Short Stories by John O’Donnell:
[John’s story ‘Marks’ won the prize for Fiction, Cuirt New Writing 2016.]
She’s standing over me and I can smell ThreeNines off her, his cheap cigars, the faint whiff of Old Spice. “Get up”, she says, “get up, Con”. “Leave me be, Ma”, I say, turning over, but she whips the duvet off me and suddenly I’m Baltic. “Get up, would you”, she says, “your lift’s downstairs”. Hoppy: I can hear him, smarming up to my sister. “Fifth Year, is it? I thought you’d finished school”. She’s buying it as well, smirking at him as she chews her hair in a way she doesn’t know is lovely. “There you are”, says Hoppy, looking up at me as I’m barrelling down towards the front door, still buttoning my shirt. “We’re off so, Mrs Kearney”, he says to the old doll, before turning to my sister. “Bye, Siobhan”, he says, flashing her a grin, his teeth a row of crooked tombstones. “Bye, Hoppy”, says Siobhan, smiling back.
“You’d better have that for me later”, Hoppy says, “or I won’t be responsible”. The interior of the Skoda is grimly pristine, like that room in “Silent Witness” where your one cuts up the stiffs. “Next Turn Garth Brooks Plaza”, says the road-sign. Hoppy veers left and the white roof rises up ahead of us, a giant stetson. I’ve no chance of finding him a monkey by tonight, and Hoppy knows it. The old doll’s not got it, nor Siobhan neither; an even if they had they wouldn’t give it to me, not after the row about Siobhan’s babysitting money going missing from the Father Ted DVD. “I already told you”, I said to them, Siobhan bawling her eyes out and the old doll waving the empty DVD case in my face, “I don’t have your stupid money”. I didn’t have it either, not by then: Doncaster, 3.30, Compagnero, 8 to 1, and for all I know it’s out there still, or else it’s sliced and diced and stewed in its own juices in some tin. Like I’ll be if I don’t get Hoppy back his money. Because that pair he kicks around with, they don’t mess about. The Twins.
Oh sure, I could tell ThreeNines. Tom Nyhan, Sergeant; NyhanNyhanNyhan, some smart- arse called him, and ThreeNines now, for short. My old doll’s squeeze these last two years. He knows I hate him. He’d be leaning on the counter in the station and winking back at Kennedy, the other blue. “D’you hear that, Kenno? Dolores’s young fella owes Aidan Hopkins five hundred”. The way he says the old doll’s name; I can’t stand it. “For the ponies. And now Hopkins is saying if he doesn’t get it back this evening, he’ll have young Con here done for”. Kennedy, the little scut that he is, would be smirking and rolling his eyes to Heaven inside in the office. “I’ve packed it in”, I’d want to say then, “I’ve packed it in and I’m never having another bet, so fuck the pair of ye”. And I’d walk out, leaving the both of them sniggering behind me. With the €4.30 I have left still in my pocket.
Way back before it became Boylesports it was Meaneys. “The best name for a bookie yet”, my father’d say as he’d push open the door and we’d step in. “Howiya, Ram”, Fonsie Meaney’d say to my father, watching as he thumbed over the notes. Then, the first time that he tossed a stray fiver in my direction: “Try this”, he said: Navan, 4.15, Just Kidding, 6 to 1. I could feel their eyes on me as I filled out the docket; Fonsie, and my father, and Higgins, the solicitor’s apprentice with his arse propped up against the wall. When I walked over to the counter I could hardly reach back then, it was like being on parade. He was beaten a short head. “Wuh-hoh!” said Higgins, who’d backed the winner, or was letting on he had anyway. But by then they had me, and they knew it: the bays and chestnuts, the candy-coloured silks, hunched and steering, the flying clumps of kicked-up turf and the screeching of the commentator, rising in excitement; and the rising up inside of me as well, where winning was the best, but nearly winning was nearly as good, was almost better, because of the win that was certain to come next . “We’ll have to put a block on young Con’s head to stop him growing”, Fonsie’d say each time I was in there after that, until I grew tall enough to look him in the eye, although I never did, not even after my father died, and sometimes I wished they’d tied a block around my ankles, to stop me going in.
But I’m finished with all that now. A mug’s game, I keep repeating to myself, the way they tell you to; never again. And anyway, €4.30: there’s no longshot would’ve got me out with Hoppy on that, not even up in Boylesports. So how much damage could those two gorillas do to me, I’m wondering as we head in the back-door of the Plaza to get changed, and then I think of MacNamee, barely breathing when the blues found him at the bottom of the quarry, and I start praying that Roz has put me on Till 6. Because that’s my only chance.
The roster’s up already, though, and Roz’s black and neatly looping hand says I’m on Till 5. I’m doing up my tunic when she comes waddling towards us, carrying her clipboard. “Anyone seen Mac?” she asks. Silence at first: does she not know about the quarry? “Sure he’s above in hospital”, Hoppy says eventually. Roz’s foot taps out a tiny drum tattoo. “Ok, so”, she says in her Shift-Leader voice, “you do 6 today, Aidan. Con, you do….actually, no. Con, you do 6. Aidan, you’re on 5”. Winner alright, winner alright, the fuzzy tannoy in my head is saying; and where he’s gone to most times I don’t know, but maybe after all there is a God.
