Please pray for my beloved wife Michelle. She is going through a very difficult time right now, and has been for a long while. I would appreciate it if readers kept her in their prayer intentions. Thank you.
Here are the next three chapters of The Snowman. I was really surprised at how many views the first instalment received. My fiction gets way more 'hits' than most of my non-fiction posts, which is quite a surprise and not an unpleasant one!
As far as I can remember, I never submitted The Snowman to any publisher. (I never even wrote a second draft.)
The following lines in Chapter Five pretty much sum up the theme of the whole book, and why I wrote it. I'm pretty proud of them:
"Higginstown is a postal address, Eleanor”, said Brendan, looking into her tear-washed face. “There are no famine graveyards here. There are no age-old local legends. Spirits hang around old wells and ruined monasteries. They don’t come to the commuter belt. People would be too tired to notice them by the time they got home from work.”
I really feel that horror writers, in print and on screen, should stop lingering around deserted villages and rural backwoods (although there will always be some place for those) and start writing about the suburban, floodlit, noisy, amnesiac world in which most of us live.
Shauna phoned in sick the next morning. It was the first time she’d feigned sickness in her entire life. She’d often worked when she was really sick. Enid, her supervisor, poured such sympathy over the phone that Shauna felt guilty over her little deception. But there was no way she was going to miss an opportunity like this. It wasn’t likely to come again.
Every time she looked outside she almost trembled with delight.
She phoned the playschool immediately after, and told them that Marcus wouldn’t be in today. “Mmm—hmmm”, said the teacher on the other end—the one with the curly black hair, she could hear, the brisk and efficient one. Shauna guessed that she had answered a few similar calls already. “Thanks for letting us know, Mrs. Rice. Take care.”
She looked out the window again, for the fiftieth time in fifteen minutes. It was only seven o’ clock and some of the older kids were already out there playing. Some of them were using a door as a toboggan, sliding down a not-very-steep hill with squeals of joy. Tobo-going, she thought.
She went back in the kitchen, finished her cup of tea, and decided it was time to wake Marcus. She’d had to stop herself four or five times already. He’d stayed awake way past his usual time last night, running to the window every few moments. She hadn’t the heart to order him into bed. He hadn’t been so excited in a long time. He was still awake when Stacey Hughes came to collect her baby, slightly merry from her night out.
She’d woken up a dozen times in the night, going to the window, fully expecting to see the snow turning to sludge already, drizzle falling out of the sky instead of the glowing flakes of earlier. But every time she looked, the miracle was still there.
She opened the door of Marcus’s room, gently.
He was lying on his side, as always, having kicked his blankets off in the night, as always. Every time she came in to wake him up, she expected to find that he would never wake again. The doctors had told her it wouldn’t happen like that. He would deteriorate. He would almost certainly die in hospital, surrounded by bright murals and chirpy nurses. But she still expected it, every single morning.
Then she heard his breathing—his heavy, wheezy breathing—and she relaxed. Another day. And a day was a little life, she kept telling herself. She shook him gently.
It took a few minutes, as always. He opened his eyes and he stared at her, dully, wondering where he was. Then he closed them again. It took a few repetitions of this ritual before she got his attention.
“Marky-Mark”, she said. “The snow is still out there, Marky-Mark. The snow”.
She saw awareness begin to dawn in his eyes, and he lay staring up at her, as if he was trying to remember what exactly the word meant. Then he clambered out of the bed, and he ran to the window, pulling back the curtains with the spacemen and spaceshuttles on them.
He didn’t whoop, or cheer. He wasn’t that kind of kid. But he didn’t have to. She could feel his delight. She could see it, just in the way she was standing. Tears burned her eyes, and she hurried out of the room. He knew how to wash and dress himself. He would be down in ten minutes for breakfast. That was their ritual, and when she thought of life without him, it was the absence of those little rituals that seemed most unbearable.
She had never been sentimental about kids. She’d always wanted them, in a vague kind of way. But she’d felt no sense of desperation as the years went by and it seemed less and less likely to happen. When it did, it was an accident. And a big mistake. Marcus’s father, a maths teacher who turned out to be the most monumentally selfish person she had ever met, had been out of the picture long before his son showed any signs of illness. She had convinced him that it was best if he disappeared from their lives, and he hadn’t taken much persuading. His cheques came in the post, without any note attached. She was glad there was no note.
People wondered how she could endure the grief. She would have wondered the same, before it happened. But it was like anything else; you just had to endure it, so you did. You could only take so much anguish, and then something kicked in, some kind of survival mechanism. She still laughed and felt happy, a hundred times a day. Now and then the awfulness of the situation slammed down on her, as if for the first time, but it always passed pretty quickly.
They made a quick breakfast, Marcus not even complaining that his eggs were too “drippy”, though they were far from his ideal, and headed out. Shauna wondered which of them was more excited.
“It’s like the moon”, said Marcus, staring at the landscape of gleaming white from under the peak of his woollen cap.
“It is like the moon”, said Shauna, letting go of his hand as soon as they had crossed the road beyond their garden. “White, like the moon. Do you remember your book? The Alphabet Kids?”
“Yes”, said Marcus. “With the kids toboganning.”
Shauna wasn’t sure if she was more surprised or disappointed that he’d learnt the proper way to say it. “That’s right. You loved that book, didn’t you? Come on, let’s go to the park.”
“Why aren’t you in work?”, asked Marcus, with the slightly aggrieved tone that children use whenever the pattern of their lives is interrupted, even for the better.
“The shopping centre was closed because of the snow”, said Shauna. “Nobody can even get in. All the doors and windows are blocked up with the snow.”
