Francis says to you, clear as day, ‘Fuck’s sake, Antonio, get yourself another glass and fill it. And have one for me.’
Parrot by Nicole Flattery from ‘The Stinging Fly’, Issue 39 Volume 2, Winter 2018-19
When she thought about the second woman—and she had distantly when she’d been younger; how her life could potentially be upended by someone she didn’t know—it was always with a sort of black amusement. And when she said things that were improper—lines about her current situation that were just slightly off, the dry delivery of which was the reason why her friends were her friends—she had to admit, if only to herself, that she never imagined she would be the second woman.
That afternoon, still within their first six months in Paris, she went to an art exhibition. Exhibitions were something she was trying, attempting to adjust to: their sophistication, their unique shush. She moved up and down the staircase, cheapening the place with the cut of her clothes, searching for her soul at a frantic pace that suggested she was rummaging through a demolition site for the remains of her belongings rather than spending a pleasant few hours in a museum. She was not alone. The boy was with her, suspended from school for the day, a fact to which he was largely indifferent. At only nine years old he had learned to handle disappointment and failure with the sort of grace that, in her early thirties, still escaped her. He set the tone for the afternoon, ignoring her under the pretence of looking at paintings of nondescript benches. In a corner of the exhibition, there was a cage with two stuffed parrots. The woman spent an unnatural amount of time staring at them. They seemed as if they had been there forever, loving and admiring each other. How could they leave? They were behind bars. Nobody knew what happened in the tiny parameters of their cage.
Recently, at a dinner party, with her husband’s new colleagues she had—seized by the closeness of the couple, the sudden tininess of their Parisian apartment—explained that at home, in the Irish countryside, all of the houses were built far apart, with long driveways, so you could easily get away from your family. She did the smooth, fluid motion of a driveway with her hands.
‘They are legally obliged to be that way,’ she said.
Afterwards, she felt stupid, like she had revealed more than she intended. The woman half of the couple, wearing heavy, intimidating jewellery that implied intellectual heft, suggested that perhaps that was only in her family. Perhaps, she agreed. Therapy, she considered, as she flipped through the art books in the gift shop—their pages full of unnerving, confusing beauty—was also something new she could try.
As they walked back through the city streets, the October cold not wholly unpleasant, the boy sloped two steps behind her, but in her eyeline, always in her eyeline. As they strolled, history announcing itself at every corner, she answered a call from her mother. Since they had moved, her mother rang a lot and spoke at her usual steady stream, like she was being held hostage and needed to get all the information out before her throat was slit. The woman understood this way of speaking only after she became a mother herself. She would barely be recovered from one of these conversations when another would happen. Her mother was retired and bored. What was she supposed to do now? What was she supposed to do in that house? Just thinking about it made her want to get another job.
‘Don’t do that,’ the woman said, ‘start going to exhibitions. I’ve just been to one.’
‘I thought you didn’t like art.’
‘I don’t like artists. There’s a difference.’
When she let herself and the boy into the apartment they were renting, all the apartments built discreetly into the architecture of the city as if to obscure the fact that families lived in them at all, there was a notice on the front door. It was a picture, not unlike those in the exhibition, but less celebrated, of two cockroaches, one on the left, one on the right, with X’s running vertically through their bodies. There were some words promising there had been cockroaches and now they were gone, or there was an ongoing effort to get rid of the cockroaches. She wasn’t sure. She didn’t read or speak French. Later, in bed, with her husband, under crisp, ironed sheets, she tried to sleep off the possibility of cockroaches.
‘I love you,’ he whispered.
She blinked anxiously in the dark, as if trying to identify something. ‘Go easy on that stuff,’ she advised him.
Maybe the problem was that she was tired. She had been a bit tired when she entered art college, but dropping out had exhausted her. She remembered the final meeting, her prepared speech about why she was leaving, the made-up family reasons; then interrupting herself; then, finally, silence.
‘You should leave if you’re unhappy,’ they said.
‘I’m unhappy because I don’t think I belong here.’
Nobody begged her. It was cute that she had tried in the first place. She put the sculptures she had made in her first year in her parents’ garage and her mother used them to hang up wet clothes.
This was a serious decision but she didn’t know it until a few years later. She stayed in Dublin to work, sharing shabby rooms with a series of men. Through these relationships she wanted to prove something, prove that she was still complicated and interesting without a degree, but there was no time. She was too busy picking up after her boyfriends, making disappointed faces, listening to them complain about the inconsequences of their actions. She felt like a mother forcefully pushed on stage in a farce, with only an apron and a spatula. Why wouldn’t they let her commit the delinquency she knew she was capable of? Why was she always standing next to the delinquents, apologetically shaking her head? All these relationships ended the exact same way, with circuitous conversations and dully rational arguments, as if both participants were politicians lobbying for their own happiness. Denied even heartbreak and animosity, the modern emphasis was on the demonstration of respect, however insincere. In her last relationship, before she met her husband, he respected her so much he let her pay for everything. ‘This is respectful,’ she thought as she paid their rent, as her credit card hit the illuminated screen again and again. When he ended it, she felt like she had been mugged—mugged of money, but also of time.
‘I still respect you,’ he said.
‘I don’t care if you do or you don’t.’
‘But I do,’ he said earnestly, ‘I really do.’
She was so tired.
He moved his stuff out and she continued doing the scrambling necessary to staying alive; working two jobs in the city, her personality dissolving into small talk. The cost of travel, the cost of lunch, the cost of being young.
She met her husband in an office where she was a temp, the irony not lost on her, irony never lost on her. She treated these temp jobs like cocktail parties, draping her sparkling self across surfaces, trying to dazzle in a limited amount of time. He devastated her with the ease that he saw through her. He filed away her exaggerations, her evasions, the playfulness that was beginning to curdle into meanness so he could eventually embarrass her—a child in an adult place. When, one lunchtime, through a mouthful of sandwich, she laughed at a man in the office, because every office must have someone sad to laugh at, he frowned at her.
‘That man is depressed.’
‘How do you know that?” she asked.
‘How do you not?’
She drafted an email where she declared it was up to her what she decided was funny. Instead, she offered to buy him a drink. She hadn’t meant what she said. She explained, in careful email language, that she was beginning to suspect she might be a bad person. She had dropped out of college and there had been a number of other severe and deranged fuck-ups. Several weeks later, nudging, overly-friendly correspondence passing between them daily, he kissed her for the first time, his hands touching the back of her neck. They always went to the same B&B, the same room, fringed lamps and light curtains. It was like an affair made on an assembly line, everyone playing their part, following a strict pattern. No poetry, no sunlight on the bedsheets. The only surprise was when she found, unbelievably, like discovering a hidden room in a house, that she was in love with him. They only had one discussion about his wife, and it barely qualified as a discussion. She was ill and had been for a long time. Her illness would never be over. He had done everything he could. She believed him, not because he was a man who could ever be accused of heartlessness, but because he looked like someone who had begged and cried and tried to reassemble and done everything he could.
The winter in Paris, two days before Halloween, grew harsh and the woman’s lips cracked what felt like audibly. She was concerned strangers on the metro could hear, as if her mouth was a strip of velcro to be peeled open and closed. She knew she should be worried about presentation, in a city that demanded presentation, but she sloughed the dead skin off, forced her teeth into the supple, comforting grooves. Smiling was the only communication available to her and, overnight, it had turned ugly. Still, she continued smiling, amiably, like a tourist, like a secretary, like a combination of both—a tourist’s secretary.
She was called to the boy’s school, English-speaking, private, already more than they could afford, at least once a week. She went because she wasn’t working and for other, more defiant reasons. The school was a monstrous structure on a street of other dutiful buildings, including a police station, their insides deep and hidden. The boy had behavioural problems, concentration issues, the whole catalogue. She had humorous lines prepared about how they were more alike than they knew, how she might be his mother after all, but the teacher never gave her a single opportunity. Every Monday or Friday, the woman sat in a child’s chair and struggled for a position that lent her some dignity. She could offer nothing concrete—that his behaviour would improve or that she would insist it improve. Her presence there only promised she would be at the next meeting and the meeting after that, all the way to graduation and beyond. And although it made both her and the teacher uneasy in a way they couldn’t articulate, she had to come in to prove her worth, her plans to stay.
He had been caught stealing from another boy’s pockets.
‘Maybe he was just curious about what was in the pockets. Curious,’ she repeated, hopefully.
The teacher gave her a stern look, violently shrinking, and the woman wondered who educated these people, schooled them in disapproval. ‘That wasn’t it,’ the teacher said. She was from London and had a soundless way of communicating disappointment. Their relationship never moved beyond professional; they never hinted at their personal lives, as if any friendliness might cause embarrassment the next time they saw each other, and there would be a next time.
The woman pulled a face that was also learned, perfected from years of bad relationships—let down but doubtful of change.
‘I will speak to him,’ she said, finally.
On the metro, hurtling home through black tunnels, he sat beside her, always content in her company. He kept up a steady chatter about school as if constant talk could distract from his misdemeanour. She was familiar with this trick. If she ever tried to grab his hand, he shook her off. He never allowed her to touch him. When she watched the other mothers exit through the school gates—in their discreet, mother uniforms; this city believed in uniforms—pushing their sons’ hair back from their eyes, casually shepherding them, her mind raced with thoughts of self-improvement. She should try to be gentler, less agitated, learn to make small talk in another language, or even her own language. Become someone a boy might want to touch. It seemed as if her whole life, from the age of thirteen onwards, had been geared towards that rotten desire and now the world had come up with a genius way of punishing her.
She tried to tempt him into a pastry shop, bribe him into confessing with sugar. It was gloomy. It was also possibly criminal.
‘No, thanks,’ he said, massaging his abdomen, his body so tiny that it was hard to believe that it contained the correct amount of organs. ‘Sports.’
‘Sports,’ he repeated and raced ahead of her.
She considered, not for the first time, becoming one of those mothers who carries fruit with them everywhere, pulling it out of the insides of their handbags like a magic trick, eternally resourceful. On the front door, beside the cockroaches, although she tried not to look, tried not to be confronted with her own ignorance of the French language too often, was a notice with a photo of a rat, no X running through it, free to do what he pleased. It was a vicious rat, his tiny teeth bared. He looked motivated.
When the boy went to the bathroom, she flicked through his phone, the one concession they allowed him. There was never anything of concern, just a sadness attached to it, a lonely phone gasping for contact. She watched the clips he had recorded from the police station across the road from the school, his newest fascination. Blue-uniformed boys wandered blurrily back and forth, groups of two or three, trying to look busy or brave, or both. They were armed in a traumatised city, their hands resting on their guns as if the gesture alone could reassure what happened before would never happen again. There were only five clips, shaky and accompanied by the raucous playground laughter of boys, but she watched them to the end.
The first time his wife called the police the woman went to the station with her own mother. They drove in silence. In the reception, they sat side-by-side and her mother advised her to just be herself, as if that—the whole process of being herself—wasn’t exactly why she was here in the first place. They waited in the exact same way, patiently, showing no hint of irritation, both betraying their own telltale signs of anxiety—her mother rummaged constantly in her handbag, the woman ran her fingers over greasy patches of her skin. A policewoman smiled gently at them, before beckoning the woman into a room. The woman remembered how she and her mother used to go to the bogs, weekend rebellions, the two of them running wild, comfortable in the dirt. Once, she slipped into a trench and had only managed to wade through the deep muck with her mother’s careful encouragement. The walk from one side of the station to the other was like that.
In the small, airless room she was told they had received a phone call from his wife. Her car had allegedly been stolen and the woman was the prime suspect, the only suspect. The doubt was in the allegedly. She knew that a policewoman was being used for her sensitivity, and she wondered how many sensitive cases she had to handle a week, and how much sensitivity she had left. The policewoman’s shirt was untucked, her eyes heavily ringed, her shoulders drooped; all those crime-free hours spent at pedestrian crossings, waiting in cars, weighing on her, transforming her waistline. The woman thought she looked ridiculous. When the policewoman placed a hand over hers and declared it a domestic situation, her dislike didn’t alleviate. There was no decency in the movement, only the desire to dominate.
‘We can’t throw you in jail,’ she said, with a tight, mean smile, just for being a silly girl.’
‘Why?’ she asked, ‘Not enough room?’
The policewoman scowled at her.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘I’m so tired.’
