Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “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.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

O Danny Boy, The Pipes, The Pipes Are Calling …

As all three regular readers will be aware, I’ve been tipping away at a new novel for the past few weeks - or radically rewriting an old novel, to be precise about it. I was doing fine until about ten days ago, with nearly 20,000 words under my belt (all new, unfortunately, given that I’m supposed to be stripping back at 150,000-word m/s to something a little less unwieldy), when for some reason I decided to go back and start again. Worse, the new start has the unmistakable aura of the dreaded prologue.
  Anyway, I’m having trouble finding the right note, the exact tone of voice. Below I offer for your delectation my scrawlings to date, and please feel free to toss brickbats and barbed-wire my way - all feedback is welcome - and please feel free to comment anonymously if you prefer. Think of it as a book club of sorts, albeit with the novel in its embryonic phase. The working title, by the way, is DANNY BOY, which is in part a wee homage to a fellow Irish scribe.
  As for the pic above, it was taken from the northeast of a village called Loutro, on the south coast of Crete, where I spent a very enjoyable holiday seven or eight years ago. If there’s a more perfect place on the planet to set a novel, I don’t want to know about it, or at least not until I’ve worked my way through this one.
  Roll it there, Collette …

Chapter 1

Out to the balcony as dusk sifts in, the light whisked thicker by a billion wings. A full moon low over the eastern bluff. From up here you can only marvel at how swiftly, how visibly, the dark comes on. A fine black mist sheeting in. ‘Night falls so fast here,’ Berte tells the tourists, ‘you can almost hear the bump.’ Not that it falls. What I’ve noticed is that the dark rises, drifting up out of the earth to settle in strata like good stout. Down below the village curves out around the bay, the murk already blurring its lines and angles to that of a pearl necklace loosely strung. Yet the peaks above still glimmer along the ridge and a zinc horizon slices sky from sea. The Libyan Sea, the nameless sky. Too early yet for stars.
  Here I stand, I can do no other
  It will be warm until long after midnight. The air hangs trapped in the steep bowl of the bay, hemmed in by the faint offshore breeze. Just pacing the balcony, the cigarette cupped in my palm, is enough to glaze my forehead with sweat and set my back a-prickle. Indistinct murmurs carry across the water from the village, beach in a swish of surf, wash on up the hill. The early diners gathering. Chairs scrape, a cork pops. Then a trill of laughter, the impatient chink of knife on plate, the hiss and spit of grilling fish. A whiff of kalamari wafts up on the breeze, roasting lamb speckled with oregano, the sharp bite of lemon. My mouth waters, and sure enough my stomach starts to grumble. To distract myself I rub the ball of my thumb on the crosshatched grip of the Colt and imagine his agony as he drags himself across the stony ground, through the coarse maquis, a dying animal with only one thought in mind.
  But of course, he won’t come alone.
  Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by
  The Boop has this trick where she sneaks up from behind and ducks in between my legs, forcing her head through, her pudgy arms gripping my thighs. A tiny Samson about to haul on her pillars. This time, when she twists her head to look up, her wide blue eyes are solemn. ‘Smoking nasty, Dada,’ she says.
  There’s nothing like disappointing his child to flay a man’s heart.
  ‘It is, love,’ I say. ‘Tell Momma I’m giving up.’
  She forces herself all the way through my legs, stands before me with one hand on her hip, wags a finger. A two-foot tyrant. ‘I put you,’ she says, ‘on the thinking chair.’
  I flip the cigarette away and reach to ruffle her blonde hair, but she ducks away, pouting. ‘Won’t be long now, Bumbles,’ I say.
  All at once her face brightens, the chubby cheeks flushing, milk-teeth gleaming in that perfect smile. ‘Dada come in a liddle bit?’
  ‘Another liddle bit, Boop. Tell Momma that Dada is coming.’
  She flinches. The blue eyes cloud. ‘I not find Momma.’ Her lower lip trembles. ‘I missed her.’
  Lost her, she means. ‘I know, love, but we’ll find her. Dada will help.’
  The eyes widen again. She quivers with repressed hope. ‘Find Momma?’
  ‘Exactamundo, Boop. Can you say ‘exactamundo’?’
  ‘Good girl. Kiss for Dada?’ I hunker down as she flattens her pink lips in a parody of a pucker, arms thrown wide as she giggles and launches herself against my chest, and I close my eyes and beg for just this once, to feel her again just one last time …
  Back inside, and despite the white-tiled floor, the whitewashed walls, the room has grown dim as a cave. A brief yellow glow when I open the fridge to take out the plastic bottle of orange juice, a tub of yoghurt with a pair laughing strawberries on the label. I bring them across to the bed. There’s no denying she’s a pretty girl. Brown eyes that are almost almond in shape, the irises flecked with hazel. In direct sunlight, when she smiles her crooked smile, the flecks are green.
  No flecks in the subterranean gloom. No smile tonight. Her nostrils flare as I perch on the bed, place the yoghurt and juice on the locker. I reach behind to the small of my back and slip the Colt from my waistband and hold it up until she nods. Then I tuck the gun away and take the balled sock from her mouth. She spits dry, works a sandpaper tongue across her lips. Eleven years old, perhaps a little older. These days it can be hard to tell.
