The story so far: Failed author Declan Burke (right), embittered but passably handsome, wakes up one morning to find a stranger in his back garden. The stranger introduces himself as Karlsson, a hospital porter who assists old people who want to die and the hero of a first draft of a novel Burke wrote some five years previously. Now calling himself Billy, he suggests a redraft of the story that includes blowing up the hospital where he works. Intrigued, Burke agrees to a collaboration, but things do not go swimmingly, particularly when it comes to the ‘love letters’ Karlsson has written to his girlfriend, Cassie, in the form of extracts from a novel. Section 1 comes here; Section 2 here. Now read on …
A GONZO NOIR / Declan Burke
Sermo Vulgus: A Novel (Excerpt)
As a young man in Vienna, Hitler failed to woo a Jew.
A bullet tore his sleeve as he charged across No Man’s Land.
Cassie, six inches could have saved the Six Million.
Cassie, they say Hitler once enjoyed the company of Jews.
How then can they speak so blithely of fate, destiny and procreative sex? Damn the future, Cassie; dam it up. Give me handjobs, blowjobs and anal sex. Offer me your armpits, you wanton fuckers. Let us lacerate the sides of virgins with gaping wounds and fuck so hard we shake God from His heaven. Let us feast on snot, blood, pus and sperm; only save your tears for vinegar, to serve to martyrs who thirst.
‘That’s a love letter?’ Billy says.
‘It’s a Karlsson love letter.’
‘Doesn’t know much about women, does he?’
Aileen opens the patio door and pokes her head out. ‘Hey, Hemingway,’ she calls, ‘your daughter’s got a poopy nappy. Chop-chop.’
‘Gotta go,’ I say. ‘So what do you want to do with it?’
‘I don’t like it as a love letter,’ he says.
‘I can kill it if you want.’
‘See if you can’t work it in somewhere else,’ he says. ‘Somewhere it doesn’t have anything to do with Cassie.’
‘Will do. See you tomorrow.’
‘Oh, right. Monday so.’
‘Cool,’ he says. ‘I could do with a sleep-in tomorrow anyway. All these early mornings are killing me.’
‘Try having a kid,’ I say. ‘You’ll know all about early mornings then.’
‘That’d be up to you, really,’ he says, ‘wouldn’t it?’
‘You want Cassie to get pregnant?’
‘I think it might be good for us.’
‘She’s on the pill, though, isn’t she?’
‘She is now. Maybe you could swap her pills for folic acid or something.’
‘Without letting her know?’
‘Sometimes you have to do the wrong thing for the right reason,’ he says. ‘Isn’t that what most stories are about anyway?’
Buddhist monks have this thing going on where they construct amazingly complex mosaics comprised of thousands of precisely delineated sections of coloured dust. It can take years. When they’re finished they sweep the whole thing into a corner and start again.
I appreciate this perversity while I vacuum the long carpets in the hospital corridors. By the time you reach the far end of the carpet people have trampled all over the point from whence you came. Ashes unto ashes, dust unto dust. The priests say this so as not to scare the horses. It would be more correct to say ashes from ashes, dust from dust.
It would be even more correct to saying nothing at all and let people decide for themselves. People bring mud into the hospital on their shoes. They carry in dust, dog-shit, germs, saliva, acid rain, carbon monoxide and blackened chewing gum. But they’re not allowed to smoke in the overflow car park.
I ask about the possibility of wearing a facemask while I’m vacuuming so I won’t have to inhale the second-hand pestilence of human perambulation. Because I am a porter this is regarded as facetious insubordination. Surgeons wear facemasks. This is for the patient’s benefit, as opposed to that of any surgeon concerned about the invisible dangers wafting up out of a freshly sliced human being.
A man is standing in the middle of the carpet so I have to vacuum around him. His shoulders are slack. There’s a looseness to his stance that suggests his elastic has stretched a little too far this time.
‘Excuse me,’ I say. ‘Could I ask you to move to one side, please?’
But he turns to face me. His eyes are huge, round and too dry. He says, hoarsely, ‘My daughter just died.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I say. This would be hypocritical if it weren’t true but I find his words offensive. I wonder why people always seem to think their pain is interesting. I wonder why people only share their pain these days. If the guy was standing in the middle of the carpet munching on a bag of toffees it would never occur to him to offer a toffee to the guy vacuuming the carpet.
‘She was eight years old,’ he says.
