I had the idea for this novel when I was sitting in an optician's waiting to have my eyes tested. It's the only grown-up novel I've written. As I said in a previous post, it was heavily infuenced by Stephen King's The Stand. Like that novel, it has a broad range of characters and intersecting situations. (Though it's certainly not on the scale of The Stand.) And it has a vaguely similiar plot, though not quite. Well, you'll see, if you stick with it. Hope you like it.
Merriman stood in the small living-room while Mrs. Rice was checking on the baby upstairs. Part of him hoped that it would cry and cry, delaying what he had to say for as long as possible. Part of him just wanted to get this over, to get back into the sanctuary of his car and put as many miles as he could between him and this unhappy house.
Merriman hated his job.
So why did he choose to do it, when he could have been doing any of a dozen other things? He was asking himself that question more and more often.
He looked about the room, trying not to see the signs of poverty. The place was immaculately tidy, but it had been many years since the wallpaper had been replaced, and the three-piece suite was frayed and worn.
A video-recorder lay underneath the small television. He guessed it had been bought in a more prosperous time. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen a video-recorder. Only this morning Rory had been showing him the new DVD-player, wanting him to admire its crystal-clear image. Merriman had pretended to be interested, happy to see Rory so enthusiastic. But really, he didn’t see what was so exciting about it. He had fond memories of watching Steptoe and Son on a fuzzy black-and-white set with his own father. Who cared how sharp the image was? The programmes had been worth watching in those days.
Upstairs, the baby started wailing again, and Merriman breathed a sigh of relief. His heart was pounding and his palms were clammy. The baby must be a friend’s, he thought; the application form said Mrs. Rice only had one child.
He looked at the bookshelf and felt disappointed.. The books were all about current affairs, which had bored him from the time he was a boy. There were a few detective novels, but none of the country house genre, the sort he liked. These ones were all about grim-faced private eyes in trenchcoats, by the looks of it.
He turned his eyes to the ornaments on the mantlepiece. There was a china milkmaid, a Celtic cross made of imitation marble, and a music-box ballerina who looked as if her last whirl had been performed decades ago. But what caught his eye was a large snow-globe. He had always loved snow-globes.
He took it from the mantlepiece, and shook it, almost without thinking. The riot of white flakes that filled it made him feel happier than he had felt in days. He’d swap this over any high-resolution image any day.
The storm subsided in the glass bubble, and for the first time he noticed the scene inside. It was a robin redbreast, perched on a tree that was bare of leaves. Children in Dickensian clothes were standing around, looking at it. He wondered how long ago this had been made. He turned it upside down. MADE IN TAIWAN was embossed on the base, in lettering that somehow spoke of the sixties.
It reminded him of something. It reminded him of his aunt’s house—
“Do you like that?”
He spun around, his heart leaping inside him. His ears had been pricked for noises, but Mrs. Rice had come downstairs and into the room without him hearing a thing. She was standing there now, a small woman in a brown skirt and a green cardigan, her black hair flowing over her shoulders. She didn’t look anxious or expectant.
“Yeah”, he said, putting it back, feeling strangely embarrased. “I was just trying to remember what it reminded me of.”
“And did you?”, asked Mrs. Rice, walking into the centre of the room. She gave him a little smile.
“Vaguely”, he said, smiling, and feeling sick to his stomach.
“Sit down, Mr. Merriman”, she said, motioning to one of the armchairs.
He followed her suggestion, lowering himself into the chair. As he hitched up his trousers, he felt wretchedly aware of his expensive, tailored suit. Especially when he heard the springs of the armchair creak under his weight. He wasn’t a heavy man.
“So”, said Mrs. Rice, who had seated herself on the couch, “you haven’t got good news for me then?”. And the smile she gave him, though sad, was kind.
Merriman’s stomach tightened again, and he looked down at the carpet. This made it easier. But it was never easy.
“I’m afraid not”, he said, looking up again, knitting the fingers of his hands together. “I’m sorry—“
“Don’t be”, said Mrs. Rice.
“Unfortunately, Paula’s Foundation doesn’t have a steady flow of funding”, said Merriman, wondering how often he had given this same speech. “This year we had less of a budget than previous years. We could accept fewer applications than usual. And we had to make difficult decisions.”
“Of course”, said Mrs. Rice, and she put her hand out and placed it on his own.
Merriman almost recoiled from the gesture. He hadn’t been expecting it. It was as if their roles had been reversed, and suddenly his official tone seemed pompous.
“The horrible thing is”, he said, “we have to give priority to children who are…”
“I know what you mean”, said Mrs. Rice, when he hesitated. “Marcus might see another year. Some of the kids on your list definitely won’t.”
“It sounds so brutal when it’s put like that”, said Merriman, and suddenly he felt even more ridiculous. He felt like he was complaining to this woman, who he had come to counsel and soothe.
“Life is brutal sometimes”, said Mrs. Rice, squeezing his hand. “It’s not your fault.”
Merriman looked away from her, ashamed to look into the dark pools of her eyes. He found himself looking back at the snowglobe. He had ruined the symmetry of the ornaments’ arrangement, he noticed.
“Don’t upset yourself about it”, repeated Mrs. Rice. “It’s probably for the best. Marcus is a shy kind of kid. I don’t know that he’d like to be running around with a gang of other children. I think he’s happier at home. It was my sister who persuaded me to apply.”