Marcus looked a bit sceptical about this—he had an uncanny ability to see through lies—and he was opening his mouth to talk again, when somebody called Shauna’s name from behind.
She turned around, and smiled when she saw who it was. It was a man in his sixties, with a grey-brown beard and a reddish complexion, a black cloth cap on his head. He wore a long coat, dark-blue and ancient-looking, and sturdy black boots that looked even older. He waved his hand at their surroundings, and exclaimed: “The glories of winter, Shauna! The glories of winter!”
“Hello, Toffee”, said Shauna.
His real name was James Drummond, but only teachers and bureaucrats had ever called him that. Everybody else called him Toffee. He’d got the name through selling toffee-apples door-to-door in his youth. He’d probably already tried a dozen occupations before that. He seemed to have had every job it was possible to have, besides being an astronaut.
“How is the enfant terrible?”, asked Toffee, looking down at Marcus.
“What does that mean?”, Marcus asked, staring back up at him.
“It’s French”, said Toffee, not smiling. He always spoke to children like they were adults. He had the thickest Dublin accent she had ever heard. “It means the embarrassing child, or—in the vernacular of the day—the little monster.”
“I’m not a monster”, said Marcus.
“How do you know you’re not a monster?”, asked Toffee, earnestly.
Marcus looked up at his mother, and Shauna smiled back at him. “Don’t listen to him”, she said. “He talks nonsense”.
“Au contraire”, said Toffee, “I talk more sense than every professor in Trinity College put together.”
“I can believe that”, said Shauna, putting her hand on Marcus’s shoulder.
“As a matter of fact, I couldn’t be more pleased to meet you”, said Toffee, turning his attention to Shauna. “You know what bigots people can be. The sight of an auld fellah like me playing in the snow might cause a few raised eyebrows. Maybe even—God preserve us—smart remarks. I sincerely hope you’ve come out to throw snowballs?”
“You hope right”, said Shauna, laughing. She hadn’t seen Toffee in at least a year. The last time she had seen him he was involved in a dispute over a set of encyclopedias. It had been a prize in a pub quiz, which he claimed he should have won as one of the answers wrong. It was a quotation from Shakespeare, she remembered. She’d never heard whether he had won.
“And make a snowman”, said Marcus.
They both looked down at him. He was even more earnest-looking than Toffee. Suddenly Shauna rememberd that, as well as the tobogganing, there had been an enormous snowman in The Alphabet Kids.
“Is that right?”, said Toffee. “Well, it’s a good thing you bumped into me, then. I’m a world expert on snowmen. I’ve made more fabulous snowmen than you can even imagine. I’ve made snowmen in the five continents of the world. My snowmen have been legendary.”
He lowered himself so that he was crouching beside Marcus, still without the shadow of a smile disturbing the solemnity of his features. Marcus watched him, a little warily.
“But today, I’m going to make the greatest snowman of all time. Today I’m going to make the grand-daddy of all snowmen, a snowman that the world will never forget. The only thing is, I need your help.”
Marcus still watched him, not saying anything, trying to work out if he was teasing him. Shauna put her arm around the boy’s shoulders.
“I think we can manage that, don’t you?”, she said. “Marcus? Don’t you think we can help Toffee make the best snowman in the world today?”
“Yes”, said Marcus, doubtfully.
“Then let’s go”, said Toffee, sweeping the air with his arm. “There’s only one place where we can make the best snowman in history, and that’s inside the park. I know the very spot. In the corner past the playground, beside that funny-looking modern statue. You see, Marcus, I’ve been up all night thinking about this.”
The park was full of children, wrapped inside layers of clothes, being watched at a distance by mothers and fathers talking to each other, all of them smiling. She didn’t recognise any of them, but they smiled at her, conspiratorially, almost like children out on a lark themselves. Shauna smiled back, but she could never feel a part of their fellowship. They had the most precious thing in the world. Time. Years and years stretching out ahead of them, a parade of birthdays and school plays and sports days and college graduations and engagement parties. It seemed hard to imagine, to her. Like walking on the moon.
“What happened with those encyclopedias?”, she said to Toffee, who was lost in contemplation of the scene.
He turned to her, and frowned. “Don’t talk to me about those encyclopedias”, he said. “I would have taken it to the High Court if I could. But it’s some consolation that a lady broke her leg in the same pub’s bathrooms and sued them for thousands, just a few weeks ago.”
“That’s karma”, said Shauna, laughing, and watching Marcus, who was hopping in the snow.
“Karma?”, said Toffee. “Not to be pedantic, but that’s not exactly what karma is.”
“Isn’t it?”, asked Shauna. “What is it then?”
“Karma is….well, karma is a kind of dust that builds up on us, over our many lives. It’s not the universe whacking us like a schoolteacher. It’s just the weight of everything we’ve ever done, pressing down us. Like…well, like a snowball rolling down a hill, gathering more snow.”
“Very topical”, said Shauna, realising that she felt happier than she had for years. “You weren’t a Buddhist monk at some stage, were you?”, she said.
“No, but I’ve known a few Buddhists. One was a bank manager. I’ve known Buddhist, Hindus, Mormons and Muslims. I’ve known Hari Krishnas, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sikhs, Spiritualists, Quakers. I’ve even met a man who claimed to be the Second Coming.”
Shauna laughed again, feeling giddy. The cries of happy children were echoing in the air, and she liked the feeling of the cold pressing against her face. “And what are you?”, she asked.
“Me?”, asked Toffee. “I agree with Confucius. The wise man doesn’t go poking into the other world. Because when the other world starts poking into ours, it’s bad news.”
