I’ve slept badly again. The farmhouse is unearthly cold. Alive, too, in the still of night, with ticks, groans, intestinal gurgles. The fridge, juddering to a halt.
Alice was restless. Shy of dawn I heard her get up, potter about downstairs. She’s left a note on the kitchen table: can run you into the village in the afternoon. Ok, maybe. I’ll have to check texts at some point. Go through with the renewal. Let Leonora know I won’t be picking Jen up Saturday after all. But it’s good to be out here, with neither Wi-Fi nor mobile coverage. Alice doesn’t even have a TV for God’s sake, just an old Telefunken on which she plays vinyls, and a CD player she keeps down in the studio. I hug the duvet about my shoulders, shuffle to the stove, touch the cafetière with the back of my hand. It’s tepid, meaning she’s gone, what? A quarter of an hour?
No microwave. Really, she’s taking this back-to-nature lark a bit far. But that’s Alice all over. Post-divorce Alice. I tip the remainder of the coffee into a saucepan and spark the gas. On the fifth click it takes, gurgles into a corona of blue buds. Last night I’d blackened the stems of our cigarettes taking a light from one. Curious, she won’t let either one of us smoke indoors, when she’s twice the smoker that I ever was. Alright sweet Alice, where d’you keep your fags?
The yard is frigid. Frost has turned the mountains to quartz. I draw on the crooked butt – all I could find – and hold in the smoke until I’m dizzy for want of air then let the air rush like liquid into my lungs. Tincture of manure, despite the freeze. An anxious rush. Don’t think! Not yet. I flick the spent fag-end across the cobbles to where we’d sat out, shivering; where one wine glass remains, cupping an opaque doily of ice. We’d measured time by Orion inching over the gable. A week here would be just the thing. Sneak back incognito. A new man, if I can only beat this insomnia. Calm these jitters.
I tug the duvet tighter about me. I’ve no wish to go back inside just yet. The interior is gloomy; that’s one disadvantage of these old farmhouses. Only her studio is bright, and that cost a small fortune by all accounts. Seeing a scatter of paw-prints by the gate, a fancy comes to me that I might be able to track them: the yard is dusted with frost, and the fields are white-haired. They can’t have gone that far. If I’d my boots on I’d have a go. But through my socks the bones of my feet are aching.
Alice married at twenty-three, and I’ve never forgiven her. She’s seven years older than me. She’d felt she had to look out for us, father becoming so incapable after mother’s long cancer. Or perhaps she was simply tired of running wild. Afraid of it, who knows? In those days, I’d idolized her. Several times while still at Art College she’d woken up in Casualty. One temple still shows a silver bite of scar-tissue where she’d fallen on a glass. Was it that stunt that made her see sense? One way or another, when she began to do a line with Donal Walsh, with tee-total Donal of the Traffic Corps, I knew she’d already made up her mind. A wild fowl that lets its flight feathers be drawn. She even developed a waddle, stopped dyeing her hair blues and purples. I never forgave her, and she’s always known it.
But who can tell what way a life will pan out? After the cot death, she hit the bottle. Not hard, but steadily. Deliberately. In the end, even Sgt Walsh had enough, sought solace in a paramedic who was raising two kids of her own. And Alice couldn’t have cared less. All of which at least made for an amicable settlement. No surviving children to bring their antipathies to focus. Now here she is at forty-four, a recluse, imperturbable, hair streaked with silver, finally living her idea of being an artist. Still carrying the residue of that cot death.
I’m alerted by a nose nuzzling my palm. Not long after she bought the place Alice recovered the dog from a Pet Refuge; called it Fred, for all that it’s a collie bitch. A nervous animal, shy of people. The nose is a sign she’s getting used to me, now I’ve slept over. Alice isn’t far behind, her face hidden in a huge muffler that takes a few seconds to unravel. Breath like candy-floss in the gelid air. ‘You might have put some clothes on, mister.’
‘Expecting company?’ The quip is out before I think she might hear a barb in it. If she has, she doesn’t let on. ‘So?’ she says, pulling at her boots.
