At the glittering Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards ceremony at The Double Tree Hilton Hotel, 27th November 2013, the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year was revealed by bestselling author and award winning short story writer Martina Devlin.
Billy O’Callaghan’s superb story won the public vote, but we were delighted that all the other shortlisted authors were able to join in the occasion.
Pictured below, left to right, Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin of Writing.ie, Billy O’Callaghan, Martina Devlin and Eoin Purcell – Editorial Director of New Island Books.
BAIT by COLIN BARRETT (From Young Skins – Stinging Fly Press)
SOFT RAIN by TRISHA MCKINNEY (RTE GUIDE)
A DIFFERENT COUNTRY by DANIELLE MCLAUGHLIN (From Issue 23 Volume Two – Winter 2013 The Stinging Fly)
HOW I BEAT THE DEVIL by PAUL MURRAY (From Town and Country: New Irish Short Stories – Faber & Faber)
THE THINGS WE LOSE, THE THINGS WE LEAVE BEHIND by BILLY O’CALLAGHAN (From The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind – New Island)
THE DAY THINGS CHANGED by NIAMH O’CONNOR (From If I Was A Child Again – Poolbeg Press)
Read the individual entries here:
BAIT by COLIN BARRETT (From Young Skins – Stinging Fly Press)
This was a summer night about a thousand years ago and myself and my cousin Matteen Judge were driving round and round and round the deserted oval green of Grove Park estate, waiting to see what we would see. It was another bath of a summer’s night, the moon low and full and hazed at the edges, as if the heat of the long day had thickened the medium of the air.
As was our custom, I manned the wheel while Matteen rode in rear, heaped like a flung coat in the far corner of the backseat. Nose glommed against the glass, he watched the rows of mute, single-storey houses slide by. There was a glaze on his forehead, a blue nauseated tinge to his pallor. Matteen was not well; inside, in his skull and chest, he was beset, I know, by that dolour of recollected feeling that can afflict any man who once loved some daffy yoke.
I knew something was up as soon as Matteen stepped out the door of his house. Cue case in hand, I could see it, the thick wade to his gait, like he was walking through setting concrete. At the window of the car, the chest of his T-shirt already clouded with sweat-sop, he looked at me as if he did not know me and said one word.
‘What about her?’
‘Spin us up round Grove Park,’ he commanded.
Sarah Dignan. The daffy yoke Matteen once loved. Grove Park was where she was out of.
We’d been circling the estate for nigh on half an hour. Sometimes Matteen twitched at his trouser pocket, withdrew his phone, but he sent no message and made no call. I pictured nervous estate mothers eyeing us through the slit of their curtains.
Sarah’s house Matteen knew well, as did I of course, and Matteen was making a particular effort to pay it no particular mind.
They had been barely together, really, Matteen and Sarah. The series of fragile public excursions that constituted their official relationship lasted barely a fortnight. They began in Bleak Woods, where the boys and girls too young or too poor for the clubs gathered most Fridays, in the carpark adjacent to the woods. The point of the nights in Bleak Woods was to get the shift. Music chugged from the open door of a parked car and there were tinnies and smokes as those to shift were determined and paired off. Shifting was a curiously bloodless, routinised ritual, involving lengthy arbitration by the friends of the prospective pairings, who, as in arranged marriages, did not so much as get to say hello until they were shoved into each other’s arms and exhorted to take the dark walk into the maw of the woods. There, with that hello barely exchanged, each couple would find a sheltering bole to lean against or beneath, and commence their bodily negotiations.
Every lad wanted Sarah and it was Matteen got her. They went into the woods and when they came back he was pale with elation and, out of sight of the others, vomited with excitement.
I asked him what happened, how far did he get.
He just shook his head.
They went out on a few dates thereafter, Matteen with his hand gripped about Sarah’s wrist, his eyes brimming with the terror-tinged delight of a man who has gotten exactly what he wants. Nobody knew what to say to them. Unanimously flummoxed were we, Matteen’s pack, and envious. Matteen did not know what to say to Sarah either, and she, characteristically, said almost nothing. Soon enough, to our relief, it ended. Sarah euthanised it, proffered no explanation. Matteen, crushed, did not pursue one. Its demise was built into the thing’s inception, was the way he considered it at first; good things do not last, blah, blah. That was a year ago. And Matteen was fine for a bit, clinging to this stoic philosophical read, but the loss was hitting him constitutionally now.
Matteen rode in back for in addition to his burdens of sentiment he suffered acutely from travel sickness; the gentlest spin, no matter how brief or clement the run, was enough to upset his inner equilibrium and turn his complexion oyster. The sickness was made worse in passenger, watching the world quail and judder at close quarters through the windscreen. The roomy seclusion of the backseat, part bed, part carriage, with his frame pitched nearly horizontal, was the only way Matteen could travel and not feel overwhelmingly ill. Hence this arrangement, and me as chauffeur.
On the seat beside Matteen was his cue case. The case was customised, a pebbled leather and stainless steel-clasped affair in which Matteen spirited about his disassembled cues.
We were usually elsewhere by now. We were usually in town. We had a routine and the routine was this: each night I picked Matteen up from his home and conveyed him to Quillinan’s pub of Main Street, where Matteen made his money. He was the town’s premier pool shooter, nightly dispatching several challengers. Matteen’s reputation ensured a continuous supply of competitors, most of whom he had already beaten multiple times, all eager to stake a sum and watch in agonised reverence as he cleaned them out once more. Matteen was canny enough to lose now and then, purely to keep the flow of hopeful adversaries from petering out altogether, though he found it was those he destroyed most emphatically that were keenest to get back on the baize, to be destroyed all over again.
‘Look, now,’ he said, his voice drifting out of the back.
I squinted. The estate road was a trackless blot, but I saw them, the rakey flit of their darked-out shapes moving over the knoll. Girl shapes, one distinctly tall and one not, a pair.
‘It’s her,’ I said.
‘Of course it is,’ said Matteen.
He said that and I thought I saw a flame, a flicker, but it was only her hair, high on her high head. Sarah Dignan was unnervingly tall for a girl, taller than me, clearing even Matteen who was six two. She was blonde, pale, unquestionably captivating in the face. Her beauty was anomalous, sprung as she was from an utterly mundane genetic lineage. Certainly there was no foresign, no presage of her beauty or her height, in her family, in her hair-covered pudding of a father and squat, rook-faced mother, nor in her older siblings. She was the youngest and only girl. Three older Dignan boys existed—broad, blunt and ugly. Temperament wise, she was different too; the Dignan clan was country affable, ready to talk benign bullshit at the drop of a hat. Sarah was frosty, unpredictable, spoiled by the fact that attention never glossed over her; even when she tried to be reticent, she remained a relentless point of contention.
Given the incongruity in semblance and substance, theories concerning the Dignan girl’s true origins and nature had regularly bubbled forth. Talk was Sarah was a foundling from gypsy stock or an orphan from Chernobyl. That during her birth her umbilical cord tangled round her neck, asphyxiating and rendering her brain dead for five minutes, thirty minutes, an hour, but that she had inexplicably come back. That she suffered from Asperger’s or ADHD or was bipolar. That she was either, by the textbook definitions, a moron, or possessed a genius-level IQ. That she had gone through puberty at six, hence her inordinate height.
‘Who’s with her?’ I asked.
‘Jenny Tierney,’ Matteen confirmed. Jenny Tierney was Sarah’s shadow, her tightest friend. Lookswise, Jenny had no chance against the hogging nimbus of Sarah’s beauty, but I liked Jenny, with her pageboy haircut, freckles and prosaic legs. She had these gaps between her teeth.
‘What are we to do?’ I asked Matteen.
‘Slow for them. We’ll talk.’
This I did, crawling up along them, pig-flashing the lights to persuade them to linger. This they did. Matteen buzzed down his window.
‘Hello creatures,’ he said.
‘Hello,’ Sarah said. She was holding a naggin of vodka, a black straw sticking from it, handbag dangling from the other arm. Jenny had a naggin too.
‘Haven’t seen you in an age,’ Matteen said.
‘You look poorly,’ Sarah said without actually looking at Matteen.
Matteen blinked his wet, heavy eyes. ‘When don’t I? What are you two up to tonight?’ he asked.
Jenny said, ‘None of your business.’
‘Well, that’s true,’ Matteen said.
‘Trawling for cock,’ Jenny said.
‘Hah,’ Matteen said hahlessly, ‘well-well-well, we can furnish you with a lift, at least.’
‘You heading into town?’ Sarah asked.
‘Where else?’ Matteen said. He opened the door on his side, shuffled across the back seat to permit ingress. Sarah stepped instead around to the front of the car, opened the passenger door. She stooped in, smiled at me, addressed Matteen across the headrests.
‘I’m not sitting with you.’
‘Why’s that?’ Matteen croaked.
‘Because you’ll try something,’ she said, then looked again at me, ‘but Teddy is harmless.’
‘Teddy is a gentleman,’ Matteen said.
‘Teddy is too afraid to be anything other than a gentleman,’ Sarah said. She had a short skirt on. She lifted the hem, and slid one long leg after another into the footwell, careful neither to expose a square inch of knicker nor spill a drop of naggin. Her hairline dinted the rotting vinyl of the car’s ceiling, necessitating a drawing down of her shoulders. She lifted her long-fingered hand into the vicinity of my head. I looked at the lined pink of her palm. She walloped me across the face, but playfully.
‘Say thank you, Sarah,’ she said.
‘Thank you,’ I said.
She giggled, she fixed me with her blue eyes, a calculated simper.
‘Oof,’ Matteen said in a mildly impressed voice.
Jenny bustled in beside Matteen.
‘So Quillinans it is, then?’ Matteen said. ‘Come watch me crucify a few?’
‘Naaaaaawww,’ Sarah said.
‘Yeah,’ Matteen said.
‘Naaaaaawww,’ Jenny said.
‘You’re in the car,’ Matteen said, ‘that’s where the car’s going.’
‘You offered the lift,’ Jenny said.
‘You got in,’ Matteen said, ‘that’s what passes for consent these days.’
Matteen lead the way into Quillinan’s, and I followed with the cue case, Sarah and Jenny behind. The irrelevantly elderly lined the bar, mostly fat men with dead wives, hefting pints into their bloated, drink-cudgelled faces. They did not seem to see us, certainly did not acknowledge us. We continued on into the pub’s rear, into the adjoining extension where the pool table and a pile of young skins waited. There was a game ongoing. The in-situ players saw Matteen and raised their cues. Eyes caught sight of Sarah and Jenny and lads quickly retuned their postures, snapping into more assertive shapes.
I placed the cue case on a table and hurried back into the main pub to order our group a round of cokes and ices—Matteen did not drink when he played. The girls did as girls do; panned the room, drew inscrutable conclusions behind inviolable expressions, and click-heeled it to the sanctum of the women’s toilets.
Matteen flipped locks. From the case’s velveteen interior he removed the split cue parts. He screwed one end into the other and worked the joint to a seamless squeak. He dabbed a speck of oil onto a muslin cloth and swabbed down the stick. There were a dozen lads around the table. Those who were to become that night’s opponents rolled shoulders, flicked fingers by their sides.
Matteen addressed them.
‘Five spot for a one-off game. Twenty for a best of three. Fifty for five. I am in no mood for fuckery,’ he announced, the colour and conviction returned to his face, his voice assured, fluently cocky in this domain.
Brendan Timlin went first and lost his fiver in four minutes. Peter Duggan next. Best of three, gone in two rounds and eleven minutes. Doug Sweeney, best of three, gone in two rounds and fourteen minutes. So it went. An hour in and Matteen was up fifty-five quid even after the twelve cokes he’d bought me, himself and the two girls.
The girls, meanwhile, reappeared from the jacks midway through Matteen’s second game and took a table facing conspicuously away from the action. Jenny was leaning into Sarah’s shoulder. The gaps in her teeth gleamed as she talked. Sarah was meditating on a noticeboard mounted on the far wall, a flock of expired circulars advertising manure storage solutions and faith-healing sessions tacked to it. The pinned circulars palpitated whenever a body went in or out of the pub’s back door, and Sarah flinched with them, even though the breeze from outside was as warm as the air inside.
The body of boys teetered away from Jenny and Sarah, cramping itself tight around the pool table; it was respect of a kind, this physical relinquishment of a defined space to the girls. Only I broached that space, and did so with prompt servility, replenishing the girls’ cokes as required and then withdrawing. The girls produced their naggins from their handbags and liberally dosed each new glass of coke with vodka. They did not turn their heads to the games, even as the spectators grew more rowdy and voluble. Matteen from time to time sauntered by their table, to casually disclose how smoothly things were running.
‘Well, well done,’ Sarah said.
‘It’s thrilling, isn’t it?’ Jenny said.
‘These nights could go on forever,’ Sarah said.
‘And if they did, you’d be a millionaire, boy,’ Jenny said.
‘It pays, these nights,’ Matteen said, his cue slanted against his shoulder like a marching rifle.
‘And they just keep coming,’ Jenny said, ‘they just keep coming, and they go on for so long.’
Sarah smiled. A single vertical wrinkle-pleat appeared in the centre of her forehead as she considered Jenny’s statement.
‘It’s the heat,’ Sarah said, ‘the heat in the air makes the night last longer. You ever hear about dead bodies in the Sahara, in its hottest extremes? The sun cures the skins; they don’t rot. The heat preserves them, mummifies them of its own accord.’
‘Is it that hot out there?’ Matteen chuckled, nodding toward the back door, our town’s staid concrete heart beyond.
‘We’re not used to it,’ Jenny said.
‘I am,’ Sarah said, yawning. ‘Where we going after, anyways?’
Matteen kept his reaction to Sarah’s question tamped down tight, though even I felt a small thrill of approval.
‘We’ll see,’ he said softly, and returned to the table.
‘The woods,’ Jenny said, ‘the woods.’
Matteen walked past the money. He never touched the money. The defeated cast it onto the baize, crumpled notes and coins. It was me who snuffled the lucre up, who kept the running tally.
It was knocking on midnight when Nubbin Tansey, town tough and marginal felon, manifested on the premises. Matteen was up against Killian Weir as Tansey beelined our way, flanked by a couple of big units; ask the gods for henchmen and this is what they would send, twin slabbed stacks of the densest meat, their breezeblock brows unworried by any worm of cerebration. Tansey himself was short, at twenty already balding. He had gaping, thyroidal eyes, the broad skull and delicately tissued temples of a monk or convalescent. He had a tight T-shirt on, exposing veined biceps as tough and gnarled as raw root vegetables. He was chewing his own jaw and vibrating faintly in place, a bundle of seeping excess energies. He was likely on several substances.
‘Judgeboy, the Judgeboy,’ he said, slapping Matteen across his bent back as Matteen stooped for a shot. Unperturbed, Matteen maintained his low forward-bent stance, discharged his cue in a steady stroke. The central clot of stripes and solids unbunched, a swarm of balls scuffling thickly back from the cushions. The stripes—Matteen was always stripes—were hypnotic in their tumbling banded flicker. A stripe rolled into the top-left pocket, gone in a clean gulp, and the topside spheres slowed and stilled into a new arrangement on the green.