As soon as he had spoken the last word, his hand shot forward, and he was grabbing Marcus by the hood of his jacket. Only then did Shauna realise that the boy had tripped, and was about to tumble onto his face. Toffee reached forward and pulled him back onto his feet.
“Good reflexes”, said Shauna, when her heart had stopped pounding. A fall probably wouldn’t have done the boy any damage, but who could tell? His heart was already fragile.
“The fastest draw in West Dublin”, said Toffee. “And now, as the great Mormon prophet Brigham Young said, when he led his people into Utah, This is the place. Let’s make our man of snow.”
Marcus’s eyes were shining, and Shauna found it difficult to keep tears from her own. He started gathering up snow under Toffee’s direction, forming it into a base. She joined in, and before long there were other kids helping. She could tell that Marcus was delighted; it was the Alphabet Kids, not the Alphabet Kid. Snowmen were made by gangs of little children, not one little child and two old people.
Toffee’s grandiosity wasn’t too far off the mark. It might not have been the greatest snowman in the history of the world, but it was the best and biggest that Shauna had ever seen. It took at least an hour and a half to make, and when it was finished, it stood almost as high as Toffee. It was astonishingly well sculpted, as well, considering how many tiny hands had gone to make it. It stood just like the snowmen in drawings, like an enormous egg, with stubs for arms. Its head was enormous relative to its body, but that was right and proper, too.
“It’s a masterpiece”, said Toffee, when it was finished. There was at least a dozen kids and several adults standing around, and all of their faces were lit with admiration.
“It needs eyes”, said Marcus.
“And a mouth, and a nose”, said a little girl in a rainbow scarf.
“And a scarf, and a pipe, and a hat”, said another girl. “All snowmen have those.”
“It doesn’t need any of them”, said Shauna, who had never felt happier in her life. “It’s perfect as it is.”
“The children are right, Shauna”, said Toffee, taking off his hat. “Children know everything about snowmen.” He put the hat on the head of the snowman, and started taking off his scarf.
“You can’t do that”, said Shauna, laughing, along with the other adults who were standing around.
“I can, and I must”, said Toffee. “I swore this would be the greatest snowman ever, didn’t I? I even have the pipe”. And he produced one from the pocket of his coat. One of the women standing around clapped her hands together in delight, and there was another ripple of laughter.
“You can’t put that in, Toffee”, said Shauna. “Seriously. It will be stolen as soon as we turn out back on it.”
“Nobody would commit such a sacrilege”, said Toffee. “You have a warped view of human nature, my girl.” And he poked it into the face of the snowman, so that it stuck up at a jaunty angle.
“It still has no eyes, or mouth, or nose”, said Marcus.
“A very good point”, said Toffee, and, before anybody knew what he was doing, he had snapped one of the big black buttons off the front of his coat.
“Toffee!”, said Shauna. “You can’t! You’ve worn that for as long as I’ve known you!”.
“I claim my privilege as the biggest kid in Dublin”, said Toffee, grinning at her. “It needs the finishing touches. It needs to be brought to life”
He formed a huge grin on the snowman’s face with six buttons, and used the other three for eyes and a nose. There was a cheer from the same woman who had clapped her hands.
“Thank you”, said Toffee, bowing in the direction of the woman. “But the cheers really go to us all. So let’s hear it for us. Three cheers for Higgins, the greatest snowman in the whole history of the snowmen. Hip Hip—“
There was a resounding, echoing cheer from the kids, and Marcus joined in. He never joined in that sort of thing, but he did now. And again, and again. Shauna had never seen him so happy in his life. She had never felt so happy in her whole life.
And then, in an instant, her joy disappeared and all the pain she was constantly holding back descended upon her. All at once she felt the injustice, the unendurable wrongness, that Marcus would be a memory when all these other boys and girls were tasting beer for the first time, backpacking through foreign countries, kissing at all-night parties. Holding their own children.
And, without thinking, she did something she had never done since that awful conversation with a sympathetic Indian doctor, in his brightly-lit office. She dared to hope, with all the force of her desperation and love and horror.
Let them be wrong, she thought. Let all the doctors be wrong. Let medical science be wrong. Let him be spared. Let the day never come. Somehow, let the day never come.
She did not cry. It was an agony and a desperate hope beyond tears. She just kept watching, fixing the picture in her mind, as if she wanted to stop time and preserve it forever. The perfect snowman, and Toffee leading the cheers, and a ring of children and grown-ups turned into children for a moment, cheering their heads off. And in the middle, her son, looking completely and utterly happy.
Brendan stood before the main door of the apartments where his sister lived, hesitating. He was cold, wearing this ridiculous-looking blazer, but he wasn’t eager for this reunion. For a moment, he even considered looking up some of his old friends, seeing if they would put him up. But who was he fooling? He hadn’t heard from most of them in five or ten years, or even thought about them. He didn’t know if they still lived here. Probably not. People didn’t tend to stick around in Higginstown.
He looked at the name-plate before him, on the chocolate-brown bricks of the apartment-block’s façade, and felt the familiar stab of anger. Copper Beeches Estate. He wondered whether a committee had brainstormed the name. They wanted something that sounded nice. And safe. Every single estate built in the last fifteen years was Copper Beeches Estate. Or Larkrise Avenue. Or Seaview Road. Pretty and generic and bland as babyfood.
God forbid they should name it after somebody. After all, look at all the streets and bridges and parks they had named after Irish revolutionaries and rebels in the honeymoon of independence. Now the revolutionaries had gone out of fashion, it was almost an embarrassment to have a Sean McDiarmada Street or a Connolly Station.
