A struggling author journeys to a small Irish town to help her writers block.
| There’s that old woman again, sitting in her rocking chair, nursing a browning apple in her pruned fingers. By the time she cuts the next slice it will be decomposed in her hands. She gawks at everything that moves: the children who pass on their lunch breaks, the occasional tourist and the stray dog Jacksie. Her eyes see everything; those brown, near black, eyes of hers can put the fear of God through anyone. She has that type of power; the sheer authority a priest holds during confession or a Garda at the door. Once she halted me coming from the shop. I nearly dropped my bags on the cobbled path. Like a grandmother I never wanted, she nit-picks everything.
Nice geansaí Cheryl, shame it isn’t in your size. Try a bigger one next time, love.
I grind my teeth just looking at her, her eyes are nearly covered by her bushy eyebrows and her skin is close to leather with its experience. I hear her country music drifting through the windows of my bedroom; she’s listening to another pirate radio with Christy Moore’s new song ‘Missing You’ on full blast. She’s stopped a poor child – probably asking where he got those penny sweets from and why not from her brother’s shop down the road? Kitty O’Neill is such an insufferable woman.
I look away. Beside her stoop of a house is Patrick O’Neill’s shop. I will never shop there again: three pounds for four eggs. Easily known he is her brother. He has the same face, just less hair and a constant habit of sucking his teeth. His attitude is a mirror of hers, the same sarcastic comments and nosey persona. He has more interest in his customers’ business than his own; he will listen to a penny drop if it gives him a story to tell. They say there’s a hobble sack which sits guarded behind his desk and that’s where the majority of his secrets hide: little remarks he’s overheard and jotted down from 1975. They are trapped with new additions for his personal amusement.
Deirdre O’Neill, his aging wife, comes out of the shop wearing an outfit fit for a woman half her age. Her unnatural blonde hair is freshly permed and remains solid against the brisk coastal gales. She has a new style each week.
Just something my rich cousin brought me from Dublin. So she says. Yet, when I think of my cousin I don’t blush like she does; unless, she is from the back of beyond, where anything goes. Be it a new pair of earrings or shoes, Deirdre has it. She claims it makes her cosmopolitan. Sure, everyone knows she was brought up in a village a mile away.
She places the newest newspaper headline and stares at it with one hand beneath her chin. I know what she’s going to do next, so predictable; she’ll fumble in her pocket and light up a half-smoked cigarette. Her arm reaches in and retrieves exactly that. I smile to myself. I’m too good. She cups the cigarette with one hand, protecting it from the autumn wind until it lights. She takes a drag while she looks from one side of the street to the other. A young man comes out of the payphone, slamming the door. He removes his hat and rustles his hair before pulling a cigar from his jacket. He turns and I see his face: pale, scrawny and shaped by a beard. He pulls at the strings on his chin as he looks around. He sees Deirdre and approaches the shop. She yanks her cigarette from her mouth, puffing smoke from her nostrils as she wipes imaginary dirt from her blouse. He says something to her but the wind catches it. I shove open the window a little further. She laughs and pushes the man away playfully; he places the cigar between his teeth and slaps her on her arse. I gasp and look away. I shouldn’t watch this.
I see James walking up the street – he must be finished at the pub early. He’s holding a brown bag, cradling it like a baby. His blond hair falls from his peaky cap, hiding his wrinkles on his forehead. He looks up at the window. I duck behind the curtains. Feck. I quickly assume my position, well-rehearsed now, and sit behind the desk. The paint is faded and chipped at the corners. My hands hover over the keys of the typewriter but never any further. Come on Cheryl, if you can cook ham in less than an hour you can jot down a few lines. I poke the keys and feel the grit of dust on my fingertips.
“Her heart dances wappidly.’” I try my new work, pulling the paper from the typewriter and crumpling it. “Jesus. How can a heart dance?” I toss the paper into the bin with its predecessors.
I peak over my shoulder to the window. Just one more look won’t hurt. I creep towards it and peer out, one eye shut.
A door downstairs slams; James is home. I keep silent. I don’t want to remove myself just yet.
“Cheryl? Are you up there?”
I watch the couple enter the shop by the side door. Don’t tell me she’s cheating. Then again it couldn’t happen to a nicer man. Three pounds for eggs, seriously?
“Yeah I’ll be right there, just finishing up,” I say, narrowing my eyes so they might zoom in through the O’Neill’s living room window.
“The novel can wait, ‘mon down.” I hear him rattling plates in the kitchen. The smell of greasy chips wafts into the room.
I feel hungry now. I skipped breakfast. I drag myself from the window and descend to the kitchen where James sits. He’s already taking a bite out of a burger. I lick my lips, now ravenous.
“Sorry,” I say, pulling out a chair and helping myself to one of his chips. “I was finishing off another chapter.”
“How long until you’ll be finished?”
I look at him. “Why? I’ve only started eating.”
“Not the food. Your novel. Cheryl, it’s a dead-end town, nothing happens.” James says.
“Not true, today I saw Deirdre and some good looking lad together. I wrote ten new pages from it.”
He shrugs. “When will I be able to read it?”
My face warms. “Soon. It’s not perfect yet,” I laugh and slap his hand on the table. “You know me. I was always a bitteen of a perfectionist.”
“I think spying on the neighbours is what’s slowing you down.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t pretend Cheryl. I saw you today, peeping from your window again.”
“I was just taking a break.”
He leans closer on the table. “You can’t take a break from doing nothing.”
“How was your day?” I say, trying to change the subject. I look at the scratches on the fold-out table from the tenants before us. “Any good stories from the pub?” I wink at him. “For my novel.”
“You have some nose on ya,” He says, relaxing. “It was grand, you know the usual. Patrick O’Neill is gone to Cork for the weekend. The Taoiseach is opening a bridge there. Of course he has his head stuck in it.”
“That man would be at the opening of an envelope never mind a bridge.” I say, finishing.
I look at the clock; it’s been a half hour. I gulp down the rest of my chips. “Well, I must get back to it.”
“While I’m in the swing of it,” I say, pushing back my chair.
He leans back in his seat as I pass. “Alright, can’t wait to read it. You better make me handsome.” He winks.
I lean down and kiss him. “You’ll see when I’m finished.” I say, laughing before returning to my room.
Looking outside my window once more, I rub my forehead, feeling nauseous. The street outside is dead, just as James said. The mounds of paper are piling up on my desk, more and more left blank. When did I stop? In my peripherals I see something black moving across the street. It’s the young man from earlier. He opens the back door, lugging a heavy black bag with him. What’s in the bag? Deirdre? I close the window, wincing at the bang it creates. He looks around the quiet village searching for the sound. He spots me. He nods and smiles.
Jesus. I duck down and close the curtains in one swift movement. He’s going to kill me; he knows I know. This is what I get for snooping. I want to cry but remember the doors aren’t locked. I pull myself off the floor and run downstairs.
I deadbolt the front door and rush to the kitchen. “He knows. He knows,” I chant.
“What are you doing?” James says.
I don’t answer him. I try to lock the door. I drop the key.
“Cheryl. What’s going on?”
I jump, not expecting him behind me. “He saw me.”
“Who saw you? What’s wrong?”
I turn to him, trembling. “Deirdre is dead, that man… he killed her. He saw me – he saw me upstairs. Now, he knows. He’ll kill us both, James.”
He pulls me towards him. I welcome the hug. “Stop this now. Tis’ alright.” His voice soothes me. “There is no man and Deirdre is grand. You’re just jumping to conclusions again.”
Then I hear it. Three slow, resonant knocks on the front door.