A week after Tom Walsh was shot in the back, the man who murdered him knocks on our door.
‘I hear your father’s in hospital,’ he says. He won’t look me in the eye, stares at my bare feet in flip flops, at the chipped blue varnish on my toenails. Car doors slam in front of the chippers across the road. A woman and three children go inside. The smell of burnt grease, cut with vinegar, overhangs the street. There’s no wind out but there’s a nip in the air. Summer is over. A man walking a dog passes and glances at us. One of the Dublin crowd, from the new estate at the end of the town. I only know him to see.
Dermot Clancy, I do know. I heard he’d got out on bail but it’s a shock to see him walking around. I haven’t seen him since Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, what eight, nine months ago? He was with a new woman, Bernie Lynch, who had bleached her hair since I saw her last. Later, in the pub he sat in the corner with her, unsmiling, but then he never smiled much. I’ve been keeping away from the pub this year, and from what I heard so had he. Until last week.
I can’t think what it is he wants.
‘Your doorbell is broken. I had to knock.’
‘It’s been that way for years,’ I say.
‘Oh, right. So how is your father?’ he says as if he’s reading from a script.
‘Not great,’ I say. My feet are cold. I shiver, like someone just walked over my grave, as my mother used to say.
‘Sorry to hear that,’ he says. ‘They can do a lot these days. A heart attack isn’t the end of the world anymore.’ He smiles at me but it doesn’t reach his eyes.
‘It’s not his heart. He had a brain aneurysm.’
‘Oh,’ he says, ‘I didn’t know.’ He looks down the street as if he’s waiting for someone to prompt him his lines. Town is quiet. The evening is drawing in, darkening slowly. He looks so harmless standing there in his Sunday best. Charcoal grey trousers, polished black shoes, a navy jacket zipped right up as if the zips and laces and seams of his clothes are holding him together. I think of Tom running across that field, scared out of his wits, waiting for the explosion, and then falling down, down into the dark grass.
Clancy’s always had a temper, even in school, and it only got worse as he got older. He tried to kiss me once, at a disco. He was very drunk, and I’m not sure he knew who he was grabbing. You got used to pushing drunk men off you at the end of a night. Their eyes full of lust and hate. Clancy wasn’t the worst of them. Fellas provoked him because it was so easy to wind him up. I was there the night he glassed Johnny Kelly in the Roxy. Kelly, with blood pouring down into his eyes, had to be held back from going after Clancy again. A couple of stitches, a couple of months later, and they made up again. Men are strange that way.
And here’s Dermot Clancy at my door, trying to make small talk.
‘Is Luke in?’ he asks.
‘Not at the minute. He’ll be home soon though.’
That’s a lie. I’m wary of him, don’t want him to know I’m alone for hours yet. Luke won’t be home till well after midnight. Late night shopping, lots of shelves to stack. He’s an electrician by trade but that work’s all dried up. Truth is, Luke probably won’t be home at all because he’ll head over to his girlfriend’s house. Clancy must be desperate for a friend. My brother was in his class at primary school but they were never close.
All I want is to go back inside, watch my programmes, have another smoke in peace.
‘Why don’t you—’
‘I was thinking I could drive you. You know. To visit your Dad when Luke’s working. Or to the shops. Or to work. If you need a lift,’ he says, each word an effort.
He chances a quick look at me. His eyes are glassy, like he’s on something.
‘We’ll manage,’ I say.
‘It’s no trouble. I hear your car’s off the road.’
I know what he wants now. His mother’s sent him to do his penance, to look good before the trial. Mrs Clancy had been good to Mammy before she died, as well she should. Didn’t Mammy clean her house for years. I think of Mrs Clancy, how her carefully made-up face must have crumpled when she heard what her son had done.
Two girls walk by very slowly, and stare at Clancy, then me. Dagger looks for both of us. He’ll have at least a year of signing on at the Garda station, of being glared at, and maybe worse. I don’t want any trouble, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to take no for an answer.
‘Come in for a minute,’ I say, and soon as I’ve said it I’m sorry.
He follows me in, sits down at the kitchen table.
‘A cup of tea?’
He nods. He’s pale as a ghost.
I fill the kettle and look out the window. It’s dark now. I can see our reflections in the
glass. We look crooked, the panes of glass are so old and warped.
The story I heard is that Clancy and Tom spent all day drinking together last Bank Holiday Monday. Clancy insisted he’d drive them to Roxy’s because the taxis were all busy. They planned to stop at Tom’s house so he could get some cash but they had a huge row. Clancy kicked him out of the car just before they got to his house. What happened next seemingly is Clancy drove home to grab the sawn-off shotgun he kept hidden under his bed. The girlfriend was frantic trying to stop him but he wouldn’t listen. He drove all the way back to Tom’s and banged on the door, shouting for Tom to come out, he was going to blast his head off.
