“I went to the house but did not enter. Through the opening, I saw the black edge of a courtyard. I leaned against the outer wall; I was really very cold. As the cold wrapped around me from head to foot, I slowly felt my great height take on the dimensions of this boundless cold; it grew tranquilly, according to the laws of its true nature, and I lingered in the joy and perfection of this happiness, for one moment my head as high as the stone of the sky and my feet on the pavement.” Maurice Blanchot, The Madness of the Day
Kevin’s story about the nightclub once again propelled Lucy into a world of doubt about her recent return to Ireland. It was a sort of panic attack – and it had not been the first. The attacks had caused her to book her return flight three times since her arrival, yet she had not actually left.
‘Shambles? Not a great name for a nightclub, is it? Can’t imagine what made them call it that,’ her father said to Kevin, who was now getting fat in his twenty-fifth year.
‘It’s just a place to drink and dance,’ Kevin said. Her father’s pupil’s latest tale, about his peers openly having sex in the town’s most popular nightspot, confirmed to Lucy that the generation that had come after hers (and which was already leaving the country for work as hers had done) pretty much got straight to the point when it came to meeting someone in a club, and that they had no need for the foreplay suggested, perhaps, by the monikers of the nightclubs that had been in the town when she’d grown up in it, such as Whispers or Amber.
‘What did you get up to on the weekend, then, Lucy?’ Kevin asked, as he moved a chess piece across the board.
‘Went up to Dublin to a play,’ she replied. Kevin did not ask Lucy which play, nor with whom she’d seen it. It occurred to her then that she’d been living something of a double life since returning. There was her domestic life – taking care of her father, the house and garden; some writing (letters, emails, half-hearted attempts at applying for jobs), and her cultural life, which consisted mostly of lone visits to Dublin’s theatres and galleries.
‘Find nothing like that in this town, ‘the arts’,’ her father said, as if to say, I told you so. And in a way he had told Lucy so, for her parents, after sixteen years away themselves had also returned to the town, which they’d found to be largely as she found it now, many years (including those of the Celtic Tiger) later: dull, inartistic, beautifully scenic, a pleasant-enough place in which to await death. Yet, in London, Lucy had found herself pining for the place; real melancholic pining; had put aside its borderland small-mindedness and could not remove from her mind the swathes of persimmon-coloured heather that would appear each June on the hills outside the town, nor the late-summer hikes to those hills – where she might see a hawk or fieldfare dart out from the bog, nor her walks along Shelling Hill in winter where the sea could be as wild as the Atlantic Ocean. No, these memories, which all seemed less vivid to Lucy now that she was actually home, had been pivotal in her decision to leave London. And the longing for them, as well as the inability to inure herself to this longing, had, she believed, brought about her eventual incompetence at her job (over time she found herself unable to make the calculated decisions required of her to fulfill her initial promise). This yearning for the town in which she was born and reared was, then, finally, Lucy’s Achilles’ heel, and not, as her friends believed, Arthur Hackett.
Lucy had reached a point in her career where the fact she’d made no substantive mark upon it had become something of an embarrassment – to herself and to her work colleagues. The Gallery tried to avoid this by promoting her. Lucy was experienced enough to know that promotion in such instances is often a sort of skewed version of the Peter Principle, applied, in the Gallery at least, particularly to female employees, whereby the employee is ‘promoted’ to a job with an impressive brief but which has no real power. In other words, Lucy had been put where she could do no harm, either to the Gallery nor to block the way of more exciting newcomers. So, it had come as a terrible realisation to her that after eighteen years of devotion to Modern Art she was not the high-flier of her university years, but, rather, a bit of a deadweight, an earnest plodder, with an over-developed sense of fair-play, and that if one’s career could be measured like a degree, she would probably get a third, at best a 2:2. (It was, Lucy thought, as if the pastoral backdrop of her upbringing needed to be erased for any kind of progress in London to occur. As if Modern Art itself could sniff her out; needed her to stamp out the tone of nature she must have carried always about her before it would let her come close and trust her with its frosty cleverness. As if it could smell the heather and tawny hawks off her, the salt of Shelling Hill, and no matter how much Lucy wanted it – it clearly did not want her.)