“Well”, said Merriman, forcing himself to look into the woman’s eyes, “I hope that you’re right. I hope that it is for the best.”
Mrs. Rice smiled, and it was the sort of smile a child draws, a perfectly smooth upside-down bow. For the first time, Merriman noticed that she was very attractive. She was the sort of woman who didn’t seem to care about looking pretty, whose prettiness you didn’t notice because you hadn’t even thought of her in that way.
But now he was attracted. She had something about her that reminded him of his own late wife. A kind of wise childishness.
He saw that she had noticed his attraction, that she accepted it, but that it wasn’t returned. All of that in one steady gaze, her smile never fading. Of course she’s not interested, you fool, he thought. Her child is dying!
“You’ll have a cup of tea”, she said, rising. “Or do you drink coffee?”
All of a sudden, he didn’t want to escape anymore. He wanted to stay here. It wasn’t even because the woman was attractive to him. There was an aura to this house, an aura of welcome
“That would be just what the doctor ordered, actually”, he said, feeling pompous again as soon as he said it. “I never took to coffee. I’m the only tea-drinker in the office.” He followed her into the kitchen, which was even smaller than he had expected. But the wallpaper seemed new.
“I don’t think I even tasted coffee until I came to Dublin in my early twenties”, she said, taking two mugs from the mug-tree, moving about the little room with slow grace. She had a full, neat figure. “Sit down, would you. The kitchen is too small for standing room.”
He sat, and looked out the window, at the patioed back garden. The October evening was darkening already. The blue of the sky reminded him of the snow-globe’s backdrop. “They say there might be snow”, he said, drawing a strange reassurance from the banality of the comment.
Mrs. Rice’s reaction surprised him. She had been taking a box of teabags from a press, and she froze in mid-motion. She turned her face to him, giving him a much keener glance than she had when he had first opened the door, when he had first brought his bad news to her doorstep.
“Really?”, she said. “When did you hear that?”
“This morning”, he said, taken aback. “The weather on the radio.”
“And do they usually get it right?”, she asked, slowly taking the plate down, but still watching him. The eagerness in her eyes startled him. It seemed out of all reasonable proportion to what they were talking about. “I don’t listen to the radio myself. Too much bad news.”
“Well, most of the time they seem pretty close”, said Merriman.
She gazed at him, but in a way that made him think she was hardly seeing him at all. “You know, Marcus has never really seen snow”, she said, dreamily. “The last time it snowed properly he was a baby. But he’s always asking about it. Always”
“When I was a kid”, said Mr. Merriman, feeling like he could stand here and talk to Mrs. Rice forever, “we’d sometimes have snowfalls that we could stand to our little knees in.”
The smile Mrs. Rice gave him made him feel as if he had said something very clever and profound. She looked like she couldn’t agree with him more— as if she had seen those very same snowfalls— as if it was a secret just between the two of them.
Then, to Merriman’s panic, her face twisted with sorrow, and tears were streaking her cheeks.
“Mrs. Rice—”, he began, moving forward, putting an arm out, suddenly feeling like he was trapped in a cage.
She blocked his hand, gently, before it could reach her. “Shauna”, she said, and sniffed loudly. She didn’t look embarrassed, but he could see there would be no more tears. “Call me Shauna”.
It was discouraged to use applicants’ first names. The Paula’s Foundation guidelines warned against intimacy. It just made things harder. Merriman didn’t think there was much danger of intimacy here.
“The Foundation employs a counsellor—“ he began.
“No thanks”, said Mrs. Shauna, almost vehemently. Merriman never understood why so many people reacted so viscerally to the word counsellor. His wife had been a counsellor. She had done ten times more good in the world than he ever would.
“I’m fine now”, said Mrs. Rice, rubbing the tears from her cheeks. She already looked like someone incapable of crying. “It’s just whenever I think of my own childhood—of the fields I used to run through—all the friends I had—playing handball against the biscuit factory wall--it’s so different for Marcus.” Her voice was calm now.
The kettle boiled over, and Mrs. Rice began pouring it into the mugs, almost unthinkingly.
“Marcus never wants anything”, she said, stirring a cup meditatively. “I’m so grateful for it, but sometimes I wish he’d just ask for things. That there was something I could do for him. There was a book he had once—years ago—about kids toboganning in the snow. He called it “tobo-going”.” She laughed. “He’s had a fascination with snow since then.”
“Well, this looks pretty promising”, said Merriman, staring out the kitchen window. The flakes were swirling in the air more thickly now.
“Maybe”, said Shauna, not looking around. For all her calmness, Merriman could tell that she frightened to hope, that she was desperately suppressing hope. “Do you take sugar?”
“No”, said Merriman, somehow feeling pleased that she hadn’t asked if he took milk. Black tea would be unthinkable to her. And who would really choose to drink it, anyway? This woman had probably never sipped a cappuccino in her life, and in Merriman’s opinion, there was a kind of glory in that.
“So how long have you been…doing this?”, she asked, putting two spoonfuls of sugar into her own tea and stirring it energetically.
“Seven years”, said Merriman, and he could read the thought on her face as soon as he said it. All the children you visited first are probably dead now.