‘Sweet,’ Nubbin said, ‘sweet, Judgeboy.’
‘You’ll be wanting a game, Tansey?’
‘Maybe now,’ Tansey said. ‘Though I’ve a notion you’ll beast me.’
Matteen raised his coke, took a sip. The crowd was beginning to thin. The meeker lads were leaving while they could still leave unobtrusively.
‘Can I apologise in advance?’ Matteen said.
The girls had not yet turned around but he knew they were listening.
‘Don’t condescend,’ Tansey said, and smacked his lips. He studied the table’s stationary scatter of balls. He picked up the white, rotated it in his hand. Matteen cleared his throat. Tansey put the ball back in place. He pulled the cue from grasp of the boy Killian. One of Tansey’s goons loaded the coin slots. The potted balls churned down out of the table’s gut. The goon put the triangle on the baize, clonkingly set the balls in place.
I heard the bark of chairlegs. Sarah and Jenny had twisted in the pool table’s direction, interested now.
‘C’mon so to fuck,’ Tansey said.
‘Be nice, Tansey,’ Jenny said.
‘I know you?’ Tansey to Jenny.
Jenny shook her head. There was an amused uncowardly venom in her eyes, watching Tansey as Tansey’s eyes crawled down her, then up Sarah.
‘The Dignan girl. I know you, but. I know your brothers. You’re attached to this set?’ he said, nodding at Matteen and me.
‘Tonight I am,’ Sarah said.
‘I know your brothers, Dignan. Christ, you’re some diamond pulled from a coal bucket, you know that?’
‘She knows that,’ Matteen said, ‘everyone knows that.’
‘You’re with him?’ Tansey asked, eye rolling in Matteen’s direction.
Sarah looked at Matteen. There is nothing worse than being pitied.
‘Well, he’s looped on you,’ Tansey smiled, nodding again at Matteen, ‘plain to see.’
‘We playing or what?’ Matteen said.
‘Alright, alright. Go,’ Tansey said, almost apologetically.
Matteen broke, potted a stripe from the break and then two more. His fourth shot he hit so viciously the stripe convulsed back up out of the pocket, spun confusedly on its own axis, and died into place a foot from the hole.
‘You hit that one too well,’ Tansey said.
‘You want to come off into the night with us once I thrash your buck?’ he said to Sarah.
‘It doesn’t work like that,’ Sarah said.
Tansey turned, the cue’s end rested on the toe of his boot, the cue tip stabbed up under his chin. He considered Sarah. There were beads of sweat all over him. Tansey was looking right into Sarah’s face. Not many do, or can.
‘Don’t ask, don’t get,’ he smiled.
Then he turned and bent low to the table, planted the fingers of his leading hand on the baize and placed the stick wobblingly on a knuckle-ridge. Tansey seemed to be sincerely puzzling the shot, but when he fired forward the cue he drove the tip down and sliced a long rip through the cloth.
‘Whoops,’ he said, and stooped to shoot again. Again he gouged the baize.
‘Ah would you just fuck off and leave us alone, Tansey,’ Matteen said, paling in the face.
‘There’s no winning with some folk,’ Tansey said.
He handed the cue back to the Killian boy.
‘C’mon,’ he said to Sarah, striding over to her and grabbing her hand. Tansey dragged her to her feet, but Sarah had a good foot on him. She loomed, she threw her head forward, down onto Tansey’s chest. Tansey yelped like a pup. He stepped back from the tall girl. There was a dark blotch running from the chest of his T-shirt.
‘Jesus, she bit him,’ the Killian boy sniggered.
Tansey considered his wound, chin buried in his neck to see. He looked up at Sarah. He did not look upset, exactly.
Tansey cupped the bit part of his chest.
‘My titty,’ he said.
Jenny got up, and now she grabbed Sarah’s wrist.
‘Let’s go,’ Jenny said, dragging Sarah out into the bar.
‘Wait,’ Matteen said, but the girls did not.
‘Go on,’ he said to me, ‘get them back.’
‘Catch up after them and attach yourself to the sole of one of them bitches’ boots, like a good lad,’ he said.
Matteen was clammy and pallid again. He reversed onto a bench, and leant his weight upon his cue.
‘This thing ain’t stopping,’ Tansey said. The blotch was running, widening.
‘Stitches,’ said one of the big units with him, ‘stitches and a tetanus shot.’
A rupture of laughter as I headed through to the bar, but the girls had already bolted from the premises.
I passed through the front door, into the street. It was warm out; warm and getting warmer, it seemed. We were enduring a marathon hot snap, a thirteen-day stretch of rainlessness unheard of in our otherwise perennially sodden clime. Water shortages bedevilled the farmsteads surrounding our town. Pasture had paled and browned and in the open country you could stand by the side of an empty road and hear the massed dry ticking of the bramble ditches that fringed the fields. Cows grouped in the shadow patch thrown by a lone dollop of cumulus and followed that patch as the cloud drifted across the sky. Dogs nuzzled the undersides of stones, seeking the moisture clinging there. In town, pensioners staggered in a sunstroked trance from street to street and tried to recall their destination.
Now even the nights were bringing little respite.
I thought I saw them drop beyond the hump of main street’s hill. I followed. I heard laughter, the clop of unsteady feet, I saw flickers of hair and shuttering legs. I followed them down Dandon Street, close but with a steady gap. They were talking, though I could not make out the words. They were letting me follow. They turned and vanished down Ridgepool Lane. Moss speckled the phosphorescent plaster of the lane’s walls. I felt its damp fur against my hand. When I emerged from the lane I looked left and right but could not see the girls. I went stock still, held my breath and in the weave of the breeze I picked up again their skeletal laughter. I foraged forward, and knew where they were going.
They were standing on the edge of the carpark of Bleak Woods, waiting. They were facing me but there was no light, the carpark was empty, and all I could make out were the disembodied ovals of what were their faces. The ovals floated in the dark and looked inchoate or on the verge of dissolution. Then they were turned from me and gone into the woods.
I had a horn by now, I’ll admit. The horn had oriented itself upwards and was snagged in the waistband of my jocks, which acted as a kind of garrotte sawing on the upper portion of the horn as I made my way into the trees. Obscenities, graphic recommendations, crowded my throat, but I did not let them out.
‘Harmless,’ I blurted, ‘I’m harmless!’
And I was. Efficient deference was my singular mode of expression. I had never sought a status beyond that of sidekick or flunky, and in this way had achieved subtle indispensability. I was an adhesive creep to a degree, but Matteen needed me, as did the girls. I believed that. Who else would Matteen charge with pursuing these two into the night? Who else would these same girls permit to follow them into the woods?
There was no path. I moved from tree to tree and touched each trunk as I passed it. I had never been asked into these woods before. The trees felt like things that were alive and I had to remind myself that they were. Leaves depended from the fingerlings of branch ends and brushed my face like dry, frail-veined moths. I stumbled onward over stones, over monstrous hanks of rooted scrub. The smell of the woods in summer was heavy around me, and it stank of fucking.
They blindsided me, crashed into me from behind. I was on my face on the ground, in the dirt, and there was a measured vicious hailing of my ribs from either side. I got on my back and something shattered across my forehead, a wetness sliding all over my face, the precise fire of vodka seeping into however many cuts now decorated my skin. Then there was a weight on my chest and something squeezing straight down on my throat. I was looking up but I could see nothing through the burning wetness in my eyes. Consecutive wrenches at my thighs brought my pants down and the horn was out, sacked like a frowsy vagrant into the open.
I heard above me two-headed laughter and a voice, or voices:
Teddy, we are
We are going to
the eyeballs! The eyeballs!
right out of
right out of your face.
And then more laughter, and I could not tell who had spoken and who was laughing, and if it wasn’t for the boot flat against my adam’s apple I would have begged go ahead girls, I would have begged do your worst.
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SOFT RAIN by TRISHA MCKINNEY – (RTE GUIDE)
In the Inishowen Peninsula there is a strong wind blowing and the white sea spray tumbles without an audience in Culdaff strand, Lagg beach and the Isle of Doagh. Badgers and foxes find shelter for the day ahead and gannets spread their wings. The tide is on its way in, carrying starfish, hermit crabs, whelks and limpets.
Two miles outside Malin Town, Henry Martin is waking up in the same bed he’s slept in since he was a child.
Henry pulls the bedcovers over his face and breathes through damp wool while he scans the room. A few feet away he hears the familiar scratching and turns to see a thin brown rat perched on top of the wardrobe.
He stares at the rodent until it scurries away, then he places his feet on the ‘welcome’ mat beside his bed. He could smear traps with peanut butter or chocolate, the way his father taught him: lure the rats to sudden death if he wanted. The springs are fast and strong. He’s seen them snapping, the delicate wire crushing heads and breaking backs in seconds.
But he hasn’t got it in him.
Henry pulls on thick grey socks, dark jeans, and three layers next to his chest. From the back of a wooden chair, he lifts his hat and pulls it down over his ears. Maybe today, he thinks, you never know, and stoops as he pushes his head and body through the bedroom door.
In the sitting room he lights the open fire with sticks and the previous days’ newspaper and then takes a moment to listen for his father’s heavy breathing.
Satisfied he’s still sleeping; Henry picks up his bag and opens the front door.
At the end of the lane he meets the open road and turns right towards Five Fingers beach. He takes pleasure in seeing high sand dunes in the distance and later, the presence of trees growing on rocky outcrops – row after row bent in the same direction as if worshipping someone.
He spots two guillemots perched on kelp and smiles as he continues along the narrow path. At the entrance, there is a sign now, UNSAFE FOR BATHING.
As he removes each item of clothing he folds it and places it in his bag. When he’s down to his bathing shorts, he stretches his toes wide on the damp sand and walks towards the sea, bracing himself for the sudden cold that will shoot through his skin and send his system into shock long after the ground beneath his feet has gone. He feels the familiar ebb and flow as the water dances around his waist; the icy push and drag as it caresses his chest and then the sheer force of it snatch his breath away. His arms and legs sting from the waves’ endless slaps and his skin turns pink, but Glashedy rock beckons and he swims towards it, knowing full well he’ll never reach it.
As he approaches the house he sees whitewashed walls stained with green moss and window ledges that have sunk so low they scrape the ground. Flaking paint clings to outside walls and the garden his mother loved is a wilderness of bindweed and nettles. At the back of the house old furniture spills out like burst guts after a car-accident. Inside, he finds his father, Nelson, sitting up in bed, his mouth drooping to one side, his left arm limp.
‘Well, what kind of a day is it?’
‘She’s cool enough. The kettle’s boiled. Do you want a cup in bed?’
Nelson laughs from the side of his mouth that works, and shakes his head.
‘You’ll be wiping my arse next.’
‘Don’t say that. I haven’t had my cornflakes yet.’
When Nelson has been dressed and fed, Henry watches his father’s hands grip the Zimmer-frame and negotiate the L from the kitchen table to his armchair.
He watches the shiny backside reverse into the armchair as if it’s a parking space, and is amused, although sometimes, his father’s nervous hovering depresses him so much he has to leave the room.
‘I deserve a smoke after all that.’
He turns Nelson’s pipe upside down, gives it a hard knock with the side of his hand, fills it, strikes a match and hands it back.
‘That stuff will kill you.’
‘I wish it would hurry up,’ Nelson puffs.
‘I have the bag packed.’
Nelson chuckles and sucks on his pipe until smoke fills his mouth and tobacco grates his throat. He used to cough up phlegm and then shuffle outside to hawk and spit, but these days, he clears his chest into the fire, and listens to it sizzle.
Understanding lies in the gap between a question spoken and the answer they have taught each other to wait for. In the silences there is the agreed pace of their living. Henry thinks they are Siamese-bound by bad decisions. It’s not that time has stopped exactly; it’s more of a spiral. A spinning top of sorts, where Henry waits for his life to begin and Nelson waits for his to end.
After breakfast Henry gets ready for his two mile walk to the village.
‘I’m going now. Do you want anything?’
‘Maybe a few pancakes.’
‘Right. I won’t be long.’
Once outside, Henry tries not to look at the bottle-green Rover, but there is no getting away from it.
Every day around eleven o’clock, he likes to stretch his legs and gather his thoughts, on the road that took his mother’s life: mudflats, rushes, seaweed fields at low tide, and if he’s lucky the sight of brent geese, or wigeon. He keeps his eye on the thin white line and walks in tight to the ditch. The white line has become for him, the distance travelled and the distance to go.
Something brittle that could snap at any moment.
There are days when loss startles him with its newness, but most of the time, if he’s honest, grief is diluted, and sudden spasms of remembering never last long.
Fifteen years earlier when the bottle green Rover hit his mother’s bicycle so hard she went flying through the air and never got back up again, there were spaces for other losses, one tragedy becoming a magnet for others. His own father stammering, ‘I’ve something to tell you son.’
He thinks of all the searches himself and his sister Beth made for the missing bicycle wheel, and wonders if the silence they first heard on that part of the road was heard by everyone; a silence that forced them to listen and put years on them.
He pats the inside pocket of his overcoat and is soothed by the neat square of the shopping bag against his chest; reassured by the simple routine of his existence.
On good days, he likes to remind himself that he’s gained more than he’s lost. On bad days he wants to shout: ‘I’m in the wrong life,’ but he sucks his lower lip or bites his nails instead. The world for him is a time and a place somewhere else, and he longs to step into it.
After lunch, Henry gathers dirty clothes in his arms, and separates them into three piles:
jeans (his) trousers (his father’s)
He lines them up in a queue of sorts, pours pots of boiling water into a bucket and rubs with a new bar of yellow Starlight soap, until his fingertips go pale and wrinkly. When they’ve been washed and rinsed, he pegs them outside. Underwear first. He takes his time. He does it right.
When he comes back inside, Nelson’s head is drooping and his jaw is wide open.
Henry finds some music on the radio and sings while he prepares the evening meal. At dinner time, they take their seats, father and son, sharing potatoes, pork chops and beans.
When they’ve eaten Henry carries the empty plates to the sink and stares out the kitchen window. He can see more rain approaching, charcoal clouds cracking over hunchbacked hills. He watches clouds burst and minutes later fast rain hits the ground outside the window and bounces up again as if to greet him.
Nelson makes his way back to his threadbare armchair. A thin layer of stretched skin holds it together, translucent if it wasn’t for grease stains, blood stains, dirt and cigarette burns. The once vibrant grey and blue swirls have faded to a dull blend of colour Henry has no name for and no interest in finding. The chair has sunk so low the springs scrape the carpet. To compensate, Nelson has taken two cushions from the sofa where no-one sits to puff it up with. The sofa gapes back at him: a pulled tooth in a smile, or absent family members watching him.