Of course, the whole business with Arthur had not helped. He’d been her mentor (he was the Gallery’s first owner and, after selling, remained as Chief Consultant), and in her second year in the job she had moved in with him, into his superb flat in Brondesbury Park. She knew that at first she’d been indispensable to him; she was acquainted with most of the YBAs, had (as a student) attended Damien Hirst’s Freeze and been on intimate terms with a couple of friends of the Chapman brothers. Arthur had a nose for the new and cutting-edge but he was not young, and so was known to use young women as spies into the habits and trends of the youthful. He was also a shark, and had often said to Lucy, and not in jest, that in the business of Art one should always have friends in ‘low places’. He certainly had contacts with dubious people, and Lucy knew for a fact that he had more than once brokered deals for stolen artworks.
‘You should go to Ice House Hill next weekend,’ Kevin said, as Lucy slotted the plates into the dishwasher.
‘Why, what’s out that way?’ she asked.
‘Shakespeare. In the open air. Saw something about it in The Leader.’
‘There’ll be none at it,’ her father said, emphatically, his face aflame now with annoyance at Kevin’s inattentiveness to the game (as a result of speaking to Lucy).
‘Well, if everyone took that attitude,’ Lucy said, and enquired as to which of Shakespeare’s plays was being performed.
‘King something,’ Kevin replied.
‘They do take that attitude, isn’t that the problem?’ her father continued, cutting across Kevin who was still trying to remember the name of the play being staged on Ice House Hill. Lucy had always considered that her father rather relished the cultural poverty of the town, for it had let him off the hook all these years: the lack of any significant artistic activity (in his mind, all the ‘arts’ were grouped together) had become the perfect dumping ground for his many failures. For it was tangible enough evidence, for all to see (surely), that he had just been too ‘advanced’ for the people he found himself living among, hence their rejection of him and his inability to succeed in anything other than board games upon his own return. So when something ‘artsy’ did occur, especially something exciting or innovative, Lucy knew he would most likely shoot it down.
‘That’s it,’ Kevin said, without looking up, ‘we done (sic) it at school.’
‘It’ll be the usual am-dram shit they have on here,’ her father said.
All the same, she had isolated herself, had not made friends upon her return, had certainly not linked up with her former school friends. The thought of having to explain her sabbatical from a flat-lining career to ‘the girls’, now middle-aged women, filled Lucy with horror. For ‘the girls’ would also want to know about her personal life. Hence, a scenario began to play out in Lucy’s mind, in which she would meet said girlfriends and they would judge her for her material lack and she in turn (as if defensively) would judge them for their lack of culture. (Prior to 2008 and the country’s financial collapse Lucy had observed the spread of what had become known as ‘status anxiety’ to a town once hinterland enough to have been referred to as ‘El Paso’ by the writers of The Rough Guide to Ireland (1989), and, despite the recent recession, she did not feel relaxed enough to accept her comparatively lowly ‘status’ amongst these ex-friends who in her absence had become doctors or lawyers or prominent business people or the wives of such people.) The reigniting of such friendships was therefore doomed and, Lucy considered, best avoided. Plus, she dreaded that awful question asked of every returning émigré to the town: when are you going back? Because she simply didn’t know when she was going back nor if she would ‘go back’ at all.
Lucy had done well at first, moving to London for her Masters, landing at twenty-two an assistant position (with the Gallery) while ‘the girls’ were still struggling at home in the remainder of the earlier recession of the 1980s. It’s just that after the acrimonious break-up with Arthur she remained in the assistant position (or some version of it, a fact that her various promotions failed to disguise), running out of ingénue years, never making a real mark, finding her instincts were not the market’s, and for one reason or another (most likely, she believed, as a result of Arthur’s malign influence) she had not found the right conditions in which to bloom. At forty-one, Lucy was, she considered, very much a thing unbloomed. She could easily have left the Gallery, and had been encouraged to by well-meaning friends, but was determined not to let Arthur Hackett think he held any power over her. Suddenly, as she pressed the dishwasher tablet into the plastic pocket of the machine, she remembered something she’d read.