On the way back, her mother pulled the car into a quiet stretch of motorway so she could cry freely, tears vandalising her face, emotion she didn’t know she had left in her. Her mother let her cry, even allowed her to veer into self-pity, before she asked was she upset because the police didn’t think she could rob a car. They laughed despite themselves, a dark hollow-sized trench hiding inside it, surprised they were still capable of making the sound.
The second time his wife reported a made-up crime, he went alone. He explained that after the birth of their son, his wife had developed postnatal depression, then just depression, the regular kind. So she can be difficult sometimes, the police said. When he came home to the house they were now renting together outside Dublin—in an estate of identical houses so alike that she often arrived at the wrong door—the back of his work shirt was soaked, and he was shaken in his own unshakeable way. In the middle of the night, he woke up, his breath sour, and told her he didn’t like the word difficult, had never liked it. They didn’t smile then, they wouldn’t dare, but there were still whispered jokes between them, in trouble with the law, like two teenagers on the lam.
The third time the police got involved in their lives, they went together. A teacher had discovered bruising on the boy’s body, still and silent purple lakes, signs of abuse. After an investigation that moved slow, then fast, everything being worked out in rooms that didn’t include them, the boy’s mother was declared unfit and he was sent to live with them permanently. ‘By who?’ the woman wanted to ask, ‘declared an unfit mother by who?’ They had a few interactions with the same policewoman from her first encounter, the police seemingly attached to them now. She sometimes looked at the woman like she forgave her. This makes it easier for you. You must be happy now.
They married in an embarrassed ceremony shortly before they went to Paris. It was a year after the funeral; he changed suits. Her friends donned confused formalwear. She was having them on, right? No one could be this in love, no one could make this sacrifice. Certainly not her. They thought the production of her life, always entertaining, was never going to end. She spent a lot of time in the bathroom, avoided the food, searched for her mother’s features in her own when they stood side-by-side in the mirror. Throughout all of this, the boy said almost nothing and she watched him like he was a crucial witness. Everything she knew about him was mediated through others, his teacher, his father, guards. He had to speak sometime though. That was the deal in this life—no matter how much you tried to avoid it, you had to speak sometime.
In the weeks before the ceremony, in bed, still her boyfriend then, fiancée if she felt like being technical, both terms startlingly trite for what they were trying, he held her tightly in his sleep as if she was going to sneak out. A restless one-night stand. His grief had been huge, paralysing, and the guilt was worse; finding lists, in his handwriting, of what he could have done. So they put a ban on sadness, binned newspapers, left the television on cartoons of pink hyperactivity. Grief had a time frame and when they reached that time frame, and he wasn’t recovered and neither was his son, money was the problem. If they had money, they could somehow circumnavigate the time frame. He was in numbers and was constantly trying to beat the morose odds, trying to outrun a train. He wanted to make her happy. It was her turn to be happy. People were the problem for a while, general people and then, more specifically, this country. This country was going to make him exercise, this country was going to make him get up early, this country was going to make him put a brave face on it. Let’s go somewhere, he said, that makes miserable a look, that smiles only when it absolutely has to.
‘Paris,’ she said.
She bought a guidebook and flipped through it before bed. It was just pictures of macarons and rich, oppressive buildings. There was no guidance in it. At night, she curled her body into a promise, in answer to his clawing question, that she wouldn’t leave them.
There was occasionally something so cheerfully immoral about the city it caught her off-guard, made her feel like her former self. Go and have an absurd love affair, it told her. Go on. You’ve done it before. Do it again. Walk around naked underneath your coat. She considered the possibility that everyone was naked underneath their coats. It wouldn’t surprise her. The city was silent during the day and loud in the evenings, and the sudden transition alarmed her. It could be bossy in that way—be scared, don’t be scared, now be terrified. Once the metro came to a stop, the lights died, total silence, not even a cough. Then it moved as normal. There was the sense of an unspoken resilience. Every Monday or Friday, regardless of where she was, how unpredictable she was feeling, she received a phone call from the school. This was what she talked about when she rang home. In a city of novelties, responsibility was the only real novelty.
It was Halloween when she next stepped into the boy’s school, passing by unremarked except for a few fake skeletons dangling from the ceiling, an unsophisticated holiday. When she stood in the hallway, feeling like a student herself, the place spoke to her of sweat and failure. Already, at under twelve, there were violin, piano, language lessons abandoned, a sluggishness set in. A sea of uniforms swept over her; a tide of blue. The boys all had bad posture and awkward gaits as if ashamed of their childhoods. Why are you so sluggish, she wanted to ask. Perk up. Many of you are going to be rich.
‘What’s the collective name for a group of boys?’ she asked the teacher.
‘In French or in English?’
‘I don’t know in either language.’
‘A school of boys, maybe,’ the woman said, ‘a drooping of boys.’
The teacher always so elegant, yet merciless, in her admissions, told her that morning the boy had hit a classmate—slapped him hard across the face for beating him at a race.
The woman was quiet for a moment. ‘He doesn’t get this from me.’
‘No,’ she said, delicately.
‘I’m the stand-in.’
The teacher gave a curt nod in response.
She leaned forward awkwardly in her chair. ‘You think I’m not trying.’
‘I don’t think that.’
‘I love that boy.’
‘I know you do.’
A silence passed.
‘We don’t want to have to expel him.’
‘I will speak to him,’ she said, ‘I will speak to him.’
‘He’s very good at running,’ the teacher said, a genuine smile on her face. ‘Fast.’
‘He does get that from me,’ she said and closed the door.
In the hallway she waited for him, watched the overhead skeletons, seemingly relaxed without a skin. She spun one in her hand, made it dance. It seemed to resent the movement. A private school, she thought, its skeleton private.
On the way home they stopped at the playground beside an imposing church. The city constantly humbled her, reminding her at every opportunity that people had been there before, waving its hands around in excitement about its incredible history. It was irritating. Out of his schoolbag the boy took out a drawing of a ghost, the eyes far apart, in opposite hemispheres. Squiggles representing horror. She wasn’t sure if he was proud of it.
‘That’s a beautiful picture,’ she said, cautiously.
‘No, it’s not.’
‘No,’ she agreed, laughing, ’it’s not.’
She sat on the wooden bench, her breath rippling out in stubborn, icy waves in front of her. She watched him climbing, tried to spot any trace of athletic talent. Then she watched for what she was told to watch for—any signs of trauma, impulse toward sadness. How could you know now? She never socialised with the other mothers. It was ridiculous, her attitude problem resurfacing. She felt they knew she had been coerced at the last minute, didn’t have the correct paperwork. She had never held him as a baby, never heard him cry, a cooing from another world. She once listened to sounds of babies crying and decided which one he would have sounded most like. It was a high-pitched, argumentative wailing. She went on the websites with the mothers of newborns, introduced herself. There were some genuine points of interest but nothing to help with a nine-year old.
‘Are you a troublemaker?’ she asked when he, out-of-breath, sat down.
‘That’s what troublemakers say.’ She rested her arm behind him. ‘Tell me about running.’
‘I like stupid things.’
‘You like stupid things?’
‘Yeah, I like stupid things,’ she said loudly, finding freedom in it, ‘That’s why they kicked me out of college.’
‘You got kicked out?’
‘I kicked myself out. But it was the same thing. Tell me.’
It was fun, he explained, it was good, but to be the best you had to keep practicing and what was the point? It was a version of the argument she had with herself daily. She wanted to encourage him but what was she supposed to do? Tell him, like a dog, to sit down, stand up, kneel? She had no authority. Why was she even here? What did she want from it all—a medal?
On the metro, at the last stop, she asked him outright. ‘Why did you hit that boy?’
‘The medal,’ he said simply.
On the front door she stuck the picture of the ghost and drew a large, deliberate X.
That night, in bed, her husband described his day and she listened. He was in love with the city, wandered around in a loving daze. The distance was good for him and, although his work was difficult, obscure, he was now a medium shade of grey, instead of a deep shade.
‘How did you know it would be right?’ he asked.
‘I know everything.’
She had been to Paris once before with her mother when she was twenty, a few months after she dropped out and it didn’t look like she was going back. She had settled into the rhythms of the joke but her mother knew, instinctively, without having to be told, how disappointed she was. It was a cheap trip; they shared a hotel room. Their room contained a tiny, electric Eiffel Tower. They were women who knew dirt, country roads, had learned to make conversation in corner shops, confronted, finally, by glamour, by seriousness. They did everything wrong. They went to the wrong bars, the wrong restaurants, the wrong streets. She wasn’t sure they saw Paris at all, neither of them exactly clear on what a holiday was. They fought on several street corners, made up, and hid their giddy laughter behind their hands. The city was impatient with them. What is so funny, it asked. What could possibly be so funny? Her mother made her go to every museum and when her feet were sore she waited in the cafes. She remembered seeing her across the crowded room, her soles exposed, sitting patiently, waiting for her daughter, looking like an old woman.
‘You will make a great old woman,’ she told her mother that night.
‘I am an old woman,’ her mother said.
Later, in their twin beds, she asked her mother was she hard to raise.
‘You had an answer for everything. Everything.’
‘I don’t anymore. Not at all.’
Then her mother, a shadow on the wall of the hotel room, told her that she regretted some of her life. The usual. She would have liked to do more, although she didn’t really know what: live in European countries, make mistakes. She never had the time to figure out what it was. She felt her life was small, mechanical. She spoke for a while.
‘I shouldn’t have said all that,’ she decided, after a thoughtful pause.
‘It’s okay,’ the woman said, ‘it’s fine.’
‘I had a nice time.’
‘I had a nice time too.’
They fell asleep, after a while, Paris coming through the slats of the hotel blinds.
She only saw the boy’s mother once. It was the woman’s fault for recognising her, for being too thorough in her investigations, combing through photographs—looking for what exactly? Evidence that he had adored her, evidence that she had once been someone you could adore. It was in a hardware shop, the woman had gone to buy some paint. She wandered through the shop, marvelling at the anarchic presentation, broken pieces of domesticity everywhere, a sink just sitting in the middle of the floor. It was a joke shop, everything too large or ominous or numerous, hundreds of versions of the same thing, everything gesturing towards a great future. In the lighting section she turned a lamp on and off, imagined it on her bedside table, a matching one opposite, lamps came in pairs. She was decorating the house, no longer able to look at the white walls. It was in the paint aisle, staring businesslike at the selection, that she felt the boy’s mother. It occurred to her that they were both standing in front of a wall of paint and that if they had been two different women, they could have been standing in the glow of a painting, a scene that would at least lend some ceremony. But they weren’t, and they weren’t. The tins of paint stretched far back into the wall. She glanced at the boy’s mother sideways, but didn’t fully look at her, because she knew then she would have to look at her twice, to see if she could tell from her face, from the planes of it, the missed medication and the locked cabinets and the attempts with the kitchen bleach. In exactly a week the boy’s mother would be dead, succeeding at what she had been trying for a lot of her life. The woman didn’t turn her head. She looked fixedly ahead and felt the boy’s mother only as a presence. She wanted to apologise, explain that she hated it all too, fake pleasantness and being alive and fucking paint, that nobody blamed her, but when she looked around, she was gone. It was like a dream and, afterwards, in the car, the paint on her lap, the light came through the windshield blindingly strong, like in a dream.
When she got a chance she went to cafes and pretended to be a tourist, a woman with a book and a coffee. That afternoon, underneath the coffee, she could smell the boy’s laundry on her—the clothes she had washed and dried earlier. In the long mirror that wrapped around the cafe, she watched herself, not like her idea of a mother, but when she smiled, resolved to smile, the face that looked back was her own mother’s. In the cafe, a parade of faces worked at their food and drink. A man walked around with a baby, clutching him to his chest. Her husband’s colleagues told her after it first happened, you could see people quietly scanning the exits in bars and restaurants. How long would it take to escape? One minute? Two minutes? She waited for the call and, when it came, she went to the school. On the metro she thought about how easy it would be to step off somewhere else, disappear. It occurred to her that, for the whole of her life, she might never stop having that thought.
‘I haven’t seen you in ages,’ she said to the teacher.
‘It was three days ago.’
‘It was three days ago. I remember, believe me.’ There was the flicker of a bold smile.
‘I admire your relentless professionalism.’
She walked behind the teacher, following the clip-clop of her work heels through the long corridor of identical lockers. They walked up several flights of stairs, until they came to a door marked ‘No Entry.’ They entered. Inside there was nothing, a couple of disused ping-pong tables, some broken furniture. At the front there was a curtain.