Communes of insects live in the private spaces inside and under furniture. There are cobwebs in corners, on ceilings and in narrow gaps between cupboards and electrical appliances. Henry has no idea what lives down the sides of the sofa or in the grooves between kitchen units, but he imagines the room hides lost peas, raisins, crusts, fat, hair, coins, the tops of biros, cheese, pens, and biscuit crumbs. Windows have grown as stiff as unused limbs. Air has stopped circulating. Sunshine when it hits the glass pane is barely visible. The smell of onions and meat has seeped through curtains, upholstery and the pores of Nelson’s skin. Dead bluebottles and daddy-long-legs lie undisturbed inside bowls, unused cups and old school trophies. Under the beds, lint clogs the air and curtains hang limp.
There was a time when mirrors sparkled. Fresh flowers sat on the table. Windows were opened. There was change: here a new cushion made or bought. In the corner a photograph added, a different tablecloth. Broken furniture was mended or used as fire wood, bedclothes were washed and hung out to dry. When his mother was alive, time moved forward for all of them.
Now another evening stretches before them.
‘Maybe there’s something on the television.’
‘It’s early yet.’
‘Do you want a shave?’ Henry asks.
Nelson’s good hand rubs his stubble. ‘Well, I suppose. It’ll pass the time.’
In the bathroom, Henry parts the suede wrapping that hides the cut-throat razor. For a moment he sees his mother’s face looking back at him in the shine of the blade. He sets the kitchen table with shaving soap, a bowl, a badger-hair brush and five sheets of toilet roll. Then he slides the cut-throat along his father’s old strop and listens to it hiss. He coats his father’s face and neck, and then works the lathered brush into his skin, slow and firm. Nelson’s eyes close and his shoulders drop as he relaxes into the routine of it.
‘Head back a bit,’ Henry says.
With his left hand, he pulls the loose skin on his father’s cheek taut; with his right, he brings the blade down in long strokes. The noise of cold steel cutting through his father’s stubble reminds him of copper wire. The blade couldn’t be any sharper.
He shaves with the grain, then lathers him a second time and goes across it.
He takes his time.
He does it right.
‘Well, that’s you done,’ he says wiping his face with a cloth and rubbing some balm in.
He cleans and strops and returns the cut-throat to its box, ready for next time. It’s not until he’s finished that he realises death has been and gone. He reaches for Nelson’s hand and spreads his fingers against his still warm flesh. He recalls doing the same thing as a child. His father’s hands were hard and rough then, now the skin feels alien, wrong somehow.
His sadness is mild. His letting go, soft rain falling. Before he leaves, he puts his shoulder to the window. Cold November fills the house he walks away from.
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A DIFFERENT COUNTRY by DANIELLE MCLAUGHLIN (From Issue 23 Volume Two – Winter 2013 The Stinging Fly)
At Kinnego the light was silver, the sea and sky grey, and the wind that snatched at her breath had a sharp, almost metallic, edge. Anytime he had spoken of this place he had always spoken of the light and now, early morning, the beach deserted, she understood what he meant. They had travelled from Dublin the day before but had left late, then stopped too long in Derry, so that it was dusk before they drove north along the Foyle. The sea was already slipping into darkness then, the cabin lights of a boat carried like a lamp up the estuary, and as they passed through Quigley’s Point, Moville, Greencastle, small dark shapes cut the air above the water: birds, perhaps, or bats from the trees that grew along the shore road.
Waking that morning in his brother’s bungalow, she had pulled back the bedroom curtains to get a proper look at the sea and had found herself staring at a concrete wall, roughly plastered, set no more than three or four feet back from the house. Beneath the window, filling the space between it and the wall, was a tangle of orange netting, half a dozen crudely cut lengths of galvanise, and a stack of plastic boxes stamped with the logo of a fisherman’s co-op.
‘It’s a boat shed,’ he said from the bed, and she had turned to see him raised on one elbow, watching her in amusement.
‘But why here?’ she said, gesturing in disbelief to the wall, ‘why block out the sea, the light?’ It was cold in the bedroom, her breath misting the glass as she leaned closer to the window. The net held remnants of the sea: strips of black, leathery seaweed, thin as bootlaces, and a handful of barnacles. ‘Imagine,’ she said, conscious of his eyes on her as she shivered in her nightdress, ‘what a view like that would be worth in Howth.’
He had laughed, patting the pillow next to him. ‘You’re not in Kansas now, Dorothy,’ he said, and as she climbed back under the blankets, he put his hand on the jut of her hip and pulled her close.
They drove to Kinnego first thing after breakfast, before anyone else was up. They parked at the top of a rocky headland and as she stepped out of the car, the wind almost pulled the door from her grasp. Below them the bay lay wide and empty, the cliffside a tangle of green, bushy vegetation sloping to the water. She held his hand as they descended the steep path to the beach. ‘A ship from the Spanish Armada was wrecked here,’ he said, putting an arm around her waist to steady her, ‘an old Venetian trading ship, converted for battle.’
She stopped and tucked her hair down the back of her jacket to keep it from blowing about her face. ‘Did many people drown?’
He nodded. ‘Aye, and the locals ate the ones that didn’t. Or so we were told as children.’
‘That’s a myth, obviously,’ she said.
‘Wait until you’ve met the locals.’
‘You’re a local,’ she said, but already he had dislodged her from the crook of his arm and was striding ahead of her across the sand, over to the tidal pools where rocks, black and sleek, broke the surface of the water.
A dog was loose on the beach, a long-haired black and white creature, and now it came tearing across the sand towards her, its ears flat to its head, its tail swinging like a rudder. It skidded to a halt in front of her and, opening its mouth, dropped something at her feet. ‘What’s that you’ve got for me?’ she said.
It was a crab, the shell a buttermilk colour with a sprinkling of green, like mildew, and a darker green along its scalloped rim. It wriggled as she held it between thumb and forefinger, its greyish legs slow and jerky, like the legs of the old men in bathing trunks at the Forty Foot on Christmas mornings. She tapped the shell and the crab stopped wriggling, drew its legs up into its belly.
The dog leaped in the air, snapping at the crab. ‘Now I get it,’ she said, ‘you want me to throw it.’ The dog whined, skittered back and forth on the sand. ‘That wouldn’t be very nice, would it?’ she said. She held the crab above her head with one hand, ruffling the dog’s ears with the other. The dog barked. ‘You don’t understand, do you?’ she said. She walked to the edge of the waves and, bending down, released the crab into the water.
The dog yelped and tore into the spray. When the crab was carried back in on the next wave, he seized it and dropped it again at her feet. ‘No!’ she said, snatching it up, ‘Bad dog!’ The shell was slimy with dog slobber and a crack had appeared, running top to bottom. This time she took a couple of steps into the sea, her new suede boots wet to above the ankle, ice cold water seeping through to her socks. She flung the crab as far as she could in a high, curved arc and once more the dog charged after it.
She was coming out of the waves, her boots heavy with water—ruined, she thought, the salt would ruin them, they would never be the same—when she saw Jonathan walking towards her, his shoulders hunched against the wind. His stride was long and easy, and he had his hands in his pockets, his hair blown back from his forehead. He reached her just as the dog emerged from the sea, dripping and victorious, and deposited the crab at his feet.
‘What’s this?’ he said, ‘some sort of Dublin pastime? We mostly use sticks here.’
He tried to kiss her but she pushed him away and bent to pick up the crab. The dog retched a couple of times then coughed up something small and grey, and she saw that it was a crab leg. ‘Scram!’ she said to the dog, and she stamped her foot, ‘Shoo! Go home!’ but the dog just barked and hurled himself at her, almost knocking her over. The crab was split open, pearly-white flesh visible where the shell was lifting away from the body. Two legs were missing, another hanging from a sliver of tissue.
She handed the crab to Jonathan. ‘You throw it,’ she said, ‘it needs to go further out.’
He inspected the crab as it lay motionless on his palm. He poked it with his finger but still it didn’t move. ‘I’m afraid it no longer has any needs,’ he said. He tossed it over his shoulder, where it shattered against some rocks, and the dog was away like a rocket, snuffling around in shallow pools after bits of shell, pieces of leg.
The tyres spun on wet grass as she reversed the car onto the road, and they headed back towards Greencastle, past the lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, past an old schoolhouse, converted now, hanging baskets straggling with last summer’s flowers. Looking down at the beach, she glimpsed a streak of black and white: the dog darting back and forth along the water’s edge. Though it was autumn, the cliffside was still lush with greenery, fuchsia bright in the ditches, heathers blooming rust and orange in the bogs beyond. It was almost too beautiful, she thought, the colours too pure, the light too fantastical. It was as if she was driving through the landscape of a computer game, the steering wheel her console, and the walls of the too-white cottages might crumble as she passed, revealing dark, monstrous creatures with the gristle of Spanish sailors between their teeth. She glanced at Jonathan in the passenger seat beside her and for a moment she did not know him, and Dublin, her home, the university, all seemed very far away.
His brother’s bungalow stood with its back to the sea in a sloping field of briars and reeds. It was accessed by a narrow side lane and there was no fence, only a ditch and where the field met the shore, a scattering of black rocks. There must once have been a gate but only a pair of hinges, thick with rust, remained, set into wooden posts on either side of the entrance.
‘I’d knock it all down,’ he’d said, when they arrived the night before, ‘all’ as far as she could see, being the bungalow, a concrete shed with a domed roof which turned out to be the boat shed, and a wooden coal bunker. ‘I’d level it and start again, take it closer to the water.’ Everywhere they went, this was what he did and she had come to understand that he couldn’t help himself. He was an architect, one year out of university where they had met in his final term. He saw derelict outhouses, boarded up petrol stations and, almost instinctively, ghosted up their future, measured it out in his head in steel and wood and light.
Outside the back door, a blue Fiat without tyres or windscreen was raised on a platform of concrete blocks. Its roof was covered in a mulch of dead leaves and rust dappled the paintwork. It’s the salt that does that, she thought, pleased that she understood, it’s the salt that causes the rust, because how often in Howth had she listened to her father complain about the very same thing, although the rust on her father’s car was never as deep an orange, never as widespread.
Pauline, his brother’s girlfriend, had been in bed when they left the house that morning. Now she was at the cooker, frying an egg in a blackened pan. She was heavily pregnant, one hand resting on the small of her back, the other shaking the pan, sliding the egg back and forth. ‘Come in quick,’ she said, ‘and close that door. It’s wild cold the day.’ She tipped the egg onto a plate where it quivered in a pool of grease, and then she filled the kettle at the sink.
She was good looking in a raw, violent sort of way: black hair loose about her shoulders; thick, unplucked brows. She wore a check shirt and tracksuit bottoms and, although it was late October, a pair of flip-flops. Her toenails were crudely cut, the skin of her heels hard and yellow. She reminded Sarah of the girls from the estates in Castlebar when she went to visit her cousins in the summer; girls in the backyards of pubs after closing time, resting half-finished pints on empty kegs; girls propped against alley walls, taking boys like bullets.
There was a table in the centre of the kitchen covered with a square of blue-check oilcloth that barely reached the edges. A pot-plant, dense and woody, with dark-green variegated leaves sat on a lace doily. Pauline lowered herself into a chair and began to eat her egg. Her shirt was too small and when she reached for the salt it rose to reveal a dark line, like a dorsal stripe, running from her bellybutton into the waistband of her tracksuit. ‘Your brother’s away to Killybegs with the van,’ she said, ‘he’ll be back later.’ She patted her stomach. ‘I hope the wee babby doesn’t take a notion to come early.’ As she spoke, her stomach shifted of its own accord, broke into a furious bulging and rippling.
Sarah sat beside her and slipped off her wet boots. Jonathan was making tea, taking mugs from the draining board, a box of Sainsbury’s teabags from a shelf in the corner. Whatever the bungalow’s architectural failings, he was at ease inside it, opening press doors, rooting about to find sugar and biscuits. ‘The baby won’t come early,’ he said, ‘and anyway, if it does, I’m here.’
When Pauline laughed her front teeth were white, but slightly crooked, one edging in front of the other, the way Sarah’s had done before she got braces. ‘Towels and hot water, is it, Johnny? No offence, but I’d have it in the field first.’
‘I meant,’ he said, joining them at the table, ‘that we’d drive you to the hospital.’
He went to pour Pauline’s tea, but she waved him away. ‘Wild bad heartburn from the tea,’ she said.
A window looked out on the narrow lane to the side of the bungalow, while another overlooked the rough ground to the back. Though it was barely noon, the sky had darkened and a bank of cloud was forming above the estuary. A clothesline ran from a hook on the boat shed wall to a pole in the field, and the wind tore at a pair of blue overalls, whipping them into a frenzy, arms and legs flailing. Sarah unbuttoned her coat and hung it on the back of her chair and as she did, the scarf around her neck slipped to the floor.
Pauline noticed it first. She picked it up but instead of returning it, held onto it, rubbing the fabric back and forth between her fingers, stroking it. ‘Burberry?’ she said, inspecting the label, and she raised her dark eyebrows.
Sarah felt herself blush. ‘Jonathan gave it to me,’ she said, ‘for my birthday.’
‘Jonathan?’ Pauline said, looking at him across the table, and she laughed. ‘Well, Jonathan, your taste has improved. They must have taught you something down in Dublin.’ She slapped him playfully in the face with the scarf and laughed again, more softly this time. ‘Very nice, Jonathan,’ she said, repeating the name as if it were a joke, ‘nice, but wild dear,’ and she put the scarf down on the table.
Sarah drank her tea and listened to Jonathan and Pauline talk about people she didn’t know, people with strange, improbable names like Jimmy High Boy, Larry the Wren, Frank the Post. She heard Jonathan’s accent shift little by little to match Pauline’s, until it became something different, something foreign. And as she listened, it seemed to her that the border they had crossed and uncrossed the night before, the black line cutting through villages and sitting rooms, was little more than artifice, a nod to some semblance of containment. It was a belt slung loosely, land and sea spilling over it like paunch, because here, here too, it was a different country.
A white Hiace drove up the lane, trailing exhaust fumes, and turned in at the bungalow. It parked next to the blue Fiat and a man, tall and thin, got out. They had not met the night before, but she knew it was Jonathan’s brother as soon as he went by the window. He had the same high cheekbones, though his were veined and ruddy, and he walked with the same long stride. He paused on the doorstep to take off his boots. ‘Alright, Johnny?’ he said, and he winked, ‘state visit is it?’ He was in his early thirties, hair so tightly shaved it was barely a shadow on his skull, fair eyebrows disappearing into his face. He crossed the kitchen in his socks and slapped Jonathan on the back. He held out a hand to Sarah. ‘I’m Aidan,’ he said.
Under his arm was a parcel wrapped in plastic and secured with blue twine. He placed it on the table and began to untie it, his hands red and scarred, one finger ending in a round, pink stub just above the knuckle. When he peeled back the plastic, a pile of fish spilled out. He picked one up, a black, monstrous thing over a foot and a half long, cartoonish in its ugliness: a wide mouth studded with teeth; white, wiry filaments protruding from its forehead. Pauline reached for it, sliding her fingers through the red flap of its gill. ‘There’s a beauty,’ she said, and she nodded at Sarah, ‘I bet you haven’t seen one of these in Dublin.’