‘Ice House Hill? Wasn’t that near the house where that woman was killed?’ she said, as she searched for a sharp knife with which to dig at the cuds of caked sugar now stuck to the worktop after her father’s slovenly attempt at making tea.
‘Aye,’ Kevin said, ‘the Ice House. They say the husband done (sic) that.’
‘They always say it was the husband, Kevin. Sometimes it isn’t you know.’ Of course Lucy knew quite well that (at least in the crime movies she’d seen) more often than not it was the husband, but she wanted to make a point.
‘Hadn’t he an alibi? He was at work in Dublin, in the bank,’ her father said.
Some of the details of the Imelda Woods’ murder returned in a flash to Lucy’s mind. It had been a gruesome act, which, she recalled, had seemed at the time to capture the town’s imagination (of all the other gruesome acts of the border region), perhaps, as it had come at the tail end of the Celtic Tiger and the beginning of the more recent recession, and was rumoured to have been connected to a property dispute. The town had gone quiet for months afterwards, as if the crime was the apex of something – perhaps that whole torrid period between two recessions that saw a simple house in a not-particularly-thriving part of the country valued at over a million euro.
‘Never mind that alibi. Supposed to have got three fellas to have done it for him,’ Kevin said. ‘The Doyles. From the Demesne Road. Hard fellas, them Doyles. Border heads. Father’s a Provo, has half his face missing from a beating. One of them Doyles was going out with Imelda’s daughter, battered her once with an iron bar. They done the job for next to nothing, too, I heard. Scumbag assassins is all they are.’ Lucy’s jaw dropped at Kevin’s elaborate new theory on the Ice House Hill murder. She felt that Kevin could easily have yammered on all day about the hard men that lived around the Demesne Road. For in a way he was a ‘hard man’ himself, and only that he’d developed a talent for strategy, for board games, chess in particular, at which her father fancied himself an expert and teacher, he may well have got caught up in town violence himself. She wondered how he was able to tell such stories while making his winning moves on the board. She made her excuses and left.
Lucy stood with her bike on the pavement. The Ice House did not look from the outside as if such a heinous crime could possibly have been committed within. It was an unfussy building with its name scored in white paint on a large rock set slantwise in the front garden. But despite the house’s cheerful new yellow paintwork (Kevin had told Lucy it had been painted by the victim’s family in an attempt to put behind them the horror of what had taken place inside), and the trimmed speckled laurel hedge, Lucy sensed something strangely knowing about it, something prescient and dark. Within, it seemed to her, as if represented by the two top-floor windows, were a pair of judgemental eyes looking out onto Demesne Road, to the back of the busy town. The house seemed to call out to passers-by, relaying the message that one of the town’s biggest secrets remained locked within its walls – and desperately required solving. It is possible in a small town not to know the slightest thing about some people, including those as apparently popular as Imelda Woods. Lucy, nor her father, had ever met the middle-aged aromatherapist. But, Lucy vividly remembered reading about the Woods’ murder, the twenty-seven punctures to the upper back, the image of which had haunted her mind because it was so brutal. She’d cycled down Demesne Road the year before and then there had been Garda cars everywhere. Now, with the white and blue tape gone from around the house, the longer Lucy stared and noted its ordinariness, its deceptive quietness, the more she saw that something was dreadful about the property. An atmosphere of pain engulfed the place, as if the unresolved nature of the crime had become a palpable thing, had entered the atoms of the freshly painted yellow bricks. What had happened to Imelda Woods seemed to sit there, still and heavy, stubbornly unhidden by the new paintwork, as if it sat also on the conscience of the whole town.
The fact that the house, at the end of a row of similarly square-topped Art Deco properties, cut into the edge of Ice House Hill gave it an added gloom. The Hill had once been a fort, beneath which, hundreds of years ago, people had supposedly hidden from marauding Vikings. The ancient forest on top descended to the edge of the house’s back garden. Lucy recalled reading that a couple of men had been seen running from the garden into those very woods on the morning of the murder. Something, too, about peaked caps. A shiver ran down her spine as she glanced up at the trees: black-green cedar, a few sally, some rowan and alder, all packed together on a heath that blocked the sun from entering the back of Imelda Woods’ now empty and silent home, but which, Lucy realised, would nonetheless make a perfect backdrop to Shakespeare’s moodiest play.