‘Think of her as a mosaic,’ I say. ‘Think of your daughter as an amazingly complex mosaic that had become as beautiful as it was possible to be. Imagine that she’s been swept to one side so that she can begin to be formed into another beautiful mosaic. Maybe it’s already started. Go upstairs to the maternity ward, you might even see her smile, that twinkle in her eye. Get there while her new mother is still fretting about how long it should take the maternal bond to kick in and maybe you’ll get lucky. But she might be a boy this time, so think outside the box. And can I ask you to step to one side, please? I’ve had an official warning.’
He stares at me uncomprehending. Then the huge round eyes begin to water. Tears roll down his pudgy cheeks. He shudders, gasps, and then he seems to fold in half. He bawls.
‘Nothing lasts forever,’ I say. ‘These days even agony has a sell-by date.’
But he’s not listening.
Billy scratches his stubble. ‘Good, yeah. But isn’t there any Cassie stuff coming up soon? People like a bit of romance once in a while.’
‘Funny you should mention that.’
Cassie rings and asks me to rent a DVD on the way home. We snuggle up on the couch, sip wine, smoke a joint, watch the movie.
‘You know what’s really scary?’ Cassie says. ‘That a shark could take stuff personally.’
‘Apart from a wayward meteor,’ I agree, ‘being stalked by a shark is the worst of all possible news.’
‘Like, really hating you.’
‘See, that’s where Jaws falls down. Sharks are older than hate.’
She frowns. I say, ‘Hate is unique to mankind, which has been knocking about for roughly a million years. The shark’s been around for four hundred million years.’
Cassie is stoned and thus intrigued. ‘No shit,’ she says.
‘Seriously. And it’s hardly changed in all that time.’
Cassie digests this. ‘How do they know?’
‘There’s actual buildings?’ She’s kidding me on. ‘Like shark museums?’
‘The fossil record. Like, the history of the world is a gallery in stone. From the fossil record to the Parthenon’s columns, the perfect maths of the pyramids to the geometry at Cuzco, the molten rock that bubbled up into Etna, the cuneiform etched in the base of pillars – if you want to be remembered, Cass, work with stone. Moses didn’t come down off Sinai with commandments daubed on papyrus.’
‘Think of all the great civilisations. They’re cast in stone, their prejudice and their buildings. The Coliseum. The Sphinx. Newgrange. The Acropolis. Angkor Wat. Macchu Picchu. Knossos. Stone upon stone upon stone.’ I say, ‘People think we’ll be remembered for our skyscrapers but really it’ll be for our hospitals.’
‘That’s amazing,’ Cassie says, rolling her eyes as she gets up. ‘I’m making a de-caff. Want one?’
‘It’s only a matter of time before sharks learn to build bridges,’ I say. But she’s not listening.
‘Better,’ he says. ‘Although it’s not exactly Mills and Boon, is it?’
‘Maybe you should write the Cassie stuff,’ I say.
‘Really? You wouldn’t mind?’
‘Not in the slightest. Go for it.’
‘Listen,’ he says, encouraged by my olive branch, ‘I’ve been thinking about the hospital.’
‘What about it?’
‘Things have got a lot worse since you wrote the first draft. Superbugs, the two-tier health system, all this … They’re misdiagnosing cancer now, you know that?’
‘I heard, yeah.’
‘Maybe you should come down there, spend a day with me. Just stroll around soaking it up.’
‘I don’t want to invade your space, man.’
‘Not a problem. We’ll just put you in a corner so you can observe.’
‘I think you’d find it really useful.’
‘Sound so. Tomorrow morning?’
‘I start at ten,’ he says. ‘Get there about nine-thirty, the porters generally have a quick toke before they get into it.’
I stroll past the nurses’ station on the third floor carrying a mop and bucket. The trick is to hide a full dustpan the night before and empty the sweepings into a bucket of water first thing the next day. This is good for an entire morning’s aimless wandering.
The ward sister calls to me from the station, beckons me across. I put the bucket down with a workmanlike clank and walk over.
‘Mr Karlsson,’ she says, ‘would you mind tucking in your shirt?’
She’s an attractive woman for forty-plus, still working the hair, the eyebrows.
‘Mopping’s hot work,’ I say, wiping my dry brow with the back of my hand. ‘This place is like a sauna.’
‘I appreciate that,’ she says, ‘but we have to have standards.’
What she means is, we’re flying on elastic bands and bent paper clips, so don’t give anyone a reason to think about what’s really going on. The rabbit hole lurks in the gap between a belt and an untucked shirt. A straight line exists between a flapping shirt-tail and a class action suit for negligence. An untucked shirt is a hook for the weight of public opinion and crumbling facades can least afford a slovenly dress code.