‘She hasn’t seen one here either,’ Aidan said, and they all laughed, everyone except Sarah.
‘Och, what harm a few fish?’ Pauline said. ‘Pure sinful to throw them back and half the world starving.’
Aidan parcelled up the fish again, tossing them one on top of another in a black, slippery mound, and put them in the fridge. He took out a packet of cigarettes and offered one first to Sarah. When she refused, he lit one for Pauline and another for himself.
Pauline settled back in her chair, her hands resting on the dome of her belly, smoke from the cigarette curling towards the ceiling.
‘Your Uncle Seamus rang this morning. He says he’ll leave the wee outboard tied up at the pier in Moville.’
‘Aye,’ Aidan said, taking a pull of his cigarette, ‘that’ll do rightly.’ He didn’t join the others at the table, but remained standing, leaning against the kitchen wall.
Pauline blew smoke out the corner of her mouth. ‘You’re not taking a wee boat like that out tonight, surely?’
‘I’m not going far, just off the shore in Shroove.’
‘Is Seamus going with you?’
‘I’m going on my own.’
Pauline tapped ash into her empty plate. ‘What sort of a job is it anyway?’
Aidan put a hand to the back of his neck, kneaded the skin as if soothing a sore muscle. ‘Trouble with the nets,’ he said.
Pauline stared at him. She said nothing for a moment and then she looked away. She reached past Sarah and picked up a copy of the Derry Journal that lay at the end of the table. ‘That’s not a job for this kind of weather,’ she said, opening the newspaper.
‘It’s not a job for any kind of weather. It might as well be tonight.’
Pauline shook her head. ‘Only a fool would be out by himself in a wee boat tonight.’ There was silence in the kitchen apart from the crackle of the newspaper as she turned the pages.
Sarah became conscious of the in and out of her own breath, the soft drumming of someone’s foot, perhaps her own, on the kitchen tiles. She thought of gathering up the mugs, taking them to the sink to wash them, but before she could do anything, she heard Jonathan say to his brother, ‘I’ll go with you.’
Aidan’s hand left the back of his neck and began to caress the bony contours of his skull. ‘You’re maybe accustomed to a different kind of boat these days, Johnny,’ he said, ‘it’s not a yacht, now,’ but this time, nobody laughed.
‘I sailed the half-decker to Tory the summer Dad died,’ Jonathan said, ‘And I sailed it to Rathmullen the time of the Oyster Festival the summer after.’
All of the years he had lived in this place before he met her, all of the time they had been strangers to each other, unaware of the other’s existence, settled upon Sarah, heavy and impenetrable. She felt a small, quiet panic rise up inside of her. It was the panic of a swimmer who has drifted out, little by little, on a rogue current and who suddenly discovers herself to be far from shore. She had a sense of something slipping away from her; it was something she could not quite identify, but she could feel its ebbing none the less.
‘That was a long time ago,’ Aidan said. ‘You haven’t been out since. Likely you’ve forgotten and maybe you’re better off.’
‘You know rightly there’s no forgetting.’ Pauline stubbed out her cigarette and stood up. Her belly swung low and heavy as she walked across the kitchen to the hot press and switched on the immersion. ‘I’m not feeling well,’ she said, ‘I’m going to take a shower and then I’m going back to bed, and you boys can go to Shroove or to any damn place you like.’
And as Pauline left the kitchen, Sarah had a sudden image of her naked: the distended belly, the hair, black and wet and sleek, writhing in worms around her shoulders. She saw her in the small, dark bathroom in the shadow of the boat shed, standing under the shower as the water sluiced over her, a sea creature lured to dry land.
Out on the estuary, a trawler had dropped anchor for the night, light from the engine room pooling on the water. As she drove along the narrow coast road, Sarah saw matchstick figures moving about the floodlit deck. Beside her, Pauline emerged from the grip of a contraction and sank back in the passenger seat. She pushed her hair, damp with sweat, from her face and took out her phone. ‘I’ll try him again,’ she said. They were a mile beyond Greencastle, past the Fishery School and the holiday homes clustered in the shadow of the Fort, heading towards Shroove.
On the other side of the estuary, a string of evenly spaced lights, brighter than street lights, ran along the edge of the peninsula. Sarah had asked Jonathan about them the night before as they took their luggage from the boot of the car. ‘Is that a hotel?’ she said, and he had laughed, shaking his head as he walked towards the back door. ‘That’s Magilligan prison,’ he said. Later, he told her how as a child he had gone there with his father to visit a cousin. ‘What was it like?’ she said, but he had been unable to remember much, only some Nissan huts from the war and a soldier walking four or five dogs on a chain. The prison glittered now across the water, its perimeter lights threaded like a string of bright beads along the ragged coastline.
Pauline swore as Aidan’s phone clicked once more into voicemail. ‘Likely they’re still at that job,’ she said, ‘and if they are, they’ll not hear a phone. Or if they hear it, they’ll not answer.’ She reached for the holdall at her feet and hauled it onto her belly, rooting through nightdresses and slippers until she found her cigarettes. ‘Try Jonathan,’ Sarah said and she began to call out the number, but Pauline cut her short. ‘I already have,’ she said. She lit a cigarette and rolled down the car window to let the smoke out.
Her hair appeared blacker than usual against the pallor of her skin, her dark brows like slashes of war paint. ‘My Daddy’s a fisherman,’ she said, ‘my Granddaddy too, same as Aidan’s.’ She touched a hand lightly to her stomach. ‘And there’s days I’m standing at the end of the pier and I could swear that this wee babby knows. I can feel him straining for the sea, the same as if he could see it or smell it.’ She took a drag of her cigarette, blew out a mouthful of smoke. ‘But it’s a dirty business, fishing. Dirty and hard. You’re lucky, with Johnny.’ She tossed the cigarette out the window and clutched her stomach. ‘Here comes another one,’ she said, and she doubled over, resting her forehead on the dash.
Coming out of the boglands, they were forced into the ditch by a small car that careered towards them in a blaze of headlights. It bounced off the road, temporarily airborne, then sped away, a boy in a dark hoodie sunk low in the driver’s seat. ‘One of the Shaker Sweeney’s from the Malin Road,’ Pauline said, and Sarah waited for her to say more, but she leaned back and closed her eyes. In the rear-view mirror, the tail lights of the receding car flickered red and were gone, extinguished, the road returned to darkness.
Pauline didn’t speak again until they passed the sign for Shroove. A pub rose out of the blackness, an oasis of light on the otherwise desolate stretch of coast. ‘I had my debs there,’ she said, ‘four years ago last summer.’
Sarah had thought of Pauline as older—not older in the way that her parents were older, but older certainly than herself and Jonathan. Now she realised they were practically the same age. ‘Did you take Aidan?’ she said. She tried to imagine Aidan in a tuxedo, a grown man awkward in a room full of teenagers, his hands red and calloused below the white cuffs of a dress shirt.
‘I didn’t know Aidan then,’ Pauline said, ‘I took Johnny. Johnny and I were at school together in Carn,’ and as the lights of the pub fell away behind them, she said, ‘Here! Turn in here,’ and she pointed to a gap in a field.
The grass was littered with cans and the charred circles of spent fires. The field ran to a line of low cliffs, with the sea, dark and choppy, stretched out beyond. Sarah stopped the car. Pauline was bent over, moaning, and when she lifted her face from her hands there were tears running down her cheeks. ‘They’ll be down at the shore,’ she said, ‘tell him to hurry.’
Sarah found a torch in the boot and followed a trail through the grass to the edge of the cliff. Below her, she saw lights bobbing on the water and, when her eyes adjusted to the darkness, the outline of a boat. There was a secluded beach: a strip of white sand, stark against the black of the surrounding rocks. The sea was silvered by the moon and by the lights of Magilligan across the estuary, and as she watched the boat cut ripples through the water, she was struck by how very beautiful it all was, beautiful and unspoilt, and how, if it were not for Pauline waiting in the car, she would have liked to stay.
She began to descend the steep path to the cove, clutching at reeds to steady herself. The slope propelled her forward so that she was unable to stop even if she wanted to, and in the end she half-ran, half-fell onto the small beach. The cove was quiet, apart from the slap and fizz of waves breaking on the sand. The men had cut the boat’s engine and Jonathan jumped overboard, began to wade towards her. He was wearing a dark coloured oilskin, the hood pulled tight around his face. ‘What are you doing here?’ he said when he reached her, and she realised that it was not Jonathan, but Aidan. He had something long, like a stick, tucked under his arm.
‘Where’s Pauline?’ he said, when she did not answer, but she was transfixed by a shape twisting out beyond him on the water, something thrashing and struggling, the sea churning white all around. She thought with sudden fright that it was a body, but then she saw that there were many of them and they were moving slowly inland, ploughing furrows through the dark sea. They looked like divers in wetsuits but as they got closer, she saw that they were seals, black and lustrous. They were rolling in on the waves, disappearing below the water, then surfacing again, moonlight glinting on their sleek heads.
‘Where is she?’ Aidan said again. He caught Sarah by the shoulder and shook her, and she realised that the thing under his arm was not a stick, but a gun.
‘She’s in the car,’ she said, ‘the baby’s coming.’ She jumped back as a wave rushed in, wetting her shoes and the ends of her jeans.
The boat was close to shore now, Jonathan standing at the helm. Another wave rolled in and a seal came crashing onto the beach. It landed with a thud on its back then flipped over onto its stomach. It lay bleeding on the sand by Sarah’s feet and when she dropped to her knees, she saw the hole in the side of its head where it had been shot. ‘Oh my God,’ she said, letting the torch fall from her hand, ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’
‘Give me the car keys.’ Aidan was standing over her, his hand outstretched.
‘They’re in the ignition,’ she said, without looking at him, and he turned and broke into a run, back up the cliff path, the gun still under his arm.
The boat was within a few metres of the shore and Jonathan stepped out, pulled it up onto a bank of pebbles. He too wore an oilskin, the hood tight around his face, and waders that reached to the top of his thighs. ‘They’ve got brazen,’ he said, walking towards her across the sand, ‘they’ve been eating through the nets, destroying the catch.’ He held out a hand to help her up but she didn’t take it.
A wave thundered in and, further up the cove, another seal was tossed onto the beach. She left the first seal and ran to the second. This one was smaller—a pup, she thought—its skin a lighter colour. Blood dribbled from its mouth and from a wound in its neck, and all along the edges of the rocks the tide foam was stained a deep pink.
Jonathan had followed, slowly, across the sand, and now he stood looking down at her, his hands in his pockets. ‘Is Pauline okay?’ he said, ‘is it the baby?’
Sarah was crouched beside the seal. It was still alive, a steady trickle of blood coming from its mouth, its chest rising and falling.
‘We’ll take the boat back to Moville,’ Jonathan said, ‘the van’s parked at the pier. You’ll need to change before we go to the hospital.’
She rubbed at her wet jeans, tried to brush away the pebbles and bits of broken shell that clung to them, and saw that they were stained with the seal’s blood. And still the waves charged in, an incessant advance and retreat, and, a few feet away, the body of another seal somersaulted onto the rocks. ‘We can’t leave them like this’, she said. She reached out a hand and touched the seal pup’s head. It flinched but did not pull away, its eyes, black as onyx, beginning to lose focus.
‘They’re almost dead,’ he said, and she could hear the impatience in his voice, ‘the tide will carry them back out.’ He was already walking away from her, towards the boat. ‘Come on,’ he said, as he dragged it to the water, ‘climb in.’
She got to her feet and looked around the beach. The wind had eased, the night sky was clear, and the clean, white bones of a dead sea bird were scattered across the sand like pieces of carved ivory. At the base of the cliffs, a length of timber, slime-green and rotting, was jammed between two rocks. She dislodged it and dragged it back across the sand to where the seal lay dying.
Jonathan shouted to her from the water. ‘What are you doing?’ To the south, beyond the village, the cliffs were lit up by the headlights of a car pulled in on the coast road. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘we need to get out of here,’ and he jumped into the boat.
She stood over the seal and raised the piece of timber. She heard the splutter of an engine and saw Jonathan standing in the boat, waiting for her. He did not speak or call and he appeared only in silhouette, his face featureless under the dark oilskin. She looked down at the seal and saw its half-closed eyelid flicker. All around her, the shore glittered like a sequinned cloth, tiny shells and pebbles luminous in the moonlight, even as blood darkened the sand. She stood there, the timber held high above her head, the seal bleeding out at her feet. And all the time the waves rushed in, remorseless, and beautiful across the water, steadfast and unblinking, shone the lights of Magilligan.
HOW I BEAT THE DEVIL by PAUL MURRAY (From Town and Country: New Irish Short Stories – Faber & Faber)
I was ten years old when I first met the Devil, in a small village in the southwest of Ireland. My family was on holidays there; he was renting the cottage down the road from ours.
My parents were geologists, and our summer destinations were always chosen for their geological interest. If you think you can imagine a more potent recipe for boredom, then you don’t know geologists: you don’t know the endless hours of pleasure they can derive from looking at rocks, or the lengths they’ll go to find them. The so-called holiday was a daily field trip into the hills, and I, of course, was press-ganged into coming along.
In previous years I hadn’t minded; I’d traipsed along happily beside them, with my bucket and my magnifying glass. But ten is a funny age. Adolescence is still just over the horizon; nevertheless, something has changed. The glister of magic has gone from the world; it has become resistant, obdurate, like a friend that, without explanation, suddenly stops talking to you. Home seems to offer nothing but limitations, and extended periods of time spent with one’s parents no longer have the same unqualified allure – particularly if they revolve around what my mother called ‘some of the most interesting pre-Cambrian lithologies in Europe’. That week, standing around in the rain while my parents chipped at the ground with small metallic instruments, I had for the first time an overpowering wish to be somewhere else.
I knew that to tell my father I was bored would only provoke him. My father didn’t believe in boredom; he said boredom was an illusion that existed only in the minds of lazy people. Instead, when we came back to the cottage for lunch, I told them I had a sore tummy and was going to lie down. They were concerned, of course, and wanted to stay with me. But I persuaded them to go back to their work. The sun had come out at last and the pre-Cambrian lithologies were just up the road; they could see our cottage from the hill. All right, they said, just for an hour. Through the window I watched them walk back up the lane, already lost in conversation. Then I threw off my bedcovers. I went to the back door and stood on the step, breathing in the rain. I was free.
Unless you wanted to dig up rocks, however, in this particular village freedom was of limited value. There were a couple of pubs, a shop that didn’t sell comics, a few fields of cows; there were various scenic vistas, but nothing that did anything. For an hour I wandered back and forth with a gathering sense of frustration. The trees dripped emptily, the placid chomping of the cows seemed to mock my impatience. I could hear my father’s voice in my head, telling me Everything is interesting if you look at it long enough; but I could find no purchase on this damp Arcadia, no matter how long I looked, so I gave up and went back to the cottage.