The best marks are the young lads, especially if they’re with a young one; they’re so busy showing off they hardly ever check. Palm the twenty, turn away, ring up ten. Oh no, sir, definitely a ten. Here’s the print-out, sir; and look. You hit the return key with a flourish, and the drawer springs open, showing the stacks of tenners and not a single twenty. Till 6 is just outside the cctv’s range, so there’s no way Roz can see even if someone complains. By First Break I’ve €100; by Lunch-Break I’ve €360. The Plaza’s humming. They roll in off the motorway, pasty-faced, exhausted; you could serve them up the leg of the Lamb of God and they wouldn’t notice. At the break Hoppy is talking to The Twins in one of the banquettes. I can see him point in my direction as the two of them stuff their faces, splotches of the dark- red burger sauce spattering their uniforms. Storm Security, the black jackets say, and there’s a little bolt of lightning high up on either sleeve. They’re not even brothers, although that’s no consolation to MacNamee stretched out above in the Rehab after the trimming thateverybody’s saying was from the pair of them. “See you in Queallys, Hoppy”, I say, real friendly, though Hoppy just says nothing, and later on the Skoda wheelspins out of the carpark. The afternoon is quieter, but they still come piling in and I still keep piling them up, those beautiful twenties the colour of a summer sky stashed inside my pocket. By six o’clock when I clock off I’ve €540, and I walk the mile of road back in to town. Because before I go to Queallys there’s something that I need to do.
I push in through the door. The place is tumbleweed; the only other punter in is Higgins, thinning now on top, in his plum suit and scuffed shoes. “Any luck?” I say. “Cartoons”, he says, nodding at the virtual racing on the screens. I pass the pinned-up pages from The Sporting Life, and the sheaf of dockets; I take a twenty out and walk up to the counter. “Hi Aoife”, I say into the glass. And for the first time today I smile. Aoife Meaney: she’s with MacNamee, but there’s something in those hazel eyes that makes my own eyes water, always has . “Hi Con”, she says, smiling. She has a bruise on her left eyebrow that she’s tried to hide with make-up. “For Rubin”, I say, pushing over the twenty. Her son; he’s special needs, and it’s his birthday tomorrow. “Awh, Con. Thanks”, she says. She smiles at me again, a real big smile this time. “How’s Mac?” I say then. She shifts in her seat. “The same”, she says. She looks away, touches the bruise. For a moment neither of us say anything. “So”, she says,
recovering herself, “are you having….” “No”, I say, real proud, “no bet”. I turn to leave, and then I look over my shoulder. “Maybe see you in Queallys later?” I say, and she grins back. “Yeah”, she says, “maybe”.
And I’m almost out the door when a car goes up the street: the Skoda, with Siobhan in the back, still in her school uniform, and someone else in there beside her. But it isn’t Hoppy driving; it’s the taller of the two, and I can just about make out the flash of lightning on his sleeve. I’m about to run up after them but the Skoda disappears, leaving the street emptier than before. So I’m standing in the doorway trying to work out what my next move will be when a little gust of wind in off the street catches the corner of one of The Life’s pages, and I see it: Crayford dogs, 6.52, Take Your Marks, 3 to 1. And it’s swelling up inside me now once more like organ-music, the feeling that you get when you know your luck is in. I’m in control here, I tell myself as I turn back towards the counter, snatching up a docket and pulling out a fistful of the twenties, I’m in total control.
[John’s short story “Shelley” won the 42nd Hennessy Award 2013 for Emerging Fiction.]
You said for me to say what happened, so I am, I’m saying it now; nothing happened. I don’t care what I said earlier, ‘cos this time I’m telling you the truth.
Shelley’s twelve. Same as me. Her Mam’s Tracey. Tracey and Mam are friends, or were until all this. Tracey’s in our house all the time. Darren says she should have her own key.
She’s in a different school to me. A special school, Mam says. She’s weird. I was scared of her at first. Mam told me it was rude to stare but I couldn’t help it, especially when she talked. Her words came out all muffled, like she was speaking with her mouth full.
When Tracey and Shelley come round, me and Shelley watch videos while Mam and Tracey light up and yack away in the kitchen. She’s no good at PlayStation, Shelley. All she ever wants to do is watch DVDs. She loves Father Ted. Father Jack is her favourite. We never go to Shelley’s place. Darren says I’m not missing much. He’s not the worst, Darren, though he really loses it if Mam’s been drinking. Last time there was a huge row. Darren was shouting, and Mam was crying and telling him he was a bully. He made her promise to give it up then, or he’d leave.
Anyway, this afternoon I’m telling about, Tracey came round with Shelley. It was still school holidays and I was on PlayStation. Tracey looked really posh; heels and lipstick and a tight dress. She kept talking about “the interview” and asking Mam and me to wish her luck. Mam said the manager would have to be dead from the waist down not to give her the job. They both started giggling and fussing, and then the front door closed and Tracey was gone and it was just Mam and Shelley and me.
We’d watched two episodes when Mam’s mobile rang. I could hear Tracey squeaking at the other end. Mam closed her phone and said “She’s got the job, she’s got the job” and gave us both a hug. Then she looked at Shelley and me. “Tracey’s down in Ryan’s having a drink to celebrate,” she said. “You’ll be okay here, the two of you, if I just go down for one drink, won’t you?” Then she changed her top and put on some lipstick. “One drink” she said, and the door closed and then it was just Shelley and me.
