The story so far: Failed author Declan Burke (right), embittered but still 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; when things don’t go entirely Billy’s way, Burke’s three-month-old daughter, Lily, goes missing and is discovered in the garden shed. Outraged, Burke takes drastic steps to eliminate Billy …
Section 1 comes here; Section 2 here; Section 3 here. Now read on …
A GONZO NOIR / Declan Burke
‘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.
I only have to tell my supervisor once that I know where he parks his car. He immediately finds a new parking space. This displays tactical awareness. This suggests that he has, in fact, been listening. I am pleasantly surprised.
It takes a full twenty minutes to locate his new parking space. It is in the middle of one of the smaller car parks on the eastern side of the hospital, which is bounded on three sides by manicured shrubs. The Ox Mountains a round-shouldered skulking in the distance.
He chooses this location because his office window, three floors up, offers panoramic views of the entire car park. This suggests that he is a thinker. This suggests cunning. This suggests that he is the kind of strategist who presumes his foe also clocks off for lunch.
I loiter at the end of the corridor until he emerges from his office, locks the door and saunters towards the elevators. I take the stairs to the basement floor. He is sitting at the far end of the canteen, eating in the company of two other supervisors.
I make my way out to the car park on the east side and smoke a banned cigarette, cupping it in my hand and exhaling on the frosty air. When the cigarette is finished I thread my way through the lines of parked cars to his Opel Corsa. I drop the butt at the driver’s door and grind it flat.
Blood roars in my ears. Tomorrow I invade Poland, etc.
‘I know you probably won’t be interested in this,’ Cassie says, ‘but …’
We are in Zanzibar, a coffee bar on Old Market Street, seated at a counter beside the plate-glass window looking out at the pigeon-soiled statue of Lady Erin. While Cassie tells me what it is she thinks I won’t be interested in I ponder on how women start out trying to fuck their fathers and wind up fending off their prepubescent sons.
I wonder if the waitress, who is Polish, might inadvertently yelp something containing guttural vowels at her moment of climax.
I despair at how a woman’s sexual peak arrives just as her visible feminine attributes begin to sag, expand, wrinkle and dissipate.
I sympathise with Diana, peering down from Olympus, horrified as Herostratus burns her temple to the ground in order that posterity might afford him a footnote.
I think about how those women who are enlightened enough to realise that men probably won’t be interested in what they have to say have mined a nugget akin to a glass diamond.
‘What do you think?’ Cassie says.
‘You weren’t listening, were you?’
‘Not to you, no.’
Cassie blinks, then cocks an ear to the stereo. ‘Diana Ross?’
‘Diana. The goddess who had her temple burned down by a man who wanted to be remembered.’
‘What has that to do with anything?’
‘Isn’t that why we’re here? Why we’re together? So I can eventually destroy your temple and be remembered?’
‘What’re you talking about, temples?’
‘The body is a temple, Cass. A child’s passage through the vaginal canal is an act of destruction. Hips crack, abdominal plates split. There is sundry ripping and tearing. All so my name can percolate down through the generations.’
I use the word ‘percolate’ because we are in a coffee shop. Cassie stares at me for a long time, then turns away to gaze out at Lady Erin. She spoons the cream in her cappuccino and says, ‘K, how come you have to make everything more difficult than it really is?’
‘Nothing’s more difficult than it really is, Cass. The myth that something can be easier than it really is was devised by Hoover salesmen.’
‘You know your problem? You don’t have the imagination to see how things can be better.’
‘And your problem is you think I only have one problem.’
My line for today comes courtesy of Dame Iris Murdoch: You can live or tell; not both at once.
‘If you’re aiming for reverse psychology on the whole Cassie getting pregnant thing,’ I say, ‘you’re laying it on a bit thick.’
‘What’s the best way to get a woman’s attention?’ he says, laying his sheet of paper down.
‘Pretend you don’t care.’
‘Treat ’em mean,’ he says, ‘keep ’em keen.’ He nods at my sheet of paper. ‘So what’ve you got?’
‘You meet the old guy for the first time.’
‘Yeah, I liked him,’ he says.
‘Being old is like being hungover all day, every day,’ the old man says. His voice crackles like an old 78. ‘The worst hangover you’ve ever had. So bad you wanted to do nothing but cry but you were afraid the weeping would split your skull. Imagine that all day, every day,’ he says.
This man is 79 years old. In theory he should be dead. In Ireland, statistically speaking, men die at 72 and women at 75. This is nature’s way of affording women the opportunity of covering every possible conversational gambit relating to the latest manifestation of male betrayal.