Brendan didn’t really care who they named the place after. Name it after the Mayor, or the Mayor’s granny, or his granny’s cat. Name it after somebody who had owned this land three hundred years ago, or after a tramp who used to wander across it. Or don’t name it after anybody. Call it Chlorine Mansions in honour of the swimming pool across the road, or Salt and Vinegar Chambers in honour of the fast-food shop. But don’t call it Copper Beeches. Or Honeysuckle Drive. Or Riverside Cottages.
Of course, he was just delaying having to press the button on the intercom. All of a sudden, he was less confident that his sister would take him in. It had seemed like a matter of course an hour ago. But now he was standing here, he was remembering some of the things he had said when he last spoke to her. That was a year and a half ago.
He braced himself, and pressed the buzzer.
He put his ear to the intercom, and after a few seconds of crackling sound, an East European accent said: “Hallo, which number do you want?”
Which number? For crying out loud, he couldn’t even remember. He’d only been here once before. “I don’t know the number”, he said. “Sorry. I’m looking for Eleanor Cheevers.”
“I’ll see if she’s at home”, said the concierge, sounding aggrieved. The crackling sound disappeared, and Brendan stood back from the intercom, hoping that Eleanor was out.
He looked around. The snow was still falling. It seemed to be falling heavier all the time. All the cars in the nearby houses were caked with it. It made him think of all those Japanese pictures, sages sitting on Mount Fuji, frozen in a moment out of time. Sometimes he thought he would like to live in Canada or Finland or somewhere like that; places he imagined as a perpetual realm of gleaming winter. But would a day like this mean anything to people in those countries? Did every sight lose its splendour when it was seen too often? Or did simple beauty mean most to those who were most familiar with it, those for whom it had become a part of their own souls? People from country villages liked to sneer at city folk who got sentimental about nature, but the next moment they would become three times as sentimental themselves.
The intercom crackled, and Brendan’s stomach tightened. He put his ear to the panel, and he heard Eleanor’s voice: “Who is it?”. He detected a note of surprise, even of anxiety, and suddenly he felt a spasm of irritation. Why did she have to be so namby-pamby? Did she think it was the mafia?
“It’s Brendan”, he said.
There was a long silence, and she said: “Hi, Brendan. Stay there. I’m coming down.” And the crackle went away, and Brendan realised he was curling his toes inside his boots, as he always did when he was nervous.
He looked around, hoping for distraction. He looked at the row of houses opposite, where some of his friends had lived, before Copper Beeches even came into existence. His eye turned to the one on the very edge, where he had often played computer games with his friend Simon. The games took as long to load as they did to play, back then. He smiled, for all his nervousness. Instead of childhood memories of playing football with a bundle of socks, or swapping cigarette cards, he grew nostalgic about chunky graphics and joysticks.
There was a click, and the door opened, and he was looking at Eleanor. A shock passed through him.
She was looking the same as she always had—neither pretty nor plain, thinner than Brendan, but with the same thick brown hair—except now he was looking down at her. She was sitting in a wheelchair, and looking up at him with angry eyes.
“Well?”, she asked, raising one of her eyebrows.
He was too astonished not to stare. “What happened to you?”, he asked.
“You mean, this?”, she said, tapping her knuckles against one of the wheels. It was an old-fashioned looking wheelchair, rather than one of the modern, mechanised ones. It reminded Brendan of a pram, somehow. “I had a fall.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”, asked Brendan, feeling the frustration that Eleanor always provoked washing over him.
“I didn’t want you worrying”, said Eleanor, sharply. “It’s only temporary. Now come in out of the snow.”
He stepped into the foyer of Copper Beeches, which was slightly more homely than the exterior, with a deep carpet and bright cream-coloured walls. The door clicked shut behind him.
Eleanor manouvred her wheelchair in a semi-circle, towards the lift, the doors of which were still open. He took it by the handles, and pushed forward.
“Leave it”, she said. “I can manage it myself.”
“Fine”, said Brendan, rattled into irritation himself. Then, in an effort at warmth: “It just looks awkward, that’s all.”
“I’m not helpless”, said Eleanor, unmollified.
They only had one floor to travel. Eleanor insisted on opening the front door, as well. She brought him into the sitting room, where a black and white film had been paused. A schoolboy in short trousers and a cap was half-way up, or down, a drain-pipe. The living room was as tidy as ever, with pictures of farm-yards and squirrels hung on the walls.
“There’s tea and juice and stuff in the kitchen, if you want any”, she said, coldly.
“I’d rather hear what happened to you”, said Brendan, though he longed for a cup of tea, after the cold of the day.
“I’m sure you’ve heard already”, said Eleanor. “What else would bring you here?”
“I swear I never heard anything”, said Brendan, meeting her eyes. They were dark with scepticism. “I came to see you, that’s all.” It would take a mighty effort to admit his real reason for coming here. He was beginning to think better of it already.
“Well, there’s not much to tell”, said Eleanor, looking away from him towards the television screen. “Stairs. Shopping bags. Fall. Leg smashed in three places. The end.”
“Oh God”, said Brendan.
“I thought you didn’t believe in God”, said Eleanor, looking back him.
“When did I ever say that?”, he asked, holding back his frustration. He couldn’t remember ever discussing religion with his sister.
“I would have thought God was too common for you”, said Eleanor, with a tight, sarcastic smile.
“I love common things”, said Brendan. “Why would I want to write a book about slang, if I didn’t like common things?”
Eleanor pursed her lips, and looked away again, this time towards the window, where the snowfall could just be glimpsed through half-drawn curtains. “You like common people as long as they’re ignorant and poor and know their place”, she said. “You turn your nose up at them when they want to get an education and a career.”
