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Authors: Eílís Ní Dhuibhne

The Shelter of Neighbours

BOOK: The Shelter of Neighbours
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Imprint Information

First published in 2012 by Blackstaff Press

This edition published 2012 by

Blackstaff Press

4c Sydenham Business Park

Belfast BT3 9LE

with the assistance of

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland

© Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

All rights reserved

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

Cover Design by Dunbar Design

Produced by Blackstaff Press

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

EPUB ISBN 978-0-85640-026-1

MOBI ISBN 978-0-85640-028-5

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne was born in Dublin. She was educated at University College Dublin and has a BA in English and a PhD in Irish Folklore. She worked for many years as a librarian and archivist in the National Library of Ireland and now teaches on the MA for Creative Writing at University College Dublin and for the Faber Writing Academy. She is a member of Aosdána. The author of more than twenty books, including five collections of short stories, several novels, children's books, plays and many scholarly articles and literary reviews, her work includes
The Dancers Dancing
The Pale Gold of Alaska
Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow
. She has been the recipient of many literary awards, among them the Stewart Parker award for Drama, three Bisto awards for her children's books and several Oireachtas awards for novels in Irish. Her novel,
The Dancers Dancing
(Blackstaff, 1999; new edition 2007), was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and her collection,
The Inland Ice
, was selected as a ‘Notable Book' by the
New York Times
. One of Ireland's most important short story writers, Ní Dhuibhne's stories have appeared in many anthologies, including
The Faber Book of Best Irish Short Stories
The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story

Praise for Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

‘Ní Dhuibhne's pre-eminent technical gift – to evoke a character or mood unmistakably in three words – is dazzling.'

Irish Times

Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow

‘Thank goodness for Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and her novel – a warm, sardonic, unflinchingly and horribly accurate examination of the world of Irish letters.'

Carlo Gébler

‘ ... possibly the finest novel to emerge from Ireland in the early twenty-first century. It is a formidable critique of a culture, so intelligently and artfully conveyed that the book fairly crackles. Magnificent.'

Mary O'Donnell

Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow
is that rare thing – a clever, intelligent book that is also highly readable ... a must read for anyone interested in the state of the modern Irish novel.'

Sarah Webb

‘Fiction, graced with head-versus-heart knowingness, about people on whom Ireland imposes timid choices and straitened lives.'

New York Times

‘We have all met Ní Dhuibhne's Anna, walking down Grafton Street, waiting at the school gate in her smart car, toying with food in an expensive restaurant. She is as omnipresent as she is foolish. She is also touching, vulnerable and all too human. This is the real achievement of this novel.'

Ita Daly

‘Hugely enjoyable. I laughed aloud and cried. Ní Dhuibhne is Chekovian in her mixture of comedy and tragedy.'

Mary Rose Callaghan

‘This is the Celtic Tiger novel we've all been waiting for – searingly perceptive and wickedly funny in its stylish dissection of the rotten heart of contemporary Ireland's chattering intelligentsia. Does what Messud's
The Emperor's Children
did for ennui-driven New Yorkers. Even better, Ní Dhuibhne's heroine delivers on all the pathos and wit you'd expect if Anna Karenina were a spoiled Killiney housewife with literary aspirations. Brilliant.'

Kate Holmquist

The Pale Gold of Alaska and Other Stories

‘her prose shimmers like poetry.'

Edna O Brien,

‘Beautifully written and full of humour, these are stories whose insights are never forced.'

Christina Konig,
The Times


For Olaf
and Nadezhda


Versions of the following stories have been published previously:

‘It is a Miracle',
Arrows in Flight: Short Stories from a New Ireland
, ed. Caroline Walsh (London: Townhouse/Scribner's, 2002); ‘The Moon Shines Clear, the Horseman's Near',
Phoenix Book of Irish Short Stories
, ed. David Marcus (London: Phoenix, 2005); ‘A Literary Lunch',
Faber Book of Irish Short Stories
, ed. David Marcus (London: Faber and Faber, 2007); ‘The Man Who Had No Story' and ‘Sugar Loaf', in
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne:
, ed. Rebecca Pelan (Dublin: Arlen House, 2009); ‘Trespasses',
Best European Fiction 2011
, ed. Aleksandar Hemon (Champaign/London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2010), ‘The Yeats',
John McGahern Yearbook
, volume 4 (Galway: National University of Ireland, Galway, 2011).

