It is said, that to write well, you must read well. So, whether to improve your writing or for the pure enjoyment of a great tale, well-told, place Billy O’Callaghan’s, The Dead House, at the top of your list.
It was while scrolling through www.writing.ie recently that I came across an article about his debut novel that piqued my interest, the title alone creating goose bumps. It was apparent that, at the very least, I’d read a story written by a master short story writer who has honed his craft. He has close to a hundred stories published in literary journals and magazines around the world while still others have won awards including the 2013 Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award for Short Story of the Year. That’s no mean feat!
So I went in search of The Dead House, published in early May, and on my third attempt managed to secure a copy. It all helped to heighten my anticipation. But finding this beautifully bound novel with its haunting image on any book shelf, I would have been instantly drawn to it. I felt as I had as a child when I came across a book I hadn’t read by one of my favourite authors and settled down to read, with a fervent hope that I wouldn’t be disappointed. I wasn’t.
O’Callaghan delivers a well constructed story which gradually builds to a heart-stopping crescendo. I read this book in two sittings. After the first ninety-five pages I took a breather, sending O’Callaghan a Tweet to tell him how much I enjoyed his book but that I’d probably be too scared to sleep if I read any more. He advised that another fifty pages in and I’d definitely be awake. I should have listened! Except – after another fifty pages – I no longer had the power to close the book. I had to read on. Unfortunately for me, it was close to midnight when I read the final page …
You can read the full review over on writing.ie by clicking here.
About The Dead House:
Attempting to rebuild her life after a violent relationship, Maggie Turner, a successful young artist, moves from London to Allihies and buys an ancient abandoned cottage. Keen to concentrate on her art, she is captivated by the wild beauty of her surroundings.
After renovations, she hosts a house-warming weekend for friends. A drunken game with a Ouija board briefly descends into something more sinister, as Maggie apparently channels a spirit who refers to himself simply as ‘The Master’. The others are visibly shaken, but the day after the whole thing is easily dismissed as the combination of suggestion and alcohol.
Maggie immerses herself in her painting, but the work devolves, day by day, until her style is no longer recognisable. She glimpses things, hears voices, finds herself drawn to certain areas: a stone circle in the nearby hills, the reefs at the west end of the beach behind her home … A compelling modern ghost story from a supremely talented writer.
A poignant short story.
Published in the Circle and Square anthology, December, 2015
(available for sale at Easons in The Square, Tallaght.)
It includes work from a number of writers, including Dermot Bolger, Martin Dyar, Mia Gallagher, Mary Guckian, Ferdia McAnna, Paula Meehan, Geraldine Mills, Louise Phillips, Kevin Power, Trish Best, Annette Bryan, Joan Power, Niamh Byrne, Eileen Casey, Doreen Duffy, Gavan Duffy, Brigid Flynn, Marie Gahan, Sue Hassett, James Hyde, Vivienne Kearns, Brian Kirk, Aine Lyons, Mae Newman, Trish Nugent, Tony Shields and Michael J Whelan.
‘Lipstick?’ asks Mary, squinting at the label. ‘Paradise pink.’
I purse my mouth and close my eyes, enjoying the familiar sensation of the lipstick as it glides over my dry lips.
‘There you go, Lily, all done,’ says Mary.
That woman is a Godsend. She holds the oval hand-mirror in front of my face. I pull it towards me and bend in closer, pressing my lips together. I still find it hard to believe the white-haired woman looking back is me and I most certainly don’t feel my eighty years. It’s merely a number – an indicator to tell the world how many wars and recessions I’ve lived through.
It’s amazing how a splash of colour across my lips always lifts my spirits, but this has been a particular favourite which I’ve worn for the last fifteen years. A visit to the local shopping centre, for my retirement party, had me returning home with a new look courtesy of the make-up counter in Boots. Maybe it’s time for another visit and an overhaul. Nothing too drastic, mind you, I’m not going back to the smoky eyes and red lips of Lauren Bacall at my age. Besides, I’ve always been more of an Audrey Hepburn – wide-eyed and innocent. Or so I’ve been told.
‘Thanks, Mary, you’ve done a great job, as usual.’
Mary moves behind me, fussing and teasing my hair. Her finger hovers over the hairspray tin. ‘Close your eyes.’
I know the drill. Hiding a smile, I cover my face with my hands, only peeking through when the hissing of the spray finally stops. There’s no fear of Mary leaving anything to chance with these tresses. She knows I love to waltz, but I fear she thinks I love to tango and has visions of me with a rose between my teeth as I strut up and down the room with my dance partner. She will ensure that my hair remains unyielding; like spun sugar sitting atop one of those exquisite deserts in the swanky New York restaurants we frequented all those years ago.