  The juice first, tilting the bottle to her lips. She drinks greedily, sucking it down. While she gasps I dab the run-off from her chin with a corner of the sheet. Open the yoghurt, spoon it home. She’s ravenous.
  ‘There’s fruit,’ I say. ‘A banana, if you want it. Or an apple?’
  I fetch the banana, peel it back. She devours it in three bites. Then the rest of the juice. When I try to replace the gag she ducks her chin, then tosses her head from side to side. I wait for her to run out of steam. ‘Courtney,’ I say, ‘listen to me. Courtney?’
  ‘He’ll fucking kill you,’ she says, low and cold. ‘He’ll feed you to the fucking pigs. He’ll -’
  As gently as I can I grip her cheeks with thumb and finger, squeeze her mouth open. Poke the balled sock in. She chokes, tries to say something, then gags way back in her throat.
  ‘He’ll come for you, Courtney. Don’t doubt that. He’s on his way.’
  Tears leak from the corners of her eyes, although there’s no telling if they’re tears of rage or fear or self-pity. All three, probably.
  I put the banana skin and yoghurt carton in the bin, the empty juice. Sit at the desk, nudge the laptop out of sleep mode. Roll a smoke while it whines and whirrs, its lights flickering. When it settles down to a quiet hum, and the wi-fi light is showing a steady green, I open up Gmail.
Sam -
  I’m going to be ducking out for a while. The file comes attached, along with both transcripts. The story will need a polish, I only finished it this evening. Feel free to dice and slice as you see fit. I’ll be in touch.
  I click send, wait for the whoosh, then fold down the laptop’s lid. Glance across at Courtney. As hard as she’s fighting it, the red-limned eyelids are beginning to droop. Hardly surprising. She’s had as tough a day as she’s ever likely to have. Besides, the orange juice was laced with two crushed Dalmanes.
  ‘It’s okay to sleep, Courtney. He’s coming for you. Do you believe he’s coming?’
  She nods, sluggish.
  ‘Then sleep.’
  I wait, rolling cigarettes, watching until she drifts off.
  Out on the balcony it’s fully dark. By now the village is festooned with fairy lights, the bay burnished gold and shimmering with the rise and fall of the swell. From somewhere further up the hill comes the zizz-zizz of a lone cicada. The moon fully up and perfectly round. God’s mouth pursed in a disapproving moue.
  I slip free the Colt and angle my arm until the its blunt sight splits the moon.
  The hour of Doom is drawing near, and the moon is cleft in two
  The house was built into the side of the hill. A sheer drop beneath of ten feet or so, then three, maybe four hundred yards of steep slope to the village below. Broken ground, fuzzed with maquis, you could hide a small regiment in its dips and hollows. Too brightly lit for a frontal assault, the path a silvery thread in the moonlight. Maybe when the time comes they’ll send him up that path, dragging his shattered leg behind him, decoy and sacrificial lamb. His daughter, unconscious on the bed, the staked goat that draws him on.
  As for themselves, they’ll come from the north, circling up out of the village to slip down from the black hills like the andartes of old. Shadows in velvet.
  No telling when they’ll come. The circling around will take hours, and they’ll wait until the tourists are tucked up in bed. But they will --
  There. A motorboat skimming out across the bay, arcing towards the eastern headland, its wake shattering the gold leaf into tiny shards. A little late in the evening for running errands, boys, for dumping sacks of rubbish beyond the pebble strand that lies to the east of the bay.
  They’ll beach near Hora Sfakion to cut off my retreat, come west along the trail, spread out across the hills. A two-hour hike at a steady march, three to four hours for a cautious advance, one leapfrogging the other, all the while half-expecting a bullet from the dark.
  Brave men, these Sphakians, and tough as heartwood, but crafty with it. Born to survive at any cost but dishonour. The old laws, and only the old laws, pertain here: hospitality, physics, vendetta. All else is no more than choice and personal taste.
  When the motorboat disappears around the point I go back to watching the village again. A pointless exercise, the blaze of light leaves the western headland, the hills beyond, black as pitch. If I had infra-red glasses I might see them drift away in ones and twos, out past the dock towards the ruined fortress, creeping up out of the alleyways into the gullies and ravines like so many cats on the prowl. The night’s hunt begun. Possessed of the stealthy patience of those who know that time and night are their allies, who know that any help I have called for will arrive too late, if it ever comes.
  This will be their one mistake.
  You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave. I am bound upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears do scald like molten lead
  As crafty as they are, they presume I think as they do. That above all else any man holds sacred, the survival instinct reigns supreme.
  Were they Persians advancing at the Hot Gates, they could not be more wrong.
  ‘You come in a liddle bit, Dada.’
  ‘A liddle bit, Bumbles. Just another liddle bit now.’
  And so I smoke and wait for my killers, an ear cocked to the murmur from the village, the swushing surf, the zizz-zizzing cicadas, alert but not reacting to a loose stone kicked free above on the slopes, the tinkle-tankle of a stray and anxious goat, for when andartes come they come as black angels, in deathly silence, and like an old man worrying at his kombolói I count off the minutes caressing the Colt’s grip with my thumb, now and again allowing it wander across to the safety to ensure the snib is off.
  O Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling

© Declan Burke, 2010

  And now, Dear Reader, it’s over to you. The comment box is open for business …