‘I thought you might like to watch,’ the teacher said and pushed back the curtain, revealing a pane of glass, opening, miraculously, into light.
The woman came closer to the glass and leaned against it. Below, in the gym, a class was happening. She saw the fierce shape of a coach in the centre. On scattered blue mats rested the bodies of twenty boys, small heads, small bodies, in various states of stretching. She searched for the boy and found him, his body taut, ready to launch, and she held her breath.
Mother, May I by Amy Gaffney from HCE Review , Volume 3, Issue 1
‘Now, Maggie, imagine what it would be like if you had the occupation you wanted as a child.’ These words slide from my therapist.
I smile tightly. I’ve already dealt with life’s disappointments, mine, my mother’s, and Steve’s mother’s, and that’s a lot of disappointment to have dealt with at the age of thirty-three. I certainly do not need to revisit why I’m not an astronaut, an artist, a mad scientist, a briefcase carrying lawyer, a lauded fashion designer, an Oscar and Tony award winning actress, or anything else. What about the job I want as a grown-up? Is that not important?
I wore red, because he unnerves me. He uses words sparingly, in contrast to how he uses his death stare. I pull at the thread that loosely joins the button to my shirt sleeve, and refuse to meet his sharp scrutiny. If the button pops off it will be free. Attached to nothing. Umbilical severed. Autonomous. My arse sweats in the straight-backed electric chair. It’s not really electric, it’s just I get shocks from it every time I’m here. It’s covered in some cheap polyester-nylon shite. My obsession with fabric when I was fourteen taught me something: Don’t be a cheap skate.
‘I never really wanted to be anything.’ I peer through my fringe and his self-satisfied smug-stare lands on me. His thin lips stretch in a false smile, his tightly shaved chin dimples.
‘Mmmmm. You never wanted to be anything at all, or anything in particular?’ his large nostrils flare at the end of his pointy nose as he tries to draw me further.
‘Anything. Just anything.’ I say. Then I think that I’ll wind him up a little.
‘You mentioned before that you were interested in fashion. I imagine that’s a difficult industry to get into?’
‘Well, I’d have to go to college.’
‘Just go to college? That doesn’t sound too hard.’
‘Well, if you want to do anything in fashion you have to get out of Ireland and try get into a fashion house somewhere.’ Honestly. Do I have to explain everything?
‘So, you feel that Ireland isn’t the place for you to forge a career in fashion?’
‘Well, no… it’s just that… Ireland is such a small place, and well, it’s always the same people with the same vision of…’ I paused, how could I say this without sounding mean?
‘Mmmmm?’ The fountain pen in his pale freckled hand scratches the page of the notebook he balances on his crossed knee; his trouser leg is hitched to reveal posh socks, the kind of socks that hill walkers wear: thermalish, cushioned, flecked. Boring. He continues, ‘You say ‘same vision’. What does that mean to you?’
I shrug and pull at the red thread. In for a penny in for a pound as they say. Time is almost up anyway. So, I give him a titbit to make him feel good about this session.
‘If you look at the shape of Ireland, on a map, it looks square. Like a box. Everyone in Ireland thinks inside of Ireland, about Ireland, about what people think of Ireland. No one likes to rock the boat. They can’t see things differently – they’re always trying to fix things they think are not normal.’ Like me.
He nods, his pen rests on the notebook, and for a moment he seems interested.
‘This country is all about trends. What are trends?’ I look at him, wait for him to answer. He death-stares me. I shake my head sadly, if he doesn’t realise what a trend is I’ll have to enlighten him. And this man is supposed to be knowledgeable. ‘Trends are the backbone of a safe, conformist society. Trends are the safe way to follow fashion because trends are the acceptable somethings that everyone does. No rules broken! Trends give a false impression of being different, of things changing, of the trend wearer being brave and bold, but all the while just conforming. Like think about how trendy it is now for a man to be in the labour ward!’ He shifts in his non-electric real-leather chair and nods conspiratorially. I nod back. ‘Well, what I want to know is…where are the real trendsetters?’ By the time I finish I’m breathless and on the edge of the electric chair, my ears throb with heat, sweat prickles under my arms.
‘Ok. That’s very interesting. Responsibility and the chance to make a difference. Is that why you’re here, Maggie?’ He picks up his pen and resumes his note scratching.
‘I’m here because…’ My mouth hangs open. Why am I here?
Because my mother thinks I’m a flake, and that I need a better job; because Steve’s mother thinks that I have an irrational fear of children and childbirth; because I think Steve is listening to them. And I think that he’ll leave me, and I’ll have to go back to living in a bedsit where the landlord controls the heating. I’m afraid that I’ll catch glimpses of Steve pushing a buggy through the park, while his uber-glamourous, pulled-together new wife sends emails to the office stat as she power walks beside him. Then he’ll see me, and walk past me as if I was a ghost. I’ll watch my friends graduate into middle age, and I’ll still be wearing Doc Martens and bomber jackets, except not the ones that are fashionable now, but the ones that were out in the 90s. The 90s when we thought we couldn’t get pregnant if we did it standing up, but definitely could if we sat in a Jacuzzi with some free-floating spermatozoa.
I’m here because I’m afraid I’ll lose him.
I’m here because I don’t know how to be who they want me to be.
I’m here because I don’t know how to be who I want me to be.
He death stares me again. Bores into me with that question, that stupid existential question. He may as well have asked me why any of us are here? Blast Freud and his psychoanalysis babble. The nylon fabric stings the back of my thigh, where my skirt has wriggled up. Ten deniers are no match for the electric chair, but they are a prerequisite for my current temping job. I’d rather be in jeans.
‘…because I don’t fit in?’
‘Is that a question, Maggie?’ He raises an eyebrow at me.
‘How can you answer a question with a question!’ I know he is annoyed, his foot energetically taps up and down. Tap tap tap tap tap. It’s his biggest tell. He scribbles something down, looks at me, I can see he is repressing a sigh, then he nods and writes down something else. I saw the red thread back and forth, allowing it to mark the pad of my fingertip.
‘Maggie, why is it you feel that you don’t fit it? Are you under pressure to be here?’ He folds his hands over his notebook, his leg tapping slows down as I squirm further back into the chair.
Damn the man is perceptive. I purse my lips and sit back in my electric chair, and wince as a jolt whizzes along my thigh. I’d out-waited him before. I’ll out-wait him now – what is time anyway? Time is of now use to me. He pushes up the sleeve of his freshly ironed shirt, death-stares me, then finally he peers over his glasses at the clock. I swear he looks relieved.
‘I’ll see you next week.’ The notebook snaps shut.
‘Yeah, next week.’ I swallow twice, and close my mouth. Next week, after my mother has interrogated me to be sure that I haven’t blackened her name. What would Freud say about that! I feel like laughing, or crying. I’m sure which emotion is overriding my mind. The red button pings from my sleeve, flies through the air and rattles down inside the radiator. I don’t have the energy to care, I just get up and shuffle through the door.
Steve is waiting for me. I asked him not to come. But he’s sitting back on his own electric chair, looking uncomfortable in the stuffy waiting room. He looks as if his arse is itching. I stop and look over at him. Mind your sperm count isn’t depleted by the heat generated from the nylon, Stephen, the mothers will never become grandmothers if you keep electrocuting your danglies. Imagine if after all of this shite it turned out that it wasn’t my fault after all. What would your mother say then? I pause, shake myself; I push those awful thoughts away and I smile towards him. None of this is his fault.
‘You didn’t have to come. I told you I was ok getting the bus.’ But my muscles ache as much as if I’d run a marathon, my legs don’t feel like my own. It is like this after every session, even the ones that I don’t talk in. Somewhere above my forehead hangs a familiar fog, heavy and intrusive as if I’d donned super long false eyelashes and daubed them thrice with mascara. I blink slowly, hoping that Steve won’t ask me how it went. He takes my coat, and Christ, I am so glad to see him.
The secretary watches us with interest, her gaze lingers on Steve just a little too long for my taste. I pay, and nudge Steve back from the desk. He unknowingly ignores the secretary’s bright smile that screams: Hey! Fancy spending a life with me? – I have a permanent, fulltime job – I know who I am – I’m housetrained and FYI my ovaries are ripe for the picking – pick me pick me! I watch how her smile never falters while she struggles to connect me and Steve, struggles to figure out our relationship. He’s all suit and tie, smooth hair and chin; I’m laddered tights, out-of-date mascara, awkward in the ‘suit’ I bought cheap at Tesco for temping jobs. She hands him the receipt, not me, so I plonk my left hand on her desk, glad that I’d worn both my wedding and engagement rings. Then I wish I hadn’t. Her nails are clearly photoshopped onto her hands. Mine are in rag order. The shame. I am glad though, to see Steve. And I know that he really doesn’t mind picking me up, this is just the way he is. He’s thoughtful, considerate. He’s a good man. I must drive him insane. I should just relax, none of this is his fault. He is the way he is, and he’s not in therapy, so he must be ok.
‘What would you think of going to the pub for dinner?’ Steve clears his throat as he holds the door open for me. I think it’s not going to the pub for dinner, it’s going to the pub for a chat, with his wife, in a safe, open, and inhabited environment. I trudge alongside him to the car. Even my toenails hurt.
‘Ok, but I want to be home by eight, I want to do some work.’
‘No problem! We can be home earlier if you want. What are you working on? Your CV?’ Steve beams at me in relief. Relief that we don’t have to skirt around what came up happened in my session. But what a topic we’ve landed on. My CV. A seventeen-tonne scarlet elephant, bedecked with bells and whistles, wearing a little sequined number, tap-danced a scene from Madame Butterfly danced across the path in front of me. It had the letters CV stamped on its forehead.
My Currrrrrrriculum Vitae. The bane of my teenage years. I can hear my mother’s tinkly helpful voice: ‘Oh Margaret, that would look great on your CV…’. She made me put in hours, unpaid hours, at a local charity shop, in the parish centre, babysitting for the bank manager. She pushed me to get a part time job anywhere: ‘Just pop your CV in on your way home from school, Margaret, I had a chat with so and so and she said that she’ll look out for you’. She drove me up the wall with each and every ‘little suggestion’. But she’s my mother, she means the best for me. I know she does. Just as Steve does by picking me up. It just irritates sometimes; they treat me like I’m incapable on one hand, and on the other they expect me to be a ‘fully functioning adult’. How can I when they’re hovering over me and making little suggestions all the time? Steve never had an issue with my jobs until his mother and my mother joined forces. The last time it was, ‘Oh, Maggie’s filling in on reception again. I see. Isn’t that a little, well, how can I say it? Isn’t it a little childish – to be chasing after these temping positions? It doesn’t really say much for her staying power, does it? Wouldn’t she be better off at home? A wife should be at home, looking after the house and…’ His mother is a real piece of work.
The pub is empty, which isn’t a surprise. It’s too early for drinkers, and too late for diners. Steve picks the seat, near the fireplace where a trio of candles flicker in the downdraft. He hands me a dog-eared stained menu and I look around. The place is a kip. My stomach starts churning. I don’t want to eat here. I’ll end up with food poisoning. I’ll puke everything up and nothing will stay down for days, I’ll lose money buuuuuuut …I’ll lose weight. It will be great! I’ll break a lifetime of bad habits in a week and end up gawky, a contemporary version of 90s heroine chic. I’ll have high Slavic cheekbones, just like the girl behind the bar. I use the word girl in every sense of the word, she looks too young, and too addicted to substances to be legally allowed to sell alcohol. She’s all angles beneath her black shirt and apron. She’s eleven if a day.
That’s when I wanted to be a lawyer. I thought I could take over the world, or at least I’d win all the cases put in front of me. L.A. Law was on telly at the time, and may have influenced me just a teeny bit. I was the best debater in my class, I won a trophy in the regional competition. I had such high hopes. Of course, I looked amazing in my future role as lawyer extraordinaire, mainly because I had such a sense of style. In my dreams, my hair was always swingy and black and shiny, not the drab not quite blonde, nor brown, nor ginger, lack-lustre that it actually is. Mam always said that I should be a hairdresser, or a beautician. She said that it was a nice, unchallenging job, one that I could do from home when I had children, because I’d have to be at home to mind the kids, ‘but don’t forget, it’s important for a woman have some little money of her own’. My mother, in one dopey ridiculous sentence, set feminism back fifty years, all the while thinking that she was channelling Virginia Woolf. She put me on a diet. I didn’t know what the word diet meant. I’d never heard it before that day. I’ve been hungry everyday since.