Rat-a-tat-tat. Mary checks her watch, raising her eyebrows, before crossing the room to open the door. ‘That’ll be John, I suppose,’ she murmurs.
There are whispered voices and moments later, a tall, grey-haired man appears in the doorway behind her. I watch as he removes his overcoat, shaking specks of rain onto the linoleum. He is dressed in dark trousers with shiny shoes. A crisp white shirt and paisley tie peep through the neck of his navy jumper.
‘They didn’t forecast that downpour, Lily,’ he says, his brown eyes meeting mine. He crosses the room and kisses me gently on the mouth. My heart hammers in my chest. I gasp and turn away, but not before I see a look of dismay cross his face. What does he expect? Just because he’s a handsome man, it doesn’t mean he can take such liberties; we’ve only just met!
‘Lily, it’s me, love. It’s John,’ he says, as if by telling me his name he thinks he can excuse his shocking behaviour.
He sits in the armchair opposite me and tries to lift my hand, but I pull it away. The sound of his melodic voice soothes me as I practice the two-step in my head, my toes tapping. Suddenly he stops talking and looks deep into my eyes.
‘You look well today, Lily,’ he says, ‘I’ve always loved that colour on you.’
I look down at my dress and smile. ‘It’s my favourite colour,’ I tell him. ‘Periwinkle blue; it matches my eyes, I’ve been told.’ I laugh and pat my hair. ‘I had to make an effort to look extra nice today for my visitors. Did I tell you my son, his wife and their young daughter will visit later. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting my granddaughter. Her name is Mia; my very first grandchild. They’re flying in from . . .’ I look towards Mary, ‘flying from . . .’ I can feel myself getting agitated. I click my fingers, hoping that the words will magically appear. They don’t. ‘You know the place I’m talking about, it sounds like Koala bears.’
Mary hesitates. Usually as sharp as a new pin, it appears she has forgotten too. She looks towards the man beside me. They think I don’t notice his barely imperceptible nod before she answers. As if he is giving her permission to speak.
‘Do you mean Kuala Lumpur?’
‘That’s it,’ I say. “When Sean left America he toured the world before settling there.’ I shift in my chair and turn to look at the man beside me. ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but you should probably leave soon.’ I give him my sweetest smile to take the sting from my words, ‘I’m sure you understand.’
I’m surprised to see his eyes are moist. And strange how I hadn’t noticed earlier what a beautiful shade of hazelnut brown they are; the same shade as Sean’s.
Mary turns off the radio and I glare at her. ‘What are you doing?’ I snap. ‘I always listen to the midday news.’ I didn’t mean to snap. My voice becomes softer, ‘it’s good to know what’s going on in the world.’
‘I just thought that as John was here—‘
‘I’m sure John will understand,’ I say, glaring at him instead. ‘Besides, my visitors will be here soon and I need to get to Mannings Bakery before it closes to pick up a few cream cakes. I must remember to get Sean’s favourite. He loves those gingerbread men. Maybe I should get one for Mia too.’
‘Good idea,’ he says, ‘but I’d like to wait a while. Sit with you. Just for a little longer.’
I suppose he must be lonely. And he’s doing no harm. We were always brought up to be charitable to those in need. I nod. ‘But you’ll have to stop talking while I listen to the headlines. I always listen to—
There is still no news for the relatives of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 missing since Saturday. The plane, along with the 239 people on board, vanished off radar screens while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The search continues . . .
I can’t breathe. My heart is thundering in my chest, but I can’t breathe. I bend forward, my arms folded across my chest; rocking, rocking, rocking. There is a loud keening noise, like a banshee. It’s blocking out the voice of the newsreader and getting louder.
The banshee …
‘Lily, please. You’ve got to stop!’
‘Lily, it’s okay. It’ll be okay,’ the man says, as he kneels before me.
My eyes fall upon my handbag, sitting beside my chair leg. I pick it up and rummage through it, emerging victorious with my lace handkerchief and mobile phone. I dab my eyes, then begin to press the buttons on the phone but my hands are trembling. Soon my entire body begins to shake and I am powerless to stop it; I feel as if I’m losing control.
‘Let me, love,’ he says, presumptuous as ever, it seems. But I allow him to take the phone.
It springs to life. I know he has dialled Sean because the ring tone is longer than normal. I hold my breath. It rings once, twice, three times and then I hear Sean’s voice. I allow my breath to escape. Only it isn’t Sean. Not Sean in the here and now. It’s the Sean in the phone. The Sean that wants me to leave a message and he’ll get right back to me.
