Graham Tugwell is an Irish writer and performer and the recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010. His work has appeared in over fifty journals, including Anobium, The Quotable, Pyrta, THIS Literary Magazine, L’Allure Des Mots and Poddle. He has lived his whole life in the village where all of his stories take place. He loves it with a very special kind of hate. His website is grahamtugwell.com.
Or so it says on the sign at least, slabbed in black with the chisel-point—
(The sheet still stinks of that chemical pen)
And below, something crossed out so vigorous that the page is wounded with a lateral slash. It sits semi-veiled in the window, slumped to smudge against the glass. Calling those in who want to come in, up the stairs, into the room over Donovan’s pub.
Irregular, the truncated butt of an attic space, no wall the same length or angled the same; corners are knives or shallow scoops. This place is home to the second-best; stools and benches and battered tables, and a bar where grimy bottles stand their senile half-demise, awaiting patiently an expiry date.
At the broader end of the room a wide window watches Gallows Hill, done up now in blues and greys of evening, streetlamps burning their red into orange, traffic lines turning headlights on.
At chest height along one wall smaller windows that cannot be opened, so the air is thick with the death of drink, a belched-up malt, sour pissing bloat, and all surfaces coated with the ghosts of smoke.
Grease makes wallpaper umber and beige, a kick to the carpets heavies air with spores and moulds—this half-used place, settling under strata of unclean layers.
The room is roused with the click of a switch—dirty bulbs shed their dirty light, brightening thickets of air, the colour of butter or candle wax, making spiderwebs on shades a hanging gold.
She has come early to be sure of her seat, a small woman, round face in curls of dark red hair, the freckles across her nose taking a decade from her.
Sure she would be the first, she finds him already there and waiting, sat on a chair by the wide window, hands clasped on his lap and head bowed.
Her half-smile draws gold down into her laughter lines. “Oh sorry,” she whispers, “I’m early.”
He looks up with eyes the uncolour of glass, his prominent teeth held within the wet rose of his lips. Greying hair straggles up to the balding scalp, the pale spot teased over with thinning strands.
He is dressed in a black suit, pristinely creased, a pink cambersennie a perk in his pocket. Beside him an upright trunk, the front scraped and dented and bashed, its rusted metal hinges missing screws. The lid and body held together with loops of orange washing line.
The slit of the thing, opened a crack, is black.
The woman takes a step back onto the landing.
“I can come later—” she says, uncertainly.
Ice jostles in her glass, a high note.
He holds up a hand to stay her. “No, no,” he says, “Take a seat.” His voice is soft and low, made for mumbling. “The show will begin in just a few minutes.”
The hand outstretched is bidding—she sits on a chair nearest the door.
Looking sidelong at the trunk, he licks his lips, turning colourless eyes back to her. His voice is hesitant; he stops between words to smile: “And how are you? May I ask?”
Polite, the woman returns his smile and it’s gone again, her short “I’m fine, thank you,” closes the door on further words.
There is a silence in the room above the pub.
Blunt voices come up through the floor, sound sieved of word and meaning.
The man’s hands work on his lap. He smiles again. Words are tentative fingers, slow exploring a wound. “It’s always nice to talk to someone who isn’t….”
He looks sidelong at the trunk. At the black slit closed with orange rope.
“Francie takes up a lot of my time.” He smiles, but it’s not really for her. “Francie needs looking after.” His voice slips down into mumble: “A gift. A special responsibility. Doesn’t leave much time for me to—”
A soft thump within the case.
Another, louder, that sets it rocking gently.
“I have to be quiet now,” says the grey-haired man. “En… en… enjoy the show.”
Noises on the stairs and voices, the clink and slosh of drinks being served—the audience readying themselves for the show. Talking low they ascend, and entering, come down rows between the stools.
Many carry plastic bags, clutched like soft smooth organs, unconsciously stroked and fondled. In them scraps of clothing or other cherished things, and soft and warm is the rustle of plastic.
In twos or threes or solitary they take their seats. The room soon fills with fifty women sitting at low tables, on couches, standing primly by the unmanned bar, at the door and on the landing, peering in.
They stare at the man before the window.
They stare at the box beside him.
It is shortly past eight when the night begins.
The voices of the women die down. All eyes turn to the man.
“We’re going to start now,” he says, his voice assuming a confidence and polish it lacked before.
He rises, dragging the orange rope up the face of the trunk in vicious see-saw slants and over the top, the lid of the box opened with a kick—it swings—
Down stoops the man and when he rises he is holding…
He is holding…
Is it a puppet?
Is it something else?
