The detective calls door-to-door investigating a killing so brilliantly simple it could have been committed by anyone who can ring a doorbell. Over three twelve-hour days, 676 doors. The same questions in the same order at every door, asked of a man or a woman, or a man and a woman. Aside from the occasional retiree, most of the respondents are in their thirties or early forties, often with a child or two clutching at a hem or a trouser leg, peeking up at him, curious, expectant, terrified. He wonders if he should have brought a bag of sweets to seem more of a Santa Claus and less of a bogeyman, then remembers that these days one is forbidden from offering out sweets to unknown children. The majority who open their doors are Irish. The inscrutable Irish, hesitant yet to inform. But sometimes the answerer is Chinese or Filipino or Indian. These are very nervous of him, their eyes wider, their answers more chewed-over. The detective tries not to get impatient, tries not to finish their strung-out sentences, tries not to put words in their mouth. There is one Canadian household from within which Joni Mitchell sings joyfully about Woodstock. A variety of East European accents. The detective would like to tell any one of the Polish or Russians or Moldovans or Rumanians that he has cruised down the Danube, that on the Volga he caught, and then threw back, a pike. That the victory of the Red Army at Stalingrad was the greatest turning point in history. But he has no time for small talk. There will be another murder next week. Three times the door is opened by someone who the detective is certain he has already spoken to, has already answered another, earlier door. Three times he checks his notes and his map to make sure he is not going over the same ground and finds that he isn’t. As his shoes get heavier and his headache expands, he struggles to repress the dread that they are all the same person answering the same door. He receives a small range of entirely predictable, utterly unusable answers, answers he could have stayed at home and written himself.
Did you know The Man? No – House 184. Only to see – House 208. I never spoke a word to him – Apt 11. They seemed like a troubled family – House 341. Who? – Apt 99A.
Do you know if anyone held a grudge against him? Don’t think the place has been standing long enough to spout original grudges, officer – Town House 9. Who didn’t? – Town House 10.
Did you see anything unusual on the night in question? A few lights in the sky – Apt 66. I saw a badger Mr, a badger – House 399. This last from a four-year-old boy with untidy brown hair, excited to the point of jumping up and down.
The nine- or ten-year-old girl on a tinsel-trailing pink bike cycled past nonchalantly fourteen times. If it was her each time. As if she, or they, were pursuing her own investigation into the doings of the detective.
And the paradox of the evening silence as he does his rounds, the absence in this concentrated population area of neighbourly chatter on the doorsteps, of laughter on the green, of teenagers plotting and petting in the shadowy areas. A dormitory estate ninety minutes’ travel from the capital, people simply too tired for society at the end of an eleven- or twelve-hour commuting day, the detective tells himself. He compares it to his own maturer estate, much closer to the city, where the silence is a sign of another kind of exhaustion, creeping old age. He doesn’t want to reckon on how people will be living together here, or anywhere, in another forty years.
The King is The King and That’s That
The Man and his woman had two sons, and a dauphine called Lisa-Marie who died long ago in an eighties infancy and got an almighty send-off. The communion . . . confirmation . . . wedding she would never have rolled into one great Irish wake. A carriage drawn by four fairy-talesque white-and-speckled stallions. Ivory handles on a hand-carved oaken coffin. Dozens of votive candles held aloft by mourners in white suits in procession. So much white, as if death could be engulfed in it, as if death itself was not an all-engulfing whiteness. Some strange bargain brought the bishop in to say the Mass and even officiate with incense at the graveside. And it was a beautiful day – the day of the Bray Airshow in fact, and everyone in the funeral crowd enthralled trying to interpret the underside markings of military airplanes flying low overhead. The susurrations of the bishop interspersing with the warplane’s booming and earth-shivering flyovers to make a soundtrack discordant and meaningless as the death of a child.
Not a sinner has been to visit Lisa-Marie’s grave for over eight years.
Don’t Shed no Tears for no Krokodil Man
Son one is in Deerbolt prison in the North of England. He is one of the North of England’s first confirmed and properly documented Krokodil addicts, a special status which has ensured him extra medical and indeed scientific attention as well as a full-colour spread in the Daily Mail UK edition where he was described as an Irish immigrant convicted of using and dealing in this atrocious Russian-origin drug. Connoiseurs of this petrol and codeine mash-up look like lepers who have been microwaved and then dipped in a hydrochloric bath for decorative purposes. The drug eats human flesh, inducing sores, disfigurement, necrosis, pyschosis. Users go to pieces in every possible way. And keep using. Have you ever seen a bog body? They are in a much better state of preservation.’