I reach around to tuck the shirt tidy. Her eyes flare. She glances up and down the corridor. ‘Not here,’ she hisses. ‘Can’t you go to the bathroom to do it?’
I walk away. She calls me back and points. ‘The bucket, Karlsson.’
This sluices five whole minutes off the map.
I slouch down the hall to the men’s room, lock the cubicle door, open the window and smoke half a jay. Then I go on the nod. A pounding on the cubicle door awakens me. It’s my supervisor. He sniffs the air suspiciously.
‘You were supposed to be up on the fifth floor twenty minutes ago,’ he says. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Orders,’ I say. ‘The ward sister told me to fix my shirt.’
His eyes narrow. ‘Okay,’ he says. ‘But get up to the fifth floor. You’re late already.’
No one uses the stairs anymore. People will wait five minutes to take a ten-second elevator ride. So I climb the stairs, untuck my shirt and push through the double doors onto the fifth floor. The ward sister calls me over to the nurses’ station. I put my bucket down with a workmanlike clank and wipe my dry brow with the back of my hand.
‘What can I help you with today?’ I say.
‘Well?’ he says?
We’re in the stairwell between the fourth and fifth floors.
‘I don’t remember you being this polite to people in the first draft,’ I say.
‘Softly-softly catchee monkey,’ he says, tapping the side of his nose. A door opens above us. ‘We shouldn’t be seen together,’ he whispers, picking up his bucket. ‘Meet me in the car park at five, I’ll give you a lift home.’
Karlsson rode a motorcycle. Billy rides a moped. He reckons it’s easier on gas, more environmentally friendly.
‘Don’t I need a helmet?’ I say, climbing on behind him.
‘Not until we crash.’ He revs up and we take off but there’s a bottleneck at the parking lot exit, a minor fender-bender damming the flow. There’s a cop trying to direct traffic. My first thought is for my lack of helmet but the cop has better things to do.
Still, I slip off the moped and stand beside Billy. He could easily wheel the moped past the stalled traffic out onto the road beyond the scene of the accident but neither one of us suggests it.
‘The incidence of accidents outside hospitals is five times that of any other public building,’ he says. ‘Anyone who works in a hospital knows to take it slow coming to work.
‘Take that guy, the one whose daughter just died. He’s a hazard. Reflexes dull, his peripheral vision full of tiny cherubic faces. All he can think is how he wishes it was him laid out. Except in the back of his mind he’s agonising about how he has to ring his mother-in-law and confess that he never imagined his life could be such a colossal failure.
‘This guy,’ he says, ‘he pulls up to the junction here. He edges out, maybe indicating, maybe not, and for a split-second his hand-eye coordination locks into a memory of pushing a swing. He hears the squeals of a child. Squeals of delight segue into a screech of brakes.
‘Someone loses a leg. A son loses an eye. A mother gets paralysed from the waist down. A father dies, maybe even the father who was on his way back in to comfort the mother fretting over the unnatural lack of a maternal bond with her new-born daughter.
‘Such things,’ Billy says, ‘are spoken of in hushed tones and called tragedies, which is shorthand for entirely avoidable consequences of human fallibility. Such things prompt people to wonder if God really exists.’
He shrugs. ‘Every cloud has its silver lining.’
‘The priests,’ he says, ‘claim that such things are sent to test us. If true, this is a cruelty so pure it verges on the harsh beauty of an Arctic sunset.
‘Could any god really be so insecure?’ “Hey folks, your kid is dead – do you still love me?”
‘A question like that,’ he says, ‘should cause its asker to spontaneously combust in a shame-fuelled fireball.’ He shakes his head. ‘Except priests deal in shame. They’re emotional pornographers. Priests are elbow-deep in the pus-filled boil of your fear, groping for the maggots they placed there before your birth.
‘The concept of Original Sin,’ he says, ‘is evil so pure it verges on genius.’
‘Even paedophiles,’ he says, ‘wait until the child has left the womb.’
This morning Cassie is hungover and grouchy. She says she wants us to move on to the next level. I interpret this as laziness. She wants something new but she isn’t prepared to go out and find it. The next best thing is to reinvent yours truly, I, Karlsson.
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘But what does that involve? Should I get rid of the motorcycle and buy a car?’
She shakes her head. She sits on the couch cross-legged, eating Rice Krispies and watching TV.