It has one eye and a hare lip that seems to fold the face, to form a funnel down into dark and red. Its legs and arms are boneless knitted tubes, striped in fluorescent pink and limest green, they flop, boneless, when it is lifted, dangling like the dead. Sky-blue booties are on its feet, loops and laces painted on in gold.
But the trunk and head of the creature are skin-coloured, sweat-glistening, the hair on the chest and belly and crotch…
That is thick.
And distressingly real.
Its breathing is loud and difficult, it heaves and shudders with the will to live, chest rising and falling, bubbling between twisted lips a froth that courses down a cleft and lands upon the carpet.
It struggles in the hold of the grey-haired man, not caring all can hear the wet slap to its voice: “I can work myself. I can fucking work myself!”
“Francie,” says the gray-haired man, pulling his lips into smile, “don’t curse. There’s an audience.”
The thing called Francie spins its head and glares at the women with its huge pale eye. “I see them, Dennis,” it growls, “I see them!”
Its breath is high and fast and horribly intimate—
Huh! Huh! Huh!
Its head rises on its peggy neck— “And you can fucking see me too, can’t you?” It leans forward and Dennis has to grapple it back. “Well what do you fucking think?” it roars, “You like what you see? I’m outta the box now!”
The ladies in the front row recoil, stifling cries of shock and alarm.
Francie’s voice loses its frantic edge, becoming a slumbering rumble. “And I’m not going back in.”
Silence spreads like an opened head.
“Make me point,” says Francie.
“What?” says Dennis, his eyes on the rows of ladies, his mouth still stretched in unconvincing smile.
Francie turns to glower. “Pick up my hand and make me point! Do it!”
Dennis fumbles the right hand up from where it hangs, curling all fingers down bar one and jabbing it, jabbing it towards the open trunk.
And Francie whispers, “I’m out of the box now.”
The single eye roves the room from left to right, right to left. Save for a cough and the clink of a glass the audience is silent.
“I think,” says Dennis, “I think we should do our act. All the lovely people have come to see us do our act.”
“So I think we should begin.”
Francie grunts a rough consent.
They sit—Francie perched upon Dennis’s lap, knitted limbs free to swing. Dennis presses a button on the cassette player.
The busy rush as a tape fast forwards—clunk to stop, clunk to play—then music, softly indistinct and jauntily inappropriate, sublimating. Dennis begins to sing in a high wheedling voice:
“Francie, won’t you come out and play?”
“We’re gathered here to see what you say.”
“Should I tell the kind folks to come back some other day?”
“Are you mad at me?”
“Can I make amends?”
“Francie tell me, are we still the best of friends?”
And Francie sings in reply, a deep and beautiful voice:
“Dennis, we’re friends!”
“We’re friends until Creation ends!”
Dennis joins in diva howl:
“If I could tell you, tell you how much that means!”
“If I could only let you know!”
And Francie matches him:
“No need Dennis, I’m ready and willing and raring to go!”
“So hold me up and hold me tight!”
“And we’ll get on with the show!”
A splattering of arrhythmic applause reminds all it is nothing but the brutish concussion of limb upon limb.
Dennis leans down, mouth open with an awkward gasp, and clicks the tape player off.
“Who’s first?” snarls Francie, but Dennis holds a finger for shush, addressing the audience. “If anyone is ready, please approach. Francie and I are ready to begin.”
He holds out his free palm. A microphone stands ready.
Finally a woman rises, making her way from the back of the room. She carries a blue plastic bag; it rustles as she steps between seats.
The microphone is calibrated well; it doesn’t squeak or whine but carries her voice dutifully.
She is a young woman, slim and pale.
“Uh,” she says.
“Hello Francie, hello Dennis,” and she has a nod for each.
Dennis smiles, “Hello. How can we help you tonight?”
The audience watches her pull a piece of paper from a pocket. Unfolding it, she speaks into the microphone. “I know they’re taking care of her,” she says, “wherever she is.” She holds up the wrinkled slip. “Because they left me this receipt. It was in her crib, under a stone.”
Certain all have seen it, she lets her hand fall.
“So I know,” she says, “I know,” and in those words the need to convince herself, “But still… I’d love to know where she is. “I’d love to have her back with me.”
She holds the neck of the microphone.
“My little girl. That’s who I want you to find for me tonight, if you can.”
“What have you brought us?”says Francie, its eye upon her plastic bag.
Rustling, the wings of desiccated birds against the microphone, she takes it out and holds it up—the doll. “Her favourite,” she says. “It was lying next to her when she was taken.”
“Strip it,” says Francie, “I want to smell the plastic.”