‘Come to any decision?’
Stab of angst. ‘I think I might hang on a few more days.’ I make to scratch behind Fred’s ear, but she cowers away.
‘Gerry, you’ll have to face the music at some point.’
‘I know that. All I’m saying, I could use a few more days.’ Fred has sidled behind her and is watching me with distrust. ‘If it’s all the same to you…’
Sure, she shrugs, hand on the door-jamb, one boot stubborn. Then she’s peering in through the doorway. ‘You get a smell of burn?’
‘Jesus, the coffee!’
She’s been gone twenty minutes, the dog having jumped into the 4×4 beside her. Seeing I’ve decided to stay on, she’s agreed we need to stock up. Besides, she informed Fred, the radio says we’re in for snow.
‘Snow.’ I scratched at my stubble. ‘Really?’
‘You’d be surprised. Old Taffe says half the county was cut off for a week up here the year of the big freeze. Sure you won’t come? Check your car?’
‘Nah, I’m good. They said it might be a couple of days before they got the parts.’ Then she asked did I want the paper. A knowing look. No TV, and with the radio down in her studio we’ve had precious little news beyond headlines. I shrugged ok. May as well know the worst, hey?
I’d let out the story, in dribs and drabs, the previous night. The edited version. Alice wasn’t drinking, or no more than the one glass of wine. No interest in it, since her long flirtation with spirits came to a halt. All the same the second bottle was her idea. Surrounded by stillness, by the frost-hardened night, it seemed possible to be…what? Truthful? Intimate? Because we’d never had such a talk, not in twenty years.
I’d expected her to give me a harder time. Ten years ago she would have. Donal Walsh had had to dig me out, once, when it looked like I’d be done for drink-driving. Pulled a few favours. I was twenty-six; had finally landed a steady job. On that occasion she’d read me the riot act. She was pregnant, and Donal was just getting on in the force, so she’d every right to. Now, under the slow wheel of constellations, she was more the counsellor or therapist. ‘Gerry. I’m not your mother.’ No Alice, you’re not.
She did suggest I have a long word with Donal. Not involve him, as such. But he’d been twenty years on the force, be stupid not to tap into that experience. After all, at one level it was a traffic offence. ‘You really don’t think he’d mind?’ She didn’t answer. Paused for effect, rather, eyebrows hoisted. I should have asked, would she mind. ‘Alice, he thinks I’m a plonker.’
‘You are a plonker!’
I guffawed, and let it go at that. Time enough.
Soon after she drove off the landline erupted, rang a ridiculous length through the empty house. It stopped, waited, then repeated the performance. Now, a watchful silence has returned. I set down the pot with its spiral of suds speckled with black. She’d said not to bother, but hell. Thought I might surprise her.
I give the pot a rinse, dribble the whorl of suds over the drain; a thumbprint; an entire galaxy. A track of specks still clings to the scoured aluminium. ‘God’s sake, leave it, Ger,’ she’d sighed, ‘it’ll do me to clean my brushes.’ So be it! Down with it to the studio, which is never locked. There’s still frost in the shadowed parts that day hasn’t reached: along the foot of the wall; under the hedgerows. Its blue-whiteness reverses Wicklow to a photographic negative. Am I beginning to see the world through Alice’s eyes? Above the white hills, the sky is darkening to lavender. Perhaps the forecast was correct. Just suppose we were snowed in. Incommunicado, for weeks on end; how good would that be?
I drive the thought out, along with the residue of angst. Time enough to consider all that business later. Alice is sure to have something to say, now she’s had time to process the basics. That may be what the pre-dawn walk was all about.
The door of the converted cowshed judders open. My last time here, eighteen months back, she’d just had it done. It seemed brighter, then. Bigger. Clutter has shrunk it, also the cobwebs across the box-window. So too, in a peculiar way, the waft of turps and linseed. Because Alice is one for the old ways. Told me she even stretches her own canvases; would grind her own colours, if she could get the ingredients.