I prise the phone from his shaking hands.
‘Sean, it’s me. I just wanted to check that you were alright. I’m looking forward to your visit.’ The tears have started to run down my face and I choke back a sob. ‘I love you, son.’
The phone slips to the floor.
I bend my head and examine the wizened hands sitting in my lap, where they twist a handkerchief round and round.
I am aware of a man and woman. The man has his back to me, his forehead pressed to the window, while his shoulders move up and down. The woman turns the dials on the radio, finally landing on Frank Sinatra. Fly Me to the Moon, bursts into the room.
The man turns from the window and looks straight at me. His forehead furrows and his red-rimmed eyes glaze over as if deep in thought. Suddenly, it is as if his well-worn face deflates like a popped balloon. I look away. I cannot bear to see such sorrow and it would be insensitive of me to ask what has caused it.
‘Would you like me to fix your hair?’
I turns towards the owner of the soft, country lilt and nod. The pretty, young woman smiles and I relax as the soft bristles of the silver handled brush, glide through my hair. Picking up the matching hand-mirror, I watch the soft white tendrils lift and fall around the face of the old woman in its oval frame. I notice she’s wearing my favourite lipstick, Paradise Pink. I must remember to pick up another tube.
Heavy rain begins to fall, drumming against the window pane. The sky is slate grey but the lush green grass glistens outside. The benches, scattered among the myriad of rose bushes, sit empty and desolate.
It will be nice to have a visitor.
The ghost of a smile reflected on the woman’s lips tells me she agrees.
A dark story about crime and punishment
My eyes shoot open and I sit upright in my bunk. The first thing I feel is the fear, as it bubbles up inside me, leaving acid burning at the back of my throat.
I look around the green walls of my room. A soothing colour, they say. Whoever, they are, they know nothing!
Today is Friday, 1 March.
I run cold water into the stainless steel sink and set up my utensils. Just like old times! I even manage a fleeting smile before rinsing my shaving brush in the water and shaking out the residue. I rub it round and round the creamy, white soap, three times clock-wise, then three times anti-clockwise before I paint my face. Bending closer, I can barely make out the brown eyes peering back. I inhale the heady, fresh scent and my mind flutters backwards in time.
With a huge effort I stop myself. Snatching up the worn, brown plastic comb I pull it savagely through my thin grey hair. I tug hard, bringing tears to my eyes, trying to flatten the hair over the bald patch which has emerged in recent years. I massage a dollop of Brylcream through my fingers and press down hard, sculpting the strands into place.
I miss the feel of my stainless steel razor the close shave. After rinsing away the suds with ice-cold water I rub dry. I run my battery razor up and down my face, hoping to stem the grey stubble. I crane forward again and like what I see, not as clean-shaven as with my razor, but needs must.
When the warden turns the keys in the grey, metal door and pushes it open, I am sitting, waiting patiently.
“It’s time Warren, are you ready?”
I nod my head, staring at my shiny shoes.
The other warden, the young one with the smirk, grabs me by the arm and pushes me ahead. My heart flutters. I take a deep breath; in through my mouth as I count to four, holding it deep inside me, for the count of seven, then I exhale slowly, for the count of eight. I repeat three times as we walk along the corridor to that room.
I wonder who will be there this time. Will it be the same as before or . . .
I’m shoved through the door. My breath becomes shallow. My heart quickens. My mouth is dry and I have trouble swallowing, I feel as if a golf ball is lodged at the back of my throat, cutting off my air supply.
“Sit down Warren,” says a female voice.
I look up to see a slight woman, bird-like in her features, with a halo of grey hair and blue darting eyes. I remember her. I’ve seen her face in my dreams often enough.
“You know we only want to talk to you.” She waves her arm to the right and introduces Mr Spence and Mr Shaw on the other side. “We’ve met many times Warren, I’m Ms Jackson,” she forces a smile which never reaches her beady, blue eyes.
I nod indifferently, knowing that every word I say will make a difference. My words, my tone, my actions – everything will be watched and analysed and debated. My head is pounding. I want to put my hands over my ears and bury my head between my legs and rock until it all stops. But I can’t do that! I take a deep breath; in through my mouth as I count to four, holding it deep inside me, for the count of seven, then I exhale slowly, for the count of eight. I’m about to repeat it for the second time, but I sense the six eyes across the table waiting expectantly for my answer – but I haven’t heard the question!
I cough into my hand then sit up straight, push my back into the chair and look them in the eyes.
“Sorry, just a little cough I’ve picked up,” I say clearly. “Would you mind repeating the question?”