In the Tourist Office she came upon a leaflet advertising Chapterhouse Theatre Company’s tour of the northeast. There were to be two shows in Monaghan, one in Newry and one on Ice House Hill. The image of a castle, visible in the distance from the heath on Ice House Hill, featured on the front of the leaflet and was overlaid with an image of a woman cutting into a deep meat pie. (King Lear was in repertory with Titus Andronicus.) A few details on the reverse of the leaflet revealed the company to be local.
‘Have they been around long?’ Lucy asked the fair-haired man behind the counter in the Tourist Office’s modern wood-panelled foyer.
‘Sure,’ he said, in a local accent. ‘They won an award last year. I saw their Tempest in Stephen’s Green.’
‘Aye, they are,’ he replied. ‘A real physical company. Visual and intelligent. Are you thinking of going?’
‘Shakespeare here in the town? Doesn’t happen every day.’
‘Oh, there’s lots of stuff happening now. Oh yeah. Lots of bands, too, and exhibitions.’ The fair-haired man got up and walked to the front of the desk. He was lean and smelled of patchouli. He pulled a postcard from a carousel of postcards that stood in the centre of the foyer and handed it to her. The image on the card was of a voluptuous naked woman coiled around a tree. Lucy was embarrassed. Not by the naked woman but because she thought the work was terrible. She hoped the young man was not about to tell her that the picture was one of his. ‘That’s one of mine,’ he continued, and flicked through the cards to see if there were any more examples of his work in postcard form. ‘I’m in a group, you see. In Carlingford. You missed the exhibition in the Town Hall, but I’ve another coming up.’ Lucy nodded and said she’d love to see his next exhibition (while simultaneously feeling the enormous effort of lying course through her body). She noted the man’s name on the back of the card: Larry Doyle. She’d heard that surname once already that day (the family of psychos from Demesne Road). She pumped up her enthusiasm and left. On the way out she berated herself: Why did she have to know that the lad’s work was bad? Why couldn’t she think it good? Why did she have to be such a bloody expert?
Still thinking about her encounter in the Tourist Office, Lucy decided that twenty years in London, however difficult some of them had been, had, overall, spoiled her for anywhere other than big cities. She could not help but feel that everything at home was substandard; the theatre seemed amateurish, the visual art derivative and idea-less. What poets there were published themselves and went about local pubs selling glossy chapbooks of their rhyming quatrains. She’d been home two months – two months in the very same country it seemed the entire world believed was bursting with artistic talent, and still she felt starved of real, meaningful stimulus. She either needed to go back to London, fast, or move to Dublin or Belfast. Or, perhaps she needed to dig deeper; surely she had dismissed the place too soon. If she was to survive in this town at all she certainly had to stop coming across like a one-woman art Gestapo. Artistic mediocrity was not a crime: stabbing a woman in the back twenty-seven times as she washed the dishes was a crime.
As she cycled home, Lucy looked out at the streets once so familiar to her. There she had climbed a wall to pilfer apples, there she had stamped out her first (mint-flavoured) cigarette, there she had walked with her then best friend – hair slicked back, hands in cream Macintoshes with collars upturned, eyes heavily lined, faces pale as dolls – while loudly singing Ultravox’s Vienna. No, she would not, could not change her view. Artistic mediocrity was, she reasoned, very much a crime. Perhaps it was no coincidence, she considered, that when a town had no real art gallery, when the most popular theatrical performances were the local musical society productions of Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls, when the Tourist Officer himself had a penchant for lurid Celtic designs, the benchmark was somehow lowered, and so this was why, in this town, murders, particularly of quiet aromatherapists, seemed somehow less horrific than they should be, and, as in the case of Imelda Woods, one year on remained unsolved. After all, Lucy reasoned, lows are really only perceived as such against highs, otherwise they can be tolerated. This town, she concluded (though she fancied she’d absorbed something of its grit and obduracy), seriously needed to raise its own personal bar.