Mam blames my fat arse for my temping job, and my temping job for my fat arse. She blames the fat rolls on my back for me not being able to wear her wedding dress, and she blames my every fat cell for my ‘leftie’ thinking. Mostly though, she blames my ‘obesity’ for her lack of grandchildren. This is where she and my mother in law agree. It’s the common ground they share despite each thinking that the other’s child is not good enough for their own child to marry. I don’t think I’m that fat. I’m only overweight according to the online BMI calculator. Steve never complains. He loves me, warts and all. And God, but he’s gorgeous. Just looking at him makes my skin tingle, and my stomach tighten. I’d do anything to get his attention, to have his skin against mine. Jesus Christ. My cheeks flame up. Even in this disgusting dive he’s gorgeous. He’s a ride. I’d ride him right now, except I’d catch chlamydia from the stool.
‘Stevie, it’s not very nice in here. Let’s get a take away and go home.’ I run my fingers along his arm.
‘It’s not bad in here.’ He twitches, and licks his lips in anticipation of a pint.
‘Steve, it’s walking in here.’
‘Yeah. But my mam called. She’s picking up your mam now. They’re on the way over to have a talk with us. I think it’s about IVF.’
‘IVF?’ I think of his mother; her double-chin wobble, her meticulously ironed blouse and her ‘portable rosary beads’ that she had blessed in Rome. I think of my mother; with her calculating stare, her diaries, her low-fat milk, and how she still fits into clothes she bought before she was pregnant with me. I think of them together. And I shiver.
So I order a double Jack Daniels. No mixer. I knock it back. Steve does the same. We don’t need IVF. We need to be left alone. I am so ready for a baby. So is Steve. What job have I always wanted? I almost laughed aloud. It’s the one question I’m always asked and the one question I’m afraid I’ll never be able to answer.
Sparing the Heather by Louise Kennedy from Banshee issue #8
Each time she came it felt less like her house. There was a pot soaking on the hob, a dark mealy ribbon peeling away from its sides, the dregs of a stew of lentils or beans; Hugh only ate meat he had killed himself. The kitchen dresser had been rearranged. She had left ornaments behind, things she neither liked nor used. A pair of glass candlesticks, an Aynsley china vase. Six dark blue pottery wine goblets too heavy to drink from. A pewter ashtray. Hugh had moved them aside and they were in hasty clusters in the corners of the shelves. There were photographs in their place, faded Polaroids in assorted frames.
The kitchen table was covered with sheets of newspaper. Hugh’s shotgun was dismantled on the pages: barrel, shaft and fore-end laid out neatly, the cleaning paraphernalia less so. There were twisted rags, a roll of blue paper towels. Brass-tipped mahogany rods and its attachments: a couple of jags, a phosphor bronze brush, a tiny wool mop. An open can of lead and copper solvent that smelled like pear drops, a closed can of gun oil. The rent was in an envelope on the dresser. Mairead put it in her bag and went down the hall to Hugh’s room.
Normally the dog rested his chin on the bed and waited. Today he was agitated, skirring about the room. He was a wire-haired fox terrier called Arthur, with a coarse beard and eyes that watered like an old man’s. As Hugh finished, Mairead felt a tongue across the sole of her foot.
Bloody dog, she said, wiping her heel on the sheets.
Hugh’s thigh was lying heavily across her hip and she had to push him off to get up. He switched on the bedside lamp and watched her dress. She turned away. She hated the silvery pucker of her stretchmarks, how flat her tits looked without the chicken fillets she put in her bra. The papery slump of her skin. Not that he seemed to mind. He was always looking at her, leaving the light on so he could see what he was doing, watching as he put himself inside her.
I can give you a lift up the road, he said.
Will you fuck. I’ll see you later on.
She left the house through the back door. It needed a coat of varnish, the window frames too. She’d asked Brendan to paint it, but he said for the pittance they were getting off Hugh in rent he could sing for it. The wind was coming from the east and walking uphill against it she felt weak and small. She stopped at the top of the road where the glen came into sight. It was florid with heather, blackened in strips where Hugh had begun the burning. The tents the Garda search team had erected were at the foot of the north slope. For weeks they had been combing the moor, crossing back and forth in high-vis jackets. Today the only movement was the sporadic flapping of white canvas. It was Sunday.
Brendan was loading the car in the driveway when she got home.
We need to leave in an hour, he said.
I’m only back from a walk. I don’t know if I’ll bother.
There’s a meal booked for after. The rest of the wives’ll be there. Is that supposed to make me want to go?
I don’t know, Mairead. Go or don’t go.
She went upstairs to their room and tilted back the long mirror. There was gun oil on her face, a smear that started at her chin and disappeared under her collar. She took her clothes off. The mark stopped abruptly at her left nipple. She heard Brendan’s feet on the stairs and went into the bathroom. She took her time getting ready, imagining Brendan sitting in the car waiting for her, seething.
When she came down Brendan was strapped in to the driver’s seat with the engine running, his elbow resting on the open window. There was pop music playing on the car radio but his fingers were tapping in time to some unheard tune, one of those dreary pipe solos he liked to listen to. She got in beside him and turned the volume up. They went the half mile or so to the glen without speaking.
Half the village was in the lay-by. Brendan got out and began to empty the boot. Mairead pulled down the visor. Her makeup looked caked on and patchy where Hugh’s chin had scraped her. He was near the stile, wearing the jacket with all the pockets he called a jerkin. Arthur was nervous, running at cars as they pulled in, scudding against legs and knees. Mairead got out and went to the boot to change her shoes. The dog came cantering towards her, butting her hard in the crotch and knocking her against the car. Brendan frowned at her, as if she had done something to encourage the animal. Hugh gave a sharp whistle and Arthur went back to him. The dog could give them away, carrying on like that.
She followed Brendan towards the stile. He put his hand on Hugh’s shoulder. Well, big man, he said. Not a bad turnout.
Not bad at all. He clapped his hands together and they all turned to look at him. Right, he called. Let’s go.
Someone said Tally-ho. Someone else laughed. Hugh didn’t seem to have heard. He wasn’t meant to.
He crossed first, swinging a long leg over the wire fence. Brendan followed him in close, quick movements. She hadn’t seen them together since the day Hugh moved in. Brendan had objected to the Gun Club’s plan to hire a gamekeeper, but when it was clear it was going ahead he behaved as though it had been his idea, offering the house at low rent, showing him around. He bought a bottle of whiskey and asked Mairead to call to the house with him. Hugh made them hot toddies and talked about the estate he had worked on in Scotland. When Mairead called the following week to collect the rent, Hugh was at the kitchen table, buffing his boots with dubbing. Radio 4 was playing low. He said he often went days without speaking to anyone and thanked her for coming. The next week he didn’t say anything at all and they had sex on one of the kitchen chairs.
They crossed into the low field. Underfoot the earth was soft, the layer of dab a wet, shallow wadding that sat on the bedrock, tufted with pond sedge and reed. Brendan and Hugh were four or five feet apart. There was a difference in how they moved across the land. Her husband hunched and wary. The Englishman loose-limbed, easeful.
There were crows in the sky. One dropped into their range, and both men aimed. Hugh fired first, his shoulders jerking back on the recoil. The bird flung its wings wide, tumbling over itself as it fell. Arthur ran to get it and came back with the body swinging slick and limp from his jaws. He dropped it at Hugh’s feet.
Boggy sedges gave way to cross-leaved heath, to bilberry and wintergreen. They were climbing, the tilt of the mountain straining Mairead’s knees, her shins. A narrow trail bent upwards to the tor, beaten flat by men’s boots; one by one they took it. The path was uneven, and Mairead had to take high, deliberate steps to avoid a nub of rock, a clump of scutch grass. The wet fields and the village appeared to flatten out below them.
The path opened out and they were on the moor. Listen, said Hugh, and they all stopped where they were. There, he said. The call of the male. Some of the others were nodding. All Mairead could hear was the beat of wind in the air, the screaks of crows.
This close, the heather was a tangled weave of woody stalks and small purple flowers, without the dark blush it had from a distance. Across the moor were blackened strips, uniform in shape and size. Hugh led them to the one he had burned first, in the autumn when he had just arrived. He said that grouse need old heather to hide in and young heather to feed on; that controlled burning yields both. Small green shoots were already poking from the charred mess.
He turned suddenly, crossing in long light strides towards a dense bank of heather. He aimed into the thicket. There was a glimpse of ginger fur, and a fox slipped away over the hanging rock and down the western slope. I’ve been trying to get that bugger for weeks, he said.
He wouldn’t be the first Brit out-foxed round here, someone said. Hugh glanced around. This time he had heard.
He walked a few paces and laid down his gun. He lowered his shoulder and let his backpack slide onto the ground. He took out kerosene, a lighter, a rag. Brendan was beside him as he started the fire, the rest of the party hanging back, ten or twelve feet away. There was a leap of orange flame that died to a grey smoulder. The wind came up and it caught fire, parched stems snapping in the heat, smokey and fragrant. It was the scent she knew from Hugh’s skin and hair, from his daft-looking jerkin. They watched the fire burn out, and he stamped his boots heavily around the edges.
They turned back towards the trail. Her foot bounced off something dark and sleek that made a tight, high sound like a baby’s toy. A crow from an earlier cull, squeaking with maggots.
Cars from both sides of the border were lined along the road outside the hotel, the northern ones clean and new. The Sunday lunch crowd was preparing to leave. There were flushed children roaming the room in gangs of five and six, mothers looking under tables for jackets and small shoes. Along one wall, several tables had been pushed together and covered with white cloths; the women in the party allowed a waitress to usher them to it. They took their seats slowly, changing places, arranging their gaudy waterproofs on the backs of their chairs, pouring water for each other. The men went to the bar and Mairead followed them.
Brendan was at the counter with his back to her. He handed back pints to the men as they were put up. Hugh was standing slightly to the side. He smiled at her.
Hello, he said quietly.
Hiya, she said.
Brendan turned from the bar. There’s wine on the table.
I saw that. I’ll have a gin and slimline.
He turned back to the counter.
Did you enjoy today? Hugh asked her.
It was all right, she said. I got in my 10,000 steps.
She had found it brutal. The men spreading out across the heath. The sudden burst of fire in the heather. The dead crows and the harried fox.
Brendan handed her the drink and leaned back against the bar. He took a sip of his pint and looked off into the middle distance, his features arranging themselves into the ridiculous seanachaí face he wore on occasions like this. He started to speak. The old name for the place was mointean cearca fraoigh, grouse moor, he said. The heather had once twitched with the fat russet birds, he went on, the coarse call of the male, co co co co mo chlaidh, mo chlaidh? who, who, who, who goes there? crackling across the glen. Mairead had an impulse to laugh or scream or pour the gin over her own head. She looked at Hugh, hoping to exchange a sneer or an eye-roll, but he was rapt. One day, Brendan went on, his father brought him up the glen. He was nine or ten. They met men from the north coming down the path, stooped over with the weight of the sacks of dead birds they’d slung over their backs. From the edge of the heath they watched them leave. Saw a thin red line of blood dribbling down the trail in their wake. He and his father went onto the moor and listened for the call – he lowered his voice for this part – but there was nothing. The grouse were gone. The story never changed, always the same words in the same order, the same conspiratorial delivery. So faithful to the first time she’d heard it she didn’t believe it any more. Obliteration was so much slower than that. A dying off in tiny increments.
Brendan loved this sort of story, of men from the north or the east laying waste to his heritage. Once, they had stayed in a hotel down the country. In the hallway there were taxidermied animals in glass cases. A plaque claimed that one of the palsied, glassy-eyed creatures was the last Irish wolf. Mairead overheard an American tourist say it looked like an Alaskan one. She went to the spa to book her free treatment, leaving Brendan to take photographs of it.
Dreadful. Utter barbarians, Hugh said. Mairead drained the last of her drink. Brendan moved away to talk to the other men and Hugh stood to buy a round. When he passed her the glass, he bowed and fanned his arm towards her in a rolling wave, like a medieval knight. She felt heat spreading across her face.
What are you doing? she said.
You needn’t bother your head.
He didn’t see.
Everyone else in the place did.