The tension leaves the air.
“I just asked if you needed a glass of water before we begin?” said Ms Jackson.
“Very kind of you,” I say, as I take the half-filled plastic cup from across the table, ensuring that it looks accidental as my fingers brush her hand, like a moth to the flame.
Mr Spence clears his throat, pulling at his shirt collar where an expensive tie encases his scrawny neck. “Warren Davis, we are gathered here today to see if the time you have been incarcerated here at the Tennessee Department of Correction has helped you to see the error of your ways. We wish to see if you can be released into the population to benefit society. This is your chance to prove to us that you are no longer a threat . . .”
I tune out; I’ve already heard this speech so many times before. In my mind, I replace it with my speech. I’ve practiced it so many times in my cell, pacing up and down, making sure I am pitch perfect – as if my life depends on it. It does. I stifle a laugh. Do they honestly think I’m going to say or do anything to keep me here any longer? I can feel my lips moving and clamp them shut. I’ve learned my lesson on that one. I tune back in to the droning voice, looking Mr Spence directly in the eyes while he talks. He’s one of those guys that just loves the sound of his own voice.
At last, my time comes to speak.
Taking a deep breath, I sit up straight and begin.
“I have most certainly learned my lesson.” I pause, looking at the ground, conciliatory. “I was a young man, when I made my mistakes, not mature enough to realise the impact it would have on those around me. I was suffering,” again I pause, this time making eye contact with Ms Jackson, “suffering more than anyone could know. As you are aware, I was born in this prison and spent my first six months here with my mother – until she was stabbed by another prisoner and died days later. With no family, so-to-speak, a litany of foster homes followed – where love was withheld from me, I never learned how to behave in society. But I have learned. I have found God and he has saved me! Then, I thought I could take whatever I wanted, pluck it – like Adam taking the apple. I know now that is wrong.” I allow my eyes to rest on each of them. “But God has forgiven me and I have forgiven me! That was twenty-eight years ago. I am no longer that Warren.”
The silence in the room is palpable. My best speech yet! I feel like punching the air with my fist but I do not. I sit upright and stare straight ahead.
Ms Jackson nods her head to the warden at the door and I brace myself, holding my breath.
She walks into the room, her head held high. So like her sister. I can see a tremor in her neck, the vein bulging, pulsing beneath the collar of her thin, white blouse. Her black suit jacket and trousers sit well on her thin frame. Her black high heeled shoes are as shiny and well-cared for as mine. If only she let her blonde hair grow a little longer, so that it could drape her shoulders. My mind swirls backwards and I can smell green apples as my fingers caress the silken tresses.
“Ms Dean, we know how hard this is for you, please take a seat and read your statement,” says Mr Shaw.
Beth Dean nods and sits down in the empty chair across the room. Exactly as I remember her every day of the trial. She takes a folded page from her large, leather hand-bag. She cannot prevent the slight tremor of her hand as she bends her head and begins to read:
“Warren Davis is a cold-blooded killer who should never be allowed to leave the Tennessee Department of Correction. The rape, torture and death of my twin sister Rachel changed the lives of everyone who loved her. The grief and stress ended our parents’ lives and because of you,” she pauses, looking up, straight into my eyes, with such hatred, that I feel I’ve met a kindred spirit.
The voices in my head get louder. I clench my fists; hold them by my side, scraping the knuckles of my right hand against the hard plastic chair.
I can feel myself rocking back and forth. Stop, I scream inside, just hold it together for a few more minutes. So close. I bite the inside of my cheek, tasting blood.
“Rachel,” I moan.
I close my eyes.
I know it’s over.
At this time of year, why not promote your writing – poem, short story or drama – on the theme of “Home” by submitting it to the literary journal Ropes 2014 while at the same time helping a worthy cause.
I was delighted to receive an email from my (second!) cousin, Niamh Callaghan, who is involved with Ropes 2014, published by the students of the MA in Literature and Publishing at NUIG and now in its 22nd year. She has asked me to help promote it and I would be obliged if you could help me to do the same.
Each year ROPES donates all of its proceeds to a worthy charity. This year they have teamed up with COPE Galway; a charity in Galway that tries to help people with issues such as homelessness and domestic abuse.
So, if you happen to have a piece looking for a home or an idea floating around your head, maybe Ropes 2014 is just the place to submit!
For more information check out Ropes 2014 on Twitter and Facebook for loads of updates and special announcements!
Deadline: 1 January 2014 – upload to Ropes 2014 here.
Written Word: Poetry, Prose or Drama on the theme “Home” up to 2,000 words