Passing the Ice House on her way home, its dusty white nets hanging in dense creases so as to permit no view inside, for some reason Lucy thought of Arthur. Perhaps he missed her. Perhaps now that she was away, no longer part of the proverbial office furniture, he would realise the full extent of what he’d lost: a lover, a loyal employee. Or perhaps not. However bad this sabbatical thing was proving, that cold, empty life in London could not be rekindled in a hurry, she reminded herself.
She parked her bike outside the Centra shop her father frequented and went inside. She saw the headline in the local newspaper immediately: Woods’ Husband Declares Innocence. Lucy picked up the paper, turned the pages. Imelda Woods’ husband’s letter to the editor had been given pride of place. It read: Dear Editor, I would like to put an end to the terrible rumour that has been circulating through this town about my involvement in my wife’s murder. I am devastated at the level of hostility shown to me by the people here, some of whom I believed were my friends. The letter continued to the effect that Mr Woods’ life had been destroyed by the kind of remark Kevin liked to dish out casually in her father’s kitchen. The writer seemed a far more sensitive type than the money-hungry fiend Kevin had described. In fact, this letter suggested that Mr Woods was quite heartbroken. She felt distraught reading the man’s plea to the town’s gossipmongers to leave him alone. She brought the paper, along with a carton of milk and a small loaf of bread, to the counter, and paid.
‘Poor fella,’ Dympna, the young You’re a Star contender remarked, as she placed Lucy’s purchases into a bag.
‘People thought he killed her, right?’ Lucy said.
‘Only the fools. And there are fools every place,’ Dympna replied. ‘What would be his motive? Sure they’d been split for years and he still won’t get the house.’
‘How do you know?’ Lucy asked.
‘Because she sold it a month before she died. To the council. She sold it for a song, too, so they’d let her live in it till they were ready.’
‘Really?’ Lucy replied, ‘ready for what?’
‘Aren’t they going turning it into an arts centre? About time we got something like that. You’d swear we’d nothing going for us here only The Corrs.’ Lucy took her change. An arts centre in the home of a murdered woman: was that not a little weird, grotesque even? Surely there would be something still there – a residue, a ghost, a revenant of some sort? But then she thought of Drury Lane and other such theatres in London that were supposed to have resident ghosts, often carrying their own heads. She was glad then that something good was coming to the town at last and that Imelda Woods had had the foresight to sell her home for such an excellent cause.
That night, Lucy got a text from Cindy, the Gallery’s junior assistant:
– Lucy, ffs the grad intern covering u is now shacked up with Arthur. I thought u should know! Cx to which Lucy replied:
– Who’s Arthur?
She began to worry that she’d mentioned Arthur’s name a bit too often in the office – and that she’d been too keen to share (with Cindy – and therefore the whole office) not only her anger over how he’d treated her over the years but also her pain in knowing he’d moved on while she hadn’t, her ongoing sense of loss. She should have kept such things to herself. But the break-up had felt like grief, had followed the same key stages, and she had needed to talk to someone. That night she felt much more than a renewed determination to make a go of her new life at home; she felt that Arthur Hackett had pretty much brought her to her knees, and began to feel again her former intense grief-like rage, for he had, effectively, with his charm and promises and eloquent mentorship, robbed her of her future. And that night she not only passionately wished him a swift demise but began to think of what Kevin had said about the hard men from the Demesne Road, the Doyles, the ‘scumbag assassins’ who would kill for hire and at a cheap rate, too.
Neither Kevin or her father could come to Ice House Hill to see the play. But a large crowd attended nonetheless. Around seventy people laughed and cried (and screeched at the blinding of Gloucester). The company was, as Larry Doyle had said, very physical and it put on a good show. Then, just as Lucy was about to depart the spectral darkness of Ice House Hill, she spotted Larry Doyle – chatting to the heavy-chested actress who had played Cordelia. He saw Lucy and beckoned her over. Lucy congratulated the actress and within minutes was being swept up in a buzzing horde of people, actors from the theatre company, local artists like Larry, and a few others, all heading for a bar in town. Excitement crackled in the air. A few hours into the drinking session in the bar on Park Street it occurred to Lucy how talkative and cheery she was being, and that a slight trace of her former accent was returning to her voice. She felt ever so slightly happy – and was enjoying herself.