Nobody knows where the second son is, the one with the curls and freckles that, years ago, a social worker on rotation considered heartbreakingly gorgeous.
Someone has game-planned wiping out The Man’s entire extended family. Waiting until New Year’s Eve brings a maniacal crowd to the house and machine-gunning them like in a James Cagney film, or petrol bombing them in the hour before dawn and recording the cries and confusion to listen back to with pleasure and to later mess around with on GarageBand.
The Man’s house is in the middle of a row of houses at a right angle to another longer row. From this other row seventeen back bedroom windows overlook his front porch, where The Man sits on a bench drinking and muttering, admiring himself, his awful tattoos, the lurid stink of himself. From within this row of darkened bedrooms at twilight anonymous assassins have sniped him thousands of times. Blown his head right off. Smashed open his chest. Shattered his testicles.
Bacon and Cabbage
The wife has not been assaulted or raped or protected since her husband’s unfortunate incident with the turpentine, which he had raised to his mouth in the belief it was vodka, the hope it was Poitín. She intends to make the arrangements as soon as possible but is terrified of open spaces, or more precisely terrified of the unpredictability of possible encounters in public spaces. As soon as you go outside you’re exposed on all sides and totally outnumbered. Seven billion to one and any of them in any number with any intention can come at you at any time from any direction. It would take two buses to get to the funeral home. Long waits, packed journeys. And the bus is not inside but an outside on the inside. The only outside she can take is the garden, her little back garden, smaller than the poorest cottier’s patch, where one can always be doing with a little drop of turpentine and of a fair few other clear and scouring poisons too. Inside she tends to be able to see the bastard coming at her and there is only one of him. He attacks in a regular and even a comforting way – meaning that because it was him who was beating her no one else would dare try, meaning also that he never kicked, bit or used implements, and meaning that he stopped more or less straightaway if blood was drawn. He ran at her screeching JADE and CUNT and LIGHTING BITCH on dates that could be predicted days in advance because of the change in density of domestic atmosphere accompanied by an upgrade from lager to cider and then later on to vodka and cocaine or what was labeled vodka, called cocaine. The beating would come on the evening of the fourth day or at the very latest the morning of the fifth. On day three she herself started into the vodka and cocaine and began to wish the beating would come so that it would be over and the make-it-up-to-her period would begin, make-it-up-to-hertopia, the bliss of being injured, wronged, untouchable and of him having to do things for her to expunge his own sorrow and guilt like little jobs around the house that needed done or what heavy work she wanted in the garden. Above and beyond this the certain fact that he would leave her unmolested (and unmolested by him means molested by no one) except for sex when he felt like it for three weeks or a month or even longer depending on what precise factors she had not quite yet figured out but perhaps the seasons the phases of the moon the barometric pressure. Floods and heatwaves brought out the worst. Dry and mild seemed to calm him. Oddly, he was also soothed by a full moon, and in the days and nights following, when the moon was on the wane but still almost full-of-face, the thing within him, that furious engine, whatever it was, seemed absent, or switched off.
