Eustace Madden is on his way back from the Spar when the Muse, like a flashing swallow from Helicon, anoints him with another idea for a story. The image which comes is perfect and clear—a long-legged hare, in full sunlight, sneaking underneath a wire fence in a barren, dusty field. It is Europe. It is 1944.

Inspiration is a word which Eustace Madden uses freely and he meditates often upon how it seems to strike—a sublime power surge that Eustace Madden, while mindful of cliché, can best describe in terms of flashes and bolts. And now, walking slowly up the hill, the bread and the milk in a blue plastic bag, he is stricken again. Or, as the Greeks had it, he is breathed upon.

Halting under a cherry blossom, Eustace Madden puts down the bag and allows the image to run. The hares gathering to dip in sequence under the wire. First one. Then another. And then several more, like brown brushstrokes through the scrub. He opens the notes app on his iPhone and starts to tap. Just a few words for now—hares, sunlight, fence, camp. Eustace Madden is thrilled. His talent is tinder about to combust.

A working title follows easily, fully formed and throbbing, and this—The Hares of Birkenau—Eustace Madden whispers to himself with gratitude. And then, as he sets off for home again, there’s another little flash and he renders it more perfect still. ‘The Several Hares of Birkenau,’ he says aloud, ‘by Eustace P. Madden.’

Bernice Madden, who is the wife of Eustace Madden, is swaying like a cobra at the front door.

‘Fucksake Bernice,’ says Eustace Madden. ‘I was only away ten minutes.’

Bernice Madden is eyeing the bag.

‘What kind of milk did you get?’

‘The kind of milk,’ says Eustace Madden, sensing the usual trap, ‘that you told me to get.’

Bernice Madden seizes the bag.

‘Jesus Christ, Eustace! Do I have to do every fucking thing myself?’

But Eustace Madden, still in the adrenalin rapids of inspiration, grits his teeth, knowing that he must hold tight to The Several Hares of Birkenau—the crucial opening lines already forming in his head.

A spring morning in Birkenau. Too bright by far, and the haresthe several haresare gathering at the fence.

Bernice Madden yanks the bag from Eustace Madden’s grip.

‘This,’ she hisses, ‘is full fat!’

A small boyMaxis watching the hares. They move in that strange hobble which always disguises their speed. Such astonishing speed. And now in the silence of the morning…

‘And what the fuck do you call this?’

Bernice Madden takes the loaf from the bag and holds it aloft like some dead brown creature of the wood.

‘That,’ says Eustace Madden, ‘would be a bread.’

And then the story begins to slip. The warm, knobbly bodies of the hares are twisting in mid-air and vanishing into amber particles of themselves.

‘And what kind of bread would it be?’

‘That would be brown bread,’

‘And what kind of brown bread would it be?’

‘I’d say that would be Pat’s fucking Pan. I’d say that would be a Pat’s fucking Pan whole fucking grain brown fucking loaf.’

‘Whole grain?’

‘Whole fucking grain.’

‘And how many times do I have to tell you that nobody in this fucking house eats whole fucking grain bread?’

The lips of Bernice Madden curl backwards on her face. Teeth and gums are revealed. The brace. The golden canine. And all the pollutant suds of resentment bubbling away on her stubby little tongue. Not, it occurs to Eustace Madden, a cobra’s flicker at all. Not a snake’s tongue. A frog’s maybe. Or a tortoise. And so Eustace Madden grabs the Pat’s Pan brown whole grain loaf which nobody will eat and holding it up in front of his wife’s hate-filled face, he crushes its vertebrae and shreds and scatters rags of it all over the front garden. And then with the story of The Several Hares of Birkenau evaporating like all the others, he pushes over the wheelie bin, calls his wife a mad bitch from Hell, and takes off in rage and determination for the Dart, as if Dún Laoghaire train station might be some portal to another time, another place and an altogether other life.