But, as she handed him his cup of tea—in a plain white mug, he noted approvingly—she only said: “It must be pretty tough work”.
All the time, she was studiously not looking out the window.
“I don’t think I’ll last another year”, said Merriman.
As soon as the words had left his lips, he felt like biting his fist in embarrassment. But Shauna didn’t even seem to notice. She was looking at him as if his soul was an infant’s jigsaw puzzle, one she was putting together with ease. He wasn’t sure whether he liked that look or not.
“What did you do before?”
“I was a teacher”, said Merriman, who hated admitting that he’d been a headmaster at an exclusive school.
“Marcus’s father is a teacher—“, started Shauna.
But at that moment the baby upstairs started bawling again. She patiently set her mug down at the sideboard and said: “I’m sorry. I’ll be back in a tick.”
As soon as he heard her ascending the stairs, Merriman made his way back to the living room. Something was bothering him. That damned snowglobe ruining the symmetry of the mantlepiece. He was the kind of man who was tortured by the sight of one shirt-sleeved rolled higher than the other.
But walking through the little hall, he noticed something he hadn’t seen before. There was a photo of a boy, aged about four, hanging in a small oval frame at the bottom of the stairs.
Somehow, Merriman had expected Marcus to be rather wan-looking, solemn, otherworldy. But the face that stared out was a chubby, cheerful kid. Of course, that was years ago.
Three years, he’d guess. Half a lifetime, in this case.
He hurried past it, half-listening to the baby’s dwindling sobs, and into the living room. He reached towards the snowglobe. Just an inch or a half to the right, he thought—
Merriman had always been dexterous. He’d constructed an entire model village, many years ago. But for once, he was clumsy, and the snowglobe went sliding off the mantepiece, struck the edge of the grate, and smashed into fragments. The water soaked the carpet underneath. Merriman spat a curse that he hadn’t used for years, to the empty room.
When Shauna finally came down, he’d been practicing his penitent look for three or four minutes. A brief expression of loss flickered on the woman’s face, when she saw the splash on the carpet. The strength of it surprised him, but the next moment, she was all reassurance.
“It’s nothing…I’ll clean it up later…don’t worry about it…”
“I can’t believe I was such an idiot…”
“It was only a cheap oul’ thing…”
Merriman was crouching in front of the fireplace, looking for any microscopic shards of glass that he hadn’t cleared already, ignoring Shauna’s appeals to just forget it, when he became aware of another presence in the room.
He looked around, and he saw that Marcus had joined them.
He didn’t look that different from his photo, despite the lapse of time. He was a little less chubby, that was all. Nobody would guess he was dying.
His sandy hair was tousled, and he was wearing pyjamas featuring a range of robotic-reptilian toys that had been all the rage four or five years ago.
He was staring out the window. So was his mother.
Merriman followed their gaze. It was snowing heavily now. No more heavily than he had seen a dozen times before, but parent and child seemed utterly entranced. Even Merriman felt like he was looking at something miraculous.
The sight had given him gooseflesh. Falling snow had given him gooseflesh, and that didn’t feel s trange at all.
He found his eyes turning to Marcus again. What had Shauna said? That he never wanted anything? Well, Merriman didn’t think he had ever seen colossal desire as he saw now, written on the boy’s face. Marcus hadn’t inherited his mother’s crow-black hair, but he had her dark eyes. Those dark eyes seemed to look out from a soul unfathomably deep—deep, and unguessable.
He had never seen such intense, such ferocious concentration. It spooked him more than a little.
“It looks like the weather-men was right,” said Shauna, and her voice, though almost rapturous, was as gentle as ever.
Merriman looked up with a start, as if he had been woken from a trance. Shauna was beaming at him, almost gratefully, as if he had brought this weather.
He looked back at Marcus. Suddenly, all he saw was an eight-year-old boy, in faded pyjamas.
* * * * *
But as he was driving home, those bottomless eyes, and the sheer force of desire that was compressed in them, continued to haunt him. That boy was dying.
Somehow, despite all the dying children he had met, the memory made Merriman realise—really realise, for the first time in his life—that he was going to die, too.
He never returned to the unremarkable satellite town, and he never found out what the snow brought with it.
But that was a story the outside world would never learn, a tale bound into one tiny orb of space and time.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, and dear children, we come to the main artery of the beating heart that is Dublin City. O’Connell Street, formerly known as Sackville Street”.
“When was the name changed to O’Connell Street?”, asked the young Italian lady with the fish-shaped earring.
Brendan looked down at her, hardly even trying to hide his irritation now. One of the other passengers, a fat Englishman with a fatter wife, sighed openly. There only nine passengers altogether—that was good going, for an October’s day—and this one had hardly shut up since they met outside Stephen’s Green, and begun their long roundabout circuit. The circuit Brendan had made hundreds of times in the past, and that he knew all too well by now.
“I don’t know”, he said, bluntly, giving her a sardonic smile which he knew would be lost on her.
He knew that girl, though he had never seen her in his life. She was the sort who never stopped asking questions of teachers and lecturers, never caring how pointless they were, happy just to fill the room with her voice. She would be helpful and kind-hearted; the sort of person who would know First Aid and leap at any chance to use it. She was pretty, though her very fashionable clothes looked awful, and the gleam of her teeth made them look like those shields boxers put in their mouths.