The man who had no story

Needless to say, it's bucketing down like, like I don't know what. Like rocks from an Icelandic volcano, or like rain from an Irish sky. Which is after all what it is. The Irish summer monsoon, just as wet and blinding as the Irish winter monsoon, or the Irish spring monsoon, or the Irish autumn monsoon. Even in sunshine (and when did we last experience that?) the M50 has been as easy to navigate as the seventh circle of hell all this blighted year. For most of it you have to drive at sixty kilometres an hour, steering on a narrow track between rows of red and white cones, a good few knocked over and rolling around, doing their best to trick you into crashing into something and causing mayhem and painful death. You'd be a lot safer and probably a lot quicker going through town. But you never know, and at least it's all moving along now, at this in-between time. Four o'clock. Sunday. Not many people leave town so late, and the great return from down the country has not yet started.

Finn O'Keefe is going down the country for his holidays.

Gráinne, his wife, is in the summer house they've rented for July and half of August, at a high enough price, down there in the south. They ‘moved down' – he liked saying that, even to himself – three weeks ago. The plan was that they would relax, go for walks in the green hills and swims in the bracing ocean, eat good little things bought in the local town. He was going to write. He's a teacher – so is she. He writes in the summer, is the theory, and Gráinne chills. But it hasn't worked. Not after the first few days, when he wound down by reading a travel book about Tuscany called
Bella Tuscany
, which was so good that he started writing a similar sort of thing except about the south-west of Ireland. ‘Bella Kerry' – a working title. Obviously. He got right into it, and when you thought about it, the place had plenty in common with Tuscany. The sweet smell of the clover, the wildflowers all over the place. Cute little shops and restaurants in the town. The farmers' market. It hadn't rained the first few days, so that had encouraged the comparison. They'd been able to go for long walks up the hill at the back of the house – stunning with gorse and heather, purple and yellow, exactly the same colours as the Wexford football jersey, as he noted in his writer's notebook, in case the simile would come in handy. (How could it? Who cared that the mountain where Finn was on holiday reminded him of the Wexford strip? His writer's notebook was full of such useless items.) Those first days, they let the waves and the wind do their work. Of cleaning out their cobwebbed heads. Their sticky, tacky, tired-out hearts.

Then the troubles started. First, the rain. Then Gráinne's back acted up. After all the housework before they left home – she had to do it, nobody lifted a finger apart from her, all that – and the long drive. A whole day in the medical centre – a country medical centre, local colour, characters.
. He wrote about it in his ‘Bella Kerry' book – you could include some bad stuff in that sort of book, as long as it had a bit of eccentricity, and as long as you kept it to a minimum. One flat tyre, say, to ten examples of rural bliss. One bad back to ten gastronomic orgasms: food was the fuel of the genre.

Next thing, their son, Mattie, who is minding the house in Dublin, which to him means putting out food for the cat when the thought strikes him – it could be every two days – phoned. The cat's sick. Doesn't eat anything. Doesn't even move.
Quelle surprise !

But Gráinne worried. So back to town they went, the two of them. Three days running to the vet with the sick cat – Pangur Bán, she is called, the most common cat name in Ireland, thanks to that quirky monk who wrote about his cat in Old Irish high on a mountain in Austria in the eighth century or something. Everyone's favourite poem. Pangur, apparently – their Pangur, the real cat, born in the twentieth century but living still in this one, a two-century cat – may have Aids, or cancer, or both. She definitely has a heart condition and there's something wrong with her kidneys. And she's dehydrated. Hard to explain that, said the vet, giving Finn a suspicious look. It was Finn's guess that Pangur hadn't been given a drink of water or milk or anything at all in approximately ten days. But he didn't reveal this to the vet, who disapproved of him. As if it was his fault the cat was sick. Which of course it was, in a way. Maybe the owners of ageing cats should not go off down the country to chase words. Or go anywhere, to do anything.