Things weren’t much better here: the TV only had one channel, and wouldn’t work with my video console. The meagreness of my own company was really beginning to distress me, and I was thinking seriously about rejoining my parents on the hill, when in a drawer in the living room, I found a box of marbles. Although in entertainment terms these were only a marginal improvement on rocks, I seized on them without hesitation. I went out onto the lane and began to play, me against me; that’s what I was doing when the Devil came sauntering along. He stopped and watched me play for a while, and then said, ‘Wotcher.’
I knew right away who he was – knew in a strange precognitive way, the way you might arriving at some place of your ancestors, which although you’ve never been there before at once starts up an inner machinery, a series of calls and responses that fly back and forth through the silence. I wasn’t scared, but if I’d had hackles, they would have stood up. This was the old Enemy, there was no doubt about it. Still I could see in his eyes the same rural boredom I was suffering myself: so when he asked if he could join the game for a moment, I said yes.
He cheated from the very first throw, but with such dazzling artistry that I didn’t say a word. As well as standard magicianly stuff, sleight-of-hand and marbles up the sleeve, he made full use of his supernatural powers. For instance, if he was on the brink of certain defeat, he’d pretend to cough and turn his threatened steelie into a worthless threesie – or a frog, or a butterfly, that would hop or flutter away; he’d alter the gradient of the road so my marble rolled off harmlessly into a tuft of grass; sometimes when he missed a shot, he’d momentarily accelerate the revolution of the earth, creating a G-force that would cause his marble to U-turn back into mine. He made no attempt to disguise his chicanery; I wondered if he even knew he was doing it, if he realised there were rules he was flagrantly ignoring. I didn’t care: it was definitely the most interesting thing I’d seen on this holiday, and anyway at the end of the game he gave me back all the marbles he’d won from me.
After that we went into the village and bought Cokes, then went wandering down the laneways while he told me about famous figures from the past who’d sold him their souls. ‘I mean many of the names you’d expect,’ he said. ‘No one’s going to be shocked to hear Genghis Khan got rid of his soul pretty early on. But there are others in there who would really surprise you. Great leaders, thinkers, pillars of the community. People you’d feel ought to have much more of an insight into the whole thing.’
‘Why would someone sell their soul?’
‘Various reasons. Power, fame, a place in history. Frankly it’s a bitch to get into history without selling your soul.’
‘Why would they want a place in history?’
He shrugged. ‘I suppose it’s the biggest thing they can get in exchange for their souls.’
There seemed an unsatisfying circularity to this, but before I could question him further, or ask who Genghis Khan was, he’d stopped in his tracks and was pointing at the cows in the field. ‘Will you look at these f—ing things?’
I looked at them. I couldn’t see anything extraordinary about the cows. ‘That’s my point. They just stand around all day long, chewing f—ing grass.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘Their lives are f—d, that’s what’s wrong. Their lives are f—d, and they don’t even care!’ He picked up a stick, and threw at the small brindled group nearest us. ‘The f—ing farmer is going to turn you into burgers, you c—ts!’ The cows lumbered away from the stick with the minimum possible effort, resumed their rumination with their filthy tails turned to us.
‘C—ts,’ the Devil said again.
Something happened when he swore – which was often, particularly when around cows, whose peacefulness and satisfaction with their lot he seemed to take as a personal affront; the words came out muffled or smudged, like rap songs when they’re played on the radio, as if he was being censored or redacted as he spoke. I wanted to ask him about it, but I also felt it might be a sensitive subject, like a handicap.
Initially my parents were uneasy about this new association with the man from the neighbouring cottage, then one evening the Devil called over on the pretext of borrowing a torch. He told them his name was Dave, and he worked for an oil exploration company; he feigned astonishment when he heard they were geologists, and asked if they were interested in pre-Cambrian lithologies at all. It was like watching an expert criminal pick a lock: with a handful of well-chosen questions, he had completely disarmed them. For the rest of the night I watched as my parents jabbered away to him, not only about fissures, tectonic movements, developments in the industry, but their own hopes and dreams – awards, grant applications, university contracts, things they had never spoken of to me. Desire made their eyes shine: suddenly they looked much younger, almost like children.
They must have wondered how “Dave” knew so much about what it was like here six hundred thousand years ago; they must have had some inkling who he really was. But perhaps adults are less attentive to the voices that murmur within – or maybe the way he lied, like the way he cheated at marbles, was so entrancing, so intoxicating, that they simply stopped caring it wasn’t true. His lies were better than truth; truth, by comparison, became something dowdy and tired and limited, like an ancient TV set with only one channel. He had the same effect on everybody. Even the taciturn locals lit up when he came into a room. It was as if he could jump at will into their heads, see through their eyes; he could intuit exactly what it was they wanted, the specific lacks and yearnings that gave them traction on the world. That was the men; their wives, like my mother, and every other woman I saw cross his path, just simpered and giggled and twirled their hair.
One day I called to his cottage. There was no answer when I knocked, so I just went in. The Devil was watching one of those afternoon quiz shows. He seemed to know the answer to every question. ‘AQUARIUM! It’s staring you right in the face, you stupid b—d !’
‘You should enter one of those things,’ I said. ‘You’d be good. You might win, even.’
‘I’m banned,’ the Devil said darkly.
His cottage was disappointing. I had imagined a cockatrice, a three-headed dog, at the very least a few chalk pentacles scrawled on the floor, but other than some pictures of his friends from Hell, all shiny-faced and smiling, stuck to the fridge, and a slightly less antiquated television, it was exactly the same as the one rented by my family. The dullness of it nagged at me and after sitting on the couch for a minute or two I asked him a question that had been on my mind for some time. What was he doing in West Cork?
‘I’m on holiday,’ the Devil said.
‘My doctor prescribed a two-week holiday. For my ulcer.’
‘It’s something you get when people keep repeating everything you say,’ he said, rather shortly.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘But why did you come here? Why didn’t you go somewhere nice, like the Algarve? Or Disneyworld?’ For these were the places my friends, whose parents were not geologists, had gone to this summer.
‘It’s contractual,’ he said, then seeing my blank look, expanded: ‘On business, I can go wherever I want. The Algarve, Disneyworld, under the sea, wherever. But leisure, that’s a different story. When it comes to my own time, “purgatorial” is as much as I’m allowed. Unimaginative, middle-of-the-road restaurants. A two-drink limit in bars. Holidays in places like this. That’s the contract.’
‘I didn’t think you’d have a contract,’ I said. I meant it in a flattering way, but it seemed to annoy him even more. ‘Of course I have a contract. You think I do this for the good of my health? You think I want an ulcer?’
‘No, but it’s sort of funny when you think about it. Isn’t it?’
‘I don’t find it particularly funny.’
‘Well, you know,’ even as I said them I knew the words weren’t coming out right, but I kept going anyway, ‘you having an ulcer and getting stressed and stuff, when you’re the one responsible for everything being like this in the first place.’
‘Ha!’ he exclaimed. ‘Oh sure, I’m responsible! I invented war, and smog, and telemarketing! And ulcers too, why not?’
‘What I mean is,’ I tried to make it sound as non-judgemental as I could, ‘you’re the one who got us banished from the Garden of Eden, which you just did because you got kicked out of Heaven, for the sin of Pride – ’
‘F—!’ he yelled, springing off the couch. For the next few minutes he stormed around the room, swearing and gesticulating. Finally he returned to me. ‘The “sin of Pride,”’ he repeated contemptuously. ‘Let me tell you a few things about that little episode. God – God is not what you’d call reasonable. God is not a pleasant person to have to deal with. It’s very sad to meet an omnipotent being who is such a petty man.’ He frowned. ‘You’ve probably heard the saying, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”?’
This was new to me – my mother always made my lunch, and to this point hadn’t charged – but I didn’t want to interrupt, so I nodded.
‘Well, that’s God all over. Every little thing he’d do for you, he’d want something in return. Worship me. Sing my praises. Unless everyone’s constantly telling him how great he is he throws a tantrum. Dare to suggest you might occasionally like some time on your own and the next thing you know you’re out on your ear.’ I must have looked doubtful, because he said next, ‘Look at the Flood, for instance. He gets out on the wrong side of bed one morning and out of pure pique he practically destroys his entire Creation. Is that the kind of mentality you want in the guy running the show?’
‘He did invent a rainbow afterwards,’ I remembered.
‘Yeah, I’m sure all the annihilated rabbits and anteaters and whatever other completely blameless animals really appreciated that. A big multicoloured metaphor, thanks a million. That totally makes our needless deaths worthwhile.’
‘So….’ this time I put the question together in my head first, ‘all the bad things that happen are God’s fault? Not yours?’
The Devil began to reply, then stopped. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘I’m not claiming to be a saint. But all I do is give people what they want. They ask, and I give it to them. When’s the last time God gave you something you asked for?’
‘Then you take their souls.’
‘I told you, they don’t want their souls,’ he returned. ‘It’s a free and fair exchange.’
‘What do you do with all those souls anyway?’
‘Put them to work in my dry cleaners’,’ he answered, switching the sound on the TV back on.
‘What’s it like not having a soul?’ I persisted.
He sighed, brought his hand in a slow melancholy circle about the room. ‘It’s like this, kid. It’s exactly like this.’
When I got home, I thought a lot about this contract that prevented him from enjoying anything. It explained a lot, such as why every time he bought an ice cream, half of it always immediately melted off onto the street. But I couldn’t help wondering if ‘purgatorial’ applied to his relationships too, and if that was the only reason he was friends with a ten-year-old boy.
I saw him most days, to play marbles or watch TV, but I didn’t know how the Devil spent his evenings, until one night I was woken from my sleep by a sudden peal of light. I opened the curtains to see the sky pulsating with unearthly colours; when I lifted the sash it seemed I could hear laughter too, amid minor explosions and other, vaguely animalistic sounds. I put on my shoes and lowered myself out the window.
There was some kind of party going on inside the Devil’s cottage. In the brief bursts of scarlet, cinnamon, silver light, I could make out horned heads, baroque silhouettes with enormous, arching wings. I wanted to get closer, but something held me back: so I stayed at the edge of the trees, watching, until I got cold and returned to my bed.
The Devil was alone again the next morning when I called over, throwing beer cans and emptying ashtrays into a black plastic sack, singing along with the stereo: ‘Sinatra,’ he told me. ‘We did some business at one point. Soul the size of a raisin.’
‘So you had a little party last night,’ I said.
He looked at me and harrumphed. ‘I thought I heard someone nosing around outside. Shouldn’t you have been in bed, with your dollies?’
‘I was in bed, until the noise woke me up,’ I said pointedly. ‘Can’t have been too good for your ulcer, all that beer and smoking.’
‘What are you, my mother?’ he retorted.
I knew he didn’t have a mother and was about to remind him, when the sadness of it struck me: that he’d never had anyone to make him free lunch, or give him his ulcer medicine, or wrap presents for his birthday, although I didn’t know if he had one of those either. Instead I said, ‘Who were all those people?’
‘Oh, just friends of mine. Come here, I’ll show you.’ He brought me over to the fridge and named the people in the photos. ‘That’s Astragal…Azazel…Baal, he’s a riot…Choronzon…and that is Baphomet.’ His finger dallied on a winged figure slouched at the edge of the picture. ‘Beautiful, isn’t she?’
I shrugged. ‘If you go for green skin and yellow eyes, I suppose.’
‘She and I have been hitting it off quite well lately,’ he said airily; then, registering my indifference, he nudged me. ‘Come on, let’s go and have some fun.’
He was in high spirits. After a particularly impressive bout of cheating at marbles, during which he repeatedly sent himself back in time so he could jump out from behind himself, he turned his attention to the cows. ‘Look at these poor chumps,’ he said. ‘Standing in their stupid field day after day. They have no idea how wonderful life can be.’
‘They look happy enough,’ I said.
‘We need to teach these cows how to enjoy themselves,’ he said thoughtfully.
I was about to ask him what he meant when, at the far end of the field, I noticed one of the cows was hovering ten feet off the ground.
‘What are you doing?’ I said warily.
‘I’m not doing anything,’ the Devil insisted, as the first cow’s comrades slowly joined it in mid-air. They were uncertain at first, but then they really took to it, swooping about, buzzing the hedgerows, filling the sky with their joyful mooing. One more ambitious cow attempted to loop the loop; until you’ve seen a cow loop the loop, in my opinion, you haven’t really lived. After that he turned us both invisible, and brought us up the hill where my parents were studying the rock formations. ‘Watch this,’ he whispered. Suddenly my dad stood bolt upright; then he hunched down again; then he jumped up, as if he’d been stung, and called my mother’s name. ‘Gold!’ he cried. ‘Gold!’
‘Where? Where?’ my mother gasped, hurrying over.
My father hunkered down, frowning at the ground. ‘That’s weird,’ he said. Then my mother clutched his arm. ‘What’s that glinting over there?’
We bit our lips to stop ourselves from exploding with laughter.
I was still laughing about it the next morning when I called to his cottage. The Devil answered the door in his dressing gown, though it wasn’t early; he agreed to come and play marbles, but his cheating was curiously lacklustre and he seemed more interested in his phone.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ I demanded when his apathetic play and constant sighing got annoying.
‘Nothing,’ he said, checking his phone.
‘Are you expecting a call?’
‘No,’ he said, but then added: ‘What kind of signal are you getting here? I don’t think my phone’s getting a signal.’
‘Do you want me to try calling you?’
I dialled his number, and he gazed with mounting joy at the phone as it lay inert in his hand – then his face fell, as it began to buzz.
‘Who’s supposed to be calling?’ I asked. ‘Is it that girl with the green skin?’
‘Baphomet,’ he said morosely.
‘Maybe she’s busy,’ I said.
‘Oh, she’s busy all right,’ he said. ‘She’s a succubus.’ Noting my blank expression, he gave me a comprehensive explanation of what this entailed.
‘Oh,’ I said faintly, lowering myself onto a tree-stump.
‘So you see,’ he concluded gloomily, ‘at any given time I’m sharing her with like ten other guys.’
After that day, not a marble was thrown, not a single cow levitated. Whatever this Baphomet had done to him, all the Devil wanted to do now was moon about his cottage – either staring hopelessly out the window, or throwing the sofa cushions around in a rage, shouting lines of Paradise Lost, which he knew by heart.
As for me, I was totally out of my depth. With no experience in matters of the heart, I could do little more than make him cups of hot chocolate, and listen to his lengthy enumerations of Baphomet’s virtues, which in most people would have been considered pretty serious vices.
‘Why don’t you call her?’ I ventured at one point.
‘Me? Call her?’
‘Well why not?’
‘What is wrong with you?’
‘It’s just a suggestion.’
‘Me call her,’ he repeated, disgustedly.
‘There must be something you can do.’