She would be bright, and helpful, and cheerful. And utterly unendurable for more than five minutes at a time.
“Was it when the British left, in 1922?”, she asked.
“I really don’t know”, said Brendan. “I’m sure you’ll find it in a reference book.” If you care so bloody much, he wished he could add.
The woman nodded, perfectly satisfied now she had exercised her vocal chords.
The open-topped bus was still standing where it had been when the woman interrupted him. Every year that Brendan had done this tour—almost ten years now—the traffic had grown heavier. There seemed no saturation point, no point at which people decided it was too much bother to take a car into the city centre.
Brendan sometimes wondered whether even landmines would stop them.
He looked around the bus. It was a frosty morning, and everybody was wearing jackets. Some were even wearing scarves. Not the sort of day for an open-top bus tour, you might think, but there was always a few people ready to take it, ever since they’d got mentioned in that travel guide.
The Italian girl was sitting on her own, to Brendan’s surprise. People like her rarely did anything alone. They usually press-ganged other people into going along with their schemes. It was hard to say no to them. Besides, a pretty girl like her would have plenty of men sniffing around. Maybe her travelling companion was sick. Or pretending to be sick.
There was the fat English couple, who had the unmistakeable look of wealth about them. Good-humoured on the surface, but with a self-assurance that said Don’t mess with me visible underneath. There were three American girls, who never stopped smiling. There was a Japanese couple, middle-aged, with a little boy who looked like he couldn’t understand a word Brendan said. They were all three wearing caps that looked a little like Davy Crockett hats.
He looked back at the frozen river of cars and felt like screaming. This job had been meant as a stop-gap. He wanted to write. He had written. He’d written The Old Country Guide to Dublin, available in any good second-hand bookshop. But that had only been a calling-card. He’d been researching Boxing the Fox; a History of Dublin Slang for seven years now. But the world didn’t seem to care that boxing the fox had been the old Dublin term for robbing an orchard. With every day that passed, Brendan cared less himself.
His attention returned to the bus. He saw those faces—those awful faces—looking at him expectantly, almost curiously. He had to stop wandering into a daze like this. He raised the microphone to his lips.
“You see on our left the statue of James Larkin, the famous labour leader, who led the Dublin lock-out of 1913. The employers of Dublin got together to victimise the members of his union, the Transport and General Worker’s Union. As usual, the bosses won. It says on the base of his statue: The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise.”
The fat Englishman muttered something to his wife, and she laughed.
“What was that?”, asked Brendan.
The Englishman looked up, surprised, but still perfectly calm. His self-possession infuriated Brendan. People like him thought they owned the world.
“Nothing”, he said, with a smile that was meant to be pacifying.
“Something I said struck you as funny, maybe”, said Brendan, still speaking into the microphone.
The Englishman only looked reluctant. His wife said, in a strong Yorkshire accent: “When you said, Let us rise, he said, He really meant give us a rise”.
Her husband smiled again, as if expecting to be congratulated on his witticism, and something—something that had been just about hanging on for months now-- gave way inside Brendan.
“Have you any idea what kind of life the Dublin poor were living at that time?”, he asked, glaring at the fat man, who didn’t seem in the least bit intimidated. “Twenty thousand families living in one-room tenements? The highest rate of infant mortality in Europe? Do you think that’s a joke?”.
“Look, mister, I’m sorry for interrupting you”, said the Englishman, lifting his beefy hands. “I don’t want to ruin anybody’s tour.”
Brendan just stood there, glaring at him. If only the man had seemed chastened or embarrassed, he might have been satisfied. But he didn’t. He looked like he couldn’t be bothered to press the matter, and that made Brendan even more furious.
“Ruin anybody’s tour?”, he said, looking around the bus with a theatrical grin, as if he found this hilarious. “Do you really think anybody enjoys this stuff?”
“I really couldn’t say”, said the Englishman, looking bored rather than annoyed. “It was alright up till now.”
“I don’t think you really think that”, said Brendan, determined to make the man angry, to kick him out of his piggish complacency. “I don’t think anybody enjoys these tours.” He looked around the small audience again, and felt pleased at the shock on their faces. “I think they just do them as a kind of tip of the hat to culture, and history, and all that stuff.”
One of the American girls had her mouth hanging open, like somebody in a comedy sketch, and he pressed on, like a dog scenting blood.
“What you’re really here for is the shopping, isn’t it? To buy some junk and carry it home like the head of a goddamned tiger. To have your picture taken beside the Molly Malone statue, to add to your pictures by the Eiffel Tower and the Grand Canyon and Buckingham Palace. So you can pretend to yourself that you’ve lived, that you’ve seen the world, that you’re cosmopolitan.”
“You’re the one giving the tour, mate”, said the Englishman, and now he was smiling. Brendan turned away from him, scared he would punch him the face if he looked at him one moment longer. He turned to the others.
“Do you want to know how I see you?”, he asked, looking from face to face, his voice rising. “As nothing but latter-day Vikings, that’s all. Flying around the world, pumping more pollution into the atmosphere, leaving a trail of hotels and car-parks and tacky gift-shops wherever you go. Turning every damned country into a theme park”.
“I don’t think—“ the Italian girl started to say.