Vodka. I know where Mam hides it, so Darren won’t know she’s drinking. In the toilet. In a plastic bag at the bottom of the cistern. I lifted up the lid and put my hand down into the water. There was still a good bit left; more than half a bottle. I brought the bottle back to the front room. Mam had given us each some Coke so there were still two glasses on the table in front of the television. I poured some vodka into my glass and some into Shelley’s and I poured some Coke in for each of us. Shelley smiled; her funny crooked smile. Then we both took a drink. It didn’t taste any different. I poured in some more vodka into both our glasses and we drank again. Then I poured in some more Coke, and more vodka until it was gone and then we drank again.
Father Ted was still on. The milkman one. But Shelley wasn’t watching. She kept looking over at me, smiling that stupid smile. Then she moved over beside me, and fell on top of me. She’s a ton weight, Shelley, and I wanted to get her off of me, but I was starting to feel a bit blurry and it was kind of nice, her lying on top of me. Then she started to kiss me, all over my face and cheeks and nose and ears. And then my mouth. She stopped and said my name. “Jibby, Jibby.” Then she started slobbering over me again.
I didn’t kiss her back. Not really. She was so heavy I could hardly breathe. I just moved her over slightly. She had her knee in between my legs. She kept squirming around, like she couldn’t get comfortable. I could see her legs moving, and her bum. She had on this trackie bottoms; black with three white stripes. She stopped slobbering for a moment, and giggled. Then she started to pull down her trackie bottoms. I swear I didn’t do it, and I didn’t make her do it. She had these knickers underneath, like swimming togs; white with a little gold star. Then she put her hands inside my trackie. So, yeah, I put my hand inside her knickers; but only for a second. Like I said to that policewoman earlier, before the court case, I touched her. Yeah, there. With my finger. Yeah, my first finger. But only for a second. And I didn’t put it in. I swear to you I didn’t put it in.
She was lying there with her eyes closed. She had her hand inside my trackie, on my privates. I definitely didn’t put my privates in. Yeah, I know what my privates are. Definitely I didn’t. I felt kind of warm and nice and sleepy, and I took my hands out of her knickers. Then her eyes opened and she took her hand away. She sat up and looked at me, smiling. “I lubya Jibby,” she said, twice. I love you Jimmy. Then her face changed, as if she’d seen something she was afraid of, and she fell off the couch and started to get sick. And at that moment the door opened and Mam and Tracey came in, kind of tottering. Mam saw the sick and asked what happened and Shelley started to cry; only not just an ordinary cry, more a roar. Tracey went to hug her and saw the vodka bottle and Shelley’s trackie bottoms on the floor. Then Tracey started roaring. Shelley had big tears coming down her cheeks and she was pointing at me and saying “Jibby, Jibby”. Then Tracey started hitting me and calling me a bastard and Mam was shouting at Tracey to let go, let go, and I suddenly felt more blurry than ever before and really full up inside of everything, and then I got sick.
I could hear them outside, shouting and banging on the van. “Little pervert,” one kept saying. “Ya little pervert.” When we got into the court the lawyers were all standing around like great black birds. Then the judge came out. He had a big red face and tiny little glasses, and he made them all take off their wigs and capes “because of the age of the accused, and the main witness”. I’d met mine already, at the detention centre. She was okay. She had grey hair that curled at the ends. Looked a bit like George Washington.
When Shelley came up to say her story George Washington jumped up and objected and the jury were sent out. There was a big row between her and Redface, but Redface said Shelley was allowed to give her evidence if she understood the oath. I didn’t get this “giving” bit, or the “oath”, but then the lawyer on Shelley’s side asked her did she know what would happen if she told a lie. He had a gold pen he kept fiddling with while he was asking questions. Shelley said she’d be sent Down Below if she told a lie, but Redface couldn’t make out what she said and nor could Goldpen, nor the woman doing the typing, so Tracey had to explain it, and Redface sighed and said proceed.
It was very quiet when Shelley was telling her story to Goldpen. He kept repeating her answers, making it sound worse. People at the back started hissing and giving out when Shelley mentioned the vodka. Goldpen asked about my finger and how long it had been there, and Shelley said an hour. Goldpen asked again, and Shelley said a minute. George Washington turned round and smiled at Mam then, like she’d won something. Goldpen asked about my privates and Shelley said she touched it but that I didn’t put it in. Then George Washington got up and started asking all sorts of questions about times of things like TV programmes and classes, and Shelley got all muddled and started to cry. George Washington asked her if she’d been promised anything for coming here, and Shelley said her Mam had told her she could have any My Little Pony she wanted if she came here. George Washington smiled back again at Mam, and I could see Tracey’s face going all red. Shelley seemed like she was trying not to look at me when she was answering, but she did look once or twice. One time she even waved. “Hi Jibby,” she said. Then a doctor said some stuff, and a policewoman, and then it was my turn.
I don’t know why I lied. I told George Washington when she was asking me what I’d told her before: nothing happened. Then when she was finished with me, Goldpen started asking me loads of questions, and I got really nervous. Goldpen kept twisting my words, so I just kept saying “no” and “nothing happened” all the time. I could see George Washington getting flustered and Redface getting redder and redder. One time he looked at me over the top of his glasses. “You have to tell the truth, Jimmy,” he said. “You have to tell the truth.” “I am telling the truth,” I said. Because nothing did happen, really. By the time I was finished one of the jury was shaking his head and Redface was sighing and Goldpen was standing there, smirking and playing with that stupid pen and saying: “Is that the truth, Jimmy? Really?” George Washington wasn’t even looking at me anymore; she was looking at Mam. But Mam was just staring, with her mouth open.