‘There isn’t! There just isn’t!’ He got up and went to the stereo and put on Tracks of My Tears for the millionth time.
His heartache was exhausting to be around, and my inability to help made it even worse. When the time came for my family to pack up and return home, I found myself experiencing a strange mixture of guilt and relief.
‘So you’re just going to abandon me, is that it? Like everybody else.’
‘I have to go back to school.’
‘What if I kill myself?’
‘You can’t kill yourself,’ I said. ‘You’re the Devil.’
This observation didn’t seem to cheer him up at all. On the contrary, I left him with his head in his arms, beating his fists on the table. The next year we took our holidays in France, and it was a long time before I heard from the Devil again.
Ten years passed. I grew up and went to college; my parents retired and moved to an island in the South Pacific to study the volcanoes. Although I’d vowed to myself, that last day in West Cork, to avoid it at all costs, by now I’d had a few more personal run-ins with love. My last girlfriend, Jennifer, was beautiful but intensely religious, and wanted us to ‘wait’. Sometimes I’d try and change her mind with one of the Devil’s speeches about living for the moment; she would listen patiently and then peck me on the cheek and tell me she’d be late for her seminar. If I wanted to live for the moment, she implied, I would have to do so by myself.
One rainy April evening, just after seven, the buzzer of my apartment sounded. I went out to the step and there he was. He hadn’t aged a day; if anything, he looked younger than ever, except for his eyes, which described a decade spent toiling through continents, paying court to the greedy and desperate, hustling the same base fantasies that were the best a never-learning humanity could come up with – that jaded look that comes from trading in dreams.
‘What the f— is this s—t?’ he said, looking around my dingy apartment.
‘I’m a student,’ I told him.
‘That’s useful,’ he said.
Now that we had caught up to his satisfaction, he came promptly to his point. Did I remember Baphomet? Of course, I said. He told me that after years of silent yearning he had at last confessed his feelings to her. It had not been a success. First she laughed. Now she was avoiding him. She wouldn’t even return his calls. ‘She kept telling me she wasn’t ready for a long-term relationship,’ he said, honking his nose into a handkerchief. ‘I mean she’s ten billion years old. How long do I have to wait?’
I was surprised to hear he was still obsessed with her after all this time, but I supposed time for him was not at a premium; he had all eternity to indulge his fascinations. In some ways I could see her point. ‘You’re both career people. You travel a lot. It’s hard to maintain a serious relationship if you’re spending all that time apart. Not to mention the nature of your work. Love doesn’t always sit well with, you know, the all-consuming pursuit of Evil.’
He folded his hands on the crown of his head and exhaled slowly. ‘Well that’s just it,’ he said. He explained that since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the corresponding ascent of free-market capitalism, increasing numbers of people had been selling their souls to each other, bypassing him altogether. ‘Effectively, the whole thing’s been privatised,’ he said. Given that the greater part of his work was being done for him, he wondered whether the time hadn’t come for him to get out of the game.
‘Out of the game? And do what?’
‘This is what I’m saying. I could settle down. Live a normal life.’
‘I thought you hated normal life,’ I said, remembering his harsh words to the cows.
‘Not your kind of normal life,’ he said irritably, waving at the grungy apartment. ‘I’d be with Baphomet.’
Warning bells went off in my head, but all I said was, ‘Baphomet doesn’t feel the same way?’
‘Oh, she’s obsessed with her work. But her situation’s exactly the same! Look out your window. You think to tempt men from the path of rightness and drain them of their sexual energy you need a designated full-time staff anymore? Modern life does all that for you! The Western world is basically one big succubus. She could quit tomorrow and no one would even notice. But she just won’t accept that times have changed.’
‘So what does that have to do with me?’ I said at last.
Immediately he was all business. ‘She won’t listen to me, but what about a disinterested third party?’ he said. ‘She’s so concerned about work – what if it’s her actual work that turns around and says, thanks but no thanks? Believe me, that would really make a succubus stop and think.’
He told me that Baphomet was currently ‘working the area’. She tended to concentrate on clerics, saints, people whose minds should be on other things, but if I agreed, he would slip me onto her client roster (‘we share a secretary,’ he explained). When she visited me, I would astonish her by rejecting her advances. Then I would subtly lead her around to thinking about alternatives to her current way of life. ‘Tell her she’s too good for that damn business! Tell her there are people out there who’re ready to make a serious commitment to her! Who could make her happy. That sort of thing.’
It didn’t sound like much of a plan. Nobody – man, woman or demon – likes to be told they are obsolete. Even if she accepted that she’d been supplanted by technology, from what he’d told me about her, Baphomet didn’t sound, to put it as politely as possible, like the ‘settling down’ type. And what about him? Could he really spend the rest of eternity with her – in a corner of the field, so to speak, chewing the cud? The whole enterprise seemed a vainglorious folly that would collapse the moment you set foot in it. Yet surely he knew this. He was the Devil! Vainglorious follies were his stock in trade. He must have some angle, I thought; he must be counting the cards, he must have spotted some flaw in the system, by which he could make this work.
A few nights later, I stayed up late studying the Romantics, those troubled souls who had struggled so heroically, so hopelessly against their own narcissism. When I went to bed, I quickly found myself lost in a dream, in which I was pinned to my bed by a demon. She had green skin and yellow eyes and was sublimely beautiful: at the same time her talons, her wings, the capacity of her body for terrible cruelty, gave this beauty an extra, intoxicating dimension. She went about her work, stripping back the sheets first and then my clothing, whispering to me wordlessly that none of this was real, it didn’t matter, there was no need to resist…
It was with some difficulty that I fended her off me, and sat up in the bed.
‘What?’ she said, blinking. ‘This never happens.’
Anyone who’s woken up with a demon straddling them will know that it’s not the easiest thing in the world just to strike up a conversation. But I tried, nevertheless. ‘So you must be a succubus,’ I said, adjusting my pyjamas.
‘Obviously,’ she snapped, clearly vexed at having her work interrupted.
‘I’ve always wanted to meet a succubus,’ I said.
‘Well, this is your lucky night.’
‘Can I get you a drink, or – ?’
‘Silence,’ she commanded. She pushed me down onto the bed, stroked my eyelids shut and whispered to me, ‘Abandon yourself to pleasure.’
I cleared my throat, wriggled out from under her, clambered off the bed. ‘It’s just that I’m actually a little bit thirsty,’ I said.
‘I will sate your thirst and your every other desire.’
‘Mmm,’ I said apathetically.
‘I will bring you release so extraordinary you will forget who you are.’
‘Well, why don’t we have a drink first,’ I said, ‘and then we can decide what we’re doing.’
I went to the cupboard, while she glowered back at me from the roiled sheets. Her red eyes were quite intimidating, and her long tail bobbed incessantly behind her, more like a familiar than a part of her body, ‘So!’ I said, presenting her with a tumbler of wine and then retreating to a safe distance. ‘You’re a succubus! That must be an interesting job?’
She threw back her wine, and then crunched the glass for good measure, staring at me with her red eyes. ‘I take the filthiest fantasies from the darkest corner of the heart and paint them in sweat on your bedsheets,’ she said.
‘Right,’ I said. ‘And you’ve been doing that for long?’
‘A hundred million nights,’ she replied, ‘of almost unbearable pleasure.’ She drew herself up on her knees, and her magnificent torso jutted out like the gates of Paradise. I hurried down another slug of wine and averted my eyes. I was finding it difficult to concentrate on my task. She really was a very attractive woman. Her forceful tone, her faint redolence of brimstone, that magnificent pistachio-ice-cream-coloured skin, when you took it all together it really cast a spell on you –
‘A hundred million nights,’ I squeaked, catching hold of myself. ‘That’s a long time.’
She made no reply to this. I noticed a long rent in the bedsheet where she was clasping it and unclasping it between her talons.
‘And you don’t get bored?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘No, I’d have to say I never get bored.’
‘Because from one perspective,’ I said, ‘I mean, you know, here’s you, this beautiful, intelligent, immortal creature, just…bouncing around with all these different men…’
‘What are you getting at?’ She drew back, eyeing me suspiciously.
‘Some people might find it a little…empty,’ I said, as delicately as I could.
‘Empty?’ she repeated. ‘Empty?’ Tendrils of her hair rose snake-like to hiss around her head. ‘After the raptures I purvey, worldly pleasures are as scraps from the table! To enter my body is to stare into beauty’s own sun!’
‘I’m just wondering if you ever feel like it’s time to settle down,’ I said.
The hissing tresses and whipping tail froze: she stared at me for a long moment, her eyes turning from red to black. Then she half-jumped, half-flew off the bed. I covered my face, but she went right past me, over to a handbag I hadn’t noticed before. From this she took a printout, read it, then turned back on me. ‘You’re not the Archbishop of Fontenoy!’
I babbled out excuses, but she’d already worked it out. ‘Satan put you up to this, didn’t he,’ she exclaimed, with a kind of mock-triumph. ‘I should have known! Nobody wants a drink first!’
I hung my head, while Baphomet swore and stormed around the room, her great wings beating furiously, sending gusts of charred air to pummel the curtains and rustle behind the posters on the wall. Finally she hoved up at my desk, plunking herself in the chair and lighting a cigarette.
‘He gave you this too, I suppose,’ she said, picking up a book on the Romantics. ‘His little gang.’
I told her I was studying their poetry; I had my finals in a couple of weeks, I said.
‘Poetry,’ she repeated derisively, and sucking hard on the cigarette, she began to flick through the book. ‘Byron. I could tell you some things about him. And his flaky sister. Always trying to get me into her room. Those two just did not stop.’ Pages turned; the coal of her cigarette glowed in the murky dreamlight. ‘Keats, though. He was like you, he only ever wanted to talk. Used to call me his Muse. Asked me to wear togas, and talk Greek to him.’ She sighed, closed the book, held it away from her in order to gaze melancholically at the cover, like a mother with a picture of a child who has since gone astray. ‘In retrospect, this is when it all went wrong,’ she said. ‘When he went native.’
I guessed she was talking about the Devil, but I didn’t say anything.
‘You’d never think someone who’d seen as many souls up close would be interested in acquiring his own. It’s like a pest exterminator deciding he wants to live in an anthill.’ After a moment she added glumly, ‘And bring me with him.’
‘He says he wants to get out of the game,’ I said.
‘The game is all he has.’
‘He’s in love with you.’
She laughed exotically, twists of smoke interbraiding with the writhing of her tail. ‘Love! You know he practically invented that? With the help of your friends there.’ She nodded at the book on the desk.
‘I know it sounds crazy,’ I persisted. ‘But he seems serious about it. He says he’s ready to make a real commitment.’
‘Commitment,’ she repeated. ‘Settling down. Holidays in Ireland, dinners in unimaginative, middle-of-the-road restaurants – do you think he’d actually appreciate any of that?’
‘Well if he got out of his contract he might,’ I said. ‘Because there wouldn’t be that clause, stopping him from enjoying things.’
‘The clause?’ she repeated, smiling at me.
I gazed back at her stupidly.
‘Have you ever heard the famous paradox,’ she said conversationally, ‘“Everything I say to you is a lie?” Imagine if you were that person. Imagine how hard it would be to work out what you wanted.’ She turned to the window, outside which glaucous swirls of fog coiled and uncoiled. ‘But I know what he wants. He’s like any other man. They think they want love. But really they’re all banging on Daddy’s door, begging to be let back in.’ She extinguished her cigarette in the palm of her hand. ‘A girl picks things up after ten billion years,’ she said.
‘Couldn’t you try it, at least? Just to see? How could it hurt?’
‘How could it hurt?’ she repeated to herself. She rose to her feet. She towered over me. She caressed my cheek with a talon. ‘Little boys,’ she said. Then soundlessly, she turned to smoke, and hurtled up the chimney.
It was some months later that a parcel arrived from Switzerland with a brief, unusually effusive letter from the Devil inside, thanking me for making him ‘a very happy man’. He said that he and Baphomet were renting an apartment together in Lausanne; she was working freelance for the Paris fashion monthlies, while he pursued a trade in carpentry, a long-time hobby of his. There was a photo of the two of them by the lakeside, the Devil smiling goofily with his arm around his girlfriend, she staring coolly into the camera. Also enclosed was a spice rack he had built, a reward for my small part in bringing them together.
By that time I’d graduated from college and started interning at a publishing house; this is where I met Christine, who is now my wife. Voltaire – another sometime resident of Lausanne – called marriage ‘the only adventure open to the cowardly’. It’s certainly provided all the excitement I could need, and more. We have two children, Lucy and Tom: watching them grow up fascinates me, the transformation from helpless pink blobs into mysterious and complex personalities they’ve made up all by themselves.
Baphomet was right: this wasn’t the kind of adventure the Devil was looking for. The two of them split up after less than a year, and threw themselves with redoubled vigour into their former careers. Having got what he wanted, he no longer wanted it: it was an old story, one he’d traded on for thousands of years. The mystery was that he’d expected anything different. Maybe he simply wanted to be on the other side of the bargain for once – to be the dope signing away his soul for a grand illusion, instead of the guy who knew the ugly truth. Maybe he just wanted to want, like people do.
It must be hard not to procrastinate when you’re immortal; it must be hard not to put off the lessons life’s trying to teach you for some other time when you’re more in the mood. After Baphomet, he embarked on a string of tempestuous affairs – with a well-known Hollywood actress, a Slavic princess-contortionist, and latterly a sweet-hearted girl composed entirely of mercury from the spiral nebula of Andromeda.
Sometimes, in between girlfriends, he’ll come and stay with us. He likes it here: he gets on well with Christine, as he does with all women, and he loves playing with the kids, who share his anarchic spirit and boundless capacity for destruction. He makes no secret of his loneliness: he is always quoting self-aggrandising bits of Paradise Lost to me –
In solitude, what happiness? Who can enjoy alone,
Or all enjoying, what contentment find?
But when I try to talk him round – suggest, for example, that he could have a life like this, if he were willing to accept the compromises – he will merely grimace, or make a smart remark: ‘When you’re a cow, I’m sure that grass tastes pretty good.’
I can see his point. Why keep to one corner of the field, when you can be the whole sky over it? Why be content with a single life, when you can dictate the dreams of a multitude? Why tie yourself to a person or place that will finally fail you, when you can live for the moment, endlessly changing, endlessly interesting, forever taking on irresistible new shapes? But the moment tends only to have room for one.
He’s in the house right now, for Lucy’s sixth birthday party. In the living room they’re playing musical chairs. If I listen closely, I can hear his hoofbeats mixed up with the feet of the children as they dance in a circle, round and round. The song is Smokey Robinson’s Tracks of My Tears, the same one he played repeatedly in the rainy cottage all those years ago. I wonder if he remembers, if the memory will catch him off guard as he’s planning how best to cheat. The music freezes, a moment out of time; I picture the kids charging for the chairs, and the Devil lost in the scramble, out of the game again.