‘I deserve self-actualisation,’ she says. She says this with a single Rice Krispie stuck to her cheek. It bobs up and down as she speaks. ‘Where are we going, K? I mean, where are we really going?’
Cassie labours under the delusion that all journeys have destinations. This may or may not be a vestigial memory of our evolutionary forebears, nomads to whom the whole world was home. Today, locked into the concept of home as blocks of concrete and glass, we have become emotional nomads. Hence prostitution and soap operas. Hence the next level. Hence the non-specific but irrepressible desire for change. Motion mutates into emotion.
This is not necessarily a good thing. History is littered with evolutionary cul-de-sacs. An emotionally aware species will lack the ruthlessness necessary to dispense with its old, sick and incapable. It will undermine itself in its efforts to protect those who cannot protect themselves. An emotionally aware species will expend valuable energy keeping the devil away from the hindmost.
Every civilisation is undone by its own logic. To wit: 9/11.
Empathy is a carcinogen. Hospitals are interpretive centres along the highway to extinction. I, Karlsson, hospital porter, am a parasite on the underbelly of a carcinogen.
Cassie watches soap opera repeats while eating breakfast. I watch the Rice Krispie bob up and down on her cheek as she chews and try to think of one person who performs an indispensable function on behalf of the social organism to which we belong. I cannot think of a single person. This means everyone I know is less useful than the average sweat pore. This is not a pleasant thought at six-thirty in the morning.
Neither is the prospect of change.
‘Cassie,’ I say, ‘the Great White shark is so perfectly adapted to its environment that it doesn’t need to change. If we could communicate the concept of hospitals to the Great White, it would laugh, grow legs and invade.’
Cassie holds the cereal bowl in both hands, tilts back her head and drains the milk. This does not disturb the Rice Krispie stuck to her cheek.
‘This is the kind of crap I’m talking about,’ she says. ‘Jesus, K – I need more from life than sharks growing legs. And tuck your fucking shirt in for once, you look like something from the Little Rascals.’
She flounces out to the kitchen. I don’t mention the Rice Krispie. She will find it herself when she checks the mirror on the way out to work, and she will remove it then. This is as close to self-actualisation as Cassie will ever come.
My line for today is, Our feminine friends have this in common with Bonaparte, that they think they can succeed where everyone else has failed (Albert Camus / The Fall).
‘More sharks,’ Billy says. ‘And the Rice Krispie thing – I wouldn’t have not mentioned that to her. What if she hadn’t checked the mirror on the way out?’
‘Even nuns check the mirror on the way out, Billy.’
‘Fair go,’ he says. ‘But listen – the girl’s restless. Why wouldn’t I ask her, y’know, how’d she feel about having a baby?’
‘You want to?’
‘I think the time is right. It’s just a feeling, but …’
‘Leave it with me.’
Tommo says, ‘Kill your babies.’
To be precise, he croaks this through a lungful of exhaled smoke. Tommo is into the late afternoon leg of a wake-‘n’-bake, horizontal on the couch with the TV muted and the stereo low, the drapes pulled.
I advance into the apartment until I enter his field of vision. He smiles sloppily. ‘Hey, K. How’s she hanging?’
He offers a hit. I decline. ‘Word to the wise, Tommo,’ I say. ‘Frankie was looking for you all morning.’
‘Kill your Frankies.’
‘No, really. He was seriously pissed. He had to watch the monitors himself. There was no relief cover, Austin rang in sick too. Frankie was up and down the stairs all day.’
‘I’m just letting you know, he was seriously pissed.’
Tommo frowns. He struggles into a half-sitting position. ‘K,’ he says, ‘who the fuck let you in?’
‘Austin.’ I jerk a thumb at Austin, who is sitting in the armchair nearest the TV sucking on a bong. Austin gives us a thumbs-up, then exhales and subsides into the armchair, bong-tube a-dangle.
‘Yeah, well,’ Tommo says, ‘now you’re here, shut the fuck up about Frankie. Take a hit or take a hike. But go easy,’ he says, handing me a smouldering joint, ‘it’s pure Thai. You might want to ring in sick for tomorrow before you start. Trust me, it’ll be too much hassle after the first draw.’
Tommo sounds far too lucid for this to be true but the grass, though smooth going down, causes my brain to pulse like a mushroom cloud. The effect is one of immediate bliss swiftly followed by a stomach-jabbing flash of paranoia. Then a wonderfully mellow sense of complete sensory disorientation.