Forty minutes later Eustace Madden is seated before a pint in Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street. With his preferred pen—a Pilot G1 0.7—he is making notes in his preferred notebook—a black, soft cover, 13×21 Moleskine with plain paper, purchased en route along with Tic-Tacs and an out-of-date copy of the TLS. He works fast at times like these, scribbling like some occult Elizabethan trying to fashion the unknowable from a single gifted symbol, the Pilot G1 0.7 moving so fast that he can barely keep up with himself, his calligraphy spreading out like automatic writing, almost Arabesque, page after page until it becomes the score of some avant-garde composer, something even he won’t be able comprehend if he leaves it for too long. But Eustace Madden understands that he must write without cease. That he must permit these words, whatever they may be, to splash and to spill so that the very hares of Birkenau will leap from page to page, from the dense scrub and brambles of the left to the pristine snowy field of the right. And it is in these moments, and only in these moments, that Eustace Madden, exhilarated and confident, believes himself to be, however briefly, his actual self.

Eustace P. Madden was born in County Down in 1964. His short fiction has appeared in various publications on both sides of the Atlantic including The New Yorker and The Faber Book of Irish Short Stories edited by Paul Auster. His first collection The Cobra of Clonskeagh was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and his controversial memoir On The Lash With Peter O’Toole won the Kinsella Prize for Irish Book of the Year in 2013. Now separated from that twisted bitch of a bank official Bernice Madden, he divides his time between Dublin and Paris where he lives with his partner, the novelist, philosopher, model, eroticist, jazz pianist and fetishista, Chantalle Duchamp.

A quarter of an hour passes and Eustace Madden shouts himself another pint. That stiff pain has returned and he prods at his neck and shoulder as he tries to read what he has just written, his head at an awkward tilt and the Pilot G1 0.7 wavering now between his fingers like an unlit cheroot. Skipping those passages which are already illegible, he gets through the most of it, assuring himself as he deciphers the final lines, that it’s not bad at all. The Several Hares of Birkenau, he tells himself, will have an energy about it, and an urgent truth. And with the back of it now broken, he’ll get up early in the morning and really get stuck in. He just needs to figure out what happens next.

Eustace Madden closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb. The hares are slipping under the wire. Max is watching them. There is a shot. But does Max die? It seems very early. And is Max perhaps the narrator? Yes, that could be it. The boy is actually telling the story. He is a child ghost now free to play with the hares. In the fields. In the sky even. Or should Max be a living witness? A survivor to whom the hares once gave hope and consolation. In which case Max could be an old man now living in New York in a rent-controlled apartment near Washington Square. Maybe make him a tailor. Or a professor of music. Or is he a famous writer perhaps? That would be a nice touch. An eminent man of letters writing his own story over and over again but writing only about the hares, refusing to mention the prison guards or the SS or any such agents of death because he, as a writer, deals only in life. Or perhaps, instead of New York, he now lives in the countryside so he can be near his beloved hares? Or on some island in an Irish lake perhaps, where hares live undisturbed. Isolated. Like Rousseau in Reveries of a Solitary Walker—a book he bought second hand years ago and which must surely be full of useful quotes. Yes! Make him a philosopher! An old man who, as a boy, was surrounded by death and who now uses his extreme experience to make sense of life—and of a more natural death. And then of course the hares themselves. All that folklore. Hares as tricksters, as fairies, as witches. The madness of hares. Hares staring at the moon. And so it might even be a story with supernatural elements? Or perhaps a more mystical tale? Like those Borges stories he has taken a few runs at in recent years. And so, yes, The Several Hares of Birkenau is a parable of life amidst death. Maybe call the boy something else though? Not so sure about Max any more. It means ‘big’ but it’s such a small word. Distracting perhaps. But yes, what happens next—in the narrative that is—will be crucial.

Eustace Madden, jittery with excitement now, reminds himself as the pints spread satisfaction deep in his soul, that this is why he left Newry all those years ago. Not to work in the Bank of Ireland on O’Connell Street and that’s for certain sure. Nor was it to collide with the likes of Bernice Madden (née Savage of the Clonskeagh Savages) at the Christmas party and end up married—married for fucksake!—and living in her dead grandmother’s house in Dún Laoghaire. Oh Christ the tedium of it! Sex In the City and Cougar Town and washing down Marks & Spencer’s happy meals with chilled Blossom Hill night after fucking night. That knacker blonde feather cut she had. The pink dressing gown. The cold sores. The manky Miss Piggy slippers.