The woman does so, slowly, carefully, lifting the lemon dress over the baby’s head. She passes it naked to Dennis who holds it under Francie’s nose.
A great sniff from the thing.
“Is it going in?” asks Dennis softly, “Have you got—?”
It shakes its head, “Give me another.”
Dennis presses the baby doll against lopsided nostrils.
Another great grumbling snuff upon its plastic cheek.
Francie’s head snaps back—there is the crack of shifting bone. It gasps—its eye starting from the meat of its face, a swollen yellow blister, bulging, black-veined.
“I see…” Its mouth opens, the cleft showing high pink up the palate roof, ribbed and gently perforated.
Slow lids over its eye.
“Oh, the little thing,” says Francie, and it is the softest breath. “She’s safe.” Eyelids open. “She’s coming back to you. Different, but she’s coming!”
Her smile smudged away, the woman steps beyond the microphone. “Different?” she says, her voice, unamplified, carried still. “What do you mean different?”
Francie sniffs the plastic limbs dangling before its face, head shaking from side to side, “I see,” it says, “what should’ve been outside is in. What should be in is out…”
The woman takes another step towards Francie. “What does that mean? What are you saying?”
Francie lunges, eye wide, the face folds seeming to birth new red layers and it screeches “The key of the door broke off in the lock! There’ll be a knock! There’ll be a knock!”
Her hands work in her hair, “What door?” she pleads, “Tell me, what door?”
The doll falls to tumble a sprawl as Francie roars, “Next! Next!”
Stooping, making Francie sway to peril in his lap, Dennis picks up the doll, handing it by the arm back to the woman. “Please, take your seat,” he says.
Silently distraught, the woman turns and retakes her seat. She dresses the doll in lemon again and sits with it sitting on her lap.
“Who is next?” asks Dennis in brittle smile.
The second woman is short and plump, her dark hair cut severe. She is to the point—saying hello but not waiting for the answer, she asks Francie and Dennis “Can you find him? My son, Christopher?”
“What have you brought me?” asks Francie, “Hold it up. Hold it up so I can see.”
She takes it out of her plastic bag, lovingly unfolding, holding it like a proud mother advertising detergent. “He loved this one,” she says, showing a jumper of deep burgundy, slashed across with navy.
Dennis takes it, holding it for Francie to sniff slow and long, the material rubbed up and down under his tiny nose, up and down his creased mouth.
“Oh,” says Francie, breathing it in, “Soap and… and.. dandruff?” —The littlest confirming sniff—“Dandruff? Special shampoo?”
“Yes,” she says, “He suffered—”
“Okay, okay,” says Francie, cutting her off.
Down come eyelids and the thing is transported.
“Music,” says Francie, “Music playing where he is. Music in the dark…”
Gently it sways on Dennis’s knee.
It hums a tune all in the room can recognise, but who the artist is, what the words are…
“Music in the dark.”
She almost screams into the microphone: “Is he still alive? Is my Christopher still alive?”
The humming goes and Francie is still. Finally the eyelid slides, revealing the ball beneath, the colour of a bisected grape.
“Yes,” it says, “but only a day, only an hour left for him!”
Her mouth opens.
“Only an hour! Only a day!” cries the thing.
She pushes her way between rows of women—sending mouths down into drinks, launching knees into the smalls of backs. “There’s time!” she says and it is almost a shriek, “There’s still time!”
Her feet drum carpeted stairs, walls seeming to bend inward with her flight. Voices raised and bodies roused downstairs then the resounding bang of the door of the pub.
She is gone.
Francie smiles, “Time,” it says. “Yes.”
Another woman approaches the microphone.
She’s gone to pains to make herself look younger, but there is grey at the roots of her ash-blonde hair, her makeup fractures around her eyes and at the corners of her mouth.
“Meath jersey,” she says. “I haven’t washed it. You should still be able to smell him.”
“Smell who?” asks Dennis, taking the garment.
“Her name’s Theresa now,” growls Francie, eye bright within the folds of the material.
The woman’s face pinches in on itself, her mouth becoming a hole knocked in wrinkles.
Sniffing sees the eyelids close. “She’s happy. There are… shipping containers?” Green and gold material teases the nostrils of the little thing. “She’s… in the middle of a gathering. They pay her well…”
“And tomorrow is…”
It rolls the word, baring teeth and breathing long, a tremor passing through its face. The thing looks at the woman at the microphone. “She doesn’t want to see you or the children again. She’s gotten where she wants to be.”
The world is stripped away, all things going, all heat and warmth, leaving the woman to stand at the microphone alone.
And the thing called Francie whispers “Let her go.”
“No—” she says.
“Let her go!” screams Francie, scattering bright spittle threads from its damp bifurcation.
