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Authors: Edna O'Brien

Tags: #Short Stories (Single Author), #Fiction, #Short Stories, #CS, #ST

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BOOK: Saints and Sinners
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Mrs. Mulkearns did something gorgeous. She invited him and his granny to come and stay for a night. It was like going abroad. They got there at dusk. It being autumn, the trees up along the avenue were all sorts of plum colors and there were still flowers in the flowerbeds, and in the hallway, a tall clock in a glass-fronted case and the polished pendulums, solid as truncheons. There was a big fire in the room, pictures on every inch of wall, and books and ornaments and a second clock on the mantelpiece ticking. Mrs. Mulkearns carried in a tray with sandwiches, scones, a variety of jams, and a cake, and she sat with them and explained the different flavors in the jams and how she came upon the Austrian recipe for the cake, which was shaped like a log and had a soft white butter icing. It was called a stollen, from an old Prussian name that meant "Awaken." All of a sudden she decided to tell a story of her youth, her harum-scarum youth. She was in a convent and, with two other girls, plotted to get over the stone wall to meet two boys and walk three miles out of the town, to look at a haunted house. It was creepy, them just pushing the door in and every stick of furniture still in the rooms, and in the music room, a piano, sheet music strewn all over, and a beeswax candle in a brass holder—the very same as if the dead owner was about to come in. When they heard footfalls they ran and ran, and she and the two girls were expelled from the convent. His granny began a story but lost the thread of it, and then it was his turn and he told about going to the bookies and picking number thirty-seven, but he did not tell what had transpired between him and Donie.

Lying in the strange four-poster, he thought on the matter and said,
Awaken, Curly, awaken.
There was things in the media every single day about the haul from the notorious bank robbery in the north—how some traceable notes were retrieved, more found in chimneys and broom cupboards, and there were warrants for people whom the state intended to call. He might be one of those people. One evening, at closing time, Donie called to the shop and brought him across to the chipper, where he had his favorite things, chips with prawn sauce and grated cheese and mince. Donie wanted a favor, he wanted something hidden. A bag. He said Curly was not to worry, as he would not do anything to harm him or his granny and that it was only temporary. It could go in the granny's shed. That shed beat all for clutter. There was stuff in it going back hundreds of years, an old sidecar with a trap wedged over it, milk churns, milk tankards, breast slanes and foot slanes from when turf was cut by hand, and fenders and picture frames and old chairs and a horsehair sofa with the leather slashed and the coarse hair spilling out. There was a hole in the floor under the sidecar, where his great-grandfather hid his pike in Fenian times and his grandfather hid the bottles of potcheen and where he would hide the bag. Donie said there would be a reward and he asked what and Donie said, "Name your poison," and he did. He wanted a cell phone, and straightaway, when they'd finished the tea, they went to the phone shop, where there were hundreds and hundreds of phones all standing up, like little soldiers, waiting to be claimed. He picked a pink one, light pink, the color of cake icing, and next day people at work were gaping at it and touching it, mad jealous. He put three telephone numbers into the memory, his granny's, Donie's, and his boss's. He put the boss's number in because he longed for the morning that he could ring up and say,
I'm not coming in today, Mutt, and I'm not coming in
ever. He longed for that day.

The money was in a black plastic bag inside a holdall, and feeling it in his bedroom that first night he wondered how many thousands were in it, because he knew it was money, it wasn't anything else. He placed it on the floor of the wardrobe, laid it into his jacket and tied the buttons so that it looked like a dead person, a dead person with the legs sawn off. Then he put the baseball cap on it. If anyone came into that room and opened the wardrobe, they'd get a fright, but no one would.

It is winter evening and the men in the quarry are already knocking off. But in Mr. McSorley's office there is uproar, as Daragh McSorley himself thunders at Seamus the foreman, who stands mute, lank, and unable to control the shaking.