They joined the others at the long table. Brendan sat at the head, with Hugh and Mairead either side of him. The waitress came. Hugh asked about the vegetarian option. She said it was a noodle dish that she couldn’t pronounce the name of.
I don’t know if I can face another Irish stir-fry, he said and ordered a roast beef dinner without the meat.
He lifted a bottle of white wine and filled Mairead’s glass. He hadn’t asked her what she wanted. He sucked in his breath, realising his mistake. A good guess, he said. He offered wine to the others. Brendan swilled beer around his glass and watched.
It was something else, up there today. Hearing the call again, said Brendan.
I hear a different call, you know, said Hugh.
What would that be?
Go back, go back, go back back back.
They must know you’re English, said Brendan, and punched him lightly on the arm. Do you mind being up there all day on your own?
I’m used to it. I like the fresh air. The quiet. And it’s not that lonely. I’ve got to know the guys from the search team.
The guards? said Brendan.
Yes. Sometimes I have tea with them.
You’ll be the only one who’ll miss them when they’re gone, so. They’ve this place on the news every other day, making us look bad.
They aren’t going anywhere.
Is that so? said Brendan.
They’re going to concentrate the search on the western slope.
That’s very specific.
Talk went around the table. It’d be a relief for the family if they find his remains. It must be dreadful for them. All those rumours. They say his body was ground up in a meat processing plant. I heard he didn’t die at all. He was driven away by British intelligence and given a new identity.
Truth will out, I suppose, said Hugh, and bent over his plate. He went at his food, slashing it into small pieces, mixing it briskly. When they were alone she liked his eagerness. Now he seemed school-boyish.
They were served a ‘trio’ of wobbly desserts and tea and coffee from vast stainless steel pots. People began to leave. Mairead refused a lift home from a neighbour. The room was almost empty when they left the table and went to sit at the bar. Hugh went outside to give Arthur some water. She asked Brendan for a brandy. She had drunk most of the bottle of white wine and her teeth were furry with sugar. He usually remarked on how much she had drunk, but he gave it to her without comment. What was he at?
Hugh came back in and sat beside Brendan. They talked about sport. Hugh about cricket, how he always bought the Sunday Telegraph because it had the best coverage. Brendan about hurling, in a way that sounded like polemic, even though he’d never held a stick in his life.
Mairead stood to go to the toilet, too fast, and caught her foot on the edge of Brendan’s stool. Are you all right? Hugh said.
I’m bored to distraction.
You should have taken that lift, said Brendan.
She grabbed her bag and stalked towards the ladies. The barman was pushing a bottle bin along the corridor. She asked him for a cigarette and he offered her one from a packet with Polish writing on it.
How did you get yourself landed in this shithole? she said and went through the dim foyer to the front door. Evening had fallen low and thick over the village, and under the streetlights the air glittered with damp. The cigarette burned her throat, and she tossed it on the footpath and started to walk.
She had put on leopard-print pumps that were too wide for her, and her soles slapped off the road as she went down the hill towards her old house. The wind was piping through the straggly hedgerows and she could hardly see. She half-ran down the road to the house and didn’t slow until the security light came on. She let herself in. The newspaper and gun oil were still on the table. Hugh had left the radio on and a vast romantic symphony was playing quietly from the speakers. She looked in the fridge. There was a bottle of wine, the stuff he bought her in the local shop that smelled like petrol. She poured a tumbler of it and went to the dresser to look at the photographs. In one he was a youth in a school blazer, looking vaguely mortified beside his parents. Another was taken on the ramparts of a fort or castle, somewhere hot and dry and rocky. His hair was tied in a ponytail that looked wrong with his polo shirt and short chinos. In another he was sitting on a flowery chintz settee with a brown-haired woman. Two small girls were lying across them, laughing, as if they’d just been tickled.
She sat in an armchair. He’d never mentioned children. He knew about her two, away in Australia picking grapes or whatever it was they were doing. She had presumed he was free, unencumbered. Who was the woman in the photograph? They looked happy. Why was he here?
She woke with the glass tilted sideways across her stomach and Arthur’s whiskers scratching the back of her hand. Hugh was standing over her.
What are you doing here? he said. Brendan nearly came back for a night-cap. What the hell were you thinking?
I was thinking I’d rather be fucking anywhere than in that house with him.
She got up and went towards him. He stepped back and was looking at her top. There was a dark stain on it where she’d slopped wine over herself.
This isn’t a good idea. He’s going to find out, said Hugh. There were too many close calls today.
I couldn’t give two shites.
Well, you should. He’ll be home now, wondering where you are. He’ll not even notice.
It isn’t right. He’s a good guy, and I feel like an utter bastard.
He has you well fooled if you think he’s one of the good guys. She went to the dresser and picked up the photo of the woman and children. She stabbed her finger into the woman’s face. Who’s she, when she’s at home?
She’s my wife.
You have a bloody wife! Did you not think to tell me?
We were having problems. I came here for a break.
Fuck’s sake. What problems were they?
I was seeing someone else.
Jesus. Is this what you do?
That’s a little sanctimonious, don’t you think? Mairead slammed the photo face down on the shelf. Steady on, he said.
She picked up her bag and stumbled across the room to the back door. I’ve only been with two men, she said, and you’re one of them.
She left the door open, thinking he’d come after her, beg her to stay. She was barely on the tarmac when she heard the back door click shut. Out on the road, she bent into the wind and rain, clutching her bag to her chest, sometimes walking, sometimes running, until she reached the main street.
The hotel was still open. She went into the lounge. The barman was putting chairs upside down on the tables. He went behind the bar and put his hands flat on the counter.
Are you trying to go home? she said.
It’s okay for twenty minutes, he said.
She ordered a brandy and sat by the fire. Her clothes were soaking, the wet fabric giving up the scent of scorched heather, Hugh’s smell. Brendan had brought her up the glen not long after they’d met. He’d told her the story about the last day of the grouse, and they had stood on the moor and listened to the wind in the scrub. He led her to the place he’d buried the body and said she was the only one in the world he’d ever told. It was years before she understood he had told her the secret to bind her to him, to this place. The search team were preparing to move to the western slope. She hadn’t just told them the general area. She had stood in the shadow of the high hanging rock of the tor and paced out her steps, three whins across to the base of the youngest holly tree, before calling the confidential number from her mobile. They would find the remains in the next day or so.
She went outside and stood on the street. Lights dotted the lower fields on the outskirts of the village. She couldn’t see the glen, just the black loom of it, the dark mass of rock and bog and secrets. She stepped onto the road as a white car with a jazzed up northern plate sped through the village, and the passenger rolled down his window and shouted something at her. She crossed the street after it, rainwater fizzing up around her ankles, and started walking.
Balloon Animals by Laura-Blaise McDowell from Still Worlds Turning, No Alibis Press
Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger, ended up inside. J.F.K
‘You know those clowns who come in here?’ I ask Rhonda.
‘Sure,’ she says.
‘Are they from Kennedy’s Circus?’
‘Sure are,’ she sighs, her Bostonian accent echoing. Sure ahh.
‘Their tent is after catching fire,’ I tell her, holding out my phone for her to see.
Rhonda jerks her head up from straightening the lapels of a freshly cleaned coat, and peers over its shoulder at a photograph of a huge tent, its red and white stripes blackening and disappearing in great gulfs of blue and yellow flame.
‘Jesus Christ,’ she breathes.
‘It doesn’t mention anyone being injured,’ I say, scanning the article. ‘But I guess they’ll have to kick the habit now.’
‘Whaddaya mean “habit”?’ she snaps.
I had been working in White Sheets dry-cleaners near South Circular Road only a couple of days before I found out what was really going on.
‘What?’ I say. ‘Did you think I’d assume you were leaving little bags of washing powder free of charge in people’s coat pockets, so they could do it themselves next time?’
Rhonda eyes me from underneath her black beret, taps a heeled boot on the tiles.
‘Look,’ she says, dropping her hands from the coat and reaching out her right arm to lean on the counter. ‘Honestly, I hired you because you looked boring. Not like, boring in the sense that you’d grass me up, but boring in the sense that you wouldn’t want to be involved, per se. I hope I was right about that?’
‘Jesus, Rhonda,’ I say. ‘I’m hardly looking for a cut of the action. I’m just surprised you thought I wouldn’t notice.’
‘Is that why you call it White Sheets?’ I ask.
‘White Sheets. It’s a joke, isn’t it? Like a hint? Cocaine? White…?’
‘Aren’t you sharp?’ she says, narrowing her eyes.
‘Well anyway,’ I say. ‘We probably won’t see them for a while, I’d say they’ll need to pinch their pennies after this.’
Rhonda doesn’t say anything.
‘To be honest,’ I go on, ‘it was that lot who gave you away. The last fella was rifling through the suit, had his finger in his mouth before he’d even paid.’
He had stood there in front of me, looking me in the eye as he rubbed his finger so hard over his gums it looked like he might press his teeth out.
‘Fucking Malachy. It was Malachy, wasn’t it?’ says Rhonda, shaking her head so that strands of her black fringe move side to side. ‘The one with the scar.’
It had indeed been Malachy. The clowns usually left their suits in to be dry-cleaned every couple of days. They invariably had paint encrusting the lines of their faces, seeping into their crow’s feet, red circling the curls of their nostrils. There was always some around the scar that dragged the left corner of Malachy’s mouth down towards his chin. They never said much, only handed over their dockets and stood twitching, wide-eyed in the bright lights. One time, when I returned with his suit, Malachy thrust a balloon animal at me. It was in the shape of a tiger, with the stripes crudely scribbled on in permanent marker. It hadn’t felt like a friendly gesture.
As Rhonda taps her heel, I notice the tiger, deflated on the floor in the corner, all bent out of shape.
‘I hope you’re right, kid,’ she says. ‘If I ever see that sorry bunch again, it’ll be too soon.’
‘Why?’ I ask. ‘I thought they were your best customers?’
She shifts her weight from one foot to the other, rests her hand on her hip.
‘Okay. We had a thing going. I was their sponsor. I’d wash their costumes, uh, etcetera. In return, they advertised my business. Used to have a big White Sheets banner up inside the tent and at the entrance. Set me up with customers for dry-cleaning, and ya know, the bit extra. But just last week I pulled my sponsorship. Ended our relationship completely.’
‘Why?’ I ask.
‘Those clowns,’ she leans forward, ‘are bastards.’
‘Bastards. Sure are. Can’t say I feel sorry for them. See, I’d never actually gone to see one of their shows, y’know? All our business was conducted outside of the tent. So I go along last week, they bring me backstage, I think we’re gonna have a party, a good time.’
She breathes out, shaking her head.
‘No pahdy?’ I ask.
‘I’m tellin’ ya. That was no party. I couldn’t believe the way they treated that tiger, the size of the cage. All those clowns out of their minds, tormenting him.’ She shudders. ‘I pulled my sponsorship right away.’
‘The article says the tiger was lost in the fire,’ I say.
‘Poor tiger,’ she says.
‘Poor tsigah,’ I agree.
The next day, we’re working late. I’m in the back, sorting orders when the door flings open, the bell bashing wildly. I turn to see through the plastic-wrapped coats and dresses that it’s Malachy. He’s wearing a moulting neon-green wig, a black suit jacket over a blue and green checked clown suit. Face paint outlines his features but the flat expanses of his cheeks and forehead are clear and pale. His eyes are black, and before Rhonda can say anything, he pulls a handgun from his inside pocket, points it at her and shoots her twice, once in the chest once in the head.
She lands almost at my feet, hitting the bottom rung of the clothes rail. It shifts on its wheels as she lands; the garments sway on their hangers. The bullet has blown two strands of her fringe in opposite directions, like curtains opening on a show. I look up and Malachy is staring right at me, though he can only see my eyes above the rail. I duck and feel a bullet howl over me. The door flings open, the bell bashes again, then silence. On my knees, I look at Rhonda, her head all dead and upside down. Her eyes are open, her beret blown clean away. There is blood on her chest where she’s been hit but her face is intact, apart from the hole. She has a tiny piece of lettuce stuck between her two front teeth. I wish I’d told her when I had the chance.
The bell clangs again and I jump up. This time it’s not a clown, though these two men also have guns.
‘You!’ says the smaller one, pointing the gun straight at me.
‘Don’t bother,’ I say. ‘It’ll be more trouble than it’s worth.’