‘People can’t understand how someone might want to die,’ the old man says. He has recently had his leg amputated at the knee, lest the gangrene that began with an infected ingrown toenail spreads to the rest of his body, like bush-fire reaching kindling. ‘They don’t understand that everything winds down,’ he says. ‘They don’t want to face the fact that all mechanisms wear out. The will to live is an invisible engine, with its own pumps and valves.’
He chooses a peach-flavoured yoghurt and a bar of plain Dairy Milk chocolate from the trolley. ‘You know you’re old when you can’t eat the Fruit ‘n’ Nut anymore,’ he says.
‘The nurse tells me you were a mechanic,’ I say.
His hands shake so violently that his fingers gain no purchase on the chocolate’s silver foil. I take the bar, peel back some of the wrapper, hand it over. He’s nodding his head. ‘That’s right,’ he says, ‘for near on forty years.’ He begins sucking on a corner of the Dairy Milk. ‘Cars today, who’d be arsed fixing them up?’ His chest rumbles when he emphasises a word. ‘When I was a lad I made soapbox carts that were built better than cars today.’
I note that he has to buy his own chocolate and yoghurt from my concession cart and that his pyjama collar is grimy. These things tell me that visitors come rarely, if at all. His hair is lush, white as the pillowcase on which it flares. His face is deeply lined, but softly, so he resembles a post-coital Beckett. The eyes are rheumy, red-limned.
‘Something I’ve always wanted to ask a mechanic,’ I say.
The faded blue eyes sparkle. ‘Is that a fact?’ He pats his leg. ‘Fire away, son, I’m going nowhere.’
‘See in the movies, when someone cuts a brake cable halfway through, so the car only crashes later. Does that really work?’
The bushy eyebrows flicker, then mesh. ‘Is there someone you don’t like, son?’
I laugh quietly, so as not to disturb the other patients. ‘Not at all,’ I say. ‘I’m a writer, I’m working on a short story where a car crashes. I just want to know if that brake cable thing works. I don’t want any mechanics reading the story and not taking it seriously.’
He doesn’t believe me. But his eyes sparkle. He’s looking at one last opportunity for mischief with no possible repercussions. ‘Tell me the story,’ he says, ‘and I’ll let you know if it sounds wrong.’
I sketch the outline of a story involving a fatal car accident. He sucks on his chocolate. When I’m finished, he nods. ‘That sounds alright,’ he says. ‘I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the actual details. But the story’s rubbish.’
‘That’s what’s wrong with the world today,’ I say. ‘Everyone’s a critic.’
He laughs, but it degenerates into a rumbling cough. His whole body shudders. The tubes in his arms and nose rattle like a ship’s rigging in a gale. When the spasm passes he says, ‘What’s wrong with the world today, son, is mechanics are reading short stories.’
‘Maybe you’ve a point at that,’ I say. ‘See you tomorrow night.’
I leave the ward, the cart’s wheels squeaking like uppity slave mice. I’m thinking about how the will to live is an invisible engine, with its own pumps and valves. I’m thinking about how engines can be kick-started if only you can pump enough juice through the jump-leads. I’m thinking about how engines can be scuppered with something as simple as a handful of sugar.
I meet Frankie for coffee in the hospital canteen. He seems distracted, irritable. We talk football for a while, and then I say, ‘Don’t suppose you’ve seen Tommo? I’ve a couple of books for him in my locker, he was supposed to pick them up yesterday.’
‘Tommo got the boot,’ he says. ‘Austin too.’
He nods, a glum expression on his face. ‘I got in a load of shit for being away from the desk covering for those fuckers. So I had to write a report.’
‘What’d you say?’
‘Nothing. Just that the boys were out sick that day and I had to cover the screens.’
‘And they got the boot for that?’
‘Not just that. When they checked the records they realised the boys were out sick about five days out of every forty. So the boys got sent for a check-up, standard procedure, to make sure they didn’t have some long-term infection that could screw people up in here.’
‘They had to take a pee test.’
‘Fuckin A. The guy doing the test got stoned off the whiff of piss.’
‘Half their luck.’
‘Tell me about it. Now they’re not recruiting anyone to take their place. Cost-management cutbacks.’
‘So who’s doing their jobs?’
Frankie jabs a thumb into his chest. ‘Me,’ he says. ‘They’ve given me a promotion, made me Divisional Representative, whatever the fuck that is.’
‘So you’re a supervisor with no one to supervise.’
‘That’s about it, yeah.’
‘Okay. But if it’s Tommo and Austin’s work you’re doing, you’ll hardly break a sweat.’
‘I know.’ He drains the dregs of his coffee. ‘But still, the boys were mates.’ He glances at his watch, then stands up. ‘C’mon,’ he says, ‘we’d better get back or we’ll be next for the heave-ho.’