The sink area, where I set down the pot, is the most cluttered of all. Towels and rags, rainbow-streaked, dried into elaborate forms; jars of brushes like porcupines; rolled-up tubes, half-squeezed; little turds of colour everywhere. The old CD player is paint-daubed. About the floor are leaves of yellowed paper, charcoal-smutted. Also, an enormous quantity of flotsam she’s dragged in from the surrounding fields. Contorted branches; stones like prehistoric eggs; sundry bits of bark. There’s a bird’s skull, finely sutured; the yellow jawbone of a sheep. There’s a twist of barbed wire with tufts of wool like bog cotton; an encyclopaedic variety of feathers. Also of bottles.
Would be an Aladdin’s cave for Jen. Impossible, now the car is… Not that Leonora would ever have allowed it.
I have a sneezing fit. The dust has got to me. I all but overturn an easel, angled toward the light. On a canvas smudged with ochre and sienna, she’s worked out the form of a wind-tormented tree. A blackthorn, at a guess. Must get bleak hereabouts, all the same. I’ll take the city, for all its traps. Besides the work in progress, there are perhaps two dozen canvases stacked about the walls. Something unspoken, some piety, holds me from having a nose through them while Alice is up the village.
Clang and groan at the gate. The crunch of tyres, then the slow growl of a car edging down the driveway. Not Alice’s, though. Not a 4×4. Pressing myself to the dust-smeared window, I can just see the tip of a white bonnet. A Ford? I move tentatively through the debris of the studio and, tentatively, pull the door shut. Then I edge back to the window. Footsteps, heavy, male. ‘Hallo!’ Rap of a fist at a door, then the lighter tap at a window. ‘Anybody home?’ Then I hear someone swinging heavily into the car, and the car-door slam.
But the bonnet doesn’t move off. I’ve a hunch, heavy as cement inside my gut. To give it certainty, I edge back over to the door, my hand resting on the latch. I want to catch sight of that car as it drives off. It has just reached the gate by the time I make the courtyard. Red and yellow diagonal stripes, luminous. I could have scripted them. Dublin reg. But I’ve missed catching a decent sight of the driver.
When Alice returns, I decide not to confront her with it; not at once. See if she gives anything away, in her movements. In her expression, or lack thereof. Fred is as strange with me as when I’d first arrived. ‘What’s the matter trooper, huh?’ Bad experience of people no doubt, before Alice came along with her unassailable independence. I help carry in the groceries, ignore the newspaper stuck conspicuously on top. A first brief flurry of snow, like a forethought, then the air is clear again.
Alice is packing the fridge, her back to me. ‘Who was out here Gerry?’
Still with her back to me, she straightens. ‘They left the gate open.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Her shoulders seem aware that I’m watching them. ‘I was out for a stroll.’ No comment. I try a gobbet of truth: ‘Oh, the phone rang. Went on for an age.’ Now she’s pinching dead leaves from a pot plant between thumbnail and finger. She still hasn’t turned around. ‘You don’t have it set up for voicemail?’
‘Never got round to it.’
‘I’ll do it. Take me two minutes.’
Now she turns. ‘Don’t bother. I prefer not to know.’ Her face is imperturbable. If she’d anything to do with that little Garda visit, she’s giving nothing away. Instead, she’s looking at me with quizzical irony. The older sister.
‘I dropped that saucepan down to your studio, Al. Barely got in the door.’ The disarray, so unlike their married household. ‘I’m surprised you can find anything in that junk-shop.’
‘Think I might spend a couple of hours in that junk-shop after lunch. You don’t mind?’
‘Why would I mind?’
The paper is lying folded on the counter, plain as a question-mark. I lift it, baton-like, tap it against my palm. ‘Think it’ll snow? Any chance we might get marooned out here?’
She shrugs. ‘It’s too cold for snow.’
‘I never know what that means.’
Fred is looking at her intently as though she knows.