‘Get out from behind there,’ says the small one, who’s from Dublin. ‘Let us see ya.’
I step out, and towards the counter. ‘Do you have a docket?’ I ask him.
‘Did the clown see ya?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘You have to come with us.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I work here. There’ll be no one left if I leave.’
The two men look at each other, then separate and walk around either end of the counter. The taller heaves Rhonda over his shoulder while the smaller one grabs me, his gun to my back, and drags me out of the shop.
‘No messin’,’ he says.
When I said it would be more trouble than it was worth, what I’d meant was my parents would kick up an almighty fuss. It probably sounded self-deprecating, but it wasn’t really. Those men, weedy enough behind their barrels, didn’t stand a chance against my mother and father, fierce and feral when it came to their offspring. One time at home, when some local gurriers hopped on my younger brother Cian, Mam and Dad drove around town for hours with him in the back, a tissue up each nostril and an icepack affixed to his head with one of Mam’s aerobics headbands, till he spotted the perpetrators loitering outside a newsagent flicking matches at each other. Dad got out with a bat and the intention of beating the living daylights out of them, only the guards happened to cruise by at the right time, so Dad handed the culprits over to them. Either way those little shits got their comeuppance, so you can only imagine what might befall two hapless eejits, dim-witted enough to murder their daughter in her first year away from home. University life ahead of me. And I their oldest. Not a chance they’d let it lie.
There is a Micra parked outside.
‘A Micra?’ I say.
‘Shut up,’ says the taller, as he bungs Rhonda’s body in the boot and climbs into the driver seat, knees practically up around his ears. He’s a northern accent and he’s wearing a black beanie.
‘Are you in the Ra?’ I ask. ‘Is that what this is?’
‘Shut up,’ he says again.
The other sits with his arm around me. His grasp would almost be romantic were it not the embrace of a kidnapper. I glance down at the hand holding my arm. Nails bitten to small islands floating in the middle of fleshy seas, coasts of dirt lining their circumference, tips white with the pressure.
‘Relax, would you?’ I say.
‘Shut up,’ he says and I smell his breath.
‘Tayto for dinner?’
‘Shut up,’ he says.
Neck is up against the left-hand door, and I’m in the middle. I notice the gun on the seat next to him, but when I look down at it, I realise it’s plastic. Then we take off, and he lifts his other hand to cover my eyes, though I can still sort of see through the cracks. His fingers are skinny and don’t touch even when they’re pressed together at the joints.
‘What kind of criminals are ye,’ I ask, ‘that ye forget a blindfold?’
‘Shut up,’ he says. ‘Or I’ll make you a gag as well.’
I go quiet and we shudder along. It’s dark, so I can’t make out anything recognisable through the gaps between his fingers.
‘Why did he kill Rhonda?’ I ask after a few minutes.
‘Shut up,’ says the one holding me.
‘Well you’re going to have to tell me at some stage,’ I say. ‘Since you clearly know.’
‘Shut. Up,’ he says.
I sigh. We’re stopped at traffic lights, and I decide to make a break for it. I wrench myself to the left. They didn’t lock the door and I’m halfway out before the one beside me tackles me around the waist and drags me, kicking, back into the car as the one in the front takes off at full speed.
‘Jesus fucking Christ,’ he says.
‘Jesus Christ yourself!’ I say. ‘I could have been fucking killed!’
Your man raises an eyebrow at me.
‘But I suppose that wouldn’t have bothered ye too much, would it?’ I try to laugh, but the adrenaline is pumping in my ears. I hadn’t even managed to see where I was when I’d leaped out, but it had been pretty quiet and I don’t think anyone saw. At least, I didn’t hear anyone, no one shouted. Your man is sitting fully on top of me now. I’m stomach down and he’s straddling the small of my back holding my arms down with his hands. There’s nothing over my eyes but I’m flat to the seat and can’t see out the windows. Your man driving doesn’t even look around.
‘You’re some pair,’ I say, my voice muffled slightly against the old car seat. ‘What are your names?’
‘Neck,’ says the one on top.
‘What about your pal?’ I say.
‘Those are fairly gas names,’ I say. ‘What do your mothers call ye?’
‘Would you ever shut the fuck up, would ya?’ Neck growls. He’s pressing hard on top of me and my neck is starting to hurt.
‘Neck. My own neck is beginning to get at me a bit, would you ever leave off and let me sit up, I won’t try anything again.’
He doesn’t respond.
‘You clearly feel an affinity with necks,’ I try again, ‘so I was hoping I could appeal to that—’
‘I’ll bleedin’ break your neck if you’re not careful,’ he says.
‘That’s what I’m afraid might already be happening though,’ I say. ‘Your enormous weight and masculine strength are a bit much for my tiny woman spine and—’
‘Jesus, fine, if I let you up will you shut your poxy mouth? Fuckin’ hell.’ He leans over and manually locks my door as I clamber up to a sitting position.
‘Here lads, are we in Phoenix Park?’ I ask, looking around.
‘For fuck’s sake, Necker!’ says Tongs without looking back at us. ‘Don’t let her see where we are, ya fuckin eejit.’
‘Ah it’s too late now, lads,’ I say. ‘I know Phoenix Park like the back of my hand, sure don’t I come for runs here on the weekend.’
‘Fuckin’ hell,’ says Neck, rubbing his forehead. We keep driving. Neck looks crestfallen.
‘Ah I was only joking, lads,’ I say. ‘I don’t actually run here. Sure I live over on the other side of the city. I only recognised it from going to the zoo last year.’
Neck doesn’t say anything but he looks a little cheered. We’re silent for a few minutes as Tongs keeps driving deeper into the park.
‘Ye’ll forgive me for my endless curiosity,’ I say, ‘but what the hell is going on?’
‘Just fucking tell her,’ says Tongs. ‘Tell her anything to shut her up.’
‘Is this to do with the Ra?’ I ask again, imagining Tongs all plastered in Republican tattoos beneath his jacket.
‘No, it’s not to do with the Ra,’ says Tongs.
‘That sounds like something a militant would say.’
‘Aye, well I’m not a fuckin’ militant, alright? That’s very offensive.’ Tongs turns around for the first time and as he does so, doesn’t he hit a fucking deer. The poor thing ricochets off the front window, shattering it. Tongs swerves off the road and into the undergrowth, but thankfully misses the trees, stopping neatly between two pines. I end up in Neck’s lap, his body flung over me.
‘Jesus, everybody alright?’ says Tongs, who’s airbag has inflated and is pressing weakly into his chest.
‘Yeah,’ Neck says.
‘Peachy,’ I say.
Neck gives me a look. Tongs gives the airbag a few whacks to quicken its deflation and opens his door. He’s gone a minute and then arrives at my window with the deer over his shoulder.
‘You’re not putting that in here with me!’ I say.
‘Yes I fuckin’ am,’ he says. ‘Unlock the door.’
I look at Neck, appalled, but he reaches over me and unlocks it.
‘What the fuck are you—’ I start to say, but I’m cut off when Tongs dumps the lifeless, bleeding carcass next to me.
‘No room in the boot,’ he smirks, and slams the door. The smell is overwhelming and I gag a little bit. The deer is a young female. She’s contorted, her neck up against the back of the seat, body sliding down in a backwards S shape, broken legs everywhere. Blood glistens around her nose and drips from a large wound on her side. She’s facing me, looking me right in the eye. It reminds me a bit of when someone falls asleep next to you on an aeroplane, mouth gaping, dribbling on your shoulder and you’re powerless.
‘Wanna swap places?’ I ask Neck. He doesn’t respond.
Tongs has found himself a rock and is busy smashing out the rest of the windscreen. Once that’s done, he climbs back in the front and attempts to reverse out of the undergrowth, arm flung over the passenger seat, craning his neck.
‘Here, I can’t see anything through the back window, will you push the deer down?’ he says.
‘Are you joking?’ I say. ‘I’m not touching that.’ I’m already pressed up against Neck, who is in turn flattened against his door, in order to be as far from the carcass as possible. I don’t even like prodding snoring neighbours on aeroplanes.
‘One of you push her fuckin’ head down before I batter the pair of you.’
Neck gingerly stretches out a hand and using one finger, applies the tiniest amount of pressure to the still-warm head. She slides down a little.
‘Pair of fucking pussies, you are,’ says Tongs as he revs the engine and manages to get us out of the undergrowth. We drive along a little way in silence again. I’m still practically in Neck’s lap.
‘I’m a weekday vegetarian, you know,’ I say. ‘So if you’re planning on feeding this one to me for dinner, I’m afraid ye’ll have to make other arrangements.’
‘Nah, she’s not for you,’ says Neck, with the vague hint of a smile curling the corner of his thin little mouth.
‘Oh, she’s not, no? All for the boys, eh?’
‘Not for us either,’ says Neck.
Something about the way he says it makes me uncomfortable. There’s a change in the atmosphere in the car. I shift on the seat so I’m not touching Neck as much, so I can’t feel his Tayto breath moving my hair.
‘What’s it for so?’ I ask.
‘Ho ho,’ says Tongs. ‘Just you wait and see.’
It’s freezing now that there’s no windscreen, the only heat coming off the steaming deer. I suppose I could leap straight ahead of me, out the front and over the bonnet, but I’d likely impale myself on the jagged glass still left around the edges.
‘Lads, will ye just tell me where we’re going? Or else let me go, I’ll not tell on ye. Sure I don’t even know your real names, do I?’
Nobody says anything. I read somewhere that humanising yourself to your kidnapper can sometimes endear you to them, make them more sympathetic. Apparently, there was once a serial killer who paid for a potential victim’s flight home because she told him her dad had cancer.
‘I’ve a nick name, too,’ I say. ‘It’s Lopey. My name’s Penelope because my parents had notions back in the day, but I was never called Penny, I was called Lopey because I was forever moping and loping about the place.’
Again, neither of them say anything.
‘Did ye get your nicknames from something ye did or… or how did they come about?’
Jesus, they’re making me feel like I’m inflicting myself upon them, trying to sit with the cool kids at lunch.
‘Neck,’ I say. ‘Is that just, like, a sort of D4-type way of saying Nick? Did you actually grow up real posh and now even though you’ve escaped your yuppie past, everyone still calls you Neck?’
Neck unzips his black fleece so that I can see his throat. He runs his finger across a long scar above the twin points of his collar bones.
‘Jesus, what happened to you?’
‘That was meant to be a threat,’ he says, drily.
‘What was? It’s not me with that scar.’
‘No, but…’ He tuts and shifts in his seat, rolls his eyes. ‘I’ll fuckin’, like, do it to you if you don’t stop nattering on.’
‘Nattering?’ I say. ‘I’m hardly here by choice. Just trying to…’ I glance at the deer, open-mouthed and glassy-eyed next to me, ‘…lift the mood.’ Neck looks out the window.
‘What about you, Tongs? Were you birthed using a pair of tongs in lieu of forceps? You know, I heard about that happening to someone, I think my second cousin? Came early and was born on the kitchen floor, and her elder brother had to haul her out with the tongs from the fireplace. Don’t know if he ever recovered. Can ye imagine having to extract a baby from your own mother’s—’
I realise we’ve left the road. We’re driving through undergrowth and then the car stops suddenly, sending the deer lurching forward, only to land with a whack against the seat, sending globules of blood flying onto my face. I wipe them away.
‘Have we arrived?’ I ask. Neck’s arm is back around me, as tightly as it had been at the start. He flicks the handle of his door and kicks it open, dragging me with him.
‘Best to stay quiet,’ he whispers, and it’s not menacing, I just sort of believe him.
I don’t know what part of this vast park we’re in, don’t even know what time it is; it’s pitch black, and it’s sort of hitting me that Rhonda is dead and these guys know something. Now that we’re out of the vacuum of the car, the night seems huge and the weird atmosphere that arrived after the deer seems to have escaped out into the world because I can feel it still. I’m almost glad of Neck’s arm around me.
Tongs hoists the deer out of the car and over his shoulder, then takes off into the woods. We follow. Rhonda is still in the boot. Neck keeps his arm around me. The ground’s uneven and it’s too dark to see what’s underfoot. It occurs to me to try and make a break for it, but I don’t know how I’d find my way out of here and I’d make an unholy racket crashing through the undergrowth. If Neck has any speed on him, which by the looks of him he does, he’d have me back in a minute.