Then another woman doctor came up to talk about sex and my “capacity to understand”. Then Goldpen and George Washington each gave a big long lecture to the jury, and Redface gave an even longer lecture. Then the jury went off out of court. George Washington came over and said, “Well, we’ve a chance”, and we all just hung around, waiting. After a while I really needed to go to the jacks so I was let go out with a policeman. Shelley was outside, with Tracey and Goldpen. I waved at her but she didn’t see me. Then someone came running down the corridor saying “They’re back, they’re back.”
When the head of the jury said “Guilty” there was a big cheer. Tracey was on her feet shouting “Yes, yes”, and Mam was crying. Redface banged his desk and said this was a courthouse not a public house and started talking about reports and stuff. George Washington got up asking about bail but Redface just looked at me and shook his head and said his options were very limited. That’s when I knew, I suppose. That I was going to prison.
We have classes and art and football. The food isn’t bad. They’ve given me a new name so no one will know. I’m in a room with two other boys. They don’t really talk to me much, though the way one of them looks at me sometimes, I think he knows. There’s a lady I see once a month. Maureen. She has this big blue folder and she asks loads of questions and makes loads of notes. She talks about getting out “on licence” and asks me do I feel “remorse”. I haven’t a clue what she means. So I say “Yeah, kind of” and she makes another note. It’s full of notes and letters and reports, that folder; there’s even a photo of me, when I was ten.
Mam comes every week. She used to cry each time, but now she doesn’t. Not in the Visiting Centre, anyway. Her eyes are always red, though, and she looks real thin. I used to cry each time as well, but now it’s not so bad. Darren even came a couple of times, at the beginning. But not since. I still miss Mam, though. I even miss Darren.
And sometimes I think of Shelley. Once when Maureen was checking something in one of the reports I saw a page from a school copybook pinned inside the folder. Shelley’s writing; it’s really, really bad. “Dear Jimmy,” it said. “I hope you are well. I am well. We have a new teacher. I have a new My Little Pony. I love Father Ted. I love you Jimmy. Lots of love, Shelley.” With a big X beside her name. There was some sort of letter from Shelley’s school pinned in with it as well. But Maureen saw me looking and she closed the folder quickly, before I could read any more.
Young Woman With Unicorn
‘Be still, Signora.’
A flurry behind the easel.
‘Please, Signora. Please.’
This studio’s so hot, and these robes make it even worse. I shall die if I have to sit here for much longer.
At least the dog is finally asleep. I couldn’t get it to stay still, squirming in my arms, and all the time the artist screeching with exasperation: ‘Signora, please!’ So fussy; they all are, though this one’s not bad-looking. Younger than the others.
He keeps fiddling with the backdrop, repositioning it to catch the light. In the painting I will be sitting on a balcony, above a winding road, with blue hills stretching into the distance, though the hills look nothing like the hills back home in Canino; no farm-houses or tavernas, no lovingly-tended olive trees.
‘Why do I need this stupid dog anyway?’ I say, as he flicks my hair over my shoulders once again.
‘Because when I am finished, Signora,’ he says proudly, ‘the dog will have become a unicorn.’
A unicorn? Bet this was his idea.
The first time I saw him was two years ago, on the day Orsino and I were married. He looked magnificent, towering above us at the altar. Maybe it was the scent of flowers, or the sonorous plainchant in Latin, but when I looked up at him I felt dizzy. He was so sleek, so assured, his vestments shimmering as he intoned the blessing of the vows. A prince of the church; isn’t that what they’re called, cardinals? And all through the ceremony he was staring at me. I was so excited, and also a little bit afraid. Because even though I was getting married, I knew what was going to happen.
Orsino had never stared at me like that. Not much to look at, Orsino Orsini. A bit weedy. And that squint! ‘One eye’s so lovely, the other keeps looking at it,’ my younger sister sniggered. ‘Wait till you’re sixteen, Isabella,’ I said, ‘and see who they find for you.’ Orsino was eager and awkward and happy, just like any other seventeen year old, I suppose, but his mother Adrianna was happiest of all. You could almost see the light of the 3,000 gold florins my father had paid glinting in her eyes. She’d put the whole thing together: Orsino would have had no chance of marrying someone like me without his mother’s scheming. ‘Step-mother,’ Orsino corrected. At the banquet she drew me aside, her finger-nails like talons digging into my arms as I was returning to the table. ‘You are a lucky woman,’ she said, inclining her dark head not at Orsino, but at him, sitting three seats down from Orsino, staring hungrily at me. ‘Some day,’ Adrianna said, ‘some day, that man will be Pope.’
I walk each day from the palace to the studios in my new gemstone-encrusted sandals. Claudio accompanies me. He’s pathetic, Claudio, with his limp and his withered claw of a left hand. He follows me everywhere. This isn’t my idea, or Claudio’s; he insisted. ‘You must always be accompanied,’ he’d said, ‘for your safety. I don’t wish to lose you.’ He’s never said he loves me, but I know he does. And although I shuddered when introduced to Claudio, I’m getting used to him, shuffling sadly a couple of steps behind me. He says very little, but he notices lots of things. Everywhere in this city you can smell the stinking murky river. As we cross over a bridge Claudio points downstream. At first I can’t make out anything, but then I see; further down, at the water’s edge, boatmen are hauling out the morning’s grim catch. Four dead, it looks like. Crowds used to gather, craning to get a better view of the sodden corpses. But a body in the Tiber isn’t big news these days.