Brendan was thinking of a reply to this, when something occurred to him. “Where’s Adam?”, he said.
His sister shrugged theatrically, and said, with studied nonchalance: “Gone. That should please you. You always hated him.”
Brendan didn’t even try to deny this. And he couldn’t help feeling glad that he was gone. The man had the soul of a bully. Even the sneering way he smiled made Brendan want to punch him. “So, you’re here on your own now?”
He could see an expression of satisfaction flit across his sister’s face when he said this, as if it was just what she’d been waiting for him to say. “Oh, and does that amaze you? Do you think I can’t bear to live on my own? An emotional cripple, wasn’t that it? Chronically insecure? Well, it was me who got rid of Adam. Me.”
Brendan flinched from hearing his own terms flung back at him. How long had Eleanor been brooding over them? The fact that he’d had no right to say what he did only made him feel angry at her.
“I think I will make some tea”, he said, making his way to the kitchen.
But Eleanor was roused now, and she wheeled her chair after him, briskly. “It wasn’t for any of your reasons, though. That I broke up with Adam. I don’t care a damn if he’s never read a book in his life. I don’t hold it against him that he takes his job seriously. I had my own reasons.”
“It’s none of my business”, said Brendan, taking two cups—robin redbreasts on both of them—from the hangers that ran along the press. The kitchen looked like something from an ideal homes brochure.
“That never stopped you before”, she said, and he could hear the steam rising in her soul. “I’m surprised you don’t think I’m faking this”, she said, tapping the arm of her wheelchair again.
Brendan busied himself about the tea-things, and didn’t reply. What could he say to that? He had broken the great taboo, the last time he had spoken to Eleanor; mentioning all the fainting fits and the mysterious ailments that had dogged her childhood and teens, that everybody knew were nothing but an attention-seeking device, but were always treated as deadly serious, for fear of provoking her tantrums and her weeks-long sulks. She had even tried to convince everybody she had some kind of second sight, at one point.
“Of course I don’t think that”, said Brendan. “I don’t—“
“Put the tea back”, said Eleanor, in a tight voice.
He looked around, and noticed that he’d left the little wooden barrel marked TEA on the sideboard. He slotted it back into its place on the rack, beside the COFFEE and SUGAR and COOKIES jars.
“Do you know what?”, said Eleanor, and he could feel her anger boiling over quicker than the water in the kettle. “I did fake all those sicknesses. Every single one. I was doing it for the attention.”
Embarrassment seized Brendan, and he looked away, back out the window, back to the snow. He felt as if a priest had told him he didn’t believe in God, or a perfect stranger had told him the colour of her underwear. There was no precedent to this.
“It doesn’t really matter—“ he began, feebly.
“It mattered to you an awful lot last time you were here”, she said. “So now you have it. I faked it. I did. The fainting, the sickness, the…the visions. I did it all to be noticed.”
“We all do things to be noticed”, said Brendan, vaguely.
“And you you know why?”, said Eleanor, as the kettle boiled over. Brendan gratefully grabbed it, and started filling the cups—carefully, frightened to spill a drop—but Eleanor went on. “I did it because it was the only way I could get attention. The only way. You were always the golden boy, the brains of the family. You were always the intellectual. I was nothing special. Second place in the egg-and-spoon race in sixth class, that was the most I ever achieved.”
Brendan hardly even knew what to feel right now. It was as if he had stumbled into another dimension. Yesterday he would have bet millions that Eleanor would rather die ten times over than say something like this.
“Some golden boy I am”, he said, stirring the tea slowly.
“Oh you say that”, said Eleanor, wheeling her chair a half-foot closer. “But you don’t really believe it, do you? Nothing in Heaven or Earth could convince you that you’re not a cut above everybody else. And several cuts above me.”
“Listen”, said Brendan, looking down at his sister, and flinching from the fire he saw in her eyes. “I was wrong to say what I did, OK? I had no right—“
“Oh, I don’t care!”, cried Eleanor, and the last word was almost a shout. “I don’t care that you said it! The point is, you think it! That’s what I can’t stand. You’re always thinking it!”
Then there was silence, apart from Brendan pouring milk into the tea. There were so many different sorts of silence, and this was one like Brendan had never experienced before. It was a bit like the silence after a bomb has gone off, without killing anybody, leaving the witnesses to stare at each other, amazed at still being alive. Things unsaid for decades had been said—ugly truths—but life was still going on, one second at a time.
“Well, I’m here to ask you a favour”, said Brendan, after the silence had been prolonged for a minute or more. He handed Eleanor her tea, and she took it without breaking her stare.
“A favour?”, she asked, managing to sound sceptical.
“I need somewhere to stay”, he said. “I’m out of a job. I’m a pauper.”
She flared her nostrils, but there was a hint of concern in her eyes. “Did you have an argument with somebody?”, she asked, her voice still hot, but hot like a gun that had fired its last round.
“That’s about the size of it”, he said. “So now I come crawling to you.”
Somehow, putting it as baldly as he could made it easier than trying to soften it.
“Well, you can stay”, she said, seeming disarmed by the unexpected request. “But I expect you to look for a job. Any kind of a job, not just a suitable job.”
“I will”, he said.
“Fine”, she said.
They stood there, looking at each other, sipping their tea. The mock-grandfather clock in the corner ticked, and the fridge hummed. Brendan was about to ask Eleanor what film she had been watching, when his sister started crying.