Suddenly we’re ducking under a large sheet hung between two trees that I hadn’t even seen coming; it had been totally camouflaged. Behind the sheet is a clearing in which sits a pair of tents, the gazebo ones you see at festivals. Tongs heaves the deer off his shoulder and throws it on the ground. He rummages inside the entrance of one of the tents before returning with a small axe, and commences hacking her into several pieces. I look away, the sound of it turning my stomach. Neck steers me into the tent where the axe had been.
‘Now don’t get any ideas,’ I say quickly, seeing the sleeping bags on the floor. ‘You better not lay a finger on me, now or—’
‘Would you relax?’ says Neck. ‘I’m not gonna touch you. You weren’t part of the plan in the first place.’
‘Well I can see that, ye didn’t even have a blindfold for me. I’m just saying, don’t think–’
‘I’m not. Give us a bitta credit, ya mad thing.’ He laughs a little and picks a dark green hoodie up off the floor. ‘Here, stick this on ya. It’s fuckin’ freezin’.’
I slip it on and as my head pops through the neck, I hear it. The tearing of flesh. Gnawing coming from the tent next to ours.
‘What the fuck is that?’
‘That is why this whole mess happened in the first place.’
‘It sounds like a fucking werewolf or a tiger or something?’
Neck gives me a somewhat surprised look.
‘Do you watch a lot of nature programmes, do ya?’ he asks.
‘Watch a few, like. Enough to know the sound of something being devoured. Jesus. It’s not…Tongs… Tongs isn’t a werewolf, is he?’
‘No, Tongs isn’t a fuckin’ werewolf. But you were half right.’
‘Half right? He’s a whole wolf?’
‘No! The tiger bit.’
‘He’s a tiger.’
‘No! But that is a tiger you’re hearing.’
‘Where did lads like you get a fucking tiger? No offence.’
‘We rescued him, didn’t we?’
‘Ye rescued him.’
‘Yeah. From the Kennedys.’
‘Sure I read about that. But when the news said they’d “lost a tiger” I didn’t think they meant they’d fucking mislaid one.’
‘They told the cops the tiger was definitely in one of the trailers that was burnt to smithereens, think they mighta thrown a dog carcass or something in there to convince them. Wanted to hunt us down themselves.’
‘And you burnt their circus down?’
‘We did what we had to do. Couldn’t leave a lovely creature like that in the hands of those coked up mad yolks. They didn’t treat him right. He was half starved.’
‘Well, what’s his name?’ I ask.
‘It was Kennedy, he was their mascot, like. But we renamed him Leonard.’
‘Yeah, after Leonard Cohen. Wanted to imbue him with a bitta dignity, after the mortification of life in the circus.’
‘Yeah alright,’ I say. ‘But like, why do ye have him here? Why did they shoot Rhonda over it all? I’m more confused than I was at the start, Neck. And why did ye bring me here? You’re hardly planning on my being Leonard’s next meal… are you?’ I begin to panic, but Neck puts out a hand.
‘Would you relax?’ he says. ‘He’s very civilised. He’d be insulted if he heard you going on like that.’
‘Would he?’ I say.
‘He would of course. C’mere till you meet him.’ He takes me by the arm.
‘Eh, you’re alright, I think I’ll stay here,’ I squeak, digging my heels in, but Neck drags me out.
‘He’s mad friendly, so he is!’
Tongs is standing outside Leonard’s tent having a smoke.
‘Leonard’s delighted with himself,’ he says, smiling a little. He’s lit a fire in the centre of the clearing.
‘Tigers can eat up to twenty-five pounds of meat a day, you know.’
‘So I’ve heard…’ I say. ‘How long will that deer last him?’
‘She was small, only about three days,’ he says. ‘I’ll stick the rest of the meat in a couple of freezer bags. But he’ll need something else by the end of the week.’
I shift from foot to foot.
‘How long have ye been here?’ I ask, looking around. I notice that they’ve hung sheets between trees all the way around us, forming an enclosed circle. The sheets on the inside facing us are white, but where they fold over the ropes I can see the other sides are expertly painted like leaves, trees and undergrowth. The sound of the deer being ripped and torn still emanates from the tent.
‘Few months,’ says Tongs, exhaling.
‘And where did ye get the camouflage sheets? They’re class.’
‘I painted them meself,’ says Neck, proudly. ‘Rhonda gave us some she had spare.’
‘You’re mad talented.’ I tell him. ‘Did you take art classes?’
‘Just paint what I see,’ he says.
Just then, there’s a rustle from Leonard’s tent and I leap up. Tongs and Neck chuckle as an enormous head peers out from the tent. The tsigah. His broad, beautiful shoulders are almost on a par with mine as he emerges and pads towards us, blood around his mouth and on his paws.
‘Jesus fucking Christ,’ I say.
‘Don’t be bleedin’ rude,’ says Neck to me. ‘This is Leonard. Leonard say hello.’
Leonard sniffs me. My arms are clasped up around my face and I’m paralysed.
‘Good boy, Leonard,’ says Tongs. ‘Good boy.’ Leonard flicks his tongue and licks around his mouth. He gives my leg a lick as well. His tongue is so enormous it feels like a gloved hand rubbing up and down my thigh. Neck sits down by the fire and Leonard ambles over and lies down next to him, big bloody head in his lap. Tongs sits down as well and after a minute I manage to unclench my body and perch gingerly across from the others. They’re like a happy little family. Leonard is purring, all sleepy after his meal.
‘So. You went to the circus, saw that, eh, Leonard, was being mistreated, and just decided to liberate him?’ I ask.
‘Not exactly,’ says Tongs. ‘There’s more to it than that, but what would you have done?’
He is looking for something in his pockets and after a moment, produces a deflated white balloon. He begins to blow into it, his cheeks round and pink underneath his straggly facial hair.
‘Well, I mean, probably like, reported it to the authorities,’ I say.
‘Ach,’ scoffs Tongs, inhaling deeply as he ties a knot in the balloon’s end. ‘They’d’ve done sweet fuck all. We needed to take action. Couldn’t have a troop of deranged fuckin’ clowns tormenting this prince one minute longer.’ He leans over tickles Leonard’s ear affectionately, then returns to the balloon and begins twisting it.
‘See,’ says Neck, ‘we used to do a bitta work for Rhonda. Shift a bitta blow here and there. We’d even deliver to the clowns now and then, but we’d never been inside the tent, seen what went on in there. Never even occurred to us that maybe we shouldn’t give it to people who were in charge of wild animals.’ He laughs. Leonard slobbers happily on Neck’s lap.
‘So one day, about last week,’ Tongs continues, not looking up from the balloon, on which he is scribbling with a marker. ‘We call into Rhonda to pick up, and she’s in a wee state. We ask her what the matter is and she tells us.’ He pauses and holds up the balloon, which he has mangled into something resembling Rhonda with a little black beret and black boots. As he talks, he waggles the balloon Rhonda from side to side. It is eerie in the firelight.
‘Tells us she’d been to Kennedy’s and she was withdrawing her sponsorship. Said they were abusing a tiger, every one of them absolutely outta their mind during the show. Said she couldn’t bear to stay.’ He cleared his throat. ‘So I said, “Rhonda, give us a wee pair of tickets and we’ll go down, see for ourselves.” Fuckin’ grim, depressing freak show, it was. This lad being made to jump through hoops, hit with a whip, shouted at by fuckin’ Malachy, the fuckin’ creep. Not a chance, not a chance in hell we could let that go on. Not a chance.’ He shakes his head. ‘Not a fuckin’ chance.’ He pulls another balloon from his pocket and begins working on it.
‘So after the show, we torched em,’ grins Neck. ‘Burnt them to the bleedin’ ground. It was whopper. They saw us taking off with one of their trailers, with Leonard inside it. Didn’t catch us, though.’
‘Jesus,’ I say. ‘And where’s the trailer now?’ I want to interrogate everything they’ve just said, but this seems like the most sensible question to ask.
‘Ah, we torched that too, once we had Leonard safely here.’
‘And no one saw?’
‘We left it out on the side of motorway miles out and scattered. The clowns won’t find it, or us.’
‘Won’t you need it to transport Leonard?’
‘He’s not going anywhere,’ says Tongs. ‘He can ride in the back of the car if he needs to, sure.’
‘Sure,’ I say, mesmerised by the numerous balloon creatures that are fluttering from Tongs’ busy hands like petals. They glisten all amber through the flames.
‘Those poxy clowns would be hard pressed to find us here,’ says Neck, ‘but we’ll find them.’
‘Aye, that’s it,’ says Tongs. ‘We came back to White Sheets to check on Rhonda as soon as we had himself established here in the tent. We thought they might have gone for her after what we did. But we were too fuckin’ late.’
‘You only missed Malachy by a minute,’ I said.
‘Aye,’ said Tongs. ‘I know. We have to make it right. So our Leonard is gonna eat well from now on. A clown a week. Isn’t that right, pal?’ He tosses a balloon version of Malachy, scar and all, into the fire where it explodes with a bang.
‘It is. A clown a fuckin’ week.’
Bang, bang, bang.
We sit around the fire for a long time. Neck gets up and brings a bottle of whiskey from one of the tents, gives me a plastic cup full of it. It burns, but I’m thinking about Cian with the tissues in each nostril and how Mam and Dad hunting down those gurriers had been the biggest news in our family in a while. I wonder if I’m on the news yet; if my phone’s ringing on the shelf behind the counter of White Sheets. I look at Leonard, all lit up. His strong, lithe body. Faint scars running against the stripes of his back. Neck’s hand stroking his fur, gently, over and over.
After a while I get up and walk into the tent with the sleeping bags. Nobody says anything and I climb into one, let the heat from the whiskey pour into my hands and feet. I’m asleep almost straight away.
In the morning, I wake and I’m alone, though the bags on either side of me look to have been slept in. Birds trill and I can hear the roar of the city in the distance. I struggle free of the sleeping bag and crawl to the door. Looking out, I see Neck piling sticks and leaves into the bonfire pit. Rhonda’s lying on a white sheet on the ground, Tongs standing over her. I climb out and approach them.
‘What are ye up to?’ I ask.
‘Ah, just getting poor old Rhonda ready,’ says Tongs, nudging her corpse affectionately with the toe of his boot. Looking down, I see that in addition to the bullet hole in her forehead, Rhonda’s throat has been cut.
‘What the fuck? What happened to her?’
‘Just took a little offering,’ Tongs says. ‘Rhonda died in the name of saving our wee Leonard. Her strength is gonna be in all of us when we go after those clowns.’
He points at the bonfire pit. I look around and see by the stone circle the three plastic whiskey cups from last night, plus a fourth one, each half full of black blood.
‘It’ll probably have congealed a wee bit,’ says Tongs cheerfully. ‘Had to do it last night before it dried up inside her, you know? Besides, it’ll be less messy now when I have to dismember her.’
‘Aye. I know it sounds rotten, but sure we can’t let her go to waste. We don’t know when we’ll catch the first clown, can’t have Leonard going hungry while we track them down, can we?’
‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ I say.
‘Well, don’t do it in here, if you are,’ says Neck, tossing another bundle of sticks into the pit. ‘Go outside the sheets if you have to. But I want nice loud vomitin’ so we can keep track of you. Don’t think about runnin’ away. We’ll only hear you and have to bring you back.’
I look back at Tongs. He’s moving around Rhonda, looking at her from different angles.
‘Have you ever done this before?’ he asks Neck.
‘Nah, mate. Not like that.’
‘What’s the best way to do it, would you say?’
‘Fuck knows. How’d you do the deer?’
‘Badly. I’d like Rhonda to have a damn sight more dignity than fuckin’ Bambi though. Fuck it, let’s toast to her first. Before anything else.’
He turns and picks up two of the cups, handing one to Neck and one to me. The cup is cool.
‘Leonard!’ calls Neck, walking around the other side of Rhonda. ‘Lenny boy. C’mere. There’s a good fella.’
Leonard comes padding out of his tent and over to where we stand. Tongs takes the fourth cup and empties it on the leaves in front of Leonard’s paws. Leonard leans forward and begins lapping it up, his shoulder blades like fins beneath his fur.
‘To Rhonda,’ says Tongs, raising his up above Rhonda’s body.
‘To Leonard,’ says Neck, following suit.
They look to me and there is nothing I can do.
‘To justice,’ I say, and down the cup of blood, metallic and slick in my throat.