"Tell me more Seamus ...moremore's music to my ears, it's Beethoven and Boyzone and Glenstal Monks rolled into one." And before Seamus can even attempt to answer, McSorley is yelling what he has already been told, what he has already ingested—Hanrahan, a fucking eejit, a fucking moron, on his mobile, not thinking, rams his digger straight into the tank of diesel and, presto, thousands of liters have spewed onto the rained-on yard, making those rainbow colors so beloved of youngsters—said diesel already flowing through the porous limestone down to the river and onwards to the estate of houses in the valley below. Forty fucking families who hate his guts are now alerted to a peculiar smell in their kitchen and weird patches of damp seeping up through their foundations. Forty families baying at the gates, the Gardai, the council, the fisheries board all on his back, his quarry shut down indefinitely, loaders, crushers, lying idle, men laid off, bank repayments to the tune of fifty grand a month. Marvelous, inspirational, a whammy, a catastrophic environmental and human fuckup. At that, he reaches for his calculator and with instantaneous lucidity begins to tot up the gargantuan sums about to be lost.

Seamus watches the savage snarling expression, not yet knowing how long it will take for the spree of rage to subside, but guessing the finale—McSorley tearing wads of newspaper to chew, then spit out, because his anger can no longer be contained in a violent welter of words.

"Hanrahan is very sorry ... he was ringing the hospital to inquire about his mother and getting no answer," Seamus says, only to be silenced, because McSorley does not give a tinker's curse if Walter Mitty and Walter Mitty's ailing mother are dead in a ditch. The tank has got to be removed and a cleanup operation commenced at once.

"It can't be done tonight," Seamus says.

"Can't! Can't!" McSorley roars. Can't is a verb he does not tolerate. Can't does not close a deal. There are no prizes for can't. Can't is the breast that losers are suckled on. That tank goes and is replaced with an identical one, all surface evidence is erased, stones taken up, crushed, buried, and clean unsmelling stone put in their place.

Alone, he drops down into his chair, drenched in sweat, and spits out the last gob of wet newspaper, then reaches into his bottom drawer for the brandy and his pewter mug. The first slug he drinks direct from the bottle and studies his reflection in the mug, his mouth foaming, his features distended. He does not like what he sees, because he is a vain man, proud of his jutting jaw, his mineral-blue eyes, his ramrod posture, and the cropped tawny mustache that singles him out from the lubbers and jobbers all around. He asks himself, "Who am I, what am 1," and answers, "I am Daragh McSor-ley, from the big house on the hill" —lawns, topiary, sculptures the size of cannon, a fragrant wife, Kitty, paneled walls, priceless paintings, a library of first editions, a yacht named after his daughter bobbing in the wintry waters off the coast of Spain, and a family to assuage his every mood, his bursts of temper, a devoted family that is his pride and joy.

But no one really knows him as he is, no one knows the scope of his ambition, the passion, the relentless unrest. Only Dr. Tubridy got a glimpse of it once— Tubridy, aping the English mores with his tweeds and his trilby hat, put it to him in the surgery, after the second bypass — asked him what made him tick.

"Lust," he answered.

"For the fair sex," Tubridy said.

"For everything ...Medb the Connaught Queen has nothing on me, with her avarice for dominions, herds, jewels, and booty."

"And thy fellow man?" Tubridy put it to him.

"A checkbook speaks louder than the act of perfect contrition," he answered, and laughed, and Tubridy laughed with him, but nervously.

He was famous for his loud laugh that had little mirth in it. It confused people, it kept them dangling. As for bad feeling, there was so much bad feeling vented on him that he could bottle it and sell it like holy water. His wife, Kitty, mortified that Sunday after Mass, when a mad eejit of a woman who had done upholstery for a block of houses came up to him cursing and screaming, "You broke me, you broke me, Mr. McSorley," and he not losing the cool one bit, giving her the big smile and assuring her that it would be looked into. Soon she was timorous, almost apologetic, and he walked tall to the car, Kitty pinching him and asking, "In the name of God, Daragh, in the name of God, what did you do?" It wasn't long after that that the stone eagles were hacked off the piers of his front gates and dogs were set on Kitty when she was out for a walk.

Another thing, never in his cups did he luxuriate in that maudlin stuff about hunger and privation. He knew it in his marrow. Lesser men than him would go on about crubeens and a turnip for Christmas dinner, or a grandmother pulled off her bicycle when she was taking the salmon that her man had poached from the river, to sell to the fishmonger in the town, taken down off her bicycle and brought to the county jail.