The vet ran tests, cleaned out Pangur's system with a twenty-four-hour drip, administered a few injections, all of which Pangur hated. Then he prescribed antibiotics and heart pills, and advised, in that solemn, slow voice of his, that they would have to consider things and make a decision. Meaning, Finn supposed, it was soon to be curtains for Pangur. Seven hundred euros later and now they should consider putting her down. Shouldn't the vet have mentioned that before?

Anyway, after all the medication, Pangur looked not too bad. So Gráinne decided they should bring her back with them, down the country. ‘Mattie loves Pangur; she's his cat.' Yes. Indeed. He had brought her home one day when he was ten and she was four weeks old, a little cute white kitten with bright blue eyes – he had fair hair then, too, falling like flax into his eyes, also blue, sparkling like the sea in sunshine – thirteen years ago. Finn and Gráinne had never wanted a cat. Or any pet. ‘But I don't think he looks after her properly. It's not fair to expect that of him. She needs a lot of attention and he's got his own life.' Mattie is busy, reading Nietzsche, playing the guitar, and watching television, not necessarily in that order, from midday when he gets up until 1 a.m. when he hits the sack after his long strenuous days sitting on the sofa.

Pangur isn't keen on long journeys. (Or short journeys. She howls her head off even on the five-minute drive to the vet.) But she came to Kerry, in her cage, on the back seat of the car. After four hours, she stopped howling and dozed off – you couldn't say she slept, as such. It was more that she collapsed into a state of semi-consciousness, like a prisoner whose body just can't take any more torture. They made lots of stops to encourage her to drink a drop of water, nibble some ‘treats'. She refused every time, but Gráinne kept on trying.

To Finn's amazement, Pangur survived the trip and began to recover – the change of scene seemed to do her good. Being away from home worked for her the way it's supposed to work for a human, though often doesn't. This cheered them both up no end. For once they'd done the right thing, by the cat. Instead of killing her, as suggested by the vet, they'd taken her down the country for a holiday, and she got better.

Then, no sooner was Pangur settled in, eating a mouthful of treats and a tiny can of gourmet cat-food a day, than Mattie was on the phone again. He never phoned when things were
, so Finn smelt a rat as soon as he overheard Gráinne talking to him. Mattie always talked to her first; even if Finn answered the phone, he'd ask for his mother.

A mouse. Mattie had seen one, in the conservatory, eating from the cat dish. A dish of cat-food that had been left out even though there wasn't a cat in the house. It made Finn want to puke, thinking about it. And – troubles don't come singly – the fridge had stopped working.

They'd have to go back to Dublin, obviously, to deal with the mouse and the fridge. But somebody had to stay and mind Pangur. It wouldn't be fair to put her through the ordeal of the journey again. Or Gráinne, with her back.

Finn had spent a whole week in Dublin, and now he's on the road south for the third time in a few weeks. Maybe his break can start at last. July is nearly over. Before you know it, it will be September. Can he write ‘Bella Kerry' in four weeks? He wonders how long the woman who wrote
Bella Tuscany
spent doing hers, Frances something – he likes her style; he must google her sometime, see what she looks like. He envisages her as laughing, with shining fair hair. Tall and slender – she mentions, on page fifty, that she has ‘long rabbit feet'. A gazelle, undoubtedly.

The Red Cow roundabout. It's in transition from being a roundabout to being a cloverleaf junction and is essentially a twenty-first-century torture chamber – last time he took the wrong lane, he found himself at the toll bridge having to pay to cross over, do a U-turn, then pay to get back, losing forty minutes and four euro as punishment for his mistake. But it's a bit easier this time; they've put up a signpost. Soon enough he's escaped to the N7. From then on, it should be plain sailing down across Ireland. And apart from some thunderstorms – Laois has transmogrified into the fifth circle of hell – this turns out to be right.

‘Bella Kerry'. It's easy to do. But he has to write something else. Not a rip-off of
Bella Tuscany
, which, he knows quite well, is a waste of time and will never get finished. Basically, writing it is an excuse for not writing something else. This happens more and more, he finds. Something else is what he's always writing, never whatever it is he's supposed to be doing. Which is, at the minute, a short story. A short story that will make his name. Again. Or even a short story that he knows in his heart is a good short story, no matter what anyone else thinks.