“I know you don’t”, said Brendan. “You’re too busy talking to think, sweetheart. One of these days your mouth is going to go on strike.”
There was a ripple of laughter from the American girls, and the Italian stared at him blankly, as if she had no notion what he was talking about. He felt exhilarated. He felt possessed. Now he was almost shouting, into the microphone.
“Why don’t you all get your bags and your cameras, pack off home, and start doing something for your own culture, before you start poking into others? Join a local history society! Start a traditional New England furniture-making workshop! Revive a Mystery Play! Support a Shinto shrine!”.
“So there’s no such thing as an Irish tourist, then?”, said the Englishman, who was grinning broadly, obviously enjoying himself.
“The Irish?”, asked Brendan, giving him a bitter smile. “You think I’m making an exception of the Irish, do you? Well, think again. They’re the worst in the whole world! Nothing makes the Irish happier than demolishing a Georgian house, or building over a historic site! Nothing embarrasses them more than their own traditions! Write a book about anything Irish, and people say: Aim it at the tourist market.”
“I should have known he was a frustrated writer”, said the Englishman to his wife.
“You people—“ started Brendan, swinging back towards the others, but he stopped there.
He suddenly noticed that the Japanese boy was staring at him with enormous eyes. Fear shone in them. The kid obviously had no idea what Brendan was saying. The boy’s mother was grasping his hand, protectively.
Brendan felt that a shower of ice-cold water had suddenly come down over his head.
He looked into the street. People were staring at him from cars. Passers-by had stopped to look.
“Oh God,” he said, running a hand over his face, feeling as if he had just found himself inside a nightmare. “Oh God almighty.”
He looked up again. The boy was still staring at him with huge anxious eyes, and Brendan wished he could tell him not to be afraid, that he would rather die than hurt him.
“I’m sorry”, he said, looking around the bus—he had never seen an audience so rapt before. His voice quivered. “I’m so sorry.” “
Nobody said anything. Outside, nothing moved. It felt as though time had stopped.
What the hell do I know about you, anyway?”, asked Brendan, turning on his heel, not wanting to look at the Japanese boy anymore. He at the American girls. “How do I know that you don’t speak native Apache, or whatever the hell language the Apache spoke? How do I know that you aren’t the…the treasurer of the Turin Dante Society?”, he said, turning to the Italian girl, whose face was still blank with shock. “How do I know that you won’t spend your entire holiday looking at bloody megalithic tombs? Why the hell do I think I’m better than any of you?”
“Don’t apologise to me, mate”, said the Englishman, laughing. “Best damned tour I’ve ever been on.”
“Good”, said Brendan, looking at him, not caring whether he laughed anymore. “As for the rest of you, I’m sorry I ruined it for you. I’m sure you’ll get your money back. Just ask the driver.”
He tossed the microphone onto an empty seat—there were plenty of those—and hurried downstairs. There were a few giggles, but they were nervous rather than amused.
He walked towards the driver’s seat, and looked at her bashfully. It was Ciara today; thank God it wasn’t Kevin, who hated him. Kevin would have loved to have heard all that.
“I think I’ve just given in my notice”, said Brendan, making an effort at a rueful smile.
Ciara gave him a sad smile back. She had a livid purple birthmark on her face, but it hardly took away from her striking good looks. She had been with the tour even longer than him.
“I think that was coming a long time”, she said. “What are you going to do?”
“Go home”, said Brendan, instantly. “Go home to Higginstown”.
“I thought you hated Higginstown”, said Ciara.
“I’ve been…remembering some good things about it.”
“Well”, said Ciara, and her smiled softened, “I’ll miss you. I hope you’re happier there. It was time to quit.”
“Past time”, said Brendan.
She opened the doors. “I’ll tell Donovan you’ve tended your resignation”, she said. “Give me a buzz sometime, Brendan.”
“I will”, he said, hopping off the bus, suddenly feeling an enormous sense of relief.
He looked around the street. People were still looking at him. He smiled at them weakly, put his head down, and strode through O’Connell Street, as quickly as the crowd would let him.
Would he phone Donovan to apologise? The hell with that, he thought. Donovan had never liked him. As for his landlady, he’d ring her to tell her she could advertise his room again. He hadn’t signed anything. And she could keep what few possessions he’d left, or throw them out for all he cared. He wanted to step out of the old life completely. As for the blazer he was wearing, he’d bought that with his own cash. Donovan never liked paying for anything.
He almost walked past his bus-stop in his agitation. It would take two buses to get to Higginstown. Did he even have enough money? He checked his pockets. Just about.
The traffic was still crawling. He looked about the city’s main street, feeling the same old hatred towards the fast-food restaurants, the advertisements for digital television, and—most of all—the huge steel Spire that the Corporation had set up, like a huge tongue stuck out at the city’s past.
Well, every other city was the same now, wasn’t it? With the same chain-stores, the same awful modern monuments, the same corporate office-blocks? Why should Dublin be spared, just because he had written a book about it?
He got onto the bus, wondering how his sister would react when she opened the door. Their last conversation hadn’t been so friendly. But he knew she’d take him in. They’d been inseparable as kids.
Kids. What he’d said to Ciara was true; he was remembering Higginstown more fondly now. He’d always sneered at it as a banal little suburb without history, hardly older than he was himself.