‘If you want a pint later on, have a chat, just give me a buzz.’
‘You’re dumping Tommo and Austin?’
Billy shrugs. ‘Now they can stay home all day and get stoned.’
‘What if they can’t meet rent?’
‘How’s that my fault?’ he says.
‘You’re the one wrote them out of your story.’
He thinks about that. ‘Okay,’ he says, ‘how about I put them in a car accident? Nothing too serious, just enough to put them in wheelchairs, get them a disability benefit. All they ever did was sit around on their fat holes toking anyway.’
He shrugs it off. ‘Listen,’ he says, ‘I’ve been thinking. You and me, right, we should be able to communicate telepathically.’
‘What’d you do, break into Tommo’s stash?’
‘Seriously. Hear this.’ He stares intently at me, his one eye narrowing. Then he relaxes. ‘Well?’
‘Nothing, no. Telepathy’s bullshit, Billy.’
‘In the real world, maybe. But we could write that we’re telepathic.’
‘No offence, man, but I don’t want to be able to read your mind. And I definitely don’t want you reading mine.’
‘Maybe you’re right.’ He shrugs. ‘It was just an idea, to save us all this talking. Like, if we were telepathic, I wouldn’t have to come all the way to Enniskerry every morning.’
‘I don’t know about that. Telepathy, even if it worked, it’d probably have a limited range.’
‘Anyway, we’re not trying it.’
‘Fair go,’ he says. He crumples up a sheet of paper, draws out the next. ‘I’ve had another bash at the Cassie novel,’ he says.
‘I thought we were dumping that.’
‘Bear with me,’ he says. ‘I think I might be on to something.’
Sermo Vulgus: A Novel (Excerpt)
Cassie, you said diamonds were stone bewildered, confused and frightened by the glow in their soul. We are machines, you said, churning out rusted flakes of misunderstanding, but diamonds are doubts radiating hope.
Cassie, you said you would never wear diamonds. Diamonds, you said, are smug egos. They are too hard, you said, hard as the bones our yesterdays gnaw. You said only braided lightning would grace your finger; only a garland woven from a re-leafed oak would adorn your head. Can’t we at least try, you said, to draw a straight line through the heart of every sun?
Cassie, you quoted Schoendoerffer on grey eyes: “Grey eyes are peculiar in that they betray no emotion, and in its absence one cannot help imagining a world of violence and passion behind their gaze.” I think you wished your eyes were Schoendoerffer grey, but they were wide and candid and the colour of indecision.
Cassie, you were no reader of German. Thus I challenge the legitimacy of your perceptions. Now, when it is already too late, I dare you to consider that Xan Fielding’s translation of Farewell to the King improved Schoendoerffer’s original text.
Cassie, I beg you to admit possibility. For your approval I posit the hypothesis that nothing is impossible so long as we are prepared to consider its possibility. Only in an infinite universe can hope spring eternal.
Cassie, it is possible to try to braid lightning, to re-leaf your oak, to draw a straight line through the heart of every sun. Cassie, it is possible to try at least. It is still legitimate to hope, even now, when the ash of the Six Million falls with the acid rain.
Cassie, are we really so far gone?
‘You’ve read Farewell to the King?’
‘Sure,’ he says. ‘I liked the cover.’
‘Why, what’s it look like?’
‘Your cover, I mean.’
‘Oh.’ My copy of Farewell to the King I found like an orphan in a secondhand bookshop re-covered with cheap leather binding. ‘You read the books on my shelves?’
‘I’ve been in limbo on your shelf for the last five years,’ he says. ‘And there’s only so much porn a man can download off the web.’
‘How many have you read?’
‘Nearly everything,’ he says. ‘I’m saving Ulysses and the Russians for last.’
‘Who the hell can read those Russians?’ he says. ‘The characters’ names are nearly short stories in themselves.’
‘Being honest, they’re only up there for show. Them and Kafka. And Beckett.’
‘Thank Christ for that,’ he says. ‘I thought I was the only moron around here.’
Aileen has nightmares. Not every night, but often enough for them to become worrying. She thrashes around, sweating, calling out Lily’s name until I wake her. Last night I had to take Lily out of the cot and bring her into the bed before Aileen would settle again.
Billy believes that I am Neville Chamberlain, waving the pages of the m/s around to convince myself that he and I have peace in our time.
I prefer to think of myself as Churchill in the early months of 1940, whiling away the phoney war and wishing the Japs would hurry up and bomb Pearl Harbour.
I’m under no illusions. It’s only a matter of time before his blitz begins.
Today is a Red Letter day. Today was worth the wanton massacre of oxygen molecules required to keep me alive.