Tom took off, out the back door, and across the fields.
Clancy ran after him, stopped and fired.
They say the guards found Clancy sitting on the grass, near Tom’s body, in the moonlight, sobbing, saying over and over that he hadn’t meant to shoot him just scare him.
That’s the story I heard anyways but you never know what to believe.
I leave the TV on but turn the volume down low. I offer him a Benson and Hedges.
‘I don’t smoke,’ he says.
I stay standing, leaning against the kitchen counter. I light a cigarette and realise that my hands are shaking. None of the stories I’ve heard mention Tom’s mother. I imagine her kneeling by her son’s body, shielding him, too late, wishing she could close up the hole in Tom’s chest with her hands. Listening to the sound of his last, choked breath.
Clancy’s sitting at the kitchen table, his right leg jigging a mile a minute. His eyes flit around the kitchen as if he’s looking for an escape route.
The kettle boils.
I turn my back on him and make a lot of noise with cups and saucers. Saucers. We never use saucers. I bring him over a cup of tea that looks grey it’s so weak. I put the milk carton and the sugar bowl down beside him.
‘Thanks,’ he says but he doesn’t touch it. He’s hunched over, staring down at the worn lino under his feet, scuffs over an old cigarette burn.
‘You still seeing Matty Moore?’ he asks.
‘No,’ I say. ‘That’s long over.’
‘He wasn’t your type anyway,’ he says, and he laughs.
My phone’s on the counter. I pick it up. No messages but I pretend to read one.
Everyone knew Matty preferred the pub to my company. When he’s had enough of the bar stool, before all his hair falls out, Matty’ll make a dash for the youngest girl who’ll have him. You’d be surprised how often that works, auld fellas with girls fifteen, twenty years younger than them. The girls are all desperate to settle down still, in this age of having it all and sex toys and empowerment, whatever the hell that is.
I stub out my cigarette, put my phone in the pocket of my sweats. Before I’ve even thought about it, I say, ‘How’s Bernie?’
He looks stricken. I feel bad because I asked that on purpose. For all I know she’ll come back to him when he gets out, she’s so desperate to get a ring on her finger.
An ad promising to pay great prices for gold jewellery comes on the telly.
‘Everyone’s mad for gold these days. All those break-ins recently, they’re ransacking houses for gold jewellery,’ he says. He’s trying to smile again, has straightened up, trying to make an effort to chat.
I turn off the TV. A long uncomfortable silence might get him out of here.
‘How’s work?’ he tries.
‘I’m signing on ,’ I say, and he reddens at that. At that.
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘Sorry. I’ve been busy with the house. And work. It’s hard to keep up with all the news.’ He stares at me. He doesn’t look well. This close up, I notice how much he’s failed, the white in his hair, a grey tinge to his face. Fading away, like the people in my father’s black and white photos from the fifties. All those dog-eared photos of blurry ghosts.
His eyes dip and flick over my breasts. I’m just wearing an old vest top and sweats. I cross my arms.
‘Not much work around,’ he says much too loudly.
‘No,’ I say back, annoyed.
It was alright for him. Went to college and all that, had a good job up to last week. Worked in that big American place thirty miles away. I can never remember exactly what it is he does. Something technical. I think he has to wear one of those white suits with feet and a hood, like a giant babygro. A factory of giant babies. Clancy’s the kind of guy people say comes from a good family by which they mean a well-off family. Me and Luke are not from that kind of family. People used say Mammy was a saint for all she put up with but she couldn’t keep us in school past fifteen so that let her down. Then she took to hounding me not to get pregnant. You’re skirt’s too short, your top’s too low, you look like a tart, every time I stepped out the door.
Leave her alone, said Daddy, she looks very glamorous, like one of them models in the paper. In the pub, he’d boast about his good-looking daughter and ask if anyone could offer him a hefty dowry. One night, I was in the same pub as him and I heard him at it again so I went up to him and told him to quit it. He slapped me on the arse, his own daughter, and almost fell off the stool he was that stocious. After that I changed the way I dressed, I was sick of the grief and the attention. I copied the style of the girls who came home from Dublin at the weekends. The vet’s son asked me out the following summer. Mammy thought all her Christmases had come at once.
‘Are you cold?’ Clancy asks because I’m rubbing my arms. ‘What kind of music do you listen to?’
And I’m thinking that he’s just not right in the head, the way he’s jumping from subject to subject. I decide the best thing to do is play along, keep it light, and figure out a way to ask him to leave without aggravating him.
‘Neil Young. Crosby Stills and Nash. Kings of Leon. Credence Clearwater Revival. That kind of thing.’
I take my phone out of my pocket and text Luke that Clancy called for a visit and I’m a bit nervous.