It came all of a sudden. He didn’t think he had ever seen his sister cry before. Tantrums, yes. Sulks, yes. But tears weren’t really her department. Now they were streaming down her cheeks, and her hand was pressed against her forehead, and her shoulders were heaving.
Any other brother would rush forward and put his arm around his sister, thought Brendan, panicked. But that didn’t even seem an option, with Eleanor. He was trying to think of something to say, when she drew her hand down from her forehead, and said, without looking up at him: “I think I’m going out of my mind.”
“Why?”, asked Brendan, stepping forward one pace, with the vague idea of comforting her, but not coming any closer than that.
She looked up now, and her there was an unspeakably weary expression on her face, in her glistening eyes. “I think maybe it’s God’s sense of irony. First there’s the accident, to get me back for all the….the pretend sicknesses. And then there’s…”
“What?”, said Brendan, when she trailed off. Outside, an ice-cream van started playing Oranges and Lemons.
“It’s like I’m seeing things for real now”, she said, looking back down, cupping her knees with her hands. She sniffed. “I know. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. There’s no reason anybody would believe me. Except I don’t really want anybody to believe me.” She splayed the fingers of her hand, and retracted them, and splayed them again, watching them as if they fascinated her.
“What…what do you see?”, asked Brendan. He didn’t know whether to feel alarmed or suspicious. She had always had a weird sense of humour…
She smiled bitterly, as if acknowledging his scepticism. “It’s the most ridiculous thing”, she said. “I see vision of things, but after they happen.”
“What things?”, asked Brendan. “How do you see them?”
She looked up now, and her expression said: Believe me or not. I don’t care. “Things that happen around here. Like, a couple of weeks ago, there was a crash, beside our old house. A woman was put into hospital. I was in that crash. I felt it, I saw it. But only after I heard about it.”
Whatever was going on, thought Brendan, she wasn’t lying. He could see it in her eyes. There was no way to counterfeit that hunted, helpless look.
“And recently, I’ve just been feeling this…power…building up. This terrible power. Like a gathering storm. In Higginstown.” She closed her eyes, and the gesture didn’t seem at all melodramatic. “Like an awful spirit that’s being…summoned. Or waiting to be summoned”
The strains of Oranges and Lemons were fading as the ice-cream van moved away, in search of children.
“Higginstown is a postal address, Eleanor”, said Brendan, looking into her tear-washed face. “There are no famine graveyards here. There are no age-old local legends. Spirits hang around old wells and ruined monasteries. They don’t come to the commuter belt. People would be too tired to notice them by the time they got home from work.”
Then Eleanor did something he didn’t expect. She opened her eyes, and she laughed. He could hear a deep weariness in that laugh. But he could hear relief, too. He was saying the right thing.
“You always had a good imagination”, he went on. No harm smuggling some flattery in while the going was good, he thought. “This is what’s happened. You had a traumatic experience and your sensitivity to these things has been heightened. You’re here on your own. You think these things over and over. It’s natural. It’s inevitable, even.”
She wiped the tears from her eyes, and she smiled, and there was a world of gratitude in her smile. And, when she looked up at him, there was something he definitely didn’t expect to see her in eyes. Gratitude. “You were always the clever one”, she said. And this brought a final sob.
They took their tea into the sitting room, and they watched the rest of the DVD that Eleanor had paused. Perhaps it was no coincidence that it was called The Ghost of Brunsick College. It was terrible.
But sitting there, Brendan remembered how they used to sit before the television on Saturday mornings, watching the black and white films that came on before the cartoons. They had both always been early risers. It was one of the happy memories they shared, one of the few times they hadn’t been at odds. Those memories had only started coming back to him recently.
It might have been banal, he thought, as Eleanor put in a second DVD. It might not have been robbing orchards or playing football in the steets with a pig’s bladder. But it was all he had. And, for an hour or two, he felt he was a little boy again, and his sister was a little girl, on a morning free from school.
“You should wear make-up”, Fiona Heffernan said to her daughter.
Lisa’s pen paused over her crossword, and she had to stop herself from sighing. It had been fun, telling her mother about her crush on Sheridan. She’d spent an hour over dinner, telling her about all his ways, all the things she’d noticed about him through six years of school. Even down to the way he’d sometimes deliberately miss, in basketball games, so that the other team wouldn’t lose too badly. He could always put the ball through the hoop when he wanted to. Girls and boys played together, and Lisa was nearly always on the losing side, so this was one habit she appreciated.
She told her mother about the way he was always flicking his fringe back from his eyes, and the way he would spend most breaks and lunch-times sketching in his sketch-pad, though he had a few friends and never seemed like a loner. She told him about the way he recited Shakespeare or poetry, when the teacher asked them to; not with embarrassment, like most people, or in a show-off, hammy way, like some of the more eager girls. The way he read it, nobody felt like tittering or smiling sarcastically at their friends. He pulled it off perfectly.
And her mother lapped it all up. Her eyes were shining. It was as if she’d discovered her daughter was a woman, in a single day.
But she couldn’t just leave it at that. Hearing why Lisa liked Sheridan was only phase one. Phase two was forming an action plan to win him over. And Lisa was already tired of it.
Now they were sitting in their little sitting room, her mother flicking through the television channels, Lisa struggling with the crossword. She was terrible at crosswords, but she couldn’t stop doing them.
“I do wear make-up, Mum”, she replied, after a long pause. “Sometimes.”
“I know you do”, said Fiona, still flicking through the channels, though she wasn’t even looking at the screen. Her voice was understanding, maternal. “But I mean something a bit more…”
“Slutty?”, suggested Lisa.
Her mother looked offended for a moment, and about to scold her. But then she laughed. Lisa loved the way her mother laughed. Her eyes almost closed and her cheeks bunched up like an accordion closing.