These sittings are so boring; studio after studio, in these ridiculous gowns.
He keeps making me do it. Six months ago it was some saint, and six months before that it was the Virgin Mary. Me, the Virgin! ‘Bit late for that,’ I say to him in the bedchamber. He’s still stretched out between the sheets, sucking on grapes. Very pleased with himself.
‘But why not?’ he says, reaching over to the fruit bowl and expertly twisting a few more off the stalk. ‘You have all the essential qualities to be the Mother of Christ, my child.’ He smirks at me then; he knows I hate it when he calls me ‘child’.
‘No doubt my reward will be in Heaven,’ I say, sitting back down on the bed. ‘But something in the meantime would be nice.’
‘We’ll see,’ he says, an eyebrow lifting as he pulls me towards the pillows.
Within a year of the wedding, everything had been arranged. Adrianna again: my move to Rome, the new ‘position’ in the palace, everything. ‘What a wonderful opportunity,’ she said, catching my eye when Orsino wasn’t looking. Not too bright, Orsino. He visits me once a month; Adrianna makes sure all niceties are observed. Even Claudio stares at him curiously. Poor Orsino. He is kind and attentive, always telling me how much he loves me. But surely he can see what’s happening here?
The maids bring me my clothes. Today I select a silver- hemmed tunic. So much to choose from: silk, and cotton, and reticella lace, all so beautiful. And this afternoon my brother Guido calls on me, again. He’s so needy, Guido; at times he infuriates me, pacing up and down the room fretting about whether I’ve asked yet, and when will I know. ‘It is not I who wants this, Giulia,’ he says then, pompously. ‘It is God who calls me to wear the red hat of the cardinal.’ ‘Guido,’ I say, ‘I’ll do what I can. But stop this nonsense about God.’ He looks sheepish for a moment, but decides not to argue; I’m his best chance, and he knows it.
Although he’s Pope, he’s not even Italian. The family are originally from Spain, apparently. Lucia explained it all. She also lives in the palace. A little older than me; she is very nearly beautiful. Is she his sister or his daughter? Occasionally we walk together in the palace gardens, her and me, flirting with the gardeners. In the end-wall beside the flower-beds there is a door, leading (this is supposed to be a secret) through an alley to his residence. He rarely comes by day, except sometimes to visit Lucia. (She is his daughter, the more I think of it, although she never says). At night I can hear the little garden door squeak open, the footsteps hurrying towards me, up the path. ‘How can you not hear that door?’ I ask him one night. ‘Maybe love is deaf as well as blind?’ I say. He laughs, says nothing. But the next day two groundsmen come to the garden to replace the hinges.
The puppy is awake, yelping and wriggling.
‘It’s too hot in here, I told you,’ I say. But that’s not why he woke; the little runt must have felt it also, the movement inside me. A kick, and then another. ‘Like a butterfly fluttering in your stomach,’ the nurse says when eventually I ask that she come to see me. Dry old bitch, that one; how would she know? ‘Signor Orsini will be so pleased,’ I smile back. ‘Pah!’ she says, as she hobbles out of the bed- chamber and down the corridor.
Later that evening when he calls I say nothing. He’s worried; there’s going to be a war soon. France again. He needs to raise an army. And there’s the new St Peter’s to be built, the old cathedral crumbling, ready to fall down. ‘Where am I supposed to find the money for all this?’ he groans, slumping on the bed. Then he looks at me and smiles, and produces from the folds of his robe a gift; a box containing a ruby the size of a clementine, on a golden chain. We lie together, and later he gestures towards the tapestry from the House of Este on the wall opposite the bed. ‘The symbol of the penetration of the human by the Divine,’ he says, pointing at the unicorn, ‘untameable by anyone—except a virgin.’ He starts talking about allegory and incarnation, though I can’t follow what he’s saying. But the ruby’s nice. I ask him to help me put it on. ‘You won’t forget Guido,’ I say, as he fastens the hasp. The chain feels a little tight around my neck.
The next night, though, I can’t keep it a secret any longer. So I tell him.
He seems pleased. ‘This is…wondrous news,’ he says quietly. Then he looks out the window. ‘The gift of issue for the Orsini family. Let us pray for both of you it will be a son.’
In the bed-sheets I turn towards him. ‘You know Orsino had nothing to do with this.’
He glances at me quickly, a little flash of anger in his eyes, then looks away again. ‘I did not say he did, my child. But you have had congress recently with him, have you not?’
It’s true, but… ‘That’s not what happened.’ My voice catches as I speak. ‘This is yours,’ I say. ‘Your child. Ours.’
‘Hush now,’ he says, stretching his arm across my shoulders. But he’s still looking out the window, and he doesn’t draw me to him.
Guido calls a few days later; he is to get his red hat after all. ‘This is God’s will, Giulia,’ he says earnestly, promising to say a thousand Masses for me. ‘Cardinale delle gonne,’ one of the younger maids—a new cheeky one—whispers as he leaves. The cardinal of the skirts. She looks worried when she realises I have heard, but I just smile weakly. All I can think of is my baby. Everyone in the palace seems to know. I even saw Claudio glancing at my belly the other day, when he thought I wasn’t looking. ‘Yes Claudio,’ I say, ‘it’s true; aren’t you pleased for me?’ He starts to say something but then he stops, and looks away.