But it did have a history. It had his history. Life had seemed so full of possibilities, when he lived there. Maybe he could find that feeling again.
The bus had finally made its way out of the main commuter routes, and now it was moving more freely through the streets. Suddenly, Brendan felt lighter of heart than he had felt in a long time. He had made a decision. And the whole thing seemed funny already.
It had started to snow. Brendan began to feel almost jubliant. He had always loved snow. And he was going home.
Of course, he didn’t know what the snow was bringing with it. He didn’t know that the banal little suburb of Higginstown, so innocent of history, would soon witness events unlike anything in all the long ages of the world.. He didn’t know that the journey he was taking now was strictly one-way.
But nobody knew any of that. Yet.
The snow fell thicker, and thicker. Children kept waking through the night, and rushing to the windows to see if it was still falling. They weren’t disappointed. When dawn began to creep into the sky, there was a thick white carpet lying over Dublin, such as had not been seen in many years. And nowhere did it lie thicker than in Higginstown.
Lisa Heffernan looked at the ground as she walked, taking pleasure in the crunch of her boots in the snow. She was wishing there had been more snowfalls like this in her childhood, or even her early teens. Even she had been a little been older, she might have felt less inhibited in taking a childish pleasure in it. But she was only two years out of school, and she was still doing her best to be an adult.
Her mother, walking a little behind her, hardly thought of the snow. She was wondering if she should get a loan from the bank. Christmas was coming, but her goose wasn’t getting fat. The shop had been doing its worse trade for years, but they had to be ready for Christmas all the same.
Then she saw the shop, and she forgot all about loans and cash-flow.
“Who on Earth did that?”, she cried, and Lisa looked up.
Graffitti had been scribbled all over the front door of the shop. It was in blue marker, and stood out lividly against the blood-red paint, even in the dim light of dawn. The word FREEKS stood out above all others, written in enormous letters, running diagonally across the door like a sash.
There was a lot more besides, though. The two women stood before the door for two or three minutes, silently taking in the riot of scrawls. There were obscene pictures, that looked like the evidence of some prehistoric fertility cult. There was a charming proclamation that GOD HATES YOU. There was the promise, KNOCK ON MY DOOR AND I’LL KILL YOU. But most of the graffiti had the same message; Go away.
Lisa looked around, and saw that her mother was crying. She reached out and clasped her arm, but she couldn’t help feeling impatient. Why was her mother such a dramatist?
“Oh, don’t be like that, Mum”, she said, stopping herself from saying For God’s sake. “It’s just kids. Probably kids I went to school with.”
“Are we ever going to be free?”, whimpered her mother, putting a gloved hand to her face.
“It looks like it will wash off easily enough”, said Lisa. “It’s not the first time we’ve had graffiti”.
“I’m sorry, honey”, sobbed her mother, her hands still at her face. “I’m sorry for what we did to you. I’m sorry we ever took you near those lunatics.”
“Forget about it”, said Lisa, who was sick and tired of her mother’s apologies. “Let’s go inside and have a cup of tea. It’s just kids, Mum. It doesn’t mean anything.”
She tried to ignore her mother’s hysterics as she opened the door and switched on the lights. She’d always been getting hassle at school. She remembered having to sit outside during religion class, having to do something else whenever the other kids were rehearsing a Christmas play or making Halloween lanterns. She’d got used to it; it wasn’t like she was a pariah or an outsider. Kids would latch onto anything that made you different, that was all.
Then three years ago, after her father died, her mother had decided to leave the Church of the Lamb. It was them trying to marry her to another member that did it. Lisa was glad—she’d hated being the freaky religious kid—but she wished her mother could just put it all behind her. She used to see Satan behind everything; now she saw the Church of the Lamb behind everything.
“At least they didn’t get into the shop”, said her mother, looking around. “God be praised for that.”
“I doubt they even tried”, said Lisa, opening the kitchen door and taking her coat off.
“Do you know what I think?”, said her mother, following Lisa into the kitchen and slowly removing her own hat, coat and gloves. “I think the Church might have done this themselves. They were always saying the world was evil. They’re trying to convince us of it, now. They’re trying to drive us back to them.”
That sounded almost plausible to Lisa—Church missionaries had kept calling to their house for almost a year after they’d left, even when her mother threatened them with the police—but she didn’t want to encourage the train of thought. “No, Mum. It’s not their style. They couldn’t bring themselves to write stuff like that, even as an act. Do you remember when Deirdre Lonergan said damn?”
A smile flitted across her mother’s face for a moment, and Lisa felt relieved. She had never lost her sense of humour, at least. Her mother giggled, and sobbed, and turned to put her outer garments on the stand.
Lisa made tea, and while her mother set up shop, she took a basin of water and some detergent out to the front door. She’d been right; it was easily removed, though it took a bit of elbow grease. It was even quite pleasant, scrubbing away at it. Lisa had always liked work. And all the time it continued to snow, throwing that faint and unearthly glow that snow threw over everything.
She went back into the shop. Her mother was dusting the toy soldiers. She had dusted them yesterday, too. She spent a lot of time dusting.
