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Authors: Kevin Barry

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BOOK: Dark Lies the Island
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‘We’ve had some cracking weather,’ said Tom N.

‘Llandudno is quite nice, really,’ said Mo.

Around his scratch marks an angry bruising had seeped. We all looked at him with tremendous fondness.

‘’Tis nice,’ said Everett Bell. ‘If you don’t run into a she-wolf.’

‘If you haven’t gone ten rounds with Edward bloody Scissorhands,’ said John Mosely.

We came along the shabby grandeurs of the city. The look on Mo’s face then couldn’t be read as anything but happiness.

‘Maur
ice
,’ teased Big John, ‘is thinking of the rather interesting day he’s had.’

Mo shook his head.

‘Thinking of days I had years back,’ he said.

It has this effect, Liverpool. You’re not back in the place five minutes and you go sentimental as a famine ship. We piled off at Lime Street. There we go: six big blokes in the evening sun.

‘There’s the Lion Tavern?’ suggested Tom N.

‘There’s always the Lion,’ I agreed.

‘They’ve a couple of Manx ales guesting at Rigby’s,’ said Everett Bell.

‘Let’s hope they’re an improvement on previous Manx efforts,’ said Billy Stroud.

‘There’s the Grapes?’ tried Big John.

‘There’s always the Grapes,’ I agreed.

And alewards we went about the familiar streets. The town was in carnival: Tropic of Lancashire in a July swelter. It would not last. There was rain due in off the Irish Sea, and not for the first time.

ERNESTINE AND KIT

TWO LADIES IN
their sixties made ground through north County Sligo in a neat Japanese car. The sky above Lough Gill was deep blue and the world was fat on the blood of summer. The speed limit was carefully abided and all the turns were slowed for. There was the carnival air of a fine Saturday in June. A vintage car show had drawn a crowd in 1920s boaters and blazers to Kilmore; the old Fords and Triumphs honked cheerfully in the sun, and the ladies as they passed by smiled and waved. There was a lengthy queue for the ferry ride to the lake isle of Inishfree, there were castles to be visited, and way-marked walks to be hotly trailed. All the shaded tables outside the village pubs were full and tinkled with glasses and laughter, and children played unguarded in the cool of the woods.

‘When it gets a good old lick of weather at all,’ Ernestine said, ‘this is one powerful country.’

‘No place to compare,’ Kit sighed, and the summer growth swished heavily against the Toyota’s side windows on a tight bend after Tully.

Ernestine was big, with the high colour of a carnivore, and her haunches strained a little against the capacity of her cream linen trousers in the confined space of the driver’s seat. Her mottled, fleshy arms were held tensely erect as
she
steered – she had learned to drive later in life. Kit, slightly the younger, was long-necked, tightly permed, and thin as a cable. She had a darting glance that scanned the country they passed through and by habit she drew her companion’s attention to places and people of interest.

‘Would they be hair extensions?’ she wondered, as they passed a young blonde pushing a pram along the roadside verge.

‘You can bet on it,’ Ernestine said. ‘The way they’re streaked with that silvery-looking, kind of …’

‘Cheap-looking,’ Kit said.

‘Yes.’

‘Gaudy!’

‘A young mother,’ Ernestine said.

‘Got up like a tuppenny whore,’ Kit said.

‘The skirt’s barely down past her modesty, are you watching?’

‘I am watching. And that horrible,
horrible
stonewash denim!’

‘Where would the whore be headed for, Kit?’

Kit consulted the road map.

‘Leckaun is the next place along,’ she said. ‘Only a stretch up the road from here. Her ladyship is headed into a pub, no doubt.’

‘Drinking cider with fellas with earrings and tattoos,’ Ernestine said. ‘In by a pool table. In a dank old back room. Dank!’

‘You can only imagine,’ said Kit, and she made the sign of the cross. ‘A jukebox and beer barrels and cocaine in the toilets. The misfortunate infant left to its own devices.’

‘Would we nearly stall for a while in Leckaun, Kit?’

Kit pondered this a moment.

‘No,’ she decided, ‘we’ll hit on for the castle. There’ll be a nice crowd there for sure.’

Onwards through the county the Toyota mildly sped, and the ladies had the windows buzzed down a little for breeze: it brought the medieval scent of the old-growth woods. They had been on the road since early morning but there was no tiredness yet – the excitement of the outing countered that.