Early this morning a nurse discovered an old woman dead in her bed. There are suggestions that the death was premature. There are hints that the miserable existence the old woman eked out between bouts of excruciating bowel pain was abruptly terminated.
Mrs McCaffrey’s was the third unusual death in nineteen months. All three suffered from chronic agonies with no hope of reprieve. All three had private rooms. Mrs McCaffrey appears to have been smothered with her own pillow, an embroidered affair she’d had brought from her home when she realised she was in for the long haul.
Rumours surge along the corridors. Scandal plummets down elevator shafts. The speed of light is left standing in the traps. There are uninspired whispers about an Angel of Death. The word ‘euthanasia’ enjoys a brief renaissance.
Despite the best efforts of the hospital’s board of directors, the cops are called in. They are discreet. They are aware of the delicate nature of the situation. People cannot afford to believe that a hospital could be a place where people can die willy-nilly. There are research grants at stake here.
I am called for interview. These are held in the office of the Director of Public Relations on the sixth floor. It is a big, airy office. Potted plants feature. I sit in the leather chair and immediately feel my posture improve.
The cops ask if I was working last night. I tell them I was. They already know this.
They ask if I knew Mrs McCaffrey. Yes, I say. They already know this too.
They ask if I visited her last night with my concession cart.
‘Not last night, no.’
‘How come?’ says the cop with the salt-and-pepper hair.
‘She doesn’t like anything on the cart,’ I say. ‘I’ve offered to bring her anything she wants but she can’t eat normal stuff. I think she has bowel cancer. Or had, rather.’
‘See anything unusual on your rounds last night?’
‘It’s a hospital. Pretty much everything that goes on around here is unusual.’
‘Okay. But was there anyone around who shouldn’t have been? Anything out of the ordinary?’
‘Not that I can think of, no.’
The other cop has florid jowls and small porcine eyes. He taps a folder on the desk in front of him. ‘It says here you’ve been the subject of a number of disciplinary procedures.’
‘That’s not exactly a crime.’
He bristles. ‘We decide what and what’s not a crime.’
‘No, you don’t. If you want to criminalise attitude, call a referendum. Then we’ll decide what’s a crime and what isn’t, and you’ll enforce the laws we vote in. That’s the peachy thing about democracy.’
‘How come you’re trying to be difficult?’
The way he says it, I am now officially Public Enemy # 1. This is a man who needs enemies. This is a man who needs justification for the chip on his shoulder and has found his true vocation as a vampire feeding off crime.
‘I’m not trying to be difficult,’ I say. ‘I’m co-operating. Anyway, how would insisting on my rights be making things difficult?’
Salt-and-Pepper says, ‘How long have you worked here?’
‘Nearly two years. That’s in the file, along with the disciplinary stuff.’
He tugs his nose. ‘Like your job?’
‘It’s a job. And I like meeting new people.’
‘You get to see many people die during the course of your duties?’
He sucks on a front tooth. ‘How does that make you feel, watching people die? I mean, are you comfortable with seeing people in pain?’
‘Not especially. But you get used to anything if you stick at it long enough.’
‘That’s not what I asked.’
Florid Jowls says, ‘Say someone begs you to end their life, to do them a favour and put them out of their misery – what do you do?’
‘I call a nurse. They’re obviously in need of a shot of morphine, something along those lines.’
‘Did Mrs McCaffrey ever talk about wanting to die?’
‘No. But I don’t think she had a lot to live for.’
‘She talked about how no one ever came to visit her. She said her husband died four years ago.’ They already know this. ‘People can die of a broken heart,’ I say. ‘That’s a medical fact. Hearts can actually break.’
‘So you did talk to her.’
‘She talked to me. I just listened. Old people who are dying only want one thing, the chance to tell their story. To pass their lives on. All they want to know is that life hasn’t been a stupid waste of time.’
Florid Jowls says, ‘And you told her that?’
‘Sure. What’s it cost to tell a dying person a lie?’
‘When’s the last time you saw Mrs McCaffrey?’ Salt-and-Pepper says.
‘About three nights ago.’
‘You’re sure about that?’
‘Okay,’ Florid Jowls says, ‘you can go. But we might want to talk to you again.’
I head for the door. ‘A word to the wise,’ Salt-and-Pepper says. ‘No one likes a smart-arse.’
‘Not everyone needs to be liked,’ I say.
I can tell, by the way his eyes narrow, that he is not unaccustomed to considering this concept. I close the door behind me and breathe quick, shallow breaths. Blood roars in my ears. Tomorrow I bomb Nagasaki, etc.
© Declan Burke, 2008
Praise for Declan Burke: “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – The Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “A hardboiled delight.” – The Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review). “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre, was ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL.” – Sunday Times. “The writing is a joy.” – Ken Bruen. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.