Is this picture ever going to be finished? At least I no longer have to hold that stupid dog. But now even sitting in the one spot for any length of time is difficult. ‘Are you sure you are comfortable, Signora?’ says the artist— Raphael, his name is—as he smoothes the folds of my skirt. Quite attractive, this Raphael, if a bit girlish. I wonder does he prefer men? He never looks at me the way other men do. Or did; I’m a good few months gone now, swollen like a goose being fattened for Christmas. ‘Cheer up, Claudio,’ I say as we cross the bridge, heading back; I’m wearing one of those soft billowy smocks. Claudio shakes his head dolefully; there’s something worrying him, I know, but he won’t tell me. The heat in the city these days is almost unbearable. Even at night the air is stifling; there’s no escape. I want to sleep and yet I can’t; and when I do, I keep having this dream, again and again. I am standing alone at the edge of a midnight forest. And then I hear the sound of someone—something— approaching, leaves and branches being brushed aside as it lumbers towards me. Suddenly it crashes out into the clearing, panting, steam rising from its flanks, the moonlight silvering its terrible horned head.
The new maid opens the door of the bedchamber to allow him in. I can hear her giggling; he says something to her, but I can’t make out what it is. Sofia, her name is. She’s here more and more, floating around in her white muslin dress. I thought I saw her in the gardens yesterday walking with Lucia and him. I tried to catch Lucia’s eye, but she just looked away. When he visits, he’s distracted; we try to have congress, but it’s too uncomfortable for me to lie underneath. ‘Very well,’ he says, turning over with a sigh.
I try to talk to him. ‘Who will you have paint me next?’ I ask. ‘Pintoricchio, perhaps?’ Old goat, Pintoricchio; hands everywhere.
He grunts non-committally.
‘Maybe a picture of the Presentation of the Infant Jesus?’ I say.
‘Maybe,’ he says, biting on a plum.
I try again. ‘I hear the new maid, Signorina Berghenti, is most obliging,’ I say.
‘Sofia?’ he says. Ah; he’s interested now alright.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I hear she has obliged the head-gardener, and one of the sentries, and the day-cook also. How unfortunate one so obliging should also have the pox.’
He pauses for a moment, the plum halfway to his lips.
‘Far more grievous than the sin of lust is the sin of envy,’ he says, eyeing me steadily, before he resumes. His teeth tear into the silky darkness of the fruit’s flesh, and for a moment he does not speak.
‘When I was a law student in Bologna,’ he says even- tually, ‘our elderly tutor gave us a piece of advice.’ He’s chomping noisily as he talks, his mouth full. ‘“For a happy union”, the tutor told us, “the wife must be blind, and the husband deaf.”’ He spits out the plum-stone and looks at me again. ‘Was he right, do you think?’
I don’t say anything. A rivulet of juice trickles down his chin.
This painting is almost done. At the end of the final sitting I ask to see it, but Raphael demurs. ‘It is better if you wait, Signora, until it is finished.’ But I insist, and he relents. Not bad, I suppose, but is my forehead quite so high? My waist looks so small; much smaller than it is now. And the little runty dog has grown—as promised—a horn out of the top of his head.
Afterwards I waddle back towards the palace. Claudio has to stop every so often to let me catch my breath. My belly feels enormous; the time must be near. We move slowly through the crowds, the stalls where bellowing traders hawk their wares, and we are almost at the palace when Claudio puts his good hand on my arm and steers me into a little chapel. ‘Why are we praying, Claudio?’ I say as he nudges me up the side aisle and stops at one of the pews. The chapel is almost empty. It’s a relief to be in out of the sun, and I sit down. Claudio looks at me, his eyes glittering; are they tears? ‘What’s wrong, Claudio?’ I say, but he just shakes his head, pointing to a painting on the wall: a woman trying to protect her baby from a soldier, the soldier slashing her with his sword as he rips the baby from her arms. Her shawl and shirt are soaked in blood; the baby, open-mouthed, is screaming. I look again at Claudio; his withered hand gesturing repeatedly at the picture as his breath comes quicker and quicker. ‘What is it, Claudio?’ I ask again, and he is just about to speak when a priest emerges from a side-door near the altar, glances over at us and then glides down the centre aisle. ‘Nothing,’ Claudio mutters, looking over not at me but at the priest. Then he looks behind him, and surveys carefully the length and breadth of the chapel. ‘Come on,’ he says, motioning towards the door we came in. ‘We should leave.’
In the bedchamber the maids fuss and cluck, arranging jugs and towels. The night-shirt I have on is one the nurse gave me: it’s frayed and worn.
There is no sign of him; but then, there hasn’t been any sign for days, of anyone. Not even Claudio; when I ask about him, one of the older maids shakes her head quickly. I know there’s a rumour that another corpse was pulled from the river two days ago, a corpse with a claw for a left hand.
‘Your time has come,’ the nurse says, leaning behind me to plump up a pillow. ‘Whatever is God’s will, will be,’ she says then, looking at me pityingly.
The ruby catches her eye. ‘Oh no,’ she says, ‘we can’t allow this.’
She motions to the maids for assistance; one steps forward. Sofia.
‘Too dangerous,’ the old hag continues as Sofia unclasps the chain. ‘You might choke during the delivery. Signorina Berghenti will keep it safe until we are finished.’ I lie back on the bed and wait for what comes next, the kicks inside me getting stronger, like hooves approaching from a distance.