And the woman shrieks, seeming to break and empty: “Stop calling him her!” Forward she darts and whips the jersey from Dennis’s hands.
“You can lose that,” says Francie softly, “It’s no good to her anymore.”
The woman stares at the man and the thing, pulling the breaths into herself, trying, struggling to rebuild. “Cruel,” she spits, stroking the remnant, “You’re cruel—spiteful!”
Despite themselves the audience of women are smiling, seeing the embarrassment and distress on her face.
“None of that is true. Not a word of it.” Her pointed finger comes up to spear. “I’ll find him. I’ll find him without either of you.”
Tears are in the eyes of Dennis; on his lap Francie grimaces as it struggles to breathe.
Turning, her finger scrapes across the crowd so their smiles are scored away. “And those of you,” she says, “Those of you who haven’t lost someone. The lot of you sitting there, thinking this is just… just entertainment.”
Her teeth grind and she pours all her hate and hurt into the word: “Animals. Disgusting animals.”
The front row leans away as she confronts them. “I hope and I pray that you’ll know what it’s like. That someday you’ll all lose someone you love. Someone you’ve built a life with.”
The jersey is shook in the fist she makes.
“And when that day comes and you find yourself standing before them,”— round the roulette finger comes and sticks through Francie and Dennis— “When that day comes, me and my husband will be sitting at the back of this room and I tell you, the joy that we’ll feel…”
She smiles, savouring the image.
“The immaculate joy… when we hear how your worthless children disappeared. How they were pulled away from you. When we hear the awful things that were done to them.”
Her hand falls down, and her voice is calm and soft and certain:
“The immaculate joy.”
The silent room like a new wound, a gouge cleanly open to air, still yet to fill with blood. The breathing of Francie grows ever more torturous—long rattling breaths sucked from the world but never enough. It rests its sweating forehead against the pink cambersennie.
“Francie,” says Dennis, “Are you… Can you…?”
The thing nods gently.
The gray-haired man turns to the audience. “One more,” he says, “Francie is able for just one more.”
Long minutes pass before the fourth woman shuffles down the aisle, looking left to right at rows of pale and silent women. All turn to watch her.
Brown haired, except for a strip of grey that falls over an eye, she is thin and gaunt, her face sharp and angled. She needs to be prompted to speak and when she does her voice is so soft none can hear.
“Speak up, if you could ma’am,” says Dennis.
Francie watches her with its wetly yellow-green eye.
She clears her throat.
Words in glass and silver bell.
“She told me she was going to her best friend’s house.”
“She was so happy.”
“She’d been so… But for once, in her life— and a best friend too.”
“It broke my heart.”
“But she never got there.”
“No-one saw her after she left the village.”
“And I heard… there were rumours…”
“A van. A white van parked at the bridge.”
“She just wanted to be friends with everyone.”
“What did they do to my Alice?”
“What did they do to her?”
Slithered out of her plastic bag, the cherished thing is held up in dirty light.
The littlest slip, a scrap of white.
Dennis rolls it across the face of Francie, clasps it to its cloven mouth, pushing it with fingers in, almost as if he is smothering. Francie moans, wooden hands dancing on the ends of knitted limbs.
It shakes with the smell of it.
Spluttering “Dead skin.”
A ringing clap of her hands in hope, brought up clasped to be breathed upon. “That’s her,” says the woman. Hands come apart to point. “She has… under her eye, here. A little patch of dead skin. She’s had it since the day she was born. A little white coin.”
The other wives and mothers look at her, their faces aslant and uncertain, mixing there a queasy envy with smiling earnest hope.
White across the face of Francie, muttering, “It’s in, it’s in.”
The thing shudders on Dennis’s lap and is still.
Shudders again and then:
“She goes into a closing place.”
“She comes apart in silver.”
“She’s gone,” says Francie, “Oh, she’s gone.”
The brittle of glass, saying, “Was she scared?”
A great sniff.
“Yes. Oh yes. Such terror.”
Saying in a nothing voice: “Did she suffer?”
“Every moment. Every single moment she knew—as she was coming apart—it was the end.”
“She was going down.”
Hair falls over the woman’s face and closes her away. She grips the microphone, the only real thing, the only thing.
“Lift me to her, Dennis,” says Francie, and the thing is lifted and held to lean. It rests the ragged butchery of its lips softly on her cheek and leaves a little delicate kiss there.
The whisper in her ear: “I’m so sorry love. So sorry for your loss.”
A tear shook loose by her softly nod.
The fourth woman drifts away until she is unseen.