After lunch, when I’ve the house to myself, I flick through the paper. There’s nothing at first glance. But then, the story would be three days old by now. On the second pass I find the article, tucked in under a photo of Ryan Tubridy. A single paragraph, nothing new or solid. I leave it lying for Alice to find. Time to come clean. All I’d said, was that I’d left the scene of an accident. Smacked into a parked Merc at the entrance to the housing estate, must’ve done some damage to judge by the state of my own car. I’d panicked. Over the second bottle I’d told her I’d let my road tax lapse.
Through the window, an iodine sky. She’s left the door of the studio open, and an oblong of butter-coloured light stretches across the cobbles like an invitation. Up here in the dim interior, the house has begun to tick. The fridge hums, intermittently. You can actually hear the clock’s slow advance. And perhaps that’s good, because I need to think. So ok, I told her I’d panicked. It was no lie, I had. What I’d neglected to mention was why I’d panicked, and what might happen next on account of it. I did point out, if Prize Bitch got wind of an accident, any accident, I could kiss access to my daughter goodbye. Little Jen.
That wasn’t the half of it, of course. But the rest isn’t for now, either. Time enough, during the next bout of insomnia. For now, there’s plenty to be getting on with. Number one, had that been Donal Walsh, earlier on? After all, a D reg was hardly conclusive. Half the Garda cars in Wicklow were like as not D reg. Number two, if it had been, was it my sister who tipped him off? Made sure not to be here, when we had our little tête-à-tête. But it was hard to reconcile that kind of trick with the Alice I was coming to know. Besides, when would she have done it? Not from the landline, or I’d surely have heard.
But then, if it hadn’t been Donal Walsh, what did that mean? That they were looking out for a banged-up Yaris?
I’m revived by a blast of cold air. Alice enters, dragging with her a swirl of white dust. Face red, the half-moon scar in her temple glossy as mica. The dog is behind her, fur puffed out and dandruffed. Against the window, flakes blurred to the size of feathers are descending. Brrrrrrr! she goes.
‘So much for your too cold for snow…’ I move to the window, drag my palm across the condensation. ‘Any chance it’ll stick?’
‘Hard to say. Probably.’ She’s beside me, filling the kettle from a stuttering tap. But she doesn’t look at me. The years have given the pale skin beneath the eyes something lizard-like; her description.
‘Alice, you been in touch with Donal at all?’
‘With Donny? When?’
‘That car earlier,’ I go on, too late now to stop, though I’m damned if I know what made me start. ‘That was the guards.’
It takes a moment for her to process this. ‘And you think I rang Donal?’
‘Just wanted to be sure.’
‘Hey Al, I’m not even certain it was him.’
She’s slapped down the kettle. ‘Fuck you, Gerry! You know? Fuck! You!’
Fewer stars out tonight. Wind more sound than motion, though high up, stratospheric winds are shredding the indigo. A lunar light is shining up from the earth. It doesn’t feel quite as cold as last night, despite the fields of snow. Christ I hope it really does come down tomorrow. Fill up the valley with white forgetfulness. I tip the dregs into my glass, shut my eyes. ‘A man is driving a cab,’ I begin. Because all afternoon, the newspaper has lain where I left it, unread. ‘Eyelids like lead. He’s pretty damned tired. Been waiting on fares nine, ten hours…’
‘Had you been drinking?’
‘Just listen, Alice. The guy is half-asleep. Sponge-headed, you know? Moonlighting all hours, to try to keep up with the payments to his ex. Kid in pre-school. Can’t take a chance on losing access. Does nixers. Fares off the clock. Next thing, the insurance premium shoots up fifty percent. Just like that! No reason.’
‘Gerry, you need to…’
‘Listen. Please.’ I breathe in roughly. ‘Ok I should’ve, I dunno… taken a loan out. It was stupid not to renew. But I was so fucking angry. When you’re at wits end, you’re stupid. Look. Alice.’ Now or never. ‘It wasn’t a parked car I hit.’ I wait. Nothing. I look toward her. In the moonlight she is as still as alabaster, the dog beneath her an effigy of loyalty. ‘Back road, out behind the airport. I’d dropped off a fare. Lights turn amber. I’m pulling onto the Swords Road, punching an address into the GPS and the next thing there’s this awful thump. A face ghost-white like it’s caught in a flash-bulb. A slump of something heavy thrown against the windshield. The car rocks, everything over in a second. By the time I’ve reacted, they’re a hundred yards behind me. One of them is staring after.’