Acute dehydration ensues. I go to the kitchen for water. I come back from the kitchen thirsty, having somehow failed to locate either sink or fridge. Austin appears to be comatose in the armchair. Tommo says something about how every language ever invented has been a failed attempt to discover a means of expression by which mankind might communicate the full extent of its ignorance. He says ‘kill your babies’ is a metaphor for eradicating metaphors. He says it’s an irony, rather than a tragedy, that most people experience their lives as metaphors for how they would have preferred their lives to be. He says the real tragedy is that most people already know this.
Tommo says lots of things but I’m not really listening. Irony isn’t half as clever when you’re thirsty.
People, you can carve this one in stone: you will seek in vain for irony in the vicinity of a cacti patch.
‘Well?’ I say.
‘Yeah, whatever,’ he says. ‘If you think we still need those losers, then okay.’
I put the m/s down. ‘What’s wrong?’ I say.
‘So there’s no reason at all you’ve been grouchy all morning.’
He takes a cigarette and lights up. ‘It’s Cass,’ he says finally.
‘What about her?’
‘I brought it up last night, about having a baby.’
‘She’s not into it?’
‘For one, I’m a hospital porter. She says it’s not the job, it’s the salary, but I don’t know.’
‘You want a promotion?’
‘It’s not just that. She says she’s not having any babies until she gets married. And she says she’s in no hurry, she’s only 26.’
‘Women are having babies later these days, Billy. That’s natural.’
‘She’s 31, man. She thinks she’s 26, but she was 26 back when you wrote the first draft. And if she waits another five years, she could be getting into all sorts of complications.’
‘Why don’t I just make her 31?’ I say. ‘Get her clock ticking?’
‘And wipe five years off her life?’ He shakes his head. ‘What you could do,’ he says, ‘is swap her pill for folic acid, like I said.’
‘I told you, I’m not doing that.’
‘It’s immoral. I wouldn’t do it to Aileen, I’m not doing it to Cassie.’
‘Hey, you look out for Aileen, I’ll look out for Cassie.’
‘And getting her pregnant on the sly – that’s looking out for her?’
‘I’m trying to get a life going here, man. The means justify, y’know.’
‘Who’m I talking to here?’ I say. ‘Billy or Karlsson?’
‘That’s fucking low,’ he says, stubbing out the smoke on the wooden table. ‘That’s bang out of order.’
‘You tell Cassie about this conversation,’ I say, ‘and then ask her who she thinks is out of order.’
He leans in, taking off his tinted shades. I try to ignore the gaping eye socket.
‘I only want what’s best for her,’ he says.
‘She’s told you what’s best for her.’
‘Except she doesn’t have all the information,’ he says.
‘So why don’t you tell her?’
‘What – that she’s not real?’
‘You seem to be coping okay.’
That one hits him where he lives. He stiffens slightly, then slumps back in the chair. ‘You know what it is?’ he says, a slight sneer brewing. ‘I’m real enough, alright. I’m real enough to you. But you don’t have the imagination to believe in Cassie.’
‘Maybe that’s your job,’ I say. ‘I mean, you’re the one who wanted to write the Cassie parts, right? How’s that working out for you?’
He savours that like it’s fresh-cut lemon. ‘Smug bastard,’ he says, ‘aren’t you?’
‘I thought we were cutting out the swearing.’
‘If you’re not good enough to do this,’ he says, ‘just say so and stop wasting my time.’
‘I’m no Lawrence Durrell,’ I say, ‘but I’m good enough to write you.’
He nods, then stands up. ‘Maybe I’ll go home and write a story about you,’ he says, ‘fuck around with your life. How’d ya like them apples?’
‘I’ll rent a tux,’ I say. ‘The Booker night is always black tie, isn’t it?’
No Billy this morning. A pity, with the garden coming into bloom now, bees humming, the early morning sun lying across the lawn in fat yellow diagonal stripes.
No Billy for three days running now. Maybe he isn’t coming back. Maybe he’s holed up in some garret, feverishly rewriting my life, consulting the story of Moses and Pharaoh for inspiration.
Is this how God felt when Einstein started doodling in the patents office? No wonder He struck Hawking down.
In brief, the story of Prometheus is this: he stole fire from the gods, gave it to mankind and was eternally tortured for his troubles. Thus he was the first great martyr to intercede with the gods on man’s behalf.