Dennis takes his seat again. He cradles Francie, bending down to hear what it has to say, and the collected women, they can almost make out words through the soft buzz of microphone:
“I’m tired, Dennis.”
“Oh Lord, I’ve nothing left.”
“Put me back in the box.”
Tears from the rim of the eye, down into the crease.
Choking the breath.
Choking the words.
“Put me back in my box.”
“It’s too much. I’ve given too much of myself.”
Nodding, Dennis takes the little creature and lays it down within the box, crossing knitted limbs on torso meat and placing his cambersennie on the cushion by its head.
Slowly, reverently he shuts the lid.
“It’s over,” he says, and he looks at the women, “That’s it for tonight. We can do no more. Those of you who came. Those of you we couldn’t help…”
He clasps his hands before his face.
“Next time, we’ll try again, I promise.”
“We both do.”
This is how the night draws to a close:
Women lining up the aisle, shuffling forward to stuff a ragged fiver or two into the pint glass proffered, saying a low thank you or nothing at all, and Dennis, thanking each sincerely.
“Take care,” he says, “As you go down the stairs.”
And now there is only Dennis and the red-haired woman, first to come, last to leave, her drink standing untouched, ice long melted into its body.
Dennis looks at her and he smiles, his hands clasped upon his lap.
In the space between them—the sounds of feet, soft voices on the landing the low torture of breathing in the box.
“So,” he says, for something to say.
It fills a moment, but there are dozens more that go unfilled—
The red-haired woman spiders the rim of her glass with fingertips. Her eyes are on Dennis and will not leave.
He holds her gaze then turns away.
Finding the trunk.
“No-one understands him,” says Dennis, offering the words to whoever wants them. “He can be gruff, unpleasant, but that’s only an act. A defence. He won’t let anyone know how much he cares.”
Dennis strokes an edge.
“But if he let up the pretence… let the world in…It would break him.”
He splays his palm on the battered, breathing front.
“I love him.”
Smiling, the rims of his eyes become soft and bright. He clears his throat, rising and regaining himself, taking orange ropes to tighten.
“He’s tired now,” says Dennis, pulling the gap of the trunk closed, “But tomorrow. The next day. The dreams will start. He’ll relive everything he made himself see tonight.”
He braces a foot against the trunk and pulls. “Needs to be tight. If he can’t move, he can’t do any lasting damage to himself.”
In silence Dennis fusses with the box.
Minutes go by.
But her eyes are still on him. No movement. No sound.
Sitting again he looks at her with colourless eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says, “Is there something you wanted to ask me? Something you wanted to ask us?”
She speaks, a hint of music in her voice, “The women said to me… They told me… You were good, you were very good.”
“So I came tonight.”
“My first time.”
“Is there someone you wanted us to find for you?” asks Dennis, “Because I’m really sorry, but Francie is—”
She shakes her head. “No no,” she says, “Nothing like that.”
A little smile sets her freckles in folds.
“I just wanted to make sure she stayed lost.”
“Make sure no-one asked you where she was or how to find her.”
Her smile widens. “I burned her clothing. Gave all her toys away. I don’t think she left a trace on anything.”
She shakes her red hair, self-deprecating. “I know it’s silly and I’m being paranoid, but I just wanted to be sure. If I asked, if anyoneasked… Do you think you could find her? Ever?”
Colourless eyes rove. “We… we can only work with what we’re given,” says Dennis slowly. “If you’ve done… what you say you’ve done… She’s gone. She’s gone for good.”
“Great,” says the woman, “That’s great!” and she lets out a long-held breath, “I’m so relieved, I can’t tell you. The women told me you’d put me mind at rest!”
Her smile is the brightest thing in the room.
“Okay,” she says, “That’s what I came to hear.” Stepping forward she crams a €20 note into the pint glass. “Thank Francie for me, when he’s… you know.”
What can Dennis do but gently nod?
“Okay,” she says, smiling breathless now, hands together dipped in pray. “Thank you. Your show is great, by the way.”
Something like a curtsy and:
She turns and heads for the door.
“Turn out the lights, if you wouldn’t mind,” says Dennis.
“Oh! No problem!” she laughs. Her fingers find the switch and flick.
Out she goes and the light with her.
No longer gold, spiderwebs on lampshades.
Air rethickening with dust and the death of drink.
Seats give up their warmth.
Out the window traffic lines are bodiless blurs in white and red.
And under the striding of feet down the stairs, a voice, hoping to soothe: “We’ve helped. Francie, we’ve helped.”
“We’ve done all we can.”
The softest sobbing moan in answer.
And there is the sound…
A hand, stroking, stroking the lid of the trunk.
The last of day is lost to night.