No. It is for solitary moments like this one that Eustace Madden has always been destined. Writing. Imagining. Re-imagining. A real writer now, meditating upon a work-in-progress in a glowing Dublin pub. This is why he came to this city! To be sure of himself and of his place fornenst this beautiful and reassuring pint—the definite stout so confident in its black and its white, the glass so cool and solid to the touch. It is for this and for nothing else that he came here on an Ulsterbus and never much returned. Eustace Madden arrived in this great city to be a writer of words in this, the very capital of words. Where the track of Beckett’s arse is still on every seat. Where the stain of Oscar’s ink is still on every Georgian footpath. And where, as one of Eustace Madden’s finest lines has it, the wind of Joyce’s farts still blooms along the Liffey banks. Eustace Madden closes his Moleskine with a slap and is just about to raise a glass to Bloom, Molloy and all the rest of them when a large bearded man appears at his side.

‘Excuse me, sir. I don’t mean to interrupt.’

The man is smiling anxiously. Breathing heavily. Cream of Guinness in his whiskers.

‘I’ve been watching you, sir, and I was thinking that you must be a writer. Am I right?’

A Yank. A tourist. And Eustace Madden, as if to indicate urgent business, opens the Moleskine again. The Yank bows slightly and makes another attempt.

‘Forgive me asking, sir, but do I know you?’

Eustace Madden notices how the Yank’s moustache seems to sprout from somewhere very deep within his nostrils and he makes a mental note to use this observation in a story. A mountainy man from Donegal perhaps. A defrocked cleric or a cross-dressing ballad singer. Or maybe some flute-making Breton psychopath abroad in West Kerry. Eustace Madden can write those sorts of stories in his sleep. Culchie stuff. Bogs and such. But of course he’s beyond that now. His mature vision is deeper than that. His aesthetic more focused and refined.

‘Ah no,’ says Eustace Madden, ‘I don’t really think you’d have heard of me. No.’

‘Is there anything you might have published that I might find in the bookstore?’

Eustace snaps the top back on his G1 0.7.

‘Well, I haven’t actually decided to publish anything recently. Not really. No.’

The Yank seems disappointed but the smile returns soon enough.

‘Well anyway, sir, you keep up the good work. What is it they always say? Write about what you know. Isn’t that so?’

‘Go fuck yourself,’ thinks Eustace Madden.

‘It was nice to meet you, sir,’ says the Yank. ‘And good luck with the writing. I only wish I had the patience.’

‘Even if you had the fucking patience,’ thinks Eustace Madden, ‘you still wouldn’t be able to do it.’

‘Thank you,’ says Eustace Madden, ‘nice to meet you.’

And now, as Eustace Madden sets about his third pint, he decides that he should give some serious thought to the place where his story is set. He’s not entirely sure where Birkenau is but there are plenty of books on the subject, and Google too, and maybe in the summertime he might even travel there in order to get the feel of it. And if people can fly from Dublin to Krakow for the weekend and take in Auschwitz while they’re there, then maybe he could do that instead? One camp might be as valuable as the next for his purposes. And a direct flight would save him a lot of time and expense. In the meantime, Eustace Madden reassures himself, this is all mere detail for later. Research is only research after all, and the most important element, by far, is the central image—one which he first came across in a biography, or rather in a review of a biography which he had skimmed in the London Review of Books some weeks ago (in this very pub as it happens)—some remark about the hares which lived around Birkenau being a symbol of life and continuance, or something along those lines. And he had forgotten all about it until he was walking back from the Spar. Amazing, thinks Eustace Madden, the way it all works. The spark of an idea. The unexpected, unlooked for gift of it.

Eustace Madden orders a Jameson and googles Birkenau. Turns out it was part of Auschwitz. He didn’t know that. Or that Auschwitz itself was a complex divided into three camps with Birkenau (or Auschwitz II) the biggest. In fact Birkenau was the rotten, evil core of the whole thing and Eustace Madden carefully cuts and pastes the word Vernichtungslager into the notes app. And now sipping on a second whiskey he decides that The Several Hares of Birkenau might turn out be more difficult than he had anticipated. He’ll have to sleep on it overnight, let the story bubble a little, and then tomorrow—first thing—he’ll knock it all into shape. It would be most unwise, Eustace Madden tells himself, to go at it any further now, all ram-stam and bar-ways. Tone, in a story like this, is extremely important. He will need to be patient and rather more cautious than usual. This is subject matter which must be properly addressed. Honoured even.