‘Neil Young? He’s a bit old hat, isn’t he?’ he says like he’s flirting with me.
The vet’s son hated my taste in music. He was the first guy who actually asked me out on a date. Guys asked you to dance when they were drunk, you kissed on the dance floor, let them feel you up a bit. Then the battle began to get you outside into the car, or their friend’s car, or the alley. I kissed a lot of guys but seldom went back to their cars. As soon as a girl had sex with a guy who wasn’t a boyfriend everyone called her a bike, a slut, behind her back. I only fooled around in cars until I went with the vet’s son. His kisses were slow, deep, our teeth grinding on each other, teeth on my throat, persuasive hands under me. In his father’s car, he’d let down the front passenger seat, and I’d climb on top of him, my hair falling over his face. I thought, before him, that only I could make myself come. When I broke it off with him, Mammy was devastated. You could see she had built up a rosy future with me ensconced in a big house, a granny flat stuck on for her, grandkids running around. Probably imagined one of those big houses with the wraparound drives and the stonework fronts. Clancy built a house like that, three stories high. Our ancient bungalow would fit into his kitchen.
My phone beeps.
Wots he want?? Get him out. Call me & i talk 2 him
‘Who are you texting?’ asks Clancy in a pleasant voice, like we’re best friends.
‘Luke,’ I say.
‘Luke’s sound,’ says Clancy. ‘I hear he’s a good electrician. Shame he’s struggling. Will he head off to Australia? You have any plans yourself?’
I rub a smear of old make-up off my phone. The display screen feels rough under my thumb, scarred and scratched.
‘No plans,’ I say.
I went to London once but only lasted a fortnight. My girlfriends tried to talk me into staying but I couldn’t stick it. I like to see faces I know, who know me. People who can help you out when you’re stuck, and you help them, if you can. I thought I was smart training as a beautician after years of working in grocery shops, clothes shops, furniture shops. Got a job in the beautician’s which opened up a few doors down from our house. Brenda’s Beauty Shop lasted a year. We cried when we closed the doors on the last day.
I top up my dole doing bikini waxes and fake tans in the living room, but I have to make sure Daddy’s out of the way before the women come in. Although that’s not a problem now he’s sick. Really sick.
I have goose bumps on my arms.
‘I’ll just get a jumper,’ I say.
I have to walk past him to get to the door that leads to the back of the house. In the hall, I look back at him through the half-open door and see him pick a jar up off the table. He reads the label, and hastily puts it back. He blushes right down to his neck. Blushes.
I pull on an old hoodie top, and think at least there’s some satisfaction in a man’s embarrassment at the hidden lives of women. The work some women do on themselves would make you wall-fallen tired just thinking about it. They want to be plucked, waxed smooth, sprayed and stained until their skin looks like hard plastic. I see them looking at me and thinking she’s a bit scruffy for this lark. Yesterday I didn’t cool the wax enough and scorched a woman’s thigh. I don’t think she’ll be back.
The vet’s son used laugh at me and say, You want to waste your life in this hole? I figured I was just a summer fling for him so I broke it off before he went back to college, to finish learning how to stick his hand up a cow’s arse. Like father, like son. Back to mix with his own crowd, to find a nice wife. At Mass once his mother gave me a look that left me in no doubt what she thought of me. He wasn’t like that, the vet’s son, but he annoyed me with snide remarks about my taste in music, films, TV programmes, or the fact that I had no ambition. What’s wrong with sticking with a place through thick and thin, I said, with a town you know inside out but the people in it always surprise you sooner or later?
Though you could do without the kind of surprise Clancy gave Tom and his mother. At the funeral, just a few days ago, Mrs Walsh walked up to the coffin, touched it briefly, then sat down. Just a neighbour beside her to comfort her. On her way out of the church, after we’d paid our respects, she stopped where Mr and Mrs Clancy sat at the very back. They hadn’t gone up to her. She shook Mrs Clancy’s hand, then Mr Clancy’s, nodded and followed the coffin out of the gloom of the church. Mrs Clancy stayed a long time, kneeling in that pew, head bowed. I was amongst the last to leave and saw Mr Clancy help her up. Her face was streaked with mascara, pink lipstick bleeding from the edges of her mouth.
I nip into the bathroom to use the loo. When I’m washing my hands, I look in the mirror, then look away again. I’m not wearing make-up today and without it I look tired, rubbed out.
I have to get him out of the house. My plan is to barge back in, all bluster, and tell him thanks for calling and we’ll let you know tomorrow if we need a lift, thanks.
Through the open door I see him cradling his head in his hands, fingers scrubbing at his temples.
He killed his friend, goes through my mind. His friend.
Tom was the quiet, witty type. We had a fling when I was seventeen, and he was twenty-four. He made me laugh but he liked to start a fight when he had a lot of drink on him. One night he was squaring up to some fella and I tried to pull him away and the look he gave me froze my blood. I walked away and left him to it and he wouldn’t speak to me after that, as if I’d unmanned him or something.