"Be absolute in your aim" was what he told himself while he was still in short trousers. On the day when he hired his first lorry and trusted that guiding star that led him through mountain gorges to his El Dorado, a disused quarry. He got out, looked at a sheer wall of rock over two hundred feet high, and imagined the wealth that lay hidden within the belly of it.

It is Friday night, the night he and Kitty—along with Ambrose, his brother and partner, and Ambrose's wife, Isolde, the ex-beauty queen—will go up the country to a simple olde worlde pub for dinner. It's his way of letting it be known that he hasn't lost touch with his roots and, moreover, they have taken on a young chef who had just got his degree in Switzerland. Walking to his car after work, the jacket over his shoulder, he can see the men, the few trusted ones breaking the stones with their jackhammers. Lights gleam in the valley down below, and from a hillside farmstead comes the sound of a cow in labor. He knows that sound. Sometimes the memory of it took him unawares, that low grieving sound of a cow in labor, but instantly he shut it out. Such things belong to his former and unhardened self. He is no longer that man. He is a man frequently described in the newspapers as ruthless and with a criminal coldness.

Yes, it's their evening for up-the-country, and Isolde, with her range of accessories—because she's an accessory freak—in the black gloves with sequins, raving about too much dairy in her diet, too much frigging Krug in her diet, not like his little Kitty, one gin and tonic that she nurses faithfully, because she read somewhere that Winston Churchill always nursed his drink.

Isolde falling not once, not twice, but thrice at their barbecue at the end of summer, whereas his little Kitty is up with the lark, morning Mass, a bit of baking, her prize herb garden, and a brisk walk in the afternoon to keep her figure. Chalk and cheese, Kitty and Isolde, like Daragh and Ambrose, quiet and staid, brothers yoked together, in their crooked deeds and their crooked deals. Kitty knew how to keep her man, that lady journalist sashaying up to him at the function in Dublin, to ask how she could get in touch so as to raise his profile, stressing his works for charity and his role as a family man, and Kitty answering from the far end of the festive table, "Through me, through me."

Next day Curly was a hero. The words ran away with him, boasting how he had pulled a calf from its mother, up there on Pat-the-Bonham's bit of land, Pat having gone to Lourdes as a volunteer, when lo and behold, up there in the silence and the gloom there was this hullabaloo from down in the quarry below, security lights turned off and he reckoning that it was some gang stealing diesel or stealing stones. Then, as he told it, the cow got very agitated, running around in circles, and the noise was atrocious, a drilling sound, a zzzzzzzzzzz, like from the key-cutting machine in the shop, only louder, and then the claps of metal hitting other metal and echoing back, so that the cow bolted from the outbuilding and ran off. He followed, but each time she got away, over grass and thicket, he demented, in case she got caught in a crevice of the ravine, or that the calf would slip out and split its head on rock or bits of drainage pipe embedded in the earth. When he got to the moment when he knew he would have to deliver a calf, he asked them, his listeners, to just picture it—he with only a small torch and not a bit of rope or twine, seeing the forelegs jutting out, but not able to catch them because of their being so slimy, and doing the only thing he could think of, which was to take off his sweater, get a grip on them, and pull and pull, until the calf came out in a big plop on the damp ground and he, as he said, roared with joy and relief. Then nature took its course, the mother licked the sac, took her time over it, licked the crusted eyelids, chewed the cord, and the calf began its pathetic attempts to get up, the mother unable to do that for it, only the calf itself could do that, and eventually, staggering on its little legs and going straight to the udder.

was the only word Curly could find to describe what he felt. By nightfall, as he told it in the chipper, the pitch black was blacker, the noise from the quarry suspicious, but worst of all, the birth was complicated, as one of the calf's feet was folded back inside the mother and he who knew nothing about veterinary had to put his hand in, jiggle it around to get it forward and enable the calf to slide out, which it did.

would be short-lived.

Over the next days, the environmental agency was flooded with complaints, some in person and some by phone, families up there, irate at the fact that their water was contaminated, that smears of greasy film appeared in their sinks and on their baths, and the springs that fed the reservoir had lagoons of oil floating upon them. Men were called to monitor the damage, and when fish were found dead in the river an inquiry was set up as to what might have caused such spillage, though those up there already knew that it had only come from one place, the detested quarry.

BOOK: Saints and Sinners
7.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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