“I saw some jigsaws in the Art Shop the other day”, said Lisa, going behind the counter, trying to keep her voice casual. “They looked really tasteful, Mum. Pictures of the Alps, of horses…stuff like that. Nothing to do with television programmes or comics.”
Her mother looked up at her, her face troubled as if they were discussing world hunger rather than jigsaws. Lisa felt pride in her mother’s looks. She was prettier than her daughter; she always had been. Lisa had inherited her looks from her father. And he had been no Clark Gable, that was for sure.
“Jigsaws?”, asked her mother, as if she had never heard of them before. “Are they mass-produced?”
“I don’t know”, said Lisa. “Does it really matter that much?”.
“It matters”, said her mother, gently, dropping her eyes, dusting a toy soldier more vigorously. “Everything in this shop is one hundred per cent hand-crafted. Always has been, always will be. You know that, Lisa.” There was a reproach in that last statement, all the stronger for being faint.
“But Mum—“ began her daughter, and then stopped. What was the use? They’d been over this territory a hundred times. Her mother even put her foot down at them having a computer in the shop. It sets the wrong tone, she said. It didn’t matter that business was slowly crawling to a halt. One hundred per cent hand-crafted. Vintage. Those were the dogmas of Timeless Toys, and her mother clung to them as ferociously as she had once clung to the dogmas of the Church of the Lamb. Lisa even thought they had become a sort of substitute for them.
But when her father was alive, he had supplied the shop with an almost endless supply of his own creations. Now, they had to buy all their stock. And it didn’t come cheap.
Lisa was wondering if the shop would see another Christmas when the bell rang. She looked up, expecting more parents bringing their child in strictly for browsing. But a little tremble passed over her when she saw who it was; the last person she could have expected.
It was Sheridan Laffan, from school. She hadn’t seen him since she left. But she had spent a lot of time looking at him before that.
He was one of those rare people who were strange-looking and good-looking at once. She’d heard the other girls discussing him. Some of them thought he was a freak. Others thought he was a “fine thing”. One of his eyes looked a little larger than the other, his lips were almost as full as a girl’s, and he had baby cheeks. Lisa thought he was the most beautiful boy she had ever laid eyes on. Not a boy, anymore. A man. And now he was here.
He was wearing a thick black coat, and grey jeans. His hair was shorter than it used to be. He was carrying a satchel, and he had that deliciously distracted look he always had. He looked up at her, and nodded without smiling. He hardly ever smiled.
“Lisa”, he said.
“Sheridan”, she said, feeling it come out as a whinny. In the side of her vision, she saw her mother coming towards them. “Are you Christmas shopping already?”
He shook his head. “I’m like you”, he said. “I don’t bother with Christmas.”
“I love Christmas”, said Lisa, not wanting to disagree with him, but eager to let him know that things had changed.
“I thought…” he said, looking up at her mother, and trailing off.
“Not any more”, said Lisa hurriedly, frightened the opportunity was going to pass. “I can celebrate anything I want to now.”
Now he did give a crooked smile, as if she had said something funny. It almost gave her goose pimples. “That’s quite a claim”, he said. “Anyway, I’m not here to buy. I’m here to contribute.”
“Hello”, said Lisa’s mother, extending her hand. “I’m Fiona.”
“I’m Sheridan”, he said, shaking her hand for an instant and then letting it go. There was something wonderfully confident in the gesture, Lisa thought. He’d always been like that; slightly awkward on the surface, but with an air of invincible self-assurance underneath.
And, Lisa noticed, he didn’t stare at his mother like most men, young and old, stared at her when they met her. She was glad of it.
“Well, Sheridan”, said Fiona, “Let’s see what you have for us. But I have to be honest, we don’t have much money to play with right now.”
“Oh, I don’t want any money for them”, said Sheridan, unfastening the straps on his satchel. “I just want you to stock them. If you sell any, you can give me a cut.”
He reached into his satchel, and pulled out something that looked like a miniature totem pole. Lisa and her mother stared at it. It was…arresting.
It was beautiful, Lisa decided, and it wasn’t just her feelings for Sheridan that made her think it. It was like a little like a cigar-store Indian, perhaps fifteen inches high, but it depicted a creature of some kind. A monster, she might say. It had huge eyes and…were they fangs in its grinning mouth? She reached her hand out and touched it. It was made of wood, and painted in earthy colours. It was hard to believe it had not been pulled from some architectural dig, perfectly well preserved.
“What is it?”, asked Fiona, and Lisa could hear the hostility in her voice.
“Just something I made”, said Sheridan, as if that explained everything.
Lisa had been in art class with Sheridan. He had been the undisputed star of the class. Some of his pictures were stunning. Once or twice he’d been told off for painting or sculpting something a million miles from the teacher’s guidelines. Not that he was a rebel. He just seemed to get carried away.
But then, he was one of the smartest kids in her year. He nearly always got an A in everything. Everybody expected him to go to art school or go in for law or medicine or something like that. But he hadn’t even gone to college, she’d heard. He’d just hung around his parents house, rarely even going out.
“I don’t really think it would suit us”, Lisa’s mother said.
“Oh, Mum”, said Lisa, looking up into her mother’s face, her heart falling at the stony expression she saw. Once her mother’s mind had been made up, the game was over. “I think it’s beautiful. I think we should give it a chance.”