When one of his dealings went wrong, or too well. When he won a big bet, or lost one. When the forms that kept arriving in the post from one or other authority were too long or too complex to figure out how to cannily lie on. The economy and the clockwork of his explosions she had well figured out. The time he really went over the top and gave her two black eyes and broke her wrist so she ended up in a cast was when the long-promised extension with a bathroom got put in. If he broke her two legs he might build an extra bedroom as well. It was a strange calculation but yes she has made it several times. Understood also that what he was attacking when he attacked her was really something ineluctable in his own self that he was trying to drive out and could only do so by doing what he did to her and only for a period. She served him, in this way, and in his way he served her. It was him or the outside, and oh she hated the outside. Now her protector and assaulter is gone . . . for good it looks like . . . and she cannot make it out the door of the house. Much of the time she would not be able to locate the front door of the house. Unless it is to go to the off-licence and/or the pharmacy, which are five minutes from her door. A well-worn route. A whole section of her brain is simply a map of the back and forth of it. She wears pyjamas for these outings because she doesn’t give a bollix what anyone thinks of her and why should she, how could they think any worse of her than she thinks of herself? White pyjamas with red roses on them that are beginning to look a little parched as if after a long period of dry weather or an hour in an oven. Over the pyjamas a furry black-and-white nightgown with cat-paw patterning. She does not sleep very much. She never has, not for as long as she can remember. Every fifteen minutes until she is very drunk she goes outside and sits smoking on the little step up from the door, facing the mauve lamplit interior, her back to the pavement so no one passing is forced to acknowledge her nor she them. Though there is a part of her that dreams of being a fireball, she is afraid of setting herself alight and so does not like to smoke indoors, until she really can’t help it or doesn’t care anymore. The goal every night is to reach and maintain for as long as possible a state in which she does not care if she turns herself into a blaze. He once threatened to douse her in petrol and throw a lit fag at her. Or did she imagine that? Threats aren’t his thing. Explosions yes. Big Bang Man one of her thousand-and-one names for him. It was a movie she saw it in. A torture scene about the North or somewhere just like it long ago. Everyone tortures everyone else. That’s the way she sees it and we are all called upon to play our part. One way or another she will die in a ball of fire, she’s sure of that, running around outside on the green screaming and billowing shadows and flames like a will-o’-the-wisp on fast forward and chasing its phosphorent tail into hell.
Random Historical Methods
From a converted attic, Frank runs a bespoke adventure tours business. This is Frank’s list: starve 120 dogs. Pulverise by anti-aircraft gun. Abduct in a helicopter and drop in Atlantic. Concrete boots in the Vartry reservoir.
Forty years time, maybe less. Imagine a small drone, a commercial drone, some time after people have gotten used to them, so that a drone is as innocent and regular on the estate as a postman. Never mind how one of these things gets The Man to come to the door, or how it knows it is him. The tech for all that will evolve an economic imperative for the companies involved. When The Man answers the door it just shoots him through the right eye and flies off again, flies off way out over the ocean, miles and miles out and self-destructs in a flash and a puff.
Hot Cross Buns
There is a nine-year-old girl, often seen in a colourful plastic helmet on a pink-framed bicycle, occasionally heard practising Happy Birthday and Hot Cross Buns on the recorder while sitting under a nine-year-old rowan tree out on the green. She make-believes that because the woman wears pyjamas to do her shopping, she must therefore go to bed in her everyday clothes. The little girl dreams of a village where women wear their wedding dresses to the car-boot sale and men wear slurried wellingtons and soiled overalls (she has farm cousins) to their best friend’s birthday parties. Ten days ago she saw The Man, who has winked at her jovially several times in the past, who wears a sleeveless T-shirt which the little girl thinks of as being like a hoodless hoodie or a wheel-less bicycle, she saw him bend over at his front door and lift a glass bottle of the kind his wife often brings back from the supermarket and once dropped and smashed on the pavement and fell face first into the smithereens and had to get the ambulance called. This bottle, she noted with great interest, had a royal blue ribbon attached to it, suggesting a gift. Was it his birthday? A nice surprise for him, anyway, she thought. She saw him lift it to his mouth then seconds later splutter, gasp, vomit and keel over screaming clutching and tearing his throat as if he wanted to rip it out or to open it up to help something struggling inside to escape from it. The little girl interprets this as a display of extreme pleasure and promises herself to find out – in that impossible time to come when no one will be watching her – exactly what was in that bottle and taste it for herself.
A 75cl Smirnoff bottle, with a blue silk ribbon dicky-bowed at the neck. A shade or two lighter than sky blue. Intended obviously to appear as a gift. A nice surprise for an alcoholic who has already spent his disability allowance on drink and has no friends left. A nice surprise on your doorstep when you thought the bender was done and nothing left to do but crash and ache. A moment of euphoric incredulity, turning to euphoric gratitude. The ribbon giving the bottle a humanoid form. A slender gnome come to lavish you with fortitude and calm. A bottle-sprite, quenching the unquenchable thirst, filling you with invincible liquid strength. Bend, grasp, lift, uncap and swig; smothering whatever other prints there might have been with your own prints. Realising only three or four seconds later that you have inhaled the divil’s breath, that the divil’s come from hell especially to burn you from the inside out.
Previously published in Granta Magazine special issue on the best of New Irish Writers.