The Lamb by Andrea Carter from Counterparts: A Synergy of Law and Literature, The Stinging Fly Press
It has been put away for so long, there are times when I wonder if it really happened. Other memories have accumulated and a skin has formed, but that skin is easily pricked and the shame seeps through.
The sun is so low in the sky that I almost miss the turn. I drive with speed. It is a road I cycled daily; I knew every bend, every tree, every poorly filled pot-hole. But today I feel the need to read the sign, to prove to myself I am really here, that I have come back, finally, to face things. My resolve is not strong.
I indicate and turn off the main road. The mile or so stretch into town has changed little; the odd new bungalow or slatted shed, otherwise the same scrubby hedgerows bind the same fields of cattle and sheep: houses familiar from childhood birthday parties I’d struggle to put a name to now. I pass a cottage, red brick, with an old barn behind, and suddenly I am eleven years old and drowning in summers past, climbing bales of straw with Ruth. My hands shake but I keep them steady on the wheel.
I park in the square. The town is quiet, bereft of traffic ever since it was bypassed by the motorway to Galway a few years back. I’d read something about it when searching the internet for something else, the name of the town giving me a jolt I wasn’t expecting on an otherwise ordinary day. I wonder if there is any need to lock the car; there never used to be. It was a safe town back then. But the car is a rental, so I probably should.
Before I pull the key from the ignition my phone rings. Robert.
He sounds sleepy. ‘So how is it?’
I smile. He has become the parent; I am the child. He is anxious, wants me to have fun.
‘It doesn’t start till seven. It’s only five here, now.’
‘But how does it feel to be back? It must be great, right? I know it must be sad with Granny and Grandad gone but…’
I end the call quickly though I crave more. It will cost him too much, this overseas call. But I am touched he has roused himself in the middle of the night to ring.
I sit for a while, my hands on the wheel, not wanting to leave this place of safety. His voice has conjured up a well-thumbed album of happy images. Conceived while I was shamelessly drunk, his father a fool, my son is perfect. He is me but better, a better person than I am. He is brave and true to himself. I allow myself to picture him on his graduation day; on the morning of his first job; on the day he told me he was in love. At every occasion, every milestone, my guilt was there, like the bad fairy at a christening.
I take my scarf from the passenger seat, wrap it twice around my neck and tuck it into the collar of my coat. The sun is shining but it’s cold, and there’s a sharp wind. It is three weeks since St Patrick’s Day. In a few hours I will be in a hotel in the next town, clinking glasses, reminiscing. But first, there is somewhere I must go.
The square looks better than I remember it. Steel bowls of daffodils, tulips and lilies are well tended, houses freshly painted in tasteful new shades of mushroom and cream, and duck-egg blue. The town of my memory is grey with boarded-up houses and peeling paint—a grimy sort of place.
I pass a health-food shop on the corner where ‘Henry’s Grocery and Confectionary’ used to be. It is a memory I can taste: cola bottles, clove drops, refreshers; sachets of exploding dust that crackled and fizzed on your tongue; Henry’s long dirty fingernails as he reached into the tubs of penny sweets. Back when you could buy one egg. One cigarette. Holding it between your fingers, pretending it was something you did all the time until someone said you had to put it into your mouth to light it; the jeers from the Tech boys who lounged on the steps outside. And later, scrubbing the yellow from your fingers with toothpaste.
A man with a young boxer pup gives me a nod. He looks familiar—could be one of the boys from the Tech grown up, but he is too young. Nearly three decades have passed since I set foot in this town, two since my parents followed me to Australia. Both now buried in the hot dry soil.
I reach the school and peer through locked gates. Rundown but unchanged, grey and imposing, it could be any convent in any town in any county; the school it accommodated long gone, absorbed into a community school along with the Brothers’ and the Tech, or so I’ve heard. The nuns for the most part had been kind, I remembered, the religious difference not really an issue for Ruth and me coming from our tiny Church of Ireland primary school. Seems such nonsense now. I stand with my hands rooted in the pockets of my coat as the memories flood back, seizing their chance like a cat darting through a door briefly left open. Blue pinafores; pale blue blouses with stained armpits that no washing powder ever seemed to remove; bare legs in white socks; chapped knees stinging during the icy winter months. Stuffy classrooms. ‘Walk on the left-hand side. No running on the stairs!’ Stewed tea from a Burco boiler; chicken cup-a-soup; sweaty cloak-rooms, and changing for PE. What are you looking at? Fucking queer. Lezzer. Dyke. Les-be friends…
I close my eyes. I might not be able to do this.
The grotto is just past the school, in the grounds of the chapel. Although this gate is open I don’t go in; the statue of Mary is clear enough from the street, regal in her open cave. I remember the term of the moving statues; the girls in tears in class, comforting each other. I saw it, I know I did. I know what I saw. Ruth and I, wondering if we were missing out. So much more drama in Catholicism.
And now I see the house. For years I crossed the street to avoid it, until the only way to avoid it fully was to leave. Today I walk towards it.
It was a Sunday afternoon. I was watching music videos on MT-USA when the phone rang. I should have been studying, my inter-cert less than ten weeks away. I answered, knowing it would be for my father and that calling him would mark the end of my skiving. The only calls I ever got were from Ruth, who always forgot to tell me something essential on our cycle home and was on the phone again before I was ten minutes in the door.
‘Hi.’ I didn’t recognise the voice. It was female, husky.
‘Do you want to come to a Paddy’s Day party we’re having on Saturday?’
There was a laugh somewhere in the background. ‘It’s Dee, by the way.’
Dee was the popular girl in our class, the one who had the power to change things, to change lives. Dee was not someone you said no to. I had always wanted to be part of things, to be included, but glasses and frizzy hair hadn’t exactly provided a passport. I said yes, of course, although I was surprised that my parents let me go.
The party started in the pub—I didn’t tell my parents that. I hadn’t told Ruth either so I’d been surprised to find her there, surprised and a little disappointed if I was honest. It devalued my invitation if Ruth had been invited too. It wasn’t as if it mattered to Ruth anyway, being part of things. Ruth didn’t buy Smash Hits, or sew the insides of her jeans together to make drainpipes, or save her pocket money for eyeliner. She was happy being her usual ruddy-faced, sloppy self in her jeans and sweatshirt. Ruth didn’t feel the mortification of being different.
I had my first drink that night, Stag, gulped back too quickly. I’d been shocked by the drunken feeling and disappointed by how quickly it wore off—a sign of things to come. Ruth was drinking 7-Up. I tried not to talk to her too much, but she always made me laugh and I had to try so hard with the others. But it was not what I’d intended for that night. I could be with Ruth anytime.
We all went back to Dee’s house after the pub—the house I now stand outside. Today it looks empty, unlived in. A ‘For Sale’ sign hangs from the gable end and the windows are dull with dirt; ragged curtains hang limply inside as if they’ve lost all interest. I peer through the pane to the left of the door: a crack runs the full length of the glass like a scar. I see the stairs, newspapers grey and yellow cover the floor. It is a shock—I’d not expected to see in. For a minute I think it will be okay, I feel nothing, but the impact has just been delayed. I sway suddenly and the wave of nausea almost knocks me off my feet. But I allow the memory in; I take it on. It is the reason I have come.
It began at the foot of the stairs. I’d been in another room, trying to distance myself from Ruth. That doorway is in my eye-line now, smeared with something I’d rather not try and identify now that the nausea has passed. ‘Sweet Dreams’ by The Eurythmics was playing and I was wearing my new Pixie Boots. I remember those boots still, their pointed toes, their soft grey suede. I wore them with jeans and an oversized white shirt, an oversized belt.
I heard the shouts—Fucking dyke… who invited the fucking dyke?
I followed the crowd into the hall. At first I just stood there, watching as Ruth laughed nervously, her cheeks that shameful high colour she seemed unable to control. Trying to pretend she was in on the joke, that she could take a joke as well as the next person; surrounded. Dee, with her back-combed hair and heavy earrings, and nonchalantly held cigarette, was shouting into Ruth’s face. After a few seconds Ruth’s expression changed, embarrassment was replaced by fear and she fought back, argued, until Dee pushed her and she fell. And then somehow Ruth was on the floor, her hands covering her face, bitten nails protecting her face. Being kicked. Her navy sweatshirt rode up, revealing pink and white marbled skin that looked like corned beef.
Someone elbowed me and pushed me forward: a boy with a long black fringe and Crepe shoes. You’re best friends with that lezzer, aren’t you? A laugh. Are you one too? I felt my cheeks inflame, before throwing a few half-hearted kicks of my own. I’d never kicked someone before; my boots were soft so there was no real impact, but Ruth moved her hand at the wrong moment and my foot connected with her cheek. And she opened her eyes, eyes wet with grief.
A car door slams on the street and it hauls me back to the present. I have been gazing at this house for too long; I must look odd. I turn and walk back towards the car.
I knew that night that Ruth had not been badly hurt, that the kicks had not been hard, that they had been meant to convey a message, not an injury. I knew that she would get up from the floor, that she would leave and go home, that she would go to school on Monday. That she and everyone else would behave as if nothing had happened. I knew too that I would start to avoid her, to regard the party as an inevitable cutting of ties, a growing apart, the leaving behind of childhood friends. Ruth and I were interested in different things, that was all; it couldn’t have lasted.
I knew that I would convince myself that what had happened to Ruth at the party would have happened anyway because of her clothes, her walk, her refusal to be anything other than what she was. That it would have happened even if I hadn’t told Dee that Ruth had tried to kiss me. She had offered it to me on a plate, in the house after the pub, and I discovered a story like that was currency: it bought attention and access, whether it was true or not. And I could not take it back once I’d said it; if I had, I’d have lost everything I’d gained that night. No sale or return on gossip.
What I did not know that night was that early on Easter Sunday morning, three weeks after the party, Ruth would take the shot-gun from her father’s gun cabinet, she would go to the barn behind her house and she would put a bullet in her skull.
I did not know that the school would provide a guard of honour at her funeral, a double line of navy blazers from church door to graveyard—a respectful display of Ruth’s friends. That her parents would follow the coffin, through the guard of honour, wide-eyed and bewildered with grief, unable to cry. That her father would seek me out at his daughter’s grave and ask me why, and that I would shake my head. And that three years later I would walk away.
The light fades as I drive out of town. The reunion will be starting now. I know how these things go: I am a head mistress. There will be a banner. It will stretch right across the hotel entrance. St Mary’s thirty-year school reunion! it will read in large, red lettering, Welcome Back to all our old girls!
There will be a table in the foyer with a white linen table cloth, a vase of plastic flowers and rows of laminated name cards with safety pins. Three or four framed portraits will be placed discreetly to one side. There will be dates beneath the faces: classmates who died before their time. There will be one I have seen before; a young girl outside a red brick house with a new-born lamb in her arms, her cheeks the scratched pink of a ripe peach. Forever fifteen.
I park my car outside the red brick cottage with the barn behind. This time there is no hesitation. Because I loved Ruth. Because I still love Ruth. Because it was I who had kissed her and not the other way around, and Ruth had told no-one. I gave Ruth my shame because I had been unable to handle it. Because I was too young and stupid to know that I would never in my life love someone as much as I had loved Ruth.
Because it is time, thirty-two years later, that I told someone that.
DPP v Hannon is a case about the meaning of the phrase ‘miscarriage of justice’. In 1999, following a trial in which he pleaded not guilty, Feichín Hannon was convicted of sexual assault and common assault and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, which was suspended. The complainant, Una Hardester, was ten years old at the time. Nine years later she retracted her allegation in its entirety.
It was the statement from the complainant in this case which drew me in: the ten-year-old girl who ‘did something terribly wrong and got away with it’. Feichín Hannon pleaded not guilty in the original trial but did not appeal the conviction, so, to all intents and purposes his accuser did ‘get away with it’. The jury believed her account. But to assume that is to discount the notion of personal guilt and how heavily it can weigh. Una Hardester’s statement raises issues of conscience, of peace of mind, and whether we ever truly get away with what we do to others.
Our lives are hugely affected by what happens to us when we are children but in the story I have written, I wanted to explore the notion of a life being poisoned by something one did as a child or a teenager, particularly a wrong that went unpunished. What if the window for righting that wrong was missed? I wanted to explore the notion of crossroads. How sometimes it is only afterwards that we realise we have negotiated one of the major junctions of our lives. And if we have taken the wrong path, it may be too late to change.