I go back into the kitchen.
‘You alright?’ I ask.
He doesn’t answer, or look up.
Why did I invite him in? To see what’s it like to talk to a murderer? It’s disappointing I’ll tell you that. He’s just a man with terror in his eyes who can’t rewind the past.
‘Look,’ I say, ‘why don’t you head home? We’ll think about the lifts. Give you a call tomorrow.’
Before he can answer, something smashes through the kitchen window.
Clancy jumps in his seat, then freezes.
‘Jesus,’ I shout.
My heart is pounding but I run to open the front door and step outside onto the footpath and look around. A flash of jeans and white trainers jumping over a wall, down past the chippers. I can guess who it is. Tom’s cousin. He only lives a few doors down, in the other direction. He’s seen Clancy knocking on our door, or someone’s told him. Now my name will be dirt around town.
I go back inside and close the door. Clancy is still sitting at the table, frozen to the spot.
‘Who was it?’ he asks.
‘I don’t know,’ I say, anger rising in me.
‘It’s my fault. I’m sorry.’
I inspect the damage. A large stone smashed through one pane of glass.
‘I’ll help you clean it up,’ he says.
‘No. I’ll do it,’ I snap back.
I sweep glass off the window sill and draining board with a brush and pan. Shards still hang in the frame, and I smash them out with the handle of the brush.
He says, ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ll fix the window tomorrow. It’s one of the old sash windows isn’t it? Just the one pane. Get me some cardboard and gaffer tape and I’ll board it up for now. Tomorrow I’ll get some glass cut and buy some putty. Do they still sell putty?’ and he looks at me and he’s sobbing.
I go out the back door to put the glass into the recycling box where we put beer and wine bottles. Which makes no sense. Now I’ve put shards of glass amongst the bottles and I’ll probably cut my finger when I’m putting the bottles into the bottle bank which is a chore I love, all those satisfying crashes and explosions.
A while back, after a visit to the bottle bank, I went into the shopping centre to wait for Luke and I ran into the vet’s son, who has his own practice in that town. I hadn’t seen him for years and I’d imagined he’d be fat and balding but he looked good. Those wide, angular shoulders I had left teeth marks on. He smiled at me but didn’t stop to say hello. A woman with expensive blonde hair called him to help her with a buggy and shopping bags. Before he went to give her a hand, he gave me a look that made me walk on as fast as I could, past the boarded up shops, the Cash for Gold booth, and out into the rain.
I pick up a wine bottle and swing it hard against the back wall of our house. Open my eyes and I’m holding the jagged neck, and there’s green glass all over my feet. I shake the splinters off my feet, throw the bottle neck into the box. My heart is pounding.
I go back inside. He’s still sitting there but he’s stopped crying.
‘Can I have a smoke? I need a smoke,’ he says. He’s trembling.
I put a cigarette into my mouth and light it for him, walk over to him and put it into his hand. His nails are bitten down to the quick. He puts it to his lips and draws on it but doesn’t inhale, just blows out a cloud of smoke.
I light my own cigarette, and sit down in the armchair beside the unlit range.
‘Do you remember the time,’ he says, ‘when they tried to set up a rounders tournament in town?’
I nod though I barely remember that, I was only fifteen or thereabouts.
‘I was having a huge row with the team captains about the rules?’ He’s looking at me like he expects me to fill in the gaps.
‘Everyone was sitting around on the pitch and then you stood up and said why are we wasting time listening to him, can we not just get on with the game and they all clapped and I walked away.’
‘Did I? I don’t remember that. You sure that was me?’ I say but I do remember now, and I don’t like the way he’s looking at me.
I look away from him, start deleting old messages from my phone.
‘You must remember,’ he says loudly, and he’s leaning forward.
‘Well, I don’t,’ I say. I wonder if I should call Luke.
‘I think you do,’ he says.
He stabs his cigarette out on the saucer, once, twice, three times and the saucer rattles and he knocks over the cup of tea.
‘Shit,’ he says, and stands up.
Pale tea spills out over the dark scarred wood of the table like a deformed hand, fingers creeping towards him. He steers the liquid away from him with the side of his hand but then it falls in several thin streams onto the lino with an obscene dribble. Cupping his palms, he tries to catch the tea, but it’s no use, and he gives up. Shakes his hands and wipes them on his trousers.
He’s looking at me like it’s all my fault.
I stand up, pull my hoodie on tighter, zip it up. I go over to the counter, throw him a dishcloth which stinks.
‘Clean that up,’ I say. ‘I’ll be back in a minute.’
I grab a torch and go out the back, to the shed, to search for some cardboard and tape to patch up the window.