“No”, she said, still giggling. “You know I don’t mean that. Just something that will…show you off better. You don’t make the most of your looks. You’re a good-looking girl.”
“Oh, Mum”, said Lisa, looking back down at her crossword. “I’m nothing special.”
“Yes, you are”, said Fiona, but there was no strength in her voice. Nobody could really think Lisa was anything special, looks-wise. If there were four girls together, and she was one of them, she’d mostly likely be the last to be noticed.
“Besides”, said Lisa, looking up, and putting her pen down. How long did it take most people to solve the damned things? Not an hour and half, surely. “If he likes me, he likes me. He’s not going to like me any more because I’m wearing the right shade of eyeshadow. He’s not that superficial.”
“That’s not how it works, honey”, said her mother, shaking her head, with a sad smile for her child’s naivety. Lisa hated that look. “He has to know you’re interested. Men don’t just come knocking on your door like that. It’s just like in the shop. You’ve got to put your stuff in the window.”
Lisa picked her pen up again. Put your stuff in the window? Three years ago, her mother would have choked before using language like that about the flesh. “What’s a word that betrays, ten letters?”, she asked, in a careless tone. “Second letter is probably H?”
“You’re changing the subject”, said her mother, resentfully.
“That’s exactly what I’m doing”, agreed Lisa, smiling.
Her mother sat back and changed the channel again. A man in an shiny shirt, his hairy chest exposed, was making Irish dancing sexy to the accompaniment of a feverish backing track. Her mother raised the sound and started tapping her fingers against the arm of the chair.
Then the doorbell rang, and her mother groaned. “That’s probably Natalie, returning the video camera. Can you get it, honey? Don’t let her know I’m here. I want to watch this.”
Lisa was already getting to her feet. Her mother hated answering the door. Or the telephone. Or letting the cat out when it started whining for freedom.
“Those things are going to drive me crazy”, she said, throwing her pen down onto the half-finished crossword.
When she reached the hall door, she could see it wasn’t Natalie. Her heart grew heavy inside her. She knew who it was from the way he stood, from the bushy sillhouette of his hair.
She pulled the chain back, and opened the door only a fraction.
“Go away, Danny”, she said, not unkindly. “My mother will freak if she sees you here. I swear. She’ll call the police.”
“I have worse things to worry about than the police”, said Danny, in his flat, thin voice. He was staring at her in the way he always did. Danny always stared. He didn’t know how to just look.
“I’m serious, Danny”, she said. “Go away”.
“Don’t close the door”, he said, and suddenly his voice—flat and thin though it was—was excited to the point of hysteria. “If you close the door on me, it’s murder. It’s worse than murder, Lisa.”
She stepped back, frightened by the agitation in his voice, and tried to slam the door. But something was stopping it. She looked down, and saw Danny’s finger turning red with pressure.
“For crying out loud, Danny”, she cried, and she pulled the door back. Now his forearm shot through the gap.
“Let me in, Lisa. Let me in, for the mercy of God. You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“I can’t let you in, Danny”.
She heard the living room door open, and looked behind. Her mother was standing in the hallway, staring at the front door with such a perfect mixture of fury and fear that she made them seem like a single emotion.
“Let him in”, she whispered. “Let just get this over with.”
“What if he’s flipped?”, said Lisa, now standing as far from the door as she could, while still pushing it gently against Danny’s arm.
“They’ve all flipped a long time ago”, said Fiona, contemptuously. She reached towards the telephone table that was standing in the middle of the hall, and took a heavy glass vase from it. She poured the coins that were filling its bottom onto the table, and brandished it in one hand, upside down. “Let him in. Be careful.”
Lisa unlatched the chain, and retreated behind her mother in three quick steps. The door swung open, and Danny burst in.
He was wearing a brown anorak, and a pair of faded blue jeans. Behind his thick, square glasses his grey eyes stared at them with even more intensity than usual. He hadn’t raised the hood of his anorak, and his wild black hair was matted with snow. Snow lay on his shoulders and the folds of his anorak, too. The snow had stopped for an hour or so earlier, then began falling heavier than ever.
“I’ve told you all before, Danny”, said Fiona, taking a step back herself, and making no attempt to hide the vase. “I’m never going back. I don’t want you to save my soul.”
Danny didn’t even look at the vase. He was staring into Fiona’s face. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in days. His hands were thrust into the pockets of his anorak.
“I’m not here to save your soul”, said Danny, and his voice almost broke on the last words. Somehow, Lisa got the impression that he hadn’t slept in days, never mind shaved. “I’m here to save my own.”
“Close the door behind you, Danny”, said Fiona, and her own voice was almost trembling. “I don’t want you making a show for the neighbours.”
He didn’t even look around, or take his hands from his anorak pockets. He pushed the door shut with the heel of one boot, and took a step closer.
“Stay there”, said Fiona, raising the vase higher.
“Do you know what date this is, Fiona?”, asked Danny. The solemnity of his tones made Lisa’s skin tighten. Danny had always been a little mad. Now he seemed to have stepped off the cliff into insanity.
“October the seventh, I think”, said Fiona, trying—and failing—to sound unfazed.
“October the eighth”, said Danny, raising his voice, like someone coming to the climax of a poem. “October the eighth. Three years to the day since we were pledged.”
And he took his left hand from his anorak pocket. Between its thumb and index finger, there glinted a gold ring. He held it before his face like a talisman.
Lisa heard her mother laugh, and there was more than a hint of hysteria to the sound. “We were never pledged, Danny. This isn’t the Middle Ages. Brockmann isn’t God. He can’t decide who should marry or who shouldn’t.”