‘A Cornetto would go down a treat,’ Ernestine said.

‘Ice-cream weather most certainly,’ Kit replied.

They turned to smile at each other. They hoped to have the need to buy ice creams soon enough, and more than two.

Castles were good. The car park was almost entirely full. Ernestine manoeuvred – after a couple of chubby attempts that brought sweat to her forehead – into the last available space. As the engine cut the car filled with the sound of anxious birds and the nearby chatter of the castle visitors. For a moment, the ladies pleasantly listened – they did love a summer-afternoon crowd. The lake waters the castle kept guard of sat as heavily as the blue sky above; each was a suspension of the other.

‘Or would we chance a scone, Kit?’

‘It would hardly put us in the ground, Ernestine.’

The coffee shop, housed in a sensitive glass extension to the castle, was beautifully busy. Bored dads and tired mams lolled there over gazpacho soup and expensive sandwiches – there was organic cola and baked treats for the kiddies. Ernestine and Kit took their places in the thick of it all. Often, in the quiet winter months, back in the bungalow, in the midlands, they spoke of how it was they were perceived in the world. What were they taken for, they
wondered
, out there amid the light and gatherings of summer? Maiden aunts, they supposed, or a pair of nuns who had left – after some shabby soul-wrenching – their order, or maybe as discreet lesbians just a little too aged for openness. What was certain was they would be taken for gentle, kind souls with their aunt-like smiles to seal the contrivance.

They nibbled hungrily as mice at the buttered fruit scones. The tea was left to brew until it was strong as ale. It was poured with satisfaction. They watched carefully the crowd at the cafeteria. They spoke icily of the little darlings who everywhere wobbled between the legs of tables and stumbled over shoulder bags left thoughtlessly on the floor – people just didn’t think as to what might trip a child. The scones were about done with when Kit gobbled nervously along the length of her slender neck, and she reached a hand for Ernestine’s.

‘Look!’

Kit nodded sharply. It was a single hard gesture aimed at a little girl, almost albino-pale. She wore sky-blue shorts of a thin fleece material, silver-buckled sandals patterned with daisies, and a striped, armless French top.

‘Oh, an angel, Kit!’

‘Hush!’

‘Oh, perfection.’

The girl was part of a family of four. The mother was as pale and fair-haired, a weary prettiness persisting into her late thirties. There was a brother, perhaps twice the girl’s age, hunched over a hand-held video game – they heard at fifteen yards its
bleeps
and
kapows
. The father was sallow and dark-haired.

‘Daddy’s a greasy-looking Herbert,’ Ernestine said.

‘Would he be foreign?’

‘Is the child nearly his at all, you’d wonder?’

‘If ’tis, his blood is weak.’

‘Might have a manner of a … Portuguese, have we?’

‘And as sour-looking as it’s greasy.’

Quiet outrage bubbled in their insides. Oh, the undeserving bastards who were blessed with the presence of angels.

‘The mother is a liar,’ Kit said.

‘Would you read her so, Kit?’

‘I would. She has a liar’s chin.’

They waited at distance for the family to finish up. They prayed that they had encountered them at the right time, that they were at the start and not the finish of their visit. They were rewarded when the family rose from the table and aimed not for the car park but for the castle’s interior. The family went dutifully through the cool hallways, and Ernestine and Kit followed; carefully, they drifted into the melt of visitors, there by the chain mail and the crests of arms and the dark stonewalls.

The parents were not careful with the little girl. She roamed ten and twelve and fifteen feet away from them. And that could be enough, in the labyrinth of a castle, a place of quick turns and sudden twists, and the child was forgotten for a half-minute at a time, and that too could be enough.

Ernestine felt a slow hot flush creep her shoulders and ascend her neck.

Kit tinily in the dry pit of her throat made a cage bird’s excited trilling.

The albino sheen of the child’s hair was a perfect tracer in the crowd.

‘Are you looking at the backs of her knees?’ Ernestine whispered.

‘How so?’

‘I mean the little folds of flesh there, look? There’s still pup fat on her!’

‘Ah there is. Ah sweetness!’

The family as it moved with the afternoon crowd broke down into a spat. The father shouted at the little boy, who was showing great interest in his video game but none at all in Ireland’s heritage. The lazy blur of the crowd’s movement was watched closely by Kit for the blocking it would afford; Ernestine’s eyes were locked on the girl child. The mother scolded the father for his shouting – an index finger was wielded at his face. The father seethed and snapped a remark. The boy was in the zone only of his game. The tiny girl was for a moment forgotten.