The Yank, spotting the Moleskine and the G1 0.7 going back in the bag, approaches with a nervous bow and offers to buy Eustace Madden a drink.

‘Oh,’ says Eustace Madden. ‘Thanks. Well, maybe a pint? Thanks very much.’

The Yank stands to attention as the drinks settle on the bar and eventually he asks if he might sit.

‘Go ahead,’ says Eustace Madden. ‘I think I’m done for the day.’

The Yank sits and offers his hand.

‘Stephen J. Flanagan.’

‘Eustace P. Madden,’ says Eustace Madden.

They shake hands and wait, and it’s only when the pints land that the Yank speaks up again.

‘You live in Dublin, Mr Madden?’

‘Yes. Dublin. Well, Dún Laoghaire. On the coast road. And you?’

‘Illinois.’

‘Ah, the Windy City.’

‘Actually I’m from the Bloomington-Normal area. Originally from Uptown Normal. People tend to find that rather amusing.’

‘Uptown Normal?’

‘It’s where ISU is. Illinois State.’

‘You work there?’

‘I cut the grass. Somebody’s gotta cut the grass, right?’

Eustace Madden raises his glass,

‘Best pint in Dublin,’ says Eustace Madden. And then he watches as the Yank sinks most of his pint in one long series of gulps.

‘Good man,’ says Eustace Madden. ‘Savour it.’

The Yank laughs and Eustace Madden smiles.

‘Uptown Normal. That’s a good one.’

More silence until, with a single sweep the Yank gathers his beard to a point and nods towards the Moleskine in the bag.

‘May I ask what it is you’re writing?’

Eustace Madden shrugs.

‘Oh, just something I’m working on. A short story.’

‘Short story. Cool. You ever read Philip K. Dick?’

‘Are you making that name up too?’

The Yank chuckles.

‘He’s from Chicago. You haven’t read him? You should. Wrote Blade Runner and Total Recall and stuff like that. Minority Report. Or at least he wrote the stories that they based the movies on. You really should check him out. Really, really good. But hey, what do I know? Forgive me but I’ve been drinking all day and I’m a little buzzed.’

‘You’re in Dublin.’ says Eustace Madden. ‘It’s compulsory.’

‘That’s funny.’

‘Up to a point.’

The Yank slumps then brightens up in one sudden move.

‘So what’s your story about?’

Eustace Madden prefers not to talk about his work before it’s finished, but he’s drunk now and has warmed to the Yank.

‘Well, it’s kind of about the Holocaust.’

‘Jesus,’ says the Yank.

‘Well it’s not just about the Holocaust per se. It’s about a small boy and the hares that live on the edge of the camp.’

‘You mean like jackrabbits?’

‘We call them hares.’

‘The Holocaust?’

‘Yes.’

‘Jesus,’ says the Yank again. ‘Rather you than me.’

Eustace Madden orders two more pints and as they settle, the Yank tells Eustace Madden about a woman he once knew in Normal, Illinois. A ballet teacher called Miss P whose lawn he cut during school vacations. One sunny afternoon Miss P appeared with a jug of lemonade and it was then that he noticed that she had a tattoo on her arm. A number carved into her skin. He was just a kid, he says, and had no idea what it meant, and it was only a year or two later that Miss P told him her story. How she had once lived with her family in Prague and how in 1942 they were all rounded up and sent to a place called Terezin where they were kept for two years. And that was where she saw Eichmann and looked him in the eyes and all she had to say about him was that he looked very ordinary. And then in 1944 they were all sent to Auschwitz and that’s where she got the tattoo. She worked in the laundry and, many times, was put into those selection lines where the women had to take their clothes off and hold them in bundles while Mengele examined their bodies. The women who were passed fit were taken from the Family Camp and sent to the Women’s Camp and the old and the sick and the kids were all kept behind. And then at night, Miss P would see the sky over the Family Camp all lit up. And this was the bodies burning. Her entire family was murdered. Everyone. And the worst thing about Auschwitz, according to Miss P, was the fact that life itself was a nightmare. That was the very worst part of it. That life itself was a nightmare.