“We were joined in heaven, Fiona”, said Danny, and now his voice was breaking. He was beginning to cry. Not with sorrow, Lisa could see, but with terror. “We’re living in deadly sin by remaining apart. And I’m going straight to Hell if you don’t marry me tonight.”
“Tonight?”, said Fiona, and Lisa could hear that she was trying to sound jaunty. It was a futile effort. “Does it have to be tonight?”
“Yes”, croaked Danny, the sarcasm entirely lost upon him. “Because by midnight I’ll be dead.”
He said it with such utter conviction that Fiona found herself trembling. She looked around the hall, longing for the reassurance of a weapon, too. All she could see was the statue of Saint Francis, standing on a window ledge behind her. She reached behind her and grabbed it, taking comfort in its cold solidity. It might almost have been designed as a truncheon.
From the sitting room came the pounding of drums as the Irish dancer reached the climax of his act.
“You’re not going to die tonight, Danny”, said Fiona, her voice becoming more strained every moment. “Where did you get that idea?”
“He’s already taking me”, sobbed Danny, and now tears were flowing down his cheeks, shining in the electric light. “Hell is opening out before my eyes.”
“What have you got in your other pocket, Danny?”, asked Fiona.
Danny looked down towards his right hand, with dread in his eyes. He shook his head, as if trying to shake off a thought, and looked back up at Fiona, despair in his cold grey eyes.
“Take your hand out of your pocket”, said Fiona, and Lisa could see her fingers tightening on the vase.
“It’s not a hand anymore”, said Danny, in a near-whisper.
The answer was so grotesque, so unexpected, that Lisa turned ice-cold for a moment. She moved closer to her mother, protectively.
“What is it then?”, asked Fiona.
“It’s a claw”, he said, in a sort of gasp. All the time he was brandishing the ring in the air, and now it shook as his body began to tremble. “I’m becoming his.”
“Take it out”, said Fiona. “Now”.
With one quick movement, Danny pulled his arm out of his anorak pocket, and held it in the air. Lisa’s heart stopped for a moment, and she yelped. Fiona jumped backwards.
The hand that he was holding up was perfectly human and ordinary.
Lisas saw her mother put her left hand to her heart, as if she was trying to hold it in. She felt a little sick herself, as if her stomach had bunched up.
“You see?”, said Danny, opening and closing the fingers of the hand he believed was a claw. “You see?”
“Get out of my house, Danny”, said Fiona, and now all the fear in her voice had been replaced by anger. “I’m giving you one minute”.
“You don’t understand, Fiona”, said Danny, still opening and closing his fingers. “I’ve seen Hell. I can’t stop seeing it. And you know what people don’t realise? Hell isn’t hot. Hell isn’t hot, like people think. Hell is freezing cold. It’s a place of ice.”
“Lisa, phone the police when I’ve counted down a minute. Fifty-nine, fifty-eight—“
“And do you know what else they don’t realise?”, said Danny. Suddenly he seemed calm, with the calmness of utter exhaustion, though his the fingers of his right hand continued to open and close, and he held the ring aloft in his left. “They don’t realise that Satan isn’t out there. Satan comes from inside us. And right now, Satan is walking in Higginstown.”
Then there was a crash of glass as the vase dropped onto the floor, and Fiona was screaming hysterically, and one moment later, Lisa was screaming too.
It was no longer Danny’s fingers that were opening and closing. It was a claw. A reddish-brown, throbbing, veined claw, twice as large as a human hand. It was the most hideous thing Lisa had ever seen.
Danny lunged towards Fiona, lifting the claw in air, and his face was now gripped by an expression that was even more nightmarish than the thing that had replaced his hand. It was the face of a demon.
Lisa rushed forwards, swinging down the statue of Saint Francis as hard as she could, and heard a sickening thud as it collided with Danny’s skull.
He fell backwards, and there was a dull thump as he hit the floor. Blood was streaming from his forehead onto the honey-coloured carpet.
And, stretched past his head so that the fingers were resting against the door, his right arm ended in a perfectly normal right hand.
Lisa turned towards her mother. She was still whimpering, staring at the place where Danny had been standing, her eyes opened as wide as they could possibly go. For a horrible moment, Lisa thought the woman had gone insane. She grabbed her mother’s chin in her hand and shook her head, from side to side, and after a minute or two the gleam of mania disappeared from her eyes. She turned to look at her daughter.
“What was it?”, she asked, and her voice was still little more than a whimper.
“It was nothing”, said Lisa, in a firm voice, though her entire body seemed to be covered in goose-pimples. “It was suggestion. We saw what he saw. We caught his madness for a second. It happens a lot.”
Fiona just stared at her daughter, as if the words she had spoken meant nothing to her. Then she turned to look at the form sprawled on the carpet, and said—in a voice that was suddenly practical, anxious, sane—“Is he dead, Lisa?”
Lisa crouched down beside Danny, and put her hand on his chest, feeling a little sickened to be touching him. She could still see that claw in her mind, and she didn’t care if it was a hallucination. But relief warmed her when she felt the thump of a heartbeat under his anorak.
“He’s alive. I’m going to phone the ambulance, the police.” A moment later, she was already lifting the receiver to her ear and tapping the numbers in, grateful for once in her life that she was the kind of practical, level-headed girl who never lay awake at night thinking deep thoughts.
Her mother stood there, still staring at the senseless form of Danny, while a wave of rapturous applause came from the television in the living room, and a commentator squealed: “That was absolutely sensational! Nobody has ever seen anything like that before!”.