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THE THINGS WE LOSE, THE THINGS WE LEAVE BEHIND by BILLY O’CALLAGHAN (From The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind New Island)
A mile outside the village, I pause to watch four boys kicking an orange plastic football around a field. Through a heckle of laughter and calls to attention, young legs battle the tangle of long grass, the ball looping from one to another to another with hardly a pause, their play dictated by some pattern or set of rules that is far beyond my comprehension but which seems to make perfect sense to them. They look happy, and I try to recall how it had been for me at that age, when I too was full of running and careless as to my direction, but my old world and this one now seem like vastly different breeds of the same beast.
Our pasts pool around our ankles, dragging at every forward step we take, but it doesn’t do to dwell too deeply on what has gone before, even if we sometimes use those past events to explain or excuse the things we’ve done. So much has happened to me here, enough to chase me away, enough to call me back.
I watch until the boys become aware of my presence, then I raise a hand in salute. “Grand day, lads.”
The boy who has killed the game moves a few paces closer and stops, hands on hips, ball pinned beneath one foot. He studies me while chewing the innards of his lower lip, his head inclined ever so slightly to the left and his eyes pinched nearly shut in resistance against the washed-out glare of an April sun. He is all worn edges and scuffed knees, and his yellow hair has the same shorn, bristled look as the fields after the hay has been taken in. Short in stature and a shade too thin, perhaps, but still just right for a child of his age – seven going on for eight, if the signs match the facts. Short because it is not yet his time to stand tall, thin from so much running.
“You lost, mister?” he asks, after a minute or so has passed. It is only the middle of the day and there is no need to hurry.
The others mutter their amusement at his question and I, for my part, feel obliged to break open a smile, but suddenly I have a lump in my throat that makes it difficult to swallow. I shake my head.
“No, boy. I’m not lost. No one can get lost on an island of this size. Out here you can see every direction coming. For real lost, you’d want to try a city. Dublin isn’t bad, London is better still. Best of all is New York.”
“You’ve been to New York?” asks one of the other boys, in a small husk of a voice that pokes up out of the pack and which knows all there is to know about the ocean, even at such a tender age. Boys grow up hard on islands.
“I have,” I say, “and believe me, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
The lead boy rolls his foot off the ball, drawing it up into the air. He shows me his tricks, which play out as a slow but stately magic, even in the long grass. Needing, for some reason, to impress me. His control is not perfect but his put-on swagger of confidence more than makes up for that fact, and when the ball slips loose of its invisible leash he shapes his face so as to pass the mistake off as intentional. It spins away but he doesn’t chase it, not even with his eyes.
“You need directions to somewhere?”
Age is such a conceptual thing. Eight-year-old mouths can shape ancient expressions just as easily as they can chew gum. Boys long to be men, to say and do the things that men can say and do. Men, meanwhile, waste years of life on dreams of childish things.
I shake my head again, and wonder if he knows who I am, if he has at all sensed a suggestion of the bond that once bound us so fast. No matter. I recognise him even if he fails to recognise me. I suddenly long to use his name, to feel it from my own mouth. Jack. Spoken as a brazen sigh, put out for the whole island to hear and contemplate. A word for the wind, and an acknowledgement of sorts. Or an admission. Jack. But I can’t. When a man walks away from his infant son, he gives up all claims in that direction.
“That’s all right, lad,” I say, forcing my tone to steadiness. “I think I know the way well enough. Why don’t you boys get back to your game.”
There is a murmur of breeze, a teasing first glimpse of summer carrying the smell of the ocean on its breath. Hands in pockets, I move on up the road. Being back is hard to take, almost as hard as knowing that I will soon be gone again. I walk slowly, at the pace this place demands, and I know that if I were to turn, I’d find the boys still grouped together in the field, watching me. They know who belongs here on this island and they know how to recognise tourists. Fitting neither category quite right, I have triggered confusion.
The only difference in six years is the fresh coat of whitewash. Six years. Christ. Standing here now, it feels impossible that so much time has passed. Time should change things, really change them, not merely tug at the seams. Since the day I left I have held a picture of this place in my mind, a matted image that hardly deviates from any of the hundred such scenic postcards that they peddle to the tourists in every seaside town and village up and down the country. A small farmhouse cottage set back from the twist of dirt road, its thatched roof touched up with season after season of newly cut reeds and always keeping to just the right side of a sunken abyss. And five or so acres back beyond the cottage, the land finally rolls away, collapsing down into the jagged spokes of shale that rake the sea. A huge cloak of sky completes the picture, a sky always working, from minute to minute moiling to churn out yet more new tricks of the light, now the glare of a tilted looking-glass, now the deception of smoke. The ocean today is calm, another April lie in a place that has practiced such skill to perfection.
Tommy is in the kitchen, sitting hunched over in a hard chair with his elbows resting on his knees and his hands laced together in a prayerful grip. He looks up when I come to the back door but his eyes have the watery resonance of a dream and it takes him a moment to register my presence as something real. Then he rises slowly but not quite fully, courtesy of the hard-won lumbar kink that keeps him off-balance and constantly at odds, and by way of greeting he offers a hand that is nothing but rags and sticks. I come inside and sit at the table and he finds a bottle in the cupboard by the range.
I have known Tommy all my life, and I have known him as a father-in-law since the age of nineteen. We have plenty to talk about, but for a while it is easier just to sit and drink. The whiskey is a brand name type, nothing special, the stuff they make in big factories and sell in every licensed premises in Ireland, but here in this kitchen it takes on new properties. I can taste the flavours of the island filtering up through the heat, and stones grate inside my throat. Not molten lava, but certainly blazing dust. The old transistor radio in the corner is skipping out a fiddled reel that seems without beginning or end but the station is slipping in and out of tune in a way that brings a wonderful and priceless sense of distortion to the piece. A happy accident, like so many of the best things in the world.
“So,” he says, at last. “Where’d you end up, then?”
I’m not sure why I have to think about the answer, but I do. “America,” I say, when I can. “New York first, then some other places. But one is much the same as the next until you give up on the cities.” My voice sounds unfamiliar to me, and feels worse. The tone has dropped a notch, and become airy. It takes the better part of a minute for me to recognise the fact that we are conversing in Irish. Old words and older ways, ways that I have long since put aside.
He nods at what I have told him, sucks down the whiskey in his glass and dashes off a refill. I hold my hand across the mouth of my glass to indicate that I’m fine for the moment, that I want to take things slowly, but he waits with the bottle until I give up and then he pours anyway. I try not to stare but can’t help myself. And I see that I was wrong in my earlier assumptions of time and its effects. Six years might not have touched the rocks and the dirt of this island, but people are not rocks and dirt. Time has all but torn Tommy asunder. His face is a ruin of years hard spent. Ashamed of the part I have played in making those marks, I want nothing more than to turn away, to lower my eyes, hide myself among the kitchen’s thickening shadows, maybe to run again and this time never look back. But I owe him more than that.
“You got my letter?”
“I did. A week back. I’d just about given up expecting you.”
“It’s been a while, all right. I never meant to stay away so long.”
He recognises the lie and drops his gaze.
The kitchen looks the same now as it did when I first sat here. Same furniture, same worn paper on the walls, same curtains on the window. But such sameness only serves to emphasise all that has been lost. Without discussing the matter, we decide to give the whiskey a bit of a beating. I have a bad stomach and hardly touch the stuff anymore. But I’m not at all sure that I can bear to sit in this house without the sustenance of something strong. I suppose Tommy feels the same way, at least today.
“I was sorry to hear about Bess.”
He smiles at that, a nice, heartbroken ache of a smile that widens his eyes. “I know, boy.”
“She was a good woman.”
“The best,” he says, then pulls again at the whiskey in his glass. “And she was always fond of you. But it was an ease to her, in the end. The other thing had her eaten away. By the end, you’d have been hard pushed to even recognise her from the woman she once was. It’s a terrible waste, having to watch something like that happen to someone who was always so strong.”
“How long has it been, now?”
“It’ll be two years come June.” He empties his glass and looks at me, and I am shocked again to see the surface for what it truly is, a cracked and crumbling façade. “I’ll tell you, Bill. If it wasn’t for the boy, I don’t know how I’d have coped.”
Big subjects lie between us like shards of glass. Neither of us wants an argument, so we tread lightly, but the words prove difficult to come by and when spoken don’t seem nearly enough to cover all that needs saying. The picture of the Sacred Heart hangs crooked on the wall beside the window. That picture was crooked when I first entered this house, the better part of ten years ago now, to ask Elizabeth if she might like to come out for a walk along the shore with me. And it was crooked, too, on the day I left, the day I turned my back on all the sorrows and the joys and walked out, with England in my sights but America very much on my mind. Elizabeth was already gone by then, in the toughest way imaginable, her grave on the stony hillside marked by a name half-mine chiselled into rock and buried to a great depth. Yet everywhere I turned I could see her, every voice I heard shifted with her own musical timbre. America lay a full huge ocean away, and I wanted to believe that would be more than far enough for escape. But it was not. Home can be like a disease. It gets in your blood and poisons everything; it’s with you in every heartbeat, hammering away until finally you have no choice but to give in. You have to come home. And this land has a way of paralysing time, because out here all you really see is rock and ocean and sky, elements that keep a count in aeons rather than years. What was real back then seems just as real now, and you have to dig deep beneath the ancient veneer before that illusion comes apart.
I clear my throat but my voice, when it comes, feels as if it belongs to someone else.
“How is he?”
“Jack? He’s grand. He’s good as gold.”
Tommy licks his mouth, bunches his chin in a way that squeezes up his face, the pasty flesh rippling and then holding its folds. He is thinking of something that won’t be shared, and a softness turns his mouth and sets his eyes to glistening. Outside, the sky is doing something new to the light. The sun has slipped behind the fringe of western cloud. The colours feel too raw to be natural but the salt-flecked window frames a scene that is undeniably immaculate to a painterly eye.
The boy enters the house at a run, draws up with an audible gasp when he sees me. By now, the kitchen is swamped in twilight, and I recall such moments as these from the springtime days of my own childhood, the few minutes when night feels close but not yet quite here and it is still too soon to think of sparking awake the lantern. Of course, these days it will be the electric light, but the sense remains the same. A groggy dusk but a most comfortable pocket in the day, time enough to take a breath, maybe to whisper a prayer for those still wandering out beyond the walls and beyond the waves, the lost ones.
“Hello again.” This time I mean the smile I wear, but its edges still feel anxious.
Jack glances around, then studies me carefully. “Hello,” he says, after a long hesitation. “Again.”
I’m not sure what to say because I’m not sure how much he knows about the way things are. I find myself wishing for Tommy to act as our buffer, but he is outside, drawing water from the pump. “Good day for a game of football,” I say. “Did you win?”
Jack shrugs his shoulders. “There’s no winning or losing, it wasn’t that sort of game. We didn’t have enough players for a proper match.” He considers sitting, decides against it. I feel like I can read the careworn jumble of his thoughts. “You know my granddad?”
“I ought to, since I’m sitting here drinking his whiskey.” I widen my smile, trying to keep things light between us. But he still looks uncertain.
“Why didn’t you say something earlier? About where you were going, I mean? I could have walked up with you.”
“You had your game, and a sunny day. You had no business being cooped up with us, listening while we rattled our teeth about things from long ago. You’d have been bored stupid.”
He should be nothing like I remember. At his age, six years is as good as a lifetime. Details sharpen and wane, hair changes colour with the sun, and running picks away every ounce of fat even as eating piles it on. The fact that, back in the field, I had been able to pick him out from the scuffed pack of others doesn’t seem quite right, somehow. He should have been just another stranger who happened across my path, but he wasn’t. And now, this close and with nothing to distract, I can’t help noticing that the way he squares his jaw was the way Elizabeth squared hers whenever she was trying to be strong in the face of something troubling. Or that he has her eyes, her shade of green that is nearly grey, a peculiarly coastal shade of eye, mirroring the sea but only at a certain dying moment of the day, when the light has been mostly sucked out of the sky and the surface turns reflective, hiding its greater depths. I see the details of Elizabeth in him, and if I just consider the nose or the little crooked corner of that mouth, I will see details of myself there, too. But I know when to look away. It is the pretence that keeps this house of cards upright, and denial becomes easier with practice. Anyone who has ever run more than two steps worth of escape understands that.
In many ways, I can’t quite believe he is standing here before me. I have thought of him often, of course, wallowing in my guilt beyond the tuck of its pain, picturing him as he once was, an arm’s worth of flesh all sleeping smiles and wise, familiar eyes, and then imagining how he might have been with every passing year. But time’s wicked trick was to make him seem less real to me, somehow, more a thing of dreams than blood and bone.
“I’m starving,” he says, at last, and twisting away into the shadows he finds a large knife in the cutlery drawer and proceeds to cut himself a doorstop slice of soda bread. Not the baby that I had rocked to sleep or tickled to hear him squeal with laughter, but already halfway towards being a man. He uses the same knife to cut a wedge of butter.
“We don’t get many visitors,” he tells me, over his shoulder. He takes a bite. “Actually, we don’t get any. I’d say you’re the first. Ever.”
A pot of stew has been simmering away on the range. Another feature of my younger days, part of the smell of this cottage, the scent of onions and thyme and the thick chunks of mutton filtering into the aura of the room. About an hour after my arrival, Tommy had dropped some potatoes into the pot.
“You’ll destroy your appetite,” I say, just for something to take the edge out of Jack’s comment. “We’ll be eating dinner soon.”
He looks at me again, for longer than is comfortable, even with the dusk thickening walls between us. I get the sense that he is studying me too, matching details as I had done. Then he takes another bite of soda bread, chews it with a daring that will probably stoke a heap of trouble for him in years to come but which clearly makes up a big part of who he is. I’m responsible for that chip on his shoulder.
The night passes in snatches, the essences of sleep and wakefulness so diluting one another that in short order they become two sides of the same tarnished and constantly spinning coin. After the sickly gloaming of those half-nights in the cities, this darkness feels absolute. Riptides of memory claw at my mind, and I toss and turn in the old bed and try to ignore the ghosts that whisper reminders of late-hour embraces and last broken breaths. The dreams, when they come, are time trips that deepen and dissolve, and then I am back again into the waking pit, gasping at the turgid air. I tell myself that it’s the whiskey, but it’s not.
A little after five, I hear movement, the croak of a floorboard, outside my bedroom door. Five minutes later I am dressed and sitting at the kitchen table. The electric light now feels like an almighty gift, as would anything that can so completely dispel the predawn heft. Tommy boils a kettle of water for tea, lays a few strips of bacon in a pan. I sit there and watch his shuffled moves as he tends to his business, and decide that this sort of hour does no one any favours. He wears yesterday’s clothes, the same as I do, but everything seems ill-fitting on him. Braces hold up his trousers, his heavy grey shirt is only partially buttoned. Worse, his salt and pepper hair spools wildly from the back of his head, giving him the wizened look of the truly infirmed.
“Can I do anything?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer, maybe fails to hear, and I leave it at that. Lard spatters and crackles in the pan, and the heat of the range chases away whatever little chill the early morning might carry.