Larry introduced her to Don Shields, the town’s arts officer. Shields was very keen to know about Lucy’s work in London though she neglected to mention her lengthy sabbatical. As the evening went on it became apparent that it was Shields who had been responsible for the purchase of the Ice House and that he would be at the helm of the project that would transform it. He was full of ideas. The house would have a small cinema, he said. He had in mind already the first season: rotating weeks of Italian neorealism, German expressionism, weekends devoted to David Lynch, Tarkovsky. Lucy sounded her approval. She didn’t want to appear to know too much about the gory details of what had occurred inside the house, to which Shields referred only once. The man had a strange way about him; he spoke hurriedly, with a trace of hostility, and looked beyond the person to whom he spoke as if he expected a row of people waiting to speak to him. He made Lucy feel as if time with him was precious, valuable. He was also loud, strident even and managed to down an entire packet of cashews in one go while he spoke to her – making him seem more clinically efficient than rude. The crowd with whom she had gone into the bar seemed to hang on Shields’ every word. It was Shields, too, she learned, who had suggested the performance on Ice House Hill to Chapterhouse Theatre Company. His boundless confidence recalled to Lucy, one Arthur Hackett, and because of this she was not quite as impressed with him as she thought he thought she should be. But her slight disdain towards him gave her the courage to speak frankly. So when she mentioned that surely the murder of Imelda Woods would need to be resolved before the arts centre was established and a cinema set up inside, Shields became sharp and defensive.
‘We’ve been as cooperative as we can with the family,’ he said, ‘but the house is our property now. Besides, the town should really just move the fuck on.’ Even deep in the sticks, Lucy thought to herself, the arts world had its stonehearted men of ambition.
A few hours later, Lucy walked home, merrily drunk, from the bar (alone). She went into a restaurant with a busy takeaway section to buy chips, something greasy. True to the town’s reputation for violence, a fight broke out as she waited in the disorderly queue. Two men emerged from the back of the dining area and dragged one of the men who’d been in the fight out onto the street. Through the glass, Lucy could see the two men screaming at the younger man as they slapped him about the head. The young man’s slate-blue eyes were wild, as if he wanted nothing more than to burst back into the restaurant and continue the fight from which he’d been dragged. She guessed that he was brother to the other two as all were tall, long-legged, had the same chalky pockmarked skin, the same crazed unfocused look – and there seemed to be a kind of understanding between them. The owner of the restaurant, a little Italian woman, banged on the window for the three to move on, but the younger one, still full of bluster and rage, ignored her and the two men rebuking him and continued his attempts to re-enter the place. It began to rain then, a light summer rain, and the young man calmed, and Lucy watched as he and the other two took similar-looking black peaked caps from their pockets and fitted them snugly onto their heads before moving off.
Done the job for next to nothing, too, I heard. Scumbag assassins is all they are.
‘Fucking Doyles,’ she heard the man behind her say, ‘bad bastards, the lot of them.’ Lucy paid for her order and set off home on the balmy night with her oily chips and onion rings. She did not go home via the back of the town and so did not pass the Ice House, but walked along Park Street towards home. The Doyle brothers walked animatedly ahead, their dark round heads bobbing before her like a group of seals. As she observed their loud playfulness, at once humorous and violent, she became overwhelmed with a deep sense of belonging, of rootedness. Something inside her had finally relaxed. She wondered, how – when she would eventually catch up with the Doyles, as she was resolved to do – she would go about striking up a conversation with them (at least before they made the turn for Demesne Road). She wondered, too, if any of them had ever been as far a-field as London.
Jaki McCarrick is an award-winning writer. Her play, Leopoldville, won the 2010 Papatango Prize for New Writing, and her most recent play, Belfast Girls, developed at the National Theatre Studio, London, was shortlisted for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award. It recently premiered in Chicago to much critical acclaim. Jaki’s short story, The Visit, won the 2010 Wasafiri Short Fiction Prize and appears in the 2012 Anthology of Best British Short Stories (Salt). Her story collection, The Scattering, was published in 2013 by Seren Books and was shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. Jaki, who was longlisted this year for the inaugural Irish Fiction Laureate, is currently editing her first novel. Represented by AM Heath. Her blog, CloudNine, can be read here.