‘Girls on a night out. I’ve no tax, no insurance. I…I keep driving.’
‘What are you saying to me?’
‘Just listen. Ok?’ I pull from beneath me the newspaper. It’s difficult to read the fickle print. But I could almost recite it, and I tap it as if she too has read it. ‘No change in the victim’s condition. So she’s no worse anyhow. Her friend stated the taxi had its lights off. Not true. A coupé, possibly silver, which is true; but half the Dublin taxi fleet must be coupés, possibly silver. Blah, blah. The guards following a definite line of enquiry. A fresh appeal, for anyone who might have been in the vicinity…’ Heart thumping, I hold out the paper toward her, but she shakes her head. ‘No mention of CCTV, or Hail-O, or… But then, that might be their definite line of enquiry, yeah? Something they’re holding off releasing, you know.’
‘Jesus Gerry. Did you say she’s in intensive care?’
I squint at the print, letting on. ‘It says Tallaght Hospital.’
‘Intensive Care, yep.’
‘Now you see why I can’t call Donal Walsh?’ I’m letting it out, finally. The exquisite fuck-up I’ve landed myself in. ‘This comes out, goodbye license. And goodbye license, goodbye Jen. You of all people should realise what that means, Al.’ Translucent shapes are drifting inside my eyelids, zooplankton seen on a slide. ‘Sorry. That was a lousy thing to have said.’
The hammer of my pulse is hurting my throat. I try to guffaw. ‘Told the fella up in Blessington I’d hit a sheep. Even tucked tufts of wool from a fence into the bumper. I’d all night to think up that one.’
A minute goes by, or the guts of. The moon is a sly grin. The night, listening. ‘So now you have it, Al, the whole beautiful picture.’ Silence, except for a low static, nature recalibrating. ‘You still think we can bring in Donal?’
‘Gerry you have to tell them. You have to come clean.’
A surge of panic. ‘Have you heard a word I’ve said?’ I slap the paper. ‘It says the girl’s ok…’
‘Something like this. You can’t not tell them.’
‘Yeah but it says she’s alright. The girl is alright…’
‘You told me yourself, a police car came out.’
I’m standing. Guilt, not panic, has made a fist in my throat. It hurts to speak. ‘The girl is going to be alright, Al.’
Night drive. At every turn the headlights spring ghost branches out of the hedgerows. Fine upward flurries, lit to sparks. The surface scintillates like granite; tire-tracks to either side are dark and shallow and singular. We’re scarcely making twenty miles an hour. ‘The road doesn’t seem all that bad!’ It’s the fourth time I’ve said it. I’m jittery as all hell.
Alice keeps her eyes to the windscreen. ‘We won’t be any use to anyone if we wind up in the ditch, mister.’ But of course what I’m hoping she’ll say it can wait till morning. But she doesn’t trust me. No more than I trust myself. Gerry, you have to come clean. If we wait till morning, I’ll have reasoned myself out of it.
From the radio the low strains of a spooky Billie Holiday track. It brings us up to the News bulletin. I await the signature, heart hammering. Gut, hollowed by dread. As the song ends Alice edges up the volume. There is an interminable delay; a bad connection, out here in the pristine night. Then an aspirate crackle, as if a breath is being drawn in. Then the newscaster. Her very first report, Tallaght Hospital.
Alice pulls into a lay-by. She turns off the radio.
The hazards are dyeing the night with intermittent orange. Every noise is amplified, the tick-tick, the groans of our jackets. I want to say, now we have to turn back. I want to say, now it’s jail-time we’re talking.
Intermittent, the hazards go on ticking, ticking.
Subscribe to the weekly Fairlight Flash newsletter and get notified about the best new short stories.