By then there were nine of us left in the minibus. The others had got out at Portbane, with shouts of ‘See you tomorrow’, and slaps on the side and the back doors.
If we’d looked we could have seen them through the back window; we could have watched them walking away into the night, Sammy and Davy and Tommy and Harry T, the glow of Harry T’s cigarette rising and falling as he limped alongside the others into the darkness. We could have said goodbye. But we didn’t; we sat back, spreading ourselves into the spaces left and continuing the banter we’d been at all the way home from Bests, and we were still at it as we came to the top of the hill when Stuey let one go. It was definitely Stuey; a small self-satisfied trumpet blast, the stink quickly filling the air. ‘Jesus, Stuey,’ said Steven, waving his hands theatrically to get rid of the smell. Others joined in, Billy and Gerald and Gordon and Harry O, all groaning and fanning the air. ‘Open a window, Dickie,’ said Johnnie. He’d worked longer in Bests than any of us, Johnnie, he was just about to retire. ‘For Chrissakes, open a window.’ Stuey just kept laughing and saying it wasn’t him, though he knew we knew it was. Dickie wound the driver’s window down half way, and as the January night air rushed in we all leaned forward, even Stuey, inhaling with exaggerated relief, and it was then we saw at the bottom of the hill the light in the middle of the road.
Stella says I never talk about it. But I do, I do talk about it; I just don’t always want to talk about it when she wants to talk about it. Anyway, what’s to talk about? He’s gone. Talking won’t bring him back.
The light swung back and forth as the minibus came closer; it was a torch, signalling us to slow down. There were no other lights around; the road was dark and very quiet. ‘What’s he doing out here at this hour?’ said Dickie, half to himself as he crunched down through the gears and prepared to stop. ‘Police,’ said Harry O. But as we neared we could see it wasn’t the police; it was a man dressed in black, with some kind of hood covering his face, except for two big holes cut out for the eyes. ‘Drive on, drive on,’ shouted Johnnie. But the minibus had almost stopped, its headlights lighting up the road and hedges like a stage, and under the beam of the lights the hedges seemed to dissolve as figures emerged onto the road, in front of us and beside us and behind us. Dickie was trying to get the minibus into gear again, to get it going, but already there was someone at the driver’s door, trying to yank it open. There were others on the passenger side and at the back doors as well, banging and shouting. Harry O tried to hold the handles shut but the back doors were flung open and there were four of them outside, pointing what looked like guns and screaming ‘Get out, the lot of youse, get out.’
We’d bought a pram, a cot; lots of things, so that we’d be ready. We were so young ourselves; I mean, this was nearly fifteen years ago. He lived for four days. The doctor knew as soon as he was born that he wasn’t going to make it. I saw him in the incubator. I don’t know about these things, but he looked long, lying there; one of the nurses said he would have been tall, like me. I liked that. I never cried, though Stella couldn’t stop crying. The hospital allowed her to stay in an extra night. On her last day before she came home I was sitting beside the bed while she was asleep, just looking at her, when the consultant came in. The tie he was wearing had lots of golf-balls on it. ‘This one just wasn’t meant to be,’ he said. I couldn’t think how to reply, so I just said ‘Ach, sure, I know, doctor.’ He looked at the chart at the end of the bed, and then at Stella; she was still asleep. ‘Ye were lucky to have gotten as far as ye did,’ he said. He shook my hand, and said goodbye, and then he left. I think I knew what he meant; Stella’d been four weeks short of full term when it happened. But it didn’t feel like we’d been lucky.
We clambered out into the night and they were shoving us between the minibus and the ditch until we got to the front. Johnnie and Dickie were already there, two men either side of them. The engine was switched off but the minibus’s headlights were still on, making Johnnie and Dickie look very pale; and I thought, Jesus, if someone doesn’t start the engine the lights’ll soon drain the battery right down, and then one of them (the Hood, I think) said ‘Right, which of youse is a Pape?’
One of the other doctors, a younger one, did say it would be good if we could talk about it. But who would you talk to? Not the boys in Bests. There was enough going on in Bests anyhow. Morgan, the foreman, was a right bastard to our lot, though there were less and less of our crowd working there; just me, and O’Neill up in Orders, and McCollum in the wages office. But you wouldn’t be talking to them, nor to the other lot either. The younger ones, Gordon and Harry O, would be sniggering as Morgan stomped red-faced up and down the factory floor bellowing about production numbers and how he could find plenty to replace us. ‘He just doesn’t like you, Ollie,’ Gerald said in the canteen, looking at me with those big sad bloodhound eyes. ‘You could come in here on a white horse wearing a Rangers jersey and an Orange sash shouting ‘Up King Billy’ and ‘Fuck the Pope’, and Morgan still wouldn’t like you. It’s nothing got to do with you not being a Prod.’ I like Gerald. But I didn’t talk to him about it neither.
Gordon and Harry O were shaking their heads as we all stood on the side of the road. One of them, a boy no more than sixteen, though big enough all the same, walked up and down the line, stopping to shine a torch in each of our faces. Gerald was second last; I was last. As the torch came closer Gerald tugged my sleeve, once, quickly. ‘Say nothing, say nothing,’ he said. The boy came to Gerald and gave him a little shove as he jiggled the beam in his face. And then he came to me.