‘Move,’ Kit said.

Ernestine slipped a tube of wine gums from her bag and as she moved her smile was warmed by her desire to have the child’s heat – if briefly – in her life.

‘I think I know your name, sweetie thing?’

The girl was perhaps twenty feet from her parents at this carefully chosen moment – it was as good as a mile – and she repaid Ernestine’s fuzzy smile at once with a gap-toothed grin of her own.

‘My name?’

The mother and father argued yet, their backs still turned, and the boy still lost to his hand-held world.

‘Oh I know your name for certain, I’d say! Would I have a little guess at it?’

The child giggled.

‘I’d say your name could be written on one of these …’

She showed the sweets and popped one loose.

‘Yes, yes,’ she was beside the girl now, and she leaned in confidingly, and she squinted hard at the wine gum in her hand, as if a name was inscribed there. ‘It says here that you’re a … Bob?’

The child laughed, and tossed her head to show the crooked milk teeth, and the white filmy ooze of babyhood that coated still her gums, and she flicked coquettishly her hair – she was surely no Bob – and, unseen, Kit circled and moved in behind her, paused for a check, and then moved closer.

You might travel the length of Ireland for weeks on end, down all the great yawning of the summer days, and you would never come across the ideal moment. But sometimes the luck came in.

‘Can’t be! Oh, it can’t be a Bob! Maybe you’re someone else altogether. Maybe I need to have a closer look now, my darling, and we’ll find out what your name is yet.’

Ernestine’s fingers trailed the filigree down of the child’s bare arm. The slightest of touches was electric, and enough to distract her – her eyes became bloodshot – and Ernestine withdrew from it carefully. She shucked another wine gum free and examined it intently.

‘Now it says here, we have a … is it a Kathy? An Aoife? Is it a Megan? Is it …’

She turned her head close to the child.

‘Allie,’ the child said.

‘Oh baby Allie,’ Ernestine said, and a tear came and ran slowly her cheek.

She gave the girl the wine gum. Allie chewed on it. And
Ernestine
moved in and tickled her beneath the arm, and whisperingly she sang:

‘Allie’s so pretty, Allie’s so sweet, Allie is the little girl who’s walkin’ down your street …’

She raised her head and blinked her eyes rapidly then for her companion.

‘Take her, Kit!’

At precisely this moment, as Kit took the little girl warmly inside a cuddle that was also a lock, with her skinny forearm placed just so over the child’s mouth; as she lifted Allie high and close to her; as Ernestine rose and pressed Kit on the small of the back, and hissed –

‘Go! Go!’

– it was at this moment that Allie’s brother drew her into the row. He gestured in her direction – he knew his sister’s whereabouts by instinct – and he squealed at his parents that Allie was allowed to do as she pleased, that she was never forced to …

As he spoke, the family all turned and they saw her, in the distance, in the arms of the lady with the tight perm.

‘Allie!’

The mother’s desperate scream was signal enough for Kit to pinch viciously the pup fat at the back of Allie’s knees, causing the child to shriek and cry. The pinch was Kit’s procedure in such an emergency: upset in the child would justify the ladies’ intrusion.

‘Oh hush, baby, hush! Oh look it, look it … is this your mammy now … is this mammykins?’

The mother fell drunkenly on her child, and Ernestine took the father’s forearm.

‘Oh thank God!’ she said. ‘She was so upset! We were
going
for security! She thought she had ye lost altogether.’

‘Oh thank you so much,’ said the father.

‘Oh Allie, honey, shush!’ cried the mother.

‘Is that her name, is it Allie, isn’t she some beauty?’

‘Allie, we were only over there! Sweetheart, what is it?’

‘Ah she couldn’t see ye and the poor thing get herself all fussed.’

‘Ah poor baby Allie.’

In a chorus of cooings the matter was smoothed over, and Ernestine and Kit were gratefully thanked for coming to the aid of a small child in distress. The family was left intact, with Allie still weeping, and the ladies moved on with fond smiles and waves. They turned at once for the car park. They made it only just in time. As the Toyota moved, the father dashed into the sightline of the rearview mirror – the angel had spoken – but he was too late, and if he got the reg it was no matter. The plates were false, having been fixed that morning in the garage attached to the bungalow.

BOOK: Dark Lies the Island
7.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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