He used to write them when he was younger. He even published a collection once, ages ago. Retrospectively, it seems to him he wrote those stories effortlessly. Some autobiographical, about things that happened to him – mainly women ditching him, him ditching women. (This was before he was married, of course.) Made-up ones about people he saw on the bus or the train, mainly about women ditching them, or them ditching women – these imagined lives bore a close resemblance to his own.

But now he can't think of anything to write about. He never thought much of his talent but, looking back, he admires his younger self, the self who had the wit, the imagination, the energy, to write any kind of story, even a bad one. How on earth did he do it?

He hasn't the foggiest idea.

He hasn't the foggiest idea, although he is a teacher of creative writing. He tells other people how to do it and encourages them. It always surprises him that they can write anything, and he's even more surprised that plenty of it is good. And how they can write, all those kids! He just tosses them an idea, a topic, an opening line (a trigger, he calls it; he's getting tired of that ‘creative writing' word but hasn't come up with a satisfactory alternative), and off they go. Writing for all they're worth. Trouble is, he can't give himself a trigger. Well, that's not true, of course he can – he knows hundreds, literally, enough to get him through a ten-year course with the same class, although no course actually lasts longer than ten weeks. But none of those triggers fires anything, shoots anything – whatever triggers do. None of them hits the target. Because his imagination is dead. Dead as a fox on the motorway (he's passed three of them, flattened like eggs in the pan, poor buggers). He used to have loads of imagination. It was his hallmark. But it's gone, like the colour in his hair, and the other things he had when he was younger. Such as?
Joie de vivre
. Passion. Bright dreams.

There's a story he heard. On the radio. There used to be storytellers in the place they are staying, that deep, green valley on the edge of the ocean, but not any more, that he knows of. It was a recording of a storyteller who used to live down the road from his rented cottage, in the same townland, which is Baile na hAbha, the town by the river. ‘The Man Who Had No Story'. That was the name of the story and that's what it was about. The man – let's say his name was Dermot O'Keefe, from Baile na hAbha – was looked down upon by the people. Everyone was expected to have at least one story they could entertain their neighbours with. Good storytellers knew a few hundred, the professor guy who was commenting on this story said. But Dermot hadn't even one. He was hoping for a free night's lodging but he couldn't sing for his supper, as it were. And it just wouldn't do. The man was thrown out of the house in disgrace.

‘Go to the well and fetch a bucket of water,' the woman of the house said crankily. ‘You'd better do something for your keep.'

And at the well poor old crestfallen Dermot came across some fairies. And the fairies lifted him up in a blast of wind and swept him through the sky. East and west and north and south they carried him. And he landed in front of a big house. And in the house a wake was going on. As soon as he stepped inside the door, a very nice-looking girl with curly black hair asked Dermot to sit beside her. Which he did. Gladly.

And the man of the house said: ‘We need a bit of music. Somebody go and find the fiddler.'

The beautiful girl said: ‘No need. The best fiddler in Ireland is sitting here beside me. Dermot O'Keefe from Baile na hAbha.'

Dermot was gobsmacked. ‘Who, me? Sure, I've never played a tune in my life,' he said.

But lo and behold there was a fiddle in one of his hands and a bow in the other, and the next thing, he was playing the most beautiful music anyone had ever heard.

And then, later, the man said: ‘Somebody go and get the priest to say Mass, because we want to get the corpse out of the house before daybreak.'

‘No need,' said the curly-haired girl. ‘Isn't the best priest in Ireland right here beside me?'

Dermot. Up he stood and said Mass, and all the prayers afterwards, as if he'd been doing it every day of his life.

Then four men took the coffin on their shoulders to carry it to the graveyard. There were three very short men and one very tall man. And the coffin was wobbling all over the place.

‘Somebody call the doctor!' said the man of the house. ‘So he can shorten the legs of this long fellow, and make the coffin even.'

‘Isn't the best doctor in Ireland here at hand!' said the lovely girl. ‘Dermot O'Keefe from Baile na hAbha.'

BOOK: The Shelter of Neighbours
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