It was a summer afternoon and I was dragging groceries across the car park of the nearest Centra – which is not, in fact, near at all – when a man called to me. He was a man I had known since my teenage years, but we’d lost contact. I’d moved away and though I was back a number of years, I hadn’t met him since my return. ‘I saw your photo in the paper,’ he said, ‘but the name was different. It wasn’t you.’ And so it began. The unravelling.
Danielle is my real name in the sense that it is the name that appears on my birth certificate. But ever since I was a tiny baby my parents have always called me by a different name. They still do. I have no recollection of anybody in my family ever referring to me as Danielle, not even once. And neither is McLaughlin, the name I choose to write under, my real surname; it is my husband’s. In my rural County Cork parish where identity is explained by reference to one’s parents – ‘You know her,’ someone might say, ‘X’s daughter’ – Danielle McLaughlin meant nothing to anybody; using it, it was as if I had returned and not returned at the same time. If anyone had paused to wonder who Danielle McLaughlin might be, it would most likely have been decided that she was a blow-in, one of those exotic creatures who had moved here during the boom to live foreign, colourful, possibly debauched lives – at the very least lives more interesting than our own – in one of the many one-off new builds that dotted the fields.
Until I began to write, though I’d conceived of her, I’d barely used Danielle McLaughlin at all. If she was to serve as a keeper of distances, it was important that she not become overly familiar – not with me, not with anybody. Part of the beauty of a new name was that it was an alias of sorts; a disembodied thing that I could pluck from the wardrobe when occasion required it, or, to be more precise, when occasion both required and allowed it, because there were always places where the name wouldn’t work; places populated by people who knew my other name and insisted on using it. I was nervous of those places, a nervousness akin to what I imagine one might experience when one’s spouse and one’s illicit lover end up in the same room. And so while Danielle McLaughlin did undertake certain things, mostly things that took place at a geographical remove, it was the Other Woman – the one whose name I am not going to tell you – who continued to do everything else.
And then the writing happened.
From day one, Danielle McLaughlin wrote all the stories and the Other Woman wrote none. For a while, there was an understanding of sorts and each kept off the other’s patch; they compartmentalised well. Then things began to change, mostly because McLaughlin, it turned out, had no understanding of the concept of give and take; she played fast and loose with Other Woman’s time and obligations. She became, to borrow a Department of Speculation term, an Art Monster, and yes, from this point on, life would often be explained by reference to books, or things that happened in books.
Lines were crossed. Danielle McLaughlin no longer just wrote stories, she also phoned plumbers and took delivery of washing machines; she texted drama teachers and booked dental appointments and signed her name at the end of medical forms. She insinuated herself into every aspect of Other Woman’s life, reading her emails and tut-tutting over clichés and clunky prose; reading the books on Other Woman’s bookshelves in a way that they had not been read before, a way that was almost aggressive.
Once, she sought out medical records from Other Woman’s attendances with a childhood psychiatrist. In doing this she was not motivated in any way by a concern for Other Woman. Truth was, she didn’t give a shit about Other Woman, had no loyalty to her whatsoever, and gave no thought as to what might become of her. What she had was a vision for a particular piece of writing, structured loosely around medical language. There would be graphics, graphics that involved, among other things, photographed extracts of very private medical notes, yellowed and typewritten (it was, after all, a very long time since Other Woman was a child). And when – oh, the dismay! – the much-anticipated records turned out not to be available, she considered, if only for the briefest of moments, forging them. They must, after all, have existed once. How much of a lie could it be to ‘reconstitute’ them?
In the face of such a sustained assault, Other Woman disappeared almost entirely. She was not dead exactly. Dead was altogether too straightforward a word for what had become of her. Instead, picture her, if you will, bound and gagged in a small dark shed, a wad of rough cloth stuffed in her mouth. There are cockroaches in this shed and colonies of greenish flat-headed mushrooms. A fur of mouldy damp coats the walls. It is a shed far from anywhere, a mossed stone structure with a galvanised roof, deep in the bowels of a disused quarry, not visible from any road. In the back, atop a tangle of scrap metal, is the corpse of some dead animal, possibly several dead animals. Naturally.
But why tolerate the continued existence of Other Woman at all? Given the extent to which she has been side-lined, why not kill her off entirely, under the pretence, if needs be, of putting her out of her misery? This is where things become complicated. Other Woman is tiresome, certainly, something of a pedant perhaps, but she is occasionally useful. She has memories, for example, and if nothing else, she is a ready body of material to be harvested. An objective observer might venture that Danielle McLaughlin is in fact afraid to kill off Other Woman. That she is cognisant of the fact that at some indeterminate point in the future, a day might come when she will be very glad of her. On that day, she might just climb into the shed with her. In the meantime, there is the fact that Other Woman has proved stubborn; she insists on hanging in there, making her presence felt in a litany of half-choked guttural complaints. Recently, during a period of gales and upheaval, the lock on the shed door worked loose and Other Woman, briefly at large, proceeded to wreak havoc by signing her name – yes, her own name – to several writerly things that were none of her damn business. I’m still here, she seemed to be saying, I haven’t gone away, you know.