Back when it happened, there were lots of people calling to the door. Eileen Leahy carried round a big pot of stew, and the Donohoe girls brought plates of sandwiches and cakes, but no one mentioned it. Father McElhone said how sorry he was, and on the altar he’d gone on about God’s will. But no one ever once asked ‘So Olly, how does it feel to have lost your baby, your son?’ Only baby, as it happened. I think everyone was just afraid to talk about it. In McGeeney’s shop there were shy nods from other customers, and old McGeeney came out from the store-room to shake my hand and say it was ‘a bad business’. The day after the funeral I went down to the Dew Drop Inn on my own, just to get out of the house. It was late afternoon and there was no one in the place except for Traps McFadden, sitting on his usual stool at the far end of the bar. Traps bred greyhounds and was a bit touched. I’d never spoken to him, but as soon as I came in he saluted me, and beckoned me over. ‘Sorry for your trouble,’ he said hoarsely. ‘But they’re good stock, the O’Tierneys,’ he continued. Stella’s family. ‘Sure, she’ll whelp again.’ ‘Hush now, Traps,’ said Brendan behind the bar, setting down a glass in front of him, ‘don’t be bothering the poor man.’ I sat down at one of the tables. Brendan brought me over a whiskey but refused to accept any money, and went back to sit on a stool behind the counter, drinking a mineral. Nobody said anything. Sure what was the point? Talking wasn’t going to solve anything.
I could smell the beer off him. But there was something else, another smell; the smell of chips. Nights outside the takeaway when I first started out with Stella; the two of us with a skinful on board, each holding a warm bag, the vinegar slathered on and already beginning to stain the bag in patches, and the salt glistening like little snowflakes on the golden chunks as we ate them, Stella and me. Sometime this evening, before he’d hidden in the hedges on the side of this road, waiting, this boy had got his hands on some beer, and then he’d had chips. The torch he was carrying wasn’t really a torch; it was a bicycle lamp and he was shining it in my eyes. He turned to the Hood, the light still jiggling in my face. ‘This one here,’ he said, his voice rising in excitement. ‘The big lanky fella. This here’s one.’
The last time it had been mentioned, we were on the couch, watching telly. The news was showing a funeral: more than one, actually; there were three of them. They were being carried in to the graveyard, coffin after coffin, like they were coming off an assembly line. ‘Why do you never go?’ she asked. ‘Go where?’ I said. ‘You know where,’ she said. ‘The grave. James’s grave.’ James had been Stella’s father’s name, as well. The cameras were showing the crowds gathering around the opened ground, crying and sighing and dabbing at their eyes. ‘Ach, don’t start this again,’ I said. ‘But you don’t,’ she said. ‘Like an ostrich, so you are, Ollie, with your head stuck in the sand.’ She was almost shouting now. ‘A big ostrich, that’s what you are.’ I didn’t say anything. On the telly a priest was saying some prayers, and then it was back to the newsreader, talking in front of a picture of a building that had been blown apart earlier that day. After a minute or two Stella got up from the couch. I could hear her clattering around with the kettle and the teapot in the kitchen, and I knew she was crying. How did this boy know me, know who I was? There must have been a moment when he’d seen me. In McGeeney’s, perhaps. Or the Dew Drop Inn, he could have been there one evening when I’d been there. Maybe he’d been waiting anxiously at the counter, hoping to be served. But how did he know? Unless he’d seen me outside St Mary’s, in the car-park, after Mass. I couldn’t remember ever having seen him before, anywhere. Maybe he worked in Bests once, though I didn’t think so. But he knew me somehow, knew me well enough to know. The Hood came over, and there was shouting as he grabbed me and dragged me back down behind the minibus. Gerald’s voice: ‘Leave him be,’ he was saying. Dickie was shouting too; ‘It’s alright, he’s one of us!’ Gordon and Harry O said nothing. ‘Right,’ said the Hood. He adjusted something on his gun; there was a little click. He stepped slightly away from me, as if to get a better angle. There were still two of them standing either side of me, but when he motioned to them they stood apart. ‘Right,’ he said again. ‘Now get you down that road, and don’t look back.’
She’s wrong. I did go once, about two months after he died. Outside the gate a man was selling flowers, and just inside the entrance there was a woman in a little hut who asked my name and directed me, though it still took me a while to find the grave again. There were flowers there from the last time Stella’d been, laid carefully at the foot of the little head-stone that gave his name and the date when he was born, and the other date, four days later. And underneath, the words With The Angels Once More, which Stella had wanted. I knelt down and started to say a little prayer, and then I stopped. None of this prayer stuff would make any sense to him. So instead I just said his name. ‘Well, James,’ I said, ‘you poor wee fella.’ I could feel my eyes starting to well up. ‘You poor wee mite,’ I said. Then I quickly wiped away the tears and coughed; a woman a few rows down glanced over at me. I stood up and headed for the entrance. And I never told Stella. I don’t know why I didn’t tell her, but I didn’t.
I started running away into the darkness. I could hear gunfire. Any moment now, I thought, one of these will hit me. The shots kept coming, little muted whip-cracks. But there was another sound, over the sound of gunshots and the sound of my shoes slapping the tarmac; it was the sound of men screaming, crying out in pain. I kept running, though: I didn’t dare turn round to see what was happening in the dip of the road that was still lit up by the headlights of the minibus. I kept running on my big long ostrich legs, and I never looked back.