This simplistic version of events allows us to bask in the smug vanity that has plagued the latter part of our miserable history. That a Titan should defy the gods on our behalf is in itself proof of our exalted status in the universe, or least that part of the universe administered by Titans and gods, although we ignore the inconvenient fact that man was merely a pawn in a deadly game being played by Prometheus and Zeus, and that the gift of fire was simply a spiteful aftershock in the wake of a cosmic civil war.
A question or two: now that we no longer worship the Greek gods of Olympus, is Prometheus still being tortured? Does the greedy vulture still tear at his liver all day, every day? Does he still freeze every night, chained to the rock, as his liver grows back? Or has his version of eternity come to an end simply because we have forgotten his sacrifice? Has his version of eternity slipped out of our version into another, like a stream draining underground?
Incidentally, we should probably note in passing that Prometheus was not staked out in sand or subjected to repeated drownings, nor nailed to a tree. He was chained to stone.
We should also note that, previous to the gift of fire, Prometheus had bestowed on mankind architecture, astronomy, mathematics, navigation, medicine and metallurgy. The smug narcissists who believe that we are the Chosen Ones by virtue of our innate intelligence should bear in mind that we couldn’t even devise a hot spark or two from that little lot.
Finally, Zeus had his revenge on mankind by dispatching the beautiful Pandora to earth with a jar containing the Spites that might plague mankind: Old Age, Labour, Sickness, Insanity, Vice and Passion. She opened the jar, as we know only too well, freeing the Spites to roam the land, shutting it again just before Hope escaped.
Thus, or so the story runs, despite everything, even the malevolent intentions of the gods in general and Zeus in particular, man will always have Hope to sustain him. Which would be fine, except that Hope was one of the Spites and her full name was, and remains, Delusive Hope.
We may no longer believe in Zeus. But Zeus believes in us.
I’m having a quick coffee out in the smoking area of the IFI with my brother, Gavin, our usual post-mortem after the movie screening, when Aileen rings. She sounds as if she’s hyper-ventilating.
‘Take a deep breath,’ I say. ‘Slow down.’
‘She was in the shed,’ she wails.
‘I had her down on her play-mat doing her stretching exercises when mum rang. But the monitor was there, right there, so I should have heard her moving. But when I went back she was gone. Ohmigod, she was gone.’
‘But you found her in the shed,’ I say, the phone trapped between ear and shoulder as I pull my jacket on. ‘She’s okay now. Right?’
The garden shed is, as most garden sheds tend to be, chock-a-block with sharp blades, poisons and sundry materials unsuitable for consumption by infants.
‘She could’ve crawled into the pond, Dec! I asked you to get it covered, didn’t I?’
‘Hon? It’s okay. I’m on my way home. I’ll be there in an hour.’
It’s a very long hour. Lily is a precocious little girl but even she shouldn’t be able to crawl at 12 weeks, and certainly not all the way out to the garden shed.
The shed, incidentally, is never locked. But the bolt is almost always drawn.
It’s late evening, two Ponstan and half a bottle of red before Aileen finally calms down. I give her a backrub and take all the blame while plotting an assassination.
‘I thought only Nazis burned books,’ he says, slouching up the gravel path.
I squirt some more lighter fluid on the m/s.
‘Just so you know,’ I say, ‘I never liked Karlsson from the start. That’s why I invented you, so I could stomach a redraft. But I think I like you even less.’
‘Boo-hoo,’ he says, sitting down.
‘He was only ever an avatar,’ I say, ‘so I could purge all that nasty shit I didn’t like about myself. You haven’t realised yet?’
‘That I started that story when I met Aileen. I mean, I knew almost immediately she was the one, that if I got my act together we could go the distance. And something somewhere in the back of my head knew that I had to straighten up and fly right, get rid of all the poison, so I wouldn’t infect her or any kids we might have.’
‘That’s noble,’ he snickers.
I flick the Zippo to life, hold it over the m/s. ‘Any last words?’
‘The genie’s out of the bottle, man. I’m out there. I’m a fucking virus, airborne.’
‘Nice try. But viruses don’t travel that way.’
‘Whatever. Burn that,’ he nods at the m/s, ‘and you’re just burning a chrysalis.’
‘You’re a butterfly, you’re a virus … Make up your mind.’
‘Try this,’ he says. He takes one of my cigarettes, then relieves me of the Zippo and sparks it up. When he exhales he lays the lit Zippo on the m/s. A bluey-yellow flame ignites, fanned by the mild breeze.
We watch the m/s burn. ‘Oh, what a world, what a world,’ he croons.
© Declan Burke, 2008
“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.