We eat mostly in silence. The food won’t be mistaken for gourmet, but the bacon tastes the way it should and the egg yolks run when cut apart. I’m not hungry but that’s of no consequence. Here on the island, food takes on the qualities of a ritual, another of the many duties to be fulfilled. Tommy wipes his plate clean with a piece of buttered bread, chews it thoughtfully and then sits back in his chair.
“So,” he says, barely loud enough for me to hear. “Is this about something?”
For a moment, I am lost.
“Your visit, I mean.”
I shake my head, no. “It’s like I said in the letter. I just had an urge to come home. Elizabeth’s anniversary seemed as good an excuse as any. And I suppose I wanted to see the boy.” The heat of the tea in my mouth should feel better than it does. Confession has never sat well with me.
“And that’s all?”
I meet Tommy’s glare, then avert my eyes in surrender. “That’s all.”
“Because he wouldn’t want to go, you know. Even if that was what you had in mind. He doesn’t even know you. And I’d nail him to the floor before I’d let you take him out of here. So help me Christ, I would. This is where he belongs.”
Outside the window, the darkness is splitting. Dawn isn’t far off but it is more of a feeling than anything else, and there’s little proof yet to the eyes.
“I didn’t come to take him, Tommy. That’s not what this is about. He’d like America for about ten minutes. It’s nothing like here, believe me. And besides, I know he’s not mine to take, not anymore. It’s just that, well, after all this time I had lost the picture of him in my mind. I wanted to see him, that’s all. And I needed to come home, just to see that there’s still such a place.”
Tommy stares at me, reading the rest of my story in silence. Then it is his turn to look away. It’s been probably three or four days since he last bothered to shave, and the blue-white dusting of stubble gives him a look of wild horses and wind-battered sails. Tourists would pay hard-won cash for a picture of a face so full of character. He smiles at something and I know that a memory has broken slowly across his bow. I wait for him to share the thought, but he doesn’t, and it’s not my place to push.
Minutes pass. We drink more tea and watch the window fill with sullen grey.
“He’s all questions, you know. I can see them, piled up high in his head. They wrinkle his brow and age him fifty years. But he never asks, not when it comes to serious business. In a few days he might mention something in passing but he’s never outright with it. He’s bright as a buttercup, that boy. Takes his time on things, figures them out. Does it properly. He understands, I suppose, that if I want him to know something, I’ll tell him.”
“Does he know about Elizabeth? How she died, I mean?”
“Some. Not the details, though. Bessie told him things, over the years. Made a story out of it and filled in a few of the blanks, softened it up. Going on about a mother’s love, and how there are all kinds of sicknesses. For now, that’s enough. If he ever asks for more, I suppose I’ll tell him, but I doubt it will ever come to that.”
We sit until the silence becomes too much, and we are stuck in the same direction. Then Tommy stands with a groan and gathers the plates, leaving the cups. It is early, and we’ll drink a lot more tea yet before the time comes for me to catch the ferry. He scrapes what little waste there is, the bacon rinds and a few crusts of bread, into a small bin, and lowers the plates into a large yellow plastic basin so that they can soak for a couple of hours. Watching his back, I lift an envelope from inside my shirt. Whenever I had money, they had money too; when I was on my heels they got by without. Lately, I’ve been doing okay. I have learned the hard way that money only tunes the material world, but it does hold a few keys and I do what I can to help. Making a small difference is still making a difference. I set the envelope in the middle of the table then stand and try to stretch out the knot between my shoulders that has become so familiar of late. It shifts a little but not far.
“Sun’s coming up,” I say, in a thoughtful tone that doesn’t encourage an answer, but it’s my excuse to step outside, to gaze westward at the sloe-coloured ocean lying pinned beneath the last of night and to feel another dawn peeling open at my shoulder. The darkness feels tempered, and crumbles by degrees even in those few moments.
Back in the kitchen, Tommy is sitting again and the envelope is nowhere in sight. We drink tea until I am sick of the taste of it, and then we keep drinking to fill up the time. There is no more, really, to be said. I have a question that I want to ask, whether or not Tommy has any idea why Elizabeth did what she did, but that question is always in my mind, always, and I know better than to cut it loose. Instead I ask him to tell me how Jack is doing at school, and how he is in general, and I lean forward with my elbows on the table and make sure to absorb every word of reply. Tommy talks with ease, now that I am no longer a threat to the world that he has been holding together.
“Do you think he knows who I am?” I ask, when I have heard everything else. He is becoming more real to me now, the boy, my son, the added colours making all the difference.
Tommy shrugs. “Hard to know. As I’ve said, he’s a bright boy, but deep. He chews on things. I give him all the room he needs.”
“Does he ever ask about me, at all? I mean, you know, who his father was, that sort of thing.”
“Sometimes, we will be doing something. Mending nets, say, or getting the boat ready for the season. He knows his father was a fisherman, and that he was good with his hands. Damn good, in fact. Did you see him watching you, last night? Did you happen to notice him checking out your hands? I doubt he’ll never say so, but he knows. He knows enough, Bill.”
I nod, understanding that I can’t hope for any more than that.
By eight o’clock, I’ve had enough. The ferry is not due to sail until eleven but I make the excuse that there are some things I’d like to do before I leave. I want to walk a while, maybe look in on a few old faces. And I want to stop at the graveyard, pay my respects. Whisper a prayer for all of us, the living and the dead. The old ghosts are waiting.
I shake Jack’s hand, because a hug would be too awkward, even though it is probably something we both want. “So long, boy,” I say, hoping in my heart that it’s not goodbye. He clenches his mouth and nods, then goes to sit in the corner. Tommy looks at him for a moment, then follows me outside.
We walk out onto the road. “It’s been good seeing you, Bill,” he says. “Take care of yourself, you hear?”
My throat hurts from tears that are near but trying not to fall. Down in the harbour a boat has come in after two or three days at sea. The men, bone-tired, will be gutting and crating their catch for the mainland markets. A breeze blowing in breaths from the east carries the impatient screams of the gulls as they circle and perch in anticipation of the scraps.
“I’ll write,” I say, the best that I can manage, and I slip my hands into my pockets and stroll away, counting the steps so that I won’t look back.
THE DAY THINGS CHANGED by NIAMH O’CONNOR (From If I Was A Child Again – Poolbeg Press)
It is 1979. I am Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz racing through the lanes of our estate on my chopper. A trick-or-treat bag of loot is hanging from the handlebars, and the Scarecrow – my brother Spud – is straddling the crossbar. Toto – Granny’s Jack Russell – sticks his head out the top button of my coat, his bum secured by my coat’s belt. We’ve covered Birches, Cherry Blossoms and Beeches, and have only the cul-de-sacs, Laurels and Fir Trees, to go before we dump the fruit, and head home with what’s left: Sherbet, Cola Bottles, Flogs, and a packet of Rancheros.
Suddenly at the turn in the lane, I see our neighbour, Sinéad Roche, coming straight for us, a witch on boot-skates. I brake and stop.
Sinéad’s got her mam’s handbag over her shoulder like she has to go to the shops for bread or milk, only Sinéad never runs out of bread or milk, because she is an only child.
‘Only children’ collect fancy paper, which is paper with pictures on it, and is too good to write on, so Sinéad keeps hers in an empty biscuit tin, and I wish I was an only child with a whole box of biscuits in front of me that don’t have to be stuffed in my mouth in case my brothers, AJ and Spud and Eskie, get them before me. I tried to save some fancy paper once that I scabbed off Sinéad with a horse’s head on it, but Mam wrote ‘washing-up liquid, soap, cooking oil, veg, sliced pan, mince and eggs’ over the eyes and ears.
Sinéad skids over to the handlebars and halts, using her stoppers, and “You have to go straight home,” she says, and “Eskie’s in an ambulance.”
I know I will never be friends with her again, because of the way she says it, like her knowing before me is more important than just telling me what happened.
But I kind of guess what’s wrong anyway, because yesterday me and Eskie were watching “Spidahman, Spidahman, does whatever a spidah can”, when the TV went all wonky and all you could see was fuzzy snow hopping all over the place. And Eskie kept staring at it and not getting bored, and his eyes didn’t even blink, like he was asleep with his eyes open. I laughed, but Mam got scared.
When we get to Sinéad’s house, her mother fries guggies for us and says, “Eskie had a turn. Does Spud eat eggs at home?” And I answer, “What, are you thick? Everyone knows he doesn’t eat anything except crisps.” No, I don’t. I say, “Yes,” just to see what will happen and she gives him a slap across the back of his head and tells him to “Eat up,” and he lays his shoe right into my shin under the table, the shitehawk. I have to bite my own tongue to stop telling Sinéad’s mam the white of her eggs looks like snots and Mam never hits us.
I didn’t ask her what a turn was, but when Eskie came home from hospital I saw one. I heard Mam upstairs kind of screaming for Dad to come, and he goes belting down the stairs, and Eskie is lying on the floor shaking like mad, and his eyes are going mental and his lip is pumping blood from where he banged it off the door when the turn took him, and Dad comes back up the stairs with the spoon for eating boiled eggs with St Patrick on it. Mam shouts to get her rosary beads off the locker, and Dad shoves me out of the way when I give them to her, even though I’m trying to see how much of St Patrick’s hat is sticking out of Eskie’s mouth to stop him swallowing his tongue.
I must have a short tongue because there’s no way I can swallow mine, and I try all the time in bed even when I think I’m not trying, because it’s my new habit. My old one was bending my fingers back to see if I’m double-jointed.
When I get back out of bed to ask Dad to tuck me in so Jack Frost can’t get me, he says, “Get into the car” and “There’s nobody here to mind you” and “No, there isn’t time to go to Granny’s first,” or even to put my tracker on. Nobody hears me in the car when I say, “I can’t move my legs” in my Bionic Woman in-the-first-episode voice because my skin’s stuck to the car seats in my nightie. The pain makes a game of “Help, my legs are paralysed” though. After that, I have a game of stick my finger out the window because I have turned invisible. If you stick your head out Dad kills you, but he doesn’t know about my little finger, ha ha. Like the only way not to die of boredom when you’re in the yard before roll call is to squeeze your bum in and out. If you talk, or move, múinteoir gives you lines, but he can’t see who’s squeezing their bums at him. All of our class have dimpley bums from doing it after Nigel Doherty invented it. You nearly break your shite laughing if you see somebody else doing it before you think of it.
AJ doesn’t give out that he has to sit in the middle, with me and Spud at the window seats, because he wants to show off to Dad he knows the way to the hospital from getting his verruca cut off, and he leans between Mam and Dad and Eskie’s leg pointing in the air the same direction as St Patrick still stuck in his mouth.
When that game is over I play the toy ads so I don’t have to listen to Mam crying. You know when Christmas is coming because all the toy ads are on the telly. The best ones are the Incredible Hulk doll because you can turn him inside out and he’s not David Banner any more. Spud wants Buckaroo. You put all the things on the donkey’s back and he kicks them off and you lose. AJ wants a BMX bike because they are the best for wheelies. Eskie wants everything he sees. I want a magic kit. Mam always says we will get a surprise. Dear God, it will only be a surprise if it’s a magic kit.
AJ made me want it. He wrapped cling film around his finger and made a hole in a box of Cara to put his blue finger in. Then he opened the box and wiggled. “Abracadabra, hey presto, Geronimo, ladies and gentlemen, I give you a finger without a hand!” “Jesus,” Mam said the first time and her shoulders jumped. Dad killed him for emptying the matches and I think he put a cricket behind our fridge to hum every time we opened it to rob cling film. But it was worth getting into trouble. Like the time AJ invented a competition to see who could pick the biggest lump of rust off Dad’s Fiat 127 without it breaking. It could have been a photo finish with the bit I was getting over the tyre except Eskie ran inside and asked Dad did he want to play. Now AJ holds the world championship for getting a piece as big as his little finger off the boot and there’s no chance of a rematch.
Eskie ruins everything. His real name is Muirtey which is short for Martin, but the fur on his anorak hood makes him look like an Eskimo, Spud said, and it stuck, even though Mam goes mental if she hears us calling him that. Some nights when he thinks Jabbah the Hutt is under the bottom bunk, Mam lets him up the ladder in with me. If he puts his toe-jammy freezing feet near me I go “Eskie, Eskie, Eskie” a million times and he cries because he hates that name, and Mam has to take him in with her. Except for the time he stood on a rusty nail and was allowed to do anything he wanted like one of the Billy Barry kids on the Late Late Toy Show. He got my bunk to himself even after I offered to suck out the poison for a trade, but he wouldn’t let me and what did he do then only wet my bed, and Mam had to put a bin bag under him, and the noise drove me mental all night every time he moved, and I couldn’t even kick my own mattress from underneath.
And another reason I hate him is for always hanging around before I go up the hill in our estate for my Mount Everest game. Sometimes I have to climb that mountain without any brandy if there is an avalanche because of him. Every day, Dad drives down it after work at half five. So I climb Mount Everest to wait for him. When Dad sees me he pulls in and turns off the engine and lets me steer the car down the hill. Mam keeps telling him to be careful, but he says I help him save petrol. I love Dad. If Eskie ever tries to have a go at driving down the hill again I’ll burst him, because of all the petrol he is wasting making us go to the hospital.
I never wanted to go to bed before, but I do in the car park of the hospital. I could put the pillow over my head and Mam wouldn’t be making that noise. She would be singing, “Dona, Dona, Dona, Dona” about the calf on a wagon bound for market and the swallow flying freely in the sky above him and the winds laughing with all their might. We all have our own lullaby. Mam would never sing yours to someone else. They can listen in their room but it’s not for them. The same as when she was pregnant she ate different things for all of us: tongue for AJ, coal and firelighters for Spud, Brussels sprouts for me, and Turkish Delights for Eskie.
Even though we are here now, Mam keeps crying, and would she ever stop, but she won’t, and she won’t give Eskie to Dad or the doctors and nurses either. Eskie is as blue as AJ’s magic finger, but Mam is blaming the tinfoil, not the cling film. “He got too hot when I made him be the Tin Man,” she says. She wrapped his arms and legs in tin foil, and me and Spud kept picking the bits of chewing-gum cheese left over from Dad’s lunches out of it, before we went off on the chopper to do the roads.
“Dona, dona, dona, dona,” is the bit where the moo-cow is crying for its mam. Baby birds shoved out by an orphan cuckoo cry too on the way down. Tadpoles are the shape of tears, but nobody can tell me if they cried in the Hoover. I took them home for the summer holidays, but Eskie kept looking at them, and I don’t know if he did it on purpose, but he knocked the bowl over. First he pretended he didn’t know, but “Confess, confess, confess,” said Spud and got him in a headlock and he did. Their legs were supposed to grow in our house and not in the Hoover which Dad wouldn’t empty because Mam hadn’t lost any jewellery. I forgot to claim Eskie for it, and now I’m never going to get a chance because he’s probably dead.