The pints arrive and the Yank stands up. Tears in his eyes.

‘Miss P was a real lady. A real lady, you know.’

Eustace Madden immediately brings the fresh pint to his mouth as if to hide himself inside it. The Yank, the tears rolling now, says he needs the men’s room and excuses himself and Eustace Madden watches him lumber off, stopping on his way to order two whiskies and indicate their destination with a forefinger which seems to target half the room. Eustace Madden gulps his way through the pint but when the whiskies arrive and the Yank has still not reappeared, he starts to fidget like an altar boy on his first Mass—the two tumblers and the tiny jug of water arranged before him on the table. More minutes pass and still no sign of the Yank and so Eustace Madden suddenly snatches at one of the whiskies and downs it in one. And then, he stands, tilts a little, scatters a few euro on the table, downs the Yank’s whiskey, tilts a little more and slips off into the swirling black and amber of the city. Turning into Tara Street, Eustace Madden stumbles sideways against the window of a laundrette and then, righting himself again, he watches a whooping fire engine from Pearse Street make a break for the lights on Butt Bridge.

When Eustace Madden arrives home, Bernice Madden, who is the wife of Eustace Madden, is halfway up the stairs.

‘I’m just going for a bath,’ she says.

This is a code which, drunk or sober, Eustace Madden can read. Bernice Madden is the kind of woman who likes all things to be clean—the bedclothes, her husband and herself—and a steaming bath tends to be the ritualistic prelude to a rare but surprisingly adventurous session between the warm, crisp sheets. When she tells him that there’s wine in the fridge and asks him to bring her up a glass, he is in no doubt. Bernice Madden is in the mood and, as she sometimes puts it, his services are required. And although his belly is swill-full of drink Eustace Madden knows that Bernice Madden, much like the Muse, does not offer herself too often and so he determines to sober up quickly. A big glass of cold water will sort him out. Maybe stick his head out the window for a bit. A stroll in the garden perhaps. In any case, it will give her time to get ready. To soak. To tidy up. To get the gear on. To smooth out the quilt.

And then Eustace Madden hears her voice from above.

‘Will you run down to the garage and get some ciggies?’

And Eustace Madden grins. If Bernice Madden wants ciggies then Bernice Madden really is planning on needing one later. He shouts back up to her, high into the darkness.

‘What kind do you want?’

‘Doesn’t matter!’

‘Marlboro?’

‘Any kind!’

‘What if they don’t have Marlboro?’

‘It doesn’t matter!’

‘Just tell me what kind you want for fucksake!’

‘Just forget it!’

‘Just tell me what the fuck you want!’

‘Fuck off Eustace!’

When Bernice Madden descends from the bathroom in her pink dressing gown and Muppet slippers, she finds her husband asleep on the sofa, twisted grotesquely on the cushions like a recent corpse. But he’s breathing still and, leaning in close, Bernice Madden stares deep into the desiccated hole of Eustace Madden’s mouth. Her breath causes her husband to shudder, to wince as if some creature has just crawled across his cheek and Bernice Madden almost smiles. She leaves him to it then. To another night before the unlit fire. His heart hammering, his bladder full to bursting and his hangover brains already swelling against his skull

And so Bernice Madden goes back upstairs with the Blossom Hill and arranges herself, all fragrant and fresh, in her cosy, spotless bed. The first glass is sipped with reverence and, once finished, she immediately pours another, opens her laptop and starts to tap, tap, tap. Tonight she makes the final corrections to her story about a man who has never written a story in his life, a man whose very dreams are astray with failure, judgement and shame. No title yet but the wine might help. And at least it has a beginning, a middle and an end. She’ll do what she can tonight, run a spell-check and then read through it once more tomorrow. During her lunch-break perhaps. Or on the Dart. And if she’s still happy with it, she’ll send it off.