But Sheridan was already putting the thing back in his satchel. He didn’t look in the least bit disappointed. “I think you’re probably right.”
“Mum”, said Lisa, feeling desperate. “I definitely think we should stock this. Definitely.”
Sheridan hesitated, looking from daughter to mother. Fiona was staring at Lisa now, a mild sort of shock on her face. She peered into her daughters’ eyes for a few moments, and then turned to Sheridan with a sweet smile.
“Can you bear with us for a moment, Sheridan? I’d like to confer with my daughter.”
“Sure” said Sheridan, as if nothing could be more natural. “I’ll look around.”
Her mother turned and walked into the kitchenette, with all the grace that made male eyes follow her wherever she went. Lisa walked in behind her.
Fiona closed the door, keeping her hand on its handle, and turned towards her daughter. She didn’t seem angry. Only baffled.
“Honey, what are you doing? Those things are awful. They’d scare any child out of the shop.”
It was all Lisa could do not to drop her eyes, not to let her embarrassment show. But she met her mother’s gaze, and said, mildly, “I think they’re beautiful, Mum. And I don’t think kids scare so easily. I think kids love scary stuff.”
“Kids might, but their parents don’t”, said her mother. “It might be beautiful—I don’t know about that—but I just can’t let it into our shop.” And she turned back towards the door.
“Mum”, said Lisa, gently grasping her mother’s arm. Fiona turned back towards her, now looking more surprised than ever. There was nothing for it, Lisa thought. “Mum, I really, really, really like this boy. I always have. Please give him a chance. For me.”
Lisa had to look away this time. She didn’t see the protective, happy, excited look in her mothers’ eyes, but she heard her say: “Oh, honey. I’m so stupid.” She smiled, and she looked like a teenage girl. “Of course we’ll stock them.”
During their years in the Church of the Lamb, boys had been strictly off limits to Lisa. The Church arranged a husband for you when the time came. Even since they had left, she had only dated one guy—someone she hadn’t even liked that much, and who had tried to grope her within fifteen minutes—and Fiona hadn’t known about him at all. Now she was almost in raptures.
They went back out to the counter. Sheridan was looking at a model boat. He was razor-thin, and a little over the average height. His hair was a white-blonde. He seemed to have forgotten all about them.
“Sheridan”, said Lisa’s mother, and suddenly her voice was warm. He turned, and walked towards the counter, raising his eyebrows a little in enquiry
“We’ve decided to give your stuff a try”, said Fiona, giving him a smile that most men would find dazzling. “It’s beautiful, for sure, but I don’t know if the public will go for them. They’re so stuffy, sometimes.”
“Thank you”, said Sheridan, reaching into his satchel. He took out five of the statuettes, laying them in a line along the counter. Each one was different to the others; the same creatures, whatever they were, but with different colours and expressions. “Charge whatever you want for them. Give me whatever you think fair.”
“I just hope they sell”, said Fiona. “Do you want to leave a phone number, so we can phone you if they do?”
“Sure”, said Sheridan, and soon he was writing his details into the ledger of the shop. Lisa glanced over her mother’s shoulder. He had such beautiful, even writing.
When he was gone, Lisa’s mother interrogated her about him for fifteen minutes, but Lisa didn’t mind. She even enjoyed it, though it was embarrassing. She felt like her mother had changed towards her, already; as if she grown up in her eyes.
Then the shop fell back into its routine, and Lisa fell to dreaming. One or two children dragged their parents in, stared at a tin train or a doll in a wedding dress for a few minutes, and were dragged away again. The snow kept falling.
Around half-three, a stout man in a business suit, carrying a briefcase, breezed into the shop. He went straight to the train set himself; it could be seen from the window. He gazed at it for all of five minutes, and seemed about to leave. Then Sheridan’s statuettes caught his eye. They had put them in the corner of the shop, beside the chess sets.
He wandered over, picked one up, and looked at it from every angle, a kind of bemusement in his eyes. He looked up at her. “What is this?”, he asked, and there was a hint of irritation in his voice.
“It’s by a local artist”, said Lisa, after a few moment’s hesitation. She just about succeeded in keeping irritation out of her own voice.
“Weird-looking stuff”, said the man, and put it down. He looked at the model train for a few more minutes, and sauntered out of the shop.
An hour later, he came back to the shop, made a line straight for the statuettes, looked at each in turn, and brought two of them to the counter. “How much for these?”, he asked, with an air of embarrassment.
“Ten euros each”, said Lisa. That was the price her mother had decided on.
The man took his wallet out, and handed over the cash. There was a frown on his face, as if he was angry at his change of mind. “They just stuck in my head”, he said, as though some kind of explanation was required of him. “They remind me of something, and I can’t say what. I don’t know that I exactly like them, but…”
“They’re unique”, said Lisa, joy in her heart.
“Some snow, isn’t it?”, said the man, eager to change the subject.
Lisa looked past him. It was tumbling down faster than ever now. “Never seen anything like it”, she said.
The man took one of his prizes in each hand, and hurried out the door.
Before the shop closed at six o’ clock, they had sold another of the statuettes, to a grey-haired woman who said they made her feel like a girl again, though she couldn’t say why. Lisa felt like singing. She was going to see Sheridan again, for sure. And he’d smiled at her.
But she kept feeling the things were looking at her.